Friday, November 29, 2013

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World   
by Haruki Murakami;  Alfred T. Birnbaum, translator
Knopf Doubleday; 3/28/1993
Trade Paperback, 416 pages

ISBN-13: 9780679743460

A narrative particle accelerator that zooms between Wild Turkey Whiskey and Bob Dylan, unicorn skulls and voracious librarians, John Coltrane and Lord Jim. Science fiction, detective story and post-modern manifesto all rolled into one rip-roaring novel, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is the tour de force that expanded Haruki Murakami's international following. Tracking one man's descent into the Kafkaesque underworld of contemporary Tokyo, Murakami unites East and West, tragedy and farce, compassion and detachment, slang and philosophy.

My Thoughts:

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami, translated by Alfred T. Birnbaum, is one hard novel to describe. Kirkus Reviews calls it an elegiac allegory, which barely touches on it's attributes. It is an elaborate post-modern novel that is part cyberpunk science fiction and part film noir crime novel.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World follows two stories, told in altering chapters which are seemingly alternate universes. Eventually the two alternating universes connect.

One part is set in Tokyo sometime in the future where the narrator is a Calcutec, who works for The System. He launders and shuffles data. He's been hired to do a top secret job for a professor whose lab is underground where he has to hide from the carnivorous INKlings, not to mention the competing info organization, the Semiotecs. These chapters feature references to whiskey, pop-culture, old American movies, music, as well as lots of astute comments and nimble wordplay.

The alternate chapters feature a dreamreader who is living in a walled city surrounded by grazing unicorns.
He has been separated from his shadow which is not allowed in the city. Attended to by the librarian, his job is to read dreams found in unicorn skulls in the library, but he can't help but wonder about his disconnect to his emotions and memory since he came to this town.

Murakami won the Tanizaki Literary prize (the Japanese equivalent of the Pulitzer) for Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. This is a well written novel teeming with ideas and styles that seem incongruent at first (crime novel vs. fantasy) but eventually it all begins to makes some sense. It has an underlying complexity, which makes it one of those novels that requires some time to process all the ideas.

Highly Recommended

The first Murakami novel I read, 1Q84, also had an alternate reality.

Once again, life had a lesson to teach me: It takes years to build up, it takes moments to destroy. pg. 187

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
HarperCollins, 11/5/2013
Hardcover, 320 pages

The New York Times bestselling author of State of Wonder, Run, and Bel Canto creates a resonant portrait of a life in this collection of writings on love, friendship, work, and art. "The tricky thing about being a writer, or about being any kind of artist, is that in addition to making art you also have to make a living."
So begins This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, an examination of the things Ann Patchett is fully committed to—the art and craft of writing, the depths of friendship, an elderly dog, and one spectacular nun. Writing nonfiction, which started off as a means of keeping her insufficiently lucrative fiction afloat, evolved over time to be its own kind of art, the art of telling the truth as opposed to the art of making things up. Bringing her narrative gifts to bear on her own life, Patchett uses insight and compassion to turn very personal experiences into stories that will resonate with every reader.

These essays twine to create both a portrait of life and a philosophy of life. Obstacles that at first appear insurmountable—scaling a six-foot wall in order to join the Los Angeles Police Department, opening an independent bookstore, and sitting down to write a novel—are eventually mastered with quiet tenacity and a sheer force of will. The actual happy marriage, which was the one thing she felt she wasn't capable of, ultimately proves to be a metaphor as well as a fact: Patchett has devoted her life to the people and ideals she loves the most.

An irresistible blend of literature and memoir, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a unique examination of the heart, mind, and soul of one of our most revered and gifted writers.
My Thoughts:

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is a collection of 23 essays (including the introduction) written by Ann Patchett between 1996 and 2012. The stories not only showcase some of the nonfiction she has written,  but they serve as a genuine introduction to the person of Ann Patchett. It is a well-known fact that Patchett is an excellent writer. How she approached this pinnacle of success is well documented in the introduction and the subsequent essays bear the truth/fruit of her efforts.

Some of these essays originally appeared in some form in various magazines: Atlantic Monthly, Audible, Gourmet, Granta, Harper's, New York Times, Vogue, and the Washington Post Magazine. Others were written for a venue with this collection also in mind. 

Actually, I'm hard pressed to pick favorites from her essays since I found strong points in each one. They all deal with commitments, whether it is to a spouse or a dog or a grandmother or a state or a vocation or an idea. But what all of these essays excel at is tutoring and illustrating how it should be done for would-be-writers. All of these essays are just as compelling as any short story and prove the point that a good writer can write about the ordinariness of everyday life, like caring for a loved one, and make it interesting, honest, and poetic. 

All of these essays have something to say. The writing is outstanding... simply superlative. Patchett is able to accurately describe scenes and people in such an extraordinary way that you will feel a connection to the writing. While this is a collection of essays, in many ways it also functions as a memoir, an incredibly literary and beautifully rendered memoir with insightful vignettes and heart-felt disclosures.

Fans of Patchett's fiction should do themselves a favor and purchase this collection asap.  

To Patchett I just want to say:  Thank you for giving me a small glimpse of some of the things composting in your humus. The brief scenes and insight you chose to share have widened my perspective of your work and given me an even greater appreciation of your talent.

Very Highly Recommended




Nonfiction, an Introduction explains the fact that a writer has to earn a living too. It covers how Patchett not only paid her dues as a freelance nonfiction writer, but also how this helped her become a better writer.

How to Read  a Christmas Story is a recollection of various Christmas memories and her first happy Christmas.

