Review: “The Book of Strange New Things,” Michel Faber

Rating:  4/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  A monumental, genre-defying novel more than ten years in the making, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a masterwork from the author of the renowed The Crimson Petal and the White.

Peter, a devoted man of faith, is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea.  Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC.  His work introduces him to a seeming friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hunger for Peter’s teachings – his Bible is their “Book of Strange New Things.”  But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasing desperate – typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling.  Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable.  While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer,  Bea is struggling for survival.

Replete with emotional complexity and marked by the same bravura storytelling that made The Crimson Petal and the White such an international success, The Book of Strange New Things is a gripping, hauntingly profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.

May I take a moment to appreciate that synopsis?  It takes you up to the last page of the book and gives you almost no information.  It’s really a thing of beauty.

I might just be procrastinating because I’m not sure what to write.  I am glad I read this book, but I haven’t the faintest idea what I think about it.  I was going to put off writing the review, but I don’t think my thoughts will get much clearer, so this might be a little different.

Let’s start with something easy:  I didn’t like the main character.  It’s fairly unusual that I like a book in which that is the case, but this seems to be an exception.  Peter is mildly obnoxious and runs through the pages of most of the books sticking faith on wounds like Band-Aids on a bullet hole.  He is trite and full of fake sincerity that made me want to vomit.  His wife is similar for most of the novel.  However, it is truly masterful how well Faber communicates what is happening to her through only her letters to Peter.  It is unbelievably easy to imagine what she is going through and how she is feeling (and, also masterfully, the fact that it is so easy to imagine is an important plot point).

For the first two-thirds of this book, I enjoyed the world-building, but not much was happening.  Then, all of a sudden, things started to happen.  Then, much to my surprise, they stopped just as suddenly.  It was strange.  At the end, I’m fairly certain that there were more questions left unanswered than were answered.

Michel Faber has said that this will be his last novel.  It was written as his wife was dying of cancer, and that very much informs the narrative.  There are multiple passages that are utterly beautiful and heart-wrenching.

I don’t know what else to say about this.  One reviewer noted that it seemed like a wonderful first chapter to an apocalyptic novel that will never be written, and there is something to be said about that.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a novel about the failings (or not) of faith, the non-alienness of alien life, and the strength (or not) of love through adversity.  I can’t describe it adequately.  Just read it.


Review: “All the Light We Cannot See,” Anthony Doerr

Rating:  4.5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks.  When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home.  When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.  With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find.  Werner becomes and expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance.  More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war, and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

I listened to All the Light We Cannot See as an audiobook (this may or may not be important information).

As a general rule, I do not like books set in times of war (I may have to rethink that assessment, however).  They either tend to sacrifice humanity for the depiction of war, or vice versa.  I found that most masterful aspect of All the Light We Cannot See to be the ways that Doerr avoided doing exactly that.

This story is told through linked, third-person limited vignettes.  The time jumps around from 1941 to 1944, with the narratives gradually converging.  This was done extremely well – each vignette drove the reader (or listener) forward through the narrative without sacrificing the stories of the others.  I think this is something that I may have lost a bit of in listening to the audio – it was somewhat difficult for me to keep track of the timelines.

In a strong contrast to the last book I reviewed (which I was reading at the same time), all of the major characters in All the Light We Cannot See progress.  They are all multifaceted and have sufficient background to illustrate their personalities and development.  As a reader (listener), I never quite knew what they were going to do – I certainly do like that in my characters.  Although they sometimes behaved unpredictably, they seemed to move to where they ended up in a way that seemed neither contrived nor forced – in some ways, it seemed inevitable, even though a single decision at any point of the narrative would have changed their outcome.

At about of a quarter of the way through the novel, I remarked that it was a fascinating look at propaganda and how things like the Third Reich come to happen – and I maintain that is true, although those themes diminished somewhat through the rest of the narrative.  There is a focus on rhetoric and communication, and somewhat less so on propaganda, and the ways that it influences people – not to mention how different people interpret it.  This isn’t preachy, and it certainly isn’t a history lesson.  One thing that I found particularly intriguing was the way Doerr avoids the terms that we use for that period of history – there isn’t a single mention of Nazis or swastikas or concentration camps, although all are present in the narrative.  The characters wouldn’t have used those terms, I supposed, so the narration doesn’t.  When the word ‘camp’ is finally used explicitly in the last quarter of the text, it’s rather shocking – it is bleak and jarring in a way that it wouldn’t have been had that been the vocabulary of the rest of the novel.

My one criticism of All the Light We Cannot See is the ending – not the events so much as the style.  The conclusion dragged on a bit, and revisited stories that I didn’t feel needed tying up.  It’s a minor criticism, but there were parts at the end that I just didn’t feel added anything to my experience of the novel.

Overall, though, I think this is a masterful look at the people of war and how that war shaped them.  It’s not preachy, optimistic, or pessimistic – it just is.  I find that to be much more realistic than the books that made me dislike war settings.

Review: “Outlander,” Diana Gabaldon

Rating:  4/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  The year is 1945.  Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon – when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles.  Suddenly she is a Sassenach – an “outlander” – in a Scotland torn by war and raining Highland clans in the year of Our Lord… 1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into intrigues and dangers that may threaten her life… and shatter her heart.  For here she meets James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, and becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire… and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

That may well be one of the worst, most misleading synopses I’ve ever seen.  Please don’t judge the book by the cover.

I have a book hangover from Outlander, which probably says more about it that I can in the rest of this review.  I realize that I could just go ahead and read the second book in the series (Dragonfly in Amber, if I’m not mistaken), but I have other books to read first.

One of the primary criticisms that I’ve heard about Outlander is the Claire is too stoic.  I would phrase this another way – she takes everything that comes at her with considerable aplomb.  I don’t think that this makes her any less likable or believable as a character.  Actually, I think that it fits in well with her background as a combat nurse, and it isn’t at all in contrast to her personality as evident through her narration.  What I particularly liked was that it made this an historical adventure, rather than a fish-out-of-water story, as it would seem from the synopsis.

I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert in 18th century Scottish history, but from a lay-reader’s perspective, Gabaldon did an excellent job of establishing a sense of place.  This tends to be very important in fantasy novels (which you could argue this is, with it’s time-travel element), but I would posit that it is even more so for historical novels.  Not only does an author have to establish a sense of place, he or she has to do so while maintaining its historical integrity.  Outlander is clearly meticulously researched and feels quite genuine, but it doesn’t come across as boastful, ‘look how much I know about Scotland in the 1700s’ research.  There is a good balance between historical fact and narrative fiction, which I think is helped along by the fact that our narrator is from a different time.

This is truly a plot-driven novel, until the last 200 pages or so – at that point, the plot slows significantly and there is a lot of character development happening (that transition doesn’t seem forced – it feels more like a natural progression of events).  I certainly plan to read the next book in the series to see where these characters go.

Review: “The People in the Trees,” Hanya Yanagihara

Rating:  5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  In 1950, a young doctor named Norton Perina embarks on an expedition to a remote Micronesian island in search of a rumored lost tribe.  There he encounters a strange group of forest dwellers who appear to have attained a form of immortality that preserves the body but not the mind.  Perina uncovers their secret and returns with it to America, where he soon finds great success.  But his discovery has come at a terrible cost, not only for the islanders, but for Perina himself.

Disquieting yet thrilling, The People in the Trees is an anthropological adventure story with a profound and tragic vision of what happens when cultures collide.  It marks the debut of a remarkable new voice in American fiction.

I’m going to be completely up-front here:  this isn’t a book for everyone.  It is in turns eerie, disturbing, introspective, and cynical.  I wouldn’t call it a pleasant read.  That being said, I’m very glad that I read it.

It’s fairly well-established here that I love an unreliable narrator, and The People in the Trees has two:  Dr. Perina’s story is recounted through his memoirs, which he has written while imprisoned for sexual abuse and sent to his good friend Ronald Kubodera, who sings his praises and maintains his innocence.  Furthermore, Kubodera uses the introduction as an opportunity to admit that he will edit and remove passages from Pernia’s memoirs. I felt like a kid on Christmas morning.

I first heard about The People in the Trees in passing through the Books on the Nightstand podcast, and I think that I had a wrong impression of it.  It had seemed to me as though this would be a scary novel.  While it was certainly disquieting, even creepy at times, I wouldn’t call it scary.  There was an element of psychological thrill; the reader spends most of the book waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Yanagihara does a commendable job of building an intangible suspense – not only are you now sure exactly what you’re waiting for, you’re not sure that you want to find out either.

Since we see everyone and everything in this novel through the Norton/Kubodera filter, the characters all seem to be constructed as merely supports for Norton’s story.  In another context, that would bother me, but it works well here.  Norton is not a sympathetic character, but as a reader, I found myself more or less agreeing with his impressions of the other characters.  The way that Yanagihara persuades the reader to see entirely through this man’s eyes is what makes this novel at once so brilliant and so disturbing.

Without revealing too much, this is a story rife with moral relativism.  It unflinchingly examines colonialism, biomedical ethics, society’s obsession with youth, charity, and the entire discipline of academia.  It also happens to contain one of the best descriptions of the scientific process that I’ve ever seen.  It is also based on the true story of Nobel Prize Recipient and convicted child molester Daniel Carleton Gajdusek.  It’s neither a light nor an easy read, but it’s thought-provoking in the extreme.  I highly recommend it.

Review: “Station Eleven,” Emily St. John Mandel

Rating:  5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night, Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear.  Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid.  A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead.  That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread.  Hospitals are flooded, and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony.  Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors.  Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm, is a line from Star Trek:  “Because survival is insufficient.”  But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty.  As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all.  A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

There’s no way that I could pick a favorite book, but Cormac McCarthy’s The Road would definitely be in my top five (just don’t ask me to read it again).  I can’t know for sure, of course, but I can’t imagine that Emily St. John Mandel didn’t intend her readers to see some parallels between The Road and Station Eleven.

What Station Eleven does that The Road does not, and what I thinks sets it apart from most post-apocalyptic novels, is that it dedicates a nearly equal amount of text to the time before and during the apocalypse as to the time after it.  In fact, I think that Station Eleven is unique among most contemporary novels in that parts of it read like a love letter to the society that most of us are so disillusioned with – Facebook, 24-hour news, and noses buried in iPhones everywhere we look.

I have found that with novels that jump around in time and place, as this one does, I often get to a new chapter and long for the last to continue, rather than moving excitedly onward through the narrative.  That was not the case here.  With every change in perspective, I found myself eager to learn what new piece of the puzzle was going to be revealed, and confident that my questions about the story I was moving on from would be answered adequately in time.  Perhaps this says more about my attitude as a reader than about St. John Mandel’s storytelling, but I am inclined to believe that it is because although her different narratives are fragmented, the vignettes would stream together seamlessly were they put ‘in order.’

Often, when a story promises to connect various storylines into a single climax, that connection feels contrived.  One of the great pleasures of reading Station Eleven was watching the differently threads weave together organically.  St. John Mandel gives enough clues even from the very first chapter that there is nothing contrived or forced when everything falls into place.

Ultimately, I don’t think that the brilliance of Station Eleven lies in doing something new or groundbreaking.  It is, at its heart, a post-apocalyptic survival story.    However, that gross oversimplification doesn’t give the novel nearly enough credit for doing everything that it does exceptionally well – from telling the story of a plague, to building a world on the foundations of the one destroyed, to giving each character nuances and enough back-story so that they can be seen shades of gray.

Review: “Attachments,” Rainbow Rowell

Rating:  4.5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder know that somebody is monitoring their work e-mail.  (Everybody in the newsroom knows.  It’s company policy.)  But they can’t quite bring themselves to take it seriously.  They go on sending each other endless and endlessly hilarious work e-mails, discussing every aspect of their personal lives.

Meanwhile, Lincoln O’Neill can’t believe this is his job now  reading other people’s email.  When he applied to be “Internet Security Officer,” he pictured himself building firewalls and crushing hackers – not writing up a report every time a sports reporter forwards a dirty joke.

When Lincoln comes across Beth’s and Jennifer’s messages, he knows he should turn them in.  But he can’t help being entertained – and captivated – by their stories.

By the time Lincoln realizes he’s falling for Beth, it’s way too late to introduce himself.

What would he say…?

I’d heard quite a bit of the buzz around Attachments (and Rainbow Rowell’s other novels) over the past few years, but I still wasn’t quite sure when I started reading what I expected this book to be.  I think I thought that it would be fluffy and insubstantial – sort of a romantic comedy in print.  And, let’s be clear, it does tend that way.

