Tag Archives: fiction

Karen Russell — Swamplandia!

Swamplandia! is the tale of the swamp-dwelling Bigtrees, owners of a small island where they wrestle alligators for plump tourists, all still grieving the loss of their matriarch in their own ways: Ava by attempting to fill her shoes, Osceola by dating ghosts, Kiwi by plotting his escape, the Chief, their father, steadfastly pretending that nothing is missing or wrong. Each of them will embark on their own epic journeys.

Very impressed with this debut novel. Her writing is lovely, and plays with language in such fabulous ways. The child protagonist avoids the trap that many authors fall into–making them either too precocious, or too annoyingly childish. Ava’s voice straddles the line nicely but remains convincingly her age. The magical realist journey that she embarks upon in Florida’s nightmare swamps is drawn in language that causes you to feel, to taste and smell the landscape vividly.

Scattered throughout were gorgeous lines that stuck in the memory. For example:

Loving a ghost was different, she explained—that kind of love was a bare branch.

I found myself constantly highlighting passages that I wanted to return to later. I found myself most interested in Ava’s story, less in Kiwi’s, narrated in sarcastic third person and populated by ridiculous cartoon character mainlanders. But Ava’s incredible journey is impossible to put down. My one qualm with it was that a traumatic event is brushed over rather quickly and I didn’t feel adequately addressed, but other than that I really loved Swamplandia! unabashedly. I’ve seen the words “quirky” banded about in other reviews, and “quirky” always seems to have some negative connotations. Not so here. The characters are odd, to be sure, but in their own strangely logical ways.

Recommended.

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Emma Donoghue — Slammerkin

It came to Daffy then, how easily the worst in oneself could rise up and strike a blow. How even the most enlightened man had little power over his own darkness.

That quote alone, from the pages of Slammerkin, is a good, succinct summary of the book’s themes: a number of people each affected by their own darknesses. Set in 1763, this book follows the tribulations of Mary Saunders, a young girl whose desire for a red ribbon in a harlot’s hair sends her on a self-destructive path that will wreck her own life and the lives of those around her.

This is the kind of historical novel that I wish I could write. The prose reads both modern and grounded in the past, it flows beautifully, with the smallest observations making sentences so evocative, an unexpected turn of phrase making a reader stop and re-read (“Sometimes words were like glass that broke in her mouth”). And in the book are so many different themes woven in cunningly into the story so that you don’t even notice so much while you’re reading, but only after you have time to consider the book as a whole: freedom of various sorts (Mary’s desire for liberty, while Abi, a slave, considers her not to be a free woman), beauty, ambition… it’s really masterful how Donoghue pulls it off so seamlessly.

It’s obvious that she’s done her historical research though again, the details are woven into the cloth of the story and don’t stand out obnoxiously. Together they give an extremely vivid picture of life in both London and Monmouth: the riotous chaos vs. the more staid but no less treacherous for it. Especially the story of Mary Saunders, based loosely on a real girl’s tragic tale. Mary in the book is a curious character: there’s a selfishness and violence to her, that was there before life turned hard–but one could also argue that even with her mother, life was hard for her. Mary is a girl who longs for beauty, stifled by the drab of her parents’ existence. Even though she has so many unsympathetic qualities, though, Donoghue manages to make her likable and even sympathetic: there but for the grace, etc. And she has a dry wit and an energy that is captivating even on the page. The other characters are, similarly, flawed but with tiny kernels of salvation, that are just ignored.

This is not a happy novel; it’s quite wrenching, but beautiful. I’m seriously envious that she could write a book like this, and also like Room, so totally different in voice and structure but both so beautiful and impressive in their own ways.

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C. J. Sansom — Dissolution

Three weaknesses in one: English history, mystery novels, and the law. It seemed as though C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake novels were tailor-made for me, featuring the adventures of the titular character, a hunchbacked lawyer in the employ of Thomas Cromwell.

The first book of the series, Dissolution, is set during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries from 1536-1540. Shardlake is sent to the monastery at Scarnsea after the commissioner sent to attempt to convince the Abbott to surrender the grounds is murdered most brutally. Once arrived, Shardlake and his assistant, Mark, are plunged into a treacherous atmosphere where the murders continue and anyone in the closed community could be the killer. And Shardlake might be next.

