I am really surprised at my own reaction to this book. I was expecting to be impressed - blown away, even, maybe. In other words - a lot of hype surro...moreI am really surprised at my own reaction to this book. I was expecting to be impressed - blown away, even, maybe. In other words - a lot of hype surrounds this book: youngest winner of the orange prize; comparisons to the magical-realism of Marquez, et al.; allegedly the best debut novel in the recent history of debut novels...
Yeah, well... It was boring as hell. I actually said "yeah, blah, blah, blah" out loud while reading this thing. Please don't get me wrong - it is meticulously written. It is careful, deliberate, MFA-ish, almost absolute in its perfection of sentences. The descriptions and imagery are beautiful...its the characterization that was lacking for me.
Sure, I can read all about "sun-smeared windows," or about the "determined way the blue paint clung to the shutters..." But I can only care about what I'm reading when you give me a reason to, Tea Obreht. For instance, the blue-paint-sentence was on a page that also featured dialogue, and three different characters, all in a first-person narrative voice. Yet, we've got a problem here...because the blue paint clinging to shutters is the most interesting thing happening on that page.
In other words - the narrative voice (the main character, on the whole) is one of the things dragged this book down for me. Natalia, our protagonist, was a character who had recently lost a loved one - she is actually described as "grief-stricken" - and yet, she is flat, unfeeling, vague, shapeless, a shadow: the opposite of a disembodied narrative voice - she was almost voiceless, a vessel letting the other character's voices speak through her and hold up her amorphous form because Obreht's narrative failed to hold the character up on her own.
It would be one thing if this was a literary device (maybe it was intended to be) - if Natalia was a personality-less vessel telling the stories and myths and legends of her war-torn country. I mean, it is a novel about legacy, the power of storytelling to immortalize mere mortals, shared mythology, and the way that identity is shaped by personal narrative - the stories we tell ourselves to define who we think we are. <-- I saw what you were doing there, Obreht! I think I got it.
I just wish that there was more feeling! Depth. Grief. Pain. I wish the characters had some heart, some hunger, some anger, a sex-drive...ANYTHING! Instead, the two main characters on whom the story is built - Grandfather and Natalia - are so goddamn flat and boring! You wanna talk about the "deathless man"? What about the "personality-less" characters? Heartless. Witless. Cock-less. Nary a personality-flaw in sight! Even family secrets, once unearthed, were boring.
Only the tertiary characters, and the titular character (The Tiger's Wife, a secondary character) were drawn with any kind of charm, complexity, or... thought, really. I got the feeling that the author was perhaps using Natalia as a kind of Mary-Sue - a stand-in that she personally "knew" so well she forgot to give it personality at all.
But, you know, even though I didn't enjoy this book I think this author is off to a great start. Some people really loved the shit out of it. And some of the stuff about the kooky villagers was really, really good.
Think about it: she's got her subtle, semi-autobiographical, deep-thoughts-about-the-nature-of-life-and-death debut novel out of the way! And not only was it good enough to publish, it was good enough to shower with awards! Honestly, the good writing is there - Obreht just needs to find her voice and stop stifling it with such carefully-rendered prose about paint on the wall (Paint! On. The. Wall).(less)
I never thought that at the end of a 900-ish page novel, I would be so sad to close the book. Sure, this book is so big that it made my bus rides ridi...moreI never thought that at the end of a 900-ish page novel, I would be so sad to close the book. Sure, this book is so big that it made my bus rides ridiculous for the better part of two weeks, so heavy that I would knock myself in the forehead with it while I was reading in bed. But, these magicians have been my BFFs for weeks! I already miss their bro-mance.
I absolutely adored this book, and would recommend it to just about anyone, as long as they are fond of one thing: simply amazing storytelling. Run and get yourself a copy. Buy it, because you will be sad when you have to give it back to the library (or your friend). Don't be daunted by the length! Don't be daunted by the British-ness! Or the time period (1806-1817)! Or the magic! This book was written for you, I promise.
Come back, Jonathan and Gilbert. I miss you already!(less)
Summary: "Moving Pictures is the story of the awkward and dangerous relationship between curator Ila Gardner and officer Rolf Hauptmann...set in World...more Summary: "Moving Pictures is the story of the awkward and dangerous relationship between curator Ila Gardner and officer Rolf Hauptmann...set in World War II while the Nazis were pillaging much of Europe's great art collections."
