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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Zoo Nebraska

Zoo Nebraska - Carson Vaughan

Zoo Nebraska is the captivating story of a zoo in Royal, Nebraska (pop.81 75 59), a town likely forever associated with the zoo and the events that led to its downfall and eventual liquidation. It is the story of a dream impeded. It is the story of a community with bonds stronger than travesty, and prejudices harder than stone.

More than any of that, Zoo Nebraska is the story of Dick Haskin’s passion, and that is what makes this book so fascinating. Author Carson Vaughan does an amazing job of displaying Haskin’s passion from the beginning. Even though there are aspects of Haskin one may not like, it's difficult not to root for him. Here’s a guy on the fringe of society who truly has a noble idea in mind, an animal lover who compromises and compromises until little of his original intent exists. Out of a big heart set into motion in the 1980s comes a heartbreaking disaster twenty years later. What a great story!

Somewhere in the middle, Zoo Nebraska does get bogged down by the minutiae. Haskin’s role is reduced, and in comes a parade of incompetent leaders, all fighting for small threads of power. (It probably sounds more interesting than it is.) As each character grabs ahold of and pulls on their respective threads, the fabric of Haskin's dream, and the pride of a community, is unraveled.

Wonderfully researched and expertly told, Zoo Nebraska is the kind of story that almost seems better off as fiction. It's hard to believe this zoo really existed, let alone was the center of the stories that followed. I'm glad this story has been told, and that it has been told in a way that seems to respect the vision without delighting in the crimes.

Review: The Girl in the Tower

The Girl in the Tower - Katherine Arden

I’ll say this, The Girl in the Tower nears perfection.

The Bear and the Nightingale was a fine novel, but I felt it was laying the groundwork for the setting and the characters. Whimsical magic was on full display, immersing the reader in a world that was likely very foreign to them, but it may have been too much. The result was a good story, but it didn’t quite have the cohesion that this follow-up does.

I’m not a big fan of Fantasy, but Arden sells me completely with The Girl in the Tower. The setting is as gorgeous as it was in the first book; the author really brings this frigid landscape to life. The characters are well defined. I especially love how Arden displays her protagonist as a strong woman, but one who still has some flaws. The language is engaging and navigable. The plot moves along at a great pace. With the characters well defined, the fairy tale established, and the story evolved, The Girl in the Tower is given the room to just be fabulous. It really does come close to being perfect.

Now here's where I deviate from the mainstream: I find action incredibly boring. I generally enjoy stories for their characters and their dialogue, sometimes their language or devices, but almost never for their action. When a fight breaks out, I tune out. (Strange, right?) That's exactly what happened when I reached the climax of this novel—my attention waned considerably. I stopped caring. It’s no fault of Arden or this novel—I’m the abnormal one—but its inclusion did leave me wanting. And if you’ve read either of the first two books in this series, then you likely know action plays a big part.

Even considering this one hiccup—something most readers would probably embrace—I felt The Girl in the Tower was one of the better stories I’ve read in the last few years. I cannot think of one Fantasy novel I’ve ever enjoyed nearly as much as this one. I’m already anticipating the third, but I may have to wait—novels such as these are best enjoyed when the windows are frost-touched.

Review: Bangkok Wakes to Rain

Bangkok Wakes to Rain - Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Three stories into Bangkok Wakes to Rain, I had a bad feeling about the “novel.” You see, there's been this trend in publishing lately where “novel” can mean many things. David Szalay's Booker nominated All That Man Is is an excellent example. It's a collection of short stories. (Publisher: No, it's a novel.) It may center on a theme, but that doesn’t make it a novel; it’s still just a collection of short stories. But short story collections do not sell as well as novels, nor do they get nominated for the Booker Prize, so I guess the publisher was (deceptively) smart.

Initially, it appears that Sudbanthad is going down the same path with Bangkok Wakes to Rain. Here are stories that have absolutely nothing to do with one another other than their connection to the setting. The first story focuses on a missionary in the 19th century. The second deals with a jazz pianist in the post-Vietnam-war era. The third of a photographer who’d emigrated to the U.S. And so on… Represented as circles with shared similarities, each story looks a little something like this.

I liked the writing, but again I felt duped and disappointed because this was not a novel.

Then a wonderful thing happens—one of the stories overlaps another. I held onto hope there’d be more. Then there is another connection. Slowly, the connections begin to build upon one another so that some stories are only lightly connected to one another, but others share so much. It could look something like this.

