Thursday, July 30, 2015

Winter's Tale - Mark Helprin

I'm reviewing this book as part of the 2015 Magic Realism Blog Hop. But Winter's Tale has been on my TBR list for some time.

Viewed from our end of the turn of the 21st century, Winter's Tale appears to be set in a version of New York City that never existed. The book spans a hundred years (it skips several decades in the middle) and begins in the late 1800s with a cart horse. The horse escapes from his stable and rescues a burglar, Peter Lake, who's being chased by a gang of thieves called the Short Tails. Peter Lake (who is always referred to by both names) eventually falls in love with a consumptive girl named Beverly Penn, and when she dies, he and the horse go over a mysterious wall of cloud and disappear. This cloud wall moves, appears, and disappears throughout the novel, occasionally spitting out something that has gotten caught up in it. Like the white horse. And Peter Lake. Both show up again in the waning years of the 20th century with magical powers and villains to thwart -- except that Peter Lake has amnesia, and he must cure himself of that before he can bring back the dead.

The book is long, the language dense and almost lyrical. I found myself enjoying the descriptive passages at some points, but rushing through them in other places in order to get on with the story. There's a very funny set piece in the middle of the book, when a character named Hardesty falls in with a dwarf who claims to be a wilderness guide but who is worse than useless at it. And occasionally there's a bit of wisdom, like this from Peter Lake: "The balances are exact. The world is a perfect place, so perfect that even if there is nothing afterward, all this will have been enough."

Ah, but it it magic realism? I'm not sure. The book's New York doesn't have much in common with our New York, other than topology. If you view the things that happen as metaphorical, then I guess it's similar to the work of Carlos Fuentes, kind of. Regardless, I did enjoy Winter's Tale and I'm glad I finally read it.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

A Contest of Succession (The Usurpers Saga 2) - John R. Phythyon Jr.

With A Contest of Succession, Phythyon returns us to the land where his earlier epic fantasy, The Sword and the Sorceror, takes place. A couple of the characters from that book are also in this one: Liliana Gray, the bumbling magician's assistant who turned into a powerful sorceror after her patron, Gothemus Draco, was murdered; and Draco's murderer, the former Lord Vicia of Elderburg. Vicia was stripped of power after Liliana thwarted her attempt to take over Elderburg. Now Vicia has joined forces with a horde of goblins to take over the neighboring city-state of Twin Falls. The elderly duke there has died without an heir, so there's to be a contest to see who is best suited to take over the rule of Twin Falls. Vicia intends to win, and she intends to cheat. Because there really is an heir to the dukedom: a soldier by the name of Garrick Tremaine. Vicia wants him dead, which suits the goblins just fine -- they need his life essence to free their horrible god, Gruul, from his enchanted prison. It's all going swimmingly until Liliana rescues Garrick from the goblins, and then decides to help him win the contest.

The story is interesting, and I very much like Liliana and Garrick. But I had two problems with the book. First, the author over-explains things. Readers don't need a recap of all of the pertinent events in the story every time the point-of-view character changes; it bogs down the action. And second, the book ends without any of the big plot points resolved. It's not exactly a cliffhanger, but the author has left a whole lot of important stuff up in the air -- to be resolved, I assume, in the next book.

If you don't mind that sort of thing, then I would recommend A Contest of Succession. It's not necessary to have read The Sword and the Sorceror first -- Phythyon does a fine job of filling in enough back story so that readers new to the series won't be lost.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Sand Omnibus - Hugh Howey

Howey has done it again: Sand is another engrossing dystopian sci-fi adventure.

This book appears to take place in a different universe than his bestseller, Wool. The main characters here are three siblings who live in a desert wasteland. Buried deep below them in the sand are artifacts from a lost technological civilization. There's money to be had in scavenging these artifacts, and one of the most potentially lucrative professions is sand diving. The diver rigs him- or herself up in a suit that uses electricity to flow the sand away from and around the diver. The best divers can go a few hundred meters deep. The eldest of the siblings, Vic (short for Victoria), has figured out a way to stage air tanks in a dive so she can go much deeper. Connor, the youngest of these three, shows promise. But it's Palmer, who is between Vic and Connor in age, who is destined to discover the greatest find of all -- the fabled lost city of Danvar -- and almost gets himself killed. For the men behind the search for Danvar care only about a certain kind of artifact -- the kind that can level a civilization -- and they don't intend to let anyone who learns their secret survive.

The mood in the first section of the book is so intense that I had to put it aside for a little while. I just knew things were going to go badly for Palmer and his buddy Hap. It also didn't help that I very quickly figured out where Danvar was in our time (mainly because I happened to be reading the book in that very city!). But once I got past that, I enjoyed the story immensely. My only quibble was the ease with which people traveled between towns. I've driven from Denver to Pueblo, and it takes several hours -- not the hop-skip-and-jump these folks make it out to be, unless their sarfers can go a lot faster than I think they can. But overall, Sand was a great read. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Henry Wood Detective Agency - Brian D. Meeks

It's New Year's Day 1955, and Henry Wood is suffering the effects of a big New Year's Eve. Then a dame walks into his detective agency and asks him to find her father and her father's journal. Then another dame wants to hire him to find the same journal. It's about at this point that everything goes pear-shaped.

This is a pretty standard noir mystery, with a twist -- Henry's hobby is woodworking, and he has a special closet in his place where items from the future turn up from time to time. That's not the only time-travel aspect in the book, but to say any more would give the story away.

The writing could use a polish. And there's an odd glitch in the formatting of my Kindle copy -- each new chapter begins almost at the bottom of the page, as if the author or formatter put in a whole bunch of extra returns before the chapter title. But if you like mysteries, it might be worth your time to give Henry Wood Detective Agency a whirl.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Our Souls at Night - Kent Haruf

This novella -- Kent Haruf's last -- is a bittersweet reminder of what the literary world lost when he died last November.

The story is set in Haruf's fictional plains town of Holt, Colorado. This is the first sentence: "And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters." It's as if the good ol' boys down at the mercantile are swapping stories: "And then there was the time that...." That tone -- a little sly humor, a lot of empathy for the characters -- carries through the book.

You see, Addie is calling on Louis to make him a proposition. Both are widowed and elderly, and Addie thinks maybe Louis wouldn't mind coming to her house at night to sleep in her bed with her. Just to talk, you understand. Maybe hold hands. But just to have a body on the other side of the bed. Just for comfort.

Louis decides to give it a try. Before long, he and Addie are an item -- and not long after that, their grown children (who all live elsewhere) hear about it and, scandalized, do their best to break them up.

That sounds more madcap than it is. There's a tender heart to Haruf's writing, and a serious side, too, as demonstrated by the way Addie and Louis step up to parent Addie's young grandson while the boy's parents sort out their marriage. When Addie's disapproving son takes the boy home, it's as heartbreaking a scene as any death.

Perhaps my favorite scene is Haruf's nod to his own works. Addie and Louis are discussing a new play to premiere in Denver that's based on Haruf's novel Benediction, as well as the plays based on his earlier books, Plainsong and Eventide. All three of those novels are set in Holt, and our characters talk about how the author made everything up except the town's physical details. (The plays, in fact, have been staged in Denver.) Louis says he can't imagine the events in those books actually happening. But Addie says, "It might happen. People can do the unexpected."

They can indeed. For instance, a dying man can give us one final gem of a book. Thanks, Mr. Haruf.