Manhattan Beach (And Also, Sort of, Mostly, A Visit from the Goon Squad) by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan can do no wrong for me.

I read A Visit From the Goon Squad when it first came out and absolutely loved it. As well as just being an outstandingly written and engaging book, it struck a really specific chord with me. I was in a weird, complicated place in my life at the time. I had already come out of the closet, but was still wrestling with the idea of being gay, the fact of it. I’d admitted it to myself, I’d let people know about it (I’d sort of gotten to the point where hiding it was not an option anymore), but I was having a hard time acting on it. I didn’t know what to do or how to be and I was still struggling with a little internalized homophobia. I wanted to sleep with men, but I didn’t want to be the type of man that slept with men (which, trust me, I know how fucked up and wrong that is. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that I had swallowed some of the mild, background homophobia of the environment that I grew up in, and even longer to purge that vile shit from my system).

So anyways, I was in this weird and vulnerable place, thinking that nobody in the world understands me or where I’m coming from, that yeah there are lots of gay people out there, even lots of gay people in conflict with themselves, but I’m some specific and unique type of person that, in the entire history of angsty as fuck semi-adults, has never ever existed before. And then I read this book, and there’s a character in it who’s struggling with himself a lot, uncomfortable and unhappy in his own skin, and it mostly has to do with the fact that he’s gay and not allowing himself to act on it. We weren’t exactly the same (he was some highschool football jock and I was suuuuuper not that), but I saw a lot of myself in that character, in the way he pulled against himself and tore himself up trying to avoid something that he, deep down, didn’t really want to avoid. It was a relatively small portion of the book, but Egan fucking nailed it. It’s such a specific feeling, being pulled, both against and not against your will, towards a version of yourself that you’re afraid of becoming, that you want to become, that you know you can’t avoid. I have such respect for her as a writer, for her insight, because of it. It gets the highest compliment that I can give a novel: I read this book and I felt less alone.

Now! Manhattan Beach didn’t have quite the impact on me that A Visit From the Goon Squad did (it’s hard to imagine how it could), but that has less to do with the writing and more to do with the subject, I think. She still has her sharp insight, her craftsmanship when it comes to specific and engaging characters, who not only seem like real people, but feel like them. And I did dig the setting and the subject a lot, women workers during the second World War, diving, gangsters, merchant seaman, the pressures and consequences of social expectation during that period of time. All those things are super awesome and interesting, and she tells them really well. I may not have connected with the characters in that same way I did in her previous novel, but that’s not really surprising. I’m not a gangster, I’m not a father who abandoned his family, and I’m definitely not a woman pushing against a society that is set up not to trust or respect me. The commonality that I had with these characters was more in a “we’re all human beings” sort of way, rather than anything specific. Still, Egan is a master of her craft and I got wrapped up in these people, absorbed by them. This isn’t a little book, somewhere around 450 pages, but I shot through it in two or three sittings and, even though I really liked the ending, was disappointed when it was done. I liked these people (most of them anyways), liked learning about and being around them. I was sad to see them go.

Anywho, all of this is to say that this wasn’t my favourite of Egan’s books, but I still loved the pants off it, and it was a damned sight better than I’d expect from most other authors.

Recommended for anybody who’s looking for historical fiction rooted deeply in the lives of the people of the period, those who want finely crafted character studies, and anybody with an interest in World War II era underwater welding, but that (like me) doesn’t really want to spend that much time on the war itself.

VBR

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Everfair by Nisi Shawl

Good day my beautiful peoples!

I’ve been writing a lot over the last little bit, but I feel like I haven’t checked in enough with you lately. How are you? How’s your life? What’s new?

*Insert what’s new and/or what’s happening in your life here*

REALLY?!

(Select appropriate response from the following)

1) How dare they!

2) Go on and get it girl!

3) That’s fucking disgusting

4) Congratulations!

5) I know I’m not your mom or whatever, but I really think you should stop reading this and go see a doctor.

Whew! What a rollercoaster. Now on to the book!

I have some mixed feelings about this one.

First off, the setting and world building really worked for me. I’ve always been a fan of books that are set in really specific and underutilized (at least in the fiction that I’ve been reading) times/places and Shawl really hooked me with this one. It probably didn’t hurt that the history/social studies curriculum at my highschool was fucking gaaaaarrrrrrrbage (we basically did four consecutive years of in depth study about Canada’s contribution to the second world war) so I went into this book pig-ignorant about the Congo and all the terrible things the Belgians did there. I had a very slight idea about the horrors of the rubber industry at this point in history (thanks to David Grann’s amazing The Lost City of Z), but I wasn’t aware that the Congo was a part of that, and I had no idea the depth of the damage done to the region. Learning about the Congo (sort of, I know this isn’t a historically accurate depiction) really fascinated me and it hooked me enough that I’m currently in the market for a nonfiction history of the area (holler at me if you have any recommendations).

