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…

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: 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…

Review: Love Me Back

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Review for “Love Me Back” by Merritt Tierce
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

In a nutshell: a book about a young single mother who works at a Dallas steakhouse who does lots of drugs and has sex with lots of guys. Barely got through the first 100 pages of this book before I stopped reading it completely. It wasn’t the drugs or the sex by the main character that bothered me, but the amateurish way in which this book was written. Several reviewers nailed it when they mentioned that it seems like the author is trying too hard (to push an envelope? to be edgy?) and I totally agree. We never get to know Marie, you’re stuck with the feeling like you’re reading a bunch of observations from a detached, hopeless individual. The author doesn’t help her character at all–it’s just pages upon pages of tiresome, stream of consciousness writing that goes nowhere, along with zero character development. There’s nothing raw or beautiful or outstanding here, just a young fucked up girl going about her daily coke fixes and sexual trysts with no rhyme or reason for them. There’s an awful lot of skipping around in time, as well as detailed descriptions that have nothing to do with anything. The lack of quotation marks made the writing incoherent and hard to understand. Certain paragraphs had to be read several times before it made sense. Also, the main character’s voice didn’t seem authentic to me. For a drugged out waitress who barely completed high school, her voice came off as sophisticated as an episode of “Red Shoe Diaries.” I also found it hard to believe that someone as coked up as Marie was could excel so well at her job, even if she was just waiting tables. And the corny title of “Love Me Back?” Don’t make me type another paragraph. Skip this read. Please.

Review: Young God

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Review for “Young God” by Katherine Faw Morris
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

The reason I was drawn to this book was through hearing of its author, Katherine Faw Morris. She’s from a small county in northwest North Carolina, about 80 miles from where I live. The second thing that drew me in was its intriguing title. What could a book called “Young God” possibly be about? Within 10 minutes of reading this debut novel, my question was answered.

The protagonist of this book is 13 year old Nikki, the daughter of a notorious pimp and “the biggest coke dealer in the county.” We never get a proper backstory for Nikki, although it’s hinted that she has spent some time in a group home prior to the opening of the story. At the beginning of the novel Nikki witnesses her mother fall sixty feet into a swimming hole, her body slamming into sharp rocks on the long way down. Nobody cares about it or mourns her, it’s clear early on that emotions have no place in the bleak landscape of this novel. Several pages after her mother’s death, Nikki consoles herself by going home and having sex with her mother’s boyfriend.

It’s a sonorous start for a book, and it doesn’t take long for Morris to completely dismantle your moral center. In the eyes of 13 year old Nikki, events like murder, rape, prostitution, and drug dealing take place with the same normality and regularity as the morning paper. The bizarre father and daughter relationship between Nikki and her father, Coy Hawkins (he’s never addressed as “dad,” but called by his first and last name only throughout the entire book) is at the center of this novel. At one point in the book, Nikki brings her father another young girl, because, of course, virgins make more money. It’s the most horrific case of learning by example, and young Nikki picks up fast. She learns how to buy and sell heroin after seeing her father do it once. And, as we witness for ourselves, she becomes extremely good at it.

Morris does not portray Nikki as someone the reader should pity. Instead, you feel drawn into a connection with her, one that alternates between fear and a creeping sense of foreboding. You feel scared for her, because you know that she probably won’t live to see her fourteenth birthday, and scared of her and her dangerous efficiency. The ending offers the reader no comfort either. While Nikki ‘wins’ in the final pages you still get a sense that her future holds the certainty of more violence, drug dependency, and ultimately, death.

At only about 20,000 words it’s easy to read this book in one sitting. Scenes jump chaotically from one to the next and you’re left wondering what happened in the blank spaces. The writing is sparse and frenzied, with some vignettes going on for several pages and some only consisting of one sentence. The brevity of this book only adds to its raw power, not a single word is wasted here. Morris’ choice in making this book brief was a wise one, if it had been any longer I could not see myself continuing to go back to read it. It’s a one time punch to the gut. And man, I liked it.

