A complex, imaginative novel, The Counsel of the Cunningby Steven C. Harms, offers readers international thriller pacing combined with the precision of a police procedural and just the right gloss of mad scientist. It opens with a howler monkey and a kidnapped scientist, and it never slows down or lets up from there as the characters—good and bad—travel through vast landscapes and much danger. Broad in scope, the story is a bold adventure with harrowing interludes in which the prevailing question seems to be “what exactly is going on here?”
What really unifies this collection is all the characters who are in denial and/or honestly trying to suss out who they really are, how they fit into their bureaucracies, their families, the society in general, their authentic selves. It’s a very contemporary collection, too, with references to January 6 and a character named “The Dealmaker” who is plainly Donald Trump.
There is always a degree of artifice in the process of creating a narrative. A story must be constructed, and the many and multiple perspectives of reality fixed into something linear and sensical, which is, in its way, antithetical to the reality of life. Allen plays with this notion, weaving together multiple narrative threads into a story that sets itself up as a noir thriller with an engaging tagline: a writer held hostage by a beautiful woman, forced to type on his typewriter as a decoy to an assassination.
Mostly True Tales from Birchmont Village is a gentle comedy reminiscent of Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Garrison Keillor’s novels. The humour derives from idiosyncratic characters who appear in the seven, chronological stories that make up the book.
This is a stunning book, even if sometimes bleak, about a family struggling to transcend its own sometimes cryptic and often brutal history, as well as the history of their natural land. This is not a light and fluffy book, but its harshness and intensity are part of what makes it such a great read. And, as mentioned before, the writing itself is eloquent and gorgeous. The lyrical, precise prose in The Way of the Saints transforms the story into literature.
And then I read the novel again and again, awestruck, shedding tears each time I read of Garima’s sad demise. The theatre-halls were either being sold out by the owners to predatory realtors or to rich business magnates who razed the hall to put up a zany shopping mall there. It was crucial times for theatre-halls then, no doubt.
The book is beautifully presented, with hand drawn illustrations, photographs, quotations, and facts about the different animals in the book and the events that inspired them, particularly the 2019/20 Australian bushfires, which were particularly devastating in Smuhar’s Blue Mountains hometown and which had some an intense impact on Australian flora and fauna (for example, some 60,000 koalas were negatively impacted by the fires). Smuhar’s goal with this book is not only to raise funds, but to entertain and educate.
The author’s style is simple and straightforward, and her use of highly descriptive prose generates excellent dialog and tantalizingly paints her characters as well as the tumultuous events in which they participate. I particularly enjoyed the alliterative flourishes: (“tawny tangy dancing woman”; “she senses sin and shame standing sentry”; “maggoty men”); the challenging vocabulary: (“termagants”; “tumescently proud”); and plastic descriptions: (“fish belly pale inner forearm”; “moon whipped water”; “soda bottle eye glasses”; “ the barbed wires of consolation”).
I bought The Archer at a brick and mortar store and flipped through the pages in the aisle. So the length didn’t bother me. But browsing online comments makes it clear that not all readers were aware of the length before buying. Put concretely, I read the book in forty minutes while sipping tea—which slows reading speed.
Though Love Objects shines a bright light on everyday misogyny, institutionalised sexism and classism, it is not the least bit polemical. Love Objects is as engaging a novel as I’ve read, full of beauty – some of it very subtle – including the deep love between the main characters, and a rich sense of what remains when you strip away judgement and artifice, moving towards an almost exuberant affirmation of life and love.