Category: Reading


30 Authors: Rufi Thorpe on ‘After Birth’

Posted 12 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

30 Authors

Preliminaries

#30Authors is an event started by The Book Wheel that connects readers, bloggers, and authors. In it, 30 authors review their favorite recent reads on 30 blogs in 30 days. It takes place annually during the month of September and has been met with incredible support from and success in the literary community. It has also been turned into an anthology, which is currently available on Amazon and all author proceeds go to charity. Previous #30Authors contributors include Celeste Ng, Cynthia Bond, Brian Panowich, and M.O. Walsh. To see this year’s full line-up, visit: www.thebookwheelblog.com/30authors or follow along on Twitter @30Authors.

30 Author’s Book Review

Rufi Thorpe

“Bitch, I mean, come on: do you think I don’t know I’m wearing enormous pants?”

Reading Elisa Albert’s After Birth

When I don’t know what to read next, I usually turn to Rachel Fershleiser, who is a unique personage in the online book world. She is part taste-maker, part cheerleader, part guardian-angel of authors trying to find an audience, and she is one of those people who has found her power in being absolutely herself, by which I mean she is a fucking delight. She reads everything, and if you want to read something about kick-ass women processing their shit, she is the person to ask. (You should follow her on Twitter immediately is what I am saying.) So I asked, and she recommended After Birth by Elisa Albert.

I hadn’t heard of it, and I usually read this kind of thing. It didn’t have that many reviews, but it did have some impressive blurbs from Karen Russell, Emily Gould, Lydia Davis. The cover was sort of ugly in an interesting way. I didn’t know what to expect. Before I was thirty pages in, I had already texted my mother, my best friend, and my sister-in-law that they had to read this book.

Part of After Birth’s allure is its humor. The narrator, Ari, is scathing in a way that is particularly appealing, a kind of Dorothy Parker naughtiness, a willingness to be mean. “Yes, clearly I am not as lithe as before I fabricated and surgically evacuated a new human being. At any opportunity my stepmother will still give me the Scan, let’s call it, that classic down-up as common to the female of the species as is the vagina— and offer a specious don’t worry, sweetie, you’ll get back to normal soon. Bitch, I mean, come on: do you think I don’t know I’m wearing enormous pants?” (p. 15)

But part of the book’s allure is its philosophical insight, which is as furious and cutting as its humor. Ari is willing to say things that are unlikable, unfashionable, questioning our relationships to our bodies, our fear of death and birth, women’s place in the power structures of the world, and this gives the book an intriguing force and freshness. Ari is not fundamentally likable, and she is not always right, in fact often she is stubborn and stuck. But this is hardly a fault in a book that is questioning, among other things, why women have to be so fucking likable all the time.

After Birth tells the story of what happens to one woman, Ari, after the birth of her first child. I want to say it simply like that, because it makes clear one thing: I don’t think I have read another novel that takes this stage of life as its chief plot. There is no love interest in this book. (Ari’s husband is neither the solution, nor the problem; he is a good guy doing his best.) Subplots are scarce, and the major arc of the story follows her friendship with another woman who has just given birth.

If there is a major critique to be made of the book, it is that its internal nature, its psycho-spiritual subject matter, are not the stuff of traditional plot, and the effect can at times be claustrophobic. To create movement, Albert skillfully interrupts the current action with flashbacks which account for Ari’s relationship to her own mother who died when she was young and who was a bitch even before she died, and her grandmother who survived the Holocaust. (“Exactly what primal torments did she endure and escape? Everyone always wants to know. They ask around it. But you can’t un-know, okay? She survived by sucking Nazi cock. Nineteen years old. Survived with her mouth full of throbbing Nazi sausage. All righty?” p. 140)

The narrative is also constantly interrupted by what becomes a litany of failed female friendships: Molly with the clear gray eyes, Jess from Jewish summer camp, Rachel the “ano-fucking-rexic,” Shira the beautiful idiot with the sweetest gap-tooth grin, and of course, Mina, whose friendship Ari is desperate for, and who carries the bulk of what little current-action plot there is.

