Tag Archives: Fiction

Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

1964

Rating: B/ Good, but over-rated. Those are the words I’d use to describe George Orwell’s hugely influential dystopian novel, 1984. There’s plenty of bright spots here, and many moments of  brilliance, but parts of this book can be hard to read due to heavy info-dumping and scenes that hit you over the head with it’s themes. It’s definitely worth reading, to ponder, as well as to see what all the fuss was about, but it definitely pales compared to Fahrenheit 451, one of my favorite books. Continue reading Book Review: 1984 by George Orwell

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

the handmaid's tale

Rating: A-/   I have a weakness for stories taking place in dystopian societies. The way I see it, society is so fucked up at this point, a 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 type scenario hardly seems that outlandish. On the other hand, I’ve always been wary of feminism. I know, I know, the stereotype of the man-hating stone butch with a chip on her shoulder is just that, a stereotype. There are certainly issues involving women’s rights that need attending to, and there are a lot of decent feminists trying to make a better future for the girls of tomorrow. I know all that, of course; but God help me, when I hear the word ‘feminism,’ I cringe a little. There’s nothing rational about it, it’s just a prejudice I have. Continue reading Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Book Review: Little Children by Tom Perrotta

little children

Rating: B/  Adultery, pedophilia, pornography addiction, and the all-around dark side of Suburbia all converge in this darkly funny, bleak book, which nonetheless kind of falls apart in a final act that is both inexplicable and unsatisfying. This is going to be a hard book to review, because I loved the movie, and as a result the differences between the two projects were kind of jarring for me. It’s pretty much the reverse of loving a book and not being able to reconcile with the changes made to the story when you are watch the movie. Anyway, Tom Perrotta’s novel is a bit more tongue-in-cheek than the movie, which was just plain depressing and had a conclusion that people found overly lurid and exploitative (but, funnily enough, which I found less baffling and more satisfying than the book ending.) Continue reading Book Review: Little Children by Tom Perrotta

Book Review: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

half broke horses

Rating: B/ I can’t remember the last time I’ve had such mixed feelings about a character as I had about  the tough-as-nails protagonist of Walls’ biographical novel of her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith. As for this book’s story, it’s pretty much more of the same; don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean ‘more of the same’ as a bad thing necessarily. Anyone who has read a book by Jeannette Walls knows she tells a good and compelling yarn, whether it be mostly true (as is the case with her memoir of her neglectful upbringing, The Glass Castle) or straight-up fiction (like her also-delightful novel, The Silver Star,) but if you’ve read her other two books and expect something drastically different with this one, you would be wrong. Well, they say ‘write what you know…’ Apparently Walls knows a lot about childhoods that curl the toes of anyone with any protective instinct toward children whatsoever. As for her family history, it’s astonishing that any of the Walls children made it to adulthood. Continue reading Book Review: Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls

Book Review: The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke

the life before her eyes

Rating: B/ Considering that I had already seen the excellent film adaptation a few years before, this novel held few surprises for me, least of all the twist ending alluded to in it’s lyrical title. So it’s a good thing that Laura Kasischke focuses more in her writing on lyricism and less on plot. With the lovely, vivid writing, I still felt like I was getting something new out of the experience of reading the book even though I pretty much knew the story. The Life Before her Eyes is a good book, not a great one. The writing can be meandering and sentimental while at the same time being lush and gorgeous, starting off the bat with a Sophie’s Choice type situation and gradually touching on aging, sorrow, and regret in a bittersweet manner. Continue reading Book Review: The Life Before Her Eyes by Laura Kasischke

A Drink Before the War by Dennis Lehane

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For your information, I broke the rules early on and read the fifth book, Gone, Baby, Gone in the Lehane’s Kenzie and Gennaro series before I read his debut novel A Drink Before the War. Comparing the two, I actually like Gone Baby Gone, a teeny bit better than I like this one. I can see how Dennis Lehane developed as a writer between the penning of these two books. Not only is Gone, Baby, Gone more emotionally effective, it doesn’t hit the reader as much with its social issues.

