Bull Head

This one’s a little bit different from things I’ve reviewed so far.  This is my first short story collection review, but I will still be dealing with it like a regular novel.

As these stories are short, I’ll keep this review short, too.

The collection contains 8 stories, all centering on characters isolated from larger society and city life, all living in the unforgiving world of small towns or work camps.  The focus of the collection is predominantly on men – men with vulnerabilities and welling violence, men in emotionally taut situations, men who have made bad choices and continue to do so, men who know there’s something wrong but cannot articulate it or figure out how to change it.  There is one story in the eight that follows a female protagonist, but it can almost be said that she’s just a different perspective on another male protagonist.

The cover photo is beautiful and captures the essence of the stories so well.  Two pitbulls locked in combat, mouths unhinged, but their eyes cut off at the top, cast in a stark, unplaced field.  It’s violence stripped of identity, raw and unforgiving.  It’s the engine that powers the stories from beneath.

John Vigna knows the inner workings of people extremely well.  His stories are character-driven, and showcase a talent of realizing human emotion you don’t often come across.  His stories have extraordinary depth, packaging complex ‘human’ into his characters while keeping the surface narrative clear and coherent.  They’re intelligent but say what they have to say with restraint and nuance.

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time, and definitely the best I’ve read in 2016 so far!

Could not recommend enough.  It’s not often that one comes across short stories as powerful and efficient as these ones.

As always, thanks for reading 🙂

 

 

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The Darkest Part of the Forest

Awright, so I can’t remember where I saw this book and what compelled me to read it in the first place… I think I just liked the cover to be honest.  And I liked the blurb on the back talking about kids having an absolute sense of justice.  That blurb was intriguing and gave me… a completely different impression of what the book would be like.  Or about, really.

I went into this book expecting it to actually be about kids (the characters are more teens than kids), and thinking it was gonna be about kids’ cruel, absolute sense of justice.  IE, viewing the world in total black and white.  Here’s the blurb in full:

“Children can have a cruel, absolute sense of justice. Children can kill a monster and feel quite proud of themselves. A girl can look at her brother and believe they’re destined to be a knight and a bard who battle evil. She can believe she’s found the thing she’s been made for.”

So I thought this was going to be a more morally ambiguous book where kids get violent thinking their doing the right thing but their black and white view of the world ultimately just turns them into monsters themselves (figuratively).  I mean, come on, “CRUEL, absolute justice.”  “kill a monster and feel proud of themselves.”  That’s some ominous shit right there.  There’s something nefarious, something not right about that.

Turns out the book isn’t quite about that at all.  Actually, if I remember right, turns out that blurb is really just an extract verbatim from the novel and is actually the main character’s musings on her younger years.

That the little blurb didn’t at all capture the tone or meaning of the book was a small disappointment but ultimately didn’t matter too much when I began reading the book, because the actual concept of the book is pretty damn cool.  There’s a small town near a forest, and strange things happen in said city; namely, because the forest it’s near is home to scores of Fae.  This takes place in the “real world”, so the concept is that only the residents of this town know about the Fae, and even then some don’t believe they actually exist.  The town survives off of tourism, the main sight being a glass, unbreakable coffin  not too far in the woods with a horned boy sleeping inside, dressed in regal prince clothes.  The highschool kids of that town often party in that clearing of the woods, and it’s not uncommon for people to dance on the coffin, or occasionally even try to break it open (though that usually leads to bad things happening).  The story goes that the boy in coffin has been sleeping there for over a hundred years or something, and nobody is quite sure who he is or how he got there.

The opening is really cool because it shows a lot of really well-thought out characters and social dynamics.  And it’s just a great concept that this human town is borderline enmeshed with the Fae world, yet the highschool kids still act so… highschoolish, having parties at the coffin and whatnot.  The beginning really showed a lot of potential for the rest of the book.  And honestly I thought the writing was pretty good.  It was enjoyable, it flowed, it felt natural.

As the story goes on though, 90% of the opening charm fades away.  The inciting incident of the story is when one morning news spreads that the glass coffin has been smashed open, the horned boy is missing.  Once he’s free from the coffin, shit starts getting weird.  The Alderking, the Fae who rules that part of the forest, wants to capture the horned boy for reasons unknown.  Things happen, the protag and her brother get entwined in the mystery.  Basically once the inciting incident hits, the book’s appeal starts to fade away, slowly at first, and then faster.

