Review: The Bedlam Stacks

Natasha Pulley’s The Bedlam Stacks moves slowly through its introductory material. After reading the first third of the book, I checked Goodreads to see whether I should continue. Enough reviewers called it a “slow burn” that I stuck with it. At times, all the pretty and overwritten details reminded me of The Night Circus, but The Bedlam Stacks has more plot, more answers, and more interesting mythology. From Goodreads:

In 1859, ex-East India Company smuggler Merrick Tremayne is trapped at home in Cornwall after sustaining an injury that almost cost him his leg and something is wrong; a statue moves, his grandfather’s pines explode, and his brother accuses him of madness.

When the India Office recruits Merrick for an expedition to fetch quinine—essential for the treatment of malaria—from deep within Peru, he knows it’s a terrible idea. Nearly every able-bodied expeditionary who’s made the attempt has died, and he can barely walk. But Merrick is desperate to escape everything at home, so he sets off, against his better judgment, for a tiny mission colony on the edge of the Amazon where a salt line on the ground separates town from forest. Anyone who crosses is killed by something that watches from the trees, but somewhere beyond the salt are the quinine woods, and the way around is blocked.

Surrounded by local stories of lost time, cursed woods, and living rock, Merrick must separate truth from fairytale and find out what befell the last expeditions; why the villagers are forbidden to go into the forest; and what is happening to Raphael, the young priest who seems to have known Merrick’s grandfather, who visited Peru many decades before. The Bedlam Stacks is the story of a profound friendship that grows in a place that seems just this side of magical.

When I say some details of The Bedlam Stacks are overwritten, I mean that too many small moments are given too much attention. Decent dialogue doesn’t require a description of a character’s tone or gestures after each line. As is, the writing feels very self-conscious, as though Pulley fears being misunderstood. I’m sympathetic because I used to write this way. If one of my characters was going to change their mind over the course of a conversation, I wanted to show their transformation via eyebrow twitches, chuckles, and whatever other facial tics I thought were subtle at the time. I spelled out everything. Unfortunately, sympathizing with this writing style doesn’t mean I enjoy reading it.

Paragraph-by-paragraph, Pulley’s overly-detailed prose is lyrical. It conjures clear images, no easy feat once things take a turn toward the fantastic and magical. But after a few chapters, the unnecessary details snowball into an avalanche. It takes Merrick too long to leave for Peru because he can’t go before encountering some moving statues and exploding trees at home. I think these scenes are meant to be an intriguing taste of what’s waiting for him in Peru, but all they really say is “if this story ever gets going, it might be interesting.” The premise is great, but be warned: You’ll wait a long time for a payoff.

It’s true that I did not enjoy reading The Bedlam Stacks, but some elements are clever. The moving statues kept me reading as did the forest. The forest is full of glowing pollen which leaves trails when disturbed, so it’s home to some spectacular chases. Both the statues and forest benefit from Pulley’s tendency to overwrite because they’re so beautiful, creepy, and interesting that you’ll want the maximum level of detail.

I’m trying to think of something nice to say…but I like tight, concise writing and this book is bursting with the opposite. Pulley’s #1 trick to convey importance/foreshadowing is to add more and more details and repeat them over and over. But maybe she has a point: How can we know cinchona trees are rare/valuable if we aren’t told over and over? How can we know Raphael is unusual if we don’t read about his surprising strength and cold hands a dozen times? How can we know the plot is high-stakes unless it can only be solved via deus ex machina? Wait, that last question raises a whole other issue…

Overall: 2.4  Everyone loves this book on Goodreads/Amazon so far. Usually, it doesn’t bother me to have a different opinion than most, but it feels icky to criticize a book that was provided by the publisher. However, I feel it’s important to maintain standards on this blog. My favorite bloggers to follow are those with similar taste to mine—when they recommend a book, it’s a safe bet I’ll like it. I assume at least some of my followers stick around for the same reason, so I can’t give overly warm reviews to books I don’t actually enjoy.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury USA (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: The Punch Escrow

2o Books of Summer: Book 7

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein is another fun discovery via NetGalley. Summary from Goodreads:

It’s the year 2147. Advancements in nanotechnology have enabled us to control aging. We’ve genetically engineered mosquitoes to feast on carbon fumes instead of blood, ending air pollution. And teleportation has become the ideal mode of transportation, offered exclusively by International Transport—a secretive firm headquartered in New York City. Their slogan: Departure… Arrival… Delight!

