Booth #5: 2013 Book #31

Booth #5

5 of 5 stars

Booth is everything a literary journal should be, and I found myself loving most of the stories in this particular collection – which is often a rarity when an editor attempts to bring together multiple short-format pieces, let alone pieces that span short fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, lists, interviews, craft essays and a smattering of artwork thrown in. Booth makes this feat look effortless.

A few of my highlights included Scott Williams Woods’ “New York Times Bestsellers” a fictional list of the titular publication in which James Patterson has incorporated Alex Cross into every title and force fit him into every genre. In a landscape where it’s becoming harder and harder for new voices to gain traction against established properties – a future list like this isn’t hard to imagine. I laughed out loud multiple times at several of the descriptions.

“‘Manchild’ Morrison, the Best that Almost Was” hits the opposite end of the spectrum, a tale of high school legends and the decline that seems to always befall them outside the walls of their youth. We look in on the local legend after he’s lost nearly everything, and follow him about town as Porter Shreve builds up to the old team’s reunion at homecoming.

For folks who aren’t sure about lit. journals, Booth is the perfect intro. It does a lot of different things extremely well and can help you find other publications with a more singular focus based on what you enjoyed most.

Beautiful Ruins: 2013 Book #30


4 of 5 stars

This book has quite a bit more meat to it than the cover implies – in fact, if I hadn’t seen a few friends post glowing reviews about the book I probably would have passed it over. My wife bought this in the Anchorage airport to read on the way home, so I was able to borrow it when she was done with it. Usually, I don’t like the decade spanning, multiple character literary tales, but this one hangs together very nicely. For the first half of the book, I did feel like I was only getting tiny slices of a wide cast of characters, but during the 2nd half something seemed to click and I was totally engrossed, finishing the last 150+ pages in a couple days of reading before bed.

The book does feature some pretty prominent names (Richard Burton, Liz Taylor) and gives them some on-page time. This didn’t bother me as much as it seems to bother other reviewers – I’m not sure why personalities like this are off-limits, especially when they take a minor role as they do in Beautiful Ruins.

As a main character, I thought Walter did an exceptionally bang up job with Pasquale, blending the lovable but impotent protagonist in with a rich cast of supporting characters in fresh ways that felt effortless. The tension between different cultures, languages, moral codes and setting all added up to a sum that was greater than its parts. And even though much of the book centers around a “crack in the cliffs,” it’s still Italy – exotic, European and steeped with much more culture than the vapid Los Angeles that other portions of the book take place in.

Red Moon: 2013 Book #29

1 of 5 stars

There’s not a whole lot to write home about in this book. After reading it, I didn’t have a bad taste in my mouth, and I was going to give it two stars, but then I tried to find a redeeming quality or something I liked about the book.

The characters were either pure evil or a half hearted, scattershot attempt at giving them depth. However, my main issue with this book was character motivation. The reasons behind anyone doing anything just don’t hang together – it’s as if the author had loads of ideas for “cool” scenes or themes he wanted to incorporate and then shoved them in. That led to a halting plot with bad pacing, and inconsistent themes and messages. I wasn’t sure if Percy was trying to say something about the current state of extremism and the war on terror and fell short, or if he was just trying to write a badass werewolf book and hobbled it with half-baked commentary. Either way, it didn’t work for me.

The concept was OK, I guess, but poorly executed. Again, I didn’t dislike it after reading it, but after thinking about what I did like I couldn’t come up on anything. Almost as if the book transformed while I wasn’t looking.

The Wise Man’s Fear: 2013 Book #28

3 of 5 stars

I didn’t like this book as much as The Name of the Wind, the first book in the Kingkiller chronicle. While this one avoided the awkward beginning of the first in the series, I’m not sure how I feel about the structure of these books. Rothfuss seems to favor stringing together a series of vignettes and stories for hundreds of pages, never really building to a larger conclusion or conflict. Rather, each hundred pages or so feels like its own miniature tale with an arc – and when he moves onto the next, there’s little from the prior arc that carries through. Kvothe’s beef with the Chandrian seems to be the string that ties everything together, but he hasn’t found out anything about them after two books and he feels no closer now than he did before.

The result of this structure is that by book’s end, it feels as if it’s stuttering and limping to a conclusion. Much of the last hundred pages reads like an epilogue – even though it happens to be the last vignette. I truly feel like he could end the book anywhere and it wouldn’t change the tale significantly.

That said, I do enjoy the vignette’s quite a bit. Rothfuss’ dry wit and humor aren’t lost on me, there were several moments where I chuckled aloud, even though I thought the language bordered on too modern in these parts. Even though Kvothe’s adventures are all over the board – training with the Adem, hunting bandits, seducing one of the Fae, Rothfuss manages to create a unique mythology around each character and situation with fantastic depth – it all hangs together very nicely.

Pale Blue Dot: 2013 Book #27

4 of 5 stars

After reading this book, it made me wish for trillions of dollars in wealth so I could sink it into a space program.

