Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: A Review

I first read Markus Zusak's The Book Thief seven years ago, directly after it was first released in the US.  I had never heard of Zusak at the time, so it was pure coincidence that I decided to pick the book up at all.  It was on display at a local Barnes & Noble as I was buying a coffee.  I liked the cover art (domino edition) and read the inside cover flap.  Hmmm...I thought, so I bought it and a few days later read the first chapter on a whim (without any real intention of diving in as I had any number of other books clamoring for my attention).

Three days later I emerged from Zusak's color-laden pages, bathed in tears and with a heart swollen to the size of a hearse.  I can think of few other novels that have ever affected me in quite an intense and emotional manner.

But I'll stop there and back up, because I think some context for a review is in order.

I recently selected The Book Thief as the October reading for my fantasy book group.  To begin with, this novel has very little fantasy about it, but I'll be damned if that was going to stop me.

It is narrated by a comical, lovable, anthopomorphic Death.  So it's fantasy.  I won't be naysayed on this.  It's also great book for discussion, and we have an eclectic group of readers in my group who can bring some interesting perspectives on both the historical and literary viewpoints of the novel.

Also - for those who live beneath a rock like I do - there's a movie coming out.  What better time to get others to pick up the book first?  A movie changes the perception of a book (for better or worse) forever.  I wanted a second reading without a changed perception, or at least not one beyond the change in myself over the intervening years.

So, The Book Thief, take two.

I found I hadn't remembered the details precisely, but my second experience with the book was every bit as moving as it had been the first time.  I must admit, Death is a bit overweening at first.  He inserts himself too powerfully - and at times too flippantly - into the narrative.  But that fades, and the story comes into focus.

The first and greatest of the novel's many assets is the characters.  Liesel leaps off the page - an orphaned girl in Nazi Germany, thrown in with poor foster parents.  Her foster mother is frightening, cantankerous, and foul-mouthed.  Hans Hubermann, her foster father, takes shape slowly, and before you realize it you are every bit as enamored with him as Liesel.  Rudy Steiner, the neighbor boy with the "lemon-colored hair", whose greatest desire is a kiss from Liesel, and whose heart is larger than Himmel Street itself.  Max Vandenberg, the Mein Kampf-toting Jewish refugee with hair like feathers and a gift for handmade stories.  Even Rosa Hubermann herself, rough-tongued and fierce, finds a way into the reader's heart.

There's little real suspense.  Death gives you the penultimate scenes right up front.  This is how it will happen, he says (there was some discussion in our group over Death's actual gender, but I refer to Death as he only for convenience's sake).  Surprisingly, that doesn't make it any less affecting to the reader.

The Book Thief reminds me in many respects of a landscape or urban photograph in sepia tones - browns, ochres, grays, khakis - with a few punches of vibrant color made all the brighter by the contrast to the surrounding landscape.  This is true of the visuals in general, but to a larger degree of the personalities and souls of those those Himmel Street denizens that inhabit the Nazi landscape of aggression and hate.

This is a novel of one of the darkest periods in human history.  It sets itself in the center of that poison, spreading outward across Europe like a plague, and yet it balances that blackness perfectly.  There is beauty and horror in almost equal parts, and the horror only increases the poignancy of the beauty.

Zusak's writing - his imagery and metaphors - encompasses this balance beautifully.

"The last time I saw her was red.  The sky was like soup, boiling and stirring.  In some places, it was burned.  There were black crumbs, and pepper, streaked across the redness."

"When he turned on the light in the small, callous washroom that night, Liesel observed the strangeness of her foster father's eyes.  There were made of kindness, and silver.  Like soft silver, melting.  Liesel, upon seeing those eyes, understood that Hans Hubermann was worth a lot."

His writing can also deliver a quick, debilitating punch to the gut:

"Summer came.
For the book thief, everything was going nicely.
For me, the sky was the color of Jews."

