A great end to the Southern Reach series. In Acceptance VanderMeer's investigators return to Area-X to conclude the trilogy, where they explore the st...moreA great end to the Southern Reach series. In Acceptance VanderMeer's investigators return to Area-X to conclude the trilogy, where they explore the strange landscape and seek the answers for the area's surreal disaster. After a slower second book I was happy to find Acceptance moving with a faster pace. The novel expands the first book's expedition, both discovering answers and new questions as the party pushes further into Area-X. The backstory explored in alternate chapters does not slow the book down, as I felt it often did in book two, but created an interesting narrative that colored the present story instead. Without giving too much away, I can say that the ending is appropriately unsettling, and a fitting conclusion to the series. (less)
Where Annihilation explores the area of the strange disaster, Authority focuses on the flip side of the Southern Reach, following a man nicknamed Cont...moreWhere Annihilation explores the area of the strange disaster, Authority focuses on the flip side of the Southern Reach, following a man nicknamed Control as he joins the office charged with analyzing and explaining the area's phenomenon. Despite many interesting scenes, and the same growing sense of dread its predecessor created, this book was a somewhat disappointing follow-up to Annihilation. Too many pages are devoted to the politics and bureaucratic intricacies of the Southern Reach office, and as the reader already knows what is on the other side of the border (Control does not), his investigation lacks urgency. There is still much in this book to recommend it, and many creepy and strange scenes, but the balance seems a bit off. The ending, though, was well worth the wait even if the narrative was bogged down at times. I can't wait to read the next installment.(less)
Matthew Quinn Martin hits the reset button to give the vampire genre a much-needed overhaul in the first installment of what will hopefully become a v...moreMatthew Quinn Martin hits the reset button to give the vampire genre a much-needed overhaul in the first installment of what will hopefully become a very long series.
Imagine being afraid of vampires (instead of annoyed by or attracted to them). This is what made Nightlife stand out immediately: Martin's vampires are actually frightening. Instead of offering the usual paint-by-number cliches, he reinvents the well-worn trope, recasting vampires as actual monsters while creating his own Lovecraftian history.
Beth Becker, a no-nonsense bartender in New Harbor, Connecticut, becomes an amateur detective as friends in her town begin to disappear (hooray for Female Protagonists!). Investigating the disappearances, she finds her path crossing with a grizzled stranger, a vagrant prophet, New Harbor's secret society, hordes of drunken party-goes, and a phalanx of indifferent cops -all of whom she will need to out fight or outwit if she hopes to see her friends again.
At times the characters strayed near cliches, and the dialogue was a bit stilted, but only in an enjoyable B-movie way. Balanced by a great combination of suspense and humor, carried quickly along by Martin's workman-like prose, Nightlife kept me up late, reading and furiously swiping my screen to see what would happen next.(less)
A great start to the series. The story of a group of explorers venturing into an area changed by an unspecified disaster (environmental? supernatural?...moreA great start to the series. The story of a group of explorers venturing into an area changed by an unspecified disaster (environmental? supernatural?) is gripping and engaging, while the personal back story of the main character creates a nice layer of depth. Equal parts Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft. (less)
If Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison had a love child raised by Barry Hannah he would sound something like Bobby Bird, the life story of a washed-up rock...moreIf Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison had a love child raised by Barry Hannah he would sound something like Bobby Bird, the life story of a washed-up rock star named Bobby Bird who embodies every rock and roll cliché.
The novel reads like the most depraved moments from VH1’s “Behind the Music” mashed into one musician (plus an adventure on a satanic cult cruise ship and a fist-fight with Bob Dylan).
