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A Change of Review Briefs

(Or, “Now Some Brief Reviews”)
And now, a few words on some of the books I’ve read recently:

Between the Assassinations by Aravind Adiga
I now have no doubt that Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was by no means a fluke – in fact, it just might be the tip of his talent iceberg, as this second book shows his emergence as a veritable literary force. These linked stories, set in the small Indian town of Kittur on the Arabian Sea, showcase Adiga’s considerable skill & the seemingly boundless population of fully formed characters at his fingertips. These tales read as if Kittur is the character itself, providing a broad-sweeping narrative on the intricate social caste system that is very much alive in modern India. A stunning, beautiful novel. (Really, “talent iceberg”? Sorry.)

Stone’s Fall by Iain Pears
Pears, author of the brilliant, labyrinthine mystery, An Instance of the Fingerpost, returns with a similarly structured novel encompassing the life of wealthy turn-of-the-century industrialist, John Stone. When Stone dies under mysterious circumstances in 1909, a young reporter begins to dig into his life, not entirely sure what he is unearthing or who is pulling his strings. When the enigmatic Henry Cort directs him to pre-WWI spygames in Paris 1890 and Venetian industrial espionage in 1867, this incredible onion of a novel begins to gradually unfold. Who was John Stone, really? A challenging book, to be sure, clocking in at 800 pages, but ultimately a fascinating, meticulously researched, multi-layered masterpiece.

The City & the City by China Mieville
In a style similar to Philip K. Dick or Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occasional Music, Mieville expertly blurs genre lines in this science fiction crime novel of a bizarrely divided city. The city is one physical space, but partitioned by an otherworldly division – they merge & blend, but the residents always stay separate, avoiding eye contact, out of a collective fear of the spooky Breach, the overseers of this crazy sociological experiment. But what happens when a woman is murdered in one city, but her body is discovered in the other? There is not much negotiating with Breach, so the politics for Inspector Tyador Borlu are complicated, to say the least. A crazy cool novel.

Nobody Move by Denis Johnson
A juicy, pulpy, complete departure for Johnson, the 2007 winner of the National Book Award (Tree of Smoke), that is still decidedly his style of writing, filled with his distinct brand of brilliant dialogue and skilled character development, even when none of them have any redeeming qualities. You can see that the completely asinine decisions being made by the main characters are destined to lead to worse & worse situations, but you just want to stick around to see how bad that train wreck gets. Some suggestions for the cast: Don’t shoot him! Don’t hit that guy with a shovel! For the love of god, don’t fall asleep in the car while dangerous people are looking for you! Great grit-filled summer reading.

The Secret Speech by Tom Rob Smith – not as well-written or as memorable as Child 44. The characters seem thin and stretched – transparent even. And these are mostly characters he introduced in the previous book. I don’t know, maybe the amount of energy he put into his debut just wiped him clean, creatively. I can’t even remember what this was about, really, so I guess I can’t really recommend it.

Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower (seen here) – recommended by David Benioff when he was at my store for a signing in April. These are short stories about the white trash underbelly of America – funny, dark, strangely realistic. Good for dipping into, but I had to take a break after about 5 in a row. They’re pretty great though – Tower writes with a grim humor that I find particularly appealing, sort of like Palahniuk before he forgot how to write: “Bob Munroe woke up on his face. His jaw hurt and morning birds were yelling and there was real discomfort in his underpants.” See?

The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry – Jasper Fforde-Redux, since it may be impossible to be Jasper Fforde-Lite. Described as “Borges-ian” in the jacket blurbs – ridiculous. Just because an author makes their plot deliberately convoluted, doesn’t mean they’ve moved into Borges’ realm. That said, I did like it. Berry employs wonderful, vivid imagery to set his scenes: constant rain, wet socks, alarm clocks, umbrellas everywhere, wet leaves, circus tents. And this may sound odd, but I thought that there were simply too many characters – it just got to be exhausting trying to sort everyone out in time for the resolution and it all blocked out the imagery that Berry is clearly so good at transcribing.

The Way Home by George Pelecanos – my first foray into the realm of Pelecanos. I can see why other writers like him so much. This reminded me of Richard Price’s Lush Life a lot, until I realized that they both wrote for HBO’s The Wire. A great character study about averting life’s bad decisions and the repurcusions when you don’t.

And finally, This Is How by M.J. Hyland

What the F? Honestly, has anyone else been able to finish this book? I read 168 pages and was overwhelmed with an urge to strangle, stab, and shoot the stunted, foolish, selfish idiot of a protagonist. There are just some books that no matter how much you like the writing, you just cannot relate to the characters in any way – this was one of those for me. I’ve got enough going on in my own life without having to pick up the pathetic fictional baggage of Patrick Oxtoby. Barf.

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