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Preview: jasonpettus's reviews from LibraryThing

jasonpettus's reviews from LibraryThing



jasonpettus's reviews from LibraryThing



 



Sip by Brian Allen Carr

Tue, 12 Sep 2017 18:33:44 -0400

(image) jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] Of all the kinds of bizarro novels that one can write, Brian Allen Carr's Sip is an example of my favorite kind, because it has an actual three-act plot that goes from a recognizable beginning to middle to end, unlike so many other bizarro books that are essentially written-out versions of cartoons, just one random outlandish vision strung after another with no narrative thread holding them together. That said, though, I still found myself with a short tolerance for Carr's manuscript, one of those kinds of books that's much more interested in being poetic than in telling a truly great story. The central premise is that one day the human race wakes up to discover that they can now not only "drink shadows," but that it produces a better high than any other drug yet invented; the narcotic mania swiftly becomes a global panic and then apocalypse, destroying civilized society as out-of-control addicts knock out power grids and enslave entire populations in order to chase the purest high possible, the shadows of humans as given off by the light of the moon. Our story, then, takes place 150 years later, in an America that's now been transformed into a kind of post-apocalyptic "working wasteland;" as we follow the misadventures of the teenage Mira (who now has a psychic connection to forest animals from all the shadow-bits she's stolen from them), her addict friend Murk, and a man named Bale who has recently been exiled from the safe but harshly regimented domed cities that dot the landscape, where diffuse lights from all directions produce no shadows at all. It's certainly not bad as far as all this stuff goes, with prose that resembles Cormac McCarthy in its rough-edged poetry; but with a storyline that floats this much out in the ether of beautifully strange unbelievability, it's hard to stay attached to any of the characters or care much about what happens to them, knowing as we do with these kinds of stories that there's always a random chance of a magic fairy floating in and making everything right again. A book more to be experienced than read in a traditional sense, your enjoyment of Sip will depend directly on how much you can align your mindset with Carr's when he was writing it, destined to be a wonderfully delicate surprise for some and a head-scratching disappointment for others. Out of 10: 8.0, or 9.0 for fans of extra-literary bizarro fiction"



Bibliophilia by N. John Hall

Tue, 05 Sep 2017 15:44:07 -0400

(image) jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] N. John Hall's Bibliophilia is a book you can scarcely believe even exists, by which I mean that someone actually took the time, trouble and money to publish, under the assumption that other human beings would actually want to buy a copy. An "epistolary" novel (that is, one that entirely consists of letters back and forth between people), it's the story of a fussy sixty-something New Yorker luddite who recently came into a large amount of money, and has decided for the first time to start collecting books; the entire rest of the book, then, is essentially a series of emails back and forth between him and the equally fussy luddites who are giving him advice about what kinds of books to buy, the "novel" containing not even a bit of a three-act plot but rather existing as a cleverly presented textbook about the finer points of book collecting, the early history of The New Yorker magazine and the Modernist writers who were published in it, a detailed guide to how the publishing of novels changed in the 1800s from the three-volume standard to the monthly serials invented by Charles Dickens, and all kinds of other erudite little mini-Wikipedia entries that make you think, "Is there anyone out there who would actually want to sit down and read a book like this?" The irony, of course, is that I actually kind of loved it, because I'm a rare-book collector myself; but even my tolerance was stretched thin by this manuscript that barely qualifies as a narrative novel, a tolerance that I suspect will be completely shattered among anyone who's not an obsessive collector of rare books, i.e. the 95 percent of the population besides me and my little nerdy friends. It's for that reason that I can't in good conscience give this book a high score -- I mean, seriously, don't even bother picking this up if you're not into 5,000-word essays about Harold Ross or the McBride Guide to First Editions -- but do be aware that it's a curiously charming little book for those who are into those subjects, a rare fiction title from a celebrated academe that feels almost like the result of a bet that he couldn't get a book like this published. You've been warned! Out of 10: 7.0, but 9.5 for collectors of rare books"



