The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
ASIN: B00J2D60W8
348 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Coming from Pennsylvania (even the other side of the state) I’m familiar with the Johnstown Flood. This entered heavily into my decision to request the novel; in addition its concept itself seemed promising.

Kathleen George seems known for her mystery/crime genre writing, so this is a departure from her normal literary pool. “The Johnstown Girls” is an exploration of three female protagonists, linked together through a shared region of birth. Set in part in the present, Nina returns to her hometown with her boyfriend Ben, a fellow newspaper reporter doing a feature on the anniversary of the catastrophic Johnstown flood. Together they interview Ellen, one of the last surviving flood survivors and learn of the mysterious loss of her sister May (Anna). We the reader then are shown that the sister has survived, with few memories of the disaster, no knowledge of her true origins and relations. Despite the literary shift then, this still has elements of crime and mystery in minor ways, displaying George’s touch and appreciation for the genre.

For the elderly Ellen and May/Anna, the narrative is split between present day and recollections of the past from their separation at the flood through the decades following. The novel is therefore historical in its backdrop and link between past and present narratives. Leading similar, but quite distinct lives of circumstance, Ellen and Mary/Anna display a shared kindness and intelligence, and a progressive independence that make them strong and decisive characters. They thereby reflect an optimistic example born from experience that mirrors Nina’s precarious situation in her own life still relatively early in progress, trying to make a relationship with Ben work. This contrast is evident to the reader between Nina and either sister, though to Nina only in regards to Ellen who she has met, driving her to help and determine the truth of what happened to May/Anna those many years ago and where she is now.

This overall theme of the story works tremendously well. The trio of female protagonists are fascinating, complex, and touchingly real. The verisimilitude of character, the contrast between the elder sisters’ optimistic certitude and Nina’s uncertain fears make the relations in the novel work emotionally, bright without any false rosy perfection. This authenticity is helped by the historical framework of the flood and the photos of real average people who lived through the event that George peppers between chapters.

Despite these strengths there are aspects to “The Johnstown Girls” that seriously detract from it. The primary difficulty is the Ben-Nina relationship. Though it complements/contrasts the relationships and experiences of the elder sisters, this doesn’t crystallize until the end. For much of the novel the scenes between Ben and Nina seem superfluous, particularly when extending to Ben’s family. Some of these portions could be left out probably, but at the very least the organization of the novel between multiple protagonists/relations across two times could have had connections strengthened via reorganization. Secondly, to augment the ‘historical’ nature of the novel, ‘copies’ of Ben’s articles are reproduced, largely repeating information already conveyed in the main narrative, or revealing information that could be better revealed through character interactions.

The regional familiarity of this novel for certain readers and an interest in the Johnstown flood make this a worthwhile read. For those that really appreciate novels with strong female characters and the travails of realistic relationships you will likely enjoy this a great deal, enough to look past the imperfections of the novel’s construction, much as the situation is in human interactions.

Three-and-a-Half Stars out of Five

No Country, by Kalyan Ray

No Country, by Kaylan Ray
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ASIN: B00GEECHIO
544 pages, Kindle Edition
Publication Date: 17th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

I quickly became enraptured by “No Country” and continued to enjoy its lush backdrops and interwoven stories of humanity until the bittersweet ends. The novel is aptly named because at its center the novel is about the human condition of being born, growing up, living, and dying, in various nation states of this Earth that are each indistinguishable in their basic challenges and joys.

Starting in Ireland, the novel follows two young friends that are forced to leave their village and country due to different social and political circumstances, ending up on opposite sides of the world. They struggle to make their journeys, whether alone, or with dear friends. Once at their ‘destination’, immigrants in a new home, they find new challenges including the basic challenge of belonging, but not belonging, as a foreigner in a new homeland. The two Irish founders live in their new homes and give birth to new lines that go through their own struggles as the waves of history carry them to their own procreation and death. As time passes, more and more of the stories of their ancestors, and their traditions, begin to vanish into an amalgam of something new, but always full of hope and desire and dreams. And sometimes ugly tragedy.

