Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Review: "The World of Tomorrow" by Brendan Mathews

For the past few years, I have been lucky enough to read a debut novel from an emerging talent that always comes to define the reading year for me. In 2013, that book was Rivers by Michael Farris Smith. In 2014, it was Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. In 2015, it was City on fire by Garth Risk Hallberg. And last year, it was The Nix by Nathan Hill. And while there are still a few months left in the year, and at least two dozen books left to read, it seems that THE book for me this year is going to be Brendan Mathews’ debut, The World of Tomorrow. It is a spellbinding, sweeping novel about pre-WWII New York, filled with action, suspense, tragedy and humor. It juggles quite a few characters over its 549 pages, but rarely misses a beat and ties everything together in a nice heart-warming package. On the back page, one of the reviews compares it to The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, which is a fair comparison. Chabon’s novel takes place over years while this one takes place over a single, heart-stopping week, but I find this book to be quite a bit better. Other books that I couldn’t stop thinking about were Kevin Baker’s The Big Crowd, which takes place during a similar time period and covers a few similar themes (again, I liked this book better) and Lehane’s Coughlin trilogy, another book about this time period, where the American dream reached its apex, its low point a kind of rebirth in the span of a few short decades. It begins not in New York or America, even, but on the Britannic, a ship sailing from Europe to America. On board are two imposters, brothers who have just stolen a small fortune from the IRA and left a blown up building and four dead bodies in their wake. They are the older, charming Francis, an escaped convent, and the wounded and damaged Michael, himself escaping from a convent for future priests and, because of the blast, is followed around by the ghost of the recently deceased WB Yeats. They are headed to New York to meet their elder brother Michael, a professional musician with his own set of problems. Over the next week, which takes place while the 1939 World’s Fair is in full swing, each of these three brothers, along with a handful of disenchanted, displaced and disenfranchised people, including a man sent to kill Francis, an ex-pat photographer whose fearing being sent back to Nazi-occupied Prague and an emotionally frayed heiress who falls victim to one of Francis’ scheme, will come to terms with their action, lose themselves and, if they are lucky, find a way back towards something familiar and possibly wonderful. I won’t spoiled what happens or what Francis is forced to do or the final few pages, which are as pitch perfect as you can get, but all of it is the stuff of great, heavyweight fiction, the kind you want to never end. 
Rating: 5/5

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: "Since We Fell" by Dennis Lehane

I wait for a new Dennis Lehane book the way others are waiting for the new Star Wars movie to come out this December, and with his new novel, Since We Fell, he does not disappoint. Not counting the novelization of the movie The Drop, this is his first standalone novel since completing the momentous Coughlin trilogy, and it was nice to see him step away from a period piece and give his readers a modern story that has more in line with something like Mystic River than Live By Night, where a person or persons average life is upended by scary and disturbing circumstances. But here Lehane does something a little different and unique and it is what sets this book apart from anything else he has done, and it is why I love his work so much. And he accomplishes this with his same knack for character development and plot driven narrative that make his books so enjoyable and the themes he is obsessed with shine through more brightly. With the character of Rachel Childs, he presents what is easily his most tragic and damaged character, one not broken by violent tendencies but instead by a fatalism fostered by her upbringing, a severely low self-esteem and an intense loneliness that burns white hot on every page. What sets this book apart as I stated earlier is its first section, which takes place between the years 1979 and 2010, deals with Rachel’s life before the main events from the novel. Rachel is born in 1979 to Elizabeth Childs, an author of a book on marriage whose own love life is used as a tool to control Rachel. She does okay in school, but is haunted by the specter of her unknown father and a constant feeling of being unwanted and displaced. This is a brilliant section and is among the best Lehane has put of the page to date, which is saying something. It has many heartbreaking revelatory moments, such as Rachel’s very public mental breakdown and the sad truth behind her birth, which only reinforces the isolation she feels in the world. It feels like the beating heart at the center of this 418 page novel. It greatly informs and puts into context what happens next when Rachel meets Brian, who played a peripheral role in the first section, and falls in love with him. I won’t spoil what happens next, but I will say that once Rachel sees Brian in a place he shouldn’t be, her life takes a strange turn, one filled with danger and death. The other noir title I was thinking of most while reading this was Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place, where the darkness is of the human heart and not of the night. This book also shares that movie’s sense of impending sad doom, from its final action set piece to it’s strange ending, where one key event is told to us but is never seen, and something was kept that was supposedly sent away, and the ambiguity of it all is something I simply can’t shake. While not a good entry point into Lehane’s increasingly growing body of work (I’d start with the collection Coronado personally), but this is another homerun by one of America’s finest talents.  
Rating: 5/5