The Readymade Thief by Augustus Rose

Wed, 30 Aug 2017 14:04:54 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] The most heartbreaking thing about screenwriter Augustus Rose's disappointing debut novel, The Readymade Thief, is precisely that it's so good during its first half, a slow-burning character-heavy mystery story with just the lightest of supernatural elements, and that wisely takes its time in letting us get to know its complex, imminently rootable hero. To be specific, that would be teen runaway Lee Cuddy, whose compulsive need for approval led to her being her local high school's resident drug dealer; when a deal goes bad and she randomly finds herself with a chance to break out of juvenile detention, she ends up in the community of street punks in the Philadelphia underground, where she ends up stumbling across a shadowy organization known as the Societe Anonyme, producers of an exclusive monthly "rave to die for" in the city and who are obsessed with the Modernist artist Marcel Duchamp. Do they have something to do with the rash of burned-out teens cropping up in the city, fried on a new type of designer drug and whose eyes have expanded into the size of anime characters? It's those kinds of questions that had me so intrigued and invested during the first half of the book. So how profoundly disappointing, then, to get to the second half and see it turn into such a scene-for-scene ripoff of The Da Vinci Code that Dan Brown has a viable claim for a plagiarism lawsuit; only instead of Brown's conceit that Da Vinci left clues in his paintings that show that Jesus had a kid with Mary Magdalene (if that's still a spoiler to you, you deserve at this point to have that spoiled), Rose's premise is that Duchamp left clues in his various absurd Dadaist and Surrealist pieces that indicate that he knew the solution to the unified field theory, quantum mechanics, and how to access the fabled eleven dimensions that modern theoretical physicists insist exist all around us. That's the point when I found myself throwing my hands in the air and angrily sighing, because that's the point where it felt like Rose had written half of a great literary novel and then suddenly remembered, "Oh, right, I eventually need to sell the movie rights to this sucker!," throwing himself feet-first into the most hackneyed stereotypical cheese he could possibly dream up; it's at that point that the plot suddenly becomes outrageous, the conspiracy theories are cranked up to 11, all the new characters suddenly become cardboard cutouts, and the technology that drives it all becomes laughably implausible. (His explanation of how Tor onion sites work has all the credibility of Sandra Bullock's The Net; and his assertion that the members of a 4chan-like troll community would suddenly turn into the Goonies in the face of one of their members being murdered is exactly the kind of groan-inducing concept that makes me immediately think of some Paramount executive lighting a cigar after a thousand-dollar pitch dinner and boisterously shouting, "That's gold, Augustus, PURE HOLLYWOOD GOLD!!!") Rose should've stuck with his instincts and completed this novel with the poise and restraint he admirably shows in the first half; because by embracing his hacky screenwriter side for the last half, he not only invalidates everything that came before, he makes readers feel like fools for buying into it in the first place. (And yes, I'm aware of the response that fans of the book will have to a statement like this; see SPOILER SPACE below for more.) A book even more disappointing than if it had simply been terrible, it unfortunately does not come recommended today. Out of 10: Usually 7.0, but dropped to 5.5 for its bait-and-switch nature SPOILER SPACE: DO NOT READ BELOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW HOW[...]



Gather the Daughters: A Novel by Jennie Melamed

Wed, 30 Aug 2017 13:42:51 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] I know it's mostly my fault for having a mediocre reaction to the mostly loved Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed; and that's because I read too many of these kinds of books during the Bush administration in the early-aughts, novels that posit in one way or another that an American apocalypse would for some reason bring about a new national society of Amish people, a subject that was used so many hundreds of times between 9/11 and Obama's presidency that I even came up with a term back then, "Bushist literature," to describe the phenomenon. Gather the Daughters is yet another one of these, and unfortunately doesn't do too much to set itself apart from the others; a sort of mashup of The Handmaid's Tale, Lord of the Flies, The Village, and James Howard Kunstler's Bushism ur-example World Made By Hand, its central premise is that a group of Westboro-like extreme conservative Christians manage to take over a private island just before the US is blown into smithereens, and in the resulting generations of being left alone have formed an insular society that is King James Bible meets complete patriarchy meets the Taliban, in which the women-folk exist entirely and exclusively to poop out babies and please the man they've been assigned to, and are then encouraged to commit suicide once they hit menopause. I'm not opposed to these kinds of stories per se -- almost 35 years later, The Handmaid's Tale is still rightly being read and loved by millions of new people every single year -- but if in the 2010s you're going to take on a story trope that's been done so many times already by now, you better either bring something new to the table or do the expected extremely well; and unfortunately Melamed does neither of these things, turning in a manuscript that often sounds like the following made-up example, not an actual quote from the book but that might as well be... Today in the wastelands I came across a Sacred Parchment by the prophet Roxane Gay; but Blessed Father informed me that she is a Harlot of Evil, and that I should ignore her wicked lessons on Female Empowerment and Thinking For Yourself. I of course slightly exaggerate for humorous effect; but Melamed's real prose actually sounds suspiciously like this jokey example, an overwrought and too-obvious style that sounds at all times like everyone is constantly talking in Capitalized Words about Things You And I Take For Granted but that have taken on Ironically Mythic Proportions For The Sake Of Easy Metaphor among their crypto-Shaker society of calico skirts and butter-churning. That unfortunately is not enough to elevate this book above the literally dozens of better examples from just the last 15 years of contemporary publishing; and while Melamed's heart is absolutely in the right place, that doesn't stop Gather the Daughters from being a bit of a hackneyed mess. Certainly worth your time if you've never read these kinds of books before -- from all the glowing reviews at Goodreads.com, it's obvious that most people who read it liked it profoundly more than me -- you're nonetheless bound to be disappointed if you're already a fan and heavy reader of apocalyptic fiction, especially from urban liberal authors who are trying to make a political point about how backwards rural conservatives are. As an urban liberal myself, I agree with that sentiment, but that doesn't mean I want to sit through 300 pages of "thee"s and "thou"s to be lectured on something I already know. Buyer beware. Out of 10: 7.3"[...]



