Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: "The War of the End of the World" by Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa is a writer I have wanted to like for a while, and with the novel I have just read, The War of the End of the World, he comes a bit closer to being a writer whose books I look forwards to reading once a year. While it is denser than The Feast of the Goat, with a more complex plot line that is easily followed, this epic, apocalyptic tale is a much more fun book to read. You can tell, even if you find yourself lost from time to time, that this is a book written with passion and anger, and it is very hard to ignore. It has moments of great beauty and crushing violence that are hard to shake off. The plot deals with a partially true account of a tiny republic in Brazil called Canudos led by a charismatic god-like leader who saw that the antichrist had come to Earth not in the form of one man, but in one entity, this being the dictatorship that ruled Brazil at the time, and his lawless, government-less society as the only way to save the world from falling into evil hands. The novel charts the rise of this large community and the attempts by the government to take it down. There is a lot going on in the book, so much so it is hard to find your way back if you get lost, a problem that I feel would have been solved by a character chart at the beginning of the novel. But I never felt like I was wasting my time reading this book. While it lacks in essential areas, I did enjoy a lot of the vignettes about the people whom the leader of the Canudos, known as “the Counselor”, has taken under his wing. Each is a person with an awful past that brings into question the republic’s motives. I do recommend this book, and any other Llosa books you can get your hands on.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: "Quesadillas" by Juan Pablo Villalobos

Despite it’s name, Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Quesadillas is not a delicious snack but a bitter indictment of a culture that seems hell-bent on destroying lower class people and harvesting them for rich people. But this slim novel does so with a great sense of humor and passionate heart, and it is just bizarre enough that it fits perfectly for the FSG Originals imprint that has brought us authors as distinct as the rural violence of Frank Bill and the odd realities of Amelia Grey. And like most FSG Originals, with the exception of Frank Bill, this book is hit or miss, but thankfully mostly hit. It gets weird sometimes, a bit too weird for its own good and for the reader’s sensibilities, but at 158 pages, it never over stays its welcome as long as the reader is along for the ride. Orestes, a middle child in an abnormally large and very poor family, narrates the story. The story is not the most important aspect here, even though it involves twins disappearing and the possibility of an alien abduction. The real treat here is how Villalobos can take such a grim subject matter, take away all the sadness and anger and replace it with biting humor. When the two youngest children go missing at a grocery store, the focus isn’t on the grief, but the possibility that there will be more quesadillas to go round. And that silly motif is played up throughout the whole novel, a fun metaphor for desperation and escape that would become unbearable if the novel were longer than it is. But a lot of the enjoyment of this novel comes from reader’s ability to go with the story’s flow. If you are patient throughout this slim novel, I can guarantee that you will be rewarded.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Review: "Koko" by Peter Straub

It is cool that while I was reading Koko by Peter Straub, I was in Bangor, Maine, where I took a tour of the places that inspired some of the events in Stephen King’s novel. What isn’t cool is how boring the book was. I recall liking the first Peter Straub book I read, A Dark Matter, although in retrospect, I don’t think the book has aged well in my mind as a reader. But this book, I have no question about my feelings towards it. It would be good if it wasn’t over 500 pages long, not great or anything, but it would be over quicker and I wouldn’t have to spend so much time with it. And I want to like Peter Straub, the same way I want to like Ramsey Campbell and Daniel Woodrell. But while I will read whatever those authors publish, I will always approach it with trepidation. This novel focuses on a group of Vietnam veterans, years after the war, which must band together to stop a series of murders committed by the titular character, whom they think is writer Tim Underhill, since a lot of the murders have details that would be found in one of his horror novels. This leads them on trail that goes from the Far East in Thailand to the grimy streets of New York, looking for a killer who seems to have never left the jungles of Vietnam. A big problem I had with this book is the characters are never fleshed out well enough for me to care when they are in danger. They have sex and curse, but the seem interchangeable, with differences between them never being clear, even with a big death in the middle of the book. I’m curious about the other two books in The Blue Rose Trilogy, but this is not a good start.

Rating: 2/5

Review: "A Fraction of the Whole" by Steve Toltz

It is always nice to be surprised by a book, especially when that surprise is out just good but great, and I am glad to say that Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole is a great book, one that soars past your expectations, and can, with ease, get tangled in your heart strings. It’s 561 pages are never dull, and the narrator, who opens the book writing his memoirs on loose pieces of paper he finds in a foreign prison, will have you on his side the whole entire time, because his plight is so astounding and moving, but one, deep down, we can relate to. If I had to compare it to any other books, I find that it shares a lot in common with two distinct types of books (I’m cheating, because I will lump two authors together. Firstly, this book acts like an Australian version of John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany. It has the same cast of un-ironic quirky characters, although the ones here are a bit more violent, and similar themes of fate and sadness about one’s path in life. I can safely say that this book is as good as Irving’s. I also was reminded of two other books, Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory and Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy, in that the nefarious nature of the narrative is hidden behind a narrator that you can’t help but follow. But this book is a different, grander beast than those two books. As I stated before, the book opens in a foreign prison, as Jasper Dean tells the story of his father Martin and his uncle Terry, both criminals who deserve scorn, but while his uncle gets praised as a folk hero, everyone in the country wants his father’s head. We learn the reasons behind such feelings as the story progresses through many different time periods. We learn of Martin’s early years, his mother a refugee of the Holocaust, her marriage to prison architect, and the birth of his half-brother Terry, who excels at sports while Martin is crippled by a years long coma in his adolescents. But when Terry is injured in a way that keeps him out of sports, his ant-social behavior shines through, and he grows up to be a killer of sports players who bet on games, and becomes a folk hero, while Martin is put on a path of nihilistic behavior that will ruin his life. All this ties into
Jasper, who is battling his own demons of unrequited love that have put him on the path to where he is in the beginning. I can’t say much more. This book is full of surprises that will put a smile on your face, or at least keep reading into the morning hours. And while this book could be seen as misanthropic, it has a heartfelt message about doing things your way, even when everyone wants you dead. This is a great book, long but very much worth your time.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: "Lush Life" by Richard Price

It took me awhile to warm up to Richard Price, and I finally saw his talent when I read Clockers last year. It was a simple, yet epic tale of inner city life viewed as if it were a hell filled with demons and lost souls. It had moments of crushing defeat and vague hope, but it was always interesting and I was always eager to find out the mystery at the heart of the book. In his most recent, if you can call the year 2008 recent, deals with a similar situation as that novel. But it really is a melding of the themes of Price’s two most famous novels, the aforementioned Clockers and 1998’s Freedomland. It takes the hearts of those two books, the way crime affects the victims and perpetrators after the fact as shown in Clockers, and the way the media can skew a murder story, making villains and heroes where there are none. The crime is simple and has been seen many times before: a white, bohemian man is shot and killed by a black gang member after failed stick-up during a night of drinking. The details of the crime become convoluted in the interrogation room, where a witness refuses to give information, accidently implicating himself in the crime, at least in the public’s eye. Where Price shines is in the little moments, where Matty, the lead detective, comforts the father of murdered victim after a harrowing scene in the county morgue. What Price has trouble with is making characters real. Despite how cool they talk, they never seem like any thing more than one-dimensional, leaving the emotional resonance of the book a bit ambiguous. But this is still a solid crime novel that touches on deep, troubling issues of modern life, and proof that Price has his eye on something special.

Rating: 4/5