Review: The Bedlam Stacks

Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks moves slowly through its introductory material. After reading the first third of the book, I checked Goodreads to see whether I should continue. Enough reviewers called it a “slow burn” that I stuck with it. At times, all the pretty and overwritten details reminded me of The Night Circus, but The Bedlam Stacks has more plot, more answers, and more interesting mythology. From Goodreads:

In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall after sustaining an injury that almost cost him his leg and something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.

When the India Office recruits Merrick for an expedition to fetch quinine—essential for the treatment of malaria—from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea. Nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is desperate to escape everything at home, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for a tiny mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line on the ground separates town from forest. Anyone who crosses is killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.

Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions; why the villagers are forbidden to go into the forest; and what is happening to Raphael, the young priest who seems to have known Merrick’s grandfather, who visited Peru many decades before. The Bedlam Stacks is the story of a profound friendship that grows in a place that seems just this side of magical.

When I say some details of The Bedlam Stacks are overwritten, I mean that too many small moments are given too much attention. Decent dialogue doesn’t require a description of a character’s tone or gestures after each line. As is, the writing feels very self-conscious, as though Pulley fears being misunderstood. I’m sympathetic because I used to write this way. If one of my characters was going to change their mind over the course of a conversation, I wanted to show their transformation via eyebrow twitches, chuckles, and whatever other facial tics I thought were subtle at the time. I spelled out everything. Unfortunately, sympathizing with this writing style doesn’t mean I enjoy reading it.

Paragraph-by-paragraph, Pulley’s overly-detailed prose is lyrical. It conjures clear images, no easy feat once things take a turn toward the fantastic and magical. But after a few chapters, the unnecessary details snowball into an avalanche. It takes Merrick too long to leave for Peru because he can’t go before encountering some moving statues and exploding trees at home. I think these scenes are meant to be an intriguing taste of what’s waiting for him in Peru, but all they really say is “if this story ever gets going, it might be interesting.” The premise is great, but be warned: You’ll wait a long time for a payoff.

It’s true that I did not enjoy reading The Bedlam Stacks, but some elements are clever. The moving statues kept me reading as did the forest. The forest is full of glowing pollen which leaves trails when disturbed, so it’s home to some spectacular chases. Both the statues and forest benefit from Pulley’s tendency to overwrite because they’re so beautiful, creepy, and interesting that you’ll want the maximum level of detail.

I’m trying to think of something nice to say…but I like tight, concise writing and this book is bursting with the opposite. Pulley’s #1 trick to convey importance/foreshadowing is to add more and more details and repeat them over and over. But maybe she has a point: How can we know cinchona trees are rare/valuable if we aren’t told over and over? How can we know Raphael is unusual if we don’t read about his surprising strength and cold hands a dozen times? How can we know the plot is high-stakes unless it can only be solved via deus ex machina? Wait, that last question raises a whole other issue…

Overall: 2.4  Everyone loves this book on Goodreads/Amazon so far. Usually, it doesn’t bother me to have a different opinion than most, but it feels icky to criticize a book that was provided by the publisher. However, I feel it’s important to maintain standards on this blog. My favorite bloggers to follow are those with similar taste to mine—when they recommend a book, it’s a safe bet I’ll like it. I assume at least some of my followers stick around for the same reason, so I can’t give overly warm reviews to books I don’t actually enjoy.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury USA (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Punch Escrow

2o Books of Summer: Book 7

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein is another fun discovery via NetGalley. Summary from Goodreads:

It’s the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We’ve genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport—a secretive firm headquartered in New York City. Their slogan: Departure… Arrival… Delight!

Joel Byram, our smartass protagonist, is an everyday twenty-fifth century [sic] guy. He spends his days training artificial intelligence engines to act more human, jamming out to 1980s new wave—an extremely obscure genre[—]and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. Joel is pretty much an everyday guy with everyday problems—until he’s accidentally duplicated while teleporting.

Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.

Even though I picked up The Punch Escrow for the teleportation mishaps, my favorite parts of the book were in the details: Joel’s day-job as a “salter” and the various types of AI. Salting:

Every choice [computers] came to could only be based on data and algorithms that had been preprogrammed into them. That’s not to say computers couldn’t get new ideas, but every new idea they got could only come from remixing old ideas, or external input from other computers, or through human input—which is where I came in.

