Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

I’ve reviewed a handful of books over at Necessary Fiction recently. Three very different books actually, and I enjoyed them all for very different reasons.

The first is A Friend in the Police by John Givens. I really loved this book, it was so different from much of what I’d read last year, and it had me laughing out loud. Often. The feel of the story will make you think immediately of Kafka, but then it’s set in a small unnamed SE Asian jungle. And the main character, Detective Sergeant Xlong, is one of the funniest (in a pathetic and moving way) literary characters I’ve come across in a long time.

From my review:

If the Detective Sergeant isn’t ruminating on the metaphysics of authority, he is musing on the definition of love. All the while keeping a firm inner eye fixed on himself and his own behavior. Xlong’s incredible self-preoccupation is a matter of extreme comedy, at many turns throughout the novel, but it is also the source of the reader’s sympathy. On the surface, we are meant to be worried about Philip Bates—what kind of mess has he gotten himself into? Is he working for the “rogue” geologist and tin miner upriver? Is he involved in smuggling contraband? Is he running an illegal gambling operation with another foreigner named Sprague?—but each time the story threatens to become more interested in either of the Bates men, Xlong steps forward to claim his due attention.

Read the full review here.

Next, I had the pleasure of reading The Brothers, from the small London-based publisher Peirene Press. Peirene publishes only novellas of works in translation. Their books are elegant, and the stories they select would probably not find their way into English without Peirene’s selection, so Peirene’s work is precious to me.

The Brothers is an incredible novella – set in a wintery Finland at the turn of the century, it is about a small Finnish farm and two men who have somehow found themselves to be enemies.

Despite the historical setting, The Brothers feels extremely contemporary. Not in the sense that the book bears any anachronism, but because of its embrace of such a timeless, even biblical conflict, as well as the spare purity of Sahlberg’s prose. He packs a lot of conflict and interaction and history into this slim book, but all the drama and quarrel is given to the reader so gently, so gravely. This is whispered rage. Devastating and dark. But always quiet.

Read the full review here.

And finally, a collection of short stories with a deceptively Science Fiction-y name—Omicron Ceti III by Thomas P. Balázs. I have always liked a good short story, but I particularly like collections in which the different stories talk to each other. Balázs has structured his collection to reflect the intellectual and emotional movement forward of an original Star Trek episode, “This Side of Paradise.” And it works. It’s very well done.

Now, it should be clear by now that despite the science fiction tease of the title of Omicron Ceti III, these stories are terrestrial, all-too-human and anchored in our contemporary reality. Time and time again, Balázs returns to this notion of “self-made purgatories” and what it means to be the architects of our own sorrow. Thankfully, Balázs isn’t out to condemn anyone. In the same way that glimpsing a potential happiness leaves a trace of real humanity in Spock, so do Balázs’s characters find themselves transformed through their experience. Happiness isn’t easy, and sometimes it is even impossible, but the contemplation of happiness—even, perhaps, the simple chance to imagine it—is certainly part of what makes us human.

Read the full review here.

So there you go, three very different books: hilarious absurdity with a dash of poetry, dark and intense drama, and a shrewdly constructed collection with careful storytelling.

One Response to “Three catch-up reviews”

  1. Lilian Nattel

    I really like the novella form–so that one especially goes on my list. Maybe when I’m old I’ll just write novellas.

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