Eleanor Catton's debut novel is a brilliant exploration of the arts, sexuality, and, most significantly, the line that separates truth from fiction. Written as her Master's thesis, The Rehearsal shows the natural talent of Catton, who writes as intelligently and maturely here as she did in her prize-winning follow-up, The Luminaries. While Catton's work is far from the most readable of young authors today, it's undoubtedly some of the most intelligent and finely woven fiction I have ever seen. Each word is chosen with such foresight and precision that it's a wonder to me how she produces novels as fast as she does (were I capable of producing a work such as The Luminaries, I imagine it would take a lifetime.)
Set in an arts school following a scandal—a teacher's affair with an underage student—The Rehearsal may sound like your average morality play or Lifetime movie. It's far from it. At times, with its ambiguously drawn scenes and dramatic play of various relationships, I was reminded of a tamer David Lynch. And at times, especially as I was pulled into the story of the drama school, I was reminded of the darkness and mindfuckery of 2010's Black Swan. Make no mistake, however, Catton's creation is all her own.
As The Rehearsal opens, it may be hard to follow as the dialogue is horribly pretentious, but once the reader realizes that some of the story (and in ways, all of it?) is acting, one may assume that this staged speech was the author's intent. Thus a big foray into false memory, lies, and truth unveils itself. It's all so expertly crafted with little clues here and there, sparks of witty dialogue that highlight the play within a play (and “all the world's a stage”). It's never clear—at least it wasn't to me—when you're reading the “truth” and when you're reading the “reenactment” of the “truth.” One can make assumptions such as that the truth opens the novel and everything that follows is a reinterpretation; or that all is fabrication that leads to the truth in the end; or that those scenes with the most pretentious dialogue are clearly staged and everything else is reality. But in the end, they're all assumptions. Only the author possibly knows the truth. For me, that's okay. From my many years of reviewing books, however, I've noticed that there are many readers who H A T E such ambiguity. I recall now another similar novel I loved that also blurred the lines without ever directly revealing the real truth: Heidi Julavits's The Uses of Enchantment. And guess how many one and two star ratings that novel has.
The Rehearsal is so multi-layered that it is on one hand confusing, on the other, brilliant. It's not the sort of novel that a reader should expect answers from; it's a novel that intends to confuse you and blow your mind. Despite its seemingly “light” plot synopsis, The Rehearsal is the foundation on which Catton is building her genius.
Catton's third novel, Birnam Wood, is scheduled to be published later this year: https://www.victoria.ac.nz/news/2017/...
America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction is two different books. One is Steinbeck's final book, a collection of essays published in 1966 entitled America and Americans. In this slender volume, Steinbeck's thoughts on the state of America were originally paired with photographs by acclaimed photographers such as Ansel Adams, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt (these photos do not accompany later editions).
The other book here is the Selected Nonfiction. Many people are unaware that throughout Steinbeck's career, the author was a prolific writer of short pieces of nonfiction. He published several hundred essays on a wide variety of topics. America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction includes fifty four of these essays.
Together, all these various pieces feel disjointed. Part of the problem was Steinbeck himself. Despite persistent views that Steinbeck was this or was that, he was an individual who chose not to become any one thing. He did not subscribe to a particular ideology and all that came with it. So, while Steinbeck may have been extremely far left leaning in some areas, he was very conservative in others. While he may have been very cultured, he was also very domestic. While he could be secular, he was also religious. Steinbeck was no one particular thing. As such, he succeeded in being offensive to a very large percentage of the populace. The same man who complains about the evil capitalism of the American corporation praises the American military in Korea and Vietnam for being above reproach. From one essay to the next, the result can be dizzying.
Those who've read Steinbeck extensively as I have will recognize many of the pieces. Selections from some of Steinbeck's published books such as The Harvest Gypsies, A Russian Journal, Once There Was a War, and The Log from the Sea of Cortez are present. Also here are a relatively small selection of those pieces Steinbeck published in various magazines from the 1930s through the 1960s.
There's nothing spectacular here, though there are moments here and there when Steinbeck shines. Particularly, I think of his chapter in America and Americans called “Created Equal” where he addressed the plight of the descendants of African slavery in a rather open-minded and forward-thinking way for a white man of his era. There's also nothing too surprising here, though, as I implied earlier, some of Steinbeck's views are jarring.
