Laura Rae Amos's debut novel follows several friends as they try to resolve relationships within and without the group. The main characters, Jodie, Am...moreLaura Rae Amos's debut novel follows several friends as they try to resolve relationships within and without the group. The main characters, Jodie, Amelia and Drew, are well-drawn and sympathetic (these are people whose intentions are always good), but fall short of being consistently intriguing. Powerful scenes (many told in flashback) are interspersed among leisurely stretches of self-introspection and casual conversations about impending weddings (many weddings). At the heart of the novel is a variation on the eternal triangle: X loves Y, but Y loves N, who loves Y, but with reservations. The novel succeeds in examining the dilemma from every possible angle. Many readers will relate to the sublime psychological tortures Jodie inflicts upon herself trying to figure it all out. There are many interesting setups. Jodie is a doctor (an obstetrician, I believe), and I liked very much her observations on the job, in fact I wish there were more of them. Jodie’s relationship with another doctor, Berges, provides several tender and humorous moments. The novel is well-written, the prose consistent. The plot is low-key and its best elements kick in a little late, but it is meticulously worked out. (less)
It's World War II and Russian is making its stand against the German army, which is trying to smash through Russia's western front. The story is told...moreIt's World War II and Russian is making its stand against the German army, which is trying to smash through Russia's western front. The story is told mainly through Russian officers who are fighting both the German military machine and their own political system in the form of dogmatic,implacable commissars. The book brilliantly captures the interplay between the beset officers and Stalin's idealogues. (less)
Two mismatched girls in an Appalachian town bond. Melissa is chubby, shy and domesticated; Sweetie is a child of the forest, mysterious, ever-resource...moreTwo mismatched girls in an Appalachian town bond. Melissa is chubby, shy and domesticated; Sweetie is a child of the forest, mysterious, ever-resourceful, uninhibited. The story is told from Melissa's point of view, so that the reader is drawn alongside Melissa into Sweetie's world. We too get mesmerized by Sweetie's dry blunt observations and a knowledge of the world that hints at darker experience. The dialogue is finely honed--Sweetie has pretty much got her own language. Magendie's naturalistic descriptions: tramping through the woods, cleaning fish, nursing wounds, perfect. Ultimately, Sweetie is a story of growing up, or at least it is for Melissa. Like Peter Pan, Sweetie will remain unchanged on her island, the forest of the imagination.
Writing a first-person novel whose narrator and main character is an alienated, profoundly cynical, post-adolescent faces numerous obstacles, not the...moreWriting a first-person novel whose narrator and main character is an alienated, profoundly cynical, post-adolescent faces numerous obstacles, not the least of which is Mount Catcher in the Rye, at whose base lie several generations of yellowing manuscripts, most derivative of Salinger’s novel to a greater or lesser degree.
Daniel Clausen’s The Sage and the Scarecrow tracks a few days in the life of Pierce Williams, an undergrad at an unnamed Florida university. The time is unspecified, but people still communicate with letters, and no one mentions the Internet or Facebook or texting.The narrator says that his father’s favorite song was Warren Zevon’s "Werewolves of London," “I saw a werewolf drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic’s...” The song came out in 1978. It’s not much of a surprise to see on the copyright page that the novel was published in 2003. Early new millennium.
We meet Pierce Williams, the narrator and main character, six months after his father died of cancer, and not many years after his mother’s early death. Caring for his father during his battle with the disease, Pierce experienced first hand the difficulties of obtaining adequate medicine and hospital care. Out of this struggle, Pierce develops a desire for a better society. The loss of his father has also left Pierce depressed and feeling without purpose or direction, for his father had become the center of his universe. Adding to this melancholy state are Pierce’s memories of Jennifer, his high school crush. Pierce carries around and constantly consults a copy of the Tao Te Ching, loaned to him by Jennifer, with a personal note from her on the inside cover. As the story unfolds, Pierce will focus on Jennifer as the one person who might rescue him from his bleak existence.
