Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Review: "Fatale" by Jean Patrick Manchette

The most striking aspect of Fatale, the short novel by famous French crime novelist Jean Patrick Manchette is its action sequences. Like this and the other novel of his I have read, The Mad and the Bad, itself also very short and a rather successful long form action scene, the action is vivid and alive, with a great sense of place and what is happening around it. Even though this book is a bit murky when it comes to our female protagonists motivations (and at 90 pages, 98 with the Afterword, there isn’t a lot of time to figure them out), it still makes for an interesting and exciting read for the amount of time or the lack thereof, you spend with it. It begins with a rather striking scene of swift violence, as a hunter, after popping a squat, is intruded upon by a woman he is familiar with, who immediately kills him. In the next scene, the woman is washing the black dye out of her hair on a train bathroom, on her way to a small French town known as Bleville, which is loosely translated in Doughville or “Moneyville if you will. There, she entrenches herself in the town’s people and their conflicts, and at a party, she sees a man pissing on the side of the building, a man who becomes a perfect target for her bloodlust. There isn’t a lot of time spent on introspection, which is both to this book’s detriment and strength. You are interested in what is happening, but you are left out when it comes to identifying with anyone of them. During a pivotal scene, one right before the brilliant action scene, the woman reveals why she likes killing, but along with her fake name, we are left wondering if the story is even true. Climaxing in a stalk and kill scene with a bleak ending, this swift, borderline nihilistic novel will easily whet your appetite for carnage. 
Rating: 4/5

Monday, February 27, 2017

Review: "Bad Behavior" by Mary Gaitskill

A book like Bad Behavior, the debut short story collection from writer Mary Gaitskill, brings with it a lot of expectations and when it doesn’t meet them, it is even more disappointing than a book that I went into blind. This book’s claim to fame has got to be the adaption of one its stories into the cult classic Secretary. After reading that story and seeing that movie, I can say honestly that the movie is a lot better and has a lot more heart than these stories. The quality that struck me first was how ahead of its time this collection was. I didn’t feel like I was reading a book that was published at the tail end of the 1980’s, despite some of the subject matter dealing specifically with that decade. But besides that, I found most of these stories weak, one or two exceedingly dull, and the best of the bunch paling in comparison to the collections of today I kept finding reference with as I read. Gaitskill is best with only two central characters, like in the opening story “Daisy’s Valentine”, “A Romantic Weekend” and the best of the bunch, “Something Nice”, the collections saddest and most poignant offering. It is when she steps away from the misplaced passion of two broken people that she loses her grip, and stories like “Connection and the bloated “Heaven” are borderline stinkers. Most of these stories have echoes of writers today who have done it better, such as Otessa Moshfegh, Maryse Meijer, and to a lesser extent Lindsay Hunter and Amelia Gray. This collection, at the very least, gives me more than enough interest to check out what Gaitskill can do with a novel (especially her early ones), a journey I will am excited to be taking sooner rather than later. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Review: "4 3 2 1" by Paul Auster

If I had to pick five writers who had the most impact not just on my creative endeavors as a writer, but just my overall life in general, Paul Auster has a firm place on that list. While I don’t find much influence in the stories I’m churning out as we speak, I find the worldview he presents in his novels to be rich, multi-textured and endlessly life affirming. From the existential noir of The New York Trilogy and Moon Palace, oddly successful experiments like The Music of Chance, Mr. Vertigo and Timbuktu (a novel which has grown in stature for me over time), to multi layered narratives about grief, family and healing like The Book of Illusions, Oracle Night and Invisible, his last great novel. After seven years without a book, and seven years without reading one, at least for me, it was a pleasant surprise to find out last year that he had a new novel coming out called 4 3 2 1, and I was even more excited when I found out that it was almost 900 pages long. Was it worth the weight and its skull crushing page count? I am happy to say that it is. While only time will tell if it is better as what consider being his three pillars, which are The New York Trilogy, The Book of Illusions and Invisible, but it can certainly share ample shelf space with them (since it will need it either way), and it is world’s better than something like Travels in Scriptorium. It has an interesting gimmick attached to it, one that is a change of pace for Auster himself and more than a little daunting for the reader. It tells the story Archibald Isaac Ferguson, who shares the birth year of Auster himself. After an initial chapter, describing how his grandfather came to America and got his named followed by how his father started a business and met Archie’s mother, the book fissures into four separate timelines that follow his birth right up until the end of the sixties. They are independent of each other and as far as I can tell, the realities in each are not dependent on the actions Ferguson takes in each one. They are merely four dimensions filled with different possibilities. In one, Ferguson’s father’s hardware business could be a massive success, in another it could fail miserably. Archie’s father can be a source of terrible grief in one story, and a source of hatred in another. In one, he can discover something about himself in an old movie theater that is not hinted at in any of the other three. And Amy Schneidermann, his constant love who is a focal point in all four, has shifting properties as well, with him being a long term love of Archie in one, a step cousin in another and stepsister in yet another. Historical events such as the Kennedy assassinations, the start of the Vietnam War and the riots at Columbia University are explored from different vantage points in each section, making this novel one story told four times over. It sounds cheap, but Auster’s talent makes it magical.  This is a very Auster-riffic novel; filled with existential musings, chance meetings, cruel twists of fate and a self-reflexive ending he is known for. If you are not a fan of his, this novel will annoy the shit out of you. But for me, someone’s whose literary maturity can be directly linked to his best novels, this large hearted book was a treat that I savored every sentence of.

