Category Archives: Fiction

Book Review: A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

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A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars

National Book Critics Circle Award Winner
PEN/Faulkner Award Finalist
Pulitzer Prize Winner 2011

One of the Best Books of the Year: Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, The Daily Beast, The Miami Herald, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Newsday, NPR’s On Point, O, the Oprah Magazine, People, Publishers Weekly, Salon, San Francisco Chronicle, Seattle Times, Slate, Time, The Washington Post, and Village Voice

I thought this was pretty good. To me it felt like I was reading a 90s independent art film where a variety of people’s stories are told and the viewer is left to figure out how it all fits together. Each chapter is a different character from the previous chapter, but all the characters’ lives intersect in some way or at some time. Some reviewers complained that the cover made it seem like the book was about music. It is, but only as a context. Not as a major theme, really. The edition I read had a cover with different transparent people in different colors all doing a different motion, and all superimposed on each other. This is a brilliant cover and perfectly represents the concept of the novel.

There were moments that I absolutely loved, like Sasha’s opening chapter. She is so open and vulnerable to us, it’s charming. I also absolutely loved the powerpoint chapter. I thought it was a brilliant way to create narrative out of an alternative format, and the story it told really came through to me. I heard an interview on NPR recently where publishers are able to tell when readers skip parts of a book on their ereader. Jennifer Egan was interviewed because her publishers have discovered that most readers skip the powerpoint chapter, and she was asked if she thought that perhaps she should have either left it out or written it differently. She responded that she felt the powerpoint chapter was the most important chapter in the whole book. That being said, I looked forward to reading the chapter and was not disappointed.

There are some things that are “tricksy” about the novel, such as the powerpoint chapter, the footnotes a la David Foster Wallace, and the multiple viewpoints. It didn’t always seem like it was crucial to the story, and for me wasn’t where Egan excelled. Instead, she excelled at getting into the minds of her characters and carefully describing their world. As I writer, I find it hard to use such devices, especially ones that have been done before to great success. It makes it feel like the writer is trying too hard, much like those 90s movies always felt like they were trying to hard, at the expense of the enjoyment of its audience.

In retrospect, I realized that the only chapters that felt like they were a 90s indie film were chapters that were most likely SET in the 90s or 00s. The chapters set in the future felt different, in a way that seemed appropriate for their time period. The fact that I felt the 90s and 00s means that Egan did her work well. I didn’t particularly enjoy them because I never liked those kinds of films, and frankly it’s hard going into a pulitzer prize winning novel about contemporary topics without a little bit of skepticism and a bar set pretty darn high for perfection. Especially when it’s been so often related to David Foster Wallace, who I thought was just brilliant. But the more I think about Egan’s novel, the more I appreciate about what she did. It doesn’t hit me over the head with powerful things, but I do think it’s a slow burn.

Ultimately, I enjoyed the book on several different levels. I’m a slow reader, and so when I went back to Goon Squad I had to remind myself not only of what was happening in the chapter I was on, but also what had happened to all the other people, and when, and how it might relate to or impact the current chapter. I don’t think that’s a fair way to read a book like Goon Squad, because so much of what makes a chapter relate is done in the sort of subtle way that happens in life. That being said, I look forward to reading it again, all the way through. Maybe on a long plane trip or a beach vacation where I’ve left my laptop at home and my cellphone is dead. (Is that the modern equivalent of “when pigs fly”?)

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Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others
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Among Others by Jo Walton

My Goodreads rating: 5 of 5 stars

Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel
Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel
“Among Others” is a coming-of-age story written in the style of a young girl’s journal.

It has taken me several months to decide how I ultimately feel about this book. Immediately after finishing it, I liked it more than I did while reading it. I am immensely impressed with how Jo Walton is able to make the complete book more than the sum of its parts, and how, at least for me, the thesis of it isn’t apparent until the whole thing has been read.

The inner world of the main character, Morwenna, is compelling and magical. The way she views and experiences magic is exactly how any intelligent young girl with an imagination and an interest in fantasy/sci fi would explain magic to herself. Morwenna exists in a world inhabited by adults who do crazy, irrational, and frightening things. At any moment her crazy mother or absent father could swoop in and decide to take her away, or threaten her life, or things she can’t even anticipate, and so she lives in a constant state of insecurity with regards to the people who are supposed to provide her with security. She has no control over her life. To maintain her sanity, and to give herself a sense of security, she believes that she can affect the world through the use of magic and spells. It is this belief that ultimately saves her.

What I enjoyed most about this book is that it is never made explicitly clear whether or not the magic and fairies are real or in Morwenna’s imagination. This is especially true once I finished the book, because at any given time while reading it I was always waiting for that one definitive moment where I knew for sure. On one hand, it could all be true and work exactly as Morwenna described. On the other hand, it could all just be a coping mechanism in her imagination. When I originally read the book I assumed that Morwenna, the narrator, was a reliable witness. I look forward to rereading it knowing that she may not be, and see how it might change the experience.

I also appreciate the way the author handles magic. It is both classic and unique at the same time. I enjoy the way Morwenna thinks about magic all the time, about its rules and how it would or wouldn’t work, and how casting spells work. I also enjoyed the fairies. It felt very much like the sort of spellcrafting and fairy knowledge you would get from an ancient part of Europe, from an old woman who learned it from her granny, who learned it from HER granny, who was a hedge witch. It all tickled the part of me that likes to find dusty old books about herbs in the back corner of used book stores, that hoards rusty old keys, and that always looks through holes in stones to see if fairies are around. It’s magic that is worn around the edges, a little dirty, a little sinister and unpredictable. You know, “real” magic.

While I was reading, it wasn’t exactly a perfect experience for me. It’s “another” book involving magic and a boarding school, as we have seen with (of course) Harry Potter, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, to name a couple. It was well done and seemed appropriate, but I’m just saying it’s been done before. In a similar vein, it seems like all of the exciting stuff happens off screen. Morwenna alludes to events that sound very dramatic and exciting, but that happened in the past. Instead we experience a pretty typical series of events for a young person at a boarding school: boys, books, holidays, the difficulty of making friends, etc. Again, it was well done and seemed appropriate, but I hadn’t really realize I was getting myself into that type of “coming of age” story prior to starting it. Finally, Morwenna spends a lot of time talking about other science fiction books, about their themes and covers and characters. I really enjoyed this about the book because I am a huge sci fi fan, but occasionally I would have liked to have seen the mentioned cover, or had a more detailed explanation of why Morwenna believed something about a character. Often times she would state an opinion but say nothing more about why. I can understand that this is how a young person would journal, but I would have enjoyed the added detail.

Walton has a way of spinning a world around her words that is evocative of both the modern day and a storied and mythic past. The characters have depth and history and complexity. This is one of the few books I’ve read that I look forward to reading again.

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“The Watcher” Takes Spot in First-Honorable Mentions

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“The Watcher,” a flash-fiction horror story I entered into the Readers’ Realm Scary Flash Fiction contest last month, took a spot in the First-Honorable Mentions. Of the piece, the judges said “The writing itself was elegant.” Be sure to read “The Watcher,” and all of the other great entries over at Readers’ Realm.