CALIFORNIA, by Edan Lepucki

California, by Edan Lepucki
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316250813
393 pages, hardcover
Published: July 2014
Source: NetGalley

In a post-apocalyptic near future, a young couple cling to one another in passion and isolation among the trees of the west coast US wilderness. Discovering their nearest neighbors (and only friends) dead, Cal (California) and Frida drop into deeper fear for the future. Discovering that she’s pregnant, Frida feels a greater need for stability, safety, and those vanished comforts of their past life before civilization’s collapse. As her mind turns to thoughts of the potential joys and fragility of relationship and family, Frida is reminded of the tragic actions and death of her brother. Cal and Frida leave their little piece of isolation to seek out a nearby secretive community and the support that the people there could potentially give. They find that Frida’s name is recognized by members of the community and that the town’s apparent safety is built around dark secrets and shadows of the past.
Works such as this that fall within the folds of literary post-apocalyptic fiction can be tricky beasts. The genre tends to bypass exploration of the means by which collapse occurred (or any action-packed epic scale looks at what the world has become) to instead focus on psychological effects on people and their relationships. Sharing similar themes structured around family and community these more literary works of post-apocalypticism end up seeming a lot alike. With Cormac McCarthy’s The Road these themes centered on a father and son. Here in California the core is Frida, her state of mind and particularly her definition in relation to the men in her life.
And here is where I run into my biggest problem with Lepucki’s novel: Frida is exceptionally weak. She appears primarily driven largely by biological urges of sex motherhood, and the memories of her brother. Much of the novel rests on her apparent need for seeking safety and solace in either her brother or in Cal (the latter who is equally weak-willed). Frida and Cal allow much to happen to them and don’t seem to have much ability to direct events in the novel, and despite questioning themselves seem incapable of actually questioning one another adequately to avoid those misunderstandings that help drive the plot.
With Frida being so defined as a character by the men around her and her biological circumstances I was rather surprised to find the novel is written by a woman. And I’m honestly equally puzzled by how strongly many female reviewers have loved this book. After reading a few misogynistic comments directed at Frida relatively early in the novel I considered abandoning it. I wrote a colleague about this and she told me that she had abandoned reading California for the same feelings.
The end of the novel is dark and discomforting in terms of its plot, leading me to wonder if this is simply the whole point of the novel, to tell a story about a pair of characters who are unlikable and doomed in their faults. Yet, whether written intentionally to convey these kinds of interpretations and reactions I had, or not, I simply didn’t find California that notable of an addition to the rather over-crowded post-apocalyptic field.

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

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley

Mr. Tall: Stories, by Tony Earley
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316246115
224 pages, eBook
Published 26th August 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands”
“Mr. Tall”
“The Cryptozoologist”
“Yard Art”
“Have You Seen the Stolen Girl?”
“Just Married”
“Jack and the Mad Dog”

