The Element of Fire by Martha Wells

The Element of Fire

October 2014
Recommended for Wells fans, traditional fantasy fans
 ★    ★    ★    1/2

If you are considering Martha Wells, I suggest starting with one of her books besides The Element of Fire. The Death of the Necromancer (review), for instance, or The Cloud Roads (review), or even The City of Bones (review). I thoroughly enjoyed–and own–all of them, though all are very different approaches to the fantasy genre. Fire was her debut book, published in 1993, and lacks the finesse of her later works. It is a more traditional fantasy focused on a court setting, with court politics, kingdom disputes and intrusions from the land of fairy defining the struggle.

Much like Necromancer, the story begins with a heist. It’s an engaging way to begin a story, but in this case, requires attention as the team begins an orchestrated break-in. Captain Boniface is conducting a raid of a foreign sorcerer’s house, an undercover mission to rescue a kidnapped but disgraced sorcerer Galen Dubell. At the same time, a theater troupe in the capital city of Vienne is preparing to perform with one of their new players, Kade. The two find themselves on the same side when a golem breaks loose during a performance. From there, both internal and external conflicts threaten to destabilize the kingdom of Ile-Rein. Captain Boniface finds himself unsure of who to trust, and Kade discovers herself questioning everything she knew about the court and her upbringing.

Viewpoint alternates between Boniface and Kade, creating a situation where the reader gets insight into each as they work to prevent the kingdom from falling to the opposition. The villain isn’t particularly hidden, but unraveling the complexity of the scheme keeps a few surprises in store.

It took a long time to understand the world Wells was creating, which hampered my initial ability to immerse into the story. Starting in the middle of an action sequence, in a fantasy setting with magical elements is only the start. Adding internal court politics that have their beginning in the distant past, a neighboring country with a radically different culture, as well as the realm of fae means the number of complicated elements build instead of resolve. As Captain Boniface and Kade are also attempting to find their emotional footing, it’s a lot to weave together, and enough for a trilogy. Sanderson, had he written this, would have made the events into a six-book arc. At least. Eventually I lost myself in the world, but I don’t know that this is a book that one would want to pick up and put down, or read over a month, at the risk of losing continuity.

While I enjoyed the writing style, the tone felt uneven. Though the book jacket describes it as stemming from a “swashbuckling tradition,” and cites “Errol Flynn panache, style, and atmosphere,” I would disagree. Multiple deaths and the possible fall of a kingdom raise the stakes beyond a simple adventure where all the hero risks is pride or a short stay in the local prison. These characters are fighting for identity, beliefs and ultimately, their lives.

If you are a fan of traditional fantasy, or a fan of Wells’ work, I’d give this a go. But if you don’t have large amounts of reading time, I’d recommend one of her other works over The Element of Fire, particularly Nebula nominee The Death of the Necromancer, which feels like a more polished version of this work.

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Owl and the Japanese Circus by Kristi Charish

Owl and the Japanese Circus

October 2014
Recommended for fans of Kim Harrison, UF
 ★    ★    ★    ★  

The problem with cats as a side-kick:
He feinted back and pulled on the leash in an attempt to break my hold and get back to Charles. Nope, not desensitized. Getting better at manipulation.

A quick archeological romp through dig sites, casinos and couple of world-class cities. It’s a fun ride and with enough spark to distinguish itself in a genre full of stereotypes. I’ll have to admit; at the beginning I was struck by the resemblance to Indiana Jones. Not because of the amazing character charisma; actually, Owl is generally short on people skills. More because the plot sped along with so many entertaining events, I didn’t mind a couple of logic or character derailments and just enjoying the ride.

In brief: Owl has become an archeology thief after being bounced from her graduate program for political reasons.  Constantly on the move because of vampires seeking revenge for a job gone bad, she gets an offer she can’t refuse, no matter how much she would like to. Success– she gets paid and the vampires off her trail. Fail–she’ll be eaten by a dragon. She takes the assignment to find and translate a missing scroll, discovering she has competition.

