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Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Changeling (Review): A Genre-Defying Modern Fairy Tale

There are novels that defy easy categorization...and then there's The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle. This novel is nuts, in the best possible way. It's basically a modern fairy tale about how our parents either mess us up or send us out adequately prepared to deal with the world. That's a massive oversimplification for this massively entertaining novel, but it's the gist.

It starts mundanely enough — with a boy meets girl story. Apollo Kagwa, New Yorker, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a librarian named Emma. Soon, they have a child — delivered on a subway train during a power outage (a near-mythological birth!)— they name Brian, after Apollo's father. This is odd, though, because Apollo's father abandoned he and his mother when Apollo was four. But he left behind a children's picture book he used to read to Apollo depicting a fairy tale where a child is stolen by a goblin. This is foreshadowing at its finest.

Emma and Apollo begin having marital problems which culminate in....boy, you just have to read this to find out what happens. Suffice it to say, their baby disappears, and Apollo spends the rest of the novel — an odyssey through New York City, to a mysterious island inhabited by women and finally to the only forest in New York City, a park in Queens — trying to find his child and his wife.

This novel is so cleverly written, incorporating tropes from myths (I mean, dude's name is Apollo, for one), to fairy tales (bread crumbs, evil parents, etc.), to even Biblical themes (which of course, depending on your own beliefs, may actually just be myth as well). But this is novel thoroughly modern — there's bits here cautioning about privacy issues with social media, specifically, and the potential dangers of technology, generally. These parts are a nice juxtaposition with Apollo's profession of used book dealer. Indeed, it's through his job — selling a first-edition, signed To Kill A Mockingbird — that he meets the mysterious William, who becomes a major part of what happens.

As things get weirder and Apollo is less and less sure about everything he thought he knew about reality, the novel gets increasingly violent as well. Apollo is sort of tested to the lengths of his own humanity. What will he be willing to do to save his child?

I loved this book - it's really unlike anything I've ever read. It didn't garner too much attention when it was published last June, but it's showed up on several "Underrated Books of the Year" lists, including this one from Bookstr. If you want to read something wholly unique, check out this terrific book!

Monday, January 8, 2018

The End Of The World Running Club (Review): There Is No Finish Line

There are lots of reason to take up running. To lose weight. To feel better, etc. I started running a couple years ago because I desperately needed to do something to stem the tide of quickly approaching middle age. But if you're Ed Hill of Scotland, you start running because if you ever want to see your family again, you have 500 miles to cover and only three weeks to do it... (Cue dramatic movie trailer music...) And oh yeah, it's the apocalypse!

That's the juicy setup for Adrian J. Walker's novel The End of the World Running Club, a story of Ed's fight for survival traversing the British Isle after civilization has been basically destroyed by a massive meteor shower.

Ed's kind of schmuck, frankly. He's a bad father, a worse husband, and is nursing a worsening drinking problem. So, to him, an apocalypse might not be the worst thing in the world. He's just about had enough anyway:
"The truth is I was tired of it all. I was tired of the clamor and the din of the world that made less sense by the day and a life that had me just where it wanted. The truth is that the end of the world, for me at least, came as a relief."
That's not a super cheery sentiment (though I did kind of laugh when I read those lines — it's not too much of a stretch these days to root for the end of the world, or at least a huge change to how things are now, right?), and it doesn't exactly put you in Ed's corner. He's not your traditional hero of the apocalypse, that's for sure.

But so, a series of events result in Ed being separated from his family, and we learn that evacuation boats are leaving from the southern tip of England with his family on Christmas day — 21 days hence.

So Ed starts running. He's not sure why. It's not a conscious decision. And he's never done it before. He just needs to run. With a crew of four others, Ed begins making his way south through a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape.

The thing I enjoyed most about this novel (and why I picked it up in the first place) is Ed's thoughts on running. Before the meteors hit, and life was normal, Ed had admitted he'd been lazy — that his kids had been a valid justification in his mind not to have the time or energy to work out. And not only that, but he'd also hated runners because he thought they were just showing off, rubbing it in his face with their long strides as he stood outside a pub smoking a cigarette. They are fit and in shape and he's a fat dumb drunk. I loved that part — I had similar thoughts about runners (usually while standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette, often while day-drinking) before I started running. And even post-apocalypse, when Ed starts running, he still hates it, it's still draining. It takes a while for him to break through the proverbial wall and embrace running.

Even if you're not a runner and could care less about running, there's still plenty here to keep you interested. It's also a novel about how people — both good and evil — deal with the apocalypse, and how it makes them more good or more evil. Ed and his crew encounter several other survivors, both friends and foes, as they traverse the country. Some help, some don't. And Walker's pace is breakneck, things move along rather quickly.

So this was a fun read — it freshens up the post-apocalyptic thriller genre just a bit. There's plenty that's familiar, but turning this into kind of a running novel was a neat take.