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Crumbtown

Joe Connelly’s Bringing Out the Dead was the rare novel that was as lyrical as it was streetwise, as if Raymond Chandler wrote a novel about paramedics that were slumming lower than their wards. The story of healers in search of healing — emotional, existential — was laid gently across the pages, cathartic and not overly critical.

So what happened with Crumbtown, Connelly’s sophomore novel? Calling it a ‘sophomore slump’ really isn’t an exaggeration; the book was a commercial and critical flop. Sure, you could probably say that’s because the book didn’t spawn a film adaptation (like the Martin Scorsese-directed Bringing Out the Dead from 1999), but it could just be because the book, well, was just bad. Sorry, Joe.

The idea works in theory: convict is released early from prison to act as a consultant for a TV drama based around the criminal’s antics. But this is how it really plays out: After spending more time in prison than out, Don Reedy is released early to return to the urban cesspool of Crumbtown. Lots of confusing things happen, which play out like they’re supposed to be funny (but aren’t), or wink-wink nudge-nudge ironic (and aren’t). And the book weakly coasts to a stop before ending, like a deflating helium balloon clinging to its last few months in the air.

Connelly never fully develops Don as a character, but I feel like the reader is supposed to grow to love or pity him (or both). He’s merely a list of actions with a name attached; there’s no meat on the bone. The supporting cast doesn’t fare much better either, especially the small cloud of has-beens and never-will-bes that float around Don. The only character that had some weight — a Russian immigrant bartender turned love (no, make that lust; there’s no love here) interest — feels like she should be in another, better book.

Crumbtown also relies far too much on cheap laughs or unwieldy surrealism to attempt to float the plot along. The grand jest of having Don rob the TV set based on a robbery he committed is the only thing that comes off as clever, but that good feeling fades fast. Characters with goofy names aren’t funny in the long run, especially if you’re trying to pass it off as satire. Crumbtown shoots for street-level satire and hits the gutter with one-note jokes.

Connelly’s wordplay is one of the few things worthwhile in the book. Short, elegantly descriptive passages kept me thinking that yes, Connelly is talented; but even this aspect is tainted by hodge-podge editing. I had wished that I were reading Bringing Out the Dead again.

Crumbtown on Amazon.com

Crumbtown
by Joe Connelly
Published in 2004 by Vintage Press
272 pages
ISBN 0375712976

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Auralia’s Colors

Genre fiction often gets a bad rap for following blueprints drawn up by great predecessors. The bad rap is often deserved; as much as I like mysteries, I’m fine with never reading another story with a crafty serial killer or wise, eccentric European gumshoe.

So when I say Auralia’s Colors is a different sort of fantasy novel, that’s meant as high praise. Even though it took a few chapters to draw me in, I fell in love with everything about the book. I’m already impatient for the sequel, slated for next fall.

The people of House Abascar are in perpetual winter–not only are the citizens are under constant threat from marauding beastmen, but the kingdom was stripped of color years before by the since-vanished queen. Now, only the royalty can enjoy color while the rest of the people are draped in grays and murky brown. Morale is low. Fear and paranoia are a given. All await a spring–a grand return of color and joy–that may never come.

At the center of the novel is Auralia, a young girl living with the outcasts and criminals camped outside of Abascar’s walls. She spends her time exploring, often collecting materials for the richly-colored weavings she makes. Her joy and compassion are a blessing for the downtrodden outside the city gates, as are the magnificent–and illegal–gifts she makes for everyone.

But while Auralia is the heart of the book and the catalyst for much of what happens, she isn’t the focus; Overstreet populates the Expanse with a great cast. There’s King Cal-marcus, broken by his wife’s disappearance and the ghosts of the past; Prince Cal-raven haunts the woods outside of the kingdom’s walls, drawn more to the outcasts than the aristocrats; and a humble, un-named ale boy who is quickly swept into the adventure. There are also countless minor characters that are as rich and interesting as those that get more focus.

Overstreet sidesteps some of the standard fantasy tropes and delivers something different, something wonderful. None of the characters fit into the standard fantasy archetypes–Auralia isn’t a harmless waif or tough princess, but a complex, tattered young girl that has a deep love and faith in things she doesn’t entirely understand. And instead of a novel based around swords-and-sorcery action or medieval political intrigue, Auralia’s Colors gives the cast room to breathe and move about and take their own path.

Sometimes the prose is a little too lush (I had to re-read a few parts several times just to figure out what was happening), but Overstreet writes beautifully. He’s not writing the story of Abascar–he’s painting it. I also wish the book could’ve been longer, fleshing out a few things that seem like they were glossed over. But that almost seems like a minor afterthought; Overstreet gets everything else right.

The allegorical aspects and themes are also woven into the story well enough that they don’t fall out on to your lap. It’s all pretty powerful stuff, from the childrens’ whispers and trust in the Keeper that haunts their dreams, to the power of imagination and beauty, no matter how rugged or worn it may seem.

It’s hard to believe this is Jeffrey’s first novel. In addition to acting as contributing editor for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine, he spends most of his time writing film reviews for magazines like Christianity Today and Paste (he also wrote a great account of his journey as a film lover with his book Through a Screen Darkly). His attention to detail and nuance as a film lover pays off. Auralia’s Colors is an accomplished and satisfying debut, minor blemishes and all.

