Hapax: 2013 Book #12

4 out of 5 stars

I thought this was an incredibly strong debut for an author, and I actually struggled with giving it 3 stars or 4 stars. The more I think about it, the more I think I enjoyed the book, especially because Bryski was able to keep me engaged in a story that’s not necessarily in my wheelhouse – one built around themes, characters and settings dealing with religion.

Bryski seemed to borrow from a few different Christian religions to construct the belief system that pervades the Ecclesiat – it felt familiar enough to not get lost in the dogma, but unique enough to be her own. I also thought she did an excellent job not getting bogged down in the particulars – if it was necessary to know an aspect of the religion to forward the story or round out a character, it was included. If it wasn’t, it was omitted.

I also really enjoyed the tension between the differing factions within the church. Normally in a story like this, its the old guard who clings hard to dogma, and the youngsters are the ones who challenge the status quo. It was the opposite in Hapax, with Alesta, one of the youngest leaders of the church ever, taking the hard line stance in end times, while Gaelin, the wizened old monk acknowledging that even the Beast (cast as the well-meaning Satan in the world of Hapax) has a role to play in the world.

The book was well plotted, and her characterization was excellent. Only one felt superfluous to me, Praeton, who is also involved in a twist at the end that I felt was also superfluous. The ending is what knocked this down from a strong 4 to a weak 4 for me, without giving too much away, I thought it was far too saccharine for my tastes. Part of that may be preference, I like my endings messy, and Hapax ends about as clean as you can get. All in all, I really liked reading it, and if Bryski comes out with another book set in this universe or otherwise, I’ll likely check it out.

Farside: 2013 Book #11

2 out of 5 stars

Ben Bova is a fairly prolific science fiction and fact author, and this is my first foray into his catalog. While I thought the concept held a lot of promise and the science behind the fiction was pretty rock solid, I found myself generally underwhelmed by the tale. It’s almost as if he was writing by formula, and a lot of the prose fell flat on the page. New character entering? Spend a paragraph describing them. Important plot point? Have a character repeat it at lease three times so we make sure to get it.

I also found a lot of key character interactions to be flawed. The whole tale is spun as a mystery – when things start going wrong on this remote moon base, it reads as if the author is trying to spin a whodunnit tale of mystery and intrigue. Yet the identity and the cause of all that’s going on can be seen coming a mile away. And despite every character in Farside being a brilliant scientist, they sure are idiots when it comes to human nature. Two competing agencies racing to discover New Earth, with billions of dollars in funding hanging in the balance. Yet the heads of each respective program think nothing of using the same scientist to help them complete their projects. Nor does anyone think of a reason why these rivals might want to sabotage each other.

In fact, the idea that Farside would allow the head of a rival program and a former employee who is now being employed by said program anywhere near their facilities is a giant plot hole. It reduced most of the believability of the plot, and rendered a lot of the characters impotent.

That said, it was still a relatively entertaining read. It moves at a brisk pace, and the threat of discovering New Earth or having the entire base fall prey to destructive influences is enough to keep the pages turning. And Simpson is an excellent character amid a sea of flat personas – his never-say-quit drive and willingness to go to any lengths for the sake of the work amid a group of scientists who seem more concerned with politics makes for a nice tension.

Bull – Men’s Fiction 1 & 2: 2013 Book #9 & 10

Allow me to go crazy here and combine two reviews into one post – namely because they belong to the same literary journal: Bull {Men’s Fiction}. What is men’s fiction? It’s not fiction by men. It’s fiction about men. After reading the two issues I received from the fine gentlemen next to our table at AWP, I can say two major themes run through everything I’ve read – fatherhood and male inadequacy. Most stories contain elements of both, but on the whole a lot of the stories deal with men’s role in changing environments.

Issue 1

4 out of 5 stars

Of the two, this issue was definitely my favorite. Consequently, it also contains the journal’s only female authors. It also contains two stories that play with format and structure, including The Heart is a Strong Instrument by Jon Morgan Davies, in which online avatars and chat is employed to tell a story of a man trying to find love in a (virtual?) environment.

Perhaps my favorite story was Separation, by Tom Bonfiglio. Contains, probably, the best sex scene I’ve read in a lit journal, and its only a paragraph long. The evolving relationship between Jon and Jill is multifaceted and inevitable, and the slippery slope of Jon taking a stand for his beliefs contrasted with his conflict of ending up friends with a convicted sex offender was top notch.

My one disappointment was the interview. Chuck Klosterman is a giant of a Midwestern writer – and major kudos to these guys for landing him. But it felt like any other writer interview, like something you might read in a GQ or Rolling Stone. Bull has an amazing aesthetic going, and I would have rather seen the interview take that tone – exploring masculinity issues with Klosterman rather than talking exclusively craft. Maybe it’s just me.

Issue 2

3 out of 5 stars

Issue 2 contained a couple prior Midwestern Gothic contributors, including a novella by Adam Schuitema. I still liked it, and it was still a strong issue, but it lacked the standout stories (for me anyway) of issue 1.

One exception was Here Be Dragons by Chris Tarry. It tells the story of two men in medieval times, their adventures in fooling entire villages into thinking they are dragon slayers and then moving into the struggles of stay-at-home dadhood. Sounds comedic and filled with delicious satire – which is is. But it also touches on dark aspects of fatherhood, and how two men deal with their new found inadequacy and role in completely different (yet inevitably similar) ways.

Aside from that story – the fiction was strong, and enjoyable to read, but nothing that made me stand up and take notice. Again here, the interview with Donald Ray Pollock was solid, but I’d rather they explore issues of masculinity as it relates to fiction rather than focusing exclusively on craft and biography.

I think they did a commendable job of gathering a variety of different perspectives on “improvement,” the theme tying this issue together. Some men fail, some men succeed, and some stay exactly the same – which is how it should be. From an editorial perspective, I felt like they winnowed around the foundation of what a man has to do to improve himself, which I do believe is a driving force that defines many men. Yes, women strive to improve and better themselves, but for men it is expected. You build, you learn, you craft, you learn from your mistakes, you push forward with ambition. The improvement issue explores what happens when men live up to that expectation, and when they walk away from it.

Cloud Atlas: 2013 Book #8

3 out of 5 stars

Cloud Atlas was an uneven book for me. On the one hand, I thought the structure was brilliant. Loved how he told an interconnecting story across time, spanning 19th century slavers all the way to post-apocalyptic Hawaii and then going all the way back. I thought this technique of bookending the narrative lent itself well to telling stories within a larger story.

Some of these stories, I loved. Essentially, the middle 4 stories in the book worked for me. Hawaii, Korea, Cavendish and Seaboard are all fantastic, containing intertwining themes about politics, consumerism and family. And the characters really are kindred souls drifting across time, as the book jacket suggests.

Unfortunately, the two “bookends,” or the first and second story are dull and seem completely disconnected from the rest of the book, save for a cursory connection. (A discovered book, a penpal across the ocean.) I found myself so bored for the first 140 or so pages that I contemplated giving up. Then, when the book had delighted me and I hit those storylines again, I withheld judgement, hoping I’d appreciate the 2nd half of each of these stories given the context of the middle. I didn’t. The opening and the ending left me with a general sour taste in my mouth, even though I liked the middle bits.

Mitchell does do a phenomenal job mastering different voices and genres. The beginning feels very much like a tale from the old masters (Robinson Crusoe, etc.), while the end dips into solid sci-fi territory with dystopian themes. But even that can’t save the dullness or how flat the first and last 150 pages of the book feels. I’m interested to watch the movie now, to see how they pulled it off. Like the book, I could see it being brilliant, but I could also see it being a failure.