Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Review: "Alice and Oliver" by Charles Bock

The best compliment I can give Alice and Oliver, the sophomore novel of writer Charles Bock, is that it is nothing like his first one, Beautiful Children. Where that one was a dreamlike odyssey into the lives of Las Vegas residents affected by the disappearance of a teenaged boy, this novel is much more grounded and focused although just at long being a smidge under 400 pages. Stylistically it is also a very different book, forgoing the jumbled hypnotic narrative of Beautiful Children for something a bit more conventional, and it is in this conventionality where the book fails, at least for me. It is hard to critique a book as personal as this, as evidenced by its heartbreaking afterword, but this book seems dim and derivative in the shadow of an amazing first book. As the title suggests, it concerns a New York City couple, Alice, a fashion designer and her husband Oliver, who works in the tech industry in 1993, seem to have built decent lives for one another: they complement each other and each one has something the other does not, which reveals itself after Alice’s sudden cancer diagnosis. The bulk of the novel deals with her attempts at getting affordable treatment, the financial burden falling solely on the head of an already stressed out Oliver. Alice, meanwhile, takes things in stride, forming odd yet lasting relationships with hospital staff and fellow cancer sufferers, one of which, Mervyn, a rock musician with an outlandish sense of humor, accounts for the funniest and saddest sections of the book. While I was never bored, I was never moved either, and found a revelation near the end about Oliver totally inappropriate and his character never recovers. But this is really Alice’s book, who becomes a fun and inspiring character, and the strongest and most positive aspects I will take from this novel. 

Rating: 4/5

Friday, November 25, 2016

Review: "Blackass" by A. Igoni Barrett

After reading the premise of Blackass, the debut novel of Nigerian short story writer A. Igoni Barrett I knew I had to check this novel out and was lucky enough to come across a copy of it all the way back in March of this year on my trip out to Dallas for WrestleMania. I regret letting it collect dust on my shelf for so long, because it is one of the smartest, funniest and most brutal looks at race and identity I have read all year and deserves shelf space with award winners like Paul Beatty’s The Sellout and James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods (which won the PEN/Faulkner Award this year, an award this novel, if my predictions for book awards continue to come true, is going to win that award or at the very least be nominated). It has a story that is immediate and original, milked for all its worth and leaving a lasting impression. Despite the first reaction to this crazy idea was, for me, to chuckle, I was blown away by how smart and sophisticated this book was. I knew very little about the place it takes place in, but after reading it, the place is as alive and fraught with menace as Marlon James’ Jamaica or even Bret Easton Ellis’ Los Angles: a place with a different set of rules, where time moves just a bit quicker and opportunities to advance are few and far between and are available only to those willing to stray far enough from their conscious. Finally, I can get to what this story is all about. It starts immediately, much like the short story it is based on. One morning, before an important job interview, Furo Wariboko, a black man in his thirties living in Lagos, Nigeria, wakes up to find that he has turned into a white man with green eyes and red hair. His situation doesn’t bother him as much as his obligation to get to his job interview, a quandary that is shared by Gregor Samsa as well. He escapes his house, borrows money of a gullible stranger and not only successfully makes it to the job interview, but finds himself being offered a different position than he was scheduled to interview for, one with a higher salary, benefits and his own office. Later that day, he meets Syreeta, a beautiful woman with a mission of her own, and they begin a tenuous relationship. Furo’s luck, which was bad even before his sudden change in pigmentation (despite the skin on his ass), continues to change for the better, but strange encounter on his first day brings with it it’s own sort of reckoning. The satire here is cutthroat as I said before, but not in the way that you think. Furo is able to advance so quickly not simply because of the color of his skin, which makes him stick out in a city like Lagos, but by other’s perception about him and what they think he can get for them, whether that be his bosses, Syreeta, whose intentions are somewhat revealed in a scene involving some of her friends, all of whom have white husbands and the man near the end who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. It’s ending is quiet and hopeful, but also inevitable and inescapable. This novel will be rattling around my head for a while for all the right reasons.

Rating: 5/5

Review: "Revival" by Stephen King

It has been about three years since I actually read a Stephen King novel. I listened to a few of his short stories and novels and audiobooks, some I had read before and some I had not, but I did not read them. And I think I made the right choice in reading his 2014 novel Revival, because while I don’t think it is his best work and it falls prey to some of his classic missteps, but it is surely his most original book since 11/22/63 and surely his darkest since Pet Semetary. I was told by one of my friends that this book was very Lovecraftian in nature, but I don’t really see that in execution. Tone for sure, but like all of his books it has a beating heart that was surely lacking from the cold and distant stories of H. P. Lovecraft. The book follows the life of Jamie Morton, born in 1955 or 1956, and his fateful connection with Reverend Charles Jacobs, a young and attractive pastor in Jamie’s small town. A few events entwine these two. The first is when he cures Jamie’s brother Conrad of his muteness using electricity. Soon after, Jacobs’ wife and son are killed in a freak car accident, and after a blasphemous sermon, he is banished from the town. The next time these two meet, Jamie is a travelling musician with a bad heroin habit. He finds the pastor on the carnival circuit. Jamie is cured of his addiction, but the black outs he is having force him to look into whatever door Jacobs has opened, and what dark path he is being drawn toward. What I found grating here was the more scientific stuff, which King never gets the hang of, at least for me, and when it takes the place of his more interesting human narrative, it acts as a rather impolite interruption. But this is still good stuff worth seeking out, with an ending a million times better than you’d expect. 