I don’t want to spoil the story, but I’ll let a few things loose.  after the horned boy breaks free, he finds the protag and threatens her to help him or else.  Then he kisses her because “that’s what she wants” (her and her brother have fantasized about boning the horned boy since the dawn of time)

oh yeah, the brother is 100% gay which I thought was an awesome part of this book because it doesn’t treat him as a weird character for being gay, it treats him as a totally normal human and there’s only one point in his past where his sexuality was a burden on him but it doesn’t become the main focus of the novel.  I’m a huge advocate for including queer people as normal, everyday human characters because that’s exactly what queer people are – normal, everyday people.  There is definitely a need for and room for literature which focuses on the struggles of having a gender and sexual identity different from cis and straight, but there is just as equally a need to include characters of gender and sexual identities different from cis and straight in mainstream fiction as regular characters.  Both are necessary.  When their struggle is the focus of the novel, that’s great for people who don’t suffer their problems understanding what they’re going through and empathizing.  When their struggle is not the main focus and they are shown as normal characters coexisting with cis straight people, that’s great for normalizing them as people, and putting them on equal footing as cis straight.

Anyways, I mention him kissing her because this book devolves into a really badly written, sappy romance.  And this is where the book starts to go bad.  As it continues on, that really cool opening of all the highschoolers partying on the casket?  Turns out all that info wasn’t actually important at all, it was just setting up the normal (okay, mildly important, but there are so many ways it could have set up the normal, so why through THAT specific scene?)  All the characters mentioned and described are practically dropped from the face of the earth.  A few of them return later on for a moment and then the book realizes it’s making too much use of the social dynamics it set up in the beginning and quickly swipes them all from existence again.  Instead, the book becomes about four characters – Protag (Hazel?), her brother (Ben or something?), Jack (a changeling), and the horned boy (some weird name), and about their super melodramatic romance that ends in a contrived, happy pairing off at the end.  The mystery of the novel is okay but the book forcefeeds you the details and finer points of the mystery to make sure you know everything that happened and realize how oh-so clever the author was with that one.

This book has a lot of jumping from present to past which, actually, I didn’t mind, because while it interrupted the plot of the present quite a bit, the past segments were interesting themselves and did tie into the present-day characters and who they are.

Anyways, when I read this book, I really enjoyed it, started to lose interest about halfway through, and at the 3/4 mark I was ready to call it quits but, out of respect to the beginning of the novel (plus it’s not super long), I decided to stick it out to the end to see if it redeemed itself.

It didn’t.  At least, not for me.  For other people it might, it wasn’t a terrible ending, but I don’t think it was all too satisfying either.  The main mystery started to feel forced and there was an awkward imbalance between the mystery and the author trying to force feelings down our throats.  The dialogue just went out the window in quality and got overdramatic.  The plot was…. okay.  The execution of said plot was a little less okay but was ultimately drowned out by the terrible dialogue and characterizations that took over in the latter half of the novel.  The very very very very ending scene, actually, in theory, should have been satisfying, because it came full circle to the beginning, but the emotional arc of the novel was just garbled so much in that last half that that theoretical satisfaction was lost on me.

The social dynamic between the town and the Fae is really imaginative and well-thought out, but maybe a little underutilized because the characters in the town turned into flat, unimportant people who got blown out of the plot and existence at the slightest draft.

Anyways, I wouldn’t recommend this as a great book.  I think this is more YA and if you enjoy modern twists on fairytales and YA, I’d say it’s definitely a book worth looking into.  Reading the beginning quarter and dropping it is a little worth it, actually, just because that whole beginning premise is so cool.  Other than that, if I were to rate it, I’d probably give it 2.5/5 stars.

As always, Thanks for reading 🙂

The Confabulist

Gol darn school will be the end of me.  My mind’s been getting overloaded and torn apart these past few months with the workload that’s just endlessly lining up, out the door and down the street, each assignment politely waiting it’s turn to snuff my life out if the assignment before it didn’t get the job done.

But I read a great book called The Confabulist by Stephen Galloway.  So there’s that.

In this novel, an old dude (Martin Strauss) has just been diagnosed with some sort of amnesia, wherein he’s losing his own memories, reconstructing new, false ones, and will slowly, but surely, lose his mind.

There are basically three perspectives told in this novel.  Martin Strauss as an old dude, who just got the news from the doctor and, knowing he’ll lose his mind, wants to tell Harry Houdini’s daughter Alice (whom he’s known for quite some time), the true story of how he killed Houdini.

