Review: Sweet Nothing

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Review for “Sweet Nothing” by Richard Lange
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

At this point, I will read just about anything that Richard Lange writes. I was wowed by his short story collection “Dead Boys,” impressed with his novel “Angel Baby,” and even though I was a lil less than happy with his other novel, “This Wicked World,” it’s ok. I love his subject matter–people who find it hard to fit in and fly right. In any other novel you’d dismissively call his characters losers and turn the page, but Lange paints his characters so lovingly that you are willing to forgive them for their missteps and give them another chance. His writing is always fresh and entertaining. Take this line from “The 100-to-1 Club”:

“My day began in a jail, and now I’m trapped in a racetrack shitter. Somebody’s made some bad choices. Again.”

[*LMAO…*]

This short story collection does not disappoint. There are guards, gamblers, ex junkies, and border crossers, and manners of people in between that make up the fabric of this lovely book. In “Must Come Down” we encounter a young father whose father in law’s ‘business’ proves way more than he can handle. In “The Wolf of Bordeaux” a good natured prison guard attempts to protect an inmate accused of a terrible crime. In the “The 100-to-1 Club,” a gambling addict risks all for a bet and loses everything in the process. In “Apocrypha,” an ex criminal finagles his way out of a burglary plan, just in the nick of time. And in my favorite story, “Sweet Nothing,” an ex junkie finally makes the right choice and reaps himself a great reward.

As I said before, I loved this book. I would recommend it to anyone and would be terribly disappointed if it doesn’t end up on the “Best Of” lists for 2015…

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Review: We Need New Names

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Review for “We Need New Names” by NoViolet Bulawayo
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I liked the first half of this book. The language is rich, the characters realistic, and the main character’s voice soars off of the page. The novel is set in Zimbabwe in the late 90’s, where we first meet Darling, a likeable, whip-smart young girl living in an ironically named shantytown called Paradise along with her interestingly named friends (Bastard, Sbho, Chipo, and Godknows). Bulawayo does not give us a pretty picture of Paradise, however. There is crippling poverty, daily starvation (with Darling and her friends stealing fruit from trees to survive), the government’s systematic destruction of what little homes Darling and her neighbors have, and one of her 11-year-old friends is pregnant (presumably from a rape by a family member). Despite the bleak landscape of the novel I loved the fact that Bulawayo chose to portray her child narrator with equal parts of innocence and resiliency. There was a fair share of times within the book where I found myself laughing out loud at Darling’s observations–a trip to church with her grandmother, as well as her account of NGO workers, who take pictures of them and give them “loads of things they don’t need.” It’s a harsh world, but a beautiful one in which the children dreamingly drift away their days without school, playing games and eating fruit.

About mid-way through the book Darling immigrates to America. Here, though, her voice becomes disconnected from the rest of the narrative. While I imagine that a certain degree of this is intentional (Bulawayo is mirroring the voicelessness of the immigrant experience), it is not particularly interesting to read. The first part of the book crackled with energy, and it was such a let-down to read the second half–mostly, Darling’s blandly prescribed accounts of fat Americans, the appearance of snow, going to the mall, and watching porn with her friends.

I wouldn’t advise people not to read this book. Bulawayo does not waste words, each chapter was strong enough to stand as a short story on its own. Bulawayo is a good writer, and I loved the solidness of her prose. I look forward to her further writing in the future, she is definitely one to watch.

Review: A Girl is a Half Formed Thing

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Review for “A Girl is a Half Formed Thing” by Eimear McBride
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

I got about 25 pages into this before I called it quits.

This book is written completely outside of the conventions of English. Mostly stream of consciousness, fractured phrases, fleeting glimpses, impressions. This is not my main criticism here, however. I’ve read plenty of books with the nuances of busted English, no quotations, no full sentences and it still managed to be pleasantly readable. But THIS was an exercise in futility. Take the first paragraph, for instance:

“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear your say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, I’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait hour and day.”

Huh????

I even tried reading this in a cracked version of an Irish accent and I STILL didn’t get it.

This book was definitely more style over substance. The author’s use of language here was almost gimmicky to me, a mask for the fact that the character wasn’t very interesting and there wasn’t much of a story to tell.

I don’t understand how this book is getting rave reviews. Am I the only one shouting that the Emperor has no clothes here?

Review: The Returned

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Review for “The Returned” by Jason Mott

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

(Spoilers ahoy!)

I got through about 175 pages of this book before I stopped.

It starts off interesting and intriguing enough—long dead people, for some unknown reason, begin to come back to life. Why they have returned and how they become one of the Returned is never explained. The book makes it clear that they are not zombies, and that they look and function as normal people despite the fact that they’ve died, in many cases, years before. They reappear years later, often half a world away from where they died, and a government agency known as the ‘Bureau’ returns them to their families. The book takes off with this and then, well….that’s it.

The majority of the story is told through Lucille and Harold Hargreaves, an elderly couple in rural America whose 8 year old son Jacob is returned after drowning over 40 years ago. Lucille happily picks up parenting where she left off, while Harold broods over it for several chapters. Their son Jacob is, well…Jacob. He tells corny jokes and eats his mom’s cooking. But that’s about it. He’s the boring-est resurrected person alive (literally). What is the author’s point of writing this novel if the main character at the heart of the mystery never says anything—about death or life or how they got there in the first place? The point where I stopped reading is when Jacob is eventually locked in an internment camp and is asked the same how-and-why questions by soldiers that he couldn’t answer from the beginning. Obviously the author is trying to make some political point here with the internment angle, but I could have cared less. If nothing behind the mystery of The Returned is ever revealed, what is the point of locking him up? Yawn.

