Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: "How to Survive a Summer" by Nick White

How To Survive a Summer, the debut novel by author Nick White is one of three books (two of which are translations) this year by gay male authors that deal heavily with homosexual themes. Besides the subject matter, I am not too sure if these books have anything more in common (I will be reading one of them next month), but they have a hard act to follow since this is an astonishingly self-assured debut that hopelessly and proudly straddles many different genres while maintaining its vice like grip on the reader, even through it’s quieter more reflective moments. What I liked most about this book is how much deeper it goes than just being a book about homosexuality. It has sex scenes in it, it has what might pass for love in it (I will elaborate), but it’s epicenter is its’ broken, almost cowardly narrator, a man-child nearing 30 who can’t reckon with his past and who he is, and most certainly can’t focus on the future. And the whole book is leading toward the possible moment when he can come to terms with who he is, what he went through and where he wants to be, and placing that story within the confines of what is at times a thriller makes for an endlessly compelling 338 page book. The man-child in question is Will Dillard, a grad student in film theory at an unnamed Midwestern college. One day, a friend of his, Bevy, invites him to a protest of an upcoming slasher film, which is based on book about a brutal gay conversion camp in Mississippi, which closed down after one of the campers was killed. What no one knows is that will was one of the five campers there during that fateful summer. After trying to see the movie with Zeus, a female to male transgender person and possible love interest, Will flees the college and heads back to where he grew up and eventually, the camp where his life took a harrowing turn. The novel doesn’t spend the bulk of its time in camp; instead, we get glimpses at Will’s childhood in the South, where kindness masks a social rigidity that is immovable and the wilderness provides cover for things otherworldly and dangerous. We learn about Will’s mother, who first noticed his homosexuality during a sleepless night following one of Will’s bad dreams. His dad, a local preacher, has a different way of finding out, which plays out in a raunchy scene involving a church candle. How he comes to be a camper I will not spoil, nor will I spoil what happens when he runs into two former campers on his trip who have become a couple and are hiding more than their share of secrets. This is a thrilling yet sad novel of a man who can’t get over himself and what he is, and the consequences that await him when he runs from that truth. It is a powerful original story from a writer to watch.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: "Perfect Little World" by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World is a safe, enjoyable but ultimately milquetoast second novel from author Kevin Wilson, whose first book, The Family Fang (easily one of my least favorite titles to a really good book), which was made into a movie directed by and starring Jason Bateman. This novel manages to highlight both Wilson’s strengths and weaknesses on the page. On one hand, he is a great storyteller with a knack for offbeat situations that feel fresh but also contain within their perimeters truths about the modern world and our relationships with friends and families. But I also thinks he falls too much in love with his subjects, giving them a few too many positive attributes so it is hard for us see their failures and other flaws they have as anything but a mere stepping stone toward a happy ending or at least some sort of enlightenment by the end of the book. The focus of this novel is Izzy, a recent high school graduate who is pregnant by her trust, psychologically damaged art teacher. With no prospects besides her work at a local BBQ restaurant, a sudden tragedy forces her to become a part of a social experiment funded by an aging female billionaire and led by Dr. Grind, a socially awkward scientist, himself a former participant in a similar familial experiment and also no stranger to tragic circumstances. Izzy, along with handful of other desperate expectant parents, will live in a sort of commune where the newborns will spend eight years living without any of them knowing who their real parents are. It shares themes with Wilson’s first novel, where the idea of family is placed within a controlled setting with lasting ramifications. It creates drama, but none of it is really too dramatic or urgent besides one small scene involving a needy parent wanting more time with their child. While Wilson succeeds with Dr. Grind, whose upbringing and tragic past create a character high in intelligence but deeply troubled and volatile, he sort of fails with Izzy herself, whose character flaws (her taste in men, her lack of drive, her disconnect) are either inferred by Wilson or ignored by her. Either way, I didn’t like following her as much as Dr. Grind. Even with the sometimes slow pace and the schmaltzy ending, this is good second effort for Wilson, and I will pick up his next book in a heartbeat.  
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review: "The Twelve-Mile Straight" by Eleanor Henderson

