Love May Fail by Matthew Quick

book cover Matthew Quick deals in damage control, from the very nervous Pat Peoples in Silver Linings Playbook to the probably autistic Bartholomew Neil in The Good Luck of Right Now, to a crate of bruised produce in his latest novel, Love May Fail. Portia Kane made a bad choice when she was younger, going for what glittered instead of substance, in her case her writerly yearnings. After confronting her cheating pornographer hubby, Ken (not a doll) in flagrante with another chicklet half her age, Portia manages not to fire her Colt 45, but, instead, heads back home, leaving her terminally damaged marriage in Florida. This being a Matthew Quick novel, home is his usual literary stomping ground, the Philadelphia area, Oaklyn, NJ specifically, which happens to be the town where Quick grew up. Portia moves in with mom who lives with some damage of her own. She is an agoraphobic hoarder with, I am sure, a rainbow of maladies identifiable in the DSM. Will taking care of mom, who, though her belfry is overstuffed, exudes unconditional love for her daughter, help Portia heal herself and get back on her true path?

About that path. Through a chance encounter with a nun, Portia finds a goal for herself. In high school, she had been one of the fortunates who got what her inspirational English teacher, Mister Vernon, had to offer. He had opened her up to creativity, writing and literature. But after suffering a large personal trauma, Vernon has shut himself away in a remote location. Portia makes it her mission to save Mister Vernon, and return him to his calling.

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Author Name

Quick has had a bit of exposure to people with trouble. In his 2013 interview with GoodReads, we learn that he had spent a year trying to help teenagers diagnosed with autism. He had other MH involvement too:
…I worked in neuro health lockdown unit as well, primarily with people who had suffered traumatic brain injuries. We always noticed when we’d get new staff, we’d watch ‘em the first day, and if they laughed on the first day, not at the people we were working with, but at the absurdity of the situation of our day-to-day. If they laughed in a good friendly way, we knew they’d be back the next day. And a lot of times if they didn’t laugh, a lot of times they wouldn’t come back again. They would just quit, after one day.

He looks a lot at existential issues in Love May Fail. Mister Vernon has a dog named Albert Camus, with whom he discusses the absurdity of life. Crazy things happen. There is an appreciation for the need of humor even, or maybe particularly, in dark times and circumstances. He has also spent some time at the front of a classroom, and this informs the novel as well.

Q populates his tales with appropriately quirky characters. The mom does not, IMHO, get enough screen time, but is interesting, in a coot-ish sort of way. Portia reconnects with an old friend from school, someone with a history of drug use. The friend’s five-year-old does Van Halen tribute performances at a local bar. Portia also encounters a saintly nun, a crusty mother superior, a good man who had always had been smitten with her, and a very irascible and troubled former teacher. Saving Mister Vernon will be a challenge. But with the support Portia builds around her, can she break through and get it done?

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Clearwater vision – from sofc.org

There are events that might be seen as miraculous in Love May Fail. Q refers to a supposed Virgin Mary sighting on the side of an office building in Clearwater. This was a real event, in which people flocked to the place to see and maybe pray to a manifestation of the Virgin. It probably wouldn’t be the strangest thing to have happened in Florida. Maybe she was looking for a condo. Deitific manipulations are applied to make sure that this or that person shows up in a particular place at a certain time. A weepily sad demise recalls the angel Clarence, from It’s a Wonderful Life. And the five-year-old’s stage performance is probably miraculous as well, although in a different way.

The journey of the story is Portia trying to resurrect her old teacher’s career, but also to let herself be born into a better, truer life. I suppose there is a point being made here about divine intervention bringing people together, with the expected nods to personal responsibility and making the most of the opportunities that come ones way, however those link-ups might have been arranged. But, while allowing for the vagaries of free choice, it does seem that there is a pretty powerful director to the events that take place in Love May Fail. Deus ex machina, sans the ex machina piece. Hey, the guy is allowed. It is his story. But it seemed to me that there was too much very specific divine intervention to sustain a willing suspension of disbelief.

Love May Fail is an interesting, engaging story with a typical cast of Q-characters. I performed the mandatory eye-rolls when I felt the divine intervention lines had been crossed, but I still enjoyed the book. Love May Fail is not Quick’s best work, and it is not so engaging as his prior effort, The Good Luck of Right Now, but still, it’s a Matthew Quick novel, so you can expect a positive outlook, likeable characters and a huge, warm heart. You could do worse for a beach outing or a flight. And if you are flying, be sure to pay attention to that nun seated next to you.

You should be warned, however. Do not read this in a public place, unless you are ok with the world seeing you go all wet-face. If you do not blubber on reading a particular scene near the very end of this book, I will officially revoke your Member of the Human Race card. I’m just sayin’.

Review posted – 6/19/15

Publication date – 6/16/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Film rights have been optioned by Sony

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

There is a lot of interesting material about Quick in this interview with Dr Jo Anne White . Q talks about coping with depression, working with autistic teens, the importance of laughter, and there is a nice segment in which he talks about teaching. The interview was done around the time his last novel was released, but is still relevant.