On the face of the above, we have a sympathetic character here, but not so fast. Pierce is one of the most self-centered, neurotic, manipulative (think The Prince), pedantic and just plain weird characters in contemporary fiction.
For example, not many pages into the book, Pierce is having a conversation with Professor Foster, “one of the few teachers I could stand.” Foster makes a suggestion that Pierce include a critique of Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon in the paper he’s writing for the class. “I told him that I thought I might add Fitzergerald’s text into my paper, but it was a complete lie, one of those things you say to make people think they’ve achieved a small victory. I really had no interest in The Tycoon. Really, I’d only read half of it.” A short while later, Pierce will tell his friend Brian (a well-wrought male pig), who casually leafs through the Tao Te Ching, an act that Pierce views as desecration, and feigns keeping it, that Jennifer died of cancer. Pierce’s outrageous but passionate lie is harrowing. Later, Pierce will intellectually bully a well-meaning older woman. Pierce is a deep well of deceit and insincerity. He is in fact a hipster: when you think he’s kidding, he tells you he’s serious and when you think he’s serious, he’ll tell you he’s kidding.
Nearby, Holden Caulfield may be murmuring phony, but Pierce Williams in the intensity of his attitudes and interactions is an original, and always interesting to follow. Even as a pedant, regularly dropping Hegel, Nietzsche and Lao Tzu into conversations, Pierce doesn’t bore. He’s passionate about his abstracts, so passionate that when an attractive woman tries to seduce him, his mind turns to Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals. It also doesn’t hurt if you’re a reader who values philosophy and lit crit. I like this stuff, so even when it gets ponderous, I’m never less than amused and frequently provoked.
The other characters in the Sage and the Scarecrow are also very well drawn. Pierce's encounters with Angie, Brian and Phil are captivating, and provide many witty and funny lines.
If you’re looking for action and romance, The Sage and the Scarecrow isn’t your book. Essentially, it’s the story of a guy who doesn't do much but think. Pierce is too reflective, but that's the problem at the heart of the novel. When he finally does something, nothing much comes of it. That's the payoff.
In an arena where many have tried and most have failed, Clausen succeeds. (less)
Each reader will read the same book differently. Sometimes the differences are insignificant, sometimes profound (Are you sure we're talking about the...moreEach reader will read the same book differently. Sometimes the differences are insignificant, sometimes profound (Are you sure we're talking about the same book?) I was struck by the shock of one Goodreads reviewer to Chapter 2 of Invisible. I thought the scenes were done brilliantly, seducing the reader into accepting the violation of one of society's oldest taboos. (less)
This novel about fashion/nothing works for twenty pages. For all the wit and exotic words, the style is suffocating. Satire needs room to breathe. Whe...moreThis novel about fashion/nothing works for twenty pages. For all the wit and exotic words, the style is suffocating. Satire needs room to breathe. When every sentence draws attention to itself by using the same technique, the story splinters into ten-thousand sentences. The writing is just too pleased with itself. (less)
In his riveting debut novel Black Air, Clark McCann deftly creates a main character who is equal parts Cormac McCarthy’s John Grady Cole and Robert Lu...moreIn his riveting debut novel Black Air, Clark McCann deftly creates a main character who is equal parts Cormac McCarthy’s John Grady Cole and Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne. Son of a sadistic Montana cowboy, Tom Shepard faced down a shotgun in his drunken father’s hands at the impressionable age of thirteen, and from that moment not much could scare boy or man.
We meet Tom wasting away in a Mexican jail, awaiting transfer to a state prison and then a trial on charges of rape and murder, for which there’s ample evidence. Few of God’s creatures enjoy the close comfort of a south-of-the-border jail cell, and for Tom such confinement runs a close second to the rack and thumbscrews. An enthusiast of the sport that got Icarus in trouble, Tom is a paraglider. Flying thermals at 1,500 feet per minute, up there with the hawks and clouds, is where he longs to be.
