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United States of Books – Empire Falls by Richard Russo

Believe it or not — this was almost a lot longer, but I trimmed a lot to hopefully make it better.

Empire FallsEmpire Falls

by Richard Russo

Hardcover, 483 pg.
Knopf, 2001


A few years ago, my parents took a trip through New England in the Fall to look at the leaves — I know, not an original idea, but for people from the Northwest, it’s not as common as it is for others. One of the places they drove through was Empire Falls and were telling me about some HBO series/book based there — I was vaguely aware of the book, having recently finished Russo’s Straight Man and told them that they’d probably enjoy it. I don’t think either of them gave it a shot (I could be wrong).

A few months later, I got around to reading it myself — wow. It so different in style and content from Straight Man, but it took me a long time to read, and (best of all) it was fantastic. It sent me reeling and made me want to read more by Russo. Sadly, the next book I read by him just about killed that (That Old Cape Magic). A couple of years go by and I decide to read all of his novels in order. When I get to Empire Falls, I skipped it. I just couldn’t do it again. I really didn’t enjoy about half of Russo’s novels, but I couldn’t deny the power of them, nor his skill. Nobody’s Fool, for example, I really didn’t enjoy — but here I am a couple of years later, and I still find myself thinking about a couple of characters and scenes at least three times a month. That’s staying power. (no, I haven’t gotten to the sequel that came out this year, for reasons I don’t fully understand)

Incidentally, I liked That Old Cape Magic better the second time around — actually, I think that was true for Straight Man, too. Liking Cape Magic was almost a given (would be hard to like it less), but I really enjoyed Straight Man the first time out — the second time I loved it. Both of those books deal with a different kinds characters than the rest of his books (including Empire Falls, which I’m getting to — I promise). Most of his books are about small towns and their citizens, usually dealing with economic hardships on the municipal and individual level. Frequently, cafes and bars are used to get the characters to interact with each other and there’s typically one guy who drinks too much, is fairly unreliable, yet everyone likes and enables. There’s humor, tragedy, history (actual and fictional), mixed with character and family struggles. Empire Falls checks every single box on the “what makes a Richard Russo novel” list, but does it bigger. If you’ve read Empire Falls, you’ve read almost every one of his books — which is not to say you shouldn’t read the rest (especially Straight Man and Bridge of Sighs) — but you’ll get a good idea what kind of things Russo typically deals with and how he does it.

Richard Russo is what Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby and Matthew Norman (and many others, probably, but these are the three I’m most familiar with) could easily become if they got a little more serious and a little darker. On the whole, the latter three are more entertaining (and funnier) — but Russo can pull that off when he wants to. You could also say that Russo is what Jonathan Franzen could be if he lightened up and got less pretentious. But mostly, you can say that I’m a giant fan.

Why am I blathering on? Mostly trying to give context for this post, but partially because it is just daunting to try to talk about this book — especially in something that’d make a decent-length blog post and not a full-fledged dissertation. But I’d better suck it up and get to it.

Empire Falls won Richard Russo his (seemingly) inevitable Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and stands as one of the greatest achievements in his storied career. It is at once a story about a town and a man, microcosms for the state and the nation; it’s both sweeping and epic while being personal and intimate.

The story centers on Miles Roby, manager of the Empire Grill in Empire Falls, ME. He has an ex-wife (who I truly despised), a daughter (who I wanted more of), an ex-mother-in-law that seems to like and respect him a lot more than her own daughter, s (even if they don’t see eye to eye much lately). But more importantly he has a patron — the town matriarch, owner of the Empire Grill, and most of the various places of employment in town. She’s a patron, a would-be surrogate mother (for a select few), and petty tyrant over the city. It’s one of those small towns where the mayor/council/etc. have real power, but it’s only the power she lets them have, you know? Francine Whiting isn’t evil — well, I’ll let you decide for yourself — but at the end of the day, she thinks she’s doing what is right for Empire Falls, the Whiting legacy and her daughter — whether or not anyone wants what she thinks is best. She still could be evil, I guess, and I could very likely made a case for it. Anyhow, let the reader decide.

The trials and dreams and efforts of Miles and his family as he tries to do something different with his life are the core of the novel — but they’re not all of it. The town is full of interesting people — many aren’t vital to the overall story (but you can’t know until the end who those are), but they all add flavor. Most are so fleshed out that you could imagine a short story/novel centered on them. While reading Song in Ordinary Time a few months back, I kept asking myself what made the people in that novel so unlikeable when in many ways they reminded me of Empire Falls‘ cast. I came to this conclusion (and have since reconsidered and still think it’s basically right): Russo uses the flaws in his characters to emphasize their humanity, Morris uses the flaws to emphasize their flaws.