Here is the interview Quick did with Goodreads in May, 2013

This vid shows folks gathering at the Virgin Mary appearance in Clearwater, Florida

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Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

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After a hiatus of several centuries since it was actively practiced, magic is back in early 19th century England. Susanna Clarke has created an alternate, magical history, in which England had once been divided between north and south, and a temporal and a fairy kingdom. Stuffy intellectuals satisfy themselves with studying the writings of the past, forming debating societies. But in 1807 a person emerges who dares to actually practice magic.

Mr Norrell is an arrogant fellow, convinced not only that he is the only decent practical magician in England, but that it would be best if he were the only one allowed to practice at all. He proceeds to play politics to sustain, increase and legitimize his monopoly. The emergence of a second practical magician presents a challenge, solved in the short term by taking on Jonathan Strange as a student.

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Eddie Marsden as Mr Norrell – from AMC networks

Both magicians want to use their talent for the good of their country, and perform amusing and not so amusing spells on the French enemy. Ultimately they are faced with the growing emergence of a real, powerful, underlying magical realm. It intrudes on their lives and forces them to confront darkness while trying to master the unsuspected reality.

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Bertie Carvel as Jonathan Strange

The book has a wonderful pretext, and the tale is told in a straight style, with more than a few touches of humor. It offers a look at how the new use the machinery of government to create a sinecure, how a need to impress can lead to corruption. It is fun to read, but does take quite a long time, and has sections in which it drags. It should probably have been shorter by a hundred or two hundred pages.

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Marc Warren as “The Gentleman”

Meanderings are many. In short, or long, it was enjoyable, and is recommended, but not to the highest degree. Several award committees disagreed, holding it in significantly higher esteem. JS&MN was not only long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, it was short-listed for several other awards and won, among others, the World Fantasy award for best novel, the British Book Award for best newcomer of the Year, and the Hugo Award.

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Susanna Clarke – from Minnesota public radio

The TV adaptation was shown beginning (in the USA anyway) in June 2015

Review posted – 10/29/2008

Updated and Reposted – 6/19/15

Publication date – 9/30/2004

=============================EXTRA STUFF

I found no personal site for Clarke, nor, FB nor Twitter. Bloomsbury has put up a Facebook page for the book

A particularly nifty site organizes people, placesl et al, from the book. If you get heavily into the book, this is a must-have resource

A nice, soft article on the author visiting the production set

A 2004 interview with Clarke on the SF site

A 2005 interview on Bookslut

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Filed under Fantasy, Literary Fiction

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

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As they approach the gate Bethany thinks of the town, small and safe, awaiting their return. It is cloistered, claustrophobically familiar, but maybe—and her mother’s trembling hands return to her—mired with its own dark disturbances. It is its own kind of restive campground, in a way, its properties penciled upon common land, impinging on one another despite the fences meant to hold them apart. Huddled in that encampment are each of their families, steely cohorts within the greater clan.

Old Cranbury, CT is an older, well established suburb. In the historical part of town some of its homes date from the 18th century, and still carry the names of the families who built them. Residents of those particular homes take pride in preserving their piece of history, some of them maybe a bit too much. OC is a lovely place, a mostly middle and upper-middle-class suburb. Good schools, trimmed lawns. Unlike Chester’s Mill, Wayward Pines, Royston Vasey, or the Village, you can leave if you choose, but you will want to stick around at least long enough to get through the baker’s dozen stories about the local residents in The Wonder Garden.

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Lauren Acampora

There are plenty of weeds in Lauren Acampara’s linked-stories collection, but not the stories. The tales are flower-show ready. I imagine we have all read, seen or heard groups of tales about a particular town, or location. Our Town, Spoon River (yes, yes, I know, poems, not stories), Olive Kitteridge. Now, think hard. Were any of them yuck-fests? Didn’t think so. Ditto here. It is true that most of these stories show a less than lovely side of life in Old Cranbury. The sins are far from original. Disappointment permeates. But there are rays of sunshine as well. Change is possible, at least for some. Hopes may be dashed, but not all of them, and that there are plenty to go around gives one hope that in their imagined lives, some of these folks might live to see their dreams come true. Most of the characters are just trying to make the best of their circumstances.

It would not be a portrait of a town if the residents were not watering at least a garden-full of secrets.

she becomes aware of the hidden, parallel world beneath the mundane. Just beneath the surface of every defunct moment—finding a spot in the supermarket parking lot, waiting at a stoplight—lurks another moment, sexual, adulterous, waiting to be chosen. It shimmers faintly, a phosphorescent arc of lighter fluid ready to catch fire, detectable only to those attuned to it. She parks the car and watches the men and women going in and out through automatic the doors. Which of them are alight, secretly smoldering?

Unfaithfulness is to be expected. Some marriages are strained, while others, surprisingly, appear to be strengthened by big changes. How about wanting to violate all medical ethics to perform a very strange and intimate act? Maybe show the world the face of a concerned citizen but indulge in a bit of pointed vandalism? There is plenty of imposturing going on here. Maybe parenthood is not for everyone, including some parents? Maybe nurture fears that go well beyond the understandable? A sense of the past permeates as well. There is enough moral ambiguity through the thirteen to spark book group debates aplenty.

Unlike Olive Kitteridge, there is no single character serving as a trellis on which the stories can be strung like vines. But there is considerable back and forth. Characters are woven into and out of stories like threads in a tapestry. The author likes to introduce characters in one story and offer us their names elsewhere. Acampora admits that she inserted some of the connective tissue later on in the writing process, says the links “presented themselves” to her. It is the town itself that is the organizing structure. But there are some elements that repeat. Gardens appear in many of the stories, serving diverse purposes. Another element that struck me was the characterization of the houses of OC as particularly organic.

