The Outcasts of Time, by Ian Mortimer

34103858When I was young enough that my mother still made me go to church, I was taught the Lutheran version of salvation. I prefer to say it in Latin—sola fides sufficitmostly because I’m a word nerd and because I like to sound smart. The idea of sola fide (“faith alone”) is a Reformation idea that believers will go to heaven simply because they have faith. Their faith would presumably lead them to do good works and generally be good people. This is different from the medieval Catholic doctrine that it was faith and good works that would get a believer into heaven. This issue of salvation is at the heart of Ian Mortimer’s slightly preachy novel, The Outcasts of Time.

John of Wrayment wants to be a good man and wants to get into heaven, but almost all of his attempts to do good go terribly awry. In other circumstances, John might have had a lifetime to try to do and be good. Unfortunately, John is alive in 1348, when the Bubonic Plague arrived in England. People are dying left and right. Trying to nurse people would be almost certainly fatal and yet, one day, John talks his brother into helping an infant that they found with its plague-dead parents. This good act ends up infecting them and others with the plague. The Outcasts of Time would have been a very short book if John hadn’t had a little bit of supernatural intervention at this point. A voice that might either be heavenly or infernal offers him and his brother the options of living out the last six days of their life with their families (and infecting them with the plague) or living each of those days at 99-year intervals. John takes the chance because he thinks he might have new opportunities to do good. His brother goes along, reluctantly, to stay with his naïve younger brother.

John and William then jump, every morning, from 1348 to 1447, 1546, 1645, 1744, 1843, and 1942. John’s bad luck apparently comes with him because his attempted good works keep going wrong. These attempts keep the plot going, but they were slightly less interesting to me than the conversations John would have with the descendants of people he knew in the Moreton (later Moretonhampstead) area about fate, good works, futility, human nature, faith, and other topics. Ideas of salvation change with England’s history, especially after the Protestant Reformation hits. The evolution of religion (ha!) deeply troubles John and he’s more than willing to argue about the superiority of his original faith for several of his last days—at least until the weight of history starts to press down on him and make him wonder about the difference between what he was taught and what he witnesses.

The Outcasts of Time has a facile ending that I didn’t like. But the ending, not to say too much about it, does provide a sense of hope that does a lot to relieve the sense of hopelessness that pervades the book as John often makes things worse rather than better. The Outcasts of Time wears its message boldly on its sleeve. Readers who want more subtlety will probably want to avoid this. Readers who like books that give them food for thought about fate or the idea that humans either improve or fail to improve over time, however, will enjoy The Outcasts of Time. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 January 2018.

 

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This week on the bookish internet

  • It’s time for the worst sex in literature award! (The Guardian)
  • This is actually from 2014, but Geoffrey Chaucer’s advyse for the holidayes is always on point. (NPR)
  • Jennifer Daniel created a flowchart to help us buy books for people this holiday season. (New York Times)
    • Pair with Jessica Yang’s list of the five types of book recommenders. (Book Riot)
  • Merve Emre wonders what makes good readers and bad readers and why it matters. (Boston Review)
  • Kate McGeon shares a story that warms my bookish heart: Hernando Guanlao turned his home library into a shared library. (Woodpie)

Red Sky at Noon, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

35407600It’s a shame that this book is the conclusion to Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Russian trilogy. Red Sky at Noon, while it has an interesting premise, is laden with a ludicrous romance plot and ahistorical scenes featuring Josef Stalin and Svetlana Stalina that made it hard for me to take the book seriously. I was so excited about this book since I’m a sucker for books about the Red Army during World War II and novels set in Russia before the end of the world in general. If this book had left out the subplots and focused on its protagonist, Benya Golden, I think it would have been an excellent read. Instead, it’s a melodramatic mess.

Benya Golden, like many people sent to the gulag during the purges of the 1930s, has only one option to rejoin Soviet society. He must volunteer for a prisoner battalion. As a shtrafniki, Benya has to serve in whatever function the Red Army gives him and survive being wounded. Only then will he “redeem” himself. Benya is fortunate in that he’s not just sent to the infantry. Instead, he’s turned into a cavalryman, trained by Don Cossack prisoners and a purged general. After receiving more training than many of the Red Army’s draftees and volunteers, Benya is sent to Ukraine in the days before the Battle of Stalingrad. He has a greater chance of dying, given the way the high command threw their men against the Nazis. I lost count of how many times Benya almost got killed.

