Tag Archives: long books

Review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies

I finally ticked the last book off my March TBR, with a little help from Gil @ Gil Reads Books, who kindly volunteered to buddy read it with me! John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a nearly 600-page LGBTQ+ historical fiction novel that reads quickly for its size and has received a lot of love since its 2017 release. Though it didn’t quite live up to the massive hype for me, Gil and I were largely in agreement about this one, and I had a good time reading and discussing it despite a few disappointments.

theheart'sinvisiblefuriesIn the novel, Cyril Avery narrates 70 years of his life, beginning with his mother’s eventful pregnancy and ending with the ghost of a friend telling him the (fast-approaching) date of Cyril’s own death. In between, the reader is given an overview of the challenges faced by gay men in Ireland from the 1940’s onward. The prevalence of strict Catholocism and the illegality of homosexuality in Ireland through much of the 1900s made life very difficult for a lot of people who, like Cyril, were forced to hide their true identities, create elaborate cover-ups, and/or leave Ireland altogether in order to simply exist as themselves.

“It was a difficult time to be Irish, a difficult time to be twenty-one years of age and a difficult time to be a man who was attracted to other men. To be all three simultaneously required a level of subterfuge and guile that felt contradictory to my nature.”

I’ll start on a positive: I think Boyne does a great job of conveying how oppressively unfair the social, political, and Catholic response to homosexuality and AIDS was in Ireland (and beyond, to some extent) until very recently. Politicians outed as homosexual would lose their careers. Men who confessed to doctors their shame and unhappiness over their sexual preferences were given cruel and ineffective “treatments.” Children were convinced by authority figures from a young age that the roads to Hell are many and being a homosexual is one of the most certain paths. Being gay in this place, in this time, led to arrest, loss of respect and even recognition from friends and family, direct verbal and physical violence from utter strangers, and more. Cyril’s introductions to sexuality are secretive after-hours public encounters that leave him feeling guilty and far from love. The Heart’s Invisible Furies gave me a good sense of the difficulties faced on every side, and the political/religious atmosphere of the country in these years that led to such intolerant reactions.

” ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ he asked, looking at me as if I was clinically insane. ‘What’s wrong with Ireland? Are you all just fucking nuts over there, is that it? Don’t you want each other to be happy?’ / ‘No,’ I said, finding my country a difficult one to explain. ‘No, I dont think we do.’ “

Unfortunately, a lot of the rest of the book’s potential positives were undermined for me by the sheer absurdity of the narration. I think my mention above about Cyril narrating his mother’s pregnancy and communing with ghosts is a good indicator of how very whimsical Boyne’s narrative choices are here. Though on their own none of the plot details would seem quite so far-fetched, all together it makes for a particularly comedic journey. I can’t deny that it was fun to read and guess which outlandish plot twist was coming up next (I did not have “villain crushed by statue in the nick of time” on my bingo card, sadly), but I had so much difficulty suspending disbelief that I could barely take any of the plot seriously. There’s a ton of ground being covered here, and I hate to bash this book because I do think it’s a decent (fictionalized) source of information for those who haven’t lived the experience; but perhaps its greatest fault is that it tries to encompass too much of the gay Irish experience within one man, and thus loses what strength it could have had in characterization. This might have been a very different experience if I had been better able to emotionally invest in Cyril’s saga of suffering.

As it is, I’ve heard of many of the horrors this book contains prior to reading it (the clandestine exchanges in parks after dark, the loveless marriages, the medical treatments, the prejudice). Shocking reveals were never going to win me over the way heartfelt characterization might have, and I found that lacking. The children don’t sound like children, the seven year time gaps between every chapter feel forced and make new character introductions belated and awkward, and relationships between them are difficult to understand without being explicitly told. Character reunions and deaths feel manipulative, exacerbated by the fact that each person in this story is so one-note that they read more like caricatures with a single personality trait each than actual people. Even the dialogue is presented very literally, lest the reader miss the point:

” ‘I just know that if she goes to America she’ll end up being raped by a black man and having an abortion.’ / ‘Jesus Christ,’ I said, spitting out my tea. ‘For God’s sake, Anna, you can’t say things like that.’ / ‘Why not? It’s true.’ / ‘It’s not true at all. And you sound very small-minded saying it.’ / ‘I’m not racist if that’s what you’re implying. Remember, my husband is Jewish.’ “

And yet, despite all the complaints I’ve lodged, I can’t deny that most of the read was engaging and entertaining, even if not in the way I expected or hoped for. I had a better time than with my last Boyne novel- A Ladder to the Sky. All in all, a mixed experience, though the fact that I seem to be in the minority with my complaints means I’d still readily recommend this book to anyone looking for a humorous, dramatic account of an important social issue.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This would probably have been a lower rating if I hadn’t enjoyed laughing my way through the most unrealistic of the plot points, and dissecting them all with Gil. Without a buddy I think I would have been even more frustrated than I was. I suspect I’m just not the right reader for Boyne’s style, though there’s enough to appreciate in his work that I’m not counting out trying more of his work in the future. I just won’t be rushing to pick it up.

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Back to reviews with another Women’s Prize longlist title! This time we’re looking at Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had, one of the largest books on the list at over 500 pages. Fortunately, I had a good time reading it, though I can’t say it had much else going for it.

themostfunweeverhadIn the novel, four adult sisters are trying to find their way in the world, both guided and hindered by what they see as their parents’ epic romance, an impressive love story none of the girls is confident about finding for herself. A secret son, concealed by two of the sisters and given for adoption at birth, suddenly reenters their lives fifteen years later, testing the bounds of the familial relationships and finally showing the sisters that there may be more to a “good” and “successful” life than keeping up appearances.

