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Margaret Atwood, award-winning author of The Handmaid's Tale, the MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and Maddadam) and a host of other novels, short story and poetry collections (though, really, did I need to introduce her?). More at Atwood's website.
The jacket description says it best: Margaret Atwood turns to short fiction for the first time since her 2006 collection, Moral Disorder, with nine tales of acute insight, turbulent relationships, and psychological aberration..." Well said, though I would add "getting older" to the list of themes.
Stone Mattress works quite well, actually.
My recommendations are based on style and subject. They're also story collections as tight and cohesive as Stone Mattress: Neil Gaiman's Smoke and Mirrors, Stephen Graham Jones's States of Grace, and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son.
The first three tales in this book feature (or heavily allude to) one particular character: Constance Starr, author of the wildly successful Alphinland series of fantasy novels, who grapples with the recent death of her husband, the inevitability of her own mortality, past love affairs and the shift from derision to widespread acceptance of her speculative work. The spirit of this character also seems to travel throughout the collection. She may or may not be a loose doppleganger for Atwood.
Though a good thirty years too young, I pictured Alex Kingston, perhaps best known as Dr. River Song from Doctor Who.
Atwood is a strong proponent of Canadian identity, and thus paints the cold landscape with such beauty and finesse that, despite my aversion to cold climates, I can't help but want to live there.
She sits across the table from him girded for the combat she not doubt expects, her hair scraped severely off her forehead and twisted at the back of her neck like a tourniquet, her rectilinear gold earrings and clank necklace reinforcing the metallic harshness of her decree.
—From "The Freeze-Dried Groom" (my favorite of the nine)
Confession time: prior to reading Stone Mattress, I had not yet ventured into Atwood's fantastic, comical and psychologically astute works, though I'd heard nothing but good things about the author, both from friends and within the critical sphere. I must say, she definitely lives up to the hype, which is particularly refreshing given the duration of her career. Authors sometimes go stale after a time, but with this new publication it is clear Atwood hasn't lost any of the talent and skill that won her all those accolades.
As I mentioned above, this collection is tautly-assembled: it reads almost like a novel, in part because of the recurring characters in the first three stories, as well as a sense that some of the characters in the non-connected tales feel like echoes from the first three (with an absence of redundancy, I might add). But primarily it is the thematic undercurrent of maturity running throughout that concretizes the book. Every character looks into their past in order to make sense of their present: Constance re-examines her relationship with Gavin, the cocksure poet in "Alphinland"; Gavin likewise reminisces on his lingering love for Constance in "Revenant"; Sam maps his unhappy marriage and finds himself on a dangerous path in "The Freeze-Dried Groom"; Jack traces the unfortunate history behind his "international horror classic" in "The Dead Hand Loves You"; and, in the titular tale, Verna confronts a terrible experience from high school, and sets about a murderous course of rectification. The results of this looking-back vary in tone from dark to lighthearted, but in each of the nine tales, moving forward seems to be the only way to go.
The writing here is sharp and superb, but never too showy or distracting to the narratives, which are all intricate and compelling. Furthermore, Atwood has an excellent knack for placing herself in her characters' shoes, living and walking within their sometimes narrowed perspectives, neither outwardly judging them nor wholly embracing them. Stone Mattress is therefore an infinitely rich read, one certain to please old fans, or in my case, make new ones. Definitely pick up this book.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Chris Shultz
The Bone Clocks
Stylistic chameleon David Mitchell, author of the stylistic chameleon, Cloud Atlas.
Young Holly Sykes hears other people's voices in her head. At fifteen years old, she runs away from home. Her brother goes missing a few days later. She spends the rest of her life trying to make sense of his disappearance, even when it involves warring psychic factions.
Cloud Atlas for Dummies
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones
Holly Sykes, fifteen year old runaway; Holly Sykes, twenty-something barmaid in the Swiss Alps; Holly Sykes, "married" mother of one; Holly Sykes, best-selling author of the spiritual memoir, The Radio People; Holly Sykes, middle-aged woman embroiled in inter-dimensional espionage; Holly Sykes, seventy five year old grandmother living in dystopian Ireland.
A few different actresses, if you want to avoid an embarrassing makeup debacle a la the Wachowski's Cloud Atlas adaptation. The same actress could handle the middle sections, but you'd definitely want a teen and an older woman for the beginning and the end. Hailee Steinfeld for the kid, if you grab her up quick, and Dame Judi Dench for the grandmother. And how about Jennifer Lawrence for the middle Hollys? C'mon, America! You know you still lover her! Plus, she is a damn fine actress.
So many settings... But Iceland and pre-dystopian Ireland sound gorgeous. And a month from now, I will have been to one of them!
Here's a good example of Mitchell's linguistic playfulness:
"Get our firm diaphragms wobbling, boys! Wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble. Trebles, lesss sssybilanccce on the esss—we aren't a troupe of Gollums, now, are we?"
There are moments when this novel gets a little silly. Even in the hands of a writer as talented as Mitchell, a psychic battle is a pretty preposterous thing. All frantic gestures and floating bodies. Still, if you can get past that, there is so much here to entertain and inspire, so much in Mitchell's storytelling to marvel at. It helps that the really fantastical stuff doesn't happen until well past the halfway point. By then you are so absorbed in the characters and their connections, you take it in stride. There's no way in hell a little Harry Potter action is gonna stop you from finishing this book.
