Book Review: TURBULENCE, a literary relay race around the globe

Turbulence: A Novel
by David Szalay

A woman in her seventies takes a plane ride from London home to Madrid after visiting her son who is being treated for prostate cancer. Normally reticent on flights, the woman, terrified of flying, drinks bloody marys and keeps to herself. However, after ten minutes of extreme turbulence, she and her row mate begin to talk. When she passes out, he quickly goes to the flight attendant who calls for a doctor’s help.

The unexpected turbulence that causes the woman and her row mate, Cheikh, to interact creates ripples that initiate what amounts to a literary relay race as readers follow a figurative baton around the world. Emphasizing the connectedness of today’s society, the book is structured around flights. Whereas the first chapter ended in Madrid, the second picks up there following a character that somehow had contact with whomever enjoyed the point of view of the previous chapter in a type of benign contagion. In some author’s hands, organizing around flights might be gimmicky, but here, it feels a natural reflection of how accessible travel has become.

Crossing the globe as it does, Turbulence contains a diversity of characters in different settings, socioeconomic conditions, and internal and external conflicts. Although characters come from a range of countries and within those countries live in different environments, to my mind, the prose rang authentic and often eye-opening.

Personally, I love books that have separate but slightly connected chapters so I was biased towards the book, but as with all books of this structure some characters are so interesting they seem short-changed and as if their story is incomplete and some characters aren’t as interesting or as well-developed as others.

While most of the characters are named, a few aren’t, and I’m not sure there is a significance to that if any, and what is says about these characters, both women, regardless. Also, throughout the book, the impact of privilege born of wealth weaves into each chapter. Although not all of the wealthy are white, all of the poor are people of color.

A quick but impactful read with an interesting structure, Turbulence should be on the reading list of any fan of literary fiction.

Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE GONE DEAD, Racism’s Long Legacy

The Gone Dead
Chanelle Benz

In The Gone Dead, set in 2003, Billie James inherits her father’s Mississippi Delta dilapidated shack from her grandmother and returns for the first time in thirty years. Her father Cliff, a poet and civil rights activist, had died in 1972 from an accidental fall. She was a young child staying with her father the night he died, and in speaking with denizens of the town realizes her memories are incomplete.

As she attempts to uncover the truth, she is stonewalled by the McGee family, white landowners who have long employed the Jameses as tenant farmers and domestic laborers, the sheriff’s office, and even her own uncle. But with the help of an academic writing a biography of Cliff and a woman who was dating him at the time of his death, Billie ignores warnings and threats to her personal safety in her quest to uncover what she is sure is a conspiracy around her father’s death.

The point of view shifts among a range of characters including even a shuttered juke joint, some getting a single chapter, some several. The gains of revealing information known only by that character comes at a cost of a patchwork narrative where several strands are introduced never to be discussed again or other storylines having various degrees of completion or extraneous information. For me, the result was feeling removed from the characters and events. The primary narrative, of Billie uncovering what happened to her black activist father in a small Mississippi town mired in racism was horrific, especially seeing how these attitudes persist into the present. At the same time, it’s a story familiar from other books and movies. The book is strong, though, in its style, with lovely writing and distinctive voices.

Book Review: CONTAGION by Teri Terry

Terry, Teri - Contagion (2)Contagion
Teri Terry

Shay, a high school student who hasn’t fit into life in Killin, Scotland since she and her mother moved into an inherited home there from London, has been being bullied. One afternoon, in a scuffle, she falls into a kiosk and uncovers a missing persons poster.

With her photographic memory, she is certain she saw the young girl on the flyer. Unfortunately, it was almost a year before. Still, she calls the number, and Kai, the girl’s brother, not too much other than Shay, immediately arranges to meets with her and find out everything she remembers.

At the same time, Callie, a girl imprisoned in a highly secure underground bunker is forced to endure painful experiments until given the “cure.” The cure kills her, turning her body to ash, but she lives in an alternative form. In this state, she is able to travel through the facility and watch as the personnel who tortured her succumb to a terrifying illness.

