A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse

This is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.

My definition of pornography is probably different from yours.  Pornography offers its viewers a fantasy depiction of something they cannot have, usually a sexual fantasy.  At some point in life, one finds  that Playboy, or Blueboy, or whatever, has been largely replaced with Architectural Digest– pictures of beautiful people give way to pictures of beautiful homes.  Middle-aged pornography.  But at heart, you’re still lusting after things you’re not going to get.
Some readers fantasize about owning a bookstore devoted to the kinds of books they love, especially readers who’ve never worked in a bookstore like me.  (My own fantasy bookstore is called Wuthering Heights Books–it carries a wide range of books, arranged geographically by original language, on a wide range of topics but is best known for it’s section devoted to books by and about the Brontes.)  Most of us will never work in our fantasy bookstore, let alone own it.  Frankly, we’re lucky if we’re able to shop in it now and then.
So, under my definition of the term, A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cosse is the most pornographic book I’ve read all year.
In the novel’s opening scenes, Ivan and Francesca meet in an little known bookstore in an Alpine resort town.  Ivan runs the store which he stocks with the novels he admires instead of the current best sellers.  While his sales never amount to much, he does develop  devoted followings who seek him out in between runs on the ski slopes to ask if he has discovered anyone new they should be reading.
When Ivan is eventually fired in favor of someone who will stock best-sellers, he and Francesca, one of his more devoted customers, join forces to open up their dream bookstore,  The Good Novel, which will not only sell just novels, it will sell just “good novels.”  The rest of the book describes how the two set up and run their bookstore in spite of a publishing establishment that is not only against them but apparently willing to resort to violence to stop them if necessary.
I don’t know if Ms. Cosse has ever worked in a bookstore, but reality is beside the point in A Novel Bookstore.  The  day to day operation of The Good Novel is of interest because it is a fantasy.  We don’t care how real bookstores are run; we want to know how our dream bookstore would work.  Francesca and Ivan allow Ms. Cosse to give her own book snobbery free reign.  The two select a committee of eight authors whom they admire. This committee will operate in secret, the eight do not even know who the other members are, to select 600 novels each.  Their combined lists form the initial stock offered for sale at  The Good Novel and is added to each year as new books come out and as the committee finds unfamiliar titles they deem worthy.
Rival bookstore chains and jilted authors set out to sabotage The Good Novel from the start, but enough readers find the store to make it a hit.  That’s it’s located in Paris helps both the store and the book’s readers.  Isn’t your fantasy bookstore in Paris?
A Novel Bookstore is a novel, and there is enough romance and mystery to make up an engaging plot, but I was most interested in the operation of the bookstore.  It was nice to find out who really loved who and all, but things like store’s initial advertising campaign interested me much  more.  It’s best bit, a full page ad featuring
a background of the type of Restoration painting that is often too hastily described as ‘a minor oil’: a patch of Roman countryside with a Tilbury briskly trotting by and in it’s window you would recognize, if you had any literary background at all, the profile of Stendhal” with the words “All the books no one is talking about
across the front.
All right, I’m a bit of a snob, but not enough of one that I didn’t have to look up Tilbury.  It’s a type of carriage with one seat and two large wheels.  So, if you’re someone drawn to the books “no one is talking about,” A Novel Bookstore may bring you more pleasure than a year’s subscription to Architectural Digest.
Since I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. back in August of 2011, I have discovered that Laurence Cosse is a woman. I have changed the pronouns above to correct this error. I really should look these things up before I press ‘publish’.

High Dive by Jonathan Lee

This marks the end of my Tournament of Books 2017 reading.

It’s been fun. Really. I read a good-sized handful of books from the short list, enjoyed most of them, admired a few, didn’t finish one. I’ve even come away with a few titles sure to make my personal short list of favorite reads for this year.

But I’m moving on to other titles now.  There’s a big, too big to discuss, pile on my nightstand that I’d like to get around to.