I almost don't know how to wrap up my thoughts on this novel into a neat package.  It encapsulates mankind - "pity this busy monster..." - and it brings into focus the power of words.  Words incited the madness that was Nazi Germany.  It was Mein Kampf and "heil Hitler" and shouted oratory and Joseph Goebbel's poisonous propaganda.  It is also words - stolen words, Max's words, Hans' words, even the book thief's own - that carry Liesel through.  They are powerful, and carry within them the seeds of both our destruction and our hope.

This book is painful, rich, impactful, and incredibly beautiful.  I cant' recommend it highly enough.  It is the type of novel that can change a reader's perspective on life afterwards.  The novels that can claim that are few and far between.  I can only hope the movie does justice to the book.  Geoffrey Rush will play the role of Hans Hubermann, and for small kindnesses such as that we can be thankful.

I'll finish up with the words of Death, as they seem so fitting:

Come with me and I'll tell you a story.
I'll show you something. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Review: The King of Elfland's Daughter by Lord Dunsany

Lord Dunsany, writing in the early years of the twentieth century, was a pioneer in the fantasy genre. His stories of the fantastic, in the tradition of writers like George MacDonald and William Morris, set the stage for Tolkien & Lewis & Peake and the other writers that would follow.

Prolific as he was, Dunsany wrote few actual novels. He was a master of the short form and wrote a number of plays, as well as poetry, essays, a travelogue of Ireland, and several autobiographical collections. Dunsany remains most well-known for his short stories, many of which – thanks to Del Rey & Wildside Press & a plethora of anthologies – remain in print.

The King of Elfland’s Daughter is his best-known novel. It was reprinted in 1969 by Ballantine Books as part of their Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and again in the late 1990’s by Del Rey and Gollancz. I have the most recent Del Rey version, sporting a lovely Pre-Raphaelite cover depicting La Belle Dame Sans Merci and an introduction by Neil Gaiman.

“…trust the book,” Gaiman says. “Trust the poetry and the strangeness, and the magic of the ink, and drink it slowly.”

Gaiman is right. Here be poetry and strangeness and magic. Dunsany’s language, so wonderfully poetic in his short stories, can quickly overwhelm the reader if it’s swallowed whole. Sentences can last a page. Paragraphs can last two. Drink slowly, indeed.

The lushness of the prose is an end unto itself. It distills the beauty and magic of Dunsany’s “Elfland” into human language without diluting its wonder with the dull light of the everyday.

    And so it became a magical sword. And little magic there is in English woods, from the time of anemones to the falling of leaves, that was not in the sword. And little magic there is in southern downs, that only sheep roam over and quiet shepherds, that the sword had not too. And there was scent of thyme in it and sight of lilac, and a chorus of birds that sings before dawn in April, and the deep proud splendour of rhododendrons, and the litheness and laughter of streams, and miles and miles of may. (6-7)

That is just a small sample of it, like a tangle of rose bushes through which the reader must press forward, receiving a prick or two, snagging one's clothing. But smelling the flowers too. And feasting eyes on the blossoms.

The brief (and terribly simplified) overview is this: Alveric, the King’s son, travels beyond the twilight border of the mundane world into Elfland, bringing back the King of Elfland’s daughter as his bride. They have a child, Orion. Lirazel, his innocent bride, is ill-suited to her new role as mother and wife. She returns home. Alveric tries to follow her, but the way to Elfland is no longer open to him. “This is no country for old men,” as Dunsany’s friend W.B. Yeats would write two years later.

There are two distinct problems with the novel, and they are intertwined. Problem A is the plot. Or, I should say, the lack of one.

Problem B is the glacial pacing, which is partially due to Dunsany’s rich writing style (which I do not find fault with and thoroughly enjoyed), but mostly due to Problem A.

Let me clarify. I am not a reader that requires continual action, or a linear plot, or even complete resolution of a tale. Slow pacing in itself is not necessarily a problem, if a book has other redeeming qualities, as this one obviously does.

The problem is a lack of direction. Main characters – specifically Alveric – disappear for long portions of the narrative, wandering aimlessly in quest of faerie. There is one short chapter, “Lurulu Watches The Restlessness of Earth” where nothing happens. A character sits in the pigeon loft and watches things going about their course. For seven pages. We’re not even talking about a main character here.

