The Companions

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Twice in my life, I have had the honor of performing the role of Dungeon Master for my circle of gaming friends and both times I have used the Forgotten Realms campaign setting designed by Ed Greenwood. It is a rich, fully realized world that allows me to concentrate on the collaborative interactive story my friends and I are creating and not worry so much about building the world itself. I have infinite respect for those who can create their own world, e.g. Matthew Mercer of the Geek & Sundry show Critical Role, but it is not for me. To help me fill my knowledge of the world I am using for my games, I read a lot of novels set in the Forgotten Realms and there are a ton of titles from which to choose. All of the books bearing the Forgotten Realms name are canon and while many fans read them for the pure joy of it, I also read them as source material.

One of the most voluminous series available --we are talking 30+ titles as of this writing-- is R.A. Salvatore's epic saga of the drow with a heart, Drizzt Do'Urden. It is a series I never picked up because by the time I discovered Salvatore, the mountain of titles available in the series was so intimidating that I had no chance of succeeding a Will saving throw. In 2013, Wizards of the Coast, the parent company of the Dungeons & Dragons product line, released the first book of a new series that would set up the next evolution of their Forgotten Realms setting, a world-shattering event called The Sundering. To explain this event, six authors were commissioned to write six novels, each one telling the story of one of the six stanzas of The Prophecy. Salvatore lead off with The Companions and I was concerned because I had not read any of his previous novels and I knew that the titular companions were those of Salvatore's Drizzt. I worried that the history of the characters across the dozens of preceding books would make The Companions difficult to follow or relate to.

I am pleased to say my concerns were alleviated. While there are several references to the events of other novels in the Drizzt series, Salvatore does a fine job of providing enough context that I, as a new reader of his work, did not feel lost. I would even go so far as to say the references piqued my interest enough to want to seek out those older stories. As the novel opens, the companions are dead and in the Forgotten Realms's version of Purgatory. They have the opportunity to choose to pass through to the Paradise of their chosen deity or return to the mortal world in infant bodies. Those who chose to inhabit mortal bodies again make a pact to meet at a location called Kelvin's Cairn on the night of spring equinox of their twenty-first year. They each experience rebirth, becoming infants born to unfamiliar parents, but with all of the knowledge and experience and memories from their previous lives. How many of us have wished we could live life again knowing what we know now? If only.

Each of the titular Companions relives life, battling through childhood and adolescence again, but with adult sensibilities and experience, en route to their preordained meeting. They inhabit the weak and ineffective bodies of children, not the strong adult bodies to which they are accustomed. They may have been granted a second chance, but they are still mortal. How many of them will survive their first twenty-one years again with the forces of evil still to content with? I thoroughly enjoyed finding out. The story is exciting, the characters are interesting, and I had a great time following them on their respective journeys, fantasizing about how I might handle the opportunity to relive life with my current mind and memory fully intact. Throughout the novel, I found myself caring deeply for each of the characters, cheering for them to succeed and fearing their failure.

Fans of Salvatore's series will not be disappointed in The Companions unless they only like Drizzt (he makes a cameo appearance but is absent for most of the story) and for readers new to his work, this is a great place to start. I may jump back to the inaugural Drizzt novel and experience the entire saga from the beginning. It will be a steep mountain to climb, but having experienced The Companions, at least I can be quite certain I will enjoy the hike. But first, there are five more novels in The Sundering series, each of which sits on the bookshelf above my writing desk, daring me to take the next step.

Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel

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I so very much enjoyed the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. After watching it and 2015's Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, I feel like the Star Wars cinematic universe is back on track. Star Wars has meant so much to me for as far back as I can remember. One of my earliest Christmas memories was toddling down the hallway the morning of December 25 in my footie pajamas, clutching my blue teddy bear (oh so cleverly named Blue Bear), and seeing the entire Star Wars action figure line standing on the coffee table in front of the Christmas Tree. Yes, my parents removed the figures from their original packaging. Nobody knew any better back then. In 1997, I was a university junior and I remember wearing my beloved Boba Fett shirt, standing in lines for hours with my friends outside the Cinedome in Orange, California to see the Special Edition releases, trembling with the same anticipation I imagine must have filled the movie-goers in 1977, 1980, and 1983 when the original trilogy of films were released in theaters. Such a fan was I that I immediately forgave the less popular updates to the films. So thrilled was I to be watching a Star Wars film IN THE THEATER, that I took no offense at the addition of Jabba the Hutt in Mos Eisley spaceport's docking bay 94 --that most wretched hive of scum and villainy. I think I actually enjoyed that scene because Boba Fett was in it.

Like many of us fans of the original trilogy, the prequels were a source of massive joy upon announcement, followed by crushing disappointment upon viewing. So we will not discuss that period of time further.

The Force Awakens and more so, in my opinion anyway, Rogue One brought the franchise back to the light in the most forceful of ways. To quench my thirst for more Star Wars, I read many of the expanded universe novels during my college and early adult years. Timothy Zahn's Thrawn trilogy and Michael Stackpole's Rogue Squadron series had kept me from spiraling into a pit of despair after --well, we said we would not discuss it. So after I saw and loved Rogue One and learned there was a novel that served as a prequel to it, I asked Santa Claus for a copy and she delivered! I read the book in eleven days, which is fast for a subvocalizer like me.