The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life - is another great essay for those who want to be writers. Two thoughts to share:

"I am a compost heap, and everything I interact with, every experience I've had, gets shoveled onto the heap where it eventually mulches down, is digested and excreted by worms, and rots. It's from that dark, rich humus, the combination of what you encountered, what you know and what you've forgotten, that ideas start to grow." (pg 41)

"I believe in keeping several plots going at once. The plot of a novel should be like walking down a busy city street.... All manner of action and movement is rushing toward you and away. But that isn't enough.... Many writers feel that plot is passe' - they're so over plot, who needs plot?  - to which I say: Learn how to construct one first, and then feel free to reject it." (pg. 48)

The Sacrament of Divorce is about her very short, first marriage. "Honey, I know. Things happen that you never thought were possible." (pg. 65)

The Paris Match is about a trip to Paris and a word game.

This Dog's Life is the story of how she found her dog, Rose.

In The Best Seat in the House she explains how she satisfies her love of opera.

My Road to Hell Was Paved is about renting a Winnebago to explore RVing in the American West for an article.

In Tennessee she reflects on some of her experiences living in the state.

On Responsibility is about caring for her dog and her grandmother.

The Wall is about the time Patchettt went through the written and physical tests to try out for the police academy in Los Angeles.

Fact vs. Fiction is the Miami University of Ohio Convocation Address of 2005.

In My Life in Sales Patchett reflects on going out on book tours to sell her novels.

"The Love Between the Two Women Is Not Normal" discusses a protest at Clemson University over Patchett's nonfiction book Truth and Beauty, a memoir about her friendship with writer Lucy Grealy.

The Right to Read is the Clemson Freshman Convocation Address of 2006.

Do Not Disturb discusses Pachett checking into the Hotel Bel-Air for some peace and quiet in order to get some work done.

Introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2006 (self-explanatory)

Love Sustained is a moving tribute to her grandmother.

The Bookstore Strikes Back explains how Patchett came to be co-owner of an independent bookstore in Nashville, Parnassus Books.

This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage is the story of her family history of failed marriages in comparison to her now successful relationship.

In Our Deluge, Drop by Drop, Patchett reflects on flooding.

In Dog without End she is faced with her faithful companion Rose's decline in health.

In The Mercies Patchett helps Sister Nena, a Sister of Mercy and former teacher, move into an apartment by herself for the first time at age 78.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins for review purposes.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Let's Pretend This Never Happened

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir)
by Jenny Lawson
Penguin Group; April 17, 2012
Kindle edition, 384 pages
ASIN: B0065S8R38

When Jenny Lawson was little, all she ever wanted was to fit in. That dream was cut short by her fantastically unbalanced father and a morbidly eccentric childhood. It did, however, open up an opportunity for Lawson to find the humor in the strange shame-spiral that is her life, and we are all the better for it.
In the irreverent Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s long-suffering husband and sweet daughter help her uncover the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments—the ones we want to pretend never happened—are the very same moments that make us the people we are today. For every intellectual misfit who thought they were the only ones to think the things that Lawson dares to say out loud, this is a poignant and hysterical look at the dark, disturbing, yet wonderful moments of our lives.
My Thoughts: 

Let's Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) by Jenny Lawson is a very irreverent look at her life so far. Known as "The Bloggess"online Lawson first made her impact through her blog before writing a book that included many of her stories. This collection of mostly true and certainly embellished stories run the gamut from brutally honest to exaggerated to fabricated. You should be able to figure out what's real and what isn't.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened was making the book blogging rounds when it was first released and most of the reviews I read were raving about how funny she is and compared her to David Sedaris’s Naked.  I must admit that I enjoyed Sedaris's books more. While she is funny, much of the humor and language definitely deserves an R rating and was almost just too far over the top several times. It also seems less story teller based and much more frantic one liners that may or may not lead up to a good story.

There are moments when Lawson isn't relying on crude jokes and is legitimately sharing where she shines. This is generally when she is talking about a real life experience and not trying to tell us a story to prove how messed up she is. Hey, we all have our issues and it helps to laugh about them.

I'd highly recommend this, as long as you are fully aware that it is only for mature audiences.


Usually when I tell people my dad was a Texas armadillo racing champion, they assume I’m exaggerating, but then I pull out his silver armadillo championship ring (which is, of course, shaped like an armadillo), and then they’re all, “Crap on a crap cracker, you’re actually serious.” And then they usually leave quickly. Page 17

Also, whenever I read this paragraph to people who don’t live in the South, they get hung up on the fact that we had furniture devoted to just guns, but in rural Texas pretty much everyone has a gun cabinet. Unless they’re gay. Then they have gun armoires. Page 20

There are few advantages to growing up poor, and not having money for therapy is the biggest. Page 23

My grandparents weren’t poor, but they were the type of people to save and reuse tinfoil, always certain that another depression was looming around the corner, so they met the challenge of creating a pool for their grandchildren by salvaging three fiberglass bathtub shells that someone was throwing away. Page 34

When I was little my mother used to say that I had “a nervous stomach.” That was what we called “severe untreated anxiety disorder” back in the seventies, when everything was cured with Flintstone vitamins and threats to send me to live with my grandmother if I didn’t stop hiding from people in my toy box. Page 37

Occasionally the turkeys would follow us, menacingly, on our quarter-mile walk to school, lurking behind us like improbable gang members or tiny, feathered rapists. Even at age nine I was painfully self-conscious, and was aware that dysfunctional pet turkeys would not be viewed as “cool,” so I would always duck inside the schoolhouse as quickly as possible and feign ignorance, conspicuously asking my classmates why the hell there were always jumbo quail on the playground. Page 43

Pretty much everyone hates high school. It’s a measure of your humanity, I suspect. If you enjoyed high school, you were probably a psychopath or a cheerleader. Or possibly both. Those things aren’t mutually exclusive, you know. I’ve tried to block out the memory of my high school years, but no matter how hard you try to ignore it, it’s always with you, like an unwanted hitchhiker. Or herpes. I assume. Page 48

