Tag Archives: novel

Book Review: Darke (2017) by Rick Gekoski

Nowadays, every novel seems to need a hook. Each one needs an interesting premise that can be summed up in a sentence or two and is likely to make the potential reader think, ‘Huh, I wonder how that’ll play out…’

For Darke, it’s this: an elderly former-lecturer shuts himself off from society, refusing to interact with his friends and family, even removing the letterbox from his front door. It’s an interesting set-up, sure, and it did make me pick up the book… But it’s ultimately a lot more interesting as an idea than as an actual piece of writing. It isn’t that compelling reading about James Darke, locked up in his house, isolated from society, and it’s when the novel moves on from this slightly gimmicky premise that it gets truly good.

Dr James Darke is a protagonist who tries to resist being liked by the reader in any way. He’s opinionated, prejudiced and acts unpleasantly towards everyone he meets. This is part of why the first half of the novel is so hard to read. Trapped in his house, with only him as company, the novel felt claustrophobic to me at times. We get to hear him ramble on about T.S. Eliot, his various ailments and the stains in his underwear. It’s uncomfortable. Though this is probably the effect that the author was aiming for, it doesn’t make the book any less unpleasant (and dull) to read at times. In this section of the novel, James Darke is relentlessly unappealing and it’s only when the novel opens up beyond his immediate world and the confines of his house that he begins to become sympathetic.

Most of the book’s best parts take place outside of the house the protagonist locks himself in. It’s when Rick Gekoski begins to reveal Darke’s relationship with his wife and daughter that the novel begins to become great. As Darke begins to reflect on his relationship with his wife – and eventually, after leaving the house, tries to reconnect with his daughter – he becomes a much more three-dimensional character. In many ways, it shows that the version of him that dominates the first half of the book, the version he tries to promote through his journal, is really just a façade. He isn’t heartless and self-centred, just broken. (In many ways, he feels like a slightly more complex version of Charles Dickens’ Scrooge, which I don’t think is accidental given the character’s obsession with that author…)

If anything, the novel proves that a good story doesn’t really need a gimmicky set-up to be interesting. It just needs good characters. Only when Darke stops trying to be clever, abandoning its gimmicky premise, and instead tries to tell the simple story of a man trying to reconnect with his daughter, does it really come into its own.

Book Review: The Stolen Child (2017) by Lisa Carey

Like a lot of the books I read these days, I went into The Stolen Child pretty much blind. I’ll admit that I was wooed by the colourful bee-coated cover, which seemed to suggest a book a little bit on the fantastical side. When I opened it up and found out it was about two sisters living in Ireland in the 1950s, I grew a little concerned… I began to worry that I’d picked up some super-dry historical novel rather than a fun and fantastical one.

After reading the book, it’s actually somewhere between the two. The Stolen Child mashes together two different ideas/tones that don’t seem like they would fit together – historical and fantasy – and makes them work.

St. Brigid’s Island is a remote settlement off the coast of Ireland, being home to a small community. There’s no electricity there, no harbour – making it incredibly hard for boats to visit – and no real form of communication with the outside world. One day an American woman named Brigid comes to the island with the intention of living there, much to the suspicion of the island’s inhabitants. They are hesitant to take her in, the wary and lonely Emer especially. It soon becomes clear that she has come to the island to find a deep and magical secret kept hidden by its residents…

The Stolen Child is a slow novel, but it puts a lot of time into building up its characters. It always puts its characters before its magical elements, which is something I really appreciate… In fact, it doesn’t even bother to introduce the more fantastical elements of its story until the main characters are all fully formed. What I’m trying to get at is, basically, with most fantasy novels it feels like it’s the gimmick or the fantastical premise that comes first. With The Stolen Child it definitely feels like Carey came up with the characters first.

And there are a lot of strong characters here, Brigid and Emer in particular; the whole novel hinges on their relationship. Carey does a wonderful job of developing their relationship across the novel – with them flip flopping between friends and enemies a couple of times – always keeping it realistic. For example, when they fall out you can understand the argument from both sides and empathise with both of the characters. When conflict comes up in the novel, it’s rarely because of a clear villainous figure, it’s normally because of generally good people having different views.

I don’t want to spoil how the novel develops, but Carey does take things in a surprising direction that, at the same time, feels true to the characters she’s created. In terms of complaints with this novel, there were only a few things I didn’t like. At times it moves at a snail’s pace, being almost bloated with flashbacks, which can get a little tedious. The beginning in particular is a bit too slow. Secondly, there are a few characters I wish Carey had made a bit more three-dimensional. Though there are some incredibly well developed female characters in The Stolen Child, there aren’t really any male characters who gain much more of a personality than being a ‘drunk and abusive husband’.

This is a historical novel primarily and a fantastical one secondarily. And that’s not a bad thing. Though it does get slightly dull in a couple of places, The Stolen Child has a lot going for it and is definitely worth your time.

Book Review: No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy… Man, does the guy know how to tell a story. I was pretty impressed with his bleak representation of the apocalypse in The Road, but I think No Country for Old Men might be even better. It’s similarly bleak and similarly difficult to read to begin with – who needs speech marks? – but once you get into it, it’s difficult to get out.

