Book Review: “A Burglar’s Guide to the City,” by Geoff Manaugh

'A Burglar's Guide to the City,' by Geoff ManaughGeoff Manaugh’s A Burglar’s Guide to the City has at least one distinction setting it apart from nearly all non-fiction titles — especially when you set aside biographies and histories, which come with their own narrative lines: it’s in development as a fictional TV series. The appeal is obvious. Consider the elements which come into play:

  • “Hacking” buildings by any means necessary: tunneling, cutting through walls, punching out windows, stowing away in delivery vehicles,  simply talking your way in…
  • The lure of cleverly planned crimes committed against often cold if not outright evil institutions: banks, jewelry retailers, the homes of the wealthy…
  • Familiar cops-and-robbers scenarios, in which clever (or not so clever) criminals are matched against shrewd (or not so shrewd) detectives and street cops…
  • The excitement of chase scenes…
  • Precedents set by hundreds — maybe thousands — of popular, successful fictional precedents, from “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” to Oceans ElevenThe Anderson Tapes and The Thomas Crown Affair, the Thin Man series of films, the Leverage television series…
  • Settings around the world, the phrase “the city” of the title engagingly non-specific…

No, not surprising at all that it would attract screenwriters and producers. But lost in the likely rush of media attention is one important fact: this is a heck of a good book.

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Book Review: Night of the Animals, by Bill Broun

Cover: 'Night of the Animals,' by Bill BrounA couple reviews of Night of the Animals have alluded — unconvincingly, I think, despite superficial similarities — to Noah’s ark and/or more generally the Bible’s Book of Genesis.

Yes, it’s true: the novel’s mainspring is the saving of the world’s creatures; both the world’s destruction and its salvation are at stake. But if you hope and believe you’ll be getting a “retelling” of those Biblical stories, updated to a 21st-century landscape, you will be very surprised (maybe disappointed) by what you find in the book’s pages:

The genre, murky — a sort of near-future, dystopic science fiction/fantasy cast in prose perhaps a bit more “literary” than you’d expect; the time, about forty years from now, with numerous flashbacks to the 1960s; the setting, mostly London (and in the flashbacks, up in the Midlands region — the “waist” of the island). The dialogue is littered with dialect obscure enough to require clarifying footnotes.

But the biggest surprise among Night of the Animals’ conventional elements lies in its protagonist, Cuthbert Handley.

Sounds like the name of a stereotypically anal-retentive, mousey-in-stature librarian or clerk, eh? Maybe. But this Cuthbert Handley — well, no. He’s enormous in size, three (approaching four) hundred pounds of, well, fat. (Not that fat people cannot be heroes, but it defies convention.) He’s old (not that the aged cannot be heroes…): in a point in history where living to 120 years of age is common, Cuthbert himself is over 90, and held together not just by his own flesh and bones but by numerous artificial “BodyMods.” He belongs to a class referred to as the capital-I Indigent — all but homeless, rough-sleeping in parks and alleys, the lot.  Finally, he’s almost suicidally addicted to a hallucinogenic beverage called Flōt (not that penniless addicts cannot etc.); Flōt is apparently legal, and the book suggests that its use is both tacitly approved by the government and sneered at by the unaddicted upper class. (Not at all to suggest that they themselves don’t use it, but they — you know — have such better self-control, right?)

More deeply, Cuthbert lives in thrall to a specific childhood event: the drowning of his elder brother Drystan, while little Cuthbert could do nothing to save him. (Cuthbert himself nearly drowned in the same “adventure.”) Since Drystan’s body never turned up, Cuthbert has lived his entire life — while in a state of mental health declining to the point of near-madness — believing that Drystan never died: he was simply lost, waiting for Cuthbert to find him. Surely this is a delusion. Surely his Flōt addiction has compounded the problem.

That much is obvious to everyone Cuthbert has ever known, will ever know. And naturally, that much is obvious to the reader of Broun’s book…

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Book Review: Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book cover: 'Aurora,' by Kim Stanley RobinsonRecognize that book cover? No, I’m not referring to the whole thing — just to the idea: remind you of another science-fiction image of recent vintage?

