Category: Book Review (Page 1 of 2)

Book Review: Joe Hill’s “Strange Weather”

By: Xach Fromson

Joe Hill is no stranger to short fiction. His short story credits go back twenty years and includes the 2005 collection 20th Century Ghosts. After last year’s incendiary success with The Fireman, Hill returns to the form with Strange Weather, a collection of four short novels offering a panoramic view of humanity in scenarios that range from the fantastical to the all too real. Across all four stories, Hill excels at immersing readers in a full sensory experience that takes readers on unique journeys. The tightly written prose wastes no time in ratcheting up the tension, foregoing any trappings of the slow-build, existential horror in favor of rapid-fire pacing that never lets up.

The first of the short novels is the only one previously published. Originally titled Snapshot 1988, the title-shortened Snapshot offers a complicated look at how memories change over time, and how much they play a part in determining who we are, as well as who we become. Right away, the narrative drops the reader in on a retrospective from the present, of a particularly notable August 15, 1988.

Hill introduces Shelly’s husband Lawrence by writing his dialogue in a South African accent. It’s a stylistic choice that can help deepen the aural quality of a story, but to me, it seems a little stilted. Writing the dialogue in accents is something that appears several times across the four short novels, and it’s done with both consistency and skill, but it’s something that reminds me I’m reading a story instead of immersing myself in it. Your mileage may vary.

Another thing that Hill does very well with Snapshot is he creates and maintains the sense of retrospect. Michael tells the story from some point closer to the present, looking back on these events with no fourth wall, occasionally acknowledging the reader and making us complicit in the results of the story. Chapter two opens with Michael including the reader in a “we” statement as he explains to us that, at age thirteen, he was fat. “Not ‘big boned.’ Not ‘sturdy,’” he says to us. He’s fat, and by including the reader in that passage, he absolves us of having to feel shame or guilt. After all, we as readers didn’t call him fat, he did as a character, and he brought us along on that decision. It’s a neat trick to pull off. But neither Michael nor the story wastes time on talking about his weight; there are strange things afoot in this suburb of Cupertino, California. Michael encounters The Polaroid Man and immediately thinks of him as The Phoenician. This man has a camera that looks almost like a Polaroid, but not quite, and the photo it takes somehow seems to rob its subject of a memory. As Michael is coming to grips with this, he’s delving into his own memories and realizing that Shelly Beukes was more a mother to him than his own mother was, creating a tight parallel narrative of Michael replaying more of his own memories as Shelly suffers from losing more of hers. That reversal plays out in the story, as Michael assumes the adult responsibility of protecting Shelly against The Phoenician. After the final confrontation, Michael takes the reader through the intervening years between 1988 and the present, filling us in on the details of his journey through MIT and into Silicon Valley, where his experiences with memory play a critical role in the adult he turned into. It’s a cunning horror story paired with a coming of age narrative, growing beyond the confines of both.

The longest of the four short novels is the second one, Loaded. This time, Hill takes us from a single, first-person narrative, to an ensemble story told over two decades in Florida. It begins with a 1993 killing of a Black teenager by a police officer, long before the Black Lives Matter movement drew a constant national spotlight on that kind of event. The story then jumps to 2013, where twenty-year-old Becki shoots her boss-turned-lover when he won’t leave his wife for her. At this point, the title of this short novel becomes self-explanatory, though if you’re looking for the supernatural here, you won’t find it. Loaded isn’t about a possessed gun, and you won’t find the disembodied spirit of a serial killer floating from one person to another. Instead, the story focuses mainly on two characters. Randall Kellaway is a security guard going through hard times, nearing the end of his rope, and more than a little on edge. Alicia Lanternglass is a reporter who, twenty years earlier, witnessed the police shooting of her cousin Colton. When Becki shoots her boss, Kellaway responds, and the narrative shows just how easily a bad situation can get worse when he discovers that he not only killed Becki, but also a Muslim woman holding her baby. Once he’s committed that one act, things quickly spiral out of control for Kellaway. Hill does an excellent job of withholding moral judgment on his characters, never painting them as villains in their own heads. Loaded works as a meditation on American society and our relationship with guns, mental illness, and perpetuating cycles of violence. While Lanternglass is portrayed as the closest to morally pure, Hill deftly pivots back to Kellaway’s point of view, showing him as a dark, flawed man who sees only the best in himself and is willing to protect and defend that self-image through an escalating series of dire circumstances. Yet even he is not without sympathy, in the form of his relationship with Jim, an old Marine buddy. The two of them share a comradery rooted in their shared experiences, and Kellaway is the only person who sticks by Jim’s side after he’s paralyzed. This side of Kellaway, the devotion and loyalty, humanizes him as he descends into the story’s ultimate conclusion, which is left open to the reader’s interpretation as to the nature of gun ownership and gun violence.