Especially if you're a Mitchell fan. The Bone Clocks shares a number of similarities with Cloud Atlas, his most popular novel. Both books contain a sextet of interconnected stories that deal with souls being shared between bodies (although the connections in Cloud Atlas are much more subtle). Also, the stylistic differences between the sections in Clocks are not as pronounced. Except for the final section, most of them take place in a world we recognize as our own, with writing that could be described as "contemporary."
So in that respect, The Bone Clocks is like a more accessible version of Cloud Atlas. But calling it that would be doing it a disservice. Being more accessible does not make it a lesser novel. It is, quite simply, a joy to read. Each section builds upon the last, while still presenting the reader with exciting new characters and scenarios. Mitchell transcends time and place, feeling equally at home in 19th Century Australia as he does in Ireland in the 80s. It's like he's been to all these places, lived lives within lives.
Despite this, this is not a patchwork novel. It is a cohesive whole. One that will have you racing ahead to see what happens next, but also flipping back to reread as you discover new connections. In that way, the reading almost becomes a non-linear experience. Fluid, like the lives of the Horologists. Still, it never loses its momentum. This is a story about the future as much as anything else. Not just the future of the characters, but the future of the environment, society, and of all mankind
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Josh Chaplinsky
Love Me Back
Meta Rosenberg Fellow and National Book Foundation ‘5 Under 35’ honoree, Merritt Tierce.
The journey of a brilliant, damaged girl into the vulgar madness that is the restaurant industry.
Sex, Drugs, and A Six-Top-On-Your-Ass-About-Getting-More-Bread-Sticks
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski, Tampa by Alissa Nutting
Marie, a pixie-esque, semi-sociopathic hardcore food server.
The bulk of the novel takes place in Dallas, Texas, and it’s a fine town and all, but no.
We are saying to each other if you have an affliction, any remorse or anguish, eat it, drink it, snort it, fuck it, use it, suck it, kill it.
For the first ten years of my working life, I worked in the restaurant industry: pizza cook, dishwasher, grill cook, busboy, waiter, banquet waiter, bar back, bartender. The only position I didn’t work was as a host or manager, and that was mostly because there wasn’t any action in either position. And this is the biggest attraction (other than it’s super easy to get hired and you typically get a free meal at the end of your shift, and, oh, easy access to TONS of free drugs and booze) to working in a restaurant, the constant forward momentum, the insane pacing of Friday and Saturday nights where you bang out seventy covers in the blink of an eye and it leaves you sweaty, shaking, and exhausted. You also meet the most insane people humanity has to offer, and they’re mostly bugshit because they’ve been in the restaurant business way too long and the rush has warped them. If you’re smart, you get out while you’re young. You finish college, you move onto something—anything—else so you can see the world at normal speed again.
Love Me Back is a collection of restaurant stories. No, it’s not a short story collection, but a novel of one young woman’s descent into the barely controlled madness of the service industry. Tierce’s protagonist, Marie, is an emotional wreck. A good Christian girl and brilliant high school student who becomes pregnant on a church mission to South America and is faced with how to make a living to support her infant daughter. Marie is a mess of hormones and broken dreams, and has more or less emotionally cut herself off from those who should be most important in her life, including her daughter. Marie scores a gig at the Olive Garden, and so begins her journey from chain restaurant hell to mid-priced bistro, and finally to working in a high-end steakhouse that is only referred to as The Restaurant. Along the way, Marie attempts to fill the emotional holes in her life with drugs, booze, occasional self-immolation, and fucking. Lots and lots of consensual, semi-degrading fucking.
In a word, Love Me Back is DARK. Marie is the embodiment of an anti-hero. Her self-destructive actions are dangerous not only to herself, but to her daughter and anyone else she comes into contact with outside of the wait staff at whatever restaurant she’s working at. You should hate and pity her, but yet you find yourself asking if you were in her shoes, would you do the same? Would you attempt to fill the voids of disappointment and self-loathing in the same ways? Tierce charts Marie’s journey expertly with her visceral, muscular prose, never holding back on the details of Marie’s adrenaline charged days and nights as a food server and early mornings and days off numbing herself to the mundane rigors of the world outside of restaurant life.
Yes, Love Me Back is at times graphic (the self-appointed Amazon potty-mouth police are going to hate this one), but this aspect of the novel is over-shadowed by Tierce’s skill as a storyteller and her ability to interweave Marie’s story with the complex, absorbing supporting cast of characters who flit in and out of Marie’s transient, self-absorbed orbit. Ultimately, Love Me Back should be a tale of heartbreak and inevitable redemption, but thankfully Tierce realizes there’s no such thing as atonement, there’s only the next shift.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Keith Rawson
The Anatomy of Dreams
Chloe Krug Benjamin
The Anatomy of Dreams is told from the perspective of Sylvie Patterson, beginning with her teenage years at Mills, a boarding school in Eureka, California, following her to age thirty. While at Mills, she meets Gabe, another student, and falls in love with him. After Gabe mysteriously disappears during their senior year, he shows up in Sylvie’s life again, first in her dreams and then in reality, while she’s attending university in Berkeley. He urges her to join him in the research he is conducting with Dr. Adrian Keller, the former headmaster at Mills and the reason Gabe left without saying goodbye. Gabe explains that Keller is studying dreams and consciousness, and attempting to teach patients with sleep disorders to lucid dream and better protect themselves. The pair spend the next six years following Keller from Fort Bragg to Martha’s Vineyard, and finally to Madison, Wisconsin, where they fall down the rabbit hole of Keller’s work...perhaps, too far down the rabbit hole.