I’ll tell you what it made me think of: this classic movie-poster shot, from Gravity. I’ve used a wallpaper-sized variant of that image as a computer desktop for several years now, which sharpens the point of the message: When you’re in space, you are really, really alone.

The main cast who populate the pages of Aurora aren’t quite as aware of their utter aloneness in space as viewers of that book cover are. True, they know they live in an interstellar spaceship, their mission’s purpose to populate a world beyond the solar system. They know the distance to their new home is vast — nearly eight light years — and the duration of their journey there likewise almost unimaginably long.

Oh, sure: how could they not know it, at least at an intellectual level? After all, when we first encounter these people, we’re seeing not the original passengers and crew, but their descendants six and seven generations removed: people who’ve never set foot on — or even seen — Earth. Their starship left the orbit of Saturn about one hundred sixty years ago. It takes only a single spacesuited trip out of an airlock — just a glance through a telescope — to tell them how isolated they are.

But the book-cover image of that starship deceives: the ship is big. I mean, forget Starship Enterprise-class big: really big. It consists of these main components:

  • The spine — that single central stem surrounded by the rings — is itself ten kilometers (six and a quarter miles) long.
  • The two outer rings: each torus-shaped outer ring (designated Ring A and Ring B) contains twelve “biomes” (about which, more shortly) — cylinders, each a kilometer in diameter and four kilometers long.
  • Six spokes connecting the spine to each ring: although their dimensions are is never specified, a seat-of-the-pants estimate would make the total diameter about eighteen to twenty kilometers. Thus, each spoke would be about nine to ten kilometers long (depending on various factors).
  • Two inner rings: these are purely structural in nature, serving to “lock” the outer rings to the spine.

Like I said: really big. And it’s populated not just by a couple hundred people, but by a couple thousand. On top of which are all the animals: Earth species which in some cases, yes, are raised as livestock, but in others are simply left feral. This ship is not just a starship; it’s an ark…

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Book Review: Mort(e), by Robert Repino

Cover: 'Mort(e),' by Robert RepinoStriking cover, wot? About which I’ll have more to say later, but for now you can already tell a few things about the book even if you haven’t read about it elsewhere:

  • You might wonder about the color, but clearly a cat — or at least catness in general — figures prominently herein.
  • The fonts are strikingly artificial. (Cutouts? Stencils?)
  • And although any old cover includes the book’s title, this cover practically fetishizes the title’s… well, the title’s novelty, its weirdness. It doesn’t just include but highlights the internal parentheses: it makes you notice them.

So let’s concede those details right up front (er, so to speak):

Yes, Mort(e) features a cat — not incidentally, but as its protagonist. The cat has chosen the name “Mort(e)” for himself, parentheses and all (right down to the human associations of morte-with-an-e, and mort-without-an-e). Which must imply that while the cat may be an animal, he’s probably not a natural animal. He is, in fact, something of a made creature…

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Book Review: Galore, by Michael Crummey

'Galore,' by Michael Crummey (cover)The bookish audience includes enough people, of sufficient diversity, that someone has surely been wondering, roughly, “Why don’t they ever publish any sweeping family epics anymore — spanning multiple generations, in some out-of-the-way location? The Australian outback, say? Or Mongolia, or the Argentine pampas? Or — heck, why not Newfoundland?!?”

I’ve never counted myself among the audience for that sort of fiction, so I’ve never asked a question like that — even rhetorically. Historical fiction proper? Oh, sure, that: I do like to read on occasion about a handful of characters in some (real or imagined) past time.

But big, sprawling family sagas too often seem (to me, from the outside) entirely too, well, Biblical. There’s a lot of begetting going on, of course — offstage if not on the page — so you’ve got a large cast of characters, and a lot of tangled relationships, and often big and actual historical events looping through and around all these private lives, and you’ve got to carry it all around in your head at once because at any given moment you may need to know that Daisy was Dorrie’s granddaughter — that’s Daisy, Doris’s daughter, the one married to Darryl, remember? the one with the misspelt tattoo reading “Darren” which was really awkward because Darren was actually her first and dearest (but now long deceased) love as opposed to Darryl, who was merely the most durable

So what, then, was I doing reading Michael Crummey’s Galore?