Unfortunately, everything else just didn’t really hit it for me. I respect the ambition of the story, it’s sprawling and huge and complicated, but I never felt overly invested in it. Part of that probably has to do with the writing, which I found a little stiff (to be fair there were moments of lyricism and beauty, though few and far between), and obviously the structure didn’t help (the chapters were told in short bursts that hopped perspectives and significant portions of time, never really allowing you to sink into or get familiar with any individual characters POV) but I think most of it had to do with the characters themselves. I never really found one I could invest in, never really connected with or cared about any of the people in this, and because of that I just felt removed and uninvolved in the story in a way that left me feeling pretty unsatisfied with it as a whole.

Listen, the concept of this was great (building a steam-punky utopian society based on moral ideals in the middle of colonial Africa is just…such a good idea. Seriously, Nisi, A++), but I think I just ended up wanting to like this a lot more than I actually liked it. I respected it, but, if I’m being honest, I didn’t really enjoy reading it. SO! If you’re planning on giving this one a go, keep that in mind.

Anywhooooodle, happy reading!

VBR

 

 

 

By Gaslight by Steven Price

I bought this book on a bit of a lark. A friend of mine and I were doing our bi-weekly bookstore walk-through and the cover and name caught my eye. I am, and have always been, a sucker for a pulpy, steam-punky (the aesthetic, not all the gross pro-British empire stuff) historical thriller. When I read the back though, it sounded kind of ridiculous. The names alone-an impossible to catch, ghostly thief by the name of Shade, a love-sick dumby named Foole (because he’s a fool for love? Get it? GET IT?), a detective named Pinkerton (my vote would have been for Shurlock Murdersolver, but that’s just me)-seemed cheesy enough to give this one a miss. But I was in the mood for something cheesy and dramatic, so I picked it up anyway.

I did not get the book I was expecting.

This novel was incredible. Introspective, complicated, surprising, and stunningly written (for real though, some of the best writing I’ve come across this year. There was a blurb on the front comparing it to Cormac McCarthy and they weren’t wrong), it wasn’t anywhere near the pulpy crime drama that I was expecting. There was still some of that, some drama, some crime, some pulp, but none of it was cheesy or overblown. It, like the rest of the novel, was measured and perfectly paced, just enough to hook and keep your interest.

Which is a good thing, because this puppy is loooong. At around 750 pages, this book is a brick, and a lot of that is atmospheric description and character study. I loved it, but I can see why some people might have a difficult time with it. So, if you’re looking for something light and easy and quick, be forewarned, this is not the book. But if you’re in the market for a dark, historical fiction about human relationships, revenge, and obsession, you came to the right place.

Dig in, my lovelies.

VBR

The Magpie Lord by K.J. Charles

Ear muffs kittens (eye muffs?), this review is gonna be explicit.

So…this book was the fucking best.

Before I get into the review, I’m going to admit something kind of shitty about myself. I’ve always looked down on romance novels. I know, I know, I suck. And the better parts of me have always known how unfair it is. It’s an entire genre (a massive one, with the biggest numbers in all of publishing) and just like any other genre it’s written by a diverse cast of people, with a wide range of ability, producing both good and bad work. Besides that, there’s nothing inherently wrong with just writing fun, sexy stories (and I know that not all of them are fun and fluffy). Fun is great! Sex is the best! Both are really charming, amazing parts of being a human. It’s the last remaining aspect of my shitty, literary snob teenage self that I’ve never really been able to shake. I wouldn’t judge other people for reading it (even at my snootiest I’ve always been a “find your fun where you can” sort of dude), but I always just assumed that it wasn’t for me.

Until this. fucking. book.

Holy shit it was the best. What have I been doing with my time? How can I justify the basically thirty years that I’ve spent not reading stuff like this? Well…maybe I should give myself a pass for the first dozen or so years, because I really don’t think preteens should be chomping down on this particular type of treat. I mean, if it’s your kid, obviously leave it up to your own discretion, but there’s a lot of violence and people telling each other they’re gonna fuck them in this so…take that into consideration.

With that that in mind though, I read A Game of Thrones when I was a wee little baby and I would rate that as wayyyyy more explicit than this. Like, maybe a hundred times more. Because, yes, there’s violence and sex in this. People suffer, people die. But it’s…different here. Kinder, if that makes sense. This book never treats people like they’re insignificant or disposable. And the sex here is all adult, all reciprocal and non-familial, with no sexual violence whatsoever. In fact, this book has a continual and very specific message about consent, one that it reinforces again and again. The characters aren’t perfect, and they (one of them in particular) does make a pretty severe misstep, but I thought it was handled really well. I was even more impressed with the way it was handled within the context of a dominant and submissive style relationship. The dominant one acted, you know, dominant, but backed off immediately whenever he felt like the other person wasn’t enjoying themselves or wasn’t getting what they wanted. Unlike some other really big name books about this style of sexual relationship, this felt like it was written by someone from within this community, somebody that understands that dominant/submissive isn’t synonymous with abuser/abused. I loved it.

