Weekend Shorts: Serious and Less Serious Business

Normally I like to at least try to theme my Shorts posts, but this week the offerings probably could not be more different. We’ve got one super-serious and fascinating look at race in America, and one relatively lighthearted fantasy crime story. Let’s start with the serious.

The Fire This Time, by Jesmyn Ward
The Fire This TimeI was pleasantly surprised by how good Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones was a few years back, so when I saw her name on a Brand New Thing I wanted it. When I saw that it was a collection of essays from different authors about the Black/African-American experience in America, I was even more intrigued.

This book is divided into three parts. The first part, Legacy, covers the past: the history of a person, of a people, of a family, of noted and obscure figures. The longest of these essays, “Lonely in America”, talks about how even in history-obsessed New England there is a giant slavery-shaped gap in the common knowledge. It also talks a lot about libraries (not always nicely), so you know I liked it best.

The second part, Reckoning, covers the present, from pop culture to civil unrest and often both in one essay. My favorite of these essays is “Black and Blue”, a look at one man’s love of walking in Kingston, Jamaica; New Orleans; and New York City. As you might guess, his experiences in each place are equally dangerous but for different reasons. As a person who loves to walk and who has walked in some pretty shady situations, this piece really resonated with me.

The third part, Jubilee, covers, of course, the future. Daniel José Older writes a letter to his future children, and Edwidge Danticat one to her daughters, using the facts of the present to create hope for the future.

Not all of these essays are especially polished or organized or straightforward, but all of them are true, and I definitely recommend this collection to anyone looking to make sense of the world today.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi
The DispatcherOkay, now that we’re done with the serious, let’s get to the brain candy. The Dispatcher came out on Audible on Tuesday, and it’s 100% free until the beginning of November, and it’s like two hours long so I don’t know why you haven’t already downloaded it. It’s an audio-first experiment, but if you like what I have to say about it and hate listening to things, there’ll be a print and ebook version out next year.

I downloaded it because free, of course, but also because Scalzi and because the description was intriguing. It’s a story set in a world where people who are intentionally killed come back to life, but those who die unintentionally don’t, so there are people called Dispatchers who are hired by insurance companies and the like to intentionally kill people who are dying in surgery or performing crazy stunts or whatever so they can come back to life and get a second try at whatever they were doing. In this story, Zachary Quinto plays our Dispatcher narrator, who gets recruited to play consultant for the… police? FBI? someone… when a Dispatcher acquaintance of his goes missing.

It’s along the lines of Lock In in that it’s a pretty basic crime story with a fantasy wrapper, but unlike Lock In, whose backstory came in a separate novella, it is a super quick story and the exposition ends up taking up the majority of the story’s time. And then the plot was basically put in the box from Redshirts to produce a nice, tidy, but kind of unsatisfying ending.

BUT it has the line “You have Resting Smug Face” in it, and is two hours of pure Scalzi goodness, so, I mean, it’s a win overall.

The premise is great, the writing is great, the story is fun, but the novella length is no good. I could easily have read a novel’s worth of this, and maybe I’ll get to if enough people find this story as perfectly acceptable as I did.

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Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell

Beat the ReaperSometimes the scariest thing about re-reading books is realizing how long ago you read them the first time… this one’s from waaaaaaaay back in 2009 when I was still posting reviews the day I finished every book. Oh, past self. You were so cute.

I picked this one out for my in-person book club because I remembered liking this book a surprising amount and because we’ve been reading a lot of relatively serious books lately and I thought a nice bonkers quasi crime novel would hit that beginning-of-summer sweet spot. After the turnout at the last few meetings, I was sure this ridiculous book would net me a handful of book clubbers, but instead this was our best turnout of the year. Don’t underestimate bonkers fluff, is what I’m saying.

My opinion on the book hasn’t really changed in seven years, although I thought it might when I started listening to it on audio. I guess I sort of had a voice in my head already for our hero, Peter Brown, and the narrator’s voice was just… not that. It was very impersonal and flat and matter-of-fact where I thought it would be more sarcastic and emotive, rather like that time I listened to The Eyre Affair. Also, I had forgotten about the twenty-seven (this is an estimate, I did not count them, though now I feel like I should have) F-bombs Peter lays out in the first, like, two pages, and I was very nervous that my book club would not make it past that minefield.

But either the narrator gets better or the story does or both, as I was quickly drawn back into the weird world of Peter Brown, ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection. His hospital is weird and terrifying, especially when your fellow book clubbers tell you that yeah, no, it’s totally believable that that terrible thing would happen in a hospital. His childhood is weird and awful as you learn more and more about the circumstances of his grandparents’ untimely demise and his entrance into the Mafia world. His present circumstances are weird and nerve-wracking as everything keeps going wrong, and then vomit-inducing at the end when a certain weapon is procured. Ugh.

