Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Book Review: "Shovel Ready" by Adam Sternbergh

Novels based on alternate histories or that take place on different versions of earth can have advantages for both readers and authors. For example, writers can choose to use certain aspects of the world as we know it for a base, saving them from having to create an entirely new world. Readers then, already familiar with the story's surroundings, can focus on the details are unique to the author's particular version of society and the story that arises from it. 

Adam Sternbergh's vision of New York in Shovel Ready is a far cry from the bustling center of commerce and culture with which many of us are familiar. It's all thanks to a dirty bomb in Times Square a few years ago, a bomb that eventually drove away the swarms of tourists and regular folks and sent the rich upper crust into secluded half-lives in their condos. The everyman moved to California, to Florida, to wherever they could find where life didn't involve wearing a radiation detector around your neck like a fashion device. People rich enough to escape into high-class seclusion plugged themselves into the virtual reality of the limnosphere, leaving their bodies attached to feeding tubes and brain scanners in their empty, high-class homes. Thankfully Mr. Spademan, our protagonist, has taken on a profession that's always in demand; murder for hire. 

Aside from not killing children and not wanting to know your reasons, Spademan has very few rules. As far as he's concerned, there are plenty of ways to kill someone if you really want to. He's just another one of them, a tool. But he's forced to reconsider his passive self-image when he's engaged to kill a runaway 18-year-old with connections to a powerful megachurch. Thankfully Spademan has the requisite tools and connections to navigate New York's seedy underbelly, but with powerful enemies after him and his new charge, there's no guarantee that any of them will get out alive. 

Reading Sternbergh's writing is like watching classic film noir, or reading a dark, suspenseful graphic novel. It's a quick-moving story that sweeps the reader right along with it, even as the characters themselves struggle to stay on top of the changing circumstances. The language is direct, visceral, but still artistic in its descriptions of pretty much everything, from the empty condos of the wealthy to Spademan's descriptions of what happened to New York after the dirty bomb. But perhaps it shines best in Spademan's running mental commentary and observations while dealing with his enemies. It's difficult to explain, but the harsh descriptions of things like slitting a man's throat or the slump of a dead body is communicated in simple, elegant speech that is direct but not gratuitous. It's a delicate balance between shock and frankness that Sternbergh maintains throughout the novel. 

Almost the entire book is from Spademan's perspective, with some scenes for which he isn't present played out in the third person. There are no quotations marks used, but don't be alarmed; it's surprisingly easy to follow the conversations. Formatting techniques and short, to-the-point exchanges dotted with observations and actions help to avoid confusion, and to my mind helped to reflect Spademan's personality as a whole. 

This is a brutal, wonderfully written read driven by one man in a world that he's learned to navigate and assimilate into when others have fled. If you like stories like The Punisher or Sin City (the movies or the graphic novels, in all honesty), you'll want to pick up a copy of Adam Sternbergh's Shovel Ready sooner rather than later. It was originally released in January and is available now at your neighborhood bookstore. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Book Store Signage

Re: Reading in Toronto, Canada

One of the joys of working at an independent bookstore is that we're encouraged to be kooky and unique. As it turns out, that's one of the best parts of shopping at small neighborhood bookstores as well! A wide variety of people with a wide variety of tastes in books means that odds are, one of us will know just the right book for you. It also means that as a general rule we're pretty personable, since we're allowed to be ourselves at work. Those personalities really shine through sometimes in book displays, staff pick shelves, and sidewalk signage.

BuzzFeed has put together this list of hilarious book store signs that will make you giggle and, hopefully, walk down to your neighborhood bookstore to see what's written on their sidewalk sign today. Rain or shine, fall is a great time to start planning literary holiday gifts as well as your own winter reads!

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Book Review: "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine

Ghosts and demons from all cultures are particularly fascinating to me. So when "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine landed in my hands, I was excited to see that the legend of a ghost who could be either benevolent or vengeful was involved. Ghosts and phantoms who have that sort of awareness, who can respond to the living and the living world, possess a dynamic potential that I seldom find in ghosts that are static in their hauntings, so I was interested to see what the author had come up with.