He intends to keep the bones of the house strong and its organs clean for decades to come, even as the skeletons of newer houses rise and fall around it.

These machines are the pumping heart of the house; everything else is frivolous and disposable in comparison.

The house is gigantic, encrusted with a dark carapace, as if diseased.

The exposed oak beams are strong as ribs along the ceiling of the first floor and the central chimney and hearth—spine and heart of the house—exude the smell of ancient smoke.

And there are more like these. On one level, one might even wonder, in a darker vein, whether people inhabit the town or if the town inhabits them. The homes, as might be expected, often reflect the lives of those who live within.

The language of the book is at times lyrical and compelling, more effectively so for the pedestrian circumstances in which it shines:

John meets the woman’s eyes again, the crystalline irises with nothing in them but confidence in the universe. He feels nearly dead in comparison, more exhausted by the moment, as if he were being depleted by her presence. It seems that there is a lack of air in this place, that the windows have been sealed shut for decades, since the long-ago children were last measured. A slow moment elapses. In the space of this pause, John feels the breath of the past, the cumulative exhalation of the house and its lost inhabitants. They seem to gather in the basement’s webbed corners, fuzzed with dust and dead skin. It strikes him that this is a last capsule of memory, that when it is swept and painted, the raw floor carpeted and windows unstuck, no trace of life will remain. The history of the house will persist only in the memories of its former residents, those far-flung stewards of dwindling, inexact images.

The characters that populate Acampara’s thirteen tales are quite well realized, particularly so, considering the short form involved. The Wonder Garden is a powerful, beautifully written work of fiction. I am sure the horticultural society will approve.

Review posted – 6/12/15

Publication date – 5/5/2015

I received this volume from GR’s First reads program – thanks guys
It was first recommended to me by my good, much younger, GR pal – Elyse. I am in your debt.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

The Wonder Garden found its origin in The Umbrella Bird story. Acampora completed a novel, from the perspective of the wife, Madeleine, but thought it was just not good enough. The Umbrella Bird in this collection is the primary remaining nugget from that project. Some of the supporting cast from the novel show up in the collection as well.

Acampora grew up in Darien, the inspiration for The Stepford Wives, so knows her suburban towns. In visiting Darien as an adult, she found that the houses seemed almost like characters.

Here is an audio interview from The Avid Reader. Beware, though. The sound quality is poor, as the host’s volume is way higher than the author’s so you will have to keep turning the volume way up and way down to keep from being knocked out of your seat.

The author in an exchange with Lily King on B&N

Here is one complete story from the collection, The Umbrella Bird

The Wonder Garden was an Amazon Book of the Month selection for May, 2015

=======================================THE STORIES

Ground Fault – John Duffy is a building inspector with a perceptive eye, and a willingness to let life’s disappointments affect his work. He could probably do with a bit of self-inspection.

Afterglow – Harold, a wealthy corporate raider, wants to be a part of his wife’s brain surgery in an unusual, and very intimate way

The Umbrella Bird – David is fed up with his corporate nine-to-five. Fixated on building a tree house for his expected child, he finds a very different muse, and his life goes in a brand new direction.

The Wonder Garden – Rosalie is a very involved, mother hen of a parent, with children in several grades of the local school. She sits on boards, hosts an exchange student, but there might be a serpent in her garden.

Swarm – Martin, a tenured professor at a state university, is offered the chance of a lifetime to create an art project that would make up for the decades in which he had had to put his art aside. But what might the cost be for realizing this dream?

Visa – Camille is a single mother who has found an amazing guy. They plan a wondrous vacation together. Can he possibly be for real?

The Virginals – Roger and Cheryl Foster live in an 18th century house. They are heavy into the Revolutionary War period, trying to live as much like those earlier Americans as possible. But the new owners of the period house across the way do not seem quite so enthusiastic. What’s a good neighbor to do?

Floortime – Career woman Suzanne Crawford is the single mother of a boy who appears to be on the autism spectrum. This would present a challenge to most parents, but if one’s maternal instincts are on the low end, the problem looms larger.

Sentry – when her neighbor’s child is left unattended for a prolonged time, Helen Tanner invites her in, to hang out a while, then a while longer, then…

Elevations – Mark and Harris own an antiques shop. They share a lovely home. But they may want different things out of life.

Aether – Some young people from OC are at a music festival when something goes terribly wrong.

Moon Roof – Lois Hatfield, on her way to a party thrown by her husband’s boss, gets caught at an intersection and cannot decide when to go.

Wampum – uneasy at a party thrown by the local one-percenters, Michael succumbs to a bit of paranoia, with dangerous results.

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Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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His whole career has been an education in hypocrisy. Eyes that once skewered him now kindle with simulated regard. Hands that would like to knock his hat off now reach out to take his hand, sometimes in a crushing grip. He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.

