Channeling True Gritand The Revenant (the books, not the movies), with healthy seasonings of Cormac McCarthy and Brothers Grimm, this debut is set inChanneling True Gritand The Revenant (the books, not the movies), with healthy seasonings of Cormac McCarthy and Brothers Grimm, this debut is set in British Columbia a few decades after some kind of war has stripped away many comforts of civilization. Along with the hazards of radioactive bomb waste, climate change now produces megastorms that peck away at what's left. One of these storms kills the mean grandmother taking care of a young girl, who wanders the wilderness until taken in by a taciturn trapper living in a cabin in the woods.
Beyond this fairy-tale setup, it gets a bit tricky to say more without spoiling the plot. The girl grows to a teen, and eventually leaves the trapper and cabin to seek out her parents, who went up north as part of a gold rush. The trip is perilous, bad things happen, she meets all manner of folk and beasts, she maybe makes a friend, and by the end must confront pure evil.
At times, it all gets a bit too tortured and heavy, but the framework of the quest to find the parents keeps things moving along. The characters are pretty indelible, and the writing is distinctive, if feeling very slightly derivative. The book opens with a chapter that is basically a flash-forward preview of the climax, which I found to be a bit of an odd choice. These minor missteps and the presence of a kind of spirit animal kept the book from being a complete success, but on the whole I'd recommend it to folks who enjoy very dark stories featuring strong young women protagonists....more
Some 15 years after his appearance in the ensemble cast of Glue and Porno, "Juice" Terry Lawson pops up as the protagonist in this latest by Welsh. AsSome 15 years after his appearance in the ensemble cast of Glue and Porno, "Juice" Terry Lawson pops up as the protagonist in this latest by Welsh. As readers of those previous books may recall, although Terry's life is basically fueled by booze and sex ("spice ay life!"), at his core, he's a decent guy. These days he drives a cab, deals a little coke, and basically bangs every woman he sets eyes upon.
The plot is pretty shaggy, propelled initially by the appearance of a American Donald Trump clone named Ronnie, who's full of bluster, cash, and an odd appreciation for Terry's willingness to talk to him straight. The American enlists him as a henchmen in his efforts to secure ownership of a insanely rare and valuable bottle of scotch. Meanwhile, he's also been asked to keep an eye on a massage parlor / brothel (can't recall if it's the same one that was in Porno or not), and one of the girls goes missing. This ties in with the life of a somewhat simple semi-relative, who was her boyfriend.
After establishing all this, there comes a big crisis in Terry's life, which threatens all that holds dear. Unfortunately, it's an incredibly creaky and obvious plot device that most readers will spot a mile away, so any intended dramatic tension just never really germinates. There are some attempts to integrate real-life 2011 events into the plot: Hurricane Bawbag is an inciting incident, and the Hibs/Hearts Cup Final provides some colorful backdrop.
At the end of the day though, whether or not you enjoy the book is probably down to whether or not you find the sex-mad Terry's inner Scots dialogue funny -- and/or whether or not you're on board for story that includes plenty of drugs and sex (including incest and necrophilia), a murder, digging up a corpse to inspect its penis size, etc... It's definitely a sloppy bit of storytelling, but if you enjoy the Trainspottingverse, probably worth a read....more
My initial reaction to picking up a novel about an American academic living in England, written by an American academic living in England, was that itMy initial reaction to picking up a novel about an American academic living in England, written by an American academic living in England, was that it definitely wasn't for me. I generally don't like fiction involving academia, not do I generally care for fiction where the protagonist and author's biographies overlap too much. But once I cracked the spine and read a few pages, the writing swept me up. It's hard to put a finger on the particulars, but this is writing that manages the odd trick of feeling both highly considered and effortless. A degree or two in either direction would have pushed it into being either too showy, or too restrained.