The most impressive element of Ray’s novel is its language and tone. Written in the first person throughout (obviously from various viewpoints), the voice changes from section to section based on the characters, as one would like. The early portions of rural Ireland are filled with a vocabulary and syntax that evokes the setting truly. Portions in India or the New World are suitably distinct and true themselves. Whether shifting in space, or in time, the writing shifts as well. I almost didn’t even notice this fact as I read the novel, as the story swept from place and time. But the biggest shifts at the end of the novel really made it clear as the reader is introduced to characters that are far from the heart and mind of the ancestors we’d been getting to know, reminding us that for all we may strive to make this world a greater place for our offspring, we have no control over what offspring will end up inheriting our legacies, nor of what future history can shatter all we build and value.

Rather than being depressing as I may make it all sound, the novel still manages to resonate with measures of love and hope, and beyond anything, the sense that all we humans that are on this planet are a bunch of intermingled mongrels, with shared backgrounds and ancestors. It is a reminder that though we may have our nationalities, we are each of us born of immigrants who in turn came from other immigrants, unfamiliar to our current land, stuck in their ‘ethnic ways’, destitution and dreams not unlike the newest batches of immigrants we see around us today. A beautiful novel.

Five Stars out of Five

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem
Publisher: Solaris
ASIN: B00INHMFKA
222 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

I began this excited from the book’s description, eager to delve into a horror novel with rich, gothic mood. High expectations probably account somewhat for my overall feeling of being let down. I’ve come across Steve Rasnic Tem’s fiction through short stories, particularly those published in Asimov’s in the past years and seeing how his style fit into a longer form held my curiosity. To my mind his work is known for a heavy dose of darkness, occurrences that will not go well for characters, no bright futures.

“Blood Kin” fits into this thematic mode well, but the plot and overall divided structure of the novel creates some problems. I’m not talking about the division of plot into two point-of-view protagonists here. Both Michael, and his grandmother Sadie are compelling characters. The switch of narration between the ‘present day’ and Sadie’s past works well. The division that posed a problem for me is regarding the genre emphasis throughout the novel. The story opens with a strong sense of Southern Gothic realism, with perhaps a tint of the magical. After building some tension and increasing the fantastic elements of the story it ends in a stronger dose of horror. At least one other reviewer found this to be the case and preferred the first half of the novel. However, for the most part, my interest in the story lay stagnant until the last moments.

There are some notable exceptions to this. The start of the novel with its Southern gothic vibe and the element of the encroaching kudzu grabs your attention. About midway through there is a fantastic chapter detailing Sadie’s first exposure to the church and its snake handling. Between these moments and the close, however, I simply felt the story drift within a lot of potential, but going nowhere significant.

This would have made a fantastic novella, the aforementioned highlights of the novel could have been condensed into one and I think the story would have had a far greater impact overall. If you are a fan of Tem’s work, or if the plot description rings as something you tend to like then this is worth reading. I wish as a novel it would have had greater development or a more consistent focus on horror/fantasy.

Two Stars out of Five

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry,
by Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ASIN: B00GU2RLMC
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Typically I do not enjoy warm-hearted, feel-good stories, but there are always exceptions that avoid becoming saccharine and remain sincere. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a novel that I rapidly fell in love with. The writing is not fancy, though filled with literary allusions, most basically in its structure with chapters named after key famous short stories. Between this construction and the overall plot, the novel is simply full of passion for all things bibliophilic.

A key strength of the novel is in its eponymous protagonist, a persnickety bookseller who doesn’t get along well with most people and is in the midst of alcohol-infused mourning over the death of his wife. The growth of Fikry from this state to the ultimate person he becomes, mediated through the unexpected appearance of a baby girl in his life, is a pleasure to read, reminding one what can be good and beautiful about people and the power that literature can have over lives. While reading this (and several other things) I found myself most eager to return to these pages and these characters who even evoked several laughs and smirks as I got to know their quirks.

I’m not at all surprised that Zevin has written children’s books, because this novel in a sense IS a children’s book: a simple story filled with joy and heart and wonder at life, a life filled with books, a life well-lived.

