The Justis Fearsson trilogy is yet another great example of David B. Coe’s imaginative fantasy worlds and character-driven stories.
Stories of disasters and disease are difficult to get right. Human anxiety of such events occurring, especially in this day and age, are often why we find such stories so enthralling. But often they simply feed our anxieties of such events rather than give us hope. The biggest reason for this is because the main character of this kind of story is usually the disaster or the disease. The so-called “characters” of disaster stories typically consist of nothing more than stereotypes, merely serving the purpose of being survivors of the catastrophe. The pandemic becomes the spectacle and suffering we desire to witness, and the survivors are mere filler.
Year of Wonders is quite the opposite of the aforementioned kind of story. Never before have I read a book whose plot revolves around a plague where the characters are at the forefront. And characters they are! Rather than simply focusing on the horrors of the pandemic, Geraldine Brooks presents the pandemic through the eyes of the people who encounter it. Yes, this is a story about survivors, but survivors the reader gets to know and love. The reader is as close to the driver’s seat of this journey as they can possibly be. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time where I felt true grief for its characters, and was just as exhausted as they were by the time the ordeal was over. But through all the pain and hardship, the story succeeds in giving a glimmer of hope to readers in utter despair.
Year of Wonders is told through the writings of Anna Frith, a widowed mother living in an unnamed “Plague Village”. When Anna discovers that a visitor in her home has come under the Plague, the disease quickly spreads to the rest of the village. Since Anna is willing to help, she is recruited by the local rector and his wife to assist in mediating the disease among the infected. When the Plague quickly worsens and Anna’s only two children die, the rector is desperate to rally the village into order and unity to fight back against the disease. Despite great fear, most of the village complies. But hope and faith only last so long. As the villagers witness the death toll outnumber the living, they resort to shaming their problems on accused witches and other occult measures to vent their frustration. Anna and the rector’s family work tirelessly to keep the village in composure, but they can only do so much before mere human nature bests them as well.
It’s hard to pinpoint just what the best part of this novel is because it is so well written. The best place to start is how the story is orchestrated. The book opens after-the-fact of the plague, but the device isn’t superfluous. The reader truly wants to know how these villagers got where they are through Brooks’ eloquent language of wounded souls. When we then meet the villagers before the disaster, we get a glimpse of their past-life, the way things were before, but this peace doesn’t last long by any means. Most stories like this would take a full third of the book before the pandemic is fully underway. Brooks shows the utter viciousness and rapid-spread of the Plague as it takes victim after victim soon after its arrival. From here, the story refuses to let up. I have said that for many-a-book, but readers are offered little reprieve from gruesomely graphic accounts of different Plague victims. Such a device puts the reader in Anna’s shoes as she witnesses horror after unhinging horror.
These horrors are conveyed quite well, because Anna is the lifeblood of this story. The reader hears every emotion in her head without disrupting the momentum of the novel. We feel her grief at the death of her children, her delight in a full-night’s rest, her jealousy of others’ “perfect” lives, and her anger at those whom have done her wrong. But what we feel the most is her perseverance. Her kind soul is always willing to help those in need, and she will drop anything at a moment’s notice to do so. Her endurance is experienced by the reader as she goes from deathbed to deathbed, struggling to give peace to many souls’ final moments. At times, some of her actions feel a bit of a stretch, given all that she manages to do under such exhaustion. In addition, there are some tasks she undertakes in the second act which seem a little unfitting, almost like she is attempting the impossible. Given both these events and all she is able to accomplish in the after-math, her actions felt beyond many people’s ability, especially for Anna. Again, it’s a stretch, but it fits her motivations. She’s seen so much death in her life that she wants to make others’ lives better in any way she can, even right down to saving one. This is an emotion many people feel, which is why Anna feels like such a real person.
The shock-value of the story is truly something to behold, as Brooks presents dozens of gruesome cases of the Plague; no two victims suffer the same. But also, desperate times call for desperate measures, and those at their emotional breaking point will do whatever it takes to survive the disease. It is here when Anna and the rector’s family contend with fears produced by the Plague, and not just the epidemic itself. With this, the book is never short of shocking moments which build to one of multiple unexpected climaxes in the final third, which places a near-overbearing emotional load on the reader.
The language of the book is also well presented. It’s not only readable and reads fast, but it contains various dialect, mannerisms, and idioms of the setting. It isn’t Old English, so it fits the pacing of the story well. The religious echoes of the language are just as prominent in the story, as characters try to hold on to faith amidst such terrible struggles. With that, given the setting, the theme of witches also comes into play. Like most witch hunts of the time, the accusations are futile, but the willingness of the characters to take advantage of people’s fear of the ideology is consistently abused. It is nonetheless a testament of desperate measures by individuals to cast blame for their hardships where it is never due.
Despite rather depressing themes and events littered throughout the novel, readers of this review would be surprised that Year of Wonders contains in it a message of hope. I never realized until writing this review the irony, yet delightful truth of the title. Over the course of the year in which the story takes place it still has its share of redemption, whether it be the willingness of a human to make sacrifices, the revival of a thought lost loved one, or a simply unexplainable miracle. The resolution ends in a most unexpected place, both in setting and story, but is nonetheless a testament to a steady soul being rewarded amidst times of hardship. Year of Wonders is an enjoyably exhaustive novel to read, and readers with interest should take caution, but it is nonetheless a captivating and moving story.
-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; January 2018
Faraway Faltyr and the Finders Keepers are officially back. With two astounding Cycle of Ages novels under his belt, the fantasy author with an edge, Jeremy Hicks, is back at the helm of his series with its third installment, Delve Deep. While Finders Keepers and Sands of Sorrow challenged the boundaries of fantasy and genre-blending, they were no strangers to clunkyness at times. In addition, the goals of the Finders Keepers and the lore of Faltyr never felt fully complete, like something was still out of reach. While the ambitious Delve Deep continues to exhibit some of these staple issues of the series, it manages to make massive strides in improving upon its predecessors. Not only has Faltyr and its lands and peoples come full circle, but the characters we know and love officially have something to fight for in what is now a truly masterful fantasy series.
Delve Deep picks up some time after Sands of Sorrow left off, and it shows because readers have a bit of catching up to do, especially if they haven’t read some additionally published Cycle of Ages short stories. Yes, before Delve Deep, Hicks wrote a number of short stories in Farawy Faltyr which are alluded to quite often in this novel. Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t read those stories before picking up this one. Granted, reading them isn’t necessary to enjoy this book, but the number of times they are referenced is jarring. Mention of short stories aside, we meet Finders Keepers in the city of Frasmauth, in hiding from their last skirmish in Sands of Sorrow. When it’s discovered that their lives are threatened by the forces of Oparre, Dor conveniently discovers that his master has determined a way to win the dreaded Blood War and ensure a peaceful end to the current Cycle of Ages. In case the simple runaway plot of Sands of Sorrow didn’t have high enough stakes for you, what the characters attempt to accomplish in this installment certainly will. In order for Finders Keepers to reclaim Dor’s lost items from the last book and end the Blood War, they must travel to Delve Deep, a city which may or may not exist. According to Yax, Delve Deep will enable them to essentially fast-travel to the sacred Spire, key to winning the War, as well as increase their numbers. Taking a dive in the dark, the Finders Keepers set out on yet another journey, this time beneath Faltyr to the Underworld.
