Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers: A NovelThe Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As is usual, I received this book via a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration, I’ll proceed to say unkind things about it.

The novel simultaneously describes the lives of a young woman in 1977 and the man decades before who built the motorcycle she now rides about on as the roams through the avant garde art world of the day.

On the positive side, this book is a wonderfully written and carefully crafted piece of literature. The author has gone to great pains to weave together some really exceptional sentences. The march of words is precise and impressive…

… and unfortunately, seemingly endless. Kushner is a great writer but her story plods on laboriously and tediously for 400 pages without really accomplishing much.

In summary, I will simply end here because sometimes brevity is the true and right path to making a point. Wonderful writing but perhaps better broken into three or four books. A frightful and despairing trudge of a novel.

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The Bench by F.C. Malby

The BenchThe Bench by F.C. Malby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received this book via LibraryThing and despite that kind and generous consideration my candid thoughts appear below.

This is where I usually put the plot summary but since it’s hard to say very much about a 10-minute read without spoiling it completely, I’ll just say that a sad and hopeless man has a very uplifting encounter with an incredibly eerie and uplifting young lady.

Qualitatively speaking, the tone of this story was wonderful. The depiction of the little girl is downright spooky and the visual impression she makes on the reader is indelible. Malby has chosen an interesting setting and an unlikely cast of characters to bring us what I chose to interpret as a message of hope. It’s very impactful for something that takes longer to load on the Kindle than it does to read. Oftentimes I find myself wishing that short stories were drawn out into fuller treatments but in this case, not an iota. Perfect length as it stands.

The ending of this one, which I will only allude to by referring to “the ending” is, to put it lightly, rather shocking. One can anticipate rife and vigorous discussion if you choose to read this one in book club. On the whole though, a very solid and well-crafted little story. Maybe there’s hope for us after all if we just choose to hold on to what’s important, eh?

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Pit Stop in the Paris of Africa by Julie R. Dargis

Pit Stop in the Paris of AfricaPit Stop in the Paris of Africa by Julie R. Dargis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book for nothing as part of a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind consideration, my candid thoughts follow.

Our author has traveled far and wide and spent time in some amazing and complex parts of the world. In this book she shares some of her memories, observations and experiences from those far-flung climes.

So, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m having a bit of trouble writing about this one. Clearly the author has spent a large portion of her life helping out some very deserving people and contributing positively to the world at large. She’s put herself in harms way all for the benefit of those who are less fortunate and denied herself many of the things we all take for granted. Ms. Dargis is a stand-up person, let there be no doubt.

However, I’m forced to say that this book is just doesn’t work. First of all, it’s incredibly choppy and meandering. One minute she’s off in some third world country and the next she’s back home dating guys off the internet that just aren’t up to her standards. Then she’s back in yet another country and her multi-year stay boils down to a 4-page chapter that’s really only two randomly selected anecdotes. There may be 2-3 wonderful books to be written around this material. Heck, there may be 10 books to be written but you can’t just take bits and pieces from all of them and mash them together and expect to get a good book. Pick a topic and stay on it.

Secondly, the author comes across as very self-promoting as she goes on about how uncomfortable she was at times, how much pain she was in, how hard she worked or how much she’s given up to do this work. I’m absolutely certain that all of those things are true. I have no doubt whatsoever about her sacrifice but it does come across as rather anti-heroic to talk about it. And, when she’s not suffering from others, she’s making a ton of money in the stock market. During one passage she goes on at length about how successful her stock portfolio was and that even professional stock brokers were were astonished and asking her how she did it. I had to stare in mystified disbelief at this passage and fathom what on earth it could have to do with what I presumed to be the premise of the book.

In summary, I’m sure the author is a wonderful person but this sure is not a wonderful book. She’s had some wonderful experiences in her life and I would hate to be seen as discouraging but this book needs some structure and some guidance and most of all some focus.