Be careful what you wish for. Henry VIII was pining for the younger-than-his-current-wife Anne Boleyn. After getting his heart’s desire, which required him to take on the Catholic Church, one might imagine him speaking to Thomas Cromwell as Ollie might have said to Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” nicely demonstrating an inability to accept any responsibility for his own actions. Of course, AB had gotten her heart’s desire as well, a nifty crown, plenty of staff, and she gets to headline at the palace. But pride, and not popping out a male heir, goeth before the fall, and well, the girl should have known. I mean H8 was not exactly a model hubby to his first wife. Why would she think he’d be any more loyal to her? Time for the head of household to summon Mister Fixit.

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Rafe Sadler and Stephen Gardiner

Looking for advice on ridding yourself of unwanted household pests? Running low on funds for your comfortable lifestyle? Need the occasional hard thump to the torso to get the old ticker restarted? Need to re-direct your reproductive efforts towards a more masculine outcome? Need to fend off potential assaults by enemies foreign and domestic? Why, call Mister Fixit (Yes, yes, I know there were no phones in 16th Century England, so summon Mr. Fixit. OK? Happy now? Jeez, some people). Thomas Cromwell, a man of modest origins who had risen to the highest position in the land, that did not absolutely require aristocratic genes, had already demonstrated a penchant for getting things done, by whatever means necessary. And so continues the tale, in book 2 of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Tudor England.

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Hilary Mantel

The end of Wolf Hall (You read Wolf Hall, right? If you haven’t, stop reading this now, and go get a copy. Read that and when you are done, feel free to return. What are you waiting for? Go! Scat!) was H8’s marriage to AB. The quest had come to the desired conclusion, and now they’re gonna party like it’s 1533. Not only had H8 succeeded in flipping the bird (a falcon in this case – see the badges below) to the RC, but he was engaged in swiping their stuff as well. Pope? We doan need no steenking Pope. Cromwell was the guy who had done most of the fixing. So everything should be fine now, right? Not so fast.

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Dueling Badges – Anne Boleyn’s and Catherine of Aragon’s – in case any are needed

AB is getting very full of herself but not, unfortunately full of a male heir, and there are younger ladies-in-waiting, you know, waiting. H8 has an eye problem. It wanders uncontrollably, in this instance to young, demure Jane Seymour. Of course there is the pesky business of clearing that obstruction from the royal path, and Mister Fixit is called in (sorry, summoned) to make it go away. Luckily for him he has his fingers in many administrative pies and is not shy about using his inside knowledge to achieve his boss’s goals. Cromwell also has an excellent network of spies sprinkled throughout the realm. Combine the two, make much of what was probably idle gossip, add a dollop or three of spite and voila. For good measure, TC takes particular pleasure in focusing his skills on those who had done dirt to his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, ticking off each one as they succumb to his devilry.

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The once and future – Catherine of Aragon and Jane Seymour

Was AB guilty of the crimes of which she was accused? Probably not. But as long as the folks in charge can get the people with weapons to do their bidding it does not much matter. There is no law, really, only power. Legal processes are often mere window dressing to the underlying exercise of big fish eating smaller fish, and sometimes spitting them out. The fiction of legality keeps the mass of smaller fish from chomping their much larger tormenters to bits. Sort of like now. See, people? It’s all perfectly legal.

Bring Up the Bodies is a masterful achievement, showing, step-by-step, how dark aims are orchestrated and achieved. In laying this out, Hilary Mantel also offers us a look at how the reins of power can be abused by the unscrupulous, and Thomas Cromwell is shown in his full unscrupulousness in this volume. He was gonna get these guys and when he saw his chance, he took it. Where Wolf Hall presented a more removed Cromwell, Bring Up the Bodies shows us Cromwell as more than a fixer, more than a technocrat. We get to see him as a monster, despite his supposed desire to make England more equitable for working people.

H8 is shown much more as a spoiled psycho-child in this volume. Whatever his intelligence, whatever his accomplishments, what we see of Henry here is primarily his boorishness, his childishness. I want what I want and I do not care who gets hurt, or even killed, so I can have it. I was reminded of the great Twilight Zone episode It’s a Good Life.

Mantel won a second Booker prize for this one, and it was well deserved. Not only do we get a very human look at a key period in Western history, but are blessed with Mantel’s amazing wit as manifested by her characters, and consideration of issues that transcend history, as well as a compelling episode of Survival: Tudor. It is an easier read than the first book, more engaging, if that is possible. If you have not seen the miniseries made from the combined volumes you really must. Hilary Mantel has brought out her best in Bring Up the Bodies, using her genius for historical fiction to make the old seem new again. You won’t lose your head if you don’t read this book, but you probably should.

Review posted – 5/22/15

Publication date – 5/8/2012

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google + and FB pages

Excellent radio interview with Mantel by Leonard Lopate

A marvelous New Yorker magazine article looking at Mantel’s career

Great material here in another New Yorker article, Invitation to a Beheading, by James Wood

Why isn’t Henry VIII fat and other Wolf Hall mysteries explained

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

SevenEves by Neal Stephenson

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The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.

I guess in order to indulge in a bit of world-building one must destroy the world first.

