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review 2017-12-29 22:16
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

This is a fantastic novella. It’s a parable of globalization, but its brilliance is in rendering real, three-dimensional characters even from a brief scene or description.

Exit West is set in the modern world, beginning in an unnamed Middle Eastern country on the brink of civil war, where two young people meet in a classroom and are propelled by circumstances into a premature intimacy. The difference between this book and the real world is that when Nadia and Saeed – and millions of others around the world – decide to flee or to immigrate, they do so by way of doors that randomly appear and allow teleportation from one part of the globe to another.

Some have criticized this decision for erasing the harrowing travel that is a hallmark of many real-world refugee experiences, which it does. But I don’t think telling the story of refugees is Hamid’s primary goal, though it is part of the book. The doorways allow him to speed up globalization, take the world’s growing interconnectedness to its breaking point in a brief span of time, and ask big questions about what how world will look in the decades to come, with ever quicker travel combined with massive disparities in wealth and security. How much sense do borders really make in today’s world and the world of the future? Can we afford to limit our focus to our own countries? What happens as people continue to flee from poor and war-torn parts of the world to Europe and the U.S. – how will richer countries respond and be changed?

There’s a lot packed into this short book, measuring over 200 pages only due to generous margins and spacing, as well as two blank pages between each chapter. But what holds it together is the vitality, complexity and humanity of the characters, our protagonists and the people they encounter as well as the characters we briefly meet in vignettes from all over the world. The book can sometimes be hard to read, especially for long stretches, because the characters’ circumstances are often tough, and when they are as real as people you know, it’s impossible not to care. Then too, the writing is excellent: not flowery, but assured, every word in the right place.

Overall, a fantastic book, with great characters, an involving story and a lot of food for thought. And while the subject matter can be difficult, it never becomes hopeless. I highly recommend it.

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review 2017-05-21 20:55
Nor Any Country by Garth St. Omer
Nor Any Country - Garth St Omer

This novella is only 96 pages long, plus a laudatory 20-page essay about the work by one Jeremy Poynting. (I was puzzled by how a work no one had a word to say about on Goodreads could have the sort of academic following implied by this essay, until a Google search revealed that Poynting is its publisher.) The book follows its protagonist, Peter, as he returns to his unnamed island home (presumed by the publisher to be St. Omer’s home country of St. Lucia) for a brief visit after many years of study abroad.

Unfortunately, where Mr. Poynting saw subtle brilliance, the novella seemed to me mostly a mundane catalogue of Peter’s wandering about the island conversing with various people; his role in the conversations consists largely of creating a sense of his own superiority by saying little and smiling often. While visiting, he must decide what to do about the wife with whom he had no communication during his years abroad, but the narrative does little to show us how he arrives at his choice. Mostly Peter, while traveling about the island, simply ruminates on his European ex-girlfriends. There’s precious little narrative momentum in any of this, and little to interest the reader in the protagonist. Some of the supporting characters seem more interesting, but have limited room to breathe in such a short work.

As for the writing itself, it is adequate but sometimes lacking in clarity; numerous times I had to re-read passages to figure out what the author was trying to say. Written in the 1960s, the book seems to assume cultural understanding that a modern, non-Caribbean reader is unlikely to have: while racial politics are quite important in this setting, readers are left to deduce the race of almost all of the characters on their own (and I’m still not sure about Daphne).

All that said, this is a very short book that will leave readers somewhat more informed about the issues facing a society in a particular time and place. While the lack of clarity sometimes slows down the reading, large amounts of dialogue should keep readers from getting too bogged down.

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review 2015-11-15 19:24
Dreams Underfoot by Charles de Lint
Dreams Underfoot - Charles de Lint

This is an enjoyable collection of 19 linked short stories, of the sort of urban fantasy that mixes the ethereal and mundane. Just right for nighttime reading.

De Lint is a prolific Canadian author who has written many books set in the fictional city of Newford, of which this is the first; most of the stories were originally published in magazines in the late 80s and early 90s. They tend to feature bohemian types – artists, writers, musicians – and street people, encountering magic beneath the surface of everyday life. Many of the stories feel like modern fairy tales. For the most part I found them very satisfying reading, hitting all the right notes: sympathetic and believable characters, good writing and interesting plotlines that come to satisfying conclusions. Not every author can write a complete story from beginning to end in 20 pages, much less create reader investment in such a short time. De Lint can. It doesn’t hurt that some of the characters recur, but although every story can stand alone, I did not find the re-introduction of characters too repetitive.