As Kai and Shay try to find his sister and Callie attempts to negotiate her way home, the deadly and incurable illness reaches epidemic proportions. Kai’s mother, an epidemiologist, joins the team searching for a cure while Shay learns that she and Kai’s sister have more in common that a simple encounter.

Kai and Shay’s search may lead them to the secret to the disease, if they can keep ahead of its rapid advance and avoid the Special Alternatives Regiment, a secret military group that doesn’t want the teenagers to succeed.

Contagion, a disaster book in the young adult genre, was a fun and quick read, though because it is the first in a trilogy, it is setting up the action for the story, and the ending is unresolved, to be addressed in the sequels. For some inexplicable reason, books about infectious diseases interest me, and Contagion was written better than most. As expected in the YA literature, the protagonist is a smart, scrappy teenager who is pretty but doesn’t realize it and who develops a romance with an equally smart, strong, and handsome teenage boy who is the first to see the girl for who she is. Although this seems to be a requirement, I often find it saccharine and just endure it for the rest of the plot in series like The Red Queen. Happily, in Contagion, it’s the least mawkish I’ve seen.

Here, the disease vector is strange and new. Though it is clear from the beginning to readers how the epidemic is being transmitted, the characters don’t realize it until the end of the book, and even then, there is confusion. Even for the readers, most of the details are not fully explained, and I wish there had been a little more time on the hypothetical science behind it. Iona, Shay’s sidekick, was my favorite character, and I wish we’d seen more of her, though what we did see was a blast.

The conclusion of the book places the characters in precarious positions that will propel the action in the follow-up, Deception, which is due later this year and which I will read as soon as possible. I suppose that’s a good recommendation for Contagion!

Thank you to NetGalley and Charlesbridge Teen for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: DEEP RIVER, a well-researched book that gets buried in details

Marlantes, Karl - Deep River (4)Deep River
Karl Marlantes

Deep River follows the Koski siblings–Aino, Ilmari, and Matti–from childhood in Russian-occupied Finland to their settlement in the Pacific Northwest as they enter adulthood and begin families of their own. Ilmari, the first to arrive in the United States, homesteads on a large piece of land he received. Matti, the youngest, embraces capitalism as a way to protect himself from fears seated in childhood. Aino, however, the middle child and only girl, interested in communism from a young age, delves into the labor movement.

In the community that survives largely on fishing and logging, the Koski siblings encounter many fellow Finns as well as Swedes, some of whom they knew in their hometown. Their business dealings and activism–not to mention relationships–take them in and out of each other’s orbits, while Aino, a stubborn lightning rod, often attracts danger from powerful business and political interests. They also face obstacles from nature–sometimes dry spells, sometimes too much rain–from world events, and from the economy.

Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn is a tour de force, combining an engrossing setting with fully realized, unforgettable characters. In that novel, the details of being a soldier in Vietnam are so vividly drawn, it’s visceral, and the frustrations and injustice deeply felt.

In Deep River, Marlantes conveys the same comprehensive awareness of setting born of personal experience and extensive research. No matter the context–a socialist meeting, a fishing boat, a logging site, or a bootleggers’ shootout–Marlantes provides encyclopedic knowledge. On the one hand, this can be very interesting, and I definitely learned a lot. On the other, it can be almost overwhelming and at times distracts from the story, bogging it down in unnecessary details.

Because the book seemed to want to address every historical event in the time period over which it was set–some more tangential to the narrative–such as the Spanish Flu and the introduction of the automobile, the story is very long and bloated without a clear focus. Probably the most accurate answer to what the story is about would be that it charts Aino’s growth. Unfortunately, I found her a less than sympathetic character. This is surprising to me because she is a strong, independent woman before her time. Yet, she is clearly unable to read a crowd, and is so stubborn, she is selfish. Characters I was more interested in such as Vasutäti, a Native American elder, and Aino’s niece, Mielikki, had less of a role in the story. Overall, though, I think that the novel would have benefited from a ruthless editor who provided focus for the narrative while eliminating the unnecessary technical details of the logging and fishing crafts.

Also, I was uncomfortable with how Marlantes used gender and cultural stereotypes without problematizing them. Finally, I was most disappointed in the writing style which I found less than polished. The transitions were often awkward, and the sentence structure led to a choppy, discordant flow.