Neal Stephenson is a genius. A polymath with a wide range of interests, he specializes in the big idea, and the more concrete the better. In this way he carries forward the tradition of hard science fiction, in which the best example is probably Arthur C. Clarke. Stephenson eschews FTL transportation, time travel, invading aliens, or any of the other tropes of sci-fi that cannot find a solid basis in contemporary science. Instead he takes what is known, adds what is possible, and extrapolates to what could be. His one concession to the unknown is his opening, noted at top. Although a theory or two are trotted out, we never really learn what caused the moon to explode. Consider it the MacGuffin of the novel, the plot device that gets the action moving. I guess breaking up isn’t hard to do. No exploding moon? No story. Why does it explode? Doesn’t matter. The story is about what happens after.

The kernel around which the story nucleated was the space debris problem, which I had been reading about, both as a potential obstacle to the company’s efforts and as a possible opportunity to do something useful in space by looking for ways to remediate it. Some researchers had begun to express concern over the possibility that a collision between two pieces of debris might spawn a large number of fragments, thereby increasing the probability of further collisions and further fragments, producing a chain reaction that might put so much debris into low earth orbit as to create a barrier to future space exploration. – from Stephenson’s site

And the story is a compelling one, not so much in the sense of classic plot construction, but in terms of how we get from the biggest “OH CRAP” moment in human history, to something not guaranteed to soil pants. Stephenson looks most attentively at the engineering details of what is involved in trying to salvage the human race, once it is clear that the sky will go all to pieces, that the term scorched earth will be applicable to all the land on Earth, that the homeland will become a wasteland. What hardware is necessary? What is available? What can go wrong? How do we get from here to up there? This is his gig. He loves this stuff and it shows. He also does a good job of portraying the ensuing struggles down below. Who will be selected to survive? How will they be picked? How will the politics of the selection be handled? What will the criteria be? Ideas bang into other ideas, which fracture and crash into even more ideas, and so on, until you have an entire layer of nifty concept blanketing your brain.

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World leaders make the big announcement of imminent doom at Crater Lake, and yes, it really is that blue

I think Stephenson is more optimistic than most and his presumptions about the level of on-the-ground conflict and pure lunacy are out of line with what we know about humans. He gives only a little thought to deniers, but in a country like the USA, for example, in which a quarter of the population does not believe in evolution, in which the Republican base clings to beliefs that would make L. Ron Hubbard scream for mercy, in which Texas lunatics of both the tinfoil-hat and elected variety (I know, no real difference there) persuade themselves that a military exercise is a federal invasion, there would be a lot more going on, denier-wise, than Stephenson projects. All theoretical of course, but do you really think that in the time remaining that birthers and those who believe the Apollo moon landing was a hoax would not make use of their considerable ordnance to make life even more miserable for those with brains?

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Neal Stephenson

The book is divided into three parts, although it breaks down into smaller chapter chunks. The first takes us from the initial event to the beginning of the end of Earth as we know it, how humanity comes together, or doesn’t, to preserve the species. Part two takes on the final days of earth and a whole new world of conflict, resolution, or not, setting the stage for Part three, five thousand years on, when, through forces natural and engineer-enhanced, it is again possible to set foot on Mother Earth without singeing your toes. The seven eves of the title refer to the last orbiting survivors, whose reproductive capacity and DNA is used in an attempt to reconstitute the species, and, hopefully, in time, reclaim the original Mother ship.

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This inflatable harbinger will be heading to the ISS this year – image from Smithsonian Magazine

Stephenson does action-adventure pretty well, and there is plenty of that here. The end of the Earth is a compelling starting point and survival of the species concerns will keep you engaged. Will this work? Will that? Who will live? Who won’t?

Character is not the thing in Neal Stephenson fiction. His greatest talents lie elsewhere. Although it is definitely fun that he puts an avatar of Neal DeGrasse Tyson aboard. The significance of character here is to consider personality differences and their social, and genetic engineering implications. Given people with certain traits, how are they likely to behave, and how will those behaviors help or harm the survivability of homo sap? There is consideration of the concept of the state of nature. What is natural for people? How is that defined? Pretty interesting stuff. And there is plenty more brain candy in SevenEves. (Not for you, zombies, go away) On the hardware side, how about harnessing asteroids and comets for raw materials? Using robots of unexpectedly small dimensions for space-mining? Making orbiting environments in which humanity could survive, and even expand? How about some notions for terra-forming not only lifeless space rocks, but…um…Terra. How about interesting ways of transporting people and materials between orbiting locations, and between Earth and orbit. How about some advanced notions for individual flight on-planet? Life sciences? How about the challenges of food production in space? Bio-engineering is the biggest item here, not only in selecting who gets to be among those sent into orbit to survive torch-ageddon. But in figuring out how the differences in people can be used to ensure survival of the species, and looking at the results, some of which are quite surprising. Social science? Well, the science is a lot softer here, but the politics of end-times Earth and struggles for power among the spacers offer a look at elements of human nature that will be familiar. Stephenson’s optimism about our ability to think our way to actual survival is balanced by his recognition that we are, as a species, probably certifiable, so will continue having at each other as long as there are others to go after.

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An O’Neill Cylinder – from the outside

I am certain that those more versed in contemporary sci-fi will have more recent comparisons to make, but the work that I was most reminded of here is the Hugo-Award-winner for Best-All-Time Series, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. In both, a core of talented people (a broader range of talent than in Stephenson‘s more engineer-and-hard-science-oriented portrayal) are brought together to preserve human culture in the face of an imminent catastrophe. The specifics are quite different, but they share a grandness of vision. No psychohistory in SevenEves, but the multi-millennial look at humanity offers the opportunity for and realization of a great speculative vision.

