Friday, April 27, 2012

Review: "Girl in Landscape" by Jonathan Lethem

I try not to have many rituals as far as my reading goes, but I still do, like alternating my book reading between authors I have read before and new authors I have not, and picking out one short story collection to read once a month. Another one I do regarding specific authors is reading one Michael Chabon book and one Jonathan Lethem book a year. So far, I have only read three books by these two authors that I thought were any good, those being Wonderboys by Chabon and Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude by Lethem, and all of them I consider to be some of my favorite books. I have yet to recapture that magic of those three, and the Lethem book I read this year, Girl in Landscape, is sadly not any different. It is not as bad as Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, but I was not very into this one, which I bought simply because it was the only book of his not in the library system here. I gave a chance despite its goofy premise of a girl leaving her mother to go to a different planet where an alien hermaphroditic life forms where plants control the climate, but it was just too much for me. I have said before that I cannot really get into science fiction, despite my favorite English class of all time was on the subject. It is just hard for me completely immerse myself in a world that is not like my own in anyway. I am not against escapism, and find the breadth of imagination in some of these works to be staggering, it is just not written for me. If you like that, you may have a blast with this novel, but I’m the farthest thing from an expert when it comes to science fiction.
Rating: 3/5

Review: "The Family Fang" by Kevin Wilson

Despite the shitty title, which may be one of the worst that I have ever seen, The Family Fang is anything but, written by newcomer Kevin Wilson, who seems to possess a great talent for creating weird situations that are ironic but far from being annoying or grating on the readers ears. He steers clear of making things seem too cool or hip for their own good, and even infuses a great deal of emotion into characters, even as they are doing some pretty ridiculous things. He even goes on to make a great point about the line in which some artists can cross that is real poignant and right on point as to how they really think and feel. The story seems very convoluted (and by the title, which I must reinforce how awful it is, people might think its about vampires) and it should be, but Wilson takes things seriously, and the reactions of the characters are real. The Fang family is obsessed with creating art, at least the parents Caleb and Camille are, but thinking art that stands still is not worth anything, and instead decide that spontaneous art is the only true art form. They demonstrate this by pulling pranks on the innocent public, like entering a boy into a beauty pageant, having a fake proposal that ends in rejection, even manipulating a performance of Romeo and Juliet to enact incest. And for this ride, they force their kids Annie and Buster (Child A and B) to be a part of it, mostly against their wishes. These two grow up ill affected by their parents performances, which has made them famous in the art community but alienated them from their children, and leave the nest to pursue other artistic endeavors, with Annie becoming a failed movie actress and Buster becoming a failed writer, after a series of events they return home, where their parents try to once again force them into creating their art. The attempt fails, with Caleb and Camille clearly showing their age. Soon after they disappear, leaving behind clues that they might have been murdered, but Annie and Buster are not convinced. From there, they try to find out what happened, and how deeply their parents’ art is worth to them. This book says something really profound about the line between art and decency, and how cruel one can be when creating art is more important than being a good parent or a nice person. It doesn’t matter that I think what the Fangs call art is really stupid bullshit, but what does is how the people involved are victims of their selfish need to create and shine a spotlight on their own egos. Their stunts go from silly to really disturbing (like when they relish in filming a little girl crying during their beauty pageant stunt), painting these two in a really despicable light. I know a lot of creative people, and most are okay, but some really tread that line, although not as much as Camille and Caleb do. They seem to speak out against what they see as a hollow society, but they themselves are also hollow, filling an empty personality with flashy behavior, and their own selfish need for art. This book does an awesome job of expressing those ideas on creativity, while also being an emotionally complex and fun book to read. This one is a winner, despite that damned title.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Bag of Bones" by Stephen King