The story itself is something of a cross between "The Phantom of the Opera" and "The Jungle": Wen and her father live at the clinic in a slaughterhouse complex, where they work together to provide medical care for minor worker ailments as well as save victims of factory accidents. And with the sadistic, lecherous factory boss cutting corners wherever he can, those accidents could become more frequent. But who will care when most slaughterhouse labor is provided by the Noor, nearly dumb animals themselves, brought in on trains from the west to provide cheap labor? After one of them humiliates her in the cafeteria not even Wen cares what happens to them. Never one to believe in ghosts or the supernatural, Wen nonetheless visits the slaughterhouse ghost's altar and challenges him to prove his existence. To Wen's dismay, it's the Noor who humiliated her who bears the mark of that proof.

From there Wen throws herself into her medical duties, spending her time and money on the Noor and trying to make up for what she's done. But her closeness with them, and with one in particular, starts to raise eyebrows among her fellow middle-class workers. With her friends ready to turn their backs on her, the factory boss panting down her neck, and her father trapped by his debt to the factory, Wen seems on her own to defend herself in a society where a woman's fragility, innocence and modesty are prized. To protect herself, Wen will have to thwart all of those expectations.

But she hasn't totally been abandoned; the ghost who first avenged her still watches over her, although that can sometimes prove frightening as well as reassuring. As she discovers his secret, Wen finds herself even more torn between being protected and fighting for the people she loves. Either way, she knows that things cannot return to the way they were before, and her decision about her own future will come at a time when labor disputes and accidents have turned the whole factory into a powder keg ready to explode.

This is definitely a love story: romantic love, love of self, family love, and love of ideals are all present and all influence the story. There were for sure some stereotypical parts, like the scenario of a woman being torn between two male suitors, and a powerful character making unwanted advances from which the woman has to be saved. At least the romance was the instigator for the other major events to take place during the story, like her support for the Noor and their subsequent rebellion, or the accidents that the ghost causes while trying to protect Wen.

Still, I personally would have rather learned more about the world outside of the compound. I had a very difficult time gleaning anything about that from the text, even to the point of deciding whether or not this was historical fiction, alternate history, or pure fantasy. There was definitely an Eastern influence involved, from names and culture to social status, but after a bit of research I could still find no trace of the events or peoples referenced in the book in actual historical accounts. I found this frustrating, and that frustration was compounded by the technological inconsistencies that popped up in the book: medical tools and equipment were primitive, but the slaughterhouse mostly functioned through the use of machinery, and one character has a functioning clockwork prosthetic arm. And then you have the clockwork spiders, vicious security measures that can shred a person (or a cow) to ribbons and then vibrate themselves into self-destruction. It's all very confusing.

Along with the inconsistent technology I was extremely frustrated at the missed opportunity to allow Wen to become a more independent person. It seems like that was part of what the story was working towards, with all the decisions she had to make for the benefit of her father and the Noor, with the judgement she faced and the adversity that she encountered. But in the end she didn't take the leap, and instead stayed in that safe bubble to try and rebuild what had been destroyed, instead of following her own wishes (and a certain someone). She was still the same little girl who needed to be saved, instead of the bravery that she occasionally showed transforming her into someone who took charge of her own life. It was kind of a waste in my mind, and I was admittedly disappointed in the outcome of the whole things.

If you're looking for a well-developed but purely romantic read with few detailed or substantiated aspects beyond that, this is a good book for you. It's classified as a Young Adult read, and while romance is the central plot, there are no gratuitous sexual encounters so it's entirely safe for your teenage reader. "Of Metal and Wishes" by Sarah Fine came out in August of this year and is now available at your favorite independent bookstore.

Friday, September 19, 2014

A Shot And A Book

As autumn weather starts to set in, it's the perfect time to curl up with a pair of slippers, a cup of tea, and - you guessed it - a good book. But reading isn't restricted to quiet nooks and crannies in the comfort of your own home; many people enjoy reading outdoors and on the go, in a coffee shop, tucked away in a library, on a bench in the park, or sprawled out on a blanket while the sun's still shining.