The book makes a commentary on its own lack of plot, asking serious questions about whether plot, which revolves around a series of decisive actions set up almost as an alter to cause and effect, a painstaking diorama of the forces of action, is in fact a male cultural construct which is of little use to a woman wanting to write about having babies.

Ari ruminates: “Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else. Birthing and nursing and rocking and distracting and socializing and cooking and washing and gardening and mending: what’s that compared with bullets whizzing overhead, dazzling destructive heroics, headlines, parties, glory, all that Martha Gellhorn stuff, all that Zelda Fitzgerald stuff, drugs and gutters and music and poetry pretty dresses more parties and fucking and fucking and parties? Destroy yourself, says my mother. Live it up. That’s what makes for good stories. She should know. Nurturance, on the other hand . . .The time it takes to grow something . .  . BORING.” (pp. 185-186)

It is a stubborn book. It is an important book. It is a glorious and flawed and incandescent book. And you should go read it right now.

Find Rufi Thorpe

 

Website   |   Twitter   |   Facebook   | Amazon

 

 

 

About After Birth

 

Website   |   Twitter   |   Facebook   |   Amazon

 

 

 

 

 

Thanks again to Allison for organizing 30 Authors and Rufi for her fabulous review! After Birth wasn’t my cup of tea when I read it, but Rufi’s written an excellent review. What about you, Reader?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Terrific Tuesday: Children of the New World

Posted 6 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Terrific Tuesday: Children of the New WorldChildren of the New World: Stories by Alexander Weinstein
Published by Picador on September 13th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Science Fiction
Pages: 240
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
four-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Children of the New World introduces readers to a near-future world of social media implants, memory manufacturers, dangerously immersive virtual reality games, and alarmingly intuitive robots. Many of these characters live in a utopian future of instant connection and technological gratification that belies an unbridgeable human distance, while others inhabit a post-collapse landscape made primitive by disaster, which they must work to rebuild as we once did millennia ago.
In “The Cartographers,” the main character works for a company that creates and sells virtual memories, while struggling to maintain a real-world relationship sabotaged by an addiction to his own creations. In “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” the robotic brother of an adopted Chinese child malfunctions, and only in his absence does the family realize how real a son he has become.

Children of the New World is fantastic. In fact, as of writing this review (30 July 2016), I have read 42 books this year. There are only two or three others that were as well written and enjoyable as Children of the New World. I picked up this book thinking that it was a novel, it wasn’t until I got halfway through the second story that I realized it wasn’t a novel but a collection of short stories. At that point I almost set it aside, (because I was in the mood for a novel) but ultimately decided to press on. Jeeze-o-pete, I’m so glad that I did.

I kind of relate this to the short story collection The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Each story can absolutely stand on it’s own, but the collection as a whole is infinitely more enjoyable and most of the stories build off of the others in subtle and delightful ways. This method is how Weinstein has managed the extraordinary feat of excellent world building within the length of a short story. To be fair, the world building gets better the more stories that you read, but each story in Children of the New World is completely insular and most are 5 star stories in their own right.

A few of my favorites. Moksha takes the delightful idea that enlightenment is now something that has been digitized and can be downloaded into your brain – it’s now a drug that is illegal in most western markets. Phrases like:

There had been nonstop busts at yoga studios and health spas in the U.S.

made me giggle a little, but the chilling reality of where technology is going was, at times, sobering.

Later in the book with The Pyramid and the Ass the tenants of Buddhism are nearly criminalized and Weinstein makes ‘radical Buddhism’ synonymous with what the media calls ‘radical Islam’ today. Complete with kidnappings and mutilations. These kind of details are what I’m talking about when I say that Weinstein world builds within his collection of short stories. Both Moksha and The Pyramid and the Ass are excellent in their own right, but taken together they are phenomenal.

Another story in particular that I really enjoyed was the title story Children of the New World. In this story people are able to log into a virtual reality network and experience pleasures beyond their wildest dreams. They are also able to procreate, build houses, and lives in this reality (think The Sims). Children of the New World grapples with questions that I find to be extremely complex, even if they’re not quite ripe for discussion.

