Polly! by Stephen Goldin (2008)

Polly by Stephen GoldinSmashwords / Amazon / Author’s Site

4/5 stars

Herodotus Shapiro has had an unbelievably bad week. His wife left him. The IRS is after him for thousands of dollars. His home/bookstore burned down. On his way to take refuge at his brother’s place he got a speeding ticket. And now his car has broken down in the middle of the desert in front of a large mansion. What more can go wrong?

But now his world takes a turn for the weird. The mansion has a snowman on the front lawn–in the desert in July. The house, which is bigger on the inside than on the outside, is owned by Polly, the most preternaturally beautiful young woman he’s ever met. Polly is an acrobat, a gourmet chef, a psychologist, an international financial consultant, a physicist and a woman of who-knows how many other incredible talents. She has an unbelievable library, an art collection of all the world’s great masterpieces and a print of a previously unknown Marx Brothers film. Her toilet paper is actually silk.

And she seems to have some mysterious plans for him….


“That’s the way the universe works. Not random at all. The universe is passive-aggressively hostile.”

– Polly (she who may or may not be God)

Polly! is a quirky contemporary fantasy with a hopeful message. It follows Herodotus, a middle-aged man down on his luck, as he undergoes a process of rediscovery upon meeting the enigmatic Polly. The story is comparable to the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, but it speaks to non-religious skeptics and has a weirdness that makes it more interesting. It’s never clear what Polly is, but she fights entropy, gives some serious tough love, and has plenty of thoughts on dealing with a passive-aggressively hostile universe.

The reader follows Herod’s journey from sorrow to renewed hope and wonder. Goldin’s prose is really enjoyable, it moves quickly with just enough description to make a scene memorable. The pacing is smooth, there’s never a dull moment, and it’s always engaging and unpredictable. There’s some offbeat humour which helps lighten the mood, and all of it feels natural to the story and Herod’s point of view.

While there’s only two major characters, they’re done excellently: Herod is a sympathetic everyman and Polly is vibrant force to be reckoned with. Another aspect I liked was the timelessness of the setting and the themes–it could be set any time in the next thirty years and it would still feel contemporary.

The worst part of the book has nothing to do with its contents—it’s the cover. The cover is confusing to potential readers, and Polly doesn’t even look like that. But hey, don’t judge a book by its cover. Polly has a French maid that is funny but a bit too over the top, and there’s a line or two or dialogue that rubbed me the wrong way, but those are insignificant nitpicks.

I advice checking out the longer sample at Smashwords to see if you like Herod and Polly and its agnostic themes. The book is filled with interactions between these two characters getting all Socratic-method style discussing life, the universe, and everything else. Polly pulls out all the stops on her criticism of organized religion, so if that’s not up your alley, well yeah, you’d think it’s blasphemous. It’s a quirky book that’s not going to appeal to everyone, but I enjoyed the ride and it made me feel warm and fuzzy inside.

You might like this if you like…
Agnostics and atheists; a giant house with the craziest interior design; tips on dealing with a passive-aggressive universe; lots of dialogue

If military SF is more up your alley, I have also reviewed Goldin’s The Eternity Brigade. If reviewing books in exchange for reading them for free is up your alley (like it is mine), the author has a “Review One, Get One” program. He’s got an extensive backlist so there’s plenty of books to choose from.

About Caroline Cryonic

Formerly known as Frida Fantastic. A speculative fiction book blogger from Vancouver, Canada currently living in Quezon City, Philippines.

Posted on August 29, 2011, in 4 stars, Contemporary and Urban Fantasy, Ebook Reviews, Fantasy, Frida Reviewed, Polly, Stephen Goldin and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Whoa that sounds like a pretty wild ride. A few of those choices made by the author are interesting to me. For instance naming the MC Herodotus. The same name as the father of historians. Something to that? Or did Goldin just like the sound of the name?

    And the house that is larger on the interior than exterior. That’s a very specific detail also done in House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (had to double check on the name, it’s not a very easy-to-remember name).

    Still though, sounds like fun.

    I need to stop reading your blog Frida, it makes me want to read the same stuff you are, ALONG with all the books on my list. IT’S JUST TOO MUCH! LOL

    • I can say the same for your blog, Derek. I have reviews of Genesis Earth and Symphony of Blood coming soon… sounds familiar? Our tastes may be similar (we’ll see w/ my two reviews and your review of Reich TV), so we can’t help it. We may be each other’s canary in the coal mine.

      Yep, you’re right on Herod’s name. The house is probably one of my most enjoyed parts of this book. I’d read it just for the descriptions of the ridiculous interior design. There’s a bathroom where the ivory throne is a throne, literally. And the toilet paper is made out of silk.

      Polly also changes clothes every scene infinite-wardrobe-style, and they’re crazy and always vaguely retro (retro to me, I was born in the late 80s >_>). This book was a fun ride, and much of it is because the author wasn’t afraid to be unconventional. Weird *is* interesting.

      Unrelated note. There is a very entertaining book blog called The Canary http://thecanaryreview.com/ And everything is canary-themed. Book reviews with a low star rating has a picture of either a crying canaries or dead canaries.

    • To respond to a couple of Derek’s points: the MC is indeed named for the Greek historian, since his father was a classical scholar. Polly is delighted, saying she loved the ancient Greeks. The character is less enthralled, since, as he points out, Herodotus Shapiro is a terrible name for a Jewish boy. Polly proposes to call him “Hero” (rather than Herod, as Frida does).

      I’m afraid I’m not familiar with House of Leaves. If I had any specific literary influence for Polly’s mansion, it would probably be Heinlein’s “And He Built A Crooked House.”

      • Thanks for stopping by, Stephen. I thought it was cute that Polly calls him “Hero”, but I can’t seem to do it myself. I just keep on thinking back to Stephenson’s Hiro Protagonist.

  2. Wow, thanks for answering my questions Stephen,
    It’s awesome to ask a question or make a comment and get a response from the actual author. I want to apologize if my previous comment sounded in any way rude. It was intended as such but, well some things just don’t come out properly when you type them.

    As for House of Leaves, well you’re not missing much in my opinion. It seemed like it was trying to be too smart, like the author was attempting to outsmart the reader, and being weird for the sake of being weird. But that could just be me.

    Anyway Polly sounds like a good read, I hope it finds a large audience.

    • Derek: No need to apologize, you weren’t the least bit rude or offensive. Legitimate observations are always in order.

      I went to Amazon and skimmed the product description for House of Leaves. It did sound like the author was trying a little too hard, like the last episode of Twin Peaks. I’ve never been particularly big on horror, anyway.

  3. Oh and Frida, I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Symphony of Blood and Genesis Earth. I haven’t started Reich TV yet (other than what I read in the sample) but I’m pretty confident I’m going to like it.

    And the canaries? That’s great! Why didn’t I think of that, here I am stuck with Tribbles LOL.

  4. In keeping with Frida’s suggestions, I’ve changed the cover–at least on the ebook version. (The paperback version still has the blue cover.) You can check out the new cover at http://parsina.com/polly.html. Feedback is always appreciated.

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