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‘Aug 9—Fog’ by Kathryn Scanlan: Glazing the Mundane with Meaning

Kathryn Scanlan book Aug 9—Fog Kathryn Scanlan’s Aug 9—Fog (128 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) is short and sweet — to be read in one afternoon, then reread many afternoons over. Existing somewhere between fiction, collage, and found poetry, Scanlan’s book is composed of sentences the author pulled from a stranger’s 1968 diary, which she won in an Illinois estate auction. As Scanlan’s authorial voice blends with that of the diary owner, the two meditate together on the passage of everyday life. While reading Aug 9—Fog, I was reminded of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead in the effortless way Scanlan glazes the mundane with meaning. Scanlan forms a collage out of the diary, which was kept by a woman in her eighties, and turns it into a series of slim vignettes that trace the seasons of a year. The book’s perspective is akin to looking out a kitchen window, observing the changing weather and the coming and going of characters:

Mildred papering. Vern took a fish down to Bayard for his birthday. Daffodils and pussy willows out pretty.

Sure pretty out. Sure grand out. D. making a new piecrust. All better.

There are certain works of poetry or prose that carry such an irresistible mouthfeel that I have to whisper along with the words as I read them, and this book offers a perfect example. The abbreviated voice of the diary’s author does not elaborate for the sake of explanation or grammar, and begins to give the impression of a lovably stylized character. Her words are almost childlike in their simple colloquialism, proving irresistibly relatable:

Jar broke, she canning tomatoes. Our apples not a bit nice. So spotted.

Scanlan’s arrangement of the author’s words render a tender and human portrait of old age, relating daily experiences of illness, hobbies, care from family members, and loneliness. One of the book’s most salient themes is the physical body and the fragility of its health. There are delicate passages in which family members wash the aging author’s head, and there are oppressive passages in which characters grieve disease and death. Scanlan’s authorial focus on seasonality and emergence suggest the hope of turnover, but it is difficult to shake the author’s uncanny details of daily life after loss.

Ever where glare of ice. We didn’t sleep too good. My pep has left me.

Aug 9—Fog is fascinating, particularly to young writers still making sense of form and genre, since Scanlan’s authorship is editorial: the words are not her own, and yet the book and its plot are her artistic creation. Her prose pursues an object of fascination and presents it with the language most fitting, regardless of convention.

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‘Open Me’ by Lisa Locascio: Self-Discovery in a Foreign Land

Lisa Locascio novel Open MeOpen Me (275 pages; Grove Press), Lisa Locascio’s first novel just re-issued in paperback, is a politically charged and erotic story that fearlessly tackles race, xenophobia, and female sexuality. Immersed in the mind and body of a young woman living abroad in Denmark, the novel seethes with passionate descriptions of both sex and emotions. It shamelessly details something often hidden and rarely discussed—female sexuality in its rawest form.

The narrator, Roxana Olsen, is an 18-year-old American girl spending her summer in Denmark — a summer meant to have seen her studying abroad in Paris with her best friend. However, a logistical error on behalf of her school counselor lands Roxana alone in Copenhagen, eating strange meats on single slices of rye and drinking beer in dimly lit punk bars. As Roxana arrives, she is still coping with the shock of her parents’ divorce, and coming to grips with her transition into adulthood. Almost immediately, she falls into a relationship with Søren, an unhappy, 28-year-old student advisor. Soon she leaves Copenhagen with Søren for Farsø, a small town in Jutland:

Outside, the sky and everyone and everything under it was white and low to the ground: the curving cobblestone roads, the narrow buildings that lined them, and the Danes themselves, whose shapes somehow receded rather than grew as we approached. I followed Søren down a sloped sidewalk and around a corner. Signs I couldn’t read and one-story houses with small square yards. Farsø.

Here, Roxana spends her days in a classically Scandinavian apartment: all white and minimalist. She scrubs and cleans, maintaining the image of domestic bliss for Søren while he works on his masters thesis everyday at the library. The apartment in Farsø becomes a white haze for Roxana, and time blurs into itself as she is kept locked inside its walls by Søren. Slowly, her idealistic vision of Søren fades, and Roxana realizes the prejudices and unhappiness heavily present in the older man, as well as in Danish society. Roxana begins to embody her dissatisfaction: she refuses to shower and basks in her filth, seeing it as proof that she is still alive after being trapped in an apartment with little social contact. Her dissatisfaction eventually leads her to another, vastly different man named Zlatan, a Bosnian Muslim refugee of the Balkan War and, in many ways, Søren’s opposite.

Through her relationships with these two men, another important layer of the story emerges: the eroticism of feminine sexuality. With careful observation and lush details, Locascio distills the experiences of the body and the pleasure sex brings, which become an important means through which Roxana feels alive. Daring and flawless in her depiction, Locascio locates the desire at the root of this sensuality. In Roxana’s relationships with Søren and Zlatan, she undergoes a metamorphosis before the reader and becomes open to and absorbed by the people and places around her. Most importantly, she discovers a different form of love—a sense of closeness and compassion. Locascio poetically describes it:

Everyone cloud icons, the floating notes of a surah in the sky. I resisted the beauty. Even as a calm descended, I insisted to myself that I loved him, that this was a reason for the sadness I felt. I pressed my face into his chest.
“Sweet heart,” he said. Two words. “You feel love, Roxana, a terrible openness, so open that it injures you. The pain that tells us that we live, that we have not yet gone into the earth.”

Open Me is an intimate story of self-discovery in a foreign land. Laced with politics and sexuality, Locascio’s novel plumbs a deeper place of love and understanding, toward oneself and others.

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‘People I’ve Met From the Internet’ by Stephen van Dyck: Delight in the Details

Stephen Van Dyck memoir People I've Met From the InternetStephen van Dyck’s People I’ve Met From the Internet (151 pages; Ricochet Editions) is the ultimate memoir for the Information Age: a series of extraordinarily personal vignettes derived from a data spreadsheet. The book spans 11 years and takes place in multiple states, mostly roaming the arid space between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Los Angeles, California. It reads like a grand road trip in the age of dial-up Internet.