The only story that seems completely out of place and more incongruous than the others is the last one in the collection, Ice Age, I enjoyed this story, but it stood out – perhaps because of it’s placement – to be not quite a part of the same universe as the others.

So, Reader, has anyone has the pleasure of reading this collection yet? Thoughts and feelings on where technology is going for us? Is it out of control? 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in Moscow

Posted 5 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Magnificent Monday: A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Published by Viking on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 448
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
five-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. A Gentleman in Moscow immerses us in an elegantly drawn era with the story of Count Alexander Rostov. When, in 1922, he is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, the count is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him a doorway into a much larger world of emotional discovery.
Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a beautiful character driven novel that really hit me square in the heart-space. To be fair, I only stood in line for Towles’ second novel because Catherine, Shannon, and other trusted bloggers ensured me that I should. A Gentleman in Moscow is not something I would have picked up on my own as I normally don’t go for historical fiction. But jeeze-o-pete, am I ever glad I got peer pressured into that signing line.

Despite being an American who spent twenty years as an ‘investment professional’, Towles has a real talent for rendering well formed and interesting characters from the Bolshevik revolution and also the U.S.S.R.. When my biggest complaint about a book is that I wanted more at the end – I consider that a win.

A Gentleman in Moscow is a sprawling novel a little in the vein of John Irving that follows a series of characters over decades. Count Rostov’s relationships with others at the Metropol hotel from the Bishop to Nina to Andrey are nearly flawlessly executed and completely believable. This novel is about the little things that make life worth living, if you’re looking for a plot driven action novel – you’re going to be disappointed with A Gentleman in Moscow. However, if you’re looking for a thoughtful character study that gives hope on the decency of humans as a whole – Towles has you covered.

I felt some sort of emotional connection with every character in this novel. If Towles were to write spin-offs describing the background and life trajectory of most of these characters — I would read those books.

A Gentleman in Moscow is an excellent novel and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

What about you, Reader? Have you read Towles’ Rules of Civility? Does A Gentleman in Moscow sound like your bag? Who else has read this?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Sunday Salon: Reading on Vacation

Posted 4 September, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in memes, Reading

sunday salon books

Good morning, Readers! It’s been a hot minute since I checked in here, but there are things going on and there is reading being done. While on vacation I made it through a fair amount of books. I hit up a wide array of books, making it through all of the current Wicked + Divine graphic novels that are available to date, as well as the first volume of Chew, which was not nearly as gross as I had anticipated. I managed to get through Graham Moore’s novel, The Last Days of Night, Lionel Shriver’s amazing economic dystopia The Mandibles: A Family, 2029 – 2047, and last but definitely not least was Amor Towles’ excellent historical fiction piece A Gentleman in Moscow. What I realized by the copious amount of reading I was able to get through on my vacation is that my main problem with my lack of reading these days is work. C’est la vie.

Now, a week back in the real world, I’ve started Herman Koch’s newest Dear Mr. M, so far its just as twisty as his other two novels, but I’m not sure where it’s going yet. I’m still working on Mischling, though not very studiously – it may be a bit too harrowing for what I need to be reading right now. We’ll see. I’m also thinking of starting The Mothers by Brit Bennett.

Had the pleasure of going to the Decatur Book Festival with Katie yesterday. We agreed that we’re super psyched about books in the moment, listening to the authors on the panels but over dinner got realistic on what we were actually going to read. Garrard Conley gave a pretty brilliant talk on a panel about changing ideas of masculinity that definitely piqued my interest in his memoir Boy Erased, which tells of going through conversion therapy as a boy. Jim Obergefell was there too, and he was incredibly inspiring when talking about why he chose to go forward with what became the landmark Supreme Court case making marriage equality the supreme law of the land. I’m extremely interested in his book, Love Wins.

We went and heard a few more talks which were all interesting in their own rights, but didn’t strike me the way Conley and Obergefell did.

