Category Archives: Fiction

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

21423346If you’re looking for rich, historical fiction with captivating flourishes of magic and meta-fiction, look no further than the works of Dan Simmons. I’m finally catching up with Mr. Simmons’ 2015 novel The Fifth Heart. Much like his earlier novels Drood and Black Hills, The Fifth Heart combines authors and fictional characters with historical events and defies genre classification.

“Am I a fictional character?’ ponders the great detective Sherlock Holmes, as he partners up with the writer Henry James to solve the mystery of Clover Adams’ death. Clover Adams, the photographer and member of the Five Hearts, a group of five close friends, was presumed to have committed suicide – but the mysterious typed cards that arrive in the other members mail on the anniversary of her death declare her death to be murder.

Holmes and James cross the Atlantic to investigate her death, retracing the events of 1885 that led to Clover’s presumed suicide. Along the way, they meet Sam Clemens, and travel to his home in Connecticut. Henry Adams and the others member of the Five of Hearts,  Clara and John Hay, and Clarence King host Holmes and James in Washington D.C.

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The Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetary

Simmons packs this novel with adventure and excitement that match any of the Holmes exploits written by Conan Doyle – and perhaps exceed them in outlandishness. There’s a moonlight scene in Rock Creek Cemetery at Clover’s memorial that has the reader squinting to see more of the dimly lit action. And picture the portly Henry James eavesdropping at a meeting of anarchists!
Simmons is also not afraid to reference earlier works of his own, calling upon the character of Paha Sapa from Black Hills to have a moment with Holmes.

The story culminates with Holmes and James racing to intercept a murderous sniper at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The Fifth Heart combines all the best of Holmes adventures and historical fiction. However, it is a novel that the reader will enjoy more fully with some background knowledge – perhaps even insider knowledge would be a better term – and this can be a turn off to some.

I thoroughly enjoyed the meta fictional aspect of the novel, as Holmes mused on his own existence, as well as the nods to Holmes’ history and the historical events of the Columbian Exposition. Holmes and James’ trip to Clemens’ home in Hartford, Connecticut was a special treat for me, as I visited the Mark Twain House a few years ago with a dear friend. I could easily visualize the scene in the well appointed, supremely masculine billiards room at the top of the house.

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I recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and lovers of Holmesian fiction.

Recommended companion books: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, and anything by Henry James.

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On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

17707526Teenage heroine? Check. Desperate love story? Check. Rural scenes combining cruelty and desperation? Check. Urban/suburban neighborhoods hiding corrupt underbellies? Check.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee hits the markers for many modern tales of dystopia, but this is no Hunger Games. There’s no obvious villain, and little opportunity for salvation or revolution.

The heroine of this tale is Fan, a fish farm tank diver, abruptly leaves the city of B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, when her boyfriend Reg disappears. Fan does the unthinkable and leaves the relative safety of B-Mor, now a labor colony resettled by Chinese, and heads into the counties. Counties are the seemingly lawless and ungoverned areas outside of the labor colonies and Charter villages, where the privileged classes live.

Fan’s journey to find Reg takes her through the counties into the hands of Quig, and then into slavery at the hands of the very disturbed Miss Cathy. Fan gets closer to her goal of finding Reg as she is reunited with her brother, Oliver, and becomes part of his family group in the Charter village of Seneca.

Lee’s writing is beautiful. Phrases and images dance into thoughts, all told by a mysterious narrator who is somehow privy to the private events of Fan’s life.

We watch ourselves routinely brushing our teeth, or coloring the wall, or blowing off the burn from a steaming yarn of soup noodles, and for every moment there is a companion moment that elides onto it, a secret span that deepens the original’s stamp. We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks. They conscript us more and more. We find world enough in a frame. Until at last we take our places at the wheel, or wall, or line, having somewhere forgotten that we can look up.

 

In this short paragraph, Lee evokes the confines of a life, how that life feels, and then ties it to an overarching theme of this novel, self-imprisonment by blind acceptance.

