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A lovely but sometimes baffling book from John Gardner (the John Gardner who wrote "Grendel" and "The Sunlight Dialogues" - not the mystery writer). Gardner is nothing if not audacious: and here, audaciously, he gives us two books for the price of one.
The first book is an Iowa Writers' Conference-type novel: it's about a farmer in rural Vermont whose sister is living with him; both are widowed, both are cranky, both are sitting on a mare's nest of unconfronted, undigested family tragedies. Details of place and exposition of character are dense and sharply observed. The brilliance here - and there's always brilliance in a John Gardner book - is watching how a conflict that starts out as slightly comic turns increasingly serious and even dangerous.
For a good bit of the novel, the sister is holed up in her room in protest. She finds a trashy novel and begins reading it to pass the time. And Gardner being Gardner, he gives us most of that novel as well - minus the pages that have fallen out of the cheap paperback binding.
Nothing could be more different from the first novel. The trashy novel is a phantasmagoria of marijuana smuggling, piracy, kidnapping, attempted suicide, sex, immigration, and guns. And flying saucers. Did I mention the flying saucers? And a character who, in the midst of a kangaroo trial, launches into a rambling diatribe about philosophical systems that sounds a bit like one of the Sunlight Dialogues.
Both were entertaining, and they intercut and inform each other in surprising ways. The "outer" story is slow at times, but the action becomes increasingly unhinged: there are plenty of explosions, and the ending is deeply satisfying. (The ending of the trashy novel is somewhat less so; but it IS a trashy novel with missing pages, after all.)
Steve Coulter is a wonderful narrator who nails every single character regardless of which story they appear in. I'll definitely be looking for more books narrated by him in the future.
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Is there anything you would change about this book?
Often times, characters or the narration would go on digressions about various topics, probably for thematic reasons. I personally think they were overused.
What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?
I did like learning about James and Sally and their family history. And there were some moments I found funny, such as the end of the insert story or James' "We'll see about that!"<br/><br/>Least interesting was the above-mentioned digressions.
Which character – as performed by Steve Coulter – was your favorite?
They were all well acted. If I had to choose one, it would be cranky old James Page.
If this book were a movie would you go see it?
Yes. Don't misunderstand me, I think this book would make a horrible movie. I'd go to the theater just for the end of "Smugglers of Lost Souls' Rock."
Any additional comments?
This is a story without much movement. If you like your books fast-paced, I can't recommend this one.