Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Review: The Thing About Great White Sharks by Rebecca Adams Wright

Title: The Thing About Great White Sharks
AuthorRebecca Adams Wright
Publisher: Little A
Date of Publication: February 20, 2015
Pages: 182

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy. To read other blogger reviews, check out the virtual book tour that's currently running!

Since reading The Dunning Man in December, I've been on a short story rampage. Kelly Link, Margaret Atwood, Marina Keegan and Jonathan Lethem have all had collections on my nightstand in the past two months. The opportunity to read this brand new collection was perfectly timed.

Wright's settings vary in ways that remind me of collections by George Saunders or Karen Russell. One moment we are in a run-of-the-mill suburban duplex with a Herman Melville impersonator. Then we're rocketed into a terrifying scientific arena, where specific personalities are required to forego vicious animal attacks. War-torn countries of the past sit beside war-torn, colonized planets in the distant future. The breadth of imagination in this collection is really inspiring.

My favorite piece follows a group of actors that travel from one school gymnasium to the next, reenacting the lives of "Great American Writers." The protagonist, Melville, has fallen in love with a coworker portraying Hawthorne. He works up the courage to invite her to the annual GAW holiday bash. The corresponding progression of their literary relationship, as they see each other out of character for the first time, is funny and sad and incredibly real. 

"I do my best. In the weeks before the Bash, I inject more flair into my performances than ever before, bolstered, in part, by the warmer, knowing smile Hawthorne now directs toward me during our brief passing times. We still don’t chat much before I go onstage, but soon we’ll have an entire drunken night together. I know for a fact that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson made love on top of the wig tubs last year. Who’s to say such a passion won’t seize Hawthorne and me?"

Monday, December 1, 2014

Review: The Dunning Man by Kevin Fortuna

Title: The Dunning Man

Author: Kevin Fortuna
Publisher: Lavender Ink
Date of Publication: October 2014
Pages: 140

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy. To read other blogger reviews, check out the virtual book tour that's currently running!

Summary from the Publisher: 

"The six stories in THE DUNNING MAN feature anti-heroes who reject society's rules. Characters from all walks of life-a rogue hip-hop star, a blackjack dealing mom, a middle-aged drunk plowing through his inheritance, and an empty nester housewife trying to make peace with the past. They each exist in the here and now, living for what's possible and what's left-not what they've left behind. Redemption awaits all, but only along the rutted, gut-churning path of honest self-examination. Age quod agis. Set in Atlantic City, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., the Hudson Valley and Manhattan, Fortuna's stories depict the violent clash between society's expectations and the chaotic arc of individual destiny. These are powerful tales of individuals imbued with larger-than-life personalities and the all-consuming need to find something worth seeking."

Things I Think:

I was beyond impressed with this small-yet-powerful collection from Kevin Fortuna. Though at first glance the book looks like a quick read, I found myself savoring each of the stories over the course of two weeks. Each moment Fortuna creates in his quiet stories resonated heavily with me, and I think this is primarily due to the "underdog" status of each protagonist. Deemed criminals, or slumlords, or simply a drunk, the characters are imbued with loving complexity, making it impossible not to take a sympathetic ear to the struggles in which they inevitably find themselves.

I admittedly had to look up the context of the title:

The final story in the collection, which shares the book's title, necessarily uses this definition most literally. (A struggling landlord is attempting to collect on rent from his elusive, tiger-owning, circus-running subletters.) However, the concept is interwoven throughout each tale equally, as Fortuna's characters attempt to collect on lost loves, missed chances, the respect of their peers. These quests have an emotional cost that's incredibly heightened by the setting, and the socioeconomic aspects that come into play are no less import for characters seeking love rather than money. 

Looking forward to more from this author and his Lethem-esque scenarios. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Review: Further Out Than You Thought by Michaela Carter

Title: Further Out Than You Thought

Author: Michaela Carter
Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
Date of Publication: August 5, 2014
Pages: 320

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy. To read other blogger reviews, check out the virtual book tour that's currently running!

Two Sentence Summary: Gwen is a 25 year old poet-by-day, stripper-by-night in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. The novel tracks Gwen's relationship (with a loserish Leo), her friendships (with fellow strippers and former rockstar Count Valiant), and the path to finding Gwen's true self and true desires.

Things I Think: It is readily apparent in reading "Further Out Than You Thought" that the author is also a poet. Her writing is thoughtful and imagistic. Unique turns of phrase crop up at unexpected moments. And the protagonist, a young poet trying to pay her way through an MFA program, is lovingly portrayed in a way that makes it clear she is close to the author's heart.

What detracted from the plot, for me, was the pacing. The LA riots are an extremely robust topic, so I was expecting a great deal more focus in this direction. Two riveting, fast-paced scenes take place during the riots, but otherwise the action is very much off-stage. There are heavy doses of contemplation and introspection, which are beautifully written but pull the reader away from the heart of the book's plot, time and again. 

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Review: The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen

Title: The Queen of the Tearling
Author: Erika Johansen
Publisher: Harper
Date of Publication: July 8, 2014
Pages: 448

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy! "The Queen of the Tearling" will be on tour for the next couple of weeks; check it out here.

Two Sentence Summary: Protagonist Kelsea Glynn, daughter of the former Tearling queen, has been in hiding until her nineteenth birthday. She is then called upon to take the throne, deposing her corrupt uncle and ending the slavery imposed on her people by the neighboring Red Queen. 