The setting is standard modern urban fantasy: a supernatural world concealed from the normals, with supers living largely intermingled and an international squad designed to keep the magical on the down low. Personally, I’m never troubled by the ins and outs of the secret underworld scenario, and it helps that the supernaturals do not seem so populous as to cause obvious questions. I liked the world building well-enough, and I appreciated the variety of settings. There were a number of “Japanese culture is like this…” and “typical Russian that…” kind of statements, but they largely stood the generalizations on first read–at least, they didn’t appear to be condescending, more cultural generalizations.

People are real happy to make friends with you when a two-thousand-year-old mummy knocks off half their team, but returning the favor always pisses them off. No one likes to pay up out of the goodness of their heart; that’s why I usually get cash up front.

Owl is a largely familiar type, an outsider, fractious woman who keeps everyone at arms’ length and focusing on the financial rewards of her work. She reminds me most of Rachel from Kim Harrison’s Hallows series, with all of Rachel’s bravado and lack of reflection. Personally, I ran into a couple of moments where I found myself disliking Owl, but the writing and plotting pulled me through. I think by the end of the story, she experienced some appropriate and logical character growth, and at least she had people that called her out on her decisions. For me, the slight shifts towards reflection made it more rewarding than other UF series such as Morning’s Fever books, where the main character was so consistently unlikeable, I couldn’t get past book one.

The plot moved swiftly and kept me engaged. The archeological sequences were fun, and the setting changed enough to provide variety in what was essentially a series of quest steps. For some people, I suspect a number of deux ex machina solutions will possibly annoy. At critical moments, others prove to have unusual sets of skills that save the day. While it is certainly refreshing not to have a superpower/undiscovered skills–and I have to admit, there are many who do–in this case Owl has more than a little help. Her main trait, and one that most seems to resemble Rachel, is a dogged persistence. I usually end up irritated by the typical head-blind stubbornness. More than once, Owl’s refusal to do some small thing prevents an easy out/rescue/solution. However, it’s also worth noting that this book has a clear ending, while paving the way for future developments.

There are a few moments that push my boundaries of my personal UF acceptability and push it into PNR; descriptions of applying make-up, although at least here its a deception strategy; a preoccupation with labelled clothing, particularly a fascination with Chanel and Ralph Lauren (which are actually labels for an older age group, not the twenty-year-old too hip to see over my hips); an unholy obsession for Corona beer; an addiction to drinking that includes at least a couple drinks a day while a friend complains she “can’t hold her liquor;” and relationship obstacles based on unrevealed truths. Those tropes bother me, but are likely part of the development of the teen-twenty something demographic that many UFs are aiming for. There’s also some more maturely conceived PNR developments with a potentially blossoming relationship, but without enough of primary focus to move it into full PNR territory.

Very rarely, there is a tiny bit of writing that could be smoothed out–for instance, what convenience store 16 year-old clerk would be surprised at ringing up four bags of chips, diet soda, Corona and cat food?  Or saying someone is “hard to read” while complaining, “I still didn’t know where he was from.” Because emotional expression is equivalent to past? One final discordance for me was a chapter that focuses on a gaming sequence. I see where it played an overall role, and perhaps part of a character trait, but I don’t know that it fit with the tone of urgency/chase.

That said, I found the writing to be above average for the genre. Overall, it proved a pleasure, and I was glad of its diversion. I’d recommend to fans of Kim Harrison’s Hollows and Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock. Currently projected to sell at $1.99, it’s a bargain price for a quality book. Here’s hoping that Charish is hard at work on the next installment, because I’ll be sure to give it a read.

 

Many thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for providing me an advance copy to review. Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the writing.

 

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, or The Week I Couldn’t Decide

The Goldfinch

October 2014
Recommended for fans of the Pulitzer, Jonathan Strange
 ★    ★ 

I can’t get no sat-is-fac-tion, and I tried! I tried! Oh how I tried!