I was intrigued. It became a fun exercise searching for all the connections. It reminded me of a device David Mitchell might employ. This association with Mitchell was even more so made concrete by the fact that the book stretches from the colonial era into a future where cities are under water and AI plays a large role in daily living.

The writing is superb and the characters are memorable and well designed. Sudbanthad is a wonderful author who has earned a spot on my growing list of authors I will invest in in the future. Bangkok Wakes to Rain is an intriguing and intelligent novel overall, but the implementation is a bit off. Using such a device is tricky, and while I think Sudbanthad pulls it off well, it is not solid enough to sustain itself. It's close and an admirable effort, but it just doesn't quite gel. Nonetheless, I look very much look forward to the author's sophomore effort. Here is an author who knows how to use language, plot, character, and setting to form a nearly perfect novel or collection—call it what you want.

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy - Ta-Nehisi Coates

Essays aren't really my thing, and political essays are definitely not, so this wasn't the best choice for me.

We Were Eight Years in Power is collection of essays Coates wrote, one from each year of the Obama presidency, a time which paralleled Coates's own rise from novice columnist to acclaimed and authoritative author. Not every essay in this collection is political, but many of them are. Coates is a tremendous writer regardless of the topic he tackles, but he best holds my attention when the subject is more societal or historical.

As a complete collection, We Were Eight Years in Power is a bit too wandering and repetitive. This is like an album which purports to be a collection of the artists “most loved songs,” but leaves out some of the true “greatest hits.” A thoughtful collection overall, but one best suited for lovers of government
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Review: Bloom

Bloom - Kevin Panetta, Savanna Ganucheau

It was the cover of Bloom that reeled me in: the subtle but finely drawn art with the equally hushed blue. I imagined a graphic novel that was intelligent and touching. The final product was much lighter than I expected it to be, definitely one written for a younger audience, or for those who prefer simple storytelling.

There just isn't much depth to the plot—and that's okay. What's perhaps less forgiving is the same lack of depth in the characters. The reader never gets much more than a surface impression of Ari and Hector, even less of their respective friends. I think this is the story's greatest failing. With a story such as this one, the characters have to be more than cute or fun—they have to engage a reader.

What this novel did well? The buildup is good. You know where the story is going—it's obvious—but the author saves that component so that the story moves at a natural pace. It never felt rushed or unnatural. Also, the illustrations were good. They were simple, but convincing, never scrimping on the details of backgrounds and textures.

Overall, Bloom is a very simple, but well rendered love story. I recommend it for fans of graphic novels who prefer simple stories, love displays of affection, or who think in emoticons.

Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk - Neil Gaiman, Skottie Young

Yes, this is my first Neil Gaiman. What can I say about it? It was a little fun and a little quirky, but it was really just an okay story. Probably one that is best for established Neil Gaiman fans.

 

Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan - Patricia Castelao, Katherine Applegate

The One and Only Ivan is a wonderful story that takes place on a farm called the Exit 8 Big Top Mall and Video Arcade. On this farm, animals of different species are able to communicate with one another, though they can't talk to humans. One of these animals is Charlotte, an old elephant full of considerable wisdom. And there is Ruby, a curious pig who seeks companionship from the other animals, but is quickly dismissed by all but Charlotte. Charlotte takes Ruby into her care. When the other animals realize that Ruby is being raised for the slaughter, they rally to save her. Eventually, Charlotte reaches the end of her life, so she magically transfers all her wisdom to a silverback gorilla named Ivan. Ivan is very talented: he can spin a web that spans the globe as though he were a giant spider. Despite being an ape who talks with geese, bears, and sheep, Ivan cannot speak to the humans, so he uses the worldwide web to express his concern for Ruby. 'TERRIFIC,' he writes in one. 'HOME PIG,' he writes in another… I’ll stop there to avoid spoiling the story.

In addition to the main characters, there’s a dog named Templeton who obsesses over eating… or was it sleeping? He’s there mostly to give a few chuckles to a mostly sad story. Also, there’s a little girl named Julia… or was it Fern? And there are some sheep and a parrot that are mostly in the background, providing a little dialogue or comedy when needed… though it may have been a sun bear and a goose… I get confused.

The One and Only Ivan is a wholly original story unlike any other. I liked it.

