American Gods, by Neil Gaiman / *****

ag_coverI haven’t read American Gods in probably 15 years or more, and yet, for all of these years, I’ve held it as one of my favorite books, and perhaps Neil Gaiman’s best work – no small praise, that. And any time you remember a book that fondly, there’s always the worry that you’re wrong, that you’ve overestimated it somehow, or have papered over the flaws in your mind. And so, as I sat down to re-read it recently (inspired by, in no real order, texts from a friend who was reading it for the first time, the upcoming Starz series, and the fact that I owned – but hadn’t read – the revised, “preferred” text), I couldn’t help but wonder: what if it wasn’t as good as I remembered?

I needn’t have worried. Not only is American Gods every bit as good as I remembered, it was more – richer, more thoughtful, more elegant, more magical, and just plain better. (And not all of that, if any, is because of the “preferred text,” which feels more like a series of small restorations rather than any major one or two.)

But in its general shape, American Gods couldn’t be simpler. It’s the story of Shadow, a man recently released from prison, and the friendship – of sorts – he strikes up with a man named Mr. Wednesday. It doesn’t take long for Shadow to realize that Mr. Wednesday isn’t anything as simple as he pretends to be, and that there’s more to Wednesday – and maybe the world – than he’s ever realized. And yes, as the title implies, Shadow learns of gods living in America – the gods of immigrants, of Vikings, of Egyptians, of Russians, and of more, all of whom brought their gods with them, and left them in America.

And to be honest, that’s most of the plot. Shadow gets involved with Wednesday, who is rallying the old gods – ancient, mythological gods – against new American gods of Media, of Technology, hoping to inspire them to battle back. But to focus too much on the plot of American Gods is to miss the point. This is a book about the world Gaiman has created, and more than that, in many ways, it’s a book about America – albeit a view of America that could only come from the perspective of an immigrant who both loves the country and is somewhat baffled by it. It’s an America filled with odd roadside attractions, where faith is both constant and fickle, where immigrants brush against each other without a second thought, with odd traditions that no one remembers and a land that’s older than the nation that lives there. And in many ways, through his eyes and vision, Gaiman captures America more accurately and more honestly than any less fictional, more “factual” perception ever could.

But more than that, American Gods works because it plays to Gaiman’s strengths: it creates a magical, alternate version of our own world, one where magic is real, where belief has consequences, where ritual becomes bond, and where gods exist, and brings it to life so real that you can lose yourself. It’s why the book works in spite of – maybe even because of – its loose plotting; it’s a book that lives and breathes, and whose wanderings only fill in the shadows and corners of this strange place. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a version of this book without the odd short stories of other gods, or the conversations about faith and history, or the descriptions of odd, inexplicable American landmarks. More accurately, it’s impossible to imagine a version of this book without those things that still works like this one does – that still creates such a vivid world, such a perfect and magical reflection of America that’s both profoundly strange and yet instantly recognizable for what it is.

And that, more than anything else, is why I love this book so much. I love its ideas, and its characters, and its glimpses of a world beyond our own; I love its sense of magic that infiltrates our own, and its sense of history that we can’t ever escape. But more than that, I just love living in this book and with these characters – seeing the things we see, dipping our toes into the strange world Gaiman has created, and experiencing his boundless, staggering imagination, even if only for 5oo pages.


The Night Of / **** ½

the-night-of-season-1_poster_goldposter_com_10o_0l_300w_70qIt’s only now that The Night Of is over, I think, that we have a sense of what exactly this show is. At times, The Night Of felt like someone gave an episode of Law and Order to a novelist, as the show tracked the arrest and trial of a young man for a horrific murder. It ticked all of the procedural boxes, gave us a satisfying and intriguing plot, but did so while letting the characters breathe and come to life in a way that network television often can’t. And yet, every time you started to feel the formula of the show, there were details or choices that let you realize that this was more in the line of David Simon’s The Wire than your typical procedural – in other words, it was a show that used its premise not as an end, but as a means of exploring something deeper and richer.

Once you realize that – that The Night Of is a novelist using a procedural as a framework for something richer and deeper – so many of the show’s choices make more sense. There’s no denying, for instance, that many people were baffled by and/or loathed the show’s odd focus on John Turturro’s eczema-ridden feet, and to be fair, in most shows, it’s a meaningless detail. But once you view it through the lens that novelist (and great writer) Richard Price views it with, it makes far more sense, even if you set aside the obvious symbolism of a man becoming comfortable (or uncomfortable, at times) in his own skin. It’s a detail that humanizes Turturro’s weary public defender, making him a specific character and not just another stock element of the drama. And that holds true for each and every character all the way down, all of whom are given odd moments or character beats that make them specific people, not just figureheads.