Half-way through Bobby Bird warns that “This is a story I’m not too inclined to tell unless you are particularly interested in tales of full grown men turning into worthless assholes.” Bobby Bird is a misogynist, an addict, and a deadbeat whose most redemptive quality is a kind of endearing stupidity. A deeper search than just the limits of excess drives him, though. Be it through lovers, surrogate fathers, or brothers-in-arms, Bird’s real search for companionship keeps him restless, and keeps the plot rocketing forward.(less)
With Nobody Move Denis Johnson joins the growing league of literary writers trying their hands at genre writing for fun and profit, and garnering rema...moreWith Nobody Move Denis Johnson joins the growing league of literary writers trying their hands at genre writing for fun and profit, and garnering remarkable success for their efforts. In the last several years we’ve seen Michael Chabon and Philip Roth tackle Alternative History, Cormac McCarthy move into the Apocalypse genre, and Thomas Pynchon releases a detective novel for some reason (imagine yourself saying that to a friend only a few years ago). It makes you wonder who will be next.
Myself, I’m looking forward to Marylin Robinson’s upcoming novel, a multi-generational chronicling of a family of werewolves. Given the recent trend towards crossing over the genre lines, Jonhson’s foray into crime fiction is a bit surprising considering his last novel won the National Book Award (i.e. huge, literary prize), but not hugely shocking.
And like Chabon, Roth, McCarthy, and Pynchon, Johnson’s foray into genre writing is a successful one. I’m a little late to the party with my review, and am not sure what more I can say that hasn’t been said. This book is a blast to read. The pace moves quickly, the characters are well-drawn through dialogue and brief descriptions, the setting is fully realized, the language is sparse and strong. I read this in two days, weekdays, around my work, commuting, and life schedule. If it was the weekend, I probably would have gone through it all at once.
I think Johnson’s experiment into crime fiction succeeds for the same reason other literary authors succeed when crossing genres: he is a fan of the form. Jimmy Luntz, Johnson’s anti-hero, inhabits a world characters from Jesus’s Son don’t exactly live in, but would recognize as existing concurrently to their own. If “shithead” had made a few more mistakes, borrowed or stole money and/or drugs from the wrong person, or if his story had gone on a little bit longer, he could have ended up as Luntz. Maybe he did. We’d have to ask Johnson. So writing a crime novel wasn’t too much of a stretch for Johnson in the same way that writing a science fiction novel wasn’t a huge stretch for Chabon, and Pynchon’s move into the detective genre is a good fit for someone whose work regularly features paranoia and conspiracy (the detective’s bread and butter).
In short, these authors are fans of the new forms they write in. But unlike Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Johnson does not transcend his new genre as Chabon, McCarthy, and Roth have done. He doesn’t get Denis Johnson all over it. The result is a novel another writer could have written. The lyrical language, the hallucinogenic epiphanies, the introspective narrator and vivid imagery readers of Jesus’s Son will recognize can all be found in Nobody Move, but they are subdued and tamed, brought in line by the genre.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a great novel, and one I recommend without reservations to anyone, anywhere, who likes to read cool books. Crime fiction fans will not be disappointed by a watered-down crossover, and literary fiction fans may find themselves searching out the authors who influenced Johnson’s work.
But when literary authors crossover into the genre realm -and vice-versa- it is important they bring their own style and voice with them intact. Instead of a book that is obviously a crime novel and just happens to be written by Denis Johnson, we should have a book that is obviously written by Denis Jonhson and just happens to be a crime novel. Nobody Move is the former and, as much as I liked it, I think what readers really need to further push the boundaries of genre during these kinds of experiments is the latter instead.(less)
Shutter Island is somewhat of a stretch for Lehane. The book is not set in the present day Boston (rest easy, it takes place on an island just a stone...moreShutter Island is somewhat of a stretch for Lehane. The book is not set in the present day Boston (rest easy, it takes place on an island just a stone-throw from Boston). Set in the fifties, it follows US Marshall Teddy Daniels as he travels to the secluded psychiatric hospital to investigate the disappearance of an inmate. Overall, this is a great read. Even though Teddy is a full and entertaining character, the island itself really steals the show. As far as settings go, it doesn’t get much better than an old-school insane asylum turned inside out by a hurricane, and the plot boils along.
Until the ending. The novel is well-researched, and Lehane even manages a few sly winks at present-day psychiatry. In a way, the novel can almost be read as a parable of psychology vs psychiatry, therapy vs medication. Lehane had me with this book, right up to the end. In an otherwise great book, this is where Lehane lost me. The ending was not dissappointing enough to ruin the book for me, by any means, but it felt like Lehane took an easy, and somewhat familiar, way out (and I will spoil it below).
