Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Review: Brave Men Run by Matthew Selznick

"Where the hell have you been?"
I was startled.  "I missed the bus..."
"I called the school.  Ms. Elp looked in all your usual places, and you weren't there."
"Well..."  I fought a minor panic that she'd called the school and I wasn't around, but I was also totally confused.  Why did she need to look for me in the first place?
"I'm not late, or anything..."  In fact, with Lina driving us more directly than the bus, I was a little early.
Lina leaned over and stuck her head out the passenger window.  "Hello, Mrs. Charters.  I'm Lina Porter."
My mother glanced at her, then glared at me.  "We don't have time for your friends right now.  I need you in the house."
"Right now!"
I looked at Lina, who looked as confused as me, and a little angry.  I shrugged emphatically.  "I--I guess I have to go..."
"Can I still call you for Saturday?"
"Yes!"  I pulled a pen out of my jeans pocket, grabbed her hand, and quickly scrawled my number on her palm.  Lina beamed like it was the combination to Fort Knox.
My mother stood by the front door.  I could hear the television inside, which was another oddity for a weekday afternoon.  "Right now, Nathan!"
Lina backed her car out of the driveway and onto the street.  I could see her watching me in the rear view mirror as she drove away.
I followed my mother into the house.
"Have you heard the news?"
"About what?"
She looked at me, her mouth slightly open, and shook her head.  "That explains that."  She hustled me into the living room.  "Sit down."
I sat down  on the couch, facing the television.  She stood behind me, her hands gripping the back cushions.  There was adrenaline in her perspiration, a sharp tang to my nostrils.
On television, a middle-aged man in a business suit floated over the heads of a crowd of reporters.  In the background, the Washington Monument gleamed like bone.
--Excerpt from Brave Men Run by Matthew Selznick
Brave Men Run is an interesting take on the superhero genre.  It follows Nate Charters--an outsider with an unusual appearance and special abilities that he must keep secret--as he deals with the daily trials and tribulations of high school.  Then Dr. William Donner appears on the scene, declaring to the world that super-powered humans exist and they are demanding autonomy.  Before long, Nate finds himself caught up in a world entering the Sovereign Era and the confusion of learning the truth of where he came from and what happened to his father.
This is my first exposure to a podcast novel turned into a published one.  I've never really been into the whole podcast fiction thing.  It's not that I don't think there's value in them, it's just that I've never found them particularly interesting and some of the key players have become, in my opinion, a bit full of themselves, which really irritates me when it comes to writers.  There needs to be a lot more humility in the podcast community.
But none of this really influenced how I felt about Brave Men Run coming in.  Brave Men Run is a fairly short novel, clocking in at 227 pages (with a fairly large typeface).  The one thing that should be made clear about this novel is that it is not an action-packed superhero story.  Brave Men Run focuses on the characters, putting them first and the events happening in the world second.  This is, for me, a different approach to the genre:  I'm used to explosions and superhero battles; this novel isn't about such things, but about what these characters go through as the world around them changes.  All of this is a strength for Brave Men Run.  Selznick has managed to create a character-driven story about people with special abilities (and their friends and family).  The characters are fairly realistic and the story progresses at a pace that seems worthy of their struggles.  
I think calling Brave Men Run's vision part Stan Lee (as one of the blurbs on the back says) is misleading, because this is not a story about superheroes living daily lives.  Nate isn't a superhero, and he doesn't really want to be one either.  He has gifts, but he is not running about saving people or blowing up buildings.  I'm not sure what you'd compare it to, because I have little exposure to stories like this.  I think this goes with the territory these days:  we're seeing more novels put out there that take cliche elements and drag them into areas not usually explored.  We have vampire novels that have little to do with the popular blood-sucking renditions and now a novel about extraordinary people living normal lives.
The only problem I had with Brave Men Run was the beginning.  The first few chapters failed to grab me immediately primarily because the writing style is simplistic.  The writing isn't bad (there are some noticeable flaws), just straightforward.  The more I read, however, the more I found myself interested in the characters and what was going on.  This is a novel that grows on you, and it all has to do with the characters, who seem to become more life-like the more you read.  Selznick has put together an entertaining story, if not a little flawed.
All in all, it was a good read.  Maybe we'll see some more of Selznick in print in the future.  If you're interested in Brave Men Run, you can find it for sale at Swarm Press (or Amazon, etc.).  Matthew Selznick also has a website with plenty of other fiction you might want to check out.


Stewart Sternberg said...

I so want to writer a super hero book or short story. Any publishers out there doing an anthology give me a shout.