It’s also something that holds true for the show’s plot, which begins in a conventional – if incredibly well-executed – way. (Indeed, the intensity of the show’s pilot is absolutely unbelievable, as we watch this young man slowly tighten the noose around his own neck at every new moment, all without knowing what’s coming.) But by the halfway point of The Night Of, it becomes obvious that this isn’t a show about an innocent young man being persecuted by a judicial system out for blood. Indeed, in an incredibly rare choice, The Night Of holds true to its ambiguity, and it’s one of the first procedurals I’ve ever seen where the guilt or innocence of our “protagonist” is in serious question. And more to the point, there’s the secondary question, and what Price seems to be most fixated on: is the version of Naz that emerges after his time spent in prison awaiting trial some destroyed, ruined version of him, and just another bright young future ruined by a justice system that could care less about innocence…or are we seeing the truest version of him shining through, and the justice system is just letting us see it?

Price isn’t interested in answering that question; indeed, without giving anything away, The Night Of commits to its ambiguity, and leaves us with any number of questions that it has no interest in answering. That results in a finale that may feel disappointing at first, but only resonates more deeply as I get further and further from it. A conventional answer isn’t what The Night Of is interested in; instead, by revelling in its ambiguities, the show leaves us questioning things. What can we learn from Naz’s time in prison, and the changes we see wrought in him? What do we take away from a brutally frank admission by a prosecutor given new information? What of the closing arguments by the defense attorney, which give us a sense of how the world should work, but leaves us wondering if it does? Price and company aren’t interested in giving us those answers, and leave us debating them among ourselves.

For all of that greatness, The Night Of isn’t without its flaws, most notably in its handling of Chandra, a young lawyer who loses her interesting presence (and good performance) to some absurd plot machinations that squander everything good about her role. Add to that some odd dead ends and an element in the finale that feels, at best, out of nowhere, and there’s some definite bumps and issues with the show. And yet, for all of that, there’s something about the moral complexity and social observation of the show that makes it haunt you. There are countless great performances – although Turturro has rarely, if ever, been better, Riz Ahmed is amazing as the complex Naz, and I can’t overstate how good Bill Camp is as the quiet, effective Detective Box. Yes, some elements are rough, and bits of the destination are less satisfying than the journey to get there. But none of it detracts from the greatness and richness of that journey, or the countless thoughtful, impactful moments along the way – or the haunting, perfect final few images of that final episode.


Death by Diploma, by Kelley Kaye / **

26809659I read a lot. It’s just sort of part of who I am. Heck, since I started writing reviews (at the beginning of 2004), I’ve read over 1,100 books. And I don’t mention that to brag, but to say this: over that time, I’ve learned more and more about what I love in a book, and what I hate. And while there are certain things that instantly can win me over – heist stories, to name one – there are a few that instantly set me off, and can make it hard for a book to ever win me back over. And unfortunately, Death by Diploma contains a slew of them. And that’s a shame, because I think, if I were a different person, I’d probably like this a lot more than I do.

Let’s start with the most obvious flaw in the book – the one that even its defenders seem to acknowledge – and the first of things that really set me off as a reader. I hate, hate, hate written-out accents in books. I can think of only a handful of cases where it’s worked for me – Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is an obvious one, as well as Hagrid in the Harry Potter books – and far, far more where it becomes distracting, irritating, and an annoyance. And the “southern” accent deployed by Kelley Kaye’s heroine, Emma, definitely falls into the latter case. For one thing, the entirety of her accent is replacing the word “I” with the word “Ah”. That’s it. No vocabulary, no phrases, no other accents. Just the one word, and only when she remembers to do it, which is hit and miss. That means that a) it’s an incredibly unconvincing accent (and I say this as someone who’s lived in Tennessee since birth), b) massively inconsistent, and c) incredibly distracting from the dialogue, since you can’t get used to it. It’s a poor choice on the author’s part, and one that really grated on me whenever it appeared.

