Tag Archives: Novel

On Robert Galbraith’s “The Silkworm” (Cormoran Strike #2)

21 Apr

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm [2014] by Robert Galbraith

My head must have been buried in the proverbial sand last summer since it seemed I completely missed the publication of Robert Galbraith’s second novel and second entry in the Cormoran Strike series. Galbraith, better known to the world as legendary British author J.K. Rowling, ups the ante with The Silkworm, a much darker and much nastier murder mystery for our favorite one-legged, ex-military, Cornish private detective Cormoran Strike and his sidekick, the blonde and curvy Robin Ellacott. In a wintry London, an unpopular author disappears on the heels of a public row (see how London I’m being?) with his agent. Strike must navigate the murky waters of the city’s literary elite, with all its undercurrents and toothy predators.

The first Cormoran Strike novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, featured our burly hero solving the murder of tragically gorgeous model Luna Landry, and the high-publicity victim made the detective an overnight sensation. His business is booming with the revenue from wealthy cuckolds, and all seems to be settling into a calm and distinctly murderless daily grind. That is, until–in the grand old tradition of noir mysteries–a distraught woman appears on Strike’s doorstep. Leonora Quine’s husband, the contested and now washed up author Owen Quine, has gone missing, and we all know what “missing” means when it comes to books shelved in the mystery/thriller section of the bookstore.

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from "blackwarrior57")

Look at that guy. So private. Such detective. Though, I doubt Strike keeps such a neat desk. Or ever wears a tie, for that matter. (Photo from “blackwarrior57“)

Strike juggles his smaller jobs, the deep and manly angst he feels as his ex-girlfriend prepares to get married to some northern aristocrat, his confusing feelings for his secretary Robin, and the case of the missing author. Can things possibly get more complicated?? They always do. The missing Quine leaves behind the manuscript of his latest novel, a novel so grotesque and slanderous that Strike suddenly has his hands full with suspects in the author’s mysterious disappearance. Quine titled the unpublished novel Bombyx mori, the Latin name for the silkworm, and it reads like a raunchy, X-rated Pilgrim’s Progress. The characters of the novel are thinly veiled references to the people in Quine’s life, and no one escapes the man’s scathing criticism. Quine’s agent, editor, publisher, wife, mistress, protégé, and rival all feature prominently in Bombyx mori and all get the symbolic shaft in the most wonderfully gruesome, vivid and vitriolic ways. The caustic nature of Owen Quine’s opus leaves Strike with too many and, yet, none at all. It’s up to his perseverance and Robin’s clutch skills for the duo to find out what really happened to the antagonistic author.

The brutality of The Silkworm blows The Cuckoo’s Calling out of the water. From the graphic, carnal detail of Owen Quine’s unpublished Bombyx mori to the gruesome nature of Strike’s discoveries in his investigation, the content of this novel proves to the world that Galbraith holds no reservations with her writing and pulls no punches. One can’t help but wonder that, since everyone knows her true identity, Galbraith is making that extra special effort to distance her new works from the young adult categorization of the writing that made her a worldwide phenom. On the other hand, the blood and guts of The Silkworm also point to the deliciously evil minds of writers.

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine's novel, Bombyx mori. (Photo from "Steve Begin")

This cute little bugger is the namesake of Owen Quine’s novel Bombyx mori. (Photo from “Steve Begin“)

More disturbing than icky silkworms and the vile details of Bombyx mori is the pattern Galbraith creates among her female characters, who are portrayed as possessive, passive-aggressive, wastes of time. Even Robin, despite one or two flashes of brilliance, suffers from the moodiness of a petulant child. Strike’s desire to help Leonora Quine comes from his personal sense of honor and morality rather than any empathy for her, as seen from his constant impatience with her grief. The men in the novel are evil, and the women in the novel are motivated entirely by the men around them. I hope future Cormoran Strike novels (and I’m sure there will be future Cormoran Strike novels) give women more agency and less angst. Robin won my admiration in The Cuckoo’s Calling and I would love to see her come into her own as a full crime-fighting partner beside Strike.

Read It: Gore hounds and mystery buffs will eat this right up, not to mention J.K. Rowling zealots! The sequel to Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is classic noir with a touch of Criminal Minds-level grotesquerie, and our favorite one-legged private detective is on the case, prepared to solve mysteries with a combination of brute, Cornish force and straight-up perseverance.

Don’t Read It: Not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, The Silkworm can be a little too graphic–both in the bedroom and in the Billiards Room with the knife (and the hydrochloric acid), if you know what I mean. All the darkness Rowling alluded to in her Harry Potter series is fully realized here in Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series.

Similar Books: One other author comes to mind as having accomplished exactly what Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling is currently doing: Roald Dahl forged his career penning beloved children’s novels about magic and love and overcoming the horrors of the growing up, while simultaneously establishing his collection of wonderfully raunchy adult stories about sex and kinkiness. Check out Switch Bitch or the collection of stories in The Best of Roald Dahl. And, of course, Robert Galbraith’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling should be the prerequisite to The Silkworm, but it’s not entirely necessary.

I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst.

Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) reads to her adoring fans from one of her books, presumably not this one. I love that the same author who can sit primly in wedge heels reading to kids in a garden can also write about grotesque murder and psychopathic sexual angst. (Photo from “Devon Steven“)

On Sara Gruen’s “At the Water’s Edge”

14 Apr

At the Water's Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

At the Water’s Edge [2015] by Sara Gruen

Damsels in distress, bearded men with thick accents, giant mythical monsters, and a backdrop of worldwide warfare. No, I’m not talking about the new season of Game of Thrones. I’m talking about the newest novel from the author of Water for Elephants. I’m talking about a young America woman who gets dragged to Scotland during World War II to hunt down the Loch Ness Monster in Sara Gruen’s At the Water’s Edge, which, aside from the gore and the patricide, is practically the same as Game of Thrones anyway.

Rich kids Ellis and Maddie Hyde and their ever-present third wheel Hank Boyd tear through the upper crust parties of Philadelphia, drinking the best champagne and mixing it with the best drugs. But all the pill cocktails in the world can’t drown Ellis’s feelings of inadequacy after being denied enlistment due to his colorblindness. After a scathing confrontation with Ellis’s father that threatens to cut him off from his inheritance, he takes action. Since the best kind of action always involves hunting down cryptids to clear the family name of horrifying, public shame, the three sail off to Scotland to find the infamous Loch Ness Monster. Maddie Hyde narrates as she witnesses Hank’s and her husband’s desperate attempt to prove a myth. She is an unwilling passenger on this wild ride, but, as Maddie is quick to learn, she is as complicit as the two men: they are invaders of the already war-torn lives of the villagers.

Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness

What’s that out behind Urquhart Castle? Is it …? Could it be …? Is that Yeezus? (Photo from “jan zeschky“)

Gruen poignantly describes the era’s ultra-rich and their obliviousness to warfare and suffering. Behind an insurmountable fortress of wealth, the Hydes and their companion are offensively ignorant of the actual turmoil around them. As Ellis and Hyde immerse themselves in their monster-hunting adventures, Maddie’s eyes are opened to reality and her heart changed by the people around her. She soon realizes that–whether or not a massive sea creature lurks beneath the black surface of the loch–a very real domestic monster lurks under the preening surface of her increasingly volatile husband. If only there were a muscular, bearded Scotsman around to save her from it all ….

As fun as a solid, beardy Highland romance sounds, AtWE includes a cast of extremely problematic male characters. (Maybe later, if you’re not doing anything, we can discuss the validity of arguing for male characters’ depth in romance novels that appear to be written for straight women.) Ellis’s growing manifestations of violence and vileness leave little room for his humanity. Gruen shies away from fully exploring his inner demons, of which there are many, abandoning him instead to a fully realized antagonist, who is present in this novel solely to be defeated by the powers of Goodness and True Manliness. Angus Grant provides that stark, haloed relief to Ellis’s blackness. Though the man is gruff and pithy to the point of rudeness, Angus is honorable beyond measure and seems incapable of fault. Both Ellis and Angus are cheated out of their humanity, and seem to only find a place in this novel to be way points for Maddie’s life. This is the type of novel that distorts straight women’s definitions of romance, and, incidentally, for the straight men who presumably want relationships with those straight women.

Milkman among ruins of London

Life carries on despite the desolation meted out by German bombers. (Photo from “Jhayne“)

The art Gruen performs well is toeing the line between mainstream fiction and romance paperback. Some brief lines about classism and a backdrop of one of the most horrific wars of recorded history grounds an otherwise fluffy plot, but one more shirtless Highlander, and we might have needed alternate cover art by Harlequin Enterprises. I tease, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a little romance in brogue. AtWE is predictable in the best kind of way: everything you want to happen happens. Every foreshadowing comes true and every dream is fulfilled. It’s the type of book that hoards come to love because it scratches an itch, and it scratches it thoroughly.

Read It: At the Water’s Edge makes for the perfect read when you’re looking for a good intrigue and saucy romance on that spring break cruise. The historical period of 1940’s Britain makes for a picturesque setting and Sara Gruen is an expert at weaving a compelling, entertaining story of love lost and won.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to venture into the loch’s icy waters with Gruen if you, maybe, have a severe allergy to predictable plots and overwrought tropes. AtWE won’t make you think or astound you with its creativity; it’s purely fun and games with just enough heavy themes to keep the book solidly in the literature section of book stores.

Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s most recent novel Lucky Us tells the story of two sisters struggling through WWII-era American and England. There story crosses countries and decades as the sisters learn new definitions of love and family. I suppose I should also recommend Sara Gruen’s claim to fame, Water for Elephants, though I can’t vouch for anything other than the film adaptation starring the marvelous Christoph Waltz. You can’t say no to this face.

Sara Gruen

Sara Gruen (Photo from Goodreads)

On V.E. Schwab’s “A Darker Shade of Magic” (A Darker Shade of Magic #1)

10 Apr

A Darker Shade of Magic [2015] by V.E. Scwhab

A Darker Shade of Magic [2015] by V.E. Scwhab

It’s the fantasy genre’s bread and butter: our world is a dull, flat, adventure-less universe that only exists to be the lame foil of a whole host of other, brighter, infinitely more magical universes. An adolescent human doesn’t fit into the dull, flat universe, and their life is awful, until one day an owl shows up with some mail. Or one day a wizard knocks on your Hobbit hole door with his wizard staff. Or one day a Jedi knight turns out to be your next door neighbor and you learn there are way cooler things to do than shoot womp rats with your T-16. Escapism may be the simplest of benefits from fantasy novels, but it’s one at which V.E. Schwab excels in her lovely new novel A Darker Shade of Magic, in which a young man and a young woman–both full of beautiful, adolescent angst and dreamy feelings–must find their proper worlds.

Kel belongs to Red London. The city is full of magic powered by the glowing, ruby-hued Thames, and Kel is the last of the blood magicians. His enhanced ability allows him to do something no other has been capable of for hundreds of years: travel between the three Londons. Red London is healthy and flush with magic. Grey London is magicless and dull–the world of the Muggles and the untalented. White London stands on the brink of disaster as the magic in this world sucks the life out of its inhabitants, who in turn grow increasingly and violently power-hungry. And there is one more London. A forbidden London. Mordor. … I mean, Black London. (How many times can I write, “London,” in this post, you ask? So many times. So. Many. Times.) When Kel finds an artifact from Black London, he becomes the unwitting pawn in someone else’s deadly game. But even more perilous than the puppeteer pulling at Kel’s strings is the Black London artifact itself.

Grey London is devoid of magic. It's dull and weak and boring. It's our London, so thanks for rubbing it in, V. (Photo from J.A. Alcaide)

Grey London is devoid of magic. It’s dull and weak and boring. It’s our London, so thanks for rubbing it in, V. (Photo from J.A. Alcaide)

In the boring London, leading a boring life but longing for something so much more, is Delilah Bard–thief and ne’erdowell extraordinaire with an appetite for adventure (as long as “adventure” is synonymous with “piracy”). Delilah, or “Lila,” is the epitome of the spunky genre heroine. Orphaned and living on her wit and deft hands, Lila steals to survive … until she steals the wrong loot and finds herself entangled in the adventure of her life.

“Trouble is the looker …. It keeps looking till it finds you. Might as well find it first.”

-Delilah “Lila” Bard

She is intelligent, headstrong, independent, and mildly damaged. In a word, Lila is familiar. I wouldn’t call her a tired trope, since this world needs all the strong female characters it can get, but Lila hasn’t achieved the depth of character that compels me to love a book. She pales in comparison to other fantasy novels’ protagonists like Seraphina Dombegh or Lyra Belacqua. I can only hope her character–and Kel’s, as well–grows in depth in the future novels of this series.

But speaking of tropes, Schwab’s characters aren’t the only aspects of ADSoM that fall a little flat. Tell me if this plot sounds vaguely familiar to you fantasy readers: an unsuspecting mortal finds herself in the possession of a dark, evil artifact from a cursed land far away; the artifact is hunted by the people who were left to fight back the darkness on their own and suffered great loss because of it; to destroy the evil artifact, said unsuspecting mortal must return it to the dark lands from whence it came, but carrying it has taken its toll! As long as Peter Jackson directs the film adaptation, I guess I wouldn’t mind so much.

Masquerade

Many of ADSoM‘s characters live behind masks, so it’s no surprise that Kell and Lila are headed to a masquerade. And, after all, what’s a fantasy novel without a ball?

The magic system itself, while not robustly defined, provided some wonderful action sequences. Schwab does not disappoint when it comes to building excitement or creating a detailed combat scene. Thanks to her descriptiveness, the intensity of Kel’s blood magic and the horrors of Black London’s power combine to add the freshness ADSoM needs. And, since this is apparently the beginning of a new, promising series of Schwab’s, I’m excited to see the lore and landscape of the Londons develop. Hopefully, Black London will take a more prominent role as a setting to see more of that sweet, sweet darker shade.

