Tag Archives: book reviews

Girl in Landscape by Jonathan Letham

At the age of 13, Pella Marsh loses her mother and her home on the scorched husk that is planet Earth. Her sorrowing family emigrates to the Planet of the Archbuilders, whose mysterious inhabitants have names like Lonely Dumptruck and Hiding Kneel—and a civilization that frightens their human visitors.
 On this new world, spikily independent Pella becomes an uneasy envoy between two species. And at the same time is unwillingly drawn to a violent loner who embodies all the paranoid machismo of the frontier ethic. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

Most summaries of this novel will describe it as Lolita in space, but that is both inaccurate and unfair to the harrowing, beautiful masterpiece that is Girl in Landscape. Letham is clever enough to make a well-worn technique work when he uses setting as a metaphor for psyche – Girl is not only an intricate coming-of-age story but an inventive and enjoyable sci-fi novel. As Pella leaves behind the familiar comforts of her home on Earth – including, most notably, her mother – she ventures into a foreign, frightening new realm populated by imposing, alien creatures: outer space. But also adolescence. With her mother gone, Pella is left to navigate her new world and its strange occupants alone, save for the company of her detached father and childish brothers.

Acclimating to the planet of the Archbuilders has unforeseen complications. Namely, the surreal experiences that some describe as “indigenous diseases” and Pella herself describes as her “deer form,” so named for the small, feral animals that run invisibly over the surface of the planet. Pella, who is herself small and prone to feeling invisible, finds herself periodically slipping into a strange trance state in which she describes herself as unable to be detected and therefore privy to the arguments and accusations that are otherwise kept behind her neighbors’ closed doors. Though Pella’s vaguely sexual relationship with enigmatic outsider Efram Nugent forms one of the novel’s most darkly compelling conflicts, Girl in Landscape is primarily the story of a fledgling community on an isolated frontier and not of a couple with an age disparity issue.

That said, Girl is invested enough in its narrator to narrow its focus on her conflicts rather than those of the entire planet, a choice for which I was thankful. Girl in Landscape is one of those rare novels which takes on an organically adolescent voice without actually becoming a YA angst-fest. Pella is a sympathetic, engaging narrator whose characterization is strong, complex, and absorbing. Girl in Landscape is as much an extended work of portraiture (note the title) as it is a story, and by the time Letham brings his work to its thunderous conclusion, he has drawn a figure in whom we can see every dimension of earthly adolescence reflected back at us through the lens of otherworldly experience.

 Recommended

The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier

The City is inhabited by the recently departed, who reside there only as long as they remain in the memories of the living. Among the current residents of this afterlife are Luka Sims, who prints the only newspaper in the City, with news from the other side; Coleman Kinzler, a vagrant who speaks the cautionary words of God; and Marion and Phillip Byrd, who find themselves falling in love again after decades of marriage.

On Earth, Laura Byrd is trapped by extreme weather in an Antarctic research station. She’s alone and unable to contact the outside world: her radio is down and the power is failing. She’s running out of supplies as quickly as she’s running out of time. (Synopsis source: amazon.com)

The Brief History of the Recently Dead had the appearance of a soft sci-fi novel with literary inclinations, which caught my interest and urged me to look past its bland premise: a pleasantly mundane, purgatorial afterlife set against a harrowing, painful earthly existence. I was therefore disappointed to find that the most interesting thing about The Brief History turned out to be that rather uninspiring premise. The City is entertaining enough, but when the novelty of Brockmeier’s afterlife concept wears off, it becomes a dull read, in large part because Brockmeier fails to generate empathy for his already dead characters or insert meaning into their existences. There is no reason why the reader should care that any of these people still exist, or are doomed to soon not exist. They are not interesting human beings; they do not have fates, destinies, or concerns which need to be addressed.

Yet The Brief History is at its most boring when it chronicles Laura Byrd’s ill-fated trek towards death. As she slowly comes to the realization that an epidemic has left her alone on Earth, Laura questions her existence, drifts through a series of mundane childhood memories, and plays word association games. She also speculates about the role of the corporation she worked for in the epidemic, which is intended (probably) to create some sort of existential crisis but fails to do so. Laura is no more interesting than the people in The City. Alone, unaffected by the madness, genius, or tragedy that makes the internal journey of an isolated character memorable, Laura is like a performer who stands in the middle of a spotlight and does nothing.

