Reviews in 200 Words

Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Motel of the Stars by Karen McElmurray

In Novel on September 30, 2011 at 1:03 am

A lost son. A pained man. A dissolving marriage. Jason Sanderson floats through life like the smoke of a midnight bonfire, a blooming residue of combustion. He is a father haunted by a regret that spills like ink into the fabric of the narrative, staining and seeping through every surface and page. He is eternally coupled with contradiction. Hope and disappointment. Love and emptiness. Truth and meaninglessness. These heavy moments are handled with grace. The plot advances in a slow weary daze reflective of the subject matter. McElmurray deals with grief and the ugliness of misunderstanding in an intimate way, very often giving the reader access to her characters in rich detail. Sanderson’s journey is lonesome. He seeks what every animal must to survive: light. A man searches for the brightness he once had. His love. His starlight. His son. But instead he is left tragically broken in his despair, surrounded by reminders of his past, unable to leave them behind. The novel is filled with raw and earthy imagery: mountains, clouds, lightning, fire, ash, and bones. “Celestial bodies moving one note to the next via the sound of the universe. What word for this sound?” A haunting realization: there is no sound in space.

-Chris Noel


Crimes in Southern Indiana by Frank Bill

In Fiction, Story Collections on September 19, 2011 at 5:05 pm

Punch, jab, hook, beat–what you do with your fists, or how you describe Frank Bill’s stories, Crimes in Southern Indiana. His sentences are fists, too. Concussive, so much so that the subjects have jarred loose in many of them to leave you stunned. Frank Bill’s stories are violent–meth, guns, dead-beats, feuds, crooked sheriffs, pot, fuck-ups–but the violence isn’t gratuitous, only just. Even if almost all the characters end up dead in a story, there is empathy and redemption. He dedicates the book to his grandparents for teaching him the old ways and thanks his parents for telling him stories. His stories are as old as Indiana and her people, set by the old state capital in Corydon, creating a place in the present world out of our past. If those hills and bottomlands and steep-banked creeks that all tumble into the Ohio River could talk and grunt through their broken teeth, they would tell these stories. Frank Bill has heard them, like the hills inhaled him deep all the way to bedrock, like the water soaked through skin to brain and bone. Frank Bill’s stories resonate and crack.

-Kevin McKelvey

Time and Materials by Robert Hass

In Fiction on September 12, 2011 at 6:43 pm

Read Time and Materials sitting on a faded denim couch with an egg salad sandwich by a second-story window on a cool and overcast day in September. Because Robert Hass would like that picture. That’s life. Recognize that cheating at the Tarot cards is just part to the process. “It’s easy for us to feel that our lives are a dream-/ As this is, in a way, a dream: the flailing rain,/ The birds, the soaked red backpack of the child,/ Her tendrils of wet hair, the windshield wipers,/ This voice trying to speak across the centuries.” Haas knows that the life of four hundred million years ago can speak across those centuries to be seen washed up on the beaches of Michigan and the Ukraine. If you too believe that finding the meaning of life can mean sitting in front of a rock in the Mexican desert; if you question why 90 percent of casualties in all wars during the last fifth of the twentieth century have been civilians, then read this book. Read this book to figure out what happens after Goethe, and all about the Iowa winters you might miss along the way.

-Justin Dice

Embassytown by China Miéville

In Fiction on August 12, 2011 at 2:25 pm

The problem with good science fiction is that it’s rarely good for long. Too often an excellent premise builds a brilliant plot predicated upon its sci-fi nucleus, only to dissolve into silliness by the third act. China Miéville’s newest, Embassytown, is the victim and the crime: it’s two-thirds great. Like the best of the genre it begins with a great idea: What if there was a language that could only be spoken with two mouths? In the far future humans trekking across the universe discover a race of beings who do just that: speak in a dual mix of synchronous voices. What’s more: this language is incapable of communicating falsehoods. Incommunicado until they learn to breed clones who can speak to the alien race, the humans follow the path too often traveled – the path toward manipulation. It’s hard to recommend a book that dissolves into silly plot wrap ups by the end, but Miéville excels at creating worlds so immersive and bizarre that the first 200 pages are worth it. Without devolving into trite descriptions of alien bodies or the color of two-star sunsets, a deft plot is woven from a heady concept. Too bad the conclusion falls short.

-Jay Cullis

2030 by Albert Brooks

In Fiction on July 22, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Things push on, predictably, and not so predictably. Sure, 2030 isn’t far off. Some of us will be dead, but many of us will still be around. Can we even call that predicting the future? THE FUTURE seems like flying cars and vacationing in outer space; it always has. Let’s not forget, though, that Brooks basically predicted reality TV (see, Real Life, 1979). In many ways, it seems that anything could happen in 20 years; in other ways it doesn’t seem like anything could really change. In 1990, no one had an e-mail address. No one had the Internet. This is a novel, but only barely. Somehow you’ll have to keep reminding yourself of that. How could it not be fiction? But it all seems reasonable. You’ll chuckle, say, Huh, I bet that really happens. As if you’ll remember to check back. Much of this revolves around a seeming inevitability: people will live longer and longer. That, of course, will lead to some tension in the world of healthcare, and, in the world of generation mixing. The young and the old will become two distinct groups. The poles will become farther apart. The disasters will become more severe. Take a peek: Brooks seems to know what’s coming.

