Bones of the Moon by Jonathan Carroll – A Book Review

I’ve read Carroll’s Land of Laughs and found his characterization very impressive in that particular book, although I felt his plot bottomed out toward the ending as it abandoned those previously established traits.

With Bones of the Moon, however, I never really connected with his protagonist, Cullen James, or her friends and family.  While they had interesting backgrounds, they simply didn’t feel real to me.  Because of this, and what I consider awkward dialogue, I couldn’t fully immerse myself in Bones of the Moon.

I would like to note that Carroll had an incredible concept.  I especially enjoyed the role of abortion in the novel and the psychological undertones that resulted.  Carroll did a remarkably nice job of leaving the specifics of the fantasy world that his main character travels to rather vague.  At one point, you think that she is slipping into Rondua during her dreams, but then you suspect that it’s just the opposite: that Cullen is sliding into our world from Rondua.  But then, just when you’ve about made up your mind one way or the other, Carroll hints that perhaps this is all simply in her head—the mind’s way of dealing with an unhealed emotional scar.  And then the end of the novel arrives, and all three of these possibilities converge, and you’re left with no answers at all.

If this sounds complicated, it is.  And, had the dialogue been just a little more practical, I think things might have been different for me.  But the dialogue tended to teeter on the edge of hyperbole, and this took me right out of the novel.

I won’t give up on Carroll, though.  The two novels I’ve read by him have had some extraordinary qualities and it’s obvious that his imagination is superb.  Perhaps I’ll try one of his more recent works and see what I think since the two I’ve read were from before 1988.

It should be noted, by the way, that Carroll had rave reviews for Bones of the Moon by none other than Stephen King himself, so take that into consideration.

Peter & Max: A Fables Novel by Bill Willingham – A Book Review

In many cases, novelists have difficulty making the jump to comic book writing just as comic book writers and screenwriters may have a rough time adapting to pure prose writing.  I’m happy to report that Bill Willingham not only made the jump to prose writing well, but he exceeded my already lofty expectations.

Okay, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer full disclosure and admit that I am a huge Fables fan.  That doesn’t mean I automatically give Willingham a free pass, though.  I’ve written some glowing Fables reviews, but I’ve also come down pretty hard on the title every now and again.  I’m simply trying to clarify that while I may not be totally objective with Willingham, I can remain critical.

For those unfamiliar with Fables, the premise is that all of our storybook legends, nursery rhyme characters, and mythological figures are very real and lived in their own worlds.  When their homelands were overrun by an evil overlord, they fled to our dimension just as New York was being founded.  There they have lived among us ever since, always searching for a way to win back their own lands.

Peter & Max is a very well-written, tightly-plotted, astutely-orchestrated novel.  As you know, it focuses upon Peter Piper and his brother, Max, as well as Little Bo Peep.  And in true Fables fashion, Willingham is sure to deliver the scenes we’d expect from such characters, but he also makes them his own and offers some unexpected twists and turns.  I also enjoyed that the chapters alternate – a chapter will focus upon Peter and Max’s past, and then the next will zero in on the present.  This was a great way to build suspense while slowly revealing pertinent plot points.

What I appreciate the most about Peter & Max, though, is the fact that it makes sense.  Willingham lays the groundwork early on and doesn’t throw any last minute plot-changers into the mix.  While he still managed to catch me off guard, none of the resolutions struck me as, “No fair!  That came out of nowhere!”  Too many times an author plays willy-nilly with their climax and resolution, but not Willingham.  He remained consistent throughout, even if we couldn’t guess why he included certain bits of information early on.

Furthermore, while I believe a Fables fan will especially love this novel, by no means is Fables a necessary read in order to enjoy Peter & Max.  If anything, I see the novel as a gateway to the comic book, though I’m certain the comic book fans will be frothing at the mouth to pick up this book, and rightly so.

Willingham has a captivating writing style, and I like the fact that while he gives us nuanced details, he doesn’t go overboard with it.  I really can’t emphasize enough Willingham’s skill as a prose writer.

Well-written, surprising, exciting, and carefully plotted, Peter & Max will impress and delight both Fables fans and those entering the Fables world for the first time.

Do Not Deny Me by Jean Thompson – A Book Review

Do Not Deny Me is one of those rare short story collections that actually gets better as it progresses.

