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Review: From a Low and Quiet Sea

I miiiiight try to read the entire Man Booker longlist this year. I know I won’t finish before the winner is announced, and definitely not before the shortlist is announced, but I’ve never read an entire longlist and I really like the looks of this one. I’ve already read and reviewed Snap and Warlight from the 2018 nominees, and today I’m going to talk about my third read from the longlist, Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea.

fromalowandquietseaAbout the book: Farouk and his family attempt to flee their country when trusting a stranger’s plan for illegal travel becomes a better option than complying with strict religious laws. Lampy struggles with his identity as a fatherless child while staying in his family’s home into his twenties and working (sans-degree) with the elderly. John confesses the sins of his past that may stem from difficulty coping with his brother’s early death. All three men have loss in common, and their unique life paths bring them all together on a cold Irish road one winter evening.

“What’s in the past can’t be changed and what’s to come can’t be known and you can’t give your life to worrying. Sure you can’t. All you have to do is be kind and you’ll have lived a good life.”

There are some fantastic quotes in this book, but don’t be fooled by a moment’s uplifting tone: From a Low and Quiet Sea is a devastating story of little redemption, and the only humor you’ll find within is fleeting or bitter. These are characters struck down by tragedy that breaks them, turns them cruel, or leaves them twisting helplessly beneath the weight of pain they can hardly bear. There is no sentimentality, but there is a constant need for healing and forgiveness driving this story that makes this book perfect fodder for binge-reading. The very first section sets the reader on a path of unstoppable destruction that never tears away the hope of resolution, of a better future. The reader wants Farouk to escape– and reads the entire novel searching for a way out, for all of them.

But it’s best to go into this book with as little knowledge of content as possible, so let’s talk more about the format of this “novel.” From a Low and Quiet Sea is divided into four sections, each told from the perspective of a different man (though the previous perspectives do come back into play at the end of the fourth section). The first three parts take up exactly 50 pages each, which is a symmetry that I rarely see in novels and that always impresses me– it takes a poetic skill to fit everything important, and only what is important, into a particular length of writing (though Lampy’s section seemed a bit longer than necessary to me). But as impressive and interesting as this format is, I’m tempted to call From a Low and Quiet Sea a series of connected short stories rather than a novel.

In theory, I do like books with untraditional formats. There’re even interesting structural elements within each of the character sections here– Farouk’s format is very much a plot-heavy chronological timeline, interspersed with a few crucial made-up stories from his life. Lampy’s section alternates between introspection about his past and the events of a single, important day in his present. John’s section focuses entirely on his past, in the form of a sin-by-sin confession. But my struggle with the format of this book was that the very first section was a strong favorite for me– and, I suspect, will be for most; after that section ended, I knew I was just reading the others to get to the end to see how it all came together. I did not care about Lampy and John’s stories as much as I had Farouk’s. Lampy’s was by far the least propulsive for me, though John’s also left me confused– I thought I had found a connection between John and Farouk’s stories that I would have loved, but by the time John’s section ended I still wasn’t entirely sure whether that connection existed in the novel, or only in my mind.

What I did love undisputedly was Ryan’s writing. The prose is beautiful without verging on ornate, every character feels distinct and real, and none of the events feel forced or constructed to fit a flimsy plot. The lack of quotations around dialogue keeps the story flowing smoothly, the past fitting seamlessly with the present, and characters’ thoughts float naturally into actions. Ryan is in full control of his language.

“If you say something enough times, the repetition makes it true. Any notion you like, no matter how mad it seems, can be a fact’s chrysalis. Once you say it loud enough and often enough it becomes debatable. Debates change minds. Debate is the larval stage of truth. Constant, unflagging, loud repetition completes your notion’s metamorphosis to fact. The fact takes wing and flutters from place to place and mind to mind and makes a living, permanent thing of itself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was a fast and beautiful read, and I’ll definitely be reading more from this author, starting with All We Shall Know, which has been waiting on my TBR for quite a while now. I also found that there was an interesting similarity between a detail at the end of From a Low and Quiet Sea and at the end of Warlight, my last Man Booker read, though in Warlight this detail made me incredibly sad and in From a Low and Quiet Sea it delighted me. The only real delight I had while reading this book, actually. This was by far my favorite of the three Man Booker 2018 selections I had read at the time, although now that I’ve read a fourth I have a new favorite. That review will be up tomorrow!

