Monday, December 28, 2015

Review: "Eileen" by Ottessa Moshfegh

This is quite a way to end 2015. Eileen, the first novel of writer Ottessa Moshfegh, is a haunting and rather entrancing novel detailing the inner life and eventual outer chaos of a young woman whose sad life is on the cusp of change. It is the perfect book for a lonely winter night, taking place during a cold New England winter in the mid-sixties, and presents a narrator who is fascinating, scary and highly sympathetic. The book, over the course of its 260 pages, slowly builds toward a rather malicious, if not entirely gob-smacking twist that lends the book a creepy vibe very reminiscent of Shirley Jackson or Flannery O’Conner. It takes a while for the book to finally get there, but the payoff is worth it. In that sense, it really reminded me of a book by Harry Crews called A Feast of Snakes, which only unleashes the madness literally in the final two pages. A point I want to get to that may be a bit controversial has to deal with the narrator, the wonderfully twisted Eileen. On one hand, she is not a foil, since she does what she does willingly, and she is neither a one-dimensional cipher for a feminist creed, which happens a little too often in female-centric fiction. She is something much more: she is a deeply flawed, deeply hurt human in a world that would sooner spit on her than give her the time of day, and when she finally fights back, it is something to behold, and to be terrified by. The person I’ve been talking about is one Eileen Dunlop, living in X-ville, (the name she gives the town), although I’d argue what she is doing is hardly living at all. She works a nightmarish job at a boy’s juvenile facility called Moorhead (another fake name), she lives with her alcoholic father, whose tiny jabs and verbal cuts are slowly driving her crazy, much more so after her mother died, and her only solace is in the sadomasochistic fantasies she has involving the men she works with, mostly with a guy a named Randy, and some of the boys incarcerated there. She is not a pretty girl: neither fat nor skinny, attractive or ugly, she is just rather plan, by her own accounts, and you’d hardly give her a nod if you passed by her. It reminds me a lot of Lou Ford’s awe-shucks socio-pathology in The Killer Inside Me, or, for a REALLY highbrow example, the character of Iris in Aki Kaurismaki’s The Match Factory Girl, of someone put upon finally seeking cruel vengeance. And what triggers that is the appearance of Rebecca, one of the facilities new teachers, who connects with Eileen in a way she is not familiar with, and involves her in a crime that will bring those simmering, toxic feelings to the surface and send her off in a new direction. The twist I read about in EW really wasn’t much of one, more of a scary revelation, but it didn’t hinder this book’s quality in the least. This is a truly disquieting, silent assassin of a book, one that introduces a strong new voice in fiction and one that will keep you up at night in the long winter evenings to come. 
Rating: 5/5

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: "Freedomland" by Richard Price

