Tag Archives: novels

Review: ‘Shovel Ready’, by Adam Sternbergh

Shovel Ready: A NovelShovel Ready: A Novel by Adam Sternbergh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I will be honest and admit I wasn’t overly convinced of this novel right away; as a lover of William Gibson and Warren Ellis, the setting and premise felt a bit too familiar and overall the ground felt a bit well-tread. I knew right away I’d probably not be disappointed because this kind of gritty, noir speculative fiction is deeply in my wheelhouse, but I wasn’t sure it was going to live up to the expectations I had been building up for it for months.

In the end, I had really been swept up by this book, which manages to be more than the sum of its parts, which is not necessarily a knock on the parts. Adam Sternbergh has an obvious talent for pace and a heavily stylized narrative voice. The plot remains a bit well-worn, a heavy-drinking hitman anti-hero meandering about a dirty-bombed New York City full of shanty camp towns and the rich plugged into yet another flavor of a Matrix-like mass hallucinatory cyberspace bites off big on a strange job that only gets stranger. But Sternbergh is a fine storyteller and more than competently ushers along an engrossing tale. But the real strength here is in the frenetic tempo of the entire story, the way tension is elevated higher and higher and kept taut through the end.

The real danger of writing in a familiar genre is too easily falling into tired tropes and half-hearted style, and the book manages to mostly avoid it; the grit and noir are convincing and textured, rubbing the right away and making sure it burns. I really can’t commend enough Sternbergh’s risky approach to style, rapidly hammering one scene into the next with staccato, almost absurdly lean prose. The culminating effect feels like an action movie or graphic novel, with things getting hot early and never settling into any downtime.

I was happy to learn, as I suspected, that this isn’t a standalone debut but that at least one more ‘Spademan’ novel is in the works. I look forward to seeing how these characters and this refreshing approach to pace and structure bear out with more time. The world Sternbergh has created may not be as ultimately unique, but it’s an enjoyable nod to its predecessors and well worth spending your time in.

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The Temptations of Big Brother: ‘The Circle’, by Dave Eggers

The CircleThe Circle by Dave Eggers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot being said about Dave Eggers’ latest novel, including a fair amount of criticism about it’s flawed posturing as a kind of parable meant to terrify and jostle the reader out of social media complacency — essentially, that is, an Orwellian caution story for the time of millenials, Big Brother taking selfies.

Much of the criticism seems justified to me; as a story The Circle hits a few flat notes, with almost cartoonishly one-dimensional characters that too often show their hand as being Authorial Megaphones, Eggers almost stridently breaking the writerly cliche to show and not tell. The would-be moral lesson of The Circle would’ve come across just as well and perhaps with even greater weight if emboldened with nuance and complexity, chiefly with its cast of characters. Mae, our young female protagonist is the biggest disappointment here, a small-town girl a bit too easily swept away by the glamorous machinations of The Circle, a social media behemoth stand-in that isn’t so much symbolic of Facebook and Google as a future epitome of all social media efforts. While much of her near frictionless evolution into the poster child of The Circle’s grandest project–a person going entirely ‘transparent’, everything from their vital signs to every moment of their day-to-day activities freely recorded and broadcast–can be attributed to her youthful idealism and appreciation of a remarkable career and lifestyle opportunity, one can’t help but feel there could’ve been a great deal more to the story had she had more empathy with her parents and ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who sit on the other, skeptical side of The Circle’s efforts.

That all said, the story remains fairly compelling and the book is a satisfying read on the whole. It also demands consideration for what it does almost too well: it makes Big Brother look, well, rather wonderful. While many critics have categorized the book as a relatively simple and even heavy-handed warning against the increasing erosion of privacy in the name of digital connectedness that most seems to revolve around narcissism, I really found it to be far more than that. Eggers, to my mind, has gone to great and convincing lengths to capture the temptations of The Circle’s efforts. In a series of ‘lessons’ of a sort from one of The Circle’s ‘Three Wisemen’ leaders, Mae is told of all the ways society and individuals would lead improved lives through complete transparency, the codeword throughout the book for complete surveillance. Children, given tracking chips at birth, nearly eradicate all kidnappings. Complete transparency among adults will nearly eliminate all crime, Bentham’s Panopticon with unlimited technology and funding. A collective of medical data on all people on Earth leading to unprecedented advances in detection and cure rates. A disabled child in California can tune in as a dozen different advanced cameras track a climber advancing up Everest. It continues on and on like this, resonating most effectively in the realm of government, where the trend for politicians to ‘go transparent’ quickly becomes an overwhelming one and leads to the first truly transparent democracy the world has ever seen, corruption and lobbying disappearing seemingly overnight.