At its core, the plot of No Country for Old Men is pretty simple; Llewelyn Moss, a mostly normal guy, decides to take some money that belongs to some very dangerous people, and, as a result, gets an incredibly ruthless murderer on his tail. A game of cat and Moss (ha!) plays out across the country while Ed Bell, a sheriff close to retirement, tries to find Llewelyn before anyone else does.

McCarthy rarely strays from the cat and mouse plot, and the novel is mainly impressive due to how well he tells it. No Country for Old Men demonstrates that a great story doesn’t need a big complicated plot, and in fact a simple one told well is frequently more powerful. The characters are fleshed out through small moments, and McCarthy avoids exposition whenever necessary.

For example, Chigurh, the man hunting down Llewelyn, has no past as far as the novel is concerned. McCarthy doesn’t try to explain the monster he’s created by giving him a traumatic backstory or anything – he’s just a ruthless killer. While this may suggest that he’s a pretty two-dimensional character, he really isn’t… Chigurh remains a mystery throughout the novel, following his own codes – sometimes flipping a coin to decide whether he should kill someone or not – but that’s what makes him so compelling. The same with Llewelyn. Why he becomes so committed to getting away with the money is left up to the reader. McCarthy understands that some things we do, and some of the ways we act, can’t really be explained. Too many stories are afraid to leave the reader in the dark a little bit.

And as the characters feel real, so does the way that the plot plays out. I won’t spoil anything, but No Country for Old Men is fantastic in the way that it just shuns narrative conventions. It doesn’t really have a three-act structure as such, and at times there’s not really a clear protagonist. These characters feel like real people reacting to things in the same way that real people would, and as a result it rarely feels like the author is manipulating them to create a particular situation or moment. Everything plays out realistically and still manages to remain interesting.

A common complaint about McCarthy is his minimalistic writing style, and I’ll admit that I had some trouble getting along with it at the beginning. With there being no speech marks, it was difficult to tell when someone was speaking at times… though only at first. After a few pages the story quickly sucked me in, and I found the lack of speech marks did nothing more than break down the barrier between the reader and the story. They’re just another signifier that you’re reading a book, and by McCarthy ditching them, it makes it easier to really be consumed by the story.

No Country for Old Men is just one of those books that reaffirms why I love novels so much. It’s the sort of book that can be enjoyed on two levels. You can just read it and enjoy it for the terrific story, or, if you want to, you can dig deeply into the characters and explore the novel’s themes. It’s both incredibly simplistic and incredibly complicated at the same time. And unlike most clever books (like a few of the ones I’ve reviewed recently) it doesn’t seem like it’s trying to be clever – it doesn’t rub its cleverness in the reader’s face. It just reads as being effortlessly damn good.

Book Review: Augustown (2016) by Kei Miller

Though Kei Miller’s Augustown is described as a novel, it really only is in the loosest sense. Really, it’s a collection of vignettes tied together by one location – Augustown – focusing on everyone from the poorest of beggars to the upper-class elite. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But if you’re hoping for a book with a propulsive plot, and twists and turns, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Despite the novel’s fractured style, everything connects to a central character: Ma Taffy. Living in the slums of Augustown – an infamous Jamaican town – Ma Taffy is seen as a pillar of the community by those around her. Everyone respects her, despite her being a blind elderly woman. However, something big is on the verge of happening in Augustown; a local gang member is hiding guns under Taffy’s house, Taffy’s niece has plans to rise from her low station and a school teacher is about to make the biggest mistake of his life… Everything is about to change.

Kei Miller’s novel is heavily invested in Jamaican culture in a way that someone with a Jamaican heritage could only write. It’s one of those books that educates as much as it tells a story – delving into the actual history of Augustown and the events that define it. One of the most interesting parts of Augustown focuses on a real prophet named Alexander Bedward who believed he could fly. It’s the perspective through which the author tells this story that makes it unique. It doesn’t read like a piece of non-fiction.

Like I said, Augustown is mainly a collection of vignettes – even if it is presented as and almost structured as a novel. Most people are likely to find the novel’s structure difficult… It jumps all over the place. While there is an overarching story, Miller’s detours make up most of the book. Just when you think the story is getting close to its climax, the author dives into an extended flashback or has a character tell a long story. It’s a difficult style of writing that’s frustrating to read at times. And while I don’t think this was the best way for Miller to structure the story he was trying to tell, it doesn’t stop they actual content of the book – the flashbacks and stories – from being powerful. There is one character in particular that the author does a great job of making the reader despise and pity at the same time.

Though Augustown really wasn’t what I expected it to be, I can’t deny that it’s a great book. It’s one of those novel’s that has a real heart and soul to it – it feels genuine in a way that’s rare.

Book Review: Hystopia (2016) by David Means

Some of the best war novels are the weird ones; the ones that try to expose war for just how ridiculous and pointless it truly is. Slaughterhouse-Five and Catch-22 are prime examples of this – the first easily being one of my favourite books – portraying war in an absurd manner rather than a serious one. David Means’ debut novel Hystopia tries to do this as well – just with much less success than those two books.

