The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Paper Magician,
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Publisher: 47North
ASIN: B00HVF7OL0
226 pages, Kindle Edition
Published: 1st September 2014
Source: Amazon Kindle First

 Ceony Twill is a talented young woman who, with the help of an anonymous benefactor and her own dedication, has beaten the odds of her disadvantaged background to graduate top in her class at a prestigious school of magic. Her abilities and promise argue that she should have preferred choice in her apprenticeship. However, in a world where magicians bind their abilities to one particular material, the greatest needs of society and the magician’s true inherent talents may not lie in the most glamorous material they yearn to work.
Ceony finds herself assigned to apprentice a mysteriously aloof paper magician who she knows nothing of, and she enters his home dreading the training that awaits her, certain that it will be nothing but uninspiring. Instead she rapidly finds herself enamored with the subtle art and potential power of paper magic and with her mentor, Emery Thane. Emery is charming, yet demanding. But, Ceony also sees Emery’s forlorn spirit, trapped in a past he keeps closely guarded.
Falling in love with her mentor and his trade, Ceony hopes to gradually open Emory up, but the sudden arrival of her mentor’s former lover threatens both their lives and the world of magic alike. Ceony takes it upon herself to help discover the secrets of Emery’s ailing heart, heal him, and save both her new mentor and magical society.
Holmberg’s The Paper Magician is an example of a fascinating premise that at first glance seems to hold tremendous promise as a symbolic and moving fantasy centered around love and the emotions of the heart. This universe that hails from an era with ‘historical novel’ airs and involves magicians bound to specific mediums is richly rendered, both familiar and intriguingly fresh.
I really adored the opening chapters of the novel, and both Ceony and Emery are fascinating characters.  Protagonist Ceony nicely has the active role of ‘saving’ the man rather than the traditional reverse gender roles of fairy tales or fantasy. Yet, their developing romantic attachment and the pure evil of Emery’s ex make their relationship simplistic and conservative where the female is still precisely defined by the male. This isn’t necessarily a strike against the story and characters, just a note that the story isn’t as subversive as a reader may first expect.
The appearance of Emery’s former lover is when the novel takes an abrupt turn with an arrival of threat, tragedy, and quest where Ceony enters a magical (and allegorical) journey into each chamber of Emery’s heart. The interesting, although more ‘academic’ portions of the early chapters where Ceony is learning her art and the reader is being introduced to this fascinating world give way to a straightforward, and increasingly dull quest. However, I did find the ultimate ‘showdown’ ending to be satisfying.
The novel thus has some great aspects, but also some real problems. Ceony is well written, but the initial promise of Emery vanishes when the plot shifts to portraying him solely via his unconscious emotions. The Paper Magician is a quick read, and the start to a series whose second volume is already available for advanced reading. I personally am not sure about continuing with the series. There is some promise here for quality and exploration of different magical fields (materials). But there’s also the good possibility of it continuing down a similar route where the story – or execution – veers to areas I wouldn’t really find interesting or fulfilling. Yet, readers that devour fantasy diversions or particularly like the genre flavored with a historical setting or aspects of the romance genre could find this really enjoyable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this through the Amazon Kindle First program.

Archangel, by Andrea Barrett

Archangel, by Andrea Barrett
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 0393348776
238 pages, paperback
Published: 7th July 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

