Witty Repartee Triptych

At last! The first of my triptych reviews!

Triptych theme: Protagonists = (potentially) romantic couple engaging in near-constant witty repartee. AKA “The Nick & Norah Triptych”

Books in this triptych: 1. The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie (1922)  2. The Thin Man, by Dashiell Hammett (1934)   3. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan (2006)

How it Came About:  Some time ago, when I was in Australia for WorldCon, the fabulous Peter Ball and I got to talking about our shared love for Nick & Norah, both movie and book, and he somehow got me to watch the DVD with commentary, which  was actually quite fascinating. Among other tidbits about how the two authors had collaborated to produce the book, Rachel Cohn said that part of her inspiration had been Hammett’s characters Nick and Norah Charles, a rich and glamorous married couple “who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis” (as described on the back of the book). Cohn said she wanted to capture that sense of fun and witiness in a romantic couple. I later discovered Nick & Norah Charles had a forerunner in Agatha Christie’s Tommy and Tuppence, who don’t drink quite so much but are just as clever when it comes to both wise-cracks and crime-solving.

Favorite things and fun quotes from this triptych below the fold!

Continue reading

Advertisements

Why It’s Fantasy When Boy Meets Boy

Boy Meets Boy by David Levithan (co-author of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist) is not a work of speculative fiction.  Or so I thought until I turned the first page.

Nothing in Boy Meets Boy defies the laws of physics.  The novel doesn’t feature any technological advances beyond cell phones and instant messaging.  It’s not just a clever title, it’s also a handy plot summary: Paul is a high school sophomore who falls for Noah, the charismatic boy who’s new in town.  Paul pursues Noah while navigating the complexities of friendships, ex-boyfriends, and high school life.

And yet as I began reading Boy Meets Boy, I got the strange feeling I was reading fantasy.  Maybe because Paul’s high school is not quite like any high school I know.  The star quarterback of the football team, Infinite Darlene, is also the homecoming queen; she has trouble getting along with the other drag queens in school because they feel she doesn’t care for her nails properly.  Paul’s kindergarten teacher helped him understand that he was gay, and when he came home to tell his mother, her reaction was to yell to his father, “Honey … Paul’s learned a new word!”  Paul helped found a gay-straight alliance in the sixth grade, mainly to help the straight kids with their fashion sense and dance moves.

Continue reading

Superhero Self-Help

Just finished reading From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust.  The novel is a hilarious send-up of the superhero genre, told in the form of a self-help book for superheroes: “When Being A Superhero Can’t Save You from Yourself – Self-Help for Today’s Hyper-Hominids.”  The novel is narrated by Dr. Eva Brain-Silverman, who is leading six dysfunctional superheroes through group therapy in the wake of a fellow hero’s death. The opening paragraph gives a pretty good flavor:

You can wrap a steel I beam around your neck with your bare hands and wear it like a tie.  You can swim so quickly that you can go back in time to offer Columbus correct directions to India.  You can climb the outside of a building, regurgitate the ton of paper you’ve eaten, and weave a beautiful multilevel hive while not paying a cent in downtown rent.

But are you happy?

Faust not only riffs off superhero psychology to hilarious effect, he also explores a sort of alternate Marvel/DC universe that is as diverse as the real world.  His racial (and gender/sexual orientation) critique of the superhero genre is brilliantly constructed – and brings a lot of laughs along the way.

At about 100 pages in, the book started to feel a bit slow to me, and I even wondered if there was really enough material for a 385-page superhero send-up.  But then it quickly picked up again, and there was a series of twists and revelations that were unpredictable, engaging, and just plain fun.  As the novel approaches its climax, the complex social criticism beneath the humor comes into sharp focus, and the result is nothing less than mind-blowing.  My laughter and pleasure in the book slowly gave way to anger as the intensity of the larger plot became clear.  Without getting into spoiler territory, the ending is unexpected, but completely apt, and it got me thinking about endings more generally.  So many endings aim to leave the reader satisfied, sad, even horrified – but rarely is anger the intended reaction.  Perhaps more books ought to do so; there’s no shortage of injustice for us to be angry about.

My sense is that Faust’s critique is not so much of psychology but rather a certain aspect of the individualistic, self-help culture – a paradigm that, when taken to its extreme, tends to pathologize self-sacrifice and heroism, and leaves little room for an understanding of social justice.  It’s quite impressive that a book so successful in its humor is also so successful in its thought-provoking social commentary.

Faust is also brilliant at voice and dialogue – his mastery of multiple dialects reminded me of greats like Mark Twain, and that alone makes the book worth reading.  Recommended for anyone who loves superheroes, social criticism, or laughing out loud.