What the novel felt like to me was a short story drawn out to novel length. Dunsany’s short stories are often dressed in finery and elegant language, but they are rarely lacking in substance. The King of Elfland’s Daughter seems to be exactly that. Mostly frosting, with only a little cake beneath.

This has often been my experience with pre-Tolkien fantasy novels. George MacDonald’s Phantastes, for example. Or E.R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros. They lose themselves in a swamp of language and imagery that drowns the story.

Many post-Tolkien novels, on the other hand, exhibit an opposing problem, where subtlety and elegance and nuance are discarded at the expense of plot, often to the detriment of the story.

Despite its obvious flaws, The King of Elfland’s Daughter is well worth reading, especially for those interested in the roots of the fantasy genre, and those who enjoy prose edging toward poetry. Many authors have written of Elfland. Dunsany is one of the few to have obviously visited. His words on Elfland, and on magic, ring true.

I’ll leave you with a little sample cup of Dunsany’s “rich, red wine” (as Gaiman so aptly calls it). It has aged well. Whether or not to buy the bottle is up to you.

    And as the hunt went on, the daylight faded away, till the sky was all prepared for the coming of stars. And one or two stars appeared, and a mist came up from streams and spread all white over fields, till they could not have seen the unicorn if he had been close before them. The very trees seemed sleeping. They passed by little houses, lonely, sheltered by elms; shut off by high hedges of yew from those that roamed the fields; houses that Orion had never seen or known till the chance course of this unicorn brought him suddenly past their doors. Dogs barked as they passed, and continued barking long, for that magical scent on the air and the rush and the voice of the pack told them something strange was afoot; and at first they barked because they would have shared in what was afoot, and afterward to warn their masters about the strangeness. They barked long through the evening. (127)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Review Schedule & A Writing Update

I’ve once again allowed the blog to lapse into purgatory for a while. Little spindly-legged spiders are building cobwebs in the corners. There is a fine layer of dust on the page ends of the books.

I have quite a few books queued up for review, awaiting my pleasure. Too many, in fact. I tend to read books at a quicker pace than I review them. But I’m thinking that perhaps the best way to ensure certain books get reviewed is to lay them out on a schedule, hence ensuring I get them written and posted in a timely manner.

So, here’s the next few weeks’ schedule:

  • Friday, July 13th - The King of Elfland’s Daughter by Lord Dunsany
  • Wednesday, July 18th - The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Thursday, July 26th - Solstice Wood by Patricia McKillip

That works out to one per week for the next three weeks. The books have already been read. That shouldn’t be too strenuous. I hope.

In writing news, my short story “Trail of Stones” will appear in the premier issue of The Golden Key this fall. Head on over to their site. It’s beautifully designed, and the blog is regularly updated with interesting posts. Plus, they're open for submissions until July 31st, so get your stories in.

That, officially, leaves only one story from 2011 without a home. It is still out, wandering the fine spec magazines. And, since I’ve only written one short story in 2012 (really, just one), that means I have only two lonely stories currently making submission rounds. I kinda miss the constant anticipation of replies in my inbox. I may have to gear myself up for a few new stories.

The novel, on the other hand, has been moving along nicely of late. Chapter 19 is nearly complete, putting the manuscript at around 62k words. There’s a light somewhere far down this tunnel. I can see it.

Unless it’s a train.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Review: The Drowning Girl by Caitlín R. Kiernan

I find that few writers do slipstream well, especially at novel length. Murakami. John Crowley. Neil Gaiman. Stephen King. Jonathan Carroll. It’s a difficult, subtle tightline to walk, mixing the fantastic with the everyday, making the reader believe. More often than not, I find myself disappointed.

Add Caitlín R. Kiernan to the group listed above. The Drowning Girl is fantastic – a gorgeous, fractured tapestry of a novel.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

India Morgan Phelps – Imp to her friends – is schizophrenic. Her grandmother was schizophrenic. Her mother was schizophrenic. Both committed suicide.