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Review: "On the Edge" by Rafael Chirbes

On the Edge, the final novel written by Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes, reads like deathbed confession from a soul doomed to hell trying anything and everything to make sense of his life. It is a brutal, dense and caustic look at a man who is looking back in a life with little joy and little too hold onto and desperate to take something with him when the world passes him by. It is not for everyone, and even I was somewhat fed up with it around the 300 page mark while still having 100 pages to go, but there is something very hypnotic about books like this, these sort of high wire acts that stumble on the edge (pun intended) between gloriously self indulgent and flaming mad genius. They are always something to behold and never without their hidden rewards, both big and small. Taking place in the wake of Spain’s economic crash in 2008 and the Madrid bombing in 2004, Chirbes points his laser like focus one a small town called Olba, and an even smaller man living in that town, Esteban. Through breathless monologues, characterized on the page by sweeping, block like pages of unbroken prose, we learn about the mess he is in: he has closed his carpentry business, he has been screwed over by a former friend over money he desperately needed, and he is facing criminal charges. The book opens outside of his perspective as one of his workers discovers a dog chewing on a human hand. We never really learn whom this hand belongs too (I have a few vague idea), but the book is not concerned with such details, instead focusing on Esteban and a few others points of view of the town’s residents. We get a short glimpse into his past life and his two loves (neither of which was his wife), as well as his fatalistic view, which he inherited from his now senile POW father. I can see a lot of people finding this book intolerable. Like I said, it goes on a 100 pages more than it should, and books like these should really be no longer than 200, but there is enough scorched earth prose and flights of nihilism here to make something viable and intriguing, and, quite possibly, enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Review: "Grace" by Paul Lynch

Paul Lynch’s third novel, Grace, is easily the most beautifully written novel I have read all year. Reading through it and sometimes struggling through it, I was aware of every sentence and their structure, the hard work put into them and the immense pleasure of the finished product, all of which mostly made up for some of the less engaging narrative elements, such as its meandering and vague plot and confusing characterizations that had me baffled at some points the way Cormac McCarthy always tends to baffle me. But like McCarthy, the beauty of the finished product, even if that beauty is somewhat superficially or needlessly dense, it is always something to behold. This is a very different novel than Lynch’s last one, The Black Snow, and I don’t doubt it is his best work to date. Taking place during the Irish potato famine in the mid-19th century, this immense coming of age story focuses on Grace, a woman on the edge of adulthood, who, in the book’s first striking scene, has her hair lopped off by her mother and sent out into the world to survive on her own. With her younger brother Colly, a young boy who tells jokes without punch lines, tagging along, Grace must navigate a world pushed to the brink by hunger and madness, and along the way she meets people both menacing, helpful and somewhere in between, the most memorable being Bart, a man with a crippled hand who joins them halfway through the book, and is involved in one of the book’s most harrowing scenes involving another character, the chatterbox McNutt. Toward the end, after the book seemingly goes off the rails, Grace finds herself involved in a religious sect and finally, some semblance of home in the book’s haunting final pages. Not an easy read, nor easy to decipher, but as a work of art and labor of love, it is something I deeply admire. 
Rating: 4/5

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: "How to Survive a Summer" by Nick White

