Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review: "The Labyrinth of Spirits" by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

It is safe to say that with the number of books I have left to read in 2018 that Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s conclusion to his Cemetery of Forgotten Book’s series, The Labyrinth of Spirits if the biggest surprise of the year. I recall being tremendously underwhelmed by the (now) second longest book of the series, The Angel’s Game and so when I found out that this book was going to be over 800 pages long (805 to be exact), I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Thankfully, my doubts were shattered by the time I was 10 pages in and never once did the wonder, elation and overall joy I felt while reading this love letter of a book dissipate. It is the kind of epic book, like Justin Cronin’s Passage trilogy or Gabi Gleichmann’s The Elixir of Immortality, to name a more obscure book, where a writer of immense talent simply uses said talents to tell the kind of story that fills the world around the reader with a little bit more magic, or at least as long as they are reading the book. It is a book with countless twists and turns, an aura of the immense and characters that will find deep, finally etched space within the reader’s subconscious long after they have finished it. The plot is rather daunting to explain, so I will try my best in what little time I allow myself in these reviews. First, I would like to say that you do not have to have read the previous books to understand the plot of this one, although there are many references to the other three. So, after a few interludes where we meet Daniel Sempre and Fermin, two characters who play major roles in the story, we meet our heroine Alicia Gris, an investigator for Spain’s secret police, at the forceful hand of her mentor Leandro, becomes embroiled in the search for Mauricio Valls, Spain’s minister of culture and the former warden of Montjuic Castle, where, after the Spanish Civil War, several dissident writers were imprisoned and tortured. It is in Valls office that Alicia and Vargas, a cop who is forced on her but slowly earns her undying trust, find the first clue, a volume in a series of book that shares the novel’s title written by Victor Mataix, a writer imprisoned by Valls. This tiny clue takes them from Madrid to Barcelona, where Alicia almost lost her life during a brutal bomb raid, where they encounter Fernandito, a young man with unrequited love for Alicia, the quick witted Fermin and the whole of the Sempre family, as well as many dangers in the form of an unidentified maniac who reveals themselves in the book’s most shocking death, Hendaya, a brutal enforcer in the Secret Police and a shocking conspiracy that shakes the world of every character in the book. I won’t reveal too much, but the book is full of beautiful passages, many of which are brilliantly rendered dream sequences that would make Bolano blush and a quietly moving final hundred pages that reveal the true, beating heart of this book. It is a hefty read, but a rewarding one for those who find themselves easily lost within the pages of a good story. 
Rating: 5/5

Friday, October 5, 2018

Review: Theatre Review: "The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet (Catalyst Repertory)"

This week is the second week of Indianapolis’s annual Bard Fest, a festival where a gathering of local theater companies each put on a production of a Shakespeare Play, and Catalyst Reparatory, the company behind my first reviewed production, Arcade Fire brings us a production of arguably the bards most famous play, The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. Unlike my first review, to give a synopsis of Romeo and Juliet would just be a waste of space for this review. If you are reading this you know the story: it was either forced on you in school, you performed in it or you have seen one of the countless adaptations of it. What I will do instead is focus on the performances of the actors and how it compares to the other productions of the story I have seen, which include Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 retelling, which shaped the idea of this play for a lot of those my age and a production my high school put on. I’m sure it is hard to present this story in a fresh way that does not come off hackneyed or unoriginal, and the director Zach Stonerock does his best, using minimal sets, basic costume design and lighting choices that let the play speak for itself. If you aren’t a fan of the play, which I am on the fence about, this play will likely not change that in its straightforward presentation. What I really took away with this play, both its good qualities and bad, come from the casting decisions and the performance of the actors. Firstly, the casting of the eponymous characters is rather spot on with Eli Robinson and Arcade Fire’s Kayla Lee embodying the youthful vigor and fatalism of the two star crossed lovers. It also helps that they look and are much younger than the rest of the cast. But this retelling’s true triumph is how it presents the story’s main conflict. The scenes with the two leads are imbued with the kind of unbridled lust felt by those just entering puberty, the kind of lust linked to series of bad choices that lead down a dark path. Their decisions come off as silly and wasteful, especially in the scenes involving the nurse and Friar Laurence, played by Beverly Roche and Kelsey Leigh Miller respectively (who give the play’s best performances, along with the actor who played the Prince, who for safety reasons cannot be named), who both seem to orbit these two young bodies that seem hell-bent on their mutual destruction. That might be the directorial intent to shed a light on aspects of this famous play that go unquestioned (for a really good analysis of this idea, watch the Nostalgia Critic’s editorials on this play and The Graduate). While this idea sets it apart, this is far from a perfect production, and its flaws could be quite glaring. The show as a whole lacks a certain gravity and emotional weight. It might have been the lack of intermission or something I can’t quite put my finger on, but I’m pretty positive it really wasn’t there. The secondary characters, such as Benvolio, Tybalt and both sets of parents left little impression on me, but the performance of Mercutio did, and in a bad way. The actor who played them, Kelsey VanVoorst, seemed too intent on chewing the scenery and overshadowing the other performers, with the Rosaline speech near the beginning coming off forced and painfully artificial and their eventual death and passionate dying words completely unearned, although their scene after the party produced the biggest reaction from the audience. Like I said before, this production of a most familiar play is not likely to change your mind about it, but it takes a few calculated risks, and I’m happy a few of them paid off. 
Rating: 3/5