It’s hard to know where to start with the plot of this novel. Being presented as the work of a fictitious Vietnam veteran – supported by a lengthy ‘fake’ introduction – Hystopia focuses on a series of veterans who have managed to blank out their traumatic war experiences through a form of treatment known as enfoldment.

However, the treatment does not work on all subjects. A man that goes by the name Rake, one of the failed subjects, kidnaps an innocent woman and goes on a killing rampage across the country, leaving ‘the Corps’ – the group responsible for the enfoldment treatment – to clean up after his mess. Soon two officers of the Corps, Wendy and Singleton, the latter a recipient of the enfoldment treatment himself, are forced to go and capture him.

Really, this is only scratching the surface of Hystopia. There are a lot of ideas going on in this novel, such as it being presented as the work of a fictional author (and having its own fictional history) and it taking place in an alternate history America where Kennedy was not assassinated. And this links to my main issue with the book: it is unnecessarily complicated. I tried to keep my above synopsis brief, but it ended up being pretty much impossible. This book is bursting with ideas – many of them not fitting together well – and at times they cause it to feel like a mess.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of clever stuff in this book and David Means is obviously a talented writer, but it just seems as though he’s overlooked the basic need for a novel to tell a good story in favour of being clever. The alternate timeline the novel takes place in, for example, feels very unnecessary. It doesn’t play into the story nearly enough, and as a result it feels like Means chucked it in there just because. Slaughterhouse-Five had a lot of weirdness and cleverness in it, sure, but it never felt like weirdness and cleverness for the sake of it.

Ultimately Hystopia is best when it goes back to basics. War and war veterans are always going to make great subjects for novels, and when Means just focuses on the effect war has on people, the book is at its best. Despite him leaning a bit too much towards stereotypical psychopath, Means manages to make Rake a fascinating character. Many of the best moments in the novel are just those that give us glimpses into his personality. Other veteran characters are great too, such as tree tracker Hank. The author does a good job of making each character unique – each of them affected by war in a different way.

It’s kind of hard for me to recommend this book. While it features some excellent writing and some great moments, most of the time it just feels like it’s trying too hard – like it’s trying to be the next Slaughterhouse-Five or Catch-22 when it really isn’t.

Book Review: Foxlowe (2016) by Eleanor Wasserberg

Eleanor Wasserberg’s debut is an odd novel – but in a good way. It focuses on a family that lives in a huge country estate named Foxlowe; the ‘family’ is made up of people from all walks of life, all of them having ended up at Foxlowe for different reasons. Unlike most of the house’s residents, Green was born at Foxlowe and knows no other life. With her two childhood friends, Blue and Toby, Green tries to survive as the only world she’s ever known begins to fall apart.

Going into Foxlowe completely blind, I thought the setting was post-apocalyptic at first. The novel has a claustrophobic feel to it – only giving the reader brief glimpses of the world beyond Foxlowe. Like Green, and many of the other residents of Foxlowe, we aren’t allowed to venture any further than the moors that surround the house.

However, rather than being an apocalypse novel, Foxlowe is a cult novel. The residents do believe themselves to be living in a post-apocalyptic world though – one taken over by an all-encompassing evil referred to only as the Bad – and Foxlowe is seen as the only haven. The benefit of the story being told from Green’s perspective, someone who knows no other life, is that it allows the author to make the cult’s lives seem normal and understandable. There’s something appealing about the world that Green romanticises so deeply.

But if Wasserberg uses the novel’s first half to romanticise cult life, illustrating the positive ideas it promotes such as community, then she uses the second half to examine it with brutal reality. Though there are some flashes of darkness in Foxlowe’s first half, the novel’s latter half is much harsher, focusing on the years after the cult is dismantled and examining the long-term negative effects it has on Green’s life.

Wasserberg constructs the world of Foxlowe really well, with the story unfolding in a slow fashion. A lot of time is spent constructing the character of Foxlowe itself – and the house forms a pretty integral part of the story. As we experience the characters’ day to day lives, we slowly become familiar with the building’s many different rooms – and many different secrets. And when the novel decides to finally leave the house behind, it has a really disorientating effect.

Many of Foxlowe’s characters are well developed too, but there are quite a few central members of the cult who we don’t really get to know. Characters like Dylan, Pet, Egg and even Blue – who is pretty central to the plot – are only illustrated with broad strokes. The other main issue I had with the novel, which I’ll stay vague about for spoiler reasons, was the narrative style used by the author in the second half. Wasserberg skips over a huge chunk of the story before returning to it right at the end of novel, just to end Foxlowe on a big reveal. Characters talk about this big moment very vaguely in the novel’s second half, to keep it a secret from the reader, and it ends up feeling like a cheap move. Besides, it becomes pretty obvious what the big moment is far before Wasserberg shows us it at the end of the novel.

But despite these problems, Foxlowe is a great debut. Its fascinating focus definitely helps it to stand out from the crowd.