Which titles do you plan to read from the Man Booker longlist this year?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: Sleeping Beauties

I have just finished with a three-week buddy read of Stephen King and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties, a 700-page dystopian novel that this father and son duo published last fall.  I chose it as an extra through Book of the Month Club a while back, and it’s so nice to have the longest book from my backlog now crossed of that list.

sleepingbeautiesAbout the book: Women around the world are falling asleep, as usual. What’s unusual is that once they’re unconscious, a cocoon forms around them, and the women do not wake up. The men, however, do continue to sleep and wake as usual. While they search for a cure and try to protect their female loves and family members, disagreements mount, power is lost and won, the number of deaths climbs, and chaos is the new ruling order. On the surface, the small Appalachain town of Dooling seems much the same– but the Dooling women’s prison houses Evie Black, a strange creature who appeared out of nowhere at the same time as the Aurora sleeping sickness, and may be the key to the mystery.

“Practically half the world was asleep, and the rest of it was running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”

Format-wise, Sleeping Beauties is much like Stephen King’s other works: chapters within chapters, multiple perspectives, informal and intelligent prose, bizarre but believable characters– and, of course, it’s a bit long-winded. This is a 700-page book that is still laying out premise two-thirds of the way through the novel. Sleeping Beauties goes straight from premise to intense climax to brief conclusion; it’s not a bad structure for this story, but it does mean over 500 pages of women falling asleep and men trying to figure out what to do about it before the main conflict even begins.

” ‘I need to see Lila-‘ So I can say goodbye, Clint thought. It occurred to him suddenly. The potential finality. How much longer could she stay awake? Not much. On the phone she had sounded– far off, like she was part of the way to another world already. Once she nodded off, there was no reason to believe she could be brought back.”

That’s not to say that the lead-up to the big showdown is boring. Every single character– and there are a lot of significant characters in this book: enough to fill a 4-page cast list– is uniquely interesting. Personally, I enjoyed the characters at the women’s prison most of all, but there’s quite a variety. Despite the variation in personalities and backstories, one constant is the undercurrent of feminist commentary. These messages are definitely more heavy-handed than I usually find Stephen King’s writing to be, which makes me wonder whether that’s down to Owen’s influence. I have not yet read any other books by Owen King, but Sleeping Beauties certainly leaves me curious about his writing style when working solo. Even if the feminism was a bit too in-your-face for my taste (one of the male characters is so misogynistic he’s basically a caricature), it is definitely a theme I approve of.

“Of course, everyone’s clothes seemed to be wrinkled now. How many men knew how to iron? Or fold, for that matter?”

One downside to the giant list of main characters and the quickly shifting perspectives is that it can be hard to connect with any of them individually. Even the most compelling chapters end after only a few pages, and then that character might not appear again for another hundred pages. But there’s also an upside to this tactic: the reader never gets to the point of dreading any particular character’s chapters. There was not a single character in this book whose name at the beginning of the chapter disappointed me– I didn’t have a single “oh no, not this guy again” moment in the entire book. Every character is fascinating. Even the fox. Yep, you read that right: one of the significant characters (included on the character list and everything) is “a common fox, between 4 and 6 years of age.”

But let’s talk a bit about the conclusion that follows. No spoilers, of course, but Stephen King’s endings are notoriously divisive, and this ending was the biggest drawback to Sleeping Beauties for me. Some aspects I loved: Evie’s unpredictability, the changes wrought in the aftermath, the reactions to deaths. But I did find the unanimous vote a little too unlikely, and some of the answers about the Aurora sickness a little too evasive– of the “maybe we’ll never know exactly what happened” type– or missing entirely. (Why Dooling? Why now? Why were the two men from the meth trailer killed? Why is Evie always naked?) I loved Part 3, the final 20 pages or so of the book, for its tragedies and triumphs. I loved that this isn’t necessary a happy-ending book, though things go as well as they can. It could’ve been a little better with a little more explanation about the supernatural aspects, but the battle was great. Plenty of firepower, death on both sides, and so much tension. I am a true believer in literary grit. And, of course, it’s always interesting to see how the balance/imbalance between the genders will play out.

“That was one way in which the sexes had never been equal; they were not equally dangerous.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This book really turned around for the better for me in the final third, and even though a few unanswered (or too easily answered) questions about the basic premise and the book’s supernatural element kept me from giving it the full 5 stars, the slow bit at the beginning no longer bothered me by the end. Sleeping Beauties is not my new favorite Stephen King book, but the co-write was an interesting comparison to other King titles I’ve read, and I’m glad I finally got around to picking it up.