So Reader? What have you been reading? 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Meh Monday: The City of Mirrors

Posted 15 August, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Meh Monday: The City of MirrorsThe City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin
Series: The Passage #3
Published by Ballantine Books on May 24th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Horror, Science Fiction, Suspense, Thrillers
Pages: 602
Goodreads
two-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

"The world we knew is gone. What world will rise in its place?"

The Twelve have been destroyed and the hundred-year reign of darkness that descended upon the world has ended. The survivors are stepping outside their walls, determined to build society anew and daring to dream of a hopeful future.

But far from them, in a dead metropolis, he waits: Zero. The First. Father of the Twelve. The anguish that shattered his human life haunts him, and the hatred spawned by his transformation burns bright. His fury will be quenched only when he destroys Amy – humanity's only hope, the Girl from Nowhere who grew up to rise against him.

One last time light and dark will clash, and at last Amy and her friends will know their fate.

Praise the lord and pass the ammunition, this trilogy is over. Honestly, the only reason I’m actually writing a review for The City of Mirrors is because I have this need to make things complete. I’ve reviewed the other two so you, lucky Reader, are going to get to hear me bitch about this one. Because that sounds so inspiring, let’s get to it!

There are large (novel-sized) chunks of this monster that are just downright dullThe City of Mirrors, much like the previous two novels, jump around in space and time. The reader is forced to slog through hundreds of pages of sappy writing about a poor Harvard undergrad who falls in love with his roommates girlfriend to get the genesis of Zero. Familiar characters like ‘Lish and Peter have long epic sojourns where not much of anything happened and I wanted to weep with boredom at times.

My biggest problem with this novel however, was the heavy handed Biblical allegory. Don’t get me wrong I love good Biblical allegory. Good being the key word. Cronin hits readers over the head with a slab of Adam’s ribs with the allegory that he tries to create in The City of Mirrors and for me it was completely ineffective and distracting. You have Michael working to fix his ship, like a post-apocalyptic Noah. Of course there’s Amy, who is the Christ figure. There’s Peter (PETER!) the disciple. Which brings me to the name of the characters: Caleb, Sara (very motherly in the Bible, very motherly here)… it doesn’t hold true for all the characters, but throughout the trilogy it held true for enough.

There are sections with lots of action and violence, but the literary mixed with the fun that was so appealing in The Passage has completely evaporated in The City of Mirrors. The end of the book is probably the most satisfying part of it, I don’t mean that in a snarky way the last hundred pages or so take a total right turn to the rest of the novel, and while there are certain believability and ‘what’s the point, then?!’ problems with the end, I’ll leave it there for the sake of not spoiling. If you want to discuss it in the comments – let’s do it.

For a not quite as harsh, but naturally better written, and of course spoiler-y review, I liked the one at The Washington Post. The Discriminating Fangirl also breaks down some of her problems with the novel here.

Soooo Reader. Insert big sigh here. How did everyone else feel about this? Has anyone else taken the plunge and read it? Anyone more forgiving than me?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Fabulous Friday: All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

Posted 12 August, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Fabulous Friday: All the Ugly and Wonderful ThingsAll the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Published by Thomas Dunne Books on August 9th 2016
Genres: Adolescence, Fiction, Literary
Pages: 352
Goodreads
five-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

As the daughter of a meth dealer, Wavy knows not to trust people, not even her own parents. Struggling to raise her little brother, eight-year-old Wavy is the only responsible "adult" around. She finds peace in the starry Midwestern night sky above the fields behind her house. One night everything changes when she witnesses one of her father's thugs, Kellen, a tattooed ex-con with a heart of gold, wreck his motorcycle. What follows is a powerful and shocking love story between two unlikely people that asks tough questions, reminding us of all the ugly and wonderful things that life has to offer.

I read All the Ugly and Wonderful Things in a single sitting while I was sick as a dog. Greenwood wields her prose like it’s a sword and manages to completely eviscerate the reader. This book is indeed filled with all the ugly and wonderful things, but Greenwood leaves it up to the reader to decide what is ugly and what is wonderful. Her prose, while gorgeous and nearly perfectly rendered, is almost… hmm… she’s like a reporter – showing the reader what’s going on but never telling the reader how to feel about it.

