Thursday, October 22, 2015

Review: "Gutshot" by Amelia Gray

I have never been a fan of flash fiction. Most times, I just find it very lifeless and clinical, so much so that it is very hard to enjoy. But that is not the case with Amelia Gray’s new book of short stories, Gutshot. It still falls into some of the same traps that this kind of writing presents, but just less so than other collections that are similar to this one. Among some of the stories that didn’t work, which there are more than a few, were some real eye openers for me, presenting an interesting, sometimes fascinating idea, extrapolating it over the course of a few pages, and moving onto the next one. Gray, judging from this book and her novel Threats (which this is better than), isn’t so much interested in investigating human interaction than dissecting it with untrained hands, staring at the guts and intestines of her subjects, and making something truly inspired and truly crazy out of it. This process does produce mixed results, but results nonetheless. There are 37 stories in this collection, some no more than a page long accounting for breaks between. I will discuss a few that I really liked. For me, the book doesn’t take off until the second section, with the story “Western Passage”, about a woman who makes a connection with another woman on train after she is propositioned for sex by a creepy guy. He drives him away, and they become an oddly friendly duo. I found a lot a menace in this story, but it takes a different, less nefarious path by the end. “A Gentleman”, a short about a guy, supposedly on a first date, holding back the hair of his hygienically challenged date while she vomits, is typical of this collections unending ambiguity, and is the best of its bunch. But the best story here is “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover”, which tracks a relationship based on fairy tale violence from attraction to death. It has to be read to be believed, and while I can’t put my finger on it’s meaning, it’s the strongest story in this book. I still won’t take many journeys down the flash fiction rabbit hole, but I’m walking away from this one more than satisfied.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: "What's Important is Feeling" by Adam Wilson

What’s Important is Feeling, the second book and first short story collection by writer Adam Wilson has, I gathered from reading the back of the book, all the hallmarks that I find detrimental to some modern short story collections, such as a focus on irony over true emotion, quirkiness over realism and smug exclusionary tone instead of one more inviting. But for some reason, the deeper I got into its slim 198 pages, I ended up liking it quite a bit, for it has a charm that some short story collections today, published by writers who are a little too academic for my tastes do not have. I found the people in these surprisingly straight forward stories at times a little too detached and a little too cool at times, but more often than not, something will happen, outside of the characters perspective, that took me by surprise and left me moved. It’s hard for me to pick out favorites here, since each one is as equally good as the other, so I will do my best to pick out the memorable ones. The first story, “Soft Thunder” about a boy in a band experiencing love, loss and disappointment in close proximity, sets the tone for what’s to come. It is a thrilling profane story, and initializes a theme throughout the book of real world intrusions forcing self-centered male characters to grow up. You find it at the heart of stories like “December Boys Got it Worst” about two stock brokers, on the eve of a collapse trying their best to get laid, and “The Porchies” probably the best story here if you twisted my arm, about a summer house whose perfect balance is disrupted by a female occupant and the threshold of adulthood. It’s a short enough collection so it never outlasts its welcome, and rises above its tired clichés to bring something with a little heart to a crowded table.
Rating: 4/5

Monday, October 19, 2015

Review: "A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me" by David Gates

A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me, author David Gates’ first book in 16 years, is better than I thought, but I’m quite sure that it won’t reach a massive audience, given its subject matter and contrarian style. Gates is an author I really only know of from a few Charlie Rose interviews he did in the mid-nineties, and the one book of his I have read, his last book, The Wonders of the Invisible World, also a short story collection, I have forgotten in the years since I have read it. I feel the same fate will befall this book, which is filled with really good stories, but none that are really great. It was refreshing to read them, since they are about real people in real situations, and not just post-modern thoughts and musings stretched out into narratives that are too big, with flimsy subtext shoehorned in to make them feel less shallow. There is none of that in this collection. It is filled with people, upper class for sure, but people who nonetheless are trapped by long ago poor decisions or, a few more times than I’m actually comfortable with, their inability to keep it in their pants (mostly men). It’s very much in the genre of suburban malaise, like the novels of the two Richards, Russo and Ford.  A few stories stick out, one being the opening 90 page novella, “Banishment”, about a woman whose failed relationships are simply mirrors to her own selfish need to view love as a game. This is a good anchor story, and it had to be at 90 pages, and shows what you are in store for. Two others, “A Secret Station” about a doctor who whose attempts to be a better person are stalled by his poor health and sexual misgivings, and the wonderful “Locals” where a small town’s dying breaths are characterized at a wake for one of the town’s own, are the best this collection has to offer. These stories can come off as a bit shallow, and a little too weird to be anything but curious fiction pieces, but if you want some short stories with a bit more physical heft, and want to read about people you might meet in real life, this will more than satisfy you. 
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Review: "Beautiful Children" by Charles Bock

