Saturday, September 9, 2017

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, Matthew Sullivan

I thought this was quite a find. The author, Matthew Sullivan (no relation to my character, also a novelist, with the same name in The Adulteries of Rachel), has an eye and appreciation for the ways in which human weakness and vulnerability can draw our hearts.

I felt for all of his characters deeply, and I thought the story was told brilliantly. Particularly striking was his account of a murder from the perspective of a child: how unfamiliar things might sound like familiar things out of context. He has a real sense of how trauma can impact and stay with people - children and adults - for years and years, something that's often missing from thriller & cozy murder mysteries.

Additionally, Sullivan's writing is fun: he uses surprising verbs and adjectives, or uses them in surprising ways. Many sentences have this delightful, lively quality. I'll be looking for more of Sullivan's work.

Friday, September 8, 2017

The Night Strangers, Chris Bohjalian

Contemporary paranormal mystery/suspense. A family in the wake of trauma moves to a creepy house in small town New England where the eccentric residents are way too friendly.

What is probably most striking is that the multiple POV narration includes extensive 2nd person present ("You do this; you remember that," etc.), which I found distracting rather than engaging. It also seems to me that there are two main story lines, and while you'd expect cross-over points, they really feel independent of each other. The book starts with a fantastic description of the house and a small door nailed shut with 39 iron bolts, but this ultimately felt under-utilized.

I did get more into the book as I kept reading. At its best, I felt the book worked as a metaphor for a family dealing with trauma.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Dead Simple, Peter James

Happiness is reading a fantastically well-written murder mystery and discovering it's the first of 13.

Contemporary Brit. procedural.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, Robin Sloan

I read this as part of a mystery book club and was seriously underwhelmed: NYT bestseller? Really? Although possibly I'm simply the wrong audience. Sloan's 30-something 1st person (present tense) narrator is a techie hipster with a deep love of fantasy and "the smell of old books." There's a kind of weird (to me) affection and fascination with the idea of books, which has nothing to do with the content of them. There's also a serious Harry Potter-for-adults vibe that passes straight over my head, up to an including "mysterious" words which are really just Latin.

I was hoping for a dead body, but the plot is an "unravel the code" quest: The goal is overblown, and the ultimate answer yawn-inducing. The climax relies on similes. There is no character arc to speak of.

Most of the fun of the book is a series of intriguing environments. Some of these, like the description of the Google campus, I found interesting; some I just found implausible (people in underground caverns wearing black robes under the streets of New York). Maybe someone in my book club will be able to explain the appeal of this book to me. Then again, maybe we're all too old :)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Philip K. Dick

I recently reread Philip K. Dick's classic novella. There was a lot in it I didn't remember, and a lot that struck me differently this time around. I found the descriptions of the 'post-World War Terminus' world - it's desolation and crumbling decay - particularly vivid and compelling. Also the emphasis on compassion and the value of life. The scene in which the android Pris systematically snips the legs off a spider in order to see how many it really needs in order to walk was . . . ghastly.

The whole Mercerism plot-line still confuses me, especially where it weaves in and out of normal reality, and I continue to be confused by what, exactly, Deckard, has learned or gained from the entire experience, particularly when the toad turns out to be electronic. I find Deckard's, well, let's call them 'romantic' relationships for lack of a better word, stilted. At least, they feel forced and don't ring true for me.

Do Androids Dream is, of course, the inspiration behind the 1982 "Blade Runner." It's quite possibly been 20 years since I've seen the movie, and man, the tech does not age well :), so I'm glad Ridley Scott's team has rebooted the concept in the new "Blade Runner 2049" coming out in October.

I don't want to offend anyone, because I know the original was HUGE (iconic, groundbreaking, and so on). I have to admit I'm not a huge fan of noir as a genre - I am frequently and deeply cynical about life, but it's too easy to wallow there - and if you cut out all the establishing seedy city shots and Harrison Ford drinking, that's possibly a third of the Director's Cut. What struck me this time, oddly, was the pervasive scent of middle-aged white man's fear: tenuously employed in a city that looks more like Shanghai than Los Angeles, in danger of having his neck crushed in the grip of a woman's thighs/crotch, etc.

And then there's the violence, toward women in particular, although Ford and Hauer exchange a lot male-male in the end. The, again I'll use quotes, 'romance' between Deckard and Rachel has an ugly quality (She's saying no, but I know she wants me) that I had forgotten. It's even more ugly, I think, because they've realized she's an android, and so there's an element of her being a machine, less than a person, something he can do whatever he wants to. I think, incidentally, there was a missed opportunity to double-cast Rachel and Pris (although I'd hate to miss Daryl Hannah in this role), because in the book they're the same model, and I liked Deckard's ethical dilemma of being on a mission to kill a copy of the one he's realized he has feeling for.

Mercerism, naturally, is gone from the movie version, as is any sense of reverence for life. If anything, Deckard's world is packed with (ethnically non-white) people. There is no equivalent to the 'spider' scene, and with that, I think we lose what's wrong with these androids and why they might need to be killed, even if it looks a lot like murder.

This is actually something that bothers me about both the book and the movie. The androids, mostly, attack when threatened, but people do that too. Some of them are cruel and violent, but then, some people are too. They've committed murders, but then, lots of humans have done that as well. I'm not sure what it is about being an android that justifies destroying them.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Mindscan, Robert J. Sawyer

BRILLIANT concept. If "Self/Less" is a 2 body problem, this is a 2 mind problem. I loved the opening chapters setting up the split. Particularly insightful was Jake's "oh crap" moment when he realizes that copying is not the same as transferring, and the new I quickly becomes 'he' in Jake's mind, whereas the new I quickly slips into thinking of his previous, original self as 'it.' I thought the narrative split into two separate I's was absolute genius.

And then I expected more of a plot (because of this, XYZ happens). The main event, however, is really a long legal trial. I give Sawyer enormous credit because it's a thought-provoking extended legal, philosophical, cutting edge scientific, meditation on the definition of personhood. Overall, however, the book feels . . . curiously heartless to me, lacking the kind of character change and emotional arc I look for.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

"De-Mystifying Mindfulness" Coursera.org


Wanted to put in a recommendation for this FREE online Coursera course I'm currently taking, led by Chris Goto-Jones of Leiden University.

 Coursera page
Coursera page
It's got a great combination of short video lessons with practical exercises. If you've thought about meditating, or the stress-reduction benefits of meditation, it's worth checking out. Love it!

https://www.coursera.org/learn/mindfulness/home/info