” ‘There’s four of you?’ he asked. ‘What’s that like?’ / ‘It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.’ “

There are quite a few books on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist that look at family, parenthood, and marriage, but The Most Fun We Ever Had stands out as the ultimate family saga. Its page count allows Lombardo to examine- in excruciating detail- the minutiae of day-to-day interactions, a lifetime of decisions and assumptions, and each sibling and parent relationship that is one thread in the greater web of this family. I found the dynamics between characters highly entertaining and enjoyed the writing, but even so I think Lombardo could’ve shaved off two hundred pages without losing anything crucial.

The book opens on one of the daughters’ weddings, from their mother’s perspective. From this glimpse alone the reader can see that there is plenty of interest going on beneath the surface of this happy family, though we soon come to learn that their mother doesn’t know half of it. From here, the narration jumps ahead sixteen years to follow a year’s worth of family drama, divided into seasonal sections. Though this year is presented chronologically, the book also delivers numerous flashbacks that showcase virtually every significant moment in each character’s life, from the parents’ origin story, through their four daughters’ childhoods, and into choices each make as adults, all leading up to this one eventful year. Across all of these moments, The Most Fun We Ever Had demonstrates the duality of affection and pain in familial relationships, showing that what holds people together can also drive them apart, and that it is after all easiest to hurt the ones we love.

“She was just trying to do the right thing, but that wasn’t so easy, because everyone in her life had a different conception of what the right thing was, and she herself was caught somewhere in the middle.”

Thematically, alongside the complexities of parent and sibling relationships, this story looks at wealth and privilege from a number of angles. The adopted boy has, by a bad stroke of luck, spent most of his life in the foster care system, and his sudden need for care provides a rude awakening for the sisters who’ve grown up with two loving parents in a big house with adequate income. A family of six subsisting on one doctor’s salary didn’t exactly equate to the lap of luxury for the four girls while growing up (which isn’t to say they wanted for anything), but most of them were able to improve their circumstances even further as they reached adulthood- their own children are well-situated indeed. In comparison, there is one daughter who survives paycheck to paycheck in a sad apartment with one fork to her name. This woman plays such scant role in the plot that she seems present primarily to balance the scales of the family’s wealth. But despite the thorough setup, the book’s commentary barely dips below the surface of the expected.

In truth, I don’t think there’s anything at all to learn here. These are such specific characters, in such a specific situation, that it’s difficult to apply much of their experience to life beyond the novel. It’s a love story, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a generational story, and yet despite everything the book encompasses, its primary purpose seems to be entertainment. Perhaps the main message here is something like, “love is messy,” or “there’s more to every relationship than meets the eye,” but there’s nothing groundbreaking or life-altering to be gleaned from such platitudes. Unless the takeaway is that we shouldn’t present our children with the model of a solid marriage for fear of setting the bar too high, there’s little substance to take back to the real world after closing the back cover. At its core, The Most Fun We Ever Had isn’t much more than an entertaining drama about four sisters and their futile competition to prove themselves most worthy of their picture-perfect parents- and each other. The ruthless competitiveness between these sisters is the driving force of the novel.

On that note, if you’re looking for likable characters, this probably isn’t the book for you. Though each is sympathetic and suffering in their own way, they do all make poor choices, sometimes for bad reasons. There is certainly some redemptive growth, but it’s a long journey getting there. I particularly enjoyed their contrariness, but it won’t be the right fit for everyone.

“But this was the thing: sometimes being a sister meant knowing the right thing to do and still not doing it because winning was more important. Victory was a critical part of sisterhood, she’d always thought.”

I do think Lombardo’s a good writer- I loved seeing how well she fleshed out all of these characters, how the four very different sisters’ personalities tracked across decades of their lives and how they all interacted with each other. I don’t have a sister, myself. I have two brothers, but we’re not close. Perhaps someone with stronger sibling ties might get more out of this one than I did, or find more to identify with at least. Instead, I found this story engrossing and fun, but surprisingly shallow.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had a good time with this book, I really did. But I expect more from the Women’s Prize than a simple good time, and I didn’t find any standout depth or technical skill here. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s a straightforward story that neglects to go the extra mile. I might be interested in picking up more of Lombardo’s work someday, but I won’t mind if this one doesn’t make the shortlist.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Firestarter

(My last belated review from November reading! I’m so close to being caught up again!)

I picked up Stephen King’s Firestarter in preparation for reading King’s newest release, The Institute. I heard somewhere along the line that the two novels share a key element or two, and I love a good comparison. I’m also just very interested in the fact that King can find such success in using “recycled” content. But this post will be a single, focused review since I’ve only just started The Institute– any comparisons between the two will appear there.

firestarterIn the novel, a man and his daughter are on the run from a top secret government branch known as “the Shop.” Several years previously, Andy met his wife in a paid study where they were both given experimental drugs. Neither can quite be sure whether they hallucinated the events that followed, or actually tapped into a range of psychic abilities as part of the test- some residual power to manipulate the minds of others and close doors without touching them suggests the latter. Even so, they’re both surprised when their daughter Charlie, is born with the ability to start fires with her mind, and only grows stronger with time. The Shop wants to study her badly enough that they’d kill to get their hands on her; they’re not above kidnapping either. But no one understands the pyrokinetic power they’re up against- not even Charlie.

“You sit here and make your plans for controlling a force beyond your comprehension. A force that belongs only to the gods themselves…and to this one little girl.”