Review: Everything Under

Everything Under - Daisy Johnson

Described as “an eerie, watery reimagining of the Oedipus myth,” Everything Under certainly holds up to its watery image. At times, everything was clear and I enjoyed the setting and the characters. Too often, the water became murky and I had no idea what was going on around me. Strings of lovely written sentences danced with overwrought similes and what the hell is going on in this story anyway? Perhaps this was my own ignorance. Perhaps an understanding of mythology (of which I basically have no knowledge) is required.

I wanted to like this novel, but I told myself I needed to quit. I kept pushing forward, encouraged by rare moments of clarity. I wish I would've given up because nothing improved for me. I truly did not understand 70% of this novel, and that makes me feel stupid. Maybe I am stupid. Or maybe my attention just waned too many times to piece together a narrative. It's difficult to discuss a book I didn't understand, so I'll just leave it at that.

Review: The Night Circus

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

I don’t want to expend much effort on The Night Circus, because I know that with thousands of reviews, dozens of which have hundreds of likes, my lukewarm thoughts will be buried in no time. So I’ll keep it relatively brief.

What I liked? The color, or lack thereof. The setting and scenery of this novel are, in my opinion, its very best qualities. The circus, with its black and white tents and dashes of red, is stunning. The various shows are worth the price of admission. It’s perhaps too easy a comparison to make, but I doubt any fan of Tim Burton’s movies can read this novel without thinking of his style of moviemaking. Also, I liked the bones of this story. It’s an interesting premise and, as an outline, it works great.

What I didn’t like? Despite having a great premise, the story itself is so incredibly dry. This is a great example of a plot-driven novel. Events happen, then more events, but there’s little to no reflection or character development. People eat this style up, and I know I’m in the minority, but I find it boring. Even though it’s focused on plot, The Night Circus fails by telling far too many of the details without showing them: pivotal scenes are surmised by conversations between characters. Likewise, the romance is artificial. The only reason we know the two leads are in love is because the reader is told they are. No spark is evident between them.

Recommended for fans of adventure-based epics with more show than substance
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Review: Belly Up

Belly Up - Stuart Gibbs

Belly Up was not what I was expecting. I was expecting hilarity. Sure it has a dead hippo on the cover, but the cartoonish of it, plus the colors... Actually, Belly Up is rather morbid. It’s still great fun, but fun in the what’s-gonna-happen-next way, not in the oh-look-monkies! kind of way.

Chapter 1 of Belly Up met my expectations. There’s a mischievous kid in a zoo, dodging the adults who want to put an end to his fun. And then there’s poop. Lots and lots of poo. Poo continues to make appearances throughout the novel, but it’s in this first chapter than poo really makes its grand entrance. I think I could argue that poop is actually the protagonist of this novel.

That first chapter sets the stage for what ends up being a very different book. The story becomes increasingly darker as it goes on. There are still bits of humor from beginning to end, but they’re mixed in with a larger story that focuses on murder, attempted murder, and some all-out grossness. Seriously, the climax of this novel makes that fair scene from Problem Child 2 as sweet as cotton candy.

Belly Up is a classic whodunit story told in a zoo. (And Agent Poop is on the case.) I’m not a big fan of the mystery genre for any age, so I’m not the intended audience, but I felt the formula was implemented well. The reveal was not surprising (I actually called it very early in the book) and the reason wasn’t entirely organic to the plot, but neither of these flaws kept the chase from being a fun ride. The characters were engaging. And there are animals, of course. This novel certainly succeeds as an entertaining mystery for children, especially those who laugh at poop.

For those with objections to strong language, please note that this book uses language that may seem misplaced in a children’s book. These include multiple utterances of words such as bastard, ass, hell, and damn. Yeah, I’ve heard worse in a PG movie, but I still thought someone might want to know.

Review: Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia - Katherine Paterson, Donna Diamond

I always like to open my reviews for classic works of children’s literature by emphasizing that, unlike many readers, I didn’t grow up reading these books. I was a reader, but my interests didn’t go beyondChoose Your Own Adventure and “Strange, but true” books. As close as I came to literature was Judy Blume—and only the Fudge books. So when I’m reading a work such as Bridge to Terabithia, it’s not with the nostalgia many of my contemporaries likely experience.

Largely, I enjoyed Bridge to Terabithia, but I was expecting more. I’ve heard so much about how brutal it was, and it really wasn’t. I guess if I’d read this as a nine year old, raised on a diet of Saturday morning cartoons and The Hungry Caterpillar, I probably would’ve freaked out. Certainly, I would’ve been affected more. It’s not that Bridge to Terabithia didn’t work on me—it did—but nowhere near the level I’d hoped for. This is probably just a matter of being older than the intended audience.

Moving on, Bridge to Terabithia is a solid piece of children’s fiction. Jess and Leslie are wonderful characters who do not strive to merely be the stereotypes expected of them. The relationship set up between them is entirely organic, fun and endearing with no fear of becoming cloying. The setting is gorgeously drawn and the imagery of the river and the bridge were well done. The story is wonderfully paced and interesting from beginning to end. On the subject of ends, I thought the final passage with May Belle was an expertly crafted conclusion and likely the very best part of the novel. Certainly, this is one of the all-around better children's novels I have read.

(After I finished this novel, I learned of the real life inspiration, and this increased my appreciation for this novel. Paterson’s son, the inspiration for Jesse, also served as producer and screenwriter for the 2007 film.)

Review: Sing, Unburied, Sing

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel - Jesmyn Ward

Often while I was reading Sing, Unburied, Sing, I had to hush my inner critic. Yes, Jesmyn Ward weaves some wonderful scenes and vivid sentences, but she really isn’t doing anything new. Yes, that climax is gut-wrenchingly affective, but it really isn’t anything that hasn’t been done before. It’s almost too easy to dismiss Sing, Unburied, Sing as just another book about a tormented family surviving racial injustice in the South, a setting that tends to invite ghosts (of which there are plenty here.) It’s easy to say that the narrative is nothing original and that the conclusion was powerful, but trite. Yes, I can just say, Jesmyn Ward isn’t doing anything new—she’s just carrying on the various traditions of Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Alice Walker, John Steinbeck… Or I can say, “Damn, Jesmyn Ward is carrying on the tradition of Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison…John Steinbeck, and she’s doing a fabulous job of it!”

Review: The Dreamers

The Dreamers - Karen Thompson Walker

I will probably forever associate author Karen Thompson Walker with the number “one million.” It's a fairly big number and it's also quite a lot for the author to live up to. If you didn't know, Walker's debut novel, The Age of Miracles, was the subject of a bidding war that garnered an advance of over one millions dollars. This is a substantial amount of money for any novelist who is not a household name, but particularly for one who is a debut novelist. Surely, there was pressure on Walker to deliver a million dollar book with The Age of Miracles—do you think it's made that back yet?—but there also must be continued pressure to deliver on subsequent efforts.

My feelings toward The Dreamers isn't all that different from The Age of Miracles, to be honest. Karen Thompson Walker is quite the writer actually. She has a way with language. It is simple, yet lulling. Poetic, but generally not cloying (except for most mentions of “the fetus”). The result is a book that can almost lull you asleep. For some readers, that's a bad thing. For others, it's a plus. Yet it surprises me that such a language-centric author would pull in such a huge advance.

So there's language, but there's also plot. With both of Walker's books, there's a really great idea at the core. The story could really drive the language, but I don't know that it does. In both novels, the pace sometimes slows considerably. I'm okay with these things, but I still don't know how she received such a—

Okay, so like I said, I cannot disassociate Walker with that number. Maybe someday I will, but I doubt it. Putting all that aside, my feelings are this: Entering either of these novels, I immediately was pulled in, by the brilliance of the language and the plot; the longer the story goes, however, the less gripping the plot becomes, the more the prose takes over; in the end, I can say that I enjoyed the novel, but I cannot say that I particularly loved the story, though elements, specific scenes, continue to haunt my memory. The Age of Miracles andThe Dreamers were both elusive stories, but difficult to shake completely—much like a dream. the Dreamers: an apt title for Walker's sophomore effort.

Review: Famous Men Who Never Lived

Famous Men Who Never Lived - K Chess

Famous Men Who Never Lived is built upon a tremendous premise: survivors from a doomed alternate timeline, selected through lottery, flee through a portal into our world. They're registered, treated as refugees, and forced to endure stigmas they cannot shake and restrictions that deny them their freedom. Their presence draws parallels to the Book of Revelation (their number was relatively close to 144,000). Their knowledge of the world, their speech, their culture—all of these were left in another reality.

The premise is fabulous, but the implementation was off. There's so much potential here, but it's untapped. We're told that these two worlds had identical histories until the the first decade of the twentieth century. In the last 110 years, however, everything has changed. In this other timeline, South America is a super power, the United States uses the metric system, the swastika is a peaceful symbol of eternity, every posh neighborhood is a slum, every celebrity you've ever heard of never rose to fame. Nearly every piece of history since 1909 has been turned upside down. If it happened in your world in the last hundred years, it apparently didn't happen in theirs. You were never born, neither were your parents or their parents. And I find this not only hard to believe, but anticlimactic. Here's a chance to to tackle issues that could be fun to explore: What if you run into the parallel you? What if your child who died in the parallel timeline is alive in this one? What if some maniacal tyrant from the other timeline lives in peace in this one? None of this is explored. Instead, after such a brilliant setup, we're given a rather run-of-the-mill thriller that plays out like an episode of Scooby-Doo. (Those in the other timeline didn't have Scooby, however, so they may have thought they were being original.)

When Famous Men Who Never Lived focuses on the human side of the story, it's wonderful. Like when the protagonist is considering the son she left behind. Or the dichotomy of world that welcomes these refugees who have nowhere else to go, but binds them in yellow tape. Even the simple nostalgia for a world one can never return to. I would've loved a story like that. At some point, though, the action took over and a villain had to be constructed. I hate stories with villains—it's a constraint of our world that I find so incredibly limiting and boring. Maybe there's another reality out there where literature isn't littered with all these villains, and if so, I do hope some day to visit it.

If you like science-fiction-based mysteries with a plot that is too light for literary readers and too dense for thrill-seeking readers, this is the perfect novel for you!

Review: Nomadland

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century - Jessica Bruder

Nomadland by Jessica Bruder succeeds in providing knowledge about the culture of older Americans forced to work terrible jobs and live in vehicles. It's a story most readers likely are unfamiliar with, outside of the similarities it shares with tales of migrants from another time and place. These transient seniors are being employed by the droves at beet farms, amusement parks, and Amazon warehouses.

As much an exploration of nomadic seniors, Nomadland is also a searing exploration of what goes on behind the doors at Amazon’s largest facilities. Given Amazon’s chokehold on the publishing industry, it’s a surprise they have allowed this book to exist. Of course, they are aware that even if the abysmal conditions of these facilities became known by the masses, the overwhelming majority would just say, “I can’t afford to go anywhere else.” (Which is frankly, for most us, complete bullshit.)

Bruder’s politics are implied in Nomadland, but never touched upon directly. While this separation keeps the book from becoming one-sided, it also prevents it from becoming as damning as it might have otherwise been. I’m not saying one choice was better than the other, but I do think the lack of commitment shows, preventing the book from achieving its fullest potential.

Lastly, I want to touch on Nomadland as a complete, banded work. Initially, I struggled to get into this book. The opening chapters lack a clear direction or narrative. It felt more like a string of magazine articles that were pieced together. Eventually, it does feel like Bruder found her story and begins to chase it, the random pieces gel into a semi-cohesive work. It’s not enough to really pull this narrative together, but it provides a sufficient survey of the subject.

Recommended strongly for those who like journalistic writing or are particularly interested in economics, poverty, and sociology.

Review: Solanin

Solanin - Inio Asano

It took a little while for Solanin to grow on me. Initially, the story, the characters, and the art felt a little too juvenile for my taste. By the end, I'd still agree there were certainly a few immature elements to the novel, but for the most part, Solanin is surprisingly mature.

Ultimately, this is a great story about what it means to be a young adult, journeying from a future of certainty into the world of reality. These characters face anxieties they couldn't have imagined only a year or two earlier. For the most part, Asano's depiction is painfully realistic. The reader truly gets the sense that these characters have very limited options, and that what options they do have are narrowing drastically by the day.

Like most Japanese narratives I've encountered (mostly speaking of anime here), the story jumps around in time without explanation. I appreciate that the creators of these works trust their audience to figure things out. That said, Solanin's occasional jumps in time may be confusing for some readers.

Lastly, I thought the ending was bit too dry, but it was fitting for a novel about average twenty-somethings living out their average lives. Solanin does not end on that note that leaves you wanting more, but it leaves you with an understanding that is not easy to ignore.