High school is life’s way of giving you a record low to judge the rest of your life by. Page 55

Victor kind of rolled his eyes when his mom went on about all the debutante balls Victor had gone to with these girls, and I nodded, trying to look politely interested. Then she asked me when I came out and I said, “Oh, I’m not gay. I’m dating your son,” which I thought was pretty clear to begin with. Then Victor started coughing loudly and Bonnie looked confused, but then she got distracted, because Victor sounded like he’d swallowed his own tongue, and then right after that Victor said that we should probably leave. Page 81

“It’s nothing,” I said. “It’s just that . . . Have you ever been homesick for someplace that doesn’t actually exist anymore? Someplace that exists only in your mind?” Page 103

1. Did you know that “ostensively” isn’t a word? Because I didn’t, and apparently I’ve been using the wrong word for my entire life. Apparently the “correct” word is “ostensibly.” Ostensively. Page 124

It is exhausting being me. Pretending to be normal is draining and requires amazing amounts of energy and Xanax. In fact, I should probably charge money to all the normal people to simply not go to your social functions and ruin them. Page 150

Most bloggers are emotionally unstable and are often awkward in social situations, which is why so many of us turned to blogging in the first place. Page 171

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Visit Sunny Chernobyl

Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places 
by Andrew Blackwell   
Rodale Press; reissued 5/7/2013
Paperback, 320 pages

ISBN-13: 9781623360269

For most of us, traveling means visiting the most beautiful places on Earth—Paris, the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon. It’s rare to book a plane ticket to visit the lifeless moonscape of Canada’s oil sand strip mines, or to set sail for the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But in Visit Sunny Chernobyl, Andrew Blackwell embraces a different kind of travel, taking a jaunt through the most gruesomely polluted places on Earth.
Visit Sunny Chernobyl fuses immersive first-person reporting with satire and analysis, making the case that it’s time to start appreciating our planet as-is—not as we wish it to be. Equal parts travelogue, expose environmental memoir, and faux guidebook, Blackwell careens through a rogue’s gallery of environmental disaster areas in search of the worst the world has to offer—and approaches a deeper understanding of what’s really happening to our planet in the process.

My Thoughts:

Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell is one of the most unlikely travelogues I've ever read. Blackwell visits, as a tourist, seven of the most polluted places on the Earth. He notes, "Tell folks that you’re making a grand tour of polluted places, and they tend to get excited. A surprising number of people say they want to come along, and, although this turns out to be mostly talk, it’s gratifying to know the market is there. (Page 73)"

"The reason I find myself beating the same thematic horse on every continent isn’t that the polluted places of the world aren’t polluted. It’s that I love them. I love the ruined places for all the ways they aren’t ruined. Does somebody live there? Does somebody work there? Does somebody miss it when they leave? Those places are still just places.... I love the ruined places. And sure, I love the pure ones, too. But I hate the idea that there’s any difference. And I wish more people thought gross was beautiful. Because if it isn’t, then I’m not sure why we should care about a world with so much grossness in it." Page 226  


This account of his excursions is not written specifically as a guide to traveling to these polluted places, but rather it is Blackwell ruminating and sharing his thoughts as he gives you the highlights of his adventures.  While this sounds grim, Blackwell is actually quite entertaining rather than a grim harbinger of all of humanities mistakes. As he travels he also points out the dualism in our thoughts and actions.

"This artificial division between natural and unnatural pervades our understanding of the world. Industrialists may hope to dominate nature, and environmentalists to protect it—but both camps depend on the same dualism, on a conception of nature as something to which humanity has no fundamental link, and in which we have no inherent place. And it’s a harmful dualism, even if it takes the form of veneration. It keeps us from embracing a robust, engaged environmentalism that is based on something more than gauzy, prelapsarian yearnings. (Page 172)"

"We’re just so entranced by the concept of nature-as-purity that we won’t face facts. Our environment is not on the brink of something. It is over the brink—over several brinks—and has been for some time. It was more than twenty years ago that Bill McKibben pointed out the simple fact that there is no longer any nook or cranny of the globe untouched by human effects. It’s time to stop pretending otherwise, to stop pretending that we haven’t already entered the Anthropocene, a new geological age marked by massive species loss (already achieved) and climate change (in progress).... The task now, perhaps, is not to preserve the fantasy of a separate and pure nature, but to see how thoroughly we are part of the new nature that still lives. Only then can we preserve it, and us. (Page 173)" 

Very Highly Recommended


Author's note

One. Visit Sunny Chernobyl: Day Trips Through a Radioactive Wonderland

"We have just infiltrated the world’s most radioactive ecosystem. This is the Exclusion Zone, site of the infamous Chernobyl disaster. A radiological quarantine covering more than a thousand square miles of Ukraine and Belarus, it is largely closed to human activity, even a quarter century after the meltdown. Entry to the zone is forbidden without prior permission, an official escort, and a sheaf of paperwork. A double fence of concrete posts and barbed wire encircles it, and guards man the entrances." prologue

The world thinks of Chernobyl as a place where humankind had overwhelmed and destroyed nature. The phrase “dead zone” still gets tossed around. But this was nowhere more obviously untrue than here, watching the sunset, my entire horizon a quiet rhapsody of water, sun, and trees. Paradoxically, perversely, the accident may actually have been good for this environment....
And everywhere I had gone, except for the reactor complex itself, I had seen nature running riot. Despite the radiation—indeed because of it—Chernobyl had effectively become the largest wildlife preserve in Ukraine, perhaps in all of Europe. "Page 35

Two. The Great Black North: Oil Sands Mining in Northern Alberta

Less well known is that Canada is a towering, earth-shaking, CO2-belching petroleum giant. Page 42