Please Return if Found Dreaming
Mystery novels, but you want to try something a little different.
Sylvie Patterson, a level-headed realist who gets swooped up in research, which she starts to question over time.
Younger Sylvie would be played by Chloe Grace Moretz, and adult Sylvie would be played by Brie Larson.
The novel travels through the following cities: Eureka, CA; Madison, WI; Berkeley, CA; Martha’s Vineyard, MA; Fort Bragg, CA; and Seattle, WA. I’ve lived in Seattle and it is beautiful. My next pick would probably be Berkeley.
It was clear that couples speak with their bodies, not just their voices; that the body is confused in its allegiances; and that, sometimes, the body betrays the mind of its owner in order to communicate something to the partner—an insurgent rushing across party lines with a letter in hand.
We all dream. Sometimes we remember bits and pieces of them, and they float around in our heads like memories that may or may not be ours. What if we could use the time we spend dreaming to our benefit, to change our realities for the better? This idea is at the center of The Anatomy of Dreams. As someone who has tried again and again (without success) to achieve lucidity, tapping into the dream world intrigues me. However, for Sylvie Patterson, the novel's protagonist, this compelling thought becomes more and more disconcerting as the story progresses.
Benjamin’s narrative is non-linear, and while I can appreciate this form of storytelling, I was not sure why it was necessary in this case. I wanted to stay with each storyline until it resolved, so when a chapter cut off and jumped to another time and setting, I felt disoriented. Thom and Janna, Sylvie and Gabe’s neighbors while they live in Madison, were my favorite characters, though they are technically peripheral. I wanted some of their charm and quirkiness to exist in Sylvie and Gabe, who felt more one-dimensional. What is lacking in the protagonists, however, is made up for in the descriptions of the experiments Keller, Sylvie, and Gabe conduct on their patients, and the surprising twists and turns the overall plot takes. It is satisfying to watch the characters change in extremely significant ways, especially Dr. Keller. He mostly remains a mystery, but the flickers of humanity that shine through, specifically in Sylvie's last conversation with him, really hit. Benjamin is a skilled writer, and her ability to handle the pacing of the story so well kept me interested.
While the bulk of the novel deals with dreaming, it has a lot to say about being young and trying to maintain romantic relationships. Sylvie's eye wanders for different reasons, but still, it is clear that she loves Gabe. The word that consistently characterizes Sylvie is 'doubtful.' I think doubt plagues us all, especially when it comes to relationships. There are always other options, so we are constantly questioning whether or not the people we choose to be with are right for us. Down the line, perhaps we begin to understand the freedom in choosing, committing, and growing with someone, but the truth is, we can never really know another person. This idea is magnified when we are young. So yes, this coming of age narrative is already one of uncertainty, questions, and discovery. By placing it against the backdrop of a dream world, the reader gets double the tension. If you enjoy fiction and are interested in some Lucid Dreaming 101, pick up The Anatomy of Dreams.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Christine Schmidt
Just in case you thought only live people could review books, Black Balloon publishers has recently acquired the services of several famous authors who happen to not be. Alive that is.
In the first of this series here's Mr Dickens giving us his reaction to John Green's recent bestseller, which he happened to pick up on a visit to the beard-dresser.
This is the new novel by Dennis Lehane, the author behind books like Mystic River, Gone, Baby, Gone and A Drink Before the War
A barman finds a puppy in a trash can, takes it home and starts a new life. Oh, and a bar owned by the Chechen Mafia, used as a “drop” for illegal betting money, is targeted for a heist.
I would call it: Bob Finds a Puppy — And His Bar Gets Ripped Off
Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books or Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels.
Bob Saginowski is a large, middle-aged barman with no life. A devout Catholic who’s lived all his life in the same declining parish in Boston, whose days mostly consist of going to work and going home to the house he grew up in. But he’s got a secret.
Someone like Gary Sinese, who can portray the nice guy. Tom Hardy’s been cast for the movie, though, so go figure.
Set in a suburb of Boston called Buckingham, it’s a pretty dismal place in a lot of ways, with more than its fair share of dysfunctional people. The kind of place you wouldn’t go unless you already lived there.
Who puts a dog in a barrel?
This is a cracking read — well-paced and with plenty of good story bits. I’m not being funny about the puppy, Rocco, that Bob rescues from a trash can: I think it’s a really good hook and makes the main character more human as the story progresses. Lehane has captured the essence of that story to the point that I totally sympathized with Bob’s desire to protect the dog. A useful mechanism to ramp up the tension between Bob and the psycho Eddy Deeds, it also provides a useful counterpoint to the darker themes of the plot.
