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The Spark and the Drive
The Spark and the Drive
Offered by Macmillan
Price: $11.04

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mixed feelings about this one, September 7, 2014
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I loved the short story upon which this novel was based. When I read it, I immediately flagged Harrison as a writer whose career I wanted to follow. While he clearly has a lot of talent, I can't say I entirely enjoyed this novel. The plot veers off in so many directions from the original great premise of a young mechanic who finds work in the garage of a man he admires and then develops a huge crush on the man's wife. From there, we get sidetracks into a gang of high school boys who do James Dean/East of Eden-like drag racing, a car-thieving scheme and closing chapters (I won't divulge spoilers) that go down the path of familiar scenes we've seen all too often in TV movies (not to mention along the way we also get a gay father who came out of the closet halfway through his marriage, and a mother who became an alcoholic because of it). Through all it, my biggest problem is that the main character Justin does some very weird things that don't feel psychologically true. If he views the owner of the garage as his mentor, I don't fully understand why he would betray him as he does, and how he can carry on the way he does when he's doing it. Now, because I am married to a therapist, I have learned people can react in all kinds of surprisingly different ways to the same set of circumstances, but if a character does act in a wholly unexpected way, it would be great if you got inside their head enough to understand why they're doing the things they are. And for me, there just wasn't enough of that. And Justin's emotions, when we do get them, just aren't that varied. He stays friends with Nick his mentor, and never seems to have any guilt about betraying him. And the one justification he finds for doing makes he seem thick headed and totally lacking in compassion, The writing here at the voice and sentence structure level is very good -- but unless you're a mechanic there are sections of description that are impossible to understand. And then the writing turns densely lyrical whenever Justin gets really turned on by Maryann's body (Nick's wife). Maybe I'm jaundiced, but a teenage boy getting aroused by a pretty older woman doesn't seem that extraordinary to me to warrant so many passages of flights of fancy prose. Harrison is still on my watch list, and I look forward to reading what he does next, but this one was a bit of a letdown for me.


The Heaven of Animals: Stories
The Heaven of Animals: Stories
by David James Poissant
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.00
91 used & new from $1.16

5.0 out of 5 stars A practically perfect collection of stories, June 30, 2014
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Probably like most readers, I've become skeptical of the effusive praise posted on the back of books (after all, how many "voice of a new generation," can you have?). It's rare that the contents of the book live up to the expectations set up by those blurbs. But it's all the more enjoyable when you find yourself wholeheartedly agreeing with those tributes, as I did here. Yes Brad Watson has it exactly right when he says, "It's not often you read stories with this much range, precision, power and emotional depth in a first collection," and author Brock Clarke doesn't appear to be simply helping out a writer friend when he says this collection "is full of big ideas, of startling insights into how we live now." Like a great album, David Poissant's collection doesn't have any "fillers," every story is one you treasure reading. Even the short shorts - a form that usually leaves me cold or scratching my head - are fun and clever. Several stories offer incredibly moving portrayals of people coping with the imminent death of a loved one, but Poissant's canvas is amazingly wide. It's impressive how many unique premises he comes up with.

The writing serves to get you inside the characters and empathize with their plight, even when their actions - throwing a gay son out a window or contemplating an encounter with an underaged girl - are the opposite of admirable. The writing is always sure-handed and never draws undue attention to itself. The one story that makes you conscious of the writing style - because it's written entirely in imperative sentences - works because it bring freshness to a well-worn topic in stories (a spouse losing a partner to cancer). This ranks among the most impressive works of fiction I've read in the past few years.

The 16 stories in the collection are:

1. Lizard Man - 23 pp - A father, Dan, has been living in isolation since he drunkenly threw his teenaged son out a picture window when he discovered him in a gay encounter. A friend asks Dan to take a trip to visit the house of his own estranged father, who just died. They discover an alligator, which they attempt to set free. The whole experience, and discussion with his friend, motivates Dan to try to reconnect with his son.

2. Amputee - 35 pp - A 30-year-old man still reeling from a divorce considers a one-night stand with a beautiful 17-year old girl who only has one arm.

3. 100% Cotton - 4 pp - A short short depicting a scenario - a man being robbed at gunpoint - proves to not be about what it initially seemed.

4. The End of Aaron - 15 pp - Tells a beautiful tale of a young woman's love affair with a mentally ill boyfriend who is convinced the end of the world is coming.

5. Refund - 25 pp - A couple with dead-end jobs has a tiny relic of a development filled with McMansions discover their 6-year-old son is a genius, and in their already troubled marriage, debate how to handle that news. There's a wonderful tension because you understand both of their entrenched views -- the mother wants to ensure their gifted son gets the proper enrichment and stimulation, while the father is determined to let him be a little boy.

6. Knockout - 2 pp - A couple decides to end their marriage by having a boxing match in their front yard, inviting all their neighbors to watch.

