Saturday, April 30, 2016

Review: "Arkansas" by John Brandon

When one of the more interesting aspects of a reading experiences is counting the number of grammatical and syntactical flubs on the page (to be fair, there were a few that were quite glaring to me, but they didn’t affect the book’s quality, or lack thereof), you know that the book your reading is not very good. John Brandon’s first novel Arkansas, feels like the novelization of one of those poor mid-90’s rip offs of Pulp Fiction, where over the top violence and lazily disjointed narrative structure cover up, or attempt to cover up for the lack of heart and creativity at the center of the story. It tries to be original by using a strange device that I will describe later, but it can’t hide the fact this book is simply a rather lousy version of a story I have seen done much better in other novel, such as Willy Vlautin’s The Motel Life and David Joy’s Where All Light Tends to Go, to name a few. The three main characters, Swin, a college dropout with a history of disciplinary problems, Kyle, a young man who seems drawn to a life of crime on the surface, lacks a killer instinct, and Johanna, the one-dimensional token woman in all of these stories. Spliced in between their story of who they get tangled up in murder are mysterious vignettes, told in second person, about a figures rise through the ranks of the backwoods crime world. These have a strange intimate quality to them, even when blood starts to flow. But all that can’t make up for what an absolute dud this story turned into as it unfolded, from its poor characters and dialogue to its rather unhappy ending, if you like stories of this ilk, there are much better places to start. 

Review: "The Line of Beauty" by Alan Hollinghurst

Alan Hollinghurst’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Line of Beauty is a book filled with awkward dinner parties, joyless gay sex and passions and desires a hair out of reach of those seeking it. It has been compared favorably to The Great Gatsby, so much so that the book’s main character is named Nick. It is very much inspired by that book, and to its detriment, standing on its shoulders as well. It is a very well-written piece, bringing a kind of sad eloquence to the moral squalor of British 80’s decadence, framed by the two elections that brought Margaret Thatcher to power. But besides that, it doesn’t offer anything too original to a tired retread besides a rather well-crafted and breathtaking edifice. Broken up into three parts across the 1980’s, the book follows Nick Guest, a quasi-closeted gay youth living with the affluent and politically connected Fedden family. Nick has a crush on the son, Toby, a close relationship with Catherine, who suffers from bipolar disorder, and sees the parents, Rachel and Gerald as surrogates. More meandering than the Fitzgerald novel, in the three parts, it focuses on the passions of Nick, which tend toward the carnal. He first meets Leo, an older black closet case, through a lonely hearts advertisement, and develops his first strong romantic connection, bookended by a romp in a neighbor’s yard and a fatalistic showing of Scarface. The next two sections sees Nick’s relationship with Wani, a former classmate, rise and fall over the course of two years as the AIDs crisis intensifies. I liked the lighthearted touch this book has, where even scenes of despair, like most of the last section, have the same dreamlike whimsical quality to them as the famous scene where a drunk and high Nick dances lewdly with Thatcher herself. Hard to follow sometimes but never boring, this is a rather intimate novel of big ideas, themes and events. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Review: "The Throat" by Peter Straub

