Thursday, February 22, 2018

Rating: "Sweetbitter" by Stephanie Danler

It is hard not to think of the work of Jay McInerney while reading Stephanie Danler’s first novel Sweetbitter (and impossible really, since he provides the first blurb on the back of the hardcover edition) and how dated his work, and sadly, this book is. Bright Lights, Big City was surely a revelation in its time, using second person narration to make it stand out from other similar works from the era. But looking back it has not aged well, and you see that in a lot of the qualities this book lacks. While its prose is sumptuous and reading it does feel like you are sweating your ass off in the kitchen of a high class Manhattan restaurant, it is sorely lacking in any kind of substance beyond the insular world of Tess, the book’s protagonist. It starts off with a really strong scene that starts from her escape from a cloistered small town she has grown up in to the big city of Manhattan, only to be stopped at a tollbooth where she does not have any change for a fare. It is a pretty big clue as to the pedantic nature of success and failure in the world Tess will find herself in when she becomes a waiter at an upscale New York restaurant. Danler’s attempts to give emotional weight to Tess’s growth, to her erotic obsession with both Simone, a poorly rendered ice queen and Jake, the hot tattooed bartender who is only a few measly notches above Christian Gray, to her friendship with Will, whose too nice of a guy to overshadow her obsession with Jake and to her downward spiral feel overwhelmingly cheap and predictable. From it’s good opening to its ending with a penultimate scene being rather tawdry and sad instead of provocative, this story of a woman on the brink feels hopelessly stale. But at least it is pretty to look at.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: "A Head Full of Ghosts" by Paul Tremblay

When and if genre writer Paul Tremblay puts out a collection of stories, I will pick it up immediately, since I am sure it will be good and I am even surer that it will be better than his novels. They aren’t bad at all, far from it really, but in the two books of his I have read, his most recent novel (with one coming out later this year) Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and this one, his breakout hit A Head Full of Ghosts, he seems to be unable to maintain a long lasting quality or grip on the reader’s attention that do exist in his books, but exists in parts: scenes, chapters or even something as slim as a mere paragraph. If you take any one scene from this book or Disappearance at Devil’s Rock it offers something profound and usually truly creepy, but together, there is just something rather rudimentary about his ongoing narratives, more so with this book than his last one. Told in flashback, it recounts the horrible story of the Barrett family and the possible possession of the oldest daughter Marjorie. It is told by Marjorie’s younger sister Merry, whom we learn as the story goes on knows more about what happened to her fractured family then what was shown to the public on the popular reality show they agreed to be on for financial gain. It really isn’t that scary of a book, I am disappointed to inform you, with many of the book’s turns being more sad and melancholic than frightening, even when we are not so sure that Marjorie’s behavior is a symptom of a demon, psychosis, or something brought on by her unemployed father’s headfirst dive into religion. But then those final thirty pages somehow change almost everything, and the book’s true heart and the true horror are shown in an immensely powerful way. Tremblay knows his stuff, and even though this book won’t shake you to your core, it is still a fun and exciting read with a few surprises.

Rating: 4/5

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: "My Absolute Darling" by Gabriel Tallent