Three things to be aware of right off the bat:

  1. This book was published in 1980, and feels very much like a product of its time. Between the mad scientist, the psychedelic drugs, the ease of hitchhiking, the slow spread of information (predating the smart phone era), and the secret government agents destined to stay ahead of the Russians, it’s definitely a throwback.
  2. This book was published during Stephen King’s addiction years. In his own On Writing (and probably elsewhere), he admits that he doesn’t have clear memories of his writing projects from this time, including the entire novel of Cujo, if I remember correctly. I haven’t read Cujo yet, but I have read quite a handful of King’s works, and this is the first one that felt genuinely sloppy to me. It is coherent, but gave me the strong impression that King was riding on his fame and churning out ideas without polishing them.
  3. This book is very obviously one of the main sources of inspiration for the Stranger Things TV show. Charlie is clearly an earlier rendition of Eleven (though with a different power), and the Shop paves the way for the Hawkins Lab. The set-up for the drug experiment is very similar to the set-up of the experiment in Suspicious Minds, the first official Stranger Things novel, which stands as a prequel to the TV series. Many small details match up as well, character traits and motivations, etc. I feel confident in saying that Stranger Things would not exist- or at least, not as it does today- without this novel.

In a nutshell, if you’re interested in science fiction stories from the 80’s, in King’s writing in general, or in Stranger Things, you’re more likely to find this a worthwhile read. Because I was very interested in 2 of those categories and indifferent about the 3rd (80’s sci-fi), I did enjoy the underlying concept and quite a few of the details. That said, I did have some larger issues that are more likely to bother readers who aren’t interested in this book for one of the above reasons.

“Of course, an eighth-grade science book teaches that anything will burn if it gets hot enough. But it is one thing to read such information and quite another to see cinderblocks blazing with blue and yellow flame.”

The first issue I had was with characterization; most of the characters in Firestarter feel like archetypes rather than nuanced people. The assassin was probably the most interesting, though even he turned out to be predictably evil rather than morally gray. Andy, the father, is a typical wrong-place-wrong-time hero who just wants to do the right thing so badly that he’s boring, and Charlie just feels entirely inauthentic as a 9 year old girl: her dialogue is corny and cringe-worthy, her reactions strangely detached, and she’s given no personality- no favorite toys or pastimes, no best friends she misses, no self-expression in her clothes or behavior. It’s like when she’s not in the current scene, she doesn’t exist, and even when she is in scene she’s so transparent that it’s hard to invest in her plight. It’s the situation they’re in rather than the characters themselves that drives the story forward.

And on the topic of momentum, the second main issue I found with this book is that the pacing lags right in the middle. The story starts with Andy and Charlie on the run, which is interesting enough, but there’s a sort of stalemate in the middle of the story between the end of the chase and the big climax. In this pause, King spends hundreds of pages (out of the total 500) just moving his characters into place for the final act. It’s a slow, largely plotless section full of helplessness and prophetic dreams and no one quite sure where they’re going anymore or how they’re going to get there. The concept has lost its novelty by this point, the characters have proven themselves uninteresting, and literally nothing is happening. Even though I knew King was going to end this one with a bang, it was such a struggle getting through that middle section.

Which isn’t to say the book’s all bad. Even though I would not have liked this story if I wasn’t interested in reading for reasons that extended beyond the plot, there are certainly some fun elements. Andy’s power, for one: he can “push” people into believing things- convincing a cab driver that the one-dollar bill in his hand is actually a hundred, for example. The drug experiment he participates in and the Shop itself is fascinating, if you’re into government conspiracies. The increasingly large fires Charlie can set without breaking a sweat add an extra layer of intrigue. And there’s an interesting afterward in which King notes that while he’s not trying to persuade anyone that psychic powers are real, there was actually a time when the government spent time and money trying to discover whether such powers might be harnessed for use.

“Do not fear, you are wrapped snuggly in the arms of Modern Science.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. It was so fun to see what was clearly a source of inspiration for other creators, and to weigh this early story against some of its notable recent counterparts (Stranger Things and Suspicious Minds). Though the story itself did not quite satisfy me, I did appreciate its premise, and I’m so intrigued to see where King goes with the psychic powers in The Institute. I hope the latter will be a more polished and entertaining work in its own right, but Firestarter has not discouraged me or lowered my expectations. I’ll definitely be reading more from King, and I’m now very much in the mood to rewatch Stranger Things!

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: Ducks, Newburyport

Lucy Ellman‘s 1,030-page novel, Ducks, Newburyport, was my 9th read from the Booker longlist, and my 3rd from the shortlist. Sadly, Ducks was not one of this year’s two Booker Prize winners, but I think it’s an incredible book fully worth the read anyway, so with any luck I’ll be able to convince you with this review, despite the length! (Fair warning: this review is long too.)

ducks,newburyportIn the novel, an unnamed woman baking pies and living with her family in Ohio shares her thoughts in a continuous mental outpouring that covers the events of her life over a couple of months. As most people are, she’s both unique and ordinary, set apart by a string of distinct circumstances but also incredibly relatable in many of her observations and opinions. Through this woman, we see what it’s like to be a mother of four, in a second marriage, working from home, worrying about the state of the world and its future, and most importantly, just trying to survive in 2019 America.

“…the fact that I think a lot of people think all I think about is pie, when really it’s my spinal brain doing most of the peeling and caramelizing and baking and flipping, while I just stand there spiraling into a panic about my mom and animal extinctions and the Second Amendment just like everybody else, twinge, bad back,”

The greatest obstacle, I think, in encouraging readers to pick up this masterpiece of a novel, is its size, combined with it’s run-on sentence structure, so I’m going to focus on addressing those aspects.

Ducks, Newburyport contains two alternating parts: one of them is indeed a single run-on sentence that begins on page 2 and does not contain any periods or paragraph breaks until page 988 (the end of the story in my copy- there’s some extra material at the back including a glossary of abbreviations, which is very useful!!). There is a 30-page stretch in the middle of the book where the narrator’s thoughts become verse-like, but even this segment is contained within the same single sentence without a change in voice or tone. Instead of full stops, there are commas aplenty, and the phrase “the fact that” marks the start of a new thought. (This phrase acts like the word “STOP” in old telegrams to mark the end of one sentence and beginning of the next, and once this structure becomes clear, the repeated words themselves fade into the background.) The sentence as a whole, and many of the individual phrases, do not necessarily make grammatical sense, but the style doesn’t leave the reader stumbling over meaning. The effect- that an entire life presents as one unending thought process- is worth it. In this all-encompassing sentence we see: statements, questions, statistics, quotations, lyrics, acronyms, names, individual words, numbers, and more. There are some lengthy movie spoilers in this running commentary (mainly for musicals and black-and-white classics that you’ve probably either already seen or aren’t going to). Additionally, the Little House on the Prairie series is as close as this woman has to a religious text, so you’ll fare well if you have some prior knowledge of Laura Ingalls Wilder, though it’s not essential to be an expert going in. All told, this main sentence is a wide mix of almost every subject and emotion imaginable.