I did not read The Mothers by Brit Bennet so I cannot comment on whether or not the best book won this round, but it does seem like I tend to pick slightly more winners than losers. Though even the “losers” I read were darn good. Actually, the losers include my favorite of the bunch The Vegetarian.

So, I should say something about Jonathan Lee’s novel High Dive. 

While the book works more or less as a thriller, I didn’t feel a whole lot of suspense myself, what works best about the book is the relationship between middle-aged hotelier and former high dive champion Moose and his daughter Freya an acerbic teenager on the cusp of adulthood.  In what I found to be a much less interesting subplot an IRA fighter, does one still call them terrorists, is planning on bombing the hotel when Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher and the rest of her party gather there for a conference.

Just past the halfway mark there is a brief scene between Moose and his sometimes love interest wherein the author explains just what he is up to in High Dive. It’s a piece of foreshadowing that I didn’t think I was supposed to spot, except in retrospect.  There should have been a “I should have seen it coming” moment but my moment was “Oh, I see what’s gong to happen” which is problematic with a thriller.

With no suspense for my reading, High Dive was an interesting and enjoyable character study of Moose and Freya. I enjoyed spending time with both of them, came to like them both, wanted them to find what they were looking for in life. And I was very sorry to see it all end the way it did.

Which is probably the point the author wanted to make when he gave away the ending anyway.

Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer

Before she was executed, Anne Boleyn’s head was shaved.  Afterwards, her hair was given to the executioner as part of the payment for his work.  He then sold it, at a considerable sum for the time, to a maker of tennis balls, which were often filled with human hair in that century.  Anne Boleyn’s hair was valued material for tennis balls because it was female, reddish in color and from someone believed to be a witch.  Four tennis balls were made from her hair.  One was used in a famed match between Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio and Spanish poet Francisco de Quevedo. Another, through the usual suspicious provenance, ended up at  the New York Public Library.

Since C.J. and I are cat-sitting in Brooklyn this summer, I, of course, thought we should go see this tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair.   So I contacted the New York Public Library to ask if the tennis ball was on display.  The librarian I spoke with, Nick, said he had never heard of this he would have heard of if they had a tennis ball made from Anne Boleyn’s hair, but he gave me the number of a department that would probably know more about it.

So I did some on-line research only to discover, in a few minutes, that Alvaro Enrigue made the whole thing up.  There are no tennis balls made from Anne Boleyns hair.  Caravaggio and de Quevedo never played tennis against each other.  The entire book is fiction, historical fiction.

But that I believed it all, or was so ready to believe it all, says something, maybe something about Mr. Enrigue’s book or maybe something about me.

Though I can say what happens in Sudden Death, translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, it’s hard to say what the book is about.  Even the narrator admits, just about two-thirds of the way through the novel, that he doesn’t know.  There is the tennis match which is interspersed throughout the novel. Is it a metaphor for something larger? There is a plot involving Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico and the story of how this will bring a piece of feather work to the attention of Italian artists, changing forever they way they use paint.  And some treacherous popes, some surviving Aztec craftsmen, Cortez’s native wife who ends up living a life of luxury in Spain.

It’s a wonderful ride, one that I thoroughly enjoyed and one that I recommend.  One that I’m keeping around to read again someday.

It was also the first winner in the Tournament of Books.  Sudden Death beat out both The Throwback Special which I loved and The Sport of Kings which I have not read yet, though I do own a copy.  I didn’t think Sudden Death would win because it’s such a difficult book to pin down.  What’s really going on is not what’s really going on in Sudden Death.  The plot, as much fun as it was, may just be a cover for a discussion of writing or art or the nature of narrative or the unreliability of story or something someone more clever than I will figure out.  It’s also very experimental in nature they  Roberto Bolano’s work so often is.  After finishing the book, I looked at the back cover to find that Mr. Enrigue is Mexican, not Spanish as I had assumed and that his work has been compared to Roberto Bolano.  Should have known, I thought.