Martin Strauss as a young college FRAT KID (not really), which is his recollection of the past when he killed Houdini.

Both are told in 1st POV

The 3rd is Harry Houdini, told in 3rd POV, which I believe is Strauss telling Houdini’s story based on what he had learned from his interactions with Houdini and what he read on the great magician.

I gotta say, out of the 3 perspective, Houdini’s was by far the most fun to read.  He’s an interesting character with an interesting relationship to his wife.  He gets pulled into a lot of internation political intrigue and is constantly on the lookout for his life (bcuz of intrigue and the life-threatening escapes he does for entertainment).

The Strauss perspectives can get pretty bland.  There’s far less personality in Strauss than in Houdini, far less conviction about who he is.  He’s just a timid fluff who, for whatever reason, does something completely out of character (I’ll get to that in a moment), then spends the rest of the book moping.

I don’t want to discuss the plot of this book because it is rather plot heavy and plot dependent, but I do want to talk about one plot point early on which is based off of Houdini’s real presumed death.

There’s a story, IRL, that two college age (i think) boys visited Houdini in a back room and asked him if he truly could withstand any punch to the stomach.  Houdini said he could, so long as he prepared, and the boy who asked immediately flew into battering Houdini’s stomach with his fists.  Houdini finally told him to stop after like 3 punches, saying he was not given time to prepare.  He was in a lot of pain for his performance that night, and over the next few days refused to see a doctor.  He died something like 3 days after from a ruptured spleen or summat.  Look it up, the story is quite available, and I’m an undependable reviewer 😉

Galloway uses that story as one of the plot points early on for young Strauss: this guy, who’s pretty timid and quietly, sees Houdini in a bar after watching his show.  Strauss’s friend (not strauss himself) asks Houdini the question about withstanding a punch, and then it is Strauss who, for no reason whatsoever and honestly I don’t think galloway did a good job justifying the action, stepped into a full-bodied punch against Houdini’s stomach.  Strauss finds out in the news Houdini died from his punch and he goes into hiding, because Houdini is “the most famous man in the world,” and people wouldn;t be happy with what he did, and rightfully so.  I know I wasn’t.

Now, although this book is based on a real man, it is entirely fiction and you should not go into it thinking any of the events you read about actually happened, although Galloway claims he used transcripts of real conversations or what people actually said where possible.

All in all, it’s a fun read and pretty well written.  It’s got a fairly controversial ending that may piss some people off, but i won’t talk about that or spoil it.  I’ll just say this book is an enjoyable read, but no where near as good as the Cellist of Sarajevo, another Galloway book I reviewed a while ago.

Against A Darkening Sky

Against a Darkening Sky, a historical fiction novel by author Lauren Davis is, for the most part, pretty dang good.

I’ve never read anything by Davis before, however I have heard of one of her bigger books, The Empty Room.  But me reading this book was completely random chance by me going to a Chapters store that was selling out because the location was closing (50 percent off like everything), thinking about wanting to read more hist fic, seeing this one with its, quite frankly, beautiful cover, and purchasing it on a whim.

When I started to read the book, I actually regretted buying it immediately.  I thought to myself, “I’m sure this book is in a library, I could have literally read it for free, this is not the kind of book I want on my bookshelf.”  I really hated what I was reading.  I mean, it started out with a prologue that I actually really liked.  It was short and sparse on detail, and set up the backgrounds of the two main characters Wilona and Egan (Both of whom are lone survivors – WIlona’s village was wiped out by a plague and Egan was on a ship that capsized and only he made it to shore) effectively.  And then the story begins years later, Wilona is in a new village where the Seithkona (a healer/translator of the gods) took her under her wing, and Egan made it to a Christian monastery.  Both, however, live as outsiders and aren’t much liked by the authority figures.

The first chapter is Wilona’s introduction, and where I almost closed the book to set it aside into the SHUNNED PILE.  It was a toughie – the chapter was full of very unnecessary descriptive language, bogging down the actual presentation of the setting and story.  I’ve always been against that style of writing, the style where the author spends two pages describing a character’s dress and then four more the facial features.  <— that’s a hyperbole, I’ve not seen an author ACTUALLY spend that much time on something so petty, but the gist is don’t overload with details.  Nobody remembers that shit.  Whenever I hit those sections, my eyes glaze over, and I’ll literally just skip to the next page without reading because, usually, those sections of novels have nothing important in them whatsoever except declaring LOOK AT ME I’VE BUILT MY WORLD SO SPECTACULARLY WITH SO MUCH DETAIL.  So I skip the page and start glazing over the next page, and the next, until I catch a line of dialogue or a sentence that sticks out as story-relevant.  Anyways, that wasn’t the entire reason I disliked what was going on.  Sure, there was too much description, but also a lot of the descriptions were so… amateur and just weird.  Let me quote two particularly bad ones:

“A fierce intelligence lies behind those eyes, and under their scrutiny more than one strong man has been reduced to admitting a lie.”