I’m not sure I liked the book quite as much this second time around, possibly due to the only-decent narrator and the lack of footnotes (!) in the audio version or possibly due to the lack of surprise when the craziest of things happen. But I still enjoyed it immensely, and I was happy to find out that most of my book club agreed save for two very upset members who came just to tell me, personally, how much they hated the book. But they showed up, so the joke’s on them!

If you’re intrigued by the “ex-Mafia hit man turned doctor in Witness Protection” conceit, and you like your crime hard-boiled, and you like your humor sarcastic and cutting, AND you don’t shy away from an F-bomb or twelve, this is definitely a book to pack in your beach bag this summer. There’s even a sequel, if you end up loving it!

Illusive, by Emily Lloyd-Jones

IllusiveSometimes when I’m talking about books here, I’ll say that a book reminded me of some other books or in my recommendation I’ll say “For fans of x or y or 7.” Sometimes I do this because I think people who liked x will like the book I’m talking about, sometimes I do it because I worry that if you just read y you won’t want to read the book I’m talking about for a while in case of accidental overdose.

This book was sold to me on the first premise: “X-Men meets Ocean’s Eleven in this edge-of-your-seat YA sci-fi adventure about a band of ‘super’ criminals.” Let me tell you, this is wrong on almost all counts.

YA? Yup. Sci-fi? Sure. Adventure? Why not.

On the X-Men slash “super” criminals front, the comparison is that there are people in the world who have superpowers ranging from creating illusions to reading minds to completely controlling someone’s free will. Said people are subjugated and corralled and made to work for the government because of course they are, but a) there’s, like, seven powers that everyone gets, b) the powers are side effects of a vaccine rather than mutations at birth, and c) there is certainly no Xavier Institute for Higher Learning here. So… not quite.

On the Ocean’s Eleven front, I guess the comparison is that there’s a heist going on and a team must be assembled, except that a) there’s way more than one “heist” going on, b) the “team” is almost entirely assembled from the start, and c) the heist doesn’t actually matter in the end.

Edge-of-your-seat? I kept reading because I wanted the book to be what it promised, but it was kind of a slog.

The book as written was actually fairly interesting. There’s a girl called Ciere who can make illusions, and she uses that power for criminal activity because the other option is being a slave to the government. At the very beginning of the book she’s robbed a bank, and she soon finds out that that was a mistake when the mob comes to get their money back. Ciere embarks on her next criminal enterprise with one eye toward the mob, but things soon start to go south, again.

There is excellent world-building in this book, with Ciere’s chapters in the present interspersed with chapters about Ciere’s past and how she ended up where she is and chapters about Ciere’s crewmate, Daniel, who has been detained by the government and then recruited by one of those free-will controllers to do his bidding.

The rest, though, the characters and plot and writing in general, were just kind of okay. A lot of the tension in the book relies on people not understanding each other even though they’re supposed to know each other, and while that makes sense with guarded criminals to a point, the book goes a little too far with it. And there are a couple of Extra Special After School moments that made me want to barf a little.

Overall, it’s a solid effort, and when taken on its own merits it’s a pretty decent book. But whatever you do, do not expect X-men crossed with Ocean’s Eleven, because it’s just not.

Recommendation: For fans of teens doin’ what teens gotta do, people with super powers, and books that are their own thing.

Rating: 7/10

Defending Jacob, by William Landay

Defending JacobThis book. I don’t want to complain about a book so soon after my last less-than-great read, so I’m going to try to be nice, but I make no guarantees.

Maybe it’s because I had heard so many people loving on this book and my expectations were just too high? Or because I’ve read enough Jodi Picoult in my life that I expect more from my quasi-legal quasi-thrillers? From the beginning I felt like Landay was following the Picoult School of Controversy and Third Act Twists, but this book never quite made me say, “HOLY HECK.” To be fair, others in my book club reported saying such things and being amazed by the twists, so this is clearly all my fault!

The story has promise; a father lawyer picks up a murder case that involves his son’s classmate and after a bit of setting up the story it turns out that the best suspect for the crime is said son, Jacob, and so said lawyer decides to, you know, defend Jacob by a) getting him a good defense lawyer and b) finding out who really dunnit, because of course it was not Jacob.

I did like that story, for the most part. I liked the ambiguousness of whether the kid really did it or if it was perhaps another good candidate, and I liked watching the family react to their all-but-torches-and-pitchforks neighbors. I also liked the bits where tech-savvy kids rolled their eyes at the old fart lawyer dad and then turned around and posted terrible things on Facebook thinking they were private, because it was all so very true. Landay gets in a lot of good scenes like that, where I was like oh my gosh that would totally happen.

But my problems came from the other scenes, where I was like oh my gosh that would totally never happen, like certain bits of the arrest and the trial that just did not make sense from what little I know about the law and also common sense. I also had trouble with the characters themselves; I disliked every major character and many of the minor ones as well, not just because they were acting like terrible human beings but also because they were annoying while doing it. I found our protagonist to be overly repetitive and his kid to be obtuse to a degree that would be impossible to ignore except, apparently, if you’re his father.

