Tag Archives: book reviews

Review: Leviathan Wept and Other Stories by Daniel Abraham

Chewy, heartfelt, philosophical, concrete magic. Trigger warning for at least one of the stories, “Flat Diane,” a story I personally wish I hadn’t read. (I’m only halfway through the book.)

Lately, as in the past five years, I’ve gotten pickier and pickier in what I’m willing to read. Most books tell stories I’ve already heard and therefore can’t distract me from the ten thousand things on my mind these days. Not this book. I couldn’t predict a single ending, but when it came it was just right, and the journey was always full of allure.

I came across the collection after watching the first two seasons of The Expanse and wanting to read the books, which turned out to be written by James S. Corey, who is in fact not one person but two: Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck. It was hanging out at the local library and I’d passed over it many times, seeing pretension in the title.

The first story, “The Cambist and Lord Iron,” is an exceptional “three attempts” fairy tale. Our hero Olaf, who is a cambist (an exchanger of currencies) must contend with the impossible requests of Lord Iron, a monstrous excuse of a human being. Olaf’s misfortune is that he understands that it’s possible to exchange anything for anything. For instance, it’s true you can buy bread for money, but it’s equally true that you can buy money for bread, or exchange a horse for some number of lemon mints. Lord Iron brags about this ability and next thing you know, lives are staked on a bet. Can Olaf answer this question:

What is the value of a day in the life of the king, expressed in a day in the life of a prisoner?

This is starting to look like a Sufi riddle. It’s a seemingly simple question that breaks our usual way of thinking. Anybody can have an opinion, but to find an actual, correct, concrete answer?

I never saw the answer coming until it smacked me in the face. But it was true.

And that’s really as much as I can say about the story without spoilers. It’s a thinky story, also full of deep emotion and understandings, and concrete sensory experiences.

I’ll skip “Flat Diane,” which by the way is an International Horror Guild award-winner, so read it at your own peril, and move on to “The Best Monkey.” Just a taste. It begins like so:

How do men choose the women they’re attracted to? . . . It feels like kismet. Karma. Fate. It feels like love. Is it a particular way of laughing? A vulnerability in their tone of voice? A spiritual connection? Something deeper?

All the studies say it’s hip-to-waist ratio.

This snippet shows a tension between deeper meanings and concrete answers. The format – a question deep with longing and introspection, and a cold, abrupt answer that nevertheless sings with its own poetry – is repeated throughout the story, a seeming diversion from the detective-story plot, until the last. Then boom.

I won’t easily forget any of these stories.

– Kristin

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Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow

A couple months ago, Wired magazine came out with a truly dreadful article on the history of science fiction — one that suggested diversity is new to SF. I wrote my own response to that, and in the comments another blogger suggested the author Leigh Brackett, who wrote in the 1950s but is now largely forgotten. (Thank you!)

I checked the library and found her novel The Long Tomorrow. It was part of an anthology of the best works of the 1950s, and I accidentally started reading it halfway in. And that didn’t spoil it one little bit. On the contrary — it heightened the suspense, because I knew where the characters were headed, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know what would happen when they got there.

It’s an amazing postapocalyptic novel set in a rural New Mennonite town. In the novel’s history, nuclear war took out all the cities, which in turn demolished our technology. Mennonites survived, because they only used technology they could make themselves. And New Mennonites, and others, copied their culture because it made practical sense. This is a well-thought-out scenario, and the New Mennonite communities and surrounding countryside are richly drawn. Brackett really takes her time to let you get to know the people.

The people in this world are terrified that nuclear war might return, and this fear has extended to technology and cities. They’ve built a cultural narrative that says the cities were destroyed because God didn’t like them, and they punish anyone who might remotely appear to be bringing them back with stonings and fire.

And then, of course, the main character and his friend, Len and Esau, find ancient technology and go looking for a fabled city. They are two teenage boys brought up in a strict Biblical tradition who now question their community, but for slightly different reasons.

The story of Len and Esau is a coming-of-age tale, a story about growing up, a story about discovering and understanding the world they live in, and an exploration of a complicated moral problem.