Joel Byram, our smartass protagonist, is an everyday twenty-fifth century [sic] guy. He spends his days training artificial intelligence engines to act more human, jamming out to 1980s new wave—an extremely obscure genre[—]and trying to salvage his deteriorating marriage. Joel is pretty much an everyday guy with everyday problems—until he’s accidentally duplicated while teleporting.

Now Joel must outsmart the shadowy organization that controls teleportation, outrun the religious sect out to destroy it, and find a way to get back to the woman he loves in a world that now has two of him.

Even though I picked up The Punch Escrow for the teleportation mishaps, my favorite parts of the book were in the details: Joel’s day-job as a “salter” and the various types of AI. Salting:

Every choice [computers] came to could only be based on data and algorithms that had been preprogrammed into them. That’s not to say computers couldn’t get new ideas, but every new idea they got could only come from remixing old ideas, or external input from other computers, or through human input—which is where I came in.

We salters spent our days coming up with arbitrary puzzles that AI engines couldn’t grok. Every time a salter’s gambit was not anticipated by an app, that app got smarter by adding the unanticipated random logic set to its decision algorithm, and the salter got paid. Essentially, I made my living by being a smartass to apps. (Loc 229)

The sassy, back-talking computer is a staple of sci-fi (especially sci-fi that tries to be funny), but it feels more gimmicky than real. The Punch Escrow takes a cleverer approach by showing Joel outsmart apps to teach them nuances of language such as double entendres and humor. Seeing various types of AI (rooms, vehicles, personal assistants) analyze Joel’s requests and wordplay is satisfying. Each responds in its own way according to its programming and function. There is more thought and care in these scenes than I expected from the outset. From the blurb, I worried the book would verge on silly/slapdash as Joel ran around cracking one-liners. Instead, the salting scenes occur naturally as Joel struggles to return to his wife.

Self-described “smartass” characters can either be fun or prompt much eye-rolling. Smartassery is something that must be conveyed through a character’s dialogue and actions; as soon as a first-person narrator describes him/herself as smart, witty, or clever they aren’t. Joel’s braggy nature brings him close to this line, but he became more self-aware just as he approached my last nerve. Once there’s a second Joel running around (“Joel²”), Joel evaluates some of his own personality traits the way an outsider might and draws the same conclusions as the reader. In these self-aware moments, he reminisces about his wife. Given that Joel’s internal monologue carries the book (and there are two of him), other characters drift to the background. Joel’s musings on Sylvia keep her around and develop her character despite her limited screentime. Joel’s overall goal is to find her, and this isn’t a compelling quest unless the reader invests in their relationship.

Some of the early reviews play up the “hard sci-fi” angle, and while The Punch Escrow certainly qualifies as such, it’s not as technical as you might think. Complicated explanations are filtered through Joel’s no-nonsense style, and his analogies make the connections between the science and plot simple to follow. Klein strikes a good balance: there’s enough science to legitimize the story, but not so much that Joel stoops to lecturing. There are philosophical and ethical dilemmas sprinkled throughout, too. Alas, my anti-spoilers policy…

But wait, there’s a tiny nitpick about Joel’s musical tastes:

I’m not a fan of the 1980s nostalgia in futuristic books. It makes sense, intellectually, because there are plenty of people who listen to centuries-old music. There’s a push-pull created when using the 1980s, though. It’s nice to hum along with the character, but 1980s music prompts images of giant boom boxes and bright clothing which clash against sleek, futuristic worlds. I’m not sure why the 1980s stand out in this way; if a character listens to Mozart, I don’t imagine them in a powdered wig. I suspect my knee-jerk revulsion to 1980s tunes in sci-fi is because of Ready Player One and its lists, lists, and more lists of 1980s cultural references. (Btw, I’m timing a SBIRIFY post to coincide with Ready Player One‘s release…) At least Joel limits his 1980s love to a few songs.