7. Last of the Great Land Mammals - 15 pp - A terrific story about two first cousins having an affair with each other, told from the perspective of the woman, who is stuck knowing the lives they've made with other people can't be undone to allow them to be together.

8. What the Wolf Wants - 4 pp - A woman whose brother has just died imagines a talking wolf at her door.

9. The Geometry of Despair, Part I, Venn Diagram - 16 pp - A couple who lost a baby girl to SIDS cope with their first year of grief.

10. The Geometry of Despair/ Part II, Wake the Baby - 5 pp - Five years after the period of part I, the couple now has a one-year old, but they're still dealing with the wife's constant fear that their son might suffer the same fate as their daughter.

11. How to Help Your Husband Die - 12 pp - An incredibly powerful story, about a woman caring for her husband as he's dying of cancer, told in the unique style in that every sentence is an imperative (e.g. "Demand he drive you to both to the emergency room at one. Ask why he didn't see a doctor six months ago.")

12. Me and James Dean - 11 pp - A surprisingly moving story about a man who has an antagonistic relationship with his girlfriend's dog.

13. Nudists - 34 pp - A widow visits a brother he never liked and his wife in San Francisco on Thanksgiving, with the man still very upset that the two of them didn't fly back to East to attend the funeral of his wife whose car slid off an icy bridge and crashed through a frozen river.

14. The Baby Glows - 2 pp - A fun short short about a glowing baby.

15. The Disappearing Boy - 13 pp - Two inseparable 11-year-old friends have a traumatic encounter with older men that changes the course of their friendship.

16. The Heaven of Animals - 40 pp - Dan from the first story is invited by the son from who he's been long estranged to come visit him in La Jolla, California, as he lies, dying of AIDS. [We learn Dan's attempt at reconciliation after the first story went nowhere because his ex-wife refused to allow him to see their son.] Dan doesn't have enough money to fly, so begins a harrowing cross-country drive to try to reunite with his son before he is gone.

Anyone who liked these collection might find just as enjoyable the equally exceptional collections by Anthony Varallo, including Think of Me and I'll Know: Stories,Out Loud (Pitt Drue Heinz Lit Prize) and This Day in History (Iowa Short Fiction Award) or the great collection by Jim Gavin that got a lot of attention last year Middle Men: Stories.


To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel
by Joshua Ferris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.60
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars If you like reading e-mails and quasi old testament-like stories, you might like it, June 17, 2014
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Ferris's first novel is one of my all-time favorites. The premise of his second one didn't grab me, so I didn't read it, but I was excited for the opportunity to read another one of his books. There is no denying Ferris has a lot of talent and is incredibly clever, but once I started it, this was not a book I was eager to get back to. As is clear from other reviews, the protagonist is a bit of a misanthropic dentist who finds that someone has taken over his identity and has created a Web page and Twitter account in his name, posting material on some obscure religion (with incendiary and anti-Semitic implications that they were more persecuted than the Jews). A lot of the book is the e-mail exchange between the dentist and the person who has assumed his online identity. I just didn't find these long, continuous and eventually repetitive e-mail exchanges an interesting read. And then the long tales of the lost tribe and religion the identity thief says the dentist belongs to reads like long sections of the old Testament. What action happens outside these sections is mostly the staff at the dentist's office being upset about the online posts. It just doesn't feel like a three-dimensional novel with lots of characters engaged in compelling drama that offers intriguing insights into their characters. Simply put, this was a big disappointment for me. Ferris is experimenting with lots of different ways of storytelling, and he has big themes here about religion and tribal identity, but this one didn't work for me.


Remember Me Like This: A Novel
Remember Me Like This: A Novel
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $11.84

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A masterfully told portrait of an excruciating family circumstance, May 28, 2014
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Corpus Christi: Stories is one of my all-time favorite short-story collections and I'm continually delighted when I read the contributions Bret Anthony Johnston has made to literary magazines in the years since. So it goes without saying that I was eagerly looking forward to this novel as soon as I heard about it. Mr. Johnston didn't disappoint with his first novel. It is a terrific read. It has a "ripped from the headlines" premise -- a boy goes missing for four years. The family has no idea what might have happened to him and no clue whether he is alive or dead. Then, miraculously, he is returned to them. What makes this not pulp or popular fiction is the author's deliberate choice never to enter the head of the kidnap victim, Justin, and not to offer all the lurid details of how he was treated during his abduction. And for that reason, when we do get a few details, second-hand, they are all the more devastating. Instead, the novel chooses to focus on the psychological damage done to his family members -- his father, mother, brother and grandfather -- and the emotional hell they have to go through while Justin is missing, and then it explores all the confusing, wrenching emotions they live through when he is returned to them. The parents' guilt that they couldn't do more to protect their son hits particularly strong. Mr. Johnston has an incredible gift with lyrical prose, and unlike most other authors who have that talent, he manages to never overdo it -- not once do you get lost in his words or wonder what all that abstract language is supposed to mean. But the majority of the book is told in a beautifully detailed, straightforward style that captures, with unique voices, the interior thoughts of each family member. Collectively, you get an amazing portrait of the family . As was the case with his short story collection, the setting of the towns around Corpus Christi becomes like a character itself, and the community -- which lived through this horror along with the family -- plays an important role as well. It's a marvelous literary achievement and the characters come alive on the page. You feel like you're living through their turmoil right alongside them. It has the same power as another novel that was also one of my favorites from the past few years -- Christopher Coake's You Came Back: A Novel, about a father who is lead to believe the ghost of his dead son has returned to his former house. Do not hesitate to add Remember Me Like This to your reading list, and if you see a notice for a reading from the author in your area, be sure to attend. Mr. Johnston is a charming, funny and affable man who puts on a very entertaining show.