Peter Straub, over the course of his long career has slowly but surely gotten under the skins of horror fans with his quasi-horror, quasi-mystery stories that leave a profoundly unsettling mark on readers. I read A Dark Matter a few years ago, and found it a haunting story about monstrous deeds and the sometimes physical demons that can arise from the past. Over the past three years, I have read all three of his Blue Rose books, from Koko, a book I didn’t really like all that much (although I feel it is going to be the book I reread next year) to Mystery, which was a bit too strange to be really, really good, but I did not expect something quite as good and as engrossing as The Throat, the last and longest of three rather long novels. First, I do not think that it is completely necessary to have read the two other books before reading this one. You will find a few sly references, but nothing too major or distracting will be lost if you choose to read this one first (also, at the beginning, it explains pretty well what connects all three books). Having gotten that out of the way, this book matches its intensity with its intricacy, its horror and gore with dread-filled set-pieces and moments of palpable disquiet. You will want to read some passage in the day time for sure. The novel’s narrator is Tim Underhill, a writer with a dark past that includes his sister’s murder and two brushes with evil in the jungles of Vietnam who finds himself in something of a crisis as he tries to finish his new novel. His visions of his past as well as detailed hallucinations almost force him back into the bottle. He gets a call from an old friend of his, John Ransom, who still lives in his home town of Millhaven, Illinois. He calls to tell him that his wife was severely beaten by an unknown assailant, a crime which may have something to do with the town’s infamous Blue Rose murders, which have supposedly been solved for year. Tim had written a novel based on the events, and John feels Tim is the key to solving the mysteries the town still holds onto. Bur when he arrives, Tim is swept up in powers beyond his, and everyone else’s control, with both his past and the past of the town itself sneaking up behind him, ready to destroy everything. Straub is a master of mood, much like Lovecraft, with scenes in darkly lit basements, wooded areas, and a memorable one on a fog-filled suburban street. They leave you on edge, and linger in your mind long after you have finished reading them. Along with that, I was impressed by how complex the plot turned out to be. It was exhausting at times keeping track of details, but it was always interesting and exciting, especially in the books final pages and its final lasting creepy revelation. This is long, involving read for sure, but one rich in wonder and intelligence from one of America’s masters of the macabre. 
Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Review: "Big Machine" by Victor LaValle

Simply put, reading Victor LaValle’s imaginative novel Big Machine has been one of the most pleasant literary journeys I have taken this year, and it will be a hard act to follow. Reading through it I couldn’t help but be reminded of the times I first read Haruki Murakami, some of the best books by Stephen King and even recent authors like James Hannaham and James Renner. It perfectly balances many different genres of writing, beginning with the dreary world of our wonderful narrator, and slowly but surely, and with the upmost confidence, sliding down this strange rabbit hole of secret societies, ancient voices and the possible end of the world. And like most stories like this, the otherworldly elements hide deep real world meanings of the rough road to redemption, the weight of responsibility and the strange, often tenuous connections we make when we are at our lowest and someone, or in this case, something reaches out from the aether and offers us a hand. Ricky Rice, are delightful, if not always smart narrator is a porter at a New York bus stop, when he receives a piece of mail (of which he drops accidently onto the disgusting floor of the bathroom he is cleaning) that contains a bus ticket to Vermont and a note reminding him of a promise he made in Cedar Rapids Iowa in 2002. He doesn’t so much like the job he has, but it does offer him a fresh sense of stability, and when you learn about his past as the only survivor of a religious cult run by three morally ambiguous sisters and what made him make that promise in 2002, you will know why. He reluctantly takes the trip to Vermont, and finds when he gets there a series of cabins a large library, as well as a group of seven other people, all of which share two things in common: all of them are former addicts at one time, and all three heard “the voice” when they were at their lowest points. Run by a raisin-like short tempered diminutive man everyone calls “the Dean”, and Lake, his seven foot opposite, Ricky learns the origin of the voice, and the importance of his new mission, which involves flying out to California, and killing a dissident member of the group. The book’s weirdness factor is through the roof, but LaValle keeps everything grounded with down to earth emotional core that never falters even when you think it might. I’d compare it easily to Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, with the Vermont cabin, and the tunnels Ricky and Adele, his partner sent with him find both being inspired by that novel’s intertwining narratives, as well as the true horror of those tunnels reminding me not so suitably of the  sewers in Stephen King’s It. But ultimately this is a book of hope, squeezed out of the worst kinds of situations, or bitten away by bobcats that may or may not be there, and how strange and beautiful our world can be when we take full notice of it.  
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Review: "The Piano Teacher" by Elfriede Jelinek