I liked this book — the characters had depth, flaws, foibles and most of all, lives. Along the way, Lehane talks about faith, the decline of organized religion, insanity and the basic needs that govern most people. Definitely worth a look.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Dean Fetzer
James fucking Ellroy, author of badass books like The Black Dahlia, LA Confidential, American Tabloid, and Blood's A Rover.
Nobody puts Ellroy in a box. His plots are too large, too sprawling. The bulk of Perfidia takes place after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and centers around the mysterious murder of a Japanese family. Everything snowballs from there. We're talking a massive, bloody snowball of police corruption, severed limbs, and civil rights violations.
The Fifth Column
Uh, James Ellroy, because the only writer James Ellroy likes is James Ellroy.
William H. Parker, Captain with the LAPD; Sergeant Dudley Smith—the one and only; Hideo Ashida, a brilliant police chemist, mentioned briefly in The Black Dahlia; and Kay Lake, who also appeared in The Black Dahlia.
This is a tough one. Scott Haze for Parker. Dude is a powerhouse. He doesn't look much like the real-life Captain, but after Child of God, I'd watch him in anything. A young Toshiro Mifune as Hideo would be perfect, if he were alive (and young). Can we Benjamin Button James Cromwell? Because as far as I'm concerned, he is Dudley Smith. For Kay Lake, anyone but Scarlett Johansson. She was awful in The Black Dahlia. How about Natalie Dormer, who plays Margaery on Game of Thrones? She's the closest thing we've got to a modern-day Veronica Lake, who would be my ideal choice if this were the 40s.
Heeeeeeeeeeeeeell no. No one is safe in Ellroy's LA, not even your garden variety straight white male.
Ellroy doesn't write fancy sentences to impress. He writes novels. For him, language is but a tool. Still, this sums things up nicely:
Here we were in Los Angeles. We were at odds with one another and afire with crazed duty. We were as one and bound by a terrible allegiance in the time of Pearl Harbor.
This is the first book in a proposed second LA Quartet, which aims to unite the original series and the Underworld USA trilogy and turn them into "one inextricable 11-novel whole." It's an ambitious undertaking, especially considering Ellroy is 66 years old. If he pulls it off, he'll have produced an interconnected body of work that transcends genre and spans thirty years of American history. If he doesn't (not to doubt his capabilities), well... he always said he hated closure.
Those familiar with Ellroy's oeuvre know what they're getting, here. Rapid-fire prose and a plot like a thicket. Also, buckets of racism. At 700 plus pages, it's a lot to digest. His detractor's might contend that it's repetitive, even boring. His fans are already lavishing it with praise. They are the sycophantic terrier Chester to Ellroy's bulldog, Spike. The two of them roam the streets, stalking the Sylvester that is the publishing industry. Somewhere in this analogy, an escaped panther lurks, but I'll be damned if I know what that represents!
The main point of interest here is the way Ellroy reintroduces characters from his previous novels—some major, some blink-and-you'll-miss-them minor—and mixes them all together, in a low-down dirty gumbo. Some connections are more subtle than others. A few border on contrivance. Is Ellroy trying too hard to connect the dots? There was one in particular—and I'm not going to spoil anything here—that was introduced so matter-of-factly, with so little fanfare, I thought maybe I had glossed over it in his earlier work, or suffered a massive head injury and forgot. The fact that this connection exists, but is never referenced in the later (chronologically) books... It'll be interesting to see how readers react.
Other than that, it's business as usual—the business of masterful storytelling on an enormous scale. Nobody does it like Ellroy. Grok its groin-grabbing gravity.
The Shimmering Go-Between
Lee Klein, author of Thanks and Sorry and Good Luck: Rejection Letters from the Eyeshot Outbox
Good lord, where do I even start? The book jacket asks for no spoilers, and I'm inclined to oblige. I am allowed to say that "it's a good-natured tale about love, longing, and loss," but that really doesn't help anyone.
What the Hell Just Happened & Other Sex Stories
Dolores is the main character? Maybe? But it could be Wilson, or Scrummy, or Rue, or one of several naked women...
Dolores = a young Ashley Benson during the opening chapters, but The World's End's Rosamund Pike later on; Wilson = Chris O'Dowd with a big beard; Scrummy = Josh Hutcherson or any attractive but non-threatening teenage-ish dude; Rue = Mary-Louise Parker? Thandie Newton? She could be anyone you could imagine marrying Chris O'Dowd with a beard; one of several naked women = Stana Katic, definitely.
It takes place in NJ, so theoretically, yes, I would live there, because I am actually from New Jersey. It mostly takes place in Trenton and Princeton, but I can look past that.
Right as things began to seem to Rue like they were getting much too hot for an al fresco noontime romp, their sweat about to mix into some volatile cocktail, without warning, out of nowhere, they were covered in goop.
There's no way to explain this book without making it sound like a book that you probably don't want to read, but it's a book that you probably do want to read, because it's really good. It's mostly insanely confusing for the vast majority of the book, but everything is made fairly clear at the end. Also, it's not the kind of confusing where the narration is poor and the point of view is vague and the prose is convoluted; it's obvious from moment to moment specifically what is physically happening, what the forward motion of each scene encompasses. The confusion comes from the magical realism of the story and the fact that much of what is happening doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense. In general, everything seems fairly improbable, if not impossible.