How To Survive a Summer, the debut novel by author Nick White is one of three books (two of which are translations) this year by gay male authors that deal heavily with homosexual themes. Besides the subject matter, I am not too sure if these books have anything more in common (I will be reading one of them next month), but they have a hard act to follow since this is an astonishingly self-assured debut that hopelessly and proudly straddles many different genres while maintaining its vice like grip on the reader, even through it’s quieter more reflective moments. What I liked most about this book is how much deeper it goes than just being a book about homosexuality. It has sex scenes in it, it has what might pass for love in it (I will elaborate), but it’s epicenter is its’ broken, almost cowardly narrator, a man-child nearing 30 who can’t reckon with his past and who he is, and most certainly can’t focus on the future. And the whole book is leading toward the possible moment when he can come to terms with who he is, what he went through and where he wants to be, and placing that story within the confines of what is at times a thriller makes for an endlessly compelling 338 page book. The man-child in question is Will Dillard, a grad student in film theory at an unnamed Midwestern college. One day, a friend of his, Bevy, invites him to a protest of an upcoming slasher film, which is based on book about a brutal gay conversion camp in Mississippi, which closed down after one of the campers was killed. What no one knows is that will was one of the five campers there during that fateful summer. After trying to see the movie with Zeus, a female to male transgender person and possible love interest, Will flees the college and heads back to where he grew up and eventually, the camp where his life took a harrowing turn. The novel doesn’t spend the bulk of its time in camp; instead, we get glimpses at Will’s childhood in the South, where kindness masks a social rigidity that is immovable and the wilderness provides cover for things otherworldly and dangerous. We learn about Will’s mother, who first noticed his homosexuality during a sleepless night following one of Will’s bad dreams. His dad, a local preacher, has a different way of finding out, which plays out in a raunchy scene involving a church candle. How he comes to be a camper I will not spoil, nor will I spoil what happens when he runs into two former campers on his trip who have become a couple and are hiding more than their share of secrets. This is a thrilling yet sad novel of a man who can’t get over himself and what he is, and the consequences that await him when he runs from that truth. It is a powerful original story from a writer to watch.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: "Perfect Little World" by Kevin Wilson

Perfect Little World is a safe, enjoyable but ultimately milquetoast second novel from author Kevin Wilson, whose first book, The Family Fang (easily one of my least favorite titles to a really good book), which was made into a movie directed by and starring Jason Bateman. This novel manages to highlight both Wilson’s strengths and weaknesses on the page. On one hand, he is a great storyteller with a knack for offbeat situations that feel fresh but also contain within their perimeters truths about the modern world and our relationships with friends and families. But I also thinks he falls too much in love with his subjects, giving them a few too many positive attributes so it is hard for us see their failures and other flaws they have as anything but a mere stepping stone toward a happy ending or at least some sort of enlightenment by the end of the book. The focus of this novel is Izzy, a recent high school graduate who is pregnant by her trust, psychologically damaged art teacher. With no prospects besides her work at a local BBQ restaurant, a sudden tragedy forces her to become a part of a social experiment funded by an aging female billionaire and led by Dr. Grind, a socially awkward scientist, himself a former participant in a similar familial experiment and also no stranger to tragic circumstances. Izzy, along with handful of other desperate expectant parents, will live in a sort of commune where the newborns will spend eight years living without any of them knowing who their real parents are. It shares themes with Wilson’s first novel, where the idea of family is placed within a controlled setting with lasting ramifications. It creates drama, but none of it is really too dramatic or urgent besides one small scene involving a needy parent wanting more time with their child. While Wilson succeeds with Dr. Grind, whose upbringing and tragic past create a character high in intelligence but deeply troubled and volatile, he sort of fails with Izzy herself, whose character flaws (her taste in men, her lack of drive, her disconnect) are either inferred by Wilson or ignored by her. Either way, I didn’t like following her as much as Dr. Grind. Even with the sometimes slow pace and the schmaltzy ending, this is good second effort for Wilson, and I will pick up his next book in a heartbeat.  
Rating: 4/5

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Review: "The Twelve-Mile Straight" by Eleanor Henderson