About my buddy read: This was only my second-ever buddy read; the first also featured a Stephen King book: It. I love Stephen King’s writing, but it’s definitely easier getting through some of his larger titles with someone to hold me accountable. I probably would have finished Sleeping Beauties faster on my own, but I wouldn’t have been reading other books on the side, and reading all 700 pages at once would’ve felt like more of a chore. Instead, my friend and I read about 230 pages per week, whenever it fit into our schedules, and at the end of the week we’d have a nice spoilery chat. That’s the best part of a buddy read, in my opinion: being able to talk about the book with someone who’s in exactly the same place and knows the same amount of information. That said, this wasn’t the best book to buddy read because there really wasn’t much going on in the first 2/3 of the book beyond characterization and premise-laying. We made some predictions, and spent a lot of the chat time wandering off to other topics. It wasn’t until the final chat that we really had plenty to say about what worked or didn’t. But even so, it was enjoyable enough that I still have positive opinions of both buddy reading and Stephen King.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you liked Sleeping Beauties, you should also check out Stephen King’s Under the Dome. It’s long, but if you’ve made it through Sleeping Beauties you already know you can handle a long book, right? Under the Dome is about another small town facing extenuating circumstances: a dome has suddenly surrounds the town limits. No one (and nothing) can get in or out. The infrastructure devolves much in the same way as it does in Dooling, so if you like the lawless power play in Sleeping Beauties, you’ll find plenty to enjoy in the situation under the dome.

What’s the longest book you’ve read? Did you like it?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Line That Held Us

I chose my Book of the Month selection for August while I was on a road trip in the Rocky Mountain area. That may have played a roll in the fact that I chose a book rooted in Appalachia, where the other US mountains stand. The trees on the cover of David Joy’s The Line That Held Us looked like the trees out my car window, and gave me a sense of continuing adventure.

thelinethatheldusAbout the book: Darl accidentally shoots a man instead of a wild pig while he’s out hunting one evening. He won’t call in the emergency because he knows he’ll be in trouble for poaching and trespassing, and the brother of the dead man won’t be content to leave justice to the law; admitting to the crime will bring Dwayne Brewer straight to Darl’s  door, and the revenge he’ll seek looks a lot worse than any fines or jail time. So Darl calls a friend instead, to help him move and hide the body. Calvin doesn’t want to get involved, but he can’t abandon Darl in his time of need. What they don’t know is that they’ve been caught on camera. While the police struggle to put two and two together, Dwayne Brewer uses force to find answers of his own. Darl and Calvin fight for survival as Dwayne comes after them and their families, intent on taking an eye for an eye.

“Five weeks ago he was no different from any other man in this county. Work, church, and family. That was it. Same as anyone else, just as plain as apple pie. But all it took was a phone call to rip the rug right out from under his whole life. One decision and now here he stood.”

The thing about The Line That Held Us is that the entire plot can be summed up in two sentences or less. They’d be an interesting two sentences, but the rest of the words in this novel really aren’t necessary in understanding what’s going on. Instead, those words go into the effort of scene-setting, of bringing Appalachian culture to those who aren’t familiar and giving those who are a slice of home– beautiful and terrible as those mountains may be.

Though The Line That Held Us is a novel of suspense, there’s such a level of control in the writing that slows the action and keeps the reader at a remove. One of the characters repeatedly tells long stories and gives impromptu speeches in life-or-death situations. The characters speak in dialect, but even when they’re angry or desperate they seem to have plenty of time to form full, complex sentences and ruminate on details of their landscape and lifestyle. This level of detail doesn’t exactly feel unnatural– it just feels as though life itself runs a little slower in this corner of Appalachia. And we see a lot of that life: the novel follows several perspectives.

I think there’s supposed to be some moral ambiguity in this book– the information given about Dwayne and Sissy Brewer’s childhood, as well as Dwayne’s religiosity and his repeated musings on how all he wanted in life was to take care of his brother seem designed to make the reader care as much for Dwayne’s loss as for the men he targets with such brutality. Every male character in this book has broken the law, but it’s not clear by the end of the novel whether any of them will face legal consequences. Instead, justice is supposed to be achieved by the way the characters settle things with each other. In my opinion, Dwayne is never in the right with his actions, no matter how unjust his brother’s death may be. For some things, I just don’t see that there’s any reasonable excuse, though the complexity of Dwayne’s character certainly makes him more interesting.

“Dwayne understood that his brother was not meant for this place, that some people were born too soft to bear the teeth of this world. There was no place for weakness in a world like this. Survival was so often a matter of meanness.”

