Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 1400069726
432 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 1st July 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I used to know a fair amount about the Civil War and Sherman, but not having read much about it in years, many things had slipped my mind. Having lived in St. Louis for a good time and knowing Sherman’s connection to the city I was interested in giving this biography a read. Overall it is a fascinating and very approachable volume, never getting bogged down in too many details and presenting the history and personalities in an engaging style. While not skimping on details and analysis, O’Connell effectively avoids academic tones, relating a good deal in almost conversational fashion. The writing makes it clear that he is really interested in this story and the character of Sherman.

The downside to the book, however, is its organization. O’Connell in the introduction makes the point of needing to separate the various aspects of Sherman’s complex character or personality and behaviors, which at times he feels could become seemingly incongruous or too scattered to follow as one coherent chronological line. This results in the book being divided into three sections: 1) a military perspective (campaigns and his relations with the military hierarchy), 2) another military perspective (his relations with the troops under him), and 3) his personal life. O’Connell’s previous work, which has focused on military and weapons makes the focus of this wartime hero understandable. But, a large amount of the introduction points out the important contributions that Sherman made after the war, which have often gone ignored, particularly in realizing or enabling the “Manifest Destiny” of the previous political years prior to the war’s outbreak.

Sadly, very little text is spent on this period. The bulk of the book is taken up just with the first part. The second part is really a continuation or a rehash of things already covered, but provides a slightly more detailed perspective of Sherman as viewed by his troops. In this way the two chapters of that second part feel more like a biography of the soldiers rather than Sherman. Additionally, much of the private life of Sherman in the final part (again only a couple of chapters) still gets discussed (just more fleetingly or generally) in the earlier sections. The entire end of the book thereby feels like a slightly more specific discussion of things already mentioned, leaving them feel tacked on and superfluous, too separated from the whole.

Despite my issue with the breakup of the organization, this volume would be a fine addition to the library or reading list of those interested in the Civil War and the people involved. O’Connell summarizes other historical accounts of Sherman’s life well within the entirety of his text, often analyzing conflicting views or offering up his own unique take on interpretation of events or beliefs that the historian can only speculate upon with the evidence we have. In all O’Connell seems well-reasoned and informed and he offers copious notes to original sources for those who wish to delve deeper.

Four Stars out of Five

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

The Quick, by Lauren Owen
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00H4EM4WW
528 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Lauren Owen’s debut novel is a difficult one to assign a rating. Overall it is an above-average book and will be of interest to many readers. However, the enjoyment of it I think will vary quite substantially from reader to reader, in a not-too-easy to predict fashion. If the plot (including the ‘twist’) is something you find intriguing, you should definitely check this out. It is extremely well-written and Gothic-moody, but its execution and the ultimate direction of its plot may cause some frustrations.

Some have considered discussion of what this book is about to be a spoiler. Given the implications of the title, I don’t take this to be the case. Though not mentioned in the novel’s summary ‘blurb’, I think it unfair to try and rope people into reading a story they may have no interest in. Knowing what the story ultimately about doesn’t spoil much, in fact it probably makes the surprise transition from the first third of the book to the remainder far easier to go along with. So without further ado, if you REALLY REALLY don’t want to know anything more about the novel, you’ll have to stop reading.

Potential Spoilers Follow

“The Quick” starts off as a fabulously engrossing Gothic story about a secret society, and of a sister and brother living in a large empty home in the absence of their parents, under the care of a servant as their father is away. The first third of the novel focuses upon the brother, grown up and at university, as he makes roommates, friends, and eventually romantic ties with a gentleman he meets there. Throughout this portion of the book the story is filled with a literary richness, excellent characterization, continued foreboding Gothic tensions, and drives forward certain expectations on how one suspects the plot may unfold.

These expectations are then shattered when tragedy strikes and the focus of the novel shifts to bring in the identity of this secret society brought up back in the prologue. Vampires. The remainder of the novel is a story about vampires, what the society is about, why they have done what they’ve done, and what the ramifications will be for both the brother and the sister. After a portion of the novel written in the form of diary by a man associated with the vampire society (to explain their characteristics and background history to the reader) the novel continues the ‘action’ of the plot by shifting back to the sister, who now arrives in search of her brother.

