Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist" by Mark Leyner

You will have a lot of fun reading Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, but much like a lot of modern day comedies, those laughs will be well earned but rather disposable. But they are still there, and I’d put a book like this, as dated and as irreverent as it is, up above others in the same genre of short fiction (John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse immediately comes to mind). Leyner’s claim to fame and how I first heard about him was a famous Charlie Rose interview he did with fellow writers Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. His work fits neatly in with what Wallace produced in his lifetime. The stories here are disparate snapshots of a crazy world that doesn’t make sense, a series of fever dreams come to life and abstract paintings somehow adapted into little vignettes. It is very hard to describe these stories at least on a narrative level, but I will do my best to pick out my favorites when I can. The best things about them have to be the titles, which for someone like myself has a rather goofy sense of humor at times, were fun to read and easily made me chuckle. Titles like “Lines Composed After Inhaling Paint Thinner”, “Enter the Squirrel” “Yoo Hoo! Buzz Called Out. Y’all Got Any Crème de Cacao?” make this collection worth your time, even if you don’t; fully understand the stories themselves, which are filled with hit men who can’t remember if they’ve killed women before, a man who forgets to plug in his mom’s respirator and men who go to a military academy of beauty. It is hard to sustain any kind of interest for stories so weird and scattered, but Leyner can at least make anyone laugh, and at a brisk 150 pages, this book more than does its job successfully.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review: "Homesick for Another World" by Ottessa Moshfegh

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh is the wildest, craziest and most inventive short story collection I have read in a long while, up there with Scott Snyder’s Voodoo Heart and Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged and Everything Burned. Each story seems to pulsate with a black heart that can be mean, can commit acts of cruelty but is always all too human and all too recognizable to anyone who has lived a day on Earth. I became a fan of Moshfegh’s late in 2015 while reading her debut novel Eileen over one of the dreariest Christmases I can remember, and it perfectly summed up the feelings I had over the holiday season (it helps that it takes place around Christmas time as well). After that I read her little novella McGlue, which also shared this author’s bleak yet wondrous worldview. But none of those books really prepares you for a book like this, one that is part fairy tale, part fever dream and part warped reality of the selfish, broken people who always seem to be at the center of these daring stories. I was reminded throughout of the work of Amelia Gray and George Saunders, but the worlds Moshfegh crafts are much more precise and emotionally resonant and a little bit of the brutal real world that exists on the edges of these character’s precious lives always seems to be dripping in despite their efforts to plug the holes. I can’t think of a weak story in this bunch, but as I do with all of my reviews, I will point out a few that really stuck with me. This collection gets off to a strong start with the bleakly humorous “Bettering Myself” about a female teacher whose life revolves around her drinking problem and calling her ex-husband in between teaching lower tier math. This story really exhibits Moshfegh’s precise attention to detail as she amusingly describes her old classroom, the weird sex lives of her students and what her morning routine is like, which of course involves throwing up before class. It also introduces an underlying theme to all these stories. They tend to show people trapped in lives that fit them a little too well, they are aware of their lot in life and they look upon it with sheer disappointment and helplessness, despite what they may tell us. It shows in similar stories like “No Place for Good People” about a widower whom who works at a halfway house for the mentally disabled and “The Surrogate” about a beautiful figure head for a small company. Moshfegh also has a talent for describing the lives of the elderly. In stories like “The Beach Boy” and “An Honest Woman” are great parables for elderly dread. And of course, misplaced affection is another specialty of hers, with stories like “A Dark and Winding Road”, “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and “The Locked Room” effortlessly shows the progression of love, to obsession, to cruelty and to despair. The final story “A Better Place” is a haunting story that reads like something written by the Brothers Grimm and might be the best of its kind since the title story from Wells Tower’s collection. These stories and this book are a real treat and easily the best book, so far, in 2017. 
Rating: 5/5