The view out his cell window, which offers a patch of that desired sky, also evokes some bad memories. In a flashback to his tour as a Marine lance corporal in Afghanistan, we’re taken to a perilous mountain firefight, where Tom courageously does the right thing for his comrades, and is subsequently thrown into a military prison for disobeying a superior's orders, which eventually gets Tom tossed out of the corps as “psychologically unfit.”
It’s a given that the Mexican jail isn’t going to hold Tom, but before McCann sets those wheels in motion, he takes us back a few days to the World Paragliding Championships, which drew Tom to Valle de Bravo, Mexico, and his fate. Serving as a primer for the sport, the scenes introduce us to several of the key characters in the novel, including Tom’s guide, Felix Carrasco, a hard-drinking, Baudelaire-quoting local, Greta, an old flame in constant heat, and Greta’s boyfriend, Jaime Lujan, who is Tom’s main rival in the competition. Jaime is a first-class prick, but it’s Jaime’s brother Angel who carries off the trophy for worst bastard in show. A sadistic drug dealer who embodies the brutal outlaws who make contemporary Mexico a land of mayhem and fear, Angel will be at the center of some of the most gruesome and gripping scenes in the novel. He’s a bad guy for our times.
Once sprung from the local jail, Tom will be the hunter and the hunted on a journey that takes us deep into a harrowing Mexican culture, beset with blood and violence. Black Air offers a resilient, engaging protagonist, a first-class villain, action at all altitudes, smart humor, finely-tuned suspense and sex sufficient unto the day.
Although things start out bad for Ken Wohlrob’s characters, they will soon endure worse. In his aptly named new collection of stories, Songs of Vagabo...moreAlthough things start out bad for Ken Wohlrob’s characters, they will soon endure worse. In his aptly named new collection of stories, Songs of Vagabonds, Misfits and Sinners, Wohlrob presents a cast of New York denizens trapped by self-delusion, drug addiction, dehumanizing jobs, self-destructive ambitions, family loyalty, old school entropy, smothering debt and always reliable fate, whose only reward for this shit blizzard called life is a moment or two of stunning bewildering truth. In the first story in the collection, “Non Ho Tutto Il Giorno” (I Do Not Have All Day), old Tony leans on a cane “covered in cat scratches” as he seeks out Tums to quiet a stomach that always gets upset when he’s nervous about something—and he’s nervous. After long consideration, Tony is making his move from the Brooklyn apartment where he has lived (and not lived) forever. Occupying Tony during his preparations are memories of his squalid and dead-end existence, fragmented speculations on the changes in his vanishing Italian neighborhood and leaden thoughts of his mother and his neighbors. But something doesn’t want Tony leaving, maybe Saint Anthony. In “The Look” a mother struggles to raise her daughter while counting on the child’s junkie father to stay straight long enough to take care of the child while she makes a living as a stripper. Under the weight of her dehumanizing job and fear for her daughter, her only escape is her imagination. Wohlrob renders her experience heartbreaking, surreal and incandescent. This is Nathanial West territory, where pity is never quite an adequate response. My favorite story in the collection is “Claimus” (in pronunciation, think Camus), a universally misunderstood artist on a paranoid adventure. Claimus is a hybrid of Falstaff and Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby. A funny, clever tale by a writer who knows his territory.(less)
Growing up on New Jersey’s Raritan Bay, I fell in love with boats. Sailboats, rowboats, cabin cruisers—it didn’t matter. Boats represented freedom, ad...moreGrowing up on New Jersey’s Raritan Bay, I fell in love with boats. Sailboats, rowboats, cabin cruisers—it didn’t matter. Boats represented freedom, adventure and mystery, access to all those Jersey waterways that I could only explore on a map. Sadly, I never had a boat, unless a halved propane tank or a raft of leashed driftwood counted. By the time I could have acquired a boat, my passions had been redirected to cars (boats with wheels) and girls. C.E. Grundler’s novel Last Exit in New Jersey is probably the closest I’m going to come to my dream of boating adventure on the creeks, bays, rivers, harbors, marinas and seas of my home state—although I never envisioned that number of dead bodies showing up. A mystery in the John D. MacDonald tradition (Travis McGee is referenced many times in the story) both in its largely watery setting and tone, the novel also brings to mind Dashiell Hammet in the complexity of its plot, and even Stieg Larsson in its use of a strong young woman with an attitude as a main character.
