A River of Five Stars for this Review

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Most of the time, you know you’re reading a good book because of how quickly you consume its pages. You’re enthralled with the mystery and tension. The search for answers keeps your eyes sprinting through the narrative.

But then, there are books like Leif Engel’s Peace Like a River which are—and I say this after consulting with several sources—unrivaled in excellence and yet do not contain any of the sprint-like qualities. In fact, so unlike a sprint is Enger’s characterization that the Peace Like a River reads far more like a hot bath after a marathon. The kind you want to stay in for days. Like, maybe, a peaceful river.

Often, I will look at my progress in a book and rate my satisfaction by how rigorously I’m working through it. Conversely, with Peace Like a River, I took my sweet time. I couldn’t read fast because Enger’s language demanded that I slow down to fully absorb his extraordinary work. When it did become evident that an ending was in sight, I lamented. My only comparison in the audacity and command of language is Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead—which won a Pulitzer.

There’s little more that can be said. A summary is insufficient. Instead, as always, I leave you with my five-star exhortation: Just read it. And if a whole new novel feels untenable at the moment, I beseech you to read only the first chapter. It will leave you (perhaps quite literally) breathless. Consequently, you will have received all the persuasion necessary. 5/5 stars.

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Even Frank Sinatra is Staying North of the Border for this Review

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In my first year of undergrad, I read one of Haruki Murakami’s Rat Trilogy books. I found the novel so unremarkable that I don’t recall which one it was. Having announced this judgment to several Murakami advocates over the years since, they implored me to give him another chance. A dozen years later, I relented.

Picking up a copy of South of the Border, West of the Sun, I was surprised with what I found: it was even worse. Sorry not sorry.

The entire novel follows a pre-pubescent Hijame through his middle-age, and more specifically, follows his Odysseus-sized hubris and unrelenting, lust-crazed hormones toward a childhood flame he eventually discovers and—surprise!—has sex with. The end.

Can someone please explain the point? Maybe there’s someone I’m missing due to translation. Maybe. I respect Murakami’s craft (as I understand it, he wrote too floridly in Japanese and so to be more succinct he learned English, wrote his manuscripts in English, and translated them back into Japanese in order to have a more limited—and thus concise—sentence structure), but no amount of pith can save this story from a one star review.

Not much else to say. Stay north of the border, stay east of the sun on this one. 1/5 stars.

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Chandler’s The Big Sleep Will Keep You Wide Awake—

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A preface: In my quest for Year of the Big Books, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment had at last risen to the top of my list. I eased it from the bookshelf and resolved to dig in for the long haul. Several reading sessions (days) and many hours later, I closed the novel and checked my progress by noting the depth of the bookmark through the book’s pages. What! Is something wrong with me? I bemoaned. No, seriously. How could I have only read this many pages so far? Is my reading speed regressing?

Fearing for my future literary life, I did something I hardly ever do: started a new book in between the one I’m currently reading. An hour later, I was halfway through the new book and consequently my reading crisis had been averted with the added benefit of a valuable lesson: some books cannot be read straight through. Crime and Punishment is one such book.

The new book, as the title of this review has surely intimated was Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Sassy, brash, quick-witted, and sure-footed, protagonist Philip Marlowe isn’t just a private investigator; he’s the genre’s mold. Every detective since is only a die-cast.

Nowadays mystery and thriller novels are a dime a dozen (or at least a dollar each since that’s what we often sell them for at the bookstore). Crime-related entertainment has saturated the media. Just think about how many scores of television shows fall into that category. Or, furthermore, what gets the most news coverage? Yeah, it’s not a new idea. But what sticks out about Philip Marlow’s character, and separates him from the deluge of imitators, is his attitude. To steal a quote Margot Livesey in her essay “Mrs. Turpin Reads the Stars,” Livesey states: “The crucial thing that brings [Marlow] to life, though, is no single attribute or detail, no action or remark, but the overwhelming sense we get, as we read these lines, of how [Marlowe] regards himself and the world: his attitude.”