The book’s earliest pages take the form of a table divided into columns like “REAL NAME,” “SCREEN NAME AT THE TIME WE MET,” and “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT.” When starting the memoir, you might assume these would be pages to skim, a visual stunt to bring the reader into a digital headspace. However, the data becomes a form of narration unlike any you may have encountered before. The reader becomes a detective and decoder: the simple entry “x99+” under “X=TIMES MET OR DAYS SPENT” reveals a long-term relationship, and entries like “watched Survivor at his apartment” clues you into the context of the early aughts.

Van Dyck’s memoir proceeds as a repetition of this list, but this time with annotations, and each successive entry generates a jarringly precise depiction of coming into one’s sexuality at the advent of the social web. Throughout the annotated entries, the men and women van Dyck meets online often play as much of a role in his adolescent development as his father and mother, guiding him into his burgeoning sexual identity. After the loss of his mother, and aided by the sometimes inept but unfailingly kind support of his father, van Dyck sets out on his own, following a connect-the-dots map from AOL user to AOL user around the country. Exploring glowing gay landscapes—in the blue light of computer screens and beneath the rosy warmth of Southwestern sunsets—van Dyck meets tops and bottoms, otters and bears. He acquaints himself with adulthood in strangers’ apartments. Throughout, van Dyck’s writing is unnervingly relatable; his explicit depictions are vulnerable, candid, and human:

When we started to have sex, Luke asked if I had wiped…As I lay on my side, Luke wiped my ass. Luke told me I needed to wipe properly. Inspired by Luke’s bowl of lubes, I filled my pockets each time I went to MPower or the Under 21 Group, and slowly amassed a collection of my own.

Van Dyck’s prose mirrors the dataset the book begins with: a linear presentation of facts. The details he includes are both mundane and mosaic, and as he lists them the story coalesces. In this way, through frank snapshots of the people around him, a dynamic portrait of an evolving artist is rendered.

When the memoir catches up to the present and entries start to occur in real-time, alongside commentary on van Dyck’s self-doubt regarding his writing project, the text becomes something like conceptual art:

I wondered later if I met Robbie because I knew it would be a good story. I was starting to have this question about many of the guys I was meeting. Or was the list project giving me an excuse to do what I already wanted to do?

In People I’ve Met From The Internet, we share in van Dyck’s struggles at the bleeding edge between life and art, and wonder what to make of the man behind the experiment. Perhaps the point of it all, his book seems to suggest, is simply to delight in the details

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‘The Organs of Sense’ by Adam Ehrlich Sachs: The Pleasures of Misdirection

Adam Ehrlich Sachs novel The Organs of SenseGottfried Leibniz may have discovered calculus, but really he had the soul of a novelist. You might be forgiven for thinking so, anyway, after reading Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s first novel, The Organs of Sense (227 pages; FSG), which tells the story of a young Leibniz, hungry to understand the world, its inscrutable rules, and its even more inscrutable inhabitants. You might also see the novelistic sensibility in Leibniz’s philosophy. Calculus offered a neat method for the world and its rules, but neat methods aren’t all that useful unless you’re trying to ace the SATs or go to the moon. It’s a genuine boon to human thought that Leibniz’s groundbreaking work in mathematics did not get in the way of his inventing a rather batshit metaphysics of his own, the Monadology, which basically posits a simple substance—the monad—endowed with intention and appetite, busy at work acting as the substrate of the universe. Luckily for Sachs, it’s quite possible, probably even necessary, to be a world-historical genius with an innate understanding of the underlying structure of the universe and a weirdo with a crackpot theory.

Here’s some Monadology:

Since the world is a plenum all things are connected together, and every body acts upon every other, more or less, according to their distance, and is affected by the other through reaction. Hence it follows that each Monad is a living mirror, or a mirror endowed with inner activity, representative of the universe according to its point of view.

It’s just about the perfect metaphor for human interaction and, even though it doesn’t appear in the novel, it’s the kind of deep background that might have made Leibniz an especially appealing investigator into unusual phenomena. The Organs of Sense opens with word reaching a young Leibniz, fresh off a failed attempt at a law degree, of a mysterious astronomer’s prediction:

At noon on the last day of June 1666, the brightest time of day at nearly the brightest time of year, the Moon would pass very briefly, but very precisely, between the Sun and Earth, casting all of Europe for one instant in absolute darkness, ‘a darkness without equal in our history, but lasting no longer than four seconds,’ the astronomer predicted, according to Leibniz, an eclipse that no other astronomer in Europe was predicting…

Note the coiled sentence structure, slightly parodic academic tone, and nested narration—all constant features of the novel. Leibniz’s every thought and action is mediated by a conjectural scrim, and the narrator sometimes draws on extant writings or other, more spurious, attributed language. This narrative voice does, in fact, belong to a character—there is an “I” attached—but the absence of a locus of narration or any identifying clues (except that he is a translator, which is mostly a recurring half-joke) makes it hard not to make your inner novelist queasy by throwing up your hands and saying it’s probably just Sachs himself.

The astronomer, who claims to possess “the longest telescope known to man, and therefore the most powerful, a telescope said to stretch nearly two hundred feet,” is not merely scientifically gifted but possibly oracular, “not merely completely blind…but in fact entirely without eyes.” Being “an assiduous inquirer into miracles and other aberrations of nature,” Leibniz sets off at once, and before too long he finds himself in the astronomer’s tower, somewhere in Bohemia, trying to figure out whether this eyeless man is off his rocker. How is he to know?

The problem of getting inside another head, and seeing what that head was seeing (or not seeing) and what it was thinking (or not thinking), now struck Leibniz as a profoundly philosophical problem. Neither cradling it nor cracking it open would do it, for the barrier involved not only bone but also a thick layer of philosophy. The human skull consists, one might say, Leibniz wrote, of a quarter-inch-thick layer of bone and a quarter-inch-thick layer of philosophy. Of course the brain is also cushioned by various membranes and fluids. A skilled doctor can penetrate the skull with a drill, and he can cut through the membranes with a knife, and he can drain the cerebral fluids with a pump, but his instruments are utterly useless for penetrating that solid, condensed layer of philosophy. “Even the most state-of-the-art medical instrument wielded by the best doctor in Paris will simply bounce off the cerebral-philosophical membrane,” Leibniz wrote. That left language.

