Friday, November 27, 2015

Review: "Know Your Beholder" by Adam Rapp

Adam Rapp’s new novel, Know Your Beholder, is a brutally sincere portrait of a broken man, very carefully, trying to put the pieces of his life back together. The results are heartbreaking at times, funny as hell at others, but it comes together in a story that is eye-opening and life affirming, to use a very saccharine turn of phrase. Rapp’s Francis Falbo, one of the many oddly named characters in this book, is someone most of us, no matter what race or gender, can identify with as well as sympathize with as more facts about his life are uncovered. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a book that I read earlier this year, the underrated 60’s novel The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant, about a similar character taking a similar path in life that unexpectedly leads to enlighten and some form of redemption. But unlike Moonbloom, Falbo is not a Christ like figure who is the savior and protector of all of his tenants. He is very much like his tenants in that he is fragile and at the end of his rope, and wants what most of his tenants want, which is a helping hand and a true connection with someone else. At the beginning of this book, we learn a few details about Francis’ life before his own winter of discontent in the small town of Pollard, Illinois. He is still reeling from the divorce from his wife, Sheila Anne, who left him for another man, the breakup of his band, The Third Policeman, and the death of his much loved mother. He has reacted to this poorly, becoming agoraphobic, which he hides with phony claims of back pain, growing an unkempt beard and staying in the clothes he wears for weeks at a time. He rents out his childhood home to a variety of tenants. There is Baylor Phebe, the portly older gentleman who is trying his hand at acting who becomes one of Francis’ best friends, the artist, Harriet, who is working on a complex art project that requires nude black male models and Francis, the Bunches, former circus performers whose missing daughter is the driving force behind Francis’ need to change, and the distant Bob Blubaugh, who is taking up residence in Francis’ basement. Others enter Francis’ home as well, like Manserd, the detective who is investigating the disappearance of the Bunch’s daughter, who treats Francis like something of an idiot, Glose, one of Francis’ former band mates, who lies to Baylor and Francis, eats his food and gives him a bed bugs and finally Emily, Baylor’s daughter, recovering from her own romantic betrayal who becomes a mirror to Francis’ suffering and one of the most likely people to help him truly recover. The book has some harrowing moments as well, like what Francis eventually has to do to get rid of his friend Glose and a climactic tornado that rips through Pollard near the end, but this book is a rather quietly engaging story of a life in pieces and the strength and courage it takes to try and put them back together.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Review: " Swan Song" by Robert McCammon

I think it must be really hard to write a novel about the end of the world. There are certain beats you must hit no matter what, and most of what you encounter in them has been seen before. It may make for an interesting read, but I’d argue, at least from the knowledge I have gathered myself, that some of these books are not very rewarding. For every book like The Stand, you get something like this, Robert McCammon’s Swan Song, a book that shares a bit of the former’s reputation, but at least to me, shares none of its quality. From its dry opening to a rather confusing and disengaging final third half, this book made me feel empty after finishing all 856 pages of it, and even with a few scenes that piqued my interest, this book felt like one prolonged dud to me. The opening does little to help at first, although I applaud the humanizing of the US president in the face of world, the dull discussions contrasting nicely with his inner panic as countries threaten to bomb one another. Predictably, they do, and the few survivors, predictably, have to start life over, one of whom, named Swan, as a special power that allows her to bring things back to life. Her story is the most interesting because it involves a friend she makes named Josh, who is a wrestler, and an incident in a K-Mart that is the nightmarish highlight of this book. But in the second half, and a jarring time jump, this book totally lost me, becoming more like Lord of the Rings than The Stand. Some people like that, but it really isn’t my cup of tea. The climactic battle between a rogue army and the few good survivors is a letdown, along with the sappy ending. I liked McCammon’s novel The Five quite a bit, and am surprised at how plain this book is, and how disappointing it ultimately was. 
Rating: 3/5

