Saturday, November 17, 2007

Expiration Date

Expiration Date
Tim Powers

I don't usually go for science fiction as a genre, and this novel was billed as science fiction to me - so perhaps I opened the book already predisposed to be skeptical. It started out slow, confusing and trippy, with long, curling passages lovingly describing each crumpled wrapper lining the filthy L.A. streets of the early 1990s. Every street corner is analyzed and studied, every bodega, botanika and tacqueria this side of the border was greeted by name - to the detriment of the plot, in my opinion. Though one could argue that the city of Los Angeles IS a central character in this multi-faceted novel.

So. Basically, the book's about ghosts, the people who love them and the people them. It's also about Thomas Alva Edison. And Harry Houdini. And a kid named Koot Hootie Parganas who is being raised to be the next great spiritual leader, much to his chagrin. It's also about, in no particular order: an itinerant engineer; a psychiatrist / medium who is running from her past; a strangely old (and strangely disturbing) director; a couple of sleazy, unpleasant lawyers; a REALLY creepy one-armed man who wants to kill Kootie and eat the ghost trapped inside him; and....a whole bunch of miscellaneous spectral extras, including an animate, evil brown paper bag wearing a baseball cap.

Tripped out yet? Me, too, and I finished the book.

It got better, but it took nearly half the bloody thing for me to get fully engaged in the characters, to start caring what was happening to them (though I did care about Kootie right away. It's hard not to like the scrappy eleven-year-old). Tim Powers' writing is excellent - challenging and lyrical, yet capturing the grit and squalor and gilded plastic luxury of the City of Angels beautifully. When he starts getting all the characters in the same room (instead of wandering around different parts of the city, not knowing that they're looking for each other), it gets MUCH better.

I'm not sure if I'll read another Tim Powers novel, but this one was worth the read - but only after slogging through the first 100 pages.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

His Dark Materials Trilogy

The Golden Compass
The Subtle Knife
The Amber Spyglass
Phillip Pullman

I bought a newly released all-in-one edition of this now-classic young adult trilogy. In retrospect, I probably should have put it down between novels; too much of even a wonderful thing can be overwhelming.

There are plenty of other more eloquent and informed critics who have discussed Pullman's take on theology, Christianity and the meaning of religion, so I will not spend too much time in further interpretation, other than to say that I found the ideas posed in these novels thought-provoking and at times challenging. Pullman's portrayal of the Authority (God) as an angel, also fallen, and beyond decrepitude, was powerful. His theory of Dust as the universal sentient force also spoke to me personally.

The characters of Lyra and Will - and Iorek Bynison, Lee Scoresby, Serafina Pekkala, and countless others - were finely drawn, the plot action-filled, and the philosophy overlaiden with enough of a story where the reader is not distracted by it, but rather intrigued. Even though the three-novels-in-one made quite a tome, I could not put this series down until I'd read every last word. I found myself doubling back and reading paragraphs again. The writing could be nearly simplistic at times; I felt like Pullman would occasionally finish a scene quickly so that he could move to the next character line or moment. The plot jumped around a bit in following different characters, but it all fit well in the end. There were echoes of other classic young adult fiction - the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe came to mind, especially with the character of Marisa Coulter. There is even a chapter entitled "Marzipan" - the sweet Turkish delight becomes an emblem of temptation.

Highly readable, thought-provoking, with likeable, strong characters.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Clive Barker

A throw-away read bought on a whim when I was looking for something mindless. Clive Barker certainly has quite the imagination - I had trouble visualizing half the characters, they were built so strangely - but ultimately mediocre writing leaves me flat, no matter how interesting the story. When I find myself editing while reading, removing myself from the plot long enough to feel mild disgust at the clear lack of a thesaurus (or the overuse of one), it turns me off. This book is clearly set up as the first in a series, so the novel ends with about five strings hanging loose - unsatisfying. But probably fine as an airplane read.


Ursula LeGuin

The long-awaited fourth in the Earthsea series, Tehanu follows the path of Tenar, main character of the second novel in this series. Tehanu isn't quite as powerful as the previous three - the ending is a little...abrupt - but it's still...wonderful. Beautifully written. Ursula LeGuin has a mastery of the language that is inspiring. I find myself thinking more poetically when I read her words. LeGuin is a truly powerful writer, and in Tenar, she finds the perfect vehicle for her voice.