Like Margaret Atwood’s recent Stone Mattress, this wonderful collection of novellas could easily be described as a selection of “tales”. With a confident style and unadorned dialogue, Earley effectively combines literary exploration of the marriage relationship with aspects of the Southern American folk tale. The stories range from the conventional side of the spectrum to the wild, fantastical side that would be at home in a genre anthology.
“Just Married”, a set of character relationship portraits, and “Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands” fall toward the conventional side. “Haunted Castles…” is a particularly strong opening to the collection, showcasing Earley’s talent at writing two characters dealing with life/relationship shifts. In this case concerning a wife and husband visiting a daughter now off at college, leaving the couple together in the isolation of a struggling relationship that contrasts the scenic, natural romanticism of the barrier islands they drive past on the way home. “Jack and the Mad Dog” falls at the other end with a clever play on a classic fairy-tale told with a meta fictional twist.
Earley’s most powerful tales fall in the middle of the spectrum. “The Cryptozoologist” and the best novella in the collection, “Mr Tall”, are special because they clearly combine the struggles of relationship at the crux of the protagonist’s being with the fantastic or symbolic elements of a folk tale. In “The Cryptozoologist” the loss of a spouse and the yearning to again feel the beauty of marriage and love becomes tied in time and place to a fleeting glimpse of a mythological creature and the burning desire to recapture a glimpse at its unique wonder.
“Mr Tall” fittingly gives this collection name. It conjures thoughts of the “tall tale”, and although the collection as a whole doesn’t really fit this form of folk tale, “Mr Tall” presents itself as a crafty twitching of the tall tale hallmarks. The historical story involves a young, naive, newly married woman whose devoted, but hard-working husband warns her not to visit their reclusive and seemingly dangerous neighbor, or approach his land. With certain unfulfilled feelings, general curiosity, and the boredom associated with being young and childless in the era, the wife ventures out exploring to learn more of this mysterious neighbor nicknamed Mr. Tall.  Exaggeration is subtly present in the town mythology surrounding Mr. Tall. And the wife is filled with a light-hearted optimism that one can find in a tall tale. Yet this tale is grounded in reality that is not entirely pleasant, and the story serves to illustrate the maturing of the protagonist from blissful naiveté to greater caution and fear. “Mr Tall” is a tremendous story with richly developed characters who show genuine aspects of humanity both positive and negative.
I haven’t read Tony Earley’s first collection, but it is going on my list of things to gladly read. I enjoy this kind of mixture of literary with genre, and it is particularly rare to see it done with the American folktale in my experience at least as a reader. I also need to reread “Jack and the Mad Dog”, for I fear I missed too much the first time, not ready for its unconventionality, and I think additional insights into the other novellas could come from rereading, a testament to the quality of this collection.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Her, by Harriet Lane

Her, by Harriet Lane
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 031636987X
272 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 6th January 2015
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Alternating each chapter between the points of view of two women, Harriet Lane’s Her is a  subtle, slow-building thriller that exudes a sense of foreboding and imminent disaster. When crises does actually drift into the plot it is easy to gloss over amid the now familiar unease of the women’s narratives.
Nina is a fairly successful painter who radiates a refined elegance and control. With an older husband and aloof teenaged daughter, she seems often left alone with her own thoughts and memories. As Her opens, Nina spots Emma, a woman from Nina’s past who for reasons unknown to the reader induces a rush of nervous and fearful excitement in Nina. Increasingly obsessed with Emma, Nina manipulates events to insert herself into Emma’s life. As a young, overwhelmed mother impressed with Nina’s status and grace, Emma appreciates Nina’s presence and seeming friendship.
The stalking and twisted maneuvers of Nina to gain the companionship and trust of Emma (who apparently doesn’t recognize Nina from her past as Nina does Emma) makes Her‘s slow crawl forward in plot deliciously unsettling. Only upon the novel’s close is the past relationship between the two women made clear, and all questions in the reader’s mind are addressed.
With a longer work, the alternating and at times overlapping points of view of events from chapter to chapter could grow tedious, but Her is kept short, simple, and sweet. The personalities of each woman are made clear throughout, and only key events are kept from the reader to maintain a sense of mystery and intrigue in the story, and to retain that uncertainty of just what will go wrong.
Her is thus a sort of psychological thriller, focusing on the twisted mind of Nina and the relative ignorance and inherent trustfulness of Emma. While it doesn’t contain much in the way of action, the pace of the novel stays quick – even with replaying scenes from Nina’s view and then Emma’s, the novel does not linger on unimportant matters but proceeds directly to the next important event in time of the two women’s’ relationship. It is a quick, easy read (as long as you pay attention to the nuances of emotion) – and Lane uses moments of levity or irony break the creepy tension or play with the reader’s expectation that now is when something bad is going to happen.
Readers that want lots of action, twists, and rapid payoff will probably be frustrated by this novel, but those that appreciate a quiet little understated horror, Her is masterful.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Little, Brown & Company via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN: 0316320323
240 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 10th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads

Are you still friends with the people you grew up with? Those whom you were inseparable through elementary school? High school? Is your current life where you planned for it to be when you entered into college? Or graduated? Is it even heading in the direction you originally planned?