Five Stars out of Five

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
ISBN: 1250039819
320 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This novel is a lovesong to small town America and the struggling people who inhabit it. Written from the point of view of four life-long friends and the wife of one of them, it details their struggles to stay together in friendship and discover their adult selves in terms of past glories and failures. It is a type of novel that many people are just going to adore, because it has some psychological depth, steeped in realism, and in the end is uplifting, warm, and generally ‘feel-good’. Despite their struggles and faults all the characters in this book are really good people at heart, people who want the best for their family, their friends, and their small home town. They slip up, they aren’t perfect, but they in the end they are loyal and true. Strong midwestern folks all. In fact, the only character in the entire book who isn’t portrayed this way is a Hollywood actress who never wants anything to do with the small town and its populace, a person of the city and ultimately selfishness.

In a certain way, this all makes the novel rather simplistic, and despite its ‘realism’, somewhat contrived and a little too worshipful of a type of life and ideal person. Yet still, Butler makes it work. With something that could easily turn sappy and saccharine and utterly disingenuous and trite, Butler manages to keep things balanced between a realism and some midwestern ideal that is this lovesong. The majority of the narrative comes from the point of view of three characters, the most sincere and virtuous ones at that, but Butler intersperses those with the points of views of those that are not ideal, those that may still be lovable, but are still clearly damaged and weak.

If you want a warming and ultimately optimistic literary read of small town America then this is certainly something you should check out.

Four Stars out of Five

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark

The Rathbones, by Janice Clark
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00BE255W6
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

For Clark’s writing and its impeccably rendered Gothic atmosphere the book easily deserves four stars, perhaps even garnering five. This is the second book in a row I’ve read that focuses on the sea, the last beside it, and this largely on it, recounting the last surviving members of a once thriving dynasty of New England whalers and one teenage girl’s discovery of that family history. Descriptions of the ocean, the life within it and around it, and the workings of sailing vessels are beautifully conveyed, allowing Clark to truly immerse the reader into this bizarre world of the Rathbone clan.

It surely is a bizarre world. Clark’s rich descriptions of settings and action are rooted in a mixture of Gothic mystique and mythological otherness. Magic fills the pages and envelopes the characters, sometimes merely imagined, sometimes quite real, and sometimes, well the reader can’t be too certain. Everything appears somewhat off-kilter in the novel, where you realize you are reading about a realistic time period, a realistic occupation, yet still filled with that otherworldliness of fable, of fairy tales. Things aren’t necessarily as they first appear, and only with the full revelation of the Rathbone past to the protagonist does the reader also fully grasp some answers behind the many mysteries.

I would expect these aspects to lead me to adore this book. Gothic, dark, mysterious, magical, top-shelf writing… this should have been an adult high-brow dose of John Bellairs. Edward Gorey could have done the little illustrations. This should have blown me away. Yet, it didn’t.

The weaknesses of the novel and the source of my disappointment came from the fact that it is simply dry. Lovely writing is admirable, and in a short story it can pack a punch, but to maintain that intensity over a novel and still keep things moving, still engage the reader in the story – not just the skill of the writing – that takes a lot. There is no humor here, no let up in the seriousness, in the Gothic bleak monotones. Poetic descriptions that dazzle give way to rapid actions that advance the plot amidst shadows of uncertainty. One rereads a passage wondering, ‘wait, did what I think just happen really happen, or did I miss something?’ The mysteries are so grandiose and murky, and the answers are given (at first) so subtly, that one has to pay strict attention, let a small detail fly by. With little let up, this can be exhausting.

This on its own isn’t that big of an issue for me, but it does go hand-in-hand with the weakness I found most hard to move past…the characters are all so lifeless. You do get some thoughts of the protagonist, a good idea of what drives her, and yet many of her actions are just inexplicable, as mysterious as her family’s past. By rendering everything with this atmosphere of magic and mystery, Clark takes away a great deal of humanity in her characters. Some behave like characters from myth, some are not remotely as they appear at first, but for most all of them you never get much sense of their thoughts and motivations. Even as the protagonist learns about her Rathbone ancestors, their story is recounted in a dry historical fashion, learning where they start, where they end up, but little of who they really were. Large numbers of Rathbone offspring in each generation are cast into gender-specific groups with names such as “The Worn Wives” giving them some simple characteristic all in common, but no individuality, no humanity.

To be fair, this characterization makes sense to fit within the mythological or fablistic foundations of the novel. But, unfortunately it also seriously detracts from enjoyment of the story, the plot, and from the reader’s desire to empathize with the characters. Finding a balance between their otherworldliness and their realism is difficult to achieve, and for some readers I’m not sure if Clark has done so here. I imagine that many readers will be blown away by the beautiful prose and atmosphere found in this novel, and others for whom that just won’t be enough to keep their interest. Or you’ll be like me and go for stretches in absolute love and awe with what you read interspersed with stretches of indifference.

