Having enjoyed Nick Harkaway's debut novel, "The Gone-Away World," very much, I looked forward enormously to Angelmaker, hoping to find a similar spirit of gung-ho up-against-it little people against a big evil world, with extra ninjas and doomsday weapons.
And he delivered. And the only reason I am giving this 4 stars instead of 5 is that he delivered pretty much the same package.
Nick Harkaway has a definite style, a very recognizable style, dialog full of clever banter and witty asides with even the most gruesomely evil monsters taking the time to exchange bon mots with the people they intend to torture to death slowly. I like it, but it can get to be very much of a muchness, if that makes any sense, and after reading two entire books packed full of it, I'd like to see him expand a bit both in style and substance.
Because, really, Angelmaker is his first novel with a new skin. Instead of post-apocalyptic with kung fu, mutants, and ninjas, it's clockworks (not "steampunk") and espionage, with jujutsu and evil monks.
Since jujutsu is my style, I did appreciate recognizing all the moves, though. :)
“Mr. Pritchard! What are you doing? Is that O-soto-gari? No! It is not! It is a yak mating with a tractor! That is really very very not very good! My grandfather is weeping in Heaven, or he would if there were such a place, which there is not because religion is a mystification contrived by monarchists! Again! Again, and this time do it properly!”
How can you not love a Marxist Mr. and Mrs. Miyagi calling Mr. Churchill "A capitalist fathead, and a very nice man"?
The story goes back and forth a bit between Edie Banister's World War II-era adventures as a lesbian James Bond and the modern day, in which Everyman protagonist Joe Spork suddenly finds himself holding the wrong end of a stick, the other end of which is held by an assortment of very, very bad people. Pretty soon he is neck-deep in evil monks, century-old megalomaniacal torturers, naughty (in a "violating the Geneva Convention and many other interesting laws" kind of way) bureaucrats, and a doomsday weapon consisting of clockwork evil bees.
Naturally, Edie Banister and Joe Spork will find themselves on the same road eventually. If the idea of an old lady and her nearly-toothless pug mowing down bad guys sounds like fun, I assure you Nick Harkaway describes these heroic feats of decrepitude in an entertaining if not entirely believable way.
There are heroic sacrifices, heartwarming speeches, and Crowning Moments of Awesome.
It's just, I read almost the same moments in The Gone-Away World. This doesn't make them any less fun, but it does make them a little less mind-blowing. You need to pull out of a few new tricks to blow my mind again, Nick.
Joe Spork, a nerdy, ordinary guy who somehow finds himself responsible for stopping an apocalypse and having awesome sex with a superhot action girl, reminds me of a Neil Gaiman character if Neil Gaiman's everyman protagonists ever actually did anything.
I could also see a bit more of Harkaway's father's influence this time. John Le Carré, especially in his last few books, has really been beating the "British government is corrupt and evil" drum, and there's a lot of shady eternal-war-on-terror political skewering in Angelmaker.
Harkaway, like his father, is a very skilled author who seems to be working a niche and working it well. I enjoyed this book very much, and will read his next. I highly recommend it both to those who have already ready The Gone-Away World and those who haven't. I do hope to see something just a little bit different next time - if it's more unlikely heroes battling sadistic ninja mutants and tyrannical government agencies to save the world, I'm going to suspect Nick Harkaway is not just in a niche, but a rut.
Carl Hiaasen makes Florida sound like one dangerously crazy place. This 1987 mystery revolves around the world of bass sports fishing. The protagonist, a man named Decker, is a former photographer turned private investigator who has been hired by a rich man to catch his rival, a big-name bass fisherman, cheating. Apparently most of the big-name bass fisherman cheat in competitive fishing tournaments, and the rich guy has become obsessed with a celebrity who has his own cable TV show.
Decker, however, soon finds he's been set up, and the plot zigs, zags, and does backflips, involving Decker's ex, a televangelist trying to sell Florida real estate, a bunch of racist Florida rednecks, a crazy former Lieutenant Governor now living as a mad hermit, a black state trooper assigned to the most racist hick backwaters of the state, a Cuban police detective who has to learn to fish, and a would-be assassin who spends the latter part of the book staggering around with a rotting pit bull's head clamped onto his arm.
Even Mickey Mouse got a mention. About the only thing that didn't make an appearance was alligators.
Double Whammy is both fun and well-plotted; as zany as the plot twists may seem, Hiaasen actually brings it all together, weaving all these strange, loony, venal, and oddly noble characters together into a story about timeshares, bass fishing, and murder. The fact that Hiaasen actually knows Florida and evidently did copious research on the subject of bass fishing just makes the details shine, though it's the characters and the twists that will really get your attention.
