In Evans’ most recent novel, Damien Wood and his expat friends discover that humanity is a fragile thing, especially when held up against the vicissitudes of a generally uncaring universe.
Told largely, though not exclusively, as a collection of second-person journal entries and blog posts, the novel follows Damien’s life through the first few years of the 2000s, with occasional flashbacks to his teen years and sidesteps into other, tangentially related issues. Despite several achievements in his life, including success as a writer and spoken-word artist, Damien is progressively isolated from his loved ones and from himself, and he searches for a connection via frequent travel, alcohol and an increasingly agitated series of relationships with women. By the time Damien ends up in Cambodia, drinking nearly nonstop, he’s been driven to distraction by his latest female companion and seemingly endless visa issues. Events line up for a darker turn. As befitting the rapid, cross-platform nature of Damien’s work and lifestyle, Evans tells the story in a rapid mishmash of stylistic devices, including poetry, fake technical instructions and shifting typographic standards, while keeping the story moving breathlessly forward. The effect becomes wearing in the middle of the narrative, but Damien remains an engaging, witty character from beginning to end. The more grandiose effects are grounded by the reader’s natural sympathy for Damien, the hapless protagonist. Evans also effectively uses cultural indicators to evoke the time period without dating the material, even though references to MySpace come perilously close to bucking this trend. Readers who approach the narrative with suspicion about the central metaphor—which is understandable, given the nearly clichéd nature of the “technology dehumanizes us” trope—will likely appreciate the dexterous subtlety Evans employs to underline the theme through actions rather than baldly declaring it in dialogue or exposition.
Despite a flurry of stylistic flourishes, a cleareyed character study emerges, brimming with warmth and sympathy.
A sensually evocative thriller that satisfies and arouses.
Eric Foster is one of the most perceptive and creative “noses” in the perfume industry. His future looks and smells bright. While a student at the most prestigious perfume academy in France, Eric recreates, against the admonishments of his professor, a long-lost fragrance said to have been used by the queen of Sheba to lure a reluctant King Solomon to her bed. This aphrodisiacal perfume, Balquees, contains a rare ingredient, the acquisition of which gets Eric expelled. Cast out by his mentors and abandoning his project, Eric rebuilds his life in New York by moonlighting as a scent-based forensics consultant (paired with his trusty three-legged bloodhound, Daisy) to the NYPD. When a counterfeit version of Balquees, called SF, begins to wreak havoc by driving would-be lovers to kill each other in extreme bouts of lust, the police have an obvious suspect. Eric, who would never hurt anyone (or produce such an inferior product), races to clear his name and discovers that his friends and colleagues may not be as professional—or innocent—as they appear. Working side by side with the sardonic, emotionally wounded forensics expert Tanya, Eric is thrown into a series of increasingly violent incidents, the culmination of which forces him to face his disgraced past. Oehler is marvelously versed in the intricacies of perfume manufacturing and history; luckily for the reader, he’s also a compelling writer. In particular, the convincing sex scenes flow with the right balance of graphic language and tastefulness. Readers will come away with a new appreciation for all those sparkling bottles of fragrance and maybe even an understanding for their extraordinary price tags.
A brilliant, engaging twist on the traditional crime novel.
Wang offers his account of his tenure as head of the Chinese collection of the Library of Congress.
Academic in style and scope, Wang has collected his various writings that center on Chinese culture, publishing and library collections. Starting with his many years working for the Library of Congress, the author maps out his life, from his marriage and Ph.D. to the years of the Cultural Revolution in China and the Tiananmen Square protests. Attention is given to the nature of the library system and the publication processes throughout China; these are told mostly via firsthand accounts of Wang’s visits there. Throughout the work, there is an underlying theme that the Library of Congress has long played a role in the cultural history of China. He notes a remark from the Honorable Elaine Chao, secretary of labor, “The Chinese collection at the Library of Congress is indeed our nation’s crown jewel.” But not all attention is given strictly to the Library of Congress, as other libraries, specifically those of China and of Hong Kong, are also discussed. Moving beyond the historical, Wang gives recommendations for future plans of action, such as recommending that Chinese scholars involved in American studies be given opportunities to come to the U.S. on study tours. The range here is broad—the Hong Kong University Library, a trip to the Chinese Film Festival of 1982, the teaching of U.S. History in the People’s Republic of China—and competently covered.