The other component of this novel is a third-person omniscient narrative of a mountain lioness’s adventures and tribulations. These sections are properly punctuated, interrupting the Ohio housewife’s inner chatter every 50 pages or so and lasting no more than 2 pages each. The two storylines eventually overlap in content, and in the meantime often overlap thematically with observations on motherhood, animal nature, human impact upon the environment, etc. I wasn’t expecting to, but ended up loving these segments as much as the human element.

“Through her own extreme caution, she conveyed to the cubs that men are more dangerous than they look. They killed with ease, and didn’t even eat their prey. They plundered, lay waste, then abruptly retreated to their cars. They were not the true inhabitants of the forest, they were usurpers, dangerous visitors who roughly invaded the territory of others. They did not respect lions.”

Between the mountain lioness breaks and the use of “the fact that,” it’s easy to put this book down and pick it back up again without feeling too in-the-midst, though the continuous nature of the stream-of-consciousness narration flows beautifully from one thought to the next. Some thoughts seem to do little in the way of characterization or moving the plot, reading more like free-association lists, but many of these “random” sets of words offer interesting juxtapositions that are a sort of commentary in themselves, and still other groupings seem meaningless at first but are later explained. The narrator’s thoughts circle back to the things that are most important to her, and with time and repetition we gain further insight. For this reason, I think this would be an excellent book to reread, as words and phrases that are at first innocuous pick up significance along the way. It’s a book of many layers. Ellmann spent 7 years assembling this marvelous creation, and it shows.

So what is it about, you’re probably wondering by this point. There is a plot, but it’s best not to know the specifics before they are slowly revealed over the course of the novel. Essentially, it’s a story of motherhood and violence in Trump’s America. This is a mom working to make ends meet, in hopes of being able to afford to send her kids to college when the time comes. Baking has become a rote activity, so she she spends her days worrying about what she sees in the news and wondering whether her own family is safe. Among her thoughts are disturbing headlines and details of American crimes and tragedies, often involving shootings and deaths. Some of these can be hard to read, especially when strung together, and her anxiety honestly gave me a bit of anxiety as well, which leads me to believe this might be a difficult read for anyone who avoids  grisly stories in the news or is actively worrying about their own children’s safety already. There are some real gut-punches here.

“…the fact that I pretend to be coping, like all the other moms do too, but I think we all live in terror that some school shooter will line our kids up one day and make them beg for their lives,”

The political content is certainly timely and engaging, but most of these opinion bits stand independent of the plot and chronology; the parts of the book that gripped me the most were the pages that included specific events that provided an anchor to the narrator’s weaving thoughts. This book is  ingenious for the way that it plays the long game- with such a surplus of detail, the biggest hints of what’s to come hide in plain sight; it’s fascinating on the surface, but you have to wonder if it’s going anywhere. (Let me assure you that it is.) In scenes that play a shorter game, the narration is more immediately focused, with a common thread grounding our narrator’s thoughts. For instance, there’s a scene where the family is stranded at the local mall during a flash flood, and though the narrator’s thoughts continue to wander, the disaster at hand gives her train of thought something to come back to and allows the reader to feel that the story really is moving in some particular direction.

“…the fact that America’s not a safe place for a girl, the fact that nobody’s safe in America,”

And now, let’s look directly at the book’s length. At the end of the day, I think Ellmann wrote Ducks, Newburyport as a thousand-page book because the idea of a book this long primarily featuring one housewife’s thoughts in a single meandering sentence is a highly intriguing one. It catches attention. It says women’s thoughts and experiences are important, even if the woman in question is a stay-at-home mom who bakes pie and rehashes her regrets and frets about the world without acting upon those worries. It’s absolutely stunning, conceptually. In actuality, I think Ellmann could’ve covered the same topics and themes to near or equal effect in about half the length. My biggest hang-up with this book is that it just doesn’t feel necessary for it to be quite this long, though I don’t think it ever could have succeeded as a short book- it does cover a lot of worthwhile ground, and the way it circles around its topics and doubles back at them hundreds of pages later (don’t worry- Ellmann makes sure you’ll remember what you need to) is a big part of what makes this so impressive. So even though I don’t think all 1,030 pages are strictly crucial to the overall story and purpose, somehow they work. I was never bored while reading. I never wished for fewer pages. So little is happening at some points, and yet I loved reading it every time I picked it up. It frustrates me that readers will avoid this book because of its length, when it could easily have been shorter.

Though there’s certainly a bit of fluff (a whole page of creek names that didn’t do anything for me, for example), so many of the words and phrases at play are clearly chosen with care. Ellmann can string two words together (for example, “ducks, Newburyport,”) that hold no meaning for the reader the first three times they appear; hundreds of pages later, we find out why they’re significant to this narrator, and their emotional significance to her then colors each context in which they appear. As many of our thought-tracks likely do, this narrator’s inner chatter is built of its own syntax. But despite the impression of impeccable literary construction, this book read like the most authentic stream of consciousness I’ve ever encountered.