So while I was surprised to see it win the pre-tournament play-in round, I was still pleased.

It’s an excellent book.  Let’s see how it does against Francine Prose’s Master Monkey.

Earthlight by Arthur C. Clarke

It took me almost three months to read this book.

The little page counter/timer on my Kindle claimed that I should have been able to read the entire book in just about three hours, but even when using the audio read-a-loud feature, I never made it more than a few pages at a time without falling asleep.

Okay, I was reading in bed, sometimes lying on the sofa in the late afternoon.

But still.

It’s easy to see why Arthur C. Clarke is considered a visionary, one of the standards to whom subsequent science fiction authors have been compared to ever since.  From what I know, Earthlight is not considered one of Arthur C. Clarke’s best novels, but it’s still a very forward thinking book.  At least it is technologically.  Mr. Clarke imagines a realistic future featuring a colonized solar system.  Humans have moved on from the earth to large settlements on the moon and Mars along with several other smaller colonies on various moons throughout the solar system.

Things have reached a point where the colonies have begun to rebel against their home planet much like American colonies rebelled against England.

It’s all very well thought out, very feasible.  Earthlight is what’s known as hard science fiction, based on real science, focused on technology and what future technology might include.  In spite of my sleepy reaction to the book, Mr. Clarke is good with plot and with characterization.  I also really liked the central image of the book, that of the earth in various phases sitting in the moon’s sky.  What it would be like to live your entire life with the blue earth as the thing you see in the sky at night, is an interesting question.

What I have a problem with is that in Mr. Clarke’s future not a single woman is capable of working on the moon.  Not only women, but every man who’s neither white nor heterosexual.  What is that about?

I understand that Mr. Clarke wrote Earthlight in 1955 but seriously.  You can imagine life on the moon but not a woman capable of working in the observatory there.  Even if women can’t work on the moon, if there’s a colony there, surely some of the men will be married with children.  They’re all straight, right.

I’m a little tired of granting people leeway just because they come from a time and culture other than our own.  If someone who writes about the future is to be considered visionary, it’s not too much to expect that their vision include social progress along with technical progress.  And if you want to give an author credit for creating a world, you have to prove the existence of at least one fully realized female character in their work.  Yes, I’m talking about Mr. Tolkien.  The most emotionally complex female character he ever created was a giant spider.

That’s right.  I said it.

End of rant.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., a few years back, but I still stand by my little rant. Since I’ve been focused on science fiction this past week or so, it’s been clear that the above rant is right on.

 

The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford

I don’t usually like  this type of book, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself while reading The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy.  When I do, I prefer quest stories, the kind of thing with lots of action.  Characters and setting are also very important, but I find that most fantasy fiction consists of multiple story-lines spent plotting against each other with far more debate and discussion than sword and sorcery.  I loved The Hobbit but found The Lord of the Rings far too talky; I love books by Peter S. Beagle but couldn’t make it through George R. Martin.

So I ought to have hated The Dragon Waiting, but I didn’t.  It’s got multiple story-lines, more debate and discussion than sword and sorcery, even quite a bit of delivering news about events that happened off-stage. But it all worked for me.

I think it’s because The Dragon Waiting turns a typical fantasy trope on it’s head.  I find that most fantasy novels build a world and then inserts European Medieval social structures into it.  Some even bring along a good portion of Medieval European history to act as the basic plot line.  This works for many readers, but I’d rather just read history.  History is really fun.

John M. Ford flips this model.  He takes the world of European Medieval society and adds fantastic elements to it.  I hope that works as an explanation because it’s the best way I can describe why The Dragon Waiting felt so different from other fantasy epics I’ve tried, and largely failed, to read.

So picture England at the time of Richard III.  While the English are embroiled in the War of the Roses, the Byzantine Empire, which didn’t fall in the 15th century, is on the move.  Meanwhile, instead of plague, a form of vampirism is spreading through Europe, even the two princes in the tower have fallen victim to it.