Anyone who’s ever been stuck at a party trying to have a meaningful conversation with a philosophy student knows that a quarter inch can seem awfully thick, and language is itself an imperfect instrument. What follows is a self-consciously tangled pattern-building exercise, as the narrator relates the astronomer’s tale, as told to Leibniz, of how he lost his eyes—basically the story of his life as an aspiring chronicler of the cosmos in Bohemia. His father hopes to curry royal favor by presenting a show-stopping mechanical head to Emperor Rudolf, King of Bohemia, descendent of the august Habsburg lineage, and holder of sundry other titles. In the first great Greek tragedy of the astronomer’s life, he betrays his father in order to be installed as the Emperor’s Imperial Astronomer. There is genuine movement and pathos to this part of the story, but it mostly sets up a suspended preamble to the astronomer’s sudden turn into eyeless-ness, meaning it’s an opportunity for copious riffing. To wit:

Then his father went to bed and the astronomer—by the light of a single candle lit only after he heard his father’s sixth snore, for one snore could of course be faked, as could two snores or three, even four simulated snores is not unthinkable if his father had suspicions, and the idea of feigning five snores to catch your son in some verboten act is, if absurd, not impossible, whereas after six snores his father was probably asleep—read, for example, the portions of Friar Bacon’s Opus Majus concerning the physiology of vision or his Letter on the Secret Workings of Art and Nature with its depictions of those ingenious devices of antiquity that according to legend made distant things seem near or near things distant…

The same structure occurs later, when the astronomer slowly recognizes that a room containing a glockenspiel is actually a room containing many glockenspiels, in fact it is lousy with glockenspiels, basically a plenum of glockenspiels. Once the glockenspiel situation has been sorted out, the story continues.

Sachs runs these perspectival recursions often, and while all are smart and some very funny, many only have the tone of being funny, and don’t really work. When they do, though, they follow an absurd and exuberant logical momentum and accrete surprising valences, like a cartoon snowball rolling downhill. In one riff, a ditty about a butcher chopping a pig into limit-approaching sections (quarters, halves eighths, sixteenths, etc.) turns out to be an ode to the beautiful insanity of the infinite: “The song, [the astronomer] realized, had taken a mathematical turn.”

What is the point of all this? One of Sachs’s characters conveniently offers an explanation on his behalf, telling the astronomer that “the true artist walks straight toward the insignificant, while slyly keeping an eye on the significant, and moving at all times away from the gorgeous…” Indeed.

The astronomer finds himself caught up in some palatial intrigue having mostly to do with the Habsburg brats, whose names I couldn’t keep straight. Here, as the novel sprints toward the insignificant, it begins to wobble a bit. It’s not clear whether we’re supposed to care about this submerged plot, or even to follow it. The problem is not necessarily that these sections are syntactically convoluted or demanding. It’s that, as the voice luxuriates in its own convolutions, it teaches you to pay less attention, to gloss. I suspect Sachs knows where the reader’s attention is likely to ebb and flow, and, again, he suggests a larger reason: “One wants above all to understand the Sun,” says the astronomer, “but one cannot aim one’s telescope right at the Sun!” The “sun,” in this case, might also be the thing we want to communicate. Sachs knows that seeing into someone’s head requires their head to do a lot of work with language in order to produce a series of gestures back toward some always-inarticulable idea. Not every utterance is worth paying attention to, unless you’re the one talking.

We are periodically re-situated in the tower, where the clock is ticking on the astronomer’s prediction. A cat, Linus, stalks the room. (A perfect syllogism, courtesy of the astronomer: “A man delighted by a cat is discomfited by existence, a man delighted by existence is discomfited by a cat.”) The astronomer occasionally presses socket to telescope and writes down long strings of numbers, a refrain that mostly works to remind us that Sachs is in control.

But his is a fine control, and it’s surprisingly propulsive, this mystery of whether the forecasted event will occur—at once banal (four seconds in the dark, big deal) and galactically meaningful (the sun occluded for four seconds is a very big deal for those of us who rely on its warmth and light for our survival). It’s a kind of structural suspense, reading to see whether Sachs will pull it off, wondering which threads will be tied neatly, which left frayed. Wondering what, for God’s sake, happened to the astronomer’s eyes! Happily, the dénouement of the novel is excellently wrangled, and its grotesquerie depends in part upon a demonstration of the horrors of a vacuum, which made me wish that more inventors had shown up in its pages to blow everyone’s minds. (To be fair, there’s also the aforementioned mechanical head, a perpetual motion machine, and more.) Sachs’s chosen historical moment bristles with so much metaphysical weirdness in large part because discovery and mysticism are not yet at cross-purposes. Cutting-edge scientific discoveries are intimations of reality’s as-yet-unexplained properties and thus, in their uncanny mixture of the mechanical and the unimaginable, seem tinged with magic.

The Organs of Sense, too, turns out to be more than the sum of its parts. Sachs has written a misdirecting novel about the pleasures and perils of misdirection, and the contraption works exquisitely, proving that it is impossible to be a person on whom nothing is lost. I must be one of those cat-lovers discomfited by existence, because after uncountable moments of frustration, by the novel’s end, I was actually charmed to feel that I, like Leibniz, was the butt of some cosmic joke. The Organs of Sense invites us to wander around in Sachs’s head; of course it’s messy and annoying. On the verge of throwing the book across the room, I would reach an unanticipated reprise or an incredible morsel of history or the end of a deftly completed feedback loop, cackle gleefully, and fall back in love. The people around me might have felt their constituent monads twinge and wondered, if only for a moment, what was going on in my head.

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‘The Grand Dark’ by Richard Kadrey: Staging Vice

The Grand DarkThe Grand Dark (423 pages; Harper Voyager), the new book by New York Times-bestselling author Richard Kadrey, best known for his ongoing supernatural noir series Sandman Slim, is an urban fantasy that both satisfies and defies genre conventions. Looking the horror of war dead in the eye, The Grand Dark is also a moody, multi-layered mystery about human conflict, politics, and artistic expression, as well as an ambitious feat of world building.

The Great War has left the fantastical country of High Proszawa in ruins. The survivors live in Lower Proszawa, a coastal city where the wealthy and poor are stratified by cleanliness. “City silver” from coal plants dirties every neighborhood, and affluent areas are constantly scoured clean. Those less fortunate live where the soot accumulates, and are left to suffer the health consequences. Coal dust is a powerful metaphor for characters who live, both literally and figuratively, in the gray.

