Thursday, May 9, 2013

Larry Watson's Amazing Bentrock, Montana, Stories

Larry Watson

Milkweed Editions
$14.00 trade paper, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The events of that small-town summer forever alter David Hayden's view of his family: his self-effacing father, a sheriff who never wears his badge; his clear sighted mother; his uncle, a charming war hero and respected doctor; and the Hayden's lively, statuesque Sioux housekeeper, Marie Little Soldier, whose revelations are at the heart of the story. It is a tale of love and courage, of power abused, and of the terrible choice between family loyalty and justice.

My Review: Another one I'd give six stars to if I could.

This book has a deeply personal connection to me and my life. I have given many copies of this book away, because of its role in helping me through a horrible emotional crisis of a year. I was given heart, comfort, and guidance by this work of fiction, such as no corporeal person could have given me.

But to consider this as a book, a novel written for an audience by a writer, is to appreciate anew the benefits of craftsmanship and the ungovernable lightning of talent. There are very few books I can give the accolade of "I wouldn't change a single thing" to, and this is one of them. Not one word out of place, not one simile or metaphor ill-used, unused, or overused, nothing could be added without compromising the beauty of the book, and nothing need be removed to clear aside clutter.

If brevity is the soul of wit, it is also the soul of wisdom, and this book is wise, so wise, to its child narrator's painful coming to adulthood. It's also wise to the nature of love as lived from day to day, and how it so often can curdle into acceptance of what one cannot change...but should, or should always strive to, because some things are simply, inarguably, Right.

As a meditation on one's remembered past, this is a crystal clear and unsparing récit; as a story, it's so simple as to be mindless, except that it's mindful of the role of unadorned narrative in making the world a better place.

I would like to know the characters in this novel, really know them, sit in their kitchens and listen to their stories and drink their vile percolated coffee. I loved each of them, yes even the one whose bad deeds set the story in motion, loved them for being real and nuanced and far more vulnerable than most of the real people I know.

I can't recommend this book to you, because it's very strong meat; I can encourage you to read it if you care for justice, the horrible cost of it and the terrifying price it exacts from those it visits; but you will come away from it changed, as I was, possibly for the better but changed. Don't ever ask questions you don't want the answers to...and this book answers some very, very nasty questions with grace and beauty and forgiveness.


Larry Watson

Milkweed Editions
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Larry Watson's bestselling novel Montana 1948 was acclaimed as "a work of art" (Susan Petro, San Francisco Chronicle), a prize-winning evocation of a time, a place, and a family. Now Watson returns to Montana 1948's vast landscape with a stunning prequel that illuminates the Hayden clan's early years and the circumstances that led to the events of Montana 1948.

In Montana, the Hayden name is law. For the Hayden boys, Wesley and Frank, their legacy carries an aura of privilege and power that doesn't stop at the Montana border, even when an ill-fated hunting trip makes them temporary outlaws. But what it means to bear the name is something each generation must discover for itself. From Julian, the hard-bitten and blustery patriarch, to Gail, Sheriff Wesley Hayden's spirited wife and moral compass, Larry Watson gives breath and blood to a remarkable family's struggles and rewards, and opens an evocative window on the very heart of the American West.

My Review: A collection of previously published short pieces, Justice tells the backstory of the Haydens of Bentrock, Montana, the family at the center of Watson's one bestselling novel Montana 1948. We meet patriarch Julian Hayden in 1899, barely dry behind the ears and ready to take on the world; his shy, retiring, high-strung wife Enid on the day she married him; his two sons on the day childhood ended for both, in which the seeds of Montana 1948 are explicitly sown; Wesley's short, abortive run for freedom from the weight of expectations sparks at a terrible family Thanksgiving dinner; Julian's and Wesley's deputy and general sad-sack, Len McAuley, comes in from the pointlessness of secondary characterization in unexpected and poignant ways; and then the marriage and parenthood of North Dakotan steel magnolia Gail and Wesley, a life started in, and blighted by, the shadows of the Hayden family legacy.

This is decidedly not Montana 1948. It's perfectly good read on its own, actually, just as character sketches of a family and its effects on the world at large, and its costs to the members thereof. I can't complain about anything here, because Dr. Watson is a prose stylist whose direct, pared down artistry is very appealing to me. I can't urge all and sundry to rush out and buy a copy, either, because the book is a collection of short stories with all the cultural freight implicit in that description. Tastes and hints and pieces are the stuff of short stories, and that is both a strength and a weakness. Here, it's perfect, because the novel they prequelize (a rather lumpish and ungainly neologism, but "prefigure" is so stuffily snooty) is in itself a marvel of tight, concise storytelling that leaves acres of room to wonder about the people in it. But on its own, under its own steam, it's very good but not great. Good writing, interesting characters, but nothing...well, nothing to launch it to that next level, say like American Salvage or Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned.

Still. You have definitely done worse by yourself than reading these seven stories. I'm glad I finally made room for them on the nightstand. Recommended.

Three Parts Dead . . . And Four Parts Awesome

Three Parts Dead

by Max Gladstone

Published by Tor Books

4 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

When your god has died, who ya gonna call? Why, the thaumaturgical firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, of course.

At least that's what the priesthood of Alt Coulumb does when their fire deity, Kos, snuffs it (a rather embarrassing turn of events for a god billed as "Kos the Everburning"). Without his power driving the steam engines of the city, Alt Coulumb will eventually come to a grinding halt, so it is up to Tara Abernathy (the newest recruit of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao) to unravel the circumstances surrounding the death of Kos and determine if there is enough of the deity left to resurrect a remnant of his power to keep Alt Coulumb moving. To complicate matters, Tara suspects that Kos did not just die--he was murdered.