Friday, September 21, 2018

Review: "Whiskey" by Bruce Holbert

Over the past few years, I have read enough books within the genre of country noir that I can confidently tell you I’m an expert of the genre: I can recognize familiar beats in stories, certain character types and a certain home grown, gritty style indicative of the genre well enough to notice deviations in a tired or true method and judge it good or bad. The genre has its high points, like Daniel Woodrell’s masterpiece The Death of Sweet Mister and Donald Ray Pollack’s The Heavenly Table and it’s lesser works like David Joy’s Where All Light Tends to Go and really, anything else Daniel Woodrell wrote. Bruce Holbert’s third novel Whiskey, rests somewhere in between. He possess Woodrell’s gift for rich yet humble prose that gives grace to savage and sadistic people but its narrative is too jumbled, too compact to really be as interesting beyond Holbert’s skilled use of language. The novel focuses on the lives of two brothers, Andre and Smoker, who, in 1991, are forced to travel in search of Smoker’s daughter when a familiar religious zealot kidnaps her. Spliced in with this account, which includes a trapped bear (which verges on the ridiculous to be honest) and a blown of finger mended with the barest essential is the story of Andre and Smoker’s lives before the book’s events, such as Andre’s tender yet caustic courtship of school teacher Claire, the ugly relationship between the brothers which gives poignancy to the book’s present day events and the violent relationship between their parent’s Pork and Peg (whose names, put together sound funny in a way I JUST noticed) which contains the stories most powerful section, which offers clues as to the book’s ending and shares similarities between another FSG MCD title (I let you find out). While it lacks a certain drive I expect from these stories, this novel is a real piece of work and a beautiful exercise in finding the fine line between beauty and ugliness. 
Rating: 4/5

Friday, September 14, 2018

Review: "Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine" by Kevin Wilson

Quite recently I was thinking of authors who are well known for both their novels and their short stories that I see has better at the latter rather than the former. Names like Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell and Joe R. Lansdale came to mind: authors whose work in the short form greatly outweighs their longer books (I found this more true with horror authors than literary ones). I can safely add author Kevin Wilson to that lost after reading his newest short story collection Baby, You’re Gonna Be Mine. I have read three of his four books, the other two being his novels The Family Fang, which, despite its awful title I recall giving a glowing review of and Perfect Little World, which was cute but disposable and easily lost in the shuffle of similar themed books. Both, I must say haven’t aged well and come off as bland and very forgettable as time went on. There is nothing forgettable about this collection, which brings to mind the two collections of author Tom Perrotta, who excavated similar material in the short form. These incredible stories are filled with familiar people with familiar desires, problems and disappointments, but somehow, Wilson, always willing to give even the most sorry character a sense of dignity and hope, pushes these stories in the strangest, darkest yet charming directions that unload the characters pathos in surprising and heartbreaking ways. I will talk about a few of the stories here, but all of them are good and even the few that in retrospect rest in the shadow of the really good stories still impress me. One of them, “Scroll Through the Weapons,” is about a shaky couple that is forced to watch over the feral nieces and nephews of the woman. Narrated by the man, it is charming and engaging but has little substance. It is a good example of what some might not like about Wilson, which is the plausibility of the situations he puts his characters in. This, along with other plot points that take center stage, like an ice cube fight in “No Joke, This is Going to be Painful” and a spontaneous home video horror film in “The Horror We Made” may be hard to swallow for some, but Wilson’s skill and empathy make them work. The first real standout is the story simply titled “A Signal to the Faithful” about a young altar boy who is suffering fainting spells who’s given the opportunity to travel with his parish priest to help officiate the priest’s aunt’s funeral. It would have been easy (and lazy) to take an obvious jab at a timely subject, but the story is more complex and the priest ends up being the stories most tragic figure. The same kind of subversion can be found in the title story, where a failed rock musician moves back in with his widowed mom, with an ending brave enough to turn one character's success into the other character's doom. But the best story here is “Wildfire Johnny” about young boy who finds a razor that allows him to travel one day in the past if he slits his own throat. It is a silly device used brilliantly to talk about such topics as race relations and pitiful white guilt. It is damn near perfect. It is a collection like this that reinforces my love for the short form, and I hope it does the same for you.  
Rating: 5/5

