THE VALLEY OF HAPPINESS AND OTHER STORIES, by George Williams

24382826The Valley of Happiness and Other Stories
By George Williams
Raw Dog Screaming Press – 27th February 2015
ISBN 9781935738671  – 158 Pages – Paperback
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press


CONTENTS:
“Striper” (Originally published in Journal of Curriculum Theorizing)
“Ghostly”
“Dummy”
“Televangelist at the Texas Motel” (Originally published in Gulf Coast)
“Slave for a Day”
“Deadly”
“Ginny Shay”
“Moon”
“The Valley of Happiness” (Originally published in Boulevard)
“Goat”
“The Bay of Drake” (Originally published in Reed)
“Buy Now, Pay Nothing”
“Beestings”
“Wabash” (Originally published in Boulevard)

The back cover of this new collection from Williams (Gardens of Earthly Delight) has a blurb of praise from Library Journal saying that he “…shows a darkly comic sensibility more akin to that of the filmmaking Coen brothers…than to more obvious literary influences…” and I agree that this describes his work excellently.
Each of the stories in The Valley of Happiness and Other Stories take a setup or core plot that seems very familiar, classical even in the American landscape of storytelling, but then gives it a tweak into some direction surreal, absurd, or just plain weird.  Dialogue spoken with ‘straight man’ seriousness sounds slightly comic, unfamiliar in the surrounding situation.
For instance, the opening story “Striper” begins as a quiet tale of friends fishing, and a sudden tremendous haul of a gigantic fish that seemingly shatters all known records. The folky nature of the story is drawn into the realms of the fantastic, the unusual by the size of the fish, and phone calls from scientific institutions wanting to examine and preserve it. But Williams will take things some steps further, the fish speaking, and the fisherman who caught him struck with novel feelings and needs leading to his physical transformation and refuge in the waves.
 “Dummy” deals with a ventriloquist and his dummy who go on a rampage of crime and destruction. The creepiness of the ventriloquist dummy (or dolls in general) have appeared in thrillers and horrors on small screen, large screen, and in print for long enough that it is a common trope. But Williams looks at things again slightly off kilter, in the minimalism of his text not stating outright who these people are, what the dummy is, but linking it into the psychology of the man.
The minimalism of Williams writing is one of the things that I loved most about his stories in his last collection. In this he continues that mastery of staccato dialogue and bare-bones evocative description. Yet, it is also apparent from a couple of the stories that he can do flowery just as well, particularly with “The Bay of Drake”.
 With this story Williams seems to have skewing both the story AND his characters into comic absurdity. Narrated by a member of explorer Francis Drakes’ crew, the story is written in a more antiquated and verbose style than all the others. We soon find that the crew has come ashore to California of modern day, with an invitation to a party for ‘play boys’ hosted by one ‘Huey Heifer’. The juxtaposition of the older with the modern, the uncertainty of whether Drake’s men have been lost in time or if they are just method actors REALLY devoted to their role, the calash of modern culture through the eyes of a more repressed age… they all play here to highlight the best of Williams even absent the minimalism.
Other stories here range from social commentary (“Slave for a Day”) to violently disturbing (“Ginny Shay”) to bizarrely empowering (“Beestings”), while others court closely to the literary focus on relationships (“The Valley of Happiness”) or a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque genre crime story (“Wabash”). At approximately a quarter length shorter than his previous collection Gardens of Earthly Delight, I actually enjoyed this one more, just the right amount of this style for me without it losing its potency.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Raw Dog Screaming Press in exchange for an honest review.

AFRICA39: NEW WRITING FROM AFRICA SOUTH OF THE SAHARA

20613772Africa39: New Writing from Africa South of the Sahara
Edited By Ellah Wakatama Allfrey
Bloomsbury USA – 28th October 2014
ISBN 1620407795  – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads


CONTENTS:
“The Shivering”, by Chimamanda Ngoszi Adichie
“The Banana Eater”, by Monica Arac de Nyeko
Excerpt from The Tiger of the Mangroves, by Rotimi Babatunde
“Two Fragments of Love”, by Eileen Almedia Barbosa
“Why Radio DJs are Superstars in Lagos”, by A. Igoni Barrett
Excerpt from Our Time of Sorrow, by Jackee Budesta Batanda
“‘Alu’”, by Recaredo Silebo Boturu
“Mama’s Future”, by Nana Edua Brew-Hammond
“The Occupant”, by Shadreck Chikoti
“The Professor”, by Edwige-Renee Dro
Excerpt from New Mom, by Tope Folarin
“No Kissing the Dolls Unless Jimi Hendrix is Playing”, by Clifton Gachagua
“Talking Money”, by Stanley Gazemba
“Day and Night”, by Mehul Gohil
Excerpt from The Score, by Hawa Jande Golakai
“The Pink Oysters”, by Shafinaaz Hassim
“Echoes of Mirth”, by Abubakar Adam Ibrahim
“The Old Man and the Pub”, by Stanley Onjezani Kenani
“Sometime Before Maulidi”, by Ndinda Kioko
Excerpt from All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu
“Number 9”, by Nadifa Mohamed
Excerpt from Rusty Bell, by Nthikeng Mohlele
“Cinema Demons”, by Linda Musita
Excerpt from Ebamba, Kinshasa-Makambo, by Richard Ali Mutu
“By the Tracks”, by Sifiso Mzobe
“My New Home”, by Glaydah Namukasa
“I’m Going to Make Changes to the Kitchen”, by Ondjaki
“Rag Doll”, by Okwiri Oduor
“The Is How I Remember It”, by Ukamaka Olisakwe
Excerpt from The Wayfarers, by Chibundu Onuzo
Excerpt from Ghana Must Go, by Taiye Selasi
“The Sack”, by Namwali Serpell
Excerpt from Harlot, by Lola Shoyenin
“Amoz Azucarado”, by Nii Ayikwei Parkes

Africa39 is a project celebrating “thirty-nine of the most promising writers under the age of forty with the potential and talent to define trends in the development of literature from Sub-Saharan Africa and the diaspora.” Born from the Hay Festival and the designation of Port Harcourt, Nigeria as the UNESCO World Book Capital of 2014, the anthology collects fiction from the invited authors in the forms of short stories and novel excerpts. Having read some stellar African fiction (mostly from Francophone countries) and having travelled to Botswana, I was really intrigued and interested in this collection, particularly to discover some potential new authors or works.
Because I largely looked at this as a diverse introduction to talented writers from Sub-Saharan Africa, I didn’t need each story or excerpt to stand on its own and delight, just merely impress enough of some skill in the author, and more so themes tackled that seemed interesting to me. The voices and points of view are varied, as are the settings and tones. Some are focused on a specific historical or political situation whereas some or more personal, focusing on shared human emotions that would be familiar to most any reader.
While the short stories universally worked well in the anthology, I found the novel excerpts to be more problematic. I personally dislike novel excerpts as a concept/practice. There is a reason why these words are in the context of a story that is novel length. They cannot be divorced from the larger context and remain the same. A few in this collection do stand on their own, but whether they are really expressions of the novel in microcosm is uncertain. But most seem dreadfully incomplete, or (in the case of one where I have already read the whole novel) fail to show the genius and beauty of the full work. I already read and reviewed All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu. I adored the novel. But rereading the excerpt in this I didn’t feel much at all, it is too small a piece to have meaning.
I wish that the editor for this had only solicited or accepted actual short stories. The problem I know is that not ever talented fiction writer can do the short form. Some authors are great at novels, but not shorter works (or vice versa). But the excerpt doesn’t exactly do them justice either. Worse, some of the excerpts are from novels in the process of being written. So these may never be fully completed or see the light of day as currently envisioned.
Thus, this anthology really does serve best as a writing sampling, ideal for readers who are interested in Sub Saharan African literature and want to see simple samples from the current prospects and stars. While many of the stories in the collection do more, and would be on par with any other literary collection, they don’t necessarily make up the majority.

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

THEY DO THE SAME THINGS DIFFERENT THERE: THE BEST WEIRD FANTASY OF ROBERT SHEARMAN

22130073They Do the Same Things Different There:
The Best Weird Fantasy of Robert Shearman

By Robert Shearman
Published by ChiZine Publications – 16th September 2014
ISBN 1771483008 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Read immediately following Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, a similar dark, weird literary fantasy collection from ChiZine, I found Shearman’s more difficult to approach and get into. Reading a large chunk of this type of intense, subtle material like these all at once probably had a large impact in this and I will need to return to this collection again sometime to give it the full attention of my brain it deserves.
What I can relate about this is that it is wonderfully written, the language exquisite, and the stories unsettling. For those who really enjoy Marshall’s work, this is something you’ll want to read, and vice versa. It makes sense that ChiZine had both collections out at the same time. Though they have much in common in style, and particularly tone of their stories, the two writers are of course not exactly the same and readers may have their preference. In general I found Shearman’s stories to be even more surreal and nuanced, with less of the classic horror elements that Marshall’s stories contain. Both are great, but every potential reader may still have one that they slightly prefer and Shearman’s style of ‘weirdness’ is something new for me, different (as the title suggests) from the usual subgenre of literary surreal horror.
Shearman’s tales here are filled with non-traditional, fantastic situations or settings and the plots are usually not clear at first, or follow the path you might expect them to based on their set-up. Unlike in Marshall’s collection there is not any consistent thread of theme to Shearman’s stories that I could discern, but another reading when I’m less burnt out may reveal more. Regardless how  you first read these I think that the collection is something that a fan of this genre would want to return to and find new facets that weren’t picked up on originally. If oddity is your thing or something you’d like to try, don’t let this collection pass you by.