The idealistic hopes play out in the book rather frequently and easily — more criticism is justified here, too, but the effect remains, and is I believe the real brilliance of this book. Eggers isn’t just scaring us all into maybe backing off of Facebook for a while, or caring a bit more about just how much time and money Google is spending to know who we are by trawling every email. He’s playing devil’s advocate for his own warning, arguing emphatically in return that increased digital visibility will have potential positive effects on a global scale, and surely will have many convincing proponents for pushing for those advances.

Philosophically, The Circle isn’t as singleminded as it might at first appear. It isn’t only a cautionary tale from a social media luddite, condemning the age of digital access and monitoring with a heavy hand. It’s richer and more daunting to consider to the full weight of what closing The Circle would mean, and considering why it might, to more than a few, not appear like such a scary story. Eggers leaves it to the reader to feel out these possible futures, and wonder if we can take some of the progress on offer from some of them without the requisite totalitarianism. Here the line between dystopia and utopia is paper thin, and all the more frightening because of it.

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BookRiot Asks: Who Are Your Favorite Writers of Color?



The ever noble folks over at BookRiot have written up a great post about how little diversity exists in the New York Times Bestseller List. Just how little diversity are we talking? Well, as they point out, only 3 authors out of the 124 to make the Top 10 in 2012 were people of color, and none were African American. In response to this BookRiot has asked readers to submit their 3 favorite authors of color, with the results being tallied by January 12th. This should offer many who want to broaden their reading a bit some fine suggestions.

For what it’s worth, my submitted authors, in no particular order:

1) Percival Everett

2) Haruki Murakami

3) Tao Lin


Past Full of Prologues


I’ve been thinking a lot recently, after having to move back home, about how and why it’s been particularly depressing to have no space to unpack all of my books. For the first time in my life I don’t have room for them all, 640 and counting, arranged sometimes with hazard and sometimes with care on a growing number of bookshelves, each literally sagging a bit at certain points. I remember when I first moved on campus at Notre Dame and decided against anything resembling sanity that I had to bring my entire library with me, hastily buying and erecting two tall bookshelves in the bedroom after having pushed the dresser I barely had use for into the closet to make room.

There’s a shallow pleasure to it, something almost purely visual in having all those spines staring back out at you, extravagantly colorful in some spots, plain and dustily, studious-seeming in others. Horrible genre fiction, the classics, modern experimental mindfucks, and comforting reads I’ve owned since before I was in high school. Pristine hardbacks I’ve yet to touch and crumbling mass market paperbacks that have actually begun to feel weighty with book tape.

I’ll cop to that forever, that visceral and silly pleasure, the way an array of books just feels intellectual and insane all at the same time. The pride of it, the intellectual vanity, I’m a Smart Person, this is a room where Important Thoughts Are Thought.

It does feel alien, then, like someone has died — I actually feel changed, having most of my books sitting in ragged boxes that barely held together through the most recent move, stored away in a part of the house I don’t even have ready access to most of the time. I realize this is a #FirstWorldProblem of a fairly high order, but it’s honest. There’s a lot of history in my books, and I don’t mean anything to do with what’s inside the covers. We’re each a microculture and you can tell a lot about a person by the books he keeps. I can remember where and when every single book was bought or received. The gifts, the books bought for a class (some I still despise, some that changed me at the core of my entire self). The books, too many to be sure, bought on a whim after some passing review or recommendation, grabbed used from Amazon and yet to be read.

The Murakami bought because an ex I was mad for said it was her favorite, and I puppy-love goofily asked her to inscribe it before she left on a trip, years later returned to her in anger and confusion and sadness. It was given back, then thrown away, and now haunts a very strange and selective internal shelf.

The Brian Jacques book that was leant to my best friend in high school and was returned two days before his terrible accident.

The Tolkien I sat awake three days with in the hospital waiting room before he moved on.

When someone asks who I am, what I do, what I enjoy, what scares me, what makes me  think it’s all worth anything at all, the only thing I can think to do is start curating a shelf or two of books that would be the best I could offer up as an honest answer. I want to edit together an anthology the way people used to make mixtapes.