The plot is a mouthful, and the book’s length can be daunting. It is easily bigger than the first two books combined, but Hicks thankfully devotes the first fourth of the novel to reintroduce the story in a small setting. This is key because Delve Deep increases the scale of the series, profoundly bigger than what was established in the first two novels. The book’s opening gives the reader time to re-acclimate to the characters, what they’re up to, and their goals and aspirations. Most of the opening scenes are just the Finders Keepers sitting around and talking, or talking while fighting each other. The chemistry they share is great, and it’s especially crucial for establishing the main trio, now a quartet, consisting of Dor, Yax, Bruexias’ daughter Tameri, and the Elven Queen, Shy’elle. Granted, a lot changed in Sands of Sorrow to the look and feel of Finder’s Keepers, so it was refreshing to see them in the simplicity of Frasmauth. The town is used as a platform introduce the conflict, to which the grand main adventure takes off.
The second quarter of Delve Deep unfortunately feels very side-quest-y. The Finders Keepers have not only acquired a massive roster of characters since the second novel, but they have even more characters to recruit in order to accomplish certain tasks. Entire chapters are devoted to finding this-or-that person so they can find this-or-that thing. It moves at a sluggish pace for the middle of the first act, and doesn’t spur any excitement until the characters are finally looking for the device which is central to accomplishing their goal. Thankfully, once they are finally determining how to acquire said item, the story becomes more high-stakes. It is this portion of the novel which lends itself to some innovative action scenes, and even expounds upon Faltyr’s lore and technology down to individual cultures.
It is here when Delve Deep exposes one of its greatest issues: too many characters. Much like the beginning of Sands of Sorrow, Finders Keepers increases its numbers exponentially, unfortunately just to kill off a multitude of them before the story is halfway through. Granted, a large roster is needed in order to accomplish certain tasks, but there is little emotional weight due to the Walking Dead style of mass execution. Unfortunately, some of the characters the main ensemble goes out of their way to find have very little presence or weight in the long run, and some are quickly killed off. Certain romances and connections are made which didn’t exist prior to this novel, and they are easily the most forgettable parts of the story, acting as nothing more than unnecessary drama or filler to be mediated later.
Thankfully, many of the disposable characters are surrounded or led by the main quartet, which at least keeps things interesting. There is also a handful of side characters who serve important roles in the story, as well as balance some of the clutter. The book continues to introduce more characters in the latter half of the book, but they are in fewer numbers and carry much more emotional weight. I just can’t see why the same can’t be said for those introduced in the former half.
But for as many disposable characters as the book contains, the main quartet never fail to impress. The circumstances they’ve been through and their familial connections give them a chemistry like no other. For such a small group, their diversity is a prime testament of a team of differing individuals who can learn to work together. It’s at this point when readers know that the main characters are the backbone of this series. The ways in which they are tested throughout the novel and their ability to still love each other at the end shows just how well developed they are. What makes this group so unique is that the individuals who make up the whole are by no means orderly, run-of-the-mill fighters. It is mentioned throughout the novel that they are mercenaries, not a trained army, and this one word dominates among the group. They have no formal experience, but lots of different abilities and skills. They’re simply trying to make a broken system work, and while they fail along the way, they eventually learn to get it done. That’s called drama and conflict, and that makes great storytelling.
Sir Fredrick and the Protectorate Mage, Marduk, from Sands of Sorrow return in Delve Deep, establishing themselves as the main villains of the series. While they are just as loveable a duo as in the last book, they never encounter the Finders Keepers. The reader keeps expecting them to eventually catch up to and fight the Finders Keepers like last time, but they never make contact. Unfortunately, their arc in this installment is almost completely unrelated to the heroes, and mostly serves to expose their plans to the reader and set up future novels. They also appear less and less towards the story’s second half, and their absence may leave some wanting. Nevertheless, both of them (and especially Fredrick) eat up every scene they’re in.
Keeping momentum of this suspense is another aspect Delve Deep masters. When the main characters establish their plan in the beginning, the reader naturally expects that they will see their goal to the end, climaxing in an epic battle with the villains. But despite the immense length, Delve Deep keeps the reader on edge and occupied for its near-400 pages, not even realizing that the goal is only halfway accomplished. This is a great way to write a book, and leaves much to be expected from future stories.
Delve Deep is as inventive as ever with its use of the Aether, the magical force of COA. The Aether continues to evolve in this installment as we learn of its capabilities and the abilities it can enable its bearer. The action descriptions of these abilities are also top notch. It’s satisfying to hear Yax use his wand to take out a gruesome ghoul with a hot streak of light. Hicks really pushed the limit with action scenes this time around. Shock factor also feels most earned in Delve Deep. Hicks is no stranger to pulling massive explosions or gargantuan dragons out of nowhere on the reader, but here, most of the shock factor is built up, or is used in ways the reader isn’t expecting. The weaving of these action scenes as well as the emotions around them is also top-notch. Part of what makes the build-up and climaxes earned is the circumstances surrounding them and the characters.
While the Aether’s power is expound upon in many ways which feel appropriate in Delve Deep, there are other instances which caught me completely off guard. One of the key elements of Faltyr is that most any technology is powered by the Aether. Most introductions of new technologies in this installment were done at a steady pace which made them feel appropriate to the world, or at least allowed me to adjust to them. After all, the lore and technologies we’ve been exposed to thus far in Faltyr feel like that of a typical fantasy world. But there were many instances in Delve Deep in which a technology was introduced which felt ripped straight out of real life. It took some time for me to grasp how such a familiar technology fit into a fantasy world, or at least the rules it had previously established.
And that’s one of the more jarring aspects of Delve Deep: many times it seems to have trouble separating fantasy from reality. Like I said, a lot of technology feels like technology familiar to a modern reader. Now, there’s nothing wrong with expanding the lore of a world or universe, but then there is expanding a lore straight out of left field. That, or I simply need to remind myself of the limits and rules of Faltyr and all that the Aether is capable of producing. But while the technology is one thing, dialogue and character mannerisms are another. There are a lot of dialogue and exchanges in Delve Deep which feel blatantly modern. Don’t get me wrong, there has always been some use of modern humor and wordplay in COA; the Finders Keepers are rag-tag, dirty people and are no strangers to banter. But there are some uses of it here which just feel downright inappropriate, even in a more civil sense. When one character is introduced early in the novel, much of her internal monologues and thoughts revolve around a book she has recently published. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the exchanges sound like a meeting between an author and a publishing house executive in New York City. It’s completely out of nowhere and sounds more like a conversation I would have with published authors in real life, and moments like these recur numerous times throughout the book. Granted, none of these moments ruined the novel for me, but at times they pulled me out. It’s certainly jarring when one is reading along in an age-old fantasy world and suddenly the characters discuss something like sports terms used in modern-day. While this is mostly a nitpick, the occasional hiccup in tone occurred just a little more than occasionally in this one.
