Back on Track with the Brits

Angelmaker, Nick Harkaway, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan, NW, Zadie SmithI thought August and September’s reading challenges were going to undo me – though I love reading too much for anything to change my relationship with books for very long, even books themselves.

Reconnecting with my long-time appreciation of British writers (and one San Franciscan who obviously adores books) got me back on track. Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going with reviews of October’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first three books and borrowed the last from my local library. All four are included in my Amazon Affiliate store. I receive a small percentage of each sale made through that widget. All opinions here are my own.

SCORECARD

October
4 down, 7 to go!

REVIEWS

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Strange things are afoot at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore, and Clay Jannon, the clerk on the shop’s graveyard shift is ready to ignore his boss’s warnings, embark on a hero’s journey, win the girl, and solve a centuries-old mystery.

Robin Sloan’s first novel is that rare thing: a celebration of both the book and the new technology that sometimes threatens to obliterate physical books. And it’s all wrapped up in the kind of adventure pre-teens dream about while reading sci-fi/fantasy serials.

Whether you love The Old Curiosity Shop, Sherlock Holmes mysteries or newer-fangled fare like Nick Harkaway’s, you’ll appreciate this tale, which is perfectly set in a post-bubble San Francisco.

There’s a girl – Kat – a lover of all things data. “I am really into the kind of girl you can impress with a prototype,” Clay moons after their first meeting.

Kat works at Google, of course, and is ready to throw considerable computing resources at the baffling code Clay discovers in the books on the shadowy back shelves of Mr. Penumbra’s store.

“A fellowship of secret scholars spent five hundred years on this task. Now we’re penciling it in for a Friday morning,” Clay observes. But the project unexpectedly pushes Kat and Clay apart and threatens the future of the bookstore, its owner and his loyal patrons.

I can’t say much more without revealing the intricacies of a fun caper.

As with many first novels, there were a few moments the reader may take issue with, such as:

  • the over-reliance on an already ubiquitous, real-world brand (Google) to drive a fictional plot (it makes the novel feel like one of those stories paid to be written around a brand; imagine a less-cool brand, like Preparation-H, mentioned so prominently and frequently, and you’ll understand why it’s so distracting);
  • [SPOILER ALERT: Jump to Bullet 3, if you don’t like learning even small plot points] there’s a whopper of a mistake regarding the code in Mr. Penumbra’s books, which is supposed to be virtually indecipherable. This is where the real-world brand truly draws the reader out of the story. The code is so simple that the drama of dragging Google into the plot (yeah, right, Google, which lives and dies on speed-of-service, would allow its search engines to grind to a halt for 3 seconds while it tries – and fails! – to decode the books) makes the story unrealistic – and even fictional universes need to feel realistic;
  • the writing gets the job done, but is so plain, the plot occasionally loses its sense of awe right when it needs to be suspenseful or astonishing (you may want to weigh this comment against my review of Harkaway, which follows).

Sloan saves the good stuff – the eloquence – for the very end (literally the last few paragraphs). It’s lovely (especially a turn of phrase like “the right book exactly, at exactly the right time”), but I wish he’d trusted himself more as a writer to, as Annie Dillard advised in The Writing Life: “give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now.”

The last page augurs good things and perhaps great books from Sloan in the future. Anyone who loves and respects books this much while reveling in all the advances that new technology provides is worth watching.

For you fans of fantasy/sci-fi fiction: The jacket of the hardcover glows in the dark! Wicked cool (and a bit eerie the first time you realize your nightstand lights up like the tiny core of a nuclear reactor).

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway
After the tommy-gun prose of Nick Harkaway, Sloan’s just-the-facts approach was actually appealing. Interesting that Harkaway writes a blurb on Sloan’s dustjacket. Ideally, they’d be merged, and Sloan’s DNA would bring brevity and calm to Harkaway, while Nick’s traits help Robin develop a sense of daring and wonder.

At 478 pages, Angelmaker is actually 20 pages shorter than Harkaway’s previous work. But it feels eons longer.

The protagonist is Joshua Joseph Spork (remember that name…), scion of a British gangster, who rejected dad’s criminal legacy and inherits instead his grandfather’s clock-repair business.

