Monday, June 30, 2014

Book Review: "Electric City" by Elizabeth Rosner

Novels regardless of genre are usually centered around a few different things: characters and their development, a particular plot line, or a certain style of narrative. Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner contains a wonderful variety of characters and a compelling human story, but the true center of the book is a place: Electric City in upstate New York. It's the place where Tomas Edison built his factories in the late 1800's, building a community full of ambition and inspiration. This city and its promise of a better future are what brought Charles Steimetz to America. There he and his scientific mind became a part of the city's storied history. The year was 1919.

Fifty years later, the city is still standing. But times have changed and with them the challenges that Electric City faces. These struggles are represented by three teenage friends: Henry, the son of a prominent Dutch family, the perfect ideal of America's golden boy; Sophie, the daughter of Jewish immigrants, caught straddling the line between her parents' tradition and the new, rapidly changing society around her; and Martin, a member of the Mohawk tribe and grandson of Joseph Longboat, Charles Steimetz's best friend. Each of these characters has a strong connection with Steimetz, although they may be unaware of it or don't think much of it. But these connections, and Electric City itself, are the heart of the story.

Themes of cycles, like the life of a city or the journey of a family, are very prevalent throughout the book. These dovetail  nicely with ruminations on "progress," how it's impacted Electric City over the years as well as the environment, ethnic identity, political attitudes and family relations. Although Henry, Sophie and Martin come from very diverse backgrounds, they are all caught up in the same movement of the world around them. It impacts who they are, how they see themselves, and how they fit into the world with each other and as individuals.

I find it very difficult to define a central conflict in this book, since it deals with the ebb and flow of the life of Electric City and the lives of the people who live there. But that doesn't mean that it wasn't an engaging story. Quite the opposite, in fact. The different ways that Henry, Sophie and Martin developed as people, and seeing how their struggles mirrored some of the thoughts that Steimitz had in the same place years before them, kept me curious about how they'd come through their individual struggles, and who they would become. Would they remain close? What would ultimately decide where they went in life, and how would Electric City help to determine that outcome?

Rosner conveys the characters and their feelings with a lyrical prose that went well with the poetic depiction of the cycles of a city, the cycles of human relationships, and the changes that take place in self-perception among the characters. To me, the flow of words blended with the flow of time in the story, carrying me along on a steady stream that was removed from but still very close to the protagonists.

If you enjoyed the writing style in Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, or are interested in scientific historical fiction, add Electric City by Elizabeth Rosner to your To-Read list. It's scheduled to be released on October 14th of this year, and is available for pre-order now at your favorite neighborhood indie bookstore.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Book Dedications

If you've ever undertaken a writing project, odds are that you've considered at least briefly to whom you would dedicate your finished work. Family members are always a popular choice, as are mentors. Some choose to dedicate their work to a best friend, or to someone who's passed away. And if you're like me, the excitement of the choice can sometimes get in the way of writing the story itself! If you're looking for a more nontraditional dedication for your latest literary work of art, check out these unusual book dedications. They range from the sweet to the slightly mad, and any one of them could spark the perfect idea for your own book dedication.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Book Review: "The Summer Prince" by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Part of the beauty of SpecFic is that cultures and whole civilizations can take whatever shape the author can dream up. From moon colonies to microscopic universes, writers can build up their worlds into an infinite number of stages on which their stories can unfold. Alaya Dawn Johnson took the idea of a postapocalyptic world and centered it in a vertical, futuristic city heavily influenced by Brazilian culture in her novel The Summer Prince.

June lives in Palmares Tres, the ten-tiered city that sparkles on the ocean like a gem. In a world where post-nuclear Earth struggles to survive, the city has grown to thrive by rejecting new technologies in favor of a complicate - and bloody - system of governance. Once every five years, a Summer King is elected and then after a year-long reign, he is killed in front of the entire population. As he dies, he declares his choice of who will be the new queen. The fact of his death is what gives his choice weight.