Lines like these make no sense.  What does a “fierce intelligence” lying behind eyes even look like?  I get that the author is trying to say the woman being described here is fierce and unyielding and gets what she wants, probably carries a certain authority, but there are so many better ways to get that message across, which the author does later on.  She gets that message across in a really good way after getting it across a really bad way first.  There’s a scene later where the lord of the village or town or whatever the fuck they live in – the man whose word is law for everybody living there and he could have anybody executed at the snap of his fingers – grabs the described woman around the throat.  He’s choking her because she’s responsible for making sure his wife gives birth with both the baby and the wife surviving, and he’s drunk and angry that it’s taking so long.  In that scene, despite having the most powerful man in the town holding her against a wall, crushing her larynx, the woman keeps her head up and her eyes looking straight into the Lord’s eyes.  She doesn’t show fear, she doesn’t cave, she doesn’t challenge the Lord but she also doesn’t show herself as entirely meek and subservient.  And that scene shows her the fortitude of her spirit, among a lot of other nuanced detail about the village, FAR MORE memorably and effectively than that stupid line posted above.

“…her hair the colour of a ginger cat.”

And this one.  Seriously?  This one just seems utterly silly.  It’s one of those lines where you can tell the author was trying way too hard to sound poetic or some shit.  It’s one of those sentences which, although not entirely terrible, just makes me ask WHY?  It’s a matter of semantics: what’s the difference between hair being ginger, and hair being the colour of a ginger cat?  Isn’t it the same?  The only reason I’d imagine she’d include the extraneous detail of the cat was to evoke that the hair also had the aesthetic qualities of cat fur (if the real reason wasn’t just to come off as a good writer).  If she wanted to evoke other qualities of cat fur, why not just say “her hair like a ginger cat,” or something like that.  Why specify the colour only?  One of the mantras preached about good writing is “concrete sensory details,” and I think this is an example of the author trying to write to serve the checklist of “including concrete sensory details” instead of writing to serve the story at hand.  Putting in “ginger cat” is more of a concrete sensory detail, appealing to vision, because it puts an image of an orange cat in your head, and not just orange, but it’s a completely UNNECESSARY orange cat that doesn’t serve the story.  It’s a misinterpretation of that “checklist of good writing”.  Throwing in random details willy nilly doesn’t add to the story, it detracts.  If you’re going to evoke the ginger cat, then you want to evoke as many qualities of it as possible, not just the colour, because, like, a ginger cat is different from human ginger hair.  The cat is entirely arbitrary.  The backbone of good writing is evoking as much as possible in as few details necessary.  By specifying ginger cat instead of just ginger, while focusing on the colour, you’re already using more words to evoke the exact same amounts of meaning.  And thought this is such a small phrase, such a miniscule portion of the entire book, it’s sentences like those, especially in the beginning, that indicate what the rest of the book’s writing quality will be like.

Anyways.

I hated that first chapter, and if not for my neurotic need to actually read it because I spent money on it, I would have stopped there, but I carried on.  And I’m glad I did because I ended up really enjoying the rest of the book.

First chapter aside, the book rarely throws details down your throat by the fistful afterwards.  The writing gets better and actually serves the story more than the artificial facade of “good writing.”  Wilona, as a Seithkona, does hallucinogens to have visions from the gods, and all the vision sequences were deftly written with utterly beautiful imagery.  The characters felt real, their actions justified, and the relationships made sense.

The overall story becomes a battle of culture and religion.  Christianity is spreading, and Egan is assigned as the monk to watch over the conversion of the village that Wilona lives in.  The main conflict is between Wilona adamantly defying the new religion and sticking to what she knows, while the entire village pressures her to change.  After all, the Lord of the village converted and ordered everyone to convert.  Egan tries very hard to ministrate the people of the village, and especially Wilona.  Yet, despite her defiance of Christianity, Egan admires Wilona and holds faith she will convert eventually.  While Egan and Wilona are especially devout to their respective religions, they do look past those differences and coexist somewhat.

