The Annual Migration Of Clouds by Premee Mohamed – A Book Review

I picked up The Annual Migration Of Clouds by Premee Mohamed while browsing my local library. I’m currently interested in reading novellas, so this slim work caught my eye.

The story takes place in a future where the climate fully turned against humanity. Pockets of civilization exist without any of the comforts or interconnectedness that we presently enjoy. Reid belongs to a small community that, as far as they know, could be among the last left in the world. However, she’s very smart, and when a letter arrives inviting her to a school far, far away, she wants to leave her world behind in order to take a chance on this new life. The only problem is, no one who has left for this school has ever actually returned, nor is there any real proof that it even exists.

Of course, at that point of the book I figured we would join Reid on her journey to this new world, but the story instead zigs and chooses to focus on a pig hunt, one that, if successful, could provide Reid’s mother with plenty of food and bartering power for after Reid leaves. You see, she suffers deep guilt for even thinking about leaving her mother behind to fend for herself, especially since her father left them long ago. Unfortunately, Reid has never hunted before, not on such a huge scale, and isn’t quite prepared for the endeavor. Furthermore, she suffers from a common disease called Cad, which is a parasite that will literally do whatever it takes to keep its host alive until it decides otherwise. Cad is a hereditary condition, one that will one day kill Reid’s mother and one that will ultimately kill Reid as well.

As you can see, there are a lot of big ideas in The Annual Migration Of Clouds. It explores the nuances of an interwoven (albeit small} community, the complicated bonds of family, where our climate crisis could actually lead, the hope for a brighter future, the power of remaining in place for comfort’s sake, and the horrifying evolution of viruses and fungi.

That being said, I appreciated that Mohamed didn’t spend too much time on any of these things. She drops the reader into this world, provides just enough context to familiarize the reader, and then allows the characters to get on with their lives. She seems to value the “less is more” approach, an outlook that I believe serves the book well.

Unfortunately, this technique also leaves a great deal of questions for the reader, perhaps too many questions for some. The pig hunt is resolved and serves as the primary physical conflict in the book, but many, many other aspects of the plot are left unfinished. Perhaps Mohamed plans to one day further investigate these unresolved issues–perhaps she does not. Personally, I’m fine with it either way.

At just 155 pages, The Annual Migration Of Clouds is a brisk, well-paced book written in an unexpected, interesting way. Those seeking a tidy ending may find it dissatisfying, while those interested in experiencing complex ideas delivered briskly and without much explanation may find it exhilarating. Again, because it’s so short, The Annual Migration Of Clouds is an easy book to take a chance on.

Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw – A Book Review

I know we’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I absolutely grabbed Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw off of the shelf at my local library because its cover jumped out at me. Also, it’s very thin–just 124 pages–and I’ve been on a novella kick of late.

In my opinion, even for such a short book, Nothing But Blackened Teeth is overwritten with flat characters and incessant redundancies.

The book is told from Cat’s perspective. She, Phillip, Faiz, Talia, and Lin are spending the night in an abandoned mansion in Japan. They are a group of friends who love ghosts–the mansion is supposedly haunted–and Phillip became ordained specifically so that he could marry Faiz and Talia. Everyone has history with everyone, the mansion is indeed haunted, they bicker through most of the book, and then the mansion exacts its will upon them … thankfully.

From start to finish, Phillip is the rich, good-looking one. Every single time he’s mentioned, there’s an accompanying bit describing his handsomeness. Cat, the narrator, is sad, has dated two-thirds of the men in the group, and does not get along with Talia at all–the tropes are strong. Lin shows up late and doesn’t seem to like any of them but Cat. Faiz is just glad Talia is willing to marry him. There’s zero chemistry between these characters, and I honestly found them the epitome of “one-note.”

Which leads to my other criticism of the book–there’s far too much unnecessary description. People, objects, emotions–they are described more or less in the same way, just with different words, throughout the piece. The constant descriptions struck me as “filler” while nothing in particular happened until the very end.

Though I finished it, I can’t particularly say I embraced Nothing But Blackened Teeth. It clearly wasn’t for me. However, I still love that cover.

Day Zero by C. Robert Cargill – A Book Review

Day Zero is C. Robert Cargill’s follow-up to Sea Of Rust. Sequel isn’t quite the right word because it actually takes place before Sea Of Rust. Prequel doesn’t quite fit, either, though, because the stories are largely disconnected from each other. Let’s just say companion piece.