The strength of this book is how Sagan takes the cold, unforgiving world of space, a place that for all the money we could likely sink into it, will probably not yield (at least in our lifetimes), proof of other life, other habitable worlds, etc. But that’s not the point of the book – the point of the book is possibilities. Of making science fiction real. Because when he talks about how billions of years from now, after our civilization has ended, the Voyager spacecrafts will still be floating out in the Milky Way with a golden record of human life, or when he talks about the chills he gets when he thinks how the SETI program has yielded strong anomolous radio signals, all originating from the direction of stars in the Milky Way, you can’t help but want to get caught up in his passion for the universe and fire up the rockets.

He spends a considerable amount of time talking about our own solar system and exploring the ins and outs of the planets that traverse the night sky but still seem so far out of reach. He also spends considerable time talking about near Earth asteroids, something I wasn’t completely aware of existing before this book. He posits them as potential halfway points between our the Moon (which is old hat by now) and a mission to Mars. Less time is spent on the worlds and stars beyond, but that’s O.K., at the time this book was written less was likely known.

I gave this book 4 stars because some of the information did feel repetitive. While he talks about the planets from all sorts of different angles, at points it feels like he’s rehashing the same data or discovery, albeit in a different and novel way. The other thing I didn’t like is his obvious bias towards the disparity in military vs. science spending. While I completely agree with him, and would love to take even 5% of the defense budget to put towards space exploration, he mentions it at least a half dozen times. It left a small, almost imperceptible bad taste in the bad of my mouth, if only because it feels so out of character for this wonderful book.

Midwestern Gothic Issue 10

Who would have thought we’d hit ten issues of Midwestern Gothic?

Issue 10 (Summer 2013) of Midwestern Gothic might be an arbitrary milestone, but I can’t help but feel a little extra pride in lasting long enough to throw double digits on the cover. It’s getting harder and harder for lit journals to last nowadays – even some of the established beachheads of the industry are flailing a little bit. To be around for this long is a testament to our contributors who fill the magazine – I’ve said it many, many times, but without them, we’re nothing. There’s some phenomenal, gritty stuff in this issue, including one of the major players in grit-lit today, Frank Bill. To land a writer with that much national cred is pretty cool – especially to see him placed among folks who are being published for the first time in our magazine.

My favorite story in this issue was “The Disappearance of Herman Grimes” by Michael Shou-Yung Shum, a fiction about a struggling franchise restaurant owner who is preparing for a visit from headquarters. Things haven’t been going well, but the situation is correctable – provided Herman is up to the task. In true Midwestern tradition, our authors continue to favor main characters they love to hate. Herman draws in on himself, hides, and only makes the situation worse by putting his incompetent assistant manager in charge of saving this business. It’s tragic and comedic to watch at the same time. Here’s one of my favorite sections:

In the entire town of Ardsmore, Oklahoma, there were only two restaurants that could be considered adequate, and neither was Herman Grimes’s. Herman’s was a franchise called Crystal’s, located off the first highway exit leaving town, next to a twenty-four hour gas station. The food served in his restaurant was U.S. fast food, deep fried, mostly parts of chickens. The fact was that in Ardsmore, the options for dining out were bleak and could only be tolerated by a citizenry who’d grown habituated to the basest diet.

Herman’s franchise featured a radiant jewel on its sign, a glass front, and once-shining chrome fixtures now dulled from repetitive use. Always, a thin layer of grease pervaded the air, ruining the complexions of his teenaged employees. Herman himself stood up front only when he was manning a register during the lunch and dinner hours or taking a complaint. He usually sat in the back, in his office next to the employee bathroom with the lock that did not lock, watching what was happening on the video surveillance monitor with dismay rising in his eyes. Herman had never been particularly interested in food, but when he and his wife had started out in business, they’d mutually agreed that a restaurant franchise was the safest bet. Now, for the last three years, the restaurant had hardly been making any money. The recession had driven most of Ardsmore to the pre-packaged frozen food aisles of the local supermarket, where the parts of chickens could be had for a dozen at the same price Herman offered for four.

The atmosphere in the restaurant had been especially brutal for six weeks, since Herman’s wife had passed away. He’d been away an entire month, on bereavement leave. And then, barely recovered and somewhat bewildered by why he was doing it, Herman Grimes had returned to work. That first week back had been awful, filled with so many gruesome gestures of commiseration from his regulars that they drove Herman entirely into his office. His teenaged employees treated him as if his misfortune were contagious, even using the customer bathroom to avoid crossing paths. The worst was Joe Cloud, his general manager, who had seemingly taken it upon himself to rehabilitate Herman’s psyche through sheer force of aphorism.

But it was primarily Herman Grimes that caused Herman to isolate himself in his office. He couldn’t say that he particularly liked his restaurant, but it was all he had left, now that Greta had passed. Oh God. Greta. The second day back, in the midst of counting inventory with Joe, trying to regain a feel for hard numbers, the thought had struck him like a bolt from the blue. She’s gone. His clipboard fell to the floor, and he was biting his right knuckle hard, so hard it drew blood, cringing like an animal in the corner of a cage. When his fit had subsided, Joe was looking at him with more than mild concern. Joe said he could finish the inventory himself.