For the third year in a row, I pick up a book that I read at an earlier time, one that I feel I didn’t give a fair shake to the first time and has been bumping around in my brain ever since. The first time, I re-read Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and gave it my highest rating, and placing it among Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84 as three of his monolithic titles. Last year, I re-read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, and found it worse the second time, proving that the Southern Gothic setting is out of this talented writer’s range. This year, I’m glad to say, was a success, and after re-reading Richard Price’s Freedomland, as a smarter, more intuitive 27-year old, I can say, without a doubt it is his best book. I started thinking about it after Clockers floored me back in 2013. His dialogue is as good as anybody’s, and he crafts his settings carefully and brilliantly, setting up these fictionalized ghetto metropolises as a sort of mechanized version of hell on Earth, and the characters who find themselves stuck in it, whether through bad luck or their own sins, must find a way out of the spiritual and physical destruction that awaits them. Clockers is his most entertaining novel, but Freedomland, on my second reading, is his most urgent novel, the one most steeped in brilliant allegory and mixed emotions, using a story pulled from the headlines, and telling a story that is heartbreaking, intense and painfully true. I won’t get into a lot of the details, since I have read it already and reviewed it, but it is partly based on the Susan Smith case, where a woman drowned her kids and blamed it on a black man who didn’t exist. The details here a bit different, and Price uses them to look at how it affects two communities on the border of one another, separated by a mere streetlight, yet worlds apart. At the center of this tornado are Lorenzo Council, a grizzled detective tasked with investigating the crime, Brenda Martin, the woman whose child has been missing and a reporter named Jesse, whose motives walk a tightrope between good intentioned and brutally selfish. What struck me on this second reading that didn’t on the first was the vivid, intimate scenes between these fully developed characters, helped by Price’s masterful dialogue, which is rhythmic and truthful to the core, yet masks emotions when they need to be hidden. Scenes like Jesse grilling Lorenzo’s partner, Bump, on details with the promise of doing a positive story on his successful son, the talk she has with Brenda’s ex, who describes a date that ended in an act of unnerving desperation and the times Lorenzo must deal with the criminals and misguided community leaders who want to use this tragedy, and the lie at the heart of it, for political gain and a mandate to cause carnage, juxtaposed with an earlier scene where Lorenzo indicts the very same community for not speaking up when members of that community are killed by one of their own. This is a very sad book indeed, but one that moved me almost to tears on a second reading, delving deep into the American consciousness and the consciousness of every human being struggling with a world intent on eating itself, and what it takes to survive with your soul intact.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Review: "Where All Light Tends to Go" by David Joy

The debut novel of author David Joy, Where All Light Tends to Go, is exactly what I thought it would be when I picked it up. In the vain of Daniel Woodrell at his most brutal and Donald Ray Pollock without the ironic absurdity, this is a solid piece of Southern Noir, filled with sequences soaked with the sticky air of the places it is set and the blood of those who those who fall victim to it’s unforgiving landscapes. Right off the bat, the book gets the setting right. It is modern enough to where the story can be relatable as well as breathtakingly urgent, but there is enough mystery and foreignness for readers to feel the tension Joy is creating, and the hidden dangers that lie within the crevices of this place. My complaints are, there, but they are minor, and I will get to them eventually. The story begins as Jacob McNeely, a young man living in the woods of South Carolina, watches a group of kids graduating high school from the confines of a water tower. It is a very symbolic image to begin this story of cruel fates and lost hope. Jacob dropped out of high school to work under his dad, a ruthless and cold-blooded meth dealer. He is smart, for sure, but that is hidden by his almost neurotic passion to escape and his love for his ex, Maggie, who is destined to leave their small town and achieve success. After a brutal botched murder, one involving acid, Jacob finds himself at a great crossroads: he could follow his dreams, and Maggie, and make something of himself, and if he doesn’t, he may end up, or might as well be, dead. When this book works, it’s something to behold, like the aforementioned acid scene, the evil at the heart of Jacob’s dad, and the downbeat, defeatist yet well-written finale that took my breath away. Where the book may fall flat for some is in its lack of depth in the story department, and the cliché romance between Jacob and Maggie, complete with questionable dialogue. But that in no way distracts from what was a fun and entertaining story of redemption and the bloody paths that await some of those who dare to rise above their fates.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, December 18, 2015