Friday, September 7, 2018

Review: "Death Notice" by Zhou Haohui

It might be because it has been quite a while since I have read an honest to goodness, break neck nail you to the wall type thriller, but it is hard for me to conjure a better time reading experience this year than the one I had reading Chinese thriller writer Zhou Haohui’s debut English language novel Death Notice. Since I have slowed down my reading load, cutting it in half really earlier this year, I’ve approached the act with a keener eye, noticing subtext more often, finding hidden meanings and playing around with the themes in venues like this. With this book, I didn’t have to do anything like that. To quite Stephen King in his praise for Justin Cronin’s The Passage, I was lifted up on the wings of story and let the real world disappear. I wasn’t searching for what this book really meant. I was just enjoying it; it’s little tricks, its scheming plot and its vast array of engaging characters. This is the kind of book that will appeal to fans of Jo Nesbo and Steig Larsson as well as other international crime writers. The book and its author does for China what those authors and books did for there respective countries, which is present a thrilling and familiar plot elements in an unfamiliar setting with enough local flair and customs to create a unique kind of tension. Set in the year 2002, a few years removed from astronomical advancements in technology in Chengdu, China it opens with police officer on a few routine visits who, in the very next section, is found murdered in his apartment. This crime drudges up more than few closeted skeletons, the most prominent and the one that really connects them all, is the cyber vigilante Eumenides, who boldly announces the deaths of his intended targets before killing them, most of whom have committed crimes they can’t be charged for or crimes they got off light for committing. It sounds like a well worn narrative device (and it is), but the scenes of tension, about four or five in total are so well executed and relayed in such a smooth way that it makes for an almost unbearable reading experience (in a good way). There are scenes set in a mine, outside an office building and one taking place in a restaurant where one person holds another person and unveils their master plan that are chilling in how helpless the characters are and how helpless you feel as a reader.  There are really no central characters, with the points of view being split, but by the end the character we identify with most of Pei Tao, whose sad story ties him directly with the disturbing crimes and is, as typical of characters like him, much smarter then he lets on. The ending, taking place in a crowded airport, where something that happens that is brilliantly executed and something impossible is pulled of in a way that is not so cheap or cheating, beautifully wraps up this intense 300 page book and has me begging for its sequel to come out sooner rather than later. This is the perfect kind of thriller you didn’t know you needed so bad until you pick it up. 
Rating: 5/5