It was hard for me not to think of C. E. Morgan’s The Sport of Kings, a novel that came out last year, while reading Eleanor Henderson’s The Twelve-Mile Straight. Not only are they very long second novels written by young female writers, there themes of race, our countries history of racism and life in the integrated yet racially hostile south, it is easy to put these two novels in the same category and think of them as sort of literary cousins, based on the similarities above and the proximity of when they were published. And while I liked The Sport of Kings, for it’s elegant dreamlike prose and rich characters, I have a feeling I will like this novel more because it’s elements will linger longer in my mind long after I finished it. Like The Sport of Kings, it is a brilliant look at the American South, both long at 539 pages but intimate as well, focusing on a single event which has dire implications for not only the future but the past of all parties involved. It is a smoother novel than Morgan’s, while maintaining a rich intricacy that asks a lot of the reader and rewards them generously. The event in question is a brutal one. Accused of raping the daughter of sharecropper he is employed by, Genus Jackson is shot, strung up on a gourd tree, stabbed multiple times and has his body dragged behind a truck down the eponymous road in Cotton County, Georgia. The victim, Elma Jessup, has given birth to twins, a white girl and a black boy, as a supposed result of the alleged rape by Genus and her relations with Freddie Jackson, whose grandfather George Jackson, owns the farm and many more that Juke Jessup, Elma’s father, sharecrops. After Freddie flees Cotton County, Elma becomes a bit of a celebrity for her strange twins, referred to as Gemini twins. Along with Elma is Nan, fours years younger than Elma, and the black housekeeper for the Jessup’s farm that had her tongue cut out by her mother Jetty when she was a baby, which forces her to hold onto more than her share of secrets. What happens after the lynching and what it means for the Wilson’s and the Jessup’s is a thing of beauty and skill nearly unmatched. It unfolds eloquently, with secret after secret being revealed, adding another layer to this wonderful work of art. I noticed a few themes running throughout this book, an obvious one being fatherhood, both open and secret, which comes to ahead near the end of the book in a scene that reveals both staggering horrors and hopes, but two others where the idea of twins, in both the physical and spiritual sense, where two characters share common goals and desires, most of the time without realizing it, and the theme of disabilities and how they manifest in a character’s personality, exemplified by Oliver Rawls, the son of Cotton County’s doctor and a late addition to the narrative, whose arc is sad yet hopeful. This is a very good novel, one that is easy to get lost in and feel things about, and easily one of the best of the year so far.

Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Review: "The Changeling" by Victor LaValle

Reading a book by Victor LaValle reminds me of the first few times I read a Murakami novel: the same sense of newness and wonder, otherworldliness and danger and the same blurry line between fantasy and brutal reality. It is a good feeling, one that I first found last year when I read his second novel Big Machine and it continues on through his most recent novel, The Changeling, a proud hybrid of fantasy, fairy tale techno and urban noir. It sounds like a lot and a writer of a lesser caliber would wholeheartedly stumble over these genres, not to mention the story itself. But LaValle is so capable and passionate about his subject matter, not only does he make it work and work smoothly, it is hard to see the story any other way. It is a story filled with a healthy amount of twists and turns, a healthy amount of whimsy and tragedy and a more than healthy mix of horror and humor (which makes sense because LaValle himself edited a selection of Richard Matheson stories that has come out or is coming out shortly). By the end, which I guarantee you will get to as quickly as I did, you feel drained, impressed and overall truly happy. The main character of the story is Apollo Kagwa, a bi-racial bookseller whose wife Emma has just given birth to their son, Brian. But before all that happens, the book describes how Apollo’s parents met, with his dad Brian being the son of two worthless drunks and his mother Lillian being an immigrant from Uganda. Brian leaves the family when Apollo is four years, leaving his son with a strange series of nightmares that follow him into adulthood and a box of miscellaneous items labeled Improbabila, which later becomes the name of Apollo’s book company. But soon after Apollo’s son is born, Emma starts getting weird pictures of Brian texted to her and she starts showing signs of post-partum depression. Eventually Emma does something sudden and unthinkable in one of the book’s most harrowing scenes and disappears, leaving Apollo alone and devastated. It is only when he comes into contact with William Wheeler, a tech genius with a lot of secrets, does he begin a journey to bring back with him what he lost. I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say the book involves a lost island inhabited by people like Emma, a handful of Norwegian fairy tales and a climactic scene involving a mythic creature that somehow works perfectly for this book. Along with this brilliant narrative thread, LaValle is a master at giving inanimate objects meaning and purpose, much like Murakami: a rare copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, Maurice Sendak’s Outside Over There, a mattock and finally an iPad app all play big roles in where the story goes as do an interesting cast of characters such as Kim, Emma’s midwife sister who holds one of the book’s most startling revelations and Patrice, Apollo’s friend and business partner, who provides the book with levity and humor that practically saves it from being too dark. This is an immense, big-hearted journey of a book from one of my new favorite writers, and I can’t wait to see what he comes out with next.
Rating: 5/5