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Saturday, May 21, 2016

NEW NOVEL! Manuel Gonzales: "The Regional Office Is Under Attack!

Author:  Manuel Gonzales 
Title:  The Regional Office Is Under Attack
Plot Type:  Sci Fi superhero tale with elements of pathos and humor 
Ratings:  Violence4; Sensuality2; Humor—3 
Publisher:  Riverhead Books (imprint of Penguin Random House LLC)
Publication Date: 4/12/2016

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                        
     In a world beset by amassing forces of darkness, one organization—the Regional Office—and its coterie of super-powered female assassins protects the globe from annihilation. At its helm, the mysterious Oyemi and her oracles seek out new recruits and root out evil plots. Then a prophecy suggests that someone from inside might bring about its downfall. And now, the Regional Office is under attack. 

     Recruited by a defector from within, Rose is a young assassin leading the attack, eager to stretch into her powers and prove herself on her first mission. Defending the Regional Office is Sarah—who may or may not have a mechanical arm—fiercely devoted to the organization that took her in as a young woman in the wake of her mother’s sudden disappearance. On the day that the Regional Office is attacked, Rose’s and Sarah’s stories will overlap, their lives will collide, and the world as they know it just might end. 

     Weaving in a brilliantly conceived mythology, fantastical magical powers, teenage crushes, and kinetic fight scenes, The Regional Office Is Under Attack! is a seismically entertaining debut novel about revenge and allegiance and love.

                         MY REVIEW                          
    Gonzales drops the reader into the conflict on the very first page of chapter one as Rose, an attacker, stealthily makes her way through the ventilation system of The Regional Office, a black ops operation that claims to "empower and Strengthen otherwise troubled or at-risk Young Women to act as a Barrier of last resort between the survival of the Planet and the amassing Forces of Darkness that Threaten, at nearly every turn, to Destroy It." Deep within the building (on Park Avenue in Manhattan) is The Regional Office's chief defender, Sarah O'Hara, a warrior woman who is rumored to have a mechanical arm (but no one seems to know which one). 

     The novel is divided into four "books" of short chapters, moving back and forth in time from the perspective of Rose and Sarah. 
>> Book 1 begins, naturally enough, with the actual attack on the Regional Office. The first half follows Rose's efforts to infiltrate the building, and the second half concentrates on Sarah's discovery of the attack and her subsequent defensive actions. Each chapter about the present is followed by a chapter flashing back to relevant experiences from each woman's past. Rose is a "headfirst, why-the-hell-not kind of girl" who is easily bored by anything but direct action. She constantly pictures herself as a character in a movie (e.g., The Karate Kid, The Parent Trap). Sarah, on the other hand, is a thinker and a planner who ponders "everything, the possibilities, the action and reaction, the cause and effect, the consequences of therefore and but."
>> Book 2 stays with Rose, continuing to follow her in the present and flashing back to her early days at "Assassin Training Camp," as she calls it.
>> Book 3 switches to Sarah with the same present-to-past narration pattern.
>> Book 4 follows Sarah in the days and weeks following the battle and then jumps ten years into the future to bring us up to date on both Rose and Sarah.
     The narrative is regularly interrupted by excerpts from an invented scholarly dissertation entitled "From The Regional Office Is Under Attack: Tracking the Rise and Fall of an American Institution." These excerpts attempt to fill in the history of The Regional Office and provide background on the masterminds behind the scenes: Oyemi and Mr. Niles—friends from childhood. Neither name is real, and their real names are never given because that information is irrelevant for Gonzales's purposes. Oyemi has unspecified supernatural powers as the result of being irradiated in some type of incident that occurred as she was returning from an errand at Ikea. Oyemi has recruited (i.e., kidnapped) several women and turned them into oracles (like the Precogs in Stephen Spielberg's Minority Report). When the Oracles notify Oyemi of dangerous enemies on Earth or in other realms, Mr. Niles sends out his operativesa Charlie's Angels crew of well-trained young women with superpowers—to take down Big Bads with names like Mud Slug. We don't get Mud Slug's story because, once again, that information is irrelevant. Just go with the flow of this terrific book. I promise that you won't even miss the absent details.

     Although the excerpts from the theoretical study lay out the history and workings of The Regional Office, it is immediately obvious that no one really knows the entire truth about it. The excerpts frequently provide multiple versions of the same event, freely admitting that some facts about The Regional Office are, and will always be, unknowable. Each scenario is so plausible that we are left to make up our own minds as to what really happened.

    The story is rife with pop culture references. For example, Rose's treacherous journey through the ventilation shaft is straight out of the Die Hard universe; in fact, she even compares herself to John McClane several times (also to Luke Skywalker). The most hilarious section of the book is called "An Interlude: The Hostage Situation," and it plays out as if an episode of The Office were somehow inserted into the climax of any Die Hard movie, resulting in laugh-out-loud awkward moments as the inept office workers try and fail to cope with their life-threatening hostage situation, followed immediately by scenes of them succumbing to over-the-top deadly force. So…it's kind of a laugh-and-then-gulp scenariothe highlight of a book that is studded with such moments.

     As the plot plays out, we soon learn that the storywhich began as a thrilleris a gentle satirization of the superhero story. But mostly, it is a story that takes place in the minds and hearts of the main characters, especially Sarah and Rose, and to a lesser extent, Henry and Mr. Niles. (Henry is the Office's recruiter and mentor to the operatives.) Gonzales takes us deep into their personal stories, laying bare deeply held fears and painful memories. Basically, it's the lonely superhero story: I just want to be loved, to belong, to be a member of the group, to fit in somewhereanywhere. 

     In this fresh take on the superhero trope, Gonzales has created a fantastic world and a cast of fascinating characters. The plot structure is so inventive and so compelling that it sweeps you along at a fast pace, from introspection to high-stakes battle scenes within a few pages. I love the way Gonzales lays down the story line and then keeps circling back to approach things from a different angle. Every time I thought I knew the "truth" about a given event or character, Gonzales threw in a curve or a twist or a supposition that changed everything I thought I knew. This is a fast-moving, action-filled book filled with quirky characters and based on an imaginative premise. It's not for everyone, though, so be sure to take a look at the print (or audio) excerpt that is available on the book's page. Click HERE to go to that page and then click either on the cover art or the "Listen" icon.
                         ABOUT THE AUTHOR                          
     Manuel Gonzales is the author of the novel The Regional Office is Under Attack! and the acclaimed story collection The Miniature Wife, winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. A graduate of the Columbia University Creative Writing Program, he teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and the Institute of American Indian Arts. He has published fiction and nonfiction in Open City, Fence, One Story, Esquire, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, and The Believer. Gonzales lives in Kentucky with his wife and two children. 

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