THE DEAD LANDS, by Benjamin Percy

22875435The Dead Lands
By Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing – 14th April 2015
ISBN 9781455528240 – 416 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 It’s been awhile since I’ve read something that I’ve enjoyed one moment, became frustrated and annoyed with the next, returned to enjoying, and alternated back and forth until the closing pages. What it comes down to is that I found I could stomach and enjoy The Dead Lands when I shut off my brain and simply let the thrill of a the post-apocalyptic adventure carry me. If I tried to analyze it as anything more, from themes to the language of the text, I felt like abandoning it.
Percy’s novel has two types of inspiration. One, according to the author’s remarks is his rekindled appreciation of fantasy and long held appreciation of Stephen King’s work, particularly those apocalyptic and those featuring a ‘contained’ society (e.g. Under the Dome or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption). The other inspiration is from history, the exploration west of the Mississippi led by Lewis and Clark, and guided by Sacagawea, following the Louisiana Purchase.
The historical aspects of the novel are nothing more than loose inspiration, the novel is set after all in a post-apocalyptic former USA, starting in the walled city of St. Louis, which has managed to survive by shutting itself off from the wastelands, the dead lands, surrounding. Kept relatively shielded from the viral and nuclear breakouts that brought an end to the civilization we know, the surviving community of St. Louis has kept going through the careful management of its past mayors and leaders, and the hope that one day they will discover news of a United States still around to rejoin and continue rebuilding.
But Thomas Lancer, the new mayor of St. Louis seems more concerned with maintaining his power and keeping the community insular through fear. When a strange rider named Gawea arrives outside the city walls with news of lush lands and other pockets of civilization to the West, Thomas acts to suppress rather than investigate the possibilities this holds for the city.
Circumstances lead Thomas’ childhood friend, Lewis Meriwether to join with Mina Clark and a group of discontents to escape the ‘sanctuary’ of the city and discover what world and possibilities exist beyond. A passionate woman battling alcohol addiction, Mina Clark yearns for adventure and discovery, the complete opposite to Lewis’ personality, but she is kept grounded by love and devotion for her brother. A quiet tinkerer and intellectual, Lewis has spent his life in St. Louis as an outcast, content to spend his time in the halls of the museum and books of the past age rather than pursuing the political career and position that his father held prior to Thomas taking over. Lewis’ odd nature has begun to evolve into signs of supernatural abilities, and Gawea’s role as messenger includes an invitation for Lewis to join the leader of the Pacific community to learn about this next evolutionary step for humanity that he, Lewis, and Gawea each manifest.
The major players of history are thus present here: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Thomas Jefferson, and Sakagawea. Their fictional counterparts follow a similar trek towards the Pacific. But similarities end here. Thomas Lancer shares a name and political power with historic Jefferson, but Lancer here tries to keep any exploration from happening, rather than commissioning it. The mayor is painted more like Caligula, corrupt, cruel, and deviant. Initially I was troubled by Percy giving Lancer a young male lover, the seemingly only homosexual relationship of the novel shown as an aspect of his uncontrolled desires. This somewhat was lessened by implying later in the novel that another homosexual attraction existed between characters that shone more positively.
But the pure ‘evilness’ of the villains of The Dead Lands weakened any serious nature to the novel, rendering it more like pulp. Thomas Lancer’s right-hand-man, the town sheriff is sadistic and disturbed, abusing his power, collecting hair from female victims that he uses to decorate a collection of mannequins kept in his hideaway. The leader of the Pacific community is likewise portrayed as rather brutal, singular in vision, and thus none of the villains here are particularly relatable.
Gawea is seen as an other by the community of St. Louis, but unlike the historic Sacagawea there is no particular unique cultural heritage that she displays to give any diversity to the cast of characters. She is given a backstory, but very little unique to herself beyond being a tool for the plot. As an outcast who is largely self-selected, Lewis is also hard to identify with as one of the main protagonists. His distance from other characters likewise keeps him rather distant from the reader. Brief moments are spent as he struggles with his newfound magical abilities, but little of substance is established. The most interesting character is probably Clark, though it is not her complimentary/clashing relationship with Lewis that shines, but rather the one with her brother. The added element of romantic interest between Clark’s brother and Gawea could have been used to really develop this trio of characters, but unfortunately the plot doesn’t go this way.
Aside from a few surprises of character demises, the plot goes predictably as the group journeys westward. The ultimate arrival and showdown with the community is lackluster, devoid of weight, making the journey and what will follow in the novel’s sequel of greater import. There is a lot of build up for a simple conclusion. To prevent the novel from following the cliched fantasy journey route, Percy alternates the western journey of Meriwether and Clark’s team with a continued plot of events occurring back in St. Louis as Lancer tries to maintain control and Meriwether’s assistant and friend at the museum starts to work with a young man in pushing the city towards greater freedom and overthrowing the mayor’s ruthless control. This mixture of settings is a good thing for the novel, and though also proceeding predictably, it greatly helped the flow of the novel and helped it maintain its quality of simple entertainment, with protagonists it was easy to love and root for against the evil mayor and his sheriff.
Rather than science fiction, The Dead Lands is closer to fantasy, so don’t equate the future setting with scientific accuracy. The flu strain that played a role in the apocalypse is called H3L1 (Hell, get it?), but in reality the H and N of influenza stand for particular proteins. There is no ‘L’. The biological basis for the evolution and mutations seen in the wilds of post-nuclear America are also just absurd, playing into this novel being more like B movie entertainment than anything serious.
Finally, I really didn’t take to Percy’s style of writing. To a degree I can’t really pin down what the issue is for me, but partially I recognized that it came from his frequent uses of nouns as verbs, and similar twists of grammar that sounded odd or confused meaning. Though there is much that just didn’t sit well with me while reading this I have to admit that the adventure of the plot did make me keep reading and it became enjoyable in that way that pulp or a B movie can, so flawed that it’s mildly fun.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Grand Central Publishing via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