The dual focus, split in the book, between the brother and the sister is not a major problem. With the sudden plot twist of bringing in vampires, this split focus is perfectly valid. The shattering of reader expectations based on the first third of the book isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. It’s great to have cliched expectations shattered. The problem becomes when one potential expected plotline is simply replaced with another completely different one that begins to feel even more cliched and predictable. Sadly, I feel this is largely what happens with “The Quick”.

Vampire novels have been done to death. Here it is made somewhat unique by giving it a strong classic literary and Gothic style as opposed to the more recent takes on the subject. The addition of these vampires in an organized society led by one particularly visionary individual gives the vampire plotline even greater potential to take on something new in this novel. This individual does not merely look on the normal “Quick” humanity with ambivalence or disdain. Rather he views them with a sort of pity, claiming a desire to use the society’s powers and influence to not simply survive and feed, but to try and find ways to improve and better humankind. This is a very interesting concept.

Unfortunately, the concept is never developed. Instead the novel becomes a rather standard (though consisting of great prose) novel of fighting against the vampire society’s plans. The supposed ‘well-meaning’ intentions of the vampire leader turn out to be disingenuous, mainly a victim of power corrupting, turning him into a typical vampire monster and thereby negating any potential exploration of a vampire doing great things while also having to rely on predation.

Those who simply adore well written Gothic novels, fans of vampire fiction, and the like will enjoy this book greatly, even if they don’t love it. Those unsuspecting and disinterested in the vampire plot may feel misled, and those that fell in love with the literary beauty of the first third of the novel may become disappointed by its turn into rather predictable genre fiction, albeit with a continued ‘literary’ style of prose.

Three Stars out of Five

Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates

Black Chalk, by Christopher J. Yates
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00CZ7OC28
356 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

The summary description of “Black Chalk” enticed me with the novel’s premise, yet it also made me wary with its comparisons to Donna Tartt’s brilliant “The Secret History”. Both of these initial impressions proved well-founded. Yates’ debut novel is built around a terrific idea, the development and consequences of a cruel, high-stakes game developed by a group of college students. This period and setting of life, simultaneously a step forward into ‘adulthood’ and also a regression to child-like social mentalities, is prime both for literary exploration and construction of a wonderful thriller as Donna Tartt proved.

Whether Yates’ work here is directly influenced by Tartt’s novel or just bears chance similarities in plot, it is notable that the similarities between works are superficial, at the level of setting and general themes. In addition to a secretive group of intelligent, though naive, students, “Black Chalk” has the additional element of an enigmatic outside force shaping the start of events. “Game Club” as they are called, make one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel, yet its purpose and secret wind up being rather mundane, leaving this element sadly under-utilized.

Instead, “Black Chalk” focuses on the students, particularly the founding pair of the group, using a narrative structure of first person recounting prior events through third person. As the history is told, it becomes clear both who the narrator is and that he suffers from mental problems and drug side effects, suggesting his related information may be unreliable. Indeed it begins to appear that some of the recorded text may not even be the narrator’s own words, but something another has come in and added to his writings. Unfortunately, very little is done with the potential created by this unreliability. Past events are described still from solely this unreliable point of view, leaving things confusing just how much is ‘true’ and what is imagined or altered.

Initial suspense created by the narrative structure and the general premise of the plot become bogged down in much of the inaction of the novel’s progression. The social disintegration of the student’s friendship is hardly surprising, and the cruel games end up feeling not terribly bad considering the build up for horrors that the mind of the reader may begin to imagine. The suspense of the novel builds the reader up for an eventual showdown and ending to the ‘game’, and while the ultimate solution for achieving victory is well constructed, this showdown also ends up feeling like a let-down, far less disastrous or horrible as expectations may be.