Nothing’s working for me this week:

It started with The Element of Fire, followed quickly by The Last Dragonslayer, Midnight Robber, then a genre switch to Bandits, Dark Digital Sky, Return, by Peter S. Beagle, Birdology: Adventures with a Pack of Hens, a Peck of Pigeons, Cantankerous Crows, Fierce Falcons, Hip Hop Parrots, Baby Hummingbirds, and One Murderously Big Living Dinosaurand now The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Only pages into a few (Leonard, Hopkinson), a few I’ve read over half (Allison, Beagle) but almost all I intend to finish. But I’m considering throwing The Goldfinch in the DNF pile.

You know me–I don’t often give up on a book. Right time, right place and all that. But despite waiting forever for a library copy, I just don’t care. I picked up The Bread We Eat in Dreams just a day ago, trying to wipe the residue of a nasty meeting away. At 1%, I have a significant portion of writing of “The Consultant” outlined, writing that is playful, erudite, and cleverly self-aware. I mention this because Tartt’s glorified writing was painful in comparison. By all accounts, I ought to love The Goldfinch. Elaborate passages, vivid descriptions of New York–and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of my favorite places in the world–and loads of character depth.

I still don’t care.

It feels pretentious and preening, self-aware in that extravagantly dismissive way New Yorkers can have, that “look-at-me” image that dismisses you as soon as you look.

And Theo, the lead character… I’m not warming up to him. Self-absorbed, noticably lacking in empathy, he is the epitome of thirteen. Of course, Tartt could take him places, so I’ll keep reading. But I’m finding him hard to like, and with many Issues that seem self-generated, I really don’t care. Pity part of one, please–I’ll be leaving now.

I might be able to forgive the writing, since I do love a well-turned image, and possibly I could come to be interested in Theo, but I’ve just reached the scene of the explosion and Theo’s reaction, which seems so consciously contrived and artificial that the writing shouts Detailed Over-Explanation for Meaningful Stuff that Will Be Important Later.

I’m not saying I mind obvious, or contrived, but in this case, it starts to feel like three strikes: unlikeable narrator, pretentious writing, forced plotting.

I’m going to thank the library for giving me an out.

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Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

Pandemonium

October 2014
Recommended for fans of superheroes, wrestling with personal demons
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

 

Pandemonium reminds me of those times when my foodie friends are dragging me to a “fabulous new restaurant” where (mostly) familiar ingredients are deconstructed, spiced and recombined in a creative way. At least this time, instead of an unsettling mess, it resulted in one of those perfect, satisfying meals that fulfill a sensory need as much as a physical one. Not so unusual that I’m left with a disturbing aftertaste, and not so routine that it is immediately forgettable. To wit:

Salvatore’s award-winning pizza with wine-poached fig, bacon and gorgonzola. Unusual but delicious take on pizza. http://salvatorestomatopies.com/2012/08/24/salvatores-wins-the-first-annual-slice-of-sun-prairie-pizza-contest-with-wine-poached-fig-and-local-bacon-pizza/

Pandemonium is a lot like that. Somewhat familiar elements drawn from comic books, buddy flicks and mythology are blended together in a plot that moves quickly but respects each ingredient. Add in some complex characterization, dashes of dark humor and develop it with truly fine writing, and I’m served a book that satisfying on both intellectual and emotional levels.

The simple summary: Del is returning to his mother’s home with a dual purpose: confess a recent car accident and psychiatric hospitalization, and to meet a famous demonology researcher at a national conference. Demons are real, although their manifestations usually pass quickly, while the behavior follows certain archetypes: The Painter, the Little Angel, Truth: “The news tracked them by name, like hurricanes. Most people went their whole lives without seeing one in person. I’ve seen five–six, counting today’s.” When Del was young, he was possessed by the Hellion, a wild boy entity, and Del has recently developed suspicions that the Hellion never left him. The story follows Del as he attempts to understand and perhaps free the entity inside him.