While a bit dated now (the book was written in 1987, as you can tell by all the problems that come up that would be solved nowadays by a cell phone), it was a good read. I've read two books by Carl Hiaasen now, and he has a gift for making Florida sound like the weirdest place on Earth and then sticking an almost-plausible plot into it.
I love this book and I want to recommend it to everyone, especially those who are seriously wide-read, "bookish" people who have at least some familiarity with the literary scene, writers' workshops, and the angst of being an aspiring writer (or even a published one).
If this book puts you off because of the pink cover and all the people who have shelved it as "chick-lit" — ignore that nonsense. Jincy Willett only writes "chick-lit" if you think a book by a woman about a woman is by definition chick-lit. Amy Falls Down is "writer-lit."
You should also know that this book is a sequel to "The Writing Class," which is unfortunately not available on Audible. However, it's a sequel only in the sense that follows chronologically with the same main character. There are some references to the events in the previous book, but you don't have to read it first. Though you really should, because The Writing Class was also wonderful and the reason I discovered Jincy Willett.
Amy Gallup is a writer. A dumpy, sixty-something writer who had a brief moment when she was in her twenties, as a "writer to watch out for." She wrote several books that received critical acclaim but only modest sales, and then, for reasons that only slowly emerge in this book, reasons that she herself can't fully articulate, she stopped. She hasn't written much of anything for thirty years. When we first met her in The Writing Class, she was making a meager living teaching creative writing as adjunct faculty at a community college. That book was our introduction to Jincy Willett's scathing and hilarious (yet affectionate) send-up of the modern writing scene, and a cozy-ish murder mystery.
Then Willett comes along and writes Amy Falls Down, in which there is no murder, no mystery, and not even that much of a plot. Yet it's every bit as good as the first book — in fact, possibly better. It reads like something Willett wrote just because she felt like writing it. Which is perfectly congruent with her protagonist, Amy Gallup, who writes when she feels like it, which hasn't been for thirty years.
In the first chapter of this book, Amy falls down. And hits her head on a birdbath. Which gives her a concussion. By coincidence, she had an interview scheduled for that afternoon. A reporter, doing a story on "washed up writers - where are they now?" (not phrased quite that unkindly) was supposed to come to her house to talk to her. To her horror, Amy realizes that she gave the interview and can't even remember it. She goes to the hospital, meets a nice doctor who is, like apparently almost all doctors, a wannabe novelist himself, and then gets a call from her former agent, who informs her that she has suddenly generated "buzz" because of her interview.
As Amy suddenly finds herself attracting (unwanted) attention for the first time in years, she also finds herself writing stories again for the first time in years.
The story is ostensibly the resurrection of Amy's writing career, a resurrection she never dreamed about, cared about, or particularly wanted. Along the way, she attends writers' conferences, bookshop appearances, and radio talk shows in which, pushed once too often, she turns her rarely-deployed but devastating wit on a windbag host and generates more publicity for herself by taking him apart on the air.
You can also see thinly-disguised representations of prominent contemporary authors, bestsellers, in the fictitious authors Amy meets. I won't name names because Jincy Willett is a lot better-read than I am and probably was thinking of completely different names than the ones I thought she was satirizing, but the beauty of her characterization is that every one of these people is real, hilarious, sometimes likable and sometimes buffoonish, but no one is a cartoon. Much of the book is spent inside Amy's head and her interior monologue, which is maybe why people insist on calling this "chick lit" (it's not), but Amy's thought process is human and funny and real, and gives you a glimpse of what a real writer can do when writing about real people with messy, complicated lives even if they are, from the outside, perfectly mundane ones lacking any sort of novelistic drama and adventure.
I hesitate to identify Amy as an author stand-in, even though the similarities between her and her author are too obvious to be ignored. Because I can picture Jincy Willett reading my review and letting out an exasperated sigh about readers who think they're smarter than they are. Not that she'd say anything, because like Amy Gallup, I imagine that Jincy Willett may find people exasperating and annoying, but she doesn't have the cruel streak necessary to actively mock them even if they deserve it.
Since I listened to Amy Falls Down on audio, I can't easily type all the quotable passages I want to fill this review with. Just take my word for it that there is lots of quote material. Willett writes with wit and humor and warmth and sometimes just enough of a sharp edge to let you know that, like Amy, she could really cut you down if she wanted to. But she won't, because she's too nice.
The subplot, with some members of her writing class from the previous book setting up an "authors' retreat," is almost incidental, and for much of the middle section of this book I thought Willett had dropped it completely. It gets wrapped up at the every end, with enough humor to justify its inclusion, but it seems like mostly a bone thrown to readers of the first book. It does, however, continue to skewer the foibles and pretensions of writer wannabes, writer gurus, writers' workshops, and the entire industry that has grown around those who fancy themselves enamored of "the writing life."