Three Stars out of Five

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren
Publisher: Diversion Books
ASIN: B00DTTQBDE
363 pages, Kindle Edition
Published July 2013
(Originally Publ. 1990)
Source: NetGalley

The entry for M.K. Wren in the “Encyclopedia of Science Fiction” aptly describes this novel as ambitious and eloquent. I was unfamiliar with her work before coming across this ebook reissue, but now I will eagerly pick up the “Phoenix” fantasy trilogy for which she is apparently best-known.

“A Gift Upon the Shore” uses the post-apocalyptic scenario to delve into two unique responses to wide-scale tragedy where civilization has collapsed and individuals are forced to give up or survive. The first response is one of fear and the erection of a rigidly controlling, false worldview based around the worst of Biblical literalism. The second response is one of careful rationality, deciding to preserve what is beautiful about humanity: art, knowledge, and compassion.

The conflicts between these two world-views drives the plot of the novel, related through the first person present point-of-view of protagonist Mary Hope, an elderly teacher living amongst (though philosophically apart from) a small Christian community. The origins of her present conflicts within the community are related through her first person past recollections of the advent of nuclear holocaust, her survival along with friend Rachel in solitude as they turn to preserving Rachel’s library, and their joyous, though ultimately disastrous, encounter with another survivor sent forth from “The Ark” to find potential mates to repopulate the devastated Earth.

The dichotomy between the rationally agnostic (or atheist) Rachel or Mary and the fervently ignorant religion of other characters has led some to criticize the novel as anti-religious or anti-Christian. This is only true, perhaps, if you accept reason and faith as diametrically opposed. Instead, the novel is more aptly described as being a reaction against the anti-intellectual Conservatism that we sadly see all to frequently coming from political and social news. Wren’s target is not Christianity itself, but rather a form of religion that grabs hold of simple, comforting answers or interpretations and holds onto them vehemently in the face of reality, because if they were to acknowledge reality their rigid and weak system would crumble, leaving them exposed to fear and despair. Rather than investing energy to support a dogmatic system of suppression, Wren argues that something more divine (and, I would argue, more religious) is possible, namely focusing on what is beautiful about humanity and about creation.

Wren masterfully uses female characters, something sadly not that common in science fiction. Rachel and Mary are each memorable, finely rendered and realistic characters. However, the other characters are less developed. The major antagonist is dogmatic repression made manifest and many of the rest are simply literal weak-willed followers. This arises from Wren’s separation of the two philosophies: one very liberal humanistic and the other totalitarian and thus unsympathetic and less ‘humane”.

These religious or philosophical points of the book are thus perhaps too overt and not presented as complexly as one would hope. But, the heart of the novel doesn’t lie in simply presenting the conflict between these two opposing ideas, it lies in Wren’s appreciation for life and the world, which the beliefs and behaviors of Rachel and Mary merely echo.

Here is the true gift presented by Wren to the readers of the novel: her descriptions of nature are profoundly beautiful. Numerous passages describing the Oregon coast and its surrounding ecosystems are rendered in hauntingly poetic language. Reading this and thinking of another literary ‘post-apocalyptic’ novel, “The Road”, I can only think how much more evocative and meaningful is “A Gift Upon the Shore”, though admittedly, they are very different kinds of books. This is truly eloquent and ambitious, and though it may not attain the profound heights that it strives for, I would easily recommend it.

Five Stars out of Five

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara
Publisher: Doubleday
ASIN: B00BH0VSSA
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Yanagihara’s “The People in the Trees” is a captivating, rich novel that delves into both large-scale cultural conflicts and intimate psychology behind human relationships and family. The novel is written a an edited compilation of memoir-like letters from the protagonist Dr. A. Norton Perina, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who discovered a source for vastly extended life span while on an anthropological expedition to an isolated Micronesian tribe, and who is now serving a sentence in his advanced years after conviction for sexual assault on children from the tribe who he has adopted through the years. Perina’s obviously biased epistolary recollections are edited by his only remaining friend and support following the conviction, and thus also biased, Dr. Ronald Kubodera.

