The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

Rachel Hartman

An intriguing and well-crafted fantasy about a mixed-race child in a world in which mixed races are inconceivable.

People are people, and dragons are dragons. They used to be at war, now they are celebrating forty years of uneasy peace. Dragons and people don’t get along; they certainly don’t get married. But Seraphina has a terrible secret: she has scales around her midriff and she understands more about dragons than she ought. Keeping her secret requires great care, more tact than Seraphina can possibly muster, and special care to avoid undressing at any cost. Among other things, this is a witty rejoinder to YA convention; this is a world where a bold young lady really does have to act as if obedience to propriety were a matter of life and death.

June 29, 2014 (permalink)

Pierre Lemaitre

This interesting French police procedural does a fine job of keeping its detectives (and the reader) off balance. We begin with an abduction on a busy Paris street, and then things get weird. Structurally ambitious, but those ambitious cannot be discussed without spoiling the mystery.

June 29, 2014 (permalink)

An intriguing and engaging novelization of the Dreyfus Affair from the perspective of Colonel Georges Picquart, an honest, intellectual career officer who is asked to take chair of an intelligence outfit and does his best to discharge his unfamiliar and uncongenial duties. Unfortunately, his superiors neglected to explain to him that his best efforts were not what they desired. An Officer and A Spy is a thrilling police procedural and courtroom drama, even though everyone knows how things turn out.

May 23, 2014 (permalink)

Conclusion of the trilogy that began with Daughter of Smoke and Bone and Days of Blood and Starlight, the story of an art student in Prague who gradually discovers that she’s enmeshed in an ancient war between angels and chimera, and she’s not an angel. This conclusion adds a new player, a graduate student in biochemistry brought in to analyze DNA samples from some monsters discovered in the North Sahara, and who was raised by a Florida cult that believes itself descended from an angel. To everyone’s surprise, the cult has a point. The conclusion is a bit shaggy and shows some signs of haste; the hard work was done in Book I, a book that was propelled by the gradual unfolding of this strange world. Now the world is unfolded and the pieces are on the board and, oddly, there’s less propulsion beyond the gradual slide to the denouement. Nevertheless, a fierce and tiny delight.

May 14, 2014 (permalink)

Less ambitious and less accomplished than Fangirl, this is still a fine story about two kids who meet cute under difficult circumstances.

One narrative spring that drives the story is a crucially withheld bit of information: something is terribly wrong in Eleanor’s household. Rowell dismisses the convention suspects – marital discord, money, sexual abuse – unconventionally: Eleanor has trouble with all these, yes, but they’re not the real problem. Her stepfather beats her mother, Eleanor daren’t bathe when her stepfather is home, at sixteen she’s been thrown out of her house at least once before. All five kids share one small room. Eleanor’s home has no phone, and she literally doesn’t own a toothbrush. But these, it’s clear, are but the trappings and the suits of woe: something else, something darker, is the real problem.

Indeed, the extent of the family’s poverty embedded in a 21st century suburban setting is itself a striking narrative choice. The trappings all read 2008, but the circumstances sound like the lower East Side a century before. Indeed, the name “Eleanor” peaked in popularity around 1920, when it was about ten times more common than it was when our heroine was born.

In the end, the story is a love story for the mundane, troubled, old-fashioned American family. Eleanor’s boyfriend, Park, is the son of a Korean war veteran and his Korean wife. They don’t have much, but they have lots more than Eleanor. They don’t get along especially well – Park is convinced that his father loves him but doesn’t really like him, and Park is not wrong. From Eleanor’s perspective, it’s all pretty great.

May 7, 2014 (permalink)

Rainbow Rowell

More identical twins!

There’s a lot of YA power fantasy these days that involves hot girls with weapons. Rainbow Rowell’s heroine wields a laptop.

Fangirl is a writer’s fantasy. Cather Avery, a freshman at Nebraska, is a huge fan of Simon Snow, the boy-magician who has starred in seven long novels about a magic school. Cather writes Simon Snow fan fiction and has thousands and thousands of loyal readers. “I’m weirdly huge in Japan,” she remarks at lunch one day. She thinks nothing of bashing out three or four thousand words at a time, whenever she needs a new installment. What writer wouldn’t want to be Cather?

