A Review of Malcolm Brooks’ “Cloudmaker”
I get books to review from a website known as Edelweiss+. In that e-book platform, there’s a spotlight on featured books — or books that get preferred treatment in terms of placement in front of book reviewers’ eyeballs by being marketed in a kind of banner ad at the top of the site. Malcolm Brooks’ sophomore novel Cloudmaker got this treatment, which is how I came about reviewing this one. I figured that because it was being marketed more aggressively to reviewers (and other users of the platform, such as librarians), that it must be a superlative book. I also spied the colourful cover art and was taken by it. Given the subject matter is about airplanes, which suggested adventure, all these features seemed to scream that Cloudmaker would be a great read. Thus, I snapped up the opportunity to read the book. Remember that old saying about judging a book by its cover? It’s a true saying for Cloudmaker.
The book is set in 1937 in Montana against the backdrop of Amelia Earhart’s attempt at flying around the world. It centers on a 14-year-old boy named Houston “Huck” Finn (no, I’m not making up his nickname) who has built a glider that he has crashed at the outset of the book; the young lad is secretly working on building his own airplane in the meantime as a replacement flyer. His 18-year-old cousin, Annelise, arrives from California under mysterious circumstances, and it turns out she has flown airplanes. Together, the pair have adventures with a shop assistant hired by Houston’s father, including those revolving around a flight watch invented by Charles Lindbergh that is pulled by Houston off a dead gangster’s body that he and a friend discover in a river. Naturally, the gangsters want that watch back.
As you can tell from the above synopsis, this is a book with a fair amount of plot and plot choppiness. There’s no smooth, streamlined narrative to speak of. Things happen, and then other things happen, and then the book ends. While I want to go on and explain the book’s other deficiencies, I will say something charitable about Cloudmaker: it does boast characters that are generally likable, save for one or two, and characters that you wish were placed into a better book with more of a straightforward, non-literary pretentious narrative. The reason is that Cloudmaker is often a confusing read. You might like this novel more than I did if you know something or two about the construction of airplanes. That’s because the book isn’t afraid of using technical jargon that, well, flew right over my head. A large chunk of the book is grounded in a machinery shop as Brooks — seemingly an author who has fallen in love with his research — spends countless pages describing how an airplane is built.
Pretty boring stuff, in other words.
When the book does take to the skies, it suffers from the same problem: there are realms of technical jargon about flying and the language is so purple that you’ll have a hard time imagining what exactly is going on. This is a shame because, again, the characters are so beautifully written. I was particularly taken with the proto-feminist Annelise, who has sass and a sense of adventure in spades. Houston is a bit endearing, too, as a child prodigy of sorts. However, the characterizations are all sunk when you get to Houston’s mother — who is an evangelical, Pentecostal Christian. The book veers back and forth between the secular and the sacred, without any flight map from the author as to why this is so. It’s like Brooks had a bunch of ideas for a novel and its subplots, put them all into a blender, let the results settle, and then let them be poured into a slipshod mold.
And what about the gangsters? Aside from one dust-up in the novel, they are largely ineffectual. When Houston and company need a Model A engine for the airplane, and the gangsters drive a Model A car — well, you can put two and two together and determine that Houston and company will do something particularly stupid about halfway through the read to get the engine for the plane. And what about Houston’s love interest? Yes, there’s a love interest. Well, she disappears more than halfway through the piece and is never heard from again, with no resolution as to what happens to her. The result is that Cloudmaker is an amateurish novel that is surprisingly being released by a major publisher. How this book got sold beats the hell out of me.
Brooks needed an editor for this book. Not only did it not need to run on for more than 400 pages, but it also needed a greater focus. Entire chapters of the book are devoted to the backstory of minor characters, including Houston’s father. If you removed them from Cloudmaker, the results would be the same: there would be no difference at all. These chapters are in the book solely because it seems that Brooks needed padding to round out the fact that he didn’t know what to do about the gangsters’ fate and that of Houston’s love interest. They’re supposed to probably give the book some of its thematic elements, but, frankly, on this front, the chapters just fall flat.
Essentially, if it weren’t for the youthful characters and their sense of wild abandon that populate this tale, Cloudmaker would easily rest in the company of being one of the worst books I have ever read. It’s far too unfocused and too unstructured to make a great deal of sense, and the writing is of the quality of someone reading at an open mic set at a literary event who thinks too highly of themselves. The author of this book is seemingly in love with his prose and his technical knowledge, but the major problem is that he forgets that the layperson coming to this novel will not understand the terminology he is using — which is crucial that they do for pictures to fully form within one’s head. In any event, I’ll say this: I’ll be more careful from now on about judging a book by its cover art. Cloudmaker is a novel to be avoided at all costs unless you are an aspiring pilot and a young reader (despite the book’s not too explicit sex scenes). This is an immature book and one that is far from being fully realized. The pieces do not congeal to make a whole. At all. And that’s a shame because a great book is trying to burst out of the seams of this one.
Malcolm Brooks’ Cloudmaker will be published by Grove Press on March 9, 2021.
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