Improbability shouldn't deter anyone from a good book, though. Harry Potter is improbable, as are all of Aesop's fables and One Hundred Years of Solitude and really the vast bulk of human literature. The Shimmering Go-Between is only different in that it pretends to be probable and doesn't flinch when facing its own absurdity.
I don't specifically understand what I was meant to get from this book, but I'll be thinking about it for a long time, which is probably enough. There's a lot of sex and abstraction and general weirdness that isn't found in a lot of books, or maybe is found in other books but not necessarily in this same combination. It's new. It's difficult to find a book that feels new, but this book feels new. Maybe I haven't read enough magical realism, or maybe there's some kind of obscure sub-genre that I've never stumbled upon that The Shimmering Go-Between is the perfect example of, but for the most part I found the book refreshing because I genuinely had not the fainting flipping idea what was going to happen next at any point in the book. From page one, there was absolutely nothing that I would have considered to be "predictable." That's really rare, and regardless of how you feel about absurdity or improbability or sex or mystery goop, it's worth reading this book just to experience that pure sense of curiosity that comes from discovering something that is genuinely new.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Brian McGackin
Perhaps best known for his Whitbread award-winning novel Hopeful Monsters, which dealt with the question of using science to manipulate human nature to effect change, Nicholas Mosley’s new novella explores similar subjects.
A journalist living in Ireland with his family relives a chance encounter with an aid worker in an African refugee camp that changed his life — and may continue to do so.
I would call it: Evolution: Not Just a Theory.
David Mitchell’s divisive novel Cloud Atlas.
A late thirty-something journalist and writer who’s spent time in Africa and Gaza covering conflict and tragedy — and who’s never named.
A not-so-handsome Hugh Grant with a hint of Christopher Eccleston about him.
Set in Ireland at an unspecified time, the conflict between Loyalists and Republicans—or the “Troubles”— seem to have a peripheral effect on the story; it’s hard to pin down, but there is a sense of the unsettled about the place. Not appealing
I was wondering — Could one smuggle explosives in the belly of a whale?
I didn’t enjoy this. Mosley’s narrative wanders between the past and present, but I rarely got a sense of purpose or that I was being led to a particular place. The narrative is full of sometimes nonsensical thoughts in the main character’s head which don’t shed any light on the subject.
There is a lot of speculation about the potential of the human mind/body/spirit and what might happen if we were to fulfill that potential — that’s probably the only thing that foreshadows the appearance of a god-child in a refugee camp that is “special”. Annoyingly, we only get small glimpses of what that specialness entails or her abilities, and the story ends before anything really happens.
I got very frustrated reading this, as it felt like part of something larger, and left me feeling that Mosley didn’t know how to finish a longer work. Not one I can recommend.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Dean Fetzer
F: A Novel
Daniel Kehlmann, author of best-selling German novel Measuring the World.
Arthur, an armchair philosopher, wannabe writer and deadbeat dad, takes his three sons, Martin, Eric, and Ivan, to see a hypnotist. Although a staunch non-believer in the mystical, after being hypnotized Arthur empties out the family savings and disappears. Now they only hear from him when his new book comes out. But while Arthur is out living his dream, the story follows each of his three sons as they fail to live their own.
F reminded me of Bertolt Brecht’s plays, but I can’t say I’ve honestly read another novel like it.
Martin is an overweight priest with no faith, simply going through the motions and hoping to feel something. Eric is a financier with no money—his firm has become an elaborate pyramid scheme in a desperate effort to keep afloat while he slowly loses his mind and his wife. Ivan is a painter with no confidence in his talent, so he has become a curator who forges the works and eventually the entire career of another artist.
Martin the faithless priest would be played by Jonah Hill. Leonardo DiCaprio would play Eric the failed financier, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt would play Ivan the fraudulent artist.
The setting doesn’t get much attention in this book. While the names of streets and places are all in German, without them you could easily picture this story taking place in any major city in the Western world. But if I had to stay with these characters, no. Emphatically not.
A conversation between Arthur and his granddaughter:
“You do nothing?”
“It isn’t that easy.”
F succeeds fantastically as an exercise in style and an exhaustive character study. Even the most uneventful scenes are written in carefully crafted prose that is a joy to read. Almost the entirety of Eric’s chapters are spent inside his head without it becoming repetitive, cliché or boring. And while none of the characters are likeable people, you still become invested in what will happen to them. But F isn’t really about what happens, it’s about how the characters live with it. Almost all the major plot events happen “off-screen” so to speak, and the chapters pick up following one of the protagonists as they struggle to get on with their failed lives.
My only critique, and this is more about personal preference than any shortcoming of the novel, is that F is the most relentlessly depressing book you will ever read that isn’t about war or disease. Everyone is so unhappy, their lives so unfulfilled and meaningless, and it only gets worse. In the first few chapters you hope that the story will reach that turning point where if things are not improved, it at least looks possible for them to get better. F crushes all such hopes early on, and then calls back to them once more in the final chapter just so it can grind them to fine powder beneath its heel before its abrupt end, leaving you a hollowed shell of a person. You start to wonder if you’re not another failed dreamer, just going through the motions because you have nothing better to do. In conclusion, it’s a great book, stunningly written, but I wouldn’t recommend reading it if you are prone to melancholy.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Burton Shepherd
Kanae Minato, a Japanese housewife turned bestselling mystery author.