When June and her best friend Gil find themselves close to the new Summer King, Enki, their lives take an unexpected turn together. The whole city is in love with Enki, despite or maybe because he's going to die. But June and Gil may be the only ones who know Enki as a person, as more than just the figure of a Summer King. Together they'll find beauty in art, in each other, and even in the city that is determined to take Enki's life.

The Bohemian ideal that June, Gil and Enki represent is tempered by questions about social class, technological advancement and age gap between younger and older generations. Art served as a great way to unify the entire city, through the projects that June and her friends contrive together. Sometimes it was a little bit confusing, not knowing what the central conflict of the plot was, but the issues blended together to give the reader a clear, beautiful image of the potential of the city, and of Enki as a person.

With so much of not just the story but the world based around the system of elections and sacrifices and transference of power, I was disappointed that the whole process wasn't explained more clearly. The system of what power changes hands between the king and the queen and when is implied but not laid out explicitly. I felt like this made it harder for me to appreciate Enki's situation and the significance of his act at the end of the story.

I greatly enjoyed the way that the author treated sexuality in this book as well, especially given the age of his main protagonists. June was attracted to men, but other characters pursue relationships with people of the same gender for everything from casual encounters to long-term committed relationships and marriage. But to me the best part wasn't just in the broad representation; it was in the approach. There was no sense of a scandal or anything forbidden about it, just people with feelings for each other. The openness was a great breath of fresh air.

If you want a touching story of love and the struggle to be yourself in a world that won't take you seriously, consider picking up a copy of The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson. It addresses unanswerable questions about the confluence of technology and humanity by contrasting mechanical advancements and arts, and presents a lovely story in a future world. It's available right now at your favorite locally-owned bookstore.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Father's Day

When my father died, he left me books. Not just physical compilations of paper and ink (my childhood copy of The Jungle Book; his college textbooks on Chaucer; a loveworn hardback of Dragonsdawn), but books as objects, as a collective idea. I credit my father, a lifelong bibliophile, with teaching me much of what I know about loving and appreciating the treasures that are books. And, lo and behold, here I am a bookseller.
I dearly hope that everyone reading this has at least one fond memory of reading with your parent or child. Maybe you sprawled together on a blanket in the park, taking turns reading a Dr. Seuss book and laughing at the zany creatures he invented. Or maybe you sat in companionable silence across the kitchen table from one another with your Tom Clancy and your Tolkien, respectively, and were content to share the solitude of deep literary immersion. Every night before bed, did you curl up together to read another chapter of a Brian Jacques novel? Did you both watch as tales of adventure unfolded on the vast canvas of your imagination, transmitted through the funny little marks and squiggles stamped precisely in their neat rows on the pages?

The gifts of reading together as father (or parent) and child don't stop with memories though. Instead, those memories serve to inspire even more treasured associations between everyday life and reading. The smell of an old tome can make you instantly remember the clothbound copy of The Mark of Zorro that you once read together, or a paper cut could bring you back to a day of sorting through piles and piles of books at a flea market. Your best reading memories build on one another to create an entire mindset that ties your every day to the moments you've had with books and loved ones. It becomes an amorphous cocoon of contentment, something subtle but present and utterly irrevocable.

Every time you crack open a book, you're doing it with the parent who first taught you to love literature. And every time you run your finger along the spines of volumes lined up meticulously on a bookshelf, they're browsing there with you, looking for your next favorite book. Every page you read, you share together, no matter how far apart you are. It's one of the most enduring gifts imaginable.

