The Long Cosmos, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

He may have died in 2015, but Terry Pratchett’s spirit lives on in more than seventy of his books. His feel-good novels consistently advocate not only for the underdog, but the under-troll, the under-gremlin, the poor, the powerless, and the downtrodden. His stories and novel-series create new worlds and even new universes. His stories cross genre boundaries of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, adventure, and eccentric history.

Pratchett’s stories customarily weave multiple storylines with only the faint wisp of kinship. He offers images that require his readers to pause, savor, and reflect until the story emerges from the seemingly unrelated details. Readers float in a sea of seemingly unconnected details from each subplot, yet the enchanting prose and literary gems darned into almost every paragraph capture his readers’ loyalty and reward their patience. Eventually, as if viewing a fragment of a magnificent tapestry—a piece the size of a page in a book—the subplot fibers, like rootlets, knit together, allowing the reader to view the novel’s grand design.

Unfortunately, The Long Cosmos, the fifth book in the Long Earth series (published posthumously, thanks to co-author Stephen Baxter), fails to sustain the Pratchett tradition. The outline came from the minds of both Pratchett and Baxter, but the reader must credit (or blame) Baxter for writing the final product.

The “long cosmos” alluded to in the book’s title includes millions of Earth-like planets that stretch across space in a long pearl-like necklace. Gifted interplanetary travelers “step” or walk from one version of Earth to the next. They need only imagine themselves on the next planet, and their bodies follow  their imaginations through space. The less imaginative may fly to distant “Earths” in a vessel called a “twain,” presumably named after Mark Twain, since one of the largest twains is called the “Samuel Clemens.”

Each variation of Earth displays a unique geological and biological evolution. Predatory reptiles like Pterosaurs may glide above, while scaly swamp creatures strike from below. Trees miles in height look down through the clouds at the mountain tops. Their wood is so light and durable that it is used in the hulls of twains.

The story takes place in a time following the 2040 eruption of the Yellowstone volcano and the years of volcanic winter that left Earth, and particularly North America in ruins. Joshua Valiente, 67, against his family’s objections, decides to go camping on a distant Earth. After he suffers a serious accident, he is nursed back to health by a collective of trolls. Sancho, a silverback troll librarian, like Don Quixote’s sidekick, nurses Joshua and educates him in the complexities of troll communication and travel throughout the necklace of Earths. These trolls look more like orangutans than they do Shrek or the Tolkienesque variety, or even the massive trolls that populate other Pratchett novels.

In another subplot, an Extraterrestrial Intelligence calls all sapient beings including beagles, humans, trolls, and the Next—a vastly more intelligent human subspecies—to “Join Us.” Although all are called to “join,” each species harbors doubts about the fitness and worthiness of the other groups. Several minor plots explore the building of a vast communications beacon and travel pods, the human interactions with other sapient groups, and Joshua’s family dynamics.

Eventually, all of the threads weave into something of a New Age coming together of the minds within the universe. The depiction of the collective intelligence of the trolls, their facility in “stepping” from one Earth to the next, and their recording of Earth and troll history in their ballad-like “long calls” proved to be the most interesting memory that I’ll take from this book.

Specter, By John Desjarlais

Specter: A Mystery - Desjarlais, John

Specter mixes the flavors of Romero, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator with generous glops of sour cream and salsa. John Desjarlais embroils his favorite DEA agent, Selena De La Cruz in a fictional parallel to the 1993 assassination of a Cardinal at the Guadalajara airport. She unearths the stench of corruption oozing from the Mexican drug cartels, the Vatican Bank, and the highest officials in the Mexican government. Unfortunately, Selena’s investigation suggests the involvement of her late father. She wonders if she can forgive her father not only for his possible corruption but his drunken violence toward her mother and herself.

As the story comes together, Desjarlais introduces the reader to Mexican culture, idioms and superstitions. Selena broke loose from the “old ways” that placed a premium on macho honor, exemplified by her father and brothers. Her father beats her mother and arranges a marriage for Selena with the tenderness of transferring the title of a car to a new owner. Her intended believes in using girls. When Selena punches out her father’s choice during his attempt to rape her friend, her father feels honor bound to compensate not the victim of the attack but the rapist, because of his damaged machismo. In spite of, or maybe because of her family’s indignation, Selena plans to marry an Anglo. However, her fiancé is older and has the same style mustache as Selena’s father. What would Freud say?