Hill then returns to the fantastic with Aloft, which stands apart from the other three because it’s almost not a horror story at all. There are moments of horror, but this reads as an adult fantasy story tucked neatly between darker tales. The main character, Aubrey, is more afraid at the beginning of the story, before he jumps out of the skydiving plane, than he is when he lands on the impossible semi-sentient cloud that he spends the bulk of the narrative inhabiting. Frequent use of flashbacks keeps the story from going into I Am Legend territory, giving the reader healthy doses of dialogue and character interaction. The flashbacks trace Aubrey’s journey of self-realization, each episode replaying in his brain while he’s stranded atop a cloud that conjures up white puffy versions of whatever he imagines. He’s never really terrified of the cloud or of the possibility of dying on it, so the reader never feels the life or death stakes of Aubrey’s predicament. Instead, we get to explore this bleak, monochrome skyscape with something hidden in the center. Aubrey’s journey inward to the center of the cloud mirrors his inward journey into himself. His enlightenment, rather than hoisting him aloft, is what brings him back to earth.

With Rain, Hill brings back the feeling of a classic horror/science fiction story, creating a world where the skies over Boulder, Colorado begin to rain nails. This story is also told as a retrospective, but not from some indeterminate point in the future like in Snapshot. This is more immediate, and the perspective serves to bring the reader “up to speed” on the narrator’s back story. We learn about how Honeysuckle lost her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s mother in the first squall of lethal nails (and I will note here that I won’t make a claim as to how well he captured the voice of a lesbian woman—I’ll leave that to more qualified reviewers). As the phenomenon spreads, the world rapidly unravels around her. Rather than place this in an alternate reality, Hill brings the politics and social ethos of Donald Trump into the story, tackling issues of homophobia, racism, bigotry, and globalization head on. Honeysuckle’s mourning of her girlfriend Yolanda is complicated by the rain of nails spreading globally, gaining strength as it spreads. Word comes in that the nails are now the size of spikes and are going through sheet metal. Trump blames terrorists in Georgia (the country, not the state) and threatens a nuclear strike. More locally, Honeysuckle finds that the chaos of an apocalyptic event makes people feel free to act on their baser instincts. There is both violence and benevolence in the people she meets, as well as attempts to maintain order in the face of the unknown. Ultimately, her journey from Boulder to Denver and back helps her uncover the source of the mysterious rain of nails. The story ends on an uncertain note of the future, whether this is, in fact, the end of all things.

Hill’s ability to create visceral, immersive worlds transports readers across the four novels seamlessly. There’s no bleed-through from one story to the next. Each set of characters are complete individuals, and each narrative voice is distinct from the others. His tight use of language and steady pacing draw us in, holding our focus and attention through to the end of each story. One could easily read each of the four short novels in a single sitting. And if you’re able to, I recommend it.

Book Review: Yuval Noah Harai’s “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow”

By: A.E. Santana

Who would like to know the future? To know and understand the coming changes to our environment, society, and the individual? Whereas Yuval Noah Harai doesn’t claim to be omniscient or a fortune teller, his book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow paints a picture of what may be in store for humanity in the next fifty or a hundred years. Harai does this not by making psychic predictions but, instead, by carefully examining history, biology, psychology, and technology. With a copious amount of research to back up his claims, Harai gives a detailed hypothesis on the next steps of human evolution—taking people from Homo sapiens to Homo deus. Whereas Harai gives intelligent, thorough explanations, it is through his clear, clever, and often humorous writing that he connects with readers.

