Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

Before the FallI was pretty interested in this book when I first heard about it, as it’s by Noah Hawley who is responsible for the excellent TV series Fargo (and the weird series Legion, but I watched that well after reading this book). The holds list was surprisingly long for what I thought was a fairly obscure book, so I decided to leave it alone and just grab my library’s copy when it finally came back for good.

And, honestly, that kind of sums up my feelings about this book. Pretty good, wouldn’t wait in a long line to read it.

I liked a lot of things about this book, and I think (for better or worse) that my favorite bit is the premise. A private jet crashes on the way from Martha’s Vineyard to the mainland and two people survive — the young son of a fabulously wealthy Rupert Murdoch type, and some random dude who was invited by the Murdoch type’s wife to join them. These two are left to grapple with life after a harrowing incident that is compounded by the kid’s dad’s celebrity. How did this happen? Does it have to do with [insert scandal here]? Who’s this schmuck who just so happened to save this kid’s life? INQUIRING MINDS WANT TO KNOW AND WE WONT STOP ASKING ‘TIL YOU TELL US. That sort of thing.

And for that, the book does take an interesting look at the world of pundit-based news and the 24-hour news cycle and the public’s seemingly unending need to know things that literally no one actually wants to know. This is where the book is very good.

The other part, the part with the answering of the questions… it’s all right. I like the way Hawley looks through all of the characters’ points of view, even the ones who end up dead, and connects all their lives together to get them on the plane. But, and this is kind of a spoiler, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph, he spends all this time building up the characters and their backstories and then the big whodunit reveal is not any of those people we’ve spent time getting to know. I mean, I’m glad none of them are plane crash causers, but… seriously?

My other problem with the book, and I will grant that others probably see this as a benefit, is that the book is written very visually. You could copy and paste most of this book straight into a film script with no problems. It’s kind of cool in small doses — I did enjoy a scene in which a dude in the bathroom uses the soap dispenser (hand dryer? Something like that) — but after a while I was like, come on dude, let’s just get on with the story!

But let me be clear that overall I quite enjoyed this book. The writing is great, the characters are interesting, and Hawley knows how to keep you turning pages. It just, for me, had just enough issues to leave me wanting to have read something very slightly different.

Recommendation: If you like Hawley’s stuff, you’ll certainly like this. Unless you only like Legion. This is nothing like Legion.

The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri

The NamesakeMy library picked this book for their Big Read title this year, and so of course I picked it for my library book club to read and talk all about!

The discussion turned out kind of awkward, as only two people (neither of them regulars!) came, and one hadn’t read past maybe page ten, but the book itself was pretty darn good and I think had more people come it would have been a decent discussion as well.

The Namesake takes place over about 30 years, following the lives of a Bengali family from Calcutta to Boston to New York and beyond. The three main characters are Ashima, a woman who finds herself in an arranged marriage that will take her from her Calcutta home to far-off Boston but strives to make the best of it; Ashoke, the man Ashima marries who is very happy to be so far from home and who once very nearly died in a train accident; and (mostly) Gogol, their son, who gets his weird name from the author of the book his dad was reading at the time of the accident and who spends all of his life trying to reconcile his Bengali roots and his American upbringing, with more or less predictable results.

“Predictable results?” I hear you saying. “I thought you said this book was pretty darn good.”

Well, yes. The plot, what little there is, is pretty standard. Immigrant parents have American kid, he rebels against his parents’ values and goals for him, he has a series of relationships (some ill-advised), at the end of the book he has more respect for his parents and their lives than he previously had.

But! The characters are super interesting, Gogol foremost to me because he follows a similar path with his name as I did, shunning the name he grew up with to choose his own name and create his own identity. I was going to say I never went so far as to legally change my name and then I remembered that in fact, I got married and changed my last name, so. I am fully on board with the story of how a person’s name impacts their life.

And it’s a fascinating topic in this book, especially, as Gogol’s name comes out of a Bengali naming tradition that I can’t quite wrap my head around, which is that a person gets a “good name”, like Ashima, to put on birth certificates and passports and school papers and whatnot, and a “pet name”, like Monu, that everyone who actually knows you calls you. In this book, Gogol is meant to be a pet name, but Gogol’s parents take too long coming up with an acceptable good name and they, and he, end up stuck with this one, at least until Gogol turns 18 and can fix it himself.

But back to the characters — I love Gogol’s parents, too, who could easily have been left out in favor of Gogol’s story, but whom we see adapting in their own ways to American life and carving out a semblance of home with the apparently fairly large Bengali community in eastern Massachusetts. Ashoke’s train accident story and his reticence to share it with his son rings very true, as does Ashima’s propensity for feeding too much food to family, friends, and strangers.