May be of great value to those interested in the history of Chinese studies in America and/or the Library of Congress.
In the third installment of her Sons of Mercia series, Woods (Godric the Kingslayer, 2011, etc.) steers real-world historical hero Edric the Wild through bars, battlefields and his bold stand against the Norman Conquest.
This reimagined story of Edric’s life begins with him as a 16-year-old boy who awakens the morning after a brawl with Osbern FitzRichard, only to find himself accused of killing one of Osbern’s knights. The courtroom declaration of Edric’s innocence is only one juncture of the multifaceted, often brutal relationship between Edric—noble-hearted son of the “Kingslayer”—and Osbern, an authoritative young Norman who acts like a madman and struggles with a voice in his head he attributes to Ezekiel. Edric and Osbern, the two enemies, battle against a backdrop of English–Norman distrust. From strained meetings with their fathers to their unconventional means of embarking on matrimony, the off-and-on rivals are frequently juxtaposed to powerful effect. When Edric proposes to a probable fairy woman he barely knows, both of the boys’ grips on reality become questionable. What at first appears to be an open-and-shut case of insanity softens into possibility, as certain outlandish claims by Osbern, via his personal channel to Ezekiel, come to fruition. The plot takes alternating forms of dual family sagas, wartime actioner, traditional epic fantasy and humor-tinged thriller, which Woods skillfully layers with an appealing writing style. There are frequent surprises, too, and history buffs hungry for lucid detail will be pleased by the story’s impressive level of historical accuracy.
A tense, occasionally explosive epic of family, friends and foes.
With her children off to college and her job no longer necessary, Sandra, middle-aged mother of two, finds new meaning in her life at a Tijuana community center.
Sandra has never considered herself unhappy. With a pleasant marriage, two grown sons and a satisfying career in school administration, she’s content. However, when her sons leave for school and her job offers her the chance to take a temporary sabbatical, Sandra finds herself wondering if there isn’t more she could be doing. Her explorations take her from walking day tours to volunteering to read to underprivileged children in her home city of San Diego, to venturing across the border to work with a community center in Tijuana, helping impoverished children and their families. Her family supports her new interest, although they worry for her as well. After all, the book opens with a storm that leaves Sandra trapped in a mudslide, her husband and sons scrambling to find her. Between this opening scene and the resolution, the book recounts Sandra’s decision to take the sabbatical, and then charts her exploration of new directions. Her journey is an authentic one brought to life by constant questioning by Sandra and others. For Sandra, the decisions aren’t easy: Eventually, her job wants her back, her husband can’t understand her need to work in Mexico, and her best friend can’t sympathize. Sandra’s fears also hold her back, but her love for children continues to push her forward. As part of her well-documented transformation, Sandra’s work affects her worldview. Her community on the border of San Diego and Tijuana has numerous concerns about immigration, yet it sometimes feels as though Sandra alone worries for the immigrants and protests the maltreatment of nonwhites. She finds prejudice in her family and even in herself, but she simply pushes harder to care more and more about those she can help. At times, the dialogue can be stilted and unrealistic, yet the characters, particularly Sandra, are well-drawn and relatable.
Mackie’s novel, the lively start of metaphysical mystery series, is a witty mix of the magical and the mundane.
Donnie Elder quits his job as the marketing director of a software company and searches for something meaningful and different to do with the next chapter of his life. A family friend offers him a chance to become a partner in a delivery company—Arcane Transports. But this is no mere courier service. Arcane Transports has a monopoly on the transport and delivery of occult and magical items within Canada. Their offices are in a strip mall and their fleet has seen better days, but Arcane’s client list is a who’s who of the wacky and weird, from mysteriously powerful consulting firms to strip clubs needing rushed shipments of love potions. One day, while picking up a delivery from a client, Donnie and his partner are robbed at gunpoint by a henchman for the Russian Mafia. After that, Donnie’s life quickly becomes more complicated, as he tries to recover the package, stay one step ahead of the mob, romance a beautiful cop and navigate an awkward roommate situation with his loutish brother, Ted. Mackie has a lot of fun with his premise, with many of Arcane’s parcels wreaking havoc on the lives of its employees, from a ring that causes incredible bad luck to a stone that manifests deepest fears. But there’s too much going on here: As the first volume in an anticipated series, this novel spends a lot of time infodumping, and there are too many characters, segues and sidesteps before Donnie finally solves the mystery of the stolen package. Luckily, the doses of humor and invention throughout keep the work from badly bogging down. Some of the Canadian touches will confuse American readers—references to Toronto’s Bay Street or to Tylenol 3s, for example—but otherwise this promises to be the start of a clever and entertaining series.