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow is broken up into an introduction and three parts: “Homo Sapiens Conquers the World,” “Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World,” and “Homo Sapiens Loses Control.” Each part delves into the rise and fall of societies, provides an intimate look at biology and psychology, and discusses the growth of technology as it pertains to Harai’s claims. It is by understanding these topics, Harai suggests, that people will be able to understand how society may progress into the next stage of human evolution.

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Book Review: Megan Stielstra’s “The Wrong Way to Save Your Life

By: A.M. Larks

Nothing other than fate can attribute to my review on Megan Stielstra’s book, The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, which took place a week after the events in Charlottesville (which occurred on August 12, 2017), when I was supposed to have received it a month prior. During the last week, the fear for our country has increased, it is undeniably pervasive and palpable. This fear is in every conversation, every communication, and every action or reaction. Fear is exactly what Stielstra tackles in her book. Stielstra ties the broad and the specific by examining fear at its roots, fear in her own life, and fear in everybody’s lives. Written before the November 2016 election, she comments on the fear rhetoric building at that time (which seems to have reached a violent pinnacle with Charlottesville), claiming that we must work through fear by confronting that which lies on the other side. Her words are startlingly prophetic:

You might want to move on, to turn it off, watch something else—but wait, look again. Look closer. How was it made? When was it made? What was happening when it was made? What are you going to do about it? And when are you going to start?
Now I think.
Today.

Steilstra’s examination of fear begins at the origins of her own fears, her childhood: her fear of heights, fear of wiener dogs, fears that bleed into dreams; like the failure to speak in front of a crowded room or failing at her job. When she writes of her childhood nightmares featuring the 1978 TV series Hulk, she simultaneously conveys the hysterical absurdity and intense emotions of childhood. Hulk was her boogeyman. She feared that he would drag her down, down under the bed, down to the basement (where he, of course, lived). This fear seems less naïve when Stielstra describes Banner (Ferrigno) by the open voiceover, “Until he can control the raging spirit that dwells within him.” The Hulk may have had an unconscious influence on Stielstra’s childhood, but in this book, he serves as a representative of the battler we all face: the one to control our own raging spirit. By reflecting on her fear of the Hulk, she is speaking to every uncontrolled raging monster.

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Book Review: Laurent Binet’s “The Seventh Function of Language”

By: John Flynn-York

Laurent Binet’s first novel, HHhH (short for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” which, translated, means “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”), was a fictional reconstruction of the assassination of the Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. The novel’s narrative fluctuated between past and present, history and story. In the past, Heydrich rises to power in the Third Reich, committing unspeakable atrocities along the way, while two operatives—the Czech Jan Kubiš and the Slovak Jozef Gabčík—plan to kill him. In the present, the narrator grapples with this story and how best to write it, drawing on books, museums, and other references to recreate it in detail. The brilliance of the book came from the tension between these perspectives. What does it mean to recreate history? Can we understand the way historical figures understood things—that is, can we get inside their heads? Can we ever know the truth? In other words, HHhH was as concerned with what it means to tell a story about history as it was with the historical events themselves.

Binet’s new book, The Seventh Function of Language, similarly takes its inspiration from a real event: the accident that claimed the life of the semiologist Roland Barthes. Out of this incident, Binet spins a madcap tale of intellectuals run amok that is by turns wildly entertaining, mildly frustrating, and intellectually captivating—and only sometimes faithful to the historical record.

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Book Review: Kendra Tanacea’s “A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees”


BY: Catherine M. Darby

A Filament Burns in Blue Degrees by Kendra Tanacea is a haunting first collection of poems released this year by Lost Horse Press. Tanacea is a master of the moment—not straight-on moments, but rather, ones full of visuals and emotions that transport the reader into Tanacea’s world. In this world, the reader becomes a lover, beloved, betrayed, friend, child, and want-to-be-mother, all while ruminating about life and the fullness it can offer.