 This small collection of five interconnected stories was a fabulous discovery. National Book Award winning author Andrea Barrett is now a professor of English at Williams College, but graduated from college with a degree in biology. With these stories she uses these interests and experience to brilliantly and lovingly explore the process of scientific investigation and discovery and its effects on society’s view of the universe and the ties between individuals.
The five stories non-chronologically span from the late 1800s through the early 1900s, linked both by science and character relations, covering monumental discoveries of evolution, genetics, Einstein’s relativity, and particle physics over the sociopolitical historical backdrops of each ear. They therefore will appeal to readers that appreciate fiction that is historical, scientific, literary, or (like me) all three.
As a scientist I was immediately struck by how realistically Barrett portrays the practice of science.  I often think that the genre term science fiction is better dubbed speculative fiction, or even technological fiction. Rarely is SF concerned with the actual process of science and its social implications, rather it becomes about future applications of science and their effects on life. I’ve always looked for science fiction that was realistically just that: fictionalized accounts of doing current or past science. In Archangel, the characters and stories themselves are infused with a sense of excitement, wonder, and impatience,  yet also a bit of skepticism, doubt/uncertainty, and inadequacy. Barrett touches upon the differences between science and pseudoscience and the sometimes hazy divide that can appear between the two.
Ultimately, science is a social activity, it is not a cool Vulcanesque rationality divorced from humanity, culture, and relationships. Barrett’s recognition and exploration of this is what wraps the historic and scientific foundation of her writing with a delicate literary silk. The characters of Archangel exist in periods of world-shifting ideas that call into question the beliefs and assumptions of individuals and society. They must struggle with their own preconceptions and the expectations of others as they are confronted with new evidence and models of the universe. This is difficult when one has built their reputation on alternate ideas, when one’s respected and accomplished mentor is falling on the wrong side of scientific understanding/history, or when family members or the national culture have deeply seeded convictions that stand in opposition to what rational evidence presents to oneself.
Despite its historical nature, Archangel thus has significant relevance to even our current times: the rights of women, anti-science politics, alteration of the environment, and hope in a better, prosperous, and enlightened future. By linking the stories through time Barrett is able to explore shifting attitudes through changing generations and individual lifespans. These are captivating stories that stand on rich character and solid foundations of setting rather than plot, and Barrett’s writing flows pleasingly with artistry without being bogged down with academic or haughty pretentiousness. I’m really thankful to have won the giveaway for this and am looking forward to discovering Barrett’s past work and seeing what is to come.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
402 pages, ebook
Published 1st January 2013
Sources: Blogging for Books & Edelweiss

 Somehow, this notably well-reviewed novel slipped under my radar even past its release. Only upon perusing the Blogging for Books offerings did I discover it, and I am glad I chose to give it a try. If you haven’t heard about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena yet, or if it has been sitting on your to-read or consideration list, I’d recommend getting a copy ASAP. Then clear some nights for engrossed reading.
For those not familiar with the plot of Anthony Marra’s award-winning novel, it is set in the war-ravaged region of Chechnya and traces the intersecting experiences of a small cast of characters as they struggle for life, a combination of survival and purpose.
When Russian soldiers come for her father, eight-year-old Havaa flees into the surrounding Chechen woods, where her father’s friend Akhmed rescues her and takes her to hide at the nearly deserted hospital. There, the sole doctor left in this war-torn wasteland is Sonja, a European-trained physician who has returned through a sense of responsibility both to home and to a sister that has gone missing. Reluctantly, Sonja agrees to help care for Havaa, and – in testament to dire conditions – accepts the inept medical help of Akhmed, who has failed out of medical school and yearns more for artistic expressions.
Thrown together in awful circumstances, these characters share a stubborn commitment to hope for individuals and a future that fights against the despair surrounding them. With recollections of the past years of the Chechen conflict, and the constant threat that present friends may turn on them for personal gain with the Russians, these characters discover their lives intertwined, past, present and future.
The novel’s title comes from a definition for life given by a medical text/dictionary in the novel. The term is remarkably difficult to biologically define in one sentence. Typically, biologists will talk of characteristics of life, rather than settling on a strict definition. But the one here given title is particularly resonant in capturing the essential sum of those characteristics of life. They form an interlocking constellation of phenomena, individual traits that put together form a picture unique and new with a story. Similarly like stars each of the characters in Marra’s novel interact together to form a constellation in this historical space of humanity.
Metaphorically one could speak of a certain balance between the stars in forming a constellation. Similarly, Marra’s novel succeeds so well because of the careful balance he is able to strike in its construction. The shifts in time from chapter to chapter (or even within chapters) is managed without any sense of rupture or confusion. Each of the characters is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses and even the villains are shown with traits of sympathy and compassion.
(The novel does appropriately stay focused on the Chechens. The Russians in the novels are an outside force of the plot and setting more so than characters, and the villains, heroes, or mixtures in the story are each Chechen here.)
The emotional weight of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena could quickly take it into a story that feels utterly bleak. Marra nicely finds balance here as well, with the character’s vital hopes and perseverance working to counter the negative, and the young Havaa in particular offers a bright ray of humor and compassion that symbolizes a certain hope for the lives of a future generation.
The events of the novel’s ‘present-day’ plot consist of a mere five days, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes these points to form a picture over decades of conflict, personal and spiritual. The novel will pass similarly fast while reading, but its power and humanity will echo with the reader far longer.
Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Crown Publishing Group via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the Hour,
by Justin Go
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1476704589
480 pages, hardcover
Published 15th April 2014
Source: Goodreads

Recently graduated from college, American Tristan Campbell is in a directionless limbo when he receives a formal letter from a firm of British solicitors asking him to contact them about an important matter. The solicitors explain to Campbell that he may be heir to a sizable estate left by a former mountaineer and World War I officer named Ashley Walsingham.