Welcome to Three Parts Dead, a novel set in an unclear time and an unclear place populated by Stone Men (gargoyles that can shift into human form), vampire pirates, Justice personified, fallen gods, deified humans and all other manner of weird and wonderful things held together by the Craft, the magic of starlight and earth wielded by Craftspeople like Tara. It's a world where gods use their power to barter with other cities and other gods, and where the death of one god can leave the whole world in a precarious position indeed. It's also a world still feeling the effects of the God Wars, a war between gods and Craftspeople that took place decades before and led to deep distrust between religious factions and practitioners of the Craft. All of this creates a complex mythology and political structure that hopefully author Max Gladstone has just begun to dip into as there's enough at work here to keep a well-written series going for several more books.

Gladstone's inventiveness is impressive and, despite a sometimes baroque attention to detail, the narrative never gets bogged down and moves along at a brusque pace. Unlike many fantasy novels, he largely avoids the "infodump" in favor of just dunking your ass into the deep end of the pool and seeing if you can swim, a method of storytelling I much prefer as it allows the reader to assimilate himself while exploring the world Gladstone has created.

If I have one complaint with the novel, it's that there is a lot going on, with a lot of people involved, and all at a breakneck speed. Frankly, I could have done with 50 more pages if it would have slowed things down a bit as a ridiculous amount of narrative happens in the span of what is apparently two days.  While the villain is a little obvious, the creative manner in which the antagonist is discovered and dealt with more than makes up for it.

Overall, this was one weird little ride that I enjoyed the hell out of--so much so that his next book, Two Serpents Rise, is already on my pre-order list.

"Once Upon a Time, an Angel and a Devil Fell in Love. It Did Not End Well."

Daughter of Smoke & Bone

by Laini Taylor

Published by Little, Brown Book for Young Readers

4 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

Sometimes I think that I should start a young adult shelf in my house just in case I decide to have kids. Then I'll have all of this amazing novels waiting for them, like gleaming gems plucked out of the murky waters of young adult literature. The Hunger Games will be there, as will the Chaos Walking series, The Dust of 100 Dogs, and now I think I'll toss Daughter of Smoke and Bone onto that imaginary shelf as well. (This shelf is likely to remain imaginary as I'll probably spawn only illiterates or, worse yet, Valley Girl types who, like, soooo totally want to know where the Twilight books are.)

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a unique fantasy with a quirky, blue haired main character named Karou. Karou is an art student living in Prague where she is surrounded by musicians, artists, and actors--all delightful Bohemian types who live to create and entertain. However, Karou's friends are often frustrated by her mysterious disappearances and her evasiveness about her family and past. We soon discover that Karou has a reason for her caginess about truth--she was raised by monsters. Chimera, to be more exact, who inhabit a portal between our world and another. Karou was raised by Brimstone, the part man, part lion, part crocodile, part ram "wishmonger" who trades wishes for teeth. What he does with the teeth and why he's willing to pay such a high price remains a mystery as not even Karou is trusted with this secret. As black handprints appear on the doorways Karou uses to travel the world in search of Brimstone's precious teeth and sightings of angelic beings with wings of fire are reported, Karou begins to unravel the secrets of her origins and her role in the battle for another world.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is elegantly written, far from formulaic, and embraces the outcasts among us. It's obvious that Laini Taylor took her time with crafting this story and draws upon a variety of cultural sources (as well as her own imagination) to create a world unlike any other. Karou is a kick ass heroine, able to take care of herself in volatile situations, but there's still a recognizable and flawed human beneath the tough veneer. The story of the war between the chimera and the angels is also compelling and I'm anxious for the second book as I hope the focus shifts more to this alternate reality.

The first half of the novel immediately drew me in and maintained a brusque pace. However, after the arrival of the angel Akiva, the narrative slows down somewhat as we have the inevitable "love at first sight" plot device that no young adult novel with a female protagonist can do without. And now, a quick rant: seriously, why can't we hold off on the romantic entanglements until the second or third book of a series? Why can't we develop a female character who doesn't have an immediate choice to make between two male characters who are foils for one another? Why must we always be presented with the amazingly talented, self-reliant, strong woman who turns out to be a quivering damsel in distress underneath all the aforementioned bad-assedness? Or, better yet, why can't she meet the potential love interest in the first novel and get to know him before giving her heart to him in the sequel? Young adult writers of the world, hear me! Give us a woman who proves she doesn't need a man by taking the time to convince us she's powerful, strong, and independent by letting her carry a novel all by her little ol' lonesome before we bring in the inevitable love interest.

So, anyhoo, I freely admit to much eye-rolling and muttering of "you've got to be shitting me" during this part of the book. Of course Akiva is unbelievably beautiful (although thank the heavens that he doesn't sparkle) and spiritually broken because of a past love-gone-wrong. But he begins to hope again when he meets Karou. I was ready to mark the book down to a 2 1/2 star based upon that alone. However, I will say this--at least Taylor later provides a reason for the love at first sight scenario that allowed me to give her a pass (although I still think a little less time could have been spent rhapsodizing about Akiva's beauty).

All in all, with the exception of the blossoming romance bit, I really loved this book. It has it all: gorgeous description, exotic locations, believable characters, humor, and some of the best world-building I've seen in a young adult fantasy.