Tag: Ron Rash

Mini-Reviews of Three Recent Releases: Chariandy, Dean & Tallack

Brother by David Chariandy

Canadian author David Chariandy’s second novel was longlisted for the Giller Prize and won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Narrator Michael and his older brother Francis grew up in the early 1980s in The Park, a slightly dodgy area of Toronto. Their single mother, Ruth, is a Trinidadian immigrant who worked long shifts as a cleaner to support the family after their father left early on. From the first pages we know that Francis is an absence, but don’t find out why until nearly the end of the book. The short novel is split between the present, as Michael and Ruth try to proceed with normal life, and vignettes from the past, culminating in the incident that took Francis from them 10 years ago.

The title is literal, of course, but also street slang for friends or comrades. Michael looked up to street-smart Francis, who fell in with a gang of “losers and neighbourhood schemers” and got expelled from school at age 18. Francis tried to teach his little brother how to carry himself: “You’ve got to be cooler about things, and not put everything out on your face all the time.” Yet the more we hear about Francis staying with friends at a barber shop and getting involved with preparations for a local rap DJ competition, the more his ideal of aloof masculinity starts to sound ironic, if not downright false.

I came into the book with pretty much no idea of what it was about. It didn’t fit my narrow expectations of Canadian fiction (sweeping prairie stories or hip city ones); instead, it reminded me of The Corner by David Simon, We, the Animals by Justin Torres, and Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge. It undoubtedly gives a powerful picture of immigrant poverty and complicated grief. Yet the measured prose somehow left me cold.

My rating:


Brother was published in the UK by Bloomsbury on March 8th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

 

Sharp by Michelle Dean

“People have trouble with women who aren’t ‘nice,’ … who have the courage to sometimes be wrong in public.” In compiling 10 mini-biographies of twentieth-century women writers and cultural critics who weren’t afraid to be unpopular, Dean (herself a literary critic) celebrates their feminist achievements and insists “even now … we still need more women like this.” Her subjects include Rebecca West, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Nora Ephron and Renata Adler. She draws on the women’s correspondence and published works as well as biographies to craft concise portraits of their personal and professional lives.

You’ll get the most out of this book if a) you know nothing about these women and experience this as a taster session; or b) you’re already interested in at least a few of them and are keen to learn more. I found the Dorothy Parker and Hannah Arendt chapters most interesting because, though I was familiar with their names, I knew very little about their lives or works. Parker’s writing was pulled from a slush pile in 1914 and she soon replaced P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic. Her famous zingers masked her sadness over her dead parents and addict husband. “This was her gift,” Dean writes: “to shave complex emotions down to a witticism that hints at bitterness without wearing it on the surface.”

Unfortunately, such perceptive lines are few and far between, and the book as a whole lacks a thesis. Chance meetings between figures sometimes provide transitions, but the short linking chapters are oddly disruptive. In one, by arguing that Zora Neale Hurston would have done a better job covering a lynching than Rebecca West, Dean only draws attention to the homogeneity of her subjects: all white and middle-class; mostly Jewish New Yorkers. I knew too much about Sontag and Didion to find their chapters interesting, but enjoyed reading more about Ephron. I’ll keep the book to refer back to when I finally get around to reading Mary McCarthy. It has a terrific premise, but I found myself asking what the point was.

My rating:


Sharp was published in the UK by Fleet on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for a proof copy for review.

 

The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack

I’d previously enjoyed Malachy Tallack’s two nonfiction books, Sixty Degrees North and The Undiscovered Islands. In his debut novel he returns to Shetland, where he spent some of his growing-up and early adult years, to sketch out a small community and the changes it undergoes over about ten months. Sandy has lived in this valley for three years with Emma, but she left him the day before the action opens. Unsure what to do now, he sticks around to help her father, David, butcher the lambs. After their 90-year-old neighbor, Maggie, dies, Sandy takes over her croft. Other valley residents include Ryan and Jo, a troubled young couple; Terry, a single dad; and Alice, who moved here after her husband’s death and is writing a human and natural history of the place, The Valley at the Centre of the World. (This strand reminded me of Annalena McAfee’s Hame.)