But then, we get into areas that just don’t work for me. See, Death by Diploma is a cozy set in a Colorado high school, and Emma, our heroine, is a new teacher. And when the school’s janitor is found murdered, Emma and her new best friend Leslie start investigating the crime and trying to figure out who wanted Melvin dead. And we come to my first personal issue with this book: this is the most irritating, dysfunctional, unbelievable, implausible high school I’ve ever read. According to her biography, Ms. Kaye worked as a high school teacher for 20 years, and that’s awesome. But there’s not one bit of this that seems plausible to me, starting from the first moments, where our brand-new, attractive teacher gets catcalled and turns it into an inspirational moment about how to get a date and believing in yourself. It’s hilariously cheesy, and gets to my biggest issue with the book: I don’t buy this as a school, which means I don’t buy the setting, and I certainly don’t buy the characters. And maybe that’s me as a teacher – I’ve been teaching for almost 15 years now – and so you can disregard it. But I didn’t buy these ladies as teachers, and I didn’t buy where they worked.

Which, in turn, brings me maybe to my second personal problem. I don’t think I like cozy mysteries. It’s nothing against the genre, exactly; it’s that it brings out the “quirky” side of writers, and I find contrived quirkiness grating in the extreme. (That I can still love Wes Anderson movies is because his entire universe makes the quirk essential, not contrived; it’s the juxtaposition of the “real” world and quirk that I hate.) This book contains a former circus performer, a skateboarding principal, a librarian who bursts into tears at imaginary offenses, teachers who blatantly sexually harass teachers in an instantly-fireable way, and one man who apparently has tricked everyone into thinking he works at the school. This all comes back to the last paragraph, but again, none of this works. The characters are contrived, the setting unconvincing, and since all of that leads to the mystery, I found myself spending most of the book irritated and rolling my eyes.

Look: a lot of people like Death by Diploma, and in different circumstances, I might too. If I didn’t work at a school, if I was more open to quirky cozies and characters, if the Southern accent didn’t ring false to my Tennessee ears…if, if, if. And I think Kaye has some promise, and some good moments, and a couple of great heroines. I just think she needs some restraint, an editor, and someone to rein in her worst impulses.


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany / ****

harry_potter_and_the_cursed_child_special_rehearsal_edition_book_cover“The eighth story,” says the tagline for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and yet, whether this counts as the eighth story is up for debate from the get-go. What, exactly, was Rowling’s role in this? Was she the true author of the tale, or is this, as many have claimed, basically glorified fan-fiction? And even if Rowling really is the auteur behind it, do we want to count a script for a play as the eighth true entry in the Harry Potter books? And as if all that’s not enough, even if we accept all of those things, how are we really supposed to judge this as anything but an incomplete vision, a partial rendition of something that can only truly be experienced on the stage?

They’re all valid questions, I think, and I’m not sure I have answers to any of them. I love the Potter series a lot, but I’m not a die-hard; this isn’t something I grew up with, but something I came to in college and afterward. And so, while I’m curious about Rowling’s role, as a movie geek who’s pretty much a strong advocate of auteur theory, I’m okay with accepting Rowling’s authorial stamp, as nebulous as it is (and even though I’m quite curious myself as to how much she contributed, even if I have my own theories). And the question of how it fits into the canon, or if it’s a “true” eighth volume…honestly, it doesn’t matter as much to me as I know it does to some who grew up reading this world. I just want to know if it’s a good story.

And the fact that it’s a script? Does that hold back that story? Well, if you mean, “did I spend half of my reading time wondering how on earth you could possibly stage something like this,” the answer is an unequivocal yes. The play we have the chance to see the script for is a dazzling, incredibly ambitious work, one that strikes me as a jaw-dropping work if it was properly accomplished. Because make no mistake: this is a play, but it’s one that embraces the world of Harry Potter. If what you expect is some tight, one-room drama, think again; there are wands glowing, spells flying, people transforming, flights taken, objects coming to life, and even a montage of time somehow evoked. This is a play done with ambition to spare, and while I can’t imagine how it’s accomplished, I can’t deny that reading the script made me so, so jealous of those who have a chance to see it.

But can we judge the story that we’re given? I think we can – and more than that, I don’t think it’s nearly as bad as some people do. I’ll try to steer clear of spoilers here beyond, say, the first few scenes; suffice to say, Cursed Child revolves around Harry’s son, Albus, whom we first met in the epilogue to the 7th book (a scene which opens this play). As Albus goes to Hogwarts, he’s forced to deal with life growing up with a very famous name, and the realization that whoever he may be, he’s certainly not his father. And that tension – on both the part of a frustrated Albus and a baffled adult Harry – provides much of the emotional richness of the play. Indeed, like the best Potter books (and if it means anything, I’ve always gravitated to Azkaban and Half-Blood Prince as my favorites), Cursed Child uses its plot as much as a way of exploring emotional territory, here engaging with reputations, parental expectations (as well as the difficulties of parenting), reminders of the past, guilt, and so much more. And it does so while delivering a far, far more ambitous tale than I expected, one that could easily have been an 8th novel in the series.