I had hoped the novel would be a Jyn Erso origin story --cuz I kinda fell in love with Felicity Jones during the film-- describing how she went from hiding in a cave as a small child at the beginning of Rogue One to ending up on the prison planet Wobani as a fully grown and defiant young woman. I wanted that gap filled. To my brief disappointment, I discovered that Catalyst is the story of the friendship and falling out of Galen Erso and Orson Krennic. Author James Luceno writes the story so well though that my disappointment was fleeting. Before too long, I found myself happy that I was learning about the relationship of these men in their younger years. At the beginning of Rogue One, they clearly have a history but their relationship is strained, contentious. What caused that tension? Catalyst answers that question. I know those characters so much better after reading this book. I even find Krennic a bit more sympathetic, blinded by ambition, but seeming to believe he is working toward the greater good, confident in his principles.

The story is heavy on talk, light on action. In that way, it is not very Star Wars-y, but this novel shows us that not all Star Wars stories require lightsaber battles and starfighter combat to be interesting. If you enjoyed Rogue One, if you enjoy Star Wars at all, then I highly recommend Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel. If you enjoyed the film, read this book and then watch the film again to give the opening scene additional heft.

Star Wars is back and I feel like that little kid in footie pajamas again.

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

I am my parents' only child so I had plenty of opportunities to develop an overactive imagination during my youth and overact it did. As a kid, I was afraid to swim in the deep end of the pool because I was certain that dark shadow hovering under the diving board was a shark lying in wait. If I had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I would sprint down the hall and fling myself from my bedroom's doorway through the air and into bed so the fanged beast underneath would not be able to snatch me. When the wind shook the tree outside my bedroom window causing the moonlight cast upon the wall to shift and shudder, I saw from beneath the blanket pulled to just under my eyes a spirit from beyond waiting in the corner for me to fall asleep so it could haunt my dreams. As I grew into adulthood, my imagination was tempered by logic and reason. The pool shadow was just the absence of light and the fiercest beast beneath my bed was a dust bunny. But I was not so sure about that moonlight spirit and even as an adult, I have had unexplained experiences that keep me on the fence regarding the existence of ghosts. 

In her 2005 book Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, author Mary Roach takes a trip through bizarre historical and contemporary experimentation in search of an answer to the question of where we go when we die. Raised in a household of faith, Roach was exposed early to the concepts of an omnipotent higher power and a spiritual afterlife, but she was an inquisitive child and had questions. Science seemed to have more answers than faith did so she turned to the source that satisfied her curiosity more often than not. What she discovered during the writing of this book may have just led to more questions and in some cases, utterly failed to provide a satisfactory answer. Undeterred, Roach approaches each case with the same wit and humor we discovered in her previous book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. I often barked a hearty guffaw at Roach's observations. She employs the same sarcasm I myself express but in an eloquent manner.

Mary Roach is not just a humor writer. She, with her Bachelor of Science in Psychology, does her homework as evidenced by the plethora of footnotes throughout the book and the twelve-page bibliography. As a scientist, she possesses a healthy desire to know the unknown. In addition to studying the experiments of long dead scientists, Roach takes a direct approach by participating in experiments herself. This willingness to get her hands dirty grants her more credibility than if she were just armchair quarterbacking the experiments of others. Plus, she seems to have had fun doing it which is exhibited in the tone of her writing. Her literary voice has helped her become one of my favorite science writers and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future. If you possess a healthy sense of humor and a curiosity about our world, you will find a friend in Mary Roach.

After reading Spook, the questions remain for author and reader alike, but I sure enjoyed the journey.  I continue to ask myself "what if" and on occasion, late at night when I am exhausted, I see that spirit from beyond hovering in the corner, waiting for me to fall asleep.

Carrion Comfort

It takes effort to read a Dan Simmons novel. I do not mean to say they are especially difficult or that they are dull or bloated. Quite the opposite, actually. I find his novels wonderfully creative and entertaining. By effort, I mean I must be prepared to commit time to a Dan Simmons novel. In general, his novels are long and thus time consuming, but I also want to be sure I am ready to immerse myself fully in the story because his novels deserve that kind of participation. His novels are involved, meaty affairs that can consume a reader if a reader allows it to happen. Carrion Comfort is no different. The 20th Anniversary edition from Thomas Dunne Books clocks in at 767 pages of some of the greatest storytelling I have ever experienced.

The anniversary edition I read includes a new thirty-page introduction in which Dan Simmons recounts this novel’s arduous road to publication. Knowing that story makes me appreciate this novel –and the author himself—even more. Finally published in 1989 after years of editorial nightmare, Carrion Comfort went on to win the Locus Award, the Bram Stoker Award, and the British Fantasy Award. Not bad for a novel Simmons was once told by the second of three editors to scrap and start over from scratch.