Since Ashley’s death during an attempt to ascend Mt Everest, the firm has managed his estate, which was never claimed by the woman to whom Ashely left it, his former lover Imogen Soames-Andersson. The solicitors have established Tristan as the last living blood relative of the Soames-Anderssons, but whether Imogen is a direct ancestor is uncertain, a secret hidden in the shadows of a doomed, illicit affair between Imogen and Ashley.

Tristan finds himself drawn into a personal research quest that spans across Europe from Britain through France into Germany and Scandinavian lands to discover whether his grandmother was really the bastard child of Ashley and Imogen rather than the legitimate daughter of Imogen’s sister as had been officially recorded in time.

Justin Go writes Tristan’s genealogical quest  with contrapuntal chapters that reveal the events in the lives of Ashley and Imogen from their meeting until Imogen’s disappearance. With this plot and structure the novel suggests categorization as part mystery, romance, and historical novel.  Though containing these elements, The Steady Running of the Hour never actually fulfills the promise of any of these genres, leaving its purpose more in the field of general literary fiction. While Go’s debut novel shows a great deal of promise and an artistic mastery of the cadence of writing, I didn’t see it as a success.

The difficulty for the novel comes from its size and scope. The Steady Running of the Hour is really material enough for two novels, Tristan’s modern-day search for ‘treasure’ and the historical romance of Ashely & Imogen set against the backdrop of The Great War. Go uses these two separate stories to draw parallels between them and cover one all-encompassing theme of the effect that history and events have on personal relationships. Personal both in the decisions of individuals and the connections between people, connections that are fighting to be maintained against forces that try to rend them asunder.

The surface of the novel’s plot is that Tristan is searching for his claim to the inheritance. A ticking clock is even provided in that Tristan has limited time to uncover evidence for his claim before the stipulations of the will force the solicitors to divide the estate between charities. Yet the ‘treasure hunt’ for Tristan isn’t about obtaining wealth, but more a discovery of self, of identity and of past. His growing obsession with this hunt begins to interfere with the opportunities that appear in Tristan’s life, most notably a relationship (perhaps platonic, perhaps more) with a young French woman he meets.

The situation of Tristan ends up paralleling the star-crossed lover situation faced by Imogen and Ashley. Ultimately it is not Imogen’s family or the scandal of illicit relations that separate the lovers, but Ashley’s conflicting desires to live on the edge, whether as an Alpinist or as officer in the War, his pursuit of a life different from alternatives available with Imogen.

Ultimately, it becomes hard to manage this grand comparison across time and setting while still leaving the reader satisfied. Go does please the reader with the style of his writing. From the opening of the book I loved how the text flowed, and the careful poetic choice of words and sentence structure makes the grandiose novel enjoyable to read. The emotional strengths of this writing are most clear in the passages describing Ashley’s experiences during World War I. These horrors are handled so very well.

Unfortunately, The Steady Running of the Hour is not just a historical novel about World War I , or of a doomed Mt. Everest expedition (a subject that Go clearly researched deeply). It also tries to connect to the present life of Tristan, and his inclusion as protagonist demands some sort of reason or purpose to drive him – hence the quest plot and an additional ‘romance’.

Yet, the novel doesn’t really feature a romance angle as much as an unfulfilled romance. Ashley & Imogen’s relationship is brief and actually never particularly believable. Go seems more concerned with their individual personalities and the aftermath of their liaisons than their actual connection. Likewise, Tristan and the young French girl demonstrate an attraction (somewhat inexplicably) that is just as unfulfilled – leaving the novel to climax around the issue of whether Tristan will choose a life devoted to his quest as Ashley did, or if he will choose ‘the girl’.