Review: "The Great Forgetting" by James Renner

As if on cue, another author who lit my world on fire last year voids the sophomore slump and provides readers with the next levels of the burgeoning talent and wisdom. Last week, it was Steve Toltz’s Quicksand, this week; it is James Renner’s second novel, The Great Forgetting. Last year, I read Renner’s debut novel, The Man from Primrose Lane on a whim, and found it to be one of the most unique and moving novels I have read not only of that year, but also of any year, now that enough time has passed. It begins as a sort of super dark super gritty mystery of one man investigating two seemingly separate crimes becomes something much more, and has a twist I promise you won’t see coming. Not everyone will go along with it, but if you did, you were rewarded handsomely. This novel is just as good, and has just as many twists and turns that open up new layers in the narrative you didn’t think were ever possible. While The Man from Primrose Lane dealt with ideas of loss and the passage of time in a totally new way, Renner here is more focused on ideas of identity, sacrifice and the way forgetting some more unpleasant memories of our life will rob us of the lessons we learn, and ultimately, a more fulfilling life. I will try my best to avoid the big spoiler that most will realize around the 150-page mark. It is not as game changing as the one in The Man from Primrose Lane, but is just as important, and I will try my best to keep mum about it. The novel begins simply, with a lonely Ohio teacher, Jack Felter, comes home to his hometown of Franklin Mills to care for his father, who is in the deepest stages of dementia. While there, he reconnects with his sister Jean, who is a recovering addict with a young daughter named Paige and a girl named Sam, his first true love, who left him for his best friend, Tony. Tony has been missing for three years, and in a thinly veiled effort to win Sam back, he starts searching for what happened to Tony. This puts him in contact with a boy named Cole, who was one of Tony’s patients, and who has extremely paranoid delusions. Once Jack meets Cole, and he begins telling Jack to boil his water so he can tell him the Seven Impossibilities, things take a turn for weird, and it is a race against time for Jack to find out what happened to Tony and save the ones he loves, and the world itself, from forgetting what is important. What makes Renner so great is that these leaps in plot are never so jarring that they lose me, which is one of the reasons I’m not a big Sci-fi guy. What’s important is the human emotion at the heart of it, much like the work of Rod Serling, who is quoted at the beginning of each section, along with chapters being named after Twilight Zone episodes, like “To Serve Man” and “Five Characters in Search of an Exit” He spoon-feeds the more outlandish elements to you gradually, while never letting up on the character development and plot urgency, making for an intense, intelligent and inviting narrative that I bet you haven’t seen before. I hope James Renner keeps this up, because he is so damn good I’m almost speechless.

Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: "The Shore" by Sara Taylor

Sara Taylor’s debut novel The Shore shares a lot in common with David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, a book that is namedropped on one of the blurbs on the back of the book. It is a multi-generational, semi spiritual kind of epic based around one community on the shores of New England. I find Cloud Atlas, personally, to be a literary stunt with no real emotional merit. And I am disappointed to say that this novel is even below that, presenting a boring set of circumstances with flimsy characters and writing that really shows the writer’s faults and lack of experience. Taylor does get an A for ambition, with her attempt to pack as much mythology, ideas and tropes into the slim 303 page length, but then again, that really just adds to this books many, many faults, which made for an, I hate to say this about anything, an excruciating reading experience. The novel really focuses on the lives of people living on a group of islands just outside of the Chesapeake Bay area near Virginia. The novel shifts time periods quite frequently, going as far back as the 1800’s and going as far as 100 plus years into the future, in a scene that steals an alarming amount from a very similar section in Cloud Atlas. But it mainly focuses on a family throughout the mid half of the twentieth century, in which two of the sisters have the most fascinating section in the beginning, which is kind of  quality  murder investigation, even if the twist can be seen from miles away. Sadly, none of the other sections fare any better, even with the inclusion of a rape scene, that will you emotionally empty instead of repulsed. I don’t want to count Taylor out as a writer, but this book doesn’t leave the reader with a very good impression.
Rating: 2/5

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Review: "Quicksand" by Steve Toltz