We salters spent our days coming up with arbitrary puzzles that AI engines couldn’t grok. Every time a salter’s gambit was not anticipated by an app, that app got smarter by adding the unanticipated random logic set to its decision algorithm, and the salter got paid. Essentially, I made my living by being a smartass to apps. (Loc 229)

The sassy, back-talking computer is a staple of sci-fi (especially sci-fi that tries to be funny), but it feels more gimmicky than real. The Punch Escrow takes a cleverer approach by showing Joel outsmart apps to teach them nuances of language such as double entendres and humor. Seeing various types of AI (rooms, vehicles, personal assistants) analyze Joel’s requests and wordplay is satisfying. Each responds in its own way according to its programming and function. There is more thought and care in these scenes than I expected from the outset. From the blurb, I worried the book would verge on silly/slapdash as Joel ran around cracking one-liners. Instead, the salting scenes occur naturally as Joel struggles to return to his wife.

Self-described “smartass” characters can either be fun or prompt much eye-rolling. Smartassery is something that must be conveyed through a character’s dialogue and actions; as soon as a first-person narrator describes him/herself as smart, witty, or clever they aren’t. Joel’s braggy nature brings him close to this line, but he became more self-aware just as he approached my last nerve. Once there’s a second Joel running around (“Joel²”), Joel evaluates some of his own personality traits the way an outsider might and draws the same conclusions as the reader. In these self-aware moments, he reminisces about his wife. Given that Joel’s internal monologue carries the book (and there are two of him), other characters drift to the background. Joel’s musings on Sylvia keep her around and develop her character despite her limited screentime. Joel’s overall goal is to find her, and this isn’t a compelling quest unless the reader invests in their relationship.

Some of the early reviews play up the “hard sci-fi” angle, and while The Punch Escrow certainly qualifies as such, it’s not as technical as you might think. Complicated explanations are filtered through Joel’s no-nonsense style, and his analogies make the connections between the science and plot simple to follow. Klein strikes a good balance: there’s enough science to legitimize the story, but not so much that Joel stoops to lecturing. There are philosophical and ethical dilemmas sprinkled throughout, too. Alas, my anti-spoilers policy…

But wait, there’s a tiny nitpick about Joel’s musical tastes:

I’m not a fan of the 1980s nostalgia in futuristic books. It makes sense, intellectually, because there are plenty of people who listen to centuries-old music. There’s a push-pull created when using the 1980s, though. It’s nice to hum along with the character, but 1980s music prompts images of giant boom boxes and bright clothing which clash against sleek, futuristic worlds. I’m not sure why the 1980s stand out in this way; if a character listens to Mozart, I don’t imagine them in a powdered wig. I suspect my knee-jerk revulsion to 1980s tunes in sci-fi is because of Ready Player One and its lists, lists, and more lists of 1980s cultural references. (Btw, I’m timing a SBIRIFY post to coincide with Ready Player One‘s release…) At least Joel limits his 1980s love to a few songs.

Overall: 4.4  There is one minor issue that might be a plot hole, but I’ve got my fingers crossed it’ll be handled in the other books (a sequel and prequel). (If not, you’ll hear about it then.) The climax is a bit formulaic, but it’ll play well if The Punch Escrow is made into a movie. Quick note on formatting: I’d recommend a print copy over an ebook due to the number/length of the footnotes. Personally, I find it easier to flip around a paper copy than an ebook.

Translation: Read it.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Inkshares Geek & Sundry (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

 

13 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  9. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  10. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  11. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  12. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  13. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Intuitionist

20 Books of Summer: Book 6

The winner in the Most Unique Book of the Summer (so far) category is Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist. (There’s no prize, of course, unless you count this review.) I’d be lying if I said I understood every word/reference/theme of this book. The Intuitionist is deeply strange with glimmers of Pynchon, but Whitehead is cleverer and more entertaining. I’ve borrowed the Goodreads blurb because it’s hard to summarize a book that’s [mystery] + [philosophical treatise on elevator maintenance] + [noir thriller (maybe)] +[social commentary] + [???].

Verticality, architectural and social, is the lofty idea at the heart of Colson Whitehead’s first novel that takes place in an unnamed high-rise city that combines 21st-century engineering feats with 19th-century pork-barrel politics. Elevators are the technological expression of the vertical ideal, and Lila Mae Watson, the city’s first black female elevator inspector, is its embattled token of upward mobility.

When Number Eleven of the newly completed Fanny Briggs Memorial Building goes into deadly free-fall just hours after Lila Mae has signed off on it, using the controversial “Intuitionist” method of ascertaining elevator safety, both Intuitionists and Empiricists recognize the set-up, but may be willing to let Lila Mae take the fall in an election year.