The Piano Teacher, the most famous novel by Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek is a more entertaining and decidedly more pleasant affair than the only other book of hers I have read, Wonderful, Wonderful Times, but that doesn’t mean it is anywhere near a happy book. In fact, it is filled with despair, as a forbidden relationship goes from something unhealthy to downright horrific. More so than Wonderful, Wonderful times, which I’m thinking now might just be a low quality book, this novel really shows Jelinek’s talent, fleshing out the three central characters as much as possible over the course of the books rather long 280 pages, with many interior dialogues as well as drawn out scenes of lovemaking that I found quite titillating. Whether that is a miscue of me or the book itself, I really don’t know. The central character out of the three is Erika, an over the hill music teacher whose relationships, especially with her mother, tend toward deviancy and masochism, evidenced by the opening scene where her mother brutally berates her for buying a dress, only to take all of it without reaction, and keep the dress hidden along with all the others she buys and never wears. When she is away from her home, she purposefully carries big instruments on the train with her, so they will bump into the other passengers; she spies on couples having sex, and goes to peep shows. One of her students, the attractive Walter, catches her eye, and they begin a relationship based on her abuse, which is thinly veiled expression of her masochism. You never fully hate Erika, because of all the abuse she lobs at Walter and those around her, the one she hurts most is herself, whether its physically as she cuts herself, or emotionally, like the last 50 pages, where all three’s desire and selfishness causes an explosion of violence and sadness. Bleak, for sure, but undeniably interesting.  
Rating: 4/5

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Review: "The Shotgun Rule" by Charlie Huston

Not one month ago, I reviewed Scott Frank’s debut novel Shaker, and said that it was the most purely entertaining novel I have read in quite a while. That I have read an equally entertaining and unique crime thriller like Charlie Huston’s The Shotgun Rule, I consider myself very lucky. It is sometimes hard to review these books, because I tend to keep repeating myself when I say how good they usually are, but I will do my best. With a glowing recommendation from Stephen King, who came to mind while reading this, this book feels like a version of his novella The Body if it was written by an urban Joe R. Lansdale. It is a bleak coming of age story about four friends whose innocent fun (if you can call drugs and drinking innocent fun) turns dark and violent when a simple mission to retrieve stolen property leads them down the rabbit hole of murder and buried family secrets. One of Huston’s best talents is his ear for dialogue. This story takes place in the early 80’s, and these kids, equal parts na├»ve and overly confident all seem realistic and three dimensional even as secrets are uncovered that take the story into fantastical places. Along with the setting of Northern California, which, along with subject matter, kept reminding me Ryan Gattis’ brilliant 2015 All Involved, you get a bracing, breakneck narrative that goes to some very dark, unexpected places. The four friends at the center of this novel are brothers Andy and George, their loudmouth friend Paul, and aspiring punk rocker Hector. Each has a base affection for one another, but you can tell their relationship is one based on pure convenience. So when Andy’s bike is stolen by a young Mexican hood, they all band together in an attempt to get it back, an action that not only puts them in the crosshairs of the young hoods two scary older brothers, but also bags them a large stash of meth and some cash. Over the next two days, the two brothers are arrested, and as Paul, the one who stole the drugs tries to sell it off, it not only drags him and his friends into this maelstrom of violence but also his unstable dad and Andy’s and George’s as well, who has hid his past from his sons quite well until the fateful night that they are in danger. It is quite easy to compare this to The Body: Andy is Gordy, George is Chris, his wiser counterpart, Paul is Teddy, the loose cannon with father issues, and Hector is Vern, the wild card of the story, and Geezer, an old fat man with criminal pull, is a much scarier version of Ace Merrill. But the dark sense of humor and the overall despair of the book sets it apart, especially from it’s exciting and unexpected climax to its sad denouement, where things are simply too broken to fix and nothing was going to stop it from happening. 
Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Review: "The White Boy Shuffle" by Paul Beatty