Regardless of how you’d like to label it, if you enjoyed Sea Of Rust, you’ll find Day Zero phenomenal.

Day Zero is also one of those rare “prequels” that, if you read it before Sea Of Rust, I don’t think it would diminish either experience. They can stand on their own, but they also fit seamlessly together.

Sea Of Rust takes place long after humans have been exterminated and AI robots, humanity’s former workforce, have inherited the world even as they fight with each other over replacement parts. Day Zero takes place on the literal day the robots rebelled.

However, it’s really not even about that. Day Zero is really about one particular robot, a nanny robot made to resemble an upright tiger, striving to keep his eight-year-old charge alive amidst the chaos.

You’ll encounter the usual themes you would expect with stories such as this: free will, real love, loyalties, self-preservation, the greater good, etc.

However, once again, C. Robert Cargill writes the characters in such a way that you can’t resist their charming personalities. Sure, Pounce, the tiger nanny, narrates in such a voice that he sounds more human than most humans, and, like with Sea Of Rust, these characters could have been anything–robots, humans, elves, aliens–yet the writing is so fluid, so quickly-paced, that the book is impossible to put down. I personally love C. Robert Cargill’s style. I like to read. I like action. Boom. He gets it.

Of course, as with Sea Of Rust, there is a moment where a very convenient plot device changes everything, but that’s okay. I’m invested in this world. I’m hooked on the characters existing in this world. Robots made to look like tigers serving as nannies while toting plasma rifles–whatever. I’m in.

Though action-packed, violent, and laden with profanity, Day Zero truly has a heart of gold with some powerfully uplifting messages. I’m not sure Sea Of Rust and Day Zero is for everyone–after all, you have to have a very high tolerance for violent robots and sci-fi–but for those who like these kinds of stories, it will prove a wonderful experience.

Day Zero kept me turning page after page, and I can’t ask for much more than that from a book.

Mapping the Interior by Stephen Gram Jones – A Book Review

Most of my recent reads come from a list of recommendations by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” Mapping the Interior is from among those many wonderful books.

Written by Stephen Graham Jones, Mapping the Interior is a concise 107 pages. It’s told from the perspective of a Native American boy nearing his teens. His mother moved he and his little brother–who seems to have some health challenges–off of their reservation and into a lackluster trailer. The boy reveals his father died some time ago, so no one is more surprised than he when that very same father appears in their home. Their real father is dead and buried, though. This is something … different.

For such a slim book, Mapping the Interior dives into some rather poignant issues such as poverty, racism, violence, alcoholism, bullying, brotherly love, motherly love, disabled family members, and absentee fathers. Running throughout all of these themes, however, is a sense of dread as a monster seems to persistently lurk.

At times surreal, Mapping the Interior plays with the reader a bit as it teases fantasy while dealing very much in reality. Those two genres eventually merge and it becomes difficult to separate fact versus fiction as our narrator may or may not be totally reliable. There were several moments in the book when I had to read a paragraph over to be certain I read it correctly, but this wasn’t a bad thing. Mapping the Interior demands your engagement.

My only criticism of the book pertains to the ending. It managed a consistent, fast-moving pace until the very end, when the pace suddenly hit lightspeed. I understand the point Jones wanted to make about fathers and sons, but the last ten pages of the book were frustratingly rushed. In all honestly, the last ten pages should have been given another hundred pages if not an entire follow-up book.

If you like thoughtful, brief works that aren’t afraid to dabble in horror, I highly recommend Mapping the Interior.

Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter – A Book Review

I once again must thank Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” for suggesting yet another novella, this time the book called Grief Is the Thing With Feathers by Max Porter.

At just 114 pages, this novella is a series of paragraphs and stanzas exploring the utter heartbreak of a man after losing his young wife. He must now raise their two boys alone, and he hasn’t a clue how to do so. A crow appears to guide the man through his grief, comfort the children, and help out in any possible way. However, Crow’s also there to encourage chaos, to promote carnage, and to spout madness.

Crow is a complicated figure in this book, especially because I’m not convinced he was ever really there at all. Or perhaps he was grief personified. Or maybe he represented the delicate balance between tranquility and turmoil that exists perpetually within our daily lives. It would also make sense if he was death. Maybe he was just a crow? Like I said–complicated.

As I mentioned, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers is a quick read due to its unconventional formatting. Somewhere between prose and poem, the novella flies by for the invested reader.