Buy a copy of Issue 10 and hear from some of the Midwest’s best writers and poets.

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods: 2013 Book #25

5 of 5 stars
I went into this book with high expectations, given how much I liked Bell’s prior collection, Cataclysm Baby, stories set in a universe familiar to In the House Upon the Dirt in Between the Lake and the Woods.

It met all of my expectations. Bell seems to have settled into the style he explored in Wolf Parts and polished in Cataclysm Baby. Sentences packed densely with symbolism and meaning, each word carefully hand-picked to suit. Paragraphs that echo each other, each one subtle and quiet on their own, but that rise to form, as one advance reviewer noted, the beat of “…a powerful heart you can hear thumping miles away.” Reading a story by this author is like boarding a locomotive and not knowing the destination. For a time, you quietly rumble along, wondering where it’ll take you. By the time you recognize the trunks of the murky, enchanted forest he’s drawn you to, the ride is irreversible and you have no choice but delve deep into the dark heart of the woods.

The prose is beautiful, as I said before, each word seems carefully hand-chosen to project the exact atmosphere and pathos of this unflinching alternate reality where there is nothing but the narrator and the elements he knows. For anyone who has had children or has struggled to have children, this novel is a fantastic metaphor for the experience of marriage and parentage. The loss of a child and the labyrinth it leads both mother and father down is pitch-perfect.

There’s little to not like about this book. You should know going in that this is dense literature. But, it toes the line expertly between accessible and the stuff studied and analyzed thoroughly in academia. It is a book to be read slowly, savored. One where if the territory feels strange, unfamiliar and unclear, it is to be enjoyed.

Artifice Magazine – Issue 3: 2013 Book #24

This edition was on the weaker side for me, in terms of lit. journals / anthologies – probably because experimental fiction/poetry isn’t my preference. There were some nice surprises in here – specifically Matt Bell’s story, which rather than being a traditional short, ran along the bottom of every page like a news ticker, and was amalgamated from lines within the book and other sources of information. I really enjoyed just simply re-reading the book in a new way, and he included a lot of lines that resonated with me when I’d read through the collection the first time through.

Some of the other standouts included Addam Jest’s The Beautiful Necessity and Brian Oilu’s set of three short fictions. Most of the rest just didn’t speak to me because the breaking of structure and form got in the way of me feeling or in some cases even comprehending what the author was trying to communicate. That said, if you’re a fan of experimental fiction, you’ll probably want to check this out.

Theory of Remainders: 2013 Book #23

Theory of Remainders is a phenomenal tale about the consuming nature of loss. It explores the tried and true story of a child being murdered and the parent or emotionally invested detective uncovering the truth in a new way, by setting the actual crime fourteen years in the past and examining the effects place and time have on the protagonist, Phillip Adler. The novel does a great job using subtle cues to show how inescapable something as traumatic as losing a child is. At one point, Adler attempts to leave the Normandy region multiple times, each time being drawn back inexplicably because he’s daughter’s body has yet to be found. In fact, the entire trip to France is prompted by an inability to resolve the past, and the desire to have everything in its right place.

It’s a very human story, in that Adler’s relationships with his ex-wife, her husband, their daughter who bears a heartbreaking resemblence to his own daughter, their extended family and the inhabitants of the town he used to live in. But the story of discovering his daughter’s body, even though the killer has been found and committed in a mental institution is executed well and provides plenty of twists and turns without feeling contrived.

Carpenter’s use of language and knowledge of the tension between American and French culture is also a strength of the book, truly transporting you to a region infamous for it’s involvement with World War II. It’s easy to forget that a people and their communities inhabit this place.

Cryptonomicon: 2013 Book #22

Some books take a little more effort to chew through, and I felt like Cryptonomicon was definitely one of them. Aside from keeping up with all the threads from three separate narratives taking place over the course of World War 2 era battlefronts and the South Pacific in the late 20th century, you’ve also got the super-dense business of cryptology to understand. Stephenson was hit or miss with me in explaining some of the complex math behind cryptosystems. Sometimes, he took pages to delve into the particulars and illustrate the concepts using metaphors, and it worked extremely well. I was not only interested, but felt smarter and understood the stakes in the books better. In other scenes, it was too dense or obtuse and bogged down the narrative.

That aside, I enjoyed reading the book, if only for Stephenson’s fantastic descriptions of action. There are quite a few laugh out loud moments in the book, in which he describes something in a way that instantly flashes a perfect picture of what he was trying to communicate, and done in a way that not many authors have a gift for. Equally as humorous is the way all of his solitary, often socially inept characters collide and maneuver around each other – all math nerds and computer geeks thrust into a critical role in war, a space typically reserved for the brave and physically strong.

The biggest thing that didn’t work for me in this book was the pacing – there were many sections of the book that felt extremely slow and drawn out, Stephenson probably could have achieved a story that resonated just as well, if not more so, with a book easily a third less in length. I found myself not caring what happened in the book or what happened to the characters for long stretches of time before I’d hit another section that felt engrossing.