I must admit that I picked this book up simply because it was a short story collection and, as a short story writer, I try to familiarize myself with successful authors’ styles and subjects.  When I read the author biography and discovered that Thompson only lives fifty miles away from me, well, I automatically wanted to like the book and support a fellow Central Illinoisan.

We got off to a rough start.  The first story in Do Not Deny Me, entitled “Soldiers of Spiritos,” began promisingly enough but then fell flat as it detailed a burnt out professor and an “emo” student.  “Wilderness” was not much of an improvement as it followed the stories of two middle-aged women—friends—and their troubled love lives.  The third story was almost enough to make me put down the book; “Mr. Rat” was the typical jerk at work story focusing upon an egocentric young man.

But then, with the fourth story called “Little Brown Bird,” things markedly improved.   From that moment on, nearly all of the following stories were extremely good.  In particular, I enjoyed “The Woman at the Well,” a story about a female prison Bible study group; “Escape,” a story about an elderly man still suffering from the ramifications of a stroke trying to gain his independence again; “How We Brought the Good News,” a story about a spurned lover discovering amazing art in her workplace and hunting down the artist; and, my absolute favorite, “Treehouse,” a story about a middle-aged man who just doesn’t much see the point of anything anymore, and so he builds himself a tree house as a coping mechanism.

Thompson excels at presenting identifiable, realistic characters that will most certainly remind us of people we know (if not directly ourselves).  While few of her characters are heroic, their idiosyncrasies tended to win me over (though not always), and it’s obvious they were as real to Thompson as the keyboard I’m typing upon is to me.  Her stories are well-plotted and her craftsmanship is faultless.  She succeeds in giving us just enough detail to satisfy our mind’s eye, but she does not overindulge as so many writers are prone to do.

There are five stories in this collection that more than justify the price of this book, and if you’re a fan of character-driven, convincing, adroitly written stories that reveal the hardships of the average person, then I whole-heartedly recommend Do Not Deny Me.

Of The Farm by John Updike – A Book Review

Of The Farm details the complex relationship between a son in his mid-thirties and his elderly mother.  The son brings his new wife and her son from a previous marriage to his mother’s remote farm, and it’s obvious from the beginning that the mother and the wife are not going to get along.

Though a brief novel, Updike delivers an intricate and dramatic story peeling away the complicated layers that make up relationships.  Throughout the book, the man is constantly on alert, hoping to defuse any arguments between the women in his life, but he refuses to stand up to his mother nor does he seem totally invested in being committed to his wife.

In fact, the man is an incredibly interesting character because he is so flawed, so monumentally incapable of mediating the warring women in a healthy manner, that he almost leaps off the page.  Surely he’ll remind you of someone you know … perhaps even yourself.  The women were also expertly written, something that doesn’t always happen with a male author.  I found the mother and wife realistic, respectable, and equally as flawed as the main character.

Though lacking any real physical action, Updike’s study of mothers and sons and husbands and wives is wickedly enticing and, as always, written very well.

The Music of Chance by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Paul Auster once again scribes a tale that lingers in the consciousness long after the initial reading.

In The Music of Chance, Auster provides an utterly unpredictable story focusing upon Jim Nashe, a firefighter who inherits an unexpected sum of money and begins driving cross-country for no real reason.  As chance would have it, he happens across a self-proclaimed poker savant just as Nashe is in danger of running out of funds.  The poker aficionado, Jack Pozzi, guarantees Nashe he can multiply Nashe’s capital if only Nashe will back him in a big, upcoming game with a couple of millionaire dunderheads.

I won’t spoil any of the outcomes, but I can tell you that Auster’s story abruptly shifts direction so often and so savagely that it’s like riding in a brakeless car – thrilling and nerve-wracking.   Furthermore, when dealing with chance, there is often no reasonable explanation, and such is the case with The Music of Chance.  Auster’s brilliance with this novel is his sheer disregard for pattern.  Don’t get me wrong, Auster is always mindful of his thematic favorites – isolation, freedom, identity – but The Music of Chance has such unforeseen events that the mind races trying to fill in the unexplained gaps.

Perhaps most hauntingly is the fact that Auster appropriately provides no answers as to why certain events occur in The Music of Chance.  In the hands of a lesser author, this would be maddening, but Auster’s rebellious plot is delivered eloquently, skillfully, and engagingly, and so his unwillingness to elucidate certain incongruities somehow serves as a strength in The Music of Chance rather than a hindrance.  Consequently, if you’re like me, you’ll take joy in dissecting these mysteries long after you’ve finished the book.