Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Grave Mercy
I had no idea Robin LaFever's Grave Mercy would be so addictive when I picked it up. I hardly got anything done today because I kept sneaking back to read just one more chapter. Who knew a book about an assassin in the service of the god of death would be so vivacious?

We meet our protagonist, Ismae, on what is probably the worst day of her life. She's just been sold off in marriage to a pig farmer who looks and behaves far too much like his charges. But when he is repulsed by the ugly, red scar on her back--the mark of death in fifteenth century Brittany--Ismae is rescued and spirited away to the island convent of Saint Mortain. Even if the place were an actual convent, Ismae would have been happy. But Saint Mortain's trains girls in the arts of death, sending them out into the world to do their god's bidding.

Ismae spends three years in training before being sent out to take her final tests and finds herself embroiled in a fight to keep Brittany independent of France. It seems a hopeless case, but Ismae has faith. Well, she has faith until she uncovers evidence that her beloved convent has been corrupted. The tests she faces test much more than her ability to take a life. Her faith is tested, mostly by an aggravating man who is fighting harder than anyone for the duchess of Brittany.

Grave Mercy reminds me a lot of Maria V. Snyder's Poison Study series. Both feature strong--and deadly--female protagonists. Both feature women elevated from the lowest positions in their respective societies, to circles where they can make a difference in their countries futures. They're the kind of female protagonists that I like to see in young adult fiction because they're logical and determined and not content to wait for someone (male) to come and rescue them. I'm very curious to see what happens in the sequel, when LaFevers turns her attention to a much more volatile protagonist.

The Outcasts, by Kathleen Kent

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 24 September 2013.

The Outcasts
I don't believe the literary critics who say that the Western in dead. After reading genre benders like The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell and more traditional Westerns like Kathleen Kent's The Outcasts, it seems to me that there's still plenty of ground to cover on the old frontier.

The Outcasts opens on Lucinda, a prostitute at a crooked brothel in Texas. The morning we meet her, she's trying to escape and fend of an incipient epileptic seizure at the same time. You're on her side within sentences as the clever woman uses a key she copied to head out the door with a good part of the madam's gold in her possession. Lucinda lays false trails as she heads for Houston to meet up with the man she believes loves her, in spite of her affliction. Kent also introduces us to neophyte lawman, Nate Cannon, who's been assigned to work with two experienced Texas rangers to bring down multiple murderer, William McGill. Cannon et al. head for east Texas, on a collision course with Lucinda. It doesn't take long to work out that their targets are the same man.

Lucinda, on orders from McGill, goes to Middle Bayou, near Galveston, to trace legends of a gold cache buried by Jean Lafitte. Once in Middle Bayou, she uses her wiles to locate the island with the buried treasure. It also becomes clear that Lucinda is far from the innocent that you might think she is. She is amazingly ruthless as she uses people to help the man she loves. But when McGill turns up in Middle Bayou to take possession of his treasure, Lucinda starts to doubt his love when he flirts with other women--especially a young naif named May. Kent also reveals, via Nate's narrative, that Lucinda has ties to both of the older lawmen the young state policeman is traveling with. It turns out that the "personal reasons" the men gruffly admit to are very personal indeed.

When things turn nasty in Middle Bayou--as they must--Kent takes our protagonists to New Orleans for a thrilling climax. While there are elements of the traditional Western here--wronged women, revenge, pursuit by posses, etc.--Kent mixes them into a fresh story. Granted, I haven't read many Westerns (especially the old pulpy ones). But the story that Kent gives us in The Outcasts makes think there's a lot of life left in the old genre. After all, justice and revenge never get tired. Authors just need to look beyond the conventions and give readers a new spin.


The Bone Season, by Samantha Shannon

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be published 20 August 2013.

The Bone Season
Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season, the opening novel in a projected seven book series, is not the kind of book that makes for comfortable reading. In the first chapters, Shannon lays out a version of London that is completely locked down. Special police patrol night and day looking for "unnaturals," people with clairvoyant talents like soothsaying and talking to ghosts. Being captured means a death sentence, for the normal population are terrified of the clairvoyants.