Despite some minor flaws here and there, Delve Deep is still a fantastic book. When it reaches the location of its title, the payoff doesn’t fail to impress. In addition, the task Dor was originally ordained with is far from complete. The Blood War has yet to be won, and Finders Keepers merely found themselves in (one of many) a skirmish blocking their path, if not a truly epic one. It shows that this world is pitted against them, and it is never going to be in the favor of their likes. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a story which leaves much to be anticipated in the next installment. But for now, I can faithfully say Delve Deep is the best of the series.
With three novels under his belt, Hicks has quite the franchise going. I’m now eager to read those additional short stories, as he now has his own “expanded universe” going for the series. If anything, it looks that Cycle of Ages has quite the potential for an expanded universe beyond the page. For now, I simply can’t wait to see what the series has to offer next; I just might go back and read the first two novels again. In the meantime, I can’t recommend these books to you enough. Check them out, they are truly worth your time.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2018
You can purchase Delve Deep from Amazon here.
You can find other Cycle of Ages stories here.
Book Review: Monsters in Appalachia
Monsters in Appalachia is a short story anthology which dips into the lives of folks inhabiting the eastern mountains of America, and both the literal and figurative monsters they interact with. Its message is simple: Monsters can be real, frightening creatures, or people in our lives, or things we can’t necessarily see or put words to.
Where Monsters in Appalachia shines is in its depiction of the Appalachian peoples. Sheryl Monks has a full understanding of the region’s dialect, as well as the hardships its peoples face. The people in these stories are battle-worn by the struggles faced by many of those living in the mountains, and their relationships with their companions show it. What gives the characters life are their scars and flaws. No one is totally desirable and in many ways they know it. While the grit and depth of Monsters’s characters is its strongest suit, they are also unfortunately its only strong suit.
Most every story in Monsters in Appalachia is forgettable. Aside from the occasional instance which gave me some shock, memorable moments in these tales are few and far between. When I finished the book, I scanned the table of contents to try and see if I could remember something, anything from these stories, to no avail. The most memorable moment comes in the last story, which is easily the best, but mainly because it is so out-there from the others.
Monsters does a good job of communicating the fact that the people of Appalachia aren’t run-of-the-mill, and doesn’t depict the tourist destination many view the mountains to be. Living in Appalachia takes sacrifice and comes with the understanding that dangers will be faced, and for many this reality is forced upon them. But when this message is communicated in such similar terms from story to story, only the theme of the anthology becomes the wheat separated from the chaff.
Monsters in Appalachia did not stick it for me. While I applaud the passion of the author, I can’t help but point out how forgettable these stories are, and how similar many of the characters and their circumstances feel. The anthology also suffers from being too vague at times, almost feeling like a poetry collection. What little there is to gain from it, in my opinion, isn’t worth the $17 price tag for a relatively thin book.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017
Short story anthologies can be difficult for me to get into, especially ones that aren’t serial. Many times a good story feels over before it’s even begun, and then I have to move on to a new one and meet new characters in a new setting. Short stories can be enthralling, capable of telling a simple tale without establishing a universe or communicating every thought in a character’s mind as so many works of lengthy fiction tend to do these days. An overbearing level of emotion can be expressed in very few pages with short stories. My problem is with having to read many short stories all at once. I feel that I can only appreciate short stories if I take them one at a time. For a non-serial anthology, that’s hard for me to do because I don’t like to sit on a single book for too long.
Ray Bradbury is considered by many to be the master of American short fiction. Even aside from his short stories, unlike dozens of other science fiction authors, his novel-length works are extremely brief. His best-known pieces such as Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are short and sweet, and among many favorites in modern American sci-fi and fantasy. But for Bradbury’s biggest fans, his greatest strengths lie in his short stories. His anthology, The Martian Chronicles, is among the most popular collections of short stories in science fiction literature. However, The Martian Chronicles is also serial, and while each story deals with individual charming characters, the mastery of it all is in the over-arching story.
My original roadblock with Bradbury’s The October Country was the fact that each story is standalone. While I applaud the fact that each story can hold its own, it was still very difficult for me to read a brief piece and then immediately move on to a completely new one. With this, I wasn’t pacing myself to fully appreciate the stories in my early readings. However, as I read on, I wasn’t so much focused on the number of individual stories but what each story had to offer. Are some stronger than others? Yes. Are some downright forgettable? Yes. But in a sense, that’s the risk you run with works such as these. All the stories are different, so there will be mountaintop moments you remember and cherish, and other times you find something a little less than stellar.
As the title suggests, the overarching theme of The October Country is that of the haunting times of autumn. As leaves change and fall to the ground and trees barren and naked, there is a sense of mystery in the atmosphere many of us feel. Especially for us Halloween lovers, October Country is filled with these vibes. Each story contains a sense of mystery of the unknown, and always in the chilling sense. Bradbury’s imaginative worlds invoke a sense of both whim and horror. One story may contain an entire society within the confines of a haunted house, complete with its own religion. Another may be a whimsical tale about El Dia De Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) which quickly turns grim. Or one could encounter a macabre mystery, ending on a heavily emotional tone as the reader views death through the eyes of a young boy.
To name some of my favorites, "The Jar" is a story about an entire community whose inhabitants all view the contents of a jar differently. It grows more and more intense as the citizens go insane over what is in the jar, but it leaves the reader scratching their head and never truly answers the question. "The Small Assassin" is a disturbing story about a mother who believes her baby wants to kill her entire family. I won’t tell you how, that’s for you to read. "The Crowd" is another look at an insane individual who no one listens to, and contains some similar elements of "The Small Assassin". My absolute favorite is "The Scythe", a story which completely pulls the rug out from under you and is a decrepit look at death. This one was so good I used it for a term paper this past semester. The anthology ends beautifully with a sorrowful, yet charming tale called "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone". It ends the haunting anthology on a positive note about life and what we make of it.
Short stories are a wonderful thing in an age of lengthy fiction. For me, I’m still learning how to read and interpret them, especially en-masse. Reviewing short stories as anthologies will always be a bumpy ride for me, as they will inevitably contain stories I do and don’t like. It all depends on what the content and general theme of those selected stories are. In October Country’s case, while I certainly didn’t enjoy it as much as Martian Chronicles, it’s still a charming anthology which contains the classic happy haunts Bradbury never fails to deliver. Check it out around Halloween for the best results.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; December 2017
This past spring I attended JordanCon, ready to refill my to-read book stack. As I met up with author friends and was introduced to new ones, I found myself spending nearly $200 on books. I had saved up for the con, so I had no shame. Since JordanCon is a sci-fi/fantasy convention, naturally, I walked away with a massive stack of the genre to occupy my reading for late spring/summer. In addition, I went on to purchased a number of other sci-fi/fantasy books outside the con, which included Stephen King’s IT, and the Star Wars Thrawn Trilogy. Little did I realize how reading so much of one genre would leave me literarily deprived.