Fan is the only character who does not accept her role and place. Reg’s disappearance is the catalyst for her leaving B-Mor and rejecting her role, but Fan has vever quite fit in in B-Mor. Is is her petite, otherworldly appearance? Perhaps it is her unassuming and unintentional charm, which helps her navigate the scary world of the counties, and then the striated, bureaucratic world of the Charter village, whose threats are just as real as the counties, but better fed and more attractive.

Whatever sets Fan apart is not noisy or revolutionary. Her resistance is through quiet determination and adapting to her current situation before making her mark. The narrator says of her, “Nor was she chosen, at last, to lead anyone but herself.”

Fan’s journey to Reg is her private revolution, which the people of B-Mor then appropriate. After Fan leaves, B-Mor is graffiti tagged with images of Fan and Reg, simple images, then more abstract. of the graffiti, the narrator says:

They are eventually whitewashed or papered over, and if the individual expressions won’t permanently linger in our minds, the ready regeneration of them does, this irrepressible urge.

Lee does not wrap up Fan’s story tidily. There’s no crowning of a winner; governments are not overthrown. The reader cannot even be sure if she found Reg. What we are left with is an uneasy feeling, wondering if Fan’s world could be ours.

I read this novel for a book group – I had never even heard of the author before this novel was chosen. It’s not a flashy adventure dystopian story, but more of a scary future, most comparable to The Handmaid’s Tale. Like other memorable dystopian stories, Lee takes aspects of our own culture and takes them to an extreme, creating a world that is eerily similar to ours, but perverted.

On Such a Full Sea takes our culture’s increasing stratification and institutionalizes it. People of privilege live in the protected Charter villages, workers are confined to urban labor facilities, and outsiders and rejects are relegated to the counties, where lawlessness and cruelty are the norm. The chance to be “chartered” is dangled before the laborers, while the Chartered communities turn out to be just as lawless as the counties. It’s a frightening world picture, made even more so by the very small consolation of Fan’s escape.

This is a terrific novel, but not for the easily depressed.

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Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

24612118Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is almost perfect. This compact novel first masquerades as a domestic drama, but about 50 pages in I realized there were too many layers to label it that.

Yes, it’s the story of a marriage. Lotto (short for Lancelot) and Matilde impulsively marry at the end of their senior year at Vassar. Lotto, the golden boy, shines off the page, capturing everyone with his magnetism. He’s rich, and almost handsome – but charming, and with enough sex appeal to seduce everyone he meets. Matilde is a strange beauty, mysterious and managerial, and it’s hard to tell if it’s out of devotion or obsession.

The first section of the novel is titled Fates. We hear the story from Lotto’s perspective, and he is indeed the hero of the story, the center of his own universe. He grows from adored son to big man on campus, struggling actor to world class playwright. Through Lotto, we see how lives are spun, measured and cut.

The second section is called Furies. This is Matilde’s show, all the way, and she is full of rage. Her story parallels Lottos’, but the differences will shock you. Parties that were lighthearted fun turn into thinly veiled hostile jousting matches. Friends are betrayers, parents fail, and Matilde makes her way in a world that doesn’t even want to acknowledge her – until she throws her lot in with Lotto.

The unadulterated rage is spectacular.

Groff uses a lot of allusion to Greek stories – fates and furies, most obviously – but the stories of Oedipus as well. And throughout the novel, a chorus comments on events, or adds details. There’s a ton of references, Greek, Homeric, and Shakespearean, to sort through, and I am sure I did not catch them all. The references add to the multi layered and epic, consequential feeling of this story. Like Odysseus and Penelope, Oedipus and Jocasta, the hidden parts of the Lotto and Matilde’s marriage are monumental.

So why do I feel that this novel is almost, but less than perfect? Well, mainly because while Lotto is the golden boy, sucking everyone in, I wasn’t charmed. He’s interesting in his narcissism, but ultimately, I didn’t care about him. And Matilde is much the same. Rather than having sympathy for the utterly horrible way her childhood played out, I read these scenes dispassionately, not feeling a strong sense of empathy for her. I wish I had felt more empathy for these characters.