Most of Canada’s oil—half of what it produces today and 97 percent of what it expects to produce in the future—isn’t in the form of liquid petroleum, ready to be pumped out. It’s oil sand, a thick, grimy sludge buried underground. And it takes more than sticking a straw in the ground to drink this particular kind of milkshake. It takes the world’s largest shovels, digging vast canyons out of what was once Alberta’s primeval forest; and the world’s largest trucks, delivering huge quantities of the sticky, black sand into massive separators that need insane amounts of heat and water to boil the sand until the oil floats out of it, leaving behind—not incidentally, if you’re a duck—unfathomable quantities of poisonous wastewater, which are then stored in tailings ponds of unusual size. Page 43

As for Los Angeles, Don had his numbers wrong. Fort McMurray does not emit the same amount of carbon as LA. It emits twice as much. Page 61

Three. Refineryville: Port Arthur, Texas, and the Invention of Oil

Port Arthur itself, and Motiva—in the middle of an expansion when I visited—is on its way to becoming the largest refinery on the continent. Page 79

Four. The Eighth Continent: Sailing the Great Pacific Garbage Patch

"Let’s nip this in the bud: It’s not an island. I’d like to say that again. It’s not. An island. There is no solid mass, no floating carpet of trash, no landfill. But it is real. It was first discovered in 1997 by the yachtsman and environmentalist Charles Moore, who made it the focus of his nonprofit, the Algalita Marine Research Foundation. It is thanks to Moore’s observations that the Pacific Garbage Patch entered the popular consciousness, sometime in the mid-2000s." Page 119

"In this, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a cautionary tale in environmental aesthetics. We seem to require imagery to go with our environmental problems. If we don’t have an image to be horrified by, we can’t approach the problem in our minds. But sometimes the imagery distorts our thinking, or becomes a substitute for approaching the problem in the first place. And when there simply is no adequate image, we substitute others, creating islands where none exist." Page 147

Five. Soymagedon: Deforestation in the Amazon

Everyone knows forests are good and deforestation is bad. Forests are habitat. Forests absorb carbon dioxide and forestall global warming. But not everyone knows that cutting them down and burning them not only releases carbon dioxide into the air but also creates local feedback loops that cause the forest to die back even further, meaning more habitat loss and more CO2 emissions. The Amazon, at ten times the size of Texas, give or take a couple of Texases, has so much forest that to cut it back is to set off what some have termed a carbon bomb, with global consequences. I had come to Brazil to see the burning fuse on that tremendous carbon bomb. Page 158

But then we found out about soy. That’s where the action was, we read (Adam read). Soy farmers were leveling great stretches of forest so they could sell animal feed to Europe. We ditched the ranching idea and chose Santarém as our destination. The city is the site of a controversial export terminal built by the multinational company Cargill to bring soybeans out of the Amazon. Near Santarém, we would be able to see it all: unblemished jungle, jungle being cut back, soy fields, and the terminal itself, a cruel agribusiness dagger thrust directly into the pulsing, green heart of the world. Page 159

Six. In Search of Sad Coal Man: E-Waste, coal, and other Treasures of China

Mr. Han had his own business. He and his wife had both grown up on farms in the Chinese province of Sichuan, to the northwest. They had met while working in an electronics recycling workshop here in Guiyu, near the southeast coast, and after marrying, they had opened a workshop of their own. They specialized in motherboards—the central circuit boards of personal computers. Mr. Han bought them in large bales three feet on a side, imported from overseas, likely North America.... Guiyu’s entire economy is based on tearing apart old electronics and reselling the components and raw materials. Walk the streets and you will see building after building with a workshop at ground level and family quarters on the upper floors. It’s a dirty business. Computers are full of all kinds of things that are bad for you—things other than the Internet—and when you tear them apart, or melt them down, or saw them into pieces, a portion of those toxic substances is released. Page 206

Incredible amounts of manufactured goods are sent from China to the West in shipping containers, and since the conveyor belt must run both ways, sending freight back is cheap. The result is that we don’t really buy our electronics from China after all. We just rent them and then send them back to be torn apart. Page 207

In its pursuit of unfettered economic results, China has allowed widespread lead poisoning. This is especially dangerous to children, whose nervous system and mental health can be permanently damaged. “In more developed nations,” the New York Times said in June 2011, “a pattern of lead poisoning like China’s would most likely be deemed a public-health emergency.” Page 217

Seven. The Gods of Sewage: Downstream on India's Most Polluted River

This time I skipped Kanpur. Skipped Ganga. It might be India’s holiest river, but the Yamuna is its most polluted, and I had priorities. I wanted to know why, with all the Hindu rumpus about rivers, a river goddess can’t actually catch a break. For although the Yamuna might be a goddess, by the time she leaves Delhi, she is no longer a river. Page 249

We were floating not on a river, but on a great urban outflow, a stream of human sewage that was standing in for the river that had dug the channel. The Yamuna was full of sh*t. Page 251

Incredible India, land of contrasts, awash in brutality. Page 257


Additional quotes:

If journalism can teach us anything, it’s that local people are a powerful tool to save us from our own fecklessness and incompetence. We call them fixers. Page 7

The apocalypse we can create is for ourselves and for our cousins, but not for life on Earth. Page 35

Tell folks that you’re making a grand tour of polluted places, and they tend to get excited. A surprising number of people say they want to come along, and, although this turns out to be mostly talk, it’s gratifying to know the market is there. Page 73

Like most sensible people, I don’t really have a fear of heights—only a fear of falling to my death. Which is not a fear at all, but a sensible attitude. Page 122

We were in the Amazon rainforest. The former Amazon rainforest, to be exact. The broad field where we stood was empty, freshly scorched to the ground. The air swirled with cinders. Page 157

The creation of Yellowstone formalized the idea that human beings have no place in a protected wilderness—unless they are tourists. Page 172