Next fall can’t come soon enough.

Auralia’s Colors is the first strand in the Auralia Thread. The next in the series, Cyndere’s Midnight, is forthcoming.

Jeffrey Overstreet’s website
Buy Auralia’s Colors here

Auralia’s Colors
by Jeffrey Overstreet
Published in 2007 by WaterBrook Press
352 pages
ISBN 1400072522

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Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge

Asia Times reporter Pepe Escobar likens his book Red Zone Blues to a series of blues songs, short blurbs that capture the sad song of life in Iraq during the 2007 troop surge. It sounds like it could work but ultimately does not.

Escobar bookends the book with segments padded with hyper-kinetic prose and slivers of blues lyrics. It looks like James Ellroy journalism on the surface, but if you dig deeper it’s closer to a high school student vomiting out angst as bad poetry.

Yes, there is some meaty stuff here. Escobar’s 15-plus chapters each serve as vignettes of life in Iraq and its neighboring countries since the beginning of 2007. He gives readers a good sense of the cycle of hopelessness and cynicism he sees Iraqi citizens falling into. He talks to the exiled and dispersed people that have trickled out after the U.S. invasion. And from the information gleaned, Escobar draws some conclusions: the Sunni and Shi’ite strife was non-existent before the invasion, there are many more sides to the conflict than just “UN vs. everybody else” and–as an underlying theme–things will probably just get worse.

But Escobar is so frequently one-sided that it mars his position. He unapologetically blames the U.S. for the bulk of the trouble, which–honestly–doesn’t bother me. I’m all over the map regarding the current events in Iraq, and feel frustrated when I hear so many conflicting reports, all saying I should think one way or another. But Escobar is so one-note in his condemnation that I can’t take him seriously. It seems like he interviewed just people that shared his view, and he tosses around damning numbers and figures left and right without any sourcing.

Escobar also slums by employing almost non-stop shoddy metaphors and ironic quotes. Some sentences drag on for entire paragraphs, others dovetailing out of sight, the weight of purple prose dragging them down. The prologue and coda are especially bad; I had to re-read them because I was laughing so hard the first time around. I don’t think laughter was the intended response. Journalism doesn’t have to be–shouldn’t be–dry, but this is soaking wet. Soggy, even.

Red Zone Blues is a short book, and a sizable fraction is occupied by a preview of Escobar’s other book (Globalistan). But by the end, I was wishing it were shorter; there are some provocative ideas in here that could lead to good discussion or challenging self-examination, but it’s almost entirely obscured by questionable journalism and self-indulgent prose. It’s a snapshot of Baghdad, but a tattered, unfocused one at best.

Red Zone Blues: A Snapshot of Baghdad During the Surge
by Pepe Escobar
Published in 2007 by Nimble Books
124 pages
ISBN 0978813898

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Enchantment

Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is a retooled, contemporary take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. But it also feels like a 1990s version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Card uses the modern setting–and some contemporary moral questions–without mauling the source material too much, providing a surprisingly deep and entertaining read.

Ivan Smetski grew up during the twilight of the Soviet Union, his family converting to Judaism to gain visas to Israel that will ultimately pull them out from under Communist rule. But they end up moving to the United States, where Ivan grows and matures to a become a talented young man. He becomes an expert in the Old Church Slavonic language, gets engaged to a nice American girl and spends what little free time he has running for pleasure.

Ivan heads back to the Ukraine to do graduate linguistics work, promising his parents and fiance a swift return. But curiosity draws Ivan to a clearing he had discovered as a child, a sleeping princess in the center. The clearing and princess are still there, and Ivan overcomes obstacles–including a monstrous bear–to rescue her (with a kiss, no less).

This sets off a chain of events that takes Ivan back to 10th century Russia, back to 1999 America and then back to dark age Russia once more. Ivan’s morals and convictions are challenged repeatedly, and Card uses the narrative to raise some pretty deep questions about the nature of love, duty, and lots and lots about the nuances of folk religion and belief.

These nuances make the book tick. The cultural divide Ivan’s European/American Judaism and dark age pidgin Christianity causes no end of grief for the various characters (especially Ivan), but this element is not used as a simple ‘culture clash’ plot point; the author really does a great job of taking a step back and examining why certain cultures do certain things. Card also put a lot of thought into the nuts and bolts of time travel; Ivan wonders about this frequently, and they’re the sort of honest questions you wish people would ask in other books and films.

Card’s prose is occasionally hamfisted, but he’s not a bad writer. The characters are molded from well-worn clay, but the result is pretty fresh. And the plot moves along at a rapid clip without dropping in quality too much. And Card’s inclusion of eastern European myth and folklore–which binds wonderfully with the story–is seamless.

But a few things were groan-inducing, including dialogue that is incredibly expository. Card also includes several scenes that are probably meant to illustrate the possibility of fate or predestination, but come across incredibly hammy–one of the few living people in modern society to speak Old Church Slavonic just happens to travel back to a time period where Old Slavonic is spoken, and so on. This sort of thing happens enough to make it wearisome.

By the end, I really was drawn to the novel. Card took a worn fairy tale and turned it into something new, something fresh and worth investigating again.

Enchantment
by Orson Scott Card
Published in 1999 by Del Ray
400 pages
ISBN 0345416872

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