When Stephen King provides a blurb for a book, especially one for a debut work, you know you are in for something special, and with My Absolute Darling, the debut novel from Gabriel Tallent, you get just that, with this easily being one of the five best debut novels from last year. It is a daringly self-assured, poetic and frightfully suspenseful book about a young girl gaining the courage to stand up to the monsters in her life, both from inside her own head and in her own family. This is an impressive book that excels at many different kinds of writing styles that work to complement each other and the story that is told within and outside the mind of Turtle Alveston, our young narrator who possesses qualities of other classic heroines of literature but is very much an original creation. I couldn’t help being reminded of the beaten down but defiant narrators from the work of Daniel Woodrell, especially that of the put upon and tragic Shug Akins from The Death of Sweet Mister, whose trajectory is very similar to that of Turtle’s. The book begins with a scene of Turtle struggling over a vocabulary quiz with her father Martin Alveston, one of the scariest people to be rendered on the page in a very long time, quietly chipping away at her self-esteem under the guise of helping her. Every action of this slimy, methodical monster is made believable and scary. He is a smart man, evidenced by an early scene where he dresses down Turtle’s weakling principal, which makes the terrible things he does that much more terrible and that much harder for the wounded but equally methodical Turtle to escape from. A beam of hope shows itself in the form of Jacob, a boy one year ahead of her in school, whose free wheeling hippie family is the absolute antithesis of Martin’s apocalyptic nihilism. But in this regard, I felt Tallent does something very intriguing and very original here. These scenes with Turtle and the outside world, whether it is with Jacob and his friend Brett, or her helpful but anemic schoolteacher Anna, are all portrayed as rather ineffectual in the face of Turtle’s plight. It is clear she is stronger than them mentally, which is shown during Jacob and Brett’s introductions where they get lost in the woods and are tracked by Turtle as they further their predicament and further more through Jacob’s useless literary knowledge and an extended scene where both he and Turtle get marooned on a rock island. It is clear early on that these people will not be the ones to save Turtle from the clutches of Martin, who more than halfway through the book becomes otherworldly in his cruelty and abuse when he takes in another young woman named Cayenne, which propels the story into nightmarish territory. This is an exciting and thought provoking book, from its maddening bloody climax to its denouement, which lingers ever so eloquently on the precipice of hope and one of my favorite debuts of last year.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: "Isadora" by Amelia Gray

Isadora is the last novel I would expect from a writer like Amelia Gray. For her second novel and fifth overall book, Gray has seemingly done away with her scattershot, provocative flash fiction for a period piece that (for her) is a dense and densely populated saga of grief and sadness that is anything but conventional, an attribute that fits Gray very well. Her first novel Threats, a strange tale about love lost and mysterious letters as well as her superior short story collection Gunshot charmed me deeply, but I found that they sometimes liked a big heart (especially Threats, and while this is her most emotionally impactful book by a country mile, it is a very imperfect work at that that might just be a bit too long, which is again, the last thing I thought I would be saying about an Amelia Gray novel. The Isadora of the title is Isadora Duncan, an obscure figure from history who wowed audiences in Europe with her elaborate dance routines. But in 1913, her two children along with their nanny die in a freak car accident. It is this time period that Gray is most interested in, where her grief seems to overwhelm her and Isadora’s behavior overwhelms a rather tepid cast of characters, from her lover Max, to her partner Paris and her put upon sister Elizabeth, they all seem like one dimensional characters in Isadora’s soap opera, but I suspect that might be the point. But besides that, Gray offers up some real interesting scenes, from a visit to a psychic, to a painful performance while Isadora is still overcome with grief and an ending that is far and away the best thing Gray has ever written. This is a surprising book, not just for the emotional terrain it plumbs and for its jarring humor, but that it comes from a writer who seemed so comfortable dealing in fragments.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, February 9, 2018

Review: "Perdido Street Station" by China Mieville

For all that I criticize Science Fiction and Fantasy (which I will admit is sometimes too often), I have been having much better luck with the books I have picked up in the past few years, from Samuel R. Delany’s brilliant yet confusing Dhlgren and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, the first died in the wool fantasy novel that I consider to be great, and now after a recommendation from one of my former professors, my luck continues with China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, a book that reads a little bit like William Gibson (who I don’t like very much) and Haruki Murakami at his absolute weirdest (think Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World weird). This is a book that revels in its odd little details, details that fascinated me and engaged me way more than I expected. The plot is a bit messy, but I suspect that is one of the fun parts about this book. It deals with Isaac who lives in the Dickensian mess of a city called New Crobuzon (it has a whole history which you can look up on your own). He is something of a disgraced scientist who finds his squalid world upended by the arrival of a bird like creature who wants his wings back as well as a grotesque caterpillar like creature who feeds on an illicit drug called “dreamshit”. Things god haywire, a giant spider appears, and humans are brought back from the dead for the amusement of the city’s less reputable inhabitants. If that sells you on it, you will have a ball with this book. And even if it doesn’t, it is one of the rare science fiction books I have come across that is rich in character as well as lofty flights of the imagination, with my favorite being Lin, Isaac’s amphibious girlfriend who cannot speak but by circumstance becomes the books sympathetic heart. At 710 pages, this is a pleasurable epic that astounds, disgusts and entertains in equal measure.

Rating: 4/5