Carrion Comfort is the epic story of a group of individuals with the Ability, a mutation that grants them the power to telepathically control other people. As one would expect, this power corrupts absolutely and these people use the Ability for evil, forcing their innocent victims to do awful things. These vile people form a cabal and rise to positions of power, influence, and affluence. They use their ability for the benefit of nobody but themselves. They play games with each other, using innocent citizens as puppets in violent games with deadly outcomes. It is frightening to consider what these people could do in the real world. Then again, maybe they already exist. Consider some of the most awful figures in historical and contemporary time and ponder how they achieved their elevated status while continuing to be disgusting individuals. What sane person would allow such a beast to rise to such a level? Carrion Comfort suggests these monsters may have stolen their success through the forced and violent mental influence of others. A frightening thought.

Dan Simmons has crafted a fantastic story and populated it with rich characters deserving of your empathy, encouragement, and ire. The villains of the story are so despicable that I rooted for their comeuppance with a visceral fury. The heroes, innocent people who begin as victims, find strength in each other and band together to battle the menace in a class good versus evil struggle. I yearned so ardently for their victory, crying out for retribution or at least revenge. The novel’s structure drove me forward into late nights. With so many characters in play, Simmons presents a scene from one character’s perspective and often, a supporting character winds up in a perilous situation. Considering how that supporting character was sitting down to a leisurely breakfast the last time I saw them, I was compelled to immediately read the following chapter which jumps back briefly in time to tell the story of how that supporting character, now the primary perspective character for the chapter, wound up in the predicament described in the previous chapter. It is an effective structure that helped me tear through this large novel in record time.  One thing I must add is that Carrion Comfort contains the most exciting chess game I have ever read. That’s right. A chess game. Narrated move for move. And I was on the edge of my seat, squirming with anticipation the entire time.

This is a novel about how those with power use it to commit violence upon the powerless. The violence is diverse and not always physical. Mental and emotional violence are real things and this is a known fact to anyone who has ever fallen victim to a bully. Some of this violence should come with a trigger warning. There are a couple of rape scenes in this book so readers who are sensitive to such things may want to steer clear, but for everyone else, Carrion Comfort is a tremendous story. Stephen King called it one of the three best horror novels of the twentieth century. Who am I to argue with the master himself?

Caliban's War

Caliban’s War, the second of the planned six-volume The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey, is fast-paced, high-caliber science fiction. With higher stakes, political intrigue spanning the Solar System, exciting ship-to-ship space battles, and a powerful monster of unknown origin, Caliban’s War is a sequel worthy of its outstanding predecessor, Leviathan Wakes.

The two-man writing team who make up the literary persona of James S. A. Corey maintained the successful narrative structure they established in book one with brief chapters of approximately ten pages each presented from the perspective of a series of alternating characters. The brevity of the chapters and the rotating perspectives give the novel a sensation of rapid and perpetual forward motion. It is a somewhat long novel at just five pages shy of six hundred, but I read it in two weeks, which is rather quick for a reader like me who tends to plod through books. This is one was hard to put down and succeeded in transporting me into its world so successfully that a couple of times a voice or a ringing phone would shake me from my reverie and leave me feeling disoriented for a few moments. That is the very definition of engrossing.

The cast list has increased since the first novel. Leviathan Wakes was centered on two main characters, Captain Holden and Detective Miller, with each chapter alternating between them, making the story a bit of a tennis match. Caliban’s War doubles the quantity of point-of-view characters which causes the alternating chapters to feel more like an impressive juggling act. I have read several books recently that use this narrative structure and I find it keeps the story moving. So many of the books I have read in the past have been told from a single character’s perspective so the recent string of multi-perspective stories I have experienced feels like the new hotness, though I know the method is as old as storytelling itself.

The Han Solo-esque Captain Holden returns to command the Rocinante and her crew. New to the series is Gunnery Sergeant Bobbie Draper, a Martian marine who exemplifies honor and courage, even as she wages an internal war with herself about where her loyalties should lie as a steady stream of new information pulls her in multiple directions. I loved this new character and the way Corey handled her.  It would have been so easy to make the badass marine the stereotypical masculine woman, but Corey ditches that nonsense and grants her moments of strength and vulnerability. She is reminiscent of Demi Moore in G.I. Jane, only bigger and tougher. Praxidike Meng is an agricultural scientist searching for his daughter amid the chaos of a sudden shooting war that destroys his peaceful life. He is the everyman of the story, reacting with fear, confusion, impulse, and instinct. Chrisjen Avasarala is a high-powered politician who can move entire fleets with one call. As the situation seems to spiral out of control for Holden, Bobbie, and Prax, it is Avasarala’s job, from her opulent office on Earth, to right the ship, correct the course, and hopefully save millions of lives in the process. On the downward side of middle age, she is feisty, foul-mouthed, abrasive, and reminded me so much of a person with whom I used to work that I found myself laughing in recognition of her character. The disclaimer at the front of the novel, as in every novel, says similarities to real people are coincidental but boy-howdy, Corey grabbed this woman from my real life and stuffed her into their book. All of these people, including the supporting characters, are so well-written that I probably could have figured out who was speaking even without dialogue attribution.