This book left me constantly questioning my own morality for feeling the way that I did. Wavy and Kellen’s relationship often felt icky and wrong – ugly – to me, but at the same time almost justified. This is a book that demands to be discussed among friends. There is so much here. Never for one second did I feel icky the way I felt when I was reading Lolita, Humbert is obviously a pervert and a manipulator using Lo for his own ends. In All the Ugly and Wonderful Things Kellen is honestly more of a protector and a caretaker for the majority of their story.

For me the most disturbing part was (oddly) not the relationship between the two main characters but Wavy’s relationship with her mother. Parents can do horrible things to their children and Greenwood manages to capture that in vivid and aching detail. The imagery of Wavy eating out of the trash is enough to make me weep. Additionally, what good people like Wavy’s aunt are unable to handle in the face of adversity is also a depressing theme that Greenwood fleshes out in the most awesomely heartbreaking way.

On a personal note, Wavy’s family reminds me very much of my shitbag aunt and her children. She’s a shitbag who marries shitbag men. My grandmother is a constant enabler to the shitbaggery. My cousins are not works of fiction and despite the blood, sweat, and tears of my grandmother at least one of them has already done stints in juvie and will probably end up in prison for drugs before it’s all over. I also watched my own mother try to save that same cousin from himself for nearly two years, until much like Brenda, she couldn’t handle it anymore. So perhaps this is why I found the (lack of) parental relationships much more disturbing than the relationship between Kellen and Wavy.

Anyway. The narrative in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is gorgeous. The characters are well fleshed out and largely believable. The story is heartbreaking. I highly recommend this one.

While she hasn’t written one yet, I know that Catherine at The Gilmore Guide to Books will eventually publish a more eloquent and insightful review soon.

What about you, Reader? Does this sound way outside of your comfort zone? I felt a little discomfited at first, but eventually got swept away.

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Release Day Review: Dark Matter

Posted 2 August, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Release Day Review: Dark MatterDark Matter by Blake Crouch
Published by Crown on August 2nd 2016
Pages: 352
Goodreads
two-half-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

“Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious. Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”
In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable--something impossible.
Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

So my mother has been pimping Blake Crouch to me for quite awhile now. “Scarier than Stephen King!” she says to the Stephen King fangirl. So when Dark Matter was on offer at BEA I thought it would be an excellent time to check him out.

Dark Matter isn’t a bad book, in fact it’s probably an ideal book if you’re looking for something light and easy to read on a plane. I suppose my biggest problem with Dark Matter is that it’s so darn predictable. Even with beach reads, I expect a few things from an author: That the writing be solid and that the author stays true to the genre s/he’s writing in. What I’m trying to say is that if you’re trying to write a suspense novel – there should be suspense. I shouldn’t be able to pick up a suspense novel and see the entire trajectory of the book twenty-five pages in.

Pretty much after Jason wakes up from his abduction, everything becomes readily apparent. I did love the sweet little touches of science fiction that Crouch infuses into this very standard suspense novel. There were times it felt a little like Stephen King’s 11/22/63, which is good.

Dark Matter, is a book that is going to fall into my category of, “You could do worse on a plane.” Blake Crouch, at least for now, is relegated to the minor leagues of horror and suspense writing, with the likes of Dean Koontz. Sorry, Mom!

Whatcha think, Reader? Do I have any Blake Crouch fans out there? Anyone want to recommend a different title by him?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Friday (Re)Reads: The Twelve

Posted 22 July, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Friday (Re)Reads: The TwelveThe Twelve by Justin Cronin
Series: The Passage #2
Published by Hachette UK on October 25th 2012
Genres: Fiction, General, Horror, Science Fiction, Thrillers, Suspense, Fantasy
Pages: 688
Goodreads
three-stars

In the present day, as the man-made apocalypse unfolds, three strangers navigate the chaos. Lila, a doctor and an expectant mother, is so shattered by the spread of violence and infection that she continues to plan for her child’s arrival even as society dissolves around her. Kittridge, known to the world as “Last Stand in Denver,” has been forced to flee his stronghold and is now on the road, dodging the infected, armed but alone and well aware that a tank of gas will get him only so far. April is a teenager fighting to guide her little brother safely through a landscape of death and ruin. These three will learn that they have not been fully abandoned—and that in connection lies hope, even on the darkest of nights.