Selena and her brothers experience similar nightmares that remind them of their father. Their Madrina (Godmother) believes that their father is sending a message from Purgatory. Selena’s brother Francisco engages ghost-hunters, techies who record electronic disturbances, to record the family’s spectral visitations. Unlike Ghostbusters, this Chicago-based team invokes St. Michael, The Archangel before they track a spook and keep the phone number to the Archdiocesan exorcist on hand in case they need back-up.

In the midst of this fascinating backstory, Desjarlais subtly lays down threads of a dark mystery which soon envelops Selena, her family, and the Cardinal.  The pace of the novel accelerates like a super loud, growling “Beast” of a “Dodge Charger R/T with a 525 fuel-injected Hemi topped by a Stage V intake, a Gear Vendors Overdrive Unit, a pair of modified 600 Holleys, a pneumatic Air Boss chute and Flowmaster Super 40s to handle the exhaust” breaking 200 MPH along a drag strip.

Desjarlais’ spectacular climax features the gadgetry and explosiveness of a James Bond thriller, but with an O. Henry twist.

The name “Dolores” better fits the somber Selena. She is a grown-up tomboy with a major attitude. Everything goes wrong for her. The chip on her shoulder is nearly heavy enough to break her clavicle. In contrast, her Madrina shows the courage and fidelity of a martyr, adding a spiritual interpretation to the sufferings experienced by the De La Cruz family, especially its women.

John Desjarlais satisfies with this excellent buffet of culture, excitement, and spirituality. I look forward to reading the other books in his Selena series.

The Catholic Writers Guild provided me with an electronic copy of Specter, and I once attended a lecture by John Desjarlais.

You Were Here, by Cori McCarthy

In an act of celebration, bravado, or maybe alcohol-induced insanity, Jake Strangelove stands on the top pipe of the playground swing set, still wearing his graduation gown. He backflips as he had done so many times before, but this time, he lands on his neck. Five years later, Jake’s life and death still haunt his family, especially his sister Jaycee and dozens of their friends.

Cori McCarthy explores Jaycee’s mangled life and that of her companions as they mark the fifth anniversary of Jakes leap into mortality. Fortunately, Natalie Cheng, daughter of an Ohio University psychologist, provides a running commentary on the mental state of Jake and his mourners.

Jake was left-handed, ADHD, and more than a little dyslectic. “Kids with learning disabilities often act out because of their frustration.” Professor Cheng told Natalie, “The neural insulation of your frontal lobe won’t be finished developing until you’re in your mid-twenties. You’re not fully aware of the consequences of your actions.” No wonder insurance companies want to charge higher rates for drivers under the age of twenty-five. Jake and all sub-mid-twenties humans remain half-baked when it comes to filtering out destructive impulses.

Jaycee Strangelove describes herself as a damaged girl with no hobbies, no passions, and no future. In fact, she shares a hobby with her late brother and Mik, one of their friends: Urbex or urban exploration.  Specifically, they visit the ruins of The Ridges, a shuttered, gothic, perhaps haunted insane asylum, Randall Park Mall a once illustrious but now abandoned shopping center, Geauga Lake, the shambles of what had been a huge amusement park and two other sites regularly explored by Jake. Their goal is to find traces of Jake’s presence—messages he left behind to commemorate his acts of daring.

The adventures begin on the night of Jaycee’s high school graduation. She drags along her classmates, Natalie, Zach, and Bishop. Mik meets them inside The Ridges’ dusty, relic strewn “lobotomy-central”–the first stop in the summer hunt for Jake-signs across the state of Ohio.

Cori McCarthy enlists the graphic artist Sonia Liao to speak for Mik and Bishop. Mik, a selective mute rarely verbalizes, so the chapters he narrates—appearing as portions of a graphic novel—uniquely link the prose chapters and amplify the noir quality of the novel. Bishop, a graffiti aficionado, summarizes moods of the moment throughout the book.