The novel’s dystopian setting is reminiscent of interwar Germany—a time when political parties went to their extremes. The Grand Dark takes place in a time of propaganda, suppressed speech, and the oppression of the Secret Police, when vice is a last refuge for a populace whose collective unconscious senses doom. Like “the invader” in John Steinbeck’s classic novel of resistance, The Moon Is Down, the enemy in The Grand Dark is never named. Instead, Kadrey uses newspaper articles, book quotes, and diary entries to capture his setting’s cultural zeitgeist, including excerpts like: “Everything was fun and nothing mattered because everyone knew that sooner or later the cannons would boom again and nothing would be fun and everything would matter.” Living at the mercy of a totalitarian war machine, the notion of self is obliterated, yet The Grand Dark still questions if the enemy comes from within.

Traversing this strange world is twenty-one year old bicycle messenger Largo Moorden. During his childhood in the slums, Largo learned the back alleys and shortcuts of Lower Proszawa by outrunning bullies. His familiarity with the city makes him the ideal choice for chief courier after a co-worker is arrested by the Secret Police. More important deliveries bring higher risk but better tips. Largo quickly learns that information is currency, and begins selling stories to a tabloid—aptly named Ihre Skandale (Your Scandals)—for large payouts. However, Largo’s naivety of Lower Proszawa’s sociopolitical situation makes him blind to the danger of trading in secrets. Soon he draws the attention, and ire, of the Secret Police.

Hooked on a drug called morphia, Largo has thought little about the future outside of feeding his addiction and spending time with his girlfriend, Remy. His evenings are often spent watching her perform at The Theater of the Grand Dark, the novel’s narrative centerpiece, which “specialized in Schöner Mord, little productions of violence and depravity performed by life-size puppets controlled by actors backstage in galvanic suits.” On the surface, these productions appear to be first-act sex and violence for the groundlings, but each performance actually serves as a microcosm of the story world. Characters are presented with truths they fear to speak of offstage—the coming war, the day-to-day violence in Lower Proszawa, and the threat of a deadly plague known as “the Drops.” The puppets also reflect one of the novel’s major themes: trans-humanism: What is the appropriate gap between technology and humanity? And what happens when the line blurs?

Automatons called “maras” already complete many jobs in Lower Proszawa—from cleaning to construction to crowd control. The Schöne Maschinen (Beautiful Machines) armaments factory also manufactures “chimeras,” which are “custom-made mutant creatures favored as work animals by the municipal services and pets by the well-heeled of Lower Proszawa.” The chimera display a human-like consciousness but are also capable of great violence, which makes them a sort of mascot for Lower Proszawa’s warfare economy. They are also a powerful allusion to Nazi eugenic experiments. The reader is left to ponder if the chimera are technically alive, or only technological marvels. And if the characters accept that the chimera are less than human, what are the limits to their treatment?

When Largo is presented with an opportunity to apprentice at Schöne Maschinen, he begins to think seriously about a future for himself and Remy. Standing in as a human counterpoint is Largo’s friend Rainer, who is a veteran of the Great War. Rainer is one of many wounded veterans known as “Iron Dandies” who wear leather-and-steel masks to conceal their injuries. These masks hide the individual cost of war, leaving the Iron Dandies largely ignored by the public and relegated to the shadows. Rainer is a man who has suffered much, but is still passionate about understanding the world through science and spiritualism, and he provides Largo with a unique perspective.

The Grand Dark is a thematic buffet. Wealth, addiction, and censorship are only a few of its social and political layers. Foremost among its concerns are mankind’s relationship to technology, the treatment of veterans, and how a society handles its “undesirables.” The Grand Dark is a fast-paced fantasy read filled with contemporary resonance that new readers and loyal fans of Sandman Slim will enjoy.

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‘A Student of History’ by Nina Revoyr: A Term Among High Society

Nina Revoyr novel A Student of HistoryIn Los Angeles, there exists a rarified social echelon known as the Street People. These are not, as their moniker might suggest, the many who find themselves without shelter (much like San Francisco, L.A. is currently dealing with a staggering increase in its homeless population). Rather, the name refers to the wealthy landowners and developers who saw prominent streets named after them: the Crenshaws, the Chandlers, the Van Nuys. The descendants of these 20th century tycoons move in a world of power and privilege, the kind that isn’t even whispered about in the society pages. It is into this hermetically sealed environment that the protagonist of Nina Revoyr’s latest novel, A Student of History (238 pages; Akashic Books), finds himself thrust after he takes the job of transcribing the diaries of one of Los Angeles’ most wealthy heiresses.

In his early thirties, Richard Nagano is a graduate student at USC, still reeling from a recent breakup and struggling to make ends meet. At first, he looks at the gig working for Marion W– (the book censors her last name as though to protect the family’s privacy and prevent litigation) as merely a way to supplement his meager income. But as the elderly Marion takes a shine to Richard, going so far as to update his wardrobe with far more stylish (and expensive) attire, and employ him as her escort to various social clubs and galas, Richard realizes the shrewd older woman might be his entry into the upper class. What’s more, he begins to suspect her youthful diaries contain the kind of compelling historical gossip that could revamp his currently stalled graduate thesis.

Both of Richard’s motivations dovetail when he becomes infatuated with Fiona, a well-to-do socialite who quickly develops an interest in Richard, despite the ring on her finger. At her urging, he continues to investigate the tragic secrets hidden in Marion’s past, secrets that once uncovered could potentially put Richard’s good standing with his employer at risk.

With her past novels carrying titles such as Lost Canyon and Southland, it’s clear Southern California has long represented a preoccupation for Revoyr. Her style is both elegant and pleasurable to read; she juggles geographical detail, context, and plotting with a deceptive ease. Revoyr’s L.A. is a city teeming with contradictions, one where the world of everyday concerns and that of the elite class co-exist but rarely intersect until, that is, a random stroke of luck or fate sees a person travel from one world to the next. But even as Richard rubs elbows with the city’s rich and powerful, there remains something to remind him of his origins: his mixed heritage means Marion’s largely white social circles tend to exoticize his good looks; and while Marion may invest in Richard’s clothing, she’s not about to buy him a new car. And so, Richard must head from one soiree to the next in his broken down Honda, the shocked looks of the valet parking attendants a constant echo of his working-class roots.

