Tag Archives: Fiction

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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Uprooted by Naomi Novik

22544764What started out as a disappointing retelling of a Beauty and the Beast legend morphed into something richer and more complicated.

I’ll admit, when I started reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, I was saddened that Agnieszka, like so many heroines in young adult fiction, was becoming romantically involved with a domineering man. In this case, it’s the “Dragon,” Sarkan, who demands a tribute of a young woman from Agnieszka’s region every 10 years. Obviously, this is the year that Agnieszka is chosen to serve- a surprise to everyone, as she is not accomplished, tidy, or talented, unlike her best friend Kasia.

The Dragon is a wizard tasked with protecting the region from the Wood, whose ability to corrupt those who enter is terrifying and horrible. Agnieszka bumbles around Sarkan’s tower, trying to learn her (subordinate) place, when she realizes that she is gifted with magic, and Sarkan is her teacher.

Stockholm syndrome notwithstanding, the relationship betweeen Agnieszka and Sarkan becomes more than just teacher and student. Yes, there is some romance and passion, but more importantly, collaboration and commitment to a common purpose: defeating the Wood and cleaning the corruption from the people who have been taken by the wood.

Novik draws on Polish fairy tales and the legends of Baba Yaga to flavor this novel in a way unlike the typical, magicky fantasy. There is a richness of place and tradition in Agnieszka’s village, with bottles of vodka passed at celebrations, farmers and cattlemen, cakes cooked slowly on spindles. The details Novik uses from this heritage lift this novel well above the typical pseudo-middle ages atmosphere that seems to be the norm in fantasy.

Novik also populates her novel with some amazing characters who have complicated relationships that develop and change. Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia start as childhood besties, sharing confidences and playing, all the while realizing that Kasia – due to her refinement, talents, and beauty, will be taken away by the Dragon. When that expectation falls through, Kasia is lost and Agnieszka feels guilty – and special. When Kasia is taken by the Wood, Agnieszka risks everything to clear her of its corruption. Clearing Kasia changes her, and again, the relationship between the two young women changes. I loved the development of this relationship.

Minor characters are treated with the same level of detail and story. The magicians Alosha, Solya, and Father Ballo all have histories that shape them. And the baddest of the bad in this story – the Queen of the Wood – also has moments where the reader can sympathize and understand her journey to corruption and hate.

Novik treats magic in an interesting way that can be a bit frustrating for a reader. In the world of Uprooted, there is a magical language that seems to be only for special magic people. I’m not totally clear how it works. I did like that Agnieszka and Sarkan can use the same magical language to different effects. Agnieszka has difficulty with Sarkan’s regimented methods and uses her singing way to use magic.

I would recommend Uprooted to any young person who enjoyed the Twilight series but felt cheated by them. In Uprooted, they will find a tale of magic and power, rich with detail and character.

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Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

Solaris by Stanislaw95558 Lem is an old fashioned scifi classic. Old fashioned in a Star Trek sense, with scientists in spacesuits, traveling to new planets. In this case, the planet is Solaris, a planet with 2 suns and an “ocean” comprised of an unknown morphing substance. Earth’s scientists have devoted decades of study to this planet and ocean, developing an elaborate classification system of the ocean’s ever changing formations.

Research into Solaris is stagnant, until the latest expedition tries an unauthorized experiment – bombarding the ocean with highly powered X-rays. Finally, the scientists have attracted the attention of the ocean, which appears to be sentient, intelligent, and until now, completely uninterested in the human expedition.

Kris Kelvin arrives on Solaris just after this experiment. After arriving on the research station, he wakes up to find his dead wife, Rheya with him. Rheya committed suicide years ago, after a quarrel with Kelvin, and seeing her changes Kelvin’s approach to Solaris. Each scientist on Solaris has a visitor, someone important to them towards whom they feel love, guilt, and responsibility. The visitors are discovered to be comprised of neutrinos, manifested by the ocean.

What is the ocean’s purpose? Is it curious or hostile? Is it performing an experiment of its own?

This novel raises a host of questions regarding experimentation and ethics, sentience and responsibility. Pondering these questions is fascinating – and helps alleviate some of the tedium of the narrative. Lem lets the novel get bogged down in lengthy discussions of the oceanic formations and the scientific theories regarding Solaris.

Even with the overly detailed descriptive passages about the ocean and the history of the scientists – called Solarians – this novel is worth reading. It brings to the reader’s attention a question that we really need to think about: when and if humans encounter alien intelligence, will we recognize it? And – even more frightening – will that intelligence recognize us?