I don’t want to go into too much depth, but suffice it to say that the island is swarming with mental patients and no one is exactly who he seems. As Teddy persues the mystery of a missing woman and struggles with the hospital’s chief physician’s obvious deception, the motivations of his partner, the staff, the patients, and everyone else on the island comes into question (think the ending of The Game coupled with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and you are on the right track).
It seems like Lehane reached a point in the narrative where he had to make a choice: either stay true to the plot or ditch it in favor of Teddy’s backstory. So he makes Teddy’s “investigation” a part of his therapy as a patient of the island. This makes his story more believable, maybe more “literary”, and less satisfying for the reader because the backstory is not as interisting as the actual narrative. I think my frustration with the ending of this novel comes because Lehane did such a good job drawing me into Teddy’s investigation, only to subvert it. So in giving us a familiar Fight Club kind of ending, Lehane undermined what works best in his novel: the engaging plot and menacing atmosphere.
That being said, once Lehane made his decision to eschew the premise, he did a good job of filling out the back story and working towards an ending that works for it. But it seemed like the two threads of the story Lehane was trying to weave together, the engaging plot and the full backstory, were at odds without ever being reconciled.(less)
This book was published in 2006, but I’m loosening the the definition of “book of the year” to include all books I enjoyed this year. I bought Snow on...moreThis book was published in 2006, but I’m loosening the the definition of “book of the year” to include all books I enjoyed this year. I bought Snow on a whim for one dollar on an every-book-must-go cart outside a bookstore. I recognized Pamuk as a Nobel Prize Winner (2006), which does not always endear an author to me (in general, I think of reading a Nobel Laureate as something that “builds character,” like shoveling snow). But Snow, which was written in 2004 and translated in 2006, wasn’t what I expected.
The novel follows Ka, an banished poet returning to the small town of Kars after years of exile. Ostensibly, Ka is investigating the suicide epidemic afflicting adolescent girls in the town. But as Ka’s half-hearted investigation gets waylaid, his real motive becomes clear: to find and woo a woman he barely knew eight years ago, who has since married one of his closest friends. Ka’s timing is poor. A severe snowstorm sweeps over the town, arriving with the poet, closing all roads connecting the town to the outside world. While the town is cut off a group of nationalists literally stage a coup, launching their violent takeover during the town’s first televised stage performance. Despite the violence aroudn him, Ka finds something close to happiness in the snow clogged town, and begins writing poetry for the first time in years.
Pamuuk uses this highly-charged situation to explore the struggles between the East and the West, belief and athiesm, and the violent clashes between religous extremists and secularists. At the same time, the mystery elements in the novel, the multiple love-triangles and conspiracy boiling just beneath the surface of everyday life, keep the narrative moving quickly. But in addition to an engaging plot reminiscent of the way Graham Greene was able to dramatize the struggles in Catholocism, Pamuk plays with post-modern form as the novel unfolds, complete with inner works that comment on the book they are written in, and the revelation and introduction of the real narrator well into the novel.
Pamuk’s careful balance of time and different time frames in this novel is remarkable. The present narrative, the actual story, is rooted in the past. Because we are reading a kind of “recitation” by a narrator (written after Ka has died, it is revealed), the hints of the future also color our perspectives of the story. It is a balancing act Pamuk handles perfectly to highlight his tragic narrator. Given the author’s elegant prose, the result it a fast-moving, entertaing novel that explores serious issues in a dramatic environment, unfolding one carefully-written page at a time.(less)
Unlike the recently discovered missing volume of Bolaño’s masterwork, 2666, The Skating Rink is one of Bolaño’s older works. In publishing this so soo...moreUnlike the recently discovered missing volume of Bolaño’s masterwork, 2666, The Skating Rink is one of Bolaño’s older works. In publishing this so soon after his latest, seminal work, New Directions has given the English-only readers an interesting opportunity to take a look at Bolaño’s career as a whole.
