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I read this book because my friend told me about it, saying it was her favorite book while referencing her beet tattoo. I really love this friend and wanted to know what she loved about this book; if not for her, I would have quit many times. This author is unlike any other I have read. This book is unlike any other I have read. I did not enjoy it, though I can admire some of the skill that went into it.
Pros: The writing on a sentence-by-sentence level is full of some of the most imaginative analogies I’d read anywhere. I thought I was good at analogies, but Robbins really goes to extremes. The weather in New Orleans is like an obscene phone call from nature. Flames dart from the boughs of a funeral pyre like finches from hell. A woman wears a smile you could mail a letter in. They got tiresome after a while, but they were impressive.
Also, the story itself is wacky and whimsical and weird. It involves beets, the god Pan, a Pagan king, perfumers and a cult of people trying to find immortality. They’re all strung together in ways that eventually make sense. Well, sort of. It’s still wacky, but at least all the various plotlines eventually connect.
Cons: I didn’t like any of the characters. Most of them felt either cardboard or wacky or disgusting, or sometimes all three. Even when someone wore a whale mask or was divorced from a famous accordion player, they tended to run together for me because I didn’t really know what anyone wanted. I didn’t really empathize with them because I didn’t really feel like most of them were trying to do anything worthwhile. There wasn’t much of a plot. They were just kind of talking in circles about philosophy. Priscilla was trying to do something (we weren’t told what) and she wanted money to do it, but we didn’t know why or what she hoped to gain by it. For the first half of the book I only cared about Alobar’s story because at least he had challenges to overcome. I didn’t like him though. I thought he was gross. I mean, I’m sure it was appropriate for the time and place, but he impregnated a 14-year-old and then later abandoned her and the kids he’d made. Sex with kids is where I draw the line (even if they’re married.)
The biggest con for me was the lechery. I don’t consider myself a prude, but this felt like porn. It wasn’t even erotica, because it didn’t turn me on, it just made me curl my lip and at more than one point exclaim out loud “Jesus, that’s disgusting.” Not a single woman was described without some reference to her jiggling boobs, moist vulva, fragrant vagina, supple perineum, meaty thighs or whatever could lower her to the level of “something to have sex with” rather than “a human being.” The sex scenes (frequent) felt like watching a cheap porn between unattractive actors, because the relationships (even that between Kudra and Alobar) felt shallow to me. Alobar seemed like a randy dude who turned into a cantankerous old man who (poor lad) no one would fuck (we were supposed to pity him, though no one sleeps with an old woman, and when Kudra dares to get older, Alobar is aghast). The LeFevres were indistinguishable from one another in my mind, because I kept waiting for them to matter to me and they never did. Dannyboy Wiggs, or Wiggs Dannyboy, was the most disgusting of the lot. I felt visceral revulsion at any scene with him in it. An old dude with an implausible name who lapses in and out of an Irish brogue so he can seduce a woman impressed by his money. I guess that’s the mark of a powerful novel, that it can inspire such strong feelings in its readers.
One of the main themes of the novel was its long philosophical treatises on the subject of smell, having a true heart, and immortality. One cannot become immortal without having a true heart, by which the author’s characters meant mostly “a strong desire to fuck women.” Even Priscilla fucks a woman, though she doesn’t seem to really be into it. Alobar starts to age, despite his super immortality powers, in part because he hasn’t got anyone to have sex with. And yet, I think many men find it somewhat of a relief when they get old enough that their sexual desire tapers off. Call me old fashioned, but beastial rutting seems like it would eventually get old. After hundreds of years of marriage he never has (or seems to want to have) children with Kudra, but it’s the sex he misses when she’s gone. For me, that would be like a thousand years doing prep work in the kitchen, and not a single meal in the dining room. Compared to the true joy of meaningful relationships with friends and family and work that improves the world in a significant way, sex is just party tinsel.