 

 

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Death of an Artist by Kate Wilhelm

14579213It’s a bad sign when the most interesting character in the book is murdered in the first third of the book.

Stef, an eccentric and brilliant visual artist, is at odds with her 4th husband, Dale. When Stef falls to her death, her mother and daughter band together to prove that Stef was murdered. They enlist the help of Tony Maurizio, former NYC detective now retired on disability, who has just moved to their small Oregon coastal village.

While this is labeled “a mystery” on the cover, it’s not really a whodunit, howdunit, or even why-they-dunit. So this isn’t really a mystery in a traditional sense – we all know who has murdered Stef from the very beginning. The novel is an exercise in justice – do you have the courage to deal out vigilante justice on your own? Can you accept that people do sometimes get away with murder? How far will you go?

Unfortunately, it’s not enough of a conundrum and the characters just weren’t compelling enough to sustain my interest. I listened to this audiobook – which was very well performed – and I was struggling to listen at the end. The little fillip of romance at the end had me shouting at the author in my car. And you know, I really, really missed Stef, the murdered woman.

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Homage? or Parody?

The QuincunxMay I introduce you to the book that took me three weeks to read?

The Quincunx by Charles Palliser is a hefty doorstop of a book, weighing in at 787 pages in the 1989 edition. It’s big book, almost 3 pounds of paper.

It’s not just big in a physical sense. It’s an ambitious work that was a first novel for Palliser, a bestseller and winner of the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction (source: Wikipedia). The plot is intricate, the settings are naturalistic, and the characters entertaining. This novel is frequently compared to the works of Charles Dickens, and it’s easy to see why.

The main character, who tells most of the story, is John Huffam, a plucky boy who is the hidden heir to a rich estate in the English countryside. A complicated estate entail, a missing will, and a strange codicil to this will have led John’s mother to hide him away in the countryside, living under an assumed name. One day, their home is burgled, disrupting this quiet anonymous life, and setting into motion a series of events that change their lives forever.

John and his mother escape to London after their small fortune is swindled away by their enemies, and they spiral into a life of poverty and ruin in the London slums. After John’s mother passes away, tragically, John must fend for himself. John is frequently an unwitting pawn of his enemies, but sometimes the instigator of plots and plans himself.

The missing will is a central plot point, and John goes undercover at the home of the current estate holder, the Mompessons, working as a scullery boy in order to discover the will’s hiding place. John solves a puzzle – in the shape of a quincunx –  and recovers the will. Which is then lost again, through deception.

Another key plot piece is the murder of John’s grandfather. Who actually killed the old man? Was there a plot, or was it just madness?

The novel is wonderfully complex, and can be difficult to follow. About halfway through the novel, I realized that my complete understanding of the plot and what John believes about the plot were not necessary to enjoy the novel. After all, every time I (or John) had the family relationships figured out, or realized who it was that wanted John dead, new information was revealed that made my understanding false. After this happened a few times, I set aside my strong “need to know” and just enjoyed the plot turnings.

Palliser divided this novel into five parts (like a quincunx), each named for a different branch of the intertwined families. With each section, there is a genealogical chart. As the novel progresses, the chart becomes more detailed in each section. It’s a wonderful piece of detail that I really enjoyed, and used to help my developing understanding of the relationships. The maps of London, also included at the beginning of each section, were also interesting and a great reference while reading.

Like Dickens’ novels, The Quincunx features a plucky orphan finding his way, shady London villains, and many happy – or unfortunate – coincidences. And like Dickens’ novel Bleak House, The Quincunx features a will destined for Chancery Court. In my opinion, Palliser has out-Dickens old Boz in this novel. The plot is complicated to the point of absurdity. The villain Barney Digweed makes Bill Sykes look tame, and the put upon and ruined Miss Quilliam, is more desperately used than any Nancy.

So while Palliser has taken these elements so familiar to the novels of Dickens – the orphan, the inheritance, the villains – and taken them to the next level, I don’t think he is fully parodying Dickens. Palliser’s tone is always sincere, even in the pompous omnisciently narrated sections of the novel. Palliser has created a gentle parody, that is more of an homage to Dickens than any kind of satire.

Reading a novel like The Quincunx was a commitment. I am the kind of reader that usually has a few books going at the same time, but to fully appreciate this book I had to suspend that practice for a while and just focus on this novel. I would recommend this very highly to fans of Dickens – and recommend it less so if you are not a fan.

 

 

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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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