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

LAST TRAIN TO BABYLON, by Charlee Fam

20783291Last Train to Babylon
By Charlee Fam
Published by William Morrow – 28th October 2014
ISBN 0062328077 – 352 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads First-Read Giveaway


What I found most striking about Fam’s debut literary novel is just how effectively she takes the strengths of the short story format and applies them to the longer form. The plot of Last Train to Babylon is basic: Aubrey Glass, a young woman with a history of mental darkness and suicidal sentiments returns home for the funeral of her former best friend Rachel who has recently killed herself. Aubrey’s struggles to get through the present collide with traumatic memories dredged up from her past as she reunites with family and former classmates in the wake of Rachel’s funeral and questions over what had finally pushed her to take her life.
Alternating between events from the past and Aubery’s current situation Fam uses Aubrey’s point of view, flawed personality, and simple, honest narrative voice to delve into incredibly important themes revolving around young women growing up in America. Many of these issues are uncomfortable, ferocious and dark and Fam manages to balance this all with a certain touch of light humor and irony. The seriousness of some elements: suicide, rape, assault, bullying, shaming are treated responsibly, but it does bear mentioning that for readers who have experienced any of these to extremes in their own life may find this a difficult or triggering novel. For it seems so real, with a sad beauty that comes from delving fully into what humanity is capable of, in this case specifically how young girls can treat one another and how society pressures them to behaving or being in expected ways.
A short story can typically manage to address one, perhaps two, specific elements such as these for a protagonist. Fam extends that literary focus on characterization to encompass more temporally, and a greater network of issues that young women can be faced with. She doesn’t change the heart of a good shorter work, she just keeps up the same brilliance for the expanded explorations possible in a novel.
On the one hand both Audrey and Rachel are sympathetic, relatable characters and they have certain aspects that one may find likable. But they are each so powerfully realized as realistic humans that they are filled with flaws and cruelty to the point that they can also at moments completely disgust. Some readers may shun this kind of literary realism, but surely that is exactly how each of us are, filled with moments of exquisite nobility one time and ugly savagery another.
The Last Train to Babylon has its darkness, but it is emotionally moving to all ends of the spectrum of empathy. How much of this is personal for Fam or creative genius is unclear to me, but I will happily reach for her next publication based one how strongly this one makes readers feel, and how relevant and important the themes she tackles are.

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

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.

Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

Disclaimer: I received a free 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.

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce

Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 0385538081
224 pages, eBook
Published: 16th September 2014
Source: NetGalley

 “[The] unapologetic portrait of a woman cutting a precarious path through early adulthood.” sums up Merritt Tierce’s Love Me Back rather well. Marie is a young single mother whose existence is defined by her ever-shifting jobs as a restaurant server and is consumed by relationships with fellow employees. Diving in with a brutal power, the novel never relents in the raw emotions of its narrative.
Already unfairly derided by conservative critics for glamorizing an ‘immoral’ sexuality and drug use, Love Me Back is not so banal or simplistic, despite appearances of its plot or protagonist. One wonders whether some of the more vocal critics have even read it. And as usual, these critics would refuse to permit portrayals of reality that they’d rather pretend doesn’t exist.
To me, Marie recalls the suffering saints featured in some of my favorite works from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc to Bernanos’/Bresson’s Mouchette to the Dardenne’s Rosetta. The name itself reflects this trait, though here the character has no connection to any religion, just that aspect of devotion that religion can hold. Marie represents the ideal worker in the serving industry. Throughout the novel she is giving herself completely, most obviously in her body, but also through her mind and position of power. She gives herself to society, to individuals, to drugs, not for pleasure, but for the mere reason that she is just so good at it. Almost like this is what she is naturally inclined and meant to be. Paradoxically by losing herself in self-destructive behavior, she is also fulfilling her self purpose or servitude, of giving into the desires and whims of others. She loves them in that she sacrifices everything of herself in their service, and any wish of being loved back seems remote and unattainable.
Tierce does not pain Marie’s existence as glamorous, nor judge the acts of sex, drugs, abortion, or childcare in any way. They just are presented as aspects of her character, and reflect powerfully the actual reality of people all over the world and the jobs that are held in the food service industry. Marie can be seen as a victim at the hands of those around her who take advantage of who she is, yet there is also the sense that victimhood doesn’t fully define her, for she apathetically accepts and even pursues her predicaments.
Short, but perhaps difficult to get through due to the intensity of subject matter, Love Me Back is a complex and finely written literary work that may not be an ‘enjoyable’ read, but certainly is a significant and worthwhile one that will impress in its unflinchingly frank honesty.

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

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.

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.