December 22, 2014

Another End-of-the-Year Book Catchup

There's no theme to this set of reviews, other than that they're the ones I have left to post as the year winds down:

THE AMADO WOMEN by Désirée Zamorano is a story about a family coping with secrets and resentments, which is right up my fictional alley.

Mercy Amado is pleased about celebrating her sixtieth birthday with her three grown daughters, but she's concerned that none of her girls are as happy in their lives, or with each other, as they might be. And Mercy doesn't even know about the worst of the problems. The narrative rotates among the four Amado women as they face challenges and heartbreak that sometimes bring them together as a family and sometimes drive them apart.

The novel features strong, complex characters who often act against their own best interests, which makes for great dramatic fodder. There's a lot of tragedy and upsetting subject matter in this story, but enough hope to leave readers feeling uplifted. I found this book useful in thinking about my own writing, which covers some similar themes.

SELF-HELP by Lorrie Moore: In keeping with the title, most of the stories in this collection are framed as a set of instructions, though the way this premise plays out in the narrative differs between stories. For example, "How" tells the story of a troubled relationship (as so many of these stories do) by directing the reader through a series of steps, some of which include options:

Somehow--in a restaurant or a store--meet an actor. From Vassar or Yale. He can quote Coriolanus's mother. This will seem good. Sleep with him once and ride home at 5 a.m. crying in a taxicab. Or: don't sleep with him. Kiss him good night at Union Square and run for your life.

Not every story in the collection appealed to me, but I love Moore's writing style, which is conversational and clever, full of wordplay, jokes, and unusual but apt descriptions. Like this paragraph:

When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet.

That's from "How to Be an Other Woman", the first story in the collection and the one I liked best. As the title suggests, the plot is generic, every mistress's story, but the specificity of the character and her thoughts makes the story gripping, and often wryly funny.

December 17, 2014

Silicon Valley Novels

I live in Silicon Valley, so I always like finding a book that uses this area as a setting. I've even written one myself. (Incidentally, a real conversation I once had with a San Franciscan: "It's set in San Jose." "Why???") This fall, I read (and reread) a few Silicon Valley novels:

THE MOMENT OF EVERYTHING by Shelly King: After years at Silicon Valley startups, Maggie has been laid off (again), and she's spending her days at a Mountain View used bookstore instead of looking for a new job. At the store, she finds a tattered copy of LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER containing a series of romantic notes that two strangers once left for each other. Maggie's fascination with the mysterious lovers sets off a string of events, and soon she has both a job and a romance of her own. Neither of these are quite what she expected, or what she wanted, and they turn out to be not quite what they seem.

This is a sweet, funny story about books and love and love of books. I was charmed by Maggie's first person narration and the entertaining cast of characters. I enjoyed the gentle satire of Silicon Valley culture, and it was fun to imagine the fictional businesses along Mountain View's real Castro Street. While the story dragged for me a bit in the middle, I got caught up in the story again once the plot started delivering its many surprises.

MICROSERFS by Douglas Coupland, written and set in the mid 1990s, is about a group of Microsoft employees who quit, move to Silicon Valley, and start a company of their own. I first read (and loved) it in 1997, shortly after moving to Silicon Valley myself, so rereading it was strongly nostalgic of both the era and my younger self. This time around, I wondered how many of the now-familiar technical and cultural references were meaningless to me back then.

MICROSERFS is great as a depiction of 90s geek culture and as a portrait of an engaging group of friends. The story is presented as a series of journal entries, a format that is somewhat limiting and leads to the inclusion of various boring details during the lulls when nothing's happening in the narrator's life. In general, it's not a plot-heavy book -- that synopsis I gave in the first sentence is pretty much the story -- but I was happy just spending time with the characters. So despite the weaknesses in the narrative, I enjoyed the reread, and I remain a fan of the way this book captures a time and place.

THE BUG by Ellen Ullman is about the quest to track down and fix a software bug, and I've never read another piece of fiction that makes authentic programming details such an integral part of the plot. If you're tickled by the idea of "kill -9" as a plot point, you'll like this book. But if you don't know what this means, don't worry, because all is entertainingly explained within the text, and the story is about so much more than a bug.