I’ve read a lot of post-apocalyptic novels, but this one stands out because of its depth and breadth, the strong characterization, and the way it makes you think. It’s one of those books that will stick with me for years.

Off to see what else she’s written . . .

P.S. Here’s a link to a more in-depth but more spoilery review by author Nicola Griffith. She points out the limitations in a novel that’s a product of the age, but all in all likes it even more than me.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

The House With a Clock in Its Walls

This book by John Bellairs scared the dickens out of me when I was a child, so I’ve been hunting for a while now. Only I had forgotten the author’s name and got the title mixed up with  Bell, Book, and Candle, maybe because it has  books and lights and noisy things in it, or maybe because the same author wrote The Bell, The Book, and the Spellbinder. But it was one of the books from childhood that I remember deeply.

Then one day I went to a new library branch and the book jumped out at me. The House With a Clock in its Walls. And I’ve just finished it. Sometimes when you reread a book you loved as a child, by the time you reach adulthood you’ve grown so much that the book is now dull. But this one did not disappoint.

This is a deeply scary book. Not just because of the clock hidden somewhere in the walls of a creepy old house, not just because it’s a doomsday clock set to end the world, and not just because the illustrations were done by Edward Gorey. It’s scary mainly because the main character, a boy named Lewis, made a serious ethical mistake, and he nurses his fear and guilt through much of the book.

I bet every child can identify.

Bellairs is quite gentle on Lewis, and on the reader as well. He’s careful to mention that Lewis’ uncle would understand, and he’s also considerate enough to mention that Lewis will make it to adulthood. Bellairs is also kind to all the characters in the book. (Well, the living ones, at any rate.) Even the bully.

And the prose is lovely – expressive, surprising, and smooth. Here’s a short excerpt:

Lewis got up, wiped his hands on his trousers, and tugged at the enormous cardboard suitcase that hung out over the edge of the metal rack. Lewis’ father had brought the suitcase in London at the end of World War II. It was covered with ripped and faded Cunard Line stickers. Lewis pulled hard, and the suitcase lurched down onto his head. He staggered back across the aisle with the suitcase held perilously in the air; then he sat down suddenly, and the suitcase landed in his lap with a whump.

“Oh, come on! Don’t kill yourself before I have a chance to meet you!”

There in the aisle stood a man with a bushy red beard that was streaked in several places with white.”

All in all, it’s a hard read but a good one. I’m glad to have read it. (Twice.)

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Jan 28, 2010

Our book group just finished the incredible book The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. I’ve set a timer to allot myself ten minutes to talk about this book, and now I hardly know where to begin. I’ll have to do a bulleted list of teasers.

    • It is a work of fantasy. It is also hardcore realism – the footnotes chronicle the rule of Trujillo between 1930 and 1961 in the Dominican Republic, which was so awful it’s probably impossible for most people to get through. This reality is transformed into fantasy, through Junot Diaz’s discussion of a curse called “{C}

      fukú” and its counterspell “zafa,” and through his strong narrative voice, his gallows humor, his underlying love of the people whose lives he chronicles.

 

    • Oscar Wao as a character won me over. He exists in the intersection of oppressions – he is a Dominican immigrant / refugee in the U.S. and also a nerd and overweight. The Dominicans in his community won’t acknowledge him as their own because he is a nerd. The nerds are embarrassed because he’s overweight. And yet . . . he’s wondrous. Alas, I don’t have an hour to explain why. Except to mention that Diaz has performed an act of powerful zafa to make white geekdom claim a Dominican as their own.

 

    • The book uses three or more languages: New Jersey English, Dominican Spanish, and geek language (especially Tolkein & D&D). Not too many readers will have a handle on all three, which means no matter who reads it is going to be lost to some extent, and will just have to get over it.

 

I am somewhat bemused by the quote on the back of the book from The New York Times Book Review: “Like Raymond Carver, [he] wrings the heart with finely calibrated restraint.”

Firstly, I would not call his writing “restraint.” One of my fellow bookgroupers was disturbed by how loud his voice was, whereas I, being secretly a loud person myself, loved it.

And secondly, I was amused to see a loud work of fantasy described in terms of a minimalist author. An example of how the literary world, confronted with a genre text, tries to assimilate it.