James S. Kendall

Writer, thinker, wanderer.

James S. Kendall is an author of fiction both literary and other. He's also a husband and father constantly searching for ways to be a better human.

Follow him on twitter @JESKendall

Review: "A Darker Shade of Magic" by V.E. Schwab

Oh how neglectful I’ve been with reviewing some of the wonderful books I’ve read recently.  I have no excuse for this other than sheer laziness.  But that ends now!   Or, at least, it ends for the moment.  My wife and I recently took a “lay-around-and-do-nothing-but-read” vacation which is, for book nerds like us, something akin to a meditation retreat.  I had the opportunity to read several books including a couple fantasy novels.  In particular, I really want to talk about A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab.

I LOVED this book.  It’s been a long time since I mourned finishing a book quite as much as I mourned finishing this one.  There I was, sitting by the ocean in a funk because I wanted more time with these characters.  As critical as it is to any fantasy novel, the world building is excellent and interesting.  But, really, the characters are so delightful in their interactions that V.E. Schwab could have mailed it in on plot and setting and I still would have loved it.

Yet, she didn’t.  There are certain conventional shapes to fiction, especially genre.  I wouldn’t say that she breaks a lot of new ground here.  But, what she does, she does so well, that it’s a delight to watch unfold.  This is a book set in a world with parallel Londons: Gray, Red, White, and Black.  The primary character, Kell, is one of the few who can travel between these parallel worlds.  The other major character, Lila, (who I’m tempted to call the “co-main character” except that’s not a thing, is it?) is a native of Gray London, the city most like our world.  Well, our world of 300 years ago.  Their banter and the way they play off each other is what makes this a book you never want to finish.  I really don’t want to tip any more of what happens in this story because it is one of those where you benefit from knowing very little going in.

The books this most reminded me of were Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  Darker Shade… has the same deftness in world building and agility of plot that so sucked me into Rothfuss’s writing.  Meanwhile the world she builds, the characters of Lila and Kell, and over all feel bring about a breathless curiosity much like Morgenstern’s wonderful novel.   On top of that, the language of Schwab often demonstrated that straight-forward elegance of Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel).  Yes, sometimes I would stop and just savor a particular phrase.  Maybe that’s just a writerly kind of enjoyment, but she knows how to craft a sentence.

Overall, I consider this a 5 star book.  One I don’t hesitate to recommend to everyone.  No, it will not change the course of genre fiction.  It does not blow apart the foundations of western literature.  If you want something that will challenge you and stretch your understanding of the world and your place in it… well, maybe look elsewhere.  However, if you want a piece of enjoyable fantasy as beautiful and well-crafted as a fine watch.  This is your ticket.  Go Get It

Fictional Saints

There is a famous quote: "good artists borrow, the great ones steal."  As with any quote with somewhat murky origins, I'll just go ahead and attribute it to Benjamin Franklin because that's what he would do.  Regardless, I'm going to reach for greatness here and steal an idea from a good friend: Fictional Saints.

At our Book Team meeting (we're too cool to be a mere Book Club), he asked us who our Fictional Saints were.  That is, who are those characters in fiction that have had a profound influence on your life?  The first character that sprung to my mind was "Maniac" Magee from Jerry Spinelli's book of the same name.

If you aren't familiar with this book, go read it.  Seriously, it's 184 pages and reads faster than a rambling blog post about vaguely literary stuff.  But if you're disinclined, here's a summary of sorts.  This is a book about a young orphan who runs (literally RUNS) away from his aunt and uncle and into a small, segregated town.  He finds himself homeless, caught up in the racial tensions that keep the town divided.  He is befriended and hated, challenged and celebrated.  It’s a good read.

I took several, lasting things away from that book.  The first (and probably least important) was running.  I know it was that cover photo and the scene of him running into town on the train rail that first got me to start taking jogs as a form meditation.  Also, that cover is what inspired me to ask for my first hoodie which I still have and still wear, much to my wife's dismay.

Secondly, there is the nature of being an outsider.  Both the loneliness and perspective that you gain from standing outside.  But this is a particular kind of outsider-ness: it is one that comes from love rather than fear.  Maybe that's something I entirely made up but I've long carried that idea of supporting from the outside rather than from within.

Then, there are the obvious lessons of prejudice and racism, powerful and important for a kid growing up in a homogenous town like I did.  I know this story played a role in my suspicion of the motives, declarations, and biases of those around me and I'm tremendously grateful for that.  Of course, like most white people, I'm still more prejudiced than I like to think I am (I'm working on it...) but "Maniac" certainly knocked me clear of those poisons sown in the ground where I grew up.

This here is the power of good literature: to pull you so far into a character that he changes how you see the world.  I looked at that kind of the cover and saw myself and my life changed a little.  Shouldn’t everyone have that same opportunity?  You see, there’s a catch to this “becoming” through Literary Saints: the greatest influence comes when you can put yourself in their skin.  This is where diversity in literature becomes so important.  So the challenge is this: read diversity, talk diversity, write diversity (*responsibly*).  Help those diverse characters become big in the world, help them catch more light so that someone can find them.  Help others find their Fictional Saints and let their world change for the better.


A Year of Reading Women

I can’t remember where I first heard of it.  On twitter, I’m sure.  So it’s probably Roxanne Gay’s fault (most things on Twitter are).  But I was directed to an article (a “provocation”) written for the Writer’s Centre Norwich by Kamila Shamsie.  In this piece, she proposed a worldwide moratorium on publishing any new titles written by men in 2018.  In other words, only publishing women for a full 12 months.  A provocation indeed.

I won’t reiterate her reasons behind this proposition (you can read them for yourself here).  While the thought of coordinating something like that seems… fanciful, she mentioned a journal whose editors and readers embarked on a Year of Reading Women.  This idea struck me as one I could put into action.

To my own thinking, there is a tremendous amount of quality literature being produced these days by all genders.  The process of choosing a book to read is somewhat arbitrary, it’s recommendations from friends, from reviewers, from bookstore displays.  Kamila’s point, though, is that it isn’t arbitrary.  Male writers are overexposed in a hundred, little ways.  They still take up more than their fair share of space in the literary world while women who are their equals (or better) are left in the shadows.  It’s a cycle that perpetuates itself… and now I’m just restating things that Kamila said better.

So this exercise is my little way of trying to balance the scale, at least when it comes to my own reading.  Already, just the awareness this brings to my decisions around literature has been informative.  I notice how many book lists and adverts and interviews feature male authors (or even just Jonathan Franzen) and my ears perk up every time I encounter a recommendation for a book written by a woman.  It’s interesting to me how many of the former seem to come from big publications and how many of the latter through word-of-mouth.

Of course, as with everything, I’m cheating at this.  Namely, I’m not applying this same filter to literary and poetry mags.  I hate falling behind in my periodicals and I (almost) always read cover-to-cover.  I’ll also be readying anything selected for our Ron Book Team.  In the grand scheme of things, loyalty to book groups must come before loyalty to any individual’s cause.

So far, I’ve read some really extraordinary books (and some ordinary ones).  This list will grow over time and I hope to be able to dive into a little bit of reviewing for some of these.  I recommend all of them whole-heartedly.

We’re All Welcome Here – Elizabeth Berg

My Year in France – Julia Child

Nevada – Imogen Binnie

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Things that Are – Amy Leach

Rose Variations – Marisha Chamberlain

Let the Dark Flower Blossom – Norah Labiner