I mostly glossed over the philosophical treatises. I found them puerile and dull, based on old science and not convincingly strung together. For example “information gathered from daily newspapers, soap operas, sales conferences, and coffee klatches is inferior to information gathered from sunlight. (Since all matter is condensed light, light is the source, the cause of life. The flowers have a direct line to God that an evangelist would kill for.)” It goes on for pages and pages like that. Whatever. Honestly, for much of the book I felt like I was being mansplained at by a dirty old pervert who thought (very incorrectly) that he was not only the smartest person in the room, but that he had figured out the secrets of the universe, and he was telling them to me so that I’d be impressed enough with his genius to suck his cock. When I wasn’t rolling my eyes, I was curling my lip in disgust.
This wasn’t my book. I found it vulgar and pretentious, with forgettable and unlikeable characters and not much of a plot. (The connection between K23 and immortality seemed tenuous at best, and the Pan-shaped bottle simply a McGuffin.) I can see why people would be fond of his analogies and whimsical philosophy that they’d like this writing style, but the crude and constant references to sex ruined any leeway I might have given the meandering story.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I enjoyed this book quite a bit for the fantasy elements, but especially for the vivid portrait of life in rural Russia back in the days when boyars still gave tribute to the khans to keep the horde at bay. Even Vasilisa, the daughter of a feudal lord, worried about hunger and cold when the winter stretched too long. The descriptions of the landscape and the changing of the seasons were the strongest and most compelling part of the book.
The characters were slightly less compelling. Vasilisa is the strong, brave heroine. Anna is the shrinking and deceitful stepmother. Constantine is the flawed and sinning priest. Vasilisa’s father and brothers and sisters are alternately for or against Vasilisa, like battles she can either win or lose. We’re never meant to (and I didn’t) develop any sympathy for Anna or Constantine, never give much thought to how Olga or Irina view situations, and the brothers are pretty much pawns, excepting Alexander who becomes a monk.
The plot kind of creeps along for the first 60% of the book, with nothing but the rich description to carry the reader along. Vasilisa is born, she grows up. It’s like the “farm boy learning he’s the subject of the great prophecy” story, but with a boyar’s daughter. Vasilisa understands how the world works and she’s the only one who knows that without the house spirits, they’ll be undefended when the dark god comes.
She’s not a real girl like you could imagine meeting, she’s just a heroine. I think that the characters could have been fleshed out a lot more. Anna could have been fascinating and sympathetic. After all, she’s got the sight, just like Vasilisa, and she’s the daughter of a prince, married off against her will. There could have been alliances between her and the other women in the house. Vasilisa could have wavered in her sympathy towards Anna and vice versa. Surely in a land where people are locked inside for months at a time lest they freeze to death, there would be drama and political factions. But no, this is a simple fantasy story with a familiar plot?
I got this book from Audible. The narrator starts doing a normal voice for the description and a Russian accented English to narrate the speech. It didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. In fact, I quite enjoyed it after a while, though there were times in which the Russian accent bled over into everything.
When I had an hour left of the book and there hadn’t been what I considered a solid resolution, I started to despair that it was the first of a trilogy and that there would be some horrid cliffhanger. Fortunately, the book ends well enough that I felt content to leave it at that. It was not advertised on Audible as the first of a series, and I wouldn’t have bought it if I had known it was the first of a series. But, I’m glad I listened to it. I did enjoy it, just not enough to make a three-book commitment.
This is a good book for any fans of neurology studies who has read about case studies of people with really odd brains and wondered what the people themselves were really like. From the woman who gets lost in her own home to the man who believed that he was dead, these people are really unusual. Some are even unique.
I heard about this book from a friend who told me about the woman who gets lost in her own home. Since I was born with a below-average sense of direction, I was hoping that by using her coping strategies I could become a better navigator. Some of them won’t work for me, but others I was already doing. Thomson also talks to memory experts, synesthetes, and people with various delusions about what it’s like to live with their disorder or ability.
Thomson is a pretty good interviewer, and I enjoyed the narrator (I got this as an audiobook). I had hoped to have more of a takeaway, like, how can I use this information in my own life, but that’s not really what this book is about. It just kind of skims the surface of each of these unusual brains, describing them and what their doctors know about the underlying brain structure that causes it, but not getting in to deep to therapeutic suggestions.