Joe is “the man who arrives too late. Too late for clockwork in its prime, too late to know his grandmother. Too late to be admitted to the secret places, too late to be a gentleman crook, too late really to enjoy his mother’s affection before it slid away into a God-ridden gloom. And too late for whatever odd revelation was waiting here. He had allowed himself to believe that there might, at last, be a wonder in the world which was intended just for him. Foolishness.”

That moment of quiet reflection will be Joe’s last. The past quickly endangers the present as Joe inadvertently sets off an old clockwork-like device, built by his grandparents, that unleashes hives of mechanical bees (yes, you read that right) into Europe’s airspace. The Apprehension Engine was supposed to bring truth and peace to the world – as if that’s what premiers and tyrants want:

“To the leaders of the world, though, they are bad bees. They are bees of aggression, not bees of honey and peace. They are evil bees, and cannot be tolerated.”

Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World also featured a massively destructive weapon, and its purpose was clear. The origins, construction and uses of the Apprehension Engine are anything but, and the novel takes several long diversions to offer up the WWII-era exploits of a friend of Joe’s grandmother, a spy, who barely survives an attempt to rid the world of evil dictator Shem Shem Tsien (remember that name…).

“Before [Joe] can even reach for that future, or one like it, he has to climb on top of the rubble of the past and see what the world actually looks like.”

This is true, as far as this tale goes, but unfortunately the stakes in Angelmaker aren’t as directly related to our central character as they were in The Gone-Away World. There are a lot of peripheral characters and their random business – all insisting they owe allegiance to Joe, who we’ve never seen earn it, simply because he’s his father’s son. That would be a father who never comes into play in the plot.

This novel should be 40 pages shorter, at least, and would be if Joe’s name wasn’t constantly bandied about. Sadly, Harkaway is not a writer to say something once when it can be fussed and fidgeted over 10 times: “The Spork boy? Joe Spork? Why didn’t you say so sooner, you bloody fool! Joe? Joe! Joseph! Get in here and give me a kiss!”

Most writers are taught to dispense with the Hello-how-are-yous and get to the point; for Harkaway, they’re golden opportunities to run his protagonist’s name into the ground:

– “Don? It’s Joe Spork.”
– “Joe? Joe Spork? Oh, for God’s sake, little Josh?”

This has progressed to other characters, too. Shem Shem Tsien, whose name is already redundant, is AKA the Opium Khan AKA the Khaygul-Khan and AKA a bunch of other names by the time the book’s done. Joe’s grandmother has several monikers. There are three Bethanys at Nobelwhite Cradle, the fixer’s office Joe turns to for help – each, of course, has another name.

And Polly Cradle, Joe’s love interest, is AKA The Bold Receptionist. But it’s never that simple in Angelmaker: “Not Pollyanna. Polly, like Molly. Molly like Mary. Mary like Mary Angelica…,” muses Joe, realizing he knew her as a child.

As with The Gone-Away World, there’s a major twist late in the game. The problem, I think, for this novel is that the twist happens to a character we don’t care about. In his first book, a shocking revelation changes the game and ups the stakes for the protagonist. With Joshua Joseph Spork and his bees, the sting doesn’t leave the reader itching to know more.

NW by Zadie Smith
NW stands for northwest London; in NW, Zadie Smith is focused on the community living in council estates (government-subsidized housing) further north and west of now-trendy Notting Hill and Islington.

While many residents are immigrants from Jamaica and Africa, a certain mindset feels long-entrenched here. Two bright young women, Leah and Natalie, use education to find their way out of the estates. But they never quite escape the idea of – to use that lovely British expression – who they are when they’re at home. Family and community have claims on their identities.

Leah, in particular, is struggling with expectations that her relationship with Michel move to the next stage despite her desire to keep things just as they are, without a baby. Here is Leah at work, surrounded by a pregnant co-worker and colleagues who’re already moms:

“A room full of women laughing. Some shared knowledge of their sex to which Leah is not party. She puts her hands either side of the bump, and smiles, hoping that this is the sort of thing that normal women do, women for whom trying is half the fun and ‘you’re next’ does not sound like the cry of a guard in a dark place.”

It’s thrilling when a writer is this good at placing you in the mind of her protagonist, and I wish I could tell you there was more of this in NW.