At the heart of A Student of History, and what prevents the novel from merely serving as a takedown of the scandalous ultra-rich, is Revoyr’s complex characterization of Marion W–. At times, Marion doesn’t seem to have a good word to say about any of her peers; she frequently speaks out of both sides of her mouth, and doesn’t exactly tow the line of political correctness. Yet she is kind to those who work for her, she is fiercely protective of her family, and she absolutely dotes on Richard. While Richard serves as the audience identification character and our entry point into an unfamiliar domain, it’s Marion who proves the most memorable in the drama that unfolds. Her contradictions are exemplified by the fact that she donates generous sums of money to charitable causes, yet does so anonymously, in large part to upstage and frustrate other donors:

You gave that money?”
“Why, yes. Several years ago. No one there has any idea. They all think I’m a stingy old bitch.”
I let this news sink in. Of course she had given it. That was the reason she’d wanted to attend. “But…why would you do that? Why wouldn’t you want people to know?”
“I have no use for all this fuss,” she said. “People groveling and then wanting more. It’s better they think that you won’t given them anything.”

When Marion ultimately comes to feel as though Richard has betrayed her trust, it registers as a betrayal for the reader as well, even though Richard has far more to lose than Marion with his expulsion from the Hollywood high life. Through their time together, Richard reaches some understanding of Marion’s contradictory nature:

She was a misanthrope who gave generously to causes she claimed to despise; an aesthete who welcomed people who didn’t share her sensibilities; a professed hater of the social niceties that she performed with such grace.

In many ways, A Student of History adopts the familiar structure of the bildungsroman; like other classic novels before it, such as Sentimental Education and Great Expectations, we witness an earnest young man enter a hitherto unexplored sphere of luxury and privilege. Indeed, part of the pleasure of reading the novel is inhabiting that familiar structure, knowing all the while Richard will likely end his term among high society with a sense that perhaps he has lost more than he has gained. Yet by placing the novel in so specific a milieu—Los Angeles in 2019, an era where Americans are feeling the class divide more than ever—Revoyr forges a work that stands on its own. If the book’s ambitions prove modest, it feels entirely appropriate, considering Richard’s ultimate discovery that sometimes a modest life lived well––far from society luncheons and award ceremonies––is good enough.

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‘Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy Stalker’ by Kathleen Hale: Embracing the Inner Animal

Kathleen Hale essay collection Kathleen Hale Is a Crazy StalkerKathleen Hale’s essay collection, Kathleen Hale Is A Crazy Stalker (174 pages; Grove Press), presents a fascinating reflection on the sexual assault that shaped part of Hale’s life, as well as on humanity’s rapacity, Internet trolling, and mental illness. Although the collection of six non-fiction essays grapples with heavy topics, Hale’s self-deprecating humor helps to build and release tension, showcasing the irresistible charm of her writing.

In the book’s titular essay, Hale recounts the time she once visited a negative Good Reads reviewer’s house in an effort to make amends. The story takes multiple turns as Hale discovers the negative reviewer’s identity is not what she thought. Hale eventually finds herself in a haze of hate mail and online trolling, leading her down an obsessive Internet black hole. What grounds the essay is Hale’s unwavering self-awareness: she continually questions the power we have over our minds and impulses—especially as they spiral out of control. Hale exemplifies these shortcomings when she ends up in an all-women’s mental hospital. Sitting in a therapy group, she describes the illusion of sanity:

The therapist urged us to stop. “What’s so funny?” she kept asking, and maybe we could have tried to explain it to her—the arrogance and self-delusion I’d just articulated—but instead we kept laughing.
“And I’m famous!” the toothless woman shouted, and the rest of us howled until our teeth clacked and our eyes brimmed with water…

Human impulse, whether it’s an obsession with reading hate mail to the point of an emotional breakdown or trying to understand our sometime predatory nature, provides a guiding thread connecting each essay. To make sense of the sexual assault she experienced in college, Kathleen turned her naive childhood fascination with animals into an obsession with predators and how best to defend herself against them. In “Prey,” her soul-barring essay on the strength of sexual assault survivors, the narrative offers scientific quotes about animal behavior interspersed with sections of the transcript from her rape trial. As in all of these essays, nothing is straightforward, but rather a swarming collection of thoughts, emotions, and humor, all skillfully constructed into a narrative. It’s impossible to walk away from the collection without sensing a tinge of madness, yet at the same time sympathetically identifying with the author’s voice.

Perhaps the self-identification stems from Hale’s dissection of something so innate to humanity: our inclination to be compelled by our impulses, behavior which is not dissimilar to animals. Hale’s fascination with animals continues in “Cricket,” when she attends the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City. The contestants are compared to animals in the wild:

On the big screen, I caught a glimpse of Miss Alaska, smiling brightly like she’d won and hugging all the other losers, their heads tipped back in jubilee, teeth bared.
Primates smile to submit; if a beta meets an alpha in the wild, he shows his teeth to indicate his inferior rank. It’s called a fear grin. Sociologists say human women smile more than men because there lower social status motivates deference. They smile to indicate attentiveness to the needs, goals, and accomplishments of those who are more powerful.
If I’d learned anything in Atlantic City, it’s that girl were expected to lose like winners and win like losers.

This essay presents a tour of the intricacies of the pageant, including its sexism, racism, and fixation with beauty. Perhaps most interesting of all, Hale herself proves not immune to the pageant’s toxic culture. She is brutally honest when she admits to engaging in harsh criticism of the contestants. Like most great writers of nonfiction, she is acutely aware of her flaws; in the end, she finds herself the most ridiculous of all.

Hale’s collection does not fail to shock. Her maze of a mind brings her to strange locales, including Snowflake, Arizona, where an environmentally ill community lives in isolation; Okeechobee, Florida to kill feral hogs; and the hills of Griffith Park in Los Angeles to hunt a coyote. She recounts these experiences with a humorous edge. Hale’s fascinating essays challenge readers to examine and perhaps even embrace the animal nature in everyone –– the mania, the moments of obsession, the pull of emotions.