The conclusion of the novel seems to have left many readers dissatisfied at aspects being unresolved clearly, most notably the truth of whether Tristan is a direct blood relation of Imogen and Ashley’s relationship. But this quest was never the major point of the novel, just the excuse for character motivation, a MacGuffin of impetus and a way to divulge the history to the reader incrementally.

The problem is that this unresolved motivational plot makes the novel feel rather fabricated. That sense of fabrication can also be seen symbolized in the solicitors’ behavior. They seem over-eager to push Tristan towards his search, yet keep secrets from him and stay rather aloof, giving you the sense that they aren’t being completely forthcoming with the terms of the estate, that they are fabricating this all to get Tristan to do something for them that they otherwise could not. That this is all a scam and Tristan is being duped. Just like the novel shows signs of authorial fabrication to try to achieve its goals.

And the reader can easily thus end up feeling duped. I think many readers have entered this novel full of false expectations of what kind of story and what kind of resolution (or lack thereof) they are going to get from the different elements of this sweeping literary novel. While some readers could easily bear guilt for this, it is also a result of an ambitious work that can lead the reader astray, that has difficulty in keeping control between its central literary goal and the elements of plot and character used to create it. Fans of rich literary fiction could still find this a notable, pleasing read, or those with interest in WWI. Casual readers desiring complete resolution should probably avoid it and wait for a more suitable showcase of Justin Go’s writing talents.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Simon & Schuster through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

The Hour of the Innocents, by Robert Paston

The Hour of the Innocents
by Robert Paston
Publisher: Forge Books
ISBN: 0765326817
320 pages, hardcover
Published: 20th May 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I ignorantly assumed that the Tor and Forge imprints of Macmillan were both for science fiction and fantasy, exclusively. The Hour of the Innocents then came as a surprise as I made my way into the novel and realized this wasn’t the case. Yet, this unmet expectation may have actually enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the novel because that was the only real unexpected element in this reading experience. This fictional story of a late 1960’s rock band is grounded in a historical reality, the characters are familiar types, and the plot proceeds fairly predictably. However, for all its familiarity, Paston writes the novel with a passionate authenticity and clear voice, making it a piece of nostalgic entertainment with bittersweet fondness for an era of extreme power both high and low.

The story is related from the point of view of Will, the newest member of a rural Pennsylvania rock band. A devoted musician, practicing his guitar with every chance he has, Will is cursed with a fine appreciation of music and its power, but little ability at playing. His personality and talent at songwriting are noticed by Mattie, however, a phenomenally talented guitar player who has just returned home from the traumatic experiences of Vietnam. More intelligent, mature, and talented than any of the other band members, Mattie’s only ambition, only need, is seemingly to play and experience the emotional healing, or coping, that can provide. Yet, the reader slowly discovers Mattie has other strong emotional ties and responsibilities to family, friends, and military relations that fight against all music accomplishes in his life.

Just as Mattie battles even upon his return from Vietnam between a simple life of music and the burdens of his past and his relations, so too does Will battle between balancing the wild, open rock-and-roll culture of the time with desires for the band to make it professionally. Key to this is Frankie, the flamboyant lead singer of the band, who draws crowds, and girls, but creates problems with his irresponsibility and disregard for his wife, who has a past with Mattie, and an attraction for Will.

Rounded out with the band’s drummer, the member we see and hear much less from, and who like all band drummers (we are told) handle the finances, The Innocents are born. Each is an archetype of rock music – the wild frontman who sings, the strong, silent-type guitar player with exceptional musical talent, the level-headed keeps-to-himself drummer, and the songwriter, full of self-doubt. They all share in a common hope, a dream of making it, success that will give them the freedom to just write and play music that can soothe their souls, and touch others. The Hour of the Innocents is about the birth of this all, and the rough road of imperfect personalities and troubled actions that lie in the path to realization of that dream.

What ends up occurring in the novel is therefore no big surprise given the set up. What makes it work is precisely how true to life, how familiar, Paston writes it. You can tell that Paston is just as passionate about the music and this time as his characters.Though brief, the chapters dealing with Vietnam directly or its aftermath, are vivid and moving, and are examples of the more unique moments in the novel, the verses to the more familiar band-member-interaction refrains of the composition.

The Hour of the Innocents will be of interest to anyone with an appreciation for rock music and its history, and to those who would appreciate the backdrop of the era as setting for literary exploration of character interaction, as long as the character familiarity and plot predictability can be overlooked for enjoyment of the journey.

