Tag Archives: guest review

Guest Review – Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic book coverRoadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky
Reviewed by Justin Fassino

With the release of the first trailer for the film adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s very fine novel Annihilation, I found myself with a desire to delve deeper into that particular kind of mysterious, disturbing science fiction. I enjoyed Annihilation quite a bit, especially the way it stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading it, and the creeping dread that crept up the back of my neck when I was.

Far and away the book that most on the internet recommended in the same vein is the 1970s Russian classic Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Having now completed both novels, I can say that, yes, both books share a particular brand of sci-fi: a sterling marriage between Stephen King’s omnipresent weirdness and H.P. Lovecraft’s fear of the cosmic unknown. And both books largely feature a dystopian, empty, cryptic segment of the world largely abandoned by man, but home to unspeakable, inhuman phenomena.

This, however, is mainly where the similarities end. While Annihilation uses Area X as the main locus around which the narrative unfolds (and the main driving force of character interaction and reaction), Roadside Picnic keeps its own arena, called simply the “Zone” by its world’s inhabitants, a nebulous and blurry background device that serves to contextualize its rich character development. In Annihilation, trying to solve the ongoing mystery is part of the experience; in Roadside Picnic, it’s simply a frame through which the multinational cast of characters exert their push and pull on the world around them (and on each other).

Set in a geographically unspecified city, Roadside Picnic follows eight years in the life of Redrick Schuhart, an acerbic, brusque man who begins the novel working for the International Institute of Extraterrestrial Cultures. We are immediately informed that, in the years leading up to the novel’s beginning, an alien visitation to Earth creates six “zones”, areas that are wildly and chaotically transformed, full of unseen and illogical hazards, along with troves of alien devices and debris. These zones are extremely treacherous to humans and have unforeseen long-lasting effects on the people who live nearby and study them. Some citizens in the book’s main city of Harmont, Redrick among them, make an illicit living off traveling into the nearby Zone and fishing out these artifacts, selling them on the city’s bubbling black market. These “stalkers”, as the people call them, are at once a major source of economic activity and an illegal sector of society constantly under threat to be purged by the powers that be.

Over the course of the novel, through Red’s eyes, we are introduced to the types of people that live in Harmont, and how they interface with this emerging blend of authoritarian control and capitalist opportunity. While Red is portrayed as the protagonist, there isn’t a real villain in the story. The characters all owe their existence, and indeed core purpose, to the Zone. All have their motivations of varying degrees of legality and virtue, but what is really striking is how nuanced their roles fit the social fabric on display. Some have noble ends they reach through ignoble means, while others are unlikable, brash, and rude, and yet I often found myself rooting for them despite their inherent distastefulness. This dangerous and inexplicable world feels lived in, and as readers we get only a brief snapshot of the inhabitants’ lives; because we’re entering their stories midway through and leaving not long after, we are left to fill in the prominent gaps the story leaves us with, and thus the characters themselves have an authenticity to them without the expectations of elaborate backstory and detail weighing them down. And yet, by the end, there is a definitive understanding of who they are as people.

The book’s setting, too, jumps off the page in vivid detail (though often unpleasantly). There is a run-down, fading quality to the lives of both the people living in Harmont and to the city itself. The Strugatsky’s go out of their way to give a lot of the story’s spotlight to the entropy of this universe, and it drips off every page. The Zone is no less dreary, though equally (if not more) interesting. During Red’s trips to the Zone, we learn of many (though certainly not all) of its peculiarities and inhuman threats. And in learning through those small glimpses, our desire to know more, to figure out what exactly is going on inside, grows. But the authors never give in to the temptation to explain or justify what happens in the Zone. Like the characters, we are given a rough outline and the key building blocks of the rules of the world, but we are left to fill in the huge gaps ourselves. As H.P. Lovecraft is best known for demonstrating, the most fearsome horrors the mind can imagine are almost always more chilling than those overtly described.

I’ve always had a strong interest in pessimistic, melancholy fiction, and Roadside Picnic serves up those mournful feelings frequently. But it’s also a cerebral book, meditative and ironically reflective. Occasionally it stops its march through the muck, turns to the reader, and asks provocative questions on many topics. The act of reading it felt very straightforward, but as I get further distance from it, I find myself thinking more and more about its subtleties and deliberate pacing. Like Annihilation, and though it stands very much on its own, I find myself at quiet moments during the day puzzling over its secrets and captivating ideas; its calculated and bold narrative choices; the uncanny, bizarre portrait of the truly alien phenomena in the Zone; and its non-judgmental, matter-of-fact humanization of the grimy inhabitants of its world.