Review: "The Crow Girl" by Erik Axl Sund

One of many things I will take away from The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund (the pen name of two Swedish authors) is how successfully it crafts a rather smart, methodical and downright reprehensible female serial killer. This character, which I will not reveal the identity of, even though it is laid out clearly less than a third of the way through the book, is like a gender swapped Hannibal Lector and whose actions are the stuff of real world nightmares. It is the best part of this long 768 page book, which has the tendency to meander, never successfully executes a lot of the more heady and dreamlike psychological scenes and has a grim mean spirited nature that at times turned me off completely. But having said that, of the few Nordic crime thrillers I have read, mostly from Jo Nesbo, this is easily the best one. A series of heinous murders, mostly of immigrant children rock the city of Stockholm. The case is given to Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg, the highest ranking female officer. She is frustrated by the lack of resources she gives, and comes into contact with criminal therapist Sofia Zetterlund, whose experiences dissecting the worst of humanity has given her a serve case of PTSD. The bodies pile up and a twist, which comes out of nowhere and gives this book’s straight narrative a vague twist, paints the whole rest of the book with a thick coat of dread. This is a rough book at times and it took my breath away during the scenes of abuse. I’d compare this depiction of heinous human folly to the work of Jack Ketchum. Both authors share a sense of anger toward abusers and a total compassion towards victims, and even its bleak ending, which I hope leaves things open for sequel, demonstrates this kind of compassion. Well-written and plotted expertly, this is a high point in a subgenre that I feel is becoming oversaturated. 
Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: "John Crow's Devil" by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings is going to be a hard act to follow for writer Marlon James. It’s scope, its use of language and its fleshy beating heart seem unmatched when you compare it to anything else today, but that energy he exerted might be a once in a lifetime event, because I find none of it in his previous novels. His sophomore effort, The Book of Night Women showed his crazed heretic take on the English language, but it was used for a rather unoriginal story of American slavery, one that paled in comparison to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which I read the same year. His first novel, the one I just finished today, John Crow’s Devil, shows the greasy and wet gestation of what he would become, and its unformed nature show in a rather unhinged and chaotic narrative structure that overreaches and overstuffs almost everything in it’s slim 230 pages. The book takes place in Jamaica in the late 1950’s; although the story feels like it takes place 100 years before then. It tells of the struggle between two preachers and the village that each seeks to control. A man who calls himself Apostle York one day confronts Hector Bligh, known as the “Rum Preacher”, mid-sermon. Bligh, a drunk with a tenuous grasp of his place in the community and haunted by past infidelities, is easily ousted by the York, whose passionate sermons easily entrance the people of the village. With the help of a local widow, Bligh prepares for a bloody collision with York and the village that once respected him. Besides the two main characters and a few sides characters, such as the violate Clarence and the faithful Lucinda, it is hard to tell anyone apart in this jumbled narrative. The violence James so eagerly and expertly renders shows up only a few times, most memorably in the beginning and haunting end, but the ferocious originality I have come to expect from James is sorely lacking in this early work.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: "Her Every Fear" by Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson’s new novel, Her Every Fear, much like Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven is a straight up genre novel, and because of that, I have to judge it by certain merits it has and some that it doesn’t. I really enjoyed this book and read through it quickly; it is perfect for any tropical vacation and keeps the reader in a vice grip up until the ending. But when I read mysteries, one of my favorite genres of literature, I expect a few things. I either expect to be moved, shaken or come away with a profound understanding I did not have before, much like I do with the novels of Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, or I want a narrative that is so twisted, complicated and fascinating that I have no idea what is going to happen next and I fear for my well being as well as that of the characters in the book I sympathize with. Sad to say, I had the book’s ending pegged early on, and I wished I did not. You might to, but I won’t spoil it here. Kate Priddy, the book’s main character is a wounded and scared woman living in London. After nearly dying at the hands of her crazed ex-boyfriend, an event that even five years passed still gives her PTSD; she reaches out to her unknown second cousin, Corbin, and offers to swap apartments with him in Boston. As soon as she gets there, her worries come to life after the woman living next door to Corbin is found dead. The book weaves in and out of different perspectives, from Kate’s to Alan, the mysterious man who lives on the other side of the apartment complex, Corbin, who is hiding dreadful secrets and eventually our bad guy, a truly evil and reprehensible human being. Despite figuring it out, I was fascinated by this world, which is expertly plotted and full of unknown dangers lurking around every corner, in every shadow of a darkened room and every creak of old wooden floorboards. The ending might seem to neat to some, but it holds true to the book’s theme about facing the fear of the unknown and getting over your hurt.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: "Apex Hides the Hurt" by Colson Whitehead