But would it have been? There’s no denying that there are definitely scenes and ideas that feel off about Cursed Child, and it’s not just about the fact that a central mechanic and idea of one of the books feels like it’s been majorly retconned to make this story work. Nor is it the sometimes gratuitous fan-service in the form of characters and callbacks (indeed, even as I admit that some are a bit much, there are more than a few that made me smile to read, and I can’t deny that reaction). No, as much as anything, it’s the occasionally iffy character work, because whatever else you can say about Rowling, you can’t deny that her characters lived and breathed in glorious ways. And while there are some great turns here – Albus is good, but his best friend (another child of a Potter alumnus) is even better, and adult Harry is a compellingly flawed character (a fact that’s caused much consternation, but ultimately ranks as one of my favorite touches of the play) – there’s also more than a few who are served poorly, and the fact that many of them are women is even more disappointing. (To waste Ginny in the play is one thing – she wasn’t much of a character in the books – but to squander Hermione’s presence and character so much is far more disappointing.)

And yet, for all of those flaws, I can’t deny that I really, really enjoyed Cursed Child. Would I rather have had this as a novel by Rowling? Undeniably. It might have been the same; it might have been better; but whatever else, it would have her voice, and that doesn’t always happen here. But even for that, as I read Cursed Child, I remembered just how rich and incredible Jo Rowling’s world of magic really is, and even as part of me wanted to cynically grumble about callbacks and cameos and retcons, I can’t deny that there’s so many moments that worked for me. And while the plot is serviceable at best, there are glimpses here of the imagination and scope that made the series so memorable, whether it’s a brief window into the worst possible outcome of things, a plunge back into a rich mythos, some perfect character beats, or even just the sense of imagination at picturing some of these things on stage. No, Cursed Child isn’t maybe the “best” 8th book we could have gotten, and I know some will say it’s not even a book. But in a lot of ways, I think it keeps Rowling’s spirit, world, and characters alive, and even if it gets a little fan-servicey, it’s done with love and respect, and with an imagination and scope that does the world right.


number9dream, by David Mitchell / *****

number9dreamIt hasn’t taken long for David Mitchell to establish himself as one of my all-time favorite authors. Heck, within a few minutes of starting Cloud Atlas, I knew I was reading something wholly unlike anything else I’d ever read, and within an hour, I knew this was one of the most astonishing pieces of writing I’d ever experience. And with each new book of his I read, I find myself more and more in awe of his talent. The world-building and history of Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the intricate plotting of The Bone Clocks, the clever narration swerves of Ghostwritten, and the surprisingly effective horror of Slade House – each one leaves me awed, and immersed in an incredible world, and reluctant to leave, and even more convinced of Mitchell’s greatness.

And now, I come to number9dream, convinced I’m finally starting to get a handle on Mitchell…only to be surprised and floored and moved and impressed all over again.

At first glance, it would be easy to feel like this is less ambitious Mitchell. After all, there’s only a single narrator this time, a single through plotline, and largely a single setting. This is the story of Eije Miyake, a young Japanese man who has ventured to Tokyo in an effort to discover who his father is. And as the book opens, we start with Eije, about to head into a business he’s been watching to uncover the truth…

…and without warning, Mitchell starts letting this book evolve and transform in front of our very eyes. Before we know it, this theoretically simple tale of parentage has become part action movie, part storytelling exercise, part Yakuza gang war tale, part tender romance, part slice of life, part World War II saga, part fantasy saga…and that’s not even part of it. And all while he’s juggling all of these pieces, Mitchell keeps us moving, letting Eije’s journey be the focus of the book, not only narratively but, more importantly, emotionally.