One hundred years in the future, Amy and the others fight on for humankind’s salvation...unaware that the rules have changed. The enemy has evolved, and a dark new order has arisen with a vision of the future infinitely more horrifying than man’s extinction. If the Twelve are to fall, one of those united to vanquish them will have to pay the ultimate price.

So I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this trilogy, The PassageThe Twelve did not disappoint either. I re-read this book in preparation for the thrilling conclusion, The City of Mirrors.

As the second installment in the trilogy it was great to pick back up in Cronin’s expert world building and revisit the (many) characters introduced in the first novel. The Twelve expands on those characters and the situations that the characters find themselves in. Cronin does a great job continuing to develop both characters and his world. For the most part these two novels are incredibly impressive both in scope and depth. But there are points in The Twelve where I felt like it was (dare I say it) almost overdeveloped. Danny’s backstory, even April and Tim…  this book is so long and so detailed that these pieces felt a little extraneous. Admittedly, this is one of the things that may add to the excellent world building, but this book is a chunkster as it is and I’m not sure that these narratives added enough.

I wish that I had reviewed this prior to finishing The City of Mirrors, but (and we’ll get to this in another review) I didn’t, that reading kind of tainted me for the entire trilogy and I’m unable to differentiate the second and third books as well as I’d like to.

This trilogy is absolutely epic.

Reader, have you read The TwelveThe Passage? Are you looking for a new spin on vampires? 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Whatever Wednesday: Before the Fall

Posted 13 July, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Whatever Wednesday: Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley
Published by Grand Central Publishing on May 31st 2016
Pages: 400
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
three-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

On a foggy summer night, eleven people—ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter—depart Martha's Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs—the painter—and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul's family.

With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members—including a Wall Street titan and his wife, a Texan-born party boy just in from London, a young woman questioning her path in life, and a career pilot—the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.

I’m going to dub 2016 “The Year of the ‘You Could Do Worse on a Plane’ Book” because seriously, that’s pretty much the rating I’ve given to everything this year.

Before the Fall is by no means a bad novel, but it’s not a particularly good novel either. It’s kind of fun the reconstruction of the accident, the push and pull of the suspense, and loving to hate the Fox News-esque anchor Bill Cunningham for exploiting the death of his boss and whipping up the public into a totally unnecessary frenzy. Actually, Bill Cunnigham’s role in the novel is perhaps the most interesting thing about it. He’s so repulsive and the way he behaves (both on and off the air) is so repugnant that it really leaves the reader to question the motivations behind cable news and info-tainment anchors on both sides of the aisle.

I also enjoyed the portions about the extreme swimmer and fitness guru from the fifties. The imagery of a man swimming from Alcatraz with his wrists chained, pulling a boat was just fabulous. Come to think of it, the stronger visual parts of Before the Fall all involved swimming.

The rest of the novel is a decent enough cross between a character study and a suspense novel. Before the Fall is not a great novel for book clubs because there’s not a whole lot to talk about. Once you’ve finished the book it’s pretty cut and dry. I only mention this because it was featured at BEA’s book club speed dating event and I tried to book club it myself.

Does this kind of action, suspense, character study type novel appeal to you, Reader? Has anyone else read this? Enjoy it? Not enjoy it? Thoughts and feelings?

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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Monday Controversy: Underground Airlines

Posted 11 July, 2016 by April @ The Steadfast Reader in Reviews

Monday Controversy: Underground AirlinesUnderground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
Published by Random House on July 5th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Alternative History, General
Pages: 336
Format: Paperback ARC
Goodreads
four-stars

I received this book for free from the publisher in exchange honest review consideration. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it. Except for one thing: slavery still exists.
Victor has escaped his life as a slave, but his freedom came at a high price. Striking a bargain with the government, he has to live his life working as a bounty hunter. And he is the best they’ve ever trained.

