The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

Her dreams were large, of trains a mile long and ships that climbed to the stars, of learning the languages of squids and slime-molds, of crossing a chessboard the size of a city. That night and for years afterward, she had envisioned another dream land, built from the imaginings of powerful women dreamers.

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Edition: Macmillan-Tor/Forge, 2016, 172 pages.

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe follows a middle-aged mathematics professor Vellitt Boe, who teaches at a Ulthar Women’s College in the dreamlands, on a quest to find and bring home one of her students, who fell in love with a man (a dreamer) from the waking world. She believes that the dreamer has managed to transport the girl from the dreamlands into the waking world, so Vellitt journeys across the dreamlands seeking a way to enter the waking world.

I didn’t know before starting this book that the story is a re-imagining of HP Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I wish I had read the original story before reading this so that I could have appreciated more the author’s treatment of the original mythos. Nevertheless, it was interesting to go on this journey with Vellitt through the enchanting dreamlands, full of strange creatures and capricious gods, learning more about her past travels and struggles, before she settled down to teach at Ulthar College. It’s an imaginative and beautifully realised world, and Vellitt is an intelligent and experienced woman, who is comfortable with her age and learns from her past experiences, that was very refreshing to read about.

Johnson knows how to immerse the reader into a story so that the reader feels that he’s actually going along with Vellitt on this journey. It’s a brief yet compelling story, exploring feminist themes in a fantastical world and Vellitt is a strong, well-developed character that you want to follow on this journey.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood

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Edition: Thomas Dunne Books (St. Martin’s Press), 2016, 352 pages.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is a moving exploration of a relationship that develops between two abused and lonely souls, who find solace and love in each other, however, when they meet, the girl is 8 and the man is in his early 20s. This is one of those stories that will probably polarize readers due to its unsettling subject matter. Wavonna (Wavy for short) is a daughter of a drug dealer and a drug addict and Jesse Joe Kellen is a biker, who works for her father. At first, Kellan takes care of Wavy and her brother, who are neglected by their parents, but soon he develops romantic feelings for the girl, and as Wavy is growing up, the story becomes more and more uncomfortable and at some points disgustingly graphics. It is not a criticism because, considering the subject matter, the book should make the reader feel physically uncomfortable.

Beginning in 1975, the story spans 15 years and is told in short chapters, from multiple perspectives that make the novel a very dynamic and gripping read. The book definitely benefits from this narrative structure, since it allows us to view the relationship between different and contrasting POVs. It is also a beautifully written debut that immerses the reader into the story and evokes strong emotions. However, despite the sympathetic portrayal of the relationship between Wavy and Kellen, I felt conflicted about the overall message of the novel. Despite the genuine affection that Wavy and Kellen have for each other, I thought the book didn’t properly address the problematic power dynamic of this relationship, which makes me wary that the book may be mislabelled as a “romance”. Even if we consider that Wavy was in some ways more mature for her age due to the circumstances of her life and fell in love with Kellen, it doesn’t excuse the adult from his responsibility, since it is not a relationship between two independent adults.

It’s a very compelling read, but it has its faults. I felt that the last part of the book had a sudden, incongruous change in tone. It felt a bit comedic and rushed, which did not go well with the dark and emotional atmosphere of the rest of the book. The fact that I’m still conflicted about my emotions, and it’s hard to put them into words, definitely indicates that it is a very evocative and skilfully written book.

Thank you to the publisher for a copy of this book via NetGalley.

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Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

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Edition: NYRB Classics, 2007, 274 pages.

I’m not a fan of traditional westerns, but I love fiction that uses the characteristics of a certain genre to deconstruct the typical conventions of that genre. Butcher’s Crossing is a western novel that is in conversation with the western genre as a whole, and follows Will Andrews, a young Harvard student, who, inspired by Emerson, decides to drop out of Harvard and head west to a small town of Butcher’s Crossing seeking freedom and some truer version of himself that he feels can only be found in close connection with nature.

The hide hunters in Butcher’s Crossing soon take advantage of this gullible and incompetent rich boy and convince him to join a hunting expedition to track down an immense herd of buffalo.

The landscape has a profound effect on Andrews. He marvels at the majestic beauty of the wilderness. We get a lot of descriptions of the landscape that they are travelling through. However, instead of finding a sense of freedom and some spiritual connection with nature, he goes through a labyrinth of weariness and suffering and partakes in a senseless slaughter of thousands of buffalo, and I’ll be honest, some parts of it were very graphic and hard to read. Although it serves a purpose. The cold pragmatism with which they participate in the killing shatters the idea that there is some higher, spiritual element to hunting.

Also, the hardships that these men have to face during their journey show that nature is indifferent to whether they live or die. There is a pretty long section of the book that turns into a survival story that got a bit tedious because there was a bit too much attention to detail. Then again, the writing is so vivid that it makes you feel that you are actually part of that expedition. At the same time, the different personalities of the characters and their thoughts about each other are not directly stated but instead revealed through their actions. They’re all very different men, but all of them in their own way are being confronted with their insignificance in relation to nature. It thought all of them were very believable and the way the author showed the progression of these characters was brilliantly done.

It’s interesting to compare Butcher’s Crossing to the author’s later novel Stoner. Early on in the novel, there is a conversation that somewhat foreshadows the later events of the book. This literary device is once again used and is more impactful in Stoner. Moreover, I felt that Will Stoner was an answer to the more immature character of Will Andrews, even though they’re very different books. Stoner was born into a poor family and devoted himself to a humble life in quiet desperation for his true love, the study for literature, while Andrews denounced the privileges that he had to seek self-discovery in the wilderness and pursue a glorified dream that turned out to be a lie. Towards the end of the novel, we get a great passage that pretty much sums up the central message of the novel:

“Young people, McDonald said contemptuously. “You always think there’s something to find out.””Yes, sir,” Andrews said.”Well, there’s nothing,” McDonald said. “You get born and you nurse on lies, and you get weaned on lies, and you learn fancier lies in school. You live all your life on lies, and then maybe when you’re ready to die, it comes to you-that there’s nothing, nothing but yourself and what you could have done. Only you ain’t done it, because the lies told you there was something else. Then you know you could have had the world, because youŗe the only one that knows the secret; only the it’s too late. You’re too old.”

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