Our protagonist, Paige Mahoney, has unique talents that she employs for her Seven Dials dwelling boss. It's not a great life. She always has to be on the lookout for police and for her boss' mercurial temper, but at least she's free. Well, she's free until she ends up on the wrong train at the wrong time and gets captured. Once in custody, Paige learns that the expected death sentence is a cover for something even more bizarre and dangerous. Instead of getting the noose, Paige is shipped off to a prison colony named Sheol I. (If you know your Hebrew--and why wouldn't you?--you might recognize the name as the Jewish version of Hell.)

In Sheol, Paige learns that all the captured clairvoyants have been used by an alien race, the Rephaim, to fight flesh-eating monsters known as Emim. We don't learn much about them in this book, except that they're very dangerous. It became clear to me that Shannon is saving revelations about them for subsequent books. Paige has enough to be getting on with with her new master. As soon as a clairvoyant arrives in Sheol, they're claimed by a Rephite for brutal training to fight the Emim. But Paige's master, the Warden, is not like the others. He's cold, but curious. He pushes her to develop her talents, but he doesn't starve and beat her like other Rephaim. While she can't help but hate the Warden for what he represents, Paige's lot is a lot better than that of the other humans in Sheol.

After the somewhat heavy exposition of the first chapters, Shannon settles in to tell an addictive tale about Paige's attempts to win freedom not only for herself but for the other human inhabitants of Sheol. For a debut novel by a twenty-year-old author, The Bone Season is an incredible read. Hell, even for a veteran writer, this is an amazing book. I plan on sticking around for the next books in the series because I have, as my ten-year-old niece would say, suspicions about what's going to happen next and I want to see if I'm right.


Whatever the opposite of a hatchet job is

How do I love thee?
Let me count the ways.
I've always had a hard time writing reviews for books I adore. I end up gushing and repeating that I loved it. It's hard to say why, sometimes. I first noticed it when I read Machiavelli's The Prince. It was the first pragmatic work of philosophy that I had ever read. It was refreshing after all the metacognition and abstraction. But when it came time to write the paper, it was hard to make an argument because I thought that everything was perfectly self-evident.

It's a little easier with fiction than in academia. I suspect that my enthusiasm for a story convinces people instead of my babbling. I was thinking about this while I wrote up my experience reading Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I enjoyed it so much it was hard to write sense.

Not to be hyperbolic--but I'm going to anyway--I suspect that listening me gush about a book is like listening to someone gush about their new sweetie.

It's easy to write a review of a book I disliked. When I dislike something, it's easy to see and remember every little error and annoyance. It's easy to pick holes in their argument because I really want to. Not that the books I love need glossing over. (At least, I don't think so.) Man, it is hard to make a coherent argument when you're twitterpated by prose. I suppose this is why you see so many more hatchet jobs an gushing adulations. 


Palate cleanser

After reading Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, I was at a bit of a loss as to what to read after. I have a stack of books next to my bed and a digital pile waiting for me on my Kindle. I have books from two libraries, NetGalley, and my own collection waiting.

This happens every now and then, that I read a book that's so astoundingly good, any book I read next will suck--no matter how good it actually is. What you need after a book like A Constellation is a palate cleanser. I usually rely on Terry Pratchett, but the old standbys weren't that attractive. I ended up going with another favorite author, Christopher Moore. When I need a palate cleanser book, I have to go with something I've read before and enjoyed. So I'm reading A Dirty Job, in which a secondhand shop owner becomes Death's little helper. The best books for me to read after a mind-blowing book are funny ones, I think because jokes are the perfect antidote to taking something too seriously.

Without the palate cleansers, I don't think I'd be able to read as fast as I do because I would be in regular funks from reading good books. Interestingly, the same thing doesn't happen when I read a bad book. Whatever I read next seems that much better in comparison.


A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher.

A Constellation of
Vital Phenomena
This book will break your heart. When I finished reading it and closed the book, all I could do was just sit in my chair and try and process the profundity of what I had just read. I wasn't expecting this book. Be warned then. This book will break your heart.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra, takes it's title from a Russian medical textbook. The book defines life as "a constellation of vital phenomena--organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation" (184*). It's a very strange, poetic definition for life, but it fits this book so well. And it's beautifully written. I normally don't comment on the writing, but Marra's style is too wonderful to let pass without comment. There were parts that made me pause instead of charging on to the next part.