Four Stars out of Five

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu

All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN: 0062300709
272 pages, hardcover
Published March 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Understated and deceptively simple, “All Our Names” is the type of novel where you need to stop yourself and allow sentences and passages to digest fully before moving on. It is all too easy to enter this story, fly through its pages without ever becoming engaged and simply write it off as insubstantial. It is not a novel where you enter the narrative flow of its plot and it to sweep you away. It requires attentiveness and personal reflection.

In other words, for its appreciation, Mengestu’s novel requires the reader behaves completely unlike its characters. In “All Our Names” the two point of view characters, Helen and Isaac (who has many names), have become disengaged from their lives. In the case of Isaac, this occurs through the process of living through a tumultuous period in post-colonial Uganda, where through a dear friend he becomes involved in political revolution. This history, leading to the violence and trauma that ultimately brings him to flee to the United States as an immigrant, is related in chapters that alternate with those from the point of view of Helen, a social case worker who is assigned to Isaac upon his arrival in the US Midwest. Helen has an almost immediate attraction to the distant, kind, and out-of-place Isaac. Their relationship pulls Helen further from her familiar job and relations in favor of experiencing simple existence in the company of Isaac.

This creates an interesting juxtaposition. On the one hand the characters are extremely distant, from one another and from the reader. We know few details about them, and even after learning the full story of Isaac’s past, we still no so little of him, not even his ‘real’ name. We learn little more about Helen. And each seems strangely indifferent to the lack of knowledge about one another. They are largely strangers, and while they have a certain curiosity, the point is not pressed. It doesn’t drive apart the relationship. Because ultimately, despite this distance of knowledge, emotionally the two are profoundly close. Isaac’s relationship with his friend in Uganda (also named Isaac, whose name he ‘took’ when fleeing to the US) is similarly based on a deep love without knowing the precise details of one another’s history.

The novel thereby seems to resonate around this idea that identity is superfluous, ultimately inconsequential, particularly when looking on this grand scale of national politics and social upheavals, from the revolutions of Uganda, to the racism of Jim Crow America. The characters in “All Our Names” have discovered that these labels that we use to identify one another: black, white, rebel, patriot, nationalist, immigrant, native, Isaac, Dickens, whatever – they ultimately are agents of division. Isaac (while either in Africa or North America), and Helen through association with him, have found deep human relationships of love to carry them through the tides of events, of uncertainties and new lands. They are no longer engaged with what is happening around them, they are not trying to control it, they are simply abiding, and living in a hope for a future. And they seem to have a realization that this relationship can transcend place and time.

Typically, I will enjoy novels more that achieve a sort of beauty coherent with the story that will also make the plot and characters a bit more developed and intimate. However, here I can’t criticize Mengestu for not doing this, because I read it as necessary to what he is trying to accomplish with this novel. While this isn’t my personal favorite kind of novel to read, I can appreciate the power and control of the writing he has produced here.

Five Stars out of Five

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

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

Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story,
by Diane Setterfield
Publisher: Atria Books
ASIN: B00BSBR382
337 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Though I finished it a few days before writing this, it was hard to determine what to say exactly about this sophomore novel from Setterfield. On the one hand, it is written well, almost lyrically in spots, but on the other hand the story never captivated me. Part of my ambivalence while reading and upon completing this novel stemmed from its description. It is not a ghost story. I don’t think there is any way to really interpret it as a ghost story other than aspects of it are haunting and that the protagonist is indeed ‘haunted’. I may have been more receptive if I hadn’t started this expecting something quite different.

Though titled Bellman & Black, this only concerns the second half of the book, really. The novel is really about Bellman, the protagonist, from a young age until his death. There is the eagerness and vitality of his youth, sexually and professionally, that is perhaps driven by the absence of his father. This youthful drive compels others to pay attention to Bellman, and soon his hard work and vision leads him to industrial success and the start of a family. Upon reaching these heights, Bellman’s world is shattered by the deaths of almost all he holds dear, driving him further into his work, which in the second half involves starting a funeral business that Bellman is inspired to form after a mysterious encounter (perhaps imagined) with a Mr. Black. Bellman’s world becomes completely occupied with his industrious spirit and desire for profit. Forsaking friends and family he uses the business of death to amass funds that drive him into further fears of losing all he has, now to his mysterious and absent ‘partner’ Black.