I’ve been reading some sadly plot-holed thrillers lately (Snap, The Last Time I Lied, The Girl From Blind River), so my patience was wearing thin by the time I started The Line That Held Us, and I’m happy to say I only had one issue with the plotting: fingerprinting at crime scenes. I’m not sure what year this book takes place, but I know fingerprinting has been around for a good hundred years and this story definitely takes place near present day, so it made absolutely no sense to me that the police couldn’t place anyone at the scene of the grisliest crime, where the culprit touched plenty.

Overall, though this is a crime novel, there is no mystery and little thrill. There’s a great level of psychology rooted in the fact that Dwayne believes the wrongful death of his brother entitles him to the lives of the men who buried him, but even that is not the point of this novel. The Line That Held Us is very much a book focused on place, where the setting and the way of life in the Appalachian Mountains is as important to the story as any of the characters. This would be a great book to read for a mental vacation (though keep in mind it is a bit dark, not anything you would find in a travel brochure).

“Things had a tendency to disappear like ghosts in this place, into the trees, over the ridge, then gone.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. It took a few chapters for me to get the hang of Joy’s writing style and I don’t have any desire to read more of Joy’s work, but I did enjoy the time I spent with this one. The competent plotting of this book was such a relief after several plot-hole-riddled thrillers this month; it was so nice to just sit back and be able to follow the author through the story without questioning everything. Also I’m proud of myself for reading my BOTM selection (plus a few extras from my backlog) within the month because I haven’t managed that since May and I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting back on track.

Further recommendations:

  1. The Blinds by Adam Sternbergh is another interesting crime novel in which setting plays a key roll. This setting though, is partially fictional. In a new prison experiment planted in Texas, a village is assembled for the worst criminals, where convicts take a home and a job and roam freely through the town amongst each other. Though they’re stuck with each other inside, the town is also a sort of protection from the outside world and an alternative to a lifetime spent in a cell. For years the convicts in this town peacefully co-exist, but trust becomes an major issue when an unexplained murder divides the town. If you like a dark crime story with a strong setting, The Blinds is as captivating as The Line That Held Us.
  2. Michael Punke’s The Revenant might also be a good choice for readers who are interested in revenge stories with a heavy focus on wilderness/landscape. This one’s historical fiction from the US fur trade days, when one member of a trapping company is left for dead, and dedicates himself to exacting revenge.

What’s the darkest book you’ve read?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Snap

The Man Booker longlist for 2018 was announced a few weeks ago, and I added several of the titles to my TBR. I don’t know how many I’ll end up reading, but I do want to get through a few before we see the shortlist. For my first longlist choice, I picked Belinda Bauer’s Snap, a mystery/thriller that I thought would be a quick (and easily available) read to help me dive into the longlist.

snapAbout the book: Eileen Bright leaves her three children in her broke-down car on the side of the road so she can call for help. The year is 1998, and calling for help means walking to the nearest pay phone. Jack, the oldest of the children at eleven years old, watches the hands on his wristwatch mark an entire hour in the stifling car before he decides to investigate. But it’s already too late. Three years later, another woman is awakened by a noise in the night when she thought she was alone. What seems at first like a thwarted burglary turns out to be much more when Catherine finds a knife and death threat by her bed, and doesn’t call the police.

Based on the first two chapters, I thought I was going to love this book. The first chapter focuses on Jack after his mother leaves the car. The second chapter follows Catherine as she’s forced to acknowledge a burglar in her dark house. These chapters are creepy, intriguing, and introduce a lot of questions that had me hooked.

But from there, though the events themselves remain captivating, the rest of the book begins to fall apart. The characters are notably juvenile, which is less excusable after the eleven year-old becomes the “man of the family” and is forced to grow up fast, and the frightened pregnant woman in the middle of the night is more thoroughly developed. This impression might have been influenced by the writing style, which has an overhanded way of repeating or italicizing important words and phrases. There are many short two-or-three-word paragraphs apparently meant to pack a punch that instead just seem to state the obvious.

But the biggest problem, for me at least, is the level of coincidence this plot relies on. Though the underlying mystery remains intriguing, the connections are almost always based on someone remembering something they shouldn’t be able to, or someone having a “feeling.” The point at which the murder weapon is identified by someone who picked it up and just knew it was the exact knife from the Eileen Bright case and couldn’t name a reason for that knowledge beyond instinct, Snap was ruined for me. The characters do occasionally remark on the role coincidence plays in life and investigations, but there is absolutely no commentary that can ever make coincidence come across as anything other than an excuse in fiction. There’s one moment where a chance connection is actually likened to magic, which… is ridiculous. It’s just lazy writing for a mystery to come together with coincidence and “magic” rather than hard work and tangible evidence.