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‘Diary of a Murderer’ by Young-ha Kim: Offbeat and Darkly Rewarding

Young-ha Kim novel Diary of a MurdererWith a title like Diary of a Murderer (200 pages; Mariner; translated by Krys Lee), the latest English release of Young-ha Kim’s work might attract some strange looks while you’re holding it on the subway. But it’s a feeling more adventurous readers will be used to by now, and this story collection boasts precisely the kind of offbeat and darkly rewarding fiction that should appeal to such readers.

An award-winning author in his native Korea, Young-ha Kim has already seen several of his novels translated into English, though Diary of a Murderer is his first story collection to be published in the United States. The book opens with the titular novella, told from the point-of-view of a “retired” serial killer with an unusual predicament: right as he begins to suspect his adopted daughter’s new boyfriend might be a killer himself, he receives a grim Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Suddenly every day becomes a struggle to preserve his memories as he races to collect proof that his unsuspecting daughter’s suitor is not who he claims to be.

The idea of a protagonist attempting to solve a mystery while dealing with short-term memory loss no doubt brings to mind Christopher Nolan’s influential 2000 thriller Memento. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, Young-ha Kim’s story was brought to the silver screen in Korea. 2017’s Memoir of a Murderer proved a box office hit in there, despite the fact that the screenplay deviates from the source material by turning protagonist Byeong-soo into a more likable, Dexter-esque vigilante who only preys on the worst of society.) But Kim’s story makes no such commercial considerations and, as a writer, he seems uninterested in the genre or pulp potential of his premise. Instead, he employs the idea of an unrepentant killer with a rapidly deteriorating mental state as a means to ruminate on the nature of memory, familial responsibility, and evil.

Throughout the story, Byeong-soo resists others’ attempts to psychoanalyze his behavior; he seems to suggest that the mere impetus to investigate evil––to try and study its root or cause––is tantamount to courting self-destruction. The most chilling exchange comes late in the novella when a journalist arrives to interview Byeong-soo about his past crimes:

A man who said he was a journalist visited me. He said he wanted to understand evil.
What he said was so clichéd, it amused me.
I said, “Why are you trying to understand evil?”
“I’d have to understand it in order to avoid it.”
I said, “If you can understand it, then it isn’t evil. Just stick to praying, so you can stay out of evil’s way.”

 The rest of the collection features three shorter works that leave behind thriller trappings for more existential and absurd territory, which proves even more satisfying. “The Origin of Life” follows the hapless Seojin, who begins a love affair with a childhood sweetheart named Ina, now trapped in an abusive marriage. Their romance soon leads to terrible consequences for Ina but, fortunately for Seojin, he is able to extract himself from the situation before any harm comes to him; thus, the story serves as both an examination of emotional cowardice as well as the all-encompassing sense of relief one experiences upon narrowly avoiding a disastrous fate:

He was suddenly overjoyed. He was the only one intact, now and in the future. Happiness overwhelmed him. He had resisted temptation, and even felt proud that he had protected himself from a crisis. Fanciful ideas like the origin of life didn’t matter; being alive was what really mattered. Only then did he feel he had truly grown up, as he proudly let go of the sentimental kid who’d read biographies and harbored useless dreams.

Possibly the highlight of the collection, “Missing Child,” chronicles the devastating fallout that occurs when a young married couple’s small child is abducted in a department store and, far stranger, the radical new domestic life that forms when the boy is returned to his parents many years later, after the husband has quit his job and the wife developed schizophrenia. The family unit finds themselves unable to rectify the truth of their biological relation with the unease they now experience in each other’s company––too much time has passed and too much has been lost to ever go back to the way things were. Although the story is told from the third-person perspective, Young-ha Kim briefly enters the father’s consciousness during a crucial moment with his son:

I started considering genes only after we lost you, after I’d crawled on all fours searching for strands of your hair. I believed that it would help us find you. And because of the test results, you’re sitting in front of me right now. But you’re a real stranger to me, just like I must be a stranger to you. If the DNA from the hair I finally found on your baby clothes matches the cells scraped from the inside of your mouth, it means that you’re the same person, and we have to believe it, we must believe it, we’ve got no choice but to believe it, but why can’t we see it with our own eyes?

Diary of a Murderer ends on a meta and comically surreal note: “The Writer” follows a middle-aged novelist faced with writer’s block and a looming deadline, even as his ex-wife may or may not be sleeping with his new editor. Young-ha Kim clearly derives glee here from poking fun at the notion of the writer with a capital “W” as enshrined by popular culture. The narrator of “The Writer” is constantly trying to devise ways to get out of his literary contract, with little consideration given to the integrity of his work or his audience of loyal readers. When he realizes he could be sued for breach of contract if he doesn’t eventually turn in a book, he receives some advice from his friend, a philosophy lecturer:

“Then how about this instead?”
“What?”
“Write an unintelligible, chaotic book that’s unpublishable. Write something like James Joyce’s Ulysses. A difficult book, one around a thousand pages long, without a clear plot line or a recognizable subject.”
Ulysses has a plot and a concrete subject.”
“To be honest, I haven’t read it. What’s it about?”

Unconventional and acerbic, Young-ha Kim’s stories possess a knack for black humor as their protagonists find themselves in increasingly degrading situations. Diary of a Murderer feels like a stellar entry point into the writer’s distorted world, and makes clear why his examinations of contemporary urban life and its many contradictions have earned him comparisons to the likes of Albert Camus and Haruki Murakami.

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‘King of Joy’ by Richard Chiem: Millennial Malaise

Richard Chiem novel King of JoyKing of Joy (176 pages; Soft Skull Press) floats out from under a narcotic haze. The first novel from Richard Chiem follows the recent reissue of his story collection, You Private Person, and expands on that book’s knack for exploring millennial ennui. As King of Joy opens, lead character Corvus finds herself in a purgatorial place; on the run from a painful past, she’s spent the last year residing in a secluded woodland manor with a host of other young women and their employer, a pornographer named Tim. Her days are loosely spent in a druggy stupor, socializing with her cast-mates and performing for Tim’s camera:

The poise and happiness of her years are gone but she owns a slowness no one could take from her, a rock no one could dare budge, drinking cold milk straight from the carton, more in her head than anywhere else…The lie she tells sometimes is that she’s doing okay, that there is nothing wrong. Most days, there is nothing to say.

