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. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Review: "What I Had Before I Had You" by Sarah Cornwell

Title: What I Had Before I Had You
AuthorSarah Cornwell
Publisher: Harper
Date of Publication: January 7, 2014
Pages: 288

How I Heard About It: Another great find from a tour hosted by TLC Book Tours! Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! You can check out the rest of the tour here.  

"The past, I feel in this moment, is something that parents dangle in front of their children, something hoarded and valuable that we can never touch. They pretend to share, pulling out the old albums at Christmastime, but under their breath, they are saying, This is what I had before I had you."

Two Sentence Summary: Olivia has just gone through a messy divorce and must leave her beloved home in Austin with her two children (a teenage girl and a bipolar 9 year old son). As she returns to her hometown of Ocean Vista, she is haunted by memories of her past there (largely centered around her mother's denial about the death of her sisters and unexplained disappearances), and Olivia's struggles to parent her children become intricately overlaid upon her own childhood struggles.

[[author Sarah Cornwell]]

Things I Think: Sarah Cornwell has had several short stories published (and has won myriad awards) but this is her first novel. To use the word "engaging" falls short of the mark in describing the braided plot, with its hints of ... what? magical realism? mania? that perpetually overturn expectations.

This book is very much of patterns: Olivia's mother, a psychic, cycles through lengthy phases of manic productivity and near catatonia. Her son is officially diagnosed as bipolar. As Olivia reminisces about her mother's sporadic evacuations from their home (with no notice, no way to reach her, and no explanation upon her return), she finds that her son has wandered off on the Ocean Vista boardwalk and can't be located. 

Cornwell explores Olivia's position as a seeming "hinge" between these two, unraveling landscapes, and in doing so creates a mesmerizing tension, rapidly transitioning between timelines and trials. The writing is lyrical, but not in a manner that overshadows/grinds against gritty circumstance. I'm on a quest now to find more of this author's work!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: "Taking What I Like" by Linda Bamber

Title: Taking What I Like
Author: Linda Bamber
Publisher: Black Sparrow Press
Date of Publication: July 31, 2013
Pages: 256

How I Heard About It: I'm reviewing "Taking What I Like" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy! You can check out the rest of the tour here.

Two Sentence Summary: A collection of short stories revolving around well-known literary characters and plots, "Taking What I Like" is a successfully humorous re-imagining of the classics. The relationship of Shakespeare and other authors to each story differs (characters placed in new contexts, or peripheral characters explored more deeply, for example), and when combined with the sharp intellect and comedic undertones of Bamber's voice, these well-known figures are refreshed and gain interesting new dimensions.

Things I Think: I was immediately drawn to the concept behind this book, it's aim to "reinvent classic texts." It has the feel of a project piece, something I've experimented with and encountered frequently in the poetry world. For this reason, I decided to read and review "Taking What I Like" and am certainly glad to have done so. 

As other bloggers on the tour have pointed out, the author's life as an academic has clearly been influential here. Not only does the nature of the content point to professorial literary love, but settings and characters also reflect an involvement with / interest in the academic scene. And while Bamber clearly has an extensive knowledge of the classics, I feel certain that readers less-versed in Shakespeare, etc. have been provided ample keys to appreciate the stories as well. In "Casting Call," which features the cast of "Othello" as a collegiate faculty, the characters fully recall their sordid previous lives, and as readers we're given glimpses of the past tragedy in conjunction with their current position.

I still have more stories to savor in this book and am greatly looking forward to them. NPR has already featured Linda Bamber for her work in "Taking What I Like" and I anticipate more press for this book in the near future. 

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Review: "I Take You" by Nikki Gemmell

Title: I Take You
AuthorNikki Gemmell
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Date of Publication: December 31, 2013
Pages: 289

How I Heard About It: I've previously reviewed other work by this author, "With My Body." I'm reviewing "I Take You" as part of the book's extended tour, hosted by TLC Book Tours. Thank you to the publisher for the review copy!

Two Sentence Summary: After Connie's husband is severely injured in a skiing accident, their relationship (particularly it's treatment of intimacy) becomes increasingly... experimental? Thrilling at first, Connie and Cliff's sexual escapades gain a somewhat alarming momentum and Connie starts to question her role as object, play thing, prop.

"I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle. I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard desperate facts."

Things I Think: As mentioned in my earlier reviews of Nikki's work, I've been a fan of hers for many years, ever since a good friend recommended "The Bride Stripped Bare." I have loved her poetic diction and unique take on prose, her tendency to divide lengthy tales into tiny snapshots (separated by well-placed quotations.) 

A key component of the author's works I've read has always been female sexuality; discovery of, exploration of, deviation from... "I Take You" is certainly no different in this regard, but pushes the envelope much further in terms of eroticism. At times making direct reference to "The Story of O" and the more mainstream "Fifty Shades of Gray," "I Take You" holds absolutely nothing back in terms of the erotic (much like its characters). 

Making this book different than its predecessors ("The Bride Stripped Bare" and "With My Body") is the distinctly dark nature of the married couple's eroticism. An opening scene of marital experimentation involves a "surgical" process that truly turns Connie into property of her husband, an inadvertent sacrifice of bodily control at the husband's directive (and for the entertainment of others). The overly of the horrific with the sensual is certainly riveting and disturbing, as is the reader's difficulty to connect with our protagonist's thoughts on the matter. Connie's feelings vacillate rapidly and are relatively unclear from moment to moment; it's unsettling, in that we are driven to react with as much reticence and confusion as the character.

My concern with this narrative is a concern I experience with many "sexual liberation" tales - Gemmell's characters seem, over the course of the three books I've mentioned, to consistently rely exclusively on men to teach them how to utilize and appreciate their bodies and their lives. While this is an occurrence that can be based in reality, the fact that it is so heavily present time and time again in Gemmell's novels began to feel redundant in "I Take You." I found myself yearning for just one sturdy, take-charge female to break up the pattern a bit.