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Book Review: Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley

Amity & Sorrow by Peggy Riley (Little, Brown and Company; 320 pages; $25.99).

amity and sorrowA raging inferno destroys the compound of a fundamentalist polygamous cult and directs the leader’s first wife, Aramanth, to flee with her two daughters, Amity and Sorrow.  One is a reluctant passenger, while the other watches “for the end of the world.”  In the backseat of the car, their hands “are hot and close together” with “a strip of white fabric” looped “between them, tying them together, wrist to wrist.”  Aramanth is “taking them from their home and all they know, and they have no idea how they will ever get her to turn around and take them back.”

Peggy Riley’s absorbing and gripping debut, Amity & Sorrow, may be fictional, but the plot reads like something straight from the headlines.  Riley mixes the personal with the political and the individual with the communal in her unflinching and thereby stunning portrayal of a family escaping a deranged cult leader and father and his dangerous religion.

“All the world prepares for the end of time,” “Father” preached to his flock of wives and children on December 31, 1999.  “You can feel it, like a sickness,” he cried and lamented that the world was “coming apart at the seams.”  Though the world did not end on that date,  Father was not upset but secure in the knowledge that the end was closing in.

Riley ably and chillingly illuminates the appeal of a utopian society like the one Father attempted and failed to create.  In riveting detail, the author describes how wife after wife, fifty in all, came to the compound and married Father.  Some worried about terrorism; others sought something larger than themselves.  A few wanted to start new lives.  None intrigued more, though, than Riley’s “thirty-ninth wife, the daughter of Waco,” who left the Branch Davidians after the Waco firestorm only to seek solace in the arms of a new prophet.  These transfixing passages turn the cult’s followers into real people with hopes, dreams, and everything to lose.

A deep sense of loss permeates Amity & Sorrow.  Out of all Riley’s main characters, it is Sorrow who feels the most unmoored as she is desperate to return to the compound.  She enjoyed her position as the cult’s oracle, but now her status is lost to her forever.  Her greatest wish, to be her father’s fifty-first wife, will never come true.  Still, Sorrow holds fast to her father’s teachings, no matter how unrealistic they seem or how ignorant they make her appear.

In contrast to her sister, and in accordance with her name, Amity does her best to promote harmony, whether in the compound or on the run.  On the farm where the family enjoys a brief respite, Amity makes friends with Dust, a teenage farmhand, and finds comfort in the pages of The Grapes of Wrath.  Despite her efforts to fit it, Amity seeks a sign from God and believes her hands can heal a television, “turning snow into pictures,” by moving the rabbit ears.

Aramanth does not miss what you might expect.  Instead of longing for her husband, Aramanth yearns for the companionship of her sister wives, women she grew to love.  She is increasingly drawn to Bradley, a farmer, who is nothing like her husband.  The longer Aramanth spends away from the compound, the clearer things seem to her about Father and about her daughters.

Amity & Sorrow is filled with vivid and intoxicating passages of prose, especially when Riley writes about spinning.   “…Women were

Peggy Riley

Peggy Riley

spinning like hoops, like wheels.  Women spun in solo orbits, lost in chanting, lost in prayer, then they spun together in a wide circle that swung around the room, around the altar.”  When they “spun, they could forget patrol cars, forget that they were being watched and judged.”  When the women spun, “they only thought of how the heavens turned above them and how God cupped them all in His wide, white hand.”  The bereavement Amity feels is palpable and powerful to the reader when she begins menstruating and no one spins her as they did Sorrow.

I was glued to Riley’s compelling tale.  The opening, when two sisters are tied together at the wrist, literally forces you to keep reading.  You feel tethered to the sisters yourself, already, even on the first page.  Riley seizes your attention and never lets go in her riveting and timely debut.  Amity & Sorrow is hotter than brimstone and will leave you reeling.

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Book Review: The Twelve by Justin Cronin

The Twelve by Justin Cronin (Ballantine Books; 592 pages; $28).

                In 2010, Justin Cronin set the book world on fire with his bestselling blockbuster The Passage, in which a secret government experiment went horribly awry.  Cronin imagined a post-apocalyptic landscape so alien and frightening that it gave readers good reason to keep their lights on.  Critics were enthralled, too, and compared Cronin to Stephen King and Cormac McCarthy.  Horror was not even Cronin’s forte; before the release of The Passage, Cronin was best known for writing Mary and O’Neil, winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and the Stephen Crane Prize.

The Passage introduced readers to a little girl named Amy, “the Girl from Nowhere—the One Who Walked In, the First and Last and Only, who lived a thousand years.”  Amy, Peter, and Alicia waged war against the virals.

Amy, Peter, and Alicia are all back in The Twelve but lack the spark that made them so intriguing and multi-dimensional in the first book.  They cannot carry this story.  Not even Amy can save The Twelve.

The Twelve does not pick up where The Passage ended.  Cronin takes readers back to Year Zero, a tactic that will frustrate most.  He wants us to see a new window into the aftermath of the virus that decimated much of humanity and destroyed civilization.  Before long, I was mesmerized by the new characters Cronin introduces, especially Lila, a pregnant woman who blocks out the end of the world happening around her.