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Soviet cavalry (Image via Gettyimages)

The chapters with Benya just trying to survive at the best parts of Red Sky at Noon. Unfortunately, the good parts are mixed in with a far-fetched romance plot in which Benya falls in instant love with an Italian nurse who instantly falls in love with him. While armies are raging across Ukraine, they somehow find time to dally. And then, even worse, there are chapters centered on Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, that I just couldn’t believe. I hate it when fiction creates dialog and scenes for actual historical figures that can’t be supported by actual history.

I was very disappointed by Red Sky at Noon. It tried to do too many things that I just found ridiculous. If you choose to read this, skip the Svetlana sections entirely. The book works just fine without them.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 January 2018.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan

19322250Personhood is complicated. There is the person we present to our family, who might be the same as the person we present to our friends, who is definitely no the person we present to our bosses. Behind all those people is the person we are to ourselves. But what if, that person underneath hates themselves? In The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, one might think that surviving a Japanese POW camp in the Thai jungle would be conflict enough. Instead, many of the characters torment themselves with wondering if they’re good or bad people. This novel richly deserves all the accolades it has won because it provides so much food for thought about who we are, who we think we are, and who other people think we are.

Everyone thinks Dorrigo Evans is a hero, except Dorrigo himself. He doesn’t like who he is. He’s not affectionate with his children. He cheats on his wife. He’s not a brilliant surgeon. But everyone outside his family considers him a hero because he helped his men when they were kept in a Japanese POW camp for years. Dorrigo was the ranking officer and only qualified doctor. In harrowing circumstances, he tried to keep as many of his men alive for as long as possible. Dorrigo tortures himself by seeking happiness at the same time he feels he doesn’t deserve it.

Meanwhile, Dorrigo is contrasted with two of his guards. There is the Japanese colonel who ordered the men to work without rest, food, or medicine while ordering beatings for real and imagined faults. Yet, after the war, Nakamura tells himself over and over that he was a devoted subject of the Emperor, who only did what was necessary for his country. Then there is the Korean guard who carried out Nakamura’s sadistic orders. This guard does not lie to himself, as such. Instead, Choi Sang-min tells himself:

For when he was a guard, he lived like an animal, he behaved as an animal, he understood as an animal, he thought as an animal. And he understood that such an animal was the only human thing he had ever been allowed to be. (290*)

It’s hard to say who is right, if anyone is actually right. By the end of The Narrow Road to the Deep North, I think we could say that all versions of a person are real. The problems arise when those versions are out of harmony with each other.

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Three Australian POWs who were forced to build the Burma-Thailand Railway by their Japanese captors.
(Image via Australia War Memorial)

The tension between who these men think they are and who they present to the rest of the world is brilliantly illustrated by Dorrigo and Nakamura’s love of poetry. Throughout his life, Dorrigo reads and recites poetry. The words help him express, at least to himself, his complicated emotional life. Nakamura, on the other hand, uses poetry to reassure himself that he is not a barbarian. In addition to this use of poetry, the haiku at the beginning of each section serve as knotty kōan to think about while we chew over the book and its subtext. They don’t immediately make sense but, once I passed each section, the haiku meaning unfolded so that I could feel a bit of the love of poetry Dorrigo and Nakamura have. And, if I’m honest with myself in a way neither of these characters are, understanding the haiku makes me feel very smart.

I finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North on Sunday and I’m still thinking about it. Like all great books, it has so much to say that I’m not done with it even though I’ve finished the last page. This book covers the nature of heroism, the will to survive, the banality of life after great hardship, post-traumatic stress disorder, the varieties of love, and so much more. This book pummeled me in the best way. This review barely scratches the surface of the book. I want to recommend it to a ton of readers so that I have someone to share my pummeling with.


* Quote is from the 2013 trade paperback by Vintage International.

I Think I Sprained My Eyes; Or, Book Marathoning Might Not Be For Me

As soon as my parents left after pie last Thursday, I hit the books. I only stopped reading to sleep and reheat Thanksgiving leftovers. What I learned was that I was not made for book marathons.

8277e978adaf7bcc37ce5f42b6e529d6I survived until about Sunday afternoon when the symptoms hit:

  1. Brain buzz. I jumped from fantasy to contemporary Greece, then India, over to early nineteenth century Ireland, then to Tasmania and off to WWII-era Thailand, and ended up in war torn Ukraine before the battle of Stalingrad. Seriously, I felt book-lagged. Jumping genres didn’t help either.
  2. Eye strain. Oooh, my eyes hurt all through Monday.
  3. Bad TV cravings. By Sunday I was tempted to burn through more episodes of Chopped instead of reading, but I powered through and finished two books that day.