As Lila Mae strives to exonerate herself in this urgent adventure full of government spies, underworld hit men, and seductive double agents, behind the action, always, is the Idea. Lila Mae’s quest is mysteriously entwined with existence of heretofore lost writings by James Fulton, father of Intuitionism, a giant of vertical thought. If she is able to find and reveal his plan for the perfect, next-generation elevator, the city as it now exists may instantly become obsolescent.

The premise is silly at first because it’s hard to see how Intuitionism ever gained traction. If I owned a building and had a choice between two elevator inspectors, I wouldn’t pick the one who stood in the elevator and had feelings about its mechanical fitness. Amid my chuckling, though, the story won me over. It’s not really about the elevators and, when it is, it’s more interesting than it should be. Whitehead peppers the book with oddball trivia and a nuanced look at a world where the schools for elevator maintenance spend as much time on philosophy as mechanics.

Each detail is carefully considered, right down to the screwdrivers, the only tool needed by an Intuitionist:

For the new screwdrivers were quite beautiful. Ever since the city granted license to the Department, bulky and ungainly screwdrivers had poked and bulged in the jacket pockets of the elevator inspectors, completely ruining any attempts at dapperness and savoir faire. It’s difficult to look official and imposing while listing to one side. The new screwdrivers have mother-of-pearl handles and heads the exact width of an inspection-plate screw. They fold out like jackknives and lend themselves to baroque fantasies about spies and secret missions. (13)

Secret missions to save elevators? And yet, this book makes that tangible. The Intuitionist is so unique in both subject and tone that the only writer that comes to mind for comparison is Thomas Pynchon, or maybe Michael Chabon. For the record, I don’t enjoy Pynchon or Chabon and rarely finish their books (have no idea why I keep picking them up). Both writers excel with witty one-liners, but punctuate them with long tangents and asides that almost (but not quite) remove you from the story. At times, The Intuitionist wandered a bit far for the sake of an interesting image or clever point, but Colson always manages to pull the story back on track—something Pynchon and Chabon struggle to do.

It helps that there’s a mystery and quest to keep the story moving on a linear track—the quest for the perfect elevator:

“If we have decided that elevator studies—nuts and bolts Empiricism—imagined elevators from a human, and therefore inherently alien, point of view, wouldn’t the next logical step, after we’ve adopted the Intuitionist perspective, be to build an elevator the right way? With what we’ve learned?”
“Construct an elevator from the elevator’s point of view?”
“Wouldn’t that be the perfect elevator? Wouldn’t that be the black box?” (62-63)

There’s a lot of social commentary built around this, primarily on U.S. race relations. As Lila Mae is the first black female elevator inspector, she’s mocked and underestimated by her peers. I like books with social commentary, but I like them best when the social commentary doesn’t come at the expense of the plot and surface characters. With elevators as a base layer, I was nervous when picking up the book—you can’t assume an elevator-based plot will be convincing or interesting.

This review is vague, but I’d rather keep it that way given how many of the story’s twists and details surprised me. At times, I wanted the writing to tighten up, but many passages were beautifully or cleverly written and I didn’t resent the time spent away from the main story. Some sidebars about elevator maintenance were confusing at first; I couldn’t see how they fit into the story, but reading about Lila Mae’s studies and work ethic defined her character. She’s smart and competent and she legitimizes the story when it starts to get weird. If anyone can intuit an elevator’s fitness by riding in it, it’s Lila Mae.

I picked up this book because I wanted to read The Underground Railroad but don’t like finding an author via their latest book. The Intuitionist was Whitehead’s first book. I look forward to reading his others and seeing him develop as a writer.

Overall: 4.7  Sometimes the pretty writing threatened to wander too far afield, but the story was otherwise tight and often fun, despite a few dark turns. The level of detail devoted to the development of elevator philosophy contained excellent world building. The social commentary was insightful and poignant.

Translation: Read it.

 

14 to go! with some amendments…

Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology has replaced Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein has replaced Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell has snagged the TBD slot. Warning: The Sleep Donation review may be a rant—it’s coming in with a 1.5 and there hasn’t been a 1.5 on this site since The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August.