After the first chapter it was hard to stop reading.  Occasionally the writing dipped down into Serial-Romance writing, which wasn’t the greatest aspect of the novel, but those sections were short and not too often.

Overall, I’d recommend this book to any hist fic fans out there.  It’s probably not entirely historically accurate (I wouldn’t know, I don’t know shit about the history of 7th century northumbria).  But… whatever.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Young God

I don’t think I’ve read a book as troubling yet gripping as this one before.

“Young God” by Katherine Faw Morris is a very short book that is anything but ‘light reading.’ It was recommended to me by a friend on the basis it included “Poverty, terror, hard drugs, young teen prostitutes, the general scum of humanity,” and it certainly lived up to those qualities.

It’s a book that isn’t scared to just be extremely blunt in dealing with generally taboo topics.  It’s designed to  make you feel uncomfortable yet compelled to read further and see how many more boundaries can be broken in the short ride of this story.

It’s a book with such beautiful prose that the shocking subject matter is most definitely earned.  To give an idea of the shocking matter, the protagonist, a 13 yr old girl named Nikki, within the first ten pages, sees her mother die then has sex with her now-dead mother’s boyfriend.  Then steals his drugs and his car and drives to her father’s place.

The whole ride is only about 22000 words.  It’s a single-sitting read, but it’s so gripping and gritty that when I closed the back cover I felt like I had come out of something with far more time investment anyway.  And that’s because this novella carried no less emotional devastation than most ten book series.

Despite the short word length, there was no scarcity of things happening.  Katherine managed to evoke characters and events in as few words as possible, sometimes having only a single sentence on a page to cover an important emotional change.

There is no word out of place, nothing extraneous and nothing missing.  It is exactly right and exactly what it needs to be.  The writing is simple but gorgeous, minimal but evocative.  The characters are fleshed out in such interesting ways, with no dull 2-page character description slogs to read through.  Instead, she shows the characters through their most important actions and traits.

Dialogue is phenomenal.  There’s so much personality in everything characters say.

This book is a hurricane of depravity and fears nothing.  And it’s such a short read, if you’re on the fence about it, you may as well go ahead.

Be forewarned though: “Young God” is full of scum scraped from the bottom of the cesspit.  People easily discomfitted by topics such as “teenage prostitution” should not read it.

5/5 for it’s brevity and expert craft with words, and the lack thereof.

The Cellist of Sarajevo

Not long ago, in earlier 2015, I attended a writing festival where I ran into and met the author of this novel (Steven Galloway).  Now, I kind of knew him from before.  I go to a university which he teaches at, where I’ve taken many creative writing courses, so I’ve had my fair share of close encounters with him.  But I had never actually spoken to him.  In fact, the closest encounter we had as two people dialoguing was when Steven sent me an email praising my work for being so beautiful and wanting to pay me to let him mentor me rejecting my sorry ass from the Creative Writing major at the university I go to/he teaches at.

But I digress.

At this writing festival in earlier 2015 there were writing workshops in the day followed by a gala in the evening.  Steven was one of the guest readers at the gala (he did a fantastic reading).  After the workshops, a friend and I headed to the theatre the gala was to take place in, and spotted Steven standing in the lobby looking confused.  We said hi and after a short conversation learned that he was trying to get into the theatre for soundcheck.  He sped off quickly after that short exchange to figure things out, leaving my friend and me to wait for the theatre doors to open for the audience.  We had a while to wait.

And there was a liquor store nearby.

So needless to say we got hammered for the gala (cue a montage of shotgunning beers in bathroom stalls and mixing vodka into green tea from a vending machine).  Moving onwards, though.

The gala began, and Steven’s reading was near the beginning.  We sat in the back and listened intently.  He was reading the prologue of his book: “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” and part way through reading the curtains pulled back to reveal a cellist playing Albinoni’s Adagio (I’ll talk about later), which complimented Steven’s reading beautifully.  The whole affair was quite moving.  I remember sitting there, not even listening to the actual words themselves, but just the sounds of them, as dictated by Steven, being carried by the swelling of the cello.  If I were to make a metaphor, I would talk about a dock on an ocean, with the rhythmic, punctuating creaking of the wood rising and falling with the waves being the words and the general sounds of water rolling in and softly falling against the sand as the cello.  Very complimentary to each other.  Very beautiful.  And I sat there silent and still until the words stopped, and the ocean threw one last wave against the shore then faded to nothing.