I don’t know what more I can, or want, to add to that. Normally, I don’t say “just read it” unless I consider a book to be of 5-star merit, but to understand what makes Philip Marlowe—the man, the myth, the original P.I.—and his one-of-a-kind attitude, you do have to read the book. In Marlowe, Raymond Chandler may present what a first appears to be a typical bad boy who can’t obey the law enough himself to be a cop, but simmering beneath his cynical exterior is Chandler’s precise prose, plotting, and observation that it’s obvious why Marlowe’s character has, in fact, endured. Had me wide-eyed from the first. 4/5 stars.

…and maybe a C&P review next week. But probably not.

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Take a Walk on The Wolf Road

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There has been a boom in post-apocalyptic fiction and Beth Lewis’ debut novel The Wolf Road is no exception. However, unlike many of her predecessors’ contributions to end-of-the-world-literature, Lewis shies away from the reasons and whys precipitating earth’s demise and instead the protagonist dismissively calls the event “The Damn Stupid.” Somebody did something, and now we’re here. That’s it. But where is here?

An indistinct war has erased all technology before the 1880s (a saw mill is about as advanced as it gets) and most of civilization has reverted to colonial America. After a super storm destroys her home, seven-year-old Elka is raised by a hermit hunter she calls Trapper to his face and Daddy when he can’t hear her. They live off the grid and she learns all the tricks of hunting and creating a sustainable lifestyle. Now seventeen, Elka learns that things aren’t as they’ve seemed; the man she’s called Daddy hasn’t ever been who he says. A journey to escape the life she knows to find one she doesn’t takes her to unexpected places and revelations.

I came into this novel expecting to find similarities to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but became pleasantly surprised that Lewis does not take that path—or at least goes at it in a roundabout way. McCarthy underscores the relationship between father and son (or parent and child), but Lewis goes a step further to acknowledge that when assumed parental love is absent or dissolved, family can sometimes come in a different form.

Before I praise the book, I do want to make a note of a pervasive theme in literature that has lately caused me much consternation. I’ll ruffle a few coattails with this, but I’m going to say it. The theme is “down deep, I’m a good person.” The invisible internet reader now says Huh? What? Well yeah, of course I am! I disagree. Vehemently. If you’ll humor me, I have an anecdote to illustrate my point. Over the course of approximately five years I embarked on a quasi-social experiment where I asked strangers “Do you think you’re a good person?” I estimate I asked 2000 people across the width of the social spectrum. Not a single person—not one—answered in the pejorative. The consensus is this: Each one of us will justify our way into being a “good person” no matter what the reality of our actions proves. Just to emphasize this point, I spoke with a neo-Nazi covered in swastika tattoos who believed he was a good person because of his racist proclivities. When we’re the judge, we always rule in our favor. I could go on, but the summation is that we need to stop deluding ourselves about so-called inherent goodness and that includes fictional personalities.

Now for some accolades:

The writing is strong throughout—even the jangly county bumpkin syntax stays consistent and readable, but what I appreciate most about The Wolf Road is its plotting. This is not a spoiler alert: The first chapter is the book’s climax. The rest of the book until we arrive at the climax again is a breathless trek to discover how Elka arrives. It takes a brave author to show her cards from the first and pray she’s got enough gusto in the rest of the narrative to keep us reading. Lewis succeeds with aplomb. From a pure craft perspective, it’s worth a study. So take a walk on the Wolf Road and survey the sights. 3.5/5 stars.

 

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You’d Be Safe (to) Hold Off Armageddon Reef—

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The ‘Year of Big Books’ continued this past week with Off Armageddon Reef, the first installment of David Weber’s Safehold series. Originally, the series clocked in at four volumes. Then swelled to eight. But I checked the ever-helpful FantasticFiction.com and Weber already released tome number nine with a tenth volume forthcoming in 2019. I guess you could stay the series is a bit bloated. That might be a good angle to bring into this review.