Up until now, I was struggling to find a book by an author I had read before to top of my list of best books of the year, something to define 2015 on one side of my reading coin. I hate to admit it, but none of the books I had read, even the good ones, were something that I could put at the top of the list. I feel relieved and quite happy to be able to found a book like Steve Toltz’s second novel, Quicksand, to put at the top of that list. Last year, on my trip out East, one of the books that I brought with me was Toltz’s debut novel, A Fraction of a Whole, and like this year’s trip to California, it was almost ruined by an amazing book I kept coming back to, to the great annoyance of my companion. It’s scope, feeling like an Australian John Irving novel, and its boundless sense of humor charmed the pants off me. This second novel is no different, and might be a bit better actually. It’s shorten length makes the story tighter, the many crazy turns plausible and easier to follow, but it does not take away from the power of many of the surprises the book springs on us, which will make you laugh quite uncontrollably while shedding a few manly tears, almost always at the same time.  It all adds up to an experience that is both exhausting, but one of the most rewarding I’ve experienced all year. The focus of this novel is the hapless Adlo Benjamin, whose story is told through the eyes of his friend Liam, an okay cop and a shitty novelist. Liam tells of Aldo’s many crazy schemes to make money, which include rather esoteric business ventures and even, at one time, a failed zombie movie. He fails at all of these, but he never fails as hard as he does when it comes to his great love, Stella, whose life is constantly in flux with Aldo’s mostly for the worse. The story is structured out of order, focusing on Adlo now, a paraplegic, his early life, which involved a false rape accusation (when he was a virgin, no less) and his trial for a series of horrible crimes, all of which happened due to his own foolishness, or, as he says, his pathological bad luck. This book perfectly balances the darkness with the light moments, and it is bolstered by Toltz’s incredible wit and brave sense of humor. Even as Aldo fanaticizes about his suicide, which he attempts no less than three times during the novel, he never quite gives up on whatever silly dream he is pursuing. This is a very hopeful novel, putting a great amount of emotional stock in optimism and hard work, and the love, and in Aldo’s case, forgiveness, of the people you love. It was a true to joy to exist within the crazy confines of this book, and I can’t wait to read what Toltz concocts next.
Rating: 5/5

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Review: "Dark Rooms" by Lili Anolik

The debut thriller by Lili Anilok, Dark Rooms, is fill of many surprises, not the least of which is what it hides behind its glossy cover. It looks kind of corny, all black, overly dramatic font with a very colorful zebra-print lighter poking out of the bottom. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t, in anyway prepare you for the kind of story you are about to read, which has less to do with something like Gone Girl than books like Kelly Braffett’s Save Yourself and Scott Heim’s Mysterious Skin. Using what seems like simple crime; the murder of a young school girl whose murderer has apparently committed suicide, and uses it to tell a story of lost innocence, dark secrets hidden underneath the surface of family and social life, and the difficulty of forgiveness and the courage it takes to take that first step. It’s not perfect, but it provided and interesting journey. The prologue is tremendous, having so many twists and turns within just a few pages, it is boggles the mind and fills me with envy. The story focuses on Grace Baker, whose younger sister was the said murder victim in an upscale New England prep school. The case is solved, but Grace and her parents are left in ruins. She stumbles upon a clue as to what really happened, and it takes her on a journey that might totally destroy her. If this book has one flaw it is that Grace seems to be the only great character here, more fascinating than any of the others, and even the plot itself. Others shine, but only after a big reveal, one of which who’s cruelty and selfishness had me riveted (it’s not the one you might think if/when you read this). Bur by the end, I felt out of breath and oddly moved, as the best kind of crime thrillers do. I can’t wait to see what Anolik does next. 
Rating: 4/5