Marra's tale is set during five days during the second war in Chechnya in 2004, with flashbacks as far as the 1950s. The chapters detail the lives of five people in the small village of Eldár and the somewhat larger town of Volchansk at Hospital No. 6. Marra gives us the story of Akhmad, the worst doctor in his village (possibly all of Chechnya); Sonja, the ethnic Russian doctor who came back from London for her sister; Natasha, the sister who tried to escaped but was sold into slavery; Khassan, the historian who survived so much; Ramzan, the informer. Though they don't realize it most of the time, these characters' actions touch each others lives in incredible and fateful ways.

Marra opens his tale with Akhmad rescuing and hiding the daughter of a friend who has been disappeared. At eight years old, Havaa is an innocent. But because of the Russians' policy of destroying the families of anyone they think might have been fighting them or helping those fighting them**, she will be kidnapped and probably killed if they ever get their hands on her. Akhmad takes her from their village to Volchansk and talks the lone surgeon at Hospital No. 6 into sheltering her. Akhmad takes a job there, but has to return to  Eldár to care for his paralyzed and senile wife. This is the heart of the story.

From this heart, Marra widens his view to show us how these characters survived the first Chechnyan war. He shows us what happened to them all, shows us the moments in their childhoods that led them to become the people they are. Sometimes, he tells you who will survive the second war and what will happen to them when the violence stops. Without these moments, I don't know if I could have finished the book because so many terrible (in the full sense of the word) things happen. Characters are tortured and murdered, because that's what happened during the wars. Two peoples, divided by more than religion and ethnicity, tore each other apart in Chechnya. I needed those little doses of hope.

This is a book that deserves, needs, to be read.


* From the Kindle edition.
** Depending on who's side you take, the Chechnian fighters could be described as revolutionaries, fundamentalists, jihadists, freedom fighters, or insurgents. I'm not sure what the right term to use is, since I don't know enough about the conflict to even begin to have an opinion about it. 


The Corpse Reader, by Antonio Garrido

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 

The Corpse Reader
Until I reached the halfway point of Antonio Garrido's The Corpse Reader, I was looking for reasons to give up reading it. The writing is choppy. The dialog is rife with anachronisms. (Honestly, medieval Chinese people saying, "Okay" and "See you later" and paraphrasing Mark Twain?) You only get to really know the main character, Cí Song; the other characters are mostly cardboard villains or ciphers. And yet, I stuck with it. After all, how often do you get to read a book set in the early thirteenth century in China? I don't really know why, but I kept reading the misadventures of Cí. 

Cí Song, based on the actual Song , is one of those people whose only luck is bad luck. In the first half of the book, everything is against him and I lost count of the number of times he was hit on the back of the head and knocked unconscious. In short order, Cí's brother is accused and convicted of murder. His parents are killed in a landslide. In order to get his brother's sentence commuted, Cí sells the family land to an unscrupulous land baron and finds himself in the middle of a tangle of corruption. He flees for Lin'an, the capital at the time, with his terminally ill little sister. Cí manages to take a job as a gravedigger, but that doesn't last long when a scheming fortune teller has him use the gig to get money out of grieving family members in return for having Cí figure out how they died. Even when Cí manages to get himself out of that pickle and lands a spot at a local academy, it doesn't take long for his new acquaintances to start plotting against him.

All this brings us up to the halfway point, where the novel really starts to get good. (Even though the anachronisms still rankle.) Cí is hired by the emperor's councilor of punishment, Kan, to work out how three (later four) men were brutally murdered and dismembered. Garrido does an absolutely incredible job in bringing together all the disparate injustices of Cí's life into a massive, astonishing conspiracy. The end of this book is worth putting up with the first half. It truly is a remarkable ending.   


The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the
End of the Lane
I finished reading Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane the day it came out, 18 June. But I've put off writing this review because I felt the need to ponder its meaning a little more. Even though it's less than 200 pages long, the book feels packed with meaning--that must, therefore, be unpacked. I would recommend that, before you read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, you read Amanda Palmer's "the ocean at the end of the lane (a book & marriage review)." Ms. Palmer, being Gaiman's wife, has an inside scoop that none of the rest of us have. Because this book is impossible to read without an eye to Gaiman's biography. I like how Palmer explains it with her blender metaphor. There are personal things here, but they've been pureed with so much fiction that you can't make direct connections between events in the book and the author's life. No matter how much you want to.

