Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review: "Perfidia" by James Ellroy

I don’t think, given the scope and knowledge in his books, as well as his outward attitude, James Ellroy won’t get the kind of respect and insight he deserves until long after he has passed on. His stories are brutal to say the least, not just in graphic violence, but in the hard-boiled nihilism that coats every sentence he constructs. His novels become more than mysteries and instead become weirdly alternative takes on the major events in history that shape our world today. With his brilliant Underworld U. S. A. Trilogy, and this novel, Perfidia, the start of his second L. A. Quartet, he tells a story of the true shapers of history, who made things happen with violence, lying and cunning attempts at social advancement. It is daunting at points, and at 700 pages, it feels a little bit like a marathon you have no chance at succeeding at, but his genius is never in doubt. The novel begins the day before the Pearl Harbor attacks, when a Japanese family is found murdered, and the crime scene made to look like a ritual suicide. This brutal crime affects four different people differently. There’s Hideo Ashida, a police chemist battling demons who is about to become a pawn in a huge political game. Bill Parker, a captain with Machiavellian desires to move up in the world, has his own games to play. Kay Lake, an almost Forrest Gump-like femme fattle who seems to be everywhere at once, wants to stop being arm candy and start fighting the good fight. And the true star here, Dudley Smith, an Irish immigrant with a mean streak and a hair trigger, wants to make a profit from this coming war. If Ellroy has one main issue that could drive readers away is that all of his characters sound the same, even the women, and it makes this large cast of characters something of a jumbled mess. But when Ellroy delivers the goods, there’s very few better, from a brutal beating to Kay Lake’s ex-beau, to the man Dudley kills for a reason and a person I won’t dare reveal. It’s a long sit, but no matter what Ellroy is writing about, it is nothing but a rewarding, enriching experience.
Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: "The Facades" by Eric Lundgren

The Facades, the debut novel of Eric Lundgren, is a curiosity that never really surpasses its initial weirdness; it’s an experiment with lots of flare and pyrotechnics, but doesn’t produce any worthwhile results. I give Lundgren a lot of credit though for trying to do something different, even if, to me at least, he doesn’t fully succeed. Never was his motive shrouded in oddities or pushed at the reader, making them uncomfortable. It tells the story of a man of sincerity and desire lost in a world filled with mystery and deceit very well, blending the genres of the existential crime novels and of the metaphysical labyrinth pretty well even when the result isn’t very interesting, coming off like a less skilled version of Rivka Galchen’s debut, Atmospheric Disturbances. What Lundgren fails to do is provide a buffer between the weirdness of his fictional city and its inhabitants, and sometimes, the events in this book can’t help but come off as silly. The town Lundgren creates Trude, a city in Midwest whose glory days are behind it as it has now become kind of a suicide destination. The man who is at the center of the novel is Sven Norberg, an honest, if boring man who is reeling from his wife, Molly’s disappearance. Molly was an opera singer and the pride of this weird little town. In his mission to find out what happened to her, he must contend with his increasingly volatile son Kyle and a cast of magical realist characters who will stop at nothing to keep him from knowing the truth. A lot of these kinds of events happen out of nowhere, and don’t seem to serve a purpose other than being wholly weird. I liked some of the references, like a street named after Knut Hamsun and a Chinese restaurant named after Li Po, but it is all stuff I have seen before. Although I am curious to see what Lundgren writes next, I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as I thought I was.
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Review: "The Book of Strange New Things" by Michel Faber