I recommend this book for people who like to read about neurology and psychology, but who aren’t actually neurologists or psychologists. Think of it as a series of descriptive articles/interviews collated around the theme of “people with unusual brains.”
I first heard about this author at convention, where someone assumed that two urban fantasy authors from Tempe, Arizona must surely know each other. I’ve never met the author, but became curious about his books and picked this one up when I saw it on sale, not realizing that it was the third in a series until I was a few pages into it. The author does enough backstory that I was able to follow along mostly, while realizing that there was a lot of stuff that happened before this book. (Probably it would have been better to start with the first one.)
The protagonist is a several-hundred-year-old Irishman named Atticus (not his original name) who is the last of the druids after most were killed by the Romans way back when Rome was conquering Britain. He’s got a sword that can kill with the smallest cut, amulets that let him heal himself fast, and the ability to do all sorts of things, such as shapeshift into different animals and teleport from one side of the world to another as long as he finds a place sufficiently wild. He’s got an apprentice, a bookstore filled with rare and wonderful things, and a sentient wolfhound with whom he can communicate psychically. He’s manly and tough; he drinks beer with gods. He’s a fanboy’s dream. I’ll get into that part later.
The story begins when our hero is sneaking into Asgard (or maybe it’s a different Norse supernatural realm, I get them confused) to steal a golden apple to fulfill a quest he got from what I can assume was a previous novel. Like some trickster god, he lies and bluffs when he can, flees when people wise up to him, and kills when running away fails him. All the while he cracks wise and makes pop culture references that hardcore fantasy fans will easily pick up on, such as references to old Monty Python movies. Some of it I liked, such as the scene where he meets Jesus. Some of it I disliked, such as the sentient dog who talks psychically. Sentient psychic companion animals were cool when McCaffrey and Lackey were doing them back in the 80’s, but it’s a trope worn very thin.
After killing a few mythological creatures, Atticus barely escapes, with all of Valhalla close on his heels, but has to turn right around and go back again because he’s promised his buddies, an alpha werewolf and the master vampire of Arizona, that he will help them kill Thor. They pick up a few other companions, a Finnish folk hero/old god, a Russian thunder god and a supernaturally awesome martial artist. The companions drink together and share tales of their own personal grievances with Thor. This was my favorite part of the book. Hearne seems to know tons about folklore and mythology and if he got the details wrong I don’t care because the stories were good.
Eventually they make it back to Asgard and get the help of some frost giants to kick ass. It’s all action scene and violence and setbacks and victory, like reading a description of an awesome superhero movie that hasn’t come out yet. This is the best thing about the novel, that the action scenes were tight and exciting. The book ends on a cliffhanger, with a new mortal danger for the protagonist and the reader left not knowing if one of the main allies is alive or not. I hate cliffhangers, feeling that they are cheap and unethical, but they work. I could picture most readers immediately going to Amazon to order the next in the series, just to find out what happens next.
Those are the good things about the book. The bad thing about the book is how often Atticus dropped character. Some times I could squint and try to picture an ancient Irish druid kicking ass, but more often than not I felt like I was reading about the author. Example: Atticus says that he “squeed” when he met Neil Gaiman. It’s understandable that a middle-aged, well-educated, white, middle-class urban fantasy author from Tempe, Arizona would do that (I did! OMG! Neil Gaiman!) Do I think Atticus would do that? Not a chance. The guy literally does shots with Jesus and is totally blase about it. Gaiman is a rockstar among fantasy authors, but he’s not bigger than Jesus. Another example: Atticus says the fish and chips at Rula Bula on Mill avenue are the best he’s ever had anywhere. Do I think that Hearne believes that the fish and chips at Rula Bula are the best he’s ever had? Sure. I’ve eaten there. The food is pretty good. Do I think that an Irishman, born on an ISLAND, who has lived all over the world, would grant “best” title to a kitschy pseudo-Irish bar 400 miles from the ocean? Not a chance. Honestly, it’s not even the best fried fish in Tempe (Rubio’s Baja Grill, if you’re asking.)
