Neuromancer by William Gibson
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Short Version: A former hacker, crippled by a job gone wrong, is given a second chance at what he does best by a mysterious benefactor. Soon, he’s teamed up with an programmed version of his former mentor and a badass samurai girl to launch a major hack – but what is the real target of this operation?
The Review: Neuromancer is one of those books that even non-speculative-fiction-reading folks have heard of. Or, if they haven’t heard of the book itself, they know it because of The Matrix. I was excited to finally dive in and see what this ur-text of modern technology would hold – but I was ultimately disappointed. Yes, the technological prescience is astounding – everything from little toss-aside references to major developments like the freakin’ Internet itself is foreseen here in a way that rather boggles the mind – but the writing is… rough. This is a tough book to cut through, full of dense jargon that’s never really explained and a flat affect that nods to the classic noir writers without having the real drive of those novels. Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World does a similar thing but to better effect – although that novel, too, was likely as inspired by this one as it was by the novels that inspired Gibson.
I will say this: the images from this book are indelible. Molly is a fantastic character and her look is badass, the “sky the color of a dead TV” a terrific visual, and the version of the Matrix used here is still cool even 30+ years later. But I wish it was a smoother reading experience to go with the boundless imagination on display – and I’m curious to know if Gibson gets smoother with age…
Foxglove Summer (Peter Grant #5) by Ben Aaronovitch
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: After everything went pear-shaped on the roof of a housing block, Peter Grant is sent off to the country to help find some missing kids – which seems, at first, like nothing more than some old-fashioned policing as recuperation. But nothing’s as it seems in the country and even with Beverley Brook at his side, this one could shake Peter up for good.
The Review: As is tradition, I kicked off my calendar year with Peter Grant – and it was fun to see the English countryside in summer, as opposed to cold winter here in the States. This one flowed far more smoothly than the last (which seemed to run in circles before taking off at breakneck speed) and I appreciated the slow but steady burn of increasing weirdness that Peter discovers up in the countryside. I also appreciated some movement (quite literally, WINK) in his relationship with Beverley: that was a damned satisfying consummation, even if there are inevitably going to be some questionable developments down the line about it all.
Mostly, though, I found that Ben Aaronovitch did a thing that’s rather difficult to do – and even harder to do well: he gave a full-novel hat-tip to a titan of the genre while still retaining his own style (perhaps even bettering it). So many authors are indebted to the late Sir Terry Pratchett – and Aaronovitch dedicates this novel to him, which makes sense considering the very Pratchettian faeries who Peter must deal with. I’m not alone in saying how the loss of Sir Terry still aches, but it’s nice to know that there are authors inspired by him who will continue to do the good work of making you laugh, telling an ass-kicking good story, and adding a bit of social commentary all the while. Aaronovitch with his delightful Peter Grant stories is a leading candidate in this field.
Dare Me by Megan Abbott
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: Addy Hanlon and Beth Cassidy are an inseparable duo at the head of a high school cheerleading squad. But when a new coach arrives and shakes things up, the old hierarchy topples – and when a startling death rocks the community, the girls begin to turn on each other. But what really happened that dark and stormy night?
The Review: Having read this shortly after reading Abbott’s You Will Know Me has somewhat confused the two books in my mind. Or, not confused, but shown that they are similar attempts to write a story – and one is more effective and more potent than the other. While Abbott works her tremendous magic in this novel, getting inside the heads of these adolescent girls and capturing the violent and crazy emotions of that tumultuous age, the book just feels a little more raw than You Will Know Me. Cheerleading and gymnastics are, of course, different things – but they are similar enough that the similarities can be found, if that makes sense.
Still, the book grips you by the shirt and pulls you forward – it’s nearly impossible to put down. Although the proceedings drift near to melodrama at times, they never seem unrealistic, and I think that’s the key to all of Abbott’s work: these stories might feature lurid murders and explosive interactions… but if you take away the murder, these girls are probably just as explosive. That’s high school, you know?
What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America, edited by Dennis Johnson and Valerie Merians
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: In the wake of the 2016 election, the founders and editors of Melville House rushed to compile a book of essays (most new, some old) that might help illuminate, well, “what we do now” and how we may be able to fight back against the rise of Trumpism.