As for the plot? Well... that was less engaging. The academic returns to Manhattan and soon feels like he's under some kind of surveillance. But, by whom, or why, are unknown. And since his academic focus is on essentially that topic in East German history, it could all just be in his head. Then there are strange deliveries, strange encounters with a man who claims to be a former student, and so forth. It's sort of just interesting enough to keep one reading, but also quite repetitive at times -- and it just barely sustains narrative momentum. By the end, when things have become a good deal clearer for both hero and reader, I'm not sure any great truth has been revealed about our modern security state. Kind of felt like a modern riff on a '70s paranoia thriller....more
In my attempts to read more broadly, I'll often pick up and read something from another country if it's quite short, regardless of the premise of theIn my attempts to read more broadly, I'll often pick up and read something from another country if it's quite short, regardless of the premise of the story. That was the case with this award-winning French novel, which centers around an Air France flight that crashed in the Azores in 1949, killing all 48 on board. Unfortunately, in its English translation, the book is tonally adrift and in blurring the line between fact and fiction never finds solid ground.
The author's form is a mixture of pure reportage around what happened and might have happened to lead to this disaster, and recounting the circumstances of who was on board and why. Had he crafted 48 short chapters -- one for each victim -- it would have been an interesting exercise. Instead, he spends proportionally more time on those with more documentation around their lives (most notably the champion boxer Marcel Cerdan, en route to meet his more famous lover, Edith Piaf, and a renown violinist, Ginette Neveu). For me, this reliance on contemporaneous reporting and biographic detail made it hard to read this as a work of fiction.
Even more so, the sudden authorial voice appearing deep in the book several times, explaining elements of his research for the book in first-person. I suppose these could actually be entirely fictitious, but if so, that strikes me as an even lamer postmodern gimmick. At the end of the day, the author seems to be using his highly detached prose to be commenting on the vagaries of fate and coincidence -- but that's about it. While I found certain threads of it interesting, and some of the imagery occasionally arresting, there's certainly no "story" within the pages, and so I'd be very reluctant to recommend it to anyone except diehard readers of French fiction in translation....more
As a debut novel, this farcical pastiche of Victorian manners and tropes has to be considered a success. That said, various blurbs and reviews that inAs a debut novel, this farcical pastiche of Victorian manners and tropes has to be considered a success. That said, various blurbs and reviews that invoke Wodehouse, Monty Python, and Tintin do it a disservice. It's amusing and fun, and fairly clever, but it's not in the same league as those. To recap the plot would be pointless, but if the premise of a poet who sells his new wife to the Devil and then has to rescue her with the help of his wise butler, sex-positive teenage sister, globe-trotting adventurer brother-in-law, gnomic bookseller, and a giddy inventor sounds sounds fun, then by all means, this is a book to enjoy. If that sounds silly or precious to you, then you're probably not going to like it. Best to think of this as a fluffy delight to pop into your brain for a few hours of respite from the demands of the world. Definitely interested to see what the author produces next....more
This is Lethem's tenth novel (he's also got five short story collections and one essay collection), and of the previous nine, I've really liked two (GThis is Lethem's tenth novel (he's also got five short story collections and one essay collection), and of the previous nine, I've really liked two (Gun With Occasional Music and Motherless Brooklyn), really not cared for two, and started but never finished two (Fortress of Solitude and Chronic City). I picked this up on a whim -- largely the idea of a backgammon hustler sounded kind of fun -- and to my surprise, it quickly sucked me in. The opening third of the book, in which we meet handsome international backgammon hustler Bruno, is fun and weird.
But when a tumor is found in a hard-to-reach cranial area, and a rich high-school acquaintance flies him back to the Bay Area to get a very specialized operation, my interest started to flag. Housed in a grotty apartment off Telegraph, and reliant upon his high-school benefactor for money and even clothing (Cal gear and Big Lebowski "Abide" t-shirts), Bruno struggles to come to terms with his new life. But I just didn't care about his struggle, or his interactions with the sympathetic German sex worker who comes out to be with him, or his hipster revolutionary neighbor, or, really, any of the characters.