Cronin’s strongest new characters, though, are three very different men: Kittridge, Danny, and Guilder.

Kittridge, or “Last Stand in Denver,” is a survivalist holed up in a high-rise.  He shot 7 virals the first night he was there.  “It was the last one that made him famous.  The creature, or vampire, or whatever it was—the official term was ‘Infected Person’—had looked straight into the lens just before Kittridge put one through the sweet spot.”  In a nod to the times in which Cronin sets Year Zero, our times, the video was uploaded to YouTube.  The picture “had traveled around the globe within hours; by morning all the major networks had picked it up.”  People were curious about Kittridge: “Who is this man? Everyone wanted to know.  Who is this fearless-crazy-suicidal man, barricaded in a Denver high-rise, making his last stand?”

Meanwhile, Danny, an autistic bus driver, is home with his mother’s dead body.  All alone with no electricity, a stinking corpse, and sour milk, Danny is terrified.  But he feels a kinship with the kids he drives to school.  He worries about them and is determined to see if they are all right.  Maybe Danny will find other survivors and news about what is going on.  “Because maybe he wasn’t the only person still living.  Because it gave him the happy-click, driving the bus.  Because he didn’t know what else to do with himself, with Momma in the bedroom and the milk spoiled and all the days gone by.”  Danny sets out in his school bus; he finds a changed world, but one in which he has a real place.

Guilder is the character you love to hate in The Twelve.  He is the Deputy Director of Special Weapons who is desperate to get his hands on little Amy or another test subject who was given a very special virus.  “And the virus was moving.  Spreading in every direction, a twelve-fingered hand.  By the time Homeland had sealed off the major interstate corridors…the horse was already galloping from the barn.”  Through Guilder, we see the government collapsing.  Cronin has Guilder make some tough decisions, making us empathize and sympathize with him.

Just when you get comfortable with new characters in the Year Zero, Cronin removes you from your comfort zone.  This can be a good thing, but not in this case.

When Cronin advances the story 100 years into the future, the novel loses ground.  The characters we got to know in The Passage, people we came to like, people we rooted for, fall flat in The Twelve.  Five years have passed and each has undergone many changes, but I found their dialogue awkward.  I could not get a feel for them this time around.

Furthermore, the alien world that Cronin illustrated so well and beautifully in The Passage is less alien here.  There is nothing new or unique or strange about it; it is all too familiar.  Instead of being awed by the eccentricity of the plot and setting as I was in The Passage, I found myself scrutinizing Cronin’s fondness of coincidences.  Too much of what he wrote was improbable.

The one shining light in this part of the story takes place in Fort Powell, Iowa, where a demagogue feeds humans to virals.  Cronin comes up with lots of surprises here.  But, sadly, it’s too little too late.

Fans of The Passage have waited a long time for its sequel.  Sadly, The Twelve is not worth the wait.  New blood made the story compelling in parts and highly readable at times.  However, the characters we came to love in The Passage come across as lackluster and even boring.  Amy is no savior here.

 

Justin Cronin

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Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (Random House; 288 pages; $26).

Forget armed conflict, viruses, terrorism and nuclear war. The people in Karen Thompson Walker’s elegiac, dark and gripping debut novel, “The Age of Miracles,” have other, more important things to worry about — namely, the effects of “the slowing” of Earth.

Walker, a former Simon & Schuster editor, combines science fiction and speculative fiction with a coming-of-age story. The effect is somber yet dazzling; I had never read anything like it.

(To read more of this book review that I wrote for the Mobile Press-Register, please go here.)

 

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Book Review: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller (Knopf; 336 pages; $24.95).

           

The End Of The World As We Know It does not necessarily mean The End.  In The Stand, Stephen King unleashed a flu epidemic, “Captain Tripps,” onto mankind, killing billions.  Some possessed a natural immunity to the disease.  These survivors were central in the fight between good and evil.  In the end, Las Vegas and the “Darkman” were obliterated, but life went on.

Cormac McCarthy also wrote about The End Of Time.  In his bleak and powerful novel The Road, an unnamed father and son journeyed through a post-apocalyptic and utterly unrecognizable landscape.  McCarthy used nuclear war instead of a disease but his characters also struggled, this time against angry survivors who were hell-bent on making a new world as they saw fit.

Yet, in both these ravaged and savage landscapes, pockets of humanity still existed; hope lived on.  As it does in Peter Heller’s transcendent and beautifully lyric debut The Dog Stars.

Nine years before The Dog Stars begins a flu epidemic wiped out most of the world’s population.  Think something like this is just fiction?  Look up the 1918 Spanish flu, and I guarantee you will get chills.  In Heller’s story, a superbug mutated and combined with bird flu.  The first cases of the Africanized bird flue appeared in London; in all likelihood, though, the virus originated at a national weapons lab.  Not long after, the flu had spread everywhere.  Chaos erupted.  If flu were not enough, another catastrophe got added to the mix.  A blood disease similar to HIV wreaked havoc on those who survived the flu.