All it took were few months off from visiting the fictional land of Uncle Stevie for me to come back and read Bag of Bones, which is a book that I consider to be a late masterpiece of his much like Dream Catcher and Under the Dome. The last two books of his I read, which were Christine and Insomnia were very much lesser books, with Christine being too dark and Insomnia being to weird for even King’s most hardcore fans. I’ve probably expressed my love for him so much, it almost makes me sick to write and review something that is so blatantly obvious. Reading a book by Stephen King when he is in top form is simultaneously like comforting bedtime story from a loved one and a wild campfire tale that make the noises you hear while listing to it the work of some horrific beast. Not many writers can do that, whether they are popular or not. Some argue that he has lost some of his steam heading into the new millennium, and the case could be made that that is true, but I think he may have got his smile back (to use a wrestling term) over the past couple of years, churning out a book like Under the Dome, which ranks right up there with The Stand, or his most recent book 11/22/63, which I have not read, but seems to be getting him the best reviews in quite awhile. This particular book, which also got a lot of good reviews, is no less supernatural than what has come to be expected of him, but really grounds the story in a very real world where pain and loss and fear of the future are the white sheeted ghosts that haunt people, and that take a little more than an exorcism to get rid of. Mike Noonan, a famous novelist, loses his wife to a freak aneurism in a Derry parking lot (no clowns or balloon strings here). He mourns like any other widower would, but when he tries to write again, he gets physically ill. And he is dreaming about his summer home in an unnamed Maine town called Sara Laughs. Thinking these two things are connected, he goes there in order to be cured from his writing woes, only to fall in love with Mattie Devore, a girl much younger than him and being threatened by terrifying millionaire Max Devore, her father-in-law and discovering a long ago murder that seems to connect everyone in town back to the place where Sara Laughs sits. There are some points in the novel where the characters enter a dreamlike world, and King has never been good at that in my eyes, and it takes some of the venom out of the story, but it is made up for in spades by everything else, from the plot, to the weird characters we only seem to find in Maine, and an unexpected death near the end. A semi-non-genre novel even the harshest critics cannot balk at, this is a good example of what a master can do as he grows in age and wisdom.
Rating: 5/5

Friday, April 20, 2012

Review: "LaBrava" by Elmore Leonard

With the exception of Stephen King, no other author in the later part of the 20th century is better known or more widely read than Elmore Leonard. Countless films have been made from his books and stories, and his famed dialogue has inspired countless imitators. For all his notoriety and commercial success, he really deserves the success he has had, writing well even into his later years. Even though this book LaBrava, did not hit me like I thought it was going to, I still think everyone who calls him or herself a book lover should read at least one of his books in their life. These stories are destined to become canon decades from now (because of his immense popularity, like King, he probably won’t get the critical recognition that a Franzen or Chabon has now), and they just represent talent so great and stories so simple and good, no amount of literary theory can make them better. This particular novel, we meet an amateur photographer, Jo LaBrava, who is propositioned by hotel owner and friend Maurice, to escort former Hollywood starlet, Jean Shaw, to Miami, show she can clean up from a bad relationship and drug abuse. Hot on her tail, are Richard nobles, Jean’s handsome, yet violent ex-love, and Cundo Rey, a Cuban male exotic dancer, who transforms into a deadly threat for all in this web of deceit and betrayal. Rarely does this story get too dark it is not fun, and everything you hear about Leonard’s dialogue is 100% true; it is like music, and the way he uses it to describe people, which lets the reader’s imagination build their version of characters, is an awesome ability. I am reading a bunch of naturalist writers in one of my classes, and Leonard could to do more for a character with a few lines of dialogue, than Dreiser or Crane could do with giant paragraphs and useless adverbs. The only bad thing about this book is the plot is a little weak, and very little time is spent recapping things, which is hard for a book that moves so fast. But this is just one in the many books by a true American writer, and I plan to read as much as I can.
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Review: "Edge of Dark Water" by Joe R. Lansdale


Anyone who knows me or reads my reviews knows how much I champion Joe R. Lansdale as not only one of the best genre writers today, but truly one of are great storytelling talents in America. No one can write like him. No one can balance that goofy southern attitude with dark as hell tone that seems to make you laugh even when you know you shouldn’t. He is a true original, and I feel he has never gotten the recognition he deserves for his talents. Even in the books that I feel were not as good as I thought they were going to be produced belly laughs and gasps in equal measures. Simply put, it is just a big load of fun opening a Lansdale book. It might be a bumpy ride at points, but it is defiantly worth the price of admissions. And it seems this latest ride from The Mojo Champion is something I needed, because it is the most fun I have had reading one of his books since I read The Drive-In omnibus a couple years back. I have heard criticism that Lansdale’s stories at the beginning of his career were a lot better than the stories he has been writing since the turn of the century. Yeah, they lack the certain mean spirited nature of The Nightrunners, but they still pack a punch, with enough violence to satisfy gore hounds, and snappy dialogue that rings true like the twang of a banjo. We are introduced to Sue Ellen, the narrator of the novel, as she is out with her dad and Uncle Gene, as they try to fish using methods that don’t involve electrocuting the whole lake. They find the body of Mary Lynn, a friend of Sue’s who had Hollywood dreams too big for the small Texas town she lived in. After a disgustingly quick burial and funeral, Sue, along with her friend Terry, who might be gay, and Jinx, her cynical black friend, go about a plan to burn Mary’s body and take her ashes to Hollywood using the money her older brother robbed before he died. Her mom tags along as they are chased by all manner of lowlifes and encounter some very unsettling circumstances. This novel is in the vein of a Huck Finn tale using Lansdale signature blend of Flannery O’Conner and Shirley Jackson storytelling ability and Texas Chainsaw Massacre tone. We see this motely crew of lost souls as they face the mall brained team of Constable Sy and Sue’s Uncle Gene, who want the money and will kill for it, and old woman who is more menacing than you think, and the legend of Skunk, a supposed murder with a creepy backstory who haunts every inch of the groups journey. He may be the real standout addition to this book, the scariest thing Lansdale has created since the snuff film team of Pork and Vinnie since “Night They Missed the Horror Show”. I can’t praise this book or Lansdale enough. If you haven’t open one of his books, you missing one hell of a good time between pages.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self" by Danielle Evans