Also delightful is Lahiri’s writing, which isn’t beautiful in the “here, look at this particular sentence and adore it” sort of way, but which, when all those sentences combine, is a subtly descriptive and engaging sort of writing that I just fall for every time. If Lahiri’s writing were a voice, I would probably listen to that voice read the phone book, as they say. Is there a better analogy for that? I bet there is, and I bet Lahiri could tell me what it is.

I’d read and loved Lahiri’s story “Interpreter of Maladies” in some collection I can’t even remember ages and ages ago, but somehow never read any more of her work until this book. This vast oversight is going on my “Vast Oversights to Rectify in the Soon-Time” list, for sure.

Recommendation: To read when you’re looking for a quiet family story, or if you want to think to hard about what life would be like if your parents had just named you something different.

The Boy Next Door, by Meg Cabot

The Boy Next DoorStop number two on my quest to find an adorable Attachments-like romance novel! This one was recommended by a friend based on the fact that it is told entirely in emails, which make up a large portion of Attachments as well, and probably also based on the fact that it’s super sarcastic. I gave it a shot on a lazy mid-week day off, and ended up devouring it in one sitting.

This is one of those perfect, brain-candy, let’s-not-think-too-hard-today books, which I highly recommend for a lazy mid-week day off. It is highly implausible and ridiculous, but in a delightful way.

Here’s the story: our protagonist, Mel, is a gossip columnist for a New York City newspaper (think Post rather than Times) who is late to work one day because she finds her next-door neighbor nearly dead in her apartment. Mel is primarily concerned with making sure her neighbor’s pets are taken care of, so she shoots off an email to her neighbor’s only known relative, a nephew called Max Friedlander who is a quasi-famous photographer. Said photographer, however, is in the midst of an eyebrow-waggling vacation with a super-hot model, so he enlists his favor-owing friend John to go watch the pets, and more importantly pretend to be Max so that when Aunt Helen wakes up she won’t disinherit her nephew for being the ass that he actually is.

But I said this is a romance novel, right, so of course as soon as John arrives on the scene he knows that Mel is the girl for him and can’t hold off until the charade is over to begin wooing her. He’s not sure how long he can keep up the deception, since not only is he, you know, not Max Friedlander, he’s also a journalist for Mel’s paper’s biggest competitor and also also a member of the Trent family, who are big enough in society that a gossip columnist just might run into them…

Crazy, right? And super snark-tastic, since it is told in emails largely sent between friends and relatives who all have a similar dry sense of humor. But it’s also super adorable, as John and Mel are in fact perfect for each other (they love blues music and natural disasters alike) and they are sooooo cute and you know the whole thing’s going to come crashing down but you’re pretty sure it’s going to be okay but you don’t know how. Ahem.

I only had one problem with this book, and I know I said it’s a don’t-think-too-hard book and I know I was totally willing to go with the identity-switching and I understand that the book was written in 2002, but seriously, these people are terrible at email! They are constantly signing off emails abruptly as though they were telephone calls, as though they couldn’t leave their AOL open for just a few extra minutes to go answer the door or whatever when other emails to them indicate that they are happy to tie up the phone line for ages otherwise. And, worse, they are sending all of their ridiculousness through their work emails (well, John partially excepted) like people who want to get fired. At one point a police officer sends John totally confidential files and warns John not to tell anyone he sent them. SO WHY DID YOU SEND A WRITTEN RECORD OMGWTF. I don’t know, maybe all this made sense in 2002 when I was mostly using my email to send out surveys to my high-school friends, but now that my own work emails are public record I am hyperventilating over here.

Right, so, anyway, other than that longer-than-expected rant, I super duper enjoyed this book. And it’s the start of a series full of snarky email exchanges! Huzzah!

Recommendation: For fans of epistolary novels, wacky misunderstandings, and relationships based entirely on lies.

Rating: 9/10

Weekend Shorts: Saga and Hawkeye

Saga, Vol. 4, by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Saga, Vol. 4This comic, guys. It’s sooooo good. If you’re not reading it, you’re missing out. In this volume, it seems we’ve skipped a bit forward in time — Hazel is a toddler, ex-slave Sophie is a hipster tween, and Prince Robot’s baby is born in a graphic and very human way on the very first page. Good morning! We get to see our favorite fugitive family having a bit of downtime on a planet called Gardenia, where Marko plays stay-at-home dad while Alana plays a… um… I don’t even know. While Alana makes money acting on a very telenovela-ish broadcast thing while wearing awkwardly sexy outfits. As you do? Anyway, this leads to some marital tensions that almost turn really really terrible, but instead only turn pretty darn terrible at the end.

Meanwhile, there is a single commoner staging an uprising on the Robot Kingdom, stealing a royal baby and running off to Gardenia for broadcasting purposes; Prince Robot coming out of his stupor to hunt down his kidnapped baby; Gwendolyn, Sophie, and Lying Cat on a heist; and a brief but delightful cameo from my favorite tabloid reporter couple. Such excitement!