I dunno -- I lived briefly near the Berkley "Gourmet Ghetto" that features in part of the story, and certainly spent enough time around Telegraph Avenue to understand what Lethem is attempting to satirize. But it just comes across as a but tired to me -- maybe because that whole aspect of Berkley kind of satirizes itself. Anyway, the book just kept deflating like a slowly leaking air mattress, and by the end, I was happy to be done with it....more
I picked this up on a whim -- hadn't heard of the author before, but it had some pretty nice blurbs, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Unfortunately, iI picked this up on a whim -- hadn't heard of the author before, but it had some pretty nice blurbs, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Unfortunately, it's an almost cartoonishly generic and derivative bit of crime fiction. Basically, Nick Mason in prison for a long time -- but he's actually a good guy at heart. He was a thief who teamed up with the wrong guy once, a federal agent got killed, and he's took the fall for it, even though he didn't pull the trigger. Luckily, a crime lord who runs his Chicago empire from jail pull some strings to get him freed, but the catch is that he has to do whatever the crime lord tells him too (probably kill people). I've read enough crime fiction to at least be willing to go along with the idea that a crime boss in prison has enough juice to get a decorated detective to recant his testimony, but what I can't at all figure out is how the crime boss singled Mason as a promising talent to invest in -- this only happens because the plot demands it.
Meanwhile, there's an elite crime squad, who -- oh, yeah -- are corrupt too. Their paths will definitely cross with Mason's. There's also a nice pet store owner, who falls for Nick for no apparent reason. There are a bunch of fancy vintage sports cars... I dunno, there's not much to recommend here -- I guess the action sequences are well written, although even in those, it's hard to swallow that a small-time thief can suddenly morph into a special forces action hero. At the end of the day, it's not awful, but it's also not very good....more
Heard this praised a bunch of time as a great summer page-turner, so figured I've give it a shot. Entertaining page-turner it is certainly is, but I'dHeard this praised a bunch of time as a great summer page-turner, so figured I've give it a shot. Entertaining page-turner it is certainly is, but I'd stop well short of calling it great. The story revolves around the crash of a small private plane off the coast of Martha's Vineyard and the lives of those who got on the plane, and especially the two who survive the crash.
Without getting into spoiler territory, the story then alternates between the post-crash investigation and tumult, and stand-alone chapters detailing the backstories of the passengers and crew of the plane. Many of these standalone chapters shine in comparison to the main storyline, which, while compelling up to a point, tends to feel a little bit like a TV show. I guess this shouldn't a surprise, given that the writer has a long and successful background in TV. But how this plays out is that many of the characters in the post-crash chapters are too one-dimensional or cartoonish to feel real -- whereas, the standalone backstories of the dead feel much richer and considered. There's an unevenness between the two that keeps the book from being top tier.
All that said, the movie rights were snapped up, and I'm sure it'll make a decent film -- although, when the reason for the crash is ultimately revealed to the reader, I didn't buy it at all. Note: for a book that was so hyped in advance, this has one of the worst covers I've seen in a long time, looks like someone spent 4 minutes grabbing a stock photo and slapping some type over it....more
Not sure what it is about Boston, but the city seems to breed an unusually high level of bleak crime fiction that calls back to the past. This one opeNot sure what it is about Boston, but the city seems to breed an unusually high level of bleak crime fiction that calls back to the past. This one opens in the 1970s to introduce us to a couple of kids who go on to kill a man. One moves away and grows up to be an investigative journalist, the other stays put and grows up to be the local bookie. Many years later they are brought back together by a new murder.
The psychology of the book is rooted in abusive fathers and family who hate each other, and I frankly found it very hard to relate to. There's such an underlying foundation of damage to all these people that it's a little tiresome to be in their company. The plot keeps the pages turning, even if, at the end of the day, it calls upon coincidence to play too large a role. I guess the book captures a time and place and mood quite well, but I'm not sure many readers are going to want to spend a few hours in that space. I guess I might recommend it to folks with a particular connection to Boston....more
It is exceedingly rare that I make it 3/4 of the way through a book and abandon it, but this one did it to me. Actually, to be fair, I almost abandoneIt is exceedingly rare that I make it 3/4 of the way through a book and abandon it, but this one did it to me. Actually, to be fair, I almost abandoned it several times along the way -- putting down for weeks at a stretch, and then picking back up on the foolish hope it would somehow get better. Like the zombie genre, post-apocalyptic genre is fiction is something I dip into very sparingly. After all, it's kind of all been done before and by some very good writers and filmmakers. But I picked this up based on the interesting premise that it retells the Lewis & Clark expedition some 150 years (I think) after the United States has been reduced to a wasteland by a combination of nuclear war and viral plague.