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Book Review: The Magicians, by Lev Grossman

'The Magicians,' by Lev Grossman (cover)I don’t know the process whereby Lev Grossman came to write the first of his trilogy, but I can imagine its developing something like this…

The germ of the story would be a what-if question an author might ask of himself, a rather involved question along these lines:

Stories centered around magic and fantasy lands are all so damned full of wonder: of the characters’ (sometimes just the reader’s) slack-jawed omigosh-so-utterly-amazing appreciation of the miraculous. Suppose such a book, with such a subject and setting, was populated instead by realistic, no, by out-and-out cynical characters: characters bored of magic, characters who sneer at the course of their lives which has led them to magic, characters — no matter how magically talented — who often out-and-out hate magic and refuse to use it? What would such a book be like? Hmm. Let me see…

The most direct route to an answer would start with the age of cynicism, “age” in the sense of both an historical era and a time of individual human lifespan. It would start, in short, with 21st-century American teenagers — even better, perhaps, teenagers from New York City (and specifically, best of all, from finger-snapping nasal-voweled Brooklyn).

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ADMIN (Sort of): Book Reviews on Goodreads

A few years ago, I posted a pretty good number of book reviews at a collaborative blog called The Book Book, curated by the blogger formerly (and probably forever) known as Moonrat. It was a pretty successful site in many ways — over 600 posts, spread over the five or six years of peak activity — and the quality of the reviews was about what you’d expect, given Moonrat’s professional standards. (She was/is an editor at a NYC publishing firm.)

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to be putting those reviews on Goodreads as well. I won’t be removing them from The Book Book — in fact, I’ll include a link to the original review in the version posted on Goodreads. But otherwise, the reviews (with possibly some minor changes) will be identical. My hope is that they’ll prove useful to a wider audience at Goodreads.

(And btw, yes: I’ve checked with Moonrat and with Goodreads to be sure this will be all right.)

Whenever I posted a Book Book review, I announced it with a post here. In some cases, the RAMH posts themselves might have included some useful extras (including comments from blog followers). In those cases, I’ll probably link from Goodreads to RAMH. But I’m not meaning at all for this as a “boost my stats” venture. (I don’t even look at stats anymore, although I guess they’re still out there somewhere.)

If you’ve been following RAMH, or The Book Book for that matter, you won’t find anything new in my Goodreads reviews unless and until I start posting honest-to-gods new reviews there more often. (Heh.)

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The Surface, Transcended

[Video: “Surface Tension,” an improvisation by pianist Eve Egoyan with artist David Rokeby. For more information, see the note at the foot of this post.]

From whiskey river (from which I could have quoted everything this week):

We inhabit a deeply imagined world that exists alongside the real physical world. Even the crudest utterance, or the simplest, contains the fundamental poetry by which we live. This mind fabric, woven of images and illusions, shields us. In a sense, or rather, in all senses, it’s a shock absorber. As harsh as life seems to us now, it would feel even worse — hopelessly, irredeemably harsh — if we didn’t veil it, order it, relate familiar things, create mental cushions. One of the most surprising facts about human beings is that we seem to require a poetic version of life. It’s not just that some of us enjoy reading or writing poetically, or that many people wax poetic in emotional situations, but that all human beings of all ages in all cultures all over the world automatically tell their story in a poetic way, using the elemental poetry concealed in everyday language to solve problems, communicate desires and needs, even talk to themselves. When people invent new words, they do so playfully, metaphorically — computers have viruses, one can surf the internet, a naive person is clueless. In time, people forget the etymology or choose to disregard it. We dine at chic restaurants from porcelain dinner plates without realizing that when the smooth, glistening porcelain was invented in France a long time ago, someone with a sense of humor thought it looked as smooth as the vulva of a pig, which is indeed what porcelain means. When we stand by our scruples, we don’t think of our feet, but the word comes from the Latin scrupulus, a tiny stone that was the smallest unit of weight. Thus a scrupulous person is so sensitive he’s irritated by the smallest stone in his shoe. For the most part, we are all unwitting poets.