America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction is a Steinbeck book for the Steinbeck die hard. Casual readers of Steinbeck will likely grow bored of the book before reaching the end. Myself, I found some selections fascinating, some tedious, but most were little more than clever observations by an astute mind.
Joshua Bennett is a very intelligent and witty poet. His observations and metaphors are arresting and spot on. His perspective and the subject of many of these poems make him extremely relevant. I recognize the intelligence of these poems.
But these are the kind of poems that make you say, “Hmmmm.” These are poems that send you to Google to conduct research that somehow spirals out of control. These are not bad things, but I personally prefer poems that make me look inside myself, poems that make me ask the deeper questions than any search engine can provide answers to.
Once or twice I was moved while reading The Sobbing School, but mostly I thought, “nice play on words/ideas/etc.” My reaction reminds me of my views on hip-hop, which is relevant as several of the poems in this collection deal with hip-hop culture. I've heard it said that some of the greatest lyricist in hip-hop are those that have the cleverest and most inventive lyrics. MF Doom is one rapper that is often mentioned as one of the greats. Doom is clever, but he has nothing to say. His style is cartoonish and follows no logic. Now, I'm not trying to draw a direct parallel between Bennett and MF Doom, because, frankly, Bennett is clearly reaching for a space in between, where wit and relevance meet. Unfortunately, my mind was so tied up with the logic that I was not in the page emotionally. For better or worse, feeling is what I am looking for in hip-hop and in poetry.
Favorite poem in this collection: “Anthropophobia.” That's one I felt.
Celeste Ng's sophomore effort, Little Fires Everywhere, is destined to be one of the hottest books in 2017. Great characters and an evenly paced plot come together in a novel that is sure to impress fans of the author and newcomers alike (maybe even Joyce Carol Oates herself). With its excellent pacing and riveting storyline, it is a quick read; with the many thought-provoking topics it addresses, it will be a leading selection for many book clubs; it's intelligent, it's commercial. Bam, and just like that, a literary star is made.
In many ways, Little Fires Everywhere has much in common with its predecessor. As with Everything I Never Told You, Ng's latest effort is a heartfelt, intelligently orchestrated story about the lack of understanding and empathy within a family. The novel is peopled with characters who are both beautiful and imperfect. And while I strongly believe that Little Fires Everywhere will be a larger success and a much better received book, I personally do not feel that it surpasses the gorgeously subtle brilliance of Everything....
Little Fires Everywhere succeeds unequivocally by most standards because of its formulaic plot. Naturally, this will also be the reason some readers feel the story to be disingenuous. Every turn of events relies on another that must be orchestrated perfectly. The results are the same again and again, a cascade of well-placed plot points that make the story one-hundred percent exciting, but also difficult to swallow. Yet this plotting is exactly what raises what would otherwise be academic reading to the ranks of a commercial success. Ng is an intelligent author with a strong grasp of language and of the craft, but she will not bore her readers. Those hoping for a more subtle telling will be disappointed by the obvious authorial manipulation, but it is this interference that frames an utterly unforgettable and engaging story where not one word is wasted.
While Everything... convinced me and moved me, Little Fires Everywhere pulled me in completely. It is a story I will not soon forget. Neither will you: I can almost guarantee you'll be hearing much about it in the coming months.
From the opening pages, Percival Everett's So Much Blue is very much the cliché you hope it will not be. The artist, past the peak in his life and career, putting his all into one last great work. He wonders if it is his masterpiece, hoping no one ever lays eyes on it. The artist, reflecting back on his life, in particular, the affair he had in Paris with a young artist half his age. Of course the artist drinks far too much. Even the book acknowledges the clichés. As I read that first day, maybe two, I was distracted, wondering what I'd read after I finished (or gave up on) this dead, dead horse.
At some point, I began to tolerate the cliché. And then it seemed as if it became nothing more than a backdrop to an increasingly riveting story. Tied in with the present and the affair of ten years ago is a third period, the earliest, about the artist's trip to El Salvador during a time the country was descending into chaos. As the three periods grow more enmeshed, the story as a whole begins to coalesce. It never escapes the cliché completely, but it molds it and crafts a tale that somehow makes the banal elements work to its advantage. In the end, this novel questions the elusiveness of defining trust, love, and sacrifice, an undertaking as illusory as defining various gradients of color.