Early on, we witness Corvus’ arrival at the mansion on a pitch-black night; she watches a half-naked woman use a torch to light a tree on fire as others dance and pop champagne bottles. It’s a surreal moment, one inherently cinematic; Chiem has appropriately cited Harmony Korine’s 2013 movie Spring Breakers as a primary influence on the novel. Just as in that film, there is an undercurrent of menace throughout King of Joy, creating the sense that violence could erupt at any moment. Both Tim’s intentions and Corvus’ future appear as ambiguous as the past Corvus remains determined to put behind her.

The novel utilizes a cyclical structure as Corvus’ departure from the house in the woods ultimately leads her to a different isolated mansion, this one protected by a moat full of man-hungry hippopotami. The strange events that unfold there trigger Corvus’ memories of her former husband, a successful but tortured playwright, and the modest life they once shared together. It’s here we develop a sense of the tremendous cloud of grief Corvus has been living under for more than a year now—but also an understanding of how that same grief can be channeled into a source of strength:

In story books, in movies, and in pop songs, Corvus has always loved the stubborn characters the most….the loser getting kicked in the teeth and choosing to smile, mouth full of blood, instead.

King of Joy possesses a funereal tone, shifting through events in a nonlinear fashion that suggests a consciousness in Corvus attempting to reckon with the trauma of her past. There’s a dream-like quality to the situations Chiem invents, and animals in the book are often attributed more admirable human qualities than the humans: people let Corvus down but pit bulls, cats, and hippopotami alike display loyalty, adoration, and a fierce protective spirit.

The novel tends to take on the same languid energy as the lives it depicts. In that sense, Chiem was likely wise not to extend the story past two hundred pages. But there is something refreshingly ordinary about the author’s milieu. His characters are disaffected urbanites, not academics or precocious wunderkind. They listen to Elliot Smith, work menial jobs, and look forward to the end of the day when they can self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. King of Joy finds Corvus occupying a bleak fork in the road. Through her struggles, she doesn’t reach any hard-fought truth; she doesn’t emerge from her suffering with a greater appreciation for life, she simply emerges, and in her world, that’s enough.

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‘Floyd Harbor’ by Joel Mowdy: Harbor Lights, Suburban Sights, and Mean Streets

Joel Mowdy story collection Floyd HarborThe inhabitants of Joel Mowdy’s Long Island spend their days and nights far from the affluent Hamptons, let alone Fitzgerald’s East Egg. Floyd Harbor (256 pages; Catapult Press), Mowdy’s debut collection of twelve interlinked stories, pays pitiless homage to youths trapped in dead-end jobs, killing time with video games and petty crime, blotting out the boredom with cheap liquor and designer drugs.

Oh yeah, it’s not really a “harbor,’’ as the narrator of a story titled “Stacked Mattresses’’ explains. “There were all kinds of cars in the diner parking lot. From this vantage point, I also had a view of the infamous WELCOME TO FLOYD HARBOR sign. The story was that back in the mid-eighties, members from the Historic Society and Property Owners Association formed a committee to change the Mastics and Shirley to Floyd Harbor … to attract business and wealthier residents.” The measure got passed, but didn’t go over with everyone—the non-gentrifiers “put bumper stickers on their car that said WHERE’S DA HARBOR?’’

The rest of the story is about Michael, a wheelchair-bound guy who gets talked into a scam by his buddy Grady that involves changing the pricetags on double mattresses, and exchanging them to other outlets for full queen-size refunds. (Don’t ask.) When Grady gets busted, his pregnant girlfriend, Princess, stashes the mattresses at Michael’s place. The plot thickens as she warns him ominously about Grady’s accomplice, Kit-Kat. “I don’t want anything to do with anyone called Kit-Kat,’’ Michael responds, witnessing his world cave in. It’s dark comedy, beautifully rendered, somewhere between Raymond Carver and Richard Price.

In “Far-Off Places,’’ Jeff takes some blotter acid with his buddy Rob down by the 7-Eleven to try to block the memory of his girlfriend Corinne, and why she dumped him. When the drugs kick in, false profundities abound:

As they entered the blinding store like fluttering moths, Rob saw a bigger picture of life as most people live it. Everybody has a light they strive toward. Corinne is Jeff’s light, and having a great time is Rob’s. That man and woman: the beer they carry out of 7-Eleven is their light, and they were drawn to 7-Eleven to get it.

After drunk dialing and breaking Corinne’s window to get in to see her at her parent’s place, Jeff “took a dive, swam across the bay, turned up naked at the gas station on Neighborhood Road and was wrestled into the back of a police cruiser.’’

Mowdy is clear-eyed, but not without compassion, and humor.

“Animal Kingdom’’ recounts a chance meeting between the narrator and a woman named Rose at the wedding reception for a friend who doesn’t know his bride is pregnant by another man. “The next morning I told Rose she looked more like a Betty,’’ he muses. “It was all the tattoos, stamped here and there like cargo tags on a well-traveled suitcase.’’

The course of true love is interrupted, sadly, when a cat falls out of a tree onto Rose’s chest. (Stay with me here.) While the narrator hails a cab to get advice at the pet store, he’s idistracted by a nearby jogger “in red lifeguard shorts’’ who was “being a wonderful neighbor to Rose by washing some of the fleas off the cat in a disposable baking pan of warm water and dish soap suds. Rose stood by with a towel. They were drinking cold beers the man had brought over. What else they did, I don’t know.’’

According to Mowdy’s biography, he grew up in Mastic Beach with twelve siblings and now splits his time between homesteading in the forest of Lithuania with his wife and son and teaching in Bali.

It’s a long way from Long Island, but clearly, he hasn’t forgotten his roots. Neither will you, after reading this indelible account.

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‘The Light Years’ by Chris Rush: The Turbulent Sublime

Chris Rush memoir The Light YearsChris Rush’s memoir, The Light Years (368 pages; FSG), opens during the Summer of Love. In the suburbs of New Jersey, Rush is the sweet yet strange middle child in a family of seven kids. As a boy, he is obsessed with making paper flowers by hand, maintains an enchantment for a pink satin cape described as a “fashion miracle,” and turns the family’s psychedelic basement into his bedroom. To him, his parents are “the most fabulous –– and most happy,” and he is content to play the part of the devout Catholic son. However, at twelve-years-old, Rush’s world is transformed when his bold older sister, Donna, takes him to a “Be-in,” a day in the park filled with hippies and drugs. Here, she introduces him to Valentine, a charming friend who acts as spiritual leader when he doses everyone with acid. Valentine places a tab of “Orange Sunshine” on Rush’s tongue as if giving sacrament, and for the first time Rush experiences LSD:

In silence, everyone stared out across the lawn. Soon, an agitation began to flutter inside me. Or was it outside? As the breeze moved across the park, the shuddering of the trees was mesmerizing; the lawn rippled like the surface of a lake.
I thought: Gods here.