The task now, perhaps, is not to preserve the fantasy of a separate and pure nature, but to see how thoroughly we are part of the new nature that still lives. Only then can we preserve it, and us. Page 173

The legend of the jungle is so powerful, and so laden with the importance of biodiversity and the lungs-of-the-planet thing, that we forget that an Amazonian rainforest has an awful lot in common with a regular North American forest. To wit: it is a forest. Page 196

Then there’s James Cameron’s Avatar, the ultimate expression of jungle-as-magical-place, driven by a story so painfully condescending to its forest-dwellers that he could get away with it only in science fiction. Page 196

Friday, November 15, 2013

Beyond the Rift

Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts
Tachyon Publications; 11/18/13
Trade Paperback, 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616961251


Combining complex science with skillfully executed prose, these edgy, award-winning tales explore the shifting border between the known and the alien. The beauty and peril of technology and the passion and penalties of conviction merge in narratives that are by turns dark, satiric, and introspective. Among these bold storylines: a seemingly humanized monster from John Carpenter’s The Thing reveals the true villains in an Antarctic showdown; an artificial intelligence shields a biologically enhanced prodigy from her overwhelmed parents; a deep-sea diver discovers her true nature lies not within the confines of her mission but in the depths of her psyche; a court psychologist analyzes a psychotic graduate student who has learned to reprogram reality itself; and a father tries to hold his broken family together in the wake of an ongoing assault by sentient rainstorms. Gorgeously saturnine and exceptionally powerful, these collected fictions are both intensely thought-provoking and impossible to forget.

My Thoughts:

Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts is a collection of science fiction short stories. I appreciate what Watts said in the final selection: "But in a very real sense, these are not my inventions; they are essential features of any plausible vision of the future. The thing that distinguishes science fiction, after all—what sets it apart from magic realism and horror and the rest of speculative horde—is that it is fiction based on science. It has to be at least semiplausible in its extrapolations from here to there." (Location 3979) That is what I've always enjoyed about hard science fiction - that it has an underpinning based on real science. An author might be speculating what will happen far into the future, but the foundation is always based on real science. 

Contents of Beyond the Rift include:

The Things: Watts says The Things is "fan fiction, an homage to one of my favorite movies and also—to my own surprise—a rumination on the missionary impulse." This is a strong opening to the collection and immediately recognizable as a tribute piece from an alternate point of view.

The Island:  Although he says it "started out as a raspberry blown at all those lazy-ass writers who fall back on stargates to deal with the distance issue" the result was an intriguing tale dealing with artificial intelligence and a genetically modified/created human, as well as interpersonal relationships between the "mother"and "son," humans traveling long distances in space in stasis, and a "diaphanous life-form big enough to envelop a star."

In The Second Coming of Jasmine Fitzgerald "Jasmine Fitzgerald guts her husband like a fish, but only to save his life." Is she truly insane?

A Word for Heathens deals with religious zealotry.

Home is very good. Check out the link to read it.

In The Eyes of God a computer makes judgements and sentences a person based on the crimes that may be committed. Watts "asks whether we should define a monster by its impulses, or its actions." 

In Flesh Made Word a man spends his life researching the last thoughts of people before they die. Watts comments that "the emo and overwrought “Flesh Made Word” has not aged well."

Nimbus features clouds that are alive and taking their revenge. Watts writes that it was started by "an off-the-cuff fantasy seeded by a former girlfriend who looked out the window one day and said, Wow, those thunderclouds almost look alive."He later admits that "the idea of a vast, slow intelligence in the clouds has a certain Old Testament beauty to it." This is a wonderfully imaginative and frightening story.

Mayfly (with Derryl Murphy) is set far in the future where a couple agrees to have a child whose brain is replaced, programed, and hard wired into an artificial intelligence matrix. This is an incredibly vivid, provocative and disconcerting story.

In Ambassador an AI spaceship is sent out to make contact with alien life forms and discovers that even if it means well, perhaps nothing else it encounters may share that sentiment.

Hillcrest v. Velikovsky features a trial asking if the placebo effect really works, or, in others words, can faith can overcome illness?

Repeating the Past: "The nameless narrator of “Repeating the Past” deliberately induces PTSD in his grandson, but only to save his soul."

In A Niche, two woman are part of a research team that is required to live under close quarters underwater. While one is able to adapt, the other is not

In the final selection, Outtro: En Route to Dystopia with The Angry Optimist, Watts addresses his reputation as "The Guy Who Writes The Depressing Stories." Watts say that his "favorite thumbnail of that sentiment comes from James Nicoll—'Whenever I find my will to live becoming too strong, I read Peter Watts'."  He explains that while his "writing tends toward the dystopic it’s not because I’m in love with dystopias; it’s because reality has forced dystopia upon me." But he also finds things to wonder about and the sublime in his stories. This last part is where Watts addresses the distressing story of his arrest and abuse by U.S. border guards and the subsequent trial.

I really enjoyed Beyond the Rift. It was provocative and extremely well written. This is one of those collections that I think benefits from reflection after each story, and most of the stories will cry out for rereading in the future. Excellent collection  -  Very Highly Recommended.