Monday, December 7, 2015

Review: "Bridge of Sighs" by Richard Russo

I expect many things when I read a novel by Richard Russo. Whether it is good, like his best books Nobody’s Fool and Mohawk, I get a warm and fuzzy glimpse into hardworking, rough living community that thrives on an undercurrent of mutual respect and dignity. When his books are okay, like Straight Man or The Risk Pool, I still feel all warm and fuzzy inside, in a totally earned way. But Bridge of Sighs is something of a different beats, and now that I have let 24 hours pass since reading it, I can forgive some of its lesser qualities. It is his longest book for sure, the paperback clocking in at a whopping 641 pages, and it tends to drag frequently, especially towards the end, in what I think the book’s big reveal is (not so is much an opinion but a theory I have on the narrative). But the book’s bright moments, which are numerous, make up for the book’s tedium. The main character, one of Russo’s typical brooding, weirdly named males, Louis Charles Lynch, nicknamed Lucy, has lived in the small upstate New York town of Thomaston all his life, for better and for worse. He loves his wife Sarah deeply, and runs a few successful grocery stores he inherited from his father. He is writing his life story, and in doing so, tries to reconnect with Bobby Marconi, known in the beginning as Noonan, a reckless but successful artist in Venice who left town and never looked back. The real treat in this book is the first few hundred pages, which are filled with vivid recollections of Lucy’s childhood with Bobby, from Bobby’s epic fight with the town bully, to a rather tragic fight with horrific racial undertones and violence matching the notebook scene in Straight Man. The books really falls flat toward the end, in the might-be reveal and the introduction of an unnecessary third narrator, but with Russo, at least for me, the experience is one that is never less than entertaining and enlightening. 
Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Review: "Against the Country" by Ben Metcalf

Ben Metcalf’s debut novel Against the Country can be described in many words. Enjoyable is one. It is quite fun to see a writer as talented as Metcalf use his skills in such a unique and profane way, slinging barbs of wisdom and poison at a fictional town that the book’s unnamed narrator has not only come to loathe but has become some otherworldly prison that not even distance and time can free him from. Another word that came to mind was maddening. This is a book with little structure, being less a linear narrative and more of a book on down home and gutter philosophy; it won’t be to everyone’s taste, if not for its density than certainly for its vulgarity, which is dished out in the book’s short digestible chapters, some no more than half a page long, and some of which are better than others. I’m struggling to figure out an entry point for such a confounding novel, but I will try my best. The narrator grew up in a county in Virginia called Goochland, whose funny name hides the darkness that the narrator sees all around him. His sister is a basket case as well as his mom, his brother once held up his school bus with a shot gun. His dad, what I take at least to be a literary scholar, is obsessed with J. D. Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and the suicide of its main character. But the details aren’t important, really, and this is an excuse for our hate-filled guide to corner the reader with stories of chickens, the brutal nature of his town trees, and his time in school, including one scene in his band class where he made his teacher vomit (I won’t say what it is here.) I guarantee this book will lose you in some parts that are a little too esoteric, but its pitch black sense of humor makes it really worthwhile if you want something different. 
Rating: 4/5

Review: "A Million Heavens" by John Brandon

I am sure that there is something coherent, and maybe even beautiful in John Brandon’s third novel, A Million Heavens, but I couldn’t find it and was left merely confused by the end, trying my best to connect the dots and make some sense out of the events, but failing to do so. A few years ago, I read Brandon’s novel Citrus County, a deep woods crime caper that was, along with John Sayles mammoth and brilliant novel A Moment in the Sun, a welcome change from what McSweeny’s usually puts out. This novel is much different than Citrus County and more in line with what McSweeny’s usual offering, for better and for worse, offering a very different reading experience but at the sacrifice of coherence, enjoyment and other qualities that make for an inviting and enjoyable reading experience. The setup is a bit convoluted at best, focusing on a teenaged boy in a coma, his suffering father as well as a group of people standing vigil outside his hospital, a woman recently reeling from her own loss, and a few figures, such as a wolf, a mayor and a gas station attendant that may or may not be of this world. In this sort of magical realist sense, it reminded me a lot of Chris Adrian’s weird but good novel The Children’s Hospital, another book published by McSweeny’s. And like that book, some of this book’s weirder elements get in the way, such as the unmentioned link between all of these people. I have an idea about some of them, but I’m not sure if they are correct enough to write about. This feeling kind of taints this book from a writer who still is of interest to me. It never falls flat and is never boring, a book’s greatest sin, but it teeters quite a bit, and left me scratching my head instead of feeling fulfilled. 
Rating: 3/5