Monday, January 18, 2016

FALLEN LAND :: Taylor Brown

His long-boned index finger unscrolled to a point. It touched the grit that coated the pommel, traced the strange glyphs in the ground. He seemed to cipher them right to left, as one might the strange languages of desert people, until reaching spotted blood coins that punctuated the message like crazed ellipses.

I could stop right there, because with writing like that, often not much else matters. But Taylor Brown's Fallen Land is more than just pretty language. It's a gritty and savage tale of love and revenge, fight and flight. Fallen Land is set in the final stages of the Civil War, a time when bands of men, lawful and lawless alike, roamed the battle-scarred land.

Callum, a young Irish orphan taken in by a gang of marauders, knows nothing but their violent, poaching ways. It's their ways he learns and practices until the day the gang raids a North Carolina farmhouse and fifteen-year-old Callum finds seventeen-year-old Ava inside. Something changes inside Callum, and after he saves Ava from being raped, circumstances force the two to flee.

Atop a magnificent horse, Reiver, Callum and Ava head for the coast of Georgia, pursued by the gang and other malevolent forces that have joined them. Unfortunately, what's in front of them is at times as dangerous as what they're fleeing, and they never know whether to expect a welcome or a bullet upon each new encounter.

I have to preface my thoughts on Fallen Land with an admission. At the time I read it, my life was (is) in a state of upheaval and I wasn't particularly in the mood to read. I can't quantify how that might have impacted my thoughts, but here they are.

Brown can lean a bit to the overly flowery side where language is concerned, and I'm going to go mental for having to read about a woman's skin compared to milk, but there is a boatload of beautiful language in Fallen Land. I was without book darts, but still made certain to take note of several passages I thought particularly splendid, including the opener:

Pale light crept into the black stanchions of pine, the ashen ground, the dead center of dying coals. The camped men rose, silent, and broke the bread of old pillage between blackened fingers. One of their number looked at his own. Soot and powder, ash and dirt. Neat crescents accrued underneath the nails, trim and black, like he'd tried to dig himself out of a hole in the ground. Or into one.

How's that for a scene-setter? Brown's comparison to Cormac McCarthy came through in his ability to set a stage. His writing is not as lean or stark as McCarthy's; I found it to be quite a different style of writing similar hard things, no less beautiful. Brown writes the long passage as well as the short, something I look for with effusive language:

Fallen leaves speckled its banks like wafer-thin coinage, bright in darkness.
The leaves were at their brightest now, curling and crackling on the black limbs of the trees. He had to wonder why the colors changed so brightly in this land, what made them turn so fire-colored and alive-looking just before they fell, just like a match struck on the thumb would flare terrifically in a dark room, moment-bright, then burn quickly down to a cinder, nothing but dark smudges between a man's fingers.
There were fabulous scenes and moments in Fallen Land, though the story as a whole felt a bit amorphous to me, never settling into the greater picture of the war that surrounded it. I wasn't driven to pick it up and read it, but every time I did I was quickly transported back to the chase and was rewarded with language I could sink my brain into. Given the state of my mind at the time, this was no small feat.

STREET SENSE: I highly recommend Fallen Land to lovers of hardscrabble existences and ruthless human interaction interspersed with small acts of kindness, all told in elegant prose. I give a thumbs up to any book that feels real enough to make me crave hardtack, and this is certainly one of those.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  The boy stuck one cracked boot into the stirrup, an ill-formed shape clanged from glowing iron by an idiot smithy.

I also wanted to make note of the dedication, which I thought exceptionally neat:

This book owes much to the traditional ballads of Ireland and Appalachia. To the musicians who keep alive those old songs of horse thieves and highwaymen, lovers and lonesome pines - thank you.

COVER NERD SAYS:  This cover spoke to me right away (even taking the horse out of it; I'm a sucker for a good horse cover), from the color palette to the wood grain background of the character image. I like the juxtaposition between the blue flowery print and the more rustic wood element, which I thought was also reflected in the story and language it was told in. This cover would definitely catch my eye on a bookstore table and Fallen Land is a book I would buy simply from what the cover tells me. Well done.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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