“‘I’m not going to die,’ she said. ‘Not till I’ve seen it.’

‘Seen what?’

Her smile widened. ‘Everything.'”

Read It: A Darker Shade of Magic is the perfect fit for the casual fantasy fan. It doesn’t delve for hundreds of pages into a complex world history or throw countless unpronounceable names in your face or require a glossary as thick as a stand-alone novel. The story of Kell and Lila is an age-old tale of adventure and daring, with just enough magic to escape from our own dreary, grey world.

Don’t Read It: Some of us can’t help ourselves. We’re hypercritical, self-righteous little snots who like to go to town on the inadequacies, however small, of entertaining fiction. ADSoM can really rack up the points against it between the shallow characters, mildly derivative plot, and sketchy magic system. So you may not want to pick this up if you’re the type who tends to over-analyze or needs to throw a book across a room because a fantasy author keeps finding new, thinly veiled ways to reference Middle Earth.

Similar Books: They may move vastly slower than ADSoM, but the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien is another story about an unsuspecting mortal with no powers but tons of heart who is tasked with returning a dark and magical object to a scary realm beyond the mildly nicer realms of humankind before it.

On Rachel Hartman’s “Shadow Scale” (Seraphina #2)

31 Mar

Shadow Scale [2015] by Rachel Hartman

Shadow Scale [2015] by Rachel Hartman

I am notoriously bad at finishing series. Fourteen-book Wheel of Time was no problem for me, but I generally take two to five years to finish a trilogy. There was no doubt in my mind, though, that I would be reading the sequel to award-winning young adult novel Seraphina. Rachel Hartman’s beefy Shadow Scale hit the shelves on March 10 and, while not with the fanfare of something like Twilight, thrilled a lot of readers who waited patiently (or not so patiently) for the continuation of the story of Seraphina Dombegh, the world’s favorite half-dragon girl. In book two of the Seraphina series, our hero confronts more of her own personal demons while trying to gather a force of others like her to save Goredd from an impending invasion of dragons. If Seraphina can’t come to terms with her own flaws in time, the land she knows and loves will be absolutely burninated.

In Seraphina [2012], the titular protagonist lived two lives: a public life as a court musician for the royalty of Goredd, and a private life as the progeny of human and dragon parents. While struggling to keep her taboo parentage a secret from her highly prejudiced countrymen, Seraphina finds herself wrapped up a murder investigation with the kind and bookish Prince Lucian Kiggs. Together, the unlikely pair must solve a mystery and navigate their way through increasingly hostile dragon-human relations in an era of fragile peace. But another discovery will change Seraphina’s life forever: the combination of dragon and human biology imbues her with extraordinary gifts … and she isn’t alone.

In Shadow Scale, Seraphina’s mixed race is out in the open. The people of Goredd struggle to come to terms with Seraphina’s birthright; the dragons must come to terms with the breakout of civil war between the conservative, racist Old Ard and the human-sympathizers; and Seraphina must come to terms with the fact that she isn’t the only person of mixed parentage. Her fast friends Kiggs and his betrothed Queen Glisselda hold down the proverbial fort while Seraphina ventures outside the realm of Goredd to search for the other half-dragons known as ityasaari. She plans to bind the ityasaari together to defend Goredd and her allies from the attacks of the genocidal Old Ard, but not all are willing to leave their respective hiding places–whether out of fear or hatred of the human society that rejected them for their biological makeup. As Seraphina crosses the plains of Ninys and the rainy mountain ranges of Samsam, she realizes she isn’t the only one trying to unite the ityasaari. Some strange force is bending the minds of Seraphina’s fellow half-dragons to an unknown and nefarious will. Can our hero be the savior of her people, defend Goredd, and fight this new mysterious power? Can she do all this without great and heartbreaking loss?

Mount Rainier

Seraphina searches out the other ityasaari through the mountainous terrain of Goredd’s neighboring countries. (Photo from “Ed Suominen“)

Hartman tackles a difficult topic in Shadow Scale that she had just barely touched the tip of in Seraphina: finding community. Seraphina grew up an outcast in her own home and survived adolescence by essentially closeting her identity. Now that she is outed, she wants nothing more than to find her true family by seeking out the ityasaari. The community she finds redefines her understanding of the meaning of belonging, but the relief she feels at finding it resonated with personal experiences of my own. Young people can expect to go through rough patches and sometimes feel utterly alone and misunderstood (that’s called hormones, kids), but there are some among us who feel extra alien, extra “other,” in a way that our traditional communities couldn’t possibly fathom. Seraphina addresses her otherness with a militant plan to unite ityasaari in forced communion. She might discover that people hate being bullied almost as much as they hate loneliness.

Not willing to pull any punches in her second book ever, Hartman also uses her fantasy realm of dragons and saints to comment on the power and folly of religion. Don’t get me wrong: Shadow Scale isn’t some didactic bludgeon of a book, but Seraphina comes across dangerous discoveries during her travels through the countryside, and some of those discoveries have her questioning the very foundations of her faith. The saints of Goredd are worshiped and served like deities but may not be all that they seem. Seraphina’s beliefs may waver if she can’t separate faith from religion.

The combination of Seraphina’s quest to reunite the ityasaari, the mystery of the Goreddi saints, the ongoing dragon civil war, the rivalry with the cloaked mind-controller, and a secret romance can overwhelm readers. The plot of Shadow Scale is overfull and not as tightly managed as its predecessor. I wonder if Hartman was unwilling to break the story up into two novels instead of one, wary of falling into the fantasy author syndrome of never-ending series. The author claims Seraphina’s story is a duology, but I’m hopeful we see more of the dragons and of Goredd, especially after all of the thorough world-building Hartman accomplished. Considering how she handled Shadow Scale‘s epic finale, Hartman proved to have cut her teeth and is ready for grander things.

The ityasaari aren't the only findings Seraphina comes across in her voyage. The truth of the ityasaari also poses a threat to the foundations of Goredd's saint-based religion.

The ityasaari aren’t the only findings Seraphina comes across in her voyage. The truth of the ityasaari also poses a threat to the foundations of Goredd’s saint-based religion. (Photo from “IBBoard“)

Read It: If you’re into the whole “half-dragon, half-human racial and social commentary set in a fantasy framework” thing, or if you’re just looking for entertainment with a fresh voice, you will want to read Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina and Shadow Scale. The series’ protagonist leads readers through an imaginative new world in which dragons and humans struggle to coexist, but Hartman’s accessible prose and wry humor keeps this fantasy story grounded. The Seraphina series connects readers of all ages with a character who is challenged to find a balance between two very different worlds and still find an identity all her own.

Don’t Read It: Don’t read Shadow Scale if you haven’t read the first book. That is literally the only reason I can think of not to read this book. In actuality, though, this novel is defined as a young adult novel, but some of the themes in both books of the Seraphina duology are a little heady for a younger child. Shadow Scale especially includes some rather dark trauma.