Rating: 5/5

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Review: "My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist" by Mark Leyner

You will have a lot of fun reading Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist, but much like a lot of modern day comedies, those laughs will be well earned but rather disposable. But they are still there, and I’d put a book like this, as dated and as irreverent as it is, up above others in the same genre of short fiction (John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse immediately comes to mind). Leyner’s claim to fame and how I first heard about him was a famous Charlie Rose interview he did with fellow writers Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace. His work fits neatly in with what Wallace produced in his lifetime. The stories here are disparate snapshots of a crazy world that doesn’t make sense, a series of fever dreams come to life and abstract paintings somehow adapted into little vignettes. It is very hard to describe these stories at least on a narrative level, but I will do my best to pick out my favorites when I can. The best things about them have to be the titles, which for someone like myself has a rather goofy sense of humor at times, were fun to read and easily made me chuckle. Titles like “Lines Composed After Inhaling Paint Thinner”, “Enter the Squirrel” “Yoo Hoo! Buzz Called Out. Y’all Got Any Crème de Cacao?” make this collection worth your time, even if you don’t; fully understand the stories themselves, which are filled with hit men who can’t remember if they’ve killed women before, a man who forgets to plug in his mom’s respirator and men who go to a military academy of beauty. It is hard to sustain any kind of interest for stories so weird and scattered, but Leyner can at least make anyone laugh, and at a brisk 150 pages, this book more than does its job successfully.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Review: "Homesick for Another World" by Ottessa Moshfegh

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh is the wildest, craziest and most inventive short story collection I have read in a long while, up there with Scott Snyder’s Voodoo Heart and Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged and Everything Burned. Each story seems to pulsate with a black heart that can be mean, can commit acts of cruelty but is always all too human and all too recognizable to anyone who has lived a day on Earth. I became a fan of Moshfegh’s late in 2015 while reading her debut novel Eileen over one of the dreariest Christmases I can remember, and it perfectly summed up the feelings I had over the holiday season (it helps that it takes place around Christmas time as well). After that I read her little novella McGlue, which also shared this author’s bleak yet wondrous worldview. But none of those books really prepares you for a book like this, one that is part fairy tale, part fever dream and part warped reality of the selfish, broken people who always seem to be at the center of these daring stories. I was reminded throughout of the work of Amelia Gray and George Saunders, but the worlds Moshfegh crafts are much more precise and emotionally resonant and a little bit of the brutal real world that exists on the edges of these character’s precious lives always seems to be dripping in despite their efforts to plug the holes. I can’t think of a weak story in this bunch, but as I do with all of my reviews, I will point out a few that really stuck with me. This collection gets off to a strong start with the bleakly humorous “Bettering Myself” about a female teacher whose life revolves around her drinking problem and calling her ex-husband in between teaching lower tier math. This story really exhibits Moshfegh’s precise attention to detail as she amusingly describes her old classroom, the weird sex lives of her students and what her morning routine is like, which of course involves throwing up before class. It also introduces an underlying theme to all these stories. They tend to show people trapped in lives that fit them a little too well, they are aware of their lot in life and they look upon it with sheer disappointment and helplessness, despite what they may tell us. It shows in similar stories like “No Place for Good People” about a widower whom who works at a halfway house for the mentally disabled and “The Surrogate” about a beautiful figure head for a small company. Moshfegh also has a talent for describing the lives of the elderly. In stories like “The Beach Boy” and “An Honest Woman” are great parables for elderly dread. And of course, misplaced affection is another specialty of hers, with stories like “A Dark and Winding Road”, “Dancing in the Moonlight”, and “The Locked Room” effortlessly shows the progression of love, to obsession, to cruelty and to despair. The final story “A Better Place” is a haunting story that reads like something written by the Brothers Grimm and might be the best of its kind since the title story from Wells Tower’s collection. These stories and this book are a real treat and easily the best book, so far, in 2017. 
Rating: 5/5

Review: "The Crow Girl" by Erik Axl Sund

One of many things I will take away from The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund (the pen name of two Swedish authors) is how successfully it crafts a rather smart, methodical and downright reprehensible female serial killer. This character, which I will not reveal the identity of, even though it is laid out clearly less than a third of the way through the book, is like a gender swapped Hannibal Lector and whose actions are the stuff of real world nightmares. It is the best part of this long 768 page book, which has the tendency to meander, never successfully executes a lot of the more heady and dreamlike psychological scenes and has a grim mean spirited nature that at times turned me off completely. But having said that, of the few Nordic crime thrillers I have read, mostly from Jo Nesbo, this is easily the best one. A series of heinous murders, mostly of immigrant children rock the city of Stockholm. The case is given to Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg, the highest ranking female officer. She is frustrated by the lack of resources she gives, and comes into contact with criminal therapist Sofia Zetterlund, whose experiences dissecting the worst of humanity has given her a serve case of PTSD. The bodies pile up and a twist, which comes out of nowhere and gives this book’s straight narrative a vague twist, paints the whole rest of the book with a thick coat of dread. This is a rough book at times and it took my breath away during the scenes of abuse. I’d compare this depiction of heinous human folly to the work of Jack Ketchum. Both authors share a sense of anger toward abusers and a total compassion towards victims, and even its bleak ending, which I hope leaves things open for sequel, demonstrates this kind of compassion. Well-written and plotted expertly, this is a high point in a subgenre that I feel is becoming oversaturated. 
Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Review: "John Crow's Devil" by Marlon James