Upon completing a handful of my books from JordanCon, I was feeling great about my purchases. Not only were they a good refresher from the emotionally heady texts I had to read for AP Literature, but the particular books I read were smart, inventive, and gripping. Once summer vacation began, I started reading IT purely out of anticipation for the film which would release in September. The first thing I discovered about IT was how slow it was, and its length; it’s an extremely long book. I express a number of complaints about IT in another piece I wrote over the summer, so I’ll spare you my whining. I forced myself to gruel through 50 pages a day, which took about two hours to complete, and even at that rate it was a full month before I finished the book. I was fatigued by the time I finally completed it, and (funny story) I have yet to even see the film since it has released
After I completed IT, I was more than looking forward to reading some much shorter sci-fi books, which I began around the end of June. I got to a point where I was averaging one book a day. I still had a massive stack of books to get through, and college was a little over a month away. This was my problem: all the books were science fiction or fantasy, so I quickly became bored with them. Each book I picked up felt all too similar to the others, bringing little to nothing new to the table. I struggled to write good reviews for the books, and I feel some of my reviews were a little too scathing. I knew I had to finish the stack before college, but I had no desire to even pick them up. I would make myself sick grueling through page after page, and reading soon became a chore than a refreshing hobby. I found that there was so little diversity in what I was reading, as well as a shear lack of literary merit, sci-fi and fantasy was no longer fun, and just felt like junk-food.
Let’s get one thing clear: there is nothing wrong with reading science fiction and fantasy. I don’t actually believe the genre is junk food, as some would argue. But for my situation, I simply burned myself out. I know plenty of people who only read sci-fi and fantasy who don’t experience this "reader’s block", as some call it. But I’m a versatile reader and writer. I enjoy writing sci-fi/fantasy and other genre fiction, but I also experiment with pure fiction. My writing is most passionate in essays like this one, and I’ve dipped my toes into poetry since coming to college. I also love reading all different kinds of books, from genre fiction to pure fiction, histories, celebrity auto-biographies, self-help; you name it. I love reading and learning new and diverse things, and this was the root of my problem.
There comes a point when I read too much sci-fi and need to shake things up. Rather than attempting to tackle a massive stack of sci-fi/fantasy books all at once, my to-read list must include varied types of literature. But for me, reader’s block doesn’t only apply to sci-fi/fantasy. Since starting college, most of the texts I’ve been required to read are highly philosophical in nature, or lean toward the pure fiction side of literature. I’m now starting to experience reader’s block in that genre, so to counteract the block, my next leisure book will likely be a more simple, sci-fi/ fantasy novel.
Science fiction and fantasy make for great books; they are among my favorites. But for me personally, reading stays fresh by reading a variety of different subjects. Reading is the best way I retain information, and I’m someone who loves to learn different things, as well as gain literary merit. Now, just because genre fictions doesn’t contain "literary merit" doesn’t mean one can’t reap benefits or lessons from it. Readers simply have to experience different genres for themselves and find their niche. It all starts with turning the first page.
-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; October 2017
One Amazing Thing was assigned to all incoming freshman at my university as our summer reading book. When we received the novel at orientation, we were given a brief pitch. The speaker described that the book involved a group of characters trapped in a room amidst an earthquake, and that each character in the room comes from almost every culture on earth. As the emotional tensions of the disaster escalate, the characters begin opening up to one another through telling a story shaped by their past, culture, and worldview.
A number of freshman faces winced at the idea, as such a concept sounded forced. Some students started reading the book before the first day of orientation was up. One freshman told me: "I find it hard to believe that this diverse a group of people would happen be in the same place at the same time." When I pitched the book to others who were curious about my college endeavors, they couldn’t help but feel skeptical, again thinking that the a notion of such a mixed group of characters seemed staged and far-out.
I was surprised that what I found hard to believe wasn’t how the characters came together, but how the major plot line was executed. One Amazing Thing takes place in an Indian visa office in an unnamed American city. Each of the characters are either working in the office, or are desperately trying to get to India for one reason or another. As the book explained to me how such a varied group of characters came to be, I no longer focused on the odds of such an event occurring, but on what the story was trying to tell me.
The author does a beautiful job of portraying how the group interacts with each other. Some of the characters are atheist, some are Christian, one is Islamic, a handful are Hindu, and one is Buddhist. But behind everyone’s religion, worldview, and even skin color, is a past. Everyone’s past has defined who they are, and how they interpret the world around them and react to certain situations. As the earthquake rattles what is a normal day for the group, everyone is insistent as to how they shouldcollectively or individually handle their circumstances. The Vietnam veteran, trained in survival skills knows what’s best for everyone, even if they aren’t guaranteed survival. The Muslim believes Allah will save them, and grows jealous of the soldier, insisting that he is a holy man who will lead them to freedom. One man is simply trying to take a few drafts from a cigarette, despite the dangers of starting a fire amidst an already dire situation. Everyone’s perspective is given validity by the author, who gives a thoughtful depiction of how such a group of people would interact, and where conflict lies between ideologies.
Because there are so many characters with different views, the story shifts perspective often. This keeps things fresh by not spending too much time with a single character, who each view situations with narrow-minded ideas. The story also doesn’t repeat the same event twice with multiple characters. So often books chose to repeat the same event through different eyes numerous times in order to provide different perspectives. While this device can work, it is often tedious, especially for books that switch perspective throughout such as this one. Yet Divakaruni maintains momentum by allowing readers to view an event through the thoughts of one character, leaving the others’ perspectives a mystery. Such gaps allow the reader to ask questions.
When the story was originally pitched to me, I found the main plot relatively easy to grasp: Reaching an emotional breaking point, the characters begin to open up to each other by sharing their past. I thought that this concept would have transitioned easily, but the actual initiation of the characters’ sharing their stories is abrupt and feels all too whimsical. Given Divakaruni’s elegant writing style (making what seems like a far-out concept so down-to-earth), I expected a smooth transition. Instead, the characters’ decision to tell stories plays out more like suggesting that everyone hold hands and sing "kum ba ya" under the stress of death row. It just doesn’t feel natural amidst the dire situation of an earthquake, where help may or may not make it in time. There was a way to initiate this action, but this simply didn’t feel appropriate.
Aside from the rocky transition, each story presented is beautifully written, emotional, and just as diverse as the characters themselves. One is that of a 1950’s Sandlot-esc tale of a youth, quickly making an emotional turn with a more Stand By Me vibe. One is that of a love story amidst oppression by a communist regime. One is a tale of seeking asylum from religious prejudice. Every story involves a form of suffering, which allows the group to realize among themselves that no one has it perfect. Whether they are an A+ college student with wealthy parents, a lower-class shop owner, or belonging a minority group oppressed by a fearful government, everyone suffers in their own way. This allows them to break down their barriers by realizing that they are not the only ones who face hardship. Everyone’s story reveals how they found their way into the visa office they are in, which for many of the characters means that they are trying to get to India. As they wrestle with ideas such as fate and actions they take in life, doctrines of Hindu religion come into play which ever slowly form everyone’s reality. The fact that each character’s circumstances culminate to India and its culture is appropriate, as Chitra Divakaruni is Indian.