With each novel teasing on or about 600 pages, Weber’s Safehold world is massive. A literal planet, in point of fact. Give or take a millennium into the future, Earth and all her colonized planets have been wiped about by an invading alien race lured by technology. As a last ditch effort to save humanity, the last Terran fleet hides away on a remote planet—and sets up a primitive infrastructure with certain rules in place to ensure that innovation is discouraged, even illegal. Fast-forward another 800 years, and the planet Safehold is basically medieval Europe 2.0 with 16th century Man-of-War frigate ships. But wait, there’s more. A select few of the original colonists in charge of setting up the way of life—so-called Angels—also made provisions for themselves and their future heirs to the detriment of everyone else. But wait, there’s still more. Other, less sinister members of the original colonists—before they were destroyed—created a cyborg-esque superhuman with the complete memories of one of the original members. This robot, named Merlin Athrawes or Nimue Alban, depending on who you ask, decides to use his (or her) knowledge of the future to bring an industrial revolution to Safehold with the eventual hopes of staging—we think?—an assault against the original original original alien invaders.

The above summary scrapes at the surface of a succinct synopsis, but I’m in a mood to critique. I like that Weber’s world is big and complicated. However, I have a nag. My nag is this: If you’re going to do big things well, you must also do little things well. Weber skimped on the little things. Some examples:

  1. The religious institution on the planet of Safehold refers several times to “tithes.” To a reader unfamiliar with what exactly tithes are, the word’s relationship to a religious sect and the giving of money sounds about right. To someone (me) familiar with tithing, its use in the book is repeatedly and indisputably incorrect. The word tithe explicitly means a tenth (10%). So when a character says—“Their tithes are only twenty percent this month,”—that sentence is a non-sequitur. If it’s twenty percent, it’s not a tenth. Period. What Weber means, I gather, is “their tribute is only twenty percent this month” except that he wanted to sound ‘religious’ and no editors picked up on his error.
  2. The first time a character’s eyebrow “quirked” I said aloud—Nice verb! I’m definitely going to use that!—the 214th time a character’s eyebrow “quirked,” I said aloud, “URGAHHHHH!” because my face had a violent muscle spasm.
  3. The word-overuse alert also applies to “To speak frankly,” and “To be honest.” If a specific character possessed a penchant for reminding everyone of his honesty, the abundant use of these phrases would be appropriate (if not tolerable). When everyone, in every conversation is so utterly frank and honest about things that have little relevance as to their felicity—sigh, it’s a drag man.
  4. This is a kind of #3.5. I’m a stickler for characterization, so apply grains of salt where necessary: characters should be different from one another. Besides most conversations being long-winded (read: a piece of character dialogue the length my summary followed by its response which is of equal length. And repeat), the speeches didn’t excel in creating the friction necessary to promote distinct characterization. AKA, our two pals, Frank and Honest.
  5. There is a reasonably detailed world map on the end pages of the book. These are always helpful keeping a reader grounded in sci-fi/fantasy worlds. Except when most of the climatic action, and the respective locations that accompany it, isn’t identified on the map!
  6. Merlin Athrawes/Nimue Alban is basically Iron-Man dressed in synthetic skin. This isn’t a problem. I’m even willing to forgo a subtle Mary Sue Complex (look it up). What troubles me—and this is the little things cropping up once more—is that we’re approximately in the year 4,000, okay? And you’re telling me (spoiler alert), that Merlin has been carrying a vibrating pager around all these years!? I cannot think of a think person I know who owns one right now. This book was published in 2007 and they were long out of fashion by then. So…?

In closing, I underscore my aforementioned claim to say that I like big worlds, but, as an author, do the little things right first. Otherwise you will receive benedictions like this one: Needs a little more polish and a little less prose. The Year of Big Books will press on, but not with another Safehold novel. 2/5 stars.

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Take a Stop at Station Eleven—

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All I’d heard about Station Eleven was that the setting was post-apocalyptic and people were raving about it. But I thought, don’t we have enough post-apocalypse books already? The answer is No. We do not. After reading Emily St John Mandel’s breakout novel, I can safety say that human ingenuity can almost always find a way to take what’s been beaten like a dead horse (like that phrase) and do some heavy duty necromancy to reanimate the equine corpse (see what I did there?)