Meanwhile, Natalie, a lawyer, is “living the dream” with a banker husband and two children, yet keeps finding ways to destroy everything she has built.

If that synopsis sounds coherent, the book is not. It’s suffering from three major flaws:

  1. There is far too much dialogue to really get to know and understand the characters deeply.
  2. The entire second section of the book is a series of short blurbs about Leah and Natalie (185 in total), bits and bobs of background detail.
  3. We are too often in the heads of characters we don’t care about, who have little relationship to Leah, Natalie or the plot.

Smith’s third novel, On Beauty, about a family living in the rarified academic community around Harvard, was a tour de force of writing, characterization, ideas.

NW is a collection of notes on character, scraps of dialogue. Sadly, they are too jumbled to suss.

How It All Began by Penelope Lively
Now here is an author, masterfully moving characters through a story, connected by a simple, but poignant idea: that one seemingly insignificant event can turn the trajectory of many lives.

It begins with a purse-snatching that leaves widowed Charlotte injured on the pavement, £60 poorer and forced to recuperate at the home of her daughter, Rose, and Rose’s husband. Inadvertently, the thief has set the dominoes in motion and – though they fall – the outcome brings pleasant surprises as often as hard tumbles.

Rose manages cheerfully with the inconvenience of Charlotte, even though it means the occasional missed day of work as an assistant to “his lordship,” Henry, an aging academic. Henry’s career-woman niece, Marion, substitutes just fine for Rose at one of Henry’s luncheon lectures and, in turn, her life becomes a series of turbulent episodes thanks to a chance encounter at the event.

Like many of these characters, we meet Marion at the point when she must figure out whether change is for the better or worse.

“What has happened?” wonders Marion. “My life is in upheaval, and all because of a man I met at a lunch, and something called the financial downturn…Am I making a ghastly mistake? Am I going to regret this? But you have to be flexible, swerve off course if it looks right – I’ve not done it enough, I’ve just plowed ahead. And anyway I was swerved. Things happened.”

Having been quite literally swerved, Charlotte copes with her new circumstance by turning to books.

“She read to discover how not to be Charlotte, how to escape the prison of her own mind, how to expand, and experience. Thus has reading wound in with living, each a complement to the other. Charlotte knows herself to ride upon a great sea of words, of language, of stories and situations and information, of knowledge, some of which she can summon up, much of which is half lost, but is in there somewhere, and has had an effect on who she is and how she thinks. She is as much a product of what she has read as of the way in which she has lived; she is like millions of others built by books, for whom books are an essential foodstuff, who could starve without.”

Someone else in Charlotte’s life is near starvation: Anton, one of her English-as-a-second-language students. Every moment he struggles to learn English keeps him from pursuing his profession in his new country and, with Charlotte no longer teaching, he falls further behind. Charlotte agrees to tutor him at Rose’s house, and this small change in routine brings Anton to the brink of a new life while Rose must consider the cost of breaking up her old one.

“All meetings are accidents really,” Rose supposes. “They might never have happened.” From Charlotte’s “transitory, intimate” encounter with a mugger, Penelope Lively weaves a beautiful tapestry of lives transformed by joy, fear, love and loss.

2 thoughts on “Back on Track with the Brits

  1. I look forward to your book reviews every month, Vickie. Can you believe that 10 months have come and gone?

    Sounds like two, maybe three out of the four books you read this month were only so-so. “How It All Began” sounds intriguing, and I’ll be on the look-out for “On Beauty”.
    Also, I might have to buy Robin Sloan’s first novel for Tim, if only to have a glow-in-the-dark book in the house!

    • Hi Rita,

      So glad you’re enjoying my reading adventure! It is hard to believe – as it looks now – that I may complete this challenge ever-so-slightly ahead of schedule.

      Penelope Lively was a find. I’ve just finished her book “The Photograph” and was equally impressed. She is an author I’m going to enjoy returning to for wonderful characters, stories and writing.

      I know exactly what you mean about the “Mr. Penumbra” novel!! Normally, I donate books I won’t read again to the library, but I keep envisioning it glowing on some lonely shelf, late at night, and freaking out a security guard. Plus, it’s kinda cool! I tried to photograph it in a dark room, but the glow it emits was too dim even for my digital camera. Sorry I couldn’t share the experience with you all. 😉

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