Hawkeye, Vol. 2: “Little Hits”, by Matt Fraction and David Aja
Hawkeye, Vol. 2Hey, remember when I read the last volume and I was totally baffled the entire time? Yeah, that doesn’t change. I was prepared this time, but this is definitely still a thinky book (which is probably why they’re ending it soon) that requires a lot of concentration.

The first issue (#7) is pretty straightforward — Hawkeye (Clint) helps one of his tenants/neighbors take care of his dad out in Far Rockaway during the storm of the century while Hawkeye (Kate) goes to an expectedly disastrous engagement party in Atlantic City during same said storm. But then things go back to confusing normal in the second issue (#6, just for funsies), in which we see six days in the life of Hawkeye, shuffled up and requiring the use of clocks to help you figure out the timeline. Oh, good. The next issue (#8, and back to a normal order) details how gingers are terrible for Clint’s well-being, from Clint’s point of view, and the one after that details how gingers are terrible for Clint’s well-being from the points of view of the dangerous women in his life. Then there’s a Kate issue introducing a bad guy who is also apparently a clown, and then to cap it off there is the absolute best issue ever, starring Pizza Dog!

Like, no, seriously, this thing is amazing. Pizza Dog is the dog Hawkeye rescued from some bad guys, and this whole issue is from his point of view, so there’s not much dialogue except for what the dog presumably understands. Mostly it’s just page after page of Pizza Dog wandering around, recognizing people by how they smell and noting what things are related to them, and then also stumbling upon a murder scene, flirting with a neighbor dog, attacking bad guys, escaping bad guys, and leaving one Hawkeye to adventure with another. This is probably my second-favorite single issue after the choose-your-own adventure in The Unwritten. I am intrigued to see what Fraction and Aja can do to top this.

The Lost Boys Symphony, by Mark Andrew Ferguson

The Lost Boys SymphonyIt’s apparently the time of year for me to read weird books. Sex strikes, cocaine as a narrator, odd people hanging out in hotels…. But where those books were weird in a “What the heck is going on?” way, this book is weird in a “My brain is broken and I don’t have enough duct tape to fix it right now” sort of way, largely because time travel.

And it’s the most brain-breaking-est kind of time travel, too, where people change history and then remember new memories but also old memories and are still hanging out wherever they were when they changed history regardless of the fact that they CHANGED HISTORY and shouldn’t be there anymore! It’s not Looper levels of ridiculous with severed limbs or anything, but it comes pretty close.

Okay, so, the story. There’s this dude, Henry (the best time traveller name?), and he’s a super percussionist, awesome boyfriend to Val, and best of best friends to Gabe. However, he’s got some mental issues, and at the beginning of the story he is escaping his mother’s house and the imaginary cacophony that surrounds him there to hike across the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan and get back together with Val, who recently left him for a new life. Halfway across the bridge, he is overcome by the bridge’s music (again, imaginary) and collapses, waking up some time later in a strange place with two strange but eerily familiar people watching over him.

Turns out those dudes are the Henrys 80 and 41 (as they call themselves), and they have figured out how to use the crazy bridge music to time travel (as you do) and they have come to talk to 19 and see if he can’t fix their lives that have not gone quite the way they want them to. Henry 19 is really unclear about how and why they’ve come to him and what he can do to help, and as the story goes along he comes to find that maybe 80 and 41 aren’t any more clear than he is on that score.

When I started reading this book, I thought it was going to be a more or less straightforward (for a time travel book, anyway) guy-gets-girl book, with Henry chasing the elusive Val across time and space so that they can be together forever in all timelines or whatever. But it’s so much more complicated than that. Staying true to the time-bending conceit, the chapters go back and forth between times and characters, chronicling the three friends mostly in the time of 19 but also going back to high school and forward to 41’s time. We find out how the time travel got started and we see how it is way less useful than anyone ever thinks it is as things go wrong and are corrected and then go wrong again. And then meanwhile to the whole Henrys thing, we see Gabe and Val taking in 19’s disappearance and changing their relationship in a way that threatens to be pretty disastrous to all Henrys involved.

I love the way that Ferguson played with time and narrative, doling out important bits slowly across all timelines until they finally made sense. I also love that Val, who could easily have gone Manic Pixie Dream Girl, got to be a real live human with thoughts and problems of her own. The ending of the book left a little bit to be desired, resolution-wise, which if I’m saying that means it’s seriously a thing, and the very end is just too simple for my tastes, but on the plus side I’ll be thinking about what happened (and what might have happened) for days. This is an amazing first book and I will definitely be looking for more from Ferguson.