In lesser hands, number9dream would be a mess. It’s a picaresque, episodic novel taken to extremes, where every chapter could easily be from a different work entirely. One chapter constantly devolves into daydreams without us noticing, snaps back to reality, and then repeats the cycle; another turns into an insane, over-the-top Yakuza gore film. One chapter may be a painful childhood memory; another becomes a plunge into the world of computer hacking. Sometimes, we’re immersed in the life in the back offices of a Tokyo rail station; other times, we see the nightlife that wanders in and out of a video store; still others, we find ourselves in imagined movie theaters, or reading books within our own book. In short, it’s much of the metafictional, twisty work that Mitchell loves, but all filtered through a single perspective. But instead of being bewildering or exhausting, it all becomes a joy, giving us a book that’s incredibly unpredictable, bursting with life and ideas, evolving in front of our eyes constantly, and all the while spinning a quietly moving saga out of all of these individual events that alone could be whole novels unto themselves.

In short, number9dream is impossible to summarize, and to do so would be to rip away the joys of the book. As with all the best novels, the joy here is the journey, not the destination, and every time I picked back up number9dream, I lost myself in its intricate, rich, imaginative world, whether it was all real, daydreamed, written, imagined, or just observed. I found myself deeply moved and engaged by the sweet, subtle romance at the book’s core, one that surprised me as it evolved and developed. I loved the ongoing revelations about Eije’s father and mother, which were more grounded than I expected, but no less moving, and maybe even more so. I laughed at Mitchell’s audacity as the book spiraled in wild directions, only to drop them later, and the sheer richness of his world, which is packed with more stories, voices, and ideas than some authors can manage in a lifetime, much less one book.

Is it flawless? It’s almost flawless – can that count? There’s those final few paragraphs, which end the book in such an odd, discordant way, one that left me a bit disappointed at both its abruptness and the unsatisfying way to end it all…and yet, it’s a choice Mitchell made, and one that’s perhaps underlined by the book’s final chapter, which implies nothing if not our own choice as to what happens next. And maybe that’s better than anything he could ever write. Or maybe he’ll catch up with Eije decades on down the road. Whatever the case, number9dream is a joy, and yet another masterpiece from an author whose works have yet to leave me anything but in awe.


Big Hero 6 / **** ½

big_hero_6_film_posterOver the last few years, I’ve gotten a reputation among my friends for being a bit grouchy and dismissive of the whole “Marvel Cinematic Universe” thing. And they’re not wrong, but what I say less is how disappointed I am that I don’t enjoy the MCU more. I grew up loving comic books – especially the X-Men – and so I should be right in the prime audience for the MCU. But as each new movie has come out, and have felt less and less interesting – and more and more interchangeable and generic – I found myself giving up on the whole thing.

All of which brings me to Big Hero 6, which is a Marvel movie at least in spirit, if not quite in canon. Based on an obscure Marvel property (one review I read said that Marvel had forgotten that they even owned the rights to it), Big Hero 6 bears the Marvel stamps, but without being tied into the MCU, and with the freedom that comes from being the property of Disney Animation. And so, while Big Hero 6 still has some of the Marvel staples – a tragic origin story, a theatrical villain, a requisite cameo (of sorts) – it feels not so much like the other Marvel films as it does itself, and that’s a step in the right direction – especially when that vision of itself is so much fun.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Big Hero 6 has such an interesting world to play in. Set in an alternate near future where San Francisco has been partially rebuilt and funded by Japanese investors and technology, the film wastes no time in diving into its setting, kicking things off with underground bot battling for money. From there, we rocket ahead with our tale, finding ourselves in a technology institute with college students on the verge of changing the world with lasers, chemicals, and more. And we see it all through young hero, well, Hiro – a precocious, gifted teenager who graduated at an early age and drifts through life without much purpose, until his brother shows him the wonders of life in an incredibly well-funded research lab.

In many ways, much of Big Hero 6 feels like a throwback to the original Iron Man; after all, both are about gifted, cocky characters whose gifts for science allow them to push the boundaries of technology and inadvertently create heroes. But what Big Hero 6 brings to the table is a sense of wonder and imagination, a feat assisted by its animated medium, which eliminates the usual restrictions of budget and effects. Instead, the film is free to create whatever it wants, and its use of nanobots ends up being a blast, creating something fluid and nearly sentient out of the technology. And, of course, there’s Baymax, the medical robot turned lackadaisical superhero, whose charming nature and calming voice bring both a hilarious sense of humor and a much needed dose of levity to a genre that too often takes itself overly seriously.

Sure, in broad strokes, you’ve seen this story before. There’s an awful tragedy, and as a result of that, characters are forced into growth, finding in themselves a heroic side that they weren’t aware of. Meanwhile, a mysterious villain – motivated by revenge, naturally – is using some of our heroes’ own research and ideas against them. And it all comes down to a big, theatrical final confrontation (though luckily it avoids the usual “big beam of light into the sky” trope that’s been plaguing comic book movies).