Monday, November 16, 2015

Review: "Soil" by Jamie Kornegay

Soil, writer Jamie Korengay’s debut novel, can’t help but feel like the spiritual cousin of Michael Ferris Smith’s fantastic novel, Rivers. It shares its same sense of impending doom, the eerie, pseudo-apocalyptic setting, and one’s man’s world that is painfully filled with living ghosts (although it’s time and place might make it a prequel rather, with Jay Mize being what Cohen of Rivers was before he lost everything). But I feel Smith’s novel is the superior one, although I found myself enjoying a lot of what this book offered, and it was never, ever boring. It shares more with the work of Larry Brown than a writer like Daniel Woodrell or the aforementioned Smith. It is more about a unique place then it is about plot or narrative, and with that comes a few problems that keep this book from being great instead of good. The story begins with an unknown forests dweller, relaxing with his dog in flooded farmland of Mississippi. He goes out in the water to cool off, and witness his dog, almost as unkempt as he is, get shot by an unnamed man. The story shifts focus to Jay Mize, who lost his savings and his family to his now ruined farmland. He finds a body on his land, and in his attempts to cover it up; he of course, makes things worse. We also see his wife and son, try to make ends meet, by her teaching and subsisting on trash TV to dull the pain of uncertainty. But my favorite character here is Deputy Danny Shoals, who is Kornegay’s best creation here. He starts out as a Lou Ford/Nick Corey cop gone insane, but as we find out more about him, at least for me, the feelings shift from fear, to disgust, to finally pity, which is a much more interesting journey to watch than Jay’s, who seems to just be swimming in a pool of misery and paranoia. There isn’t a lot of bad things I can say about this book, as I said, it is well-paced, very realistic, and while a little too much ambiguity (minus a swell ending) is laid too thick, it rarely interrupts with the flow of a engaging story.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: "The Scarlet Gospels" by Clive Barker

On a sentence by sentence basis, Clive Barker’s return to horror The Scarlet Gospels is fantastic. Barker has always been a master at taking the grotesque; the violent and the aberrant and making it seem not only pretty and beautiful, but sexy as well, as strange as it is to say that. I recall fondly reading through his first volume of the Books of Blood and being hypnotized by each dark tale Barker weaved, each one producing different feelings I wasn’t used to having when reading horror stories. And that brings me to my major point, which is that I think I much prefer his short stories to his novels. They are long for stories, but they are just the right size. It is pretty evident when reading this novel or his first novel The Damnation Game that his longer narratives can get a bit exhausting and quite convoluted. The story begins like only a Barker story can, with lots of blood and guts and the weirdest violence you can imagine. The surviving members of a cult of powerful magicians are slowly killed after they try to resurrect their dead leader from a mausoleum in New Orleans. The Hell Priest, who is Pinhead from the iconic Hellrasier horror franchise, interrupts them. He kills all but one, who he makes his slave as he goes back to Hell. Meanwhile, Harry D’Amour, the detective from Barker’s movie Lord of Illusions, finds the puzzle box and comes into cataclysmic conflict with the Hell Priest, being forced to travel to the underworld with a small group to save one of his friends. Harry is a great character, and carries this story through many of its stiffer moments. He is the down home voice of reason among this crazy confusing world, and he makes this book very fun. I think most would agree that this book loses steam once it gets to Hell, which is rendered very ham-handedly and is almost comical. The book finishes strong though, with an epilogue that is appropriate and earns its use of sentiment. If you can stomach some of the violence, and like your horror stories with a dollop of the weird and bizarre, this book, and most of Barker’s books, will satisfy you.

Rating: 4/5

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review: "Delicious Foods" by James Hannah

Delicious Foods, the second novel by writer James Hannaham, is an astonishing achievement of the imagination, and for sure the most unique book I have come across this year. I try not to let arbitrary qualities like race or gender guide my reading ways, but this year had a trio of novels written by black men that were all very original and got me excited. The first one I read was Paul Beatty’s fourth novel, The Sellout, a funny, raucous book that is both tragic and hilarious, and well worth checking out. The second book was Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. It’s a little too clean and places its feet sloppily on to sides of a wide spectrum, but was far from a bad book. The third one, this one, is easily the best, channeling such writers as Daniel Woodrell, whose blurb on the back of the hardcover persuaded me to buy it, and oddly enough, Joe R. Lansdale, whose home town of Nagadoches, Texas is named dropped at one point. But really, Hannaham is very much himself within these pages, using the framework of a Southern gothic novel to drop the reader into an unrelenting nightmare of loss, drug addiction, slavery and the will and courage to move on from your mistakes and not let them define you. To add to these heavy themes is a dark as night sense of humor, elegant yet dirty prose, and a narrative device that sounds cheap and gimmicky when reading about it, but works to elevate this book to great heights. The book opens with a brutal prologue that flashes forward past the events of the book, which shows Eddie, after escaping the Delicious Foods farm, minus both of his hands, trying to live his life as a handyman without hands. We then meet his mother Darlene, a drug addict reeling from the brutal murder of her husband, as well as a younger Eddie, trying his best to understand this world he has found himself in. Darlene, under the lie that she was getting a job, is kidnapped by woman named Jackie, and sent to work on a fruit farm filled with addict like herself and are paid in small wages, most of which is spent on drugs. Eddie, still young, is determined to find her, and from there the book becomes more nightmarish as things escalate. A lot of the details I won’t spoil, but I was enthralled most of the way through by Hannaham’s profane yet intimate prose and characters who are honestly depicted, even if they aren’t honest with themselves. The narrative device I mentioned concerns Hannaham giving a voice to the drug Darlene is addicted to. Instead of coming off as goofy, the drug is both a devil on her shoulder steering her in the wrong direction, a God and, most sadly, her only real friend. From its brutal scenes, the high point being the amputation, to the terrifying implications of these sad souls and the obstacles they overcome to find redemption, this book is a true underrated treat of 2015, and I really hope more people come around to it. 
Rating: 5/5