Science fiction authors handle space travel in a variety of ways. You have the lightspeed/warpdrive travel of pulp science fiction where passengers are free to wander about the ship normally due to gravity-controlled environments. There are the hard SF novels that go into exhaustive depth on the science of what actual interplanetary –or farther—space travel would do to a human being’s physical and mental acuity. James S. A. Corey seems to take a slightly ‘middle of the road veering slightly more toward pulp because it is more fun’ approach. Space travel is hard on the body with the G-forces of exceptionally fast travel causing limbs to occasionally pop out of joint, blackouts and nausea. Crew and passengers must be strapped into crash couches to prevent them from violently bouncing around the interior of the ship and they certainly cannot pop down to the restaurant deck to have Whoopi Goldberg mix them up a cocktail. I enjoy Corey’s take on it. There is enough science in there to make it plausible, but they still allow themselves to tell a fun story.

Speaking of story, this one is pure fun. There are so many rugs pulled out from under so many feet, conflicts upon conflicts, it constantly feels like everything is falling apart. Watching these characters navigate the challenges into which Corey plunges them made me feel as I felt when I was a wide-eyed young boy watching Star Wars, holding my breath, gripping the edge of my chair, and uttering lightsaber hums.

If you are a fan of action-oriented science fiction, this series is for you. If you have not read the first book in the series, Leviathan Wakes, definitely start there. And get comfortable because hours may pass without you realizing it.

Sleeping Giants

I heard about Sleeping Giants on Instagram. I discovered an entire community of fellow bibliophiles there two months ago and I found myself drawn to the platform much more than I ever had been before. Some of these people are talented and creative photographers. Even my best photos pale in comparison to what some of these folks post, but their photos inspire me to try new things. Participating in the #bookstagram community has been a wonderful experience, broadening my awareness of the literature around me and challenging me to find new and interesting ways to take photographs of books. That last bit is not something I ever thought I would say, let alone take part in. Taking pictures of books as a hobby? What? I have met several great people and we all share a love of books and reading and they have introduced me to several new authors and titles. I am grateful to them for that.

Instagram user @sumaiyya.books hosted a July read-along of Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel Sleeping Giants. I was unfamiliar with the author and the book, but I wanted to dig deeper into this new community I had discovered so I purchased the book and started reading. The novel begins with a standard narrative style and follows a young girl riding her bicycle. She falls through a hole in the ground and finds herself in a perfectly square hole. When her rescuers arrive, they look down and see the young girl sitting in the palm of a giant metal hand. From there, the rest of the novel is told through interview transcripts, audio logs, and news articles as a small and secret team of scientists and soldiers studies this mysterious hand of unknown origin.

In the beginning, I was disappointed by the structure of the novel. I worried that by experiencing the story through interview transcripts, I would miss out on what I hoped would be the kind of meaty passages that give science fiction its wonderful flavors and setting. However, the author found ways to provide those moments through his characters’ voices as they recount their experiences in their own words. After a few short chapters, I found I had been transported into the book’s world and I forgot I was reading interview transcripts. Neuvel does a great job of establishing clear voices for the handful of primary characters at the center of his tale, especially the Interviewer, a faceless entity who seems to be everywhere at once. It would have been so easy for the Interviewer to be flat and uninteresting, but I found myself more interested in him –I think it is a he— and his origin than any of the other characters, not that the others weren’t interesting as well. Perhaps I was simply drawn to the mystery. We always want what we cannot have.

I would like to specifically point out that this is the fifth book I have read in a row that includes a strong female character. I am of a generation who feels women are equal to men, I was raised by a strong woman, and I am married to a strong woman, so it is gratifying to see female characters who are not merely window dressing and damsels in distress. It may just be luck of the draw, but I would prefer to believe strong female characters are becoming the norm rather than the exception. This is a year where America might elect its first female President. Perhaps the celestial bodies are aligning. Perhaps it is kismet.

Sleeping Giants is great fun, a perfect summer science fiction book that found me just when I needed it. I am happy I decided to jump on board the Instagram read-along. I did not know prior to purchasing the book that it is book one of a series. I do not know how long Neuvel plans to continue the series (he says at least three books, but maybe more), but if book two is as fun as Sleeping Giants, I am in for the long haul.

All the Light We Cannot See

My mother mailed her copy of Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See to me several months ago. She and my father and my grandmother pass books around like a joint at a college party –not that I would know anything about that. When they finish reading a book, they write their initials and the date they finished the book on the first page. This is an important ritual for them for as much as they read, it is easy to forget whether one has read the book being passed to them. It is also an interesting communal exercise, making one’s mark upon a shared experience.

I placed the book at the top of my pile of unread books and as the weeks droned by, it shifted ever lower on the stack as I continued to add new books to the top of the pile. It was not as though I did not want to read the book. It had several points in its favor already:  all three of my aforementioned family members read it and enjoyed it, they thought so highly of it that they mailed their copy to me, and the book was awarded the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Still, I found it difficult to be in the mood to read it. I had made the unforgivable error of judging the book by its cover. It is a pretty cover, but dour. The blue color palette is infected with a green tint, turning sickly the image of what I would expect is a beautiful seaside city. The somber cover seemed to suggest there was no joy to be found within the pages. Finally, after a telephone call during which my mother playfully shamed me for not having read it yet, and having just finished what had been my current read, I gritted my teeth and withdrew the book from the lower half of my pile of unread books.

