The Book Of Strange New Things by Michel Faber – A Book Review

A friend recommended The Book Of Strange New Things to me a while back, so when I saw a beautiful hardcover edition in the severe discount bin at my local grocery store, I swept it up without hesitation.  (I’m still trying to figure out why it ended up in a discount bin at my grocery store.  Weird.)

The Book Of Strange New Things is a breath of fresh air, that’s for sure.  But, if I’m telling the truth, it didn’t end quite satisfactorily in my mind.  More on that soon …

The premise is that Peter, a man of 33, has been selected by a clandestine corporate entity to serve as a missionary to an indigenous species on a planet said entity is colonizing.  Peter is very happily married, and while he moved through the vetting process with ease, his wife did not, which results in her having to stay behind.

Both are incredibly devout to God.  They effectively run their own church while Peter’s wife, Bea, also works as a nurse.  Both experienced a difficult past, and it’s amazing Peter even lived long enough to eventually find God.  If I may be so bold, Bea and Peter are the sort of Christians who lead by example.  They do not force God upon people.  They treat people with respect, they administer to people, they expect nothing in return, but if an opportunity comes along to share the Message, they will.  They do not judge, for Peter has plunged lower than most anyone during his previous life.  They do not beat their Bibles.  They love.  They care.  They help.  They share.

Due to their faith and bond, they agree to serve God by sending Peter off to this distant world as Bea stays behind.  Once Peter arrives, his work proves to be far simpler than he imagined.  In fact, the denizens he’s serving are all too willing to have him; they’ve even been looking forward to his arrival!

But soon after Peter settles in on this new world, horrible things begin happening back on Earth.  He and Bea’s faith and love are put to the test in ways they never imagined.  Even their belief in God is strained.

I won’t spoil it any further, but this gives you a good sense of the tone of the book.  It introduces some compelling themes.  The idea of putting God first, before oneself and even one’s spouse, is a conflict of great interest to many.  There are also several mysteries unfolding, particularly in regards to the aliens themselves.  Just why are they so enthusiastic to learn about God?  Why did they specifically request a missionary from the corporation?  What is their motivation?  Furthermore, Peter suffers dismay as he is unfathomable miles from his wife as her world seems to be falling apart.  What is going on back on Earth?  Are things as bad as she says?  Is it even her writing these messages to him?

I appreciate that Peter is quite believable as a man who lived in the gutters before finding God.  Faber had to walk a tightrope in making a missionary who did not come off as too preachy, too stereotypical, too “holier than thou.”  He also came close to making Peter too selfless, too forgiving, and too naive.  Instead, he managed to strike that delicate balance with Peter, and, as a result, created an engaging character for whom we care.

The book moves quite slowly, but not unpleasantly.  Faber spends a great deal of time establishing Peter, Bea, the creatures, the new planet, and even Peter’s coworkers.  He explains just enough to make this colony believable, yet he smartly avoids trying to explain every nuance of the science and technology involved.  Peter is a bit of a amateur when it comes to technology, so it helps to see the world through his eyes.  Things happen, but he doesn’t pretend to understand the science behind it, nor does he particularly care.  He shares his curiosity with the reader, but does not try to focus too much about anything beyond the natives and his mission.  Oh, and Bea.  For the most part.

My only complaint is the ending.  For a book that burns so slowly, I expected a bit more from the conclusion.  On the one hand, we are given some interesting revelations concerning the planet’s inhabitants, but in regards to life back on Earth and Bea, I found myself rather unsatisfied.  I don’t need everything wrapped up in a tight little bow, but I thought Faber could have rewarded the reader a bit more in that regard.

There tends to be a real trend of late with new takes on space travel and “aliens.”  With mature, thoughtful approaches like Arrival and The Book Of Strange New Things, I hope the genre continues to expand and reinvent itself.

I absolutely recommend The Book Of Strange New Things for its characters, themes, creativity, originality, conflict, style, and plot.  My only reservations in recommending it to you are the pacing and the conclusion.

 

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4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster – A Book Review

Let’s establish right away that Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors.  In fact, I’d consider myself something of a “fanboy.”  I’ve read the vast majority of his published work after discovering him about ten years ago.  He earned my trust back then, which means I will read anything he releases.  Anything.

4 3 2 1 is an ambitious work that absolutely experiments with style and execution.  It is extremely well written, meticulously organized, and clearly a labor of love.  This is an important novel due to its sheer moxie; it not only challenges well-established conventions in the field of literature, it summarily ignores them.

But, even with all of that being said, it missed the mark for me.  At 866 pages, 4 3 2 1 proved too much for this reader.  As you know, Auster is an avid baseball fan, and I definitely felt like I needed a scorecard for this epic volume.