But I come not to bury Morris (again), but to talk about Empire Falls, so let me focus on this a bit more: the flawed humanity isn’t pretty, it’s frequently ugly, people who make mistakes (some tragic, some dumb) are usually trying to do the right/moral/noble thing and it doesn’t work. But it’s real. This could all be real. Even Janice, Miles’ ex, is a well-developed character — and I think I’ve met a handful of people just like her — and I wouldn’t dislike her as much as I did if Russo hadn’t nailed the writing.

There’s an event towards the end — one of the two or three that you ultimately realize the whole novel has been leading up to — that in 2001 would’ve been truly shocking (shocked me a few years ago), but in many ways it’s de rigueur now. 2016 readers might be bored by it, but I can’t imagine that many readers in 2001 were. I’m not going to say more — just if you read this, put yourself in the shoes of readers from 15 years ago when you get to that bit.

Yes, Empire Falls is slow (sometimes), ponderous (sometimes) but it’s also inspiring (sometimes), heartwarming (sometimes) and many other things that I could parenthetically qualify. But every negative about it is utterly worth it for the positives.

What I learned about Maine: (haven’t done this in awhile, whoops). It’s a beautiful state, filled with people who could be better educated, who aren’t vocationally ready for what’s coming for them thanks to the technological shift in jobs. It’s a state where people, nature and industry who have been damaged by reckless policies and practices. It’s a state where nature exerts itself every now and then to remind people how powerful it is. Basically, Maine’s just like every other state in the union — just a little different.

One more thing, not that this’ll surprise many, but I’d advise skipping the HBO miniseries — yeah, it’s a fairly faithful adaptation, it just doesn’t have the heart.

I’ll be honest with you, I didn’t read this book for this series of posts — breaking a personal resolution. There were 3 reasons for this: 1. Time; 2. I really wasn’t up for the emotional punches this delivers, and 3. I didn’t need to — I still remember it well enough to discuss at a length greater than I have despite being 4 years and change since I read it. That right there should tell you something about the book — hundreds of books later and I almost feel like I read it a couple of weeks ago. I’m not sure that this is the Russo novel I’d tell people to start with (probably Straight Man), and I don’t think it’s his best (probably Bridge of Sighs (tells a story almost as epic in scope, with greater economy and greater depth when it comes to individual characters), but there’s no denying the talent on display here, the greatness of the execution, the vibrancy of the characters, or the impact it has on the reader. No brainer, 5 Stars from me.

—–

5 Stars

Saturday Miscellany – 8/27/16

Odds ‘n ends over the week about books and reading that caught my eye. You’ve probably seen some/most/all of them, but just in case:

    This Week’s New Releases I’m Excited About and/or You’ll Probably See Here Soon:

  • The Barista’s Guide To Espionage by Dave Sinclair — Fahrenheit Press has another off-the-beaten-path crime/thriller novel out this week, champing at the bit for this one.
  • I mistakenly listed this earlier in the month, whoops! Here’s where it belongs: Repo Madness by W. Bruce Cameron — I did not expect The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man to get a sequel, it didn’t need one. But I’ll gladly read it.

Lastly, I’d like to say hi and welcome to Real Tasty Pages for following the blog this week. Thanks to katknit for the interaction.

Trampling in the Land of Woe by William Galaini

Trampling in the Land of Woe Trampling in the Land of Woe

by William Galaini
Series: Patron Saints of Hell, #1

Kindle Edition, 360 pg.
Scarlet River Press, 2015

Read: August 24 – 25, 2016


This is a well-written, imaginative book with a stack of great characters — they have depth, individual voices and points of view. Coming up with the idea of this book is a stroke of something, I’m not sure what. I trust that Galaini’s parents had him tested as a child.

How do you even give a synopsis of this? Imagine Dante’s After-Life, but fuzzier on morality/religion/ethics than the Alighieri would be comfortable with. Denizens of Purgatory (and the Heavenbound) can move around from place to place (not sure if the damned can, it doesn’t appear so) — at least to “lower” levels than their own. As technology among the living advances, the dead use it, too — but instead of regular old Steam Power, they use Hellfire — which is a much better source of energy (for example). Living for thousands of years gives you plenty of time to refine your science.