Okay, so I’m going to cut it off here. I could spend all afternoon writing about how great it was to finally read a book about two male characters having a romance where neither of them was a weird, overblown stereotype, or about how cool the magic system was, or how well fleshed out the world, but…I dunno, just read it yourself. It’s so good!

For anybody who likes their magic systems gritty and bloody and grounded, their romances vibrant and gay as hell, and who’s not afraid of the genre modifier historical-supernatural-mystery-gay-romance (or maybe gay-romance-supernatural-historical-mystery?).

VBR

Ps. When I wrote this post this morning I had absolutely no idea it was National Coming Out Day in the states. What a coinkydink! Happy Coming Out Day fellow queers! Do something extra-especially gay for me today 🙂

 

 

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

What a fun, light little gem of a Western.

I’m not really sure where my deep and abiding love of the genre comes from. I didn’t read any as a kid and basically refused to watch the old John Wayne (or should I say, Marion Mitchell Morrison) movies, though I had a few friends who were obsessed with them (I was a picky kid with weird tastes and didn’t like the look of anything old fashioned). But as an adult, there’s few things I like to lose myself in more.

There’s something about the aesthetic, the setting, the very bad bad guys and the reluctant, also sort of bad good guys, that really tickles me. There’s also something in the atmosphere of constant hardship in Westerns. Most books have struggle in them, but there’s something about the griminess and the poverty and the lack of technology that I find really appealing. People don’t have magic, or gadgets that might as well be, to solve their problems. There’s no super powers. In order to overcome their obstacles they have to think around them, and that’s something that always, always appeals to me.

This is a really solid example of that. The main characters are a crotchety old man and the stubborn, clever, brave young girl he’s reluctantly convinced to help. If that sounds a little True Grit-y to you, well, it is, sort of. But it’s also different. The mission at the centre of the story is a little more…morally complicated than in the Portis classic, and one that I found more interesting than simple revenge (though I am a sucker for a plain old revenge story).

I don’t normally do story details, but this one is a bit hard to talk about without some reference points. The young woman he’s ferrying across the country had been captured by Native Americans at a young age and raised among them as one of their own. For all she knows and believes, she’s a part of their tribe. When she’s “rescued” by the settlers in the region and sent with Captain Kidd to live among relations she doesn’t really remember, she feels like she’s been stolen from her family. She fights and tries to escape and wants to go back. That’s a complicated, twisty, interesting idea, and my only real complaint about the novel is that it doesn’t follow that thread all the way down. That moral tangle is the centre of her book, and she touches on it and there’s a conclusion to it, sort of, but…I guess it just never really got there for me. I still enjoyed it, a bunch, but I felt like some parts of it were left a little unresolved.

Recommended for people who like historical fiction, Westerns, and prickly, but loveable, old men.

VBR

 

Ps. I have an itch I need scratched by somebody with some gun know-how. There was one action scene in the novel where the characters used their wits and some dimes to get themselves out of trouble and I bought it at the time, but thinking back on that…is that how that would work? I know nooooothing about guns and if any of ya have any smarts in that department, I’d appreciate the clarification. Thanks in advance! 🙂

The North Water by Ian McGuire

I am such a sucker for a period piece. Even more of a sucker for one set in this particularly grimy, shitty period of English/European history. Even, even more of a sucker for a period piece about a weirdly specific industry that doesn’t exist anymore. Now, to be fair, this book isn’t exactly a deep dive into the whaling world (which, despite my love of learning anything and everything history, even the horrifying stuff, I’m a little thankful for. Whaling was fucking brutal. Have you ever read anything about whaling? I love whales, so maybe I’m more sensitive than your average Joe, but the sheer volume of animals that industry killed makes me a little sick to my stomach. The whaling boom didn’t last a terribly long time, some places that I read guesstimate it at about a hundred or so years, but it almost completely wiped whales out. Their populations have never recovered) but just having it as a backdrop to the story hooked me.

But really, this story could have been told anywhere, at any time. As much as I like the setting, and as much as it fits and helps to facilitate the plot, it’s not what this book is about. The real nugget at the centre of this novel is McGuire’s interest in the darkest parts of the human animal-what it is we want, why we want it, the things we’re willing to do to others to get it.