If you think this sounds like a grim opening to a novel, it is, but much less so than you might think. Imp’s charisma, her sharply-drawn personality, shine through on nearly every page. Imp narrates her story through flashbacks, journal entries, analogies. These snarl into a tangle of contradictions, odd coincidences, and broken timelines that Imp can’t quite reconcile.

She knows, rationally, they can’t all be true. But she believes in them – in each of them – wholeheartedly. To quote the Radiohead song - "There There" - that Ms. Kiernan cites as an inspiration: Just cos you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there.

Imp has obsessions. Hauntings, she calls them.

One is a painting she sees at a local exhibit when she’s eleven. It’s called The Drowning Girl by Phillip George Saltonstall, and features a girl walking into a river or pool, and peering back over her shoulder at a dark, eerily dark, patch of wood. It isn’t just the painting, of course, that obsesses her. The reader comes to understand that Imp has a long-standing obsession with mermaids and fairy-tales, and that The Drowning Girl merely crystallizes that obsession, becomes a focal point.

The second is another painting, seen years later at another exhibition. It is called Fecunda ratis, and features a blurred Impressionistic rendering of a young girl in a red tunic, “surrounded by a circle of dark, hulking forms – the wolves – and the wolves, in turn, are sitting within an outer circle of standing stones, a looming megalithic ring.” This, of course, represents a form of “Little Red Riding Hood”, a fairy tale Imp calls her “least favorite”.

The two paintings, and the two fairy-tales, become the nexus around which the story revolves. Nightmare and dream. The two tales wrestle over Imp’s mind, ply each other for dominance. They become her stories.

    A dark country road in Eastern Connecticut. Another dark road beside a river in Massachusetts. A woman who called herself Eva Canning, who might have been a ghost, or a wolf, or maybe a mermaid, or possibly, most likely, nothing that will ever have a name.

The narrative moves backwards and forwards in time as Imp tries to reconstruct her thoughts and find the truth of her story. She realizes that fact and truth are not synonymous. Imp says in the opening chapter that she will try to tell the story as she remembers it. “Which is not to say every word will be factual. Only that every word will be true. Or as true as I can manage.”

The story comes in broken chunks and flashbacks interspersed with her current life and in little pieces of fiction that she has written.

The story is strewn with references to everyone from Charles Perrault to Dante Alighieri. Kiernan peppers the story with odd facts (Imp collects odd facts like shells on the beach), and even fictional references like the painting of “The Drowning Girl” felt real enough that I needed to search to ensure it didn’t really exist. This gives the novel a feel of authenticity, a believability that never, even in its strangest moments, dissipates.

Capturing the skittering thoughts and images of Imp’s mind must have been a daunting task, but Kiernan’s style brings it off beautifully. It varies between extremely lucid and straightforward or surrealistic and dreamlike, dependent upon Imp’s state of mind. It is most powerful in its surrealistic state, especially Chapter 7, which centers around that number and reads like a strange opium dream.

    This is my ghost story of the wolf who cried girl. The murdered wolf ghost who roamed centuries after a musket blast, without other wolves, except other wolf ghosts, for company. And somehow she forgot she ever was a wolf, deprived of others of her kind to provide perspective. She forgot.

The story doesn’t tie up neatly into a little bow. It remains fractured, just as its narrator remains fractured. Imp can control her illness through medication. But there’s no cure, just as you sense there’s no easy solution to her story. What happened, on a factual basis, is far less important that what is true. Imp realizes this central tenet to storytelling. It is why fiction is so much more important than non-fiction. There are truths contained therein that will never be found in a dry collection of facts.

I’m reminded of the lines from Yann Martel’s brilliant Life of Pi:

    “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?”.

The Drowning Girl is certainly a better story with the animals. And it’s one of the finer books I’ve read this year.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Subtle Persuasion

Well, as usual I'm a few days behind on posting this. I have an excuse this time. I was out of town. Really. No kidding. And since I remain one of perhaps three individuals in the western hemisphere without a smartphone (or an iPad, or a Kindle Fire, or get the idea) I was unable to write a proper update.

So, without further ado, I would like to point out that my flash story, "The Deep", has been published in the May edition of Flash Fiction Online.