“Marvel nodded. He liked a good hunch himself, and was open to the instincts of others.”

“Rice’s face broke into a broad grin. ‘Sometimes feelings are facts!’ “

I had other issues with this book, including the way women– and pregnant women specifically– are portrayed. Catherine in particular leans on the excuse of hysteria related to pregnancy to rationalize many of her actions, and most of the other characters seem inclined to agree: pregnancy makes women do stupid things. It was horrid seeing Catherine use this mentality as a crutch, and horrid seeing the way some of the men thought of her pregnancy.

“Adam While’s wife opened the door looking like a whale.”

First off, ew. I hate it when the first thing a male character notices about a woman he’s meeting (or vice versa) is that she’s beautiful, or ugly. Yes, appearance is one of the first things we notice when meeting new people in real life as well, but it’s much more pleasant (and easier to visualize) when actual physical descriptions are provided rather than subjective impressions. The latter are only helpful in revealing the character of the observer. But comparing a pregnant woman with a whale neither helps the reader’s opinion of this police officer, nor provides much of a visual for Catherine.

And speaking of officers, let’s look at the policework in Snap. I don’t think there was any investigation at all of the murder weapon until a particular question about it is raised three years later. Someone on the police force looking into the origins of the knife might have uncovered the truth of the murder long before Jack’s life went off the rails. And are they planning to prosecute the murderer at all after this “investigation?” On what evidence? Have they attained anything legally? And how did Marvel not suspect, when another officer talks about Adam’s wife leaving him, that maybe she didn’t come back? And when do criminals– even juvenile ones– get to walk away free and clear after admitting to over a hundred crimes, on good faith?

I know I’ve listed a lot of complaints, but I didn’t actively hate this book. It disappointed me, but it was great starting out, turned bland for the rest of the first half, and then felt rushed from there. The bare bones of this story are superb, and even though I found fault with a lot of the rest of it, Snap still stands out as a story that had a lot of potential that it just didn’t reach. There were even times, outside of the characters’ thoughts, when I even liked the writing style.

“The breathless air twitched in the wake of each car, then flopped down dead in the dust again.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Much like the last thriller I read (Riley Sager’s The Last Time I Lied), this one seemed so promising, and just didn’t deliver. I’ll keep trying, but it’s been hard finding a good thriller lately. Snap turned out not to be a great start to the Man Booker longlist, though if they get better from here maybe I’ll be glad to have started on the less impressive end of the spectrum. (Prediction: Snap will not make the shortlist.) Next up for Man Booker I’ve got Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea and Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under coming my way. I’m also planning on picking up Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room from my library soon. Hopefully these choices will be better fits.

Further recommendations:

  1. If you had better luck with Snap than I did and want something similar, you might enjoy Cate Holahan’s Lies She Told, a metafiction thriller about a thriller writer who is undergoing hormone treatments to boost her fertility, and thinks the hormones are making her think and behave erratically.
  2. I keep recommending this, but if you’re looking for a better mystery with plenty of suspense, Riley Sager’s Final Girls is a fresh take on familiar slasher thriller tropes. In this novel, the sole survivor (final girl, if you will) of a murder spree is running for her life again– maybe from the same crazed knife-wielder who killed her friends last time.

Do you read any longlist books, or do you wait for the shortlist or winner? Or steer clear of literary prizes altogether? I’m not convinced literary prize nominees are always the best choices, but I always find it interesting to see what gets picked.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: The Girl from Blind River

Gale Massey’s The Girl From Blind River was my July Book of the Month Club selection. It’s a crime novel with a heavy focus on small-town poker. I started reading before my week-long road trip, left it home, and finished it quickly when I returned. It was a quick read but I was glad for the break, because there wasn’t much that I liked about this novel…

thegirlfromblindriverAbout the book: Jamie wants to be a poker star. Her uncle, Loyal, is a sort of poker phenom in Blind River. Jamie and her brother have been living with Loyal for more than eight years, ever since their mother’s arrest. They both want out of the dead-end town, but the only way to raise the funds seems to be helping Loyal with his games and schemes– which aren’t exactly played by the book. It’s a fine line to walk, and if Jamie isn’t careful, she could end up in jail like her mom, or dead, like her dad. After a big win that doesn’t pan out and a big loss that does, there’s another death in town, and Jamie has to decide once and for all whose side she’s on. The stakes are high– losing this bet could cost her entire future, or even her life.

