Sunday, July 21, 2013

Review: "Zombie" by Joyce Carol Oates

Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie is a very hard book to read, despite being another short novel, not even 200 pages and plenty of chapter stops. I’ve got to say; this is a surprising book to be written by a woman. It has a vicious and clinical nature that leaves the reader feeling cold and distant to what is happening. It is a thinly veiled fictional account of the last few days in the life of serial killer Jeffery Dahmer before he was arrested. Most of what Oates writes is fictional speculation about what might have gone on in the mind of Dahmer when killing young men became an all-encompassing obsession for him. While well written and effective, I am not too interested in hearing about someone like this put on display in a book simply as a monster or boogeyman, especially after reading Derf Backderf’s non-fictional memoir My Friend Dahmer, about his experiences growing up with Dahmer in middle and high school. It presents a new kind of look into the mind of a future serial killer, one that doesn’t promote empathy as much as pity, and the need for people to recognize and speak out when they witness aberrant behavior in an individual. In that book he is not a fairy tale creature, but the weird, lonely kid in high school who will never fit in, no matter how hard they try. And it is not scary, but kind of sad, but I digress. Oates’ novel focuses on one man named Quentin, and the relationship he has with his family, whom he manipulates without remorse, and his obsession with having a young male sex slave, a “zombie”, who will provide him with every need. There is little plot expect for a man he is interested in, who he calls SQUIRELL, which leads to his eventual capture and revelation of his dark side to the world, including his hurt family. This is a book that gets under your skin, and will turn off some readers, for sure. But a conventional, yet highly effective look into the dark side interests you, this book will reward you.
Rating: 4/5

Review: "Hotel World" by Ali Smith

There is only so much stream of consciousness writing a man can take. It is a very shaky literary form that is simply okay when done well, like anything James Kelman writes. But when it is not done well, it sticks out like a sore thumb and is horribly, grating, gimmicky and annoying. Books like The Rules of Attraction and At Swim, Two Boys, which is the only book I stopped reading with little intention of starting back up again, are chores to read, and not in a good way. You can add Ali Smith’s Hotel World to that list. It is an easy book to read, but I’d much rather be reading something else. It moves quickly and is relatively short at only 238 pages, but they aren’t pages really worth remembering, not that you really could if you tried. It has an admirable goal in mind, the bright side of the grieving process, but it doesn’t deliver any kind of actions that will trigger an emotional response. It all takes place around a high-end hotel and is narrated by many different kinds of people, all who were involved in the recent death of a chambermaid who has fallen down the elevator shaft of a dumbwaiter. Her ghost is the first person we hear from, as she observes life after she has left it. We then meet a homeless person who falls into some very disgusting things in order to get money, and a newspaper reporter holed up in her hotel room to cover the story. All involved are affected by the death and show the far-reaching effects of grief. It is a book with an emotional concept that hinders all its attempts at such by a style that is designed to confuse the reader and make them feel lost. Although it is a short book, it may not be worth your time if you are like me, without all the time on your hands.
Rating: 3/5

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Review: "The Post Birthday World" by Lionel Shriver

I have not been challenged by a book like Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World since the last book of hers I read, We Need To Talk About Kevin. Not challenged in terms of the difficulty in reading and finishing the book, but really challenged by the themes it presents. They are not difficult or, despite Shriver being labeled a “feminist” writer (which really downgrades the material she produces) gender specific. The ideas she presents are just very harsh. They bring into account the difficulty in connecting with other people, having what you want and not getting it, and that, sometimes, we are alone in our struggles to better ourselves. It just so happens that most of the protagonists in her novels happen to be women. But if you want to speak in those terms, I feel her take on modern feminism to quite the breath of fresh air, especially after the year I have had. She finds flaws in an ideology that is glamorized too often, and shines a light on the idea of how many innocent people you may hurt on the path to gaining social independence, as a man or woman. But I don’t want to ignore Shriver’s keen sense of style, which is one full display here, with her turning a genre on its head the same way she did with We Need To Talk About Kevin, that has a uniqueness that is only overshadowed by the ways in which it uses that uniqueness to keep the readers guessing. The first chapter of this novel introduces us to Irina, an aging children’s book illustrator who is in a relationship with Lawrence, a political pundit working at a think-tank in London. They have a mutual friend in Ramsey Acton, a famous snooker player whose ex-wife, Jude, wrote some of the books that Irina illustrated. The couple makes a habit out of having dinner with the lonely Ramsey on his birthday, until one year, while Lawrence out of the country; it is just Irina and Ramsey alone together. She is drawn to Ramsey and the pivotal moment that takes place when he is teaching her snooker moves, when she will kiss him or not, creates two different timelines of events. In the one where she does kiss him, she leaves Lawrence for Ramsey, in the one where she doesn’t, she stays with Lawrence and is left wondering what might have been. What makes this book so interesting is how it inverts the story, showing how different things happened because of a small event, and therefore showing two different aspects of Irina’s psyche. Each man has his good and bad qualities; Lawrence is loyal and deeply loves her, yet he is distant at times and is a bit of an intellectual bully. Ramsey is quite charming and handsome, but is childish, unintelligent, and a bit of loser when it comes to anything not involving snooker. Everything is affected by Irina’s choice in the split narratives, from her relationship with her estranged mother; her writing career and Ramsey’s snooker success. The characters also change not just on the pager, but also in the reader’s mind. In one narrative, a character can come off as a very sympathetic victim, but in a few pages, they can come off as a blowhard. It is a cool exercise that is demanding of the reader, but in the best possible way. The ending is a bit confusing, but everything leading up to it is a delight. This is a cool novel that is fun and engaging, but has a deep, emotional message about defining yourself on your own terms.
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: "The Basic Eight" by Daniel Handler