At least I didn’t get hand cramp from holding up books and my iPad for hours on end. The book curls are paying off.

I’m a little sad about this, to be honest. Every few months, when Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon rolls around, I see the bookish folk on my Twitter feed sharing updates with pages read, cups of tea consumed, and snacks eaten with one hand while the other holds books. I don’t have the stamina to go 24 hours. Six, seven hours in a row is all I can manage.

Is there a personal book trainer out there?

The Coroner’s Daughter, by Andrew Hughes

32191820Andrew Hughes’ The Coroner’s Daughter is an entertaining book about a girl who refuses to stay put or stop asking questions. Abigail Lawless, unlike many other girls in early nineteenth century Dublin, was indulged by her coroner father, so she never “learned her place.” It’s a good thing she didn’t, because then the deaths of an infant, his mother, and several others would have remained a mystery.

In the Dublin of 1816, a ruling of death by suicide not only meant that cause of death might not be determined but also that the body could not be buried in consecrated ground. I bring this up because it encapsulates the major conflict in this book of science and rationality against religious fundamentalism. Abigail and her father get caught in the middle because they have to tread lightly between a powerful religious cadre, the status quo, and their determination to see justice done and truth outed.

I enjoyed the irrepressible Abigail a lot, but I found myself disappointed by the conclusion to The Coroner’s Daughter. At the risk of saying too much, I think the solution to the mystery was too muddled and too much of a commentary on the conflict between religion and science. When I thought the solution was a matter of human failings, I was much more engaged in the story. That said, Abigail makes up for a lot on this book and I’m glad that the coda at the end leaves an opening for a sequel.

The Association of Small Bombs, by Karan Mahajan

25810398Whenever there is a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, after the victims are counted, the media invariably devote gallons of ink or hours of airtime to the perpetrators. I can understand why. We want to know why the killers did this. Why are there people so full of anger and hatred that they go out and kill so many people? What do they hope to achieve? How do we prevent these attacks in the first place? Will the War on Terror ever end? Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs is a gutsy look at the cycle of terror and how violence begets violence. It begins and ends with a bomb in a Dehli open air market. We meet terrorists, victims, the families of victims, and activists over the course of the book. And, as we read, we see the characters ask the same questions we do when we see the news: Why?

After a bomb goes off in Lajpat Nagar, an open market in Dehli, the damage has a literal and more figurative shockwave. Not only does it kill several people, wound others, and destroy shops, but there are emotional impacts to the parents and family of victims and the possibly innocent men who are arrested for the bombing in the rush to pin the attack on someone. My heart immediately went out to the victims and their parents, the Ahmeds and the Khuranas. No only does the bomb take away their children, it also breaks the unity and confidence of their families. They never truly recover.

When the book’s attention shifts to the perpetrators, I steeled myself against any empathy—at least at first. It turned out that the book is highly critical of the use of violence as means of change. Characters frequently mention Gandhi’s non-violence. But the characters who eventually become terrorists or accomplices don’t have the inner strength to stick to the non-violent path. This group of characters face discrimination and violence because they’re Muslim. Because they’re a minority in India and because everyone in India (Hindu or Muslim) has their own problems, the Muslim characters can’t get enough people to understand what they want no matter how much they yell in the media. Time and again, the nascent terrorists give up on non-violence, deciding that only a big enough bomb can help them achieve their aims.

The Association of Small Bombs is not an easy book. Given it’s subject matter, it really couldn’t be. I very much appreciated the way this book challenges its characters and us to think about why. All of the characters have different responses to this question so that there are no overall conclusions. Overall conclusions would have ruined this book. The question of why is so big that conclusions would have been too simple and implausible. But The Association of Small Bombs does provide a critical but nuanced look at the ramifications of terrorism and what it actually achieves: death, misery, and more of the same.

A Separation, by Katie Kitamura

30407998As a translator, the narrator of Katie Kitamura’s complex examination of a dead marriage, A Separation, has a unique awareness of what is meant, what is interpreted, and what is going on underneath the surface of what people say to each other. In the opening pages of A Separation, we learn that our narrator has been separated from her husband for six months and that he has gone to Greece without her. We also learn that the husband and wife have agreed not to tell anyone that they’ve separated—which makes things very difficult when the narrator gets a call from her mother-in-law and finds out that said husband has gone missing.