Similar Books: Thank God the young adult world is seeing its fare share of books with strong female heroines. If you’re looking for some more spunky, butt-kicking leading ladies, check out the Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword (the second in a series, but it stands alone), Malinda Lo’s Ash, Kay Kenyon’s A Thousand Perfect Things (even though this is not YA), or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. Of course, don’t forget to read the predecessor to this book, Seraphina.

Shadow Scale is only the second book Rachel Hartman has written, but it's as indicative as her debut that more great books are to come!

Shadow Scale is only the second book Rachel Hartman has written, but it’s as indicative as her debut that more great books are to come!

LitBeetle’s Top 5: Man v. Nature Books

27 Mar

A few recent reads inspired me to make a list of some great survival stories. Many writers attempt to capture the age-old struggle against Nature’s tempests, but only a few succeed. The list below are some favorites of mine–new and old–that I hope you will enjoy! In the comments, let me know your own favorite books of humanity’s battle for survival!

FIVE

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

FOUR

The Revenant (2002) by Michael Punke was re-released January 6, 2015 to coincide with the upcoming film adaptation.

The Revenant by Michael Punke

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Nothing you could possibly do will be as cool as an early 19th Century trapper extraordinaire/pirate/Pawnee hunter/frontiersman demigod surviving a bear mauling for the sole purpose of seeking revenge on those who wronged him. Get ready to feel entirely depressed and inferior while reading Michael Punke’s 2002 historical fiction The Revenant. The story of Hugh Glass’s battle against a grizzly, nearly mortal wounds, and extreme odds is actually a true one. With a few embellishments from Michael Punke, author of a handful of historical nonfiction books, the story practically writes itself.

THREE

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian by Andy Weir

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In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that. As NASA scrambles to send a rescue mission to a stranded astronaut, Mark Watney uses his scrappy resourcefulness, will to live, and dark humor to guide him through one of the most entertaining survival novels of our time. Andy Weir’s debut shines as a thrilling, accessible science fiction story.

TWO

To Build a Fire Cover

To Build a Fire and Other Stories by Jack London

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The title story to this collection of Jack London’s classic short stories is as dark and robust as any of the full novels on this list. A nameless man travels through the Yukon with his wolf-dog. When the dog falls through the ice, the man dives in to save his companion. Now, wet and freezing in temperatures of fifty below, the man is focused on a single, life-saving task: building a fire. London’s steady, descriptive prose mirrors the Nature’s indifferent temperament in the face of a human being’s impending doom. Sounds fun, right? Don’t forget to pack those weatherproof matches the next time you go camping, is all I have to say.

ONE

In the Heart of the Sea [2000] by Nathaniel Philbrick (Photo from Wikipedia)

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

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Certain events in human history become something more than just a popular story or a factoid in a text book. Some events become growing, breathing, pulsing legends that inspire a nation, a world, a host of writers and filmmakers. This is the story of a whale that rejected its role as the prey of men, and the story of men who refused to sink under the brutal forces of the elements. In the nonfiction history In the Heart of the Sea, Nathaniel Philbrick tells the true and epic tale of the survivors of the Essex and their battle against an angry whale and the deadly indifference of nature. Frail humanity versus the open and indifferent sea? No thank you, but this–the most harrowing fight for survival–puts In the Heart of the Sea at the top of this list.

What are your favorite survival books? Leave me recommendations in the comments below!

On Andy Weir’s “The Martian”

24 Mar

The Martian Book Cover

The Martian [2013] by Andy Weir

There are a lot of different types of survivors: there’s the Bear Grylls survivor who “survives” in the “wild” with a full TV crew and then books a hotel room off-screen; there’s the Donner Party survivor who makes it because she overcame some serious taboos; there’s the Tom “Chuck Noland” Hanks survivor who may go a tad crazy but ends up losing weight and looking really good after hanging out with a volleyball for four years; and then there’s Mark Watney, astronaut-botanist extraordinaire and the hero of Andy Weir’s debut novel that will have you canceling your one-way ticket to Mars. In The Martian, Mark Watney is the only human being on an unforgiving, primarily dead planet and must use every ounce of his human ingenuity and resilience to find a way to survive with limited amounts of Earth’s luxuries. Nothing fancy, you know. Just the usual food, water, and air. Silly stuff like that.

In the not-to-distant future, NASA succeeds in landing (and returning!) several manned missions to Mars. It’s a dream that isn’t too far away in our own reality, so the scenario Weir conceives in The Martian isn’t as alien as we once thought in the Mars craze of the mid-20th century. Instead, Weir creates an extremely plausible and relentlessly logical story of one person’s struggle for survival on the withered Red Planet. Mark Watney is the lowest rank on a totem pole filled with superlatively qualified astronauts in the Ares 3 mission to Mars. He and the crew only just landed on Mars to begin their research mission when a lethal sandstorm forces them to abandon their base and escape back to the refuge of space. The abort occurs only six Mars days, or “sol,” into their mission, and in the chaos of their escape, the team leaves Watney behind, thinking him a victim to the storm. And that’s the end of the story.

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I'll let the Mark Watney's of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Mars is, as it turns out, not that far away, but I’ll let the Mark Watney’s of the world visit before I ever do. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Or so the Ares 3 team thinks as they speed back toward Earth while grieving for their lost crew member and friend. But Watney is alive–for now–and must use his training and extraordinary will to survive to stay one small step ahead of a harsh environment that wants nothing more than to see him dead. While Watney huddles inside the temporary shelter of the Ares mission’s Hub trying to cultivate potatoes in DIY farm soil (I’ll give you a hint straight from Watney’s mouth: “My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain.”), Mission Control in Houston finally catches on that their missing astronaut miraculously survived. In a mad race against time, NASA personnel try to solve the ultimate puzzle of Watney’s survival. Every time they solve for one problem, the unforgiving Martian environment throws them another life-threatening situation.

Watney’s wit keeps him alive as much as his intelligence (or his asshole, as he claims). He keeps his indomitable spirits high through his wisecracks and never seems to let his bleak surroundings affect his mood, so, while his sarcastic remarks certainly makes for a more entertaining read, I never feared that Watney would fail in his quest. In fact, Weir never so much as mentions the excruciating loneliness Watney must have been feeling. At worst, Watney is bored, but hundreds of days pass without any kind of human interaction, and I had a hard time believing Watney never made his own little Wilson somewhere in the Hab. I understand that reading about a dude being bored might be a dampener on an otherwise nonstop, nerve-wracking plot, but Weir missed an opportunity to investigate the true horror of a human sans humanity, of someone more utterly and definitely alone than any human being has ever been. Instead, Weir sweeps the surreal nature of these circumstances under the rug that is Watney’s sardonic humor.