While I'd heard of Everett years ago, this is my first actual outing with the author. I've heard him described as one of the most underrated authors at present. Although I cannot attest to such an assertion based on one novel, I certainly see the possibility of such a truth. So Much Blue shows significant brilliance in craft and thought. I never fully escaped the constrictions of the cliché and this is the only reason I finally settled on four out of five stars; however, know that this is a very strong four star rating and I very much look forward to reading more from this author.
Last year I had the great pleasure of reading C.E. Morgan's The Sport of Kings, an epic family saga that centers on horse racing. The Sport of Kings was my favorite read in 2016. It was so rich in language, character, and story. Once I finished it, I was eager to read Morgan's debut novel, a book that had been sitting on my bookshelf, largely unnoticed, for years.
At first appearance, All the Living is definitely a different sort of novel than The Sport of Kings. While The Sport... was a mammoth volume in weight and appearance, All the Living is a tiny thing, easily read in under six hours. The scope is much smaller, as well. While Morgan's second novel fills in backstory and spends considerable time with entire generations, All the Living jumps right in and most of the novel focuses on the couple, Aloma and Orren. Keeping that in mind, All the Living didn't have the punch that its successor had, but it had no problems standing on its own.
In such a small space, Morgan succeeds in forming a story that is full and enclosed in rich language. Despite the constraints, the story never feels rushed, neither does it feel incomplete or plain. I was surprised by how easily I was swept up into this tale with so little movement. Where the novel lacks, however, is in characters. These are great characters, but they're not as developed as I'd have liked them to have been. I don't really feel like I particularly understand either Orren or Aloma. When they make drastic choices, I'm not convinced that there actions are believable because I really do not understand the character. This is especially true with Aloma, a character that is extremely interesting, but not fully rounded. I'd have liked more time to get to know her and understand what she'd been through before page 1.
All the Living captures a distinct rhythm that was also present in Morgan's second novel. She builds worlds that you can see and feel, but also hear. Any well written book can transport the reader to another place, but with C.E. Morgan, it feels a little more vivid, as though maybe you'd actually been there. I look forward to visiting the next place she takes me.
I am not what you would call the average Cormac McCarthy reader. Yes, I may fit the stereotype—white male with a beard in his thirties—but I defy most stereotypes and hope that someday I may be the poster child for “stereotypes be damned.” (It seems out of place to use quotes in a review of a McCarthy book, doesn't it?) Historically, grisly, romanticized westerns do little for me.
Like everyone else, I've read The Road. That was more than a decade ago and I thought, “eh, it's okay.” It was the first McCarthy I'd read and while I was open to the idea of returning to the author, he wasn't on the top of my list. Two weeks ago, I had no plans of returning to McCarthy anytime soon. I have a long list of books I really want to read, and between those and whatever randomly tempts me on the bookshelf, I have no time for outliers. But a strange thing happened: I wasn't in the mood for any of the books on my list. Nothing seemed right. I experienced something rare: I had no idea what I wanted to read. I spent more than an hour trying to decide what was next. I was tempted to just take a day or two away from reading. Then, as though some conscious entity grew tired of my fit, I picked up All the Pretty Horses and started reading. Divine intervention? Subconscious desire? Likely, I just wanted to surprise myself.
And was I surprised. Within an hour, I found that I was enjoying the story. Thoroughly. And for those who know me and my likes, this may be surprising. I'm an open-minded individual and will try things outside of my comfort zone, but there are some things that have burned me so many times that I expect to be displeased. A book that promises to be filled with horses and gunfights is prone to disappoint.All the Pretty Horses exceeded all my baseless expectations. Much of my appreciation was in the way the main characters, John Grady and Lacey Rawlins, converse. What pulled me in was those two, sitting around a fire and talking, riding through desolate terrain and talking. Oddly, I became very wrapped up in their simple conversation. Even though their relationship seemed unbalanced, even though Grady seemed like a contradiction, and even though I hate heat and horses, I was pulled in. And as others were added to the mix, the dynamics changed, but the conversation remained riveting.