Some of the characters, Lief, for example, felt like they’d had flaws put in place just to make the protagonist more relatable. If Lief is tech-savvy enough to shut down the power at a Diamondbacks game, he surely knows how to Google and find out why baseball players are called “ball players” and not “athletes.” The scene when Lief and Atticus are trading Shakespeare quotes was fun, but it seemed like Hearne just showing off his literary chops. It would have felt more in character if it had been something just the two of them shared, like, I dunno, some ancient poetry from back in the day.
This is a book written by a fan, for fans. The character development was nonexistent. No one changes or even seems affected by events. They are all manly dudes who act like men, complete with aggression, an aversion to vulnerability, and the chronic undercurrent of homophobia. They have special powers, and some of them have accents, but like most superheroes, they have to dress differently so you can tell them apart. Maybe if I had read the first two novels, I might have been invested enough in Atticus and his friends to care about their triumph or failure, but since I started with this one, I saw it merely as a fun romp with cardboard characters, like an action movie but deeply nerdy. It’s a vehicle for (mostly male) readers to fantasize about being powerful and extra-cool. If you have a Gryffindor banner on your wall, bought your wife a copy of the “one ring” as an anniversary gift, and will tell random strangers with pride about your 1/16th Irish heritage as you show off your Celtic knotwork tattoo, this is your book.
The first thing I noticed about this book is that the author did not use quotations to set off dialog. It made it feel to me as if the novel was silent, underwater, like watching a movie with the sound off. There is dialog, but it’s not in quotes, so my mind’s voice doesn’t say it out loud, just recognizes it as what was said. At first it annoyed me, but as the novel went along, it made me feel as though I were living among people who almost never spoke. By the time I was ensconced in the story, I felt like I were living with them, an almost animal existence, living without talking, just doing and working and moving to survive.
The novel is very much one of location. The orchards are almost one of the characters in the novel. Talmadge, the protagonist, spends a lot of time caring for his trees. The constant mention of apples and apricots made me feel the beauty of the place even when the events turned tragic. There’s a great scene where Talmadge takes a train from another town and marvels that he could be home in the morning and so far away in the evening. I’ve felt like that too sometimes.
The story is a tragedy. When Talmadge’s father dies, his mother takes her two young children out to the middle of Oregon, where they live alone. His mother dies and his sister disappears, a grief that haunts him the rest of his days. He seems to be haunted by loneliness. Even when he has Angeline, he’s still mostly alone, worried and pining for the ones who left instead of hewing to the connections he still has. It never seems to occur to any of the characters that they could date or get married or do anything else to cure rather than merely to live with their loneliness and sorrow. Michaelson’s crimes are like a bad seed that spreads to infect people he’s never even met. His ill treatment of the girls lead to Jane’s tragedy and Della’s grief which leads to Talmadge’s grief which damages Angeline and even Clee and Caroline.
What I liked about the story was how the characters developed layer on layer until they felt real. What I didn’t like was watching them destroy themselves through their character flaws. This is the kind of book you read when you want to read something different, to experience a different life. It was well-written, but I can’t say it was a lot of fun.
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins I read this book because my friend told me about it, saying it was her favorite book while referencing her beet tattoo. I really love this friend and wanted to know what she loved about this book; if not for her, I would have quit many times. This author is …
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden I enjoyed this book quite a bit for the fantasy elements, but especially for the vivid portrait of life in rural Russia back in the days when boyars still gave tribute to the khans to keep the horde at bay. Even Vasilisa, the daughter of a feudal …
Unthinkable: An Extraordinary Journey Through the World’s Strangest Brains by Helen Thomson This is a good book for any fans of neurology studies who has read about case studies of people with really odd brains and wondered what the people themselves were really like. From the woman who gets lost in her own home to …
Hammered by Kevin Hearne I first heard about this author at convention, where someone assumed that two urban fantasy authors from Tempe, Arizona must surely know each other. I’ve never met the author, but became curious about his books and picked this one up when I saw it on sale, not realizing that it was …
The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin The first thing I noticed about this book is that the author did not use quotations to set off dialog. It made it feel to me as if the novel was silent, underwater, like watching a movie with the sound off. There is dialog, but it’s not in quotes, so …