Watney’s humor helps him keep his sanity, but his extraordinary resourcefulness keeps him alive, and I tried my darndest not to get distracted by some of the contrivances of the blog format Weir uses to tell Watney’s side of the story, or by the fact that I pretty much watched this whole situation play out in Ron Howard’s 1995 Apollo 13 and the fact that we’re going to be watching the Ridley Scott version this November. I still tore through the book in less than two days, and I am still going to watch the film adaptation, and I’m still never, never, ever going to Mars.

Even billions of dollars of technology can't protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from "NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center")

Billions of dollars of technology alone can’t protect Mark Watney from the elements out to kill him at every turn. (Photo from “NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center“)

Read It: The Martian is a story of survival before it’s sci-fi. It is a thrilling, fast-paced, quick-talking adventure story that just happens to take place on the surface of Mars. I say this to encourage all you genre-haters to take off your hate hats and pick up this book. There may be a few sciency type words and concepts buried under all the action, but I found that skimming those and pretending I remembered AP plant biology worked just fine. Andy Weir writes a captivating story that has already made him a name as a great new author to watch.

Don’t Read It: Do you have high blood pressure? Has a doctor recently told you to avoid stressful activities? Listen to your doctor! The Martian is the story of an astronaut in constant peril. Reading this is like watching a five-hour montage of just the climaxes of every MacGyver episode and you don’t get to see the resolution until the final eight seconds.

Similar Books: Tales of survival have always stressed me out, so I mostly steer clear of them, but I recently tackled Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Seathe nonfiction retelling of the disaster that inspired Herman Melville’s classic Moby-Dick. Philbrick collects information from two survivors’ accounts as well as countless documents from the era to create a thrilling history of the human will to survive even in the face of impossible odds. Weir’s The Martian was also combination of Apollo 13 and Cast Away. There must have been a Tom Hanks marathon on TBS or something when Weir was brainstorming, not that that’s a bad thing.

Andy Weir (Photo from Wikipedia)

A photo of Andy Weir taking a photo. Weirception. (Photo from Wikipedia)

On Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”

17 Mar

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant [2015] by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ten years have passed since the critically acclaimed, world-renowned author Kazuo Ishiguro published a novel, and the passage of time does interesting things to writers, even those as established as this Man Booker Prize-winner. Lauded for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro contributes a fantastic but vastly different addition to his repertoire. The Buried Giant, released to stores March 3, 2015, is a fantastical story of a journey through the land of King Arthur, and were it written by any other author, it would be shelved resolutely in the sci-fi/fantasy section of a bookstore, but I guess I should be grateful that this book is both stunning and working toward mainstreaming genre fiction. The next thing you know, Brandon Sanderson will be winning the Pulitzer or something. Watch out, world!

Ishiguro’s long-awaited seventh novel is not the traditional fantasy in the stereotypical sense of the label: unpronounceable made-up words, valiant heroes coming of age, and a fabricated back story longer than could fit in the 1,200 pages of the published product. Ishiguro’s fantasy is, in a handful of ways, much like his other novels: poignantly brief and excruciatingly sorrowful. The Buried Giant begins in a nameless hamlet in England. King Arthur is dead, and the England he united by sword and by law lies in an uneasy balance of Saxon and Briton. The people also lie under the spell of a heavy mist that suppresses the memories–both good and bad–of everyone it touches. The loss of memory transforms everyone into addled, helpless fools. People hunt for a missing child and then forget why they’re wandering through the woods. They set off down a road and 50 yards later can’t remember where they’re headed. Two elderly villagers, Axl and Beatrice, feel the nagging shade of a memory of a son they once had, and they set off to find him, in spite of their frailty and their foggy minds.

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from "Carl Jones")

The English countryside is covered in a deep mist of forgetting. (Photo from “Carl Jones“)

Traveling from their small village, through cursed woods, over craggy mountains, toward their son’s village, the couple encounters a whole cast of references from Arthurian legend (half of which I’m sure I don’t even get). An ancient and doddering Sir Gawain quests with his equally ancient horse Horace to slay the she-dragon Querig who lives on top of the mountain. A young Saxon warrior quests to do the same, and when he crosses paths with our Axl and Beatrice, the couple is caught up in a story that will test the strength of their love as well as their memory. Before the wild world tears them apart from each, Axl and Beatrice must remember what they mean to one another.

One’s own memory is tricksy enough as it is, but when the topic of collective memory is addressed, history becomes a living entity unto its own. Think of how a nation or a society or even a family develops a collective memory through the retelling of an event or through the media or through trending, crowd-sourced narratives. We are constantly building our story as a group. When the mists of forgetting fall on the people of this story, ties are severed between present and past, between husband and wife. Beatrice is tormented with the idea of an incomplete memory, especially the memories of her son, whose name neither she nor Axl can recall. She and Axl have the opportunity to try and lift the curse, but is it worth remembering the pain of the bad memories just to experience the balm of the good ones?

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from "Swaminathan")

Axl and Beatrice face many tests throughout their journey. Can they pass the ultimate test by proving their love to the boatman? (Photo from “Swaminathan“)

Ishiguro returns again and again to the concept of collective memory in his novels. In The Remains of the Day, especially, he discusses denial and misremembering through an aging butler struggling with memories of his involvement in dark deeds during World War II. The Buried Giant takes advantage of its fantasy genre to make the conversation of memory more blatant by making it more magical. Querig’s cursed breath descends on the land and forces a loss of collective memory for an entire generation. The horrors of that past are veiled in blissful forgetfulness, and the joys of a lifetime are only glimpsed in the corner of a dream. Ishiguro calls out humanity’s tendency to bury great tragedies to spare itself the pain and struggle of resolution. The collateral damage of this denial is that great joys and great accomplishments are also buried. Great loves and great progress are lost beneath the earth. Axl and Beatrice’s quest to find their son becomes a quest to remember–their son, their past, and their love for each other. In this beautiful novel that is at once lighthearted and tragic, Ishiguro produces a stunning story that is worth every moment of the ten years we waited for it.

“It would be the saddest thing to me, princess. To walk separately from you, when the ground will let us go as we always did.”

Read It: You don’t need to be a fan of Game of Thrones to enjoy this fantasy novel. In The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro addresses one of his favorite topics: the discrepancies of memory. The fantasy setting is a thin veil for the author’s deeply moving story about the fluidity of narrative, but it is also a deeply moving story, so whether your a scholar coming to study a contemporary master’s work or a casual reader like myself, just looking for an entertaining and skillfully rendered tale of adventure, look no farther than TBG.

Don’t Read It: You may not want to read this novel if dragons killed your parents or you have some blood feud with your Saxon neighbors. This novel doesn’t pull any punches when discussing the fiery political climate of the post-Arthurian era. Then again, and more likely, you may be expecting the Ishiguro of ten years ago, the Ishiguro of The Remains of the Day, and you’ll probably be disappointed. Gone is the subtler artifice of his earlier years, and if you don’t keep an open mind, his new style will turn you off, marvelous though it is.

