Before I head into my September books, here are a few from August that I want to mention, but don’t have enough to say about for a full review.
Night Film sounded like pure candy to me: journalist Scott McGrath, a few years back, shot himself in the foot when he made an unfounded accusation against filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. Cordova’s horror films have cult status and are notoriously difficult to get copies of, so fans screen his movies at underground (in both the literal and figurative senses) gatherings. Cordova has been shrouded in mystery ever since he barricaded himself inside his massive estate in upstate New York. McGrath, who was investigating Cordova’s purportedly illicit proclivities at the time, suspects his downfall in journalism was, in fact, engineered by an agent of the filmmaker’s. So when Cordova’s daughter, Ashley, is found dead by apparent suicide, McGrath sees his chance to expose Cordova and revive his own career.
I had a lot of fun, but not enough to blind me to the book’s weaker aspects. It’s definitely a page-turner, with some delicious plot elements and a set-piece (pun intended, if you’ve read it) near the end that by itself makes the book worth your time, especially if you love a touch of the occult. But the characterization is weak and the plot drags at first. It’s a common enough for a plot to turn on the pursuit of an elusive, charismatic character, and Cordova is certainly intriguing enough to keep readers turning pages. But Ashley, while retaining a bit of allure, falls too squarely into the Beautiful Tragic Mystery Girl role I’ve seen too many times. And McGrath, who is a sloppy journalist and a crappy father, is hard to feel for, especially when his personal life gets in the way of his pursuit of Cordova, as it does for too much of the first half of the book. A tighter, more edited version of Night Film could have pushed this into a higher echelon of its genre. (I’m thinking along the lines of Tana French’s stuff.) The main feeling I took away from the book was a burning desire to see one of Cordova’s films. That, and the voice of Liz Lemon singing “Night Cheese” on loop in my brain. Still, summer’s not quite over, Labor Day notwithstanding, and if you’re hoping for one last summery treat, this is a good one.
I heard about the Age of Miracles when the hype was at its peak last year, but only got around to reading it at the beginning of August. I’ll be honest: I’ve already forgotten most of it. Which I think is statement enough.
I do remember being drawn in by the excellent premise, which involves the slowing of the earth’s rotation, resulting in days and nights that get progressively longer. The weather changes, destroying crops. People get mysteriously ill and die. And the ozone layer is destroyed to the point where exposure to the sun results in dangerous sunburn. Julia, who is 11 at the book’s start, is meanwhile navigating the usual adolescent stuff, in the form of school, friends, and crushes. But these difficulties take on a greater sense of urgency as the world changes, and scientists are at a loss to explain or stop it.
I get that Walker was using the possible end of the world as a means of highlighting how important everyday life can be, but outside of her opening premise (and it is truly clever, with lots of well-thought-out implications), she relies with a very heavy hand on what is already a well-worn message, and adds no novelty of either plot or character to infuse that message with new meaning. It felt like the draft of a full-fledged novel I would like to read.
So… I’m kind of cheating because House of the Scorpion is a re-read for me. I re-read it because the sequel, The Lord of Opium, comes out this month and I’ve been PSYCHED to read it for two years now. Why? Because, as I wrote in my short Goodreads review long ago, House of the Scorpion is “some wonderful combination of science fiction, bildungsroman, and adventure novel.” It’s technically YA, because Matteo Alacrán is a teenager, but if you enjoy a really stimulating and intelligent book, ignore the label and just pick this up. You’ll have a great few hours with it, because you won’t be able to do anything but read until it’s finished.
Matteo lives in Opium, a strip of land between Mexico and the United States where drugs are entirely legal, and where the drug lord known as El Patrón rules in a violent dictatorship. His manual laborers are eejits, people whose brains have been implanted with computer chips to make them compliant and just functional enough to perform various tasks. Matteo enjoys a place of privilege in Opium, because, for reasons unknown to him, he is El Patrón’s favorite. When this status is endangered by El Patrón himself, Matteo is forced to confront his own identity in more ways than one.
Matteo is a great character to read because of the conflicting halves of his nature: he is brilliant, curious, brave, and loving, but also arrogant, angry, and at times, power-hungry. Farmer depicts his progression realistically, with the understanding that we never really lose our weaker characteristics; we can only learn to master them. Her worldbuilding is also fantastic. Opium is not only plausibly close to our world in essence, but also in time: it doesn’t feel like the distant future. This immediacy is a major part of what makes the book so riveting. Anyway, though the book is a Newberry medal winner, it has always seemed to me that it hasn’t garnered the visibility it deserves, so here I am shamelessly shilling for it. Whether I can do so as enthusiastically for its sequel remains to be seen. But right now? PSYCHED.