Review: The Gentleman Farmers by Loretta Malakie

(My review of Loretta Malakie’s previous novel Love in the Age of Dispossession is here).

I’ve become very interested in “second novels,” having published my own in January. After reading and enjoying Loretta Malakie’s Love in the Age of Dispossession I was thus very interested when I heard some months ago she was writing a second book, The Gentleman Farmers.

Maggie Kingsbury, single middle-aged alcoholic lawyer, joins her in-laws Molly and Kevin on a homestead in the mountains of North Carolina, where their trustafarian college frenemies Brock and Sandra have just bought their third home. Molly commissions Brock to renovate an old Appalachian tobacco barn on their property. But when maverick hillbilly throwback Uncle Billy shows up to live in their field in a camper van, power struggles ensue. Meanwhile, Kevin has become dangerously obsessed with breeding heritage livestock. When Maggie’s beloved niece Juliet asks her to take on a mysterious client, Maggie becomes implicated in a national political furor.

A second novel should be better than the first in a lot of ways–after all,  the author has experience, the author has practice. Even more important, at least in my experience the author has confidence, that he or she can get the job done. Even in the times I was struggling the most with my second book, I felt like if I just kept pushing words out it would all work together. And it did.

Meanwhile Ms. Malakie was working on The Gentlemen Farmers, and as much as I liked Love in the Age of Dispossession, in some ways this second novel is a better book, a little smoother, a little better edited, and quite a bit funnier. There are more “laugh out loud” moments here, but Malakie hasn’t lost her touch when it comes to illustrating, and mourning, the gradual degradation of Normal America, small town America, where people got along, had children, where children knew their grandparents and aunts and uncles. That’s gone now, in much of America, but Maggie Kingsbury is old enough to remember it and describe it to us, and how it was lost, or taken away, by our so-called “elites,” through immigration and “offshoring,” all of it to fatten the bottom lines of multinational corporations.

The characters in The Gentleman Farmers only come to realize this gradually, as their small New York town becomes unlivable, and as their new North Carolina area begins to show the cracks, as well. It’s the teenager Juliet that points out that becoming gentleman farmers, cultivating heirloom tomatoes and heritage breeds, has become a substitute for  cultivating our own culture and heritage. The author connects the current “statue wars” to the same situation in a neat package, and it becomes clear, how all of it’s connected.

Comedy, tragedy, love, life and death, Malakie deftly handles them all in The Gentleman Farmers. As “second novels” or any novels go, it’s terrific and highly recommended.

Love in the Age of Dispossession on Amazon

The Gentleman Farmers on Amazon

 

Review: The Dream of the Iron Dragon by Robert Kroese

The Dream of the Iron Dragon (Saga of the Iron Dragon, Volume 1) by Robert Kroese

The essence of a good book, a good story, is the right mix of the familiar and the surprising. Robert Heinlein was a master of this: Boy Scouts on Ganymede, the Chamber of Commerce on the Moon, that sort of thing.

Robert Kroese also seems to be a master of it:

In the 23rd century, humanity has been hunted to the verge of extinction by an alien race. When an exploratory ship accidentally travels back in time to Viking-age Scandinavia, the human race is given a second chance.

We have interstellar travel (through wormholes), war with an alien race, time travel and…Vikings.

While the first is familiar from various books and films going back 80 years or more, and the next two going back all the way to H. G. Wells, Kroese manages to bring a fresh perspective and make his universe both logical and plausible. It turns out that while both humans and their rival race, the Cho-ta’an, can use the wormholes for interstellar travel, nobody understands exactly how they work. Like all good science fiction, after a certain point in the book the reader doesn’t think about these things any more, just enjoys the events and story, because the universe of the book is plausible and accepted in his or her mind.

The Vikings are…real. The author has obviously done a lot of work and study to get the details of his Vikings right (they’re Norwegian, by the way, and really don’t like the Danes). Viking weapons, tactics, ships, social organization and customs all seem solid, and fit together to make a holistic picture of the society the 23rd century spacers find themselves dropped into.

So the plot and setting are well done, but wait, there’s more! Something I noticed when I read Kroese’s Schrödinger’s Gat a couple of years ago was his mastery of character, the human details and short, vivid bits of dialogue that make his characters memorable and real. This is on display again in The Dream of the Iron Dragon and is a big part of why I like this book so much–the people in it. That includes the ship’s crew, the Vikings and also the Cho-ta’an, the “aliens” who appear in person extensively and who Kroese makes into believable “people,” too.

The Dream of the Iron Dragon reminds me of  Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, which those with some knowledge of classic science fiction will recognize as high praise. But Kroese’s work is not derivative in any way, instead it’s original, well-written and it satisfies.

I’m happy that it’s Part One of a series; I’ve already purchased The Dawn of the Iron Dragon and I’m certain I’ll be buying and reading The Voyage of the Iron Dragon.

Highly recommended.

(I discovered Robert Kroese through Twitter (@robkroese) and he’s got more than 20 titles out–I have a feeling I’ll be enjoying a lot more of them in the future).