Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: "Stranglehold" by Jack Ketchum

Maybe it is because of my somewhat fragile emotional state after a terrible breakup about a month ago that I haven’t quite gotten over, but I think this time, Jack Ketchum went to far with his novel Stranglehold. I have always respected Jack Ketchum for his willingness to tread deep within the scum sodden underbelly of American life with novels like The Lost and The Girl Next Door, but I find that at least those books have a moral lesson about the importance of doing what is right, but this book I found it hard to find any kind of moral center. This was just a dark, angry, twisted look into an innocent person being let down by the system. It is still good, but it totally rubbed me the wrong way, and will stick with me for a long time. It starts off with a woman, to quell her crying baby, tries to dunk its head in the toilet. We find out this baby is Arthur Danse, who grows into a reprehensible monster determined to show people how awful this world can be. We then meet Lydia, a nurse with a history of being walked on by the men in her life. And when she meets Arthur at a wedding, it is a match made in hell. He abuses her emotionally than physically, culminating in a divorce and a custody battle where a crazy yet keen Arthur manipulates the system to get their son Robert, who hides a terrible, revolting secret about Arthur that is truly stomach turning. That revelation, mixed with a horrendously downbeat ending, make this book a hard, devastating read I don’t ever want to go through again. Like I said it is good, but it truly was not what I needed at this point in my life.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter" by Tom Franklin

Since I have given up the idea of becoming an English professor in favor of trying out this whole “writer” thing, I try not to look at books academically anymore. I find it boring and a little pretentious for someone who just enjoys reading. But I sometimes entertain the idea of teaching a specific class on a specific genre, and if I had to choose one, it would be country noir, and the book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin would most definitely be on the curriculum. I love country noir, that weird little offshoot of noir where the settings are rural, the characters larger than life and sometimes evil as all hell, and where the violence is gritty and intense. From Joe R. Lansdale’s weird genre bending tales of morally stunted hillbillies to Daniel Woodrell’s heartfelt bloodstained love songs to the people who call Ozarks home, and even Indiana’s own Frank Bill, whose stories of meth-addicted losers on the cusp of death and redemption, it is hands down my favorite genre of writing. And you can add Tom Franklin’s name to that list as well thanks to this heartfelt novel. It is story ripe with intrigue, suspense and nostalgic pathos that even if you didn’t grow up in a town where the constable had to direct traffic, I am sure you would be able to find something in this story you could connect with. We first meet Larry Ott, who is semi-comfortable in his role as the town pariah after being involved in an incident a couple decades before when a girl he went out on a date with ended up disappearing, with Larry, a lover of horror book, being blamed for her apparent murder. The story behind this date is one that is both embarrassing and sad on Larry’s part, which adds a great deal of sympathy for his plight throughout the book. As he goes through his day, he heads back to his parent’s house, which he inherited, and his shot by an armed assailant wearing one of his old Halloween masks (which is also a part of another sad story from Larry’s youth). We are then introduced to Silas “32” Jones, the town constable who is put in charge of Larry’s case, which is being ruled a suicide attempt after a woman’s body is found in an old barn. We then learn about the history between Larry and Silas, how Silas mom and him lived in that old barn, how they were friends until a fateful day when Larry’s drunken father forced them to fight each other and how there high school lives were drastically different until it came to that night the girl went missing. There are many twists in this book that are expertly plotted and well earned on the part of Franklin’s storytelling ability. Ultimately a morality tale where redemption is never too late to happen, as long as people can forgive, this is a book to read and to cherish.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "The Abstinence Teacher" by Tom Perrotta

I have come to find Tom Perrotta very entertaining, but also very insightful, which is a combination that I feel most writers today try and strive for, and he succeeds beyond flying colors, as evidenced by his novel The Abstinence Teacher, an engaging and enlightening story of the things we do in order to get through the day and ultimately define our existence, in this case it is religion. It would have been very easy to write a story like this, and make the religious characters in it very campy, one-dimensional, and villainous in a mustache twirling sense. But Perrotta is a very humanistic writer who cares deeply for his fictional world and its population, so everyone we meet within the book’s pages is very real, even when they are doing something nefarious and passing it off as righteous. It never strays from this ideal, so while the people are real, so is there pain, and this book contains passages that lay the characters souls bare for us to see all it’s cracks and fissures. But do not let that fool you into thinking this book is purely an emotional journey. It is also a damned fun one as well, introducing two very different protagonists whose journey toward self-realization is fraught with lapses into weakness and startlingly careless run ins with people who are not so much bad as they are severely misguided. It is a book that flies by quickly, but still leaves a strong impression after reading it. The story centers on this small community called Stonewood Heights, which is being overrun by a new radically religious church hell-bent on changing the way things are run in such a godless place. In the center of this maelstrom of competing values are Ruth Ramsey, sex education teacher at the high school, and Tim Mason, coach of local girl’s soccer team. Ruth is famous and infamous around town for being very liberal and open in her class about the joys of sex (most notably, oral sex), which forced the school to change its curriculum to something more abstinence based. Tim is a recovering drug addict and alcoholic who found God after his divorce, only to be stuck in a loveless marriage to a woman who he is not interested in, and to be subconsciously bossed around by the Pastor at this new radical church he is a member of. After an incident on the soccer field where Tim prayed with his team and garnered the wrath of Ruth, a sort of bond develops between these two unlikely people lost in a world controlled by everyone but themselves. This is a very optimistic book, dealing with the idea of what we hide behind to shelter our fears and doubts about who we are, only to find out who much happier we can be when we let other people into our lives. A wonderful, engaging book that is perfect for any kind of vacation, as long as you are ready to be enlightened.
Rating: 5/5