Every now and then I come across a book I’m hesitant to read because I’m afraid I’m not knowledgeable enough about its subject matter to fully appreciate what the book is setting out to accomplish. But generally, enough information is supplied to guide the reader through. Unfortunately, in The Girl from Blind River, that is not the case. This is a book about poker that’s not particularly novice-friendly; as a poker newbie, I found it difficult to glean even from context how the game is played and what certain cards or moves meant for the various players. I came out of this book knowing no more about poker than I did going in.

 The problem with that barrier to learning is that the parallels between the game and the overall story were also lost on me. I think that if Massey had offered a bit of educational insight into the game, the character strife going on behind the scenes would have come across as more interesting and significant. There are real-life bluffs and bets and folds for Jamie outside of the hands of poker she plays, but without any real appreciation for the game or understanding of how wins and losses occur, those events didn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Linked to that is the fact that nothing about these characters managed to surprise me. They’re pretty stereotypical, from the trailer park con man to the college drop-out to the motherless violent boy to the do-good cop to the corrupt politician. The chest-oglers are, unsurprisingly, the bad guys. The authority figures who’ve broken the rules once are, unsurprisingly, the ones who’ve been breaking rules all along. Kids who’ve been raised by law-breakers are, unsurprisingly, heading down the same paths themselves. Jamie makes naïve assumptions and learns lessons that are (or at least should be) obvious to the reader: the social worker is not necessarily the bad guy. Thieves have their reasons for stealing. You don’t win every hand, especially at a casino. There’s no future for a relationship with a married man who won’t leave his wife.

There’s no mystery in The Girl from Blind River. There’s a murder, but the reader knows exactly whodunnit and how from the moment it happens, and Jamie knows enough. As the pieces of the puzzle come together, the twists are meant to reveal character rather than shake up the plot– but every character reveals him- or herself to be exactly who the reader expects from the beginning. The biggest surprise, in my opinion, is that these characters have made it eight-plus years without deaths or jail time already. I couldn’t muster respect for any of them as they tried so hard to cheat their way out of holes they dug themselves into. I hope they will not stick with me.

There’s also an overuse of the word “dingy,” which I found mildly annoying. It’s hard to imagine a girl who sleeps on a cot in the storage room of a ramshackle trailer and can’t handle the classes at her local college as describing so many places as “dingy.” The writing simply was not a good fit for me. I didn’t mark a single quote that I wanted to save, but I always like to include a sample of the writing in my review so I had to go back through and find something bearable. This is the best I got:

“What if she was different than them? What if she could shed the past? What if she had her own fate, separate and unknowable? Low on the blue horizon, wild geese flew across the sun. What if there really was something better waiting for her; what if she was moving toward it right now?”

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. This was one of my biggest disappointments of the year so far. I could tell right away that I just didn’t like the style and the story wasn’t what I was looking for, and it never improved for me. Poker buffs might have a better time with this novel– there is a story here, and I hope it finds a more appreciable audience, but the only thing that I enjoyed about this reading experience was that it didn’t take long for me to reach the end. It was not a BOTM favorite– better luck next time, I hope. I’m still waiting for my August selection to arrive: David Joy’s The Line That Held Us.

What do you do when you find a literary dud? Do you stop reading, or soldier through hoping to take something from the experience anyway?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

 

 

Review: The Anomaly

In June, I chose Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly from Book of the Month Club’s selections, but I deliberately put it aside to read at the end of July. This book is a sci-fi thriller set in the Grand Canyon, and by June I knew there was a good chance I would be at the Grand Canyon myself at the end of July. So I brought this book on my road trip last week, and it was indeed the perfect match for reading between National Parks visits.

theanomalyAbout the book: Nolan Moore and his film crew are off on another venture for The Anomaly Files, a small-time YouTube-aired show about the world’s unsolved mysteries. Nolan isn’t an expert on anything, but he does have a lot of obscure knowledge that’s been helpful in this field– knowledge that leads him and the rest of the team to an unmapped cavern high up the Grand Canyon wall. What starts as a group of seven gradually dwindles as the team becomes trapped in the cavern and experiences a set of strange phenomena. Solving this mystery becomes increasingly important, as it could mean the difference between life and death for those who remain.

trippics4“When you’re in a bad situation there’s always part of your mind that carries blithely on, assuming you merely haven’t thought of The Thing yet– that there’s some obvious solution you simply haven’t fallen upon. Sure, it looks bad right now, this voice murmurs, comfortingly, but it won’t when you’ve come up with The Thing That Solves It All. But what if there’s no Thing? What if the situation is actually as bad as it looks? Or worse?”