Thematically, this is a work about art that has gone missing. It is also a work about people who have gone missing. And it is a work about a lot of things that are left unsaid between the story's two main players. I cannot think of a better use of all the heavy, negative space in Immonen's artwork. It's amazing. The artwork is sharp and angular - and at the same time sparse and controlled - just like the dialogue!
This work was really well done! What an amazing team Kathryn & Stuart Immonen are. This was a mature, literary, striking book.
It lost a star for a rather abrupt ending. And the fact that it is difficult to tell the characters apart (which left many readers confused...)(less)
The book opened like so: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." Oooooooh. Enter the world of Karou, raised by an...moreThe book opened like so: "Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well." Oooooooh. Enter the world of Karou, raised by an otherworldly - but loving - family of chimeras, who becomes the apple of an avenging angel's eye. Akiva, a Seraphim soldier seeking to destroy the chimeras, is drawn to Karou for reasons unexplainable. Then they fall in love. Then, they figure out WHY they are drawn to each other.
The somewhat dainty "Once upon a time..." fairy-tale/fable motif that opened the book is suspended for a bit of teenage realism as the story takes off... In the beginning, there's a few vague mysteries hinted at. But, for the most part we were introduced to the story's protagonist, Karou, basking in all the teenager-y-ness of modern times: artsy, angsty, angry, snarky, funny. I adored her.
And her strange lifestyle, her bizarro foster family of chimeras? It took very little suspension of disbelief. It was convincing from the get-go. In the world of paranormal romance (fantasy, really) the seamless convergence of worlds is key. How your world holds up might make or break me, as a reader (unless you're Libba Bray, I guess).
Laini Taylor wove the two worlds together so seamlessly. It was as if the two worlds just were. Wow! Now, she's getting Gaiman-esque. I don't know what "Gaiman-esque" means when other people reference Neil Gaiman, but for me, it is something specific:
It is something I see in almost all of Gaiman's work, even the short stories. It is this seamless converging of realities, yes! But, it is also the way the story - which seems to have been told hundreds of times before even though you've only read it once - is fresh and new and perfectly rounded out just like a fairy tale. In some ways, it does not claim to be more than a story. But, its a story so good that it is real and true. (What?!? I dunno, this is why I want to marry Neil Gaiman's books and have their babies.)
Wait - J.R.R. Tolkien knows what I mean. Guh! He talks about this great tree of tales, where all the stories exist as leaves on branches. And the author of a fantasy (or, a fairy-story), doesn't discover the leaf - which is/has always been - but instead unfolds it, tells its story, this story that already exists. "One writes such a story not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mould of mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps."
So, at the end of The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone I just picture J.R.R. Tolkien and Neil Gaiman and Laini Taylor all hanging out picking the leaves of this Tree of Tales and giving them to us in a way that we're surprised by them, but at the same time deeply familiar with them, culturally or spiritually, or whatever.
"The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered...while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost." [Tolkien "On Fairy-Stories"]
Let's just say - Taylor's story presents questions, so many questions! But, never about the believability or viability of her world. Only about her story itself. Why does Brimstone collect those teeth, why does Karou have those tattoos on her hands, who were Karou's parents, really?
The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone is quite an accomplishment for a genre (paranormal romance/romantic fantasy), where the love story is allowed to cast a shadow over the more foundational aspects of storytelling itself. Characterization, conflict, resolution - sometimes, those are left out for the better love story, and it makes for a shitty book. But, not in Laini Taylor's case: the love and the longing work perfectly in a beautifully imagined world.
Laini Taylor's The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone is so well done. She is an excellent storyteller with an excellent imagination. The hamsas, the teeth, the smoke, the bone, the myth of the two moons - all delicately revealed. No extraneous details, everything fits.
So, what happened to her fifth star?
"You need to just let this breathe..."
Once, a kid in my fiction writing class said that to me in his critique of my short story. He held up my story and had circled my OMG! First Kissing Scene. "You need to just let this breathe..." It was his only criticism. And he was the One Kid in class whose opinion I most trusted (you know THAT kid in the creative writing class, the one who is better than you, and therefore whose opinion you hinge your every hope on).
He was right, of course. That scene was trying to convey some "big emotions," some big chemistry, and ended up overwrought and prolly terrible to everyone who wasn't me.
Kissing scenes (intimacy scenes) are hard to do right. Like battle scenes! There is chaos there, and emotions all over the place, spewing everywhere like blood or saliva - take your pick - and the reader often finds herself somewhat lost in them, searching for, like, little moments in the paragraph to latch onto, rushing through them to wrap her head around what is actually going on.