Team Seven: A Novel
Team Seven: A Novel
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Terrific look at a boy, then teen student's coming of age in a tough neighborhood, May 16, 2014
I am always excited when I discover another author I can add to my must-read list. Marcus Burke demonstrates a lot of talent here in his story of a young man caught up in what is a fairly affluent suburb of Boston, but which has an area that clings to the "tough streets" atmosphere . On the surface, the characters might seem to be like stereotypes of a black family -- the strong-willed church-going mother, the absentee father, and the young man trying to prove his merits to the drug-peddling gangs who control street life from their corner hangouts. The novel goes far beyond those stereotypes, though, and offers a nuanced look at these characters. Even the irresponsible father -- a reggae musician who can't hold down a job and only pops in once every few months on his family -- ultimately becomes a character you have compassion for once you learn his back story. The central character, Andre, is a wonderful portrait of a young man whose basketball talents give him an out to make it out of his neighborhood, but whose loyalty to the macho code of the streets could get him caught in the dead-end cycle of failure and setbacks that plagues his father and those street-corner gang members. The writing and the language is inventive and a joy to read. This is Burke's first novel, but I look forward to following his career now.


All I Have in This World: A Novel
All I Have in This World: A Novel
by Michael Parker
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $13.07
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5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific story about 2 lost souls who come together to form an unusual friendship, May 9, 2014
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This is a terrific novel about two lost souls who come together and help one another find peace and a modicum of joy in their lives. One is a woman, Maria, who suffered a traumatic experience with a high school boyfriend. Because her family is one that suppresses rather than discusses experiences and feelings what transpired haunts her for decades. The other is 47-year-old man, Marcus, who brought on his own misery by trying to start a flytrap museum on the North Carolina farm he inherited with his parents. When that business fails, the bank reclaims the property and he runs away, afraid to tell his sister that he's squandered their inheritance. Marcus and Maria meet in Texas, near Maria's home, a used parking lot when they both become interested in a decades-old Buick Electra. They end up deciding to share the car and become friends. The novel starts with a blockbuster first chapter in which we learn of Maria's traumatic history with her high school boyfriend. It then shifts between the two main characters' points of view, but interspersed we get intriguing vignettes about all the people who touched that Buick Electra before them - from the Detroit workers who assembled it to all the previous owners. It would seem like a distracting device, but it's not. Each story is compelling. After that jaw-dropping opening chapter, the novel does slow down a bit as we get to know Maria and Marcus muddling along in their own lives - and it takes a while for the two of them to get together. But their back stories are fascinating. This is a novel of rich characterization. One of the "bad" people in the book would seem to be Maria's mother, who is so shut down and unable to communicate that she seems to be the source of all of Maria's troubles. But over the course of the novel, we get to know her, and by the end this distant and aloof woman is perfectly understandable, and you end up feeling great compassion for her. Overall it's a terrific novel with an incredible sense of place. You feel like you walk right into the North Carolina and Southwest Texas environments the author describes. It's a terrific read for anyone who enjoys a character-based novel, and it's a novel that will give you hope about the possibilities of relationships and human connections - especially because it portrays that budding relationship between Maria and Marcus without resorting to any plot hijinxs or overly sentimental, romantic-comedy type twists.