Friday, August 24, 2018

Review: "Certain American States" by Catherine Lacey

Catherine Lacey is part of a new group of writers with big ideas but not necessarily interesting ones, and her new short story collection, Certain American States, is a perfect example of this. Reading her books (I read her second novel, The Answers, last year) is a very distinct experience just from how it looks and is presented. She does not use parenthesis to denote dialogue and instead uses italics, so it gives every scene she writes were two or more people talk an air of unreality or misperception, as if what is being said is being filtered through a fissured mind. It provides some of the stories here with their most memorable moments, but also, distracts from what would have been a good story. As always, I will single out a few stories that stuck out, whether they were good or bad. The first one that stands out is “ur heck box”, where a woman reeling from grief is presented with texts messages from a mute co-worker. It is a story that kind of keeps you at arms length about what it might be about, and its ambiguity would have bolstered its quality if it were put forth in an interesting manner. Lacey has a tendency to zero in on minute details, whether it is a stray hair falling off someone’s head or the act of someone looking in a mirror, and it distracts from some of the story elements I want fleshed out. But what she gets right a handful of times are endings, with the title story, “Please Take” and “The Grand Claremont Hotel each ending in haunting manner somewhere between reality and nightmare and emotion and intellect. It is thankfully these moments that are strong and memorable that I am taking away from this book, with its bad sections being easy to forgive in hindsight. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Theater Review: "Arcade Fire: The Redemption of Billy Mitchell" directed by Casey Ross

In 2007, a documentary came out chronicling the seemingly life or death struggle to obtain the highest score on Donkey Kong, and now, 11 years later, a local musical has been produced here in Indiana that does sincere justice to the incredible true story and to at least one of the subjects involved. Full disclosure, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is my favorite documentary. Beyond its surface level silliness and people who make it hard for viewers NOT to mock them is a classic study in what drives us, who we tend to gravitate toward and the fickle nature of success and failure. Playwright Casey Ross’s story understands it and plays right to it, with an absurd opening where Billy Mitchell, played confidently by local actor Luke McConnell gives a blunt, Darwinian speech into a large, cumbersome video camera held by a clearly uncomfortable cameraman. It showcases a few things: Billy’s high opinion of himself, his lack of knowledge toward technical advancements (with some of the play’s biggest laughs being his reactions to what people are saying about him online) and the shaky foundation of his reputation, bolstered by his hot sauce empire and a few reliable underlings. The one-hour musical concerns the accusations that Billy cheated to get the high scores on all of the games he holds records on, such as Donkey Kong, Pac-Man and Burger Time. Into this chaotic maelstrom comes Billy’s old rival Steve Wiebe, played with relish by local actor Anthony Logan Nathan. Obsessive, strung out on Red Bull and a constant source of derision for his wife, played by local actor Kayla Lee, who brings the play a welcome, singular sense of levity. The crazed Wiebe, in an effort to dethrone Mitchell, manipulates the malleable and soft Brian Kuh, played by local actor Jim Banta, who imbues Brian with enough tenderness (as well as a not so subtle crush on Mitchell) to make him the musical’s sympathetic heart. Local actor Ryan Powell rounds out the cast as Walter Day, whose role and persona were not as fleshed out and pinpointed as I would like, his status as a sort of monk-like sage uninterested are glossed over rapidly in a few quick, albeit witty lines of dialogue, but Powell’s performance provides another wrinkle to the real world nestled just outside of this cloistered setting. The songs are sickeningly catchy; with the opening song “King of Kong” and “It’s a Kong Off” are guaranteed spots in your mind whether you want them there or not. The stage setup is minimal, with two blocks in the center of the stage and two arcade games on either side and it is seems very appropriate, especially when he sings “Second Place, First Loser”, why Steve’s arcade machine is Donkey Kong Jr. and Mitchell’s is the original Donkey Kong machine. And I can’t end this review without talking about my one major issue, which is the characterization of Steve. It will be hard for anyone familiar with the documentary to separate the movie with the Ross’s vision, which places much more emphasis on Billy’s struggle and tries to make him into a heroic figure, evidenced by a crucial act of altruism at the end. But what I found so interesting about the movie was how Steve and Billy were almost total opposites, with Billy this type-A go-getter whose ego-driven approach to life, hot sauce and video games garners him fame and fortune but to an outsider sometimes verges on the monstrous and Steve being this man who could have exceled toward greatness if it weren’t for his lack of confidence and a crippling sense of humility, which was brilliantly characterized by his account of choking at the baseball championship, set to the tune of The Cure's "Pictures of You". I know I should view the play for what it is, but Nathan’s maniacal Steve was distracting at best and inaccurate at worst. But for what the play is, a fun and timely romp tinged with nostalgia and heart, it is a success and should provide some comedic relief for some of the more self-serious shows at the Fringe. The audience I saw it with ate up, and there is a good chance you will too. 
Rating: 4/5