There are some commonalities between SevenEves and another recent, and very popular, sci-fi offering of the space variety, The Martian. Not in girth, of course. The Martian, at a mere 384 pps, could dock with and be pulled up on the side the 880 page SevenEves like a tender boat on a cruise ship. Both deal with life-and-death scenarios in an airless void (no, not the US Congress), although one deals with a single life in jeopardy, while the other takes on a larger target. But there is a heavy emphasis on tech in both. Weir’s wonderful story offered an engaging narrator and way too much detail on how he goes about attempting to survive while stranded on the red planet. Stephenson writes about things that he finds interesting whether or not they clutter up the story with technical minutiae, and at 880 pps, trust me, there is too much detail. Hey, his book, his story. He gets off on the details of mechanics, and it is nowhere as mind-numbing as an endless jeremiad by, say John Galt, but you may find yourself feeling a need to skim from time to time. (Purely an aside – I think Chris Moore should write a novel about the Republican clown car of presidential candidates, called The Galt in our Stars, in which someone gets a life threatening disease and no one cares). I wonder also how the very small number of remnant original eves is supposed to be able to provide the training their progeny will require to master all the skills required to sustain civilization. I am sure there are many other details one could look at in considering the next five thousand or so years, but it might take a few more volumes.

SevenEves is a major contribution to contemporary science fiction. It is engaging enough on a visceral level, but it is crack not just for sci-fi fans, but for futurists, scientists, geneticists, engineers, and those concerned with how humanity will survive the challenges that lie ahead. It is a big book, not only in its physical bulk, but in its ambition and range of interests. Like the great works of his predecessors, Asimov, Clarke and other giants of science fiction, the vision Stephenson has built in SevenEves will be read, I expect, as long as there are still people left alive, whether on Earth or not.

Publication date – 5/19/15

This review posted – 5/15/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Google Plus and FB pages

Folks who object to paying their taxes are already interested in working on extra-national, and even extra-terrestrial living spaces. At Island One Society there is information on sundry plans that are currently being considered. Please do not take this as an endorsement of any of the political viewpoints expressed there. I include this link purely because it gathers together a nice list of such projects.

O’Neill Cylinders are mentions in SevenEves. This link offers a nifty animated fly-through that will offer a better sense than a single graphic image could.

Roboticized mining is the likeliest way we will make use of extra-terrestrial natural resources This example of the coming tech is called Swarmies.

I have read several Stephenson books over the years, but Reamde is the only one I have previously reviewed.

More shots of Crater Lake, among other places in that general neck of the woods

Fascinating piece from The Atlantic Magazine on mining the asteroids, among other things, Robots, Platinum, and Tiny Space Telescopes: The Pitch for Mining Asteroids by Ross Anderson from the May 14, 2012 issue

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Girl in the Moonlight by Charles Dubow

book cover

That afternoon was my first inkling that there was more to the world than it appeared. Like the glimpse of a secret garden through a crack in the door, I discovered something I hadn’t known was missing. Where colors were brighter, tastes stronger, feelings deeper. And once I recognized it, I wanted it, missed it—and was unsure I would ever find my way back to it. It was a land of Cockaigne, the hidden kingdom.

Girl in the Moonlight (originally, and better titled Naked in the Moonlight) is the second novel by Charles Dubow, author of the wonderful, steamy 2013 novel, Indiscretion. In …Moonlight, he brings us back to the Hamptons that was the setting for much of the earlier book. Wylie Rose is closing down a summer house where he’d spent much of his youth, and remembering. No madeleines required. But an evocative painting brings back to him, and us, the story of a lifetime of passion, obsession, and love.

book cover

Charles Dubow

How young is too young to meet The One? Wylie was only 10 when he first met Francesca, at 12, the oldest of the four Bonet sibs. A hidden kingdom of attraction opens its doors to him. He falls hard for her, literally. Wylie forms a close friendship with Aurelio Bonet, Cesca’s younger brother, and through this bond, Cesca will pop into and out of Wylie’s life for the duration of his Odyssey. The driving force to the story is the will-they-or-won’t-they-wind-up-together question as they sail through their lives.

Of course, even as a young thing, Cesca is special. In adolescence she begins to take on the characteristics of a siren and sings for all the ships to hear as an adult. Wylie may have known at some level that he should have plugged up his ears (and covered his eyes, for that matter) but he would spend most of his life tied to the mast, enduring the song. Will he be drawn in to his own destruction?

description
Ulysses and the Sirens
– by John William Waterhouse – from the National Gallery in Melbourne