Similar Books: I honestly can’t compare this novel to Ishiguro’s others, but if this is your first of his novels, please read The Remains of the Day to feel the power of his prose when Ishiguro reached what some would call the pinnacle of his literary career. Aside from this, The Buried Giant reminded me of classical epics like Virgil’s The Aeneid and Homer’s The Odyssey. Axl and Beatrice’s travels through the English countryside ring of older tales–tales of hellish paths and overcoming otherworldly challenges. For more reading on modern takes of Arthurian legend, read John Steinbeck’s The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights.

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from "English PEN")

Kazuo Ishiguro (Photo from “English PEN“)

On Lee Kelly’s “City of Savages”

10 Mar

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

City of Savages [2015] by Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

Katniss Everdeen is a household name and the Divergent film adaptations made a young star out of Shailene Woodley, all thanks to a rising subgenre among young adult readership. New author and resident New Yorker Lee Kelly is jumping aboard late on the post-apocalyptic YA funtimes wagon, but her debut novel City of Savages might be one of the better installations of this popular topic. (I’m not sure what it says about our youth today that this depressing, morbid genre is all the rage, but at least we’re past the “vampire-werewolf-love-triangle” genre, so I can’t complain.) Despite a few discrepancies in logic and some predictability in the plot, City of Savages tells a fantastic story about the grey areas between good and evil, and the strength of bonds between loved ones.

Two decades after World War III decimated New York City, sisters Skyler and Phoenix navigate the  wasteland of Manhattan with their mother Sarah. The entire island is a massive POW camp, regulated by the loose and distant hand of the Red Allies. The Miller family has the freedom to spend the warm summer months hunting wild peacocks and squirrels for their dinners and camping out in an abandoned penthouse overlooking Battery Park.

It's hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo by "Elizabeth Haslam")

It’s hard to imagine Manhattan devoid of its constant, urban roar. Empty of its residents, the island is one long, concrete tomb. (Photo from “Elizabeth Haslam“)

In the winter, the three women seek shelter in Central Park under the harsh but protective hand of the prison warden Rolladin. Rolladin is herself a prisoner, but as the Red Allies take less and less of an interest in the few hundred surviving residents of Manhattan, Rolladin assumes more and more power. She and her “overlords” keep residents in line and enforce strict schedules of manual labor to help the tight community survive.

The younger sister Phoenix, or “Phee,” seems to fit in with the survivor-mode lifestyle of the island, but her older sister Skyler immerses herself in books and the remnants of a previous culture, one where people weren’t forced to the limits of humanity and beyond to stay alive. Sky dreams of another world, a better one the the savage hierarchy enforced by the heartless Rolladin. Phee’s fighting skills and spunk earns her Rolladin’s attention, though, and the distance between sisters grows. When the girls discover their mother’s old journal, they steal chances to read it whenever they can, careful to keep it hidden from their secretive mother, and begin to unravel the truth of their ruined world and deeper, family secrets–secrets that threaten to tear sister from sister and child from mother. The final straw is the arrival of handful of strangers with strange accents–four men who claim they sailed in from the outside and come bearing news. The girls commit an act of treason to help the strangers evade the wrath of Rolladin, but their escape leads them through the subway tunnels, and the danger awaiting them there could be worse than anything Rolladin could cook up.

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you bet your ass I wouldn't love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly's "feeders." (Photo by "Genial 23")

I love subway tunnels. I love the crush of human bodies, I love the buskers, and I love the comforting, earthy smell. But you can bet your rosy bottom I wouldn’t love them if they were filled with Lee Kelly’s “feeders.” (Photo from “Genial 23“)

The plot that ensues from there is nothing new in the literary world: familial bonds are tested by distrust, a little love triangle forms, things aren’t what they seem, conflict, climax, resolution. Kelly doesn’t stretch for the unfamiliar either in story line or setting, though that doesn’t stop her from creating a perfectly entertaining novel, thanks to the several fresh elements she uses throughout the book. Kelly creates well-paced, textured narrative by alternating chapters of the cocky, angst-ridden voice of Phoenix; the self-doubting, speculative voice of Skyler; and Sarah Miller’s journal, which slowly reveals the secrets of her past. The layers of the three narrative styles balances our slowly growing understanding of the past with the quickly moving actions of the characters’ present. Kelly also examines different forms of dictatorships: Rolladin’s power of brute force and rigid hierarchy, and the more subversive, covert power of theocracy. I have to believe that, were she not writing a young adult book, Kelly would have given the exploration of these methods a little more page time and maybe cut down on the time her two protagonists spend mooning over boys.

Phee and Skyler themselves are little better than formulaic female protagonists, representing two polar archetypes: the tough girl who cracks jokes and doesn’t care what people think about her, and the quiet, bookish one who doesn’t really know how beautiful she is. I appreciate the equal representation here, and I think young readers will benefit from knowing there’s no single way to be the kick-ass hero of the story. In fact, you could have two kick-ass heroes and they can be complete opposites of each other. But the real show-stealers here are the young Sarah Miller of the journal entries and the twisted, cold-hearted Rolladin, who comes with secrets of her own. Rolladin takes the crown when it comes to compelling charcters. She is a villain who inspires some wonderfully conflicted feelings because of what she represents: the cautionary tale of what happens when obsessive love turns into something ugly.

Through all the sloppy logic and predictability, City of Savages is a fine way to spend a few hours of your life and a stellar debut by an exciting new author on the young adult scene. You may think the post-apocalyptic genre is overdone and as saturated as a pre-teen’s Instagram stream, but this story of sisters, war, and tragic family secrets was nothing but a joy to read.

“I guess who needs a voice of reason when you have a partner in crime?”

And lord help the sister

And lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.

Read It: Whether you’re an angsty teen looking for some new grey-scale, post-apocalyptic morbidity to gobble down or you’re a full-blown adult who just needs a little escapism that’s easy on the literary interpretation faculties, you will find City of Savages a pleasure to read. Lee Kelly succeeds at crafting an entertaining story in complex yet relatable landscape. The novel also contains a fun, queer subplot, so be on the look out!

Don’t Read It: All you sticklers out there–you critics of highly predictable plots or surveyors of plot holes–be warned. This is not the book for you. I have high hopes, though, since this is Kelly’s first novel, and she’s already planning another; these things will only improve! Some plot elements may be too intense for readers under 18. Not only are the scenes of physical brutality quite frequent, but themes of cannibalism and sexual abuse take large roles in this darkened setting. If you are a parent looking for something acceptable for your young one to read, make a note: if you wouldn’t let your child watch The Walking Dead then you may want to think twice before buying or checking out City of Savages.

Similar Books: Of course I’m going to tell you to go read Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games for another book about a young female lead who is beyond capable in a depressing future America, but I hope to God you have already done that. You probably haven’t read the lovely novella Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin, and I urge you to jump on that with both feet. Wild Girls is a short fantasy about two sisters navigating a world of slavery and harsh class structure. Le Guin’s writing blows me away every time I read it, and this short but powerful piece will convert you if you aren’t already an acolyte.