The book opens with the unnamed narrator returning home for a family funeral. The return to his childhood town starts to bring back memories. He goes back to the house he lived in when he was seven, but the house  isn't home anymore now that he's a middle aged man. He travels further down the road, noting the changes that have been made to the neighborhood since he last saw it. But the end of the lane hasn't changed much. The house at the end of it, with the duck pond that's really an ocean, hasn't changed at all. When he gets to the old farmhouse, Mrs. Hempstock is there to greet him. When he visits the duck pond, his memories of what happened when he was seven and bad things happen.

The way I read the extended flashback was as an extended metaphor for the way that children remember things. They don't always remember the who, what, when, where, and how. For a boy that's a big reader, it's likely that fiction would mix with memory and give rise to the story the unnamed narrator tells. After he witnesses the dead body of a suicidal lodger, he meets Lettie Hempstock who uses a little country magic to fix some of the supernatural annoyances that suddenly sprang up after the lodger killed himself. But something followed him. That something turns into the utterly chilling Ursula Monkton. Ursula turns the narrator's happy childhood into the nightmare of adulthood therapy sessions. The big confrontation is terrifying and thrilling and weirdly wonderful.

When I finished the book, all I could think of was a verse from First Corinthians. Weird for an atheist, I know, but verse 13:11 popped into my head. "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." The problem with the unnamed narrator is that he couldn't put away those childhood memories. What happened, whether it was supernatural or not, left deep scars on his mind.

So, after writing about my anticipation about this book, am I disappointed? It's not another American Gods. The trouble with writing something so personal is that, if you're not part of the inner circle, it's hard to get very involved. It was interesting, unusual. It was written in the deceptively simple way that Gaiman writes things. I still wonder if there are things about this story that I missed, but I wouldn't say I'm disappointed. I will say that this is a book that deserves to be read more than once.



As I write this, Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane is waiting on the coffee table for me to open it up. But I wanted to pause, first, and reflect on this feeling of anticipation I've been feeling with increasing urgency since I learned that Gaiman was writing a new novel for adults. I can't remember feeling this way since before I switched to ebooks. I suspect this is because its so easy to just download the book. You don't have to deal with any real world hassles.

This feeling of keyed up anticipation turned buying the book into the sort of small, first world saga that populates chapters in literary fiction. First, I had to call my sister to get her Barnes and Noble numbers. Then hitting every red light between work and the bookstore. Then I discovered that my local B&N had rearranged things. At the counter, I waited had to wait behind a chatty old lady to pay for the book. Of course, the lights were red between the bookstore and my apartment complex.

So, here I am, typing and trying to scarf down dinner at the same time because I don't even want the distraction of juggling food and a hardcover book at the same time. The book, surprisingly thin, Is just resting on the table. I haven't even peeked at the text. I've kicked the troublemaker cat out onto the balcony. I've told my family not to expect me to answer the phone this evening. All the while, I'm trying not to wonder about what the story is. That's where anticipation ruins things. You can't try and build the book up in your head because that leads to disappointments, you have to try and forget how long you've been waiting for the book. I want to judge the book on its own merits.


Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, by William Sutton

I received a free copy of this ebook to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 30 July 2013.

Lawless and the
Devil of Euston Square
Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square, by William Sutton, is the opening volume in a trilogy about Campbell Lawless. Lawless is a Scottish transplant to London. He joined the Metropolitan Police, looking for a life more exciting than repairing watches and clocks with his father. Unfortunately, being a low level constable in London in 1859 isn't the righteous (in the old sense of the world, not the Bill and Ted sense of the word) adventure that he thought it would be.

Anyone familiar with Dickens' novel will recognize the setting of Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square. It's London before reform fever hits. It's dark. It's smelly. The divide between rich and poor is a nearly insurmountable gap. Most of all, it's deadly. Lawless is almost criminally unschooled in the ways of the city when he is plucked from his desk to become the assistant of Inspector Wardle, a man with a fearsome reputation built over decades of police work.

Lawless' first case looks like nothing more than a puzzling prank with a water spout and a stolen clock mechanism. The first sign that this book is going unexpected places is that Wardle squelches Lawless' curiosity. He gives the budding copper boring tasks. Lawless investigates anyway, since the great detective is often absent from his Scotland Yard office. As months (and even years) roll past, more clues fall into Lawless' lap. Sutton doesn't make it easy for us though. You know there's something devious going on, but it stays just out of reach until near the end of the book. It's a tantalizing read.

