February 23, 2013

Book 8: The Heart Broke In

The Heart Broke In
James Meek

To say nothing else of James Meek's novel The Heart Broke In, it is certainly ambitious. A modern family saga, its action takes place in London, other parts of Britain, and Africa, where several members of the Shepherd family and related individuals live out their daily lives. Though many of the individual plots have power and resonance, however, the story seems to shift gear just when the reader- and the plot- seems to settle in. This happens numerous times throughout the book, which cannot seem to either determine which are the most intriguing stories and most compelling characters or concentrate on any one story for a reasonable amount of time. A relatively bombastic opening salvo, promising moral dilemmas and high drama, fades away into the background in short order, and other plots rise and fall without really connecting until the end. The individual stories are, on their own, compelling, though many of the plots and relationships follow predictable courses suited to would-be high-flying literary fiction. There are moments of levity and seriousness, in due course, and intriguing explorations of thoroughly modern dilemmas, but the overall effect is one of wasted potential, leaving the impression that the book may have fared better as a series of connected, but individual, short stories and novellas. The Heart Broke In does contain some interesting reflections about modern British life, but often veers into the realm of well-trod litfic rather than succeeding on its own merit.

Grade: B

February 21, 2013

Book 7: Palimpsest

Catherynne M. Valente

It's always a bit distressing to read a book where you feel, at the end, like a great premise and great potential have gone to waste. Such is the case with Palimpsest, a novel so enamored with its own good ideas that it routinely loses its way, as if driven by its meandering and overwrought, though occasionally mesmerizing, prose. The use of dual tenses and fonts to represent chapters that take place in the world we know and those in the mysterious second kingdom to which the main characters often travel is inspired, but the plot and settings are so often difficult to discern, particularly in the fantastic world of Palimpsest. The reader often feels as lost and disoriented as the characters must, and without the freedom to cast a glance around and find one's footing the effect becomes one of frustration rather than sympathy. Meandering sentences and half-gratifying descriptions do not do much to assist the reader, and by the time one has adjusted to Valente's prose the book is halfway over and the endeavor already rendered mostly futile. This is not to say that Palmipsest lacks imagination or that Valente shows no talent; the concept of a world accessible only through sex is rich with the potential for metaphor, a potential that Valente often taps throughout the novel. The glimpses the reader gets of Palimpsest are often enchanting, Valente has achieved the seemingly impossible in writing touching, well-crafted sex scenes throughout the book, and the plot that allows Valente to explore the book's core themes of interconnectedness and escape is sufficient to carry readers and characters along. But despite these successes, Palimpsest seems to be a book overly concerned with itself, one that is a chore to read and which requires undue efforts to unlock its most appealing secrets.

Grade: C+