The OF Blog: And on the penultimate day before Christmas, ten mini-reviews to delight even anti-squirrelists

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

And on the penultimate day before Christmas, ten mini-reviews to delight even anti-squirrelists

Hard to believe, but before the week is over, I will have written something about every single 2014 release that I have listed here.  Unfortunately, I haven't had much energy for reviewing at length, reserving that for finishing out the Premio Alfaguara winners (still have three more to write over the next eight days), so here are ten paragraph-length capsule reviews of books that I finished earlier this year.  It's an eclectic book, from a story of an anarchist society to reality TV/sex tape satire and all parts in-between.  Now for the brief thoughts on these diverse works:

Margaret Killjoy, A Country of Ghosts

Lately, there have been too many dystopian novels for my taste.  Therefore, it was refreshing to learn of a narrative about an anarchist utopia set in a different world under attack from imperialist forces.  Although there were a few times that I had some mild disagreements with Killjoy's presentation of anarchist principles (then again, I'm more sympathetic to syndicalism, which does shape my attitudes somewhat), for the most part I found his treatment of his characters and their plights to be well-developed, with a good narrative flow to help maintain a nice tension throughout the novel.  Although the prose was relatively weak in comparison to thematic and character development, it was only a minor hiccup in what was otherwise an enjoyable novel.

Christopher Beha, Arts & Entertainments

I should have hated this novel.  It focuses on two recent pop culture developments, "reality" TV and "leaked" sex tapes, that really are passé to me.  Yet, somehow, Arts & Entertainments ended up being an engrossing read.  Perhaps it is because Beha manages, through the complex character of "Handsome" Eddie Hartley, simultaneously to explore just why people are drawn into whoring themselves out for fame and (unlikely) fortune while satirizing the industry that in turn exploits and manipulates both participants and audience alike.  The scenes are sometimes too much to believe, yet ultimately by novel's end, there is something of substance to be found lurking beneath the rather putrid excrement of such pop trash.  It certainly had a far greater depth of character and theme than I was prepared for after reading plot descriptions.

Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

This tale of a 36 year-old man who, at the prompting of a woman he encounters, embarks upon a redemptive pilgrimage of sorts to find out just why four high school friends of his suddenly abandoned him in college is one of the shorter, more taut Murakami novels that I've read.  There are enough several oddities and fantastical elements in here to satiate those who expect such from Murakami, but this was a darker, more reflective tale, one in which the personal quest reveals several tragedies as well as moments of reconciliation.  When I finished reading it back in August, I was uncertain what to make of this novel, as it absorbed my thoughts while reading it, yet when I finished it, I did not have a firm concept of what I thought about how well or poorly Murakami executed his themes on friendship and the ties that can unbind.  Four months later, I still am uncertain if he wrote one of his better works or if this latest novel is one of his more muted yet spectacular failures.  It certainly seems to be the sort of novel which morphs upon a re-reading.

Matthew Thomas, We Are Not Ourselves

Thomas's debut novel is purportedly an Irish-American multi-generational family history, but the story centers around Eileen Tumulty (later, Leary) and her complex, sometimes fractious relationship with her husband Ed.  Their battles and love, seen over the course of the mid-20th century, take on surprising new forms as Ed becomes afflicted with Alzheimer's.  Thomas shows a deft hand in constructing Eileen and Ed's lives, as their different world-views and personalities are developed superbly.  The reader is given a vivid yet complex mosaic of their lives and by the time the novel concludes, there is not as much a sense of disappointment or tragedy as there is of witnessing two lives well-lived, each following, more or less, his or her heart's desires.  We Are Not Ourselves is one of the best debut novels I've read this year.