Thursday, August 16, 2007


Stephen King
Magpie's Grade: B- / C+

What can I say? It was a Stephen King novel. The premise: a mysterious "Pulse" wipes the brains of anyone who is talking on a cell phone across the Northern US (and presumably across the world). Only those Luddites who are not chatting on the infernal devices are left unscathed among the wreckage of society. Because, of course (this being Stephen King) those unfortunates whose brains are sent back to Go are reduced to their most animal instincts. Bloody, gut-churning chaos ensues - I believe there's someone chewing a dog's ear off in the first three pages.

Our fearless technology-deprived hero, Clayton Riddell, along with a not-so-merry band of fellow travelers also in their right minds, must make the trek between Boston and Maine to rescue Clay's son Johnny-Gee from the evil clutches of the "phone crazies." Though the crazies are not quite crazy for long because apparently the Pulse also "flipped a switch" in the zombies' minds, setting in motion an Evolution in Overdrive that renders the phone people....well, you'll just have to read it.

It's a quick read, which was good, given that I felt compelled to stay awak until 4:30 in the morning to finish it. It wasn't particularly scary, but it was gruesome in parts. The whole "that which Man hath wrought will destroy Him in the end" idea has been done many times before, and this is nothing new. We even get fun zombies out of it! Stephen King does play with the idea that humans are, under the trappings of civilization, essentially crazy. I think my favorite quotation is:

"At bottom, you see, we are not Homo sapiens at all. Our core is madness. The prime directive is murder. What Darwin was too polite to say, my friends, is that we came to rule the earth not because we were the smartest, or even the meanest, but because we have always been the craziest, most murderous motherfuckers in the jungle."

Something I've been saying for years, to my sorrow.

The plot devolves into running from the phone zombies. There are some clever parts, but not enough to call this high literature. I was frustrated with the end (let's just say it sets itself up neatly for a sequel). There are also unexplained gaps - for example, King never bothers to turn his attention to the mass-murdering idiots who started the Pulse to begin with, other than to mutter vaguenesses about "terrorists whose plans went awry." It is what it is - a Stephen King novel. Overall, not a bad airplane book. Just make sure to turn your cell phone off when the nice flight attendant asks. We have enough zombies in the world.

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Seventh HP

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Magpie's Grade: B+

Not much can be said about the seventh and final installment of the Harry Potter series that other reviewers will say better and more thoroughly than I. I enjoyed it, it's worth reading if you're a fan of the series. It was a good end.

Ms. Rowling is not a lyrical writer. The joy of the book is not in the language per se, but in the imaginative and fast-paced action and in the character development - especially in this series of Ron and Hermione, and of doubts cast on Dumbledore's character. The writing is perfect for tweens and those adolescents who have grown up with Harry. James Joyce this is not (thank God).

There is more death in this one, more wholesale destruction, and an interesting angle reminiscent of Christian theology of choosing death in order to save everyone. I am sad in some ways to see the series end. I have fond memories of reading the first couple of books while driving between home and college (a blatant disregard for other drivers I do not recommend now - what can I say. I was young and foolish).

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
Magpie's Grade: B

I liked Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers better. I did enjoy the chapters on EVP and how mediums would fake spirit visitations using sheep stomachs. Though it was a bit on the gross side. I wish Ms. Roach had come to more of a conclusion; as she put it, she indulged in "The Big Shrug" frequently.

I suppose the issue for me is one of belief. Sometimes analyzing esoteric subjects like life after death for incontrovertible truth, for answers one way or the other, destroys the mystery in life. I suppose that's why Ms. Roach chose to go with the Big Shrug. The aspects of human fascination with the afterlife with which she chose to deal focused primarily on the patently ludicrous - the spirit tapping, the googly-eyed mediums, the crooks and shams and money-grubbers that make humans so depressingly fascinating. She didn't mention much about religion, other than as reference for her skepticism.

I did enjoy Ms. Roach's irreverent sense of humor. Her footnotes are hilarious. She is the kind of person I would love to have a beer (or two) with. Her sometimes morbid jokes are right up my dark and twisted alley. Her curiosity about the world is seemingly endless, and I appreciate that.