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein
  8. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  9. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  10. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  11. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  12. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  13. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  14. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Review: Breathing Lessons

20 Books of Summer 2017: Book 3

Many people say the most terrifying villain in Harry Potter isn’t the semi-immortal, power-hungry dark lord, but the pink-clad, doily-obsessed Professor Umbridge. She’s petty, meddlesome, and uses her power to harass, threaten, and bully the teachers and students at the school. She’s not an abstract embodiment of evil or power like Voldemort, she’s recognizable: We’ve all had a terrible teacher or boss who used their scrap of power to mock and demean the people beneath them. And so…

Even though she doesn’t kill anyone or seek world domination or do much of anything outside her familial sphere: Maggie Moran of Anne Tyler’s Breathing Lessons is my most-loathed fictional character. Are there more awful characters out there? Yep. But Maggie feels more like a person than most of them which means she provokes a stronger feeling of irritation. For the spoiler-y rationale: see page 2.

It’s hard to rate this book a 4.6. Someone might read this review and want to read the book. No one deserves to have Maggie inflicted upon them. She’s not a character whose scenes you can skip/skim then forget once you close the book. Reading Breathing Lessons is the same as being introduced to her. When you finish this book, you’ll know it’s not over. Somewhere out there, Maggie is finding new ways to needle poor Fiona and Jesse with her lies and manipulations. She can’t help herself.

Like all Tyler books, Breathing Lessons features a fully-realized (and dysfunctional) family living in Baltimore. Maggie and Ira have two children, one a lead-singer in a band who bounces between day jobs (Jesse), and the other a goody two-shoes leaving for college (Daisy). Maggie, faced with an empty nest, turns her attention to her former daughter-in-law, Fiona, and son, Jesse. If only there was a way for her to push them back together…

Maggie’s meddling seems harmless and well-intentioned at first, but it soon involves gigantic lies and fabrications. When Ira intervenes with the truth, Maggie turns on him for ruining things with “boring facts.” But, unlike Maggie, he isn’t willing to watch people make momentous decisions based on her half-truths. Her selfishness is startling at times and even cruel.

The writing is extraordinary. Even though Tyler’s prose is simple as ever, it conjures vivid imagery:

To find any place in Deer Lick, you just stopped at the one traffic light and looked in all four directions. Barbershop, two service stations, hardware, grocery, three churches—everything revealed itself at a glance. The buildings were set about as demurely as those in a model-railroad village. Trees were left standing and the sidewalks ended after three blocks. Peer down any cross street; you’d see greenery and cornfields and even, in one case, a fat brown horse dipping his nose in a pasture. (Loc 765)

The story begins with Maggie and Ira traveling to a funeral. There, the widow confides to Maggie:

“And then Linda’s kids started teasing the cat. They dressed the cat in their teddy bear’s pajamas and Linda didn’t even notice. She’s never kept them properly in line. Max and I used to bite our tongues not to point that out. Anytime they’d come we wouldn’t say a word but we’d give each other this look across the room: just trade a look, you know how you do? And all at once I had no one to trade looks with. It was the first time I’d understood that I’d truly lost him.” (Loc 909)

This is one of those tangible descriptions of grief that hits like a sucker punch.

It’s hard to talk about this book with my anti-spoilers posting philosophy, which is why my spoiler-filled rant was moved to page 2. It’s “safer” than posting spoilers after a break since you won’t see them unless you click the link. May this discovery of pagination herald a new dawn of tech-savvyness on this blog!

In short (and without spoilers), if you’re a fan of Anne Tyler, you’ll like Breathing Lessons. Her characters are as well-drawn as ever, but there’s more at stake than in her recent A Spool of Blue Thread. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant remains my favorite because its larger cast gives Tyler more to work with—she tackles romantic, parental, and sibling relationships across multiple generations. Here, Ira and Maggie are the stars and, to a lesser degree, Fiona and Jesse. As for the relationships between the parents and their son Jesse, more is implied than directly stated. I’d have liked to see more of his character and his interactions with Maggie, perhaps even a section from his perspective.

Overall: 4.6 out of 5  Technically, this score puts Breathing Lessons just above Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant which I preferred. Though Breathing isn’t as far-reaching or as moving, it does have Maggie. She and Ira feel authentic. I can’t say that another character has been such an irritant to my imagination. There were several times when I threw down the book and shouted: “Who do you think you are, Maggie??!” Usually the only people with the ability to bother me this way are people. Actual people. Technically, this book functions at the highest level, but Dinner is the better reading experience.

20 Books of Summer 2017 hosted by Cathy at 746 Books

17 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
  3. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  6. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  7. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
  10. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  11. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  12. She by H. Rider Haggard
  13. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  14. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  15. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  16. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  17. ??? (To Be Determined)

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab