Monthly Archives: August 2014

Review: The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones

Imagine for a moment that you’re looking at yourself in a mirror. You’re noticing all of the things you don’t like about yourself, the curve of your nose, the birthmark on your cheek, the shape of your earlobes. Would you change your face, if you had the power to? Now imagine that someone else had the ability to change themselves, too: Would you trust them? They could look like your best friend, your husband–or just like you. What if they were obsessed with you? This is the premise for Stephen Lloyd Jones’s debut novel The String Diaries (Mulholland Books, 2013).

The String Diaries relates one family’s century-plus struggle with stalking and violence at the hands of a “supernatural” predator. (I use quotes here because, although the term is on the dust jacket, and could describe Jones’s creation, his text seems to indicate a biological foundation for his monster’s abilities.) The three strands (strings?) of the story span space and time, from nineteenth century Hungary, to 1970s Oxford, to a present-day location in the Welsh countryside. This is no European idyll, though: The protagonists are looking over their shoulders all the while, trying to evade a killer who can look like anyone, even one’s lover.

The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String Diaries, Stephen Lloyd Jones

The String Diaries begins as Hannah, her husband, Nick, and daughter, Leah, careen down a country road in a remote corner of Wales. It’s the middle of the night, they’re being pursued, and Nick is dying: His blood is everywhere. Hannah needs to get to the “safe house” the family established for just such contingencies. What’s going on is, at this point, not exactly clear. Jones immediately hooks the reader by dropping her into the thick of the action. The reader has questions, but few answers–only those hints Jones drops in the context of Hannah’s flight. The chapter breaks as the family arrives at the farmhouse, in which their enemy may or may not be waiting. As early as the first chapter, Jones demonstrates his skill with pacing, grabbing the reader with action and reeling her in by creating tension: What, if anything, lurks in the darkened farmhouse? The next chapter picks up another thread of the story, a cliffhanging agony the reader happily endures.

It’s difficult to go into detail about the other plot lines without divulging “spoilers.” Suffice it to say that Jones teases the reader along, jumping from now to nineteenth century Budapest, now to 1970s Oxford, providing the readers the answers she craves at just the right pace. The part of the story set in Hungary, of course, is deep background, the “origin story” for the tragedy that unfolds over the next century. The chapters set in Oxford bridge the gap between the past and present. There is a danger, with such a structure, of unevenness, of one story line being weaker than the others. The author risks boring the reader or even losing her. Fortunately, Jones demonstrates an intuitive knack for pace and plot, and, if the story lags in spots, especially in those chapters sent in the past, it’s a minor weakness. Rest assured: Jones will maintain your interest.

stringDiaries2

Jones is adept, too, when it comes to imparting upon his reader a sense of place. I’ve never been to Oxford, Wales, or France, and I certainly wasn’t around for nineteenth century Budapest, but it’s clear that Jones has either visited those locales or researched them. The detail into which Jones goes in his descriptions of the Snowdonia region of Wales are particularly well done. (Do you have your own safe house there, Mr. Jones?) There are times when Jones’s affection for his setting works to his disadvantage. At one point Hannah’s Welsh refuge seems more like a respite, a homey sojourn in the Welsh countryside. Hannah and Leah go horseback riding and enjoy a picnic with a neighbor. I suppose fleeing from a shapeshifting stalker can be tiring.

There are other problems, especially with the novel’s climax. Jones introduces late in the novel elements that, if not quite deus ex machina, still seem forced, out of place. The resolution of those elements is just as offhand, although it does produce one of the novel’s most memorable scenes. (Recall the Nazi’s melting face from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark.) There is, during the same scenes, a glaring hole in the plot, dependent upon the “supernatural” powers exhibited by the villain and his ilk. It’s an obvious question, the sort that causes readers to pause and think, “Wait, why wouldn’t so and so…” but Jones ignores it, which is, perhaps, better than going through contortions in order to explain it away. The ending, if not altogether satisfying, ably wraps up the novel’s loose ends.

Many reviews have compared The String Diaries to Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel The Historian, and with good reason: Both novels involve supernatural (or what might as well be supernatural) villains, span decades, and are set in lovely European locales. The String Diaries, though, is less a “supernatural thriller” than it is a suspense novel with supernatural elements. In another incarnation, The String Diaries might have been, sans its fantastical aspects, a straightforward spy novel or thriller. Still, Jones’s choices work. If not a perfect novel, The String Diaries is a strong debut from a promising new author. Recommended for fans of suspense novels and thrillers, especially those readers who appreciate a touch of magic in their stories.

Review: The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

What’s a reader to do when a ghost story is the embodiment of “The Ghost Story”? If it ticks off every requirement–old, isolated house; sullen villagers; gloomy weather–does that make it “the best” ghost story? I might once have insisted that, yes, a ghost story that meets all of the criteria (whatever the list might be) is in fact the best of its genre. (The hubris of youth!) Having read Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, I’m forced to concede that perhaps there is more to a ghost story than spooks, moors, and crisp English diction. I’m reminded of the words of a comic book writer, who advised teenagers aspiring to his role, “If you only read comic books, you might write the best comic book ever written, but you’ll never write anything different.”

The Woman in Black begins, appropriately enough, on a Christmas Eve sometime in the early decades of the twentieth century. Arthur Kipps’ second wife and his step-children sit around the fire, telling one another ghost stories. Here we have already satisfied one criterion of a ghost story: It must be set in England. Certainly, every culture in every time and place has spoken of ghosts, but “the best” ghost story can only be set in England. Bonus: By beginning  her tale on Christmas Eve, Hill tips her hat to the fine English tradition of telling ghost stories on that most-anticipated evening of the year. More spooky stories by the fire, fewer fat men and elves!

Kipps is agitated as his family’s stories grow grislier and more ridiculous. As his children’s merriment increases, his declines. Urged by his step-sons to join in the fun, Kipps storms off in a huff. Staring at the clear night sky, he is reminded of events through which he suffered as a younger man, a trauma he has worked hard to put behind him. He resolves to write it down in its entirety, a purge that becomes Hills’ larger narrative, the ghost story “proper.”

I don't see Daniel Radcliffe anywhere.

I don’t see Daniel Radcliffe anywhere.

The action commences with Kipps dispatched on legal business to a small village a day’s train ride outside of London. Kipps, stymied in his career aspirations, gladly takes on what his elder partner perceives as an imposition. In addition to seeking refuge from his humdrum duties as a solicitor, Kipps flees the London weather, characterized by many days of fog so dense it made travel within the city dangerous. Kipps sallies forth to put in order the estate of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Read those names again: That is some heavy handed foreshadowing going on there.

En route to Eel Marsh House, Kipps encounters what you might expect from the villagers, which is to that they seem to know something about Eel Marsh House, but are unwilling to talk about it, to Kipps’ growing frustration. The local lawyer, Kipps’ contact, is thrown into paroxysms of fear when, at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Kipps confesses to having seen the eponymous “Woman in Black.” Kipps nevertheless proceeds, as an ambitious and sensible young man is likely to do, to head to Eel Marsh House, which, sitting in the middle of a swamp, can be reached only by a narrow causeway during low tide. One requirement of a successful ghost story is for the protagonist to be headstrong in his foolishness to the point of foolhardiness. He (or she) must tempt fate with his (or her) stupidity. Needless to say, Kipps’ visit does not go as planned, and it is at this point, as his adventure derails, that I can so no more about the plot. It is obvious from the first chapter of the book that Kipps survives, albeit as a changed man.

Nope, no Harry Potter.

Nope, no Harry Potter.

There is much to be said in favor of The Woman in Black. Kipps’ voice, channeled via Hill, is spot-on, which is to say very, very English. (I am subconsciously mimicking it as I write this.) Whether or not Kipps really sounds like a turn-of-the-century British professional, I don’t know, but it’s house I imagine such men would have sounded. In other words, it’s believable. So, too, is the tone, which is one of creeping eeriness, abetted by Hill’s strength in establishing setting. Hill obviously knows the English countryside and its weather, and lavishes attention on such details. Of course, atmosphere is in some ways the most essential aspect of any ghost story. The author must ease the reader into it, step by step, just as the protagonist, for instance, Kipps, cheerfully whistling his way to his doom. You can’t just toss an idiot into a decrepit old house and throw spooks at him. It takes subtlety, and Hill masters that.

In the end, though, even as The Woman in Black meets all of the expectations a reader might have of a ghost story, in doing so it somehow fails to do anything different, and that, perhaps, is the problem. There’s a predictability about the plot that is comforting if you want a good, old-fashioned ghost story, but is dissatisfying if you want anything more. The story is also rather tame, although one must keep in mind that it isn’t horror in the modern sense, meaning that it isn’t dripping with gore. Still, contemporary readers (The Woman in Black was published in 1983) might be desensitized to the novel’s quiet dread. Recommended for lovers of the supernatural, but not necessarily for horror aficionados, The Woman in Black is a fine book with which to spend any autumn day.

Review: Under the Empyrean Sky, Chuck Wendig

There was a brief period of timing following the publication of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma during which I was keenly aware of corn. Corn is a staple of industrial agriculture. If you read the ingredients of almost any packaged food, you will find there corn, or some corn by-product. Researchers can perform testing on skeletons to determine how much corn the deceased ate during his or her lifetime. Modern Americans far exceed the consumption rates of the Maya, who ate a lot of corn. Corn cultivation, if done carelessly, can be destructive to the environment. It leeches nitrogen from the soil, rendering it unproductive. That’s why Native Americans grew beans amid their corn: Not only did the cornstalks function as natural beanpoles, but the beans also returned nitrogen to the soil. It’s like Native Americans knew something we don’t, like they were all living in harmony with nature and shit.

So, if you look at our reliance on corn, on our ever-expanding cultivation of it, you begin to wonder: Are we eating the corn, or is the corn eating us? Thus is the premise of Chuck Wendig’s young adult dystopian novel, Under the Empyrean Sky (2013).

Granted, in Wendig’s far-flung future, corn isn’t eating people per se, but that’s not for lack of trying. Deep in the Heartland, a wide expanse of what must have once been the American Midwest, corn stretches as far as the eye can see. The modified strains that grow in the Heartland are tough, durable, predatory. The husks are sharp as knives. The plants grow fast and, left untended, will consume anything in their way.

Under the Empyrean Sky, Chuck Wendig

Under the Empyrean Sky, Chuck Wendig

It’s into this hostile agro-dystopia that we encounter Cael McAvoy, a teenager on the brink of adulthood, who makes his living by scavenging ruined technologies found in the corn. He and his crew, Lane, Rigo, and Gwennie, are at odds with a rival team led by the mayor’s son. Their relationship takes a turn for the worse with the Obligation, an annual event during which 17 year old Heartlanders learn to whom they’ll be married when they turn 18. Gwen, Cael’s love interest, is bound to the mayor’s son. And to top it all off, Cael’s sister, Mer, has run away, and his Pop is worn out, unwilling or unable to stand up to their Empyrean overlords, who live in luxury on islands floating in the sky above the corn.

If at this point you’re scratching your head a bit, that’s good: This is definitely a unique premise. Wendig has significant current issues–agriculture, technology, class–and spun them into a setting unlike any other. The first few chapters, in which Cael and his crew travel on foot through the corn, serve as an excellent introduction to this strange new world. That said, Wendig doesn’t quite maintain that momentum throughout the rest of the novel.

Some of that sense of “flagging,” for lack of a better way of putting it, may be due to the fact that this is a young adult novel. Much has been said lately about whether or not adults should or should not be embarrassed to read YA, but that’s not my concern here. Rather, readers familiar with Wendig’s other work, for instance, Blackbirds and its successors, know that Wendig is inclined to graphic language and violence; they are the tools with which he makes his art. He has to tone those down for YA, of course, and the loss is palpable. There is violence, mostly fistfights, and there is vulgarity, for instance, “Jeezum Crow,” apparently a corrupted, Heartland version of “Jesus Christ,” but, for seasoned Wendig readers, Under the Empyrean Sky is decidedly tame.

There are also issues with the plot, as Cael strives to determine his direction. This type of thing might be expected of YA; the protagonist has to discover himself or otherwise learn some lesson, a tendency that appeals to its primary audience, who is (presumably) going through much the same thing. Readers accustomed to Wendig’s propulsive momentum will miss that here. The plot wanders, as Cael deals with his wrecked boat, his family, his friends, his girlfriend… Cael has tough luck, but the reader wishes for a respite.

That’s not to say that Under the Empyrean Sky is bad. The premise, of course, is fascinating, and there are moments of real promise, for instance, the opening chapters, and, later, when Cael and his buddies explore a neighboring town. Readers will identify with the characters, who are almost exclusively down on their luck, although, as I understand it, some female readers may take issue with Cael’s behavior. (Cael is the kind of troubled teenager who gets on one’s nerves, and, worse, he treats Gwennie as his property.) Indeed, female characters are few and far between here–surprising, given Wendig’s emphasis on Miriam Black in his other novels–and seem to serve as punching bags for the men in their life, sometimes quite literally. The one bright spot is Mer, and she’s wise enough to disappear early on.

Under the Empyrean Sky is not a perfect book; its plot sometimes meanders, and it lacks some of the “oomph” of Wendig’s other work. Still, it is a unique setting for a story, it grapples with some big ideas, its characters are relatable, and there are some truly stirring scenes. There is YA marketed toward everyone and YA best marketed to its primary audience; Under the Empyrean Sky is among the latter. That said, tried and true Wendig fans will find much here to enjoy. A fun romp through a twisted agro-wasteland, Under the Empyrean Sky is a bit hit-or-miss, and recommended mainly to Wendig’s current fan base and readers willing to take a chance on a novel with a truly promising concept.

Review: The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

All things must end. “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” Etc., etc. Seven years after Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, many readers continue to mourn the loss of the Boy Who Lived. Someone, somewhere, always will. It’s not for Harry they shed tears, of course, but for themselves, for growing up and giving up the ability to totally immerse themselves in other worlds, for the sacrifice of childhood to adulthood and the innocence that goes with it.

And after four years and three books, beginning with The Magicians, through The Magician King, and ending now with The Magician’s Land (Viking Adult, August 5, 2014), Lev Grossman makes clear that that was his subject all along: The loss of the worlds we inhabit as children, our desperate efforts to retain them, and, ultimately, our quest to move on, to strike out anew in an undiscovered country.

The Magician's Land, Lev Grossman

The Magician’s Land, Lev Grossman

It is apt to compare Harry Potter and the world of The Magicians Trilogy, as the latter is a response to the former, with some Narnia thrown in for good measure. But if Harry Potter’s universe is one characterized by authenticity, by sincerity, then Grossman’s creation is a jaundiced one, not seen through a glass darkly, but ironically. The cheeky tone of Grossman’s storytelling is likely to have put off readers who take seriously their diversions into fantasy, but it is, ultimately, the right approach: How else to deal with a story that’s been told countless times? How else to avoid maudlin tropes and sentimentality? As Umberto Eco writes in his Postscript to the Name of the Rose, once a sentiment has become wrote, it can only be expressed sincerely via the mechanism of irony. It’s altogether fitting in these self-referential and hyperaware times that an author tell his story with a wink and a nudge.

Of course, readers unfamiliar with Grossman’s previous work will wonder just what I’m getting at. In short, The Magicians Trilogy is set in a world in which (surprise) magic is real. Gifted young men and women are spirited off to Brakebills Academy (think Hogwarts, natch) to learn the intricacies of sorcery. Lest readers longing to belong to such a world get all dewy eyed, know that the learning of magic is grueling, arduous process accomplished only by the most brilliant students. It isn’t fun. To top it all off, the fairy tale world of Fillory (see: Narnia) turns out to be real, and is at once more horrible and goofy than a reader might expect, unless that reader is revisiting as an adult the books she consumed as a child, and thinking, “Talking animals, huh? I really enjoyed this?” But of course you did; it was written with children in mind.

Lev Grossman

Lev Grossman

Not so The Magician’s Land. Readers know that Quentin Coldwater, Grossman’s protagonist, and his friends survived Fillory in The Magicians and became its kings and queens in The Magician King. Cast out of Fillory by the ram-god Ember, Quentin is a young(ish) man adrift when The Magician’s Land opens. He finds his way back to Brakebills and becomes an adjunct professor, learning his focus (minor mendings), teaching, and working on a project inspired by a stray page captured in the Neitherlands (sort of a transdimensional interchange). Quentin enjoys himself; he’s growing up. Needless to say, things fall apart: A prank played by a student, Plum, on one of her peers goes awry, and Quentin is implicated. Plum inadvertently summons into Brakebills a niffin (demon) not unknown to Quentin–Alice, last seen at the end of The Magicians. Quentin and Plum are dismissed from Brakebills and take up “mercenary” work, a path that will ultimately lead them back to Fillory. Which, it should be said, is dying, and can’t be saved.

If that all seems like a bit much, well, it is, but Grossman handles it much more adeptly than I. Grossman shifts his perspective from Quentin and Plum (in our world) to Eliot and Janice (in Fillory) and back again, without losing the thread. Readers will not find themselves lost; Grossman does not overreach. His worlds are approachable and do not require extensive exposition in order to understand them. His attention to the details of his worlds is impressive. There is a description of Plum’s and Quentin’s time as whales (it will make sense when you read it) that is especially striking. All of which is to say that, for all his irony, Grossman is capable of creating truly mysterious and inspiring lands.

Perhaps the most affecting part of The Magician’s Land is an extensive chapter given over to Rupert Chatwin’s diary, written just before his death in North Africa in World War II. The Chatwin children, of course, were the original discoverers of Fillory, and one in particular, Martin, played a key role in The Magicians. Grossman, via Rupert, tells the story of Edwardian English children abandoned by their parents and “rescued” by the world of Fillory. It is an association that has serious consequences for all of the Chatwin children. More than Rupert’s tale, though, it serves as Martin’s “backstory,” a belated but layered introduction to Fillory’s mythology.

If there is a weakness in The Magician’s Land, it is a certain disjointedness in Grossman’s storytelling. Certain events do not seem to serve much purpose, and characters are introduced only to disappear later on. Perhaps this is to be expected, as it reflects the realities of our everyday lives. Still, some aspects of the novel seem tucked in with the intention of neatly wrapping up threads from other books, rather than serving to organically advance the plot of The Magician’s Land. (The subplot of Plum’s and Quentin’s post-Brakebills operation and their encounter with Betsy comes to mind.) It’s almost as if Grossman is lamenting the loss of the world he created, and needs to revisit every character one last time. Still, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise successful novel.

And if Grossman feels a sense of loss as he completes his trilogy, it’s understandable. Not only is The Magicians Trilogy his baby, but that nostalgia is his subject. Quentin, having found Fillory and lost it, must come to grips with life after the fantasy. We as readers must do so, too; we are no longer the tweens who grew up with Harry Potter. As Grossman suggests, we needn’t abandon our childhoods altogether, nor can we accept them with the rose-colored lenses of youth. We look on, unblinking, and honor them with jokes and snide remarks that cut them down to their true size and show them for what they really are. We can never lose our childhoods, since they are part of us and will always inform who we are. You should make a point of making Fillory part of your world. A humorous and well written conclusion to a successful trilogy, The Magican’s Land is highly recommended.

Review: The Supernatural Enchancements, Edgar Cantero

If you have ever considered living in a house because it’s rumored to be haunted, then Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements (Doubleday, August 12, 2014) is next up on your “to read” list.

The story, set in November and December 1995, begins when our hero, A., unexpectedly inherits his long-lost cousin’s mansion “and all of its contents.” A., a slightly shiftless 23 year old student, makes a beeline from Europe for Axton House, located in Point Bless, Virginia. A. and his traveling companion, Niamh (pronounced “Neve”), happily take up residence in their sprawling new home. Encounters with the locals indicate that the house has a “history,” that A. and Niamh may not be its sole occupants, that they might be sharing their space with a ghost, the eponymous “supernatural enhancement.”

The Supernatural Enhancements, Edgar Cantero

The Supernatural Enhancements, Edgar Cantero

But The Supernatural Enhancements is not merely a ghost story. A.’s relative, Wells, committed suicide at age 50–on the anniversary of his father’s suicide at the same age. Yet more eerie, Wells left in his study a note with an encrypted clue, the significance of which A. and Niamh only discover after a burglary. Wells was up to some strange stuff, pursuing the study of some occult knowledge, access to which is available to A. and Niamh only through hints and accidents.

Early in the novel, when it is just becoming clear that Axton house may have a ghost and that Wells was up to some pretty odd stuff, A. comments on one of his favorite TV shows, The X-Files. An avowed atheist, A. nonetheless echoes the sentiment of the famous poster from Mulder’s office: “I want to believe.” Looking around at the congregants at the church service Niamh forced him to attend, A. feels not contempt, but envy. Really, as A. and Niamh find themselves in ever more complicated and bizarre situations, the story becomes about credulity: Are you able to believe that there might be more to something than its surface might suggest?

The truth is out there.

The truth is out there.

Cantero narrates the story using a variety of “documentary” formats, including A.’s journal entries, letters home to Aunt Liza, Niamh’s notepad (she is a mute and communicates through writing), and audio and video recorder footage. The effect may take some getting used to on the part of some readers, but it works: Cantero achieves a smooth narrative flow early on. Cantero’s decision to approach the story this way is canny: It roots the reader in the world as A. and Niamh experience it, and also limits the reader’s exposure to outside knowledge. In effect, readers know what A. and Niamh know, at least insofar as they report their findings in their letters and journal entries. Ultimately, this results in a deepening of the mystery, as, for instance, readers read a transcript of a video that (purportedly) shows A.’s encounter with the ghost. Of course, exposure to primary documents is a fraught exercise: Can you trust what the authors are telling you?

Part of what makes The Supernatural Enhancements so fun to read is the fun Cantero has with his characters. A. is immediately recognizable, a young twentysomething male with a slightly indifferent air, who is nonetheless thoughtful and well-intentioned. Niamh, 17, is something of a pixie, engaging in such cute activities as sledding across the mansion’s roof. Afflicted with muteness, it is Niamh who acquires the audiovisual equipment that is employed throughout the house and which is ultimately responsible for large parts of the story. A. and Niamh do what any young people in possession of an old mansion might do: They make spaghetti dinners and eat in the large formal dining room, they map the floors (leaving a trail of chickpeas on the floor to the bathroom on their first night), and they watch The X-Files. There is an obvious romantic subplot that A. scrupulously avoids, adding tension to their relationship.

The Supernatural Enchancements defies expectations. The novel becomes darker in tone as A. is drawn deeper into Wells’ mysteries, but only the canniest of readers will have a notion of what’s to come. The story’s climax is swift and shocking, and all the more affecting for it. Of course, I can’t divulge details here (no spoilers!), but when an author has you yelling, “No! NO!” it’s a sign that he has successfully pulled you into his story.

The Supernatural Enchanements is less a ghost story than it is a tale of the fantastic, of encounters with the occult, and of solving puzzles and finding treasure–all while young and, supposedly, carefree. Cantero balances the darkness with whimsy, so readers expecting creeping dread and buckets of gore are warned away. So, too, are readers who might be put off by the epistolary style. That said, The Supernatural Enchancements is a fun book (and that’s meant in the best possible sense) and a fine story: A great success for Edgar Cantero. Highly recommended for fans of the fantastic.