Proud to be part of the Ace/Roc Star Street Team

I was fortunate to be chosen to be a member of the Ace/Roc Star Street Team. What this means is that I’ll be getting copies of recent and upcoming titles from Ace Books and Roc Books, who are part of the Penguin Publishing group. Aside from reviews, there may also be some goodies and potential giveaways for followers of Reading 1000 Lives. So keep your eyes open for future news.

I appreciate this opportunity because I haven’t read much from their catalogs in the past, and have been uncertain of where to start off, particularly with so many giant series. So I hope readers of this site will appreciate my point of view as someone who isn’t already a fan of a successful author or who can honestly say how well a novel may work on its own.

And of course this gives me the chance to jump right into debut authors or new series and get the word out, whether my reaction is positive or negative. If you have a favorite author from Ace/Roc I’d love to hear about it, or a title you are looking forward to. I won’t be able to read all they send, so your thoughts could help with decisions.

Here is the first mailing that I received:

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I’ve just started Day Shift, by Charlaine Harris, so look for a review of that soon. Speaking of, Harris is going on tour for the novel’s release, so check out her full schedule below to see if she’ll be in a city near you!

April 24th-26th
Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo
Chicago, IL

May 5th @ 7:00 PM
Barnes & Noble
7700 West Northwest Hwy
Dallas, TX

May 6th @ 6:30 PM
Murder By the Book
2342 Bissonnet St.
Houston, TX

May 7th @ 7:00 PM
Barnes & Noble
2900 Peachtree Road NE
Atlanta, GA

May 8th-10th
World Horror Convention
Atlanta, GA

May 11th @ 7:00 PM
Joseph-Beth
161 Lexington Green Circle
Lexington, KY

May 13th-17th
Romantic Times Booklovers Convention
Dallas, TX

May 27th-29th
BookExpo America
New York, NY

May 30th & 31st
BookCon
New York, NY

THE GRACE OF KINGS, by Ken Liu

18952341

My review of The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu, is now up at Skiffy and Fanty.

“My expectations were high after learning about Ken Liu’s debut novel, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Grace of Kings is both spectacular and significant, an approach to epic fantasy that combines some of the best elements of the established genre with Liu’s unique sentiments and voice. I’ve been trying to avoid reviews before writing this up, but judging from the headlines, I’m not alone in excitement and appreciation.

First in a series dubbed The Dandelion Dynasty, the novel is set in an archipelago called Dara. Following a mythological pre-history, Dara existed for generations as a divided land of seven kingdoms, each with a patron god and its own unique resources and culture. The instability of shifting alliances and waves of conflict represented the price for maintaining the independent nations until one king realized the potential peace, stability, and progress that could be achieved by uniting Dara into one standardized empire. Yet the common people still suffer, and many miss the aspects of local culture now being lost. Rumblings of unrest lead to eventual rebellion following the chaos of a difficult imperial succession. But with the empire dissolved, what will a new Dara look like, and upon whom will each god’s favor befall?…”

Read the rest of the review at Skiffy and Fanty!

THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO: STORIES, by Charles Baxter

22024692There’s Something I Want You to Do: Stories
By Charles Baxter
Pantheon – 3rd February 2015
ISBN 9781101870013  – 240 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“Bravery”
“Loyalty”
“Chastity”
“Charity”
“Forbearance”
“Lust”
“Sloth”
“Avarice”
“Gluttony”
“Vanity”

 I absolutely loved this short collection of interconnected short stories that are broken down into two sections: virtues and vices, five each. The stories are linked by shared characters where secondary characters in one pop up in another. Though one in particular seemed to appear most frequently, each story does have a unique point of view, and voice.
The stories are character driven, ‘literary’ takes that highlight different relationships and the qualities that underlie, define them. The stories may each feature one key virtue/vice that gives it name, but others can be seen underlying, sometimes in those secondary characters that then come to the fore in the story where they serve as protagonist.
Aside from exploring these qualities of virtue or vice, the structure that Baxter employs serves well to humanize all of his characters. In one story a character’s actions may be rather incomprehensible, eliciting judgement from the protagonist and the reader perhaps. But then you walk in their shoes, and perhaps feel a little different. Perhaps that character you thought seemed so virtuous has a bit of a vice.
Delightfully written and not remotely pretentious, these stories accomplish that role of literary character development, eliciting human empathy, wonderfully well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Pantheon via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.

THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE, by Timothy Williams

20691206The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe
(Anne Marie Laveaud Mysteries #2)
By Timothy Williams
Soho Crime – 13th January 2015
ISBN 9781616953850 – 336 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 This mystery novel, more accurately perhaps a police procedural novel with a strong sense of setting is filled with fascinating parts, but unfortunately the sum of these together doesn’t add up to much, none of them are explored to their potential.
Set in the former colony, and now département of France, Guadeloupe, this is the second book featuring character Anne Marie Laveaud, an investigating juge of French-Algerian descent. I haven’t read the first book featuring Laveaud, which I am sure covers some of the family and professional details that form a part of this book. That previous book seems unnecessary for following the plot here, or appreciating Laveaud. However reading that prior book may make some of the side plots in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe a little more complete.
In this novel, Laveaud is investigating a pair of deaths in 1990. One is a supposed suicide of a prominent businessman, a case with apparent political ties that leads Laveaud’s superiors to try and push her away from looking into it. Instead they want her to look into the other death, the murder of a young woman, a presumed white tourist, due to its potential ramifications on the tourist industry of the small islands of Guadeloupe.
The title of the novel comes from a common local saying regarding the relationship between Guadeloupe and Martinique, Guadeloupe being more rustic and ‘working class’ in a way (honest folk), compared to the fancier, more well-to-do ‘gentlemen’ of Martinique. Class differences come into play with each of the deaths that Laveaud investigates. And with the second, the murder of the young woman, issues of race and colonialism also rear their heads. As a woman born with connections to the French colony of Algeria, Laveaud is familiar with these issues, but doesn’t allow them to interfere with her simple, constant search for the truth.
Williams writing here is question-laden, as so much of the story is related, and moves forward through the simple barrage of queries to potential witnesses and sources by Laveaud. For fans of procedural detail over action or keen danger this could be welcome, but for readers who go for other types of mystery genre tales, they may find the conversation and subtleties to be dull. Most of the novel passes from conversation to conversation with brief moments of descriptive passages either highlighting local flavors of the islands, or biographical details on Laveaud.
For me the largest difficulty lies in the fact that none of the elements at play here felt fully explored, or properly linked together. I was attracted to this largely due to my interest in things French, and of French colonialism (and just generally enjoying mysteries). But the racial and colonial issues at heart here are background decor, there is not much serious reflection or exploration of the issues. When one brief incident involving a standoff and attack by a dangerous man is used to provide tension and further sociopolitical relevance, it ends up being an aside, not linked integrally with the plot.
Another element present in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe is the family life of Laveaud, who is dealing with separation from her husband and caring for the children as a single parent, when one of them is becoming increasingly rebellious. This personal part of the plot (as well as interesting personality conflicts/rapports with colleagues) never reach any sort of conclusion, and I can only guess that they form a continuous background plot that would develop throughout multiple books of the series. Within the confines of this novel though they are unresolved and seem completely irrelevant, again an issue running parallel to the story, but not a key part of it.
Fans of police procedurals in general and those with an interest in this particular setting would find the most interest in this novel, and even then I’d only recommend delving in if open to following the entire series.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Soho Press via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