A middleschool teacher takes revenge on the students responsible for the death of her daughter.
Obscenity in the Milk
Audition by Ryu Murakami, Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui, and any other Japanese bestseller turned hit film.
Yuko Moriguchi, a school teacher mourning the loss of her murdered daughter; Shuya Watanabe and Naoki Shitamura, the two pubescent perpetrators.
I could see Takako Matsu as Yuko, and Yukito Nishii and Kaoru Fujiwara as Shuya and Naoki... because I already saw them as those characters, in the 2010 film adaptation (which was quite good).
I've been to and love Japan, but I would not want to be a middleschooler in their public education system. (At least as portrayed in this book. Brutal.)
If I had cut the two of you to shreds with a knife, I would have hated the little pieces of you just the same.
People are calling this the Japanese Gone Girl. Not me, but some people are. It's the type of comparison that gets regurgitated and retweeted and tumbled ad naseum, but isn't entirely accurate. Both books are thrillers about women crossing invisible lines, but that's where the similarities end. I think. I've never actually read Gone Girl. I have seen the movie trailer, though.
Still, if you really wanted to get creative, you could call Confessions: Heathers as written by Albert Camus. That'd sell a few books.
The novel is separated into six sections, each told from a different character's viewpoint. This makes for a shifting landscape of motivations, one in which the unsuspecting reader becomes morally complicit. You'll want to hug a character one minute, and stab them in the throat the next. It's less an emotional roller-coaster and more an emotional tilt-a-whirl, unpredictable and chaotic. (Thankfully, it is not the dreaded emotional log flume. That would just be cruel.)
As I've found with many Japanese to English ports, the language is simple, unencumbered by stylistic flourish. This suits me and the story just fine. Quite a few chapters are told from the point of view of children, and there's nothing worse than a single-digit narrator who spins a yarn like a venerable Old Salt. The school setting and home life of the characters are distinctly Japanese, and the straight-forward prose helps acclimate unfamiliar readers sans confusion. So, if you find yourself thinking, as an American, "I would never do something so implausible," or, "That sure was convenient," immediately flagellate yourself with the Scourge of Liberal Shame, for being a cultural ignoramus.
Since the release of Confessions, Kanae Minato has gone on to have quite a successful career, publishing an additional ten novels and multiple short story collections. Will her local cachet translate to international success? Time and the fickle tastes of mainstream readers will tell. Mulholland books is banking on Confessions filling the morally ambiguous void left by Gillian Flynn. You never know, there may even be room for Ben Affleck in the American remake of the film.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Josh Chaplinski
The Trouble With Brunch
Shawn Micallef, columnist with the Toronto Star and author of Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto. I sense he may be Canadian.
A blend of personal history and social commentary about the transformation of the middle class from white collar workers with a semi in the suburbs to creatives writing for websites from their ‘office’ in the local Starbucks.
Creatives of the World Unite!
Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety or Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century
Brunch: arty, image conscious, happy to be tipsy at eleven on a Sunday.
Someone Canadian obvs. Did you know Seth Rogan is Canadian? Or Rachel McAdams?? Or Ryan Gosling??? Me neither. Anyway, none of them are as suitable to portray the upwardly mobile, faintly hipsterish charms of brunch as Michael (also Canadian) Cera.
Anywhere that serves cocktails before midday is home to me.
If Nero were around today, he would have brunched as Rome burned.
The Trouble with Brunch forms part of Coach House Books' Exploded Views series — essays on the prominent cultural issues and figures of the day — and although the title suggests something foodie, this bite-sized polemic concerns itself less with Eggs Hollandaise and more with class, culture and social change.
Brunch and the business of brunching acts as a social marker, argues Micallef. Middle class people brunch — Micallef doesn’t go into why this might be, although the habit probably stems, like many middle class habits, from a perception of how the landed gentry live (all horses, chafing dishes and outré sexual practices) — and, Micallef explains, changes in how we brunch say much about how life has changed for white collar workers over the last three decades.
Brunching has taken off. Brunching is big. Brunching has moved from dark-panelled hotels to trendy coffee shops to serve a new clientele. The middle class ate brunch to celebrate Uncle Harold’s fiftieth. Their replacement — the creative class — eats brunch to be cool, and beneath Micallef’s impish descriptions of shivering hipsters waiting in line for admission to the latest bruncherie, lies a serious point. For the creative class, social capital (finding the coolest place to eat) has replaced real capital ($). We used to earn money. Now we earn upvotes on Reddit.
Thought-provoking stuff indeed, and Micallef allows himself a muted rallying cry at the end of his thesis. The middle classes used to unionise. The creative classes lack a cohesive identity. Unless we form one, and pretty darn quick, we’re going to end up earning our living in call centers, or behind reception desks, and creating on the side.
The Trouble with Brunch is a well-informed, entertaining, easily-digested read. Anyone who wants to make a living doing what they love instead of what they have to should take a bite.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Cath Murphy
The Supernatural Enhancements
Edgar Cantero, Barcelonean writer and cartoonist. The Supernatural Enhancements is his first novel published in English.