And boy howdy does he ever have a low opinion of us. This book is dark. While there are good people doing good things (our friend the doctor is a nominally nice guy…sometimes…sort of), the characters are mostly bad men motivated by base desires.

He outlines his ideas about men, as little more than beasts (though I do think he offers a good argument, several times throughout the book, that we can be better), through the two main antagonists of the story, Drax and (I guess spoiler? Eventually I’m just going to stop putting these in my reviews and just write whatever I want. Listen, whenever you read a review of something on my page from this point forward, just assume that it’s probably going to have a spoiler or two in it, but that I won’t ruin the major conflicts at the heart of the story for you. Okay? Okay) Baxter. While on the outside these two seem pretty different, beneath that they share the same dark, selfish motivations.

Henry Drax is all id, all desire, but of the emptiest, bleakest sort. He wants things, craves them, but he feels no passion for them. When he gets an urge, he uses whatever means necessary to satisfy that urge, and then he moves on, unhindered by the experience, unchanged by it. There never seems to be any enjoyment of a thing, any pleasure, and he never thinks about the morality behind his actions. In fact, he even states in the book that he thinks that morality in and of itself is pointless, just something that men like us use to impose our will on men like him. He’s the perfect brute, stripped of any feelings of obligation to the social contract. Like every dangerous, aggressive animal, he’s all surface, no depth.

Baxter, the secondary antagonist, is more complicated, more conniving, but ultimately the same. At the observable level he’s a gentleman, clean and wealthy and law-abiding. He plays the game, abiding by society’s rules on the surface, even using them to his advantage. But beneath all that, he’s the same type of animal as the first. His desires differ (money, status, power), but his willingness to do anything to get them is the same. Drax is meant to be the more monstrous of the two, a vomit-streaked and blood-soaked child murderer, his crimes all violent and committed by hand, up close. But, if you crunch the numbers, Baxter has the much higher body count by the end of the book, and seems just as unbothered by it.

All of that is just a really long, roundabout way of saying that I thought this book was great (and I didn’t even get to really talk about the main character! He was so good! Sympathetic and genuinely decent, but a bit of a fuck up nonetheless. At times a good person, other times a little pathetic and selfish and shortsighted). It was dark and bleak, but not completely despairing (again, there are good people doing good things just for the sake of doing them). The writing was beautiful, the characters were complicated and interesting, and the story was gripping as hell. One of my favourite reads of the year so far.

As always, with love,

VBR

The Hunters by James Salter

You guys! This book! Agh! Have you ever read the review equivalent of a long, overly tonguey french kiss? Cause if not, strap in.
This one really snuck up on me. I started out not entirely sure how I felt about it. I’m not a huge fan of war novels and I don’t give a shit about airplanes or fighter pilots. I only picked this one up because people I respect had said good things about it, but I wasn’t expecting much. I’m so glad I did.
Holy shit can this James Salter dude write. His ability to slowly build the tension, pulling me in bit by bit by bit, was unreal. I ended up so invested, so nervous for the main character, that I couldn’t stand to put the book down. I gulped down the last half of the novel in one big, greedy, tense sitting.
I’m not really going to say anything else about the story, I haven’t really said much at all, because that’s not really what I do. There are plenty of synopses out there that you can get, if that’s your thing. What I will say though is this: this book is worth your money and your time. It’s better written, deeper, more insightful, than I was expecting, and it manages all those things while still being a teeth-on-edge war story (I can definitively say that this is the only time that I’ve ever been invested in an action scene involving fighter planes, in any medium, movies included. That’s how good the writing is in this).
A hell of a book.

Yours forever and always,

VBR

Cold Mountain By Charles Frazier

I mentioned this one in a previous post, so this is going to be even quicker than the other two.

I’ve always been a sucker for an odyssey style story. I love the odd encounters and the obstacles and the straight up “he/she is here, he/she needs to get here” plots. While this is a pretty fucking bleak example of that, about one of the bleakest I’ve ever read (and yes, I’ve read The Road) I never felt dragged down by it. I was always entertained and engaged. It may have been dark, but it was never boring or drab. And even in the parts that were the hardest, either the most violent or the driest, I found that my love of the characters was enough to pull me through and keep me invested in whether or not they make it. I also have a real, genuine love for the sections of a novel that are just about work: people figuring out certain aspects of work and, eventually, getting good enough at it to start to see the fruits of their labour. I have no idea why that kind of stuff gives my brain such a boner, but I eat that shit like cake and this book has it in spades. Tough-ass ladies learning to run a farm and take care of their own shit should be a sub-genre of book, because I would buy Every. Single. One of them.

Anyways, this book is beautiful, brutal, and often oddly quiet. If your tastes run to the dark and contemplative, you should give it a read.

VBR

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