Friday, November 6, 2015

Review: "Reunion" by Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard, who impressed me with her debut novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, does the same thing with her second novel, the family drama, Reunion. I had some qualms about giving this book my highest rating. It has a few cheap moments and a few unoriginal passages, and doesn’t mine any new ideas from the rich genre of the family novel, but ultimately, what charmed me about it was the characters and the setting, and how real and honest they were, and what might be my favorite narrator I have come across through this year’s readings. In its familiarity, it becomes weirdly engaging as it shows a long fractured family coming together in the wake of their dad’s suicide, and we, as readers can’t wait to find out how everything resolves itself. It is a relatively short book; being a shade under 300 pages, but has a large cast of characters and hanger-ons. Some are bound to fall by the wayside or get lost in the shuffle once things get moving, but it is anchored by the three central siblings, one of whom is the aforementioned narrator, who shine so brightly in their words actions, and in the case of the narrator, thoughts, they can’t help but illuminate those around them who we as readers don’t know much about and are just passing through the greater action of the novel. The narrator I keep bringing up is Kate Pulaski, a screenwriter teaching in Chicago, who gets a call when her plane lands letting her know that her estranged father has just killed himself. This news, along with mountains of debt and her failing marriage (for reasons I will get to) forces her inward, which creates problems for her two loved siblings, Elliot and Nell, as well as Sasha, their father’s fifth and final wife, who is about the same age as Kate. She flies down to Atlanta to arrange the wake and the funeral. While down there, she makes many contradictory mistakes, betrays her family and finally tries to make sense of her crumbling life. Kate is the most fascinating narrator I have seen in a while. She is someone filled to the brim with arrogance, hypocrisy and immaturity. She despises her dad for his unfaithful ways, but she herself destroyed her marriage to Peter, a man she truly loves, for a sad fling. She condescends to Mindy, her half-sister through Sasha for her naiveté, but has flights of fancy involving Matt Damon. She loves her two siblings, but makes a terrible mistake when one is in need. But she wins our hearts by the end, through the little bit of light that begins to shine through in the family’s time of need and her brutally honest recognition of all of her shortcomings. In the end, its’ the reader is not to sure if she can save herself, but there is no doubt that she means well. For all its dreariness, this book made me feel full of joy, the kind of feeling all good books can and should, provide for eager readers.

Rating: 5/5

Review: "Arts & Entertainment" by Christopher Beha

From its colorful humorous cover to even its somewhat wacky plotline, I was not prepared for the dark story that lay within Christopher Beha’s sophomore novel, Arts & Entertainment. It doesn’t cover any new ground or lets us know anything we don’t already know about the prevalence of celebrity culture and the idea that fame equals success, but it does so brutality and without remorse. It happens quickly and effectively after the main character’s fatal decision made out of desperation, and I was surprised how enveloping and affecting it was as the story progressed to absurd heights. Some will be turned off by it, and I do admit it happens too quickly, the feelings I have about that I will talk about later, but there is something at the heart of this novel that is very truthful, even though it does not speak to the greatest humanity as to offer. The main character is failed actor and drama teacher Eddie Hartley, who harbors deep feelings of self-loathing for his inability to be a successful actor. To make matters worse, his wife, Susan, cannot get pregnant, and they don’t have the funds to have a test tube baby. He finds what he thinks is the answer, when one of his former friends puts him in touch with a nefarious owner of a TMZ like website, so he can sell a sex tape he made with his ex-girlfriend, who is now a big TV star. He makes the sale, and soon his life becomes a funhouse of paparazzi, half-truths, no truths and total annihilation of what he holds dear. As I said, the change in tone happens rather quickly, and I feel it holds a lower opinion of the general public than I’m comfortable with, but it balances this out with a personal story of Eddie as he tries his best to improve his life. It’s an emotional story for sure, with an ominous ending that ends this book on a positive note for reader, but maybe not for the characters. It’s something you’ve for sure seen before, but it is done very well and with a lot of heart. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Review: "Sag Harbor" Colson Whitehead