After this life changing experience, Rush begins to sell drugs at his boarding school and eventually ventures out to the Arizona desert to make a big purchase from Valentine. Here begins Rush’s tumultuous journey of growing up, filled with beauty and agony as he becomes deeply involved in the 1970s counter-culture. His search for a home—and fascination with drugs—takes him all across the country; from Tucson to Marin, Los Angeles, the Oregon Coast, and ultimately back to his parent’s home in New Jersey. Along the way he is accompanied by a cast of eccentric characters: enlightened Christian smugglers, a man who believes he was visited by UFOs, and a nudist drug dealer named Flow Bear. Rush also begins to discover his sexuality and falls in love with Owen, a Mormon boy from Idaho. His love interest and unconventional lifestyle causes tension at home as his father turns into an abusive alcoholic and his mother’s sanity frays at the edges. Rush encounters violence so many times it’s a wonder he survived to tell his story.

While Rush’s story is incredibly interesting and thought-provoking on its own, his writing style lends an honest and mind-bending quality. Rush recounts the highs and lows with a clarity that refuses to glorify or ask for pity. He simply presents his adolescence for what it was: a time of infinite magic and joy as well as one plagued by addiction and isolation.

Although the memoir takes the reader to some dark moments in Rush’s life, overall it serves as a recollection of the wonder of his youth:

When we drove to Point Reyes, to see the ocean, I was dazzled. California was the end of America, where the continent slipped under the sea. One could go no further. It was the place to collect one’s dreams and make something of them. The fantasy of Haight-Ashbury had collapsed into violence. But across the bay in Marin, there was peace.
People were getting back to nature. It was a good scene.

In this way, Rush reveals how the 1970s was a sublime yet turbulent time in American history.

And all throughout this story is Rush’s large-hearted compassion for the friends he made along the way. Amid the derangement and pain, there was always a companion at his side; there moves an air of tenderness for all the people who floated in and out of Rush’s life during those years. It’s difficult to come away from The Light Years without an appreciation for the beauty Rush finds in a seemingly harsh world. Seeing through his perspective could potentially leave readers changed for the better.

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‘A Wonderful Stroke of Luck’ by Ann Beattie: Familiar Themes, New Territory

Ann Beattie novel A Wonderful Stroke of LuckNo good deed goes unpunished.

Ann Beattie’s 21st work of fiction, A Wonderful Stroke Of Luck (288 pages; Viking), has been taking a beating in some quarters, notably the New York Times (for, among other capital sins, spelling Spalding Gray’s name incorrectly).

She’s been laboring under the mantle as a voice of her g-g-generation ever since her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, in 1976. It’s a jacket she hates, understandably, but it was refreshing at the time to find fiction about people and places (although usually not politics) of the ‘60s that didn’t read like it was written by Richard Fariña.

The cool, evaluative voice—hip but not ostentatious—of her fiction, then and now, probed the psyches of lost souls struggling to find their place in a world not of their own making. (Chilly Scenes was closer to a portrait of slackers than the counter-culture, but the term had not yet come into use…so much for journalistic generalizations.)

The new novel takes its title from a quote by the Dalai Lama (“Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck’’), but rest assured, Beattie has not gone New Age on us. Her characters certainly don’t get what they want, let alone what they need, and most assuredly don’t feel lucky about it.

It’s a portrait of millennials (again with the labels…) at the private prep school Bailey Academy in New Hampshire, under the heavy influence of Pierre LaVerdere, their campy, cryptic instructor. They may bear an outward resemblance to the kids in The Dead Poets Society or A Separate Peace. But the author is stalking bigger game, offering pitiless status details with deadpan reserve.

Setting up a meeting of the Honor Society, she notes, “Today there were also enormous seedless grapes—a nod, perhaps, to their recent discussion of Cesar Chavez.’’

The over-achieving, desperate-to-please students react with scorn when, in an exercise in adolescent “Jeopardy,” someone replies “John Cheever’’ instead of Gatsby after LaVerdere asks a rhetorical question: “Literature. In this twentieth-century novel, a character attends a sparsely populated funeral after the protagonist is found dead in his pools.’’

And so it goes.

It may sound a bit precious, but these kids are no less worthy of attention for being privileged than Holden Caulfield at Pencey Prep. Their angst is real, however unearned it sometimes seems, and Beattie has previously explored this fictional terrain in the portrayal of the funny, troubled teenager, Jocelyn, in the linked tales of The State We’re In: Maine Stories.

Here, the tone changes, abruptly, in Chapter Six, when the main protagonist, Ben, gets unwelcome news. “On 9/11 LouLou was the town crier, banging on her classmates’ doors. It took Ben some time to realize that he hadn’t been awakened from a nightmare. Mrs. Somersworth, the school nurse (rumored to have had a drug problem herself, when she was their age) handed out tissues and herded them into the TV room to look at the shaky footage, the incomprehensible smoke in New York.’’

The personal swiftly becomes political. The father of Ben’s friend Jasper, it is revealed, died in one of the towers, where he was meeting his divorce lawyer. But for these beleaguered kids, the echo chamber reminder, “9/11 changed everything,’’ tolls for a while, but doesn’t fundamentally alter their fates.

After Ben graduates, he skips college, moving to upstate New York for dead-end jobs and dead-end affairs with women he has trouble connecting with. In a section that calls to mind Bret Easton Ellis, if he were (somehow) in control of his instrument, he meets his ex-girlfriend Arly at the Gansevoort, where he spots Cindy Crawford, “her high heels clicking, taking the lobby entrance into the bar. The security thug was an enormous horror movie fly with multi-faceted, glinting pupils. The guy pushed a button as Ben approached to let him on the elevator, indicating acceptance at the same time he indicated contempt.’’

Other troubles await.

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