Rules for Becoming a Legend: A Novel
Rules for Becoming a Legend: A Novel
Offered by Penguin Group (USA) LLC
Price: $10.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A powerful book that gets off to a rather bleak start, April 4, 2014
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In the end, this book has some very powerful things to say about how isolated people can become from their family, friends, and towns. It offers an interesting exploration of all the emotions - good and bad - we project onto other people, particularly sports heroes. It also offers a painfully touching examination of what a burden it can be to carry the weight of other people's expectations, dreams and disappointments. But while the book delivers so much, the path to get there can be painful. I almost gave up after the first 100 pages because Jimmy "Kamikazee" Kirkus suffers more than Job. Few, if any, people care for or are kind to this young man, and his worst pains are self-delivered, as he runs into a gym wall several times over to punish himself for a reason we won't learn until the very end of the book. (When we do, it is quite powerful.) The sufferings aren't Jimmy's alone - they extend to his whole family. As we learn through backstories across several time periods, Jimmy's father, who was a local basketball hero like Jimmy, suffered a great deal too. If you get through those early pages, the book starts to pick up, although it is a surprise how few people here show any sort of kindness. The only people who treat Jimmy with any tenderness are a hospital nurse he briefly meets and his, now deceased, younger brother. The story also gets a little over-the-top. In his display of basketball prowess, Jimmy just doesn't beat nine other comers in one-on-one games (including a set of twins), he has to not even let them score a point. Since some of his competition is supposed to be pretty good players, the descriptions of his prowess seems a little fairy-talish or Superman-esque. Books always drag me along when a character wants something and I can root along with them in their pursuit of it. In the early stages, it's not clear what Jimmy or any of the focal characters want. Like I said, the book redeemed itself for me in the end, but along the way it was sometimes tough sledding.


The Good Luck of Right Now
The Good Luck of Right Now
Offered by HarperCollins Publishers
Price: $9.78

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Stay with it -- you'll be glad you did, March 16, 2014
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This novel may not be populated, from start to finish, with all the perfect moments that Sliver Linings Playbook is. At times, it felt a little slow, but Quick manages to pull together all the story lines that near the beginning felt tangential, or even a little ridiculous. He really has down how to portray people with mental health issues, who live on the edges of social acceptance. In the final stretch of the book everything comes together in such a profound way, it really leaves you astonishingly moved by the lead's character plight and the people he has found in his life to help him hold everything together.


Augustines
Augustines
Price: $16.98
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary album, extraordinary band, March 9, 2014
This review is from: Augustines (Vinyl)
Across three albums -- one by their former group, Pela, and the two by Augustines -- this collection of talent hasn't produced even one song that isn't outstanding or just album filler. Every song is amazing. Heartfelt, emotional lyrics with great instrumentation backing it all up. Seeing them live takes you places. I had the pleasure of watching them open for Frightened Rabbit and they blew the roof off the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. They I saw them for a small acoustic, but mic-ed up set at Fete Lounge in Providence. It took me days to come down from the high of that experience. Their sound, Billy McCarthy's voice, and the raw emotion he brings to every word he sings is just otherworldly. Buy this album, Rise Ye Sunken Ships and Pela's Anytown Graffiti and you'll be very happy. In a day when many bands just go from one song to the next at a concert, it's amazingly refreshing to hear the stories Billy tells between songs, providing context. He has an unmatched ability to connect with his audience. Their respect for their fans is evident in other little things too -- like posting their lyrics on their Web site. They deserve a much bigger audience, but in the same week I saw them I saw 2 Boston Garden concerts, and the show Augustines put on at Fete Lounge blew both of those shows away.


Kids These Days: A Novel
Kids These Days: A Novel
Price: $9.99

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Another fun serio-comic novel from a talented writer, March 5, 2014
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Drew Perry’s “This Is Just Exactly Like You” is one of my favorite novels, so I was particularly looking forward to this one. Here he delivers another very entertaining novel about a man’s struggles with his family relationships. Walter Ingram has just lost his job in a bank’s mortgage department and he is forced to move to Florida with his pregnant wife to live in an apartment his wife’s late aunt left them. He was also drawn there by his wife’s sister and her husband, Mid, who has promised to give Walt a job. From the outset, it’s not clear what Walter is supposed to do. Mid is the money man behind a number of small businesses, and other than ride around in a car with Mid to visit them, it’s not clear that Walter will have anything specific to do. But then we gradually learn Mid’s business are a tad shady – one of them is a front for a marijuana-selling operation. Lots of comic hi-jinx ensue as Mid’s operation unravels and threatens to take Walter down with him. On top of all that, Walter is not sure if he’s ready to become a father so there is a lot of mild tension with his wife about his lack of complete enthusiasm for the soon-to-arrive baby. Perry has such an easy-going writing style and such well-developed characters, and he manages to take the details of everyday and ratchet them up just a notch so that they’re fun and entertaining. The premise of his first novel – a wife leaving her husband and moving in with his boyfriend, leaving him to raise their autistic son – was totally absorbing. I didn’t think half of the premise here – a soon-to-be father’s misgivings about parenthood – could be sustained across a whole novel, but Perry manages to do it. I enjoyed spending time with these characters so much that I felt like if updates of their lives were delivered in serial form, I would keep on reading. Perry’s a really gifted writer, and I’m looking to all of his future books. Fans of Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby and Tom Perrotta will find Perry belongs right in their ranks.


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