I have a really hard time reading battle scenes. And kissing scenes. For the same reason.
So, here goes: my only criticism of Laini Taylor's The Daughter Of Smoke & Bone, which was otherwise a beautifully realized story - as well as a beautifully written story: Lady, you should have just let some of that lovey-dovey angel/demon stuff breathe for a minute.
Ultimately, there is this climactic scene of closeness between Karou and Akiva. In this scene, an action - (view spoiler)[breaking a wishbone (hide spoiler)] - will lead to the truth about who and what Karou is and what exactly their love is about. Man-oh-man, was that scene drawn out. It was pages and pages long!
Paraphrase: And she was drawn to him, and he was drawn to her. And something was pulling her, and something was pulling him. And they were drawn and pulled. Draw/pull, draw/pull, draw/pull. Chapter ends. Draw/pull. Chapter begins. Draw/Pull. Flip pages, draw/pull.
Suddenly, I am lost in a sea of flowery, overwrought prose. Drowning in it, really. Waiting for action, resolution. Waiting for solid-ground storytelling again. (view spoiler)[Break the fucking wishbone! (hide spoiler)]. And it came. And it was explosive. And lovely!
But, someone should've told her to calm down a little bit a for a minute there. No doubt some people live for these intimate moments in romance books. But, I am not one of them. Laini wasn't being a bad writer, per se. But, she was letting these emotional moments fog up the place for a minute, and I found it somewhat unnecessary. Or overlong. Almost - dare I say - boring.
Don't think I hate LOVE, or something. I don't! But, love scenes and battle scenes, man. Sometimes, they can be just too much. They just need to be careful pieces of writing.
...Read this book! It is excellent. Although I am slightly distressed to find myself in the middle of another series for the third time this year (Goddamn you! Game Of Thrones!), I CANNOT wait for more of these characters. In the meantime, I can't wait for some more Laini Taylor - she's outstanding.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Helen Benedict's Sand Queen is an important book for a couple of reasons. First, (and to the best of my knowledge) Benedict's topic - the treatment of...moreHelen Benedict's Sand Queen is an important book for a couple of reasons. First, (and to the best of my knowledge) Benedict's topic - the treatment of female soldiers in the United States Army - is not sufficiently explored by very many contemporary fiction writers. Even the nonfiction works (including Benedict's own The Lonely Soldier: The Private War of Women Serving in Iraq) are not not given enough exposure to warrant the kind of attention that this topic demands (I'm sure some people would disagree with this - thinking there's too MUCH coverage, but I disagree - if you ask a normal-walking-down-the-street guy or lady about sexual abuse in the military, s/he likely doesn't know the fucking half of it).
Benedict's work with female soldiers fighting in our current War(s) On Terror have given way to many first-hand accounts what female soldiers are subject to: an almost methodical and ever-present pattern of harassment, sexual and otherwise. But, mostly... sexual.
Secondly, Benedict makes it clear through her work that there are (or were, as of 2003 when this story takes place) no safe arenas for the reporting of incidents, for recourse, justice, appeal, or aid for women in the military who have been sexually assaulted.
And finally, Sand Queen also highlights the treatment of veterans (male or female) who experience post-traumatic difficulties relating to their time in combat.
According to Benedict, the women in Iraq are being assaulted on-the-daily, but only a small amount of these incidents get reported. And when they do get reported, the victim is often scrutinized and marginalized further by her admission. Boy, that fucking sucks.
According to a report by Salon: "Comprehensive statistics on the sexual assault of female soldiers in Iraq have not been collected, but early numbers revealed a problem so bad that former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ordered a task force in 2004 to investigate. As a result, the Defense Department put up a Web site in 2005 designed to clarify that sexual assault is illegal and to help women report it. It also initiated required classes on sexual assault and harassment."
Wow, Rumsfeld was forced to address the issue publicly? That's when you know its fucking bad out there!
So, how does Sand Queen treat Benedict's topics? I think that Benedict is, for the most part, effective in reaching her goals of highlighting the occurrences of sexual abuse, and detailing the trouble with reporting assault, and the heartbreaking symptoms of PTSD experienced by veterans. That's why I gave this book three stars. But. Both as a work of fiction and as a social-problem novel, Sand Queen is lacking in some respects, to be sure. Here's why...