Is your life what your ancestors imagined would come from their struggles and success? Are you building a life and family, looking at your own children or grandchildren and hoping for what type of future life they will have?

Despite all we put of ourselves into relationships, could everything turn out terribly different from what we desire?

These are the types of questions explored by Dugan in the short collection of chronological stories. Connected one-to-the-next with shared characters, the collection as a whole spans across a few generations and families to reveal the broad effects of the passage of time and changing circumstances on individuals and relationships.

So Much a Part of You is not a reading experience where you follow a protagonist through an exciting plot and get to live vicariously through the adventures and how much you ‘like’ the character. This is a literary collection, about matters more general, and deeper. The situations in the stories of this collection may include tragedies or condition you’ve never experienced, from physical accidents, to alcoholism, to one-night-stands, or an abortion. The characters may make choices that you have never faced, or think you would never make.

What is relatable, what is emotionally resonant and evokes reflection  is the general effect these situations and choices have on the characters in the stories and that the reader can then apply to their own personal life. For we have all faced rough situations and tragedy. We have all made choices, good and bad.

So too with the characters in So Much a Part of You. None of them end up where they may have expected. In some cases this is unfortunate, and in others it becomes clear that a new and better relationship has opened up in their life, that they would never have foreseen, but which for that particular time and place is exactly what they need, and dearly precious.

With the connected format of the collection, readers are able to see some characters from different perspectives and periods, creating a complexity that would be harder to obtain from a single short story. Dugan’s writing is fluid and conversational, making this a relatively quick read. The overall emotional reflection it could engender will last longer.

Four Stars out of Five

I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight,
by Laini Taylor
Daughter of Smoke and Bone Book 2
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ASIN: B0076DCLF6
517 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2012
Source: NetGalley

The first book in the series left me impressed even with heightened expectations from glowing recommendations. I really had no idea what to expect from the second. Could it keep feeling fresh, or would it rehash the same themes? Would the characters remain engaging? In what directions would the plot be taken and would its emphasis focus on the romance angles or not? It is easy for a series to unravel after a well-received introduction.

Thankfully, Taylor makes this middle volume and its characters go places, focusing more on the battles and larger scale conflicts between the ‘angels’ and ‘devils’ side of the war. Where the focus of the first book was on the development of protagonist Karou and her personal relationship with Akiva, this focuses on the larger issues of what that relationship now means within the historical context Karou has uncovered by the end of volume one. The scale here is larger, and the themes transfer from being centered on personal or ‘destined’ romance to ones of war, what situations of conflict do to influence lives and how prolonged conflicts can enter into never-ending cycles of loss and retribution.

If these are changes you weren’t expecting, and leads the stories into directions you don’t care to go, this may frustrate you. Liking the first book won’t mean you’ll like the second. But, if you find yourself appreciating the broadening of scope with new characters, new relationships, and most certainly new complications, I think you’d still love this.

Despite continuing to love the story here and the characters, and appreciating the evolutions Taylor writes to avoid simply repeating the same story again, her style of writing begins to get old. Specifically, Taylor tends to forward the plot by ending a chapter with a sudden revelation or occurrence (often in cliff-hanger fashion) followed by starting the next chapter well ahead in time. She then goes back and fills in the missing details of how the character or plot got from the end of the previous chapter to the start of the next. This technique really maximizes reader interest, but when used continually over the course of the two novels it begins to lose its charm.

I’m eager to see where this story and its characters go in the presumably last novel of the series. I would expect a merging of the first two novels and the battle between these two races entering fully into our Earth. I suspect the events will surprise me and the underlying themes of individuals struggling to connect humanely amid horrific conflict will continue to prove interesting.