Review, ‘Liliane’s Balcony’, by Kelcey Parker

Liliane's BalconyLiliane’s Balcony by Kelcey Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In Liliane’s Balcony Kelcey Parker continues in rich stride of her debut collection, For Sale by Owner, with a novella that is pristinely imagined and delicately constructed. This book manages the admirable ambition of balancing a mixture of history and liberties taken with it, taking an already compelling, emotionally complex story of domestic strife as one layered story among others. The cumulative effect feels enjoyably effortless, blending gestures both natural and meticulously constructed that intuit a thundering echo of the architecture of Fallingwater itself. Parker went to great lengths to research the details and moods present throughout, though I personally enjoyed more the array of present-day characters that Parker convincingly offers. Liliane’s Balcony is haunted by stories and strange gravities well worth falling into.

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Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84’



Say, its only a paper moon
Sailing over a cardboard sea
But it wouldn’t be make-believe
If you believed in me


Desperate as I always feel after finishing a Murakami novel to write up something profound and properly expressive of what his work seems to always so easily do to me, I never have until now. It always feels futile, foolish–I feel like a three-year-old who has seen a supernova; it’s nearly impossible to really articulate what I’ve encountered, yet perhaps a rich, ambivalent sensory befuddlement is all one can hope for in art. I feel this way more than ever after finishing his most recent and hand-achingly thick masterpiece, but here I am nonetheless.

1Q84 feels like quintessential Murakami, full of surreal moments both dazzling and (to this reader, enjoyably) mundane, cats, sadness, loneliness, death, hope, the ethereal and the grubbily all-too-real. Everyone has lost something, and everyone is looking looking looking. I can’t ever get over the strange and deliriously paced tone of this and his other books, a tone that in my experience is some mixture of both the translation process and Murakami’s indelible presence. It feels comfortable but a bit askew, which of course fits into the Murakami Mode almost too perfectly. If I say that the phrases and paragraphs always seem slightly wary and confused, it isn’t a critique of either of those to aspects; rather, I genuinely enjoy the tentative feeling of almost literally every line in the book. There’s a sad but quiet intensity, anxiety  hanging over everything, it’s beautiful but off-putting (not unlike the double moons hanging in the sky of this somehow-but-not-exact-alternate 1984 Tokyo, one normal and one smaller, dented, green).

Many people seem to experience (whether they enjoy it or not) the distinct feeling that Murakami bleeds over into their real world somehow, taints them — this is absolutely the case for myself, it’s always been the hallmark to me of fiction that has a special staying power, has an elusive brilliance. I honestly don’t feel like I’ll ever look at the moon again with remembering this book; even moments of transit seem to draw it quickly back to my memory, as the characters here are always traveling in one form or another. I was struck even by stunning little coincidences while reading that seemed to signify that I, too, had somehow been pulled a little into a strange alternate reality, had become a shade of green. While sitting down to write this my cat suddenly became incessantly noisy and playful as if trying absurdly hard to keep my attention elsewhere. While reading what was to me the most intense moment of the most intense chapter near the end of the book, ‘It’s Only A Paper Moon’ sung by a very young Ella Fitzgerald came onto my Pandora station (I hadn’t even ‘Like’ed the song until then), which very honestly unsettled me for a moment. The ‘moon’ connection aside, the song appears throughout the nove as jazz and classical music one more haunt Murakami’s fiction. I had never liked a single jazz song I had ever heard until some of the music in the book sent me searching out of curiosity, and now I cannot get enough. Haunting and infectious perfectly describe this book.

I’ve seen some criticism of the book’s close, that it offers either not enough or too much closure. I suppose I’m too easy to please, to connected to what I feel is the Murakami experience I so much seek out and enjoy. I felt at peace with the ending; it’s heavily bent and untidy, but that’s one thing I love about this book and the rest of his fiction — it’s never tidy, it’s never polished or feels like, once you’re done, that the book will even fit conveniently back onto the bookshelf. I remember when reading Murakami for the first time, Kafka on the Shore, how struck I was by the duality in these surreal iconic characters and their presences–we first see Johnny Walker, a dashing and menacing presence–but then we get…KFC’s Colonel Sanders!? This absurdity, this refusal towards perhaps easier (to write, and to read) gestures and choices. This isn’t what he ‘does’, and it’s why I’ll always come back to his work. It’s unsettling, imperfect, confused, awkward, brilliant and it will sometimes tarry, sometimes disappear without waiting for you.

Review: ‘Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned’, by Wells Tower

Everything Ravaged, Everything BurnedEverything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The range of style evinced here is stunning. I love that some of the stories are disruptive in their incompleteness, as if the endings were forgotten. The last two stories in particular (including the title piece) are pristine, absolutely deft with a tonal bravado that seems effortlessly, paradoxically subtle.