This book is beautiful. I loved it. I have enjoyed several books recently, even given them five-star ratings on goodreads.com, but I have not loved a book since David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas.  With All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr presents to the world a heartwarming and heartbreaking story of Marie-Laure, a young, sightless girl struggling to survive during the German occupation of France during World War II. Marie-Laure lives in France with her father, a man devoted to his young daughter in a way that made me wish I had a daughter of my own so I could devote myself to her just as much. Their relationship was sweet and wonderful. The sacrifices he makes for her empower her, force her to think critically and creatively, pay attention to her surroundings. Instead of giving up and letting his blind daughter be a helpless burden, Marie-Laure’s father teaches her to live with her disability, not suffer it. Doerr’s descriptions of Marie-Laure’s world are limited to sound, smell, and touch and he does such a magnificent job of helping the reader experience the girl’s sometimes frightening world through her senses. Through Marie-Laure’s experiences, I found new wonder for the world around me.

A simultaneous timeline is told in alternating chapters, introducing us to Werner, a young German boy growing up in an orphanage with his younger sister. We meet Werner as an innocent boy with a penchant for radio repair and follow him to his conscription as a cog in the Third Reich’s war machine. In telling Werner’s story, Doerr performs the impressive feat of humanizing a German soldier during World War II, men many non-Germans find it easy to believe were monstrous people. How could we not after what they did? Werner’s story reminds us that many German soldiers were normal people, young boys plucked from their civilian lives and thrown into terrifying combat. They were told it was their patriotic duty. They often felt there was no other option. They were not all members of the vicious Einsatzgruppen. Werner is a typical kid aside from being a savant of radio repair. He is curious about the world around him, loves his sister, and enjoys listening to educational French radio programs with her and the other orphans at their home. He is not the bloodthirsty, violent, anti-Semite we grow up reading about in our history schoolbooks. Neither is his friend, Frederick, a frail but strong-hearted boy fascinated by birds. Neither is his squad mate, Volkheimer, a mountainous young man who enjoys classical music and who looks after Werner like a little brother. They are just boys and young men stuck in an awful place at an awful time and they do what they need to do to come out the other side alive. It is a tremendous achievement to be able to tell Werner’s story in such a way as to make the reader nearly forget they are rooting for one of Hitler’s soldiers. Werner’s story was far and away my favorite part of the novel.

When I read the last lovely page, I sighed contentedly like a hound dog lazing in a patch of sunlight, and wrote my initials and the date on the front page next to those of my grandmother, my mother, and my father. To whom shall I send this copy next?

Slade House

David Mitchell continues to blow my mind.  I have now read four of his seven published novels (the other three are in my possession and high on my TBR) and all of them have been four- or five-star reads.  I recently finished his latest novel, Slade House, and immediately sent a copy to my mother for her birthday. She read it right away and said it kept her awake at night because it freaked her out so much.  I did not quite have that reaction to it as I was more intrigued by the Slade House and was too consumed trying to figure out its puzzle to be afraid.

This is a different kind of haunted house story. There are no boo scares, no fanged monsters. I felt more of a gradually growing disquiet. Mitchell teases the reader along just as Slade House’s mysterious inhabitants tease new visitors into their grasp. The clues Mitchell presents are an irresistible trail of bread crumbs. Oddities are revealed at a perfectly measured pace, each one more bizarre than the last, each one building the intrigue until the reader is completely trapped in Mitchell’s clutches and has no choice but to give in to the madness.

Part of what makes David Mitchell so special to me is his diversity.  His novels are contemporary fiction but some of them have traces of science fiction, historical fiction, or supernatural elements –and in the case of his superb Cloud Atlas, all of those are present.  Slade House is a bit spooky, not quite horror, but definitely could share shelf space with the best of the genre. His characters are equally diverse. He writes men and women, children and the aged, multiple nationalities in such a way that I think he must be wonderfully observant, introspective, and in touch with humanity. I have yet to read one of Mitchell’s characters and feel they are inorganic. Each might as well be a real person.

As Mitchell has done with every novel he has written, he sneaks a character from a previous work into Slade House in what was for me a scintillating way.  And who knows which of the characters in this novel will appear in a future work?  I have said it before but I love that Mitchell does this.  It adds a bit of a game layer to his novels that I enjoy.  I find myself reading the story quite happily, immersed fully in the yarn and when I happen upon a familiar name, I stop to figure out in which book that character exists.  My brain is then sent spinning as I consider all of the possibilities and repercussions of these two stories existing in the same literary universe.  I must then reconsider everything I have read up to this point and ponder how the new novel’s events may affect or may have been affected by the events of the previous novels.  It is a wonderfully immersive mental feast, the literary equivalent of filet mignon with a glass of Sangiovese.

Slade House is one of Mitchell’s shorter works.  The American hardcover edition is a squat little yellow book 238 pages in length. Even a slow reader like me was able experience the full story in a short period of time. For readers who have not yet experienced David Mitchell, this is probably a great introduction to him. Reading the story will not be a huge time commitment, unlike one of his meatier pieces like The Bone Clocks or my beloved Cloud Atlas.  The style of Slade House provides a new reader with a good look at how Mitchell constructs his stories, plays his characters, and tantalizes his audience.  If you are already a fan of David Mitchell and have not yet read Slade House, I suspect you will not be disappointed.  If you are curious about this brilliant author, give Slade House a try and then prepare to add his entire bibliography to your TBR.

In the Country of Last Things

I do not quite know how to reconcile In the Country of Last Things in my head right now. This is a bleak story, one that does not leave much room for optimism. When young Anna Blume arrives in the city after the collapse of civilization, things are bad. The city is tearing itself apart, a victim of the animal nature of humanity devoid of its societal manners. Anna arrives looking for her brother who has been missing for nearly a year and in an environment such as this, he is either dead or it would serve Anna best to assume he is, turn around and go home to what is alluded throughout the story to be a privileged life. In the city though, Anna’s life is one of transience and even when she does have a roof over her head, the gift is fleeting and soon torn away from her. Nothing good seems to happen to her, even when it does.

The story is a harsh critique of modern society, of our reliance –even insistence—on the luxuries of life, on creature comforts. We do not appreciate what we have now and it will take losing it to show us how selfish and awful we all are. It is a pessimistic book.  Cynical.  It is an honest and ugly look in the mirror and I did not like the face that stared back.  You think you have First World problems now?  Wait until the collapse of civilization and then you’ll wish you could go back to the good old days when shoddy cell phone connections were the worst of your problems.  Try stuffing newspapers into your clothes to ward off the cold or collecting garbage in a rusted shopping cart hoping you can trade for food.  These are problems and none of us are ready for them.

The book is a letter written by Anna to an unknown recipient, scribbled into a battered blue notebook with whatever writing instrument Anna is able to find.  Funny how we would take something like a pencil for granted. It isn’t even known if the letter is sent. Was all of her effort for naught, even if she says she will be okay if the letter is never read? So much time spent in vain.  But we have found the letter, haven’t we, so Anna’s story is not lost.  She is a wonderful character, kind, honest, hopeful despite the challenges she faces.  She is industrious, working hard to survive but also doing what she can to help others when finds equally kind people in her broken world.  She is a bright spot in a dark place.  How many of us will be like her when humanity fails itself and how many of us will try to twist what remains of the world in to a Mad Maxian dystopia?  I fear a greater percentage will take the latter route which will make those of us who choose the former a rare breed rapidly.

This story is not quite as dismal as Cormac McCarthy’s superb The Road, but it is close. The resolution is equally ambiguous, which leaves the reader to decide for themselves, depending on how cynical a person they are, whether anything good happens to Anna again. Given how everything Anna Blume experienced went from bad to worse and because I am a Level 6 Cynic with a -2 to my Optimism skill, I am inclined to think her life continued to be difficult for the remainder of her days, however many of those there may have been.  Dare I allow myself to hope she finds a better place?  I am at a point in my life where I am pessimistic about the future and the nature of humanity, especially given recent global events.  My friend, Mara, who nearly demanded that I read this book –which is her favorite of all time and has read it multiple times in multiple languages— is much more optimistic and actually manages to find hope in the story where I found despair.  Then again, she is the kind of person who is able to see the good in people even when they cannot see it in themselves.  So I hope she is right and Anna Blume ends up okay in the end.  I would like to think so, for the sake of all of us.

Abomination

England, the 9th century during the reign of Alfred the Great. A bloody war ensues as Vikings raid the English countryside. King Alfred, desperate to put an end to the loss of English life agrees to grant the invaders vast portions of land in exchange for peace. The Archbishop of Canterbury locates ancient arcane scrolls and through them obtains the power to create horrible abominations from any living creature. His experiments begin small with farm animals, but as his new power warps his mind, he begins to use human subjects to create an army that can destroy the Viking invaders despoiling his homeland. King Alfred fears the Archbishop’s army will be a greater threat to England than the Viking squatters so he calls upon his champion Wulfric to hunt down and stop the Archbishop before too much harm is done.

No stranger to storytelling, Gary Whitta cut his teeth as a video game journalist and is now building a successful career as a screenwriter with credits including The Book of Eli, After Earth, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He was also involved as a writer and story designer on Telltale Games’ award-winning video game The Walking Dead, based on the television series and comic book of the same name. I have enjoyed Whitta’s work ever since I heard him appear as a special guest on the PC Gamer podcast several years ago, long after he had resigned his seat as Editor-in-Chief of the magazine in favor of the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. His easy nature and witty humor delivered in his comforting British accent charmed me right out of the gate. He seems sincere and genuine and like the kind of guy with whom I would love to chat over a pint of ale.  Much of Whitta’s previous works are set in post-apocalyptic or science fiction settings. Whitta leaps backward several centuries for his debut novel Abomination, a blend of fantasy and historical fiction, a real world setting of Dark Ages England spiced up with magic and monsters.

As the opening chapters unfold, the story is a typical fantasy adventure starring the king’s champion sent on a quest to destroy evil and save the kingdom. Pretty standard, right?  It is the kind of plot my creative writing professor encouraged me to avoid. And so the story goes for the first few chapters but I was surprised to find myself acquiescent to it. I have recently read a few dry non-fiction titles that I was not able to muster even one iota of enthusiasm to review, so I was in the mood for something light and fun. Fun I had, though it was the kind of fun one has sitting on a slowly rotating carousel, familiar and soothing. However, as the first act of Abomination drew to a close, I found myself disappointed because everything happened too fast, too easy. What could have been interesting scenes of character development, political intrigue, and exciting action are instead blocks of summary text. It is heavy on exposition, an overlong prologue reminiscent of the opening of the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It seemed as though Whitta were rushing through the first act to get to something else and I began to suspect the story was about to head in a different direction. Sure enough, the novel veers left at Albuquerque in chapter eight and with that one chapter, Abomination changes from typical fantasy fare to something much more intriguing.

The scope of the story zooms in from kingdom-spanning war campaign to an intimate character-driven tale about a grizzled old warrior and a feisty young girl, reluctant companions who grow to respect and protect each other. Wulfric is the quintessential hero, honest, honorable, and valiant. He endeavors to protect those around him, even to his own detriment. Far removed from his days as King Alfred’s champion, Wulfric now wanders the countryside a broken vagrant unrecognizable as the hero of the realm, but he remains as strong and patient and disciplined as he was during his glory days. Indra, in contrast, is young, impulsive, and hot-headed. She is attempting to complete her year-long initiation trial and earn status as a paladin of the Order, an elite cadre of monster hunters. Both characters suffer demons but have noble goals and the story is most interesting when these two are together. They remind me of Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars Episode IV and that ain’t a bad thing. It is their story Whitta really wants to tell, but he chews up a hundred pages to get there. I fear many readers will bail out too early and miss Wulfric’s and Indra’s excellent interactions which comprise the bulk of the second act. Wulfric and Indra are interesting and likable characters. I bear not the burdens of either character, but I was still able to relate to them in some measure: the desire to perform well, a sense of duty, loyalty to loved ones. These are probably traits to which most decent people can relate.

Sadly though, the conclusion of the novel is as weak and rushed as the first act. Wulfric’s burden is solved in a manner that is the literary equivalent of yanking a power plug from the wall to stop a nuclear meltdown. It is woefully unsatisfying in its simplicity and presentation. It is a shame that such weak first and third acts mar what could have been a great book. Still, I found myself entertained throughout despite the flaws. I wonder if Whitta’s background as a film writer influenced the structure of this novel right down to the Hollywood ending. So much of it seems like narration or camera direction. Abomination might even make an entertaining movie if the filmmakers can find a way to do the middle of the story justice while cleaning up the beginning and writing a more satisfying conclusion. Ultimately, I enjoyed my experience with Abomination, but if your leisure time is scarce and you want to spend it on a sure thing, read something else. If you are a voracious reader willing to take a chance on something a little different, you might find it here after chapter eight. I will definitely read Whitta’s next book and will report on his progress as a novelist. I still dig the guy even if I did not completely love his debut.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up

A few weeks ago, I was expressing to a friend of mine my growing frustration with the state of my living space. It is cluttered which makes it difficult to keep clean and as a result, I often have the feeling I am living in squalor. Now, truthfully, this is far from fact, but when one is accustomed to a particular lifestyle and then allows oneself to stray from it, the change in mental state is profound. This friend of mine mentioned that her mother had just gifted to her a book by a Japanese author who specialized in decluttering and organizing. She read the book, followed many of the suggestions within, and ended up with a much tidier, pleasant living space. She warned me, however, that the author is crazy.

I had to see for myself so I borrowed her copy of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up and gave it a read. Based on the statements the author makes about her obsession with tidying beginning during childhood, I suspect this woman has some serious OCD issues but has somehow turned it into a lucrative career. Good for her! This is a prime example of someone taking the lemons of life and making lemonade. She could easily have boarded the crazy train and been doomed to a life of cyclical tidying, a counter-hoarder, but she learned from her childhood mistakes and has devised a method that she claims will, if followed to the letter and to completion, will result in a persistent positive change and habit. The method, which she names after herself in a totally not egotistical way, is extreme and requires trust –dare I say faith—in the process.

Would you feel weird talking to your inanimate belongings? I certainly would but this is exactly what the KonMari Method asks of its participants. Let us say you wish to reduce your closet clutter. Take every piece of clothing in the house and pile it all on the floor. Now pick up each item, hold it, consider it, and ask yourself if the item sparks joy. Sparks joy? It’s a shirt. If I only wore clothing that sparks joy, I would have no choice but to wander around nude, which my office colleagues would not at all appreciate. It sounds strange, holding everything I own and asking myself if I feel joy while holding it. If I am being completely honest though, then yeah, a few of my belongings do spark joy and those have a prominent position on desks and shelves. A photo of me with my old hound dog, may he rest in peace. My tiny stuffed sheep that my wife and I bought at the Stonehenge gift shop during our trip to England in 2007 and which has joined us on every international journey ever since. Nearly every book on my shelves and piled on the floor. These are a few of my favorite things. And if you find something that does not spark joy that you wish to discard? This is where the entire method becomes a little wackadoo for me. As you discard the item, the KonMari Method asks that you thank the item for its service and wish it a pleasant journey. I find this more than a little absurd and I wonder how many people actually perform this step. Still, I did manage to collect four bags of clothing for donation and this is really the important part. I may have been too haughty to wish my old coat a fond farewell, but I was able to part with it because I was able to recognize that I was keeping it for foolish sentimental reasons and not because it sparks joy.