One public place for reading that is often overlooked, though, is the bar. It may seem counterintuitive to think it would be nice to sit in a smoky bar with your favorite paperback, but for some there's no better place. Juan Vidal, a book critic, certainly thinks as much and wrote this commentary on the art of reading in bars for NPR. Give it a look, and maybe consider bringing your current read the next time you head out for a drink at the bar.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Book Review: "The Wonder of All Things" by Jason Mott

It's difficult sometimes to draw a line between books in the Speculative Fiction genre and novels that fall under the umbrella of General Fiction. When there are dragons, magic and sorcery, stories are a little bit easier to put into a certain camp than when there's just a hint of magic in otherwise mundane settings and struggles. But when that little bit of something beyond the everyday is added to a lyrical, evocative writing style, the novel itself becomes a thing of wonder worth reading for SpecFic fans as well as those who normally read less fantastical tales.

The Wonder of All Things by Jason Mott is one such novel. It's set in a small Midwestern town without much concern for the rest of the world outside of the valley, where people live out their entire lives from birth to death and, if they do make it out into the rest of the world and make a name for themselves, become legends to their friends and neighbors. It's the sort of small town where things like fiery airplane crashes and miracle healings don't happen, ever. That is, until the day when a stunt plane lands in a fiery ball on a grain silo and Ava Campbell, daughter of Sheriff Macon Campbell, magically heals her best friend Wash of injuries sustained in the accident.

Suddenly the small town of Stone Temple is awash in reporters, churches, doctors, and people seeking "The Miracle Child" to help their own loved ones. There are people trying to define her, debunk her, convert her, and she's only thirteen years old. Meanwhile Macon struggles to fulfill his obligations as sheriff, protect his family from the sudden avalanche of attention, and struggles with the idea that maybe, just maybe, this could be an opportunity. If he could use the press just enough to give his family a better life, would it be so bad? Would it really be exploiting his daughter if her future, her best interests are at stake? And what about Ava? How does she feel about everything, and how much can she tell the world about how she performs the miracle that her healing appears to be?

This novel is a family saga as much as it is the story of a girl with a mystical gift. Ava is lost, uncertain, and Macon is equally at a loss as to how to handle the sudden change that has come over their town and their loved ones, even their neighbors and friends as Ava's powers bring out both the best and the worst in people. As it becomes apparent that every healing costs Ava her own health, the moral dilemma becomes clearer: does she have an obligation to help others to the detriment of her own well-being, simply because she has the ability to do so? Do others have the right to ask her to sacrifice herself for them just because she can?

Author Jason Mott's writing style immersed me completely from the first couple of pages. His depiction of the small town and its surroundings, his descriptions of the people in terms of their pasts and desires instead of just their physical traits, had me hooked right away, and these small shreds that hinted at the complexity of the character as a whole made the moral dilemma of Ava's powers even more understandable. The choices Ava makes in who to help and how, as well as her willingness to be a test subject, speak to her guilt about her mother's death; Wash's uncertainty and caring nature are much more steadfast than Macon's, his youth attributing to his unwavering devotion to Ava because he has fewer obligations to pull him in different directions. Macon has possibly the most complicated series of decisions to make about the well-being of the people around him, from his wife and their unborn baby to Ava to the people of Stone Temple and the people with whom he makes deals in order to try and keep the situation under control. All of the characters and their battles are unique, all of them are beautifully written, and all of them had me agonizing over what decision I would make in their situation. I won't lie, I didn't have much more luck at decisiveness than the characters themselves displayed.

Most stories I read seem to detail the time leading up to a critical event, the event itself, and then the results and ripples that are created by it. The Wonder of All Things, however, doesn't do that. Rather, it brings the reader into the story just as Ava heals the badly hurt Wash and goes from there into the resulting insanity, then stops when Ava reaches a certain point in the aftermath. (I'm not going to spoil what point that is!) We don't find out what happens to the others, or where their individual stories go from there. It may sound counterintuitive, but I don't feel that this made the story cut off too sharply; it left off at a stopping point, even if it might not be the one that readers were expecting. But it ties up the ends that are important to Ava, and that was what mattered in the end.