The prose is reminiscent of the American plain-speaking style of books set in the South or Appalachia – Richard Ford, Walker Percy, Ron Rash and the like. We dive deep into this tight-knit community and its secrets. It’s an offbeat blend of primitive and modern: the minimalism of the crofting life contrasts with the global reach of Facebook, for instance. When Ryan and Jo host a housewarming party, all the characters are brought together at about the halfway point, and some relationships start to shift. Overall, though, this is a slow and meandering story. Don’t expect any huge happenings, just some touching reunions and terrific scenes of manual labor. David is my favorite character, an almost biblical patriarch who seems “to live in a kind of eternal present, looking neither forward nor backward but always, somehow, towards the land.”

Tallack has taken a risk by writing in phonetic Shetland dialect. David’s speech is particularly impenetrable. The dialect does rather intrude; the expository passages are a relief. I’ve been to Shetland once, in 2006. This quiet story of belonging versus being an outsider is one to reread there some years down the line: I reckon I’d appreciate it more on location.

My rating:


The Valley at the Centre of the World was published by Canongate on May 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

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Bloggers’ Opinions Must Not Be Bought: A Cautionary Tale

I’m leery of accepting self-published work for review. If this is prejudice on my part, it’s not unjustified: I’ve reviewed hundreds of self-published books during my four years of freelance work for Kirkus, Foreword, BlueInk, Publishers Weekly, and The Bookbag, and although I do find the very occasional gem that could hold its own in a traditional market, the overall quality is poor. When self-published authors get in touch via my blog, I usually delete their enquiries immediately. But for some reason I decided to give a second look to a request I received through Goodreads earlier this year. (All identifying details have been removed.)

I’ll admit it: the flattery probably helped:

This was for a historical novel that had 4-star reviews from two Goodreads friends whose judgment I trust, so I agreed to have the author send a copy to my parents’ house in the States so that it would be waiting for me there when I arrived for my recent trip. When I opened the box, two alarm bells rang at once. First there was this. Uh oh.

Second of all: the author had taken the trouble of looking up restaurants in my parents’ area and ordered a $60 gift card from one of them to send along with the book parcel. Double uh oh.

I spent weeks wondering what in the world I was going to do about this ethical quandary. I even contacted a Goodreads friend who’d reviewed the book and asked what their experience with the author had been like. The reply was very telling:

I still feel unsettled over my interaction with [name redacted]. I’ve always made it a point not to review unsolicited books. But over a period of several weeks, [they] sent me a number of emails that ranged from flattering to fawning – and always polite and charming. Eventually, I, too, received a $60 gift card to a favorite restaurant that was within blocks of my home. I ended up, I believe, 4 starring [the] book, although the truth is that it was more of a 3-star read. Since reviewing, I have valued my independence – and honesty – and since then, have had the uncomfortable feeling of being “bought”, and for a low price at that.

I cannot tell you what to do. Obviously, I feel as if my own values were compromised. For me, it wasn’t worth what I still believe is a blot on my integrity. If you do decide to review, I’d simply encourage you to be honest because (I learned the hard way) the aftermath isn’t a good feeling.

Well, I’d promised to review the book, so I forced myself to open it, pencil in hand. After I’d corrected 10 problems of punctuation and grammar within the first six pages, I commenced skimming. There were some decent folksy metaphors and a not-half-bad dual narrative of a young woman’s odyssey and a small town’s feuds. But there were also dreadful sex scenes, melodramatic plot turns, and dialogue and slang that didn’t ring true for the time period. If I squinted pretty darn hard, I could see my way to likening the novel to the works of Ron Rash and Daniel Woodrell. But it wasn’t by any means a book I could genuinely recommend.

So when the author checked up a couple of months later to see whether I had gotten the book and what I thought of it, here’s what I replied:

I received the following abject apology, but no helpful information.

To my brief follow-up –

– I received this:

Note the phrase “self-promoted” and the meaningless repetition of “couldn’t put it down!”

And then they went on to disparage me for my age?!

I don’t believe for a minute that this person was ignorant of what they were doing in sending the gift cards. What’s saddest to me is that they have zero interest in getting an honest opinion of the work or hearing constructive criticism that could help them improve. They clearly don’t respect professionals’ estimation, either, or they’d be brave enough to pay for a review from Kirkus or another independent body. Instead, they’ve presumably been ‘paying’ $60 a pop to get fawning but utterly false 5-star reviews. Just imagine how much money they’ve spent on shipping and ‘thank-you gifts’ – easily many thousands of dollars.