Relatedly, I was able to forgive many of the small complaints I had about this narrator’s quirks because they felt like such organic offshoots of her personality. I didn’t always like reading about this woman’s nonsensical dreams, her constant remembrances of “Mommy,” her embarrassment every time the word “cock” crossed her mind, or her frequent self-corrections; but each of these annoyances felt like the little things that start to bother you when you’re living with someone new, for instance. No one’s perfect, and when you live with someone you get to know their small undesirable traits. Inhabiting this woman’s mind for 988 pages felt like that- nothing worth moving out over, but we’re bound to have our differences. And because I was able to rationalize most of my (very few) dislikes about Ducks, Newburyport in this way, they actually turned out to be additional reasons I thought Ellmann’s writing was effective; she absolutely brings this woman and all of her concerns to life- flaws included.

“…the fact that, personally, I think we underestimate dangers, the fact that we have to maybe, because it’s not practical to think about them all the time, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there, it’s just that fear gets in the way when you got stuff to do, when you’re living on the edge,”

In the end, I think the patience required for the length poses the greatest challenge here. The prose is readable and engrossing, the arguments and themes stand fairly obvious, and our narrator really feels like an everywoman, at least in her general attitude. I think readers will know early on whether the style of this novel is going to work for them or not, and if it is, and you have a reasonable amount of stamina, enjoyability and sheer momentum are likely to outweigh the challenge of sticking with it, in my opinion. If you appreciate literary fiction and are interested in the current mental state of America, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

“…the fact that you’ll never know what sort of person you might have been if you’d read different stuff,”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. I had such a fantastic time reading this novel that it’s turned out to be one of my highlights of the year. Obviously I’ve nitpicked a few things, but they felt like small potatoes compared to my appreciation of the work as a whole. I think this would’ve made an excellent Booker winner, but I haven’t read Girl, Woman, Other yet, and am holding out hope that I’ll find that one worthy of the win when I pick it up soon as well. I’m also curious to try more of Ellmann’s work in the future.

Are you considering reading Ducks?

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Review: Dark Age

CW: murder, graphic violence (including torture), rape (off the page), use of nuclear weapons, planetary destruction

Disclaimer: Instead of a regular review (since this is the fifth book in a series) I’m going to use the opportunity of having recently finished reading Pierce Brown’s Dark Age to talk about the Red Rising series in general, and why I am reading it. So, no spoilers, and maybe this’ll be interesting even if you haven’t read any of the books in the series.

darkageBrown’s Red Rising series includes: Red Rising, Golden Son, Morning Star, Iron Gold, and Dark Age.

There are a lot of different factors that can motivate me to pick up a book (of course), but one thing I’m always looking for in what I read is something unlike anything I’ve ever encountered before. A dystopian/fantasy with a male hero and themes of fighting for racial/social equality hardly sounds unique, but the Red Rising series has always possessed a certain level of grit that (in my opinion) sets it apart from similar stories of its genre(s). Despite a fair amount of casual sexism and ableism, which I find increasingly annoying as my reading taste shifts more toward feminism and female authors in general, Brown is the only author I read who can write a passage like this:

“I moan something in fear. There’s a lurch. A sudden pressure in my chest. He pulls away, his hand holding something red as he mouths a word dead to my ears. 

‘Worthy.’

Then he takes a bite of my heart.”

…and still leave me with room for doubt over whether this character is actually dead. Set thousands of years in the future, most of our main characters are Gold superhumans for whom surgery can fix almost anything that evolution has not already. There is a caste system, so the lower folk (lowColors) usually can’t afford to be fixed, and are worked to the bone by their superiors, but having a powerful friend can help even them. It really puts what is humanly possible and what is not humanly possible into a whole different realm.

Furthermore, I don’t believe I’ve ever read anything with such a wide scope. Red Rising begins on Mars, as overflow from Earth has long since required the populating of additional planets, but the plot is mainly confined to two limited locations (a Red mine, and the Institute). As the series progresses, the plot moves farther into space. By Dark Age, we’re following world leaders who govern billions of citizens and are conducting a war between “Rim” planets and “Core” planets (though in actuality there are more than two sides taking up arms in the fray); the action is taking place in so many different places- even on ships between the planets- that the plot is just huge. Dark Age clocks in at over 750 pages, and probably at least 25% of its language (I’m obviously guessing, but it’s A Lot) is lingo specific to this series. The perspectives we’re following grant us access to whole armies, governmental bodies, and rulers with the power to end or save millions of lives with a single command; but they also give us individual humans with distinct motivations and emotions to remind the reader that no matter how big a character might seem with all their power, everyone is small in the face of the universe. The focus is craftily balanced between the very broad and the very narrow.

“Some men can stare at their feet and pretend the world isn’t falling apart. I cannot.”

And of course, the plot is utterly unpredictable. This is always a boon for me, as I find myself more frequently disappointed by authors I’ve loved in the past as their style becomes familiar to me. This has not been the case with Brown. The betrayals are brutal, the deaths are either horrific and described in minute, gory detail, or so abrupt and easy as to be almost comical. It’s meant to entertain at an epic level, but also to resonate with our own sense of humanity and the modern world.

Speaking of the modern world, Brown engages more and more with current politics as this series progresses. Gone is the simple cry for equality, and in its place, we see a much more nuanced presentation of many world issues feeding into each other. One of the topics Brown tackles in Dark Age is climate change and planetary destruction. Of course, in his universe, artists/architects have molded the environments of uninhabitable planets not only to make them livable but to mimic Earth’s rotational speed and thus fit humanity’s preferred cycle of time. Which is a statement in itself. Following that, we see a major battle on one small planet in which a “natural” storm is produced by one army to gain advantage over the other. The person at the controls experiences a moment of crisis and considers that increasing the storm to wipe everyone from both sides off of the planet might be the best way to turn the tide of the war, and for humanity at large. In addition, nuclear bombs are dropped on the planet in the spirit of “if we can’t have it, no one can.” All of this seems designed to make the reader think about our attitude toward our own planet these days. Earth is not one of the main settings for Dark Age or the larger series, but I think the point is clear enough. And this is just one aspect of the larger story.