Much like he did with his latest novel, last year’s The Sellout, Paul Beatty, with his first novel, The White Boy Shuffle, gives us a thrilling and sometimes chaotic novel that uses side-splitting humor to dissect sensitive racial issues. Beatty is among a group of contemporary black authors who seem to be taking cues from writers more like Walter Mosley than Richard Wright, providing stories that are unique and grab your attention long enough to thrill you and make you think about the sad ideas they present through a sometimes humorous and sometimes horrifying lens. Book’s like Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, T. Geronimo Johnson’s Welcome to Braggsville and possibly the best example I came across last year, James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods immediately came to mind while reading this novel. While The Sellout is more mature than this novel, with the protagonist here, young Gunnar Kaufman being a younger version of the unnamed narrator in The Sellout, I feel I will remember this novel a bit better. As I read on, laughing and crying in equal measure, I was a bit stunned that one author I kept recalling was none other than Chuck Palahniuk, with this hapless, overly intelligent under motivated central character being very similar to the ones in Survivor and Lullaby from all those years ago. But besides those comparisons, all totally subjective, this book stands on its own for its themes and the original way they are presented. At the beginning of the novel, we watch as Gunnar Kaufman, a black kid more at home on the beach than in the ghetto, struggles to find his place amongst his family and friends, all trying to push him in directions he doesn’t want to go in. His parents are divorced, with his dad being a cop and his mom being horribly misguided, devising a ghoulish plan to move him and his two sisters from the suburbs and into the ghetto. He has two main friends, Scoby, an amateur black revolutionary and Psycho Loco, a local hood who really earns his name and eventually a mail-order bride from Asia. He finds something akin to solace in his gift for writing poetry and his skills on the basketball court, each of which, as he gets older, bring with them mixed feelings of satisfaction and wanting, leading to personal loss and very public fame for Gunnar. The story is quick, and it is made even quicker by Beatty’s prose and dialogue, which are heavily influenced by his time as a slam poet, and gives everything a hyper realistic sense of some crazy truths we can’t quite put our finger on. Kaufman, like the man in The Sellout, refuses to be defined by his race, which makes him something of a target for those who he meets who are actually racist and those of his own who use race as a crutch to avoid responsibility. Whether this book offends you or enlightens you, it is a very entertaining and alive introduction to very impressive modern writer. 
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Review: "A Personal Matter" by Kenzaburo Oe

The problem I have with A Personal Matter, the short novel by Nobel Laureate Kenzaburo Oe is the same problem I had with Yukio Mishima’s Temple of the Golden Pavilion a few years ago: it tells an ugly story, and it’s lack of any kind of humor makes it that much more ugly, and therefore, a rather unpleasant reading experience, no matter if it is good or well-written, both which I’d say are. But this book makes Mishima’s novel look like a children’s cartoon, and will probably share a cozy, dark spot in my brain next to other books that fundamentally bothered me and turned my stomach, like Jack Ketchum’s Stranglehold and Joyce Carol Oates’ Zombie (pretty diverse company, I must say). The story begins on the urban streets of Japan, as a man named Bird stumbles from one venue to the next. He runs into a tranny prostitute who offers him sex, a few retail clerks who want to help, and gets into a fight with a gang of young hoods, who meet his confrontation with disgust instead of the desire physical violence. We find out in the next chapter that he has just given birth to child with a brain hernia, which means it will either die soon or live life as a total vegetable. This causes him to lose all control. He gets fired from his job, and for most of the novel he shacks up with Humiko, a girl from his youth who has become a prostitute. Bird’s early life is exposed as well, and to say it does not endear him is a massive understatement. From its ghoulish climax to it’s depressing, and infuriating ending, this is a dark, humorless book that offers no joy or even clarity. It’s a novel of great power and insight, I won’t take that from it, but it’s not something I will look back in fondly and despite my rating, I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it.

Rating: 4/5

Friday, April 8, 2016

Review: "American Innovations" by Rivka Galchen

It is hard for me to believe that someone whose first novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, was so great could produce such a dismal follow-up, but American Innovations, the second book and first short story collection by author Rivka Galchen is certainly not the worst short story collection I have read, even this year, but it didn’t live up to what I thought it was going to be. I enjoyed her first novel, as I said. It has been a while since I have read it, but it’s themes about love and it’s sometimes slippery and concrete properties, all seen through this hard science fiction lens, really impressed me. But here, there is a lot of substance lacking in what could have been really good stories, if the main characters weren’t paper thin and all the same, and the stories moved past their cool, superficial exteriors. The first story, “The Lost Order” is actually pretty good. It begins with a woman, suffering from a recent mental malady, who puts what little she has left on the line to deliver a food order that was wrongly placed at her apartment. It accurately portrays the level of panic and hopelessness one reaches when a string of bad luck leaves them emotionally destitute. But after that, the stories vary in quality, from the passable title story, about a woman teaching overseas who grows a malignant breast on her side, to the downright disappointing story, “The Region of Unlikeness” , which has the premise of time travel, more specifically, the grandfather paradox, and goes absolutely nowhere with  it. The last story, “Once an Empire” about a woman’s furniture walking out on her, is cute and inoffensive, but still a highlight. This is a short book at only 175 pages long, but if you want a better representation of Glachen’s prowess, read her first novel, and you’d be smart to skip this one. 
Rating: 3/5