While One Amazing Thing is a beautiful story, it doesn’t quite stick its landing. It does what all great forms of literature do by forcing the reader to ask questions, yet it doesn’t provide quite enough closure in some areas. Also, the ending is rather abrupt. After such a mature story, the ending feels more like that of a whimsical young adult novel of youth fantasy, right down to the last few paragraphs.
One Amazing Thing managed to surprise me in many ways. It allowed me to grasp a seemingly unbelievable concept, and regard it more as a what-if situation, yet one which is more realistic than we may think. It gives us hope that, amidst times of divisiveness, people of different backgrounds can recognize their similarities of sin and suffering, and exercise sympathy. It also manages to tell wildly diverse, stylized tales in short chapters, showing off Chitra Divakaruni’s talent as a writer. Through the individual stories, readers can learn to appreciate the subtle nuances of their own stories. On the whole, One Amazing Thing is an inspiring novel which should shine a light for the world as a collective, and inspire individuals to appreciate their lives.
-David Brashier; Boone, North Carolina; September 2017
D.B. Jackson lands yet another marvelous historical fantasy in Thieve’s Quarry, the second installment of his Thieftaker series. Thieftaker is among the greatest historical fiction series out there, let alone historical fantasy. A story in a genre blend which is easily campy, leeching off of the mere presence of prominent historical figures, manages to not only tell its own story, but reverently live and breath its chosen setting. The dialogue and writing style of the Thieftaker books feel like they were pulled straight from revolutionary-era manuscripts, while also retaining readability. Like much of Jackson’s work, it’s a fantasy which manages to rise above the rest.
Thieve’s Quarry opens with Ethan Kaille on a standard hunt for a stolen good. When his mission is intercepted by Sephira Pryce, a grim series of events force him to use magic in order to save an innocent man. This reveals his conjuring abilities to Pryce, causing her to hire her own conjurer to combat Kaille. When a mass grave is discovered on one of His Majesty’s ships at the dawn of the British occupation of Boston, Ethan is consulted to determine who committed the murder, as there are no physical signs of death among the bodies. As Ethan tracks down suspect conjurers, each culprit is murdered one by one before he can even reach them. Convinced that the killer is a greater threat than he anticipated, Kaille keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, going so far as to warn Sephira Pryce for her own safety.
Quarry’s greatest feat is the development of Ethan Kaille. He shows a genuine concern for his arch nemesis, Pryce, and even works in junction with her to take down a more dangerous threat. It makes him the better man in what is otherwise a bickering conflict. Kaille also struggles with his convictions on the subject of the British occupation. In Theiftaker he was a loyalist, disgusted by the Sons of Liberty and their antics. Here, when the British enter Boston, Kaille sees nothing but injustice all around him as regulars quarter themselves in peoples’ homes. These changes in his motivations will likely lead to further character development in future books, and possibly turning him into a brash revolutionary.
Many old faces from Thieftaker return in Quarry, but with just enough face time to make way for plenty of new ones. Kaille seeks help from a variety of individuals from high-on-the-hog aristocrats, to bottom-feeding bar owners, to revolutionaries and crooks alike. Their presence breathes life into Jackson’s Boston, making the world all the more believable. Just as in Thieftaker, Boston feels like a place the reader can step into. Jackson’s understanding of the landscape of the town in its pre-revolution glory is on full display, as well as his knowledge of colonial customs. It creates a story whose characters are just as enjoyable to read about as its own world, not growing too detailed or monotonous.
The series once again manages to hold its own in Quarry, despite its setting being among the most popular periods of history. Quarry could have so easily taken advantage of the plethora of historical figures involved with the Sons of Liberty, yet takes a more reserved approach by only making use minor figures and events. It proves that it can tell its story with its plot, characters, and spirit of its setting, rather than copping-out for the reputation of the Washingtons and Franklins of the time. I’m sure as the series nears the revolution, more familiar faces will begin to appear. But two books in a row with such minimal use of major historical figures proves that the series means business.
Where Thieve’s Quarry ultimately shines and manages to surpass its predecessor is in its pacing. As great as Theiftaker was, it was a bit sluggish in the manner it handled its mystery, at least compared to its sequel. There is no wild goose chase to be had in Quarry, as Ethan Kaille makes a relentless chase for justice and for his own life. New developments lie around every corner, as Kaille races against the clock to take out a killer before even more innocent are murdered, and even his own friends. It is between this and the development of its characters that makes Thieve’s Quarry a great sequel, not simply a rehash of the first book or a "Season 2" of the series.
As someone who has read a decent amount of fantasy, the Theiftaker series is among the most quality. D.B. Jackson is a truly talented writer. Theiftaker is a premise which should be silly as all get out, but the amount of history and fantasy it offers and the ethos in which the series is written gives me confidence to recommend it to both historians and fantasy fans alike. Yet its appeal reaches beyond those two groups, which is why I can’t help but recommend the series to anyone looking for some quality reads.
You can purchase Thieve’s Quarry from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017
We are back to sci-fi with this review. As much sci-fi as I’ve been reading lately, I was afraid I’d be moaning "Here we go again" with these books. I was glad to be proven completely wrong. Word on the street is that Amy Duboff is on the rise to a high spot on the sci-fi literature totem pole. The first two installments of her currently seven-part series, Cadicle, are proof of this claim. In two extremely short books, Duboff establishes a wildly original story with a scale spanning lightyears and generations which instantly earns the status of 'saga'.
The first book, Architects of Destiny, had me hooked from the first page, and not because of what the bare story had to offer. The book’s greatest feat is that it is 100% character-driven. With this, good character interactions through dialogue and emotion are deeply important, and Duboff understands this perfectly. Through what is basically a mock-lightsaber fight in the opening scene, the interactions between the hero and his trainer present believable characters with believable relationships which echo throughout the rest of the novel.
In case the fact that the book is character driven doesn’t immediately force me to recommend this book, the story itself is well orchestrated. Its initial premise is familiar. Cris Sietinen wants something more out of life, so he escapes to the stars, joins a smuggling crew, and tours the galaxy. In many ways, it is Luke Skywalker’s ambitions with a new coat of paint. If the characters and their interactions weren’t as good, I probably would have lost interest. Yet in time, the story fledges out to something much greater.
We learn that Cris is heir to a wealthy dynasty obsessed with upholding its lineage, and willing to resort to any means of doing so. Cris also has a telekinetic ability which is virtually outlawed, and he is recruited by the only organization which will train him with his gift. Excitement takes a back seat as Cris trains in his telekinetic abilities, while behind the scenes his life is being secretly controlled. Turns out he plays a much larger role in the fate of the universe, a fate which involves a secret war against an alien race. It also turns out that he might not be the solution to the conflict, but someone further in his own bloodline.