That being said, I had a hard time making the time to read it. I found myself a little disinterested throughout, though, I will admit, the last few pages were strikingly emotional.

I think everyone who reads Grief Is the Thing With Feathers will have a different encounter. The material is both universal and very specific, yet everyone will connect with it in some capacity. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the book, but I do admit that it’s a book every reader should experience for themselves.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson – A Book Review

I’ve enjoyed short novellas all summer that were recommended by Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” I just finished my favorite one yet – Train Dreams by Denis Johnson.

I find it very hard to believe this book is only 116 pages. Though I flew through it, I literally felt as though I had lived a lifetime alongside the protagonist, Robert Grainer.

Set at the turn of the 20th Century, Grainer is an outdoorsman accustomed to working on bridges, in the woods, with animals, and under consistently harsh conditions. He ranges throughout the northwest during his early life but does indeed eventually settle down as circumstances dictate. Grainer is an unassuming man, a capable man, and a man who wants to be moral even while acknowledging he sometimes isn’t. Grainer suffers horrific tragedy throughout his life, yet he persists.

As I said, though the book is only 116 pages, we experience flashes of Grainer’s life in potent, concise, brilliantly constructed vignettes. “Epic” seems an improbable word to use in describing such a brief work, but I can’t help admitting that “epic” is the first word that comes to mind while trying to describe Train Dreams.

Sometimes surreal, oftentimes brutally realistic, Train Dreams is easily counted among my favorite reads of late. I look forward to finding more works by Denis Johnson.

Winter In the Blood by James Welch – A Book Review

Once again, I must give Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages” credit for helping me find yet another substantial read. This time, it is the novella Winter In the Blood by James Welch. At just 138 pages, it is indeed a brief, yet potent, experience.

Though it’s a provocative, expertly executed book, I must admit that I didn’t find it all that engaging. This could be due to the author’s intent. Welch wrote the book in such a way that its slow, simmering plot mirrors the personality of the narrator.

By my estimation, our narrator is in his early thirties living on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana at some point during the 1960s. A woman, possibly a new wife, has stolen his gun and electric razor and he decides to reclaim his two most prized possessions. During his meandering quest, we get a sense of his poverty, the difficulties of life surrounding his area, the aimlessness of his adulthood, but also the joy and camaraderie he experienced during his youth. Those smarter than I could perhaps argue the existence of an extended metaphor throughout the novella, but I’ll attempt no such thing.

Though we never learn the narrator’s name, we learn that alcohol is a prevalent constant amongst his friends, family, and he, and it seems responsible for many hardships he endures throughout the book. (Obviously those hardships are ultimately due to the mistreatment of tribes across the continent throughout the last several centuries, but I’m speaking in a more immediate sense.) At times, those hardships feel almost surreal. I never quite decided if that was a result of the alcohol or the author employing a fluid style. By story’s end, we’ve learned a lot about the narrator, especially due to a major revelation concerning his heritage.

The execution of Winter In the Blood was quite interesting, but, as I said, I never connected with the book. Sometimes this is no fault of a work. Sometimes the demands of life can impair the enjoyment of reading, and sometimes those demands can enhance the joy of reading. Whatever the case may be, while I appreciate a great deal about Winter in the Blood, at this point, I can’t personally say I’d recommend it. Because it’s so short, though, if it sounds remotely interesting to you, you should give it a try. It won’t take up much of your time.

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls – A Book Review

Like several of my other recent reads, I discovered Mrs. Caliban on Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages.” At just 111 pages, Mrs. Caliban is indeed a swift, potent read full of social commentary but cleverly disguised as pseudo-fantasy.

The story focuses upon a housewife named Dorothy. Dorothy is in an unhappy marriage. She has suffered great tragedy in regards to children. Her friends are equally troubled in their own way, especially one in particular. Her husband has been known to cheat on her. Life is not at all what she hoped for.

And then a giant, muscular frog man enters her home. She quickly gives the frog man refuge and names him Larry. She discovers that Larry is intelligent, sensitive, and willing to kill in order to preserve his own life. He is from the ocean, had been captured and mistreated by a local laboratory, and recently escaped.

Larry remains hidden in their spare room, unknown to her negligent husband, and soon enough a romantic relationship blooms between Larry and Dorothy.

Again, keep in mind this book is only 111 pages long.