At a mere 1000 words, you've got time. Five minutes. Maybe seven. Max. Click on over. Have a gander. Leave a comment if you're so inclined. You know you want to.



You've scrolled too far. There's nothing down here. The link is up above. The blue word clicky-thing.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Writemotivation May

This month I joined a group of other writers in something like a writer’s support group. The intention is to set goals for the month of May, and do our damnedest to meet those goals. Sort of an AA group for writers.

So, with that in mind: “Hello, my name is Adam, and I am a shameless, weak, feeble-willed, indolent procrastinator.” Whew! At least that’s out in the open. I hate speaking in front of people.

I’m hoping this works in two ways:

    A.) To actually set some concrete writing goals for the month.
    B.) To let other people know about those goals.

Those necessarily have to work together. I set myself goals all the time, and often fail to reach them. But whose problem is that? Mine. Because no one else knows about them. And though I feel bad about not reaching personal goals – very guilty, in fact – it doesn’t always give me the extra motivation I need. So I’m thinking perhaps the fact that other people know about my goals gives me some incentive to meet them. Hey, every little bit helps.

At the very least, it helps to know that I’m not the only easily-distracted, restless, attention-deficient writer on the planet. In fact, I’m beginning to think that’s the most common kind.

My goals for May were thus:

    1.) Write 1000 words on my WIP on each devoted “writing day”. Minimum of three days per week. (Kind of vague, huh? My writing schedule is at the mercy of my changing work schedule.)

    2.) Write a minimum of one blog post per week updating my #writemotivation status and / or containing a book review. (And I have so many reviews just waiting to be written!)

This constitutes my second blog post of the month. So I’m at least meeting that commitment, if only at a minimum level.

The other? Lagging a bit behind so far. I managed about 1,100 words for the week on my WIP novel, and started a new story, on which I’ve completed around 1,750 words. I haven’t a clue where the story is going yet. But it’ll get there eventually. Wherever there is.

For those mathematically-challenged readers, that’s a mere 2,850 words for the first week of May. Thank God I don’t have to make a living at this stuff. Starvation and exposure would have set in a long time back.

I hope all of my fellow #writemotivation writers are plugging along a bit more gainfully. Like my mysteriously meandering new story, we’ll get there eventually.

P.S. - The wonderful image above is from writer/artist Richard Krzemien. Check out his website for more great comics.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Around the May-Pole: A Nearly-Coherent Writing Update

May is shaping up to be an exciting month. Three of my short stories will appear in some seriously awesome magazines. I learned yesterday that my story, “Deerslayer”, has been accepted by Nine Magazine, and will appear in their second issue to be released in late May. (You can get the nine fantastic stories in Issue One now for $5. It’s totally worth it.)

This is in addition to “Flatland” - which is scheduled to appear in the May issue of Jabberwocky - and “The Deep”, which will appear in the May issue of Flash Fiction Online. “The Deep” is my first (and thus far only) professional-paying sale.

Needless to say, I’m chuffed to see the words I’ve sweated and bled over (not literally…perhaps) get into the hands of readers. I’ll put a note up here when each of the stories are available.

Submitting short fiction is an exciting, excruciating, time-consuming, obsessive process. If I’d tallied the number of times I checked my email for replies, I’d have covered the desk, walls, and possibly the carpet with faint pencil lines. The road from initial idea to rough story to finished story to rejection to acceptance to actual, honest-to-god publication is potholed, meandering, and stretches way, way back into the heat-blurred distance.

It has been an educational, and often frustrating, experience. But it has also been an awful lot of fun.

In secondary news, I completed the fifteenth chapter of my novel WIP this past week, which means I've struggled my way very close to the halfway point (per my outline, which is rather vague and liable to morph into different shapes altogether). Either way, it’s a milestone, and one I’m satisfied with. Though I’m struck with a faint disquiet that not enough is happening at this point in the book. Ah well, it’s nothing that can’t be fixed in revisions.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Review - The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan

There are very few writers that leave me so eagerly anticipating their next novel that I will rearrange my schedule to read it. Years ago, I rushed to the bookstore to snatch up the latest Robert Jordan or Tad Williams installment the moment it hit the shelves. These days, with literally hundreds of patient, unread books on the shelves whispering “read me!”, and my tastes constantly evolving, very few authors receive immediate readings.

