This installment—three novels: mysticism and cyber-ingenuity in the Middle East; Martha’s Vineyard in the ‘40s with nasty domestic drama, and the Bad Boy of British Books does it again, in spades. And a special timely announcement!
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson
What a wonder: all the pageantry, mysticism, and lore of ancient Middle East played out in contemporary times, culminating in Arab Spring. Alif, (part Indian, part Egyptian) is a brilliant computer programmer who works for anyone who needs his services. He shields identities and foils malware--a dangerous game. He's in love with Intisar, a beauty of noble birth but her father has pledged her to another. Alif's heart is broken. Before they part she gives him an amazing old book for safekeeping. Titled Alf Yeom, it was supposedly dictated by a captive jinn in the distant past. Alif devises a revolutionary computer program that can recognize the sender through an amalgam of evidence. The Hand, Alif’'s enemy, figures it out and uses it for repressive evil. Alif ends up in prison for 3 months and is sprung by a young, revolutionary Sheikh along with the old holy man who sheltered them in a mosque. Into the Empty Center, a mythical region, they go. I even haven't mentioned Dina yet, Alif's neighbor whom he grew up with and who turns out to be his true love all along. What an extraordinary stew of philosophy, religion, cyber-ingenuity, and adventure worthy of Harry Potter. Wilson has written a graphic novel as well, and it shows in the vivid action and wit. Glorious, thought-provoking romp. (Two thumbs up from my 17 year old grandson as well.)
Tigers in Red Weather by Liz Klaussman
One more in the trend of books that have come my way recently: Martha's Vineyard summer house, starting in the '40s and hop-scotching through the ensuing decades. Cousins Nick and Helena are both on the verge of marriage: Nick to Hughes, a handsome soldier, Helena to Avery, a Hollywood con man. Theirs is a complicated relationship, loaded with envy, lust, and dependency. Each couple has a child. Nick's Daisy has a fierce competitive streak first expressed through tennis and later in the courts of love. Helena's Ed is very strange. His "research" involves spying and torturing small animals. Helena goes down the tubes. Nick and Hughes seem good on the surface but there's a considerable shadow, not helped by Nick’s extracurricular activities. So the contrast of the gilded life with the roiling below is powerful and ultimately disturbing.
Lionel Asbo State of England by Martin Amis
Amis has been called the bad boy of British letters, and Asbo is the essence of bad boy on all fronts. He's even changed his last name to match the acronym for Anti-Social Behavior Order. His orphaned nephew Desmond lives in Asbo’s flat but refuses to adopt the family code of dodgy business. He’s becoming—heaven forfend—a journalist. Asbo’s in the clink, per usual, but when he wins the lottery he’s sprung and launched on a new life of excess. This over the top farce is bitterly funny indeed. I love all the names of the many siblings and their peers, inspired by the Bible, the Beatles, and movie stars (Yul, Rock, Troy, etc.). There are pit bulls and incest, both playing a big part in the lively, absurd plot. Wicked fun, and if Asbo’s really the State of England, God help the Queen.
Back next Monday. However…
Next Tuesday 3/26 at 10 am I’ll be talking with Anne Lamott on our local West Marin radio station, KWMR, and she’ll be reading from her new book, “Help, Thanks, Wow!” You can tune in on the internet at KWMR.org. The program’s called “Reading to John.”