“The waves crash all around the roots of the building. Both were made by man. Perhaps at first in hope, to give our species a new home to live and to love. But in time, I don’t know when, their creation became a vanity of will, and in the shadow of that vanity, man grew lesser for having more. Lesser for mastering the keys of creation, because he mistook himself for god, and cared less for his people, and more that his works endured.”

“The worlds cannot afford a man who wrecks a planet simply to win a battle.”

Ultimately, Red Rising is a high-tech political space drama series with a Latin / ancient Rome obsession, reflecting on the future fate of humanity. It practically requires its own dictionary- none is provided. (There is a cast list, but it shows only the house each person belongs to, no refreshers on their politics or past deeds.) Everything about this series is dense and demanding. Red Rising, the first (and shortest) novel, is certainly simpler, but even in Golden Son (the second novel) we begin to see where Brown is heading, and he really runs with it. I appreciate the challenge.

This isn’t going to be a favorite series for everyone. It’s niche, and it’s hard work. I can’t even tell you whether loving Star Wars or other space sagas is a good indicator here, because I really don’t read/watch any other space stories at the moment (other than Saga, the only story I know of that seems remotely similar, though much more readable). And honestly, I’m not sure this overview is doing much in the way of persuasion, but it’s just not a series I would recommend to everyone. I could do the usual spiel of assuring you it gets better after the first book, but forcing yourself to continue if you’re not enjoying these books is unlikely to work in your favor. And you need a strong stomach to survive Red Rising. There are impalements, flayings, live dismemberments and such in this most recent volume alone, and Brown doesn’t spare any details.

Some specific (non-spoiler) impressions of Dark Age, for anyone who has read the book: I found it very slow to start, with a few great moments but mostly political catch-up; and yet Brown ramps up the action in the end. As in Iron Age, we’re seeing multiple perspectives to glimpse different facets of the war; if I had to pick one, I think Lysander’s chapters interested me the most consistently in this volume. I was surprised by the return of a character I thought was dead (I shouldn’t have assumed this person was dead). I couldn’t bring myself to worry about Darrow with one more book on the horizon. Virginia’s new adversary seemed ridiculous at first, but I’m intrigued to see where Brown goes with it. I’m very interested in the Ascomanni, though I thought Brown’s writing of this “fairy tale” element seemed the weakest part of the novel- it felt rather shoehorned in. I’m also loving the mystery of “Figment.” I was disappointed with the lack of Sevro scenes, though.

“All that will be measured, all that will last, is your mastery of yourself.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This was probably my least favorite book of the series so far, but I think the fact that I failed to reread any of the others to refresh my memory before diving into Dark Age made the read more challenging and emotionally distant for me than any of the others have been. I’m really hoping to reread a couple of the earlier titles before Book 6 comes out, but I said that last time. And I’d love to do a full series read at some point when everything is published, but it would feel like such a huge undertaking that I don’t know when it might happen. But, as I’ve made it this far, I’m still on board to read the final book of the series! I’m just really hoping it’s the final book this time. If this series goes on any longer, it’s going to feel like drama for the sake of drama, and I’m going to lose respect.

Have you read any of the Red Rising series? What did you like or dislike about it?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Outsider

CW: murder (including child murder), pedophilia, sexual abuse of children (occurring off the page only).

Alongside other projects, I spent September buddy reading Stephen King’s The Outsider, one of King’s most recent releases which has recently been named the start of a new series of unknown length, the Holly Gibney series. I highly recommend reading the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, and End of Watch) before picking this one up, if you’re at all interested in reading those books. For me The Outsider was a definite improvement after the concluding novels of the Bill Hodges trilogy, but still doesn’t rank among my King faves, sadly.

theoutsiderIn the novel, Terry Maitland, upstanding citizen, local teacher, and boys’ little league baseball coach, is accused of a heinous crime. An eleven year-old boy has been brutally violated and murdered, and witnesses plus DNA put Maitland at the scene of the crime. Except at the same time as this child was murdered, Maitland was attending an event in another town, where his presence is not only recorded on audio and video, but televised as well. Was Maitland framed? Does he have a long-lost twin? Has he somehow discovered how to be in two places at once? A few sleuths begin a deeper exploration, and find that the case just gets weirder the more they learn. There may be a supernatural force at work.

” ‘There is nothing to confess to, sir. I didn’t kill Frankie Peterson. I would never hurt a child. You have the wrong man.’

Samuels sighed and stood up. ‘Okay, you had your chance. Now… God help you.’ “

The first half of this book was gearing up to be a 5-star favorite Stephen King for me. It revolves around interesting but disturbing real-world issues: child murder, pedophilia, wrongful accusations/convictions, truth vs. public opinion. The supernatural element is actually scary. Admittedly it doesn’t paint women in the best light (Stephen King is not good at writing female characters in general, in my opinion), but there weren’t any really offensive sexist comments, or any other offensive content. The writing, as always, is readable and engrossing, making the pages fly by. It was the perfect pre-October read to put me in the mood for Halloween horrors.

I know plenty of Constant Readers dislike King’s endings (a phenomenon that gets a hilarious spotlight in the It: Chapter Two film, by the way), but I don’t usually have that problem. So I grew more and more disappointed as I realized the second half of this story was going to be a flop for me. Here’s what went wrong:

1 – Though I usually enjoy King’s tendency of referencing details from his previous novels, they’re usually small nods that anyone who hasn’t read his older work likely won’t even notice. In The Outsider, he abandons the subtle nod by including a main character from the Bill Hodges trilogy (I won’t say which, to avoid spoiling End of Watch for anyone who doesn’t already know), and specifically mentioning details from each of the three criminal cases covered in that trilogy. The crossover character even wins over an ally by recapping the results of that trilogy for him- there are mild spoilers in the text, and I imagine anyone who hasn’t read Bill Hodges will also be annoyed to find events they’re unfamiliar with playing such a key role in this supposedly standalone story. Even having read those books prior to The Outsider so that I understood the references, I found their weight in this completely separate plot somewhat bothersome.