Don’t get me wrong, A Drink Before the War is a well-written mystery. I don’t even generally read mysteries, but even when I’m in a funk and can’t seem to finish anything, I can finish a book by Dennis Lehane. I haven’t read a single one of his books that have let me down or proven difficult for me to complete yet. Although I preferred Gone, Baby, Gone to this, I recommend you read A Drink Before the War first since it is the first book in the series so the timeline will make more sense chronologically if you start there.

A Drink Before the War follows private investigator Patrick Kenzie, a world-weary smart aleck who pulls no punches about his cynicism concerning the human race, and his beautiful and spirited partner, Angela Gennaro, as they navigate a gritty, Noir-ish urban Boston landscape. Some phony politicians recruit Patrick to find a black cleaning lady, Jenna Angeline, who has pilfered some important documents and disappeared.

Immediately the case smells fishy; what exactly do these documents pertains to? And why does Jenna act like her thievery of the papers is a matter of honor when Patrick does manage to find her? The answer lies among a long-time feud between two gangs and a whole lot of political corruption (politicians? Be less-than-ethical? Why I never!)

Meanwhile, Patrick deals with his seemingly unrequited love for Angela, who’s married to an abusive d-bag who smacks her around, and confronts his own prejudices when a lot of racial and socioeconomic issues simmer to the surface of this deceptively simple case. This book is well-written, thoughtful, and exciting, and Patrick’s acerbic mixture of sarcasm and cynicism makes him a dynamite narrator. There’s always something interesting going on or bubbling up in the background of this action-packed book.

I do think Lehane went a little overboard with the hot-button race issues. The book hardly ever drags, but when it does, it is  due to the sometimes didactic exposition on white privilege and race wars the author sprinkles, occasionally excessively, into the prose. I think politics have a place in fiction, even detective fiction, but this was just too much. The story should be able to present it’s issues without beating us over the head with them.

I’ll admit, Gone, Baby, Gone didn’t always use the utmost subtlety when bringing up the perils of the child protective system, but this struck me as more heavy-handed. Maybe it’s partially because everything seems to be riding hard on race issues lately (from Black Lives Matter to the Oscars debate) so I didn’t need another reminder of the hostile racial climate of today.

However, A Drink Before the War benefits from Patrick’s fresh voice and a multitude of memorable characters such as the protagonist’s ticking time bomb one-man army of a ally Bubba Rodowsky and Jenna herself, who’s made some bad decisions in life but ultimately fucks herself attempting to do the right thing for herself and her family.

What I like best about this series is that every book’s a page turner, I can’t wait to get my hands on the second novel in the series, and I recommend Dennis Lehane to anyone with a enjoyment of crime fiction and a pretty strong stomach (his books can get pretty brutal at times.) If thrillers about scandal, corruption, and hard-boiled detective action is your thing, you should do yourself a favor and pick this book up from your local library or bookstore

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

DennisLehane_MysticRiver

Three childhood friends, reunited in adulthood and all marching toward a shared spiritual and psychological destruction. Sound cheerful? Clint Eastwood adapted this novel, so if you’re a fan of Eastwood’s directorial endeavors you might be familiar with this story of betrayal and revenge. The aging movie star’s filmmaking capabilities are undeniable, but there’s something about reading a novel versus watching it’s film adaptation, you know? Most of the time, anyway.

‘Mystic River’ is a dark read on a plethora of tough subjects (child abduction and the ensuing sexual abuse, latent pedophilic tendencies, a father’s grief over the violent death of his daughter,) but if anyone is up for the job of writing gritty urban realism featuring the tragic mistakes of regular people and their fatal repercussions, it’s Dennis Lehane.