Since We Fell: A Novel by Dennis Lehane

Tue, 22 Aug 2017 17:17:21 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] If you were to hold a contest to find The Most Underrated Commercial Author Who's Sneakily Actually A Pretty Great Literary One, certainly Dennis Lehane would be on the shortlist, a Boston native and graduate of Florida's prestigious Eckerd College whose string of crossover popular/critical hits include such Hollywood blockbusters as Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island (and who in fact now lives in southern California himself, where he's been a staff writer on such critically lauded shows as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, and regularly plays himself on the metafictional crime-novelist action-comedy TV show Castle). And this streak continues with his newest, Since We Fell released just a few months ago, which technically is an action-packed crime thriller (and make no mistake, that's not "crime thriller*" with an MFA asterisk), but that is set up and reads at many points like a slow-burning literary character study instead, one that wouldn't be out of place sitting next to books by Joyce Carol Oates or Doris Lessing. And I specifically mention those female-oriented novelists, of course, because this is famously Lehane's first-ever book to feature a female protagonist, from an author who got famous writing about a series of blue-collar white male tough guys from poor neighborhoods on the Eastern Seaboard, but who Lehane has publicly talked about "no longer connecting with" now that he's a rich and famous middle-aged celebrity out in Los Angeles. Switching to this new kind of hero has turned out to be a smart move for him, because Lehane has been able here to take all the push-pull between toughness and tenderness that's marked his earlier novels, and apply it again but to a situation that's the opposite from previous audience expectations, here presenting a woman who's as hard and unrelenting as any of his male protagonists but whose softer and more complex side works particularly well within the realm of literary fiction. Specifically, it's the story of Rachel Childs, whose tale wanders and meanders for the entire first two-thirds of the page count before we even get to the thriller setup that so strongly defines the last third. The daughter of an equally complicated woman, a once-famous but now faded '70s self-help author who's turned into a manipulative but genteel alcoholic in old age, the main issue propelling the first two-thirds of the book is the mystery over Rachel's long-fled biological father, and the equal mystery of why Rachel's mother refuses to divulge even the tiniest little clue about his identity, even taking the mystery to the grave which sets Rachel on an obsessive quest in her twenties for the answers. And indeed, it's tempting to call this book a bait-and-switch when we finally get to the last third, and learn that the main crime-thriller storyline actually has not a single thing to do with anything that happened in the first two-thirds, at least when it comes to the literal plot elements not aligning together between the two sections in any way. But that's why I call this a sneakily literary character drama, because what the first two-thirds of this novel does is give us an ultra-deep, ultra-complicated look at Rachel, what makes her tick, and what things have happened in her life all the way up to this point that makes her tick in the way she does; and all of that, from the trust issues to the bad relationships, her time as an investigative reporter in developing nations undergoing revolutions, her panic attacks and eventual time as a shut-in, gives us a richly dense sense of why she behaves as she does when the traditional genre part o[...]