For me, a librarian, the best parts were when Ruth Villiers gets involved. Following a hunch to old newspapers at the British Museum Library. Lawless' questions and puzzles pique the librarian's interest, giving her "detective fever." I'm sure I would have enjoyed the spunky girl even if she wasn't a librarian. She provides necessary spark as Lawless is a fairly dogged, dour man.

This book was full of surprises. It doesn't follow any of the typical mystery plots, or even thriller plots. I love books that can surprise me. Sutton populates his book with a wide cast of very interesting people, from princes down to toshers. The afterword hits at even more interesting cases in Lawless' future, so I'm curious to see what comes next.


Multiple personalities

"No, it's my turn to tell the story."
Since finishing What Comes Next, by John Katzenbach, I've been reflecting on the challenges of writing multiple narrators. Writing an unreliable narrator is hard enough, but I wonder if writing in more than one unique voice isn't harder. The best book with multiple narrators I've ever read was Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible. The Poisonwood Bible was narrated by five women and girls, between the age of around five up to middle age. And every single one of them sounded like completely separate personalities. They're so different from each other that it's incredible to believe that they were written by just one author. This would probably be a good place for an "authors are crazy" joke, but I'm too impressed. 

What Comes Next and a bunch of other books I've read lately try to do the same thing, but they don't quite hit the mark that Kingsolver set. I understand why an author chooses to tell the story this way. It keeps the pace of the book moving. We're not waiting for one character to discover what's going on or get around to telling the whole truth. The challenge, though, is getting your reader to believe that the characters really do have unique voices and perspectives. I don't think enough writers go far enough in differentiating things, such as the narrators' dialects and idiolects and cultural background. It's the little things that add verisimilitude. 

In talking with an acquaintance at work about this recently, I identified a few writers who spend too much time in each characters' head. Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin, among others, spend so much time in each characters' head that it's easy to lose track of everyone. As the acquaintance put it (approximately), "I read about a character and get interested. Then the author switches to another character that I don't care about as much. Then I get interested. Then the author switches again. By the time they get back to the first character, I can't remember what was happening."

It's hard to hit the sweet spot between too much and too little detail. (Isn't that really the challenge of writing, anyway?)


What Comes Next, by John Katzenbach

What Comes Next
I suspect that part of what makes John Katzenbach's What Comes Next so plausibly frightening is the fact that the criminals are so chillingly sociopathic. They plan everything, so catching them is going to be a miracle. (They seem more terrifying for me having just read Jon Ronson's review of Confessions of a Sociopath by M.E. Thomas in the New York Times.) Sociopaths' brains are different from neuronormal brains. They feel no empathy. And because they don't feel empathy for others, they don't feel bound by the same rules and considerations that the rest of us are. They don't instinctively feel that kidnapping, torture, or murder are bad things. If they worry at all, they worry about getting caught because it would curb their freedom. In What Comes Next, the crime is engineered by two people, a man and a women. They're like a more technologically advanced version of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the perpetrators of the Moors Murders.

Our primary narrator, Dr. Adrian Thomas, has just found out that he's suffering from dementia with Lewy bodies--a rapidly progressive version of dementia that leaves the psychology professor with only a few years to live. As he drives home from a last hike, he spots something strange. A girl--who we soon learn is Jennifer Riggins--is snatched from a residential street by a man and a woman. Because Jennifer has tried to run away twice before and this is her third attempt, the police are a little reluctant to jump into the case. Only when Thomas comes forward with his story does the detective on the case, Terri Collins, start to treat it as a kidnapping.

Katzenbach also shows us the kidnappers' perspectives. This is no ordinary kidnapping. The kidnappers run a site called Whatcomesnext.com. Subscribers pay to watch the couple torture and abuse women, then kill them. Its hard to say who is worse, the kidnappers or the subscribers. They're all sick and criminal. I could feel my lip curling in disgust as I read those sections.

Because the kidnappers planned so thoroughly and destroyed any evidence connecting them to Jennifer, it seems almost impossible for the police and Thomas to find her. The police have nothing to go on. But Thomas won't let it go. He lets his psychologist's instincts point him to the darkest parts of the Internet (using the assistance of a pedophile) to try and track her down. The clock is ticking and Katzenbach never lets the book drag. It's an incredibly tense read.