Lee Kelly (Photo from "Goodreads")

Lee Kelly (Photo from “Goodreads“)

On Tom Cooper’s “The Marauders”

3 Mar

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

The Marauders [2015] by Tom Cooper

If there’s one place in the United States that inspires images of shrouded mystery and magical kingdoms, it’s the bayou. Maybe it’s the French and Creole cultural background, so spicy and foreign, so different from the Anglo-Germanic traditions elsewhere in the country. Or maybe it’s the setting itself: hoary trees, prehistoric predators, covered and joined with water. Thanks to the magical realism of films like Beasts of the Southern Wild and the hallucinatory elements of films like In the Electric Mist (not the best example, I admit, but I have an old man crush on Tommy Lee Jones), my perception of bayou stories is eternally skewed toward the mythical and darkly romantic. Tom Cooper’s debut novel about a hodgepodge of men in post-Deepwater Horizon Louisiana extracts the romantic and leaves the myth and the darkness. The Marauders speaks of good things to come from new author Cooper.

The Marauders sets its stage several years after the BP oil spill disaster at Deepwater Horizon, and describes the lasting effects the spill inflicts on the resident shrimpers of Jeanette, Louisiana. Cooper manages to scale the unfathomable disaster down to something more understandable and human by following the course of five stories: teenage Wes Trench and his quest for his father’s approval as a man and a next-gen Jeanette shrimper; Brady Grimes, the BP yes-man knocking on doors, heckling Jeanette’s residents into settling on a measly sum for their ruined lives; Gus Lindquist, a one-armed shrimper with dreams of finding the pirate Jean Lafitte’s buried treasure of Spanish dubloons; the Toup twins, who would do anything to protect their hidden island farm of marijuana; and Cosgrove and Hanson, two petty criminals on the verge of the biggest break of their lives. It’s a small sampling of life in a hurricane-torn, oil-slicked bayou, and Cooper adds enough spice to make the novel a decently tasty morsel.

Bayou (Photo from "Xavier Lambrecht")

Bayou” is Louisiana French from the Choctaw word “bayuk,” meaning “small stream.” Talk about lost in translation. (Photo from “Xavier Lambrecht“)

The separate story lines tell the same narrative: a man struggles against his ties to his homeland. These men are fixtures of Barataria or they dream of escaping its narrow lifestyle. They return home full of bitterness and loathing or they learn to respect a dying way of life and embrace its tradition. Cooper’s description of the landscape is sparse but vivid leaves readers with the sharp impression of scents and moist heat. His attentiveness to character description instills a little less confidence, though, and I found it difficult to consider the Toup twins as anything more than a couple of floppy, cliché villains–two-dimensional and easy to hate. Wes Trench is similarly flat in the opposite polar end of the balance between Good and Evil. He’s all hard work and youthful earnestness. I wanted to punch him in the face.

Cooper is strongest in the chapters following our one-armed shrimper and treasure-seeker Lindquist. Lindquist miraculously reaches his middle ages, despite his painkiller addiction and an obsession that drives away his wife and daughter and threatens to sink his business. When the starved, oil-covered shrimp are few and far between, Lindquist religiously scans the muddy banks of the Barataria with his metal detector searching for the buried treasure of notorious Gulf pirate Jean Lafitte. In his spare time, Lindquist researches his library of maps and old myths, pouring his time and his soul into the hunt of the pirate’s missing Spanish dubloons. The town both ridicules him for his obsession and respects him for his faithfulness. Fueled by his feverish pipe dream of pirate treasure, Lindquist is the heart of the Barataria. The man throws everything away–his health, his family, his livelihood–for a single belief, a hope that no one else seems to understand but everyone takes comfort in.

“No, he wasn’t wrong. Lindquist knew it in his blood. He knew it with providential certainty, the same way a dowser knew there was water in the ground, the same way a diviner knew a ghost was in the room. And as long as he kept searching, as long as he kept digging holes in the ground, he’d never be wrong.”

Oiled bird (Photo from "Marine Photobank")

An ocean bird suffers from an oil spill. The adverse effects of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster are still felt today by the Gulf wildlife and its human dependents. (Photo from “Marine Photobank“)

The Lindquist story line alone would make The Marauders an entertaining novel at the very least, and I would have enjoyed an entire novel about him and his pitiable, yet somehow respectable, obsession. The other characters seem to all fall short in comparison, but the greatest travesty is the novel’s utter lack of diversity. In the Deep South, where society is a great stew of hybrid cultures, languages, tastes, and customs, The Marauders is astoundingly white and male. Not only are the main story lines boringly similar to each other, but the other non-white or female characters are so wan and weak they could be figments of your imagination. Of the three or so female characters with speaking lines, one is dead, one is dying, and none of them exceed a stereotypical understanding of “woman as understood by a man”: the perfect, idolized mother lost in Katrina; the mother dying of cancer; a bitter ex-spouse. I’m not saying every book has to have a balanced cast of men and women. I’m just saying that the women included here are not real women. Even more appalling is the lack of any character who isn’t white. An off-handed mention of some Vietnamese fishers doesn’t count in my book, and the lack of any mention of Black Americans and Black Southern culture all points to apparent Cooper’s tunnel vision.

Read It: Do you feel like kicking back with a cold brew and a relaxing, but entertaining read that won’t force you into the hard labor of thinking? The Marauders is the book for you. With its bold, easy symbolism and swift currents of plot, readers won’t need to exercise their grey cells to uncover the mystery of Barataria Bay, and I say this as a compliment. The novel is totally accessible and enjoyable as fun, light read.

Don’t Read It: The Marauders is a debut novel, and it reads like a debut novel. Cooper still needs to flesh out his two-dimensional characters, get some meat on them to make their stories not only unique but worthwhile. This might not be the book for you if you aren’t willing to be a little forgiving of those first-novel kinks.

Similar Books: Tom Cooper’s novel reminded me more of a couple of films than of books: In the Electric Mist, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Peter Sarsgaard–as surreal and hallucinatory as Gus Lindquist’s story of pirate treasure–and The Beasts of the Southern Wild, starring Quvenzhané Wallis–a wild ride of magical realism and Southern character sketches. A book with similar tone and attentiveness to geographical subcultures is Jessie van Eerden’s Glorybound, another first novel, this time following several characters in a West Virginia coal mining town.

On Ron Rash’s “Serena”

17 Feb

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

Serena [2008] by Ron Rash

I can already feel it: 2015 is the year of the bear attacks and wilderness novels. Less than a month ago, I posted the review of Michael Punke’s The Revenant, and in a short while I will be posting the review of Nathaniel Philbrick’s In the Heart of the Sea. There’s something about my cozy urban life and redundant desk job that makes me want to read books of perilous adventure. In Ron Rash’s Serena, I found a title character who is in almost every way my opposite. Serena Pemberton and her husband are lumber barons in 1920’s North Carolina. They battle nature’s lethal touch and their partners’ unfaithfulness with equal fervor, doling out their cold-eyed vengeance left and right. Serena is the story of a character more like a force of nature than a woman, and like with any natural disaster coverage, it’s impossible for witnesses to tear their eyes away.