Recommendation: For people whose brains are extra-strong and those who love a good time travel yarn.

Rating: 9/10

Firefight, by Brandon Sanderson

FirefightMy reaction upon getting the email from my library that my hold on Firefight had finally come in: “WOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

But of course, I was in the middle of another book, so Scott got to read it first, and when he stayed up way too late two nights in a row reading it I knew it was going to be good. When it was finally my turn to read it, I finished it in an afternoon (I might read just a touch faster than my husband does).

And it’s pretty dang good, guys. Not as great as Steelheart, but I’ve read enough series to know not to expect equal greatness from sequels. But if you’re looking for the action, intensity, and amusingly awful metaphors of the first book, Firefight does not disappoint.

In this go, we are in a post-Steelheart Newcago, where the Reckoners are working to protect the city from harm. Unfortunately, a bunch of non-Newcago-an Epics keep showing up and trying to kill off the Reckoners, and it soon becomes clear that they are being sent by somebody. That somebody is Regalia, the Epic running the waterlogged city of Babilar, formerly known as Manhattan. Our metaphor-challenged hero, David, travels to Babilar with Jon Phaedrus, the Reckoner leader, secret Epic, and former friend of Regalia, to see what’s up and what they can do about it. But David’s not really on board with the mission — he’s more interested in figuring out a way to keep former Reckoner, formerly secret Epic, and crush-object Megan/Firefight from becoming the kind of evil Epic that all Epics seem to eventually become.

Soooo there’s more of that gross swoony love stuff than I would particularly prefer, but it’s actually pretty well integrated into the regular storyline so I can forgive it. Sanderson does a great job breaking out the world-building again for Babilar, a city supernaturally covered in water and somehow growing phosphorescent plants inside the abandoned buildings, including some trees that grow fortune cookies for reasons that are actually pretty cool. And he brings in more backstory to the world as a whole, explaining more about how the Epics came to be and the source of their powers and weaknesses. Sanderson also breaks out my two favorite things, suspense and intrigue, as the various players in this story maneuver against each other in ways I wasn’t always suspecting, with real motives only realized at the last second or sometimes even later.

It’s not a perfect book, but it’s super entertaining and my only regret is that I have to wait until “Spring 2016” (according to the end of the book) to find out how it ends! I will keep my fingers crossed for another Mitosis-style ebook to tide me over.

Recommendation: For lovers of Sanderson, Steelheart, superpowers, suspense, other things that start with s…

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts: X-Men and Watson and Holmes

It’s comics time! I’m still sloooowly making my way through those back issues of X-Men and I’ve got a new take on my old friend Sherlock Holmes. What are you reading?

X-Men #8, by Brian Wood
X-Men #8Back to these crazy hijinks! There’s a break-in at the Jean Grey School, and one of the vaguely ethnic and also telepathic X-Men chases the intruder down but fails to catch her. Said intruder, our pin-up from last issue, makes off with a box of apparently Everything, including a live sample of our friend Arkea from the first story arc. Turns out our villains are super interested in Arkea and her powers, enough that they’re willing to venture to BFE Norway and team up with some other character I don’t know anything about (Enchantress, apparently a foe of Thor?) to get said powers. Meanwhile, lesbian subplot? I don’t even know. How many more issues until I can quit this thing?

Watson and Holmes, Vol. 1, by Karl Bollers and Rick Leonardi
Watson and Holmes, Vol. 1I am a sucker for a lot of things Holmes-related, and this modern-day story wherein both Watson and Holmes are black dudes in Harlem seemed like a pretty easy way to up those diverse reading numbers while not having to stray far from my comfort zone. But in a strange turn of events, I found myself a little frustrated when things from the Sherlock canon made their way into the narrative.

That seems unfair, probably, but really it’s a testament to how engaging the story was that every time something Sherlock came into it — Afghanistan, 221B Baker Street, Irregulars, Mycroft the gourmand — I was like, yes, yes, I get it, this is a Sherlock Holmes story. A little detail here and there, sure (I mean, really, where else is Sherlock going to live?), but I think the author could have trusted his characters and us as readers just a little bit more.

In this version, Watson is drawn in by the case of a kidnapped girl and sticks around after solving that one to find the fellows who had held her captive and who subsequently started murdering other people, as you do. There’s the requisite hyper-observation on Holmes’s part, as well as the disdain of of the police (led by Leslie Stroud, what what), but there’s also a surprising amount of gunplay and action sequences. This Holmes puts practice with his theory, and I like that a lot.

I wish it were a super lot, but the clunky references were bad and the penchant for bolding seemingly random words (my absolute least favorite thing in comics) kept it from making that leap. But it’s got a good story and strong characters and I have faith it will hit its stride as the series continues. I will definitely be picking up the next volume when it comes out.