Layden Robinson's The Boston Ranter: Slanted Vignettes from a Native New Englander are short stories, mostly flash fiction, written in a stream-of-consciousness humorous style about growing up and living in blue collar Massachusetts. There are a few detours into magical realism and science fiction, but the stories are mostly written as fiction or creative nonfiction. Sprinkled with swear words and drug references, often written with a nod to the Boston vernacular ("h"s instead of "r"s) it reads like the stories you'd hear sitting down at a bar to drink a pint with a friend.
I have a number of poems published as well as short stories, and I never realized how biased my book reviews were until a friend of mine lent me a couple of collections of poetry by poet Mary Oliver. That's when I realized I've never reviewed any poetry on my website. So I figured I'd start with my friend's recommendations, which were fantastic.
The two books he lent me were American Primitive and Owls and Other Fantasies. I haven't read any other poetry by Mary Oliver, so I have no idea whether these represent her best work or only one period of her writing, but I must say I was quite impressed. I could see why she has won multiple awards for her work. Her poetry revolves around nature, history and often how people and relationships figure into both of them. Although some of her poems struck me more vividly than others, all of her poetry has very concrete imagery that effortlessly brings to mind the slices of scenes she is trying to bring to life. Each poem is like a photograph, capturing a moment in time, usually with the theme summarized by the very simple, often one- or two-word titles. The only thing that sometimes put me off from her poetry was her high usage of exclamation marks, which to me seemed to try to intentionally create an unnatural emphasis for the reader. But, other than that, I really enjoyed her style, which is composed of short lines and short stanzas. Most of her poems are short also, very rarely more than a page.
In American Primitive, there are are a number of historical poems as well as nature poems. While the historical ones were interesting, they weren't what most captured my interest. Some of my favorites included "August" (about berry picking), "The Bobcat," "Tasting the Wild Grapes" (which, oddly enough, brought to mind "The Tyger" by William Blake), "Flying" (about being on a plane and seeing a compelling stranger), "Postcard from Flamingo" (about missing someone distant), "An Old Whorehouse," "The Fish"... well, the list goes on. I could probably fully name half the poems out of the collection.
In Owls and Other Fantasies, the poems are all about birds and nature; while I enjoyed them, this might be one problem I have with themed collections by the same author/poet (and one thing I've found myself in writing poetry) - it can be easy to get stuck on a motif or repeat phrases or imagery, especially with such similar inspiration. While I also enjoyed this collection, I much preferred American Primitive, as it had a wider scope and breadth of themes.
Ms. Oliver's turn of phrase creates a cornucopia of imagery, despite her sometimes sparse style. I would highly recommend her writing to anyone who enjoys poets such as Robert Frost or Margaret Atwood. Ms. Oliver has a number of books published, so I know I'll be picking up more work by her in the future.
I can't get enough of Emily St. John Mandel! Normally, I wouldn't repeat authors too often in my reviews, since I read so many books, but I feel that every single one of her books is well worth a review. Each of her stories focuses on a different aspect of humanity and how it can fall apart - Station Eleven is about community, The Lola Quartet about friendship/relationships, and The Singer's Gun is all about family in its many incarnations.
The main character, Anton, hails from Brooklyn, although his parents are first-generation immigrants to the United States. His family runs a furniture business that is on the wrong side of legal, and Anton grows up in close proximity with his cousin, Elena. Elena's mother is an illegal immigrant who is deported when Elena is young, and her father shortly follows her mother back to her home country, leaving Elena stranded with Anton's family.
Anton's cousin, like his parents, has no problem with illegal activities. However, Anton's conscience is troubled by his family's seemingly insouciant disregard for the law. While he starts out participating in his family's business, he can't wait to get on the straight and narrow path, which he finally does. But when he meets the woman he falls in love with, he is drawn into one last family activity - and it is this situation that changes everything.
I've been working my way backwards in time through Ms. Mandel's books, and it is interesting to see her style change in reverse. There are some common motifs in her writing and definitely similar composition in her stories - they flash backwards and forwards in time, revealing the story piece by piece to heighten the tension. But one thing that has stayed consistent with her writing, even from her first book, is the strength of her writing style. It is literary but immediate, with flawed characters that are easy to identify with, and it is the immediacy of her writing that keeps the reader turning the page. This is another book I would recommend for those interested in literary thrillers - a beautifully told story, and well worth the read.
The Lola Quartet is a complicated story that shows that seemingly innocuous events can have disastrous consequences. Or, to repeat a common cliché - the road to hell is paved with good intentions. All the main characters might mean well, but there is a point where their actions change from helping others to helping themselves, a point where they cross too far over the line to return to what they once were.
The main character, Gavin, is a newspaper reporter. However, his story begins when he reaches a crisis - he discovers that ten years earlier, his high school girlfriend might have had a daughter by him. After that, his world starts to fall apart as he tries to find out what happened to Anna and her daughter, Chloe. The pursuit will lead him back to where he grew up in Florida, where he finds out what happened to his friends who played in a quartet with him back in his high school days. What he discovers will change all of their lives, including his own.