This Father's Day and every day, celebrate each other with a shared love of reading. Try something that will make you giggle. Something that will make you think. Anything will do, so long as you read it together. Try a comic book, like Calvin and Hobbes, if you don't know where else to start. Recommend something to each other over the phone, if you can't be together. Re-read an old favorite, in memoriam. Whatever you choose to begin with, know that it's the start of something beautiful, something that can be passed down through the generations like an heirloom, outliving you both and growing deeper with every turned page. It's a true legacy. It's parenthood, it's books, and it's waiting to be shared. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Book Review: "City of Stairs" by Robert Jackson Bennett

Fiction, despite the fact that it is by definition not real, has the power to comment on our society. Sometimes it's even more effective to use imaginary worlds and people to do this, since the author can bend and twist the actions and outcomes that take place in the book specifically to make his or her own point clear. City of Stairs, the latest from author Robert Jackson Bennett, contains a number of fantastic twists and turns that will keep you reading late into the night.

Shara is content with a life of quiet political intrigue, working behind the scenes and in the shadows for the benefit of her island country Saypur. She and her hulking bodyguard of a "secretary" Sigurd oversee much of the sociopolitical theater on the Continent, which used to rule Saypur. That was before Shara's ancestor led an uprising that ultimately resulted in the deaths of the Continent's gods and Saypur's dominance. When a Saypuri historian, Shara's old friend, is killed in the Continent's capitol city while researching the Divine history that is forbidden knowledge to Continentals, Shara finds that his death may have much larger implications than Continental rebellion. For one, Shara suspects that the gods might not really be dead after all, and their return could spell the end for Saypur.

As she digs deeper into the revolutionary rumblings of the Continent, Shara realizes that she can trust neither her manipulative aunt in the Saypuri government, nor her former lover, a prominent Continental. She may even lose Sigurd, and she doubts her own mind more and more as she finally uncovers what her historian friend was killed to protect.

This is a very cerebral tale, full of intellectual and philosophical acrobatics as much as it is assassinations and sea monsters. Shara is very clever and hyperaware of balances of power, a lesson that she learned the hard way early on in her career, but still human enough to show flaws and follies. These imperfections and self-doubt are much of what causes her to question herself, even when she seems to be on the right track toward unraveling the mystery of what's happening in the Continent's capitol city.

Bennett has created a subtle and complex mythology in this novel, one built on subjective realities and relative perceptions. The gods he's dreamed up are archetypal: the trickster, the law-bringer, the earth spirit, etc. But the ways in which these different deities interact with their followers is what, to my mind, makes them interesting. Even the legends about their deeds and origins are beautiful and imaginative, but would also sound right at home in a world mythology textbook despite the fact that they're entirely fictional.

While I very much enjoyed and admired the ways in which the author wove intricate patterns of political power and subterfuge into the story, throughout the book I felt disconnected somehow from the characters. It was almost as though they were half-empty vessels whose only function was to move forward the greater scheme of global and divine power, instead of participating in their own story. That sounds harsh, and I don't mean to say that I felt nothing for them at at all. Shara's weakness, Mulaghesh's weary determination, Sigurd's calculated indifference and Vol's misguidance all had their effects on me, but they somehow felt half-finished. It's my opinion that were their individual backstories more fleshed out (like the scandal that Shara caused years earlier in Saypur, or Sigurd's story of regime change in his homeland) and related in greater detail, the characters could become more dynamic in their own right.

If you appreciate intricate world-building and politics that are deeply influenced by gods and goddesses, and are ready to join characters on a journey that will turn their worldview upside down, settle down with a copy of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett. Fans of how divinities are portrayed in Neil Gaiman's American Gods will especially enjoy the pantheon at play here. City of Stairs will be released in September, and you can pre-order it now. While you're waiting, you could also pick up one of Bennett's other novels. They, and City of Stairs, are available through your local independent bookstore.

Monday, June 9, 2014

World's Most Amazing Bookstores

cafebreria el pendulo bookstore

What do you look for in an ideal vacation spot? Sand, sun and relaxation? New experiences and the opportunity for adventure? Or, perhaps you prioritize visiting some of the world's most amazing bookstores?