And could I really have been the first in 180+ people to express misgivings about what was going on here? How worrying.

I was tempted to be generous and give the novel the briefest of 3-star reviews, perhaps as an addendum to another review on my blog, just so that I could feel justified in keeping the gift card and not have to face a confrontation with the author. But it didn’t feel right. If I want my reviews to have integrity, they have to reflect my honest opinions. As it stands, I have the gift card in an envelope, ready to be returned to the author when I’m in the States for my sister’s wedding next month; the book will most likely get dropped off at a Little Free Library.

If I was a vindictive person, I’d be going on Goodreads and Amazon and giving the book a 1-star review: as a necessary corrective to the bogus 5-star ones, and as a way of exposing this dodgy self-promotional activity. But that would in turn expose all of this person’s readers, including a valued Goodreads friend. And who knows how the author would try to retaliate.

So there you have it. My cautionary tale of a self-published author trying to buy my good opinion. What have I learned? Mostly to be even more wary of self-published work; possibly not to make any promises to review a book until I’ve seen a sample of it. But also to listen to my conscience and, when something is wrong, have the courage to speak out right away.


I’m curious: what would you have done?

Four Books Abandoned Recently (+ One I SHOULD Have)

I’d like to think I’ve gotten better at choosing books that are sure to suit me, but sometimes it’s still a matter of ditching the duds when it becomes clear they’re not working. Here’s the small (digital) pile of abandoned novels I’ve amassed over the last couple of months. I’d be interested to hear if you’ve read any of them and thought they were worth persisting with.

Mrs. Houdini by Victoria Kelly

mrs houdiniPerfectly serviceable historical fiction, but with no spark. I felt like I was just being given a lot of information about the two major time periods (1894 and 1929). Alas, scenes set at a séance, a circus, and an insane asylum are not nearly as exciting as they promise to be. And, as is often the case with these famous wives books – a genre I generally love but can also find oddly disappointing from time to time – the protagonist tries but fails to explain why she finds her husband so fascinating. “His eyes danced. There was a madness to his passion, but he was not insane. There was something real and familiar about him. … Harry was promising her a life of possibility, of magic, and it was unlike anything she had ever imagined for herself.” [Read the first 40%.]

My rating: 3 star rating

 

terrible virtueTerrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman

Another case of expectations too high and payoff too little. Fictionalized biographies can be among my favorite historical fiction, but the key is that they have to do something that a biography doesn’t do. They have to shape a story that goes beyond the chronology of what happened to whom and when. This novel about contraception activist Margaret Sanger failed to tell me anything I didn’t already know from The Birth of the Pill, a more engaging book all round. If anything this left me more confused about why Sanger consented to marriage and motherhood. These cringe-worthy lines try to explain it: “His [Bill’s] sex upended the world. His love filled the hole my childhood had carved out of me. Maybe that was the reason I married him.” [Read the first 26%.]

My rating: 2.5 star rating

 

Vexation Lullaby by Justin Tussing

vexationThis started off very promising, with Pete Silver, a doctor in Rochester, New York, being summoned by ageing rock star Jimmy Cross for a consult. Jimmy knows Pete’s mother from way back and wants to know if he’ll accompany him on the airplane during this comeback tour as his personal physician. However, after that there was a lot of downtime filling in Pete’s backstory and introducing a first-person voice that didn’t feel relevant. This is Arthur Pennyman, a fan who’s seen every Jimmy Cross show and writes them up on his website. I didn’t care for Arthur’s sections and thought they pulled attention away from Pete’s story. That’s a shame, as the plot reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. [Read the first nearly 100 pages.]

My rating: 3 star rating

 

over theOver the Plain Houses by Julia Franks

Entirely decent historical fiction with a flavor of Ron Rash or Virginia Reeves (Work Like Any Other), but it felt so slow and aimless. Irenie Lambey is married to a harsh fundamentalist preacher named Brodis. She longs for their son to get a good education and hopes that the appearance of a USDA agent may be the chance, but Brodis cares about the boy’s soul rather than his mind. On night-time walks, Irenie stores up artifacts and memories in a cave – desperately trying to have a life larger than what her husband controls. It could well just be my lack of patience, but the believable dialect and solid characters weren’t quite enough to keep me reading. [Read the first 16%.]