Her poems intelligently meander on corners of braided rugs and peep through keyholes to see what life is beyond that usual existence of life, her words intoning the mysteries and science of the universe.

In “Keyhole,” the narrator looks through the keyhole of a locked door, straining to see “what is out of sight.” The words deliver full sensory experiences of an ever-widening life:

There is the scent of man, of woman, of cedar.
The eye shifts, straining in its socket.
French doors open onto a veranda
overlooking an ivy-walled garden.
The round moon is rising, giant and yellow.
Star jasmine, star jasmine!
An eye can see far beyond
its scope: solar systems, galaxies,
the Milky Way’s skid of stars.
All atoms, revolving around one another.

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Book Review: Alice Anderson’s “Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away”

By: Kaia Gallagher

In Some Bright Morning I’ll Fly Away, Alice Anderson proves she is a survivor no matter what life throws at her. Her memoir recounts a decade-long battle to protect her three children from a vengeful, violence-prone ex-husband. The courts provide little help, encouraging family reunification rather than assuring the safety of an abused spouse.

Anderson is no stranger to hardship. Early in her writing career, she recounted her determination to overcome her father’s sexual abuse in an award-winning book of poetry. Human Nature is a harrowing description of a young girl’s fight for a future despite a childhood filled with incest and violence. It won the 1994 Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers.

Despite her early success as a poet and international fashion model, Anderson is haunted by her past: “Something about [being a model] made me feel used up, consumed, like I was the little girl my father gobbled up all over again, his sexual abuse consuming in a drunken, hungry rage all the best parts of me until I was nothing, but a pretty, performing doll.” She becomes ripe for a relationship with Liam, her ex-husband whom she sees as someone trying equally hard to escape his family demons. Her spiral down into acquiescence is gradual, with an ever-tightening noose that threatens to erase not only Anderson’s very identity but also her life.

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Book Review: Jeremy Robert Johnson’s “Entropy In Bloom”

BY ELI RYDER

If this were a typical review of a typical book, it’d start with a few catchy lines, maybe a summary of the text, providing skim-reading literati enough information to decide whether the review, and by extension, the text being reviewed, is their cuppa or not. Genre words like horror, bizarro, surreal, and suspense would attempt to box this book into some convenient framework by which it might be pre-judged.

Jeremy Robert Johnson’s Entropy In Bloom isn’t a typical book, so it won’t be getting a typical review.

Sure, there’s a summary that can be expressed. The underlying theme driving the collection is, well, entropy—the degradation of a system from a state of order to a state of chaos—and the beauty that can sometimes be found therein. Johnson’s characters are on the precipice of destruction, and we fall over that precipice with them into chaos—or redemption. It’d be easy to categorize a text whose unifying theme is descent into disorder as an exploration in loss—and some of these stories certainly open those kinds of wounds—but in this collection, there’s hope in oblivion.

The Tech Specs: sixteen stories, all previously published save the last, “The Sleep of Judges,” a sweat-inducing novella chronicling a desperate husband and father’s quest for revenge. One Pushcart-nominated short, heartbreaking in its shouldn’t-be-a-surprise ending: “Snowfall.” Gut-punches of emotion, not only in “Snowfall,” but also “Luminaries” and “The Gravity of Benham Falls.” And, so that no twisted appetite is left unsatisfied, sharp body-horror in “The League of Zeroes” and “When Susurrus Stirs,” two grisly tales of metamorphosis.

In another story of metamorphosis, “Dissociative Skills,” Johnson provides one of the most intriguing where-do-we-go-from-here opening lines a vignette about escalation could have: “Curt Lawson felt like a surgeon right up to the moment he snorted the horse tranquilizer.” The next few lines reveal a surgical kit set up in a decidedly non-surgical setting, and we realize that the teenage Curt is about to undertake an act of Special K-fueled rebellion against his alcoholic father and apathetic mother. Interestingly, using the horse tranquilizer in partial response to his father’s substance abuse creates an ironic disjunction that pervades not just this story, but the collection in general, in that Curt eventually becomes something more than he was through his destruction: a proud achiever, of sorts.