Grady was a wonderful character, though I couldn't quite grasp how much faith I was willing to invest in his authenticity. Although I never thought of Grady as old, I had trouble shaping his image as a sixteen year old. He was far too wise and mature. The more I got to know him, the more I was convinced that such a wise teenager could exist. And, as the story developed, I began to see that underneath it all, he may have not been quite as wise as he seemed (though I'm still not sure). Multi-dimensional character: you've hooked me.
Ironically, it was only when the book picked up speed, reaching its climax, that my interest waned some. An old-fashioned shootout and the getaway on a horse: I find that a bit boring. Overall, this was such a small part of the novel that I wasn't too distracted by it.
Who'd have thought that cowboys sitting around talking would've been such a draw? Divine intervention? I'm a weird one, I guess. Now I'm actually excited to read the next book in the series.
Every time I approach an Ian McEwan review—all but the first time, I guess—I feel some dread. McEwan is an author who garners such strong opinions, good and bad. Some think he is a hack writer, overly elaborate with his prose and plots, offensive to say the least. Others think he has incredible talent, that his stories brim with the kind of details that bring them to life. There's probably truth in both arguments, though in the end they're just opinions. Whatever the general views of McEwan and his stories, reviews of McEwan's work can lead to excessive raising of the eyebrows, eye rolling, and unfriending (though I could be exaggerating).
I throw myself in with those enamored with McEwan. That's not to say I love everything he's written, but I do find myself always thoroughly entertained. Having read some of McEwan's most popular and highly acclaimed works, I've made it a point to read the author's earliest books and work my way through his career. If you've read my reviews of McEwan's first two books, First Love, Last Rites or The Cement Garden, you probably know that old McEwan had a distinctly macabre style once upon a time. In fact, his earliest works remind me considerably of the kinds of stories Stephen King might have written.
The Comfort of Strangers, McEwan's second novel, continues this King comparison, but also shows a break from it. It's not as dark as his earlier efforts, but depravity is still present. The primary difference is that The Comfort of Strangers shows more of McEwan's elaborate style. There was a hint of the literary in McEwan's first books, but here it's strong. The descriptions in The Comfort of Strangers really evoke the setting, pulling the reader in. Even when the story began to disappoint, which it did for me, I wanted to keep reading. Even when I myself began to roll my eyes and recognize the signature overwrought plot, I was so engaged that I couldn't pull away. McEwan is guilty in this one of forcing the characters into the story. It is evident that they have no other path than the one the author makes for them. There's not even an illusion that they have free will. So, in the end, I was disappointed with this story, but there was never a moment I wasn't entertained. And that's something.
On one hand, Ceremony is a well-told tale and an intriguing story. It is the kind of story that hasn't been told enough and so needs to exist. On the other, Ceremony is a cerebral read that feels slightly inauthentic and is arranged in a jarring manner (flashbacks galore) that makes the story difficult to follow. This is one of those novels that I didn't always understand what was going on (or when in the story it was taking place), but it had a way of getting under my skin that I couldn't shake. Ceremony is intense and gritty, but not the easiest of reads.
I could use more Colum McCann in my life. I'd shell out some money just to have a little Colum figure in my office that dispenses wisdom from time to time. Better yet, I'll make a nice comfy spot in the corner and perhaps the author can stop by once or twice a day and share a tidbit or two. What say you, Mr. McCann? I'll get you a nice desk and you can have half the room and I'll make the coffee the way you like. And if you like my half of the room better, I'll even trade you. I'm amiable and quiet and won't bother you at all. Just every once in a while, share a bit of advice. It's a good trade if you ask me.
I read one McCann novel eight years ago, Let the Great World Spin, and while I enjoyed it, I now realize I've ignored this author far too long. Letters to a Young Writer is the most inspirational book about writing I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Nearly every book I've read on the craft of writing has given me an inspirational moment or two, taught me quite a bit, or merely given me the impetus to prove the author wrong, but none has moved me as this one has. McCann doesn't talk down to his reader. He doesn't repeat warnings about how the young writer is never going to make it anyway and might as well accept their fate. Sure, it's a fact that making a life out of writing is very difficult and statistically improbable, but if writers wanted a sure thing, they probably wouldn't be writers. McCann refrains from these warnings that fill other authors' writing manifestos; he doesn't say, “you're not going to get there,” rather, he says, “it's a tough road, but when you get there, here's what it's going to be like.” That 'when' may not always be a reality, but for the first time ever, I feel like someone high in the publishing world believes in me. And that's just what I needed.