The stories that have a great deal going on cohere flawlessly and the stories where almost nothing happen let their steady, hummed silence do all the proper work; compelling feels like an understatement. One wonders what Tower might manage in a novel, though he stretches his limbs so naturally in the short story form I wonder if more collections like this one are what’s to be expected, and gladly.

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Review: ‘The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am’, by Kjersti A. Skomsvold

The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I AmThe Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am by Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dalkey Archive has another stunner in this debut novel by Kjersti A. Skomsvold.

Our lonely, elderly narrator has measured her life, if she has truly marked off the passage of time at all, in knit earwarmers and an insistent though compelling lifelong conjuration from her husband of one statistic after another. As she sits overlooking the edge of her own mortality she gazes back into the spare vacuum of her life to see what filled all those spaces kept barren of friends, family, pursuits, and so on.

There’s an implicit sadness over the wasted life here, woven through the artfully pseudo-simplistic and good-natured inner thoughts of Mathea as she reflects on the husband she loved nearly as much as he seemed confounded by and sad for her, the dog that drowned after she threw its treat into a lake, and the child that never came.

The entire book is stoically infused with the tremendous weight of a lifetime of empty but hopeful days, and all of the loneliness that has come as Mathea approaches death, flailing out in her final days for some bit of meaning or legacy in a world that seems content to wholly forget her as she meanders about in her wedding dress, wielding a sandwich bag of teeth.

The reader is left to decide if she has succeeded or not in this sort-of adventure that is as bizarre as it is banal with a most disarming, persistent undercurrent of an unromantic loneliness and desperation; this is a rich, literary death rattle worth listening to.

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Lily Hoang’s ‘Changing’

Changing Changing by Lily Hoang

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Lily Hoang has created something truly unique and altogether fantastic (in nearly every sense of the word) with this book.

I find this a hard book to really talk about. It’s perhaps best described as a book of oscillations, in craft and syntax as well as meaning and direction. It’s a book that circles in on itself as well as outward, swelling upward like an explosion while sinking into the depths like a whirlpool. Deafening in its unsuspecting force, but also at times in its silence.

This is a book that raises big questions (Are we to believe in fate? If so how seriously do we (should we) take it?)) while keeping itself grounded with an authentic, enjoyable poignancy and honesty that is generated in part from autobiographical themes that seem to course through a lot of Lily’s work. It’s an experiemental endeavor while at the same time struggling with its roots as a retelling of ancient fortunes.

Most importantly, it’s a delicate yet strong book; beautiful and ugly but always enjoyable.

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‘I Don’t Know’

Some all too familiar-feeling/sounding/smelling/tasting/living/etc. excerpts from Percival Everett’s The Water Cure. Falling more and more in love with more ‘experimental’ fiction, which started with Everett’s Erasure.

* * *

There was no good explanation. I should say that there was no good explanation that was true. I at times even tried to create a story, my artistic capacities sadly failing me, and perhaps that should have depressed me (but it didn’t, as I had other dispiriting and dreary fish to fry), that might satisfy Charlotte’s reasonable need to understand just what the fuck had happened to me.

I imagined myself telling her that there was another woman, and I went so far as to try and find another woman, but finally it wasn’t another woman, only me and my pathetic depression about maybe work, perhaps my life, but more just feeling day in and day out like I didn’t want to continue. I no longer entertained suicidal thoughts, and that was ironically depressing as I could have used one right about then.

Charlotte would look at me, as angry as she could be, rightly, and demand to know where I had gone, and I would look stupidly back at here, sincere and true stupidity, however aggravating for her, and say,  “I don’t know.” I became sick of saying I don’t know. I hated hearing the words from my side of this face, but that was all I had. “Why aren’t you happy?” I don’t know. “Is it us?” I don’t know. “Do you want to leave?” I don’t know.

Finally, without knowing anything, only that I was remarkably unhappy, I did leave, so clumsily and so awkwardly, at once thinking that a better person would have done it, well, better and that of course there was no “better”, or even a good way to break a kind person’s heart.

. . .

I left saying the most unsatisfying and stupid and cruel and sadly true thing, which was “I still love you.” It’s funny how such well-meaning, selfish utterances often feel benevolent. At any rate, my words were taken badly, an understatement, and I’m still unsure whether it was the “still” or the “love” that was so upsetting.

. . .

All of that rings and rang then like feeble and rueful vanity, as if I really in fact had the consequential power to cause pain, as if it were my choice to activate such a relationship.