If The Book of Strange New Things is Michel Faber’s last book, and I really hope it is not, he went out on top, because it is thoroughly enjoyable, eye opening, and is the best Sci-Fi/ Literary novels to come out since David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Over the course of 500 pages exactly, Faber constructs a story about faraway worlds and vastly different alien cultures, but does so with an emotional core that a lot of science fiction (at least what I have come across) sorely lacks. I’ve gone on about how sci-fi is not my favorite genre, and the reason is that the stories all try too hard to be cool and cynical, leaving very little room for character development or any kind of human vulnerability; it’s focused more on hard ideas than anything else. But I love a good sci-fi novel like this, as snobby as it may be to praise it, because the feelings this book triggers in the reader lasts much longer after you have finished, and occupies a more positive space in the readers mind. Another thing Faber succeeds at here is his treatment of religion and faith. Again, in any other tale like this, religion would be criticized at best and mocked at worst, but here, it is dissected with care, and its qualities and faults are both given equal, fair treatments with understanding and warmth. The novel tells the story of Peter, a pastor with a volatile past who is selected by a mysterious company known as the USIC to become a missionary on the planet Oasis, located light years from Earth. This would mean having to leave his loving wife Beatrice for an indeterminate amount of time. He agrees to go, seeing this as the ultimate opportunity given to him by God, and once he gets there, a strange yet not uncomfortable new environment awaits him, with a race of aliens (whose physical attributes are brilliantly left ambiguous) who are eager to learn the teachings of Jesus Christ with no resistance. He forms a possibly romantic bound with a pharmacist named Grainger and, through the Oasan’s total devotion to Peter’s preaching (shown through a heartfelt eulogy he gives for one of his fallen co-workers) really strengthens his faith as well. But back home on Earth, things begin to fall apart, abroad and with Bea and their cat Joshua. Besides highlighting the good things religion can accomplish, such as bringing people together and giving someone purpose, what really struck me was how Peter’s conflicting lives on Oasis and Earth really acts as a metaphor for the pains of change we all go through, and how it is impossible, in the end, not to hurt someone as we try to grow as people. And through the community of Oasis, Faber might have created the most positive utopian society I’ve read before: a group of people, who lack any kind of individuality or autonomy, but are helpful in ways humans can never be. This book is a real treat, filled with interesting ideas you haven’t come across, from a writer who, I hope, continues such thought provoking work.

Rating: 5/5

Monday, April 13, 2015

Review: "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

When long books are bad, their poor quality becomes much more apparent later on when you are already a few hundred pages in, while bad books that are of average length kind of announce themselves early on. I didn’t realize how bad A Little Life (the second novel of author Hanya Yanigihara) was until I was too far into it to not finish the damn book. At first, after finishing this book, I didn’t want to give it my lowest rating, but then I think of the time it took me to finish this book and how long I spent reading it (at 720 pages, it took me a week), the book’s value only continued to drop. Rarely does this book ever resemble anything other than an overrated hype fest meant to cash in on books like The Goldfinch or more recently Matthew Thomas’ grand We Are Not Ourselves. This book doesn’t deserve to sharpen the pencils of the authors who wrote those books. It deals with a group of temperamental, successful men who are living in New York. There is Willem, the shy yet gorgeous aspiring actor, Jude, the genius litigator with an army of demons trailing behind him wherever he goes, JB, a semi-successful artist with a massive ego, and Malcolm, an architect in a constant state of disappointment. We follow these thinly drawn ego machines through the years, where it becomes apparent that Jude’s past is a bigger monster than anyone can contain, and they have all been using him as a catalyst for their own pain (that’s my interpretation)  and it will color the rest of their lives. This book gets it all wrong, with the juxtaposition of the privileged and depraved being a tired cliché done better a million other times, and whenever Jude’s problems are in the forefront, which is a lot and include such things as a lifelong addiction to cutting and a stint as a male prostitute to support his priest lover, they come off as very trite and manipulative, and dare I say, laughable. And when this book does try to go for the heart, like with a surprise death near the end, it doesn’t really earn it. It is a little early in the year, but I can’t think of a worse book I will read in the next 8 months.  
Rating: 1/5

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Review: "Red Moon" by Benjamin Percy