The man has a gift- with dialogue, with character description, with prose so fluid and lush it’s reading is similar to the experience of watching a great movie. His characters never seem unrealistically colorful or contrived. They grab your attention honestly- through the strength of great storytelling. ‘Mystic River’ is about three boys- Dave Boyle, Sean Devine, and Jimmy Markum- who grow up into three damaged men. Where did it all go wrong? For these guys, the proverbial shit hit the fan when 11-year-old Dave was coerced into a car by two men pretending to be police officers as his friends looked on and molested for five days before making his escape, becoming quite the local celebrity in the process.

But Dave doesn’t want lurid, however short-lived fame. He wants his childhood back. Once an eager-to-please schoolboy and a bit of a brownnosing crony to the stronger, more well-liked Jimmy, Dave grows up to be a tormented adult who has experienced a splintering of self- some of him is still in that basement, yearning to escape. Hell, all the boys are haunted by that day, the unresolved questions that reared their ugly heads when that car came to take Dave away. Twenty-five years later, another tragedy occurs. Now-grown ex-con Jimmy Markums’ 19-year-old daughter, Katie, is brutally murdered in the park after a drunken night on the town.

Now, who should come back into Jimmy’s life but Sean- a cop investigating the Katie Markum case- and Dave- a suspect in her violent death. Katie’s death has many suspects, more the further you look from different angles (in classic detective story fashion.) While initially Katie seems like a girl with not an enemy in the world, further inspection produces a different, darker take on those she associated with. Confronting a case that seems increasingly personal the farther he digs forward, Sean must ask the ultimate question- who killed Katie Markum? And will the actual murderer’s insistence on keeping his identity under wraps spell destruction for the three men?

I found ‘Mystic River’ less confusing than the first novel I read by Dennis Lehane, “Gone Baby Gone” but also slightly less compelling. That might have been partially because I already knew the ending to ‘Mystic River,’ having seen the movie beforehand. It was just a matter of getting there. There is no real redemption in either story; if anything, every good thing that comes from ‘Mystic River’s ending is more detrimental that satisfactory- take, for instance, Sean’s reunion with his wife paired with his decision to take all the flack for their break-up. He got what he wanted, but will he really wind up happy?

I don’t think the mystery is too hard to solve if the reader pays close attention to the clues provided along the way. All three men are sympathetic In their own way (despite Dave’s impure, albeit unacted-on, carnal appetites and Jimmy’s astonishing capacity for violence) while still being deeply flawed and troubled. Dennis Lehane’s prose is so easy to fall in love with. It is strong, consistent, and descriptive.  He cares about these characters and he wants you to care about them too, but he doesn’t always make them easy candidates for compassion, if you know what I mean.

In the end, what has been gained? What has been learned? If you say zilch. you’re certainly on the right track. A continuing theme is loss- of innocence, of love, of family, of humanity. We move beyond our past tragedies, if we’re lucky. But do they move past us? More of a psychological study of guilt and grief than a hard-and-dry mystery, ‘Mystic River’ is simultaneously harsh, delicate, and haunting.

Electricity by Ray Robinson

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Lily O’Connor’s neurology is a wild, untamed beast that knocks her on her face time and again. Afflicted with epilepsy, Lily knows the condition is more than the general public believes it be, and she determined to live as normal a life with the condition as possible. Saddled with a rough (and I mean rough) family (her mother is entirely to blame in causing the injury that led to her disorder, in an act too ghastly to mention,) Lily has learned to hide the hurt away, armed with a misanthropic wit. But the death of her beastly mother, grouped with the arrival of her gambler brother and the mystery of another sibling’s disappearance, shakes up Lily’s life in ways she never could have imagined and sends her on a quest for reconciliation on the dirty, chaotic streets of London.

So, apparently this is a movie now. It’s hard to picture how a film adaptation would work, to be honest. Electricity is a otherworldly experience, an journey through the senses shedding light on a condition no one would wish on themselves or their loved ones. How will a movie give us such an unyielding look into this woman’s mind? How will a movie explain how the seizures feel? But the miracle of this novel is that Lily O’Connor is so much more than her disability.

