Thursday, July 8, 2010

Chabon, Forester, LaFevers

The Yiddish Policemen's Union
by Michael Chabon
Recommended Ages: 14+

This novel by an already Pulitzer- and O. Henry Prize-winning author won numerous honors, including a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, and a Sidewise Award for Alternate History. It pretty much racked up all the sci-fi and fantasy-related "best novel" awards in 2007-08. And yet it doesn't have any wizards, spaceships, faeries, dragons, unicorns, or mad scientists. It takes place in the final months of the 20th century in a world full of familiar things like cell phones, cigarettes, cars, airplanes, and the United States of America. In fact, the story is more than anything else a hardboiled murder mystery.

What makes it sci-fi/fantasy isn't magic or technology or beings from outer space, but a quirk of history. In 1940, in the real world, the U.S. Congress considered opening parts of Alaska to Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. The proposal never came to a vote, thanks in part to an Alaskan politician named Anthony Dimond. Chabon's alternate history begins when Dimond dies in a car accident, the plan moves forward, and four million European Jews are saved from the Holocaust. They end up crowded into an autonomous federal district in southeastern Alaska, a place called Sitka, which actually exists but on a much smaller scale. Hemmed in by border hostilities with the Tlingit Indians and slated to revert to Alaskan control at the end of the century, the novel's Sitka is a melting pot of secular Jews and "black hats," leftist utopians and prosperous gangsters, musicians, chess-players, small-time crooks, cops, junkies, and all the other little people, united by the Yiddish language and a growing despair about what is to become of them.

So, yes, it's a fantastically different world: a world with no U.S.S.R., no Communist China, and no State of Israel; a world where Marilyn Monroe was the first lady of the United States; a world where Yiddish, not Hebrew, became the lingua franca of the "Frozen Chosen," a crowded, diverse, and above all temporary oasis for a people without a country of their own. Personifying these people in all their conflict, desperation, and yearning hope is the novel's soul and voice, homicide detective Meyer Landsman.

Landsman is middle-aged, divorced, alcoholic, haunted by the suicide of his chess-prodigy father, the decision to terminate his ex-wife's one and only pregnancy, and the airplane-crash death of his virago sister. His only friend, who also happens to be his half-Tlingit cousin and buddy-cop partner, is nearing the end of his patience. Landsman lives in a fleabag hotel, where one of the other tenants turns up dead in the first paragraph of the novel. The victim is a chess-playing heroin addict living under an assumed name. No one seems to care if this crime gets solved, especially with Reversion looming ever larger. But for some reason, Landsman can't seem to let it go, even if his sleuthing puts him at risk of losing his badge, getting locked up, or even getting killed.

The dead man's background has something to do with a hasidic sect's expectation of messiah, something to do with a secret compound where who-knows-what is going on, and again something to do with the death of Landsman's sister. Dangerous hoodlums, corrupt members of the Tlingit tribal council, and agents of the American government are caught up together in a plan that grows weirder and more dastardly the more you find out about it. As Meyer, his partner Berko and his ex-wife Bina probe more and more deeply and face mounting danger with every clue, the question that continues to elude them is: Who killed the guy in room 208?

This is an exquisite novel. Its language is disciplined, laconic, all that a fan of hardboiled fiction can ask for, with the addition of poetic surprises and an intoxicating Yiddish lilt. Author Chabon adds some brilliantly invented Sitka slang, such as "sholem" (a multilingual pun for "gun") and my favorite, "noz" (meaning cop). It takes a small Alaskan town of 8,000 souls and turns it into a roaring, complex, doomed city of 3 million. It revels in the diversity of Jewish culture and reveals the contradictory impulses of the Jewish soul. It has stood some heat for its politically incorrect depiction of Jews as a people divided by conflict and afflicted by every weakness common to mankind. And it earned its bevy of awards and short-listed nominations by combining a fast-reading, page-turning novel of mystery, romance, action, and suspense with a literary feast that makes you want to savor it slowly.

Such a feast of gritty, hard-hitting psychological insights, thought-provoking ideas, heart-squeezing emotions, and ceaselessly flowing lyricism and wit I have not seen since... well, the last time I read a book by Michael Chabon. He claims that the style of this book was atypical of his work. All the more reason to applaud his discipline and inventiveness in creating such a vibrant world of people, places, culture, and language. And though it may not be all that you expect of a sci-fi/fantasy novel, I think it may teach you to expect more.

The Girl Who Could Fly
by Victoria Forester
Recommended Ages: 12+

Joe and Betty McCloud come from a long line of farmers in Lowland County, USA: steady, reliable, salt-of-the-earth folk who would never think of doing anything out of the ordinary. So you can imagine how much they worry about their gravitationally-challenged daughter Piper. I don't mean she's heavy. On the contrary. At odd moments she just floats up off the ground. You can't keep a good girl down.

In spite of her parents' efforts to keep Piper's feet on the ground, the child grows increasingly convinced that flying is what she was meant to do. Betty's determination to keep all this secret from the nosy neighbors results in Piper having a very lonely childhood. But Piper doesn't learn the true meaning of loneliness until the day the neighbors finally realize how very different she is.