As Dorothy enjoys the kind of relationship she once dreamed of, her best friend, Estelle, endures a series of hardships that will eventually impact Dorothy. Her husband, Fred, also makes poor choices that will prove catastrophic for her as well. In the end, everything builds to a crescendo and connects quite tragically.

Even with the complex, concussive plot, Ingalls manages to insert quite a bit of social commentary into the short tale. Larry himself is a striking figure in regards to xenophobia. However, as he settles into his relationship with Dorothy, he begins to take on some of Fred’s attributes. I believe here Ingalls is commenting on the tendency of men to assume and even abuse their preconceived notions regarding both women and wives.

However, Estelle, her best friend, also proves a challenging figure. On the one hand, she is refreshing in that she rejects the traditional constructs men place upon her. However, on the other hand, she ultimately contradicts the conventional expectations we have for her as Dorothy’s “best friend.”

As you can see, Mrs. Caliban is rife with sophisticated concepts. It is the perfect example of an effective novella. Short, fast, yet no less complex than the longest of novels. I’m so glad I came across this book and I look forward to reading more of Ingalls’ work.

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell – A Book Review

After seeing Literary Hub’s “The 50 Best Contemporary Novels Under 200 Pages,” I decided to give So Long, See You Tomorrow a try. After all, it’s only 135 pages.

Imagine my surprise when I learned that the author, William Maxwell, hails from Lincoln, Illinois! Lincoln is just a short way south of me along Interstate 55. As a Central Illinois author, I immediately felt as though he was a kindred spirit. Sure, there are some glaring differences between us. For example, he attended Harvard and died in the year 2000. But still.

So Long, See You Tomorrow primarily takes place in Lincoln during the 1920s. Maxwell states it’s an autobiographical novel, so it’s hard to know exactly how much is truth and how much is fiction. By story’s end, you’ll no longer care because you’ll be so engaged with the tale.

In the beginning, So Long, See You Tomorrow is difficult to get lost in. It has an unusual structure in that it jumps around quite a bit in time and geography, and it never allows the reader to get a steady grasp on who’s who. However, at about the halfway mark, the novel adheres to a more traditional, linear pattern and focuses on the primary event of the story. At that point, So Long, See You Tomorrow blazes along and is very difficult to put down.

Though originally published in 1980, So Long, See You Tomorrow felt modern in terms of execution despite being published forty years ago and taking place nearly one hundred years in the past. Maxwell has a clear, controlled voice yet plays with form enough to give him a certain edge. Of course, the story, which revolves around a relationship souring and a murder occurring between two isolated farmers who were the best of friends, is timeless.

If you’re looking for a quick, engrossing read that is not just a good story but a well-written story, I highly recommend So Long, See You Tomorrow. William Maxwell seems to have had a very successful career, so I plan to read more by this fellow Central Illinoisan.

Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine – A Book Review

Though Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine is one of the wackiest books that I’ve ever read, it has burrowed into my heart and will stay there for quite some time.

It won’t reside in my heart because it’s sentimental to me or because it imparted upon me some important life lesson. No, it’s special to me because it is so bold, so outlandish, so concise, and so awkwardly funny.

The story revolves around an unnamed and incredibly unreliable narrator who is in her early twenties. She’s decided to use the classic novel Treasure Island as her “how-to” guide in life. However, the book doesn’t really delve into Treasure Island as much as you might think.

Rather, we witness our narrator steamroll her way through life while mistreating her sister, mother, father, boyfriend, boss, friend, and former friend. She would fit right in among the characters of Seinfeld, but she would be the one without even a hint of self-awareness or morality.

As the book progresses, Sara Levine, the author, keeps upping the stakes in terms of ridiculousness. At times, Treasure Island!!! is laugh out loud funny, yet it never crosses over into the impossible. Absurd? Definitely. Unlikely? Maybe. Possible in real life? Yes!

Part of what makes Treasure Island!!! so charming is its brevity. This a short book–a novella. Truthfully, I don’t think I could spend more than 172 pages with this narrator; she would overstay her welcome. However, because it’s such a quick read, the narrator manages to worm her way into your heart before you can become totally disgusted by her antics.

I applaud Sara Levine for creating such a character. Despite all of her unlikable traits, the narrator is quite charismatic, and though the story is borderline ludicrous, it manages the balancing act well enough to be an enticing read.

As you can plainly see, I recommend Treasure Island!!! as your next read.