Without spoiling too much, this novel imagines the four possible lives of a single man.  We follow him from boyhood all the way to death.  There are many touchstones that are obviously invariable from life to life, but there are also several deviations that alter one life drastically from another.  It’s a fascinating premise, one that we’ve all thought about from time to time.  What if my parents had separated?  What if I’d chosen a different school?  What if I had fallen into that pit and been paralyzed?  So many “what ifs” in life … Auster delves deeply into this notion while leaving no detail unexplored.

But, like Annie Proulx’s Barkskins, those nuanced details can overwhelm the reader to the point of provoking disengagement. At least, that’s what happened in my case.

Furthermore, if I’m being honest, Ferguson (the main character) is not especially interesting.  No matter which life we address, Ferguson is a bit aloof, a bit too precocious, a bit unlikable.  Well, perhaps “unlikable” is too strong of a word.  I would never describe him as “likable,” though.  Keep in mind, I don’t believe a character has to be “good” in the moral sense to be “likable.”  There have been plenty of “bad” characters that I thought were incredibly charismatic.

On the subject of morality, be warned … there is a lot of sex in this book — more than any Paul Auster book I’ve ever read.  There is straight sex, gay sex, committed sex, casual sex, oral sex, anal sex … you get the idea.  The sex often seemed to me as forced.  It never quite struck me as organic to the story.

While I found this to be a relevant addition to the author’s library because it broke new ground for an already inventive artist, it did not hold my attention.  While the writing is masterful, it failed to capture my imagination.  And while the characters are pounding with life, none of them seemed to take hold in my own.

 

 

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Star Wars: Bloodline by Claudia Gray – A Book Review

Written by Claudia Gray, I hoped Bloodline would equal or even surpass her wonderfully engaging Star Wars book entitled Lost Stars.  I’m sorry to say that it didn’t.

Bloodline is good, but it’s not great.  It features a forty-something Senator Leia Organa.  She is nearing the end of her career as a senator, and happily so.  The New Republic has failed on many levels since its birth following the fall of the Empire, and the political gridlock has taken its toll on Organa.  She wishes nothing more than to join her husband in space while also touching base with her son, Ben, currently under Luke Skywalker’s care.  The senate is divided into two factions, which is often the cause of their chronic inaction.  Someone proposes a First Senator, a position that would ensure forward movement.  Leia fears such a title could lead to the next Emperor, and so she has no choice but to accept the nomination when her name is suggested.  Soon her bloodline is questioned, as well as her true motivations.

Up to this point, I very much enjoyed the book especially when it seemed as though I would witness the birth of the First Order, the terrible force plaguing the galaxy in The Force Awakens.   I won’t go into great detail, but the story then takes a turn as Leia goes on several adventures, none of which directly lead to anything significant.  By the end of the book, I’d lost interest because I did not get the enormous payoff I expected.

I think Bloodline differs from Lost Stars mostly because in Lost Stars Gray worked with original characters that encountered milestone events from the original trilogy.  Their story felt as though it could go anywhere and that made the characters all the more engaging.  In Bloodline, it very much seemed as though Gray had been given an edict and could not deviate far from it.  I sensed a certain constraint within the book, and once I realized it suffered from such parameters, I became disheartened.

Though Bloodline offers a glimpse at the beginnings of the First Order, it ultimately serves as nothing more than an adventure for Leia Organa.  I’ve enjoyed the YA Princess Leia book, as well as the Princess Leia graphic novel, but for a writer of Gray’s talent and stature, I expected Bloodline to be far more potent and ultimately meaningful to the Star Wars universe.

 

Arcadia by Iain Pears – A Book Review

Know from the onset that this is a book you will need to read twice.  That’s not a bad thing, though.  Arcadia is so full of plot, so rich in its complexities, so perfectly executed, that I actually look forward to reading it again!

Describing Arcadia is no easy task.  It takes place simultaneously in the future, in the past, and in a seemingly parallel world akin to that of Middle-earth or Narnia (but without talking animals or humanoid creatures).  It delves heavily into the nuances of time travel and alternate realities and provides viable explanations for the possibility of both.

It is at times a work of science fiction, at times adventuresome, and times philosophical, at times social critique, at times pure fantasy, but it is always a well-written book that wastes not a single word in telling a deeply satisfying story.

Be aware, though, that Pears expects much of his reader.  Nothing even begins to make sense until about half way through.  Every moment of this novel demands concentration and engagement.  Everything, and everyone, plays a vital role to the tale.  It is one of those rare novels that keeps the audience enthralled right up to the very last page.

If you love multi-faceted, compelling stories that are delivered expertly, Arcadia is the book for you.

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig – A Book Review

Though I haven’t heard great things about this first installment of a trilogy, I thought I’d try it out myself.  Unfortunately, it did not manage to capture my interest.

My biggest issue with the novel is that there are far too many characters without enough characterization to really make them stand out.  There are also far too many plot threads.  Perhaps these numerous story lines will all reach fruition in the subsequent installments, but I can attest to becoming more than a little confused as to who was who and what was happening.