I've only read one other book by Katzenbach, State of Mind, and this book shares the same startling originality. Even though they're classified as mysteries and thrillers, Katzenbach's books don't follow the same paths. It's hard to predict how things were going to shake out. I wasn't sure what was going to happen to Jennifer because, honestly, it could have gone either way. Both books explored the pathology of sociopaths and just how far beyond the bounds of society they really are. It makes the books terrifyingly unpredictable if you're used to criminals who do things for the usual reason.

Ideal conditions

"This says his next book will be
called Greatest Hits from Twitter..."
I recently read on the Guardian books site that Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite writers, is planning a social media sabbatical next year to focus on writing. He says that if it weren't for social media, he would have finished his most recent book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, "twice as face." Every time this comes up, I face a dilemma. On the one hand, I like being able to look behind the curtain and see how an author works. I follow Gaiman's Twitter and Facebook feeds, John Scalzi's blog, and N.K. Jemisin's blog.

With authors that already take a long to time write--like Gaiman, George R.R. Martin, and Diana Gabaldon--you'd almost prefer that they worked in hermit-like seclusion, cranking out book after book for their readers (namely me). That's not fair to the authors, of course. They have lives and non-writing related interests. They have to market themselves to garner more readers. I love seeing Brandon Sanderson at his surprise book signings. (Though when I leave, I want someone to drag him back home so that he can write.)

I'm not as worked up about this as some fans. (There are always a few who put the rabid in maniac.) I just go out and find new books to read and mark my calendar when I hear about a new book.


The book stands alone

Damn, this homophobia sure gets
in the way of writing good stories.
Several news articles and blog posts I've read lately* have gotten me to thinking about how knowing about an author's personal politics or past misdeeds (or actual crimes) can turn readers off of reading that author's books--sometimes forever. Of course, ten minutes with a book of literary biographies can show your authors that believed in fairies (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), authors that believed they could communicate with spirits (Victor Hugo), authors that were anti-Semites (Ezra Pound), and authors that abandoned their wives (William Shakespeare).

There's been a lot of noise about Orson Scott Card's anti-gay marriage stance in the last couple of years. Chris Sprouse, an illustrator, quit rather than work with Card on a comic for DC because of Card's politics and homophobia. But, I really liked reading Card's novel Enchantment, and his Ender's Game series is as popular as ever. While his opinions are repellent to me, I would re-read Enchantment. Jonah Lehrer's plagiarism and fabrication bother me more, but I wasn't really planning on reading his books anyway because the topics don't interest me.

The writer of the hatchet job article linked below, David Sexton, had an interesting point about using book reviews as a platform to take down authors who needed it (for various reasons). While I like the article, I think, in the end, that books have to stand on their own and be fairly reviewed for their own merits. There are other places to excoriate authors. After all, we still read Shakespeare and Doyle and Pound and Hugo, because their books and plays and poems are so good that we can't stay away no matter how repellent the authors' attitudes and prejudices. I don't think anyone would argue that that their behaviors are acceptable; I certainly won't make that argument.


*     "In praise of a literary tradition: the hatchet job," by David Sexton
       "Ugly Artists and Beautiful Art," by my friend Deb.
       "Update: Jonah Lehrer sold his new book," by Daniel Engberger


Milltown, by Jimmy Higgins

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley to review, on behalf of the publishers. I have no idea when it will be published, as it seems to have disappeared from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. The book links in this review go to Amazon.co.uk, because it's barely listed on GoodReads.

Jimmy Higgins' Milltown is an incredible book (and I hope it gets published on this side of the Atlantic soon). Set between 1914 and 1919 in a small town north of Glasgow, Scotland, several stories weave in and out of each other. It's almost cinematic (or mini-series-esque) the way the battles of Aggie McMillan and Archie Ferguson, the loves and trials of Jeanie Broon and Micky McGoldrick, and the horrors of World War I bring Milltown to life. Though I know some people won't like it, this book is written primarily in Glaswegian. Some chapters are pure dialog. I enjoyed this touch because not only could I see Milltown, I could hear it. My mental narrator morphed into Billy Connolly. (Listen to a young Connolly when he had a stronger accent here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDLIuDtlY74. Be warned there's a lot of language in this clip. But if you can't understand his accent, you'll miss the cuss words.)