It’s 1929. The Great Depression is in full swing, and Americans everywhere find themselves jobless and destitute. George Pemberton and his newly acquired wife and business partner Serena take full advantage of a desperate workforce in their logging empire in the mountains of North Carolina. The terrain is treacherous, and if the falling trees or mishandled logging tools doesn’t kill man, then the rattlers or the cougars will. And if the rattler and cougars don’t kill a man, then a vengeful, cold-hearted employer will. Serena and her husband rule their domain with an iron fist. Any and all betrayal is met with instant, lethal retribution. The only thing that equals Serena’s hate for betrayal is her derision for incompetence, but she has met her match with George Pemberton.

Logs and loggers (Photo by "paukrus")

Urban Outfitters made the whole lumberjack look cute again, but there was nothing cute about the constant peril under which loggers lived. A slip of the hand here, a falling branch there could mean a lost limb or lost eye or lost life in this lethal world. (Photo by “paukrus”)

One thing is certain upon Serena’s arrival at the logging camp, having recently married Pemberton and come down by train from the upper echelons of Boston’s high society, and that is Serena’s utter capability, her stark difference from the bodiced, high-heeled, prim wives of Pemberton’s partners. Serena steps off the train in pants and boots. When Pemberton is met with a disgruntled logger whose teenage daughter Pemberton knocked up months before, Serena cooly orders her husband to off the man with her wedding present: a one-handled steel knife. It turns out watching Pemberton kill a man is a huge turn-on for Serena, and the couple begin their married life with a long bout of passionate, if a little psychopathic, sex. The honeymoon carries on for months as the couple plots their way to world domination, one logging tract at a time, but trouble begins when politicians enter the scene on their campaign to create the first national parks of the country. Betrayal is the name of the game, but it turns out Serena–aside from activities like taming Mongolian eagles and supervising logging sites–makes a hobby of dealing with traitors. The honeymoon ends the only way honeymoons can: in a wake of the blood and bodies of your enemies. That is how honeymoons end, right?

In the backdrop to the “Serena and George Show” are several minor characters, but none more important than a motley group of loggers that makes frequent appearances to comment on the changes in the logging camp and the changes in their employers. The men–Snipes, Stewart, Ross, and Preacher McIntyre–make spirited attempts at intellectual or philosophical debates to cast light on main events. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of this tragedy. Or maybe, more fittingly, it’s like Tucker & Dale vs. Philosophy, which I would watch in a heartbeat, by the way. As interesting an idea as they are–blue collar men in stark contrast to the educated, powerful Pembertons–the chorus of men seem to confuse the themes Rash presents rather than inform them.

I couldn’t help but admire Serena’s unflinching brutality. She isn’t wanton with her power or violence. Instead, she acts with a singular goal in mind and never waivers. Serena is as logical and scientific as a thunderstorm, and, like with most natural disasters, is impossible to turn away from. Rash explores aspects of Serena’s personality at great length, but it was as if he couldn’t decide if Serena is evil she breaks the laws of nature or understandable, good even, because she adheres to the laws of nature. In several passages, Serena is criticized by the chorus of peons for wearing pants, not riding horses with a side saddle, and for training her Mongolian eagle to hunt down all the rattlesnakes in the woods, making the work environment safer for the loggers. “You’re disturbing the natural order of things is what you’re doing,” one logger says.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers.

Serena tames an imported eagle to hunt down rattlesnakes threatening the lives of her workers. (Photo by “cesareb“)

In another passage, Serena is one of “nature’s paradoxes,” and is compared to a tiger and the black widow spider for being both beautiful and “the most injurious.” Serena is one of the most capable people any of the men of Pemberton Lumber had ever known. She is strikingly beautiful because of her competence and confidence, but several people, including Sheriff McDowell and the doctor who made these comparisons, begin to recognize the threat lying just underneath Serena’s poised surface.

 “Serena’s beauty was like certain laws of math and physics, fixed and immutable. She walks in beauty.”

The foil to Serena’s hardness, her personality like a force of nature, is the impregnated teenage girl whose father was slain by Pemberton at the beginning of the story. Rachel gives birth to Pemberton’s bastard son and raises him alone while tending to the property left to her by her father. Young, motherly, sensitive Rachel is Serena’s antithesis. Serena–whose opportunity to bear children (obviously, the most “natural” act a woman could perform) passes her by, whose only offspring will be the animal familiars she consorts with–sets out to destroy the mother and child who threaten her dominion. I still have reservations about Serena’s treatment as the unnatural, sexual yet genderless, psycho woman, because this story should be more than a cautionary tale against marrying the “crazy bitch.” Told from another angle, this novel tells the tale of a competent, ambitious business person in a ruthless landscape, and Serena is someone to be admired–from a distance, naturally. But I think Rash missed a few opportunities to forge a fantastic, lasting antagonist (or protagonist, you might view her), and, in the end, finds a resolution that tempers the wild, adventurous story line rather than affirming it.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn't last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

Serena kills a bear and tames an eagle. I wouldn’t last a day in the woods without a doughnut.

I’m interested to see how Jennifer Lawrence uses her angel face in this role as a ruthless, lethal business person. Serena is the more ambitious version of Rosamund Pike in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Even more intriguing is Bradley Cooper playing the brutish, capable, yet utterly smitten George Pemberton. I watched him play the puppy dog-eyed bff in Alias, so I know he can do it, and I guess Lawrence and Cooper’s chemistry in Silver Linings Playbook was too good to pass up again. They are equally messed up in Serena, but in an extraordinarily different way. The casting choices should be interesting to watch when the film adaptation by Danish director Susanna Bier is released on February 26.

Read It: Serena is a fantastic piece of historical fiction that gives the reader a view of a dismal time in the United States. The research Ron Rash executed to make this novel authentic had to have been extensive, and because of it, the story is immersive. The descriptions of the destructiveness of human nature and the constant threat of a lethal, angry natural world are captivating backdrops to an interesting story line, and I got chills reading Serena’s increasing violence and insatiable hunger for power.

Don’t Read It: If you’re in the least bit squeamish, steer clear of Serena. Aside from straight up people murdering other people, the novel is filled with the deaths of other animals. Whether an eagle is preying on–in gratuitous, excruciating detail–snakes in the underbrush or the Pembertons go hunting for deer, the blood doesn’t stop flooding in. This is not to mention the natural brutality of the profession of logging, where the smallest slip could mean the death or maiming of a fellow logger, so in case you didn’t get it the first time around, this book is about killing and death and violence.

Similar Books: The one book that comes instantly to mind is Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, which, if you haven’t read it, also features a married couple desperate for each other in a bizarro love-hate-lust-more-hate relationship. If you haven’t already read Flynn’s blockbuster novel or seen the film adaptation, get ‘er done, at least before Flynn’s novel Dark Places hits the big screen with its film adaptation later this year.