Overall: 4.4  There is one minor issue that might be a plot hole, but I’ve got my fingers crossed it’ll be handled in the other books (a sequel and prequel). (If not, you’ll hear about it then.) The climax is a bit formulaic, but it’ll play well if The Punch Escrow is made into a movie. Quick note on formatting: I’d recommend a print copy over an ebook due to the number/length of the footnotes. Personally, I find it easier to flip around a paper copy than an ebook.

Translation: Read it.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Inkshares Geek & Sundry (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads


13 to go!

  1. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
  2. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
  3. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
  4. Hungry Hill by Daphne du Maurier
  5. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  6. Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
  7. Roverandom by J.R.R. Tolkien
  8. The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri
  9. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
  10. Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
  11. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  12. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  13. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Previously On:

  1. The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie
  2. A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab
  3. Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler
  4. She by H. Rider Haggard
  5. Dead Wake by Erik Larson
  6. The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Stargazer’s Embassy

Parts of this review sound a little harsh, but overall I liked the vibe and conclusion of Eleanor Lerman’s The Stargazer’s Embassy.

The Stargazer’s Embassy explores the frightening phenomenon of alien abduction from a different point of view: in this story, it is the aliens who seem fearful of Julia Glazer, the woman they are desperately trying to make contact with. Violent and despairing after the murder of the one person she loved, a psychiatrist who was studying abductees, Julia continues to rebuff the aliens until her relationships with others who have met “the things,” as she calls them, including a tattoo artist, a strange man who can take photographs with the power of his mind, and an abductee locked up in a mental hospital, force her deeper into direct alien contact and a confrontation about what death means to humans and aliens alike. (blurb from Goodreads)

What attracted me to this book is that it promises a new angle on the classic alien-abduction tale. I picked it up to learn why aliens—typically otherworldly and powerful—are so frightened of Julia Glazer. For much of the book, her apparent lack of curiosity and deep loathing strike an odd chord. The aliens are creepy when they show up unexpectedly, but they seem sad, even a little pathetic:

It was wearing a long, ill-fitting tan raincoat with prominent epaulets and a pair of what looked like white go-go boots. On its head was a baseball cap pulled low over its face, and it had completed this ridiculous outfit with a pair of oversize sunglasses that might have been worn by some would-be glam rocker a decade ago.
“Is this what you think people look like now?” I snapped at the thing. (Loc 250)

Other characters, the abductees studied by Julia’s psychiatrist boyfriend, John, report terrifying and disturbing encounters. That The Stargazer’s Embassy features two types of aliens (creepy experimenters and lousy dressers) widens the mystery of why Julia is special. Despite the range, most of the mythology centers around the story of Barney and Betty Hill and Betty’s infamous star map. (If you’re not familiar with this particular tale, I recommend looking it up. It’ll grab your imagination whether or not you think the truth is out there.)

The conclusion of the book is surprisingly nuanced and thoughtful, but the first half has its weaknesses. The back cover names John the “one person [Julia] loved,” but their connection is thin. John is a poorly drawn character. His only dialogue is exposition: theories about alien abductions, his work with the abductees, and vague details about his past. His dialogue advances the plot and story, but does nothing to make him three-dimensional. Julia might as well date a Wikipedia article. Scenes that don’t include one of his lectures are typically summarized:

I found [John] drinking coffee with Nicky. They both teased me about sleeping late, but they could probably tell I wasn’t in the mood to be joked with, so they let that go. I poured myself some coffee and devoted myself to reading a copy of the local paper that was lying on the kitchen table while the two men talked about the traffic that John and I might encounter on the drive home, since we planned to leave soon. After a while, John said he would go pack up our things so we could get going. (Loc 1430)

When I read this scene, it struck me that John had spoken so few non-expository lines that I had no idea how he might joke with Julia or make small talk with Nick. I had to take Julia’s word that she cared about him because there was so little warmth or emotion between them. Part of this is due to the closed-off nature of her character, but the other part comes from not having a clear image of John. Once he’s gone, Julia relies more on herself, and the side characters are kept to the side. It’s okay that she doesn’t have deep relationships with them because she doesn’t claim to.