Review: Tampa

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Book review for Alissa Nutting’s “Tampa”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is the kind of book that people will either love or hate. There really is no in between, because whether you loved it or hated it the character and the motives of Celeste Price will provoke some kind of reaction out of you.

For those who don’t know, this book follows Celeste Price, an attractive Florida middle school teacher who is, by textbook definition, a pedophile and sexual predator. She teaches middle schoolers for one purpose and one purpose alone: to seduce and have sex with preteen boys. This book is full of very graphic scenes of sex between an adult and a child (you’ve been warned!) and tons and tons of really crude language about the subject just mentioned. There’s also a lot of discussion on female anatomy, vaginas, penises, masturbation, sex toys, etc. If you aren’t ready for that, I don’t advise that you read this book, because the frank sexual nature of it is about 80% of its content. I’m not kidding.

Let me say this: I have never, ever encountered a character so unlikeable in my life. Celeste Price is a woman on a mission in the way that she pursues a 14 year old male student, seduces him, and uses him to fulfill her sexual desires. There’s no love here, only sex. Being inside this woman’s head is truly nauseating experience. I had to literally “schedule” time with Celeste (as in, be in a mood where I felt like dealing with her) because whenever you finish reading it the ‘ick’ factor is one where a dozen showers won’t make you clean.

So why did I read it? And why did I like it? Because it’s true transgressive fiction, in its purest and best form.

What this book forces you to do is question the way we as a society view adult-child sexual relationships. We all seem to agree as a society that any adult engaging in sex with a child under the age of consent is wrong, and in turn, there are laws designed to protect minors from sexual abuse. But the way we view the child victim, depending on whether they are male or female, is problematic. A teenage girl who has a sexual relationship with a male teacher is almost always a victim. In the book, however, the people surrounding Jack do not consider him a victim. Nor does Jack himself consider himself to be victim. He is just being a red blooded American boy, living out a teenaged male fantasy of being dominated by a sexy older woman.

Because we get to live so closely inside Celeste’s mind, seeing how truly depraved she is, we have no choice but to express outrage when the law allows her to escape justice because she is a physically attractive female. There is also the trope of the assumption that women are the fairer sex and not inherently evil. We don’t want to imagine women as aggressive, sociopathic sexual predators because it goes against our ideal of women as caregivers and loving people. We assume females are a passive gender and not capable of sexually abusing a man.

So I liked this book, because it made me think. Even if those thoughts were truly vile, I feel it was absolutely necessary, to understand the larger point that the book is trying to make. I’m glad I read this book, but I would clearly never, ever read it again.

Review: Crimes in Southern Indiana

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Review for Frank Bill’s “Crimes in Southern Indiana”
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book is a bit of a guilty pleasure, because under normal circumstances I wouldn’t be caught dead reading a book with characters engaging in behavior this despicable. I liked this book for exactly the reasons I shouldn’t, because I figure every now and then it’s good for a serious reader like myself to treat myself to a bloodbath by ne’er do-wells.

This book is pretty much a nastier version of “Breaking Bad” in literary form–with people being buried alive, chopped up, beaten up, and fucked up beyond all recognition in almost every story. Frank Bill takes you to hell and back in a bullet ridden pickup truck and to a thousand other nasty places in between. In this universe there is murder, crooked cops, revenge, dogfighting, drugs, and guns (lots and lots and lots of guns) and not only are they the rule, they are the law. You want to feel bad for many of these people but you don’t, the protagonist in one story often shows up again antagonistically in another, as if they’ve finally drawn fate’s hand for their misdeeds.

Honestly, I liked this book. But there were many stories I wished were longer because they felt so rushed. We never really get to know the man who’s head gets blown off during a meth raid and I wish we did. I really wish we did, because it would have given this story even more power.