The plot moved nicely with enough balance between introspection and action to keep me interested. What I loved the most, however, was the writing. There’s the vivid imagery:

A small white-haired women glared up at me, mouth agape. She was seventy, seventy-five years old, a small bony face on a striated, skinny neck: bright eyes, sharp nose, and skin intricately webbed from too much sun or wind or cigarettes. She looked like one of those orphaned baby condors that has to be fed by puppets”

the humor:

The question, then, was how long could a human being stay awake? Keith Richards could party for three days straight, but I wasn’t sure if he counted as a human being

and sheer cleverness (because I’ve been this lost driving in Canada):

For the past few hours we’d been twisting and bobbing along two-lane back roads, rollercoastering through pitch-black forests. And now we were lost. Or rather, the world was lost. The GPS told us exactly where we were but had no idea where anything else was.
Permanent Global Position: You Are Here.”

and the occasional snarky social commentary:

What did it matter? I imagined bearded guys all over academia working themselves into a lather over this, precisely because the stakes were so low.

For those who might want a sense of the flavor, I was reminded of American Gods, of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Card world (my review) blended with Mythago Wood (my review), but done much, much better. While I had problems maintaining interest in each of the aforementioned, I had no such challenge with Pandemonium. Each bite revealed something almost familiar but somehow unexpected. There’s a lot to enjoy, and an equal amount to ruminate on after finishing. I’ll be looking for more from Gregory.

 

Oh yes: a sincere thank you to bookaneer for inviting me to dinner.

 

 

 

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Until Death by James L. Thane

Until Death

October 2014
Recommended for fans of Block’s Matt Scudder, Jance’s J.P. Beaumont
 ★    ★    ★    ★

I’m not usually a person that keeps track of opening lines, or even pays them particular attention. However, the beginning of Until Death gave me a shiver of anticipation:

When the meeting finally adjourned at five after nine on a Thursday night, Neal Ballard had twenty-two minutes to live.

Perfect. The dispassionate language downplays the emotion, but the very phrase “twenty-two minutes to live” ramps it right back up.

I’ve put off reading Until Death because of the awkwardness of reviewing a friend’s work. In an effort at full disclosure, I’ll note I’ve been hanging around James over at ShelfInflicted and on Goodreads for some time. Despite the contact, he’s never offered a copy of the book or requested a review, a reticence I have always appreciated. You see, I tend to be both analytical and honest; more than once, my mouth has landed me in challenging situations. As a matter of fact, I’m currently in trouble for talking in a class, and, no, I am both serious and over forty. Let’s just say my time there is limited. At any rate, I shy away from reviewing friend’s books because I am uncomfortable not being honest, and because I have this drive to review what I read. Whatever. The point is, I hesitated, only trying the book when an Amazon deal came along. I really needn’t have been reluctant; Thane has a gift for writing, evoking images and characters that seem real.

Characters go beyond genre stereotypes. Although they may start at comfortably familiar places, Thane fleshes them out so that they feel unique, real people struggling with negotiating their emotions. For instance, we’re introduced to Detective Sean Richardson in a classic noir situation: “in violation of about fourteen department regulations, I was sitting in the lounge at Voce, working on a second glass of Jameson and listening to the Rachel Eckroth Trio.” Eventually we get to Richardson’s backstory, but by no means does he wear it on his sleeve. His partner, Maggie McClinton, is a classic foul-mouthed spitfire dealing with issues on the home front, but in this case, ‘Issues’ means a pastor boyfriend with children who is seeking greater connection.

Detectives Sean and Maggie catch a case where a man is brutally beaten to death in his garage. Unfortunately, a lack of leads and a plethora of other cases means the Ballard case gradually moves to the back burner. The big break comes the day that Gina Gallagher, a personal trainer, introduces herself to Richardson, hoping to share some crucial information–as long as he doesn’t charge her with prostitution. Gallagher has lost her weekly planner, and both Ballard and another recently dead man were part of her exclusive client list. Suddenly Richardson and McClinton have all sorts of leads to pursue.

Plotting had a number of twists and turns, one of which surprised me. It’s always a pleasure when a mystery writer can avoid telegraphing the solution. My biggest challenge with the story was a few change in perspectives that seemed to be used as a means of building tension. That’s not uncommon in more modern stories–perhaps a sign that authors (and editors?) are catering to reader attention-deficit–but it tends to work against my own preference. In this case, the added perspective was done well enough to add further insight into the characters, not only heightening plot tension. I enjoyed Richardson’s character, particularly his moments at home; the scenes of him listening to jazz while sipping whiskey were so vivid, I felt like I was in the room.