Groff’s writing is astounding. Sentences loop around and amaze you with their beauty:

He was joking; he believed what he was saying. He thought of how the world without humans would be more briliant, greener, teeming with strange life, rats with opposable thumbs, monkeys in spectacles, mutant fish building palaces below the sea. How, in the grand scheme of things, it would be better without human witness anyway. (Fates and Furies, p.78)

Also impressive to read are the excerpts of Lotto’s plays. Groff has created a breathing, living character with creations of his own. And they are terrific – I would love to read more.

Fates and Furies is a compelling, layered story written in language that sings. Groff’s characters have secrets that keep you reading, even when they are not particularly likeable.

 

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The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

12401556I heard an interview with Karen Thompson Walker, author of The Age of Miracles and was immediately intrigued. The premise of her novel sounded fantastic – the earth’s rotation starts to slow, making the days and nights progressively longer. What would happen? How would people react?

Walker tells her story through Julia, an eleven-going-on-twelve middle school girl who finds herself lost and lonely at the start of the “Slowing.” Julia loses her best friend – ultimately caused by the slowing – and struggles to cope with changes at school and at home.

I wanted to be swept away, and I wanted to care about Julia. But I found myself distracted by Walker’s language and word choice. Peculiar metaphors did nothing to elucidate the character’s feelings. There were endless repetitions of “I remember” and “that was the last time I saw or did x.” Then there were the carefully crafted phrases that made me think Walker was hoping to make the next edition of Bartlett’s.

When I wasn’t distracted by the text, I realized that this was a fairly traditional coming of age tale, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need to hear these stories. The journey of growing up is a journey we all take, and hearing a fictional tale about growing up can help us process our own experience. Through the lens of Walker’s imaginative setting, Julia’s life journey unfolds.

I felt that Walker’s catastrophe “The slowing” was fascinating in its ramifications. The death of all plant life, the erosion of the earth’s magnetic field, the birds dying en masse and people suffering from “gravity sickness” are all part of the slowing. But frankly, any sort of disaster could have been the catastrophe that compels Julia to tell her story.

I was also disappointed in Julia’s development. She’s a lonely girl at the start of the book, and seems to be a lonely woman at the end. While she shares a special friendship with Seth Moreno, at the conclusion of the story, I don’t think Julia was changed by this friendship. In fact, I don’t think Julia changes much at all, which is a shame. The melancholy girl without confidence or hope has become a woman without much hope whose mother says that she dwells too much on the past.

While I was not wowed by this book, I do enjoy a genre bending novel that stretches your genre muscles. Science fiction, dystopia, family drama, and middle school angst – this novel defies classification.

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Ah, Atlantic City.

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Sometimes, a good setting can make a good book great, or a not-so-good book just plain fun.  I just finished Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, a thriller set in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Atlantic City is within a couple of hours driving distance from where I live, and trips to the Jersey shore have long been a part of my life. Escape weekends with girlfriends, road tripping in college, and family vacations are all part of my history with this location.

Atlantic City’s dark side is in full view in Ghostman, a hard boiled, procedural tale of a robbery gone wrong. Hobbs flips the usual procedural tale here, and tells the story from the viewpoint of a bad guy, a “ghostman” – which is apparently, in heist terminology, is the guy whose role it is fix things, quietly, off the grid.

This is a dark, bloody book. Hobbs creates a terrifically vivid sense of the underside of Atlantic City, complete with abandoned strip clubs, falling down houses, and cheap motels. Hobbs’ imagery is particularly good when it comes to odors – his protagonist uses his sense of smell to describe just about every location he visits. The strong odors of naphtha, blood, and damp permeate this book.

Hobbs has a tendency to list things, which can get a bit dry. The protagonist, Jack  – whose real name we never really discover – details the contents of his bag, car, and requests lists of items from his local AC procurer. Jack lists, rather than describes, his method of changing his appearance. There’s also a bit of the cyber punk style here with all the name dropping of gun types, ammunition, drugs, and designer clothing.

The plot is quick paced, and very exciting. And as bad as our protagonist Jack is, there’s always someone more evil than he is. Hobbs alternates the present day plot in Atlantic City with a flashback of another heist gone wrong. This secondary plot is also quick paced and exciting.