You can read many of the short stories here:

This is what the world taught me: that adaptation is provocation. Adaptation is incitement to violence. Location 133

Killing a virus is no sin. You can do it with an utterly clear conscience. Maybe she’s redefining the nature of her act. Maybe that’s how she manages to live with herself these days. Location 1225

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Tachyon Publications via Netgalley for review purposes.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


Limit by Frank Schatzing 
Translators: Shaun Whiteside, Jamie Searle, Samuel Willcocks
Random House; 11/5/2013
Hardcover, 960 pages
ISBN-13: 9781623650445

Frank Schätzing’s The Swarm was an international science-fiction blockbuster, winner of the Köln Literatur Prize, the Corine Prize, and the German Science Fiction Prize. Limit is his most ambitious work to-date—a multilayered thriller that balances astonishing scientific, historical, and technical detail. Against this backdrop, Schätzing convincingly realizes a possible near future when humankind’s ingenuity may become the greatest risk to its continued existence.
In 2025, entrepreneur Julian Orley opens the first-ever hotel on the moon. But Orley Enterprises deals in more than space tourism—it also operates the world’s only space elevator, which in addition to allowing the very wealthy to play tennis on the lunar surface connects Earth with the moon and enables the transportation of helium-3, the fuel of the future, back to the planet. Julian has invited twenty-one of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals to sample his brand-new lunar accommodation, hoping to secure the finances for a second elevator.
On Earth, meanwhile, cybercop Owen Jericho is sent to Shanghai to find a young female hacker known as Yoyo, who’s been on the run since acquiring access to information that someone seems quite determined to keep quiet. As Jericho closes in on the girl and the conspiracy swirling around her, he finds mounting evidence that connects her to Julian Orley as well as to the entrepreneur’s many competitors and enemies. Soon, the detective realizes that the lunar junket to Orley’s hotel is in real and immediate danger.

My Thoughts:

Limit by Frank Schatzing focuses on three different stories set in 2025 in one massive book.

The first story is a science fiction space opera set on the moon.
Orley Enterprises opens up the first resort and hotel, the Gaia,  on the moon. Wealthy guests arrive by a space elevator for a vacation compliments of owner Julian Orley, who hopes his guests will be impressed enough to invest in his company and the expansion of a second space elevator. In addition to the luxurious accommodations, the space elevator transports Helium-3, a newly discovered source of energy that will end the use of fossil fuels, back to Earth. With this first space elevator owned by an American, the Chinese are scrambling to establish their own base on the moon as well as an elevator.

"And in fact for half the show she’d been staring at the display on her pocket computer, correcting marketing plans, and had missed the explanation of the principle. At first sight it would look as if the slabs that formed the cabin sterns were sending out bright red beams, but in fact it was the other way round. The undersides of the plates were covered with photovoltaic cells, and the beams were emitted by huge lasers inside the terminal. The energy produced by the impact set the propulsion system in motion, six pairs of interconnected wheels per cabin, with the belt stretched between them. When the wheels on one side were set in motion, those on the other side joined in automatically in the opposite direction, and the lift climbed up the belt. “It gets faster and faster,” Julian explained." (Location 2221-2227)

There are plenty of references to other science fiction that most people are going to catch. For example I got a chuckle out of this: "The Picard had a different design from the Kirk, which was closer to classical restaurant style." Location 2703-2703

The second story is a detective story set in China. A young woman, Yoyo, is a member of a group of internet dissidents who call themselves Guardians. This faction has become a "nuisance to the Party with their demands for democracy.” Yoyo has seemingly disappeared without any indication where she went. Cyber P. I., Owen Jericho, has been hired to find Yoyo by her father. He doesn't want to go to the police and bring her to their attention - again. It seems that Jericho is not the only person looking for Yoyo and the other man on her trail doesn't mean her well at all.

“Yes and no. Some of her files suggest we’re dealing with a member of a group of internet dissidents who call themselves Guardians. A faction who are becoming a real nuisance to the Party with their demands for democracy.”
“You mean that Yoyo didn’t intentionally seek us out?”
“We can probably rule that out. Pure coincidence. We scanned her hard drives faster than she could switch them off, which suggests the attack surprised her. We didn’t manage to destroy her computer though. She must have a highly efficient security system, and unfortunately that doesn’t bode well. We’re now convinced that fragments—at least—of our transfer data are now in Yuyun—er, Yoyo’s computer.” Location 4483-4490

The third story is about the elimination of the oil industry and a assassination attempt made on a CEO of a dying oil company. “I was always vehemently opposed to war, and still am today. You just have to understand what a jam the United States was in. Asia’s hunger for raw materials, Russia’s gamble on resources, our disappointing performance in the Middle East, one great big disaster. Then 2015, the uprising in Saudi Arabia. The stars and stripes burning in the streets of Riyadh, the whole folklore of the Islamist seizure of power, except that we couldn’t just throw those guys out because China had lent them money and arms. An official military intervention in Saudi Arabia would have amounted to a declaration of war on Beijing. You know yourself how things look down there now. Nobody might be interested in it today, but in those days it would have been reckless to depend entirely on Arab oil. We had to take alternatives into consideration. One of those lay in the sea, the other in the exploitation of oil sand and shale, the third in the resources of Alaska.” (Location 1948-1956)
I love to find quotes in everything I read and there were some moments of great insight and/or truths buried in Limit:

Some people can barely afford the hooch that keeps them writing, but if you happen to stumble upon something of theirs online and download it, you’re strangely moved by how humanity and unmarketability seem to come together, and it makes you realize that great emotions always originate in the small, the intimate, the desperate. Location 3485-3487

It’s just that women are more gifted at lying. We’ve perfected the repertoire of dissimulation, that’s why we can see the truth gleaming through as if through fine silk, when you lie. Location 17136

Limit is translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, Jamie Searle, and Samuel Willcocks.

First you need to note that this is a massive book.
In an unwieldy novel of this size it is extremely helpful that a cast of characters is included just in case you get confused as the stories flip back and forth. The hardcover edition claims 960 pages. My review copy for the kindle was larger. While I sometimes enjoy large, weighty books with a complicated, in-depth plot, I must admit that I grew weary of Limit after the first 700 pages or so. There is just so much superfluous information presented along with the plot. It's also difficult to apprise how the translation compares to the original when considering dialogue, smooth transitions, phrasing, etc..