Overall, I recommend it, particularly to fans of J.A. Jance’s Detective J.P. Beaumont. And I won’t be afraid of reading any more of Thane’s books.

 

Thane’s entertaining interview over at Shelf Inflicted:

http://www.shelfinflicted.com/2013/12/15-questions-with-gentleman-james-thane.html

 

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Another Man’s Moccasins by Craig Johnson. Or, shoes worth walking in.

Another Man's Moccasins

October 2014
Recommended for fans of straight shooters, war stories
 ★    ★    ★    ★

The Walt Longmire series is proving extremely satisfying, and the fourth book, Another Man’s Moccasins, is no exception.

What keeps me coming back?

The characters: mature throwbacks to Western cowboy mythology with values of independence, loyalty and trust–but without the abundant sexism and racism. Sheriff Walt Longmire is a former Marine, ex-football player and is as faithful as they come, and his brother-in-arms, Henry Running Bear, is normally centered, thoughtful and self-contained. In this book, Walt relives some of their interactions in Vietnam, giving interesting insight into their personalities now and a sense of how they’ve matured.

I thought about all the wayward memories that had been harassing me lately, the recrimination, doubt, injured pride, guilt, and all the bitterness of the moral debate over a long-dead war. I sat there with the same feeling I’d had in the tunnel when the big Indian had tried to choke me. I was choking now on a returning past that left me uneasy, restless, and unmoored.”

Then there’s the writing, an enjoyable combination of clear prose and vivid imagery:

The other [photo] was of the same woman seated at a bus station, the kind you see dotting the high plains, usually attached to a Dairy Queen or small cafe. She was seated on a bench with two young children, a boy and a girl. She wore the same smile, but her hair was pulled back in a ponytail in this photo, so her face was not hidden. She looked straight at the camera as she tickled the two children, who looked up with eyes closed and mouths open in laughing ecstasy.

Vietnam flashbacks are not a reliable strategy for drawing me into a story. I came of age in a period where Hollywood was enthusiastically revisiting the war, finally acknowledging the hardships of the people who fought there. It began with Apocalypse Now and followed by a string of hits (Platoon, Hamburger Hill, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, The Casualties of War, Jacob’s Ladder, Good Morning Vietnam), so it’s not easy to play to my sympathies–they’ve already been manipulated to the max by Hollywood. Yet the eerie possible connection of Walt’s past experiences there to the current case works well. By the end, I realized Johnson had some very clever parallels between the two story lines. I was also impressed the way Walt revisiting his memories had him questioning his racial biases, as well as giving him unexpected empathy with a suspect.

Why not five stars? Walt was a bit slow to pick up on several things that could have been dealt with by basic investigation; general over-protectiveness about his daughter, which made sense but isn’t really a palatable storyline; and the complicated situation with Vic, who occasionally feels larger than life. Still, those issues pale in comparison to the rest of the read. Truly, it is an enjoyable story that was worth a second read.

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Inspector Hobbes and the Gold Diggers

Inspector Hobbes and the Gold Diggers

September 2014
Recommended for fans of puns, bumbling companions
 ★    ★    ★    ★

Something about this series has proven to be a perfect little in-betweener, amusing reads that go down smoothly without late nights or missed appointments. The third in a series about Inspector Hobbes and the hapless Andy, Inspector Hobbes and the Gold Diggers details the adventures of the two as they go on holiday and investigate a bank robbery.  For those who have yet to read the series, this installment can stand alone.  However, there is background mystery to a couple of characters revealed here, as well as interesting character growth from the first, all the more satisfying with the build.

Can I confess? I was on the lookout for the puns. This one had me giggling, probably because it was so unexpected:

“‘Hardly, old boy, I’ve slowed down with age.’
‘Age?’ said Hobbes, looking severe. ‘More like your drunken life style.’
‘Drunken? I haven’t touched a drop since 1950.’
‘Since it’s only ten-past eight, now,’ said Hobbes, ‘you’ve lasted all of twenty minutes.’