Sansom is another lawyer turned author and of course I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for those guys. I thought generally it was quite a good debut; the historical research was done well and thoroughly, and he certainly had an eye for the small details that make period pieces believable. The mystery, too, was a twisty one, and I’m always pleased when I can’t figure out the killer but after the “reveal,” remember hints that if I’d been paying attention would’ve allowed me to get it. It’s not out of left field but it’s still a satisfying surprise.

It’s obviously a first novel and while the prose was mostly decent there was an obsession with detailing the weather on almost every chapter (sometimes multiple times per chapter) that was a bit of an amusing writing “tic”; similarly, some of the dialogue came across as stilted and somewhat unbelievable. That’s always a fine line to walk with medieval characters, you don’t want to make them sound so ridiculous as to be unbelievable, but using words and phrasing too modern and casual can throw you out of the story. It mostly worked, though there were a few instances where I rolled my eyes just a teeny bit (there were also a few redundancies and awkward descriptions).

What I enjoyed the most about Dissolution (besides the history!) was Shardlake himself. He’s a really interesting hero: flawed both physically and emotionally; introspective but blind to his own faults, and a clever and engaging narrator with a dry sense of humor that the reader can follow alongside. And just as the mystery concluded, Shardlake’s emotional epiphany at the end of the book was equally satisfying.

So while it wasn’t a perfect read I quite enjoyed it, and I’m happy I took out Dark Fire, the next book in the series, at the same time–so I won’t have to wait.

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Jonathan L. Howard — Johannes Cabal the Detective

I know I had read and mostly enjoyed Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (although it was a while ago and for the life of me, I cannot remember anything about it, and it was too late to grab it from the library when I picked up this book). Luckily, although it does help to have some familiarity with the first volume, this sequel can also function as a stand-alone. Howard’s world is vaguely like our own (there are Englishmen and pork rinds, for one thing…) but different enough: the countries the character traipse through are all fictitious, there are zeppelins and vaguely steampunk explanations for their structure, and of course, magicians have the ability to raise the dead (as a rather hilarious scene involving a newly revived Emperor proves).

Picking up where Johannes Cabal the Necromancer left off, The Detective finds Cabal in Mirkarvia, a vaguely Germanic country known for its rare steaks and heavy beer, caught stealing a tome on necromancy. He escapes, of course, and ends up on a zeppelin, fleeing the country, where he just happens to run into Leonie Barrow, also en route out of Mirkarvia. While in the air, a murder occurs, followed by more suspicious circumstances: after Cabal investigates, an attempt is made on his life, and other dangerous happenings are afoot. It doesn’t help that the sociopathic Cabal is being his usual self, attempting to stay one step ahead of everyone else and escape with his life and as much money as possible.

The plot moves quickly and the mystery is intriguing, and Cabal is one of those rare characters who is totally unsympathetic but yet entertaining all the same. It’s an enjoyable, fluffy book with all of the ends tied up neatly. There are certain little touches in addition to the writing that I liked; the summaries of the chapter titles (i.e. “In which Death awaits and a Plot is Hatched”) are clever and reminiscent of Victorian novels; the little illustrations accompanying them are also cute. After every chapter is a chart depicting some kind of airship and accompanying explanations, in period-toned voice, providing some context and amusement.

Issues: while Howard is very funny, occasionally I found myself wishing that he would give it a rest. There were so many bons mots and snide narratorial asides that it was a little too much for me. While I laughed a few times, I was also taken out of the story–I found myself putting the book down and picking it up again many times. Also, this might be a ridiculous complaint, but I counted at least three uses of the phrase “hoi polloi,” which is at least two uses too many. It’s one of those things that is an interesting word choice the first time, and becomes successively more annoying any times following. It’s not common enough to go unnoticed and it’s not uncommon enough to justify using it quite that many times. A minor nitpick but something that stuck out.

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Mark Charan Newton — Nights of Villjamur

I’m late to the party on this one, as I often am with fantasy… So I’m just adding another redundant voice talking about this book (hence the shorter review). Villjamur is the largest city at the heart of the Jamur Empire in a world that is settling in for another 50 year ice age. Jamur Rika is on her way back to the city after the death of her father, the Emperor. Her younger sister, Jamur Eir, is causing trouble on her own. Inspector Jeryd is investigating a mysterious murder… and at the heart of all of this are the undead, cultists, secret religions and conspiracies, and refugees crowding outside of the city, terrified of the impending Freeze.