Reading Charles Bock’s debut novel, Beautiful Children, is a beguiling, intoxicating experience that paints a unique portrait of modern Las Vegas as well as a brutal heartbreaking view of the life of under aged runaways. It’s never exploitative in what it presents, even if some of the characters are, and it is always interesting, utilizing its whirlwind narrative and many different viewpoints that keep a lot of the characters’ true intentions in the dark, but still leave the audience guessing. It falls into that category of neo-thriller that is both literary and propulsive. Reading it, I couldn’t help but think of authors such as Dan Chaon and Kelly Braffett, who have a similar style of storytelling, shifting between time frames and perspectives to give the reader a strong sense of dread and intrigue while still keeping the heart of the story intact. What sets Bock apart from a Chaon or Braffett is his willingness to leave the reading audience in the dark for much longer than they might be comfortable with. With someone like Chaon, in particular his two fantastic novels, You Remind Me of Me and Await Your Reply, Chaon slowly reveals himself by the end, and we are left with a magnificent tapestry of a story we didn’t know until then even existed. This book is not so neat. There are connections but they are fleeting, most of the time painfully so, and by the end we aren’t left with something neat, but something a rather bit painful but very true. The novel focuses on the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy living in Las Vegas called Newell Ewing. He went out one night, determined to undermine his parents, and never came back. As I said, the story shifts timelines quite often, showing the Newel’s parents, Lorraine and Lincoln, a former Vegas showgirl and pro baseball prospect receptively, rocked by the disappearance and the mystery of it all months afterward, retreating into their own private vices, Lincoln’s being porn, which leads to one of the novel’s most brilliant shifts in perspective, which I won’t reveal here. But the night itself, we follow Newell himself and Kenny, a shy older boy who dreams of being a comic book artist and represses some confusing sexual feelings, as well as Cheri, a stripper whose life of using and being used she dulls with cinematic fantasies, her boyfriend Ponyboy, a gutter punk who uses his offbeat charm to hurt and abuse those around him, especially Cheri, and somewhat successful comic book artist Bing Beiderbixxie, whose overcome many hurtles in life to make a name for himself, but still finds romantic love depressingly out of reach. There are others we meet on this nocturnal odyssey as well, like a couple of drifters who love for one another is waning, or never existed at all, and Ponyboy’s boss, cruel man whose a product of life on the edge and without love. All are connected in ways none would expect, and by the end, Newell’s disappearance, the circumstances of which remain a bit ambiguous, but very much appropriate, becomes a metaphor for these poor souls pain and infinite sense of loss. It was a true pleasure to exist in this fictional world, because for all its despair, it’s a truthful and beautiful story, much as the title suggests.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Review: "Purity" by Jonathan Franzen

What a misfire. My feelings on Jonathan Franzen, and is appointed status as America’s leading author, really flip-flopped over the past few years. That title, I feel, should go to a writer like Dave Eggers, who, through interviews, introductions and reviews, seems like a more inclusive literary figure than Franzen, who comes off like a lazy, smart assed college professor who respects nobody but himself. But I still enjoyed his books, of which I have read The Corrections, Strong Motion (both okay) and his most recent novel, Freedom (fantastic). I think they are well-written, come from the heart, and while they may come off as arrogant, they are entertaining and say something important about our modern, ever-changing world. I can’t say the same thing about Purity, his new novel, a book that when it isn’t boring and convoluted, is almost as bad as some of the worst I have read this year. It is less of a catalogue of our culture’s flaws, and more of an experiment gone wrong where a great writer is totally out of his element. The title character is a recent college graduate with mountains of student loan debt, and surrounded by clichés that are painfully funny to read and encounter, and involves her in a plot that is too confusing and not very interesting involving an Edward Snowden like figure. There really isn’t a lot to like here, with one unexpected murder being the book’s highlight. But besides that, there are two of the worst sex scenes I have read in recent memory, and revelations that made me feel cold and impatient, a sense of relief washing over me as I finished the book. I really can’t recommend this book. If you aren’t a fan of his, this book won’t change that. If you are a fan of his, you’ll likely find your way to it eventually, and possibly find the same detached disappointment I did. 
Rating: 2/5