I was pleasantly surprised that the story I delayed reading in case it was too frightening or unsettling turned out to be clever and imaginative. There’s a lot of potential here, but the poor characterization of John kept me from investing in the first half of the book. The second half redeems it just because it is such a different take on why aliens might want or need to contact humans. It is thought-provoking and eerie in all the best ways.

Overall: 3.6  The first half is comparatively weak and Julia is one of few fully-articulated characters. The book gets points for originality and creativity even though it’s flat in places.

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mayapple Press (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: Goodreads

Review: Radio Sunrise

The pitch for Anietie Isong’s Radio Sunrise caught my eye because it seemed to be about making a documentary in Nigeria; plus, other sites describe it as satirical:

Ifiok, a young journalist working for the government radio station in Lagos, aspires to always do the right thing but the odds seem to be stacked against him. Government pressures cause the funding to his radio drama to get cut off, his girlfriend leaves him when she discovers he is having an affair with an intern, and kidnappings and militancy are on the rise in the country. When Ifiok travels to his hometown to do a documentary on some ex-militants’ apparent redemption, a tragicomic series of events will make him realise he is unable to swim against the tide.

Rather than being a teaser, this blurb is more like a summary. What I took as introductory/set-up material forms the first half of the novel. Ifiok doesn’t leave for his village until after the 50% mark and the documentary is pushed to the margins. The plot moves well and events accumulate naturally, but they’re often described in a cursory manner that doesn’t give a reader’s imagination much to do.

Ifiok is introduced as an observant journalist in the opening chapter, but so much sound, color, and vivacity are only hinted at. Things are often beautiful, opulent, or poor with few visual cues or specific details. A non-spoiler example: There is a scene in which Ifiok discusses fancy office chairs with a man who has purchased them via questionable funds. There’s a wall of dialogue about these chairs and their cost, but the reader doesn’t have a mental image to form his or her own opinion because the chairs aren’t described. Reading this scene feels like being the third wheel while two friends share an inside joke.

This sounds like a petty complaint and, if this were the only scene like this, I wouldn’t mention it. But there’s a curious mix of too much information and not enough throughout the book. Because Radio Sunrise is dialogue-heavy, conversations are the basis for most character development. The supporting cast is largely introduced via their conversations with Ifiok. Small talk is conveyed in great detail, but scenes often end when the real conversation starts, only for Ifiok to summarize its point and conclusion later. This makes it hard to connect with characters because the moments that would illuminate their views and motivations are happening off-screen.

It’s one thing to have small moments happen off the page, but there’s an instant in the climax when Ifiok is at his most passionate that should have been shown. He’s engaged in a screaming match, yet his words are unknown to the reader. Why? Because Ifiok can’t remember what he said. If he wants to forego a verbatim account, that’s one thing, but to not even give the reader a paraphrased piece of his mind? You could say Ifiok’s memory gap helps to reinforce the novel’s point, but a story and its subtext should not be at odds in such a way that one weakens the other. The ending is diminished for not hearing Ifiok’s views, even if his forgetfulness might be part of the story.

As to the positive, I liked that the story was told from Ifiok’s perspective as he tries to remain an ethical journalist—one who doesn’t prioritize bribes and money over reporting. The pacing is solid and the dialogue is ambitious; the dialogue does a lot of heavy-lifting in terms of character and plot development. There’s potential here too. Throughout, I wondered if this story would work better as a (long) short story or novella. If it were pared down, some of the transitions would be less jarring and the ending wouldn’t feel so rough. Ambiguous endings seem easier to take with short fiction, perhaps because there is much less of an investment (time- and otherwise).

Overall: 3.5 out of 5

NB: This book was provided for review by the publisher, Jacaranda Books (via NetGalley).
Image Credit: NetGalley