A mystery to himself, Victor tries to suppress his memories of his own childhood and convinces himself that he is just a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he is desperate to preserve. But in tracking his latest target, he can sense that that something isn’t quite right.
For this fugitive is a runaway holding something extraordinary. Something that could change the state of the country forever.

And in his pursuit, Victor discovers secrets at the core of his country's arrangement with the system that imprisoned him, secrets that will be preserved at any cost.

This is a good lesson on why to write your reviews as soon as you finish a book. I finished Underground Airlines last Monday, before (I read) the New York Times review, before (I knew about) the Twitter backlash, before the three days of violence in America. But here we are, living in the present, writing in reality. The question is, do I tackle the review or the controversy first? Let’s just see where things take us, shall we?

First, the world building is excellent. Underground Airlines, if nothing else it is well researched novel with a meticulously created world. The devil is in the details with this book and Winters does his due diligence in getting most of them. This is a novel where the plot will fail if the premise fails. If Winters had been unable to convince me that the Civil War had never happened, that slavery had been permanently enshrined in the Constitution, the the Hard Four were real, nothing else would have mattered. But the attention to detail in the world building makes the whole thing frighteningly plausible. It’s worth noting that Winters spends the first SIXTY EIGHT pages establishing his world.

Speaking of world building… I loved the literary name dropping Winters did. The subtle changing of the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird. “…about the Alabama runner [slave] who is discovered hiding in a small Tennessee town, and the courageous white lawyer who saves him from a vicious racist Deputy Marshal…” The celebration of Zora Neale Hurston’s “masterpiece” that was smuggled out of a sugarcane plantation “page by page” before Florida went free. These details are delightful to any bibliophile.

As far as the plot, stories, and characters go… these are a little more thin for me. I’m not a huge fan of crime noir novels, so the stylistic decision Winters made to frame the plot and Victor’s character in this fashion didn’t work overly well for me. I found the characters to be a little underdeveloped. What was really with Barton? (Though I did love the characterization that he had a ‘Mockingbird complex’ “…the white man is a the saver, the black man gets saved.”) Marsha’s motivation was believable, but there was still something missing with her… The point is the characters wer all pretty static and I wish that Winters had done more with them.

Overall I found this book to be immensely enjoyable and very readable. It’s thoughtful, well written, and will leave you thinking.

Meanwhile on Twitter…

I get it. I get the reality behind the diversity in books movement. I agree that Octavia Butler is an unsung hero and that it is wrong in so many ways. But (and here’s where I piss people off…), does that negate the fact that Winters has written an incredibly thoughtful book about race relations in America?

Look. When I started Underground Airlines I didn’t realize who Ben Winters was. Maybe a third of the way into the book I looked up who he was and had the thought, “Oh shit. He’s white.” At that point I had the thoughts and feelings on “Should he really be writing about this?” I was already committed to the story so I pressed on and it was a good book. Do I agree with Lev Grossman’s characterization that Winters is “fearless” for writing this novel? Not really. Do I think that it’s fair that Winters is getting backlash for writing this just because he’s white? Not really. Do I think that there are people of color who have written books with similar premises who have not gotten fair recognition? ABSOLUTELY.

I understand that people of color have an uphill battle in publishing. Hell, in life. But should we condemn a book that may reach a larger audience (because of the popular acclaim of his previous novels), which may get that audience to think about these issues? An audience that isn’t actively seeking out novels by people of color because they’re not book bloggers or social justice warriors, it’s an audience of casual readers. People who pick up crime novels because they want some beach reading, not all of them are going to be politically active – but Winters’s novel might reach them, it might make them think, it may turn someone who was previously apathetic into an ally. Is that a bad thing?

Just my take dear Reader. Respectful dissent is always encouraged. 

April @ The Steadfast Reader

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