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.


4 down, 7 to go!


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.

Reading Challenge Update: The March of Time

Here’s how my 2012 reading challenge is going plus reviews of March’s selections.

Standard disclosure: I bought the first two books reviewed here and borrowed the last two from my local library. Several 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.


4 down, 38 to go!


Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Don’t be surprised if you start to hear the lyrics to the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like an Eagle” – Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’/Into the future – while you read Jennifer Egan’s latest. The titular goon is the steady march of time and most of her characters feel fairly sober and maudlin about its passage.

Nothing unusual about that, but nothing new either. And it becomes a rather plodding outcome since the book is not a novel, but a series of chapters that amount to bare-bones profiles of a plethora of characters, tenuously linked through time. That this book wound up winning the Pulitzer Prize is the big surprise here.

Egan, who also wrote The Keep and Look at Me, is a writer of solid, plainspoken prose. Saying that seems like a diss when it isn’t. But the connections she’s trying to make among characters don’t hold a candle to the brilliant plotting of a Kate Atkinson or a David Mitchell. And her descriptions are just that: descriptions. They don’t carry the poetic or metaphoric weight that Alan Hollinghurst’s or Ali Smith’s do.

Novels comprised of linked stories about different characters need the distinct touch of a short-story expert who can unveil a plot arc and wholly develop characters in a limited amount of time. Egan cheats the linked-stories formula a bit by using indie-rock producer Bennie Salazar and his sticky-fingered assistant, Sasha, as framing devices. Every now and then a chapter returns to one of these two, but never moves their stories forward in any plausible or important way.

Fine examples of linked stories exist: check out instead David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or Ghostwritten or any of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie mysteries.

Where 3 Roads Meet by John Barth
This selection was gathering dust on my shelf, a long-ago gift from a fellow book-lover. Barth is a National Book Award-winner (for Chimera) and wears a jaunty beret in his author photo, which worried me. These days, I need to be in the frame of mind for tackling this level of artifice. The three novellas play with character, storytelling and plot as much as they do with language. It’s at times witty, but since clever wordplay takes up huge chunks of real estate at the beginning of each story, it’s a long while before you manage to meet the characters and grasp the narrative flow.

Here’s an example from the second story, “I’ve Been Told,” which, the book jacket says, “traces no less than the history of storytelling.” This is absolutely verbatim, even though it seems like words are missing/duplicated:

“But now – fasten seat belts, folks – suppose First-Person Narrator of story to be not only its principal character, but It: the Story itself, telling us itself itself! Who’s in the driver’s seat now, I ask you, leapfrogging space-breaks and barreling us westward lickety-split through a landscape thus far featureless perhaps for want of Narrator’s supplying us with its features? Moreover, since Setting is an ingredient of Story, as are accessory characters like Yours-Truly-as-Sidekick and Dramatic Vehicles like three-wheel Lizzie, how can ‘I’-the-Narrator of ‘Me’-the-Story differentiate himself from them/us in order to tell you us (except, I suppose, as ‘I’ might tell of ‘my’ toes and fingers, ‘my’ hopes and fears, ‘my’ self…)? Well: ‘I’ for one, get dizzy just thinking about such things…”

Me, too.

There’s nothing inherently wrong (or unenjoyable for the reader) in using the structure of storytelling to tell a story, but, as with any story, we need to feel engaged with the characters and plot and what’s happening here is that the highly stylized writing serves as a barricade rather than a window. You never feel close to these characters and too easily the Dramatic Vehicle steers off-course, so you never become involved in the story either.

It’s pretty easy to find Barth on Wikipedia, but here’s an interesting PBS interview where he discusses his writing.

Explore the Gone-Away World with this interactive website for Harkaway’s novel.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway
The problems evident in the Barth book don’t trouble Harkaway’s, which blends the macho-bravura style of Chuck Palahniuk’s and Jonathan Franzen’s fiction. I think Harkaway’s writing escapes the excesses of both of these writers and creates a darn fine post-apocalyptic world to boot.