Architects of Destiny is very much a prequel. It is very short, only about 150 pages, and I managed to read it in a day. But what I got out of such a short read was truly remarkable. It is difficult to put to words how Duboff manages to establish such high stakes and such a massive universe in just one book with a story that isn’t world-driven.
Veil of Reality, to my wondrous surprise, begins roughly twenty years after Architects of Destiny. Cris now fathers a son, Wil, who shows even greater achievement in telekinetic ability. Wil is kidnapped, and Cris flies to unknown reaches of space to find him. His pursuit leads him to discover the war which he was never meant to know about, and further, the role he plays in it. Cris learns that his entire existence has been engineered for generations, and that his own son is the savior to end the war, essentially wiping out an entire race.
Veil of Reality spends a lot of time grinding through the technicals of the story. This allows for time to see Cris and his son react to their orchestrated destiny. Wil’s youthful whims of tackling a massive undertaking make him naive, despite his giftedness. Cris comes to grips with the fact that he has to take a back seat in this plot, while also being tortured by the notion that the reason for his family’s existence is a lie.
The supposed villains are given highly relatable arcs in Veil of Reality. The government officials residing over Cris hate to break the bad news to him, yet are steadfast in their goal. They know the consequences and the pure evil of their actions, yet are committed to a cause for the sake of humanity. It’s a believable position. The alien villain in the war is also willing to find a compromise with the humans, to which many of his subordinates passionately disagree. It makes for a lot of conflict, and thus, a lot of drama.
The first books in the Cadicle series hit the mark in many aspects. I’ve already gushed over characters, but the story is also handled well. The more original take on the planet-bound youth who desires something more is a smart move. The simple fact that there is such a massive time gap between the two books allows for major shifts in character since they have changed over years. This keeps things interesting so that the original ensemble isn’t simply presented with a new conflict out of the blue.
Though Cadicle is a character-driven saga, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all story. This is one instance where a series truly needed to be a massive sci-fi epic, and thus earns the title of 'space opera'. The scale and stakes of the story can only be fathomed in a massive world which spans galaxies. Yet despite such a massive world, like I mentioned earlier, the books aren’t world-driven. Cadicle could have easily relied on sci-fi tropes like space battles, blaster shoot-outs, or other material staples of the genre to be an enjoyable story. The series instead uses these tropes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate such moments more. It reminds me of use of lightsabers in the original Star Wars trilogy. As much as lightsabers are a staple of Star Wars, they weren’t used that much in the original trilogy. Presence of a lightsaber typically implied a special moment, one which could be appreciated and not overused. Cadicle uses its exciting action scenes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate them more. It instead relies on its characters and story to keep the momentum going. On the flip side, it isn’t a story completely driven by discussion of politics which become boring or impossible to understand. It’s a rare instance which manages to find the right balance of both the physical and emotional side of a story which blends so well together that makes for a great narrative.
Duboff already has a great series going with just two books. She has crafted a saga with Cadicle which is littered with potential for prequels and obviously sequels, as there are five more books in the series. It’s an expansive universe with a surprisingly "down-to-earth" story. Rather than relying on the tangibles of its genre, it uses the scope of its own world to its full advantage for the sake of the narrative. It’s the makings of a timeless sci-fi series which is sure to rise above the rest.
You can purchase Architects of Destiny from Amazon here.
You can purchase Veil of Reality from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017
Not that I’m writing a serial here, but, the last couple of book reviews I have posted discussed what can make and break sci-fi and fantasy novels. I’ve pointed out similarities among books of the genre, how they can get too complex, sometimes require experience from a reader, or completely rip at the seams of what they try to create. The reason people enjoy fantasy novels is because they are written in universes which readers can immerse themselves in and escape reality; to create that which cannot be created, or see that which cannot be seen. Rarely, and I mean rarely, does a fantasy novel simply say "Shut up. It’s friggin’ fantasy. We can do whatever we want and have all the fun we want." The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades of Nyx by A. R. Cook understands this statement perfectly.
Scholar and Sphinx (as I will refer to it throughout the review), is one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had with a fantasy novel, period. It’s a story which throws reality out the door and fully embraces the fact that fiction can do whatever it wants. Though it introduces some of the most bizarre concepts and imagery, it is grounded and can be grasped by a reader of any experience. Despite its zaniness, it isn’t a tripped-out story which only few will enjoy. It’s like it takes place in the mind of a child; it’s bizarre, yet it is passable because we understand how bizarre a child’s mind is.
Scholar and Sphinx follows a teenage boy named David Sandoval who desires to work as an architect in France. On a journey to an internship, he encounters a traveling band of gypsies who, through a misunderstanding, take him captive. It is here when David discovers that the gypsies have something to hide; their leader is a sphinx from a mystical world known as the Curtain. David accompanies the gypsies into the Curtain where he discovers that the Sphinx (whom he names Acacia) has a secret weakness to her which could risk the balance of the Curtain, her family of gypsies, and everyone she loves. With his newfound, yet skeptic care for Acacia, David vows to find a means of curing her, on what will be the trippiest road trip of his life.
The fact of the matter is that Scholar and Sphinx isn’t a "love letter" to fantasy. It doesn’t borrow elements from the likes of Tolkien, Lewis, and Jordan, or every other fantasy writer who came before, though it is no stranger to dragons and the like. Rather, it tells its own story by embracing the fact that fantasy can do whatever it pleases, and doesn’t back down. The Curtain is a truly undefined realm which can aid or curse its inhabitants at any given moment. Humans can be like animals and vice-versa. There is no definition to the way things are because there doesn’t have to be. Yet, despite this boundless, imaginative world, the lore is grounded and down-to-earth. Anyone can understand it without having to memorize a laundry-list of terminology which can’t be pronounced. It’s a simple story which invites readers to embrace the absurd and escape reality.
What makes this such a powerful book is its main duo. I know it’s cliche to say that characters are "well written" or whatever you may call them. But Scholar and Sphinx understands relationships so well that it can be extremely emotional without having to orchestrate dark, emotional scenes which stick out like a sore thumb. The genius is in the dynamic of its two main characters. David and Acacia are unique because one has a handicap, and the other is so affected by his new reality. The emotion between them doesn’t need to be romance-driven because there is no real romance between them. It’s the right balance between two characters who are so awkward together that they can’t get along as a team, and two characters with a cliched, gushing romance between them. This struck many emotional swells throughout my reading, as I empathized with what such bizarre characters were going through. There’s a particularly emotional moment in the first act when David is coming to grips with what he has to overcome for his loved ones. Though the book never reached a similar emotional high, this scene stuck with me the most.