Went to the Moon for Spring Break but the Moon Turned Out to Completely Suck

That’s a paraphrase of the opening line of M.T. Andersen’s Feed, a young adult novel about an eerily familiar future in which everyone is connected to a neural feed, which transmits information, messages, and lots of advertising directly into your brain 24-7.   The story mainly follows a group of teenagers as they hang out, date, and consume.  The novel is one of the best I’ve read in recent memory, and has pretty much everything you want in a science fiction novel: great characters, an interesting and well-thought-out future, a brilliant voice, a good dose of humor, and some thought-provoking ideas about the world we live in. Possibly the most powerful thing about the novel is what’s mostly unspoken in the background: things have gotten pretty bad in this future, and meanwhile these American teenagers are just obliviously hanging out at the mall.  The fact that most of them have developed unexplicable lesions bothers them at first, until lesions become the latest fashion trend, of course.

It’s hard to say much more, other than that this book meg rocks.  Put it at the top of your reading list and you won’t be disappointed.

Pre-Order Polyphony 7

Polyphony is a wonderful anthology series that’s published some of the best speculative fiction out there in recent years – with a specialization in the weird and interstitial. Volume 7 is now available for pre-order at Wheatland Press, and it features a great line-up of writers like Howard Waldrop, Mikal Trimm, and Bruce Holland Rogers.   Unfortunately, in the current challenging economic climate, it looks like they won’t be able to publish the book unless they get enough pre-orders.  So why not just order your copy now?  You get a great book plus you get to feel good about supporting a great small press…

Recommended Books from 2009

Finishing up my series of posts on recommended speculative fiction from 2009, these are the books published in 2009 that stood out for me.  Technically, these span across several categories for both the Nebula and Hugo awards, but I’m covering them all in one foul swoop – so this list includes novels, young adult books, anthologies, and novellas. 

  • The Love We Share without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak: Mosaic novel set in Japan, centered around a group of friends who form a “suicide club,” an action whose ripple effects we see among friends, family members, and lovers, all brilliantly drawn in Barzak’s prose.  These are powerful and haunting tales of loneliness and alienation, with some lovely moments of real connection amidst the loss.  The shelving gods have proclaimed Barzak to be “literature,” but the book has several ghosts and enchantments and other touches of magic realism. (Technically, I think this one was published in late 2008, but it’s still eligible for the Nebula under this year’s rules.)
  • Finch by Jeff VanderMeer:  Detective Finch must solve an unsolvable murder amidst the backdrop of Ambergris, a steampunk city of human beings occupied by the gray caps, their inhuman fungal overlords.  VanderMeer delivers every reader cookie you could possibly desire: brilliant world-building, brilliant noir mystery, brilliant prose, and brilliant characterization.   One of the most original books I’ve read in recent memory.  
  • Liar by Justine Larbalestier: Moving to Young Adult territory, this is one of the most sophisticated YA novels I’ve read in a while.  From the first sentence, Micah (our beloved hero) tells us that she’s a liar, beginning the ultimate unreliable-narrator tale. Larbalestier masterfully interweaves a tragic romance, the mystery of her sort-of boyfriend’s murder, some fantastic elements that may or may not be real, and the omnipresent uncertainty of everything Micah is telling us.  Hard to say more without getting spoiler-y, so just go out and read this book.   
  • Horn by Peter M. Ball: I only read a handful of novellas this year, but this is the one that stands out.  I’ve already gushed about it elsewhere, so I’ll try not to go on too much here.  Unicorn noir mystery, featuring a bad-ass lesbian PI who will come back from the dead if that’s what it takes to crack the case. 
  • Interfictions 2, edited by Christopher Barzak and Delia ShermanExcellent anthology of “interstitial” stories – stories that blur the boundaries between genres.  These stories wonderfully defy expectations, and many of them were among the best stories to come out in 2009.  This series is fast-becoming the heir apparent to Polyphony as the hot place to find stories of the interstitial/New Weird/slipstream/gonzo variety.

Other great books from 2009 included Nicholas Kaufmann’s extremely entertaining pulp fiction adventure, Hunt at World’s End; Joe Abercrombie’s sometimes disturbing dark fantasy revenge novel, Best Served Cold; Walter Jon Williams’ near-future thriller of gamers plunged into real-life mystery and intrigue, This is Not a Game; and Booklife, Jeff VanderMeer’s highly useful guide to writing in the 21st century by conquering the internet instead of allowing the internet to conquer you   Top of my remaining to-read list from 2009 include Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker, Sarah Langan’s Audrey’s Door, Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest, and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, all of which I’ve heard are excellent.

The Tangled Bank is Out Now!

The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, & Evolution is out now!  This anthology of tales of evolution celebrates Darwin’s 200th birthday and includes my story, “On the Entropy of Species,” not to mention great fiction and poetry from Carlos Hernandez, Christopher Green, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, Anil Menon, and a slew of other writers from around the globe. It’s edited by Chris Lynch, my Clarion South-mate and co-author of our collaborative story, “This is My Blood.”  Chris is fast proving that he’s as skilled as an editor as he is as a writer.  The book is not only packed with great fiction, but is also visually stunning, framed by images like this one and by a series of haikus from Sean Williams, each inspired by a different chapter of Darwin’s Origin of Species

You can download your copy here for only $4.99 (U.S.). Or, if you want a free taste, check out “Darwin’s Daughter” by Christopher Green here.