Nina Allan, The Race

A confession:  I do not really know what to make of Allan's first novel-length work.  It is more a mosaic than a unified novel, in which elements of four separate novellas merge in interesting fashions and shape reader understandings of what transpired in an earlier section.  This can make for some interesting textual interplay, but at times, especially when this particular reader read this only once, it can be trying to recall just precisely how each section connects to the others.  There are certainly elements of SF and murder/mystery in here, along with what might be meta-commentaries on these genres.  But there seems to be both something lurking in the depths and something missing that would tie these disparate elements together even more tautly.  The Race is one of the more intriguing debut efforts that I have read this year, but I am not certain if it isn't also one of the more fundamentally flawed in terms of its overall execution.

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks (longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize)

Despite being longlisted for the Booker Prize, The Bone Clocks might be one of Mitchell's weaker books in terms of structure and plot development.  Divided into several sections, reminiscent of his most famous work, Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks suffers whenever the focus shifts to its more supernatural storyline.  Although Mitchell is clever in re-introducing several characters from his earlier novels, he fails more often then not in crafting a cohesive meta-narrative.  The section detailing the battle between opposing supernatural "guardian"/"occult society" forces felt clichéd and hackneyed, dampening the narrative energy for most of the second half of the novel.  Although there were some bright moments throughout the narrative, on the whole, The Bone Clocks felt disjointed.  Certainly one of Mitchell's least successful narrative offerings.

Hilary Mantel, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

I greatly enjoyed Mantel's two most recent historical novels on Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII (both won Booker Prizes), but I was uncertain as to whether or not the richness of setting and characterization would translate well to the short story milieu.  For the most part, Mantel does an outstanding job constructing her stories, as each tale feels different in tone and setting from the others, yet there is a uniform quality of characterization and prose to each of them.  Although there were a couple of stories that felt slighter than the others, this is perhaps as much a matter of reader preference as anything else.  Mantel is certainly one of the better stylists writing today and this is on full display in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (longlisted for the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction)

Darnielle is more famous for his work as the singer/songwriter for The Mountain Goats, but here in his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, he manages to parley his talents as a songwriter into the longer novel medium.  It is a deceptive novel, one that lays out its central premise within its opening pages, only to revisit and rework that premise in subsequent chapters.  It is a combination of a live-action role-playing game and something darker, something that lurks within the recesses of the Trace Italian game designer's mind.  As the novel progresses, the setting deepens, with some surprising twists and turns.  Darnielle is a very talented writer, and several scenes are effective in part due to how well he constructs and narrates them.  Although the ending was relatively weaker than preceding sections, Wolf in White Van was one of the more entertaining debut novels that I've read this year.

Ben Lerner, 10:04

The success, or failure, of Lerner's second novel, 10:04, depends upon how readily the reader is willing to separate quasi-fact from fiction.  Like his previous novel, Leaving the Atocha Station, there is a semi-direct authorial stand-in present in the main character.  At times, this perceived semi-factual viewpoint adds a sense of veracity to the narrative, but at other times, the artifice is too self-conscious, leaving a slightly disagreeable aftertaste of navel gazing.  This is a shame, as Lerner is a talented writer, able to say more with a few pithy sentences than what many authors manage to achieve with pages of description or dialogue.  The premise of 10:04 was interesting for the most part, but Lerner's penchant for self-reflection weakens the narrative's flow at some of the story's more crucial points.  Certainly one of the more mixed reactions that I had to any 2014 release read this year.

Jay Lake, Last Plane to Heaven

Lake's stories, both novel-length and short fiction alike, have been a mixed bag for me.  Often, he would create a vivid setting peopled with some interesting characters, only for there to be something about the story's structure or its prose (or vice versa) that would hinder my enjoyment of the unfolding story.  In his last, posthumous collection, Last Plane to Heaven, there are a wealth of diverse tales that are a testament to his creativity.  However, there are some several clunkers that just do not feel as well-realized as his more successful tales.  At times, it was hard to believe that the same writer penned these tales, as the quality, not to mention the tone and presentation, varied so much from story to story.  Yet there are enough good tales to justify giving this collection a chance.  Just do not be surprised if there are several tales that will do nothing for you.

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