Benedict tells the story of two women: Kate, a naive 19-year-old Middle-American, and Naema, an educated Iraqi medical-student-plus-war-refugee. Kate spends most of her time doing her duties and being ignored by her commanders, unless they want to harass her. Naema spends most of her time holed up in her grandmother's house, decrying the war and everything about it: senseless deaths, the misrepresentation of her people, and on and on. I mean, honestly, this character breaks into narratives that are like Shakespearean-soliloquies of anti-war jibber-jabber which pull you away from the story thinking, "Sorry, nobody first-person-narrates that way..."
Since the two women's stories are too dissimilar to be properly (properly in this sense means "good-fiction-ally") correlated, I can only think that Benedict hoped that the juxtaposition of the daily lives of two women on opposite sides of the war would elicit some sympathy from the reader concerning one idea, and only one idea... WAR SUCKS.
Hmmm, yes. War certainly does suck. And I am lucky that I can only imagine that suckage, or read about in fiction. But, I don't think that Benedict can give her topics (mentioned above) the treatment they need in a novel constantly proclaiming that WAR SUCKS from the point of view of an Iraqi civilian.
In my point of view, Naema's story - because it often becomes a polemic, a mouthpiece for the author to voice an anti-war stance - smudges up an otherwise shiny piece of topical fiction. It makes the reader frame her questions like this "Gah! Why are we even in this war. Why are these women subjecting themselves to a war with no cause or purpose when it means getting assaulted in the process?!" instead of like this "Why are these women being singled out by male soldiers for abuse when they are serving their country in a time of war?"
Maybe I'm off the mark, but in the first frame of response - the soldier appears to victimized by both war - theory and practice - and men. I think that the women of the military would take issue with this notion. At least, I hope they would... they joined the military because they believed in war in the first place.
Now, war is not for everyone. (It's probably for almost no one). But, when you support the military - including our military women - you also support their belief that war is necessary. I think that if you want to support your ladies-in-combat in providing a voice to their silence, by shedding light on their issues - you don't do it by saying: "They have no need to be there in the first place. War turns everyone into a psychological-ball-of-goo, especially women. Get the fuck out." That's a different story altogether. That's an anti-war story. That's an anti-military story.
If you chucked the constant anti-war rhetoric, and focus on the topics at hand, the response of the reader might be more along the lines of seeing women victimized by assault: which is the more practical, rather than theoretical problem here. By glazing your entire text over in anti-war rhetoric, you may be losing the necessary attention of your readers.
If your focus is all the rape and none of the glory - your audience begins to question the "purpose" of women in the military at all - and I don't think that's the debate anyone is trying to have here!
For the record, I think that anti-military narratives, and anti-war narratives, are completely and wonderfully valid. They are also important works. They make us question conflict, nationalism, humanity. All the biggies. But, should Sand Queenbe this type of narrative? Not, I think, if it was intended to make the impact that it needs to. It could easily stand to trivialize the issue of the abuses of women who have joined the military because they have chosen to be there, and because they want to be there.
Kate, our protagonist, is sexually assaulted. She is victimized by superior officers; humiliated in her attempts to report her abuse; silenced by her circumstances. Dishonorably discharged. Suffering from PTSD. Hating the notion that she was a ever soldier to begin with, she is happy to leave the military and glad she is no longer a part of it... Okay, as a reader, I can be moved by her story. Truly.
But, I have to ask - are you writing an anti-war story, Helen? Because I thought you were looking for equal treatment and status for our female military officers.
And when you focus too long on multiple-states-of-victimhood, your character suffers. You can't do both - pro-female-military/anti-military - it's just too clunky. That's a 3-star book. Or worse.
Now, that lady is kind of mad about the constant association of "female military" and "sexual abuse" - but I think what she is more afraid of is the notion that female soldiers are being perceived as "weak." This is where the ground on which Benedict's topics stand begins to shift under our feet...
Some military women don't want to be portrayed in certain ways, by certain tropes (see above), having fought hard for their rights to be first-and-foremost a soldier, no gender qualifier necessary.
What do we (civilians, book-readers) see? Helen Benedict's book shows how sexual abuse wears female soldiers thin, makes them less alert and on the ball, emotionally-stretched. While this might be the case, there is arguable evidence here that women appear weaker as a result of their portrayal by journalists like Benedict. This probably makes many pro-military women (and men)'s blood run cold. If there's one adjective a soldier does not want to be identified with, it's weak.