An English college student inherits a Gothic mansion in Virginia from a relative he never knew he had. Hijinks of the ghostly persuasion ensue.
The First Winter Solstice
The Quick by Lauren Owen, and just about anything by Shirley Jackson.
A young, sarcastic man known only as A., and Niamh, a mute teenager from Dublin.
Nicholas Hoult for A., and Saorise Ronan for Niamh.
For this novel, that’s kind of a loaded question. Despite Axton House’s…unsettling history, I think I would have to say yes, if only for the fact that the mansion comes with its own labyrinth.
Assuming that the reach of the human mind is still unknown, a man causing lights to flicker with his mind, even unconsciously, is still more plausible than a deceased man’s mind causing the same effect.
I’m just going to go ahead and say that this was one of my favorite books to review so far this year. Spirits, ciphers, secret societies, and some funky pseudoscience involving the dangers of dreams make The Supernatural Enhancements a fun and addictive read.
Cantero takes a risk with a unique storytelling approach, rolling out the mystery of Axton House slowly through a series of external documents. These include a combination of Niamh’s notes (since she is mute, she writes everything down), surveillance video, excerpts from cryptography books, private letters, and more. This gives Supernatural Enhancements a hint of a Blair Witch feel— especially since it takes place in the '90s— but there’s something to be said for the ingenuity of writing a ghost story through EVP (electronic voice phenomenon) recordings.
This seems as good a place as any to issue a moderate warning: Supernatural Enhancements is essentially a series of connected puzzles with a plot. Every few pages or so contain a cryptic note, a code to be cracked, or a maze to solve in straight up back-of-the-cereal-box style. Readers who enjoy a healthy dose of esoteric symbolism in their mysteries will likely enjoy the challenge, but others may find the numerous charts and articles rather tedious (anecdotally, I fall firmly in the first camp).
Supernatural Enhancements begins when A. inherits a Gothic mansion from his long-lost cousin, Ambrose Wells. It seems that the Wells family has been following a mysterious trend— both Ambrose and his father committed suicide during the same year of their lives by jumping out a window. Shortly after A. settles in (he adjusts to his newfound wealth quite quickly) a series of vivid dreams begin. As the bizarre dreams grow in intensity and frequency, A. and Niamh work hurriedly to unravel the meaning behind Ambrose’s death, and the strange society he appeared to be a key member of.
A. has a surprisingly wry sense of humor that stands out against the classic horror context, and it pairs well with the Niamh’s punk fearlessness. Niamh, an Irish orphan who wears her hair in several variations of mohawk and was taught to play piano by nuns, is a thoroughly likeable character. She’s quite well-defined for someone who is only able to communicate through a series of notes; Cantero still manages to infuse her short correspondences with a distinct personality.
I can confidently assert that Supernatural Enhancements would make an excellent companion on a camping trip or weeklong cabin stay, read by candlelight beneath the covers.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Leah Dearborn
The Big, Bad Book of Botany: The World's Most Fascinating Flora
Michael Largo, author of other list-y books like The Big, Bad Book of Beasts and Final Exits: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of How We Die.
Drawing on the history of herbal catalogs, Largo presents an encyclopedia-style collection of his favorite plants, complete with botanical illustrations, physical descriptions, and cultural histories.
Plants for Dummies
Plant stories like Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief or Michael Pollan's The Botany of Desire.
Michael Largo, whose narrative voice is reminiscent of that nerdy science teacher who talked way too much about plant sex.
Matt Frewer during his hyper years.
The author describes a world that is dense with toxic and hallucinogenic plants. There are weird fruits and flowers that smell like rotting flesh. Sign me up!
On giant hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum):
Right off the bat: do not touch this plant!
My young self would have loved this book without criticism, but my librarian self wanted more fact checking and better illustrations. While it is very cool that members of the Tropical Botanic Artists Collective illustrated the entries, the quality of the artwork is all over the map. Sorry! It's true. It is also true that the mimosa plant does not "die immediately after being touched," and mushrooms (even magic ones) really don't belong in a book about plants.
That being said, if you have never read a botanical treatise or plant history, The Big, Bad Book of Botany is not a bad place to start. Each entry is short and colorful and includes enough history or description of the plant's unique characteristics to make it memorable. A good example is Hydnora africana, which produces a flower that smells like feces and looks like female genitalia. Ugh! Now that's with me forever. Also with me is a plant I had completely forgotten about, and my heart skipped a beat when I arrived at its entry. The individual in question? The skunk cabbage, which my childhood friends and I would seek out and stomp on (to make them stink, of course) in the rural Midwest.
Fascinating flora, indeed.
Bookshots review for LitReactor.com written by Stephanie Bonjack
Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World
It was edited by Anya Schiffrin; author, journalist, and director of the media and communications program at Columbia University.
A collection of long-form investigative journalism from every continent, written over the course of the last century.
Beyond the Fold
A group of muckrakers, the guys and gals who risked their careers – and, sometimes, their lives – to expose the general dickheadedness of humanity.
Mired in world-changing, career-threatening, life-endangering investigative reportings around the world? Yes, please.