There’s an extended one based on Shakespeare that had me chuckling–and groaning. But don’t worry; it’s not all puns. There’s some straight-forward humor as well:

“‘I banged my head on the windscreen, but I’ll be alright in a moment.’
‘Yes,’ said Hobbes, ‘I saw that. What have I told you about seatbelts?’
‘Umm… seatbelts are for wimps?’
‘No… well, I may have said it once, but I also said that you should wear one.’

In all seriousness though, Martin did a nice job of keeping within the structure of his world and character set-up and still managing to surprise me. Hobbes and Andy follow the Hobbes-Watson dynamic, with Inspector Hobbes is similar to his namesake; clever, observant and multi-talented, although with a penchant for cracking marrow bones over taking cocaine. Like Watson, Andy is usually two steps behind, frequently distracted by good food and a pretty face. As usual, Hobbes–and the reader–solve the mystery before Andy, so part of the enjoyment is seeing how it all unfolds. I also appreciate the development of Andy’s character. Although Andy plays the role of fool, the laughter around him is more from fondness than mocking, and that Andy is learning to appreciate the humor in it as well. 

All in all, this installment tied up a number of interesting background threads as well as a lovely sunset montage that would be a satisfying series ending.

It was worth hanging in there because I’d seen so many things I wouldn’t have otherwise. It was true some of them gave me nightmares, but it was great to have a life and to be building up a store of memories.

 

 

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Authority by Jeff Vandermeer. Or, lack thereof.

Authority

September 2014
Recommended for fans of metaphors, slow-moving puzzles
 ★    ★    ★    ★

If Annihilation reminded me of Jeanette Winterson’s writing, then Authority reminded me of Kafka, but not the interesting Kafka, one of the boring ones, which surely if I say which one, my dear friends are going to quickly assure me that I’m quite wrong and there is no way Kafka could ever be boring with such Big Ideas. So maybe I don’t mean Kafka. Maybe I mean one of those other stodgy old writers from Advanced English who was clearly writing about the Human Condition in Big Fat Metaphors. Maybe Moby Dick. Is it safe to call Moby Dick boring? It also reminded me a little of Joseph Heller, in Something Happened, when, of course, nothing does happen. Or Waiting for Godot, only more like Waiting for Area X. Or maybe I’m thinking of that movie Brazil, which is what I always think of when I think of big, boring films about Meaning of Corporations. Which is probably not what Brazil is even about, but you’ll never get me to watch it again, so it doesn’t matter. In my mind, it’s always about a faceless bureaucracy. Anyway, just think of some story from your memory of something that was well-done, full of Deep Meaning about the Human Condition, with a confused narrator, a whole lot of navel-gazing about Ineffectual Man, and you’ll about have it.

Authority is clearly the next side to the prism that composes the Southern Reach Trilogy, but this installment is focused a new character, government official John Rodriguez. He’s been transferred in as replacement of the missing Director of the Southern Reach. In keeping with the tradition of roles superceding names, John adopts a childhood moniker ‘Control.’  His arrival occurs shortly after the Biologist and her team has returned to the Reach (!) sans memories and missing the psychologist. As Control seeks to puzzle out the mystery of the Biologist and the Reach, he also faces interagency status conflicts, with antagonism from the Voice above as well as from below, in the form of Assistant Director Grace:

But Control preferred to think of her as neither patience nor grace. He preferred to think of her as an abstraction if not an obstruction. She had made him sit through an old orientation video about Area X, must have known it would be basic and out of date. She had already made clear that theirs would be a relationship based on animosity. From her side, at least.

Maybe the transfer is a plot to get rid of him. Maybe its a plot his mother has to advance his career. Maybe it’s just the only job available to a man who compromised his cases. It is hard for both the reader and Control to tell, and honestly, I don’t know that I cared. He’s not an anti-hero, just an everyday bureaucrat trying to do the best he can and survive complex corporate politics. And complex family politics. ‘Control’ is clearly an irony for a man who has none.