If anything, Colson Whitehead is a rather interesting and varied writer. He can give his readers something like Zone One, a zombie apocalypse novel that is more than a little over written or something like John Henry Days, which is something of a mini-masterpiece and for sure the most interesting book on race and American history outside of anything that Walter Mosley has written. His books vary in quality, but the element of the unexpected is something you are likely to always get when you pick up one of his novels. His coming of age novel, Sag Harbor is no different. It has a unique premise set in a unique culture, but I hate to admit that it doesn’t come together smoothly, being a little too self-aware at times and way too eager to make certain pop culture references. But I found it quite funny, I am glad to say. It centers on a privileged black kid named Benji Cooper, who, along with his younger brother Reggie, spend their summers in the eponymous town, which has a large community of kids the same age, race and class of Benji and his family. The typical coming of age tropes occur, like brushes with the law and first love, and a few funny scenes involving Benji’s job at an ice cream store, and the fragile shelf life of the product he is selling. But a lot of this has been done before and doesn’t offer any kind of lasting impression once you finish the book. Besides Benji and his brother, none of the characters are fleshed out, and it doesn’t help matters that there are so many of them.  For a writer like Whitehead, books like this are expected: experiments that don’t produce great results despite an intense effort and aggressive originality. It’s comes with the territory, and my eagerness for what he comes out with next is in no way diminished. 
Rating: 3/5

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Review: "City on Fire" by Garth Risk Hallberg

A book with not only the size and scope, but the hype of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut wrist dislocater City on Fire, has some mighty big shoes to fill. Already, I can see some reviewers giving this book a bad review simply because of how popular it is and how lucky Hallberg got with its $2 million dollar advance. In contrast to that, I can see it going the exact opposite direction, where reviewers are a little too kind to this book, ignoring some of its more glaring flaws and hailing it a masterpiece. I find myself more on the latter’s side, since I loved this book quite a bit, in all its maddening glory, but I have to be the first to admit that there are some aspects of this 911 page novel that some people will be utterly turned off by, and as one reviewer put it, it’s a novel that is doomed to sit on the shelf next to books like Infinite Jest and 2666 as books that are never going to be finished. Luckily, it is a little bit more mainstream than that, having more in common with the books of Donna Tart than David Foster Wallace or Roberto Bolano. To me at least, this book was a joyous, intricate tome filled with equal parts uphill battles of plot and character and rewards that are grand enough to take the reader’s breath away. The book has about, off the top of my head, five or six central characters, and a plot that centers on a shooting outside Central Park on New Year’s Eve and ends with the citywide blackout on July 13th 1977. We are first introduced to William Hamilton-Sweeny, a sire to one of New York’s most famous families with a brutal backstory, and his boyfriend Mercer Goodman, a transplant from the South who wants to be a writer, who suffers through William’s almost psychotic imbalances of commitment and dishonesty. In the same town, Charlie Weisberger and Samantha Cicciaro, two best friends, knee deep in the burgeoning NYC punk scene, and William’s sister Regan and her husband, Keith Lamplighter, who are both rocked by Keith’s infidelity and the federal charges the family company faces. How these seemingly unconnected souls interact, intertwine and sometimes collide with one another, as well as a number of others, is the true joy of this book lies. This book as many revelations, and when they come together across hundreds of pages, I felt the kind of elation that comes with reading books big of size and heart like this one. Some people will find plot very convoluted and some of the sentences Hallberg uses too dense to enjoy. But the positives here massively outweigh the negatives. This is a book whose weight and heft are earned and likewise reward the reader’s patience. It’s a novel showing the complexity of everyday life, how connections are made we are not always aware of, and how we are never as alone as we think. For me at least, this book most definitely lives up to the hype. 
Rating: 5/5