Then I took a sip of my vodka-infused green tea and everything went back to normal.

At the intermission we spotted Steven sitting a few rows up and, as two belligerently drunk youths are prone to do, approached him and probably, overbearingly so, talked at him far too aggressively.  I think we may have spooked him a little, to be honest.  We were excited to chat with him though, and we were both spouting slightly incoherent things that, when said together, became extremely incoherent to him.  I remember him being very taken aback, probably completely unprepared for the situation we put him in.  But he tried his best to answer our questions, and even signed two books my friend had brought.

And for that, I respect Steven.  I don’t know if he respects us or even likes us in the slightest, or if we just creeped him out.  Probably the latter.  But he seemed like a very nice and genuine dude, and judging by that prologue, an amazing writer too.  So I finally decided that I needed to actually read something from him.

Skip ahead half a year and I finally get around to reading it.

“The Cellist of Sarajevo” follows the lives of three characters living in war-torn Sarajevo during a specific, small time period.  Sarajevo is under siege, nobody can leave and nobody can enter (for the most part).  Electricity isn’t dependable, clean water can only be accessed from a few locations, food is scarce and expensive and, worst of all, the hills around Sarajevo are infested with snipers and at any moment a civilian of the city could be crossing a street then just fall down dead with a bullet through the head.  Mortars rain from the sky almost endlessly.

There is one man, a cellist, who spends his days playing music to try and hold onto hope.  One day, as starving citizens line up to buy bread from a market just outside his apartment, a mortar falls, killing 22 people and wounding over 70 others.  Every day for the next 22 days the Cellist walks out to the crater in the street where the mortar fell, at 4 PM, and plays Albinoni’s Adagio, one day for each civilian who died in that line.

The cellist is not one of the three protagonists, however he is a symbol and an idea and provokes thought to all three of them, and his days of playing in the street set the time period for the narrative.

The three protagonists are: Kenan, a father and husband who needs to get water for his family; Dragan, an old man who works at a bakery to supply food; Arrow, a sniper in Sarajevo trying to repel the snipers on the hill.  And that’s where I stop talking about the plot.

Each of these characters has their own struggles.  Their external struggles to survive, but also their internal struggles to define who they are to themselves and what Sarajevo is to them.  The cellist is the factor that spurs them to rethink a lot of things and by the end of the novel each character has changed their outlook, each character is filled with a little more hope and a little more definition in who they are and what Sarajevo means to them.  To this end, the narrative becomes a dissection and analysis of these characters’ thoughts, emotions, and actions, as well as those of the civilians in Sarajevo around them.  At it’s core, this novel is that.  This novel is an examination of the human spirit in bleak times, such as a siege where you could literally die at any moment.  It shows how people can falter, but it also shows how people can defy expectations and rise above their innate fears to do what is important to them.

And risk the consequences for doing so.

Now, I specifically used the words “dissect” and “analysis” and “examination” because those clinical terms are in themselves descriptive of the writing style used in this novel.

Which carries some pros and cons.

The writing style is perfect for the prologue.  It works well to quickly paint a scene in my mind of war-torn Sarajevo, and sets up the cellist character.  However, I was not expecting that style to continue through the entire novel.  But it did.  While not entirely bad, I find the style failed to connect me with the characters.  If any of the three protagonists suddenly died, I wouldn’t miss them in the least.  The prose always kept me cleanly distanced from them.  The cellist i didn’t want to die simply because of what he represented to the people, and Arrow I wanted to live based solely on the fact that she possessed skills that could greatly assist the defenders.  But other than that, I did not feel very much specific empathy for the characters.

And yet I wouldn’t want the prose changed.  It achieves what I believe it set out to do, to dissect and examine and assess and rationalize the human spirit, to understand it.  Plus, despite not being attached to the protagonists, the prose was beautifully executed and the rhythm and sound of it carried me through.  I couldn’t put it down.  I wasn’t attached to the characters, but I was interested in their next move, their next thought, and what they had to say.

One of my favourite set of lines comes on page 183, a set which succinctly and effectively represents the beauty of Steven’s writing style in this novel:

“In the hills behind him a shell falls.  He hears the rattle of automatic gunfire, and then another shell falls.  It’s a language, a conversation of violence.”

Take from it what you will.