Pedal by Chelsea Rooney

Tue, 22 Aug 2017 16:59:31 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] So let's just acknowledge right off the bat that it takes a writer of superior skill to even attempt to pull off what Canadian author Chelsea Rooney so successfully does here in her debut novel Pedal, first published in 2015 but that was just acquired by my local library about six months ago; namely, it's a thoughtful and nuanced look at the inherently tricky subject of sex between adults and children, one that deliberately avoids terms like "abuse" and "victims" in order to do a much more complicated examination of where exactly the line lays between willing and unwilling participants, and whether it's possible for these kinds of incidents to ever not result in some kind of trauma in a child as they grow older. That's a giant can of worms for any author to open up -- sheesh, I'm a bit nervous even publishing a review of a book like this -- but to save you the suspense, Rooney here is successful at it, delivering a fascinating character-based story that both acknowledges the reality of what happens in most cases of sex between a minor and a non-minor, but also opens up the possibility that not 100 percent of all cases are the same, and that even when there is cause for alarm (as is almost always the case), these situations are often exploited by medical professionals looking to sell more drugs, to come to tidy conclusions so to get patients off the books, and other various issues that have nothing to do with the act at the center of the controversy. A self-described semi-autobiographical novel, in it we follow the misadventures of 25-year-old Vancouver slacker Julia, a grad student who drinks too much, does too many drugs, and can't seem to stay in a relationship long enough to even be bothered by its breakup. She's doing her thesis on the question of whether there are adult "survivors" (another term she consciously chooses not to use) of childhood sexual experiences, who look back now and don't consider what they went through to be particularly harmful or to have caused any particular lasting bad effects, exactly the way she herself feels about her own experiences with childhood sexuality, having been fondled on a regular basis by her father before he finally left the family when she was a teen, never to be seen again. Needless to say, the research project makes every other person in her life extremely uncomfortable, from her current boyfriend to her sister (who was also molested as a child by their father, but in a rougher and more violent way that definitely did leave scars), to her horrified academic adviser who originally thought the focus of her thesis was going to be on the prevalence of psychiatrists to falsely diagnose such victims and to overmedicate them. It's essentially become the main focus of Julia's life at the point where we join her, rapidly starting to turn obsessive, which she often uses as a way to ignore the fact that nearly all other aspects of her life these days are turning into a complete trainwreck. The plot itself goes into odder and more unexpected directions starting from there, which I'll let remain a surprise so to not spoil things for you; but the main point to make is that Rooney successfully treads a very fine line in this novel, crawling right up to the unacceptable edge of "edgy indie lit" and then redeeming herself while backing away a bit, then edging up again before pulling back some more. As simply a character study it's fantastic, the kind of deep dive into a messy and complex woman that fans of MFA literature love the most about contemporary novels; but there's also a lot going on, in terms of the story structure and what happens to everyone involved along t[...]



The Anubis Gates (Ace Science Fiction) by Tim Powers

Tue, 22 Aug 2017 16:45:32 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] Recently I was cleaning out some back folders on my hard drive and came across an old file named "Writers I Should Really Get Around to Reading the Complete Works of Before I Die;" and one of the people on that list was Tim Powers, whose genre-hybrid works span across the traditional lines of science-fiction, fantasy, horror and the occult to deliver truly unique stories that make a lasting impression, which is what makes him one of the most cultishly beloved writers in the entire industry right now. (Genre fans will probably best know his "Fault Lines" trilogy from the 1990s, a contemporary story about the "secret history" of magic in southern California; non-fans will probably be most familiar with a supernatural pirate novel he wrote in 1987 called On Stranger Tides, which twenty years later was adapted into the fourth "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie, to almost no one's satisfaction.) Although not his first-ever book (that would be the 1976 traditional sci-fi tale The Skies Discrowned, which I'm reading next), the novel of his that I most recently took on was the first to get him a lot of attention, 1983's The Anubis Gates which won that year's Philip K. Dick Award and was nominated for the Locus and BSFA. Like many of his books, Anubis posits that there were a whole series of hidden supernatural things going on that explain the gaps in real history from various famous moments in time that we know of; here, for example, that the birth of Romanticism in the early 1800s coincided with a group of Egypt-worshipping occultists who could do actual real magic, and that their unsuccessful attempt to bring back the pagan god Anubis from the dead resulted in ripping open a series of holes in the fabric of the space-time continuum. Flash-forward to the early 1980s, then, and we see that a Ted-Turner-type ailing billionaire has actually figured out a way to access these space-time holes, has sold a dozen private "time-traveling tickets" for millions of dollars to his rich friends to help fund his research, and has hired an academic expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be essentially a "tour guide" for this group, who are traveling back to 1810 for a night to attend a lecture by this famous poet and opium addict. Needless to say, things go to hell with this plan just as soon as they get there; and our historian hero Brendan Doyle finds himself permanently stuck in 1810 London, where he must learn to fend for himself while trying to track down a way to return to his own time, avoid the occult magicians who now know that a group from the future have traveled back to their time, and learn more about the hidden agenda that made this dying billionaire want to travel back to this specific moment in history in the first place. (Hint -- it has to do with the werewolf-like serial killer who happens to be haunting the back alleys of London's East End at this same time.) Like most of Powers' books, it's a mondo storyline that sometimes gets so weird and scattered that you can't possibly imagine how he's going to tie it all together by the end; but like most of Powers' books, he eventually does, with a kind of finesse and mastery over the three-act plot that makes most people an instant fan once they've read even a single book by him. Powers paints a portrait of early-1800s London here that is so real and concrete-feeling, it seems sometimes like you have literally stepped back in time yourself; and by sticking to the real events and people of this time with the fastidiousness of an academe (one of the other things his books are known for), he delivers not j[...]