In his slim novel, Bolaño sets up a tight murder-mystery in the fictional Spanish city of Z, involving a beautiful figure skater, a business owner, a vagrant poet, a local bureaucrat, and an impoverished opera singer, among others. Bolaño creates a lot of suspense and tension by playing these characters off each other, and by using the shifting narratives to alternately frustrate and satisfy the reader. But the context of the novel’s publication is just as interesting as what goes on inside the book’s covers.
Although The Skating Rink is Bolaño’s most recent book in English, it was first published in 1993, making it among his oldest published fiction. The book’s publication also comes on the heels of the huge success of 2666, Bolaño’s most recently-written novel, and sequentially his last. So the English reader, grabbing his or her Bolaño as it is released here, is given a scatter-shot picture of the author, and a somewhat confusing one (imagine, for example, a foreign press publishing Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five one year and following it immediately with Player Piano the next). But this also gives the English reader an opportunity to look at the bookends of his work, and to see how one comments on the other.
In The Skating Rink, readers find many familiar Bolaño-isms. The story is told by three first-person narrators who, although they seem unrelated at the novel’s beginning, are inexorably linked by its conclusion. This is a simpler version of the middle of The Savage Detectives, which expands on the alternating first-person narrators exponentially.
Bolaño often makes large jumps in chronology, and does not explicitly tell the reader what he might want to know. Instead, and often, he will stop to describing something seemingly irrelevant, like a particularly vivid. This can be frustrating, but it can also allow the reader to fill in the spaces in between the story-lines himself, and so Bolaño manages to make the reader an active participant in shaping a story that is unfolding in the background, as subtext, rather than leaving him a detached observer.
Readers will see this again as he uses the wildly divergent story-lines of 2666 to the same end and greater effect. Bolaño even seems to be testing out his characters: in The Skating Rink, readers will find a familiar troupe of itinerants, poets, beautiful-yet-distant women, Napoleonic and powerless beurocrats (who all may or may not be insane). Interestingly, Bolaño even tests out a typographical conceit. Like the fevered rant that makes up By Night in Chile, he eschews paragraph formatting, instead writing in solid blocks of text.
To say that The Skating Rink is not Bolaño writing in the full, later form that has earned him so much recent praise is not to say it isn’t a good book. While 2666 is his masterpiece, and The Savage Detectives is a masterwork in its own right, they are not easy to read, and not always fun. The tics particular to Bolaño mentioned above can be, when extended to the lengths he eventually takes them, not very accessible for many readers, and sometimes just plain annoying (I’m thinking of “The Part About the Crimes,” in 2666, filled with pages of graphic police reports, and the many first-person narrators of the middle of The Savage Detectives).
The Skating Rink is his most readable novel, and still contains all the traits that make Bolaño’s writing distinctly his own, making it both a good read in its own right as well as an interesting comment on his later work. But only until his next newly-discovered or freshly-translated book is released to an English audience, of course, and everything above is proven to be completely innacurate after all.(less)
The Boston Noir collection marks our fair city’s induction in the roving city-themed noir series, “Book Noir,” from Akashic Books. Already the series...moreThe Boston Noir collection marks our fair city’s induction in the roving city-themed noir series, “Book Noir,” from Akashic Books. Already the series has seen collections from Brooklyn, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Phoenix, among others. Dennis Lehane is an obvious choice as editor -I’d be be hard-pressed to come up with a close second in terms of Boston crime novelists. He proves a smart choice, as well, and has put together a collection of noir stories as he defines them: working-class tragedies. In this collection, Lehane explores not only crime, or, as he calls it “skuzzy people doing skuzzy things to other skuzzy people,” but explores what the Boston means to the people who live in, and more often just-outside, New England’s second-place city.
In his intro to this collection Lehane sets himself an ambitious goal. “One of the recurrent themes of Noir has always been the search for a home,” Lehane writes. “Yet the home being searched for in these pages might be Boston, and the journey to find it -however fruitless that goal might turn out to be- is as rich and varied, as hilarious and sad, and ultimately as engaging as the city itself.” The worst of these stories are great noir tales in their own right that evoke the city in a paint-by-numbers fashion (throw in a Red Sox hat here, a view of the Prudential Center there, and, of course, a healthy amount of “wicked,” and your story is set in Boston). In the best, the city itself is acting upon the musician from New York now living in the Back Bay, or the single mother relocated to the suburbs, and becomes the unseen protagonist in the story.