The Brief History of the Dead fails most deeply when it forgets that a novel must give a reader some reason to keep going. In other words, The Brief History required momentum which it did not have. There is no suspense in The Brief History. There is no need for closure. No cliff-hanger. No mystery. And, though it appeared that there might be one near the end, no literary meaning either. It seemed inevitable that Laura would die. That when she did die, the City would probably disappear. I waited for that to mean something within Brockmeier’s grand scheme of existence, but it did not. Not a very satisfying conclusion to a novel that answers few questions and seems to pose even less.

Not recommended 

Phantom by Susan Kay

A child is born… His  mother’s only gift is a mask. Precocious and gifted, he will live friendless and alone. taunted and abused, he will flee, only to find himself caged  again – as a freak in a Gypsy carnival. A brilliant outcast… the world is his home. Filled with  bitter rage, he will kill to escape, becoming a  stonemason’s apprentice in Rome… a dark magician at  the treacherous Persian court… and finally, the  genius behind the construction of the Paris Opera  House and the labyrinthine world below. Lacking one thing only: A woman’s love. Cloaked in secrets,  his power complete, he will see the exquisite  Christine and for the first time know what it means to  love. Obsessed, he will bring her into his eerie  subterranean world, driven to posses her heart and soul. (Synopsis source: http://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Susan-Kay/)

For fans of The Phantom of the Opera, Kay’s Phantom should, theoretically, be a compelling read. Both prequel and retelling, the novel follows Erik’s life as he steadily sinks into psychological instability and moral darkness, ending with the story that is so familiar to those who enjoyed Leroux’s Gothic classic. Yet Phantom is a messy and poorly executed novel, one which fails to make improvements upon its source work. Like countless others who have attempted to delve into Erik’s complicated psyche, Kay explains his steady decline from innocent child to remorseless killer with a series of traumatic incidents in which Erik is exposed to the brutality that people show to each other. Unfortunately, most of these incidents are related not by Erik himself, but by a scattered cast of bystanders and acquaintances, from his abusive mother to his kindly mentor to, finally, Christine by way of her diary. As a result, the majority of the novel finds the reader observing Erik from a distance, often through perspectives that are ill-informed or severely limited.

It is unclear what Kay’s intent in this is, other than to shield the reader from the perspective that they want most. Erik narrates at only two points in the story: when he is being held captive by gypsies as a young boy and, more than thirty years later, when he is hidden in the Paris Opera House. Phantom is a novel which is very much interested in the way that perspectives of others impact the way we see ourselves. But without giving the reader a firsthand glimpse at the way that Erik reacts to the prejudice and hatred that he encounters when he attempts to engage in normal human relationships, she fails to consistently give readers the most important perspective: that of Erik himself. In a work that strives so hard for psychological intimacy, this feels like a problem. Phantom could have been a fascinating book in which readers were forced to critique their own prejudiced perceptions, but Kay completely failed to do this. In the end, after all, Erik is proven to be exactly what we think he will be. By the time he can speak for himself, he is already transformed into the stereotype behind the mask.

As a result, I find Erik’s character no more sympathetic at the end of Phantom than I did at the end of The Phantom of the Opera, a work which was markedly more successful in creating stirring portraits of morally complicated characters. Though there were parts of Phantom that I found enjoyable, I was almost always distracted by the shifting first-person perspectives that told me everything but that which I really wanted to know. The last 100 or so pages of Phantom are by far the best because they finally put the reader in the place where they should be: behind the mask of the novel’s elusive main character.

Not recommended

Welcome to the Blog!

With this first post, I join the ranks of the numerous book review blogs on WordPress. There are many of them, I know. Which is why I mean to spend the first post explaining why you should read this blog. (And also all of the others, which are lovely from what I’ve seen so far).

I am a Literature major, which is not a synonym for English major, but actually a descriptive term implying that I have given up any hope of gainful employment as a technical writer and am instead immersing myself in literary analysis and the pages of Russian novels until I graduate. Once in the real world, ironically, I intend to earn an MFA in writing fiction and work as a literary agent for Weird Books that No One Else Wants.

When I write this blog, I write not only as a reader who is looking for an enjoyable read, but as a scholar of literature who has spent many a sleepless night trying to figure out what some author from two hundred years ago was saying. In writing this blog, I hope to highlight both perspectives. Will I give a book a bad review if it has no literary meaning? I don’t know. Maybe. Probably. Depends on how genre-bound it is.

A note: I plan to review both literary and genre fiction, but as far as genre fiction goes, I am mostly interested in psychological thrillers, soft science fiction, urban fantasy, good YA, and historical fiction. The more weird prose choices, the better. I will accept both recommendations of books published by other people and submissions of books by self-published authors, so if you think you fit in somewhere there, feel free to let me know!