Ultimately, where Scholar and Sphinx succeeds is in it’s accessibility. Truly anyone can read this fantasy book and enjoy it. Even children. This would be a great book to introduce youngsters to fantasy outside the world of mass-marketing. Another reason which hi-lights this is the fact that Scholar and Sphinx is clean, which is very unconventional for the genre. Though it goes to dark places, it doesn’t have to be crass or "dirty" to be funny, dramatic, or emotional. I love stories like these which aren’t afraid to refrain from sex, swearing, or unnecessary violence to have an edge or be entertaining. It relies on its story, characters, and world, and that’s all it needs.
It was difficult to come off my read of Scholar and Sphinx and then delve into a more complex sci-fi novel. It proves that fantasy can be simplified and accessible to those less familiar with the genre. It would be stellar if works in different fiction genres could take this route and embrace itself in an easy to read story which introduces novices, yet be thoroughly enjoyed by veterans. It’s a rare book which I can say I have no gripes with. Give it a read, and appreciate the accomplishment that is this book.
You can purchase The Scholar, The Sphinx, And The Shades Of Nyx from Amazon here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; June 2017
I rarely come across a fantasy or sci-fi novel in which a majority of the plot lulls, or is at least lacking excitement. Novels of this genre, though each unique in their own special way, almost always begin with a hook to draw the reader into the story; usually an action scene, or something wildly dramatic. A writer friend of mine says that if the reader isn’t invested by page 10, the author is doing it wrong. It is also rare for me to come across a "bad book". It is a fact that there are very few "bad" books due to the amount of heart, soul, and effort required of completing a novel-length story. But the times when I have read something less than stellar, it was typically because the story wasn’t engaging, or spent so much time in a lulled state that I felt no reason to continue reading. Books like these I keep hidden in a drawer until I decide to read them, or I eventually donate them.
The Hum And The Shiver by Alex Bledsoe may be the only book I have read which, in my opinion, is by all outward appearances a slow novel, but engaged me in its story the entire way through. There is no "hook" within the first ten pages. There is little to no "action" until the final third of the novel, which by most standards isn’t the least bit "exciting". The story is simply a large group of characters living their everyday lives in a setting. What makes it so engaging is a damn good mystery, which makes for one of the most creatively written novels I’ve ever read.
The story is set in a small, east Tennessee town which clearly has a past and an extensive lore to it. The reader catches glimpses of this lore through the eyes of two outsiders, a preacher trying to start a parish in the town, and a reporter. The reader is as clueless to this mystery as these outsiders, however neither of them are the main character. The main character and her close-knit friends and family are the ones who have been shaped by the town’s past and lore, as has every other character who lives there. Because of this, the characters never discuss the lore of their people. They live in a secluded town, and they never reveal their secrets to the occasional outsider. Because every character in the story, aside from the two outsiders, has been raised in the lore, no one discusses it. There is simply no need for them to. It’s a clever way to write a mystery. What makes enduring the entire book worthwhile, is just how interesting the culture of the town is.
Bledsoe creates a lore in this book which is so unique and creative, and unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is so well thought out that the reader keeps asking questions with every turn of the page. Why do they do this? Why can’t they do that? What does that word mean? The residents of the town are passionate about their traditions as they force them on the main character, and through her pain, the reader can only wonder why they are so explicit. But again, they never take the time to explain the lore because everyone is already engulfed in it. All is eventually revealed, but it takes a journey of establishing real characters with real emotion to get there.
And that is what makes Hum and Shiver feel so genuine amongst its over-the-top lore. The characters are vast, unique, and genuine. They speak to each other about their culture in everyday conversations. Their actions and dialogue are further humanized by the fact that their culture is flawed. Characters, like in politics, disagree as to how things should be done, which creates steaming conflict. But, once again, the reader never knows the why behind people’s anger because they need not discuss the details.
The Hum And The Shiver is one of the most captivating novels I have read, and it didn’t have to shock me every few chapters to do it. It is a mystery which keeps the reader asking "Why?", and keeps pages turning from start to finish. Its clever use of plot elements keeps the story at so steady a pace, yet it surprisingly works and ultimately pays off. On top of that, mystery behind the lore alone makes this story worth the read. For that, I can do nothing more than recommend it.
You can purchase The Hum And The Shiver here.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; February 2016
This week, I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. I’m a massive Bradbury fan as it is; Fahrenheit 541 and Something Wicked This Way Comes are among my favorite books. His social commentary in 541 has become a staple in American school systems, but his visions of the dystopian future of humanity are not what makes him a great author. Simply the style of his writing is enough to pick up a book and read it. The words put a smile on my face as to how quirky they are written, yet are somehow cohesive. He can convey massive stories with very few words which is why his name has become what it is today. The Martian Chronicles is no exception of a massive story that takes less than a week to read.
The Martian Chronicles is the story of Earth and Mars; two very different planets that turn out to be very much alike. The novel is nothing but segmented short stories, all of which contain different characters which have nothing to do with other characters in other short stories. This is because Bradbury is not trying to tell the story of individuals, but the story of two planets.
The book was written in the height of Cold War hysteria, and the fears of a massive nuclear war that would de-civilize Earth. Humans who wish to avoid such a war move to Mars in giant rockets. Bradbury establishes Mars as a planet civilized with its own beings and civilizations, which are abandoned, killed off, and destroyed over time, as more and more humans colonize the planet. We see the effects on the people of Earth as Mars becomes a more desirable place to live. Consequently, the more people colonizing the planet, the more the government soon attempts to take over. As tensions escalate on Earth, the "Martians" must decide weather they are to stand their ground, or give in to their humanity. All of these events are depicted in short stories that are entertaining, funny, action packed, and suspenseful. There is never a dull moment, and the seemingly limitless boundaries of the planet are open to endless interpretation by the imagination.
Bradbury tells us the large-scale story of Earth and Mars through the eyes of little humans who are concerned only with their own affairs. His characters may not know it, but they are contributing to a grander cause within the novel. It’s clever storytelling like this that continues to make Bradbury’s work worthwhile, and another must-read for generations to come.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; April 2016
This past week, I grew exceedingly nostalgic and reread The Giver. The only books I've ever re-read are this one, The Magic Treehouse books when I was in elementary school, and A Christmas Carol, which I read every Christmas. I hadn't read The Giver since 7th grade, in which I was among the last class at my school who was taught the ins and outs of the novel. Some teachers wouldn't even allow me to have the book out while in class. It's been a controversial topic for many years, and I wanted to go back and rediscover the story, from a matured perspective. What did I learn? Almost nothing. I was pleasantly surprised that aside from minor details about the novel's world, there were very few themes and meanings that slipped my memory.
The book is about a boy named Jonas who lives in a utopian society where every choice is made for him. When he is assigned to a career, he is ordered to become the community's next "Receiver of Memories", whose job is to hold all the memories of the past world so the people don't have to, as memories are seen as stressful and dangerous. As he receives more and more memories from the past Receiver, now known as The Giver, Jonas discovers how cruel his utopian world actually is, as he and The Giver try to beat the system they are bound to.