The only fault I find with this collection is that despite the breadth of locations and characters, there seems to be an obvious omission. Lehane writes of the feeling of loss experienced in a “less violent and beiger city”, one being calmed and tamed by progress. Yet we are not presented stories seen from the side of the other. In a city with more students than pigeons, we never enter a campus—high school or college. The collection is free of entitled yuppies, another Boston mainstay. The “beigers” themselves, the affluent upwardly-mobile, the mid-thirties restaurateurs pushing into the south end, the hipsters painting murals over the graffiti in Somerville and Jamaica Plain, and the tourists being guided through the park by a man dressed as Ben Franklin are absent. The part of the city the locals roll their eyes at, but cannot disavow, is not represented. We don’t necessarily need a story to take place on a Mega Super Duck Tour, but it wouldn’t be Boston without hearing their ubiquitous quack.(less)
One of the most appealing aspects about Martel’s previous work is the way he plays with form. In The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios he experime...moreOne of the most appealing aspects about Martel’s previous work is the way he plays with form. In The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios he experiments with structure, anti-narrations, and even radical typography in every story. Life of Pi‘s reveal at the end, and its immediate undercutting, completely alters the reading of the novel while also raising questions about the nature and purpose of storytelling. In both books, the risks he takes enrich his stories, and are successful because the actual story is already strong. They are the icing on the cake.
In Beatrice and Virgil there is no cake, and all the overly-sweet icing soon gives the reader a stomach ache.(less)
Fountain earned my undying fandom when I first came across his amazing short story “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers” in the 2005 O’Henry collection. In a v...moreFountain earned my undying fandom when I first came across his amazing short story “Fantasy for Eleven Fingers” in the 2005 O’Henry collection. In a very strong collection, this story was a stand-out. Although he made us wait for Billy Lynn, famously shelving a novel he struggled with for years, the wait was worth it. Billy Lynn follows the members of Bravo Company, soldiers recently made celebrities from a viral video of their action in Iraq, as they are treated to the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving game. Steeped in pop culture, fluidly switching between past and present as the nineteen-year-old soldier Billy Lynn muses on his life and sudden celebrity, Fountain digs deep into what it means to be returning from war and preparing to leave for war again. Although his extensive research shows on every page, what impressed me most was not Fountain’s accurate portrayal of the soldiers, which was spot-on, but the way he captures the non-soldiers, everyone else—i.e. you and me—as we approach the soldiers to mumble thanks and platitudes about honor and sacrifice. Aside from an annoying and unnecessary typography stunt, this book is pitch-perfect.(less)
If familiarity really does breed contempt then it would be hard to imagine a writer more familiar with Chicago than Sam Pink. His latest book, release...moreIf familiarity really does breed contempt then it would be hard to imagine a writer more familiar with Chicago than Sam Pink. His latest book, released on Valentine’s Day, is a bipolar love letter to the city that is at turns hilarious and hateful (albeit a love letter that contains the sentences “Fuck Western Avenue and fuck Chicago” and “How do you want me to Fuck you, Chicago”). Pulled by the two opposite poles of antipathy and sentiment, the anonymous narrator of Pink’s Rontel explores Chicago’s down and out, describing their lives with a compassion that feels genuinely heartfelt.
After calling in on his last day of work, Rontel’s narrator wanders through a hot Chicago summer day, visiting his co-workers and neighbors, playing video games with his brother, and petting his passive cat, Rontel. Written in a manic stream-of-consciousness, the narrator’s memories and fantasies (which are about punching strangers in the face as often as embracing them) sometimes overwhelm the present narrative. This balancing act would be impossible to pull off without Pink’s wonderfully profane narration, a mix of vitriol and pity cut with just the right amount of self-aware humor.(less)