The book opens with a series of establishing scenes, introducing us not only to the main players in the story but also other men and women who give the impression that they're the lead characters in their own novels somewhere. We meet the violent but charming Archie Ferguson and town gossip, Aggie. Meanwhile, Jeanie is dumped by her boyfriend before he can dump her because he's not inclined towards women--a dangerous admission in 1914. As the war in Europe heats up and men start to rush to enlist, a mean-spirited rumor about Jeanie's boyfriend, Henry, fancying Archie leads to Archie hanging Henry from a tree after breaking his neck. Aggie suspects that Archie is involved, but everyone is more than content to dismiss the outed Henry as a suicide.

Higgins switches back and forth between Milltown and the women left behind and the French front to which Archie and his accomplice flee. Archie manages to get the British Army to protect him. After all, who would listen to a known gossip persecuting a brave man fighting at the Front? Barring accidents and bad luck, Archie is vicious enough to survive three years of trench warfare. Believe it or not, Higgins manages to crank up an already tense story a few notches. Before he left for France, Archie left a knife on Aggie's pillow with a threat and then burned her house down. You just know he's going to come back for a final showdown with her.

Meanwhile, Jeanie and Micky are facing hardships organized by a self-appointed committee of women who shame men who've chosen not to enlist. The opposition keeps them together long enough for Jeanie to get in the family way and for Micky to be arrested for resisting the draft when it rolls around. (At the time, conscientious objection was a prison-worthy offense.) It's a heartbreaking story, complicated by the fact that Jeanie falls for someone else while Micky is prison.

I liked the book and enjoyed reading it. But when I hit the amazing ending, I fell in love with this book. I really hope that other Americans get to read it.


Persnickety about punctuation

Last night, I started to read Ghita Schwartz's Displaced Persons and had to stop reading it only a few pages in because the author didn't use what I think are essential bits of punctuation: quotation marks for dialog. It seems to be a quirk of literary fiction; I've never seen it in any other genre.

Why do some literary authors leave out the quotation marks? It makes a book so much harder to read. Are they trying to achieve a stream-of-consciousness feeling? Are they trying to eliminate some of the artificialness of writing about life? I have no idea. Any thoughts?

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

Crooked Letter,
Crooked Letter
Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (winner of the 2011 Crime Writers' Association Gold Dagger Award) is set in a place in Mississippi so small that you have to use words like village or hamlet, because there aren't enough people living there to justify the word town. Twenty five years before the novel opens, a girl went missing during her date with local oddball Larry Ott. Because there was no evidence to link him to the disappearance, Ott was never charged. Of course, everyone thinks he did it. The book opens with a long establishing shot showing us the depth of Larry's loneliness and isolation. The first chapter ends with Larry being shot by an intruder.

As the story moves forward (with Larry in a medically induced coma), we meet his former childhood friend turned constable, Silas "32" Jones. Franklin also shows us, through flashbacks, Larry and Silas' life when they were teenagers and Cindy Walker went missing. In the sections set in the present, another girl has gone missing and everyone's pointing the finger at Larry. Silas doesn't believe it. Larry's a gentle guy, for all that he was raised by a violent racist and bullied by the black and white kids at his school. He mostly just wants to make friends and read, but he never got the chance. Silas pokes and prods and asks questions. (And he has uncanny good luck in finding bodies.)

By the time the book is over, all the pieces will fit into place. You may or may not figure out the actual culprit before Silas does, but I found that I didn't really mind. Franklin is such an atmospheric writer that I enjoyed just being along to see how he would let it play out. You can feel the muggy air and claustrophobia of über-rural Mississippi. (You may want to light a citronella candle as you read this.) The way that Franklin weaves the past and the present and the multiple narrators together is masterful. This is a very good book.


Restoration, by Rose Tremain

Normally, I ignore forewords, introductions, prefaces, and afterwords, but I'm glad that I read Rose Tremain's notes about the writing of Restoration when I finished the book. I'm not used to an author explicitly telling me what they were thinking. In the case of this book, Tremain writes that she was inspired by the greed of 1980s Britain. In order to satirize her own time, she looked for another time in Britain's history when material greed was the driving motive of the entire country. Her anti-hero, Robert Merivel, was destined to be a screw up. Tremain writes that Merivel resisted her efforts to turn him into an object lesson. She writes:
This process of discovery and revision is, I suppose, what people mean when they talk about 'the characters taking over' during the writing of a novel. In my opinion, it isn't that they take over; it's that they develop their own integrity. And this feeling of integrity is an indicator (not always reliable, but usually so) that the decisions that you, the author, have made for your fictional creations are the right ones...looking back, I believe that if, instead of locating Merivel in the seventeenth century, wearing his ridiculous clothes and wig, I'd created a 1980s character--not a doctor, but a banker, say--made him a master of the universe and then brought him to a colossal fall, his story would have turned out to be as ephemeral as padded shoulder-wear and long ago vanished from the shelves. (Afterword, p. 401-402*)
Restoration was even turned into a move (with Robert Downey, Jr.) and, according to Tremain, even became a stage show. Merivel, whatever you might think of him once you read the book, does deserve a chance to sparkle now and again.