I have a fondness for dystopian literature, so I was, perhaps, more willing than you might be to wade through 498 pages to find out where Harkaway was taking these characters, a rogue clean-up crew, capable of tackling the monsters summoned after a new and untried weapon is set off during an Iraqi Freedom-type military exercise:

“Professor Derek and his team, by dint of his enormous intellect and considerable innovative powers and their collective technological know-how, have created a sort of Holy Grail of bombs. Or, at least, they have created the science necessary to create the bomb. The engineering, as ever, is playing catch-up…But any time soon they will be able to produce a controlled editing of the world within a discrete area, stripping out the information and leaving nothing behind – not even regret. They will have made the perfect weapon. They will be able to make the enemy Go Away.”

We learn about the Go Away bomb on page 138 – having left the current-day events of Chapter One for a seven-chapter digression that allows the main characters to meet in a sandbox as toddlers, go to school and join the military. It takes till page 303 and Chapter 9 to get back to where we started.

This seemed a bit long until the reader encounters a late-in-the-story twist of Palahniukian proportions and then the character history becomes so entwined in the shock of the twist that it seems mandatory. (Still, it could have been shorter, but the writing of all the nuances of this brave new world and its many inhabitants is so fine, and you’re pulled in so close to these characters, that the journey is worth it.)

One could quibble, as one does with Palahniuk or the movies of M. Night Shyamalan, that certain events don’t make sense in retrospect, but there are also lovely and well-established characters woven in and out of the tale to create a perfect pattern. Harkaway never diverts from the main story just to show off; everything serves the plot. Even minor characters, like a bespoke tailor, are lovingly lingered over: “He is not so much unctuous as balsamic.”

And, in a world where so much of the past is gone away, there is still the humanity of people dedicated to remembering and tending their loyalty to the good people of their past: “He was never going to let those people fade. He wanted to know all about the places that weren’t there any more.”

There are surprises on top of the major twist akin to the wonderful moment at the end of “Star Wars,” when you’re so enthralled by the dogfight between Darth and Luke that you’ve forgotten all about that scoundrel Han Solo and thus his return to save the day – and Skywalker’s tail – is all the more exciting for its unexpectedness.

Harkaway’s just-released second novel is Angelmaker. This is a writer with vast imagination – a creator of worlds and intriguing characters and striving to understand it all. It will be fascinating to see where he ventures.

Facebook for Dummies, Third Edition by Carolyn Abram and Leah Pearlman
I’d been wary about signing up for Facebook, mainly because of the company’s flip practice of changing privacy settings without user notification. But, I finally gave in and launched a page for the blog and a personal page. A confirmed Twitter-lover, I don’t quite fathom Facebook, which doesn’t have the immediacy and, for me, the editorial sensibility of being connected to news-producers and -curators.

For a while there, I felt I was having my own personal internal debate about Facebook in the way that Jerry and George argued about Newman on “Seinfeld”:

George: Maybe there’s more to Newman than we think.
Jerry: No, there’s less.
George: He is merry.
Jerry: I’ll give him that. He’s merry.

That pretty much sums up the way I feel about Facebook. Hence this guide – perhaps there was more to the social platform than I was initially picking up on.

This is the second Dummies book I’ve read, and I found it packed with tips, warnings, Q&A, and helpful screen shots. Authors Abram and Pearlman did a great job explaining philosophies and approaches to Facebook usage here. The writing was breezy and engaging and, presumably, knowledgeable. I say “presumably” and indicate the edition above because platforms like Facebook change so frequently (the Timeline feature happened to launch during the time I was reading this) that the version I read was utterly out of date. There was almost nothing (from menus to functionality and concepts) that worked in the same way as described in this particular volume, which isn’t so much the fault of the authors as perhaps a rationale for making Dummies books that relate to fast-changing technology exclusively available online. I recently purchased The Complete Idiot’s Guide to WordPress, and I’m thinking I’d better start reading it sooner rather than later.

What did you read this month? What do you recommend I include in my reading challenge this year?