I guess I expected more from this book. It is the same book, apparently, that the current ABC show “Resurrection” is based upon, and the ho-hum nature of this book doesn’t make me want to watch the show to find out either. There was no momentum and the story fell flat. I wanted science to make an appearance, to say something (anything!) to make this book readable but it didn’t. None of the characters had any real life to them at all. Ugh.

Review: Ugly Girls

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Review for “Ugly Girls” by Lindsay Hunter
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Man, I loved this book…

On the surface it’s the story of two teenaged girls getting into shit–stealing cars, joyriding in the middle of the night, skipping class. Perry and Baby Girl are young, hard, ruthless, and completely impulsive, doing whatever thrill that feels best at the moment. Their friendship is one of convenience, one constantly pushing the other into one bad choice after the next. Baby Girl is physically ugly (her hair is shaved completely off) and Perry is emotionally ugly, living with her spineless stepfather and a drunk mother who doesn’t seem to give a damn what’s she’s up to.

Their adventures in mischief become child’s play when the two of them discover that they’re both being chatted up by the same guy online–a creepy local pedophile who has an obsession with Perry. As the book progresses and the danger edges closer and closer you know that the situation will not go well–and it doesn’t.

As I said before, I loved this book. The writing completely captured me from the beginning and didn’t let up until the end. The ending was a bit abrupt, but Hunter’s prose makes it forgiveable. I found myself underlining and rereading section after section, just because the words were so achingly beautiful. This book is unapologetic and totally worth a space on your reading list.

Review: This Wicked World

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Review for ‘This Wicked World’ by Richard Lange
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Richard Lange is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. I loved his short story collection “Dead Boys” and his second book, “Angel Baby.” His writing is decent and his characters are always oddly compelling, so I had to backtrack a bit and read his first book, which brings me to this review. The story focuses on Jimmy Boone, an ex Marine and ex con who is hired to find out what happened in the death of a Guatemalan immigrant. In the process of his investigation he uncovers a dogfighting ring run by a group of vicious criminals, a scheme to counterfeit cash, and begins seeing a nice girl in the process.

Although the writing is passable and Lange manages to compel you to turn the page to find out what happens next, this book is loaded with problems. As an ex con on parole wanting to keep his nose clean, Jimmy Boone kept behaving in ways that were completely implausible. The mystery of what happens to the Guatemalan immigrant is solved fairly early on, a little over midway through the novel. Boone’s choice to continue to “investigate” for another 150 pages by sticking his nose into matters that don’t concern him simply make no sense. It’s like the classic scene of a bad horror movie when the horny teenagers go into the woods with condoms and beer and you’re shaking your head because you know fuckery and doom will follow. Yet Boone does it anyway, and it serves no purpose other than to drive a weak plot forward.

The last one hundred pages are a waste that further plunges the book downward into a mess. It is clear that Lange felt the need to wrap up every open plot end, no matter how useless and bad it was to begin with. It is unbelievable that a side character does a complete 180 and tries to screw Boone over with a half assed kidnap job or the fact that two of his friends (more characters wanting to stay “clean”) suddenly feel compelled to join his misguided cause. There were also lengthy passages describing brutal dog fights that did not seem to function to move the plot forward at all. I found myself skipping over pages and pages of gory details describing pit bulls ripping each other to pieces that, quite frankly, did not enlighten me any further into why Lange went with the dogfighting angle in the first place.

Lange is an excellent writer but the fact that this is his first book clearly shows here. I’ll continue to read whatever he writes, but I’d skip this book if I were you.

Review: True Things About Me

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Review for “True Things About Me” by Deborah Kay Davies
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a simple read, but a hard one. This book is disturbing but engrossing, within a few paragraphs you’re immediately swept up in the tale of a normal woman who, over the course of just a few meetings, becomes completely obsessed with Mr. Wrong. And when I say Mr. Wrong, I literally mean the worst man possible: an amoral criminal who steals from her, abuses her physically, abandons her, and manages to destroy everything in her life in the process—her relationships with family, friends, her sanity, her job.

The chapters are short, there’s even a healthy dose of black humor. There were times that I found I could read on and on and relate wholeheartedly to the main character (she’s never given a name, btw) but there were other times that I was so disgusted by the decisions she makes that I just had to collect my bearings and walk away from her for a bit. You want so badly to reach through the pages and help her, to shake some sense into this poor Brit gal, but she never manages to snap out of the sick spell this dude has put her under. This is one of those books where you are forced to witness a train wreck at 100 miles per hour and there’s nothing you can do but…watch. It’s the darkest side of human nature imaginable, and the main character’s obsession is sad, cruel, and desperate. And it made a very good read.

In reading some of the online reviews, it makes perfect sense that some people hate this book. This book is an uncomfortable read, but one I felt was very necessary. Reading about a situation in which a woman is physically and emotionally abused doesn’t make for the most delightful experience. We like stories where women fight back, walk away, defend themselves–and Davies’ character does none of these things. The writing is lovely and shows how easily blurred the lines are between sanity and insanity, love and indifference, healthy and unhealthy relationships. I would recommend this book. But, be warned. It is a terrifying quick ride off the edge of a cliff. Hopefully you can handle it…