In the course of the book, other characters label Merivel a Man of his Age. He loves the food and the clothes and the sport and the luxury of England with a restored monarchy. After twenty years of Puritan government, everyone wants to let their hair down. (Actually, they wanted to cover their hair with wigs but, you know, metaphor.) Merivel is the son of a glovemaker who heads off to Cambridge to study to be a doctor. But he's really a born hedonist. His talent at medicine frightens him because it constantly reminds him of the mortality and decay around him. During his wedding, when his father-in-law plays a beautiful song, all he can see--with his trained anatomist's eye--is the man's skull.

Merival, through a fluke, finds royal favor. Unfortunately for him, living in such luxury lets his hedonistic tendencies take over. Everything that was interesting and useful about him disappears. The king gets sick of him and banishes him to a manor in Norfolk until he learns to be useful. Merival, though, has to fall a lot farther before he learns to find a balance within himself. He sees a lot of tragedy working in a madhouse in the English fens, then treating people in London's Cheapside during the plague of 1665 and after the great fire of 1666. For the first almost half of the book, you start to get sick of Merivel yourself. But in the last half of the book, he is redeemed.

I liked that Tremain let her character breathe and be himself. Because of that decision, not only is Merivel a more rounded character, he's actually believable as a human being. There is no way that a man with as many flaws as Merival has can be completely transformed. To try to do that to him would have ruined the book and, as Tremain wrote, would have made it "ephemeral."

* Kindle edition.


Dissenting Opinion

I dissent! Or object!
One of them.
It's happened before, of course. There have been books I've disliked, or even hated, and I've said so in my reviews. I assume that everyone who comes across my blog knows that everything I write is just my own opinion. Tastes differ. But when I read glowing reviews of books I didn't like, especially when those reviews appear on the New York Times or another source I trust for reviews, I wonder if I've missed something.

Here are two examples:
I didn't absolutely hate these books, but I thought they had some serious problems that kept them from being amazing. Is it a matter of taste? I'd dismiss them if it weren't for the fact that some of these reviews are by actual critics, people who are paid to read books and review them (lucky bastards). Critics have a wider experience of books than I do, after all. But to dismiss this as a matter of taste is unsatisfying. I still feel like I'm wrong, even if it's very easy to argue that there is no one correct opinion to have about a book (except that Finnegan's Wake is unreadable).

In the end, you're going to have to read the book yourself and see who you agree with.


The Humans, by Matt Haig

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley to review, on behalf of the publisher. It will be released 2 July 2013.

The Humans
Matt Haig's The Humans, his sophomore book, is better than his already good The Radleys. Both books explore what it is to be human and what it is to appear to be human, through the lens of horror (Radleys) and science fiction (The Humans). In this book, an unnamed alien is sent to Earth with a mission: to destroy any trace of Andrew Martin's solution to the Reimann Hypothesis. Solving this 154 year old mathematical problem, according to this alien's superiors, will give humans technological advances that they can't handle. We're too barbaric and violent, apparently.

The first casualty is Dr. Martin himself. The unnamed alien is given his likeness after the doctor's death and sent to the doctor's home to find out who Martin told. The alien is disgusted by much about humans, their appearance, and their behavior. But that starts to change when he (presumably) listens to Gustav Holst's The Planets and the Beach Boys. Coming, as he does, from a world ruled by logic, without emotion, he has never experienced music or art or natural beauty. He starts to see the importance of chaos in life. Even though humans are violent and mortal, we might have a better existence than the alien's people because we have love.

The Humans is a surprisingly touching book and Haig's writing, at times, sparkles. I wish I could quote from it, but I read an advance copy and the text may change a bit before it goes to press. The plot doesn't particularly stand out, but it doesn't need to because you don't read it for that. You read it to meditate on the tension between our emotional selves and our higher selves, what Freud would call the subconscious, id, ego, and superego. But, you know, with aliens.