Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: "Problems" by Jade Sharma

Problems, the debut novel from author Jade Sharma, is an ugly book, but I think it was meant to be that way. It reads like Bukowski filtered through Chad Kultgan but through the lens of a female living in New York City. It is filled with graphic sex that is heartlessly described that becomes titillating at pints, sad most of the time, and eventually, as it is with any book like this, tedious and rather uninteresting. It has a confidence that I like when it comes to first works of fiction, but I don’t think it is of the well-earned variety: it’s perspective is unique, but I have seen this type of song and dance before, and the last time I really enjoyed it I was a fresh 20 year old. But still, there is a certain car crash quality to this kind of work, and some of the dialogue, which this book has a lot of, really shines. It focuses on Maya, an Indian woman in her late twenties or early thirties, juggling more than a few vices. She has a heroin addiction, a coke habit and when she is not cheating on her husband with men she meets online, she is carrying on an affair with one of her professors thirties years older than she is. The book begins here, and it is about when what she calls a life comes crashing down in front of her. Like I said, the sex scenes, which come off tawdry and not somber, which I think was Sharma’s intention, become a chore to read and offer nothing new. But watching Maya sabotage her personal relationships, like the quasi-predatory one she has with her professor and a rather uncomfortable Thanksgiving she has with her husband’s family, a prelude to her desertion is where this book’s black heart beats the loudest and fastest. A book that can sometimes suffer from its unwillingness to beautify anything somehow walks away with an inkling of charm to take away from it.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Review: "The Laughing Monsters" by Denis Johnson

Denis Johnson, much like Don DeLillo, is a writer I come back to even though they have not produced anything that I would call a masterpiece. I enjoy his books quite bit: they are stylistically rich and have enough bravado to make certain aspects funny, but not enough to be unforgivably annoying. He sort of exists on the outskirts of literature, or did until the mammoth Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, and has always been a little underrated (although I tend to discount authors of this description  once they win one of the big four of American literary awards). He has produced some good work, with his first novel Angles, easily being his best and least talked about work, and all the others are passable. But his most recent effort, The Laughing Monsters, just by default, has got to be his worst. It concerns two men who are over the hill in experience even though they are a few years off in age. Roland Nair, a man who drifts in and out of secretive government operations, finds himself in the country of Sierra Leone to meet up with his friend, the mysterious and unhinged Michael Adriko. Michael, with a new fiancĂ©, indulges the whims of Roland, whose reasons for coming back to a country that made him money are left vague. A trip to Uganda to meet Michael’s tribe leads all three into the wilderness and to a tribe that is eating itself alive. Like most of Johnson’s stories, it is filled with a sort of tough guy/hipster grit, which works in some instances, such as Angels, but for here, it seems tawdry and even, for the most part boring, with the second half, which was supposed to be more interesting, doesn’t live up to the introductions. I will still read more of Denis Johnson, going backward instead of forward in his bibliography, but this is far from his best, which, coming from me, isn’t saying much.
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" by Iain Reid

Some books simply strike a chord with you. You can’t help it. Even if it’s a terribly flawed work, you can’t help but see a little bit of yourself in it. Thankfully, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the deliciously and infectiously creepy debut novel from Iain Reid, is not one of those works. It affected me rather deeply, in a way that makes me feel more than a bit changed, and yes, even a bit scared too, but it did such a thing to me in the guise of an expertly routed thriller that grabs you by the throat and quietly whispers nasty things into your ear. On the front flap, it compares it to two recent novels that bridge the gap between the literary and thriller genre: Michel Faber’s Under the Skin and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. While those are two of my favorite books, each with its own nasty surprises, I didn’t think too much about them over the two sittings I spent with this book. What really came to mind, especially since this author seems to where its horror genre roots proudly on its sleeve, were the novels of English horror author Ramsey Campbell and a handful of Harlan Ellison short stories; quiet horror stories with dread that covertly infects the reader until the final, heart-stopping twist. This is one of the best horror novels I have read in such a long time, one that doesn’t have a drop of blood (actually, just one), and relies heavily on mood, atmosphere and an ever increasing nightmarish reality. It is going to be hard to review such a book without spoiling anything, because the deeper this book gets, the clearer its intentions are, but I will try my best. It starts on a dark country road on an impossibly dark night. Our unnamed female narrator is in a car being driven by her boyfriend Jake. They are on their way to meet Jake’s parents for the first time. Off in the distance, she sees an abandoned farmhouse with what seems like a brand new swing set out in front. She asks about this but Jake deflects her questions. From this, we know something is not right, and we know whatever is going on is disturbing and uncomfortable, but what I wasn’t prepared for was how sad it was going to be. We learn a little about our unnamed narrator, we learn she intends to dump Jake soon, we learn she met him at a trivia night at a pub and we learns she has a past of her own, and a story she tells of waking up as a young kid to find a man standing at her window is chilling rendered. The story goes deeper and deeper, until someone finds themselves locked in an old labyrinthine school, where this book’s dark and somber heart is laid bare. This book was a timely read for me, as it put me face to face with some problems of my own, the areas where I need to grow but seem destined to be stuck in. While I won’t go as far as to say it exorcised me, I did find a perverse comfort and sense of self-reflection in its final pages. Even if this boom doesn’t do that for, it is a brilliant and impressively laid out thriller with teeth and a surprising and astounding emotional impact.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Review: "A Clue to the Exit" by Edward St. Aubyn