Now, Alexander the Great’s right hand man, lifelong friend, and companion, Hephaestion, has decided that Alexander’s been consigned to Hell long enough and is going to liberate him. Hephaestion has been in Purgatory since his death and has spent a millennia or so preparing for his rescue mission. He’s going to sneak into Hell, track Alexander down and slip out the back door. The plan goes awry from almost the beginning and Hephaestion has to rely on newly minted friends and allies to get him where he’s going.

For some reason that’s only made clear at the end, the Jesuits aren’t fans of this, and use a variety of means (bribes, threats, assassins) to dissuade Hephaestion and his friends from their quest. Many of these assassins are ninjas. Which is just cool, I gotta say.

There’s all sorts of strange magic, odd beasts, crazy settings and some great fight scenes here — Galaini can write. Make no mistake.

But man, I just didn’t like it — I didn’t connect with any of the characters (there’s a couple I might’ve been able to, if they’d been around more), the quest seemed wrong-headed and doomed at best (as at least one person tried to tell Hephaestion), and I couldn’t muster up the interest to get invested. I persisted, in case he won me over (and Galaini came close), because I told the publisher I would, and I was mildly curious. My curiosity wasn’t rewarded, sadly. I’m not saying it’s a bad book — it’s not. It’s not a book for me.

I’m giving it 3 because it deserves at least that objectively on merit — my gut says to give it two, it just didn’t click for me — but it’s so well-written than I have to bump it up one. I do expect many would like it more than me, and if I’d read it at some other point in time, I might have liked it more (but I don’t think so).

Disclaimer: – I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion. I thank them for the opportunity.

—–

3 Stars

Debt to Pay by Reed Farrel Coleman

Debt to PayRobert B. Parker’s Debt to Pay

by Reed Farrel Coleman
Series: Jesse Stone,, #15

eARC, 352 pg.
G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2016

Read: August 20 – 22, 2016

Since the closing pages of Blind Spot, I’ve been waiting for the other shoe to fall victim to gravity. Jesse Stone has been, too. Well, after a more typical Stone novel, the wait is over — Mr. Peepers, the sadistic hitman that almost killed Suitcase Simpson and evaded Jesse, is back.

Just in time for just in time for Jesse’s ex, Jen’s wedding.

Before I forget, isn’t that a great move? Build suspense by ignoring the cliffhanger-esque ending for a whole book? In the wrong hands, that’d be annoying, but done right? Very effective.

Jesse and his lady-love, Diana (the FBI agent turned private security consultant) are off to Texas to meet Jen’s fiance, maybe get a little closure, and covertly protect Jen from the special mix of psychological and physical torture that Peepers subjects his victims to before killing them. While Jesse seems to be several steps behind, Peepers seems to be calling all the shots — he’s got all the power and is making Jesse jump through whatever hoops he wants him to.

Meanwhile, changes are afoot with the Paradise Police Department, State Homicide and Suit’s life (and a few other places) — just so we don’t all get too wrapped up in Pepper’s quest for vengeance.

As he has in the previous two novels in this series, Coleman keeps things moving at a great pace, the suspense keeps getting ratcheted up — interspersed by heartwarming, amusing, and troubling moments, so it’s not suspense overkill. There are some great character moments — especially with Diana and Jesse, Suit and a few people, Jesse and a bottle. There’s no mystery here — we all know who the villain of the piece is, the only question is how Peppers will attack and who will remain standing at the end of the book.

In his other major series, Parker introduced a paid assassin, The Gray Man, who almost killed Spenser and plagued him for a while afterwards. Mr. Peepers is far creepier, deadlier, and interesting than the Gray Man ever was. I really didn’t like being in that dude’s head as much as we were — which means that Coleman succeeded in making him a terrible person — I felt like washing my brain out with soap to get over some of the Peepers chapters.

Ace Atkins has returned Spenser to his roots (moved things forward, don’t get me wrong, it’s not just a nostalgia trip), but Coleman has taken Jesse and the rest and shaken things up — he’s stayed true to the characters, the series, the feel — but he’s pushed things ahead and has probably made more real changes to the series than Parker did since book 2 (but making things feel risky and inventive feels like the roots of this series). Actually, he’s not just changed this series — he’s done things that affect the whole of the Parker-verse. Just look at Suit — everything we need to know about what Coleman’s doing to the series is embodied there. I know Coleman’s take is not that popular with some long-time fans, but I couldn’t be happier — either with the series as it is right now, or with this book.