The majority of De Lint’s protagonists are female, and although one begins to notice similarities (waif-like beauty, tragic or mysterious pasts), they are interesting characters who form friendships with each other and don’t revolve around men – indeed, Jilly, the closest the book has to a protagonist, isn’t attached to a man at all. De Lint does less well with minority characters, however; the one black character is a mute fortune-teller, and the story with a Latina narrator is full of forced and awkward uses of Spanish words and cultural references. My least favorite stories, however, were the two originally appearing in horror anthologies; that’s simply not my cup of tea. And another story beats readers over the head a little too hard with the “child abuse is bad!” stick. Finally, there are occasional mistakes that one more pass by a copyeditor could have corrected.

Overall, this gets 3.5 stars that could easily be rounded either way. I enjoyed this book, with its mix of bohemian life and the supernatural, and would consider reading more De Lint in the future.

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review 2015-02-18 00:40
Slow River by Nicola Griffith
Slow River - Nicola Griffith

This is one of those very rare science fiction books that I actually enjoyed (and yes, I love fantasy. If you think they are interchangeable, we need to talk). And there’s a lot of science here – futuristic eco-friendly wastewater treatment is a major part of the plot – but the real story is about character growth, coping with and recovering from trauma, and relationships.


Slow River has a fairly complicated structure, following its protagonist, Lore, through three different parts of her life in alternating threads. One storyline is about Lore’s privileged upbringing. Another follows her after surviving a kidnapping and near murder, as she hooks up with a scam artist who takes her in. And in the third story – none of this is a spoiler because in the book it all happens simultaneously – Lore has left the scam artist and is finally rebuilding her life, beginning with an entry-level job at a wastewater treatment plant. As it happens, Lore knows all about wastewater treatment, which is good because things at the plant are about to go wrong.


Alternating between all these threads may sound chaotic, but it works well: there’s enough we don’t know to keep each story involving, and the distinct emotional arcs harmonize with one another. While there’s some technobabble, the focus stays on the characters, who are interesting and believable, and Griffith’s version of the near future doesn’t feel too far off. It is a positive version of the future in some ways – same-sex marriages are accepted, and the fact that Lore is attracted to women is a non-issue for her and everyone else in the book. There are some dystopian elements, mostly in the behavior of corporations, but Griffith comes down on the side of realism in these portrayals rather than going the over-the-top EvilCorp™ route.


So I enjoyed this, and consider it a good book, though it wants to be literary fiction as well as sci-fi and I’m not convinced it quite achieves that; there is some depth to the characters, particularly Lore and her primary love interest, Spanner, but Griffith doesn’t take it to the next level. Also, Lore’s leaps of logic regarding the identity of the book’s “true villain” prove troubling. She never confronts this person, but concludes that s/he must be responsible for certain dastardly deeds because: 1) s/he, along with over a hundred other people, was a major contributor to a fake charity connected, through a chain of other people and corporations, to someone who may be a saboteur and 2) s/he is said to have been sexually abused as a child, and therefore must have control issues. QED.


Oh well, I’m unlikely to go out of my way to recommend this to people, but I liked it and do think it deserves more attention than it has received. Three and a half stars.

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review 2015-01-26 05:15
Cities of Salt by Abdel Rahman Munif
Cities of Salt - Peter Theroux,Abdul Rahman Munif

This was an unusual, but rewarding, reading experience for me. Cities of Salt, published by a Saudi Arabian/Jordanian author in 1984, is a very foreign novel to an American reader. It is set in an unnamed country – presumably Saudi Arabia; the Gulf port of Harran, the book's primary setting, is probably based on the real place called Dhahran – and spans an unspecified period of time, during which oil is discovered and the local way of life is utterly transformed. The community, or the place itself, is the real protagonist; characters come and go and the narrative moves on very naturally, but in a sense the individual men are almost incidental to the story. (I say “men” because women are virtually invisible throughout.) The book charts the key moments and the effects of change on the community as a whole, with a narrative that seems at times disembodied.


And yet, it works – there is a plot structure here, albeit an unusual one, and the book maintains a certain narrative momentum. It took about half the novel for me to get used to its rhythm and begin to appreciate it, but I am glad I took that time. It’s one thing to read a novel set in a foreign country, but a novel with a completely different storytelling method is altogether different – more challenging, yes, but also far more authentic. The excellent English translation complements that storytelling: it’s clear that this is a translation, but not due to any awkwardness of expression: the word choice and cadence of the language feel slightly foreign, bridging the gap between the Arabic original and English readers while maintaining (presumably) the flavor of the author’s writing.


So, I am glad I read this book, with its panoramic storytelling and its unapologetic look at the impacts of the oil economy on the traditional way of life. And it isn’t all big ideas; we get to know a number of characters, though not in quite the same way as in your typical English-language novel, and Munif doesn’t stint on detail. It isn’t a book I’d recommend casually to those looking for pure entertainment, but it's definitely worth reading if you have an interest in Middle Eastern fiction.

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