After that call, our unnamed narrator takes off for Greece (but is also sent by the mother-in-law, who booked everything in advance). Our narrator, who is rather passive about a lot of things, is not surprised to learn that her husband has been flirting with women all over the souther Peloponnese. She’s mildly bothered by the husband’s infidelity, but she already knew about other affairs and, besides, they’re going to divorce anyway. It might annoy some readers at how little the narrator actually does in A Separation. Rather than trying to dig up leads about where her wayward husband went, she lets information come to her.

While she makes a terrible investigator, our narrator is very good at observing people around her. She’s almost obsessive about teasing meaning from gestures, tones of voice, body language, and word choice. This hyper-attention to details means that she knows a lot more about what’s going on behind peoples’ speech than they’d like to admit. She also turns that attention on herself and her uncomfortable family situation. She keeps maintaining the fiction that she and her husband had not been separated, romantically and physically, even after a hard truth is revealed to her in-laws.

Towards the end of A Separation, this situation and the narrator’s thoughts about it got a lot more interesting as she reflects on the tension between the fictions we prop up to avoid disappointing or angering people we esteem and what’s really going on. Other readers might think of the narrator as a coward for the way she constantly ducks confrontation. I don’t think “coward” is the right label. The best word I can think of for the nameless narrator is passive. She’s not so much avoiding conflict as trying to detach from her unhappy in-laws and the social conventions that she’s still propping up.

I suspect that only very specific kinds of readers will actually enjoy reading A Separation. I’m not one of them. I have a hard time with characters who let things happen to them and let little unkindnesses pile up. I’m also not too keen on literary fiction about broken marriages. I picked this book up because I thought there would be an intriguing mystery for the narrator to pick apart. A Separation is more mundane than I wanted. What made me carry on was the intellectual puzzle of polite fictions that keep a family functioning in spite of underlying turmoil. Also, it’s a short book.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Kelly Jensen rounded up 50 bookish articles from Atlas Obscura, one of my favorite sites. (Book Riot)
  • Lisa Levy has some important things to say about rape culture in crime fiction. (LitHub)
  • Danika Ellis has thoughts about book hangovers. (Book Riot)
  • Alison Flood reports on recent findings about how science fiction readers approach reading the genre. I’m of two minds about the findings. On one hand, readers deserve a bit of brain candy. On the other, I think science fiction writers could try harder to give their books some depth. (The Guardian)
  • Don’t say any of these things to library workers. Ever. (Book Riot)

Necessary Monsters, by Richard A. Kirk

32847778Although he considers himself a smooth criminal operator, I think it’s fair to say that Lumsden Moss has no idea what the hell he’s doing in Necessary Monsters, by Richard A. Kirk. At first, Moss is only involved in a little identity theft and a little vengeful larceny. Then his plans almost immediately go wrong and he finds out that there are much bigger fish in his pond than he realized. His little schemes are derailed when one of those bigger fish tells Moss that he has to find a women he thought had died many years ago. If he doesn’t find her, they will kill Moss. If he does find her, Moss will probably be killed anyway. Moss has been in tight spots before, but this one looks impossible to get out of.

Necessary Monsters is a modern-ish fantasy—so I wasn’t subjected to long journeys on horseback, stews, halflings, or lots of armor. I liked the odd world Kirk created for this novel; I actually wish that there had been a bit more world-building in Necessary Monsters. Like Moss, I had no idea what the stakes were nor did I understand the motivations of some of the weirder and sinister characters. Moss doesn’t ask very many probing questions, unfortunately for curious readers like me.

Moss’ mission in Necessary Monsters is to a) find an old friend who he thought had died decades ago in order to get a major criminal organization of his back (and possible dodge death) and b) to get his criminal ventures back on track. Moss has few allies in this. There’s his old friend, Irridis, who has even bigger fish than Moss has to fry. There’s also Imogene, who betrays the same criminal organization that’s after Moss in order to break free of it herself.

This much I understood. What I didn’t really understand was what kicked everything off in the first place. The prologue to Necessary Monsters and some clues dropped in the narrative hint at a huge, magical/historical conflict that is going on behind the scenes. This is what I wanted to know more about but, instead of world-building or filling in the blanks, we’re treated to a shoe-horned-in romantic subplot, Moss’ teenager-like moodiness, and a lot of flailing around as the protagonists try not to get killed.

Necessary Monsters, as far as I’m concerned, is a book with interesting possibilities that got derailed by some amateurish pacing and character development.