However, I certainly didn’t expect it to be an adult, millenial coming-of-age story – set in late twenties rather than teens.  I was a bit confounded at first to see that the novel takes place in 1999 and 2000, when I found it so relevant to the millenial generation.  Perhaps that was done to emphasize the point, or perhaps (as a late-twenties millenial myself) I’m just seeing it through my own lens.  Either way, the novel certainly didn’t seem like it was set 15 years ago.

I am generally drawn to characters that I like, and Attachments was full of them.  Jennifer and Beth seemed like women that I could be friends with, and all of the characters were ‘normal’ enough people, but each had enough of a personality (even most minor characters) to keep them from being tropes.  My one gripe about the characters would be with Lincoln; something in his personality seemed a bit too cloying to me.  I wound up working well, though, so I’ll keep my complaints to a minimum.

Overall, this was exactly what I think it promised to be – a fun read about people you can root for.  It was utterly enjoyable.

Review: “The Historian,” Elizabeth Kostova

Publisher’s Synopsis:  Breathtakingly suspenseful and beautifully written, The Historian is the story of a young woman plunged into a labyrinth where the secrets of her family’s past connect to an inconceivable evil:  the dark fifteenth-century reign of Vlad the Impaler and a time-defying pact that may have kept his awful work alive through the ages.  The search for the truth becomes an adventure of monumental proportions, taking us from monasteries and dusty libraries to the capitals of Eastern Europe – in a feat of storytelling so rich, so hypnotic, no exciting that it has enthralled readers around the world.

Rating: 4.5/5

I decided to re-read The Historian at the end of the Bout of Books 10.0 Read-a-thon, when I was dealing with quite a bit of anxiety and felt that it would be nice to read an old favorite.  I first read it around 2007, and I’ve reread it (I think) twice since then.

The Historian was Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel; her second novel was The Swan Thieves, which I reviewed here.  If I recall correctly, The Historian sat on my bookshelf for a long time before I picked it up, because I hadn’t realized when I bought it that it was a vampire story, and I wasn’t interested in it because of that.

In actuality, this is a vampire story, but it’s not quite one like you’ve read before.  It intertwines the story of Dracula with the history of Vlad Tepes and the folklore of Eastern Europe, so that it’s much more a story about a research quest through history than it is about vampires.  It is told from several perspectives, but the primary narrator is an unnamed young woman who discovers papers in her father’s study relating to his own search for Dracula, approximately 20 years before.  Her father’s story is told from his own perspective (initially through letters, then as separate chapters in his first-person perspective), and another historian’s quest is told through letters to the narrator’s father.  It gets a little messy, but I never found it particularly difficult to follow.

One thing that annoyed me quite a lot on this reading which hadn’t bothered me before was the narrator’s naivete.  She acknowledges it at the beginning of the story, but she is approximately 16-18 years old during the majority of the narration, and her voice belongs to someone 13-15 at the oldest.  It almost seems to me as though Kostova originally wrote her younger, then decided that didn’t work with the plot as it was unfolding, so went back and made her older without changing the voice, just by adding that note at the beginning.  Luckily, after the first third or so of the book, the narrator isn’t the primary voice.

Another complaint I have (which isn’t new to this reading) is that The Historian ignores the allure that Dracula has in every other retelling of the myth – and that vampires have in general in all vampire stories.  The characters have no moral ambiguity – Dracula and his minions are bad, those hunting him are good, and that is the end of that.  It would be far more interesting if at least one person was seduced by ‘the dark side.’

Complaints aside, I really do love this book.  The characters’ journeys through Europe are beautifully described and the plot is suspenseful without being stressful.  In fact, in thinking about it, I’ll add a caveat to my previous paragraph:  the ending is open-ended, and I think that it allows for an interpretation of moral ambiguity, which appeals to me quite a bit.  On the subject of the ending, I thought that this one was very appropriate – it wasn’t absurdly optimistic, but it wasn’t Hamlet, either.  It was a good balance between good and bad (I just wish it was a better balance between good and evil!).

Ultimately, what sells The Historian for me – and what keeps me coming back – is the adventure of the quest though Europe and the way that it is described.  Kostova would be a brilliant narrative travel writer – she evokes a sense of the places that is intoxicating, even if it isn’t accurate (I can’t speak to its accuracy).