She’s tough, complicated, seriously flawed but fundamentally decent. The strength of Lily’s character ensures that Electricity will not a textbook slog through issues of disability and dignity. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever read so much onomatopoeia in one book. The book has an interesting feminine perspective on sexuality, as well as a heartbreaking take on sexual abuse (what if I didn’t fight back! What if I liked it?)

Lily believed she was in love with her mother’s boyfriend when she was about nine years old, and appreciated the attention in a time when she was all too often ignored and overlooked. But does that make it any better? Of course not. Sexual misconduct with a preteen is abuse whether or not the child thinks they enjoy it or not. In a way, Lily has to move past her own feelings and perceptions about the event just as much as she has to move past the abuse itself.

Lily is often a hard character to like. But you can’t hate her. You just can’t. She’s too vulnerable and damaged and real for that. However, the circumstances of her upbringing seemed a little too dire at times. That coupled with her truly horrific experience with men (only her wig-donning mentor, Al, emerges unscathed) makes Electricity a sometimes disturbing read. Lily is an often sexually ambiguous character; she reports to enjoy sex with men (although she can’t climax,) while her less-than-sisterly affections for her lesbian buddy Mel makes the reader wonder what side of the fence she’s really on.

The only parts of the book I felt were lacking were the sex scenes between Lily and her boyfriend, Dave. Here we are subjected to analogies such as “He licked my breasts like lollipops” that fall short on insight into a woman’s experience of sex. They were a little corny, to be frank. They didn’t quite fit in the otherwise smooth, flawless jigsaw puzzle that was this novel. Mostly, what stands out in Electricity was the close inside view of a misunderstood condition and Lily’s unique, dialect- and profanity-salted voice. Lyrical yet not tweedy, Electricity is a engrossing read.

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred

Occasional bad luck is inevitable. Dana, the protagonist of ‘Kindred”s luck is cataclysmic. A strong willed and -minded black woman married happily to a white older man, she is transported through time and space without so much as a how-do-you-do to slavery-era Baltimore to save her white ancestor, Rufus Weylin, from an untimely death. Without Rufus’ inevitable union with a slave woman, little Dana will never come to be- or so she believes as she returns time and time again throughout Rufus’ life to save him, increasingly cognizant of what a sadistically self-obsessed monster he is gradually becoming.

“Kindred” is my first book by Octavia E. Butler, and I was struck by how well it delivers on it’s sumptuously creative premise. It is a speculative work of fiction, but is anything but fantastical when dealing with the hardships of the slaves on the Weylins’ plantation. Seeing Dana try to hide her education and her fierce independence in attempts to play the role of a ignorant, subservient slave held a kind of morbid fascination for me. In Rome, do as the Romans do. But in this case you pretty much have the equivalent of a red target painted against your cursedly brown flesh.

As it turns out, time travel works in this kind of like the wormhole to Narnia. Dana is summoned back to the past only to find that was hours for her, turns out to be years for the people left behind in the past. ‘Kindred’ never lets you forget the spiraling disorientation of living in such a changeable reality.

Dana is a well-developed character, weakened but not weak, strong but not infallible. Even Rufus himself, sniveling bastard that he grows up to be, is painted with nuance and ambiguity, rather than thick, derisive strokes. You can see that Rufus is a worthless chode, but you can comprehend how he came to be that way, and hopefully regard him at brief moments with pity, rather than with all-consuming (and for all intents and purposes, well deserved) hatred.

I found the writing in “Kindred” both pragmatic (no frills to be found) and compelling. I was a little put off by how careless Dana, and later, her husband Kevin are at changing the timeline. Actions have consequences, every science fiction-slash- time travel buff knows that. But Dana and Kevin take no heed of the drastic ways they effect historical events.