My only complaint about The Anomaly is that the writing is competent at best. There’s nothing surprising or new or particularly inspiring about the arrangement of words on the page. But this is a small complaint, because there’s nothing wrong with the writing, either. It accomplishes the basic task of story-telling, free of typos and errors. Rutger’s bio states that he’s a screenwriter, and I think that shows. The plot is wild and engaging, but otherwise The Anomaly is obviously a debut.

Despite the blandness of the writing, there were several aspects that I especially enjoyed about this book: the foremost being the atmosphere. Although this novel takes place primarily in the Grand Canyon, there is mention of other National Parks, petroglyphs, and other natural and historical landmarks– I saw a lot of the same (or at least similar) sights on my road trip, which gave me a great level of first-hand background knowledge. Though that certainly helped me visualize the setting, this is not a book that depends on the reader having seen many National Parks and Monuments firsthand. I didn’t finish reading this book until after I’d returned home again, and long after I’d left the Grand Canyon I would pick up the story again and feel like I was still right there. This is a perfect story to read in the dark– but it’s not for the weak of heart.

Though The Anomaly isn’t a horror book, much of it does take place in the dark and most of the events that transpire in the cavern are brushes with the unknown. Needing an answer to the question “What the heck is going on?!” is the basic driving force of the novel. Luckily both the clues and the answers are intriguing. This is clearly a work of fiction, but it did leave me with the impression that the world is a bigger and more mysterious place than I usually give it credit for.

“People have this picture in their head of America as a young place. The ‘New World.’ But it’s as old as anywhere else. It’s been here as long as Europe or Africa. It’s a contentious subject but there’s people who think there were populations here before anybody made it over the land bridge.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I’m not sure whether I would read another book by this author. I don’t think I’ll be keeping an eye out for Rutger’s name in future publications, but if I do happen to come across one at some point that sounds interesting, I may pick it up. It was a great reading experience, but I’m not sure it can be duplicated and it might be better to hold on to the memory than go looking for more. In any case, I’m really glad I read this one when and where I did, though it’s not at all what I expected from Book of the Month.

Further recommendations:

  • And if you like (or suspect you might like) sci-fi thrillers, let me also point you to Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter. Though these are vastly different stories, they’re both eerie and compelling, and challenge the reader’s view of the everyday world. Dark Matter focuses on its titular subject, following the main character through collisions with his paths-not-taken as the boundaries of space and time are breached by physics.

Have you read any books that pair perfectly with a real-life setting? (There are no books set in my hometown so reading about the Grand Canyon at the Grand Canyon was a novel experience for me.)

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Book Haul Vacation Edition

trippics3.JPGI’ve been leaving vague hints about my road trip vacation in my last few posts, and now I’m ready to go into a bit more detail. I wasn’t really sure until I was in the car on the road with my best friend that we were really going, so I didn’t want to build it up too much beforehand. Now that I’m back from my 8-day adventure, I want to tell you a little of what I saw, and which books I bought along the way.

trippics1I’ll lead by saying that the Grand Canyon was the farthest point from home that we visited, and I had been saving Michael Rutger’s The Anomaly (a BOTM selection from June) for this trip because it takes place at the Grand Canyon. I only managed to read about a third of that one book across the entire 8 days of the trip because we were just so busy, but that one book was a great choice of reading material. I was able to connect with the characters’ first experience with the Grand Canyon very easily, as well as understanding exactly what they were talking about when some of the other National Parks we visited came up: like Mesa Verde with its cliff dwellings. We saw petroglyphs (ancient drawings on stone), though not the ones mentioned in The Anomaly. We visited the Rocky Mountain National Park. We researched and were near Chaco Culture, though we didn’t end up stopping there. We saw Scottsbluff, and parts of the Oregon, Mormon, Pony Express, and Lewis and Clark trails. A lot of the history and landscapes we saw match exactly what’s described in the book, so that was a win. I did forget to take a picture of the book with the Grand Canyon in the background though. I had some great opportunities and I just… forgot. Because the view was so grand?trippics2

Though I didn’t accomplish a lot of reading while I was gone, I did buy a lot of books. A lot more than I intended to, anyway. Here’s what’s new:

