The OF Blog: Five more books mini-reviewed: two lit award-longlisted titles and three novels

Monday, December 01, 2014

Five more books mini-reviewed: two lit award-longlisted titles and three novels

As we enter the final month of 2014, I still have nearly four dozen reviews left to write if I am going to meet my goal of writing something about every 2014 US release that I read.  There are some quality works in this set of five mini-reviews, works that perhaps deserve more space.  Then again, there is a challenge to crystallizing thoughts into 3-5 sentences, something that hopefully readers here can appreciate, maybe as they glance at posts like this for inspiration for holiday book purchases.

J.M. McDermott, Maze

Mazes, or perhaps labyrinths would be a more fitting synonym for what transpires in McDermott's latest novel, too often are, in the minds of many readers at least, more about solving and less about coming to terms with the oft-inexplicable nature of them.  McDermott does not set out to "solve" anything in this wonderfully complex and multilayered story of people (or machines, or beings, etc.) caught up in a labyrinth that moves through mythological, scientific, and metaphysical realms, leaving the reader to sort through what may or may not be of paramount importance here.  McDermott's prose is more than up to the task of conveying this sense of semantical and plot confusion and while there are few, if any, mysteries solved by the novel's end, the journey is more than worth the effort necessary in order to grasp the multitude of meanings and concepts that McDermott packs into this novel.

Elizabeth McCracken, Thunderstruck & Other Stories (2014 National Book Award-longlisted title for Fiction)

The nine stories in McCracken's latest title contain some of the more moving moments of any short story collection that I have read this year.  McCracken's characters go through times of trial and suffering and their coping strategies, while not perfect, are so familiar and yet worded in such a pitch-perfect fashion that it is easy for the reader to empathize with their plights.  Her deft turns of phrase, coupled with these deep, penetrating looks into human reactions to suffering and self-doubt make Thunderstruck & Other Stories one of the more memorable short fiction collections in a year chock full of excellent collections by new and established masters of the short story form.

Lucius Shepard, Beautiful Blood

This year bore the sad news of the passing of Lucius Shepard.  A talented SF writer, his prose, especially in his short fiction, was some of the best genre writing I have ever read.  Yet there are wide swathes of his fiction with which I am unfamiliar, including the dragon Griaule tales, the setting of which his posthumous novel Beautiful Blood takes place.  Beautiful Blood was excellently-written, yet my unfamiliarity with the other Griaule tales made for a sometimes-confusing moments.  Yet the original takes on dragons and cities near them ultimately made for an enjoyable, rewarding reading experience.  Certainly a novel that fans of Shepard's previous writing will want to read.

Josh Weil, The Great Glass Sea

Weil's debut novel, set in an alternate present-day, post-Communist Russia, begins with an audacious SFish public project that sounds similar to similarly outlandish Soviet projects:  the utilization of giant reflective space mirrors in order to create near-continuous daylight in a remote Russian town.  While the concept may sound ridiculous, Weil manages to make it just plausible enough (it helps that he does a good job with developing characters and their reactions to this project) that it is easy for the reader to suspend disbelief.  Yet there are times where the action falters and the dialogue lags, making The Great Glass Sea a flawed yet mostly enjoyable first effort.

Spencer Reece, The Road to Emmaus (2014 National Book Award-longlisted title for Poetry)

Readers familiar with the New Testament accounts of the Resurrection should immediately recognize the scene hinted at in the title and eponymous poem.  Reece's poetry collection revolves around a middle-aged Episcopal priest who during his travels across the globe encounters a similar range of sinners and sufferers to what Jesus might have embraced both before and following his crucifixion.  Reece's poems contain a subtlety of voice and shades of meaning that contrast excellently with his in-depth exploration of faith in the midst of suffering and the search for understanding.  The Road to Emmaus I thought would have made for an excellent choice for the National Book Award shortlist and while it was not chosen, it certainly is one of the better poetry collections that I have read in recent years.

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