We all have our student styles. I see it in my own children who've fallen in love with soccer (they didn't inherit their love of sports from me). One kid crumples under a coach who's hard on his team. Another rises to the challenge of a coach like that. One thrives with encouragement and a guiding hand on the shoulder. Another grows lazy with the same guidance. Perhaps some writers need the hard-ass coach (Sol Stein: Stein on Writing - “You suck and you're never going to amount to anything”) and some need the realist coach (Elizabeth Gilbert: Big Magic - “You're beautiful and you have potential, but it's too hard, so stop dreaming”). Personally, I thrive under McCann's style. That's not to say I didn't learn much from my other coaches. I enjoyed my experience with the authors mentioned here, as well as many others. None of those other authors got me out of my rut, however. None of them changed my outlook. None of them encouraged me to go to my office, rearrange the furniture, and get down to business (I made a spot in the corner for you, Colum, just in case you decide to stop by).
And it wasn't just the coaching style that I loved about Letters to a Young Writer, it was McCann's stories and phrases. This isn't only an inspirational how-to for the writer, it's a gorgeously written volume. These little snippets of advice read almost like poetry. And so, I'm convinced, if I can't have the author in my office, I'll just have to find an audio version of this book and play a segment or two every day. Likely, I'll get sucked in from time to time, listen to the whole thing when I should be writing, but then McCann will gently remind me that time is ticking and that I cannot die until I finish the books that are within me. Thank you, Mr. McCann, for helping me rediscover my purpose.
I wrote quite a lengthy review which delved into the many reasons I didn't feel Habibi was designed to be offensive. I illustrated the sensitivity Thompson showed the subject and the fantastic nature of the story. I talked about authorial intent and explored each of the complaints raised against Habibi, one by one. Then I decided to scrap it and start all over again.
I do believe Thompson empathized greatly with his Arabic and female characters. I believe his intentions were largely pure and made of love. I think he was striving to write a fairy tale about the depravity of humanity; setting it in an Arabic landscape may have given the impression that Thompson was dehumanizing Arabs, but I believe he would've given the same treatment to any people regardless of the setting. I also think that the abuse he subjected Dodola to throughout this novel was not meant to glorify rape and sexual trauma. As a reader, I felt Dodola's anguish and thought her very strong and wise. Of all the characters, she was the most humanized. Yet, others read her as a weak portrayal of women, a submissive character designed to embolden male lusts.
Rather than go into all my arguments again, I've decided it doesn't matter what I believe. The fact is, this novel, wonderful and nearly perfect in so many ways, also carries with it much hurt. One may see the hurt and say, “My heart bleeds for these characters. I want to help women who suffer from this kind of abuse.” Others will justify their own feelings of hatred and say, “Finally, an accurate depiction of those nasty Muslims.” And some may respond with hurt and say, “How dare he! Thompson is a misogynist and a racist!” None of these responses can be controlled and authorial intent doesn't matter when you're the one whose emotions have been stirred.
Habibi is an emotionally engaging book, as is indicated by the huge number of both five star and one star reviews this novel has garnered since it was published in 2011. Thompson's depictions of both the Middle East and of women can be troubling, depending on which lens you're viewing them with. Personally, I saw the hurt subjected by a depraved species; I did not see an object of hatred, but rather a letter written in love. Perhaps Thompson got some things wrong. Perhaps he would've done better to have stayed out of the Middle East. I'd be happy to share my more detailed thoughts with any who might be interested, but rather than add fuel to the argument and possibly cause more pain, I'll leave those thoughts out of my review proper.
Though I only began reading graphic novels a little over a year ago, I recognize the artistry and innovation of Habibi. It is the most well constructed and intelligent graphic novel I've read. It is lush with imagery that one could spend years dissecting. It blends worlds, periods, and ideologies, and does so without the reader even noticing. Yet, there could've been more. For such a lengthy book, I didn't feel I really got to understand Dodola or Zam. Giving us more about who they were might have made it easier to view them as more than simple victims and increased the empathy readers had for them.
