Saturday, March 21, 2015

A Student of Living Things, by Susan Richards Shreve


In the aftermath of a political murder, a young woman opts for vengeance in this thriller-paced family drama.

In the Washington, D.C., of a not-too-distant future, in the midst of mysterious bombings and red alerts and a Justice Department tightening the screws, law student Steven Frayn is shot on the steps of his university’s library. The FBI soon concludes that this was not just another random terrorist attack (cousin Bernard lost a leg to a bomb at a convenience store) but an assassination—someone wanted Steven dead. The murder unravels a close-knit family. Steven’s father retreats to the small hangar in the yard of their Bethesda home, where he is rebuilding an old plane—never mind that he doesn’t know how to fly. Mother Julia rants and makes suspect lists for the FBI. Uncle Milo decides what the family really needs is music, and so buys a piano. But it is the novel’s narrator, Steven’s sister Claire, who becomes embroiled in an unlikely plot to bring Steven’s killer to justice. A biology student (with a musty bedroom filled with dead and living things), Claire returns to school after the murder and (not so accidentally) meets Victor Duarte, a young radical who claims to have known Steven, and may have answers as to who killed him. The magnetic Victor convinces Claire that Benjamin Reed, a music student in Michigan and son of Charles Reed, head of the Justice Department, is Steven’s killer. Victor creates an elaborate plan to trap Benjamin, and Claire, in her shock and sorrow, can’t see the absurdity of the scheme. As Benjamin and Claire begin to exchange love letters of sorts—music that they compose—Claire begins to question what she knows about Victor, Steven and herself. Shreve’s storytelling, smart and economic, is in danger here of being too spare—her grand collection of characters is beautifully outlined, but not fully realized, and for a novel trading in emotional upheaval, that is no small flaw.

Evocative and thoughtful, but too thin to prove a success.
For myself, I found Susan Richards Shreve's spare, economical writing effective in conveying the sense of loss that her primary character, Claire felt. Shreve's matter-of-fact presentation of an alternate post 9/11 reality was more foreboding than it would have been had she tried to dramatize the situation. All in all, a terrific read -- highly recommended

Friday, March 20, 2015

Anglemaker, by Nick Harkaway

Joe Spork is a quiet, unassuming clock-repairer and the protagonist of Nick Harkaway's novel Anglemaker. When we meet him, Joe is a creature of distinctly untested mettle. This changes dramatically when he meets the dreaded Opium Khan, aka Shem Shem Tsien, a possibly immortal, definitely voluble, downright Bondian super-villain given to boastful self-mythologizing.

“Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a boy born in the nation of Addeh Sikkim, in the royal palace, who wanted nothing more than to lead his people into a new world of prosperity and hope. He was suited to the task: clever and able and well-favored.” The Opium Khan looked nostalgic.

“I locked him in a steel box and burned him alive.”

Joe is an unwitting, mostly unwilling, certainly confused hero and like the rest of us, remains in the dark about just what the hell is going on for the bulk of Angelmaker’s nearly 500 pages. Joe is the only son of London’s most notorious gangster (Harkaway is John le Carre’s son). An identity he rejects in favor of a quiet, honest life among his flywheels and jewelers’ loupes. But like one of Shakspear’s fated characters, Joe is inevitably pulled into a battle of good against evil; a battle for the very existence of mankind.

Harkaway splits the novel's first half between Joe’s present day and the Cold War era, in which a young female superspy faces off against the aforementioned Shem Shem Tsien. When sinister officials grind Joe up in the gears of the State, and when he finally gets pushed far enough to fight back, we find ourselves thinking ‘finally!’

Harkaway’s book, in its disregard of verisimilitude and generic constraint is utterly immune to precis. It isn’t steampunk. It isn’t fantasy or science fiction. It isn’t speculative. Some have called it "existential."

From its frantic oscillation between plausibility and fantasy emerges an odd, unique composite that seems to deserve its own genre. The plot is a jigsaw of pulpish tropes: there are enigmatic hooded monks; female superspies; devilish machines; London gangsters; an underground (both figuratively and geographically) criminal society operating with its own morality; and the small matter of a doomsday device involving lots and lots of tiny mechanical bees, and which Joe's tinkering unwittingly sets into motion.

When all is said and done, it is an enjoyable read, but truth to tell, there are times during Harkaway’s highly encumbered plot and prose when tedium edges up on the reader, and there is temptation to just scan what seems extraneous circumlocution and get on with it.
This review borrows liberally from reviews by others, among them: James Purdon, Glen Weldon, and David Barnett.