21412221Etta and Otto and Russell and James
By Emma Hooper
Simon & Schuster – 20th January 2015
ISBN 9781476755670 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley

 At 82 years old Etta gets up one morning, packs some supplies, and heads out on a walking trek to fulfill her unfulfilled dream of seeing the sea, thousands of kilometers away from the Saskatchewan home she shares with her husband Otto. As Etta makes her gradual journey step by step, Otto remains at home reminiscing over the past that he has shared with Etta and their neighbor and long-time friend Russell.
Starting off toward her goal solitary, with no fanfare, Etta begins meeting people who have heard of her walk and lend her some support and companionship as she passes through towns. In the empty Canadian wilderness between she becomes joined by James, a talking coyote. Meanwhile the reader discovers through the reflections of Otto’s and Russell’s past that love and passion exists both between Etta and Otto, and between her and Russell. Amid the tides of war and the expectations of society Etta, Otto, and Russell experience difficulties and tenderness alike.
There is a lot to appreciate in this gentle literary novel. The elderly are not frequently featured or explored in novels in any serious way, and in film/TV they are mostly used for jokes. Having protagonists who are elderly – and one who is female and actively doing something amazing that even the young would be hesitant to attempt – is refreshing. The three human characters of the novel, both at their present old age and in the recollections of their younger years are well fleshed out, and really interesting, beautiful.
Etta and Otto and Russell and James is also marked by a distinct lack of conflict. Despite the love triangle featured here, there is nothing disastrous that comes about. The hardships, the longing and the guilt over having given into some of these are viewed in the novel through the long stretch of decades that have passed. In their old age the characters have become much more wise, patient, and forgiving to themselves. Having characters that are largely at peace, non-resentful, and appreciative of the life they have gotten to live even with its notes of sourness makes the novel feel similar, slow and optimistically contemplative despite that sadness over missed opportunities, unfulfilled desires.
It is Etta’s journey in the present – an attempt to satiate one desire that still remains possible – that creates some of the largest tension, in the worry of whether she will be able to make such an arduous journey without her health failing, physically or mentally. The appearance of James, a talking coyote companion injects the ‘magical realism’ into the novel. If merely a construct of Etta’s mind, is it something beneficial akin to a spirit guide, or a sign of danger? The line between real and fantasy blurs more as the novel reaches its conclusion, leaving an ending that can be interpreted in unique ways depending on the reader.
For readers who don’t mind the oddity and openness this novel contains or a lack of action, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a meditative, emotionally complex novel that invites reflection and discussion. Even accepting the type of novel this is, I’m most uncertain how vital James is as a character, but rereading it with everything in mind with the coyote as an aspect of Etta’s mind may reveal more here than a first read was able to pick out. A good length for a book club, the novel would certainly be an ideal consideration for one.

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

Wasteland Blues, by Andrew Conry-Murray & Scott Christian Carr

Wasteland-BluesFINWasteland Blues, by Andrew Conry-Murray & Scott Christian Carr
Publisher: Dog Star Books
(Raw Dog Screaming Press)
ISBN: 1935738593
220 pages, paperback
Published March 2014
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press

The only thing I didn’t enjoy about “Wasteland Blues” is that it ended, just as my interest continued to grow and grow. ‘Leave them wanting more’ I guess is the phrase that Carr &Conry-Murray are putting into practice here. And honestly this sort of surprised me from where I came from starting this novel.Reading the opening chapters my response was rather luke-warm, the post-apocalyptic situation seemed so very familiar, and the plot seemed pointed squarely onto a simple quest with cut-out characters, which ranged from crass to dim to impotent. I knew ‘apocalyptic’ was a genre of story I adore, and even something run-of-the-mill could provide some entertainment, but I was eagerly looking for something more, something that set this apart.

Joyously, the book grew on me quickly, the characters turning deeper than I expected, the plot turning inward and becoming more about the journey and its diversions than that bright far-off quest goal, and intriguing elements introduced that aren’t simple post-apocalyptic tropes. This turnaround in my response is a testament to how well this novel is plotted. With Carr’s background in TV, this strength is understandable in hindsight. The novel unfolds as if it is on the screen, drawing the reader into this world bit by bit, making us start out curious, hating the characters one moment, only to find some part of them that draws our sympathy instead the next. Each character is clearly a ‘type’, yet the majority of them are rounded enough to show struggles and depth, hints of what made them act the way they are, and that perhaps there is more to them beneath the exteriors they parade. As the core cast of characters continue their journey new faces are introduced, each more fascinating than the next, adding further dynamics and threads to the tale.

In terms of style the writing reminded me most of Stephen King, with its moments of humor, absurdity, rage, and general off-kilter characters. Despite being written by two men, the novel maintains a unified voice, and I can see how (as the introduction posits) the two authors complement one another to reach a fine balance in tone. At first, despite the post-apocalyptic setting, the story appeared to have more elements of fantasy to it than science fiction. This feeling in style occurs easily in the genre what with humanity often being pushed back in terms of civilization and technology due to the ‘Collapse’, ‘Devastation’, ‘War’, etc.

But again, it is as if the authors were delighting in throwing the reader off-balance, for elements of science fiction and technology entered into the story in the latter portion of the novel, in unique and intriguing ways, leaving one to wonder what additional surprises may be in store with any future visits to this universe. These portions of the story may come from the influence of Conry-Murray, but regardless of the source, they make for a well-appreciated infusion of science and technology into a wilderness tale.

Which brings me to the downside to this novel, the end. As the pages remaining grew few, I realized that there was no way the plot would be able to wrap up in the sense that their quest, their journey could not possible conclude. Why end the novel now, after one diversionary episode in this grand adventure? Why now, rather than the previous one…or the next? Simply enthralled with the ways the story was going I didn’t want the ride to end, and forgot for a moment that there is more to “Wasteland Blues” then the simple quest plot and its initial set up of simple characters. The diverse characters, each very separate individuals, after their own personal goals, were now at this point an actual family of sorts, an actual traveling group with goals more in common than they may have originally suspected. The most twisted and volatile character has had moments of genuine reflection and calm. They have grown into something, and in a sense, it makes perfect sense for this segment of their overall journey to end at this point where they have reached something substantial, maybe not in plot, but in their own personal characters.

“Wasteland” isn’t fine literature, it isn’t some staggeringly insightful commentary couched within a post-apocalyptic symbol. But it is a solid and engaging journey of reading in the genre, with a bit of depth, some interesting innovations, good laughs, and a ton of heart.

Five  Stars out of Five