There are certainly gross similarities in form with Dubow’s earlier work. We revisit the Hamptons, and the company of the very well-to-do. The author is of this set and writes what he knows. There is an almost supernaturally attractive female, and a smitten male. (Indiscretion actually had two smitten males, the secondary one having a bit more in common with Wylie than the primary) Trouble soon follows, with a trail of emotional collateral damage. But, lest one suspect that Dubow has shoved off into the water to net the same fish, there are significant differences. In the earlier book, a successful, well-known middle-aged, married man is drawn from (leaps from) his life by an admiring young thing. Here, the two know each other from childhood, growing together and apart over their lives. The time span of the core story (not backstory) is far greater in Moonlight, decades instead of a few years. Indiscretion had much to do with discontent with one’s life, and insecurity about one’s place in it. There is some of that here but Wylie and Cesca are not struggling with the detritus of generations. They seem perfectly content to employ their advantages in pursuit of their movable dreams, trying this and then that in hopes of plotting a steady course. Wylie, for example, opts to pursue a course of study, so enrolls in Harvard for his advanced-degree training, as if it were the equivalent of stopping off at the corner store to buy a lottery ticket. While both novels have a love story at their core, among the one-percent, so do a billion other books. There is a geographical sweep in Moonlight that extends far wider than that in Indiscretion, with stops in Spain, Paris, London and even some connections to Tokyo and Africa, in addition to the usual Hamptons/NYC setting. Indiscretion and Moonlight are indeed very different tales.

There are several elements in Moonlight that stand out. First there is the tension of wondering if the two will ever get together. That sort of thing may be standard fare for stories of this kind, but how that is executed is significant. I found it was quite well done here. Plenty stands in the way of the two getting together (has to be, of course, or there wouldn’t be a story to tell) not least Cesca’s ability to attract men. Second, there is a feeling of melancholy, which may summon your own regrets to mind.

What if I had chosen differently? Would I be here at this moment? There are the dreams our parents have for us, and then there is the life that we create for ourselves. It is impossible to know. The secret, they say, is not to regret—but that, I have found, is impossible. The most one can hope for is to forget. Memory, though, is a poor servant; it bursts in on you when you least expect it.

And there is the ever-present element of hope. It is not a misdirect, there really is a chance they might get together. But I will not tell if they do or don’t. Of course if hope is a thing with feathers, is that a good thing? Would it be better if hope were a thing with scales?

description
Ulysses and the Sirens
– by H.J. Draper – from Wikipedia

I have spent as much time with the one percent as I have with the Illuminati, so I did not feel much connection based on socioeconomic commonalities. On the other hand, I have had my share of emotional disappointments, false steps and traumas, so on a feeling level I found that it was quite possible to connect. Wylie is a very relatable character, a decent guy trying to find himself. Effective writing takes you past surface differences to core emotional experience.

Can she hold him off forever? Doe she really care for him or is Cesca only toying with Wylie, luring him to his own destruction? Can he endure long enough? Should he? What about having a real life and not one based on a myth? At what point does one cross over from being dependable to being a doormat? When do you just throw up your hands and sail back out to sea? And what might happen if you did?

Dubow has a wondrous ability to describe places, imbuing them with life, with history. He can paint a scene beautifully, which is not surprising given that he once planned to be a painter. He can create living characters. Wylie Rose is the evidence. None of the other characters is as fully realized as Wylie, but they are still well done. Aurelio was also very appealing, but we do not see enough of him. Cesca’s path may seem scattered, but Dubow’s explanation for her zig-zag route is believable. I found the other characters much less well realized, but not everyone has to get center stage. They are filled in enough to contribute to the story. The author also has a wondrous gift for communicating the ambivalence we all experience, in looking back, at roads not taken.

Girl in the Moonlight will keep you turning pages, maybe not so quickly as Indiscretion did, but it is a solid read. It will pull you in and hold you, without, thankfully, dashing you on the rocks.

Review posted – 5/8/15

Publication date – 5/12/15

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter and FB pages

A piece Dubow wrote for Newsweek Magazine on Stuttering

About five minutes of the audio book

My review of Indiscretion

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World Gone By by Dennis Lenahe

book cover

What they didn’t tell you about absolute power was that it was never absolute; the instant you had it, someone had already lined up to try to take it away. Princes could sleep soundly, but never kings. The ear was always tuned for the creak on the floorboard, the whine of a hinge.

The princes would probably do well to stay alert as well. Remember Richard the Third? World Gone By is the final volume of Dennis Lehane’s Coughlin Family trilogy. The series began ambitiously with The Given Day, set in Boston, among other places, in the late 19-teens. That book cast a perceptive eye on the social movements of the era, and the underlying problems that called them into being. It was an opus magnus, big canvas, big ideas, well realized. The second of the Coughlin books, Live by Night, shifted the focus to Florida in the roaring twenties, Prohibition, rum trade, a fair bit on the DNA of violence. It was smart, literary, insightful, and a damn fine read. It took a lot of wordsmith ordnance to produce the first two. But it seems that there were only a few cartridges left when it came time for the third. This is not to say it is not a good book. I liked it. But, compared to its older siblings, it is disappointing for the reduction in scope, and the feeling one might get that Lehane was dashing through this one to finish the series so he could move on to something else.

Joe Coughlin, in Live by Night, had carved out a nice little chunk of the Florida crime market. Even bought himself some public respectability. But now he has scaled back. Maintains a low public profile. Although he is still a member of the organized crime council, he functions as a freelancer, an advisor, a voice of wisdom, a gangland statesman almost.

“So was I a gangster?” He nodded. “Yes. Now I’m an advisor to people.”
“Criminals.”
He shrugged. “A friend of mine was Public Enemy Number Three about six years ago—“
She sat up quickly. “See, that’s what I’m saying. Who could begin a sentence, ‘A friend of mine was Public Enemy’ anything?”