A fantasy romp set in the world of occult parcel posting—who knew it could be so perilous to ship enchanted objects?
A personal, wide-ranging account of the artistic community in downtown Los Angeles during the 1980s.
Amid the squalor of an industrialized wasteland, a group of artists coexisted in an abandoned building dubbed the Citizens Warehouse. In this thoroughly engrossing book, Davis (Bipolar Bare, 2009) provides an in-depth catalog of the works he exhibited between 1981 and 1986 in the Art Dock, a loading dock attached to his studio. As he states in his manifesto, this savvy, provocative decision resonates by “epitomizing the nature of contemporary art in the on-loading, off-loading, and up-loading of commodity.” With a few exceptions, each chapter contains an image of the artist (usually taken by Ed Glendinning), photographs of the art installation, concurrent sketches from Davis’ “daily diary page” (often reflecting his state of mind at the time), an interview with the artist and a postscript with follow-up information about his or her subsequent career. Along the way, the author relates the concepts explored in the exhibited works to his own autobiographical narrative, as he reveals personal struggles with sexual identity, substance abuse, mental health, career path, finances and dyslexia. While he focuses primarily on the Art Dock, Davis includes artistic and political happenings in other areas of LA as well. For example, he observes the changing relationships among artists, the homeless population, building inspectors and the police force, especially as precipitated by the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. Readers may notice occasional editing lapses in the text or the repetition of the phrase “I asked” during reproduced conversations, but these minor drawbacks do not lessen the overall impact of the project. It’s also worth noting that not all is doom and gloom; alongside real suffering and marginalization are tales of humor and companionship. In fact, Davis ends on an uplifting note of clarity in the epilogue, where he recalls one particular exhibit not included in the original chronology: a playful, interactive installation he created with his young daughter. He comments: “ ‘Snowflake House’ reminded me of what is so wonderful about art. There is the pure delight in creation. There is the happiness and meaning it provides for others.”
A valuable, permanent record of transitory and improvised events, embedded in a particular historical and artistic moment, which otherwise may have been lost.
A gentle adventure story, with a subtle moral about accepting new siblings without feeling displaced.
Zangadoo Kangaroo feels overshadowed by his little brother Joey, but when he borrows his father’s magical boomerang, he discovers a special talent and some new friends—a colorful group of Australian animals. The great strength of the book is its focus on these animals, with all of the top-billing creatures making appearances—kangaroos, koalas, wombats—but also lesser knowns like budgies and emus. The creative use of Australian slang is also a highlight, with words like “crikey,” “lolly” and “billabong” that will delight younger readers. The book has a glossary in the back that will define Aussie words, which may ignite a further interest in the flora and fauna of Australia. Small details, such as Zangadoo’s mum’s surfing trophies and his dad’s work as a bush pilot, sketch in a picture of an eccentric and loving family that would be fun to visit again. One stumbling point is that while the book suggests that the boomerang is magical, the nature of its power isn’t explored. There is a brief discussion of the boomerang’s history, but more use of it would have made this stronger and livelier for young readers. Also, moments of tension are undercut a little too quickly—Zangadoo’s friends travel to the Outback, seemingly walking there from their small town, and find him almost immediately after the boomerang has whisked him away on a magical journey, and a scene of Zangadoo and his friends being chased by dingoes is resolved after only a page. However, younger readers should enjoy the simplicity of the story, as well as the adorable illustrations.
A sweet story about coping with new siblings and appreciating friendship, featuring some inspired use of Australian animals.