Also, it was weirdly icky how Butler described Rufus’ continual sexual exploitation of the slave girl, Alice, as love, albeit, a ‘destructive love.’ It was old-fashioned and sometimes downright gross, and I thought that Butler , as a feminist and a woman , would no better than to call assault anything but what it is, assault. Love is wanting what’s best for someone. Rufus certainly didn’t want what was best for Alice, he wanted what was best for himself.

He was a sad little boy who grew into a nasty, pathetically small-minded man, having learned nothing but cruelty and hatred from his father. I liked how his relationship with Dana, his savior, stayed ambiguous throughout (until the end when thing went down in a big way.) It made the book so much more interesting than if she had just hated and been repulsed by him.

More than a science fiction novel, ‘Kindred’ goes beyond mere concept, delivering a pulse-pounding story with a compelling cast of characters. In a time and culture where slavery is a distant concept hidden away in history books, ‘Kindred’ takes it to the forefront of our attention as we watch history unfold with Dana. Like Dana, we are riveted and deeply moved. Unlike Dana, we experience it from the comfort of our own home. ‘Kindred’ isn’t just a must read for science fiction lovers. It’s a must read, period. Fin.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines

miss jane pittman

A work of fiction chronicling a life from the time of slavery to the civil rights era? Wow, I feel smarter already.

Meet Miss Jane Pittman, a 110-year-old black woman who lives on a plantation making meager wages from her white boss. She’s not a slave anymore, but she might as well be. She and her fellow  workers break their backs on the farm and receive next to nothing. Undereducated but smart as a whip, Miss Jane is quite a character. An unnamed schoolteacher convinces her to let him document her life in a series of audio recordings, suspecting Jane might have quite a story to tell. Oh, and does she ever!

Jane’s story encompasses almost a hundred years, dozens of characters, and a multitude of historical events. Jane has suffered years of abuse and heartbreak and has aged into quite a fine woman. She’s loved and lost, suffered and lost some more. But ages of struggle have given her a wise outlook on life. She’s been a slave. She’s been a wife, an adoptive mother, a warrior. But mostly she’s been quintessentially Jane, a experienced lady with a life time of memories to share.

I had never read anything by Ernest J. Gaines before The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, but I had heard many good things about him. As soon as I got ahold of a copy, I devoured it relatively quickly (for a slow reader like me, mind). A slim volume with a lot of ground to cover, Jane Pittman maintains the no-nonsense and the plain speech of it’s protagonist. I must confess I liked Jane a lot. I adored her strength and her offbeat spirituality.

I found this book to be an enlightening and educational experience without being too preachy. It certainly contains a refreshing lack of white guilt. You’ve got your basically good, decent white men and your dreadful minorities, and vice versa. Your black characters are not above racism and barbarism and your whites are not incapable of compassion. I got the impression Mr. Ernest J. Gaines has a good head on his shoulders and has bigger fish to fry than moaning about the ghastly whites, while still accurately portraying how the white man has fucked things up for many.

On the down side, I found the take of keeping all the characters straight daunting, to say the least. There were about two Marys, two Alberts, and innumerable Joes scattered throughout this narrative. Characters are introduced erratically never to be heard from again. Also, I didn’t find myself liking the last segment of the book as much as I enjoyed the first few parts. Miss Jane Pittman is best when dealing with Jane’s early years or the white Tee Bob’s doomed infatuation with a mixed-race schoolteacher.

However, when Jimmy, a precocious black boy who Jane mystically insisted could be ‘the one,’ showed up, I was just about ready for the book to end. I guess after introducing a strong, progressive African-American character like Ned earlier on and leaving Jimmy little room to develop, Jimmy just seemed like an extension of Ned. Now I know the decision was somewhat deliberate, but I still found the part of the book focusing primarily on Jimmy to be a bit of a bore.

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a fascinating novel featuring a delightful heroine. It’s brilliance is in it’s artful simplicity, and I am looking forward to catching up with Gaines’ other books.