Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Review: "Ancient Light" by John Banville

John Banville is an author who I keep going back to for little else other than tradition. I always try to read at least one of his books a year, despite not having had the same kind of experience as when I first read them. I have read five of his books, including the one I just read this year, his most recent novel Ancient Light. Most of them have been okay, some have been not okay, but his literary world is one I don’t mind visiting occasionally, even if the journey is exponentially better than the destination. But this book is quite good when it wants to be, providing some of Banville’s best prose moments since The Book of Evidence and The Sea, probably his most famous novel. It also provides a neat little story that is outside Banville’s comforts zone, which brings with it both good qualities and bad ones. The main character is Alex Cleave, an aging stage actor who has just been offered a role in a big budget movie. The role he is offered brings up painful memories for him of the time when he was a young man and had an affair with his best friends mother, whom he still considers to be the love of his life. This, along with the mysterious suicide of his daughter years ago, forces him to confront the many inconsistencies in his memories, and decipher if they are real or imagined to hide some sort of long forgotten pain. The passages about memory are Banville at his best, throwing in contradictory anecdotes and facts that really keep the reader on his toes, especially towards the end. But since Banville is new at this, he puts all his focus on Alex, and none on the people around him, like his grieving wife or new co-star who reminds him of his daughter. Banville is easily one of our greatest writers working today, and even a second or third-rate novel from him is still pretty good.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: "Brutal Youth" by Anthony Breznican

Never have I read a book that so accurately and so violently announced itself and its intentions simply by the title, but Anthony Breznican’s debut novel, Brutal Youth, does just that: like the title, there are no surprises, no subtly and no deep metaphors. And despite this, and that as a story it doesn’t break any new ground, it is still one of the best novels about violent academia since Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. What makes this book stand out, and, I hope, become a huge hit once word of it’s content spreads, is how it takes real teenage kids, with all of there flaws and misplaced loyalties, in a setting reminiscent of dark 90’s teen movies. This novel’s St. Michaels is easily worse than the high schools in movies like The Craft or The Faculty, with the ritual hazing and constant dehumanization being something that might, but sometimes must, have some otherworldly explanation to it. But anyone who went through four years of high school, and hated every second of it, will know that it is sometimes all too true. Which brings me to another reason this book deserves the recognition it most likely will receive: even with its needlessly cruel aspects, this book is an accurate representation of the feelings people who were bullied in high school have. The cruelty isn’t always the worst part; it is feeling alone and isolated in your grief, knowing that other scared classmates and apathetic teachers won’t help escape your pain. Into this hellish environment comes Peter, a kind yet na├»ve boy, who, during a shadowing of the school, experiences first hand the kinds of violence he will deal with if he comes to this school, which involves a depressed student climbing to the roof with the intention of hurting as many people on the ground as possible. During a courageous act, he meets Noah Stein, who will be his only friend as he goes through his trials, which are numerous and horrifying, involving cruel nicknames and constant abuse from the upperclassman, culminating in an infamous hazing picnic that has claimed quite a few casualties in the past. Like I said, this book gets a lot of things right. For all its intensity, the books more nuanced themes of betrayal and dishonesty really shine through, and make the book unique, since books like these always seem to make people and actions either black or white. That even goes for our two leads, whose youthful enthusiasm and youthful ignorance leads to some of the more harrowing moments in the novel, where things that should have just been innocent turn deadly serious with real adult-like threats and consequences. I would be hard-pressed to call this high art, but for a book like this, it doesn’t matter. This was a visceral reading experience, full of anger and hate about those who know better when people tell them that four, long, miserable years are “the best years in their lives”. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review: "The Tilted World" by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly

This is the first fiction book that I have read that has been authored by two different people, and for the most part, The Tilted World by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly makes the difference in details smooth and practically unnoticeable. But in the themes and emotions there is a lot of discrepancy between the husband and wife team that stick out like a sore thumb, especially if you are a fan of Tom Franklin, as I am. His breakthrough novel, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter was a taut well-rounded thriller written with sympathy as well as a maniacal edge. I have also read his collection of short stories, and while it is not as good as his longer fiction, I found the title story, “Poachers” to be a rollicking good read worthy of a movie adaption. And that fun that I found in most of Franklin’s work here seems to be absent. The story takes places in 1927, the heart of prohibition and bootlegging. In a small town in Mississippi called Hobnob, a violent man named Jesse and his lovely wife Dixie run most of the town’s liquor distilleries. After dispatching of two revenue agents, Dixie becomes disenchanted with Jesse’s violent ways, brought on by the death of her infant sons. The agents’ disappearance brings fellow agents Ted Ingersoll and his loving, bumpkin partner Ham, to the town to investigate. There they find an unrelated crime scene that has left a baby orphaned. He takes it into his care, and is slowly drawn into Dixie’s violent world when both want to change their futures. The characters here are great, especially Ham, whose funny enough to warrant a prequel of some sorts. But the big action scenes seem to be out of Franklin and Fennelly’s league. They take too much time to happen and take away from the more filling, emotional drama that is unfolding towards the end. I do believe that Franklin can’t write a bad book, although Fennelly, a poet, I can’t speak for, and this book is good enough to check out during the tale end of summer.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: "The Blue Fox" by Sjon

I should have known that nay writer, or any artist for that matter who goes by a single name rarely lives up to the hype that a lack of surname tries to provide. But the plot of Norwegian novelist Sjon’s novel The Blue Fox seemed interesting, and I was a bit curious how he would approach it with the books slim 115-page count. But I can say, swallowing my pride that there was very little I could understand about this book. The plot and characters are never made clear because they are cloaked in Sjon’s overly poetic tone and prose that doesn’t do anything but look pretty on the page. That kind of mindless writing has never impressed me much in my adult life, finding it a poor excuse for a lack of narrative talent, using big and awesome word to replace big and awesome stories and emotions. But if there is one thing that this story does kind of do right is it’s emotional scenes. The story tells the sad tale of a lonely hunter who, while hunting for the elusive animal that the book gets its title from, comes across a reclusive naturalist, who is helping a young girl with Down Syndrome live her life in the wilderness. This girl happens to be someone he saved from a shipwreck years before, and she comes into hi life at a proper moment. It is very hard to describe the story, since it jumps around way too much for a book this short. It would help if those disparate scenes were good, but they are not. But a book like this runs on pure emotion, and it does it well, with a character’s happiness or sadness coming through clearly. But a story that runs on emotion is sure to have people who are lost and feel nothing of the book’s message. And I am one of those readers.

Rating: 2/5

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Review: "We Live in Water" by Jess Walter

While this book has “contractual obligation” written all over it, in the gathering and quality of the stories in it, there are a few tidy morsels that are worth checking out in author Jess Walter’s debut story collection, We Live in Water. I read The Financial Lives of Poets a few years ago and found it quite delightful. Walter, as a writer, never treads in new ground in his stories of suburban angst and desperation, but they are well written with characters as sympathetic as they are believable. I think the problem with this collection in particular is that Walter really isn’t a master, or even a good practitioner of the short story form. His ideas are not only big in weight, but in scope as well. They fit more snuggly and cohesively in the form of a novel, where they have time to gestate for the right kind of emotional reaction. A few pages are not enough for what Walter is good at. A series of short shorts, only about three or four pages long are a good example of why Walter is not a good short story writer. They seem rushed and lack depth like most kinds of flash fiction, and “Don’t Eat Cat” a story about a drug that turns people into zombies is so unoriginal I don’t want to discuss it. But the stories that do work are very good. “Anything Else”, about a guy who is homeless, begging for money so he can buy his estranged son the new Harry Potter book, is deeply humane against all odds, and comes off true and heartfelt. “Virgo” is a bit of a nasty story about lost love, and the kind of fantasies we act out when that love sours. And the final story, “Statistical Abstract for my Hometown of Spokane, Washington” begins as a list of boring stats, but comes to show how much Walter loves and hates his hometown for the seemingly beautiful and ugly qualities it possesses. These stories make the book way more worth than it should be.

Rating: 4/5