As beautiful as the prose is, there are a few places where it steps into ugly territory.  Specifically, instances where a character did something, thought something, or said something, and a line immediately followed saying “Arrow was surprised by what she did/thought/said.”  I don’t like it when characters get surprised by their own thoughts even once, but these people are getting surprised left, right, and centre.  It’s as if the characters are each really two entities, the body being it’s own and acting on its own, and their consciousness just kind of there, watching their bodies like a movie.

And I hate lines like that.  They’re just unnecessary, mostly untrue, and it makes me think of really badly written genre fiction.  Yes, you can do something that surprises yourself, especially an action, such as a reflex you didn’t think you’d have, and perhaps you can say things you didn’t intend to, and you can daydream then suddenly realize how far your mind has wandered, but how often does it happen where you’re literally surprised by all those things as if all those things are not you and you are a consciousness separate from your body and your thoughts.  People don’t stop every 5 steps while walking down a sidewalk, totally aghast at what they started thinking.

Perhaps this is just a pet peeve, but I hate that in writing.  I hate a character “being surprised by something they themselves just did.”  If anything, be more specific.  Maybe say they are proud they said something so intelligent, or they regret having let their mind wander to that thought.

Not surprised.

STFU with surprised.

I don’t know if this specific thing in writing as been named, but I’m going to call it the Avatar Complex from now on.  People are really only characters in a video game and their consciousness is the player sitting behind the screen.  They only have so much agency in the avatar’s actions and no matter what they do in-game, the avatar may do something in a cutscene they did not know or think he/she could do and their consciousness, the players, are surprised.

Therefore: Avatar Complex.

And FUCK the Avatar Complex.

Aside from that the prose strayed into some pretty cliche descriptions.  One in particular I see all the time in bad fantasy:

“A teenage boy who isn’t old enough to shave.”

That’s an extremely ambiguous description and I think a very arbitrary point of reference.  This guy could be anywhere from 10 to well over 20 years old.  It’s not like every boy in existence just wakes up on their 16th birthday with a full beard and moustache and that marks them as “old enough to shave.”  Some people (like me) had to start shaving in grade 8.  Others didn’t need to shave until years after high school.  It’s a very cliche description and just not apt at all.

While we’re on the note of bad fantasy, if you read this book, pay attention to the first chapter with Arrow.  It describes her and sets her up as an OP character in much the same way a bad fantasy novel sets up the “toughest mercenary in the land” type shit.  Not terrible, but I had a laugh while reading it.

Aside from the occasional poorly chosen descriptions, and the excessive surprise characters feel of themselves, though, this novel is amazing.  I read it all in two sittings.  The writing is beautiful and for the most part intelligent.  There are some very tense moments where Steven portrays danger to the characters in very real, very visceral ways.  It’s in those few moments that he really pulls the reader into the character and for those short times I felt complete empathy for the characters.  And the whole thing just flows so organically.

If you’re a fan of the kind of literary fiction that isn’t excessively introspective and ends up just dragging it’s feet to every little plot point or realization, but a fan of intelligent, well-written fiction nonetheless, then I would recommend this book.

overall score would have to be 8/10.  the few hiccups in the writing I mentioned above are where it lost marks, everything else was great.

As always, thanks for reading 🙂

Good Omens

Here we go, another book I really liked.  I feel like I’m betraying the “cynicism” aspect I tried to sell myself as, but lately I’ve just been consuming things I like.  And that’s mostly because lately I haven’t been reading the current (mostly) YA novels that the masses gush about (like John Green books or all those dystopian hunger games/divergent/matched series), and neither have I been reading shitty boring fantasy that the entire internet defines as the finest fantasy ever written (Brandon Sanderson books, Patrick Rothfuss – side note, Patrick Rothfuss is one of my nemeses* and it is one of my dreams to publicly roast him).  Don’t get me wrong, I love fantasy and YA books (I DID enjoy Abundance of Katherines by John Green for example).  In fact, the only genre I’m biased against is the Mystery genre simply because I find the narrative is told in such a contrived fashion to withhold information and try to force the reader to keep reading to reveal secrets, rather than just being a compelling narrative – especially if there is a reveal at the end that ensues with a 50 page long explanation by the villain of how every detail in his plan came to fruition except where these specific things got in his way to the main character.  However, a lot of the genre books that become supremely popular, not all but a lot, I find are terribly written excuses of literature and so my cynicism grows from a distrust of the general population’s consensus on “good books”.  So, now that I’ve defended my cynicism, let’s move on to me talking about how much I love Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman these days.