Saint Louis is recast as "Sanctuary" a kind of isolated prison-city state where a stock bad-guy mayor rules with an iron fist, controlling the dwindling water supply. Surrounded by a jerry-rigged wall, no one is really allowed in or out, in fear of the plague and the mutated animals that live beyond the walls. However, when a mysterious woman named Gawea shows up at the wall with news of a fertile part of the country (Oregon) where the landscape is relatively untouched, a solider (Clark) and curator/librarian (Lewis) escape the city with a small group to try and forge a new northwest passage.
That all sounds pretty good, except that the story and structure never really come together. For reasons that utterly escape me, once the group sets out, the story still returns periodically to Sanctuary to pick up threads of things going on there that are entirely uninteresting. Those breaks just completely kill what little drama and tension there is in the expedition, which ain't much. Instead it often reads more like a poorly run D&D session based on the random encounter table for 1st-3rd level characters. First they are menaced by giant spiders (I can just image the 12-year-old me: "the spiders have seen your party and are approaching, what do you do?"), then giant albino vampire bats (really!), then some giant bears (who apparently don't hibernate in the winter), then a tribe of women who live in an old mall, etc. The feel of bad D&D is even more apt because some of the group have quasi-magical abilities. Even though there's also a clockwork owl with a GoPro and Aaron Burr appearing in visions, the book just kept on boring me -- I didn't care about any of these characters or their quest or the world....more
At this point it's almost just enough to say that if you like Alan Furst's World War 2 espionage books, here's another to enjoy, and leave it at that.At this point it's almost just enough to say that if you like Alan Furst's World War 2 espionage books, here's another to enjoy, and leave it at that. This one is set in 1941, amidst the occupation of Paris and the ad-hoc French resistance efforts to organize escape routes for downed British airmen. There is the usual meticulous period detail, interesting characters (some of whom appear in other of his books), and suspense. All that said, I tend to like his French-based books a notch less than the ones that are set in lesser known pockets of the European theater such as the ones that take place in Greece, or the Balkans, or Poland. Although definitely not one I'd suggest as a place to start if you haven't read Furst, it's fine entertainment for a few hours on a crisp fall day....more
For a certain kind of reader, this will be a totally delectable bit of summer reading -- kind of a Bridget Jones for a new generation, meant to satiriFor a certain kind of reader, this will be a totally delectable bit of summer reading -- kind of a Bridget Jones for a new generation, meant to satirize a certain kind of workplace while celebrating a certain kind of person. That person takes the form of Jen -- the perfect name for a 30something midwesterner of solid middle-class background who is trying to make a life in New York as a communications professional. She's literally trying to make a life with the help of her wry schoolteacher husband, as they've been attempting to conceive for several years.
Laid off from a job at a do-gooder foundation, one of her best friends from college helps land her a job at a new foundation with a very vague women's empowermenty mission. Founded by a B-grade TV celebrity, the foundation is a cube jungle where Jen finds her job to be undefined, and her every utterance misinterpreted, causing nonstop stress. I know people in that kind of world and so found the satire moderately amusing if a little overcooked, but I wonder to what extent readers outside the New York / DC / San Francisco do-gooder foundation/nonprofit epicenters would really enjoy it.
Somewhat more successful are the plotlines involving Jen's conception difficulties, her female friendships, and her attempts to navigate issues of money, class, and social mobility. There, the satire is largely abandoned, and the writing is both more from the heart and realistic. I mean yes, Jen's problems are privileged ones (how to afford another round of fertility treatments, unease over buying an apartment in the wrong part of Brooklyn, my friends are rich and I'm not), and so some readers are definitely going to dismiss her as whiny, but I found her inner life and relationships with her friends to be honest and relatable. It's also worth noting that while the book follows a certain formulaic path (the source of the happy ending is obvious the moment it appears), on a sentence by sentence level, it's really well written.
So if the idea of a book about a young woman trying to make it all work in the big city doesn't appeal, probably best to avoid. But if that sounds just fine and you want something fun and light, but not too light, to take to the beach/cabin/plane -- give this a shot....more