PS: I’ve written negative reviews in the past so I’m prepared for the likely onslaught of nit-picking and bile that is sure to ensue. Don’t bother. If everyone just wrote positive reviews then what possible point would there be to reviewing anything? One man’s opinion. Just chill out.

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A Mouse’s Tale by David Hunter

A Mouse's TaleA Mouse’s Tale by David Hunter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Firstly, and as almost always, I received this book from a GoodReads giveaway and despite the kind consideration of a free book delivered to my doorstep, my candid thoughts appear below.

Hunter’s ‘A Mouse’s Tale’ is a collection of short stories that center around cops and soldiers. It will come as no surprise to learn that the author himself was a cop and a soldier. To say that the collection is largely autobiographical is, at best, rather redundant.

My typical form for reviews is to break down positives and negatives and weigh them against each other. In this case, I think it more appropriate to partition based on position in the book. For most of the book we get homespun realism. All his stories have a very down-to-earth Midwestern feel. His characters are people we all know or have at least seen in a 50s TV series. The David Hunter who is revealed in the first part of the book is the sort of guy you just want to buy a beer for and sit down and listen to for several hours. In fact, if ever the author is in town, I will pay his bar tab for the duration for the evening. These are the sorts of stories that you just want to sit and listen to for hours as they reflect real life in the suburban Midwest of Tennessee. This, my dear readers, is reality and it’s wonderfully articulated in this book.

The last two stories, however, make the whole thing a wonder. In his final two entries in this series Hunter takes a delicious and dark turn. In the first part our author is demonstrating his ability to tell a good story. In the second part… well, at this hour I just don’t have words for it. Perhaps he’s tapping into some inner fear or secret desire but when Hunter turns dark it is absolutely satisfying. Despite the constant stream of books that arrives at my home for free, I’d consider actually buying a book composed only of Hunter’s darker stories as exemplified by the final two stories in this book.

In summary, the book is subtitled “stories from the unhinged mind and imagination of David Hunter.” Until the last two stories I was amused but didn’t feel the “unhinged” aspects of anything he had written. His work smacks of absolute reality as he lived it. That’s entertaining enough on its own but when you finally get to the end, then things live up to the subtitle. I like this book. I like this author. I’d buy him a beer or 10 if he finds himself in Indy anytime soon. I’m not sure what greater recommendation I can make than that.

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Killer Koala Bears from another Dimension by P.A. Douglas

Killer Koala Bears from another DimensionKiller Koala Bears from another Dimension by P.A. Douglas

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book via a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration my candid thoughts appear below.

This is the part of the review in which I tend to summarize the plot. Most conveniently, the author has left little doubt as to the plot by his clever selection of a title. This book is, unsurprisingly, and quite literally, about Killer Koala Bears from another Dimension. That’s enough said about that.

Anyone who follows my reviews with any alertness at all will know that I tend to be fairly serious-minded. However, when a book like this comes along, you can’t really be very seriously minded about anything. KKBFAD bills itself as a B-movie story and it lives up to that expectation perfectly. Its narrative is at once antic and coherent as the story’s antagonists march in and do exactly what you would expect Killer Koala Bears from another Dimension to do. In other words, it’s nutty but it’s that sort of nutty that at the heart of things really makes sense. I am especially gratified that the author chose the ending that he did. Saying any more about it would spoil the story entirely so I’ll just leave it at that.

Having liberally applauded, this is the part of the review in which I say something constructive. As with most books of this type, it suffered from a couple dozen or so grammatical, spelling or typographical errors. (Much like the ones that no doubt litter this review.) Also, when I started the book I had some hopes that I might be able to hand it to my 12-year-old stepson for his perusal. Sadly, the book is just a hair shy of being appropriate for such a purpose given some of the language.

In summary, a pretty snappy little title that knows exactly what it is and has no delusions about it. I would be unsurprised to see this one come on as the 2am Spooky Movie. Well done, well thought out and pretty amusing on balance.