While The Dragon Waiting features many characters from history, the bulk of the story focuses on four companions who travel across Europe from Medici ruled Florence to London working for various politically important people and trying to prevent Byzantium from conquering the continent.

It was really fun.  I wish there was a sequel.  Not a series of ten books, that’s too  many, just a sequel.

 

I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2013. I’ve been slowly migrating all of my old reviews over to this “new” blog.  It’s taking years.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson

Things started out well. Two interesting narratives, one in the “present,” the other flashbacks to explain how the present came to be.  A core set of interesting characters, all three of them easy to root for. A very interesting idea about humanity’s first contact with alien life.

It didn’t all go wrong, it just all went on too long. Even at just over 300 pages.

Which is my major issue with a large slice of contemporary science fiction and fantasy.  Too often every little detail, every baby step of the plot, every piece of dialogue no matter how inconsequential is included. Spin, like so many other novels, is easily twice as long as it needs to be, maybe three times.  But this seems to be what fans of the genre want. Look at how popular Game of Thrones novels are–100’s of pages that could be summarized in a single, economic novella.

But, God is in the details, fans might argue.  So is the devil, I’d reply.

In Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Spin the people of Earth find their planet has been encased in what they come to call a membrane.  The membrane keeps out all light but the sun, turning the night sky completely dark.  Through testimony from returning astronauts locked outside the membrane when it first appears, scientists are able to figure out that time is passing much more slowly inside the membrane on earth than it is outside in space.  Every second on earth equals 3.17 years outside the membrane. Which means the sun will expand and die in a single  human lifetime turning the earth into an uninhabitable scorched planet.

Who has done this? Why would they do it?

I found this idea very interesting.  As end approaches, society begins to fall apart which did remind me of The Last Policeman series, but that was fine.  I enjoyed The Last Policeman books, each also just over 300 pages for the record. I enjoyed most of Spin, too.

But eventually I grew weary of all that dialogue, all that plot, all that stuff that just didn’t seem necessary.  I ended up skimming the last 100 or so pages but still got all the details I needed to appreciate how it all turned out.

 

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

Babel-17 concerns an alien invasion attempt but that doesn’t really matter.  Samuel R. Delany’s main concern in Babel-17 is language.  What is the future of language?  How might exposure to alien language’s affect us. As a sub-plot, or sub-concern, there is a question of what my sexuality look like in the future something Delany has often been interested in.

He has some intriguing ideas.

Babel-17 features a set of characters who are a trio, two men and one woman.  They more than love each other, they have minds that function together to help pilot the space ship in the novel.  Many such sets of three exist in Delany’s future.   The two men in this story are looking for a woman to replace their original third who has died.  Their captain helps them find a woman who was formerly part of trio. Her two mates, both men, died years ago.

This is really interesting idea, if a somewhat squeamish one.  I’ve long admired Samuel R. Delany, and other science fiction writers of his generation, for their willingness to examine how sexuality and love might change in the future.  It’s an interesting aspect of Babel-17, thought not the book’s main concern, as I said.

The main concern is language.  The hero of the novel, the ship captain mentioned earlier, is a famed poet and an expert in language.  She has been put in charge of deciphering the new alien language Babel-17 as a means of defeating the invasion.  She is somewhat telepathic, something many people will be in Delany’s future, so she is able to hear language where others cannot.

Much of this book went over my head.  It’s something that would benefit from having a professor guide you through.  I meant to look it up on-line before typing up this review and may get around to it someday.

But while I didn’t understand all of it, I did enjoy it and I do admire Delany’s writing. There is a wonderful passage where the ship captain is dreaming in the new language.  We read this dream as a single, four page, sentence interspersed with block of text that describe what is going on outside the ship captain’s dream in the “real” world.

I thought it was terrific.

So terrific that I am keeping my copy of Babel-17 on the to-be-reread-in-retirement shelf.

Sometimes you get so much more out of a second reading.