Books like Benjamin Percy’s epic werewolf novel Red Moon are always a pleasure to read, even when they are not perfect. That is especially true when they come from a writer as skilled as Percy, who seamlessly blends typical genre elements like graphic violence and suspense with intricate character development that makes you care intensely for these people in their horrible situations. But like the other two Percy books I’ve read, his short story collection Refresh, Refresh (whose title story is one of the best short stories I’ve read in the past few years) and his debut novel The Wilding, Percy can get a little bit too political for my tastes, with The Wilding being a plea for environmental awareness through a Deliverance-like story, and here it is a look at racism and the Occupy movement through the lens of lycanthropy. Don’t get me wrong, it is still an interesting story, with a few unexpected turns in narrative and interpretation, but these notions can get in the way of the stories enjoyment. Percy intertwines three story threads that eventually collide in a weirdly rendered present where werewolves not only exist out in the open, but are a public health crisis with their own rogue cells and even their own colony near Russia. We first meet Patrick Gamble, a young man flying to visit his mother, when his plane is attacked by a rogue wolf and he is the only survivor, leaving him with violently mixed feelings about werewolves as the story progresses. Claire Forrester’s parents are slaughtered by a swat team, and she slowly learns, through her tough aunt Miriam who she really is. And Chase Williams, a presidential hopeful until he is bitten by a wolf, becomes a pawn for something bigger. This book is always exciting, with many actions scenes that take your breath away, and might even make you lose your lunch. But it can be hard to follow at points as Percy reaches his maximum density, but the effects of this book last for a long time, which play to its strengths as an epic, and Percy’s ability to blend genres. If you can get past this book’s somewhat heavy-handed agenda and need for relevance, it’s quite a doozy.
Rating: 4/5

Monday, April 6, 2015

Review: "A Brief History of Seven Killings" by Marlon James

I consider myself to be a lucky reader, because every few years I come across a book that is as great and fantastic as Marlon James’ instant masterpiece A Brief History of Seven Killings. There are many things I can compare it to. Its multiple narrators, air of unsolvable mystery and appalling accounts of violence remind me of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, Bolano’s final one-two punch. Its brilliant use of Jamaican slang and vernacular are very reminiscent of the novels of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh. And its violent sense of revisionist history is as good as the three books in James Ellroy’s underrated Underworld USA trilogy. But like all those books, the story James tells and the way he tells it is completely original, done with great care and inventiveness that never ceased to amaze me. It is a difficult book for sure, one that takes time and effort to fully immerse yourself in the violent world of West Kingston, Jamaica, a world that will have many the ill-informed college student thinking twice about displaying that Bob Marley poster on their dorm room wall. Its use of language also makes it difficult, it taking about 100 or so pages of its near 700 page length to get a hang for it. But once you do, it is pure literary bliss, telling a tragic story of violence, retribution, the blood-stained hands of the past and the cruel way fate will always play a part in people’s lives. The story centers on the assassination attempt of Jamaica’s favorite son, Bob Marley, in late 1976 as he is organizing a peace concert to try and end the violence in his native country. In real life, those gunmen are never found, but in James’ story, we follow them for the next twenty years as their stories intertwine, identities change, and lots and lots of blood is shed. As I mentioned the book uses many narrators, from Bam-Bam, a young boy whose life is surrounded by violence, from the gruesome death of his parents, his part in the assassination attempt, and his tragic, horrifying end and Sir Arthur George Jennings, a man who was pushed to his death, now a ghost forced to witness his killers succeed and murder more people. The two main threads involve the battle for leadership in the Eight Lanes gang between the violent but level-headed Papa Lo to the psychopathic social climber Josey Wales, the winner not only being promised power in the gang but political influence as well. The other in involves a woman named Nina Burgess, the heart of this relentless novel, who sees the shooting of Marley firsthand, and spends the next twenty years running for her life. As I keep saying, the violence in this book is as potent as anything I have come across, just as upsetting as the descriptions of rape and murder in the fourth section of 2666, with bullet wounds, dismemberment and rape being described vividly, creating a sense of omniscient brutality not only in the actions but in James’ language as well. But despite all the death, this book never felt anything less than bursting with life and brilliance, offering the kind of reading experience that is unrivaled and much appreciated, and something I won’t ever forget.
Rating: 5/5