The writing of “Black Chalk” is good, but it doesn’t give the novel the same literary weight as Tartt’s work, covering similar issues, but without the degree of symbolism, allusions, etc. In the end it could still have been a decent thriller, but never managed to be as ‘disturbing’ as I initially expected from the premise. I think Yates has the talent to produce some great works, this debut just had too many issues in terms of characterization, depth, missed opportunities, and the unfortunate invitation for comparison to “The Secret History”.

Two Stars out of Five

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson

The Tyrant’s Daughter, by J.C. Carleson
Publisher: Random House
ASIN: B00EMXBD9S
304 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

Yesterday I was listening to a podcast of NPR Books and someone mentioned that young adult books often focus on how the actions of adults affect the lives of children, but rarely how children drive the lives of parents or other adults. That made me think about this novel and how Carleson’s work follows both directions of impact. The majority of this novel is about how the life of Laila (and the lives of her fellow young) are dictated by their family and culture. Yet, the novel also addresses the lack of freedom inherent even in the lives of the adults, whether they be parent, dictator, or (apparent) CIA officer. Furthermore the novel is that coming-of-age tale where the child begins to exert more freedom and actually turn the tables of control over so that they are now steering the course of their parent’s life.

I finished “The Tyrant’s Daughter in one day. It is an ‘easy’ read, but it is also full of great ideas, intriguing characters, and compelling plots. The story is profound and it is populated with realistic people; the text flows naturally. Nothing in this book seems superfluous, and Carleson nicely makes use of her personal experience to craft a taut thriller amid the literary underpinnings of Laila’s story.

I appreciated just how well this novel mixes entertainment with significance, conflict with insight. This is a book I would have enjoyed even when younger.

Five Stars out of Five

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

10112885Night Film, by Marisha Pessl
Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 140006788X
602 pages, hardcover
Published August 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

A novel that combines cult cinema with a literary thriller, I had high hopes when winning this one and it didn’t disappoint. I hadn’t read Pessl before or even heard of her previous novel, which received many accolades, but after this I’m excited about reading more of her.

I intentionally read this one slowly, savoring it in the darkest hours of night, relishing the mysteries and eerieness of its pages. For its length, it’s actually a quick read, but I found that leaving the story at various points despite wanting to know the truth behind it all as much as the protagonist only added to the novel’s haunting power.

Night Film is hauntingly real, yet on the fringe of bizarre and disbelief, much like the films of the fictional director the story centers around. Having watched cult films for years, even searching for those rarities that are spoken of with reverence and whispers of warning: a film banned for being too intense, a film surrounded by stories of oddities and curses. This is the world of the characters of Night Film.

The mood and realism of Night Film is augmented by the novel’s inclusion of faux web pages. letters, and other items that are interspersed in chunks at various points. At first I looked at this with wariness that it was a gimmick, and it is arguable that their inclusion is unnecessary – that the information within them could have been conveyed within the ‘normal’ text of the novel. Yet, I realize not without the same effect on the reader. Nothing compares to a chilling phrase ending a paragraph followed by turning the page to a creepy photograph.

The plot you can gather from the blurb, and to give any more details would spoil the book. Suffice it to say the novel proceeds on several levels through layers and layers of partial truths and shadows. At the end the protagonist and reader are given an answer, but much like the films of the fictional director in the story, those answers will have a certain measure of ambiguity. What is important, is the journey to them.

While Night Film is dark, and creepy, it is not scary. It is not pessimistically dark, it is not sad. It is just an extremely effective atmospheric thriller that resides on the edges of the supernatural and the unknown. In some ways it is like a Stephen King story – though a very different writing style. The absolute highlight of the novel comes toward the end in a series of chapter-less pages describing a harrowing journey into the heart of the novel’s themes and structure. The rest of the novel was enjoyable, this part was just utterly wonderful.

With mysterious characters and subtle revelations made throughout the novel it is also a book that could be reread with a fresh take and appreciation. It’s curious to wonder how filmable the book would be, given its subject. It may be possible, but I think it could take a director like the one invented here to pull it off.

I hope Pessl writes future novels like this one, or that she is just as talented dealing with other themes or styles. Heartily recommend.

Five Stars out of Five