We experience the rotting-honey smell of the Reach (!) through the new eyes of Control, as he almost but-not-quite bonds with both the Biologist held in isolation and the ghost of the former Director (I’m not spoiling anything; I’m not being literal here, people. I think). If I enjoyed Craig Johnson‘s show-don’t tell mysteries, this is pretty much the opposite; not a lot happens except in Control’s head, with a few bizarre incidents spurring him onward.

But the writing! I love the writing, so vivid and clever and allegorical, except that almost every little bit is vivid and clever and allegorical so it really does need a bit of a driver to engage my emotions:

Before he’d arrived, Control had imagined himself flying free above the Southern Reach, swooping down from some remote perch to manage things. That wasn’t going to happen. Already his wings were burning up and he felt more like some ponderous moaning creature trapped in the mire.

Remember the swamp creature from Annihilation? Of course you do! What does it mean? Is Area X is the Reach, and the Reach is Area X? Maybe. I don’t know, and am not entirely sure I care. Enough navel-gazing, Control. Get a move on.

Much like Zone One, Colin Whitehead’s brush with zombie Metaphorical Fiction, this book missing the five star despite truly excellent writing, purely out of personal taste and enjoyment. Well written, well-crafted, I read it because I’d like to see Vandermeer’s gestalt, as well as know more about Area X.  Onward!

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Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson

Kindness Goes Unpunished

September 2014
Recommended for fans of straight shooters
 ★    ★    ★    1/2

Although I have yet to see the A&E tv series Longmire, I’m enjoying my trot (well, okay; gallop) through the source material. Walt Longmire, county sheriff, has over twenty-five years in the field and is supervisor of a very small team of deputies. As with many books in the detective fiction, the mystery is deeply imbued with a sense of place, notably the sparsely populated and rugged landscapes of rural Wyoming. As in many mysteries, Longmire has a faithful comrade-in-arms, but instead of the generally dopey Watson stereotype, his companion is a far wiser long-time friend, Henry Running Bear. Henry is a man of seemingly infinite talents and an artistic soul and when in Wyoming, is often Walt’s ambassador to Native reservations.

In this book, Henry is escorting a collection of unusual historical photographs out to an exhibition in Philadelphia. Walt decides the timing is right to meet his daughter Cady’s boyfriend, so the two decide to make a trip of it.  It is a bold authorial choice to take your detective hero out of the home environment so early in a series, particularly when your mystery is so intimately tied to the intricacies of the setting. In this case, Johnson wisely continues to integrate setting, letting Walt play tourist to involve a number of prominent locations in the story.

Johnson is gifted at the ‘show, don’t tell’ style of storytelling, and occasionally I find myself pausing, realizing he just dropped an implication.  This little gem aptly displays his skill with just a few words:

“‘No, I was just thinking. I do that, sometimes, before I talk.’
Lena smiled, this time with her entire mouth. ‘Not me, robs the evening of all its spontaneity. A little wine, a little truth, and pretty soon you’ve got a real conversation on your hands.’ She took a last sip.
I started to pour us both some more. It seemed like the conversation was getting interesting, and I wasn’t quite ready to leave it.

This installment stands out in the interplay between Henry and Walt. Although Henry is the primary motivator in making the trip, he ends up nicely balancing support of Walt and Cady with his own work. It’s always interesting to me to see how a writer deals with ethnicity, and I feel Johnson generally avoids turning Henry into a Native trope. Parat of what elevates the characters is the decades-long history between the two, which Johnson illustrates in his usual understated way:

After Michael left, we sat in chairs on either side of the bed and watched Cady. ‘It was the right thing to do.’
I had been listening to him think it for so long, I wasn’t sure if I needed to reply. ‘Yep.’

Humor played a more prominent role in this story, although it was often only evident to the reader. I enjoyed Walt’s dry sense of humor, as well as his confidence in wearing his comfortable Western clothes in a major city.

I opened my coffee and looked at the decisively dark brew. ‘This looks strong.’
‘Espresso, tall, double-shot. I thought you could use it.’ She looked at me. ‘How’s she doing?’
I took a sip and swallowed most of the enamel from my teeth.