Habibi is an epic story that bleed in black ink all over these 670 pages. It can be viewed as a gorgeous outpouring of emotion, or an embittered tirade against justice. One cannot deny, for better or worse, Craig Thompson has ushered in a new era in graphic novels.
Theodore Wheeler's Bad Faith is an extraordinary collection. Each story is articulately rendered and full of simple wonder. Sentences are crafted with care, joining to form a sonorous selection of prose. With the exception of maybe only one title, each story is of equal caliber. Also, the way the first and last stories are connected, and each story in the collection is separated by a vignette that also fits into the larger story, keeps the reader invested in a way other collections sometimes fail to do.
If there's one complaint to be made about Bad Faith, it's the abruptness of the stories' conclusions. I'm not a reader who feels the need to wrap up a story, by any means, but even I felt that the endings could be a bit jarring. It's a small thing, but some readers will make it a big thing. If you don't mind open-ended stories, there's nothing less than stellar about this collection. Having a taste of what Wheeler is capable of, I look forward to his forthcoming novel, Kings of Broken Things, due to arrive in August.
The Book of Joan starts off as one of the most prophetic, imaginative, and thought-provoking novels of the social media era. It ends far away, a genre-bending, weird thriller that at least remains thought provoking. Throughout it all, the language is rich and the story is compelling. Although the incongruous final acts managed to alienate me as a reader, I was pulled in for so much of the story and enjoyed the experience.
A reimagining of sorts of Joan of Arc, The Book of Joan is a dystopian tale of what happens when a madman becomes the world's most powerful leader. As decisions to plunder the world for a profit turn disastrous, the earth chooses a hero, Joan. Really, does this future seem so far fetched? And do these characters' reflections on the dictator Jean de Men sound the least bit foreign?
...he overtook lives, his performances increasingly more violent in form. His is a journey from opportunistic showman, to worshiped celebrity, to billionaire, to fascistic power monger. What was left? When the Wars broke out, his transformation to sadistic military leader came as no surprise.
We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power.
If we look at history—those of us who study it, who can remember it—we understand the reason why those who come to power swiftly, amid extreme national crises, are so dangerous: during such crises, we all turn into children aching for a good father. And the truth is, in our fear and despair, we'll take any father. Even if his furor is dangerous. It's as if humans can't understand how to function without a father. Perhaps especially then, we mistake heroic agency for its dark other.
In the first two parts of the novel, this is the story we get. It is a constant condemnation of many things, including commonly held notions of power, sexuality, and art, all told in vividly stunning passages. In this future, humans have begun a process of de-evolution. As humanity veers toward extinction, many of the remaining asexual population have become hypersexualized. They seek to recreate themselves through intricate grafts. Through two-thirds of this novel, the story is language driven, and characters and plot are merely devices to give body to the words. This is the creation story in reverse as told through the intricate weaving of words.
In the final part of The Book of Joan, the story got a bit messy for me, as I'm sure it will with many readers not so accustomed to hard sci-fi. The action is turned up and the threads become so knotted with one another and with techno-babble that it's difficult to discern what is going on. Add to that the final scenes, where oddity becomes normality and a particular plot device I've never been a fan of makes an appearance.
What would've been a solid review for this novel was hurt some by this conclusion. What drew me into this book originally was the nearness of the events and the construction of language, but as everything drifted from what was familiar, I myself became untethered. And though I recognize that the story ends with the same strong commentary on power, sexuality, and art that it began with, it was a commentary addressed to a much different audience.
Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down shows so much exceptional writing. Valente is clearly a talented writer with great ideas. The plot of this novel is a solid idea. The prose is beautiful at times. And yet the whole novel is such a great disappointment. I hate to say it as there are novels that are horrible in so many ways and this work does not belong among them. Yet, I didn’t enjoy Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down at all.
This novel just has too many quirks to succeed. The narrative constantly delves in ramblings about pop culture or the news. Perhaps these are meant to show the author did her research. Or perhaps, more meaningfully, they highlight how the world keeps spinning despite the tragedies at the heart of the novel. Regardless of the reasons, it doesn’t work. It disrupts the forward movement and is very out of place. Every five pages there are comments about the war in Iraq and the baseball season. “Will they ever find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?” Does it matter in any way for the plot of this novel? Even if this entire novel is all some allegory for the war in Iraq or something, it does not work.