My rating: 3 star rating


And now for the one I should have stopped reading at about the 25% point. I have an expanded version of this review on Goodreads; click on the title to read more.

 

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029–2047 by Lionel Shriver

mandiblesShriver does a good line in biting social commentary. Here she aims at Atwood-style near-future speculative fiction and takes as her topic the world economy. I had big problems with this one. Worst is the sheer information overload: tons of economic detail crammed into frequent, wearisome conversations. Instead of making America’s total financial collapse a vague backdrop for her novel, she takes readers through it event by agonizing event. This means the first third or more of the novel feels like prologue, setting the scene. When she finally gets around to the crux of the matter – the entire extended Mandible family descending on Florence’s small New York City house – it feels like too little plot, too late. Everything Shriver imagines for the near future, except perhaps the annoying slang (e.g. “boomerpoop”), is more or less believable. But boy is it tedious in the telling.

My rating: 2 star rating

Four Books that Lasted All of 2015: #1

With this four-part post (one per day for the rest of this week) I think I will finally have caught up on the 2015 reads I needed to review. These four books have daunted me for ages because I spent much of last year with them – one because I wrestled with it (vacillating between admiration and frustration), another because it was a daily bedside book, and the other two because they were long and rewarding yet tough to read more than a bit of at a time. Knowing full well that I won’t do any of them justice, I’ll offer a few thoughts.

Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson

“I go into homes all the time and I save children. It’s what I do for a living, you see? And I didn’t save my own daughter.”

fourth of july creekIf I take nearly a year over a novel, stopping and starting, that’s usually a bad sign. But I forced myself to finish this one, just like I did with The Orphan-Master’s Son by Adam Johnson. In the end my feelings were roughly similar, too: I appreciated the skill behind Henderson’s writing but never fully warmed to it. This is the story of Pete Snow, a Montana social worker in the early 1980s. His cases are uniformly distressing, but the one that most captivates his attention is Benjamin Pearl, raised in the wilderness by his father Jeremiah, a fundamentalist anarchist who drills holes in coins to show his antipathy to the government.

Since his wife and their teenage daughter Rachel left for Texas, Pete has been adrift in a fog of alcohol and sex, driving obsessively between remote locations in an attempt to save his doomed clients and criminal brother. When Rachel runs away, though, life’s dangers come home to Pete for the first time: “He’d seen so much suffering, but he’d only ever suffered it secondarily. To have it fresh and his own. The scope of it. He’d had no idea. He’d known nothing.” His search for his daughter is what saved the book for me. However, what actually happens to Rachel I found melodramatic, and how it’s narrated – through a third-person rendering of an interview, rather than a you/I back-and-forth – seemed odd.

Indeed, there are unusual narration choices throughout, such as the occasional second-person phrase in reference to Pete. The prose style is by turns fragmentary (as the above lines attest) and expansive, as in this long, alliterative sentence:

Shattered chants and ceaseless invective morph into a nearly simian cacophony of hoots and throaty shrieks as a white cloud of gas composes and insinuates itself into the small crowd that yet churns forward from the rear and backward from the front as the agitators break into two scattering bodies, fanning and choking and wild-eyed, coursing up and down the road.

Once again I prefer the American cover. What's up with that?
Once again I prefer the American cover. What’s up with that?

Ultimately I found this novel to be very hard work. The one scene I’ll remember most clearly is Pete and the Pearls stumbling on a pile of animals, from a raccoon right up to a black bear, that were all killed by a downed telephone wire. I’d recommend this if you’re a dedicated reader of dirty realism and you accept the violence and the detached writing style that genre tends to involve. If not, you should probably start somewhere else, like with Ron Rash or David Vann.

Ever since Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell came out, I can’t help but hear his song “Fourth of July” in my head when I think about this book: “What did you learn from the Tillamook Burn and the Fourth of July? We’re all gonna die.” It’s that oppressive, depressing, even apocalyptic atmosphere I’ll return to when I think about this book. Fourth of July Creek – a real place in Montana – is nowhere I’ll want to revisit.

With thanks to Windmill Books for the free copy, won in a Goodreads giveaway.

My rating: 3.5 star rating