Guest Review – Life and Death are Wearing Me Out

Life and Death are Wearing Me OutLife and Death are Wearing Me Out by Mo Yan, translated by Howard Goldblatt
Reviewed by Jennifer Chin

Clever, funny, but most of all, an enlightening portrayal of Chinese village life surrounding the years of the cultural revolution, told by a man who is continually reincarnated as various animals from the Chinese zodiac. Wish I could have read it in Chinese for the full impact of all the plays on language.

Guest Review – Threshold of Fire

Threshold of Fire book coverThreshold of Fire by Hella Haasse
Reviewed by Justin Fassino

There’s a certain inevitability to historical fiction, a conflict between the foreknowledge of how the story must end and the dared-for hope that perhaps things will turn out differently than reality, less sad, less hopeless. It is this spirit that Dutch East Indies-born author Hella Haasse channels her 1964 novella Threshold of Fire, a meditation on the end of Rome and the lasting influence it maintains on the world of today.

The 5th Century A.D. is such a compelling setting; we see some of our own institutions in the mirror as we read about the world’s most powerful empire, glory crumbling, undergoing a long, decaying spiral. Large personalities lost to history but found again in our own time with different faces give us a familiarity with what life could have been like feckless rulers cast from the social elite, great military leaders of the world (seen here through Roman magister militum, Stilicho – who himself was not a Latin Roman), and an entire civilization standing on the precipice of massive cultural change.

More of a three act play than a conventional tale, Threshold of Fire picks the choicest bits of the personalities of the era and supplements a few fictional faces to explore the identity of the time. From Haasse’s mind springs Hadrian, the tragic Christian Roman prefect and magistrate, a man conflicted by the ideals and virtues of what it means to be “Roman” and his own troubled past. Opposite him is Marcus Anicius Rufus, himself a Roman noble of considerable wealth and influence, but a pagan and thus shunned by society. Between the spiritual and ideological battle of these two is the introspection of the famous Roman poet Claudian, who historically disappears from the records in 404 A.D., but is thoughtfully realized by Haasse as both villain and hero, the pivotal point of view character around which the story comes together.

The translation of the work is quite good, though there is no envy at Anita Miller and Nini Blinstrub’s challenge; the chronological order of each chapter and the setting of the novel swirls and jumps backwards and forwards throughout, with entire sections of long internal monologues jumping between past and present at the flick of a switch. Ultimately, this is a moderately involved (yet compelling) read, with a unique, soulful cadence to the language and pacing that is a welcome novelty.

There’s an unmistakable kinship between Threshold of Fire and Wallace Breem’s Eagle in the Snow: both are set within a decade of one another in Rome, and both chronicle the impact of the impending fall of the SPQR banners through the eyes of fatal, relatable characters. The important rulers of the time (like the aforementioned Stilicho, and the Emperor Honorius) hover over all, providing the rigid, implacable, recognizable face of The Empire, while both stories’ protagonists become the spirit of The Roman Ideal.

Threshold of Fire is a deeply introspective book; most chapters consist of long monologues and memory sequences that meander through time in non-linear order. The characters face their unavoidable fates with both courage and uncertainty. Like the most resonant historical fiction, Threshold of Fire is a window into our own modern world, our place in it, and the mistakes we can avoid if we so heed the lessons that have come before. Framed within the romantic, melancholic edifices of the city of Rome and her omnipresent force of being, this is an enjoyable, deeply meditative read on the intersection between duty, friendship, and devoutness. “People of Rome, cry with one voice,” writes Claudian early on; Threshold of Fire captures a narrow, poignant facet of Rome’s lasting echo across 2,000 years.