Dark River definitely includes interesting debates about socialism and unionization. During World War I, not just corporations and the state government, but also the military became involved in union busting. The skirmishes between the Industrial Workers of the Work (IWW), Ainoe’s union, and law enforcement, deputized citizens, and “patriots” were hard to imagine until you consider the types of conflicts in our streets today.

Despite the flaws, this book should appeal to die-hard historical fiction fans as well as those who are interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the logging and fishing industries, or about unions in the early 1900s.

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic / Atlantic Monthly Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: WE WENT TO THE WOODS, an experiment in communal living

Dolan-Leach, Caite - We Went to the Woods (2)We Went to the Woods
Caite Dolan-Leach

After suffering a public humiliation and being skewered by social media, twenty-something Mack Johnston retreated to her parents’ house in Ithaca, New York, returning to her high school catering job. Isolated and disillusioned, Mack was searching for connection, and she found that in Louisa, Beau, Chloe, and Jack, a foursome with easy camaraderie and undefined physical boundaries.

When Louisa suggests they move to a one hundred acre plot of land in a nearby rural area, the group quickly rallies around the idea of challenging capitalism and promoting environmentalism though building a self-sufficient community that they call the Homestead. They each pay Louisa’s father $10 to rent the land for a year and begin the process of preparing the rundown structures, planting the garden, and collecting firewood for the winter. Although filled with enthusiasm, only Jack has any farming experience, and the perils of an upstate New York winter are more dangerous than they expected. They also became embroiled in a feud with a neighbor using pesticides on his crops, charging that their use would harm the shared water table. Additionally, the pull of a more militant nearby group, the Collective, strained the relationships of the Homestead group.

Internally, the members of the Homestead, too, were less united than they realized. Far from having a collective vision, their individual goals overlapped but didn’t always correspond, and their secrets threatened to destroy the trust required for living in such close quarters. The loose sexual relationships, too, fomented jealousy and competition.

Mack learned that Hector, the city where the Homestead was located, had long ago housed a group that split from the Oneida Community. Diving into research, she resolved to learn as much as she could about these other communes to determine what went wrong–and to keep it from happening at the Homestead–unless, intentional communities were bound to fail.

In the first few chapters, before the group moved to the Homestead, I found the characters, especially Beau, and their manner of talking completely insufferable and didn’t know if I could handle an entire book filled with such pomposity. However, either I became used to it, or, when they moved to the country, these tendencies were diminished.

We Went to the Woods is packed with information, from Mack’s social media disgrace and our reliance on technology, to environmental dangers like pesticides and fracking and the legitimacy of efforts to curtail them, the possibility of free love (or complex marriage in Oneida terms), the danger of charismatic and controlling leaders, the extent to which the past plays out in the present, the possibility of running from pain, mental illness and psychiatric medication, and, of course, the viability of intentional communities.

While all of these ideas are important and valid, having them in one novel made it difficult to determine their relationship. Furthermore, some of these motifs, by the nature of their quantity, were not developed. These things combined made it difficult for me to fully understand Dolan-Leach’s purpose in including them, if not just for verisimilitude.

I shouldn’t make it sound like I didn’t like the novel, because I did, quite a bit in fact. Actually, I live in Hector, where the fictional Homestead is located. (As far as I know we aren’t swarmed with communes, but anything is possible!) I felt like I was reading the journal of a real person because the setting was so accurate, such as Ithaca with the pretention of Cornell-associated professors and students and the suicide risks of the gorges. Watkins Glen did indeed have a Wildflower Cafe, though it recently has been turned into an overpriced prohibition-themed bar. Wineries line Highway 414, and the Finger Lakes National Forest is over 16,000 beautiful acres.

Very sympathetic to the Homestead’s concerns about the environment and income inequality, I’d hoped for their experiment to succeed, and felt dread as their decisions seemed to pull them further and further apart, putting them in dangerous situations leading to inexorable paths. Still, the novel ended on a hopeful note for Mack and for those with a dream of doing things better.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake

Hector Winter (2)

Hector in Winter

Ithaca Falls

Ithaca Falls