If you enjoy Ivan Doig's depiction of small-town life, or liked The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, pick up a copy of Jason Mott's new novel The Wonder of All Things. It will be released on September 30th and is available to pre-order now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Celebrate Banned Books!

September is a month to celebrate banned books, the controversies that they force us to address and the material that they bring to light.

I have a sticker that says "I Sell Banned Books" attached to my name tag at work, and there are always customers who are surprised to see it. "Are there really still banned books?" they often ask. "In America? In this day and age?" The answer is yes. In public schools, libraries, and other places in communities across the country, not to mention the world, books from the Harry Potter series to stories by Neil Gaiman are banned. Some of them have been flagged because they promote allegiance to one's culture and ethnicity; some are banned because of the presentation of homosexuality, race differences, or other content that is offensive in some way to local authorities and community leaders. Many of these books are banned thanks to a single individual or a small group of people who take a book away from a larger group because they alone find something objectionable in it. And the loss of that book is a loss to the entire community.

These are not all books like "The Story of O" or "Crash," books that contain adult material throughout. "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" by Sherman Alexie is an example of a fantastic book that has been banned before, because it makes one allusion to a teenage boy masturbating. Never mind that the rest of the book addresses important issues like being stuck between two ethnic groups, or developing mature, healthy relationships with the opposite sex, or finding and embracing your strengths as a human being regardless of whether or not they're what you wish they were.

Many bookstores, libraries, and other community reading resources will be spreading the word about banned books and literary censorship in general during the ALA's Banned Books Week from the 21st to the 27th of this month. Take the opportunity to educate yourself about what books are still banned, where they are banned, and what you can do to help ensure that your reading options are not limited by the wishes of those around you. There is something out there for everyone in the world of literature. That means that while there is always something that is certain to please you, there is always something that will not be to your taste. But that which you choose not to read, for whatever reason, could be the most amazing thing that someone else has ever picked up. The freedom to read what we wish, regardless of what others wish us to read, is truly a treasure and is something that should be protected by readers everywhere.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Book Review: "The Cure For Dreaming" by Cat Winters

Hypnosis has played a wide variety of rolls in fiction over the years, from healing process to horrific mind control vehicle. Olivia Mead finds out just how potent hypnosis can be when she falls under the influence of Henri Reverie, a hypnotist passing through town. It's 1900 in Portland, Oregon, which means that the fight for women's suffrage was in full swing. Olivia finds herself drawn to the cause, dreaming of someday attending college and living outside the influence of any man, be it her controlling father or a husband he deems suitable for her.

Tiring of Olivia's headstrong pursuit of education and independence, her father Dr. Mead hires the young Henri Reverie to remove Olivia's dreams and aspirations. But little does Dr. Mead know that his attempt to control even his daughter's thoughts will lead to even more elaborate plans on Olivia's part to not only escape him, but further the cause of suffrage and even help Henri, who is controlled by his own unfortunate circumstances.

This story was a young woman's personal journey as much as it was eventually a story of escape and independence, not just for Olivia but for Henri as well. I picked it up because the aspect of hypnosis looked interesting, both in its application and its function. What the blurb did not hint at was just how much of a part the suffrage movement would have in the plot. They went together well, the idea of control and, in this situation, the fact that trying to hold something (or someone) down can be precisely what causes them to rise up in revolt, rather than the reverse. Middle readers interested in Pacific Northwest political history or the suffrage movement specifically will learn a lot about how the different factions operated (although there's not much subtlety involved; "liberated" women appear to be glowing with potential and an inner light of strength, while anti-suffrage women appear as vampires and downtrodden women are ghosts to Olivia's hypnotized mind) while being entertained by the unfolding story.

If you're looking for something for a young reader interested in women's rights or a good story of escape with just the barest hint of romance and plenty of positive press for education and equality, you should add The Cure for Dreaming" by Cat Winters to your reading list. It will be released on the 14th of this month and you can pre-order it right now at your favorite local, independent bookstore.