I have said many times before that Edward St. Aubyn is my favorite English writer, and the best, in my opinion. No one even comes close: Barnes and Amis bore me to tears, and Ian McEwan, if his latest novel Nutshell is any indication, can’t seem to write an interesting or decent book. I find a lot in Aubyn and his most famous creation, The Patrick Melrose Novels. Over the course of five novels, we see the character of Patrick become a victim and a victimizer, sober and clean, vengeful and vindictive and quietly forgiving. They are a cherished work of art that should be sought out by any bibliophile worth their weight in paper and ink. His novels outside of them aren’t nearly as good though, with Lost for Words, his most recent one, being a fun read, and the less said about On the Edge the better. And this one, which is perplexing but very fascinating, might be the best one outside the Melrose cycle of novels. It begins as Charlie, a successful screenwriter and borderline libertine, is diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver and given six months to live. He decides to use that time to writer a novel about death and consciousness while coming in contact with a woman named Angelique, whose gambling problem and appetite for destruction matches Charlie’s. The book is a deadpan fiesta, filled with brutal barbs and quips that only Aubyn could dish out. It doesn’t matter if it all makes sense, or if the book he is writing is a piece of crap (most other character’s reactions indicate that it is), this weird, 185 page journey through one man’s last days is filled with bizarre character’s like the Maestro and his boring films, and a truly confounding ending. This is Aubyn having a little fun outside of the harrowing Melrose world, and because of that, the reader is having fun too.

Rating: 4/5

Review: "Stranger, Father, Beloved" by Taylor Larsen

With proud echoes of Lionel Shriver, Kelly Braffet and, most notably, Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, Strange, Father Beloved, the debut novel of author Taylor Larsen is a tight, eloquent literary act of subterfuge whose twist, as obvious as it should have bee, snuck up on my easily and made this tale of suburban woe one of the more resonate novels I have read this year. With quiet language, direct dialogue and near gothic descriptions of Rhode Island upper crust suburban dwellings, Larsen takes apart a man’s carefully constructed life, showing the wounds hidden behind ill fitting bandages, the cracks in the refinished ceiling broken souls who sleep beside each other, alas alone, in master bedrooms. It has been quite a long while since I have read such a brilliant and hypnotic take on the kind of depression that seems to fester away in those whose lives are seemingly picturesque, at least by anyone who is alive (Richard Yates, who I recently read, immediately came to mind). It is hard to plum such excavated depths and come up with something not only good and engaging but also original and truly thought provoking, and this book did so and ruefully smashed my expectations. It begins at a party, the last party, as we are told, of Michael and Nancy, a couple who seem to live a life of ease and modest yet substantial wealth. We see all this through Michael’s eyes. We see him float from one person to the next, talking with them briefly, ruminating on their relationship and moving on. We don’t get much of a clue as to the motional devastation that awaits us when he spots a stranger talking to his wife. He sees the man with his wife, and all of the sudden, he realizes that this is the man his wife is supposed to marry. The rest of the novel, he methodically tries to insert this man, named John, into his family’s life, which not only includes Nancy, but his teenaged daughter Ryan and their young son Max, who has a severe case of asthma. We learn more about each one as the novel progresses. We learn about Michael’s mental breakdowns and his strained relationship with his tough father. We learn about Nancy, who Michael settled for after he abandoned his mission to become a professor, and her tolerance of Michael’s chaotic manor. And for me, the best part was entering the world of Ryan, who we slowly find out near the end is following Michael’s winding road of self deception and regret. The book has quite a few scenes that stuck with me, one, and the book’s strongest scene, involves Ryan’s cruel treatment of an old friend’s mother, and a short scene involving Michael and an old college friend, which holds the book’s painful truth in it’s brief couple of sentences. Never showy, over the top or full of itself, this fantastic novel if a brilliant character study of a man coming to terms with his life and the painful realization that it’s too late.

Rating: 5/5

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: "Black Swan Green" by David Mitchell

Just for his versatility alone, David Mitchell is easily one of the best writers working today. You can see every the effort he puts into his original and breathtaking stories in almost every sentence. For a writer who can give us something as historically rich as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, as wondrously humane as Number9dream and something as mind bending and enlightening as The Bone Clocks, and to do so with such narrative skill and non-ironic love for storytelling, it is no easy feat. Even his worst book (for me, that is his first novel Ghostwritten) have a playfulness that is challenging and inviting, and with this novel, Black Swan Green, his most earthy, and accessible novel, is no different, taking the classic youthful bildungsroman and turning on its head the way only Mitchell can. It focuses on Jason Taylor, a thirteen year old who, like Mitchell himself, is afflicted with a severe stammer. He sees the world through a youthful lens, where the wide-eyed wonder of adolescent is slowly being crushed by the onslaught of the real world and real problems. A family spat at the beginning of the story, where Jason is chastised for answering the incessantly ringing phone in his father’s office leads directly into a scene set in nearby woods where Jason meets what might or might not be a witch. The relationship with his friends and his need to fit in coincides with the Falklands War, which claims the life of one of his friends older brothers, his love of poetry, which he keeps a secret, is perpetuated by two seemingly nefarious characters, one being his anti-social and methodical cousin and an aging woman who berates his literary tastes. While not as earth shattering as The Bone Clocks, this is a hearty story of youth and growing up by a writer both comfortable and in love with what he is doing.

Rating: 4/5