The characters represent tortured souls with no spiritual framework and no help from their families. Bishop grieves his lost lover after her cruel rejection. Natalie calculates how she will dump Zach although she still craves his bed. More and more, Zach takes refuge in alcohol. Jaycee lives to reunite with Jake while Mik, in many ways acts as a superhero but can’t even whisper his feelings for Jaycee. All of them have secrets involving Jake and his death that they may or may not divulge during the critical summer between high school graduation and the college-induced diaspora.

Can Cori McCarthy write her way out of this corner? What could reconcile and normalize the strains and unspoken yearnings before the last sunset of summer?

Fight for Liberty, by Theresa Linden

 

Fight for Liberty, Book Three in the Liberty trilogy, climbs to a dazzling climax, filled with plot shifts that will tantalize adult, juvenile and young adult readers.

In Book One, Chasing Liberty, an inner voice she calls “My Friend” directs nineteen-year-old Liberty 554-062466-84 of Aldonia to the realization that there is more to existence than a life totally dominated by the Regimen Custodia Terra. With the assistance of Dedrick, a member of the Mosheh, the underground insurgent leadership, she escapes to a remote sylvan colony but not to a life of contentment, as she knows her friends remain trapped in Aldonia.

In Book Two, Testing Liberty, the heroine infiltrates back into Aldonia to rescue her friends and imprisoned colony members, including all of their children, and to undermine the Regimen. She is captured and subjected to Reeducation, a form of video-game brainwashing. Like MacGyver, Liberty becomes more dangerous to the Regimen in captivity than on the loose.

In Fight for Liberty, the now tougher, more accomplished heroine comes into her own as a role model, especially for girls and women, following that inner voice calling them to greatness:

My Friend had never spoken to me as directly as he had these past several weeks. Since Reeducation, He led me to believe I would be instrumental in changing Aldonia, gave me hope that freedom would win out against the all-controlling government, the Regimen Custodia Terra. They controlled every facet of life from population numbers and education to ideologies and individual vocations. Considering all life of equal value, regardless of species, but humans akin to parasites, they had corralled people into cities and forbade entry into the Fully Protected Nature Preserves. We needed to bring them down.

The final push against the Regimen Custodia Terra begins, but instead of an orderly, focused attack against Aldonia, within its electrified fence Liberty, the remnant of the colonists from the Nature Preserves, and their superiors in the Mosheh face a tangle of conflicts.

Liberty’s love interest, Dedrick, doesn’t want her to commit to the Mosheh or participate in the upcoming attacks. The Torva, wild men—a cross between an outlaw biker gang and a Viking raiding party—will join the fray, but they won’t take orders from the Mosheh. They are more interested in owning the young women in the Regimen’s “breeding facility” than in freeing the people of Aldonia.

Previously captured colonial children have escaped from Regimen schools, but they have come under the influence of Guy, a one-armed shadow figure who will follow his own, separate agenda during the upcoming conflict.

Mosheh infiltrators of the Unity Troopers, the army of the Regimen, have found Trooper membership attractive. Silver, the mercenary, has tracked Derek into the Mosheh’s tunnel network. The Regimen would reward her for sharing this information. As dangerous as ever, Dr. Supero has become unpredictable after the treatment of his brain tumor. As the Mosheh subterfuge and subversion begins, no one is sure that their alliance will hold or that the good guys have accounted for all of the Regimen’s resources.

In Fight for Liberty, Theresa Linden has penned her most dramatic and suspenseful dystopian novel yet. The ending is anything but predictable. Although she resolves the many story lines at the end, the reader’s attachment to the characters sparks a hope that a sequel waits in the wings.

It is not necessary to read the series in order, but Liberty fans might prefer to watch the action build to a climax through the earlier volumes.

 

 

 

Surviving High School, by Lele Pons with Melissa de la Cruz

Social media has become the message in several recent fictional works. The plot of Ngozi Adichie’sAmericanah, for instance, recounts the development of a commercially successful blogger, with some chapters take the form of blog posts. Surviving High School traces the spectacular journey of “Vine” impresario, Lele Pons. It serves as a verbal interpretation of her Vines—short, looping videos, like video tweets. Almost eleven million people follow Lele’s Vines. Her collection has set a world record for the number of “loops” or repeats.