Like other books I've read by Ms. Mandel, the story leapfrogs easily between the past and present, slowly revealing bit by bit the interwoven lies and crimes that lead the characters to an irrevocable and final decision. The prose is beautiful and effortless to read, and carried me right along from start to finish. It is a fascinating story, and well worth the read - I'd definitely recommend it to fans of literary thrillers.
I picked up this book because I used to work in a ballroom studio as office manager when I lived in Boston, and I was curious if the scenes portrayed in Ballroom would be similar to what I remembered. I thought Simpson did a great job of incorporating the culture of competitive dancing into her narrative - I enjoyed the details of the dancing, the lessons and the motivations of the characters, but there were also a few things that turned me off of this book.
To begin with, the first six chapters are 2-4 pages long and each one introduces a new character. So the reader is hit all at once with a lot of information that is hard to process. Although the character sketches are interesting, it was a bit too much for me - it took me a while to get the characters straight after that. I kept on confusing details of the characters in subsequent chapters. I think the narrative would have helped if she had started out with one or two or even three characters, developed them a little, and then started adding in more characters.
Although I enjoyed many of the details in the book, I felt that there were parts that dragged a bit in the middle. There are certain story lines that I feel are overdeveloped - the reader really doesn't need to know the complete background of all six+ of the main characters. I felt by giving the reader too much, it slowed down the narrative at points.
I don't know if it's a trend, but I've read several books recently where a rape/forced or violent sex occurs unexpectedly, but nothing changes because of it. The character who is assaulted doesn't even think about prosecuting the man. He gets away with it - the story infers that this isn't the first time he's done it and probably isn't the last, since it's hinted earlier in the narrative that he's "mean." Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I dislike this motif in a story line if it doesn't contribute to the plot - neither character involved in the assault changes significantly (or at all) because of it, so it's just a meaningless event that happens. Just my personal opinion, of course.
***END SPOILER ALERT***
Overall, I might recommend this book to people who already have an initial interest in ballroom or dance culture, but probably not to readers who aren't interested in that world. There are parts that are fascinating, and some good character sketches, but in the end I felt it fell a little flat for me.
The language in this book is beautiful. It produces a dreamlike narrative where the reader is carried along by the events taking place, so that the most horrific things that are happening in the Sri Lankan civil war seem to carry a deeper and more profound meaning than just three families caught up in a conflict. I liked how seamlessly the history of the island is incorporated into the main narrative, so that as a reader, I was transported to this paradise-turned-hell-on-earth and carried along each step of the way with the protagonists.
The one thing that pulled me out of the story is that there are some confusing moments/transitions which I think speaks to this being Munaweera's first book. The book begins in a time before the protagonist is born, but I didn't feel that inserting elements of the present-day into the initial setup of the story really added much to the narrative. There is one passage where one of the protagonists explains directly to the reader why she starts the story before she is born. It pulled me out of the narrative somewhat, and made me aware that I was being told a story rather than just being able to enjoy the story itself. This is useful if it is a repeated conceit that adds extra meaning to the narrative, but it seemed to be the only part of the story where there is this forced type of self-identification, so it stuck out to me.
The second confusing part for me was at the beginning of Part 2, where another "I" protagonist appears with no explanation of who this person is in relation to the original family that the reader has been following for the first half of the book. The connection becomes apparent later, but I still felt it was a confusing transition for the reader. It lost me a bit as I floundered in the narrative trying to figure out what was going on. A very simple and commonly-used device would have negated my confusion - in each part, if the name of the protagonist had been used after the section or chapter title, such as "Part 1: Yasodhara" or "Chapter 8: Saraswathi," it would have easily indicated a change in character without necessitating extra explanation to pull the reader out of the story.
Other than these small technical items which caused a bit of confusion, I really enjoyed this bittersweet story. When I close a good book, I want it to linger in my thoughts, and this book did. I would definitely recommend it.
I recently finished one of the best books I have read in a while. I like a good apocalypse as much as the next person - I'm a fan of The Walking Dead, for example - but those types of stories are easy to over-dramatize and throw in lots of violence or dystopia for the sake of violence or dystopia. But to have a good apocalypse tale that reveals the heart of humanity, while not showing it completely rotten or saccharine sweet, is a wonderful and unexpected change.
The book opens with a famous actor, Arthur Leander, having a heart attack on stage while playing King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a budding EMT and member of the play's audience, leaps on stage to do what he can to help. Caught up in this small but important drama to them, little do they know that a deadly flu is taking over the city of Toronto. Soon, one person's medical crisis becomes irrelevant when faced with a medical crisis for the entire world.
The book leaps backwards and forwards in time, so the reader slowly learns the reasons and backstory of what led the characters to the opening scene. The transitions are smooth instead of jarring, and the beauty of the tale is woven out of these time shifts into a bittersweet story that gives the reader pause, without becoming maudlin or pandering.
I won't reveal more for fear of spoilers, but this book was very hard to put down at all. I would definitely recommend it.
I read a lot - depending on my writing schedule, I can usually read about a book a day. Some of the books are fantastic and I would love to recommend to everyone - some, not so much. Either way, I thought I would share a few thoughts on what I'm reading at the moment.