INTRODUCING EVANGELICAL ECOTHEOLOGY

20665283Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology:
Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis
By Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L. Butler, and A.J. Swodoba
Baker Academic – 14th October 2014
ISBN 9780801049651 – 262 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Existing in worlds of both religion and science I come across people who are radically biased against one or the other, and there will be certainly people who see this book and think it is too great a stretch of Biblical theology into realms of science, or politics. And there will be those who see the science, the ecology as clearly important, but the theology not mattering, even perhaps being detrimental. I’ve met ecologists who want nothing to do with Christianity because they feel that the religion has been used to great environmental harm, and see no value in it. I’ve met Christians who think scientists make up data that overemphasizes the fragility of the environment, or view any environmentalism as equating idolatry.
Thankfully this book exists as a focused middle of the road alternative to those who do not accept either of the extremes and feel there is a place for the two worlds to dialogue. And here, not surprisingly the emphasis is for arguing for Christian involvement in ecological concerns, and providing the resources to act, the intended audience is Christian, but it is geared towards either end of the cultural spectrum from progressive to more conservative.
I haven’t come across anything like Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology before and was curious to see how it was approached while not outright alienating people who may be close to the borders of the Christian spectrum extremes. Written by a trio of people from a range of Christian backgrounds, the text largely succeeds. The premise at the book’s heart is the concept that Jesus’ message was for all people and that he held specific regard for those on the margins of society. As we now see that people on the margins are most vulnerable to ecological conditions – and that the health of the environment is of growing concern – then care for the environment should be a concern for discipleship.
This premise is not simply asserted only to move ahead, but the authors spend time arguing for its accuracy. Throughout they try to base that argument on a combination of science, theological tradition, Biblical interpretation, and Jesus’ message in word or deed. Some may disagree with aspects of the premise even after the arguments – or find some arguments a stretch, but the authors do an admirable job of making an effort at convincing, again with experiences and interpretation born from varied sociopolitical backgrounds. Though they excel at discussing the theology and history, they do a good job of covering the science, though I’m not a climate or environmental scientist to be fully certain on all details. (I can’t recall if one author in particular tackled more of science talk than another though.)
As an integrated text from multiple voices, there are certain issues where precise agreement wasn’t reached. The authors chose to put key discussion of these issues into separate boxes called ‘Tension Points’ and within the purpose of the book it works very well, as the book’s best audience would likely be a book club type group or class within a church, who may find these good discussion points, providing a format to keep the talk civil between disagreeing views. A large number of references are also provided for a serious student’s interest in the topic to go deeper, or back to the sources.
Readable without dryness this would be a wonderful book for either an individual or group to read, and the latter portion of it provides challenges to take the ecotheological themes to heart and put them into practice in meaningful ways both large and small. While the intended audience is Christian the book as a whole or in key parts would also be effective for showing to non-Christians allies in addressing these ecological concerns, simply as evidence that not all Christians are uninterested or unconcerned over the health of the environment. Many see it the problems and see it as a failure on many levels (including within the faith) and feel called on levels both religious or humanist to address them.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Baker Academic via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

MIGRATORY ANIMALS, by Mary Helen Specht

22138421Migratory Animals
By Mary Helen Specht
Harper Perennial – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9780062346032 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Edelweiss


About deep relationships that stretch across time and space, Migratory Animals is about the process of leaving home and returning, and more generally coming back to the familiar and strong personal ties after periods separate. This theme revolves around a group of friends who grew close during college, shuffled around, and are now drawn all back together by circumstances.
With chapters alternating between the points of views of each friend, the predominant and central point is Flannery, a climatologist who has lived the prior years in Nigeria, a spot she now begins see as another home. Flannery returns home to Austin, Texas, where her sister Molly has begun to show signs of Huntington’s disease, an inherited affliction that slowly killed their mother. Left behind by Flannery in Nigeria is her research position and a new fiancé. Flannery is thus burdened both by the uncertainty of her sister’s health and of when she will be able to return to her life in Africa.
Migratory Animals delves into the network of relationships and uncertain futures that surround all of these friends, as they are each challenged by the particulars of the present and the memories of the past. With a plot and themes that are relatively straight-forward, Mary Helen Specht’s novel on the surface appears to be unremarkable. However, what sets it apart as extraordinary how effectively she makes it all seem simple, and easy. Juggling a handful of points of view and a web of interactions, Specht successfully gives each character their unique vision and voice that gel together into a cohesive narrative, and a strong reflection of realism. Flannery and Molly, for instance, share some aspects of voice, personality, as you might expect sisters would, yet have individual highlights and faults.
Another quality to this novel that I greatly appreciated is that the narrative does not rest on outright strife. Their are challenges, sure, but this isn’t yet another literary novel about failing relationships due to poor communication and flawed personality. The characters aren’t rosy, but they are working through any darkness.
Specht’s writing is enthralling and there are layers both to her characters and to the symbols that populate the text. The novel will get you thinking about things like home, nostalgia, family, healing, and schism. While there isn’t much meat here in terms of plot, enough is present for any reader who like character driven fiction.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Harper Perennial via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.