From Schiffrin's introduction:
In taking the longer view, this book provides an important note of caution to those who seek large and immediate impact. It's clear that journalism is only part of a bigger picture. But when the circumstances are right, journalism does make a difference.
If you've consumed any sort of media in the last year, you're almost certainly privy to Edward Snowden's leaks regarding the National Security Agency's spying on American citizens and foreign nationals.
What you may or may not know about that story is Snowden worked with journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras to expose the NSA's secret global surveillance programs in The Guardian and The Washington Post, who shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their reportings on this story.
This is muckraking – investigative journalists exposing, among other things, political corruption – both in a nutshell and on a global level.
It is fitting then, considering Snowden's story and many others, that Anya Schiffrin's Global Muckraking is out today from The New Press, reminding us that folks like Greenwald and Poitras (and Snowden himself, to an extent) are only the latest in a long line of journalists and activists (jactivists, perhaps?) fighting to uncover injustices across the world.
Schiffrin's collection, 47 articles in all, share one common theme in addition to being investigative reports: despite the fact the stories focus on local issues pertinent to their direct coverage areas, they have global implications and bring to light problems we still face today – food shortages, human rights abuses, environmental concerns, corruption in governments and corporations, the list goes on.
Global Muckraking is a stark – and oftentimes grim – reminder of the importance of the role journalism and its practitioners play in the checking and balancing of power at all levels of society, in all corners of the world, at all points in history.
The internet has given way to a new twist on muckraking with the rise of citizen journalism, but Schiffrin has given a new voice to stories published in newspapers dating back to 1896 that, in time, would probably be lost. It's a worthy piece of nonfiction for anyone with an interest in the historical importance of the newspaper, the changing landscape of modern media, and the brave men and women who fight in what always seems — at first — like a losing battle.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Ryan Peverly
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2
Edited by Gordon Van Gelder, winner of the Hugo Award for his editorial work on The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, this collection includes stories from an impressive list of authors, such as: Stephen King, Robert A. Heinlein, Zenna Henderson, Charles De Lint, and Jane Yolen.
Because Volume 1 couldn't possibly cover all of the meaningful contributions in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction's sixty-five years, Volume 2 gives us twenty-six more stories, both from names we’ve heard of and others we’ve been missing out on for too long.
F&SF’s Greatest Hits, Volume 2.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol 1, 1929-1964 edited by Robert Silverberg
An anthology's lead has got to be its organizing principle. As Van Gelder says, “[…] here in the second volume, I’ve tried to assemble a good representation of the magazine’s whole history, from the 'Eureka Years' […] on through the second decade of the twenty-first century.” The stories explore a broad stylistic and thematic terrain.
There are so many wonderful stories in here, but the perfect lead/actor combo has got to be Rat, from the same-named cyber-punk thriller by James Patrick Kelly, played by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame. If he can do Gollum, he can do a drug-smuggling hobbit-sized rat running from the dealers he’s double-crossed, seeking sanctuary in a treacherous cyber-punk landscape that makes Mordor look like a quaint spot to open an old country B & B.
From cyber-punk ghettoes to secret levels at Grand Central Station that send travelers through time, several of these settings are bound to pique your interest. But, often, and particularly in the older fiction, the stories’ settings contribute to more obvious societal critique than might be in vogue these days. Meaning, if you want to live here you’re going to have to deal with settings that are hotbeds for colonialism, repression, poverty, violence, and existential crisis—then again, what setting isn’t?
From the introduction by Michael Dirda, Fulbright Fellow and Pulitzer Prize-winning book critic:
But in recent years some writers and readers have announced that they see no need to be familiar with the works of, say, Robert A. Heinlein. One of those old pulp writers, wasn’t he? Misogynistic and militaristic, too. Who needs him? This is roughly like saying, “William Faulkner, didn’t he write about hillbillies and Southern degenerates?”
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 is a great addition to any reader’s library because it chronicles the genres’ changes over time. All of the stories are enjoyable, despite older Sci-Fi’s occasional tendency to come off precisely as Dirda claims it does not, which is “out of date or corny”; I agree wholeheartedly with him that even when out of date, these stories are not “irrelevant”. In fact, I’d just as quickly recommend this anthology for use as a textbook in a Science-Fiction writing or reading class as I would for a pleasant poolside reader, as we wean ourselves off summer.
What’s more, the anthology’s final story, Paper Menagerie, is the best choice for the end of an anthology representing the best of two genres that deserve to be read as Literature. Liu’s story, published in 2011, was the first story ever to win the Hugo, Nebula, and the World Fantasy awards, and it is a work of art. Save it for the end, and savor it. In it, a woman breathes life into origami pets she makes for her son, and he finally learns how to appreciate them far too late.
This was practical magic in the life of the village. We made paper birds to chase grasshoppers away from the fields, and paper tigers to keep away the mice.
Fiction, in the life of our global village, is our practical magic. It chases away the existential grasshoppers and mice. There is a lesson here in Liu's story and in the anthology itself. That lesson being, we should never take for granted the breath of life writers have given to their stories, whether back in the past, here in the present, or far, far into the future. The Very Best Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 2 is one book to help us keep that in mind.
Bookshots review written for LitReactor.com by Chris Rosales