I ears-read the first half of this novel, which may account for some of my annoyance with the characters since the narrator played them pretty whiny and angry. The second half was better characters-wise, but then it got into the trial and that was alternately boring and frustrating (especially when it ends), and then the story ended but there was still book left and I was like WILL IT NEVER END.

After talking it over with my book club, all of whom liked the book better than me, I have a better appreciation of certain bits of the novel that I misunderstood or that I wouldn’t have understood because I’m not a parent or a person who works with kids or generally the target audience for this book. I still didn’t like the book, but I get why other people do.

Recommendation: For those who like crime stories with lots of ambiguity and stories that don’t end like you think they might.

Rating: 5/10

Bookhunter, by Jason Shiga (20 June)

These graphic novel things are starting to grow on me. I don’t think I’m ready for any big-kid books, like Watchmen and the like, but I’m getting there!

So this is a nice, short, simple-drawing book about the library police. No, really. I saw this description of it while plowing through the Unshelved archives (excellent comic, p.s., you should also go plow through the archives), and I was, to say the least, intrigued. Library police? Concentric locked-room mysteries?? Library police??? How can I join?

And, happily, it was a good time. We get what seems to be a cold open with the library police tracking down a guy who is stealing all the copies of one particular book from the Oakland Public Library. Agent Bay and his team bust in and totally get the guy, but then we don’t care about him anymore and we move on to the main story. In this, there’s a Bible missing and the OPL needs Bay to recover it before it has to be returned to the Library of Congress. Only… it was stolen from a safe that has not been obviously cracked. And the book is only in the safe at night, but there’s also no sign that the thief broke into or out of the library. Which means the book must have left during the day, but without triggering the anti-theft alarms at the doors. An exhausting riddle!

Best of all, the book is set in 1973, so Bay solves the mystery with the help of microfilm and a giant card catalog. Can’t go wrong with that.

Rating: 8/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2007)

Minority Report, by Philip K. Dick (18 June)

I put this book on hold at the library a while ago when I realized I’d never actually read anything by Philip K. Dick. I figured a book of short stories would be a good start, but I managed to misread the record. (An aside: I would never do that now! My first library science class has taught me more than you ever wanted to know about every field in a catalog record, and I’ve only had eight hours of class so far.) I’m kind of glad I did — this may be just one story, but it’s presented as a top-bound notebook like those I used for reporting. I felt really cool sitting around flipping pages super-quickly for an hour, and you will, too!

Hanyway. I’ve not seen all of the movie version of this (just the beginning and the creepy part with the eyeball), but Scott says this book is nothing like it. John Anderton is the commissioner of the pre-crime unit, which, like other government departments, uses psychic “idiots” to see the future. People who are seen committing crimes — from felony to murder — are brought in and contained before they can do the deed. On the day when Anderton’s new assistant, whom Anderton is training to take over the department eventually, arrives, Anderton’s own name shows up on a punch card as the murderer of a guy he doesn’t even know. Anderton, thinking new guy is framing him, decides to undermine the system by running away and hiding for a week, but before he can he is kidnapped by the guy he’s meant to kill and has a reader-headache-inducing couple of days before figuring out the plot and making things right.

That’s right, headache-inducing. Dick doesn’t dick around (hah! I’m so witty) with much exposition past the idea of pre-crime; after spending a few pages on that suddenly Anderton is figuring out things left and right and is like, “This is the truth! No, this is, for some reason I may or may not tell you later!” and you’re like, “Buh?” and Dick’s like, “Hahahahaha.” Srsly. But in the end you sort of get it and then you write your congressperson a long letter against the use of mentally retarded people (no, really) as psychic crime-stoppers because it would confuse you. Or something.

Rating: 7/10

Woman With Birthmark, by Håkan Nesser (7 June — 8 June)

Finally, a great book! I’ve been lacking them for so long….

I read this mystery without even looking at the jacket flap and I’m very glad of it; the flap would certainly have ruined a few interesting developments for me. So: go read it. Now. If you need more convincing, read on.

Woman With Birthmark is a mystery novel in which we meet the murderer in the first chapter but have no idea who she is, why she’s doing it, or even whom she’s going to kill. A few chapters later, we meet a man called Ryszard Malik who has been receiving odd phone calls that are simply a song recording being played over and over. Malik thinks he recognizes the song, but doesn’t understand its significance until it’s too late — so late that his wife comes home one night to find him dead in the entryway with two gunshot wounds to the chest and two to the, ah, groin. The police are called in and they do their best to solve this odd, improbable murder, but of course can’t make any connections until another man is found dead.

This is a Swedish novel from about ten years ago recently translated to English, so I’m not sure how much I’m missing due to a lack of Swedish culture — if you’ve any insight, you should let me know.

Rating: 9/10
(Support Your Local Library Challenge, Orbis Terrarum Challenge: Sweden)