Finally, after a couple months into the New Year, I have read a short story collection I can laud all sorts of praise on and not feel bad about doing so, and it is from someone who is barely older than I am, in Danielle Evans’ Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self. Again, new writers equal potential and growth for more and better works to come. You cannot eagerly await the next book by one of the authors you like that is dead (unless that writer is Bukowski or Kerouac, but why would you be doing that?) and no matter how many times you reread a classic work, you cannot recapture that sense of discovery. But now onto to someone who can benefit from praise (being alive and all), the great new writer Danielle Evans, and he stunning debut collection of stories, which, in my opinion, launches her into the high ranks of new black fiction. I might have mentioned this in a review or two before, but over the past couple years, we have seen the emergence of fiction that describes a new kind of black experience, one where the people telling the stories were born after the civil rights movement, and how that affects there view on their history and ways of experiencing America. Writers like Colson Whitehead and ZZ Packer, whose books not only raises questions about race and race relations, but also does so in a continuously interesting way. It is not as simple as the bad and good people who in habit their world are as clean cut to be separated by white and black. Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is right up there with Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, and doesn’t pull punches in its honest depictions of life in general. These stories range from being heartbreaking and funny, to suspenseful and sad, and none that I can think of are bad or lackluster. The first story here, “Virgins”, written when Evans was only 23, tells the story of two high school girls, and their devastating first experience with sex. It remains both intriguing, as each of them takes a different path in their search, one seemingly a good choice, while one is filled with menace, and how unexpected the outcome for both was shows true potential, especially for a writer that is so young. Finally, the last story, “Robert E Lee is Dead” is probably the other standout piece in this collection. I see why these two bookended this collection, they are very similar and deal with the same issues in different way. We meet two girls, one is a bookworm, and the other is popular, as they forge a bond that lasts all four years of high school. It leaves you with a nostalgic feeling, even if, in the end, lives are ruined by these two peoples actions as they go along life in two different paths. A solid collection without any weak spots, Danielle Evans is now someone I am eagerly awaiting a novel from.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "The Flame Alphabet" by Ben Marcus

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus is quite the step up from his last novel, Notable American Women, which while cool at points really remains a curiosity piece for anyone who touts the need for avant-garde literature. Marcus himself is very much falls into that category through what he has published in the past. In a way, his career trajectory and how critics and fans view him, reminds me a lot of Chris Adrian, although he is far better adept at storytelling, even though both of their books have unneeded flights of confusing weirdness that will alienate the normal reader, which I consider myself to be. Together, they are kind of like the Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the book world: they are very distinct from everyone else and are doing things very differently, but that unique output does not always mean it is good or genius, as some would say. Now this book, while I liked it a lot more than Notable American Women, falls into the same kinds of writing that the previous novel did, but at least we get something that hints at a cohesive story. We follow Sam, and his wife Claire in a little Jewish community, as a plague of toxic language from kids and adolescents is literally tearing adults apart. Their daughter, Esther (really unfortunate name) is affected by this, and we watch as Sam tries desperately to find a new way of speech, all the while his family is being torn apart. There are interesting moments, like who Sam eventually goes to work for when he is left alone, but it is all just too convoluted and over written (Rue Morgue said it was “obtuse” which is a good description) to be interesting, which is said, because the unique premise had an amazing amount of potential, if it was written by someone who is actually interested in story. In an interview, Marcus said he writes with the idea in mind of what people want and do not want to read; it seems he is not following his advice. Not great, but passable.
Rating: 4/5