That story also contains what might be considered the collection’s thesis: “Her laugh seemed to Curt like the sound of a zoo animal finding the humor in its cage.” This is Curt’s mother surrendering to her circumstances and finding joy, however dysfunctional, in the horror of it all. Characters in the collection, whether due to societal pressures, psychological fracture, or plain bad luck, find themselves in horrific situations and still discover some glimmer of light, achieve some kind of enlightenment as a result of those circumstances. That’s the human experience. Our moments of highest potential occur when we are broken. We become something new in the repair, so new that repair may not even be the right word.

In a typical review, this conclusion would list a few writers that Johnson emulates/is reminiscent of/is influenced by. Again, Entropy in Bloom is ill-represented by the tropes of a typical review. There are clear ties to Palahniuk’s “Guts” and Choke, connections to Stephen King’s emotional symphony in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and even loose ties to the sliver of positivity spiked at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Where Entropy in Bloom separates itself is in the “bloom:” the beauty in all that horror is the point here, and not a side effect. As a result, this is a many-tentacled beast of its own family, genre, and species.

TL;DR: This is your cuppa. In political landscapes that include terms like “Mother Of All Bombs,” “Alternative Facts,” and “Nuclear Solutions,” it’s comforting to be reminded of a fundamental human truth: we are, to the last, capable of finding humor in our cage.

Here, a typical review would end with a neat little wrap-up line that puts a bow on the whole thing. Instead, I’ll just tell you that the last line of the review doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t be reading it anyway. You should be reading Entropy in Bloom. You have great things to look forward to.

 

Eli Ryder writes fiction and drama, teaches literature and composition, and abhors maple bars that dare to parade around without bacon. He is the Drama Editor of The Coachella Review.

Book Review: Nick Cutter’s “Little Heaven”

By eli ryder

New Mexico, 1965. Three seasoned killers converge on each other, then on a cult leader and a consuming force of darkness that threatens to overtake the world. Fresh, unflinching horror ensues. This is Nick Cutter’s Little Heaven. New Mexico is the perfect sparse setting for this modern take on classic westerns; outlaws, revenge, a maiden in distress, and a reverend that makes the most unhinged Pentecostal tongue-speaker feel perfectly sane all combine in a series of story beats Louis L’Amour would have found comfortably familiar, if he could stomach the visceral punches Cutter weaves throughout, a la Cormac McCarthy. Little Heaven’s New Mexico has “scratch-ass” towns with “straggle-ass” streets in which hired guns ask their targets, “Are you square with your creator?” before dispatching them to what lies beyond.

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Book Review: C. W. Cannon’s “French Quarter Beautification Project”

By John Flynn-York

Wild, beautiful, bawdy, and vivid, C. W. Cannon’s new novel, French Quarter Beautification Project, is the song of one night on the streets and in the bars of New Orleans’ French Quarter, circa 1986. Waveland Rogers, known as “Buck” by all—“they call him Buck Rogers because of his repute for epic spaciness, a grand, sweeping, tremendous, but detailed spaciness”—is an aspiring composer who frequently drifts off into music-inspired reverie. He’s a server at Everybody’s Happy, a restaurant with themed tables and a costumed waitstaff, who jocularly call it “Nobody’s Here” due its lack of clientele. Buck wears a fedora and carries a whip, earning him another nickname, Louisiana Jones; his fellow servers include the buxom, randy Glory Ann, who dresses as Tinkerbell; a young guy known as Scrunge, who parades around as a lion; and Marciss, the manager, who takes his responsibilities lightly and is the occasional object of Buck’s skittering lust.

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Book Review: Roxane Gay’s “Difficult Women”

By Jenny Hayes

difficult-womenRoxane Gay’s Difficult Women is a relentless and thrilling read. As in much of Gay’s other work, particularly her novel An Untamed State, there is no looking away from brutality, yet moments of grace, beauty, and humor serve as striking counterparts to the more unsettling passages.

In these twenty-one stories, women negotiate problematic relationships, search for love and comfort, and try to cope with pain.

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