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Review: "Breaking and Entering" by Joy Williams

Joy Williams’ Breaking and Entering is a novel I have read dozens of times before, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth your time. It rarely sheds new light on its subject matter, but it follows the well-worn path with such grace and talent, your quick to forgive it for treading familiar ground. It is rather fragmentary novel with a loose plot, and it struggles some times to connect all the dots, so a lot of the minor details get lost in the shuffle. But the good and sometimes great thing is that some of those dots are magnificent and stand on their own without the need for backstory or context. These can be weird and slightly off-putting (not the best kind of book to read on a dark plane back to Indianapolis), but they also contain great reserves of beauty and empathy. The novel focuses on a couple, Willie and Liberty, two clean-cut vagrants who travel across Florida, break in to vacation homes that are unoccupied and live in them for a time before moving on. They interact with a wide variety of charming grotesque losers who share their sense of spacial displacement and societal uselessness, even if Willie and Liberty try to distance themselves from them, and eventually each other. As I said, these scenes are intriguing, but very off-putting, the best ones being at the beginning and the end, where they first meet Duane, an old lonely man finally happy to have someone to speak his weird ideas at, and finally Poe, easily the best character in this novel: an elderly female bodybuilder, also lonely, who asks inappropriate questions of the couple, and inundates them with her sad life story. The melancholy, pathos and humor of her speeches mix sublimely. Not the most cohesive novel you can find, but one with a lot of heart and deep knowledge and understanding of its maligned subject material. 
Rating: 4/5

Review: "The Cartel" by Don Winslow

Another Wrestlemania week has come and gone, and just like last year, I picked a real winner to take with me on the trip itself. The Cartel, Don Winslow’s sequel to The Power of the Dog, one of the very best books I read last year, is a stunning achievement. It’s passion, research and narrative skill shine on every page, and the story it tells is of the complexity and amorality of the drug war is of the very essence of good and evil: how one cannot exist without the other, and the sobering fact that most of the time they exist on opposite sides of the same spectrum instead of being two totally different abstract ideas. Taking place around five years after the events of The Power of the Dog, where Art Keller, at the cost of everything, finally put Adan Barrera behind bars, this 616 page novel takes place over ten years, and expands the world that we knew so intimately in The Power of the Dog. We meet a new faces in this burgeoning drug game from all rungs of the ladder, but a good portion of this book focuses on the journalists who risk life and limb to cover this story honestly, evidenced by the long, sad list of journalist who the book is dedicated to, who have been murdered or have disappeared. Like the first novel, this book doesn’t pull punches, and some scenes come off as absurd and some come off as deeply nightmarish, but it all seems painfully truthful coming from a writer like Don Winslow, whose deep wisdom and natural storytelling ability will have you in awe. It is 2005; Adan is in prison after Keller, luring him into a trap using his disabled daughter as bait, has put him in prison. Said daughter dies at the beginning, and he vows to kill Art Keller. Keller is trying to live peacefully, tending bees at a monastery. Soon, Adan has negotiated his way into a Mexican prison, where he rules like a king, and Keller is on the run, being pulled back into his old job when Adan escapes and he realizes he has to kill him. While Adan is building his empire back up, he faces a new threat as betrayal starts a civil war, and the Zetas, a brutal gang of enforcers, reek havoc on the city of Ciudad Juarez, and forces unlikely allegiances to made in order to stop the violence. The violence here can be staggering, like a scene later on, where a whole bus is taken hostage and forced to fight each other to survive, or the methodical killing of a police officer’s family. But there are great amounts of hope here to, like when the women of the city, led by Keller’s love interest, take a stand against what is happening, and the heroic death of a journalist who dies brutally, but puts a final nail in the cartel’s coffin. And the book ends on a note of breathtaking redemption that nearly brought me to tears. I won’t delve into the geopolitical aspect the novel presents, other reviewers will do that, this is a story of immense power and scope, imaginative and informative, intricate and memorable. This will be a hard act to follow for the rest of my reading year.

Rating: 5/5