A Brief History of Seven Killings is going to be a hard act to follow for writer Marlon James. It’s scope, its use of language and its fleshy beating heart seem unmatched when you compare it to anything else today, but that energy he exerted might be a once in a lifetime event, because I find none of it in his previous novels. His sophomore effort, The Book of Night Women showed his crazed heretic take on the English language, but it was used for a rather unoriginal story of American slavery, one that paled in comparison to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which I read the same year. His first novel, the one I just finished today, John Crow’s Devil, shows the greasy and wet gestation of what he would become, and its unformed nature show in a rather unhinged and chaotic narrative structure that overreaches and overstuffs almost everything in it’s slim 230 pages. The book takes place in Jamaica in the late 1950’s; although the story feels like it takes place 100 years before then. It tells of the struggle between two preachers and the village that each seeks to control. A man who calls himself Apostle York one day confronts Hector Bligh, known as the “Rum Preacher”, mid-sermon. Bligh, a drunk with a tenuous grasp of his place in the community and haunted by past infidelities, is easily ousted by the York, whose passionate sermons easily entrance the people of the village. With the help of a local widow, Bligh prepares for a bloody collision with York and the village that once respected him. Besides the two main characters and a few sides characters, such as the violate Clarence and the faithful Lucinda, it is hard to tell anyone apart in this jumbled narrative. The violence James so eagerly and expertly renders shows up only a few times, most memorably in the beginning and haunting end, but the ferocious originality I have come to expect from James is sorely lacking in this early work.

Rating: 3/5

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Review: "Her Every Fear" by Peter Swanson

Peter Swanson’s new novel, Her Every Fear, much like Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven is a straight up genre novel, and because of that, I have to judge it by certain merits it has and some that it doesn’t. I really enjoyed this book and read through it quickly; it is perfect for any tropical vacation and keeps the reader in a vice grip up until the ending. But when I read mysteries, one of my favorite genres of literature, I expect a few things. I either expect to be moved, shaken or come away with a profound understanding I did not have before, much like I do with the novels of Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos, or I want a narrative that is so twisted, complicated and fascinating that I have no idea what is going to happen next and I fear for my well being as well as that of the characters in the book I sympathize with. Sad to say, I had the book’s ending pegged early on, and I wished I did not. You might to, but I won’t spoil it here. Kate Priddy, the book’s main character is a wounded and scared woman living in London. After nearly dying at the hands of her crazed ex-boyfriend, an event that even five years passed still gives her PTSD; she reaches out to her unknown second cousin, Corbin, and offers to swap apartments with him in Boston. As soon as she gets there, her worries come to life after the woman living next door to Corbin is found dead. The book weaves in and out of different perspectives, from Kate’s to Alan, the mysterious man who lives on the other side of the apartment complex, Corbin, who is hiding dreadful secrets and eventually our bad guy, a truly evil and reprehensible human being. Despite figuring it out, I was fascinated by this world, which is expertly plotted and full of unknown dangers lurking around every corner, in every shadow of a darkened room and every creak of old wooden floorboards. The ending might seem to neat to some, but it holds true to the book’s theme about facing the fear of the unknown and getting over your hurt.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: "Apex Hides the Hurt" by Colson Whitehead

Thankfully Colson Whitehead’s worst novel is also his shortest. Apex Hides the Hurt, his third novel is perplexing confusing and neither of those is a compliment. His work varies for me, with books like The Underground Railroad and John Henry Days being fantastic, The Intuitionist and Zone One being good but a little too odd and Sag Harbor being a disappointment, but this book seems like a failed experiment in odd narration and a book that doesn’t seem to have a point at all. It’s set up is very similar to John Henry Days but without the charm and scope of that superior book. The characters are weak and the book’s motivation is even weaker and murkier than that. In the short time it took me to read this book, I found out rather easily why this book is his least lauded one to date. At the center of this book is an unnamed black nomenclature consultant who is contacted by the town of Winthrop. The town has a bit of a conflict in that it wants to change its name but the town itself can’t agree on what it should be called. Three different groups of people of varying influence want it to be named a certain way and this consultant must figure out a way to please everyone. The best part of this novel is also its goofiest. It involves the unnamed consultant and how he lost his big toe, which involves stubbing it, multiple times and stepping in literal shit. It is where this strangely unsatisfying book gets its odd title, because Apex is the name of the bandage company. There is very little pleasing about this book, and I am glad it came early in the career of one of the most exciting and versatile writers in America today.

Rating: 2/5