-Micah Ling

Touch by Alexi Zentner

In Fiction, Novel (Guest Punch by Amos Magliocco) on July 8, 2011 at 12:49 pm

We know history can chase us, that our past ends no more definitively than it begins. But maybe it waits for us, too, in those places we hoped to escape it. In TOUCH, narrator Stephen describes his hometown of Sawgamet, a Canadian village born in a gold rush, where lumber islands from the dangerous “cuts” float downriver to the world. One winter his sister falls through the ice and their father jumps in after her. Months later their outstretched hands are spotted below the frozen surface, reaching but forever inches apart. The river’s violence seems arbitrary to the boy, unexplained and terrible.

Disconnections like this, especially between generations, animate the novel’s mystery. Much later, with daughters of his own, Stephen returns from Montreal to bury his mother and reconcile with the place that has taken so much. The family’s unhappy legacy leads to enigmatic grandfather Jeannot, who settled the town and matured with it, prosperous and content beside wife Martine until one savage winter forces monstrous choices the woods and river will not forget. By the end we’ve learned with Stephen about scaled creatures, woodland ghosts, and how broken people reach for one another because they can, or they must.

-Amos Magliocco

Naked Summer by Andrew Scott

In Fiction, Short Stories, Story Collections on July 1, 2011 at 12:37 pm

There is something about summer that remains nostalgic for most people: somehow it seems like the important lessons and experiences–even mistakes–were made during those months. Not all of these stories take place during the summer–some do–but they’re all nostalgic: stories you wouldn’t mind coming back to, each year. It’s too easy to say that these characters seem real–that’s every writer’s job–they do seem real, but there’s more to it than that; they also seem tangible. Like maybe you should check the acknowledgments for people you know–that weird neighbor, the quiet kid from high school. And yourself. People grow up in these stories. Storms come, secrets are kept, relationships begin and end, big decisions are made. But little things happen, too. You realize that it’s actually the little things that shape life: a flippant dare, bad plumbing in an apartment, haircuts, lawn boys: every drastic thing that has ever happened can be traced back to something seemingly insignificant. A wink. That’s about as long as anyone needs to know what they believe in–what they’ll do to protect or neglect their lives. Let’s return to the summer–let’s go there uninhibited.

-Micah Ling

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

In Fiction, Novel (Guest Punch by Steven Woods) on June 24, 2011 at 12:07 am

It’s hard to say which is scarier: not knowing where you’re going, or not knowing where you’ve been. Ren is a young boy who knows neither. He controls the present by stealing things, because he can – a stump where his hand should be is a better misdirect than any magician uses. He lives in the orphanage run by monks who believe the boy’s deformity is the devil’s work. It’s easier that way – right? When a man arrives interested in adopting Ren and bridging the span from past to present, the boy is hooked. “What’s the thing you want most in the world?” the man asks. “A family,” Ren answers. But at what cost? The boy is swept off to a world of hustling, grave robbing and theft, and guess what? He fits right in – he’s a natural. Hannah Tinti tricks us into reading a love story – with the purest intentions. Her characters are deeply complex: we’ve got compassion for the criminals and conceit for the men who serve god. And then – just as fast – the characters fall back into old habits. Tinti seems to prove that each of us is flawed in some way—that a relationship of any kind accounts for the defects.

-Steven Woods

A Gentleman’s Guide to Graceful Living by Michael Dahlie

In Fiction, Novel on June 3, 2011 at 3:57 pm

The cold fact is that we do judge a book by its cover. We judge a man by his clothes. We judge a meal by its server. We’re generally cruel and simple and obvious. Good for us. At first, it seems like this title is all wrong—ridiculous—but then, fuck it. It ends up being kind of hilarious and ironic. Demographics and reactions and subtle assumptions. It fits. Arthur Camden is like that friend you’ve had forever, who seems so utterly different from you, and then every once in a while, exactly the same. It’s hard to classify this story—the premise almost seems like comedy: import/export business collapses, wife of 32-years leaves for her teenaged crush. But there’s a lot going on here. Big issues like class and status are dealt with in a really digestible and personal way. There is no guide, obviously—that’s not a riddle—and because of that, we’re free to see the humanity in the fact that we’re all basically the same. Who would any man be without doubt? Who would any man be without going through the steps of self-actualization and coming out with no clear answers, but a life, lived.

-Micah Ling

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbo

In Fiction, Novel on May 27, 2011 at 12:51 am

Stieg Larsson is a hack. Popular, yes. But compared to Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø, Larsson’s books are mildly entertaining, mostly boring, and completely tedious.

Even in translation The Redbreast is electrifying. It’s a thriller for the mystery novel averse. It’s complex and sophisticated, populated by a rich cast of characters – detective Harry Hole chiefly among them.

What you need to know: In a book not yet available in English, Harry Hole screwed up. He’s haunted and looking for redemption. Instead, he screws up again – accidentally shooting an American Secret Service officer during the President’s trip to Norway. His punishment? A “promotion” out of active duty – a promotion that pulls Harry into an assassination plot reaching back into Norway’s troubled World War II history. Two-faced cops, neo-Nazi thugs, arrogant politicians, and a motley group of Norwegian soldiers shivering on the Eastern Front all orbit Harry as he works to piece it all together.

Many mystery novels fizzle in the third act, but this one escalates with break-neck fury. Forget the dragon tattoo. The Redbreast is tremendous, and waiting behind it is a series upping the ante with every book.

Especially if the last thing you want to read is a mystery.

-Jay Cullis