I loved Swarm and was hoping for another novel by
Schatzing I would love just as much, but, alas, Limit just isn't it. While I basically enjoyed the first two storylines listed above I didn't care as much for the third much more politicized plot. And, even though I enjoyed the two stories, in some ways I wish they had been presented as two separate books set in the same time. I can't even believe I'm writing this, but, yes, in this case a series might have been a good choice. I really think I would have enjoyed my overall experience reading this novel if I didn't have to jump back and forth between stories. Hey, even breaking it into sections where one story is told all together up to a crucial point might have worked. So, I enjoyed Limit but...

Limit is highly recommended for those who enjoy science fiction as long as you realize it is a ponderous book that requires a real time commitment (think vacation/snow days).

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Edelweiss for review purposes.

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

White Fire

White Fire by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child
Grand Central Publishing; 11/12/2013
Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455525836
Special Agent Pendergast Series #13

Special Agent Pendergast arrives at an exclusive Colorado ski resort to rescue his protégée, Corrie Swanson, from serious trouble with the law. His sudden appearance coincides with the first attack of a murderous arsonist who--with brutal precision--begins burning down multimillion-dollar mansions with the families locked inside. After springing Corrie from jail, Pendergast learns she made a discovery while examining the bones of several miners who were killed 150 years earlier by a rogue grizzly bear. Her finding is so astonishing that it, even more than the arsonist, threatens the resort's very existence.
Drawn deeper into the investigation, Pendergast uncovers a mysterious connection between the dead miners and a fabled, long-lost Sherlock Holmes story--one that might just offer the key to the modern day killings as well.
Now, with the ski resort snowed in and under savage attack--and Corrie's life suddenly in grave danger--Pendergast must solve the enigma of the past before the town of the present goes up in flames.

My Thoughts:

It's always a thrill when there is a new novel out by Preston and Child. 

White Fire
by Douglas Preston, Lincoln Child is their thirteenth novel featuring FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast. This time the young woman he is mentoring and helping through college, Corrie Swanson, has headed out from John Jay College of Criminal Justice to the Colorado Rockies and the resort town of Roaring Fork. She is hoping to examine the remains of several miners who were reportedly killed  by a man eating bear 150 years ago. The remains from the old cemetery have recently been exhumed in preparation to be moved to a new burial site, so If she can manage to get permission to examine the remains of the miners who were killed by the bear, she can submit her thesis project and paper (a large-scale study of perimortem trauma on human bones inflicted by a large carnivore) to the college for a scholarship.

Corrie's plans run amok when permission to examine the remains is denied. She takes matters into her own hands and ends up in jail, which results in Pendergast heading out west to help her. But, before Corrie was arrested, she noticed some suspicious marks on the bones that have her doubting the legendary bear story.  She needs help from Pendergast to have any chance to thoroughly examine some of the remains.  In the meantime an arsonist has hit the resort community and terror is building in the community. Someone is hiding a secret and perhaps they are planning to go to any length to protect it. Or is there something else amiss in this now exclusive ski resort town?

Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes should enjoy this latest novel from Preston and Child. The novel features strong story tie-ins to Oscar Wilde to Arthur Conan Doyle. Corrie bases the idea of her research project on a story Wilde tells Doyle that leads her to Roaring Fork. As usual Pendergast always seems to have a plethora of background knowledge or suspicions that he is not sharing. Corrie is mouthy and impulsive which contrasts nicely with Pendergast's reticent, careful approach. Both are intelligent and insightful.

Preston and Child are accomplished writers who know how to tell a story - slowly revealing more information while presenting plenty of plot twists and turns. While this is a Pendergast novel, it can easily be enjoyed by those not following the Pendergast character in the previous books. I found White Fire a decidedly entertaining novel that was exceptionally entertaining. I don't think anything written by either Preston or Child has ever disappointed me. I was reading White Fire while out of town and found myself aching for time to finish it, which says a whole lot. I'm hoping to see more of some of the characters in White Fire in a future Preston and Child novel.

Very Highly Recommended  - a must for Preston and Child fans.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing via Netgalley for review purposes.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The Whole Golden World

The Whole Golden World by Kristina Riggle

Trade Paperback, 448 pages

Seventeen-year-old Morgan Monetti shocks her parents and her community with one simple act: She chooses to stand by the man everyone else believes has exploited her—popular high school teacher TJ Hill. Quietly walking across a crowded courtroom to sit behind TJ, and not beside her parents, she announces herself as the adult she believes herself to be.
But her mother, Dinah, wants justice. Dinah is a fighter, and she believes with all her heart and soul that TJ is a man who took advantage of her daughter. He is a criminal who should be brought to justice, no matter what the cost to his family.
Rain, TJ's wife, is shocked that her handsome, loving, respected husband has been accused of a terrible crime. But has her desperation to start a family closed her eyes to the fault lines in her marriage? And can she face the painful truths about herself and her husband?
Told from the perspectives of these three remarkable women, The Whole Golden World navigates the precarious territory between childhood and adulthood, raising questions about love and manipulation, marriage and motherhood, consent and responsibility.

My Thoughts:

The Whole Golden World by Kristina Riggle opens up with a trial in progress and a family in crisis/conflict, so we know right from the start that something untoward is going to happen in the small town of Arbor Valley, Michigan. After a series of rejections, high school senior Morgan Monetti turns to her married calculus teacher, T.J. Hill, for support. She believes she is mature enough to have an affair with him. Morgan is sure that it is love. She believes his wife, Rain, doesn't understand him.