2 – As the pieces of the mystery begin to come together, we start to see some small plot holes, especially as Maitland’s case begins to look a lot like other, similar cases. Relatedly, King falls into his old bad habit of allowing his characters to reach convenient conclusions. Somehow, in the midst of a plot that’s trying to prove there’s “no end to the universe” (meaning anything is possible), these sleuths are jumping to annoyingly correct assumptions. The mystery all but solves itself.

3 – It’s probably realistic for police, lawyers, investigators, etc. to close their minds against evidence of the supernatural, but the otherworldly element of this novel is very clear to the reader; thus the constant naysaying from the unbelievers gets old fast.

“A person did what a person could, whether it was setting up gravestones or trying to convince twenty-first century men and women that there were monsters in the world, and their greatest advantage was the unwillingness of rational people to believe.”

4 – The oh-so-very-promising monster that succeeded in creeping me out early on turns out to be sadly unimpressive in the flesh. For a creature that seems so powerful, violent, and unknowable (there are some frustrating “we may never know…” remarks about it that feel like cop-outs), the final showdown is surprisingly uneventful. Though I find it very possible that a supernatural monster would be unknowable to humans if one were indeed to intrude upon our reality, the way that the narration approaches the creature toward the end of the novel left me feeling that King just hadn’t taken the time to get to know his own creation very well.

The only other point worth mentioning is the unclear “purpose” of the story. Clearly The Outsider is primarily meant for entertainment, and to that regard the focus on “no end to the universe” does the trick; I think X-Files fans would like this one. But I’m a little concerned that one of the takeaways here might be that no matter how guilty a man might look he’s probably been framed by an elusive supernatural being. Not that King seems to be at all suggesting that something like this supernatural tale is occurring under our noses in the real world, but the case does start off so realistically, with such interesting commentary on guilt and public opinion, that I wonder if there might have been a more tasteful way of incorporating this supernatural element without casting doubt on the guilt of murderers and pedophiles?

“Reality is thin ice, but most people skate on it their whole lives and never fall through until the very end.”

Despite these flaws, The Outsider was still a fun read for me, at the very least. A few of the scenes really were quite spooky to be reading alone at night, which is an effect I enjoy and don’t come across very often. Some of the story takes place in a condemned cave, which is appropriately atmospheric. There are a few major deaths to keep things interesting, and one of King’s favorite climax types: a blaze of guns and gore and damage. I also read the ending as slightly ambiguous, concerning the fate of the monster, which is really the best way to handle supernatural aspects, in my opinion. So, if you’re just looking for a spooky good time that you’re not planning to look at too closely, you could certainly do worse. It’s not a Stephen King masterpiece, but it is a unique story.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I was so sad that ending didn’t hold up here. I’m still glad I finally got around to reading this one, and I’m definitely still on board for more Stephen King. Hopefully I’ll manage to fit The Institute into my schedule in a more timely manner! I’m planning on picking up Firestarter later this month, and The Institute sometime thereafter.

Do you have a least favorite Stephen King novel?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Stand

CW: Racism, sexism, manipulation of a mentally handicapped person (these first issues present mildly, as the products of a less-enlightened time), mention of cannibalism, mass deaths, gruesome/torturous deaths, use of nuclear weaponry, biological warfare, government conspiracy.

I’ve read a fair number of Stephen King novels now, and have unscheduled plans to make my way through his entire oeuvre. King’s work isn’t perfect (what is?), but not many writers provide the number and variety of books that King has turned out- his stories are good, but it’s also fascinating to see how his work has changed over the years, covering different genres, themes, styles, lengths, etc. But without the friend who suggested buddy reading The Stand this summer (King’s longest novel in the unabridged version- my copy is 1439 pages plus a two-part preface and a prologue prior to “page 1”), this book would still be sitting untouched on my shelf with a bookmark about 200 pages in, leftover from my first attempt 7 years ago. So even though The Stand isn’t a Stephen King favorite for me, it was fun to read with a buddy and finishing it feels like a major victory!

thestandIn the novel, the US government invites disaster by tampering with a weaponized flu virus with a greater than 99 percent mortality rate. Containment and vaccination attempts fail, leaving the Superflu to wipe out a vast majority of the world’s human population. The survivors begin to move toward safer places, their paths altered by encounters with others and by urgent dreams of an endearing old black woman in contrast to a frighteningly powerful “dark man.” As one crowd of survivors cluster around Mother Abigail in Boulder and begin to piece together a new sense of order from what is left of the old way of life, another group gathers in Las Vegas, ruled by their fear and reverence for the dark man and preparing for a clash with the rival city of survivors.

“Things had changed. The whole range of human perception seemed to have stepped up a notch. It was scary as hell.”

This  is a horror/dystopia novel divided into three parts. The first depicts the outbreak of the Superflu and some of the main characters’ predicaments at that time; the second features the division of the “good” group and the “evil” group, their travel patterns and initial attempts to re-establish life in their respective dead cities; the third narrates the outcome of the groups’ leaders coming into contact with each other under the impression that only one of the cities can last, at the cost of the other. Though each contains intriguing scenarios and strong characterization, the details of the first section stand out as the most compelling. There’s something so creepy and ominous about these characters discovering themselves suddenly alone in towns full of corpses, of traveling through silent cities and over roads cluttered with cars that have become tombs; many of the main characters begin experiencing recurring nightmares around this time, and though they understand that they’ve outlived a terrible disease, they don’t really know where it came from or what to expect next. To me, that initial terror of mass deaths and an unknown future is much more eerie than one mysterious man with a blurry face.