Rating: 4/5

Monday, November 21, 2016

Review: "Dodgers" by Bill Beverly

Dodgers, the debut novel of author Bill Beverly introduces an exciting new talent into the world of literary crime thrillers.  His effortless style and narrative capabilities are reminiscent of the greats that came before him like Richard Price, George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, but beyond that, bolstered by directions this story takes, I also found hints of writers like Daniel Woodrell, Frank Bill and even Larry Brown. These are two different classes of genre writers: they’re themes of failed redemption and inherited violence are the same, but the places said qualities come out of very different. It is a testament to someone like Beverly, especially with his first novel, to bridge these two classes of books in such a simple and direct way it is amazing something like this has not been done before. It flips a trope, the heroes journey into the darkness of the world and their own heart, on its own head, telling the story of four black youths, all under the age of 25, forced by their drug running boss, to journey out of their South Central Los Angles ghetto and travel halfway across the country to kill a potential witness. We witness this forceful and murky change of scenery through the yes of East; barely fifteen yet still harden by a life on the streets and under the tutelage of his uncle Fin, a successful drug dealer. In the book’s opening, he is watching over one of his uncle’s houses when he fails to alert those in charge of police raid. Because of this, a little girl on vacation is shot in the crossfire and dies in front of East. It is an incident that haunts him throughout the book in both metaphorical and possibly literal ways. This leads into the mission Fin sends East and three others on. Fin knows he is about to be arrested and his only chance of escaping the charge is if a judge can be killed. The only catch is that he is hiding out in Wisconsin. Fin wants East, as well as three other boys who work under him to drive there and kill him. What follows is a journey of discovery, both scary and transformative for the four involved. Beverly, much like his counterparts, recognizes the high tragedy in low people. These four, East, his trigger happy and psychopathic younger brother Ty, Michael Wilson, the oldest and least mature and Walter, overweight, ineffectual yet providing a much-needed balance to the proceedings, are overwhelmed more by the new world of trees, woods, open space and rural poverty, more so than they are of the dreaded task they must complete. The world they find themselves in is a world of possibility, of newness, of escape from their fatalistic vision of what life is like. Yet the deed they are there to follow through on will all but rob them of any kind of viable future. They can see how big the world is, but they are doomed to sheltered existence. A few twists and turns come about, which I won’t reveal, and the ending is one that is inevitable, but satisfying.
Rating: 5/5

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Review: "The Sport of Kings" by C. E. Morgan

Well, this was a total surprise. To say that C. E. Morgan’s debut novel All the Living did not wow me would be an understatement. It was a competently written novel that was a bit too flighty and over meditative, and almost five years after reading it in 2011, I don’t remember much about it. That is why her new novel, The Sport of Kings is such a refreshing surprise for me. This is a complex work that shattered my expectations, and I am happier for it. Through this microcosm of horseracing and horse breeding, Morgan deals with a number of relevant issues such as race, progress and our inherited sense of duty in a way that rarely gets old (I will talk about those few and far between times this book does get to be a little bit of a hassle) and builds upon the intricate structure the book lays out. It is a long book and as a reader I felt every bit of its 545 pages, but it was an enriching experience to go through. One of the things that make the book so long is how it is divided up. There are only six chapter breaks, five interludes and one epilogue, and while sometimes that can leave me breathless, which this book did at points, the story really warrants such leaps in skill and scope. The novel begins with Henry Forge, one of the book’s main characters. He is running from his hard-lined and racist father after destroying the property of one of his neighbors. The punishment is cruelly drawn out by John Henry to teach Henry a lesson. As this section moves forward we see the two obsessions that give Henry the will to live and will eventually destroy him: white supremacy and breeding horses, one of which is taught to him in eloquent and disturbing passages by his father and one that his father despises and forbids him to pursue. He does so, an act which symbolically kills his father. The next section concerns his daughter, Henrietta, who follows in her father’s footsteps all the while sleeping with as many men as possible in loveless, tawdry trysts. This leads to her sleeping with Allmon, the half-black, half-white employee whose sad life story takes up the third and best section of the book. Struck with case after case of bad luck, with dead relatives and prison sentences, Allmon comes to the Forge farm looking to start over, but is caught up in a series of events that are grand, otherworldly and deeply symbolic, all qualities this book exemplifies with style and grace. Sometimes this book is a bit too flighty, as I said before, with its interludes (not its haunting epilogue) being superfluous and more often than not stultify this book’s smooth hypnotic rhythm. They could have been excessed and the book would not suffer. But that is a minor issue for a book this rich in subtext and acute symbolism that carries the reader away on its back with heart stopping metaphors. 

Rating: 5/5