It was hard for me not to think of C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, a novel that came out last year, while reading Eleanor Henderson’s The Twelve-Mile Straight. Not only are they very long second novels written by young female writers, there themes of race, our countries history of racism and life in the integrated yet racially hostile south, it is easy to put these two novels in the same category and think of them as sort of literary cousins, based on the similarities above and the proximity of when they were published. And while I liked The Sport of Kings, for it’s elegant dreamlike prose and rich characters, I have a feeling I will like this novel more because it’s elements will linger longer in my mind long after I finished it. Like The Sport of Kings, it is a brilliant look at the American South, both long at 539 pages but intimate as well, focusing on a single event which has dire implications for not only the future but the past of all parties involved. It is a smoother novel than Morgan’s, while maintaining a rich intricacy that asks a lot of the reader and rewards them generously. The event in question is a brutal one. Accused of raping the daughter of sharecropper he is employed by, Genus Jackson is shot, strung up on a gourd tree, stabbed multiple times and has his body dragged behind a truck down the eponymous road in Cotton County, Georgia. The victim, Elma Jessup, has given birth to twins, a white girl and a black boy, as a supposed result of the alleged rape by Genus and her relations with Freddie Jackson, whose grandfather George Jackson, owns the farm and many more that Juke Jessup, Elma’s father, sharecrops. After Freddie flees Cotton County, Elma becomes a bit of a celebrity for her strange twins, referred to as Gemini twins. Along with Elma is Nan, fours years younger than Elma, and the black housekeeper for the Jessup’s farm that had her tongue cut out by her mother Jetty when she was a baby, which forces her to hold onto more than her share of secrets. What happens after the lynching and what it means for the Wilson’s and the Jessup’s is a thing of beauty and skill nearly unmatched. It unfolds eloquently, with secret after secret being revealed, adding another layer to this wonderful work of art. I noticed a few themes running throughout this book, an obvious one being fatherhood, both open and secret, which comes to ahead near the end of the book in a scene that reveals both staggering horrors and hopes, but two others where the idea of twins, in both the physical and spiritual sense, where two characters share common goals and desires, most of the time without realizing it, and the theme of disabilities and how they manifest in a character’s personality, exemplified by Oliver Rawls, the son of Cotton County’s doctor and a late addition to the narrative, whose arc is sad yet hopeful. This is a very good novel, one that is easy to get lost in and feel things about, and easily one of the best of the year so far.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: "The Changeling" by Victor LaValle

Reading a book by Victor LaValle reminds me of the first few times I read a Murakami novel: the same sense of newness and wonder, otherworldliness and danger and the same blurry line between fantasy and brutal reality. It is a good feeling, one that I first found last year when I read his second novel Big Machine and it continues on through his most recent novel, The Changeling, a proud hybrid of fantasy, fairy tale techno and urban noir. It sounds like a lot and a writer of a lesser caliber would wholeheartedly stumble over these genres, not to mention the story itself. But LaValle is so capable and passionate about his subject matter, not only does he make it work and work smoothly, it is hard to see the story any other way. It is a story filled with a healthy amount of twists and turns, a healthy amount of whimsy and tragedy and a more than healthy mix of horror and humor (which makes sense because LaValle himself edited a selection of Richard Matheson stories that has come out or is coming out shortly). By the end, which I guarantee you will get to as quickly as I did, you feel drained, impressed and overall truly happy. The main character of the story is Apollo Kagwa, a bi-racial bookseller whose wife Emma has just given birth to their son, Brian. But before all that happens, the book describes how Apollo’s parents met, with his dad Brian being the son of two worthless drunks and his mother Lillian being an immigrant from Uganda. Brian leaves the family when Apollo is four years, leaving his son with a strange series of nightmares that follow him into adulthood and a box of miscellaneous items labeled Improbabila, which later becomes the name of Apollo’s book company. But soon after Apollo’s son is born, Emma starts getting weird pictures of Brian texted to her and she starts showing signs of post-partum depression. Eventually Emma does something sudden and unthinkable in one of the book’s most harrowing scenes and disappears, leaving Apollo alone and devastated. It is only when he comes into contact with William Wheeler, a tech genius with a lot of secrets, does he begin a journey to bring back with him what he lost. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say the book involves a lost island inhabited by people like Emma, a handful of Norwegian fairy tales and a climactic scene involving a mythic creature that somehow works perfectly for this book. Along with this brilliant narrative thread, LaValle is a master at giving inanimate objects meaning and purpose, much like Murakami: a rare copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, a mattock and finally an iPad app all play big roles in where the story goes as do an interesting cast of characters such as Kim, Emma’s midwife sister who holds one of the book’s most startling revelations and Patrice, Apollo’s friend and business partner, who provides the book with levity and humor that practically saves it from being too dark. This is an immense, big-hearted journey of a book from one of my new favorite writers, and I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.
Rating: 5/5 

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Review: "The Dead Do Not Improve" by Jay Caspian Kang