Twenty-year-old Hazel Moran was raised on boats, and when she wasn’t sailing she was accompanying her father in his big-rig. Hazel knows Jersey from quiet creeks to its roaring turnpike, as will the reader by the book’s conclusion. We meet Hazel aboard the small schooner Witch 23 nautical miles southeast of Cape May (specifically 38°39'51.72"N 74°34'27.40"W. Grundler keeps us well posted on locations) as she’s getting rid of a dead body. From this point, the story will flash back and flash forward at a dizzying pace. Grundler introduces us to a Wagnerian cast of characters, whose motives, actions, loyalties and even identities are always in doubt. Of particular interest is Hammon, whose baffling actions are frequenty provoked by his mysterious companion Annabel. The chapters alternate from Hazel’s to Hammon’s perspective, an interesting strategy that has a big payoff. Thrust into the role of detective, Hazel will spend 10 days digging into the past, every discovery dragging her deeper into murder and mayhem. Last Exit In New Jersey is well-paced, densely-plotted story that mystery-thriller fans will enjoy immensely. (less)
There isn’t much in pop culture that Eirik Gumeny doesn’t send up in his funny and clever Exponential Apocalypse. The premise of the novel is that ear...more There isn’t much in pop culture that Eirik Gumeny doesn’t send up in his funny and clever Exponential Apocalypse. The premise of the novel is that earth has experienced twenty-two Apocalypses already and is going for a twenty-third. The previous apocalypses, which promised to end our little sphere forever, but fell short, have left the planet populated by mutants, displaced gods (Thor, Quetzacoatl), clones of Chester A. Arthur and Queen Victoria, legions of undead and cagey robots. As the twenty-third apocalypse unfolds, and we follow the misadventures of his characters, Gumeny provides hilarious capsule histories of humanity’s dim and doomed efforts to find opportunity in total calamity. The social satire brings to mind Vonnegut, T. C. Boyle and the Marx Brothers, not to mention the Three Stooges. Hipster talk bangs into technological jargon and the author’s lexical shifts can give you whiplash: “My apologies to our janitor and your vaginas, gentlemen,” says Quetzalcoatl. Figuring in the plot will be Daniel Boone’s ghost, a knife attack by the Lollipop kids, and Burt Reynold’s mustache. Gumeny is shameless with puns and jokes. In his explanation of why the days are suddenly shorter, Willian H. Taft XLII notes that “the sun’s been all out whack since Mars fell into it... It goes down more time in a day than a two dollar prostitute with bad ankles and an inner ear problem.” This book is recommended for anyone who takes their apocalypses and zombies seriously, and for anyone who doesn't. (less)
Two weeks before her mother’s death, Virginia Kate Carey received a letter from that troubled woman. A previous attempt at reconciliation on Virginia’...moreTwo weeks before her mother’s death, Virginia Kate Carey received a letter from that troubled woman. A previous attempt at reconciliation on Virginia’s part had elicited not much more than meanness and disregard. On her previous visit, Virginia sought insight into the inexplicable actions of her mother toward her and her brothers while they were growing up. Her mother, Katie, offered not a scrap of help, much less any sign of the love that Virginia desperately needs, but won’t ask for openly. Not without her own stubbornness, Virginia resisted returning to her mother’s deathbed, but now as Tender Graces opens, Virginia goes back to her Appalachian home, the Hollow, seeking in memories and ghosts the meaning of the events in her life. In this finely wrought exploration of character and family relationships, Kathryn Magendie weaves a riveting story, filled with rich dialogue, regional expressions (many of which were unfamiliar to this New Jersey-born reader, but I was charmed all the same), and pop culture references of the 60s and 70s that will make you smile. There are some terrific scenes, one that involves girls, boys and snakes is as good a piece of writing as you’ll find in contemporary literature. The book is funny, poignant and rich with insight into the human heart. (less)