Things I Think: This book is the first in what is anticipated to be a trilogy by new author Erika Johansen. There's little information to be found about Erika online, so I'm eager to learn more about her background and current work. Erika, if you're reading this, let's be San Francisco friends! :)

Most interesting about this book is the futuristic setting, which reveals itself subtly as the book progresses. The world in which we find ourselves is "Post-Crossing," alluding to a movement from society as we know it now to an attempt at Utopianism. The Post-Crossing world does not have electricity, modern medicine, or any of the technology we have come to rely on so heavily. Books are a valuable commodity, as most of them were lost when society transferred to digital copies. With horses as the main mode of transport and antiquated weaponry, the world feels very medieval, and the economic climate of the Tearling is comparably bleak. I would have loved more details around this, more attention to this setting aspect, but perhaps these additional context clues are to come in the next two books. 

Snippets of magic come into play: a powerful heirloom necklace which grants Kelsea unique powers, or the Red Queen's occult genetic experiments that keep her forever young and beautiful. And I also appreciate that this book defies the genre standards of a love triangle (or heavy-handed love element in any form) and a waify, male-dependent ingenue. Kelsea is book smart as well as politically savvy, and what she lacks in physical strength she makes up for with fierce intuition and unflagging determination. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Review: A Replacement Life by Boris Fishman

Title: A Replacement Life
AuthorBoris Fishman
Date of Publication: June 3, 2014
Pages: 336

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy! "A Replacement Life" will be on tour for the next couple of weeks; check it out here.

Two Sentence Summary: Slava wants nothing more than to be a respected writer; he toils at Century magazine (New York) to earn crumbs of recognition, and as a result has distanced himself from his boisterous immigrant family. When Slava's grandmother dies, her funeral brings the family back together and Slava finds his way into a new type of writing project, one that will ultimately change his relationship to his family, to his country, and to his past. 

Things I Think: Fishman's novel reminds me of the first time I read "A Clockwork Orange." (This may be an apparently random comparison, but bear with me.) At first introduction, entry into the protagonist's world seems challenging from a readerly standpoint. But after being ensconced (for a chapter or two) in the vocabulary, the names, the rites and quirks that make up this fictional account, passage through the rest of the tale is seamless and enjoyable. 

Though I've been unable to finish the last few chapters (my digital version of the Advance Reader's Copy expired! Ah!), I'm completely enamored with the family at the center of this novel. The characters that revolve around Slava (and his "special writing project") are so colorful, so pronounced, that it's difficult to believe they are fictitious. Slava, too, is endearingly complex, and the trajectory of his belief system makes the book both gripping and personal. 

This is not a quick and easy novel, so don't plan to gobble it up on your weekend off. It's humorous, but dark, and the language is beautiful but densely packed. The read is fully worth the time investment. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Title: The Serpent of Venice
AuthorChristopher Moore
PublisherWilliam Morrow
Date of Publication: April 22, 2014
Pages: 336

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy! "The Serpent of Venice" will be on tour for the next couple of weeks; check it out here.

Two Sentence Summary: Remember that one time that "Othello" got really funny, and even more complex, and had a killer mermaid/dragon/sea-snake? Told from the perspective of court jester Pocket (a carry-over character from other novels by Moore), this book is a hilarious adventure story with Shakespearean roots.

Things I Think: I haven't read a Christopher Moore novel in a few years, when I became obsessed with vampire stories "You Suck" and "Bite Me." (I largely picked them up because I love stories set in my city, San Francisco. But then they turned out to be extremely witty and well-written and I couldn't stop.) Little did I know he had written a book called "Fool," featuring King Lear's jester named Pocket. 

This latest adventure of Pocket's places him in the context of the Othello saga, and as always Moore has successfully taken a classic, understood tenet (in this case, Shakespearean drama) and complicated it in extremely entertaining ways. Character personalities are hyper-realistic / un-fancified. Motivations are deeply rooted in well-described histories. Nothing is sacred and everything is up for a good mocking. 

Most of all, I appreciate that Moore has made this comprehensible and enjoyable regardless of one's familiarity with the original play. Having a deeper knowledge of the original context certainly adds flavor to the reading, but a reader could go in blind and still have a great reading experience. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Review: The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld

Title: The Enchanted
Author: Rene Denfeld
Publisher: Harper 
Date of Publication: March 4, 2014 
Pages: 256

Thank you to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing this review copy! "The Enchanted" will be on tour for the next couple of weeks; check it out here.

Two Sentence Summary: In a crumbling, low-tech maximum security prison, an anonymous Death Row inmate narrates a bleak tale of suffering and corruption,(both within "the system" and in the characters' past) with surreal tinges of beauty and hope.  A woman simply referred to as "The Lady," graces Death Row with her insight and empathy, working to investigate the lives of the imprisoned in the hope of saving their lives and illuminating the paths that have led to tragedy.

Things I Think: The author of this book has a fascinating background: in addition to being a reputed novelist and journalist, she has also worked as a death penalty investigator. This lends her subject matter not only a huge amount of clout, but an impressively realistic vision that books on a similar topic lack. 

Most impressive, though, is the gracefulness with which the plot reveals itself. Amidst descriptions of food so foul it made my stomach turn, amidst senseless brutality, torture and psychological abuse, Denfield has planted tiny seeds of strange beauty. They primarily manifest in the mind of the narrator, a man whose crimes are so horrific that he won't mention them, for fear of promulgating the idea. In fact, he has lost the ability to speak at all. In his solitude, though, he has constructed intricate explanations for the goings-on of the prison system (wild horses living beneath their "dungeon," for example).

I was most in love with Denfeld's avoidance of an imposed morality. Even those on Death Row are deserving of The Lady's (and our) consideration, deserving of a second look to identify their humanity, and their trajectory to this terrifying place. There is no enforced alignment of actions with "goodness" or "badness" - things simply are, things simply have occurred, and forward motion (emotionally, mentally, physically if possible) becomes the most powerful response.