In reviewing Daniel Handler’s The Basic Eight, which I really did not like, I will try to keep in mind a notion I held onto throughout its 380 pages. Since Handler, known mainly for his children’s series A Series of Unfortunate Events under the nom de plume Lemony Snicket, I approach this book as if it were written for kids, or at least young adults whose parents are not buying them books anymore. But a lot of what is in this book, including sex scenes and curse words points to that not being the case. But it is the only way I can explain away how full of itself this book is, and how thoroughly unlikable and thinly drawn everyone is in this book. Nothing seems to ring true and everything is tinted with a thick layer of self-indulgence, that even when the book succeeds at being funny, it is very hard to ignore its pretentiousness. The story is made of the journal entries of a young girl named Flannery Culp, a member of “The Basic Eight” a group of smart, successful students at Roewer High School that are as annoying as they sound. We hear about the intricacies of this group, the past relationship between Flannery and Gabriel, and a thoroughly creepy biology teacher, but mainly Flannery’s crush on Adam State, which leads to a brutal murder on the eve of Halloween at a cast party for the school’s production of Macbeth. As I said the jokes are funny, especially the “would I” one, but they are very telegraphed and don’t come naturally, and despite a last second epilogue that brings everything into question, it is hard to get away from idea that this Handler being self-congratulatory about his time in high school. But when I judge it as a young adult book, I guess it is not so bad if you are into that genre, which I am not.
Rating: 3/5

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: "Hard Revolution" by George Pelecanos

Hard Revolution by George Pelecanos is another explosive novel from a very underrated writer who has yet to disappoint me. While I would probably put Dennis Lehane on the top of the list of America’s hidden literary treasures, Pelecanos is not that far away. Even more so since none of his books, to my knowledge have been adapted into a major movie, which is absurd once you read one. They practically thrive of good plots and character, and dialogue finds a balance between Lehane’s profundity and Price’s almost comical stretching of the English language, making it seem realistic and ripe for screen adaptation. Especially this novel, which relies even more on the story’s urgency than say, The Turnaround. It does deal with a historical event, in this case the assassination of Martin Luther King, that vaguely reflects the actions taking place, but the action is at the forefront of this novel, and it is the most important and memorable thing that the reader will take away from this novel. The feeling I get with this novel is very similar to the one I got reading Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone. Each is part of a series by a writer whose other books I have read have been stand alone novels, with Lehane’s novel being part of the Kenzie-Gennaro PI novels, and Hard Revolution being a prequel to Pelecanos’ Derek Strange novels. You can tell that the writers for each one is pulling back on the heavy handed social commentary, at least consciously, to tell a gritty, shocking story. We begin our story in the late 50’s in Washington D. C. as we are introduced to the three story arcs that will develop over the course of the novel. A young Derek Strange has a run-in with the law, thanks to his friend Dominic, that leads him down the road to becoming a cop, which, him being black is not looked upon as a dignified job by his community. His brother Dennis, preaches “black power, but is falling in with a duo lead by Alvin Jones, whose psychopathic streak is destined to lead Dennis down a dark path. And Buzz Stewart, an outwardly racist (yet a closet fan of R & B) gas station attendant is waiting for an opportunity that will never come. Ten years after we first meet this cast of characters, in 1968, the country’s race relations are to the point that violence and bloodshed is just around the corner. Derek is a cop, Dennis is still hanging with Alvin Jones, and Buzz finally has a plan to get ahead, along with his friend Dominic. After a prank ends in a disturbing death, and someone is killed in a senseless, brutal murder, the tides of history begin to mirror the anger and hatred brewing in this novel. Much like Gone Baby Gone, this is a more disturbing novel than anything else the writer has written outside of a series. Even the child murder in The Night Gardener doesn’t compare to inner thoughts of the selfish killer in Alvin Jones. Also, the redemption comes at a great price to our hero, with him left rethinking his choices and the life that lies ahead of him. I feel odd reading a book that is fourth in a series because I don’t want to miss anything, but luckily, with Gone Baby Gone and Hard Revolution, they offer a singular intense experience in the crime genre, and I can’t wait to read more about Derek Strange:
Rating: 5/5