You know, SQT , the challenge to this new and hopefully developing genre is trying to keep it from absurdity and mimickry.

ediFanoB said...

I read the excerpt and then didn't know what to expect. After reading your review I know more. 227 pages is really short. I'm not used to read short stories. And to be honest after reading WATCHMEN it is quite difficult to read other superhero stories.

Stewart Sternberg said...

ed, ed, ed.... wanna read some great story arcs in comic history? The death of the Green Goblin, The death of Superman, the Batman/Bain arc (the broken back and the recovery), the Rise of the Phoenix from X men.....

there are incredible stories in comic books, but people don't see them because one, too often they are fragmented through serialization and two, the term comic book and super hero often puts people off.

A real fan of the superhero tale watching Heroes had to think: "Wait...what the hell? Okay, when are they going to start acting like honest to god heroes and not neurotic whiners...not that comic book heroes aren't whiners (lordy knows Peter Parker is a bundle of neurosis) but they do it with flair.

SQT said...

You know Stu, I wonder if there's something we could do on this site. I don't get a ton of traffic, but I get 500 hits a day reliably and a lot of publishers contact me for reviews etc. I wonder if I could do writing contests here. Make them sci-fi themed (maybe super hero themed one month) and see how it goes. I don't think I could do contest for money until I look into that tax situation. But I could take submissions of flash fiction, maybe get some help on the judging and feature the winner's story on the blog. Do it on a trial basis and see what kind of response it gets. I could also do bio's on the judges and feature some of their fiction (you, Charles, Steve, Jon-- whomever). I couldn't afford to offer money prizes at first, but if it is successful I could take paid submissions and offer the money taken in to the winner. For now I could offer a stack of books....I don't know. I'm thinking out loud. But I don't know why we couldn't create our own little corner of the writing universe and try to offer some exposure to deserving writers. I could even shuffle the judging panel so the judges themselves could submit their own fiction.

S.M.D. said...

Stewart: I think you just missed one such anthology. There was one not too long ago looking for superhero shorts, but I can't remember what it was and I suspect the deadline has passed...superhero fiction seems largely relegated to smaller presses, with the exception to a few things from Tor and elsewhere.

I also had a lot of trouble with Heroes for similar reasons. I've described that show as the retarded version of X-men...
I used to read a lot of comics and watch the X-men cartoon and all that when I was a kid. I miss those days.

edi: This is not going to be a Watchmen type story at all. It's not about superheroes, per se, and more about people who happen to have abilities and how they deal with a world that suddenly very aware of them (for good or for bad). So, go into it with that mindset. Don't treat it like X-men or Watchmen or any other major superhero franchise. Treat it as something different.

SQT: I'd be happy to help with that. I could be editor or whatever, if you like. Or we could have a group of editors. All I know is that it sounds like a good idea and I'd like to be a part of it.
Couldn't you do book prizes instead? Maybe try to have those prizes themed as well (as best as possible anyway)? So for the superhero one, you could giveaway some Wild Cards (GRRM) stuff and other things? Etc etc etc. That might be incentive to have people write short fiction that would get posted here and if they won they'd get some free books. That way they're getting something for the work, you know? Plus, you already give away books, so we could figure out something to make it more lucrative (i.e. more books for fiction). I see you mentioned giving away books, though...
This is a good idea and I think it's something definitely worth considering further. There's never enough online fiction sites :P.

Stewart Sternberg said...

The way competitions offer money as prizes is to have people put out some sort of entrance fee. Five. Ten dollars. I don't know how they are run.

SQT said...


The book prizes were my original thought because it's easier. I can also ask publishers to help by donating themed books for prizes. I will definitely use you as a judge too...


I have to look into it. If I take in money for prizes I'm sure I have to carefully document everything and I don't know what the tax implications are. I don't want to just willy-nilly start taking money and get in trouble later, so I will have to do some research. I could start with book prizes and move forward from there. At the end of the day, the most important thing is to have exposure for up-and-coming writers.

S.M.D. said...

Stewart/SQT: Most of the best monetary writing competitions don't have fees. I think fees would be an instant killer here. I never enter competitions that want me to pay them. Writers get so little as it is and unless we can offer a really big pot of money, it's not work it to have an entrance fee.

SQT: I think it'd be better to have flash fiction or stories under 2,000 words and offer free books until something else comes along. At this point, I think it would not only be too complicated to take fees, but also a sure-fire way to ruin it.

SQT said...

I agree Shaun. I don't have a prestige blog that can offer much more than a little exposure. Nothing worth paying for right now. If it generates more traffic, then maybe I can get more advertising income and use that for prizes. Right now, all I can offer are books.