Friday, October 9, 2015

Review: "The Black Snow" by Paul Lynch

While my feelings are mixed (although that’s a harsh word for my true feelings) for Paul Lynch’s second novel, The Black Snow, I feel it is an utterly unique novel that is very different from what else might be out there for you to read. It is a classic pastoral novel, owing a debt to writers like Cormac McCarthy, Daniel Woodrell and even shades of some Steinbeck, although that might be stretch. But what sets this book apart from those is its new setting, eschewing the plains of new America for the rich landscape of the Emerald Isle, Lynch’s native Ireland and using this famed terrain to tell a story about loss, risk and the consequences of not quitting while you’re ahead. This book is maybe a bit richer in detail than it is narrative, but for the most part, since it works on an emotional level more than anything, it works to the book’s advantage, creating a reading experience that is mysterious and never boring. The story begins in chaos, as Barnabas Kane, a settler who moved back home from America to become a successful farmer, watches as his barn is burned to the ground, his cattle destroyed, and his farmhand, Matthew Peoples, killed while trying to stop it. What follows is a quiet yet menacing tale of accusation, stubbornness and the feelings of helplessness one has when those you thought were your friends refuse to help you in your time of need. I feel Kane’s pain, when he is shot down by all of his friends when he asks for assistance in a memorable collection of scenes. Do they think he is guilty of causing the careless death of his farmhand, or do they simply not care as much as Kane thought? We also feel Kane’s wife Eskra’s growing sense of anxiety as the life she knew crumbles, and in alternating chapters, a nefarious voice unveils secrets about the events and family no one else knows. It’s vague at times, deliberately so, but this book feels special nonetheless. It’s a well-written novel that makes you think and gives you the coldest of chills.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Review: "Red or Dead" by David Peace

I have to admit, as I was reading through the first few pages of David Peace’s doorstop-sized novel Red or Dead, I was a little bit scared. It sure was different than his Red Riding Quartet, of which I have read the first novel of, and didn’t really like so much. This one is very different, instead of a brutal serial killer; Peace uses all of the 715 pages here to divulge his love of soccer, and more specifically, his love for Coach Bill Shankley of The Liverpool Football Club. What scared me at first wasn’t the subject matter, since I’m indifferent to soccer, but its weirdly direct style of writing that has more in common with the old epics of Homer than your typical sports novel. I was waiting for it to get tiresome, but after awhile, I’m happy to say, it becomes rather hypnotic, and even after that, it becomes a little bit transcendent as it not only offers insights into the man at the center of it all, but really about completion and life itself. Spanning the time Bill becomes head coach in the late fifties to his death in the early eighties; we are privy to almost every minute detail in Bill’s life. From the games he won and lost, to the simple acts of setting up his dinner table for a meal, it is described in direct sentences that somehow get right to the heart of a man who was both larger than life but down to earth, successful, but above all else believed in hard work, patience, honesty and love for his fellow man. It’s quite moving sometimes, like bill’s sadness over the suicide of his friend, to the humorous, such as when Bill must deal with a player with a heinous testicular injury. I’m not sure if everyone will be into this book, and those with low tolerance might dismiss it. But if you come to this with an open mind, you will be pleasantly surprised at the feelings and emotions this book makes you have. 
Rating: 4/5

Friday, October 2, 2015

Review: "Welcome to Braggsville" by T. Geronimo Johnson

It’s hard not to compare T. Geronimo Johnson’s sophomore novel, Welcome to Braggsville to another novel cut from the same cloth, which is Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. Each one deals with modern race relations in a way that is unexpected, insightful and more than a little volatile, asking painful questions on both sides of the debate and coming to the conclusion that it is a more complex issue than we’d like to admit. But while both are good, I think Beatty’s book is funnier and less confusing, reveling in the absurdity of its situation. Johnson’s novel feels a bit more like an experiment, coming more from the world of academia than Beatty’s novel, and some of the ideas it presents get lost along the way. But when this book succeeds, it does so with equal amounts of gusto and heart, bringing to light issues that no one wants to talk about. The story focuses on small-town born and raised D’aron Davenport, who finds himself in another world when he gets accepted into UC Berkeley, a world of protests, activism and political correct thinking. He finds a group of friends quickly; an Asian comedian named Louis, a progressive woman named Candice and a closeted gay black man named Charlie. When they find out Braggsville, D’aron’s home town, hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, they hightail it there for spring break to demonstrate, with tragic, and much unexpected results. This book succeeds where Beatty’s novel does. It shows many facets of race relations that aren’t talked about, like the homophobia in the black community, shown by the alliance between the Nubians and the KKK when they find out about Charlie’s orientation, and the covert paternalistic racism a lot of white liberals are guilty of, once the true nature of the aforementioned tragedy comes to light. It kind of derails at the end, when one of Braggsville’s rituals takes place and just comes off as lazy satire, and even when lives are lost, it was hard for me to feel anything but mild curiosity. But this book is intense; a brutal snapshot of modern life that  is filled with wit, intrigue and hope.
Rating: 4/5