If you'd like to add the joy of exploring some of the world's greatest book shops to your vacation plans, check out Business Insider's list of book stores you can't afford to miss. The list encompasses bastions of the written word all over the United States, as well as internationally. (Shakespeare and Company in Paris, France is on my personal Bucket list.) Some of them are known for their literary collections, some for specialized themes or genres, and still others are located in buildings that are just too beautiful to ignore. All of them symbolize the universal love of books that is shared by so many bibliophiles all over the world. So the next time you're exploring a new city, take the time to pop into a local bookstore like these and find a literary treasure to bring home with you!

Friday, June 6, 2014

Book Review: "I Am The Messenger" by Markus Zusak

Many of us know the name Markus Zusak because he's the author of The Book Thief, which remains one of my favorite reads to this day. But he's also written Getting the GirlUnderdogs and I Am The Messenger, which I picked up half out of curiosity, half out of nostalgia when the movie release of The Book Thief catapulted the book once again into the bestsellers.

Ed Kennedy is an underage cab driver living in the same rundown little town he's always inhabited. His life consists of playing cards with his three best friends, Marv, Ritchie and Audrey, and waiting for his dog the Doorman to die. It's not a very satisfying existence, but it's not too demanding either, so Ed sees no reason to do anything about it until one day he accidentally stops a bank robbery. The next thing he knows, Ed is receiving playing card aces in the mail with strange and troubling assignments on them. Each suite will test a different part of his character, force him to re-evaluate something about his life, until he can complete all four aces and finally find out who's behind these bizarre tasks.

For those of you who were hoping for another Book Thief-type tale of wartime love and suffering, I'm sorry to disappoint. But let me reassure you that the beautiful prose that shines in that novel also appears in I Am The Messenger. The sharp, visceral images that the author uses to communicate feelings or thoughts are staggering, and he uses them to communicate more clearly to the reader not only what Ed thinks and sees in the world around him, but how he actually perceives it. One of my favorite examples of this is Ed's relationship with his dog, the Doorman. He's an old, smelly dog who spends most of his time as a doorstop (hence his name), but Zusak gives him a distinct personality by telling us what Ed can see the Doorman thinking in his looks and his behaviors. Ed's interpretation of the Doorman's expressions and actions in italics, and anyone who has had a special pet in their life will recognize the wonderfully portrayed idea of communication between cross-species best friends.

Ed's journey through his different tasks is varied, each ace thematically different but all of them bringing Ed into contact with different sorts of people, all of whom need different things from him. It becomes clear that Ed's function is to care, that he is to be a messenger of interest and concern to his fellow human beings, but the reason why he was chosen, and why the subjects of his missions were chosen, remains unclear throughout the story. I admit that at the end when I found out what the mystery was all about, I was disappointed. It was clear to me that the intended message was that anyone can make a difference, that nobody's life is meaningless, but to my mind the symbology of the end indicated the opposite: that there wasn't necessarily any meaning in any of it. That didn't detract from the tasks that got Ed through though, and how they each influenced him, changed him into a new person.

I did have difficulty finding out exactly where the story was taking place, between the well-written vernacular and the terminology for things like French fries ("chips") and the foul language that gets tossed around by Ed and his friends. Eventually I settled on somewhere in Australia. Mentioning where they were would have allowed me to focus more on the puzzles of Ed's tasks, instead of always wondering in the back of my mind, "where IS he?" But the easygoing relationships that exist between Ed, Marv, Ritchie and Audrey, and the ways in which they change as Ed grows, are universal among young people.

I Am The Messenger is a strange and wonderful story about confronting stagnation in a person's life, about ripping open old wounds so that they can heal properly, and about forcing yourself to change things if you're not happy, because you do have the potential to be more. I would especially recommend this as a good read for male readers who like the idea of John Green's books but think they're a little too "girly." This and other Markus Zusak books are available at this very moment at your favorite local, independent bookstore. Stop in and pick one up on your way outside to read in the sunshine!