The reality of Bellman’s life (and the intersection of the fantastic in the form of Mr. Black, who is perhaps conjured in Bellman’s mind alone) is symbolized by the dominance throughout the novel of rooks (related to crows). In childhood, Bellman once threw a rock at a rook, which killed it. This event seems to haunt Bellman, and in the fantastic element of the story, it is implied that Mr. Black is an embodiment of the rook, seeking amusement and revenge for what was done to their kind. As the rock traced an arc in the sky leaving a dead bird, so too does Bellman’s life arc to a height only to then drop to inevitable death.

These ideas are actually quite good, and Setterfield’s descriptions of rooks are the highlights of the novel. However, the fantasy and the reality never intersect enough to work effectively. The majority of the novel is taken up with the reality of Bellman’s business dealings, and to a lesser extent relationships. The novel thus becomes a historical fiction detailing a man whose life becomes an obsession over business and profit, a combination between “A Christmas Carol” and “Martin Dressler”. This type of novel has been done frequently, and Setterfield doesn’t add anything particularly new to this aspect. Instead she adds the fantastic slant with the crows and their symbolism, never really settling on whether they are in Bellman’s head alone, or an actual paranormal manifestation in the form of Black.

“Bellman & Black” therefore has a lot of promise, and given the popularity of her first novel (which I haven’t read) I’m sure many will adore this book. I think I would have, had it not been marketed the way it was, and if the Black storyline had been introduced much earlier rather than so much space spent on detailing Bellman’s prowess at industry.

Two Stars out of Five

Long Division, by Kiese Laymon

Long Division, by Kiese Laymon
Publisher: Agate Bolden
ISBN: 1932841725
276 pages, paperback
Published June 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

True or False: If you haven’t read or written or listened to something at least three times, you have never really read, written, or listened.

So reads one of the ‘questions’ in a test given to Citoyen (City), the protagonist of “Long Division”, a test that appears both near the beginning and the end of the story. Or perhaps one should say, stories. With the qualifications of ‘for me [dot dot dot] for this novel’ the above statement is most certainly true. On the surface Laymon’s debut novel is filled with straight-forward social commentary on race, age, and family. These weighty topics are dealt with moments that are humorous and a style that shows joy at playing with language. But I also get the sense that there is more behind that surface, a trove of thought-provoking bits that could easily fuel dissection in some academic setting. This is a novel that one finishes, and decides to return to again one day.

You can read the summary of what this novel is about, so I won’t go into its complexities here, but it is indeed a book with another book called “Long Division” within it. And that secondary “Long Division” even has yet another “Long Division” within that. We the reader don’t delve into that level, though one gets the impression that it may circle back into the world of the primary “Long Division” one holds in his or her hands. Thankfully, this complexity does not detract from the novel, it is actually an integral part that drives the whole. The fantastic aspects of the novel (time travel across historical eras) actually take place in the secondary “Long Division”, while the primary work stays rooted in a realistic manner until the end when a bit of magic possibilities enter in, at least how I interpreted things on a first read. I felt some uncertainty in both events of the plot and what ideas to take from the novel upon concluding it. On the one hand this fuels thinking, reconsidering, and rereading. On the other hand, some readers may not like doing this at all.

Laymon desired (from what I can tell) to write something unique that spoke to a particular audience, but still capture certain essences of ‘classic’ Am literature that we all grew up with in school. He has surely achieved this kind of balance both in story and characters. On the back cover of the book, Tim Strode is quoted “…City…feels totally singular and totally representative.” This statement is dead-on, both in characters and the overall style of the work. Layman’s most impressive achievement is that of voice. The City of “Long Division” prime is both similar, and quite distinct from the time-traveling counterpart of “Long Division” secondary. In a book that focuses commentary on stereotypes, clichés, acting a part, etc, it becomes essential that the author stays well-clear of falling into the same trap. Laymon manages to keep each character utterly believable and sincere: simply human, whether young or old, male or female, black or white. Primarily focused on issues of race, it was profound to see Laymon also masterfully handle those other considerations such as gender.

The varied styles and personalities of each character really does make this novel go beyond being a clever social commentary or homage to classic literature; it makes it art worth consuming. That fact, along with the book’s easy flow, strong plot, and tendency to make one chuckle make this something well-worth your reading.

Five Stars out of Five