Hell, even A Dance With Dragons and The Wise Man’s Fear - and let’s admit it, ongoing series tend to receive some priority, since the story is incomplete – waited a few months from release before I cracked their spines. Anticipation, after all, whets the appetite.

But there are exceptions. When I learned some time in January that Margo Lanagan was releasing a new novel, I sat up very straight in my chair and began fishing around online for release dates. I devoured her first novel – World Fantasy Award Winner Tender Morsels - and found that her short story collections served to whet my appetite for the next novel quite enough, thank you. I didn’t intend to wait.

Then I discovered, to my chagrin, that the Australian & UK release dates were set for mid-February, while the US edition wouldn’t be released until September. September!

Waiting I would be, it seemed…because I have this phobia about paying for shipping. There are many, many things I don’t mind paying for, but shipping falls into the painful gray area of “utterly wasted money”, and international shipping…well, even the thought makes me shiver. There’s a great UK-based bookstore called The Book Depository that ships free worldwide, but it kept telling me the book was out of stock.

I’m nothing, however, if not persistent. I finally found a new copy on Abe Books – fulfilled through the Book Depository. Does this meandering backstory have a point? Not really, other than to tell any other anxious readers that you can find your own international copies in that way if you don’t want to wait until September.

And you shouldn't.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is a novel based on the author’s novella from 2010, “Sea Hearts”, which won the World Fantasy Award for that category and went on to appear in The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror of 2010 anthology. I hadn’t read the novella, mainly because it originally appeared in an Australian anthology that was difficult to come by in the US.

The Brides of Rollrock Island is an unfortunate title, and the UK edition that I purchased has underwhelming, stock-YA cover art. The Australian version of the novel kept the Sea Hearts title but the UK and US versions opted for Brides instead. Who knows why marketing departments make the decisions that they do? Sea Hearts is a far more fitting title, certainly. One that reflects the many nuances and conflicts that Lanagan portrays.

My disappointment in the presentation faded quickly once I began the opening chapter. I slipped into Lanagan’s fictional world like a selkie back into its skin.

The story is narrated by six different characters, though the bulk of the action revolves around only two, separated by a generation – Daniel Mallett, a young boy from the village; and Misskaella Prout, an outcast girl who becomes the means for drawing women from the seals. For a novel this short – it clocks in at just under 300 pages – you might think this method would hinder the ability to build character, but somehow the tale, and the characters themselves, emerge as distinct and greater than the sum of their parts.

The basic premise of the novel is this: On a lonely island, Misskaella is a witch with the ability to draw women – beautiful, enchanting women – from the seals that return to the island to breed and bask each spring. The men become so enchanted by the seal-women that they take them as wives – even those that already have wives and family – and drive all of the “human” women to the mainland.

That, of course, is only the bird’s-eye view. A cover blurb that doesn’t come close to capturing the novel’s heart. The novel has at its center a number of ideas – a contrast between real flesh-and-blood women and their idealized, submissive selkie counterparts; the effect of the absence of real female presence on the men and children of the island; an evocation of the tensions, jealousies, and bonds that form in an isolated community; but perhaps more than anything the underlying instinct – the drive – of both human & selkie alike to return home. The selkies rejoice to return to the sea; no less does Dominick Mallett rejoice on his return to Rollrock, after many years away. Nostalgia, in part. But also an old glove that fits the hand.

Lanagan’s prose is an absolute pleasure, utilitarian and poetic at the same time. It rarely bogs down or draws attention to itself, but builds on very specific details that reflect the setting and move the story forward without sacrificing style. Spare, where sparseness is required. Like Rollrock Island itself. Full of wonder at other times, teeming with the wild magic that lies beneath a bluff exterior.