The Review: I read this book on the way to & back from the Women’s March in DC, figuring it’d fire me up. And some of these pieces absolutely did – especially the ones from some of the lesser-known names (or names who were lesser known, although for example Linda Sarsour is way better known this week than she was two weeks ago). But some of them also exhausted me. The excerpt from Bernie’s book, for example, that opens the collection: of course it feels dated because it’s adapted from the book he published while campaigning, but it also feels dated because a radical socialist overhaul doesn’t seem like the most important thing on the table when facing the actual rise of fascism. We have to battle back the fascists first, then move towards implementing more equalitarian and progressive strictures for our financial markets etc.
I suppose my problem, if one could be said to have a problem with a book like this (which is timely, important, and worth your time), is that it lacks one crucial piece of advice: how the left, in all its many disparate forms, can come together and fight the battle in front of us. It still feels like a holdover from a pre-Women’s March time, when we all had our top priorities that we wanted to have happen first. We’re starting to learn that such luxuries are a thing of the past (and perhaps future) but certainly not the present. The book addresses this to some extent but it doesn’t go far enough. We need more books like this; let this only be the first.
Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Short Version: A look at eight men of Congress who took a stand for what they believed to be right, even if it was a career-ending stand or one that did not actually fight for the correct thing.
The Review: First of all, yes I know he didn’t write most of it. The parts that JFK did (mostly) write, though – the opening and closing essays – are ones that feel most important to our current moment. I’m not particularly interested in the stories of ‘brave’ moneyed white men in Congress from our history – we’ve all heard enough of those and frankly the most dated thing about this book is the underlying idea that no woman has been brave enough to deserve such a profile – and so I could take or leave the historical portraits themselves, especially noticing that the authorial voice so clearly and plainly shifts from that Kennedy voice to something that, despite being written by his speechwriter, doesn’t really feel like Kennedy. But those two essays, the ones that describe courage using the lens of Congress but widening quickly outward to encompass taking a stand for anything you believe in… they’re the ones we need to be reading today. Would you describe any of our Congresspeople today as brave? A few of them, the young ones – Kamala Harris, Tammy Duckworth, Gabby Giffords – but most of them are spineless cowards and that’s putting it gently.
So while Kennedy’s Pulitzer-winner is waiting for an update (dear President Obama: write your Profiles in Courage, asap), there’s still a potent message to be found – one that’s worth reading, even if you just do it in the bookstore.
Deep Water by Patricia Highsmith
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: Vic Van Allen’s wife, Melinda, has affairs. He knows, the town knows, pretty much everybody knows – and he seems to be okay with it. But after he lies that he killed one of her paramours to a current beau, it’s only a matter of time before the lie becomes a truth…
The Review: What an introduction to Highsmith. We get the booze-soaked suburbs of the 1950s, the kind you’ve seen and imagined before – but this time, it comes right from the hip like a knife into your stomach. The games played by Vic and Melinda presage Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Mad Men by decades – and they’re altogether more visceral for their age and originality. Highsmith keeps you on the edge the entire time, wondering what will happen – and, honestly, unable to discern quite who to root for. Vic is slowly revealed to be altogether more unreliable than we thought, not because he’s been lying to us (it’s third person narration anyway) but because he has been lying to himself – and the last-page resolution of that lie is a dark delight. I can’t wait to try more Highsmith; I can’t believe it took me this long.
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra
Rating: 4 out of 5
The Short Version: A series of stories from Chile, featuring technology and mundane life, writers and misfits, and narrators who might be versions of the same man – all of them blending together in a fiction that could be true.
The Review: I adored Alejandro Zambra’s form-busting, head-scratching, stress-inducing Multiple Choice when it came out last year and I’ve been excited to return to his work since. This beautiful collection from McSweeney’s is altogether more normal than that experiment – but it nevertheless shows that Zambra is a force to be reckoned with. The stories here are not dissimilar to those written by Junot Diaz, featuring narrators who aren’t exactly bad guys but who are definitely not great ones – especially when it comes to romance. But Zambra is also writing about trying to capture the political events of his life, specifically the removal and return of Pinochet to Chile. Underneath all of these stories of ordinary life run currents of larger sociopolitical movements that flow like underground rivers: felt, somehow, but not seen and possibly not even consciously noticed.
There are also twists of meta and auto-fiction in stories that seem, genuinely, like drafts pulled from the “My Documents” folder on a computer. For example, “I Smoked Very Well” (dedicated, delightfully, to Alvaro Enrigue & Valeria Luiselli) manages to exist as both a scattershot set of reflections and, as it concludes, a marvelously whole story – even though it didn’t feel that way up until that last second. It’s a terrific collection in a deservedly beautiful package.