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is short and many readers will probably be able to finish it in a couple of sittings. I read terribly slowly so the book spent two weeks on my nightstand. Read it with an open mind and I suspect you will find something useful in the book. Follow the author’s procedure perfectly and do not take shortcuts though or one is doomed to fail, or so she says. Who am I to contradict her? She is the tidying expert with a three-month waiting list of clients and millions of books sold. I am just a guy with three piles of unread books on the floor. At least I can remove The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up from those piles now. Thank you, book, for teaching me your ways and may your next reader learn much from you.

Symptoms of Being Human

I did not know what gender fluidity was until I heard about Symptoms of Being Human and reading it was an eye opening experience. Jeff Garvin, a cis male (born male and identifies as male) author, is audacious to write a first person novel from the perspective of a gender fluid teen.  Time will tell how the LGBTQ community responds to this novel, but my hope is that they accept and appreciate this work by one of their staunch allies rather than view it as an invasion of their community by an outsider.  I hope they realize that by writing this novel, Garvin is attempting to understand the community, relate to it, support it, and inspire his readers to do the same.  Sadly, I have already seen a couple of reviews from members of the LGBTQ community who lash out at Garvin for being a straight, white male and daring to pretend he knows anything about what they are going through.  This is as close-minded a perspective as that of those who still consider non-cis gender identity to be a mental illness.  We all need friends and to shove away someone who is clearly a supporter is daft.

Garvin has stated in several interviews that he was a victim of bullying in school. I, too, experienced bullying from early elementary school through high school so I feel like I am qualified to claim Garvin’s depiction of bullying and its effect on the victim is authentic in the worst way. I felt terrible watching the novel’s charming protagonist Riley suffer those experiences. When an author creates a character they want you to like and then puts them in awful situations, they hope you squirm and feel uncomfortable. I found myself grinding my teeth to the point my jaw ached. Ah, the memories, but my experiences cannot hold a candle to what Riley endures. I was just a small, shy kid, but at least I was a boy who looked like a boy and acted like a boy. At least I think I did. Riley is subjected to a more severe brand of bullying that is all too prevalent for people in the LGBTQ community. Drawing upon a year of research and his own experiences as a victim of bullying, Garvin writes some terribly realistic scenes that quickened my heart rate and left me short of breath. I suspect this is exactly the reaction Garvin wanted to invoke.

During his book release event, Garvin says he intentionally left Riley’s birth-assigned gender unstated. As I began to read the book, my main concern was how he would do this in a believable, organic way and would not end up being a cheap trick. The task must have been monumental. We are  conditioned to assign gender identity, even to inanimate objects. I feel a tremendous amount of sympathy for the translators working on the foreign language editions of this book. In the English language, the definite article the is neutral, but think about languages like Spanish, French, German. All of them have gender-specific definite articles:  el/la, le/la, der/die. Gender is a part of our culture. Gender is a part of our society. When we are reading, knowing a character’s gender guides us in imagining that character. When gender is intentionally avoided, it feels odd, like something shameful is being hidden. It is a difficult trick, writing a book about not applying gender labels to people while constantly discussing gender labels. There was just one brief moment when a character said something in a gender neutral way that sounded awkward and not at all the way that particular character would talk but for the most part Garvin executes a clever and deft sleight of hand.

Allow me to add my voice to chorus of reviewers who read and write faster than I in saying Riley is a wonderful character. Riley is witty, anxious, compassionate, introspective, smart-mouthed. Riley is relatable and, most importantly, undeniably human. Garvin’s ability to write painful introspection breathes vibrant life into a character that so easily could have seemed false and two-dimensional. Riley is an important entry into the world of literary characters that inspire real people to do extraordinary things and I hope serves as a positive influence to even just one person out there who is struggling with the same situation. All of the characters in this novel are well-written –Solo is particularly the kind of person I would have enjoyed knowing—and I have a memory of each one of them from high school. Their names may be different, but they and their quirks were definitely there. Their interactions with Riley are so very chillingly, maddeningly real. Garvin even manages to generate some modicum of sympathy for the bullies, which is no small task considering most readers will want the freedom to universally revile them. The glimpses into their lives humanizes them and reminds us that, as Solo says, “high school sucks for everyone”.

Symptoms of Being Human is an important novel.  It is an important book.  It is honest, uncomfortable, emotionally raw and genuine. I am sending copies to my parents, to my niece, and sharing copies with office colleagues. This book needs to be read. It might not change the minds of bigots, but for everyone else open-minded enough and empathetic enough and human enough, this could be an important work of fiction that educates uninformed readers like me about a part of the real world that is only going to grow larger as tolerance, acceptance, and understanding progress.