*All my nemeses are as follows:

– Patrick Rothfuss

– Harry Potter fangirls**

– 3/4 length sleeves

**I actually like the Harry Potter books, but the fanbase sickens me.

Terry Pratchett was an amazing writer.  He died fairly recently, but before that he managed to thrust out a legion of books, most based in his fantasy land called “Discworld” (about 40 novels in that setting).  his books are well known for their dry humour, constant wit, and, formwise, using footnotes in his work as an extra source of humour, but used well in a way that spoke to the reader and added to the narrative.  If you have not read him, most any book in his Discworld series is a good place to start.  My first was “Going Postal,” and I loved it, so potentially pick up that one as your first.

Neil Gaiman is another amazing writer, well-known for his graphic novel series “Sandman,” and for his novels such as “American Gods.”  His works tend to incorporate a lot of biblical and mythological aspects.  He spins gods and angels and demons into interesting, human characters.  My first read of his was “American Gods” and I would say it’s a good place to start if you have not read him before.  Another good place to start would be going straight for “Sandman.”

Good Omens was released 25 years ago.  Yikes, I’m a little late to this party, but hey, a party is a party and being late still means going.

The eponymous book of this review grew out of a 6-page or so short story that Neil wrote and sent to Terry claiming he “could not figure out how to end it.  A year later, Terry brought that story back up saying he didn’t know how to end it, but knew what would happen next.  From there they worked together, adding more and more, sharing, discussing, writing.  And so a brilliant novel was born.

The plot centers around a slew of characters facing the possible End Times of the world, the Armageddon.  An angel and a demon discuss the nature of good and evil and whether it is intrinsic or not, and both come to the conclusion they prefer the mix of both (human) over the absolute of either.  They don’t want the human world to end.  The AntiChrist is born and on his 11th birthday destined to bring about Armageddon and initiate the war between Heaven and Hell.  Anathema, a descendant of a seer from hundreds of years ago is trying to decode the prophecies left to her family and prevent the end of the world.

There are a slew of other characters, some with practically no impact on the plot, some carrying a more central role.  But the gist of the plot is that Armageddon is coming, and both Terry and Neil have twisted this biblical event into something very modern, and very new.

The plot is not very heavy in the book, actually.  When you think of tightly-woven stories where everything happening makes sense or was foreshadowed or lead into, this book does not capture the definition.  There were a few plot moments that didn’t make any sense to me.  The story is more centered on the characters, though, and how they grow and change and act.  Most fantasies will find a way to have every element, every character, be essential to the climax.  This book does not care for that.  It care’s for the characters and the humour, and not so much an epic plot.  For example, one character, a witchfinder whose purpose in life is to find and exterminate witches and demons, and one point encounters the main Angel character.  Thinking he is a demon, the witchfinder approaches the angel.  At one pivotal moment, while the witchfinder is pointing his fingers at the angel, the angel accidentally steps into a heavenly light that pulls him back to heaven.  For the rest of the novel, the witchfinder thinks his hand is the ultimate weapon against demons and that by pointing at them he can defeat them.

In an epic fantasy novel, that would probably turn out true and in the climax he’d face the Devil himself and use his hand to defeat the Devil.

In Good Omens, although he thinks he is going to fight and defeat the Devil with his hands, that encounter never happens and he doesn’t get a chance to use his “power” ever again.

He’s still prevalent in the plot, he’s still present, but that one pivotal moment, which changes how he sees the world and changes a little how he acts, does not transcend into a larger resolution in the climax.

And that in itself is spinning genre tropes on their heads.

The characters are all strongly written and, if not essential to the plot, are essential to the narrative.  Essential to the humour and the commentary on the book’s subject.

See, this book is a good example that writing far outweighs plot.  Plots are a dime a dozen.  You can be Brandon Sanderson and think up the most convoluted plot and world with the most mind-melting climaxes that twists everything together in unexpected, unprecedented ways, but nobody is going to enjoy it if the writing is shit.

Or, you can be Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman and have a basic premise, a plot that kinda falls flat on its own, but is filled with such creative ideas, humour, and good writing that the plot doesn’t even matter.  The characters and the story come to the forefront.

Overall, I’d say this is a definite read before the world actually ends, so get on it ASAP if you haven’t read it before.  Of course, if you haven’t read both the authors before, it’s still a great novel, but I would suggest reading at least one book from each author first, to give you a sense of their styles, before you see them combined.

Thanks, as always, for reading 🙂