Furthermore, I never quite lost myself in Wendig’s writing style.  He’s obviously a proficient writer – Disney and LucasFilm never would have allowed him into their playhouse if he didn’t impress them.  But on a personal level, his writing left me feeling unsatisfied.  Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seemed as though he had an outline of events he was required to touch upon without ever really finding himself invested in them. I could be totally wrong, of course, but that’s my impression.  It all felt … disconnected.

Because I didn’t recognize any of the characters, failed to relate to them, and couldn’t keep up with an exorbitant amount of interludes, vignettes, asides, and preludes, I cannot bring myself to recommend Star Wars: Aftermath.

 

The Girl On the Train by Paula Hawkins – A Book Review

I picked this book up based upon a considerable amount of buzz in my community.  I have to be honest, I nearly didn’t make it past the first chapter.  Our main character is Rachel, and in the beginning, the story is told solely from her perspective.  Because I found her so boring and, frankly, pathetic, I didn’t know for sure if I could continue.  But then It became very clear by the end of the chapter that she is a drunk, unreliable, and possibly deranged.  Though slow at first, once these characteristics arise, the book suddenly became very interesting and Rachel transformed into a figure I’ve never quite experienced in books.

In fact, I became so engrossed in the book I could hardly put it down.  Rachel is seemingly stalking her ex-husband and his new wife, has constructed a fantasy world for the people she sees in their homes as she rides the train, and is generally falling apart as she makes one awful, drunken decision after another.

A mystery begins, though, concerning some injuries she suffered during a blackout.  Plus, a very violent crime arrives, one tied to her ex-husband and a specific couple she fantasized about from the train.

The book is addictive in that it plays with timelines, revealing tidbits of information at different intervals and demands the reader put them together chronologically.  As the book progresses, it also offers other perspectives, specifically from Megan, the woman Rachel fantasizes about, and Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s new wife.  Through these various perspectives, you learn that none of these women are completely honest, and some of them are downright dangerous.

Near the end, however, the book completely lost me.  I won’t spoil too much, but Rachel, one of the most unconventional and original female characters I’ve encountered in quite some time, becomes totally beholden to the men in the story.  In fact, the entire story line hinges upon her ex-husband and the man Rachel fantasizes about from the train.  The women suddenly serve only to propel the plot, to act as tools of the men, and that’s a real travesty considering the magnificent characterization unfolding up to that point.

Son by Lois Lowry – A Book Review

I read The Giver in high school and adored it.  I loved its abstract nature while still rooting itself mostly in reality.  I recently watched the film adaptation, and doing so inspired me to revisit the book.  Because three companion pieces came out between the time I read the original work and the movie, I felt compelled to read the entire quartet.

Gathering Blue and The Messenger proved to be a rather large departure from The Giver, happening in the same “universe” but still only loosely related.  Both of those books leaned far more into the realm of fantasy than science fiction, and I frankly had trouble connecting to the ambiguous morality tale they assumed.

Son, however, offered the best of both worlds.  It begins in The Giver’s community, but it ends in the village of the other two books.  As most will agree, Son is a direct companion piece to The Giver as it initially occurs parallel to Jonas’ story.  It follows Claire’s story, a birth-mother who doesn’t last long at her assignment.  She yearns to be with her only child, which is a rarity in the community, and takes drastic action to do so.  However, she’s beaten to the punch by Jonas, and it becomes fairly obvious rather quickly that Claire is Gabe’s mother.  It seems Gabe was destined to live as it is revealed he had two protectors all along.

Once Gabe is taken, Claire decides to do anything to be with her son.  Through a series of hardships and obstacles, and though it takes years, she eventually makes her way to The Messenger’s village where Gabe is now a hearty young man.  Claire, unfortunately, is now unrecognizable thanks to a vicious evil, an evil which Jonas declares Gabe must eradicate.

When I initially read The Giver, I related to Jonas as he was similar in age and temperament.  Interestingly enough, I now relate to Claire as I am the father of two children myself.  I understand her innate need to be with her child, to love her child, to protect her child at all costs.

Son utilizes both science fiction and fantasy as it begins heavily with the former and ends almost exclusively with the latter.  I personally found it ended more akin to a fable than anything, and I honestly felt disappointment as Claire took a backseat to Gabe when the story became his.  I cannot argue, though, that it ties the previous three books together nicely and answers some frustrating questions introduced in The Messenger.

Son is a worthy conclusion to The Giver even if it is a departure in both tone and theme.  I am so glad to know Jonas and Gabe’s fate, and Claire cemented herself as a pinnacle character in the series as well.  I have no doubt young adults will particularly relish Lowry’s tale of overcoming evil, the enduring love of family, and the call of morality we all should heed.