    When the wind was a particular strength of nor’-easter, Toddy and I would run up towards Windaway Peak. There was a blade of land there, up which funneled all the airs from Gambrel Wood to Oaten Share, and we stood on it with our toes curled over the rock like eagle-claws, and spread our arms and were held up by the wind. It would push and sluice around us, and overbalance us back down towards the path, or desert us so that we fell forward into a shallow little tumble-room on the south side, and make us laugh. (Lanagan, 273)

Lanagan’s novels and stories all seem to take place in a sort of timeless zone, an area just outside of the common world, and The Brides of Rollrock Island is no exception. There are nods toward a modern or semi-modern lifestyle, especially on the mainland – busses, motorboats, electricity – but Rollrock seems to exist outside of these things for the most part. There is no attempt to place the story in a definite time-frame, and I think it would be unproductive to do so. Like fairy tales, Lanagan’s writings take place just off the map somewhere, in that no-man’s land where fantasy and reality collide (Lanagan’s first novel, Tender Morsels, was very much about the collision of fantasy with reality).

And yet, despite the timeless feel of the island setting, we get a great sense of the “roll” of time and generations through the novel, seeing the changes through the eyes of several characters, often separated by twenty or thirty years of time.

If there was one problem I found with the novel, it was the general helplessness of the men against Misskaella and the sea-wives.

Only one male character in the novel manages to resist the lure of the selkies. His ability to withstand what all the others are utterly defenseless against is never explained, and its importance is downplayed. His resistance implies that the men’s choices are not all controlled by enchantment, but (at least in part) by free will. This casts the decisions of the rest of the male population in an unflattering light, to say the least.

I found the general weakness and simplicity of the male characters a bit off-putting. The men in this novel are not bad, heartless people, per se, but they are often crude, hormone-driven fools. There is some truth there, but it is far from a universal truth.

That qualm aside, this is a vibrant, beautifully-written novel, full of the magic of island and sea and of those things – human and otherwise – that pass between. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Drawing on the Green

Spring weather has cracked open like an egg, and now that I finally have a day away from work I plan to get out into the woods and soak up the sounds and smells. It’s one of those rare spring days here in Illinois – a slight breeze, sun, the odor of damp earth & blooming green. Nice spring days are almost always accompanied by wind, so I’ll take the change while it's here.

After working last night and getting to bed late, I woke up around 11 with a folk song playing in my head. It seemed fitting for the bursting free of winter’s chains, for solitude and grey-green rocks. When it comes to this sort of thing, it’s always the fabulous poet Mary Oliver I turn to, because few people can put that yearning so poignantly:

    But little by little,
    as you left their voices behind,
    the stars began to burn
    through the sheets of clouds,
    and there was a new voice
    which you slowly
    recognized as your own,
    that kept you company
    as you strode deeper and deeper
    into the world,
    determined to do
    the only thing you could do –
    determined to save
    the only life you could save.

    From “The Journey”, © 1986 by Mary Oliver

So, with luck, I can get out and clear the mind with a long walk, find a cozy outdoor spot where the glare isn’t too bad on the computer screen and pound out a few pages in my novel – because, really, clearing my head of the static of semis, car exhaust, work, internet distractions, and electronic devices (aside from the one I actually write on) is necessary for the mindset of this novel. Wish me luck.

I’ll leave you with a couple of the songs that have been running through my head today. Because, hey, maybe they can help you clear away the smoke too.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Year's Reading

Reviewing an entire year's worth of reading in retrospect is a daunting task. Looking back, we may misremember what we thought of a given book, or overlook the flaws that were so obvious on first reading. I'm left instead with impressions, random scenes, rather than the coherent whole. But what the hell, I'll give it a try anyway.

2011 was a year of mixed reading – a variety of genres, subjects, and styles. I followed through on my resolution to read (and re-read) more classics. I have a deep love and respect for nineteenth-century novels, but I find that all too often I pass them up because of their sheer size and the mental demands they require. Let’s face it, most modern genre novels require less of the reader than Dickens, Tolstoy, Hardy, or George Eliot.

Total Books Read in 2011: 49

That’s down several from the year before, but the difference is due more to the size of the books than anything else. I tackled some real doorstops last year. I’ve never had issues with long books, but I realized something about them last year.

Most are pointlessly bloated.

