book review: a description of the blazing world

I was disappointed with Michael Murphy’s A Description of the Blazing World. The back blurb suggested a surreal story drawing ties between mysterious postcards, choose your own adventure books, the first science fiction novel and the big 2003 blackout in Ontario. The book had all those elements but it didn’t combine them in the way that I hoped.

There’s a man who gets obsessed with two people who have the same name as him, but his part of the story is creepy and he’s unsympathetic. The story of the teenage boy sent to live with his brother for a couple of weeks where he finds a mysterious copy of a book that has clues to his disappeared father is just annoying. I think the big problem is that neither of the main characters have any insight into anything. They just do things you as a reader can tell are bad ideas. It’s all a bit pointless and in the end it all gets laid out very clearly what happened.

Finally, on the craft side of things, I must be spoiled by Ryan North, but if you’re making Choose Your Own Adventure stories part of your novel and you present choices (with page numbers) in the context of the story, it is disappointing to the extreme that there’s nothing at the pages you choose to turn to.

book review: the ocean at the end of the lane

The Ocean At The End of The Lane is Neil Gaiman’s latest book for adults, but it reminded me much more of Coraline or The Graveyard Book than American Gods.

Part of that is because of its small scale. There’s an author whose father has died and on his visit home for the funeral he stops by a neighbour’s farm. This prompts recollection of the story of the opal miner who was their lodger when he was seven, which is a story he’d forgotten. The story involves a creature giving people money and seducing his father so that he will never be able to get help.

I liked the story, it was beautiful and Gaimany. I kind of feel bad for saying it but I’d hoped for something more substantial.

book review: the measure of a man

Our town recently held a writers’ festival. I’d read at least something by most of the writers beforehand, but not JJ Lee. Well, his readings and talking about other people’s books completely sold me on his book The Measure of a Man: The Story of a Father, a Son, and a Suit.

It’s a story about becoming an apprentice tailor, and about Lee’s childhood, and about his troubled relationship with his father, and about how important the clothes that we wear are, how they are ways we express our identity and the selves we want to be. Reading this book I learned how the lapels are the sexiest part of a suit, and how ticked off old Chinese tailors still are about jeans.

But Lee writes compellingly about his family too. At the festival his performances were incredibly crowd-pleasing and funny, and then he’d read a bit about sinking into the closet filled with the smell of his now-gone father and you’d want to cry. It’s an impressive impressive piece of work about intimacy among men. And now I kind of want to dress a little better.

book review: the man within my head

The Man Within My Head is Pico Iyer’s book about Graham Greene. I think it would have had more of an impact on me if I had read more than a couple of Graham Greene books in my life. But Iyer writes about travel and globalism in a way that speaks very well to me, and a big part of this book was about how certain writers get in your head. I guess I’m saying I understood what he was talking about even though I don’t feel the same way about Greene.

The book was filled with stories about growing up in English boarding schools and how they were trained to spread Empire, but also about Iyer’s travel, and about California wildfires taking his homes, and looking for a father, and the way Greene wrote about the goodness in fallen priests. I liked it, but it wasn’t the same kind of thrill as something like Sun After Dark.

book review: the underwater welder

The Underwater Welder is Jeff Lemire’s story of being scared of becoming a father. It’s so good. The introduction to the book sets it up as “the greatest Twilight Zone episode that was never produced.” I like that conceit but that makes it sound a lot more self-contained than it was.

Jack and Susan are expecting a baby in the next month. Jack keeps running off to his work on the oil rig, as an underwater welder. We know something bad happened between him and his father at Halloween some year, and it’s keeping him attached to the loneliness of solitary work in the ocean instead of the flesh and blood people surrounding him. It’s an ominous and looming kind of story that pushed in on my chest as I read it.

Lemire draws the book with the same kind of scratchy style he used in Essex County, but here it feels different. Maybe it’s just all the water that makes the wobbly lines feel like they’re the distortions of seeing everything through bubbles. The big splash pages work very well, especially the ones with the floods of memories coming in like clouds of angular bubbles.

It’s a beautifully done book. Highly recommended.

book review: how to live safely in a science fictional universe

I loved How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu so much. It’s a story about a time machine repair guy named Charles Yu who’s been living safely off in a null-zone where time doesn’t really pass, thinking about his father who disappeared, the inability to change the past, the trajectory of a life and closed time-like loops. But really it’s about loneliness and memory.

It’s a quiet book, introspective. I think I’d thought it would be funnier, but instead it was just beautiful. Also a good crossover book for people who like literature and aren’t necessarily interested in “science fiction.” There’s lots of stuff tossed in there in technical language, that’s cryptic but decipherable. It encourages study and reading slowly, really settling into the book (which is not long at all).

Definitely one of my new favourites. Yu’s new short story collection, Sorry Please Thank You, is now on my must read list.

book review: please ignore vera dietz

Please Ignore Vera Dietz is a book by A.S. King about a pizza-delivering high-school senior named Vera whose best friend Charlie is dead.

The story jumps around in time covering the nine months after he died along with their lives up till then. We learn about how they became friends and how their friendship fell apart, and about saying something when something is wrong. The whole idea of ignoring things and not getting involved to maintain a peaceful zen life gets a pretty good criticism in this book.

What I loved about the book was the shifting in time and perspective. We all know right from the beginning that Charlie dies, but we don’t exactly know how. It’s a good hook and as we learn more about them we want to know how it came to be this way. King did something similar in The Dust of 100 Dogs, where the main character dies in the prologue and the rest of the book is about getting us back to that point. The book is mostly told from Vera’s perspective but there are bits tossed in from her dad’s point of view (he’s a recovered alcoholic whose wife left and changed the spelling of her name so he writes about her as CindySindy, which is kind of heartbreaking), and from the dead boy’s point of view, and from the big pagoda monument that sits on the hill above their town. It’s really well done.

The villains are appropriately high-school insane. I’m very glad I never encountered such a vindictive horrible liar as Jenny Flick, but I completely believe she exists (maybe she got a bit moustache-twirly at the very end, but I wouldn’t put her actions past her).

So yes, a very good YA book.