And yet, I keep coming back to just how fun the whole thing is, and how it reminded me of what I loved about comics as a kid. It wasn’t always the plotting and the characters, though I loved that; it was the style, the action, the sense of glee at being “special”. And Big Hero 6 cashes in on that in spades, even going so far as to letting one of its characters be a gleeful fanboy who’s just excited to fight. And when it does get serious? It works pretty well, engaging with the emotions of loss and revel more thoughtfully than I expected.

In a lot of ways, Big Hero 6 is nothing special – another superhero movie, another kids movie about a misfit with a lovable sidekick, another unlikely hero story. And yet, there’s something really winning about the film, which gives us all of that, but does it in an interesting world, with good characters, a nice sense of style, a sense of humor and fun, and makes itself feel like its own product instead of another piece of a multi-part crossover event that you’ll finally see in ten years. In short, it’s a blast, and I’m glad I finally sat down and saw it.


The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville / ****

515jvth5w9lThere’s a lot of things that can draw you into a book. Sometimes it’s the author; sometimes it’s the plot description; sometimes, it’s something as simple as an intriguing cover or title that draws you in. In the case of The Ghosts of Belfast, it was the pull quotes. More specifically, it was the authors of two of those quotes, each of whom raved about the book, calling it an incredible debut, and a great – and unsettling – piece of crime fiction. Those two authors? James Ellroy and John Connolly, two men who rank among the finest craftsmen working in the genre today. So when you get their praises, you’ve got my attention. But in a way, those two names can tell you everything you need to know about this book.

The Ghosts of Belfast (originally titled The Twelve) focuses on former (more or less) IRA hitman Gerry Fegan, a man haunted – perhaps literally – by his crimes. Neville’s novel is set after the worst of The Troubles, as Ireland works on an unsteady path to peace – a path that means men like Fegan are out of their place and time. As the novel opens, Fegan is drinking – something he does quite often these days – and trying to ignore the twelve spectral visions which haunt him day and night. Maybe they’re only in his head; maybe they’re real. But whatever the case, each represents someone he’s killed. But when Fegan kills a man to appease one of the visions, and the vision disappears, he becomes a man on a new mission – one of vengeance.

The connection to John Connolly seems obvious for anyone who’s read the Parker series. A hint of the supernatural, dark men with dark motives, a penchant for violence, and, of course, the Irish worldview that permeates the book. And yet, to focus too much on the ghosts – which may or may not exist – is to miss the point of the book. Indeed, even though both titles the book has had imply that the book centers on these figures, instead, this is a novel about guilt, and violence, and shame. It’s a book that’s about the scars left behind in the wake of the Troubles, yes, but also the scars left behind by the men who fought for their independence, and who’ve done horrific, brutal things in the name of that fight.

Which brings us to the Ellroy connection. The men of Ghosts of Belfast are fighters. They’re revolutionaries, freedom fighters – and, with all the emotional heft that comes with the word, “terrorists.” And even the closest thing we get to a hero turns out to be a deeply broken one, a man who may have lost any sense of a moral compass in an effort to stay alive and stay safe. In other words, they’re the exact sorts of men that Ellroy writes about: men capable of anything, as long as the cause – or the money – is right. And as the book’s focus widens beyond the mission of Gerry Fegan, we see that the book is about more than one man’s guilt; it’s about the uneasy new status of Ireland, the complex new morality and balance that’s giving Ireland a new lease on life.

The Ghosts of Belfast is a complex novel, and not an easy one to pigeonhole. In some ways, it’s a bleak revenge novel; at other times, it’s a complex, nuanced look at a politically difficult period in Ireland’s evolution. Sometimes, it’s a sprawling look at corruption and crime; other times, it’s a painful dissection of guilt and violence. Sometimes, it’s a book about what it takes – and what it’s worth – to maintain peace. And other times, it’s simply about brutality and what men do to each other in the name of the greater good.

All of that makes it a difficult book to describe, and hard to figure out sometimes. And yet, it’s also that same complexity that makes it so rewarding, and so unlike much else out there. To read Ghosts of Belfast is to dip your toes into a very different world, one that’s utterly foreign to many Americans, and one where lines are far blurrier. And if the book sometimes feels uneven, or full of odd juxtapositions, or a bit bumpy…that’s okay. Because there’s something refreshing about a book that feels this ambitious and different, and when it works, it really, really works.