It’s certainly a lot to absorb, but Newton has a lot of interesting ideas, and I liked that the world was so different–although Dying Earth isn’t a new concept, the impending icy freeze still felt fresh, and Villjamur had real character. The prose was a little awkward at times, but really readable at others–there was never anything so bad that I stopped reading (like that ‘best wetboy ever’ line in the Brent Weeks trilogy), but it does feel like there is some room for editing or improvement (dialogue, especially, was often redundant or stilted). Still, there were more than enough flashes of innovation, originality, and characters to keep it interesting, and piquing my interest in the rest of this series.

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Brent Weeks — The Way of Shadows, Shadow’s Edge

I enjoyed The Black Prism so I went back and tried to read the Night Angel Trilogy. I say “tried to read” because I gave up about halfway through Shadow’s Edge. I think this is partially because Weeks has definitely matured as a writer since these books–there were phrases in them that set my teeth on edge. In a vaguely medieval world of assassins and thieves and high kings, seeing a phrase like “Durzo Blint was the best wetboy ever” just seemed out of place. Little things like that–phrases that were somehow a little off popped out at me constantly throughout the one and a half books that I read. The world building was not as developed as in The Black Prism; there were hints here and there, but with everything that was going on in the plot (and the plot was CONSTANTLY going) and the scattered nature of those hints, it was sometimes hard to build a coherent picture of the world of The Way of Shadows.

A brief plot summary for anyone who hasn’t heard of this trilogy (though I’m fairly sure most fantasy readers have). Azoth is a young “guild rat” (i.e. a street thief involved in the organized crime of the city of Cenaria), trapped in a hard, violent life. His ticket out is to apprentice himself to the legendary wetboy (a magical assassin) Durzo Blint, the best of the best. In the background of all of this is political intrigue of the most violent and deadly variety, a looming invasion by the villainous (almost cartoonishly so) Khalidor, and the threat, of course, that Azoth, now known as Kylar Stern, will lose everything he has come to hold dear.

I eventually just gave up because of the plot, though. It was certainly exciting, and with a lot of twists and turns, but the crushing misery and constant deaths of everyone involved in the book just turned me off. (Also, the love scenes were cringeworthy.) For all that there was talk of hope, it was hard to see any. And while I do enjoy “dark” plotting and depressing literature, by the middle of Shadow’s Edge, it almost just felt pointless to me. It’s frustrating because there were a lot of things about the trilogy that interested me, a lot of things that were a little cliche but well done anyway or with a little twist, but it just wasn’t enough to keep me reading. I’m looking forward to the next book in The Black Prism series, but I can’t say that I’ll be revisiting The Night Angel again.

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Hans Fallada — Every Man Dies Alone

I’ve been reading this one slowly, not just because it’s fantastically well-written, but because it’s just extremely powerful and depressing and inspiring all at once. I don’t normally read books written by Germans under the Nazi regime, mostly because the dissidents were either killed or fled, and the remaining works are not something that I have any desire to delve into. I made an exception for Hans Fallada and I wasn’t disappointed.

Every Man Dies Alone depicts the actions of a few Germans living in the Nazi state; some of them clinging to the last shreds of their decency, some of them awful people to begin with. Anna and Otto Quangel are spurred to rebellion after their only son is killed in France, leaving little anti-Hitler postcards all around the town. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a supremely terrible idea–almost all of the cards end up in the hands of the Gestapo, and of course they are eventually caught–but it is their moral and spiritual journey that provide some small redemption both in themselves (and in the choices of some of the other characters), and, as Fallada attempts to depict, for post-Nazi Germany as well.

This is a book that I could only read in little spurts, because it so evocatively depicted the paranoia and terror that even “regular” Germans faced from all around them, and because you fear so for the decent people, that the creeping feelings of dread that intensify throughout the novel are almost overpowering. His scathing indictment of the regime and the types of men who support it is equally intense–you can feel his scorn burning through the pages. Fallada’s writing style, though conversational, occasionally sarcastic, has a flair for the poetic, with the simplest words and actions (particularly the continuing love between Otto and Anna) striking at the heart.

Just a really good, affecting book from a perspective I don’t often consider.

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