He is doing well, plenty of money, a son he adores, a gorgeous, connected girlfriend. He hobnobs with the movers and shakers financial and civic, also has working relationships with the military and the police. But he gets wind that there is a hit out on him, and the game is afoot. Who, when, why? This gives the story structure, a ticking bomb, with tension ramping up as the deadline approaches.

book cover

Dennis Lehane -from Boston Magazine

Lehane brings back plenty of the cast from the last episode, but there is enough new blood to keep things pumping. Joe’s pal, boss of bosses Dion Bartolo, appears to have a mole in his organization. People are dying or being locked up. It’s bad for business and needs to end. One of Joe Coughlin’s challenges is to unearth the snitch. There is enough organizational politicking, back-stabbing (literally, as the case may be) and maneuvering for fans of Wolf Hall or Game of Thrones. The seats of power may be smaller, but the desire, and willingness to do whatever it takes is just as high.

The scale of this book is far different from that of its elders, 309 pps for this one, versus 402 for Live by Night and 704 for The Given Day. This one takes place within a few weeks, whereas the prior two covered decades. But thematic strains persist.

the gangster genre to me has always been a metaphor for unfettered capitalism. It’s the American system run completely amok without regulation, without anything. So whereas in the real world you have, say, Exxon buying off the State of New Jersey (a recently proposed [and accepted] pollution settlement) — well, in the gangster novel, that would just be somebody would get killed. – from the U-T San Diego interview

Family figures large here, again. Lehane brings back issues of fathers and sons, how violence by elders scar and steer their children. Can the cycle ever be broken? Moms have a hard time of it, mostly by their absence. Although one, who is, delightfully, a floral arranger and contract killer, makes a well-deserved dent in her abusive hubby’s cranium to achieve her widowhood. Widowers abound, usually with sons. It’s a man’s world, more so than in the earlier books, probably because the female characters have been killed off.

I didn’t realize that until after the book was pretty much going to print. I could have thought that one through a little bit more. Where the hell are all the women in this? – from LA Review of Books interview

Lehane touches on race as well, most poignantly in a scene where Joe Coughlin talks with his mixed race son, Tomas, about being called a nigger.

There are some wonderful characters here. A top-hatted Montooth Dix conjures images of Baron Samedi. A mob doctor has a particularly interesting tale to tell. An unaffiliated don has a group of bodyguards with a particularly daunting rep. One of the mob bosses has a gambling problem. Contract killers have kids, and even a big deal like Joe Coughlin has to cope with his kid getting chicken pox. So there are both broad and fine brushes in Lehane’s set.

Throughout the book Joe sees a young boy. He is uncertain if the boy is real, a message from the other side, maybe manifestation of a brain tumor. But the sightings trouble him. And this is not the only potentially spectral child presence in the book. He wrestles with feeling alone in the world as well, the larger family of which he was a member having, despite the lie about putting family first, done an excellent job of making orphans.

Joe gives some thought to the hereafter, making up for his crimes, sure, but more interestingly, offers up a very interesting notion of time

“Do you think she’s happy? Wherever she is?”
His father turned on the seat and faced him. “Matter of fact, I do.”
“Bus she must be lonely.”
“Depends. If you believe time works like it does down here, then, yeah, she’s only got her father for company and she didn’t much like him.” He patted Tomas’s knee. “But what if there’s no such thing as time after this life?”
“I don’t understand.”
“No minutes, no hours, no clocks. No night turning into day. I like to think your mother’s not alone, because she’s not waiting for us. We’re already there. “

So, what’s not to like? Were this the first book in the series, or a stand-alone volume, one might look at World Gone By differently. But it is part of a trilogy, so the first two parts must be taken into account as well. How does it compare? The Given Day is a big-time historical novel. An epic, a saga, about a time and place, covering considerable time, considerable history. It is a book with heft, and not just from its 700+ pages. Live By Night, while not sharing the same scope as its predecessor, was an amazing book that carried the Coughlin family gangster story forward in the context of American history. There were added artistic elements that gave the work some extra oomph. With World Gone By the scope of the first, and even the second book is abandoned for a smaller tale. The ghostly visitation by a young boy that Joe experiences would be more interesting if Lehane had not played a very similar card already in Live by Night. The sociopolitical concerns persist, and I suppose there is nothing wrong with flogging a theme, but it seemed to me that this had been done pretty clearly in the previous volumes, so that when we stop by there again this time it was a case of been-there-done-that. There is a strain of melancholy here that exceeds that of his prior books. Check out Ivy Pochoda’s interview with Lehane in the LA Review of Books on that. There are reasons.

I liked the book. There is a lot of substance surrounding the gangster tale. Some of the secondary characters were wonderful. The ramping up of tension worked well. You might not have the same sort of reaction I did to what seemed recycled material. That is mostly what kept me from liking it more. (Wish I could give it three and a half stars) Joe Coughlin is an engaging character and, despite his chosen profession, one can relate to him. World Gone By completes the Coughlin trilogy, day, night, gone.

Lehane has already begun work on another trilogy, this one set in more contemporary Boston.

Review posted – 5/1/15

Publication date – 3/10/15

======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Interviews

—–Ivy Pochoda for the LA Review of Books

—–John Wilkens for the Union Tribune San Diego

—–Colette Bancroft for the Tampa Bay Times

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