Although Lele writes within the context of surviving the high school experience, she also unwraps a unique marketing strategy, adds a note of authenticity to young adult fiction, and shares her personal perspective on teen life in Miami with its over-the-top drama, anxiety, and elation.

She and co-author Melissa de la Cruz describe Surviving High School as a “fictional memoir” inspired by Lele’s life and her Vines. The story begins as Lele transfers to Miami High School as a junior. Any hopes for acceptance, let alone popularity, fade when her unconventional attire, her braces, and her lack of allies at school mark her as an outcast worthy of scorn. Nevertheless, Lele demonstrates remarkable buoyancy, because no one mocks her more completely than she does in her Vines. Bursting with creative energy, each day after school she writes, produces, acts in and publishes her videos online. As time passes, so many of her classmates watch her Vines that she gains the acceptance and popularity she craves.

To truly appreciate the book, view some of Lele’s Vines. The PG-rated slapstick and self-effacing content deliver moments of levity, naughty language, and sometimes a wry observation. For example, a chapter in her book describes the characteristics by which Latinas recognize each other—reggaeton (a kind of rough, monotone rapping in Spanish accompanied by dance moves), the telenovela slap, and loud cursing. Lele’s Vine, 3 Signs That Show a Person Is Latin, humorously demonstrates each feature.  After actress Cameron Diaz shared this particular Vine with her fans, thereby validating it, the number of Lele’s followers jumped from 6,000 to 600,000. Lele’s current followers number 10.9 million with 7 Billion views or “loops” of her Vines. Although she has achieved the popularity she sought, Lele has also learned the cost of celebrity and often pines for the days when she could merely hang out with her friends.

In June 2016, Lele Pons turns twenty. She works as a fashion model and aspires to become an actress. Her punishing physical comedy reminds me of Lucille Ball’s role in I Love Lucy. Should a studio revive Lucy, it might consider Lele as its star and rename the series, “I Love Lele.”

YA author and high school teen, Lele writes about herself and her friends. Clearly, Lele has something to teach older YA authors—whose stories are based on their own lost youth or the lives of their children—about the current iteration of teen life. Her writing and her Vines show today’s teens in action, with their language, values, and wardrobe. Although many of the videos feature pranks, others address issues of jealousy, relationships, and Lele’s observations on human behavior. Lele makes it a point to maintain a high personal moral standard, unlike characters in some YA novels. She also uses her celebrity to teach her followers kindness toward each other.

Surviving High School may entertain and subtly instruct YA readers, but it offers older readers and YA authors fresh insights to young adult characters and the role and value of Vines and other social media in marketing books.

 

Lazarus of Bethany: A Novel, By E. Ann McIntyre

Fictionalized representations of biblical characters often miss the mark. Nevertheless, the Bible serves as a vast treasury of plots and characters, including intriguing hints of narratives read between the lines. One of the most fascinating but little-known characters in the New Testament is Lazarus of Bethany—The Friend of the Lord.

The scriptures do not tell us how Jesus of Nazareth became a friend of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha, and Mary who lived on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Ann McIntyre’s novel offers an imaginative but scripturally consistent backstory that links Jesus and Lazarus from their teen years through the passion and death of Jesus and beyond. The author builds on the scriptural foundation with material gathered outside of the scriptures that support the notion that Lazarus, although at first reluctant, served as an apostle of Christianity.

The author explains:

Outside the Gospels, there are stories that Lazarus lived in Kiton [now Laranca] Cyprus, and that he was named its first Bishop by St. Paul and St. Barnabas. The Church of St. Lazarus is there and is said to house his second grave. Other stories have the Bethany siblings living their mission in southern France. They miraculously arrived there after a forced journey by boat. There are a number of churches built there in their honor, including another burial site for Lazarus.  The Gospel does not tell us what happened to Lazarus after Jesus brought him back to life. We have no idea how the miracle affected Lazarus. He remains a silent witness to his friend who loved him. This story is a fictional offering about Lazarus of Bethany and his relationship with Jesus of Nazareth. It is a story about two boys who lived in an occupied state, in a troubled land, and grew into manhood together.  It is a story of two men, two deaths, two resurrections, and the enemies of the truth who sought to destroy them both. It is a story of doubt, and the journey to faith, of fear, and the journey to courage, of bitterness and the journey to forgiveness.  