I don’t say all. In spite of its digressions, I wouldn’t shorten Anna Karenina by a word. Same goes for Middlemarch and The Adventures of Don Quixote.

In some cases, I may even encourage said author. George R.R. Martin – feel free to make the next book, and the one after that, just as long as you like. If some of the narrative is off-topic, so be it. When I open a new volume of A Song of Ice & Fire I’m perfectly happy to spend weeks, months, or years enveloped in the narrative. Though I’ve had quite enough of that Meereen plot-line. Bring everybody home to the Seven Kingdoms.

In the bloated department, there are varying levels of severity. Patrick Rothfuss, for example, keeps things interesting and fun in spite of an oversized and meandering narrative. I can enjoy The Wise Man’s Fear in spite of its heft because Rothfuss is a damned fine storyteller.

Another one? Connie Willis’s The Doomsday Book. I don’t go in for science fiction, generally, but this is Sci Fi lite. It's about people - about how different, and yet how similar, we are to those who came before. A thought-provoking book. Not a spaceship in sight, thank you. Oversized, and beautiful, and (I thought) somewhat anti-climactic.

Going several degrees worse – Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth. I’d heard good things about it, and I have a weakness for big historical novels. I found some of the story intriguing…but mostly I thought it was a big, ungainly, sprawling mess. Flat characters and a tiresomely redundant plot. I found myself, six-hundred pages in, thinking “haven’t I read this part already? Surely I did, back on page 324?”

One final mention of an over-large book? The Dragon Queen by Alice Borchardt. This was a selection for my book club. Weighing in at only 473 pages, it’s practically a novella compared to the others I’ve mentioned. And yet… And yet it seemed twice as long and painful as any of them. I will say no more on the matter. But be forewarned.

Some Highly Recommended Books of 2011:

Note: I’ll leave the classics off this list. Recommending a classic seems almost...well...redundant.

    Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay – I’ve already reviewed this one here, so I’ll be brief. The latest fantasy-historical by Kay. Asian setting. It matches up well with some of his best works like A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan.

    Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin – Another book I’ve already reviewed here. It’s by Ursula LeGuin. What more needs to be said?

    Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. Harsh, funny, touching. Whether you like westerns or not (and I’m generally lukewarm on them), read this one.

    Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King – Native American magic-realism. Entwines Native American mythology with modern Native American culture. It’s essentially about stories – their significance, their relevance, and the effect they have on who we are and who we would like to be.

    A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin – At this point, giving Martin my recommendation is like spitting into the ocean. Pointless and redundant. But I’ll do it anyway. The man is sadistic. Downright evil. Oh, and genius.

    Holiday by M. Rickert – One of my favorite fantasy short story writers, and criminally under-read. This collection came out around Christmas 2010 in a gorgeously illustrated hardcover edition. Weird fiction full of deep ideas, disturbing images, and sudden unexpected glimpses of the wondrous. If you like short fiction, try her. You won’t be disappointed.

A Few Disappointments:

    The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – Mentioned above. Too long, too wooden.

    Something Rich & Strange by Patricia McKillip – I’m a big fan of Patricia McKillip’s books and her lush, lyrical writing style. I purchased this one because it’s a bit of a rarity. The second book in a planned series illustrated by Brian & Wendy Froud that was cancelled after this book came out. This seemed forced and overdone to me. Her images were as lush as usual, but not as clear, and the modern environmental fable didn’t work as a plot device. Stick with McKillip’s other books.

    The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers – This book seemed almost like a shoe-in on the “loved it” list. Shelley & Byron & Keats and succubae in early nineteenth century Europe. It had everything going for it except its execution. I was never drawn into the story, and I found it unfocused and often confusing. The main character was neither very likeable nor very coherent. I wanted to like it. I really did.

    The Marriage of Sticks by Jonathan Carroll - I really enjoyed Carroll's The Land of Laughs, so I had similar high expectations for The Marriage of Sticks. The book had its moments, but the ending seemed both preachy and highly contrived. I was not impressed. I have several more of Carroll's novels hanging around, so I hope this was just a blip on the radar.

What was your favorite book that you read in 2011?