This book was released last year, and is Hobbs’ debut novel. There’s an interview with Hobbs that I found interesting, mainly for his description of his writerly life – ramen noodles and staking out a power outlet in the library for his laptop.

For me, the main appeal of this fun novel was the setting. Somehow, reading about characters that are walking down the same streets you have walked down, and visiting the same places you’ve visited, creates a full sense of immediacy. And Hobbs’ descriptions of the approach to and the outskirts of Atlantic City capture the dichotomy of this place. The wealth and flash of the casinos and boardwalk contrast in a disturbing way with the tired looking neighborhoods just outside.

I’m not sure how accurate Hobbs’ geography is, but I picture him at that library with maps and googling street views of Atlantic City.

If you don’t mind violence and gore combined with drug use and cruelty, Ghostman is an entertaining book with a strong and compelling setting.

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Book Selfie #3

Listening to Ghostman by Roger Hobbs….
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Hunger and Responsibility: Big Brother by Lionel Shriver

Quite possibly the most gross-out scenes I’ve ever read happened within the pages of this novel, Big Brother, by Lionel Shriver. Disgusting and horrifying, funny yet excruciating, Shriver doesn’t shy away from showing the reader the consequences of morbid obesity. Shriver wrote this novel as a response to events in her own life. Her older brother, whom Shriver has described as being a “genius,” was morbidly obese, and died of a heart attack at age 55. Big Brother is dedicated to him. But calling Big Brother a novel about obesity doesn’t begin to describe this book.

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Shriver uses obesity as a pathway to explore familial relationships and responsibility. How far would you go to “save” a sibling who has “buried himself in himself?’ Would you sacrifice your marriage, relationships with your children and friends to devote yourself to a sibling’s overwhelming needs? Are we truly our brother’s keeper?

That’s the decision the main character of Pandora confronts. Her brother Edison, whom she idolized, visits Pandora and her family. He’s down on his luck, couch surfing in New York City. He also has gained more than 200 pounds since the last time Pandora saw him. A jazz pianist, Edison punctuates his conversation with annoying, jarring “hep” talk – heavy cats, ya dig, man? He’s overbearing, obnoxious, and eating them out of the house. Plus, Pandora’s husband Fletcher, cycling nut and food Nazi, can’t stand him. It doesn’t help that Edison breaks one of Fletcher’s fanciful furniture creations. The visit is a trial for the whole family – Pandora, Fletcher, and Fletcher’s two teenage kids from a previous marriage.

Pandora faces her responsibilities to her brother when the visit comes to an end. Does she put him on a plane, knowing he has nowhere to live, no gigs lined up, and few friends left? Pandora proposes a private weight loss clinic to Edison. She’ll be his coach, plan his weight loss and stick with him until he’s down to his normal weight. This project will require living apart from her family – Fletcher will not have Edison in the house any longer than his planned visit – and this threatens Pandora and Fletcher’s marriage, and Pandora’s relationship with her stepchildren.

The characters in this novel are not especially likable. Fletcher and Edison are both obnoxious and self-righteous, convinced of their superiority and their claim on Pandora. I found Pandora fascinating. While claiming to avoid the spotlight, she has managed to run two successful businesses, the most recent a novelty toy company featured in national publications. Her musings on her relationships and how much is owed to family members was fascinating. Pandora neglects her younger sister, yet feels a strong duty to her step children. And Edison’s obesity throws her sense of responsibility into overdrive, jeopardizing her marriage.

Shriver seems to be pulling the novel into a tidy happy package, and then upends it all. I won’t reveal the ending here…

Shriver sums up so many themes in this quote from near the end of the novel:

However gnawing a deficiency, satiety is worse… We are meant to be hungry.

Indulging that hunger to the point of obesity is dangerous. Indulging a sense of responsibility to the point of sacrificing other relationships is also dangerous.

Shriver, while using obesity to explore familial relationship, also explores contemporary thoughts and perceptions of obesity. Pandora mulls over society’s stereotypes of the obese and the slim. Are thin people joyless self deniers? Are the obese lacking in character strength? Shriver can be heavy handed, but I’ll forgive her “hunger” to impart her hard earned lessons about family and obesity.

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