I was lucky enough to win a copy of this through the First Reads program here on Goodreads. Regardless of receiving a free copy, this is an honest review.
The Hardboiled Astronomer and the Secret Gospel of James is a fictional book and tells the story of Jonathan, an astronomer and narrator of the book. The story takes place in multiple periods in time. when the book begins, he's just started a road trip with a fellow student, Moira. For fun, they've decided to act as if they're secret agents or on the run from something. It's just too bad that, at that time, they don't realise that they kind of are really being chased. A lot of things happen which lead them to believe that someone's following them. Meanwhile, the book keeps on flashing back to periods in Jonathon's history. He is busy recalling various occurrences in his past, mostly girls that he loves and periods in time which he finds particularly interesting.
I felt like the characters were very interesting. One of the things I don't like in media is authors having very smart characters, but having them being actually quite stupid. In this book, I think that the characters are very intelligent. It's not just that the author says they're intelligent, either. Here, you can see they're smart because of their actions and feel how smart they are by the way they talk. Occasionally, there are points of dialogue and various actions I don't agree with. However, the overall writing of these people was very good. I felt like sometimes, we engaged a little too much in Jonathan's thoughts, but I appreciated his input into the overall book and liked what he had to say about situations. Though, having said that, despite the characters being so interesting, I think that the book was a little bit too character driven and a little too much of the book focused on the people they met. The women Jonathan met seemed to be unending and he seemed to have special moments with every single one of them, which kind of got a little dull. I think the other problem is that we kept on getting references to a Marie-Hélène. She's made out to be his absolute love, that he compares every other woman to. Yet, actually 'meeting' her, I just found that she was a little lacking. Even with the scenes we shared with her and how much he comments he's in love with her during these scenes, I just don't think it was worth it. Despite all the mentions of Jonathan's great love for her, the scenes don't really convey the actuality of their love. I also felt like the last portion with her, when he goes back to her apartment, just seemed to be unnecessary. I just think it was the most disappointing anti-climax and only serves more questions, all of which were unanswered.
I wasn't quite sure to expect when I began reading the book. I just tried to keep my mind open and read it. In the beginning, it was a little bit bothersome to have it jumping around because it wasn't explained at first. It just sort of happened and I was left wondering whether there was something I missed, like a reason for the change in time period. It also wasn't particularly clear as to what was really going on; why they were going to Chicago, why they were pretending to be someone else, why there was this Secret Gospel business. They all became clearer later on in the book, but I wish it had been sooner as the overall beginning of the book seemed a little bit strange (about a quarter of the book in total, I would hazard a guest). In the end of the book, I think things got a little lost as well. It just seemed as if there weren't very good explanations for any of the mystery aspects. Much of it just seemed like the author decided to end it without a good explanation for a lot of the events. It was explained that it was just coincidence, for much of it, but it just kind of felt like an unintelligible end for what was actually a smart book. I don't really know how to explain it, but it's just that the entire plot was leading up to something super important and then the author writes it off as "just a coincidence" and doesn't finish a lot of the plot lines that were left open. I was also kind of disappointed with the ending between Jonathan and Moira. Though I appreciated that the author was aiming for something kind of unexpected, I'm not entirely sure that it worked for the book. Being that I'm not very religious, I kind of feel as if I was missing out on some jokes, references and important bits to the plot. The same for not being lingual, other than English. The book uses a lot of French with varying references to other languages as well. I think that some of those portions were a little lost on me. However, I did think that (from the little I know about either religion and other languages), I felt those aspects were very well used and others would certainly appreciate the humour and relevance to those portions.
Overall, I'm quite impressed with the novel. I think the author writes characters very well. Though I think he also needs to exercise a little restraint by not having too many; a lot of them just get lost and it muddles the book a bit. I thought that the plot was really interesting and I enjoyed the mysterious occurrences. However, I didn't appreciate the ending to any of them. I think the thing I liked most about it is that it was completely new to me and I've never read anything quite like it, and the fact that each element was quite intriguing. It's clear that the author has worked hard with character development, research into each element of the book and the outlook the narrator has onto the entirety. It's not a perfect book, but I think it's pretty good for a first novel. It won't be to the taste of everyone, but I liked it. Four stars.