(Diane Ackerman [source])

and (italicized portion):

The Greatest Grandeur
(excerpt)

But it is the dark emptiness contained
in every next moment that seems to me
the most singularly glorious gift,
that void which one is free to fill
with processions of men bearing burning
cedar knots or with parades of blue horses,
belled and ribboned and stepping sideways,
with tumbling white-faced mimes or companies
of black-robed choristers; to fill simply
with hammered silver teapots or kiln-dried
crockery, tangerine and almond custards,
polonaises, polkas, whittling sticks, wailing
walls; that space large enough to hold all
invented blasphemies and pieties, 10,000
definitions of god and more, never fully
filled, never.

(Pattiann Rogers [source])

and:

And so it happened again, the daily miracle whereby interiority opens out and brings to bloom the million-petalled flower of being here, in the world, with other people.

(Zadie Smith [source])

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Book Review: The Blue Jar, by Marta Pelrine-Bacon

Cover: 'The Blue Jar,' by Marta Pelrine-Bacon (electronic edition)[Note: please be sure to read the disclosure at the foot of this review.]

Marta Pelrine-Bacon is a fan of the old Twin Peaks TV series; she has actually named one of her several online abodes Searching for Agent Dale Cooper (the FBI agent in the series, played by Kyle Maclachlan). In the promotional copy for her debut novel, The Blue Jar, her publisher says:

Fans of the quirky and off-beat will love this atmospheric, psychological tale of revenge and obsession with its unexpected twists and turns. Lake Belle, reminiscent of Twin Peaks set in the deep American South, provides the atmospheric setting for this thrilling psycho-drama with its underlying theme of weird justice.  Is it magic? Or is something else at work?

All of which pretty much lays it out there for anyone else familiar with the program — or its reputation, for that matter: expect the off-center.

So, how off-center is it? Let’s see…

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Book Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

[Image: Big Top, a photograph (!) by user “*Trippy4U” at the deviantART site. More in the note
at the foot of this
(looooong) post.]

On the planet of Literature of the Fantastic (considered separately from its sister worlds, for horror and science fiction), you will find three major continents, inhabited (with a great deal of crossover) by generally three types of being.

You will find, for starters, the land of ancient and often supernatural beings: gods and lesser immortals of myth (dryads, cyclopes, and such); fairies, elves, pixies, and leprechauns; unicorns, dragons, and mermaids; any or all of the Four Horsemen (especially Death).

Across the ocean in one direction lies the land of latter-day heroics. (“Latter-day” refers to the time of this continent’s creation, although many of its denizens are centuries or even millennia of age.) Aside from humans, the most common inhabitants may be horses. Swords and other weapons are commonly brandished here, occasionally in the vicinity of immigrants and tourists from the first land, often in the direction of wild creatures invented specifically (because convenient) for the tale at hand: ents and orcs, sand worms, Frankenstein’s monster, the Jabberwock, blast-ended skrewts…

On the face of it, on the third continent we’d feel most at home. The populace here is all familiar to us, just from looking around at the (present or past) “real” world: donkeys and dogs and other domestic animals; lions and swans, friendly brontosauri; and, well, the people next door. But then we dig a little deeper and the “reality” drops away: the animals talk, not just among themselves but to us, they argue and scheme, some of them have jobs; and when we visit the people next door, we find them mixing potions in the kitchen, the surfaces of their bedroom furniture writhing with living ivy, their homes’ very walls sided not with vinyl or clapboard but with gingerbread and treacle.

Many of the Grimm “fairy” tales — which feature no fairies — fall into the latter category, and so do Aesop’s fables. Also here you’ll find whole shelves full of one-off, sui generis works with (nearly or in fact) no counterpart elsewhere.

And on one of those shelves, you’ll find Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus.

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