Book reviews 25 - 29

25. I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down: Collected Stories by William Gay - There's a quote from the Minneapolis Star Tribune's review of this collection of short stories on the fly leaf: "Writers like Flannery O'Connor or William Faulkner would welcome Gay as their peer for getting characters to entangled in the roots of a family tree.". That is a dead on description and praise for the stories Gay tells. Not one of these stories is an easy passage, not for the characters and not for the readers. Even in the few where it seems that everyone has the best intentions something gets twisted, something inside a character breaks, and damage is done. As dark fiction goes, every story in this book is a good one, and I don't know that I could pick a favorite. Standing Near Peaceful Waters has a surprise ending that belies its down to earth plot; Good Til Now and Sugarbaby show that Gay has spent as much time watching people as he has spent observing the hills of Tennessee; and Closure and Roadkill on Life's Highway does such a good job of developing a sympathetic main character you'll still like him after he has his moment of darkness. If you like Southern Gothic or dark fiction, I'd strongly recommend this collection.

26. The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein - Where was this kind of Young Adult fiction when I was a young adult?!?! This is a retelling of the Arthurian legend using alternate characters: Arthur becomes Artos, his power hungry sister Morgause remains Morgause but picks up the skills of sister Morgan le Fey, and the focus of the story, the Winter Prince, is Medraut , AKA Mordred. In this book (the first of a series), Medraut has returned to his father's kingdom Camlan after a having spent some very damaging time with his mother and then taking a sort of grand tour where he learned that he wasn't the monster his mother wants him to be. But faced with a much younger and weaker brother who will be crowned king because of birth and not ability, Medraut begins to see the shades of gray between good and evil. This series could be called "A Ring of Ice and Fire Lite", and I mean that as a compliment. It's a fast read for an adult looking for a Middle Ages fantasy fix to ease the pain of waiting for George RR Martin to release the next book in his epic series.

27. Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg - Good, basic, no-frills science fiction from the master. Nightfall began life as a short story by Asimov and was expanded to full novel length by the partnership of Asimov and Silverberg. Often, that makes for a story that's obviously padded, but not in this case. A planet with customs and inhabitants very similar to Earth is about to experience something we take quite for granted (but never quite stop fearing) - natural darkness. Five of their suns will be below the horizon and the sixth will be eclipsed for the first time in scientifically recorded history. A religious group has been predicting it based on their own records, calling it the end of the world. Science meets religion/legend, and as the inhabitants of the planet must choose a side. It's very easy to see the comparisons to events in our own planetary history, but not so easy to see which way the story will turn out.

28. Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham, audiobook read by Alan Cumming - What a magical thing it would be to spend a day inside Michael Cunningham's head as he observes the world around him. It is through his power of noticing details and then being able to describe those details that makes his writing so damn good. Specimen Days is no exception to his string of stories that are not only very readable, but will come back to haunt you for days and weeks and who knows how long. In this book, we have three short stories that share a lot but manage to be very different. The main characters names are the same in each story, one character's physical appearance stays the same, and all rely on New York City as not only a setting but also a dynamic to each plot. But with one story set in the early 20th century, the second is contemporary, and the third takes place in the future, they all stand independent in purpose. I'm not sure what was better about this book - as a writer I was in awe of Cunningham's skill and as a reader I felt totally swept into these three worlds. And then, there's Alan Cumming as a narrator, creating distinct voices for all the characters with just the right amount of subtlety. This was a perfect blend of narrator and story.

29. Arms of Nemesis: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor - The second of Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa novels featuring Gordianus the Finder as ancient Rome's favorite Private Eye. This time his abilities are requested by the widow of Marcus Crassus' cousin. Widow tells you what the mystery is that needs to be solved and if you're familar with the First Triumverate you'll know that Crassus will be mixed up in it and probably not in a good way. In this fiction, he's invoked a out of fashion punishment of killing all the slaves in a household if the one guilty of a crime against the master does not accept responsiblity. The plot of this book is secondary to Saylor's attempt to humanize slaves and show his Gordianus as way ahead of his time morally. It's all a little forced and if it weren't for the great sense of place I would have abandoned the book fifty pages in. There are better historical novels that address slavery, but there aren't a lot of better light reading historical novels about Rome before Julius Caesar came to power.


Alan Scott said...

And not many novels can bring the grandeur and ugliness of ancient Rome to life like Steven Saylor. I hope this doesn't diminish the likelihood of reading more of his books, because he has some great novels. :)

DJRM said...

I hope this doesn't diminish the likelihood of reading more of his books, because he has some great novels. :)

Oh, I most definetly will not be abandoning Saylor's books! :D I'm a pushover for good "sense of place" in writing and as you point out, Saylor makes Ancient Rome a very real and interesting location. I can ignore a lot of the little things that annoy me when a writer is this good at taking me to a different place and time.