Of course, any heroine needs a few obstacles. Cath’s father is bipolar, her mother is absent, her identical twin sister thinks Cath is a dork, her roommate thinks Cath is a joke, and Cath has no trace of self-confidence. Despite a down-to-earth sensibility and a talent for writing steamy gay fanfic that won her an international audience, she’s got the sexual timidity of a mouse. Her sister teases her:

“Think of how many beautiful first times you’ve written for Simon and Baz.”

“That’s totally different,” Cath said dismissively. “They don’t even have the same parts.”

Wren started giggling and then couldn’t stop. She hugged the laptop to her chest. “You’re more comfortable with their parts than —” She couldn’t stop giggling. “—your own … and you’ve never even seen their parts.”

“I try to write around it.” Cath was giggling, too.

On top of this, Rowell has terrific fun by spinning the whole romance into a metafictional top, giving is fascinating snippets of the fantasy fan fiction, snippets of the “real” but imaginary fiction on which it’s based, and then turning everything very cleverly on its head.

April 25, 2014 (permalink)

A delightful YA dystopia in which Daisy, an American teenager with a temper and a bit of an eating disorder, spends a summer with her Aunt’s English family in order to get away from her newly pregnant stepmother. Unfortunately, this turns out to be the summer of World War III.

The superbly-paced book differs in important directions from the recent (and superb) film, and the differences repay thought. Some are mere abridgments, some heighten the drama, some exploit aural or visual references (Fairport Convention, the Dursley’s neighborhood) that wouldn’t work on the page.

The English setting works very well, and though the details of this war are not terrifically plausible, this is surely a story that unfolded in the south of France in 1940, in Kosovo, in Iraq and Afghanistan and probably in villages not far from Thermopylae and Jericho.

April 15, 2014 (permalink)

Curtis Sittenfeld

The latest novel by the author of the estimable Prep shares many of its strengths. Twin sisters grow up in St. Louis. They’re a lot alike, and they’re a lot like everyone else, except that they have occasional precognitive dreams. Violet grows up to be a psychic, Daisy suppresses her talent and grows up to be a faculty wife, and then one day Violet predicts an earthquake and winds up on the Today Show. A sensitive portrait of relationships, not only between the twins but also a remarkable picture of Daisy and her sensitive, caring, and non-psychic husband.

April 6, 2014 (permalink)

A correspondent mentioned the idea of culinary science fiction, and this seemed such a surprising concept that I went looking for precedents in the superb Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

This is a charming, if simple, book about a great cook who decides to join Sector General, the great galactic hospital, in order to do something about the food. All the usual challenges of hospital food are present, along with such inter-species challenges as table manners in a cafeteria where the physician sitting next to you might look a lot like your dinner.

April 6, 2014 (permalink)

Second reading of this marvelous, strange book. My original notes stand up well, I think.

In this fascinating and compelling novel, every chapter begins with a timeshift and a new point of view. What might seem a tedious experiment in late postmodernism becomes, in Egan’s hands, a natural way to tell a complex story about the intersecting lives of a group of friends and acquaintances over the span of many years.

At one point, a successful music industry pro is taking his kids and his (very) personal assistant on an African safari. His sulky daughter Charlie, one night, joins in a dance around the fire and launches us through time:

Lou lets go of Mindy’s hand and sits up straight. He wants to grab his daughter’s skinny arm and yank her away from these black men, but does no such thing, of course. That would be letting her win. The warrior smiles at Charlie. He’s nineteen, only five years older than she is, and has lived away from his village since he was ten. But he’s sung for enough American tourists to recognize that in her world, Charlie is a child. Thirty-five years from now, in 2008, this warrior will be caught in the tribal violence between the Kikuyu and the Luo and will die in a fire. He’ll have had four wives and sixty-three grandchildren by then, one of whom, a boy named Joe, will inherit his lalema: the iron hunting dagger in a leather scabbard now hanging at his side. Joe will go to college at Columbia and study engineering, becoming an expert in visual robotic technology that detects the slightest hint of irregular movement (the legacy of a childhood spent scanning the grass for lions). He’ll marry an American named Lulu and remain in New York, where he’ll invent a scanning device that becomes standard issue for crowd security. He and Lulu will buy a loft in Tribeca, where his grandfather’s hunting dagger will be displayed inside a cube of Plexiglas, directly under a skylight.

It should not come as a surprise that, much later, we will meet Lulu once more, or that she will play an important (if unconscious) part in resolving an injustice that appears in the book’s earliest chapter (though not its first) and which no one seems to have noticed.

March 25, 2014 (permalink)