Four Stars out of Five

Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner

19829927Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, by Peter Orner
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 0316224642
208 pages, hardcover
Published August 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

There is a form of religious book called the ‘devotional’. One reads a selection from the holy text and then a brief commentary or anecdote related to that selection. I really have never liked devotionals. I don’t mind reading a selection, but usually find those commentaries and remarks to be weak, obvious, overwrought, and simplistic. They never match the beauty of the original passages or the wealth of interpretations that can come from one little snippet of text in relation to its whole.

This book is what I wish devotionals were really like. Not silly, feel-good, faux-deep reflections, but original works of intense spirituality and humanity that can invite personal reflection rather than one set interpretation or thoughts from someone else. This is a short collection of literary vignettes, brief explorations of characters and situations in short stories and microfiction. For that kind of work, this collection is superb. However, in one punch, even in this short volume, it combines to make a daunting read, one that loses its beauty and poignancy if reading all at once as I did. It really would work better to read in pieces separated by time and further experience, almost like a devotional.

The ‘stories’ here often have no actual plot, but instead are brief observations of something larger, a character trait, or an isolated incident of meaning. They are broken into sections that are not immediately obvious in their differences – many for instance would still fit in the ‘survivor’ theme of the first, large section. Interspersed with what I assume are autobiographical reflections by the author that match in style much of the fiction, each page likely contains a phrase or sentence of profound beauty and possibilities. If poetic prose is something you enjoy or are looking for something literary that could serve as a devotional of sorts, then I would recommend giving this a look.

Four  Stars out of Five

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard

The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light, by Paul Bogard
Publisher: Little, Brown, & Company
ISBN: 0316182907
336 pages, hardcover
Published July 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Since I was young I have loved the night sky, gazing up at the lovely stars. Years later when I had the opportunity to be outside in a small village and the Bush of Botswana, I realized that until then I had never seen true night. Not only were these stars of the Southern Hemisphere different, but there were so many more. I was bathed in their glow and I found that I could even see the Milky Way, something that prior I had never comprehended. Yet even then, there in the heart of Africa, light pollution was evident, blazing along the horizon from distant mining industry.

The End of the Night talks about light pollution, about how most people are born, live, and die without ever experiencing an actual night, actual darkness, free of artificial light. I was aware of the effects of modern electric light on star-gazing, and even a bit on its adverse health effects, but Bogard takes the story far beyond these issues alone to shed light into all aspects of darkness, literal and even figurative.

Bogard writes both well and passionately, suffusing the text with a glow of caring and hope, even amid factoids that can be downright depressing regarding how ubiquitous and how horrible our way of artificially lighting our lives is done. The book is about light as much as it is about darkness, starting at one of the brightest spots on Earth, Las Vegas, and slowly counting down chapter numbers, dimming the focus on light and raising the focus on dark to the final reflections in quiet blackness.

After the initial astronomical discussions, Bogard turns to examining how two large European cities, London and Paris of course, have utilized light in different ways, with very different effects. He addresses the issue that most lighting we use is too strong and too wasteful, both economically and energetically. He discusses findings that demonstrate that all this light we clamor for in fear, all in the name of ‘safety’, actually has the opposite effect.

The most interesting chapter occurs halfway through the book with exploration of light and darkness in the metaphorical sense, and the psychological needs we humans have for darkness and for both sides of related things characterized so dualistically. Another chapter focusing on what people can do to change how we misuse light and foolishly banish darkness completes the tour of this book, leaving the last chapters almost like an epilogue, finding bits of darkness still close to home, and hope that it will still exist in the future, perhaps even return to our daily lives.

Riding the bus while reading this I noticed all the lights blaring inside, lights still on outside in parking lots, lights shining from cars…all while the Houston sun blazed down. This book opens your eyes to the lights that blind us. I’d recommend it to all to read.

Five Stars out of Five