I do not, personally, feel that "victim" should be equated with "weakness," but that correlation is something that is difficult for some readers to discern. Not to mention, the equation of "victim" and "weakness" is definitely difficult for some writers to successfully avoid. So, Helen Benedict had the opportunity to make a strong case against the of issue sexual assault in the military, possibly by ditching the anti-war rhetoric, but she threw the wrench of her own agenda into the gears and kinda fucked it up.
This book left me conflicted at best. But, I guess one thing is for sure... Naema's story sucked.
BTW - I got this book free from a Goodreads Giveaway. So happy I did - it introduced a new, enraging, and controversial topic into my very limited knowledge of world. Party.(less)
I think if you asked me, I would tell you that 'war stories' are not my thing. Reading Josh Ritter's debut novel, Bright's Passage reminded me that I...moreI think if you asked me, I would tell you that 'war stories' are not my thing. Reading Josh Ritter's debut novel, Bright's Passage reminded me that I would be lying to you. Some of the most beautiful stories come out of terrible wars, and I cannot deny their effect on me: surprise at my reaction toward them ("But, I don't like war stories!"), sadness for the tragedy and horror, too... But, they are also books that stay with me. You know, the good kind of literature that follows you around and doesn't let you forget it. And, why, so often are they so lyrically beautiful?
When I was younger, my relatives undoubtedly viewed me some kind of book-reading-anomoly-child. Having never read books themselves, they didn't ask what kind of books I liked or wanted to read, but they bought me books just the same: they just bought me books that they found in dollar stores and at Walmart for 2/$1.00. I appreciated the effort, but rarely read those things. At one point, I had three copies of The Red Badge Of Courage. But, I said..."Blah, blah, blah, a young soldier? Ew. I read about baby-sitters with dangling parrot earrings!"
So, I didn't read RBoC until I was twenty-six. And when I did... I was floored. It was a gorgeous, gorgeous teeny tiny book. Stephen Crane, who was so young when he wrote RBoC, was also an accomplished painter. And I could tell: RBoC was f*cking artwork. It was a beautiful pile of saturated descriptions and well-turned phrases on a goddamn canvas. I shook my head, thinking of all the copies of RBoC that sat in my bedroom as a kid, collecting dust. Well, whatever, I was an idiot.
The entire time that I was reading Bright's Passage, I was reminded of The Red Badge of Courage. Like RBoC, Bright's Passage is a teeny book (barely 200 pages). Bright's Passage is a book about WWI, RBoC is a book about The Civil War - but, they are both books about naive, wide-eyed American country boys who are given guns and told to kill for their country, and then left dumbfounded by the chaotic, frightening din of actual battle. Like the protagonist of RBoC, Ritter's main character is named Henry, and he is a mere nineteen or twenty years old after he returns from The First World War. And like RBoC, Bright's protagonist undergoes a somewhat frightening spiritual awakening.
Like Stephen Crane, Josh Ritter was/is a primarily different type of artist (songwriter), and the writing reflects, at times, a lyrical poetic style. It's just pretty, you know? Some really beautiful writing. So, it reads a little more gimmicky than RBoC. But, I felt Ritter's language and story unfold just as wonderfully as Crane's.
I mean - I'm comparing Bright's Passage to one of the greatest works of American Literature, here. And, for the most part, I really mean it! Josh Ritter, that indie-songwriter-guy, is not just a novelist - he is a great writer!
The plot of the story unfolds (fairly) masterfully. The narration moves from the novel's present-day (West Virginia, 1918/19), back in time through the trenches in France and the yucky-pretty tales of the battlefield, and it traces the protagonist through his homecoming from WWI to the birth of his child, and the flight to save him from some evil creepy-Appalachia-style in-laws.
Through all of this, Henry Bright is being led by his talking horse, who is possessed by a presence he calls Angel. Whether Angel is an angel, sent to protect Henry and his son, or a serious form of shell-shock (ahem, PTSD), the author does not say. But, Ritter has done a remarkable job of capturing the desperate sense of urgency and displacement that our protagonist soldier feels.
The rating: (BTW - disclosure: I got this for free from a Goodreads giveaway.). However, this did not affect my review in the slightest. I decided to give this book four stars. I thought about giving it five, at first. But, I think the surprise of Ritter being so talented at novel-writing wore off enough for me to give it a well-deserved four. I mean, this could be someone's five-star book, for sure. But, the only books I give five stars to are the books that I personally want to marry and have babies with. So, you know... I'll go with four.(less)