“The smell was hard to define in any way that could be correct yet less painful than the naked truth. You could say it was like moldy oranges or spoiled fish or the smell you sometimes got in subway tunnels when the windows were open; none of them were exactly right. That it was the smell of rotting people, thousands of them, decomposing in the heat behind closed doors was putting it right, but you wanted to shy away from that.”

King’s writing style tends to the informal; his characters speak in dialect, slang, colloquialisms, etc. and their personalities shine clearly through their thoughts and dialogue, which gives the entire narrative a conversational feel- like King is in the room with you, relating a tale about someone he once knew. This style is common across most (all?) of his work, though not always to the same effect. Where this tactic felt heavy-handed to me in Dolores Claiborne and gave the writing an unpolished feel in The Tommyknockers, it lends a sense of realism to the dramatic and otherworldly aspects of The Stand. The most frightening prospect of this novel is not the power of the dark man on the page, but in the way that King makes the destruction of the human species feel plausible and, to an extent, inevitable.

” ‘Maybe he’s not real,’ Nick wrote. ‘Maybe he’s just … that scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

But more than anything, what stood out to me most about The Stand was its length. It sounds obvious, but the very structure of the book makes it impossible to ever escape the fact that this is a very long book. What typically allows a thousand-pager to succeed for me is an early introduction of conflict, an intricate plot, and a satisfying conclusion that doesn’t arrive too early.

With this book, the Superflu is introduced early, but that is not the central conflict of this novel. Our main characters are immune to the Superflu. The sickness is, essentially, a well-imagined backdrop behind a quest for survival in a hostile world, in which the largest obstacle is not the Superflu, but a man named Randall Flagg, and the dark force that drives him. This element arrives hundreds of pages into the story (I’m talking 400-500 pages, in this edition), which is a substantial amount of reading to endure without any sense of where this story is headed, or to what purpose.

Furthermore, the plot is much simpler than expected for a book of this size. Instead of twists and turns, it takes its length from the sheer amount of detail and number of perspectives it follows through a straightforward premise. To King’s credit, almost everything included seems relevant to the story at hand, to the character arcs he pursues, and to the themes he highlights; someday, I’ll want to read the original 1978 edition out of curiosity over which 400 pages he managed to cut for The Stand’s first publication. (Note: this cut did not come at the urging of an editor who thought the story too ponderous at it’s proposed length, but from the publisher who thought the cost of production would drive the book’s price up too high to for its marketed audience.)

But the biggest reason behind this book’s failure to fully impress is its quick and sadly unsatisfactory ending. Though the final sequence makes sense, in that the characters act in ways that fit their motivations and circumstances, it deviates from the drawn-out pace of the rest of the story, and essentially circumvents the epic battle between good and evil (with plenty of religious overtones) that the entire novel seems to be pushing toward. The climax does play into some interesting themes and provide food for further thought about human nature, but simply doesn’t match the trajectory of the story up to that point.

“He knew this dark man all right, his was the face you could never quite see, his the hands which dealt all spades from a dead deck, his the eyes beyond the flames, his the grin from beyond the grave of the world.”

I could nitpick a lot of small points, as well. King isn’t always good at representing women fairly, and The Stand is a prime example of this struggle (the only woman with any strength on display in this novel is Mother Abigail, who is more of a one-hundred-and-eight-year-old figurehead than a character with proper agency); many of these characters seem to share the same personality and sense of humor, differentiated mainly by the unique range of circumstances each has faced; the updating of the unabridged version to a 1990 setting rather than the original 1978 seemed a bit clumsy at times and wholly unnecessary.

But nevertheless, I don’t regret the six weeks I spent with this novel. Though from 2019 the attempt doesn’t look quite as convincing as it might have originally, it does seem that King had an intent to step away from the righteous white male hero he often employs as a champion; the godly spokesperson is an old black woman who’s risen from a history of prejudice to lead thousands of do-gooders who are unquestionably devoted to her, and another of the most significant characters is a mentally handicapped man who turns out to be stronger and more reliable than those who think themselves smarter. Unfortunately it’s also apparent that most of the women are throw-away characters meant to fill the men’s beds, cook their meals, and carry their children, and the narration has an annoying tendency to refer to Tom Cullen as a “feeb,” but under some problematic details I do think an intent to show consideration and value to characters that aren’t clear King avatars is present.

Despite its flaws and hefty size, I’m not surprised that The Stand has been held up as one of King’s lasting classics. Its messages about survival and abuse of power are still relevant 40 years after the book’s first publication; the characters are still believable, the premise intriguing, the chapters engaging and readable despite their length. It’s psychological, spooky and unique (though also interesting at this stage in the game to compare and contrast with more recent counterparts that explore along the same lines), and ultimately worth the read for Constant Readers. I would not recommend The Stand as a starting point with King’s work unless you’re sure you’ve got the patience!

“But no one knows how long five minutes is in the dark; it might be fair to say that, in the dark, five minutes does not exist.”

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. Though I didn’t enjoy every moment of this journey, it did make for a great buddy read. My friend and I would read about 200-300 pages a week (alongside whatever else we were reading), and check in to go over surprises in the plot, Easter Eggs, predictions for the next chapters, and whatever else crossed our minds. We scheduled six check-ins for this book, which provided manageable deadlines and “intermissions” to keep us on track and motivated to continue. In all honesty, though I think I have the discipline to have completed this on my own in less time, I would certainly not have enjoyed the experience as much as I did with my buddy and it undoubtedly would’ve taken me several more years to convince myself to start. In any case, I’m glad to have finished, and I intend to follow-up by continuing in the Mr. Mercedes trilogy next month.

Thanks to anyone who’s stuck with me this far, this has turned into a very long review!

What’s the longest book you’ve read?

 

The Literary Elephant