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: "Dirty Havana Trilogy" by Pedro Juan Gutierrez

This came as a pleasant surprise for someone who continually and without mercy bashes any kind of self-indulgent literature. From Bukowski to the Beats, I have raked them through the cools and shunned the experience I had with them as a youthful bibliophile. So when I started Pedro Juan Gutierrez’s Dirty Havana Trilogy, I thought it was going to be just like the kind of books I used to read but now cannot stand. I did not think it was going to be as bad as some of those books I cam to loath, but I had no idea I was going to like it as much as I do. This book is really, really fun to read. It has the suspense and intrigue of any good thriller despite almost nothing within its pages being anything close to linear. I went through this book the way I went through a Lansdale or Bazell book. It is lightening fast, even though nothing connects and it is easy to lose track of time, place and character in this brutal nasty world described by Gutierrez’s alter ego, Pedro Juan. And despite how awful this book gets in terms of people’s actions, it is imbibed with a tremendous amount of optimism, hope and joy that seem to be the only thing left in early 90’s Cuba. Despite sometimes being near death and despair, we find that our narrator is meeting everything with a giant shit-eating grin even the most acidic cynicism cannot wipe off. What little plot there is deals with the daily life of Pedro Juan, a painter and sometimes journalist, who is drifting through life, sometimes living in squalor amongst the ruins of what used to be the large and decadent city of Havana. The only real thing that can distract Pedro from the mess his life and country have become is a constant search for the most graphic and perverted sex. Sometimes it is for love, and sometimes just out of boredom, but we as readers are treated to Pedro’s escapades in graphic and sickening detail (including one scene where a bought of anal sex ends in the worst possible way). But what I think makes this different from something like Ham on Rye, is that the people and places seem real and actually exist in the world Gutierrez crafts. In Bukowski’s world, the people he writes about only serve the purpose of enhancing his legend or merely being an obstacle in Chinaski’s unending quest for solitude, but the people Pedro Juan meets are written with great care and depth, and may have an even better story to tell than our narrator. Also, there seems to be a greater, more physical threat of violence in these vignettes than in Bukowski’s. Not only does Pedro face psychological death, he faces great physical threats as well, described brutally in the third section where a woman is raped in graphic detail. The sex scenes can seem redundant, but it is broken up with really bizarre people and actions (like the guy who got fired from a morgue for sleeping with female corpses), but we, and Pedro never lose sight of the value of life. Ultimately a fun and intriguing read for anyone interested in the depths of human hope. Just don’t take it to seriously.
Rating: 5/5

Review: "Harbor" by John Ajvide Lindqvist

This book, Harbor by John Ajvide Lindqvist, really brings into question the quality of the other two books of his I have read, being Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead, both of which I liked at the time of reading, but now I can hardly remember any details from either that made me like the books so much. Is it possible he is a one-note writer whose one trick, which is telling genre stories centered on a symbolized version of a human experience, is slowly but surely getting old? I would think so, since this book just so happens to be his biggest, but also the most boring one of Lindqvist’s books. It does a hackneyed job of juggling multiple narratives, which is the first time he has done something on this scale (Handling the Undead had many stories, but only one plot), and even when he is on, he quickly falls off balance many times. The story centers around a man named Anders, who is still reeling from the disappearance of his daughter Maja two years before on a remote Norwegian island while exploring a lighthouse. Divorced from his wife and drowning his thoughts in alcohol, he moves back into his families’ home on the island, discovering a vast supernatural cover-up that can explain why his daughter went missing. As I said, there are two many storylines going on and Lindqvist stumbles too many times, handling only a few storylines, such as one involving a pair of Smiths-quoting tortured souls from Anders past that not nearly enough time is spent on. On the whole, it is just very ineffective, and it makes me think that on rereading Let the Right One In and Handling the Undead, they may suffer the same fate of being painfully one-note.
Rating: 3/5