Morgan's mother, Dinah, is already overwhelmed raising her younger special needs twin teenage sons and running a coffee shop near the school. Her husband, and Morgan's father, is an assistant principal at the high school and is emotionally distant and often absent, leaving everything to Dinah. In the past Dinah has treated Morgan as if she is older than her years. After the arrest of T.J. and the truth comes out about Morgan and T.J.  Dinah's  world is feeling even more embattled than it already felt. As the trial begins, the Monetti family faces a backlash of cruel gossip and graffiti from the popular opinion of the community.

Rain, the wife of T.J., has been going through fertility treatments, trying to get pregnant. She assumes that T.J.'s story -  that any affair was all in Morgan's head - is true and she stands by him, supporting him. We learn what really happened, as well as more about T.J. Hill.

The story slowly unfolds through the eyes of these three female characters. After the opening when the trial has started, the novel jumps back in time so we understand what was going on before the current events came to light. Riggle does an excellent job opening up the inner thoughts of her female leads to our scrutiny as they go through their daily lives handling the stress around them. All of them feel like real people, with strengths and flaws, but ultimately women who are trying to do what is right and what they believe.

I sort of wanted to see T.J. skewered and thrown over a BBQ pit. That part, having to read about a married adult having an affair with a teenage girl just really ticked me off. Yes, lots of people think a seventeen year old is old enough to know better. But, come on. Isn't a 29/30 year old man old enough to really know better and should have the ability to say no to the initiation of any intimate contact? Why is the teen girl thrown out as a Lolita when the freakin' adult male is right there too? Sheesh. (Recent items in the news just make me want to yell about this even more.) T.J. acted like a spoiled brat who couldn't understand why he should be held up to any higher standard.

Obviously, The Whole Golden World really captured my attention as I anxiously read to the end. It is always an easy book to read. People do make bad choices. But there are also plenty of people who like to cast blame on others and not themselves. Taking personal responsibility for your actions is one of the signs of a healthy adult. Mistakes happen. Taking responsibility for your part in them and not making or allowing any excuses to be made is mature. But, more importantly, understanding the role and power that a position of authority naturally has over anyone in a subordinate position is key.

I'm now going to look up Riggles previous book, Real Life & Liars, and plan to read it sometime soon. If an author can capture my attention, hold it, and get me all worked up over her book, then I think she did a great job, don't you?

Very Highly Recommended

Kristina Riggle lives and writes in West Michigan. Her debut novel, Real Life & Liars, was praised by Publishers Weekly for its "humorous and humane storytelling" and by Booklist as "a moving and accomplished first novel." The book was a Target "Breakout" pick and a "Great Lakes, Great Reads" selection by the Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association....  Kristina has published short stories in the Cimarron Review, Literary Mama, Espresso Fiction, and elsewhere. She is also a freelance journalist writing primarily for The Grand Rapids Press, and co-editor for fiction at Literary Mama. Kristina was a full-time newspaper reporter for seven years before turning her attention to creative writing and freelancing. As well as writing, she enjoys reading, yoga, dabbling in (very) amateur musical theatre, and spending lots of time with her husband, two kids and dog.


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Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review purposes. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Bellman & Black

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
Atria/Emily Bestler Books; 11/5/2013
Hardcover, 336 pages

ISBN-13: 9781476711959


One moment in time can haunt you forever.
Caught up in a moment of boyhood competition, William Bellman recklessly aims his slingshot at a rook resting on a branch, killing the bird instantly. It is a small but cruel act, and is soon forgotten. By the time he is grown, with a wife and children of his own, William seems to have put the whole incident behind him. It was as if he never killed the thing at all. But rooks don’t forget . . .
Years later, when a stranger mysteriously enters William’s life, his fortunes begin to turn—and the terrible and unforeseen consequences of his past indiscretion take root. In a desperate bid to save the only precious thing he has left, he enters into a rather strange bargain, with an even stranger partner. Together, they found a decidedly macabre business.
And Bellman & Black is born.
My Thoughts:

Bellman & Black is the much anticipated second novel by Diane Setterfield, author of The Thirteenth Tale

When he was ten years old, William Bellman was out playing with a group of friends. He aimed his slingshot at a rook on a dare, fully anticipating he would miss. He didn't. He remembers this foolish act the rest of his life. And the rooks do too. When William grows up he joins his uncle in his textile business. He is a natural at business with a fine eye for detail, and helps the family business succeed among their competitors. William marries, starts a family and it seems his life is set. Except there is a enigmatic man dressed in black who always seems to be there, in the background someplace, as are the rooks.

As death begins to take people around him, William alone is the only one who perceives the man in black to be ever present at every funeral, or watching from the distance or out of the corner of his eye. Eventually, William talks to him and makes a mysterious deal with Mr. Black and sets his sight on opening Bellman and Black, a shop in London specializing in mourning and funerals. Even while his business is wildly successful, William Bellman mental health is slowing starting to fragment, and Mr. Black is always on his mind, unseen, or perhaps just a fleeting glimpse in the distance.

Bellman & Black is an atmospheric Gothic novel set in the Victorian Era when funerals and mourning were an important ritual in society. Setterfield did an excellent job setting the novel in this time period and historical  context. Her research is commendable. But, then, as shown in The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield is a phenomenal wordsmith who can write descriptions that will resonate with you throughout the whole book. She sets the tone exquisitely in Bellman & Black. Tidbits of folklore/information about rooks that will slowly facilitate the sense of dread and foreboding as you are reading are interspersed after chapters.  

The atmospheric tension present in Bellman & Black is not of the breathless-galloping-action type, but, rather, the dread and foreboding very slowly build and the reality of the presumed menacing threat is unclear and hazy. This does make Bellman & Black a rather slow read, which in itself is not bad. The actual haunting is more subtle and subjective than most ghost stories. While we are aware of the implied mythology behind the rooks and their appearance in the story, the haunting of William based on his childhood action seems cryptic and vague.

Highly Recommended


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Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Atria/Emily Bestler Books via Netgalley for review purposes.