The other big problem is the characters. Their reactions aren’t believable. Their interactions with one another seem forced. They’re about as multi-dimensional as the pages they people. I couldn’t relate. They felt completely like caricatures.
And then there were issues with overall believability. The way the community, the students, and the police react to the events that take place didn’t seem logical. The existence of this yearbook staff—four juniors without mention of a faculty advisor—who meet in places like bookstores to discuss the yearbook. It all felt so unnatural.
And yet, the writing can be so brilliant at times. Ugghhh. I hate writing these kinds of review.
On the plus side, I did like the ending. Guaranteed, some will find it lacking, but I thought it was satisfying. It provides enough of an answer and it captures some of the best writing in the novel.
Overall, I strongly disliked this novel. And yet I can’t completely write it off. I’d even read something from this author again if I were given the chance. But if I recognize some of the same quirks in that future work, I’m telling myself now, I will give up before reaching the end.
Initially, I was far from impressed with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey. It was too obvious that the author was trying to resurrect the spirit of Jane Austen with a little fantasy thrown in. It seemed she was trying too hard and the resulting story felt alien to me. Eventually, the story began to gel, though. It wasn’t Austen, but it wasn’t really meant to be either, was it? This is an homage with a twist, and it works satisfyingly well.
The characters are very Austenian. From the aptly-named Jane and her sister Melody, two sisters united in love, but divided in temperament, to their mother, a hypochondriac obsessed with finding matches for her daughters. The potential suitors: the handsome, but vengeful Mr. Dunkirk, the successful Captain Livingston, and the brooding artist, Mr. Vincent. Drop these characters into the English countryside and the balls of their neighbors, sprinkle in a few engagements and scandals, and one can almost forget the contemporary authorship of this novel.
Shades of Milk and Honey’s fantasy element comes from the existence of “glamour,” an art some are trained in as other’s are trained in paints or pianoforte. By shaping strands of ether and manipulating light, practitioners of glamour weave together what seems like magic. That’s the full extent of fantasy in this novel. No time travel. No magical creatures. It’s so subtle it’s almost nonexistent. And frankly, it doesn’t add much outside of lyricism; still, I’m glad it’s there as it gives this story an element that makes it unique from other Regency era clones.
What separates Shades of Milk and Honey most from an Austen novel is the sense of action. Comparatively, Shades… is action-packed and it seems foreign to the classic light-hearted Regency romp. When bullets started to fly, I was again pulled out of the story. It all works out in the end, but it does have a glaring strangeness to it.
This is a series I’ll return to, though I’m not sure how soon. I think I’d feel some guilt reading the next book in this series without returning to the original first—and by original, I of course mean Austen.
People are eating this novel up right now. They're devouring it whole with a little plantation sugar mixed in. And that's to be expected, right? Marketers know that right now they can sell any dystopian vision of America. They can sell twenty- or sixty-year-old books that allude to our current state of politics. They're grasping for any connection. What better book to have on the market right now than this one? It's called American War, for crying out loud. But if you're looking for a prophetic vision, this probably isn't it. (For that, I'd recommend The Book of Joan: a strange, otherworldly book that somehow manages to nail many of our current fears.)
American War is a good novel and a decent war story, but it isn't necessarily the most inventive one. Frankly, the Second American Civil War, a war that starts in 2074, sounds far too much like the first Civil War. North versus south in a war started over prohibition of the South's livelihood. The difference is that in 2074, it's its reliance on fossil fuels that ignites the powder keg. Much about this war seems so familiar. Out of rebellion, the South secedes and they're fixin' ta have a war with dem Blues. What year are we in again? Apparently the 1860s because ain't no women folk fightin' this here war either. So it seems to me that this novel fails to be that inventive prophecy of the world we shall inherit from the President (unless the current American President is Andrew Jackson).
All that aside, American War has a good story arc and some wonderful characters. The protagonist, a girl/woman who goes by the name of Sarat, is a fireball. She carries considerable hatred on her shoulders, but tries to keep love in her heart. Her sister is easy to empathize with. Her mentor is interesting and complex. And these characters, along with others, are placed on a path laid with precision. The path may lead more to the past than it does the future, but either way it's an interesting path.