The themes and lessons of the novel are very important for children to know from a young age, even if they never read it in school. I can understand why this could be banned from elementary, or even middle schools, as there are some extremes in the book that may not be deemed appropriate for a school setting. Why has it been banned? Some believe it's because the novel is discouraging societal control, and has thus been banned by government funded schools. Do I personally believe that? Not necessarily. I don't think the novel goes to the extent of teaching youth at a young age to defy government, rather, be wary of the extent of executive control. The requests for banning the book in schools over the years, were mostly placed by parents who believed the book was too extreme. The most important lessons the book has to offer, are more along the lines of teaching people to make decisions for themselves, and to be their own person, rather than allow others to define who they are. It also shows how important it is for us to interact, and be expressive. The book conveys all these messages through imagery, and shocking revelations in the story, which is how it has gained so much controversy, but also stuck with readers for over two decades.
The reason I've come to realize why this book has been deemed a classic, is from just how vague it is. The themes I've mentioned are only to name a few, and the amount of themes that any individual can interpret from the novel, is infinite. The book also isn't very descriptive either; Lois Lowery is trying to present a mysterious world to the reader, creating a unique experience for everyone who reads it. This lack of descriptiveness is part of what makes the novel so short of a read, and also what makes the world so frightening. The ending isn't definitive either, so discussion for its conclusion is infinite. I believe this is the reason why the film adaptation which released in 2014, didn't do very well. The book has such a cult following, and allows for so much breathing room for the imagination, no one wanted their interpretation of the film to be ruined by a Hollywood blockbuster. It only goes to show the strength books can give readers to keep the story the way it is, and preserve its message.
So, my revisiting of the book wasn't as much a means of looking back with mature eyes, but a realization of the book's importance, and what it has fundamentally done to earn that importance. It's so explicit in message, yet so vague in and of itself, it has gained a massive following of people who wish to preserve its content, so future generations will still be able to discover and lean it. The Giver isn't as much a popular novel, but a powerful vessel for preaching thoughts and ideas. As long as we continue to pass these ideas on, the legacy of the book shall never fade. Currently, it isn't bound to happen any time soon.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; February 2016
Homer Hickam, for those of you who don’t know, is an outstanding author. I think that is more of a biased statement, as he is a local author where I’m from. Hickam is famous for his classic memoir Rocket Boys, which I highly recommend you read. In 1999, Rocket Boys was adapted into the critically acclaimed film, October Sky, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. I have spoken to Hickam at a local event, in which he has told me directly, twice, that the film adaptation ruined his life. Like countless authors, he hates the movie version of his book. Of course no one can blame him. I’d get personal if a big-budget Hollywood production company took my baby and butchered it into something completely unlike I envisioned. I personally like the film, as do almost everyone who has seen it. It’s by no means a cinematic triumph, just a "good little show". I will likely review it sometime in the future.
Hickam’s claim to fame has ridden entirely on the coattails Rocket Boys. Hopefully, that is only until now. He hopes that his most recent novel, Carrying Albert Home, will be a classic for generations to come. Hickam also hopes to spark the birth of a new book genre he has dubbed the "Family Legend" genre. Basically, the author writes an entire book about a legend in their family. The fact that it is a legend, allows the author to write anything he possibly wants to put in the story, "…some of which is untrue, but is all true."
Before talking about the novel, I must first talk about the physical book itself. The artwork on the dust cover is purely classic, capturing art style the period of the novel accurately. The painted image gives a physicality to what I’m about to read, rather than a vague, obviously corporate-designed cover I won’t care about.
Secondly, just look at the book without its dust cover. It’s meant to be a period book, and the colors and font on the cover capture this beautifully.
Moving inside, everything from the font to the artwork and photographs draw the reader in to something that is both special, and more personal than the average best-seller. In case the story itself wasn’t great enough already, the physical novel is a surefire keepsake for passing down many lines of generations.
Hickam’s "family legend" is a heartfelt story about his own mother and father as a young married couple. His mother, Elsie, owns an alligator she has named Albert, which was given to her by her youthful sweetheart, Buddy Ebson. Yes, that is the real Buddy Ebson who starred on the show The Beverly Hillbillies. Elsie has loved the alligator her entire life because of its connection to Buddy. Her husband, Homer’s father (also named Homer), grows tired of Albert running amuck around the house. When the final straw is played, he gives Elsie the choice between him or Albert. She chooses to take her husband, provided that they return Albert to Florida, where he belongs. Homer and Elsie pack their bags, and set off toward Orlando from their small town of Coalwood, West Virginia. From there, it’s a grand adventure through Depression-America filled with action, romance, joy, terror, and most importantly, love.
The novel is nothing but literary goodness. Not the hidden-meaning-philisophical-truths goodness; just goodness. In that, there’s no badness in it (the opposite of goodness). There aren’t any moments that drag, and every character is colorful and diverse. Hickam’s crass banter among the characters allows for great humor, and moment after moment that puts smiles on faces. Despite having an average page count, the novel seems long because of the numerous misadventures the characters get themselves into. Some are short, some are longer, but they all move Homer and Elsie’s story along. While it may appear that Albert is the star of the show, the alligator is implemented more as a backdrop to the arch of Elsie and Homer’s love for each other; questioning weather they do happen to still love each other, or not, and what alternatives they are willing to take without the other, if they are willing to resort to those alternatives at all.
This is what makes great story-telling. Two individuals, unsure of their love for each other, have to spend a thousand-mile journey together. It's more of a journey of self-discovery, while tangling in hilarious plots to meddle with their romance. The romance itself isn’t slow or forced, rather, it moves intertwining with the events of the story, to keep the plot rolling at a steady momentum.
Given that this is a family legend, Hickam is given flexibility to put whatever he wants into an already interesting idea for a story. That in mind, readers are in for some crazy stuff. Homer and Elsie encounter robbers, protestors, famous figures in American history, pirates, and even ghosts. In case their encounters weren’t enough, the characters are thrown unexpectedly into various occupations over their lengthy journey such as becoming a professional athlete, a rail-road manager, sailor, and flying as pilots. Each of these sections in the story is divided, and is introduced with Hickam giving his personal account of when he heard the specific part of the story from his parents. This provides an interesting dynamic; Encountering Homer’s aged parents as the story was revealed to him, coinciding with their younger selves in the core plot.
My personal connection to the novel, was getting to be one of the first people to recieve book itself. Homer Hickam held the launch party for 'Carrying Albert' at the Rocket City Lit Fest here in Huntsville. In his press conference, he talked on and on about the backstory behind writing the book, all which is revealed to the reader as they progress through the story. There I got a signed copy, and spoke to Homer about his novels.
There is little more I can say about this book than recommend it to you. You’ll be supporting an author with a lot of soul to his penmanship. It’s a fun, heart-warming story that leaves the reader with only happy thoughts. You will smile, laugh, cry, and more importantly, feel stronger towards your family and those around you. Give this one a read and treat yourself to a destined classic.
-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2016
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