The author addresses other poorly explained issues in the Gospels such as the relationship between Jesus and his brothers and sisters, the family connection to Zebedee the fisherman and his sons James and John, and the unusual link between the early Christian community and Pontius Pilate.

Although a compelling work of historical fiction, Lazarus of Bethany offers an inspirational message. It shows Lazarus, Martha, and Mary as close personal friends to Jesus. Lazarus, a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, experiences conflict as Jesus gradually reveals that God is his father. Lazarus, of all people, had an early exposure to Jesus as a dear friend and extraordinary person, but Lazarus resisted Jesus and only reluctantly became a disciple. Martha and Mary knew that Jesus had the power to heal and raise the dead. When Lazarus died, they blamed Jesus. Their reaction resembles that of so many who lose a close relative or friend, especially when prayers had been offered to save that person’s life. Mary’s passionate washing of the feet of Jesus represents the fervent love that many devoted Christians offer to God.

On two counts, the cleverness of the novel and the spiritual benefits of the Lazarus story make Lazarus of Bethany a rewarding read, especially during Lent and the Easter season.

Louis Everly reminds us in Joy: Meditations on the Joyful Heritage of Christianity, his inspirational book on the Easter season that Catholics dutifully sacrifice throughout the fifty days of Lent but forget to celebrate the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. They pray the Stations of the Cross but neglect the Stations of Joy. There’s no better guide to both the Lenten and Easter events than Lazarus of Bethany, a childhood friend of Jesus.

Navajo Autumn—A Navajo Nation Mystery by R. Allen Chappell

The Navajo Nation Mystery Series mixes murder with large doses of anthropology, archaeology and the survivalist lifestyle. Fans of Tony and Anne Hillerman, and James D. Doss, will welcome these jaunts to the Four Corners region of the American west.  Set in and around the largest Indian reservation in the world, among the most populous and most rapidly growing Indian tribe, the series explores the boundaries of Navajo relations within its many clans, with other tribes and with the Caucasian majority.  Although short on descriptions of desert vistas, the series vibrates with tones of dark humor similar to those found in the works of Carl Hiaasen.

Navajo Autumn, the first book in the series introduces the protagonist, Charlie Yazzie, who returns to “the Res” with a law degree, but finds few outlets for his skills. The Navajo Nation hires him as a special investigator, where he applies his considerable legal acumen rounding up missing sheep and wayward children. That is, until “The Big One” comes along, his “opportunity to make legal services sit up and take notice.” That opportunity takes shape in the person of Thomas Begay, Charlie’s classmate from their years at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school, and the prime suspect in a murder case with far reaching political and economic implications.  True to form, pig-eyed deputy sheriff Dudd Schott wants a quick arrest and conviction, a sentiment shared by many throughout the Navajo Nation and beyond.

After Begay escapes from Dudd’s custody, Charlie, with unexpected stealth, surprises Thomas at his girlfriend Lucy’s hogan. Charlie the special investigator, decides to moonlight as Begay’s defense attorney.  Thomas regards Charlie as a fallen-away Navajo, a “college boy” who has lost his fluency in the tribal language and is too used to apartment-dwelling to resume the Navajo lifestyle. Of course, Charlie confirms his “dude” status when he cleans his bullets and his .38 Smith and Wesson, stainless steel revolver by washing them in a kitchen sink.

In no time, it seems that the world is against Charlie and Thomas. Thomas loses himself in the vastness of the reservation while Charlie takes perilous but comedic risks on behalf of his client, drawing unwelcome attention from the powerful and merciless.

Charlie reaches out to a select group of allies, including another high school classmate, Sue Hanagarni. She becomes his love interest as she jeopardizes her job to share inside information damaging to the Navajo authorities. Paul T’Sosi, a shepherd, the father of Thomas’ girlfriend and the source of many a wry comment, adds a spiritual dimension as a keeper of the old ways. This character offers a glimpse of the Navajo religion and culture, as he assists Charlie and his friends.

Navajo Autumn holds the reader’s interest with humor, engaging characters and quickly moving action. It lays the foundation to a series of unique novels that explain Navajo history, culture, spirituality and their sometimes rugged lifestyle. This is a case where the cowboys are the Indians, and much more.