Yanagihara begins with Perina recounting his childhood and relationship with his twin brother and their parents and then moves onto his schooling and events the lead up to his participation in the life-changing expedition. These early chapters at first seem quite separate from the story of cultural conflict that dominates the central portion of the book and I initially questioned the choice of this extended ‘introduction’. Part of that reaction came from the descriptions provided with the novel and the focus of comparisons to themes found in something like “The Poisonwood Bible”, highlighting cultural clashes between isolated tribes and the ‘civilized’ West. In reality this is only one half of the book’s import, and these early ‘introduction’ chapters leading to the anthropological expedition nicely set up the psychology of Perina, the disfunction of his familial relationships, and the notable absences of sexual encounters or apparent interests during his schooling. All these become immensely important in the final third of the book following the impacts of the expedition on Perina’s career and private life, ultimately leading to the cause of his conviction.

The central third of the book with Perina travelling with an anthropologist to the fictional Micronesian island, his encounters and responses to the alien culture of the isolated tribe, and his gradual discovery of the islander’s profound life spans and the cause are clearly the most exotic and succulent portions of the novel, where Yanagihara’s skilled use of language and colorful description shines. Beyond making the text enjoyable to read, this fact ironically highlights Norton Perina’s inherent unreliability as a narrator of his internal self. Norton frequently comments how he is the scientist with little artistic capability, while his twin, a renowned poet, is the literary talent. Yet the words we read in this letter declare to the reader otherwise.

Perina’s inability to truly understand himself, joined with his extreme arrogance and the results of the announcement of his medical discovery of prolonging life on the Micronesian island and its people lead to the events of the final third of the novel, Perina’s adoption of dozens of children from the tribe over a span of decades, their possible betrayal, and his possible guilt. Completed with a powerful ending that unites the two major themes of the novel, Yanagihara manages to keep the reader invested even beyond the closing lines.

The novel is described as being based upon true events, and the obvious source for Perina is Dr. Daniel Carleton Gajdusek, an NIH scientist and Nobel Prize winner who investigated the cause of the Kuru disease in Papua New Guinea and thereby helped establish the existence of prions – infectious misfolded proteins (in contrast to the living infectious agents known: bacteria, parasites, and (arguably ‘alive’) viruses). Like his fictional counterpart, Gajdusek adopted many children from the island nation, gave them Western educations, and ultimately was convicted to their sexual abuse, marring his scientific career.

And this brings us to the only flaw I see in this book – the science is poorly rendered and unrealistic. Kuru, like “Mad Cow Disease” and all prion diseases are neurodegenerative. They target the mind and involve protein aggregations and effects much like seen with something like Alzheimers. Rather than staying with prions, Yanagihara chooses to go with the more clichéd concept of seeking eternal life. This does allow display in the novel of scientific and economic greed more than a cure for prion disease might. But, Yanagihara still includes the neurodegeneration and subsequent slowing of the mind as a side effect of the longevity seen in the island tribe. Despite the perfect health of their body and the lack of its aging, their minds do slowly go until they become not unlike ‘vegetables’, or “Dreamers” as Perina dubs them. Their longevity as described in the novel is related to telomeres – the ends of chromosomes. And here is where the novel – for me, a biologist – failed miserably. While telomeres and aging are speculated to be related, it is hard to imagine how preventing aging in most of the body through alteration of telomere maintenance would somehow just not work in the brain, leading to the more prion-like side effects. In fact, it is more likely that a substance that extends overall life span by acting on telomeres would lead to a side effect of cancer, as telomere maintenance has a role in preventing cancer development. The copy I read is an uncorrected proof, so I also can only hope that the novel’s explanation of telomerase (the enzyme that MAINTAINS telomeres – not degrades them) is corrected. The description as it stands in the novel is backwards, and the inhibition of telomerase the text claims would rapidly shorten life, not extend it. Even with that correction, the overall ‘explanation’ is more of a MacGuffin than I would hope for from such an otherwise richly constructed novel.

Despite that flaw, I obviously enjoyed this novel immensely and it is one that would be amenable to rereading one day. Highly recommended for its beauty and the subtle undercurrents beneath the visible cultural reflections.

Four Stars out of Five