You can imagine the kind of world left behind.  It’s a kill-or-be-killed existence, something Heller’s protagonist, Hig, knows all too well. As Heller writes, “Old rules are done Hig.  Went the way of the woodpecker.  Gone with the glaciers and the government.  New world now.  New world new rules.  Never ever negotiate.”

Hig is an “old man at forty” who lost his wife and their unborn child to the flu.  Hig’s narrative is unconventional as Heller uses flashbacks and sometimes strange streams of consciousness to tell us his story.  After the flu struck, encephalitis felled Hig.  “Two straight weeks of fever, three days 104 to 105,” Hig explains, “I know it cooked my brains.”  There is no pattern to Hig’s thoughts.  They are often jumbled and mish-mashed, often without segue from one thought to the next.  He begins many of his sentences with “and” or “so” and most of his thoughts are fragments.  What Hig has lived through and what he has lost speak to us from the page.  Heller uses a very powerful device, and Hig just would not be Hig without it.

After living through The End, we would try to make a home in a place of familiarity and safety.  That is exactly what Hig does.  He makes his home at a small, abandoned airport, where he sleeps under the stars with his faithful old dog, Jasper.  He shares the airport with Bangley, his neighbor and “good ole boy,” who often saves Hig’s “bacon.” Bangley needs Hig because Hig pilots an eighty-year-old 1956 (do the math and the year is about 2036) Cessna that he nicknames “the Beast.”  Hig and Jasper patrol the airport’s perimeter, which means Hig can see who or what is coming before the who or what gets there.  Most of the time.

In the novel’s most violent episode, nine people stalk Hig as he returns from a hunt.  Bangley warns him from his spot on a tower and coaches Hig on what to do.  Remember this is a kill-or-be-killed world.  A firefight ensues.  One of the stalkers is a young boy, who Hig kills.  Killing may come easy for Bangley, but it is hard for Hig. He is losing hope, especially as he sees the blood disease slowly kill the Mennonite families who live close to the airport and who he furnishes some supplies.

Hig knows he has to leave the airport and Bangley to restore his faith.  A few years ago, he heard a voice over the radio while flying.  It was a woman’s voice who referenced the Grand Junction airport.  Hig is determined to go there and to find out what is out there, if anything.  Heller shows that sometimes one must take a leap of faith.  Sometimes one has to venture out into the unknown.

Because Hig flies a plane, readers are given a birds’ eye view of what is below.  Climate change has made our world almost unrecognizable and alien.  Few fish exist.  Droughts are common.  Animals such as bears, cows, and elk are rare.  Birds are almost extinct.  “The tiger left, the elephant, the apes, the baboon, the cheetah.  The tinmouse, the frigate bird, the pelican (gray), the whale (gray), the collared dove.  Sad but.  Didn’t cry until the last trout swam upriver looking for maybe cooler water.”

No wonder Hig thinks of dinosaurs: “I thought of a painting I had seen at the natural history museum in Denver.  A bunch of mixed dinosaurs, I remember triceratops, fleeing across a sparse plain pursued by fire, and volcanoes erupting in the background.  I wonder if they could run as fast as a mama grizzly or a deer.”

Holding on to memories can go far in keeping a person alive.  Hig is testament to this belief.  Yet, he must let go of the past in order to embrace his future.  In a world devastated by violence, flu, and climate change, sometimes a person has to take certain liberties, especially if he no longer remembers the names of constellations.  Sometimes, like Hig, we must make it up as we go along.  In a time when there are no rules, Hig has to decide what his rules are; only then can he restore his lost hope.  The Dog Stars reminds us that even when mankind has been wiped out, humanity never truly dies.

Heller contrasts violent brutality, charred cities, and empty houses with pastoral scenes of nature.  There is such beauty in this story, even when everything is dead or dying.  Heller seems to relay an underlying message for readers: Take care of the Earth before his fictional story becomes an actual reality.  Cold milk, fresh apples, a touch, a faithful dog, naming the stars, going fishing, a bird call–the fragile stuff of everyday life.

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Filed under book review, books, dystopian literature, fiction, Lemuria Books

Spotlight on Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles

Today is the publication day for former Simon & Schuster editor Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles.  Critics and readers are calling it THE summer read.  I wholeheartedly agree.

I have read it and am lucky enough to be reviewing this book for the Mobile Press-Register.  Walker combines science fiction and speculative fiction with a coming-of-age story.  The tale is really one huge flashback in which an adult woman named Julia narrates what happened the year she was 11.  Time slows.  At first, it is only minutes; then, it is hours; then, it is days; and, finally, it is weeks that are gained.  The world is in a tailspin, and so are its inhabitants.

Julia tries to navigate her way in a radically changed world.  It is not easy.  Walker takes a somber tone in this dark, gloomy, and very human story.  Julia’s account is an elegy of a lost way of life and of an irrevocably changed world.

The Age of Miracles is my recommendation for the week.  We are talking must-read here.

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