This was riveting, literally never a dull moment — not relentless, you can relax occasionally, even grin. But I had to force myself to put it down to do the responsible adult thing a couple of times. I expect most fans of Jesse and the PPD folks will have similar experiences with Debt to Pay.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from G.P. Putnam’s Sons via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

The Shadow Bearers on Inkshares

Friend of the blog, Jayme Beddingfield, and her co-writer, Rebecca Clark have a neat looking novel they’re trying to get published. The Shadow Bearers — an expansion of a short-story they co-wrote — is up for funding on Inkshares.

Countless Huditra villages demolished by a darkness spreading throughout the lands. Thousands slain by the falling shadows. Hate looms over the forgotten lands like heavy fog stifling the little life that’s left. Over the years the Nafarat have been casting their magic, destroying all that’s natural. The War From Nowhere forced those who’ve survived the initial attacks into hiding. Nothing alive was safe. Both Tag, the leader of the Nari, river, people and Athea, the future chief of Dagee, the tribe behind the mountains, are all that’s left standing of their kind. With their home grounds no longer safe Tag and Athea hit the traveler’s road, each with individual missions. When their paths cross, they reluctantly team up to seek the answers that will lead them to free the land of shadows.

Once they hit the magic number of 750 preorders, Inkshares will publish and distribute the novel — and if that’s not enough, they’re competing in the Inkshares/Geek & Sundry Fantasy Contest — which just puts the whole Inkshares thing into overdrive. Follow the project over on Inkshares to help them in the contest, and if you can spare a dime, preorder the novel. I bet you’ll (we’ll, actually) be glad you did.

An Obvious Fact by Craig Johnson

An Obvious FactAn Obvious Fact

by Craig Johnson
Series: Walt Longmire, #12

eARC, 320 pg.
Viking, 2016

Read: July 29 – 30, 2016

4 Stars

Craig Johnson is so consistent with these books that he makes it really hard to write about them. I’ve struggled with this one for weeks — how can I say something I haven’t before? I’m not sure I can, but I guess I can start with what makes this one different from the rest.

For starters, Henry’s borrowed Walt’s set of Sherlock Holmes (without his knowledge or consent, but who cares) and spends the novel quoting Holmes at inopportune times to his buddy. I laughed every time. Walt didn’t find it that amusing — and paid him back by talking about what a silly and reckless endeavor riding motorcycles is — much less racing/jumping/etc. He had plenty of opportunity to make these kind of remarks as the two of them were in Hulett, WY for the world’s largest motorcycle rally, where Henry is attempting to recapture a victory of his younger days.

Walt’s been brought in to help with the investigation of a motorcycle crash, the small local police force is stretched beyond itself due to the rally and really can’t take it on. It seems pretty cut and dry on the surface — just a bad break and a bit of careless driving. But every time Walt looks at another piece of evidence, he finds more reasons to doubt the obvious facts.

We learn a lot about Henry in this book — but he’s not really in it all that much (at least less than he’s been in others, lately). And while he’s not really at odds with Walt, you really can’t say that he’s on his old friend’s side throughout (nor is he really acting all that rationally).

Vic comes back to Wyoming, and injects her flair into the investigation and Walt’s life. She also continues to be the embodiment of many men’s dreams between her looks, brains, language, driving and shooting. I’m not going to say if she’s my Platonic ideal, I will say that for a totally unrealistic character, she’s a whole lotta fun.

The Whodunit was pretty easy, the Whydunit was trickier (and the Accessories to the Who were more difficult, but not hard). But, hey, we don’t read these books for the puzzle — we do it to watch Walt figure things out and to spend time with our friends from the Equality State (and the nations within it). In the end, this is just what you expect out of a Walt Longmire novel — some laughs, a nice little puzzle, a little fisticuffs, maybe a little gunplay (not necessarily a shoot-out). Well-paced, well-told, all in a day’s work for Johnson.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Viking via First to Read in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

Saturday Miscellany – 8/20/16

Odds ‘n ends over the week about books and reading that caught my eye. You’ve probably seen some/most/all of them, but just in case:

    This Week’s New Releases I’m Excited About and/or You’ll Probably See Here Soon:

  • Rise the Dark by Michael Koryta — Koryta’s fantastic and the predecessor to this blew me away, this is going to rock.
  • Dead to Rites by Ari Marmell — 1930’s Urban Fantasy — just a fun series
  • The Eternity Fund by Liz Monument — something a little “out there” even by Fahrenheit’s standards
  • Invasive by Chuck Wendig — techno-ish thriller that sounds like it could be an episode of Fringe, but stranger.

Lastly, I’d like to say hi and welcome to BusinessandBook and DPNews for following the blog this week.