  1. The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang. I actually bought this one right before we left, while we were shopping for supplies. My friend bought a road trip book and I bought this one, though in the end I didn’t pack it, guessing (rightly) that I would not get around to reading it while we were gone. This is a new fantasy novel that’s had a lot of buzz lately; it features a magic school and Chinese history, and I can’t wait to see what else.
  2. Elmet by Fiona Mozley. I bought this one at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver, CO. It was on the bargain shelf, and I’ve been interested in it since it was longlisted for the Man Booker in 2017 and the Women’s Fiction Prize in 2018. I really don’t remember anything about the synopsis beyond the fact that it centers around familial relationships, but I’ve seen plenty of positive reviews and I couldn’t pass up a bargain at a great bookstore.
  3. The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing by The Editors of Writer’s Digest. This also came from the Tattered Cover. It’s just a book from writers about writing, and as I wrap up my own writing project that’s something that I’m drawn to. I’ve been meaning to pick this volume up for a while, and before I left the store I had already perused a few of the interviews printed in the book. I wanted to pick up a title that I was sure I would look at often, as a positive reminder of this bookstore, this city, and the road trip in general. With fiction there’s always the risk that I won’t like the book and thus it will turn out to be a bad souvenir, so I wanted to pick something useful.
  4. The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry. I chose this book from Bookworks in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With a new Sarah Perry book coming out this year, my interest has increased lately. It was cheap because it was used, but it looks new.  Also there aren’t good used book stores (or even bad used book stores) around where I live, so I’m glad I had the chance to find some elsewhere. This book is set in the late 1800s (one of my fave time settings) and focuses on the rumored return of the mythical Essex Serpent. The main characters include a woman with scientific interest in the serpent, and a man with religious interest; they are drawn together by their differing views on this creature.
  5. Girl Made of Stars by Ashley Herring Blake. I found this book in Oklahoma City, just on a regular sale at the Barnes and Noble across from our hotel. This is a YA book about a girl whose twin is accused of rape, and the crisis that follows. It’s a book about identity and relationships, about how we decide who to stand for and what to stand against. I’ve gotten more picky about my YA reads again this year, but this book sounds great.
  6. Snap by Belinda Bauer. This is one of the books from the Man Booker longlist for 2018. It’s a crime novel about two children left in a car, whose mother tells them she’ll be right back, and that the older boy is in charge. She never comes back. That’s all I remember from the synopsis, but combined with the fact that crime/thriller books don’t seem to appear on many literary lists, it was enough to hook me. I bought this one at the B&N in Des Moines, Iowa because it was the only place I could find it for a discount. I’m hoping to read it soon, and that it’ll be a good jumping-off point for the other Man Booker nominees I want to pick up this year.
  7. Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I read and loved this book in July, and wanted to acquire my own copy after returning my friend’s. Barnes and Noble always has those B2G1 paperbacks, and I wanted the other two so I chose this as my free third book. This one is about the generations of two African families through a couple hundred years of world history; each chapter follows a different character and every single one of them is worth reading.
  8. Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore. This is another of my three paperbacks. My taste in books can best be described as “anything I haven’t read something like before.” Sometimes it’s a literary prize winner that does something unique with language or form, but sometimes it’s just the wacky plots that make you think “huh, I wonder how anyone came up with that idea.” Reincarnation Blues falls into the wacky plots category. The main character has 10,000 chances to do life right and find his ultimate purpose, but as he approaches 10k he’s more looking forward to embracing his one true love– death– than solving the mystery of life.
  9. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. The third paperback. This was the Man Booker winner for 2017, and I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read it yet. I like Saunders’ writing, I like Lincoln, I like prize winners. I don’t know why I haven’t read this one yet, but it seemed like time to pick it up. I better get around to reading it before the 2018 winner is announced. I thought buying it would help.
  10. The Possessions by Sara Flannery Murphy. Same B&N. I’ve been vaguely interested in this one since it showed up as a Book of the Month selection in 2017, and if I hadn’t come across it on sale for a fraction of its cover prize, I don’t know if I would ever have picked it up. But that’s the fun of bookstore shopping: picking up something you wouldn’t have otherwise. This one’s about a character who can channel the dead, and works for an organization that enables the bereaved to talk with their loved ones a final time. Of course, lines are crossed and the dead get a little too close to life again.

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And that’s my vacation book haul. I’ll post my regular August book haul at the end of the month, which will include any new books added to my shelves from this moment until the end of August. Since my goal for 2018 is 3 books per month or less, I wanted to share these right away and give myself a second chance at meeting my goal. Buying sprees don’t count on vacation, right? Hopefully I can keep myself under control for the rest of the month.

Here’s a teaser for my August book haul: I chose The Line That Held Us by David Joy as my BOTM selection for August, which should be arriving later this week. BOTM describes it as “Appalachian noir,” which sounds like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Have you read any of these books? What should I pick up first?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant