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.
Most people who know more than the most cursory information about Leo Tolstoy know that he was a bit obsessed with religion. While Tolstoy is most famous for his epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, it was shorter explorations of religion that took up most of his time. Though Tolstoy had great affection for the teachings of Jesus, he had considerable disdain for the organized church itself and much of what Christianity had become.
In an attempt to reconcile his belief with his conscious, Tolstoy set out to rewrite the gospels, focusing entirely on the teachings of Jesus without all the miraculous distractions. These includes the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the very divinity of Jesus. Theologically, The Gospel in Brief is a success. Much of Tolstoy's gospel is probably more indicative of the historical fact. Certainly, it allows the reader to see the compassionate, wise teacher that has been hidden under superstition and dogma. But strip Jesus of his miracles, force awkward phrases into this mouth that explain how being “the Son of God” merely means that he is enlightened, and his life becomes one boring and tedious story. One should not have to struggle with sleep while reading the gospels.
Those interested in anarcho-pacifist Jesus or religious studies in general will likely find this book noteworthy. It's a wonderful study, but definitely not a story. The Gospel in Brief was Tolstoy's mission to give the left side of his brain a much needed rest.
There is some really vivid and powerful writing on display in Lindsey Lee Johnson's The Most Dangerous Place on Earth. Passages unfold with layers of beautifully constructed sentences that left me in awe. The opening chapter that is the impetus for the entire story that follows—wow. Tristan Bloch's journey will stay with me for some time.
The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is an unsettling tale. It rotates through the lives of half-a-dozen over-privileged high school students (and one somewhat out-of-place teacher), each with a unique take on life. In this way, it has a sort of Breakfast Club feel to it. Set in the modern age of cyber-bullying, it carries a much darker tone than such a description implies. Although the students' individual stories gel into one cohesive novel, they could easily stand alone.
Overall, I really liked the writing and the storyline, but I did struggle a bit with some of the characters and their actions. The most glaring example occurs during one of those “only in the movies” parties where everyone's drinking, making out, dancing on tables. The problem is, everyone is at this party. Everyone. Outside of small town America, I can't imagine this happening in the real world. Not every kid in high school is going to want to go to such a party and they're certainly not going to be invited or allowed in the door. So why was Dave there? Or Cally? Or Cally's friends? There were moments like this that distracted me, but when I was able to ignore the absurdity of such moments, I was pulled right back into the story.
In some ways, it seemed Johnson was horribly out of touch with the complete high school experience. And yet, in others, she seemed to understand it better than any of us ever could. She really gets into the minds of these adolescent characters. If she fails sometimes with the social constructs, she makes up for it in her understanding of the psychology. It is for these moments that The Most Dangerous Place on Earth elicits the highest praise.
Count me among the many who'd never heard of Ted Chiang before 2016 and who read Stories of Your Life and Others because of a little movie called Arrival. (Hey, at least I read the story before seeing the movie.) Before I get into my thoughts on the book, I must say, “Well, done moviemakers. You did a fine job adapting what must have been a tough story to adapt.”
Stories of Your Life and Others is such a mixed collection. All the stories in here are very cerebral. At times, it feels more like a science journal than a work of fiction. And this is both the collection's BOOM and its whimper. While the analytical approach brought validity and uniqueness to some of the stories, especially the titular story, it made others feel dry and inaccessible. Though I strongly enjoyed “The Story of Your Life,” I struggled with many of the other stories and was on the verge of giving up. I'm glad I didn't as the second most enjoyable story in this collection was the last, "Liking What You See: A Documentary".
Like all story collections I've ever read, Stories of Your Life and Others is a mixed bag, but when Chiang pulls together a fresh story and the right voice, he writes a killer story. Those looking for more science in their science fiction should be pleased with this author.
Before I had children, I had this notion that I would read The Chronicles of Narnia to them one day. I don't know why exactly. I had no personal attachment to the series. A librarian read the first chapter of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe to our second grade class. Later, in the sixth grade, our class read a selection of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Because of my absurdly long “rat tail,” I was nicknamed Reepicheep, a moniker it took more than a decade to escape despite the fact my hair was cut the following year. I saw the recent rash of Narnia films. Though I appreciated a great many Narnian moments, none of these life events really inspired a great fondness for the story. So why I thought I needed to read these stories to my children, I have no idea. It was just something I wanted to do.
After my first son was born, I bought the hefty and beautiful The Complete Chronicles of Narnia with full color illustrations and maps. It was a gorgeous volume and it looked great on my shelf where it sat for the next ten years. Timing was everything. I was only reading the volume once, so I had to wait until my youngest was old enough to grasp the story and hopefully remember it years later, and for my eldests to not find the juvenile tale boring. Three years ago, as the Christmas season was upon us, I began reading The Magician's Nephew. We made it through the first couple tales rather quickly (given our busy and often conflicting schedules), but then it started to become a chore to read. Slowly we pushed through A Horse and His Boy and Prince Caspian and then, feeling over the hump, we picked up steam. Altogether, it took three years and four months to make it through these seven stories. Here are a few thoughts on each.
The Magician's Nephew - This is easily one of the best stories in the series. It lacks the strong connection to the rest of the series as it was meant to be a prequel, an explanation of the origins of Narnia. Because of this, however, it is really the only story here that can stand on its own. It's a simple story with a complete cycle, but it still holds all the magic that makes Narnia special.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe - This is the story everyone familiar with Narnia knows and for good reason. It was the first glimpse at the characters and into the world that would become a classic. There are so many wonderfully drawn scenes here, but the one that always stands out to me is the light post in the snowy forest. I love this image. This, to me, is the image of Narnia.
A Horse and His Boy - Uggghh. Terrible. After writing the first four books in the Narnia series, C.S. Lewis went back and filled in the time between his original two stories with this gem. Is there anyone who's happy about this? Not only does the story seem alien to the Narnian story, it is horribly offensive with its blatantly obvious “Jesus is good, Allah is bad” routine. He could've at least tried to mask his obvious disdain.
Prince Caspian - Chapters upon chapters of backstory. Not much really happens here except a huge battle at the end. Now if you've watched the 2008 film, you may disagree. That's because they took the skeleton of this book, added considerable flesh to it, and actually made it into a decent story. While not the worst story in the series, it is the most disappointing.
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader - ...Dawn Treader is really the last good moment of this series. Even though the scope is limited and out of place to the Narnia the reader has come to expect, it has enough excitement and character building to sustain itself. The final moments in this novel really should have been the conclusion to the series. There are moments sprinkled throughout the following two books that are strong, but overall they lack to bring this series to a satisfying conclusion.
The Silver Chair - A decent story with some wonderful moments, but overall the action and story were a little dry. There's a darkness to The Silver Chair (much of the story takes place underground), that makes the magic seem less impressive and certainly less breathtaking.
The Last Battle - And it all ends here. Aslan is mad with the world. The battle between Christian and Muslim comes to a fart of a battle. Girls who are interested in makeup are not invited to the after world. And it all comes to a fiery end. It seems C.S. Lewis may have intended an epic ending, but it felt more like one big “piss off” to me.
Overall, this is how I'd rank the stories:
The Good (4 Stars)
The Magician's Nephew
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
The Mediocre (3 Stars)
The Silver Chair
The Bad (2 Stars)
The Final Battle
And The Horribly Ugly (1 Star)
A Horse and His Boy
Fact: There are some people in the world who make their ideology into a crusade. They believe they are right, even if they're presented with information that they are wrong. They stop at nothing to force their way of life onto others. They will resort to extreme measures if necessary.
Fiction: Everyone who shares that same belief or ideology also shares in the crusade. They all believe they are always right no matter the evidence against them. Everyone of a particular ideology charges ahead in the quest to convert the world to their way of thinking.
Joyce Carol Oates presents this “fiction” as a fact in her most recent novel, A Book of American Martyrs and it's troubling. The promise to present both sides of the abortion debate with empathy and an unbiased perspective is complete rot. On one side of the debate we have Augustus Voorhees, an abortion provider who is a community leader and a loving family man who is brilliant and well-spoken, a man who provides free abortions to women who cannot pay and does so because he is truly kind-hearted. Then there's Luther Dunphy. Dunphy is a Christian man who believes God is telling him to murder abortion doctors. Dunphy is ignorant. Dunphy is a common man who contributes nothing to society. Dunphy is a hypocrite who cheats on his wife and abuses his children. The Dunphys are against radio, television, movies, sex education, contraception, vaccinations, Tampax, alcohol, carbonated beverages, chewing gum, sugar, sugar substitutes, games like Monopoly, and a slew of other things. (No, I'm not making any of this up.) And all that is fine. There are men out there like Voorhees and there are men out there like Dunphy. The fact is, there are some people in the world who make their ideology into a crusade.
The problem comes in the blanketing stereotype of everyone. Every single pro-choice character is intelligent and wonderful, a model citizen. Every single pro-life character is a hypocritical and ignorant extremist. This is fiction. How is it that we open-minded individuals who have opposed these kind of blanketing statements now embrace them? Merely because the shoe is on the other foot? Come on, I expect more of us. If this book were making such statements about a marginalized group we've become accustomed to defending, we'd be up in arms about it. We'd call the author a bigot and demand a boycott. But simply because the group she attacks “deserves it,” we turn away and smile indignantly. I, for one, choose not to smile.
For the most part, A Book of American Martyrs fails for this very reason. It is fiction with an agenda. And it's not even masked in the slightest.
Luckily, the book gets away from Luther Dunphy and Augustus Voorhees. It becomes a novel about their children. And fortunately, for the sake of this story, Naomi and D.D. are much more rounded characters than their parents. They do not blindly follow the path that has been made for them. It's a much better and balanced novel in the last couple hundred pages, but that does not diminish the hatred of the first several hundred. The whole novel is well written and very Oatesian in all ways, but in the end, propaganda is propaganda, no matter how beautifully it is dressed.
This novel made me angry, but that can be a good thing: we need to talk about this. What worries me however is the direction we're going. Hatred and prejudice are wrong regardless of the recipient. Let's not lose sight of the truth.