Before long the whole world knows about the flying girl. Soon after that, a beautiful woman named Dr. Letitia Hellion swoops in on a helicopter and offers Piper a chance to go to a special school called I.N.S.A.N.E., where she can meet other kids with special powers like her own and learn to cope with them. If she's expecting something like the Xavier Institute, she's about to be disappointed.

The staff at I.N.S.A.N.E. severely restrict the students' movements. Surrounded by armed guards, a strict nurse, and a brusque teacher, they learn very little in school--least of all about how to use their powers. Perhaps worst of all, the students themselves are a rough crowd, each one out for his or her own interests, and everyone terrorized by the diabolically intelligent Conrad Harrington III. With her strong spirit and her homespun wisdom, Piper surprisingly turns out to be a match for him. Could this mean war?

Or... could it mean something even more surprising? Just when you think you know who the villain is, the tables are turned and a new threat is revealed. The more Piper learns about the true mission of I.N.S.A.N.E., and the likely fate of all the special plants, animals, and children being studied there, the less wonderful it seems. And now the unlikeliest of allies have to work together to plan an escape so that they can simply be themselves.

It isn't something they're going to pull off easily. In fact, from the moment the kids' escape plan goes into motion, there are still many surprises, betrayals, setbacks, heartbreaks, and astounding discoveries to come. It's an adventure about weird and wonderful kids metamorphosing from rivals to friends to family while learning, in the words of e e cummings (quoted at the beginning of this book) "to be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else." It's a story that preaches a perhaps too-obvious moral--one whose apparent, main application some religious families may question--yet at the same time it depicts Piper's traditionally Christian parents as basically kind and loving people.

It is a story full of flawed but endearing characters, a story in which even the most monstrous villain reveals a touching humanity. It is a story packed with laughs and mischief on the order of Hidden Talents, thrills and chills reminiscent of Evil Genius, and enough tear-jerking pathos to make it one of the best novels I have read lately. And it's only the first novel by its Los Angeles-based author. Won't it be interesting to see what she writes next!

Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
by R. L. LaFevers
Recommended Ages: 11+

Theodosia Throckmorton... Just say that name out loud a few times! Feel the way it rolls off your tongue. While you do so, try to picture a truant London schoolgirl in the wee years of the 20th century, an era when horse-drawn carriages still outnumbered motorcars, when trains ran on steam, and when there were already faint rumblings of a power struggle between the British Empire and the Kaiser's Germany--though no one, in his worst nightmare, yet dreamed of World War I. No one, that is, except the bad guys in this book and the secret society devoted to stopping them.

Caught in the middle is Theodosia Throckmorton, the precocious daughter of a couple of Egyptologists. While Mum and Dad are busy filling up their second-rate museum with treasures plundered from the Pharaoh's tombs, Theo finds her secret talent in high demand. And what is her talent? Why, spotting curses, of course! And, with the aid of a lot of research, neutralizing them before they cause untold mayhem!

Being able to see curses doesn't make Theo particularly happy with all the nights she has to sleep at the museum because her father is too busy and forgetful to take her home. She has adapted, however, to sleeping in a sarcophagus (where unquiet spirits can't get to her) and relying on a collection of homemade amulets to ward off evil. But now her mother has really done it! On her latest return from Egypt, Mum has brought back the "heart of Egypt" from the recently-unearthed tomb of Thutmose III. And with it, she has brought a curse onto English soil, a curse so full of pestilence, famine, and every other kind of disaster that it could be just what the Germans need to come out on top.

Theo makes a lot of daring discoveries with the aid of her not-quite-useless younger brother Henry and a cockney pickpocket named Sticky Will. But in the most dangerous leg of her journey--in which Alexandria, Cairo, and Thutmose's tomb are all ports of call--she'll be on her own. Against a conspiracy of vicious criminals, a traitor, and an ancient Pharaoh's diabolical genius, can one girl with an eye for hieroglyphs and a feel for magic be enough?

Concerned parents should know, as they consider whether this book is appropriate for their kids, that this book contains a strong dose of "occult content." It's not just that various forms of ancient Egyptian magic and spirituality are depicted as real. Theodosia herself works in this magic, following fairly plausible recipes and reasoning, at times, about whether the Egyptian gods really exist. I am not suggesting that this book should be banned, or even that Christian children should not read it. I simply want concerned parents to be aware of this issue, to take a good look at this book, and to be prepared to discuss it whether your children read it or not. Many readers will take pure entertainment from this book. For others, it may prove an exercise in critical thinking and family discussion. And for some, it may in fact be spiritually offensive. A word to the wise.

In spite of these caveats, I am personally very interested in reading further among the books of Robin Lorraine LaFevers, an L.A.-area author whose other books include The Falconmaster, Werewolf Rising, the "Lowthar's Blade" Trilogy, and the "Nathaniel Fludd, Beastologist" series, whose titles now include The Flight of the Phoenix, The Basilisk's Lair and The Wyverns' Treasure. Plus, there are at least two sequels to this book, including (to-date) Theodosia and the Staff of Osiris and Theodosia and the Eyes of Horus. Both of these ongoing series should interest Hogwarts boosters as extra-credit readings in "Care of Magical Creatures" and "Defense Against the Dark Arts," respectively. As for myself, I look intend to check them out in hope of enjoying more of the humor, high adventure, historical color, and bone-chilling creepiness that make this book worth recommending.

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