Even I, sports-adverse as I am, laughed at this sports-related one, made as Walt and Henry were taking in a baseball game:

He looked at me and shook his head. ‘Where do you want to hide the body?’
“I just want to talk to him.’
The Bear pursed his lips. ‘How about behind third; the Phillies have not shown any signs of life there in years.’

I enjoyed the mystery, although at one or two points, it seemed excessively convoluted, but I felt it unraveled remarkably similar to real life. The emotional complexity as Walt faced certain issues was very interesting, balanced between melodramatic and stoicism. I was perhaps just slightly too obsessive to me, but I’m not a parent, so what do I know? Johnson gives a nice sense of the difference between Walt’s exterior and his interior, no easy feat in a book that focuses on action. Really, it fit me perfectly, suspenseful without being horrific, emotionally sophisticated with complex characters and enough humor to make it palatable. The ending scene would have made me laugh out loud if Johnson didn’t have such a deft hand for pathos. Un-putdownable, I’m already on to the next in the series.

 

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Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation

September 2014
Recommended for fans of jeanette winterson, environmental exploration, the New Weird
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So is it with Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. Summaries do not do this book justice. Its story colonized me. It was not an invasion; it did not attack my brain, insistent that I continue reading. I was not forced by fear to discover if the hero lives. My limbic system did not spike me with adrenaline until I finished. Instead, slowly, phrase by phrase, the story moved into my head. Area X edged into my imagination. The biologist’s words whispered to me. Leafy tendrils unfurled around me, gently scenting the air with greenness.

The basic plot: a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist are the twelfth team sent to explore the mysterious, primitive, Area X. Other expeditions have all gone drastically wrong, but due to an inability of technology to function in Area X, no one knows exactly how or why. In order to maintain control over the trip and the experience, the team is stripped of their personal identity, leaving only their roles to define themselves.

The biologist narrates their experience in Area X, providing a touchpoint for the reader’s conception of the world Vandermeer is working in. I found the combination of the uncertainty of the background world, the mystery of Area X and the beauty and specificity of the writing irresistible.

I thought again of the silhouette of the lighthouse, as I had seen it during the late afternoon of our first day at base camp. We assumed that the structure in question was a lighthouse because the map showed a lighthouse at that location and because everyone immediately recognized what a lighthouse should look like. In fact, the surveyor and anthropologist had both expressed a kind of relief when they had seen the lighthouse. Its appearance on both the map and in reality reassured them, anchored them. Being familiar with its function further reassured them.

In fact, it functioned as a lighthouse for them, adrift in Area X and from each other. The biologist is a solitary woman, and her self-containment makes a profound statement. Of course, they all are particularly isolated–there is a strange lack of emotional connection between them–but the biologist’s fascination with the creation around her sets her apart.

The tension lifted somewhat, and we even joked a little bit at dinner. ‘I wish I knew what you were thinking,’ the anthropologist confessed to me, and I replied, ‘No, you don’t,’ which was met with a laughter that surprised me. I didn’t want their voices in my head, their ideas of me, nor their own stories or problems. Why would they want mine?

I finally realized the deep sense of familiarity I had reading: Jeanette Winterson’s profound, substantive writing style (Lighthousekeeping) collaborating with David Quammen’s enthusiasm for biology (I really need to bump him up on the to-re-read list). Together Vandermeer has created a sophisticated blend of science fiction, vaguely ominous, reminiscent of Sherri Tepper mid-career. Identity, connection and environment are all major themes threading through Annihilation,  themes that are often shared with the writers mentioned.

For some, the pitch-perfect writing won’t be enough to sustain them through slow plot build and even slower resolution. Like The Night Circus (review), this isn’t a plot-driven story as much as one based on both character and ideas, with writing that is truly well-crafted. It worked for me, yet I’m also left with the feeling that I might just want/need to read it again after finishing the final book, Acceptance. It’s that kind of story.

 

Michael Matheson has a nice literary review/critique at ChiZine.

 

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