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The Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman

The Paradise Guest HouseThe Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As is usual, I received this book for nothing from a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kindness my candid thoughts follow.

A year ago, our protagonist was witness to the Bali nightclub bombings. Now she’s returning to the country to pay her respects and find the little piece of herself that she left behind.

This book really defies easy categorization (travelogue? romance? historical novel? escapism?) but at its heart it’s an allegory of guilt, grief and loss. Our heroine not only lost her friend when the bombs ripped apart the building she was sitting in but also her piece of mind and sense of self. In “The Paradise Guest House” we find a woman who is struggling to put her life back together after she discovers that bombs tear apart more than buildings.

From a writing standpoint this book is smooth as silk. I’m always the first to pick at an author’s writing but Sussman is no slouch at stringing words together. Her words form an uncannily vivid picture in the reader’s mind and if you read the acknowledgements it’s not hard to see why. She spent a month on site researching the country and talking to locals. I suspect it’s no coincidence that some of the names of her characters also appear in the list of people to whom she is thankful. The author has very skillfully put a month of her life to paper.

Topically, Sussman does a grand job of taking us to a place and time that we don’t tend to think about very much and letting us get a flavor for not only the country but the people in it from the locals who have been there all their lives to the imports who just decided there was no reason to leave. Geographically speaking, if this comes out as a movie it’ll be one of those you go to just for the breathtaking panoramas.

In summary, our author has given us a great view not only into the far-off land of Bali but also into the souls of her complex and skillfully portrayed characters. Her descriptive powers are almost Dickensian in their breadth and depth. As for the question of a category for this book, it really is all of the above: some adventure, some romance, some far-off foreign climes but mostly it’s about a woman who has lost something and has retraced her steps to find it again.

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Deep Down by Deborah Coates

Deep DownDeep Down by Deborah Coates

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As is the usual preamble, I received this book in a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration of sending me books in the mail for free, I will render my candid opinions below. It’s also worth noting that I haven’t read the first book in this series so I’m coming in a bit in the middle of things.

Our protagonist is seeing ghosts. Not in the usual metaphorical sense but in the quite literal sense. Not just ghosts but Harbingers of Death, Reapers and that most grim of Grims, Death himself. Worse than that, something seems amiss in the normally orderly and happy hierarchy of the pantheon of the great beyond. Luckily, there’s someone to put things to the right.

So as far as original story lines go, this one has a lot going for it. It’s sort of a conglomeration of ‘Dead Like Me’ and a Dashiell Hammett novel with maybe a bit of ‘Topper’ thrown in. Our protagonist has a “gift” but she’s also rather a slave to it at the same time and you can sense her building frustration as the powers that be make her a rather casual pawn in the whole scheme of the universe. One exchange in particular made me laugh out loud (that sort of barking “glad it’s not me” laugh really more than an amused one) and sums up the tone of the story nicely:

“I don’t remember that,” he (death) said. He leaned on his cane, and his expression seemed serene to Hallie, like none of this mattered as much as it ought to. And it ought to matter a lot because … well, because it was pretty important that there be a line between the living and the dead. Like, pretty damned important.

“You need to do something,” Hallie said.

He looked at her for what felt like an uncomfortably long time. “I am doing something,” he said.

“What?”

“I have you.”

On the other side of the ledger, for all its originality, this book is one of those that is very subtle in its delivery and easy to be distracted from. Potential readers are advised to make sure they have absolute solitude when trying to consume it lest they become distracted. Not one you want to try to read in the waiting room at the dentist. Also, the novel does lean fairly heavily on its predecessor. While the author does a fine job of ‘catching up’ those who haven’t read the first, it would be much better to go back and start from the proper beginning.

In summary, “Deep Down” continues an amusing thread of narrative but doesn’t grasp the reader around the throat like many in this genre. A worthwhile novel to pursue for certain but best for a long, rainy weekend and only after having read the first of the series.

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