Michael Hartford

writer, photographer, programmer, dad

Tag: books

Rooms by Lauren Oliver

Family members converge on a house in Upstate New York upon the death of Richard Walker, their secrets and disappointments mingling with those of the ghosts of two of the house’s former residents, and of a girl who has gone missing from Boston.

It took me about 100 pages to get into this book because the characters were initially so sad, defeated, and in some way repulsive; there was a great deal of moping and whining, a fair amount of self-destructive behavior, but not in any way that seemed interesting or enlightening. After the initial slog, though, the story and interest started to pick up with the arrival of a mysterious teen-aged girl, and of a third mysterious ghost; surprising convergences in the characters’ histories started to arise, and their various stories began to come to a more dramatic head.

The final coincidences were a bit much for my normally pretty forgiving suspension of disbelief, and a few things were tied up just a bit too neatly, but there were some thought-provoking ideas and a handful of interesting character moments that made this book worth finishing.

Undertow by Elizabeth Bear

Against a backdrop of corporate and political intrigue, environmental and cultural pillaging, and the unraveling of the very fabric of reality, an assassin, a knowledge broker, and a “conjure man” betray, bedevil, and bewilder each other and the powers behind the far-flung, watery outpost of Greene’s World.

There’s a lot going on in “Undertow,” and sometimes a bit too much. The book is rich with ideas about space travel, the interactions between humans and other species, the implications of ubiquitous cybernetics, and the manipulation of chance. Add in some fast-paced adventure, an intriguing setting on a watery world, and layered political manipulation, and it can be a lot to keep track of. It does pull together in the end, though, and the final chapter is riveting.

I especially liked that the aliens were truly alien, and not just people in funny costumes. Based on the biology of Earth amphibians, their drives, culture, and behavior are understandable, but clearly not human, and the failure of humans to understand them, and their very different sense of community and history, propels much of the action.

Join by Steve Toutonghi

In a near future ravaged by environmental disasters, people are able to join their consciousness with others into new, multi-bodied selves, with their previously individual bodies as mortal avatars, or “drives,” through which the theoretically-immortal “join” can act upon the world. The technology that allows this is not well-understood, though, and the implications for humankind are fraught.

“Join” is full of fascinating ideas about personhood, mortality, conscience, and morality, hung on a fast-paced plot framework that at times reminded me of noir fiction in the tradition of Jim Thompson and James M. Cain. The denouement felt a little rushed–having set up a powerful philosophical conundrum in the first 200 pages, the story is brought to a close with two sharp and violent scenes in the last twenty pages–but the density of the ideas presented make up for the abrupt conclusion.

City of Ash and Red by Hye-young Pyun (translated by Sora Kim-Russell)

An unnamed man travels to an unnamed country to take on an unspecified role at his employer’s home office. The foreign country is in the midst of political and social upheaval, spurred on by an apparently virulent but possibly harmless (except for the paranoia it engenders) plague. Through a series of misfortunes, misunderstandings, and mis-remembered crimes, the man finds himself exiled to a rat-filled sewer in a foreign country, slowly losing his identity.

This is a grim, uncomfortable book. Many of the reviews have compared it to Kafka, and that’s certainly fitting: there’s faceless bureaucracy as in “The Castle,” a sense of paranoia as in “The Trial,” the weirdness of a foreign land as in “Amerika,” dissolution of the self as in “The Metamorphosis”, and the dissolution of society as in “An Old Manuscript.” Unlike a typical Kafka protagonist, though, the man in this story is drenched in guilt and part of his dissolution is an embrace of the worst, most inhuman parts of himself.

Rats, monkeys, garbage, knives (sharp and blunt), blood, and foul smells pervade the novel’s imagery. It’s a fascinating descent into horror; hardly a pleasant read, but a powerful one.

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

NOS4A2

Charlie Manx prowls the secret roads between our world and an evil Christmasland of the mind in his Rolls-Royce Wraith, searching for children to “rescue.” Vic McQueen, psychically damaged by both her own abilities to travel those secret roads (first on her childhood bicycle, then on a restored Triumph motorcycle) and by an earlier encounter with Manx, needs to catch Manx to rescue her son.

“NOS4A2” moves along at a brisk clip, built as it is around Vic as both pursuer and pursued. It’s a lot like a classic Stephen King novel, jam packed with pop culture references (as well as references , both overt and subtle, to other Joe Hill and Stephen King stories), and full of broadly drawn, over-the-top characters. While it certainly doesn’t break new ground in the horror epic genre–“Talisman,” for instance, was more original in its world-hopping, and some of the spooks in “20th Century Ghosts” are more unsettling than Charlie Manx (though the Gas Mask Man is certainly a high point in chilling characters …)–it’s solidly written and holds the reader’s interest. I especially like that the magic in the book comes at a steep cost for its practitioners–no one can hop between worlds without suffering cumulative damage. The denouement is a little too tidy, but I’m glad that it ends on a happy note after so much pain, especially in the last 150 pages or so.

Fast Eddie, King of the Bees – Robert Arellano

It dawned on me rather late in the book – around page 140 or so, as the crazy train narrative was just about to leap its last rails – that there was a shaggy-dog retelling of a well-known tragedy at the heart of this book, full of groan-inducing puns. I think I was blinded to it by the word play and madcap picaresque; or maybe I was supposed to miss it, just as the eponymous narrator misses it right to the end, and all the pieces start to fall into place, and then fall out of place again, because it was all a three-card monte misdirection after all.

Set in a near-future hellscape version of Boston (“The Beast”) of hyperinflation, packs of street urchins, underground squatter cities, and gated New Jersey suburbs, “Fast Eddie” is a playful, crazy, inventive story in the tradition of “Huck Finn,” “Tom Jones,” and “The Good Soldier Svjek.” The hero-narrator gets into scrape after crazy scrape, each one more inescapable than the last, and somehow climbs this ladder of chaos to the top of the underground Dig City. It’s best read the way you watch a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with critical faculties turned off and disbelief fully suspended. Energetic and frenetic to the very end, and a tour-de-force of alliteration and silly puns, this is an entertaining and engaging ride of a book.

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