The setting is the mid 1980s, during the early days of graphical user interfaces. A software tester who wanted to be a linguistics professor discovers a bug that can't be replicated. She passes a report to the engineer responsible for the front end, and he tries to ignore the problem, the same way he's ignoring his girlfriend and the increasing distance in their relationship. In time, the bug reappears, but it remains elusive, unable to be captured or corrected, and it gradually wreaks havoc on the lives of these two characters.

I admire the way Ullman digs into the depths of both code and human behavior to tell this story. The strong and careful plotting make this is a suspenseful and fascinating read.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Ploughshares, Amy Jo Burns offers five aphorisms to consider when revising: "Don't simplify the complex: Real life has no saints or sinners, only humans who are capable of selfless and selfish acts."

December 12, 2014

Continuations of Series

Recently I read on in several book series that I'd started earlier this year. I completed a trilogy, read the new second book in a trilogy-in-progress, and finished a duology:

→ The Last Policeman series by Ben H. Winters follows a New Hampshire detective who's determined to keep solving crimes even though life as we know it is about to be destroyed by an asteroid strike. As that premise might suggest, it's kind of a page-turner, so I'm glad I waited to read the first book until all installments of the trilogy were published. I read and loved THE LAST POLICEMAN in September and then rationed out the other two books over the next two months. They're all fantastic.

I was delighted to find COUNTDOWN CITY as excellent as the first book. In less than three months, the asteroid will strike, and the situation is growing more and more apocalyptic. Southern New Hampshire now lacks electricity -- and coffee! Henry Palace would like to continue solving crimes, but he no longer has the resources or the authority. Still, he takes on a missing persons case, and in the course of the investigation, he has to enlist the help of his sister and get mixed up in her wild conspiracy theories.

The premise of the series is what attracted me, but the great characters and narrative voice have me hooked. I like the way everyone in this story is real and flawed. I also like that while the mysteries are eventually solved, it doesn't happen cleanly: Henry makes mistakes and gets things wrong in the process.

I was almost too nervous to start WORLD OF TROUBLE, because as much as I wanted to know how the story resolved, I was afraid of how the story would resolve. I won't say much about this book so as not to give anything away, but it was a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

The asteroid is fast approaching, and the situation is beyond desperate, but Henry Palace is determined to solve one final case. The search takes him into new territory, where he encounters people who are taking a variety of tactics as they face the end of the world.

Every chapter of this book is agonizing and surprising. While there are still moments of levity, the overall tone is appropriately more intense than in the first two books. Henry, along with the rest of the world, is under a lot of strain, but he remains the single-minded and honorable policeman I've grown so fond of.

→ Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch series begins with ANCILLARY JUSTICE, which I recommended in June. The epic work of science fiction came out last year and won all the awards. This fall's new installment, ANCILLARY SWORD, is another accomplished novel, and I liked it even better than the first book.

December 4, 2014

Captain Bandorf's Treasure

The next piece of my childhood writing that I'd like to share is an important work entitled "Captain Bandorf's Treasure". The significance of this item is evident in the story's binding (the "two-staple" method common to the era), the full-color, laminated cover, and the illuminated letter at the start of the first sentence. These lavish features suggest there was at least one earlier draft of the manuscript, but alas, prior versions are no longer extant. While the work is undated, the artifact is believed to have originated in the fourth grade, making it contemporary with the previous entries. For the time period, this is a lengthy story, filling eight pages (four double-sided sheets).

As a qualifier to the number of pages, I think it's time to address the absurdly large paragraph indents, which can also be seen in photos of the Flutterina story. These empty spaces stretch from a third to half of the way across the line, often increasing over the course of a story. I recall that there was a rule about how many fingers to place on the paper as a guideline for indentation. Either the number stipulated was excessive, or I had really large fingers as a child.

Anyway, please enjoy the exciting quest for Captain Bandorf's Treasure. After the stunning conclusion, I'll offer some comments on the story.