Thankfully Colson Whitehead’s worst novel is also his shortest. Apex Hides the Hurt, his third novel is perplexing confusing and neither of those is a compliment. His work varies for me, with books like The Underground Railroad and John Henry Days being fantastic, The Intuitionist and Zone One being good but a little too odd and Sag Harbor being a disappointment, but this book seems like a failed experiment in odd narration and a book that doesn’t seem to have a point at all. It’s set up is very similar to John Henry Days but without the charm and scope of that superior book. The characters are weak and the book’s motivation is even weaker and murkier than that. In the short time it took me to read this book, I found out rather easily why this book is his least lauded one to date. At the center of this book is an unnamed black nomenclature consultant who is contacted by the town of Winthrop. The town has a bit of a conflict in that it wants to change its name but the town itself can’t agree on what it should be called. Three different groups of people of varying influence want it to be named a certain way and this consultant must figure out a way to please everyone. The best part of this novel is also its goofiest. It involves the unnamed consultant and how he lost his big toe, which involves stubbing it, multiple times and stepping in literal shit. It is where this strangely unsatisfying book gets its odd title, because Apex is the name of the bandage company. There is very little pleasing about this book, and I am glad it came early in the career of one of the most exciting and versatile writers in America today.

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Review: "Little Heaven" by Nick Cutter

(Full disclosure, while I have read a few of Craig Davidson’s books in the past, I am counting this book as a new author, since it removed enough from his other work to warrant such a distinction.)

Brimming with terror, both real and psychological, action and tons of blood and guts, I can’t think of a more pleasing horror novel I have read in the past few years than Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven. With proud echoes to the work of Stephen King and Peter Straub, this novel is a pure stick of genre dynamite that entrances the reader while also grossing them out and scaring the shit out of them. I have been circling the novels of Cutter for a few years, ever since his first novel The Troop, came out and seemed to light the world on fire, and if it is anything like this powder keg, I cannot wait to jump in. reading this, you can’t help but think of a more compact and less heady version of Stephen King’s It, with the monster of both books sharing a few characteristics in common: shape-shifting, cruel head games and a rather vague notion the reader gains as to what the nature of the beast really is. But all that would be pointless if the characters were not strong and empathetic, and here, you have a trio of astoundingly rendered wounded people (and one horrendously creepy human villain) who must rise above their flaws and slay the beast.  At the start of the novel, some malformed beast snatches a little girl from her home. We learn that this little girl is the daughter of Micah Shughrue, a hard man with a glass eye. He knows who took her, and he knows who he has to contact in order to save her. In the same section, we are also introduced to Ebenezer Elkins, a black Englishman with a limp and Minerva Atwater, a woman with a shaved head and a grim death wish. The book switches timelines from the present day in 1980 and 1965, where the three formed a shaky bond after a failed shootout and what brought them deep into New Mexico’s woods and to the religious settlement of Little Heaven, ruled over by Amos Flesher, who bears more than a little resemblance to Jim Jones. Once a little boy goes missing and people start seeing strange creatures lurking in the woods, this book becomes a vice grip wrapped tightly around your throat. The book has many memorable scenes that I simply can’t shake, like how Minerva lost her brother and father in the same day and what Amos found his true sadistic nature in the orphanage he grew up in (which is called back to near the end in a brilliant way I had not seen done before), and its somewhat grim and haunting ending. This book is pure excitement: it entices, hypnotizes and strikes fear into unsuspecting readers. Whether you want to call him Nick Cutter or by his real name, this an author who knows what he is doing and is having fun while doing it, and in turn, so does everyone who reads his books. 
Rating: 5/5