Guest Review – Chu’s First Day at School

Chu’s First Day at School by Neil Gaiman & Adam Rex
Reviewed by Haley, age 3

Chu's First Day at School book cover

Guest Review – The Leading Indicators

The Leading Indicators book coverThe Leading Indicators: A Short History of the Numbers that Rule Our World by Zachary Karabell
Reviewed by Jo Wilcox

The Leading Indicators is a thoroughly readable book about the Gross Domestic Product and I know how that sounds. The book gives a short history of the economic indicators we use to define and measure the economy. The author details what we measure, how it gets measured, why some things are included and others are not and the effect these measurements have on public policy. The writing style is clear and engaging and I really enjoyed reading this book. For reference, I fell asleep reading the introduction to Capital in the 21st Century. I recommend this book.

Guest Review – Attached

Attached book coverAttached by Amir Levine, M.D. and Rachel S.F. Heller, M.A.
Reviewed by Omeed Chandra

Have you ever wondered why some couples make being in a happy relationship look easy, while others seem to lurch from one drama to the next? A few months ago, I found myself pondering that very question when my last relationship came to a sudden and turbulent end. My good friend Dori Myer suggested that I read Attached, by Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, and it turned out to be just what I needed. I came away convinced that attachment theory was a Rosetta Stone that gave me a new understanding of why my past relationships hadn’t worked out.

Attachment theory posits that most of us are predisposed to one of three attachment styles which govern how we relate to our romantic partners:

  • Secure attachment: You enjoy having emotional and physical intimacy with your partner, and tend to be warm and loving in your relationships.
  • Anxious attachment: Like those with secure attachment, you crave intimacy. However, you tend to become preoccupied with your relationships and may need more reassurance that your partner loves you and will be there for you when you need them.
  • Avoidant attachment: Becoming intimate with a partner can make you feel like you’ve lost your independence, and you may perceive your partner’s desire for intimacy as weak or needy.

According to Attached, the interaction between two peoples’ attachment styles is the single biggest factor in determining the success of their relationship. For example, relationships, where at least one partner has a secure attachment style, are more likely to be happy and stable. On the other end of the spectrum, relationships between someone with an anxious attachment style and someone with an avoidant attachment style–while surprisingly common–tend to be fraught with conflict.

Bridging the gap between pop psychology and self-help, Attached offers quizzes to determine your and your partner’s attachment styles, case studies of how the different attachment styles interact, and strategies for improving your odds of success when you’re in a relationship with someone who has an anxious or avoidant attachment style. Unfortunately, the book does little to help you understand why you have the attachment style that you do, nor does it provide the tools to develop a more secure attachment style on your own; such weighty matters are instead left to you and your therapist. Despite those shortcomings, I found Attached to be an engaging and insightful read, and I would recommend it to anyone who desires a happier and more fulfilling love life.

Guest Review – Belong to Me

Belong to Me book coverBelong to Me by Marisa de los Santos
Reviewed by Kendra Nicole (https://kendranicole.net/)

Cornelia and her husband, Teo, are relatively newlywed urbanites who have recently settled down in suburban Philadelphia, where they hope to start a family. As a former city dweller, Cornelia finds herself out of place in her sorority-like neighborhood and has particular trouble with her overbearing and judgmental neighbor, Piper. Cornelia finds a solitary friend in Lake, another newcomer to town whose secret past keeps the two women from establishing the intimacy Cornelia desires.

As the story continues, the focus shifts away from Cornelia (whose chapters are written in first person) to those of two other characters: Lake’s precocious teen son, Dev, and Piper, the neighbor who seems determined to make Cornelia’s life miserable. We learn that, while Piper seems shallow and vicious, she is experiencing trials of her own, neglecting her own husband as she cares for the family of her best friend who is dying of cancer. We also gain insight into Lake’s past as Dev embarks on a hunt for the father who left his mom before he was born. These three main characters—Piper, Dev, and Cornelia—are all searching for the one person to whom they belong, but along their journeys, they stumble into the messiness of relationship and discover that connection and belonging are hard to come by and are often found in the least expected places.

I was surprised by the depth of this book that I thought would be breezy chick-lit. The writing is strong and the characters are multidimensional and intriguing, as are their stories and relationships. There’s quite a bit going on in this book and though I didn’t care for the three different storylines at first, I liked seeing the ways in which they intersected and eventually came together. The novel raises a few interesting ethical issues and sheds light on personality traits/disorders (always an area of interest for me), and for the most part, these weightier aspects simply move the story forward rather than dragging it down.

I hadn’t realized until after reading the book that this is actually a sequel to Love Walks In, so I’m looking forward to reading that one in the future.

My Rating: 4 stars.