I think I have read enough to know when a writer is out of their element, and in one instance that stretches across the whole book, it becomes very apparent that Jay Caspian Kang, in his debut novel The Dead Do Not Improve, doesn’t have what it takes to create a mystery worth solving or a thriller worth following along with, because it features one of the most poorly rendered characters I have come across, which zaps almost all of the good will it establishes with the main character who isn’t anything special, but still creates some goodwill with the reader. With a convoluted story with a little too much quirk and pointless asides that derail everything constantly to a rather intense climax to an ineffective final few pages. This is a real mixed bag of fiction, one that leaves me unimpressed and happy to move on from. It opens up with Philip Kim, a Korean immigrant and failed writer making a living writing for a pseudo-revenge website in San Francisco. He has a few friends and very little connection with the world until a neighbor is killed seemingly by accident which sets off a series of events that lead him toward a reckoning with his violent self, which he become aware of in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shooting. It also places him in contact with Sid Finch, the surfer cop who was the poorly drawn character I was speaking about at the beginning. None of his scenes, which include confrontations with a porn wizard, his Korean partner or a violent gang that plays a part in the end ring true. His sections take up half the book, and when he was on the page, the book stalled. It faired a little bit better when Philip would talk about his interest in hip-hop or his sexual exploits, but this is a rather corny book, and with it dealing with such a touchy subject matter, I expected it to be a bit more polished, less derivative and way more entertaining.

Rating: 3/5

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Review: "The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley" by Hannah Tinti

Hannah Tinti’s second novel The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley might be the biggest surprise for me this year. A few years ago, I read her short story collection Animal Crackers, and to say it did nothing for me would be in understatement, with whatever I didn’t like it about being totally eclipsed by how quickly I forgot about it. But those ill feelings are all but forgotten in this clever, sprawling yet intimate portrait of a father and daughter who are drawn to and seemingly excel at violence and trouble. But for all its blood and guts, which is expertly kept at minimum at the beginning and is slowly ramped up as the story unfolds, I couldn’t help how touched and moved I was by this story, with its twin narratives of two people who grow up with brutality in their bones only to find that the world that has been so cruel to them has kindness and compassion to offer. What it gets right about its subject matter, which blends a nourish approach to the sudden emergence of violence with a quaint, almost Russo-esque setting of New England, reminds me of what a book like Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road got wrong. A story like this doesn’t work unless there is a sense of urgency, a sense of danger and a chance for high body count containing characters we have come to love over the course of their narrative, and this book simply does it better than Smith’s sophomore slump. The book focuses on two people, the eponymous man of the title, whose twelve lives are twelve scars he carries around with him, all of which came from him being shot, the other being his daughter Loo, a girl destined to grow into a woman with the violent tendencies of her father. The book is told in alternating chapters. The first concern the present day, where Samuel and Loo now live in Olympus, Massachusetts, the hometown of Loo’s late mother, the other detailing the twelve bullets that have passed through Samuel’s body, each coincidentally coinciding with an important moment in Samuel’s life, like how he met Lily’s Loo’s mother and how he lost her, his moral compass and his unwilling proficiency in killing people. It is no surprise that these two threads eventually collide in predictable but pleasurable ways, but it is very appropriate as well, and the story would not have been complete if they hadn’t. I also enjoyed how Tinti’s subverted a lot of the stereotypes about this story. There are villains, but they are clearly outlined and not who you’d expect, with characters like the buffoonish Jove, Samuel’s partner in crime, Mitchell, Loo’s crush and the love scorned yet compassionate Principal Gunderson (my favorite), who would be viewed negatively in other stories set up like this, but become quiet heroes in this one. Full of intensity, suspense, tragedy and undeniably, on- ironic hope, this is a brilliant second novel from a writer I had mistakenly cast off years ago. 
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: "Six Four" by Hideo Yokoyama

Six Four, the English language debut of Japanese crime writer Hideo Yokoyama might be the most interesting international crime novel I have come across. Since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, we have seen a rather insane amount of noir books come from Scandinavian countries. What most of these books have in common is their length, with the hardcover editions being around 400 pages and the paperback editions clocking in around 500, and their proclivities toward violence and extreme behavior. I have only ever read books by Jo Nesbo, (although the two that I have read have not been a part of the Harry Hole series) and The Crow Girl by the Swedish duo Erik Axl Sund. As intense as they books were, especially The Crow Girl, the violence turned me off a bit, going from disturbing to gratuitous to ridiculous. But in Six Four, there is none of that, and it makes what happens a little bit more interesting without lowering what is at stake. It is sure to disappoint a few people in search of blood and guts, and a lot of the problems here can be found in other international crime books, but this is a more mature book than some might expect. At the heart of this novel is Mikami, a former detective turned press director of Prefecture D haunted by the Six Four case, where a young girl was kidnapped and murdered, partly due to the botched attempts to recover her. Now, 14 years later and with his teenaged daughter missing and an upcoming visit from the commissioner general, his life slowly becomes chaotic as he discovers new clues in the decades old case, which only offers up more questions. As I said, my problem with a lot of these kinds of crime novels is their details are area-specific, which can sometime hinder the urgency of the proceedings. But there are enough human moments to elevate this away from mere boilerplate status, with in scene where a crime is described in heartbreaking, but not graphic detail being a standout. The twist is also good, much better than the one at the center of The Crow Girl. It takes awhile to take shape, but when it does, it is very rewarding. If you like mystery with a foreign flare and a beating, non-cynical, this is a long ride worth taking.

Rating: 4/5