A summary is almost unnecessary as the overarching conflict resembles most other books of the genre. A deadly virus with an incubation period of mere hours effectively wipes out 99% of humanity within weeks. Civilization is decimated. Yet life goes on. Now, twenty years later—and here’s where Mandel begins to make this narrative her own—a colorful cast characters who all had the apparent coincidence of crossing paths at theater performance of King Lear just hours before the plague hit are again finding their paths, lives, histories, and humanities intersecting once again.

I’ve said this already, but it’s worth restating the genre similarities in order to point out how well Mandel diverges from them. She’s doing very little different from every other post-apocalyptic book. But she’s doing it tenfold times better. The writing is better, the characterization, the language, the webbing, the tension, the arc, the beautiful intermingled way in which she stitches the tattered lives of humanity together into a tapestry called family. Even now, as I’m on to reading other books, I find myself questioning why certain descriptions and world-building can’t look like Mandel’s does.

This is no doubt augmented by my acute synesthesia, but Station Eleven is one of those books whose pages glitter with color. When not thinking of specific plot points, I see the verdant greens of Michigan forests, the margarine light of fluorescents glaring over a muted stage, the suffocating black of a world in terror, and the bright, warmth—the color of hope.

So stay a while at Station Eleven, your imagination will thank you. 4/5 stars.

 

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Wasn’t Quite Sucked In To This Sargasso

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Recently observing mounds of languishing Andre Norton novels has worked an opposite effect in me. It’s like the sign that says, “Hot: Do not touch!” and my instinct is that I want to touch it. What I mean by this is that I read one of Andre Norton’s novels. Said novel is written under her pseudonym Andrew North and the first installment of the Solar Queen series entitled Sargasso of Space. It might be overstatement to extrapolate an entire analysis of her work through one book but that’s what I’m going to do. But first, a summary.

Dane Thorson has just graduated cadet school and assigned a spot among an old trader ship, the Space Queen, with its ragtag band of explorers. When a fortuitous auction opportunity pops up, the ship’s crew scrounges together just enough cash to “buy” the planet Limbo in the hopes of a lucrative enterprise. Upon arrival of their new purchase, along with several suspicious but well-paying passengers aboard, the Space Queen and her pilots soon discover the planet’s auspices are more than they bargained for. As Limbo contrives to sucking in stray spaceships and crashing them upon its surface, confusion, abduction, and a search for the planet’s nefarious origin ensue.

As an aside, I find the novel’s titular allusion to the Sargasso Sea rather amusing. If you’re unfamiliar with this body of water (or if you haven’t read Jean Rhys novel, or you’re not a Bermuda Triangle conspiracy theorist), it is the only “sea” in the world whose borders are not dictated by land mass but rather by its own sustained currents and wind. The myth associated with this body of water is that it drags in ships. See the connection? In unfortunate contradistinction is that since the publication of Norton’s novel, this theory has been debunked.

But back to the review.

When looking at Andre Norton’s body of work you have to marvel as how consistently (an understatement) she pumped out novel after novel. Productively speaking, it’s a thing of beauty. It’s like she whipped out her calendar book, called her friends up and said, “Hey guys, can’t do anything this weekend. I’m locking myself in a room with my typewriter for the next 48 hours. But don’t worry, by Monday morning I’ll have completed an entire novel.” To this example, a writing marathon is, in some ways, what the novel read like. I don’t mean rushed. If a sample-size of one book can adequately proxy for the trajectory of her career, I declare: Andre Norton is an excellent story teller! But also: she’s not a great novelist.

Yes, I will explain. If we were sitting around a campfire and someone challenged us to tell a story from scratch, to just start on the spot and make it up as you go, Norton would be the all-time reigning champion. That’s what the narrative felt like. On the spot. Un-outlined. In the moment. Furthermore, if we were sitting around the campfire listening to her tell this story, I’d love it all. I’d be enamored, surprised, and a lot of other good things. But as a novel reader, I’m accustomed to a particular level of depth which was not present in this instance.

I can’t claim I was sucked in, but since the lion’s share of her novels don’t exceed 300 pages, if I need to revisit my theories, it wont take long to affirm or disprove them.

2/5 stars.

Anybody else in the internet world read Norton? Any recommendations for possible future reading?

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