Ready Player One: A Novel by Ernest Cline

Wed, 09 Aug 2017 15:26:56 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] With Steven Spielberg's high-profile adaptation set to come out soon, I thought the time was right to finally read Ernest Cline's 2011 Ready Player One, which I had never gotten around to reading (for no particular reason) despite having pretty much every goddamn nerd I've ever met excitedly exclaim, "You haven't read that book yet, Pettus? Oh, you just gotta, you just gotta! You gotta read that book, Pettus! YOU JUST GOTTA, YOU JUST GOTTA READ THAT BOOK!!!" Okay, so I finally have! And the verdict? Eeeehhhhhhhhhhh... It turns out that there's simply not much to Ready Player One besides an endless amount of references to empty 1980s popular culture, plus a vision of virtual reality that Cline stole wholesale from such cyberpunk novels as William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash; eliminate those and you're not left with much else besides a simplistic children's story, with sneering obvious villains and a three-act plot straight out of your community college's "Storywriting 101" class, the entire book written in a cloying "BroSpeak" vernacular that gets increasingly annoying with each passing page. For those who don't know, it's set in a future where America has officially gone to hell, which has driven most of its citizens to spend most of their time in a dazzling VR environment called the OASIS, which has become pretty much the de facto means for accessing the internet despite it still being a privately held company, solely owned by the "Bill Gates Times Ten Thousand" Asperger's poster-child James Halliday. So when Halliday dies, and announces beyond the grave that the first person to solve a puzzle he's hidden within the OASIS will become the heir to his fortune (worth as much as the annual budget of most industrial nations), and that the clues to this puzzle are all based on his nostalgic memories of the '80s movies, music and computer games he voraciously consumed as a lonely antisocial child, suddenly the entire planet becomes obsessed with this time period as well, cleverly letting Cline both have his far-future-technology cake but also eat his pandering "Hey, do you remember THIS thing from the '80s?! How about THIS thing from the '80s?" cake too. That's perhaps the thing I liked least about Ready Player One, which I know is the very thing that many others like the most about it, making it natural that I would have a different reaction to the novel than most others. I just find it the epitome of lazy writing when an author says, "Hey, here's a thing from the past I just mentioned! Do YOU remember this thing from the past I just mentioned? You DO??!! FUCK YEAH, WE BOTH REMEMBER THIS THING FROM THE PAST I JUST MENTIONED!!!!1!!!" Ready Player One is by deliberate invention essentially 300 pages of that, an entire storyline that very self-consciously makes conspicuous nostalgia the engine fueling the entire plot along, to the exclusion of any other well-done aspect of literary storytelling. (Also, Cline sometimes gets this nostalgia wrong, which drove me crazier than anything else; for example, no actual '80s autistic antisocial computer nerd would've been caught dead listening to "burnout bands" like AC/DC and Rush back then, a historical retcon that was totally and completely invented by contemporary tattooed hipsters who want their nerd-cred but their metal bands too.) Still, though, I have to admit that there are many charms to be found in Ready Player O[...]



Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande

Tue, 08 Aug 2017 16:20:48 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] Like a lot of middle-aged children of elderly parents, I find myself these days doing a lot of research for the first time into how to best care for and help my parents as they approach the ends of their lives (a subject now known in the 2010s by the catch-all term "eldercare"), and find myself often feeling overwhelmed by the strange behavior and often contradictory impulses of such people as they reach their end-of-life years. For those like me, then, a fantastic place to start is with Atul Gawande's 2014 Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, which does a better job than anything else I've ever come across at explaining why so many elderly people end up adopting such strange attitudes at their ends of their lives, what in our society and our brains causes these attitudes, and what we can do as the people who love them to both adapt to and fight against these sometimes self-destructive behaviors. And the reason this book is so good is because it never resorts to simplistic explanations, which by definition is going to make it hard to do a write-up today that explains why you should read it; because the answer, according to Gawande, is partly historical, partly sociological, partly biological, and partly psychological. It has to do with the way that eldercare has evolved as a subject in the first place; which, as he astutely shows, actually grew out of the Victorian institution of "poorhouses," which were so terrible that the newly invented "hospitals" of the late 1800s were convinced to start taking in the elderly instead, a big reason why eldercare is still to this day defined mostly through medical-focused terms like the prolonging of life instead of the quality of that prolonged life. And it has to do with elderly people's rightful fear of being thrown into that hospital-based institutional life under which most nursing homes still operate, in which daily routines are as codified and standardized as those of prisoners or soldiers, with all dignity and chances for individual choices stripped away under the noble but misguided cause of being "safer" and "more efficient." (According to Gawande, the three greatest negative factors that affect the elderly are feelings of hopelessness, loneliness and boredom, all three of which can be directly tied to our current institutional model of eldercare.) And it has to do with the way we quantify and justify these kinds of subjects, when it comes to things like laws, grants and government approval: after all, it's much easier to definitively state, "We cured 58 percent of our patients' respiratory illnesses" than, "Our patients are 58 percent happier than when they entered our facility." There are no easy answers to the subject of modern eldercare, and Gawande doesn't try to present any. In fact, one of the most sobering yet interesting points he hammers home, over and over, is that the process of getting to the end of your life is simply the process of the universe taking away more and more of the options you used to have for living your life, an unalterable fact that none of us can get away from; and that the only thing we can do about it is to learn how to gracefully give up the yearning for these lost options, redefine the priorities in our lives under these new terms, and understand how to continue living a life of purpose and self-defined happiness no matter how physically or mentally impaired we might become. That's one of the major problems with 21st-century eldercare, when all is said and done; as Gawande thoroughly and meticul[...]



Permutation City: A Novel by Greg Egan

Tue, 08 Aug 2017 16:07:11 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] There's a running joke throughout Greg Egan's 1994 Permutation City that neatly encapsulates both all the good things and all the bad things about the book in general. Namely, a TV show has recently been created in their day-after-tomorrow world that was specifically designed to sell the just-invented concept of virtual reality to the mouth-breathing masses, a show that's been deliberately dumbed down to make it more palpable to the slack-jawed yokels, in which crazy fantastical things are always happening within a virtual space that doesn't even begin to conform to reality, which for anyone familiar with this period in sci-fi history is very, very clearly Egan poking fun of the other cyberpunk novels of those early-'90s years that got a lot more famous than his, like William Gibson's Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. But in the actual virtual reality that all the smart, rich people in Egan's universe actually do inhabit, the ultimate goal is for the virtual world to match the boring real world as exactly as possible, and the most excited anyone ever gets is when their avatars count out loud from one to ten to check the lag between their time and our own. (Or to quote The Simpsons: "Perfectly level flying is the supreme challenge of the scale model pilot!") That says everything you need to know about about Egan as an author, a "hard" science-fiction writer who is also a working mathematics doctorate holder in his day job, and who has built an award-winning and cultishly popular career writing speculative novels that stick as closely to real science as humanly possible. I think that's great, I want there to be no mistake, and I'm glad that these kinds of books exist for all those science-oriented readers who get frustrated by the "soft" sci-fi books that tend to be the big bestsellers of the genre and have much more of an impact on the general culture. (If you ever want to cause an aneurysm in a hard sci-fi fan, ask them for their opinion on Star Wars.) But that said, hard sci-fi is generally not really my cup of tea -- in fact, I doubt I would've ever read this unless it had been recommended by a new friend of mine in Chicago, fellow hard sci-fi author Jeremy John -- and as a result I found Permutation City to be only a bit above mediocre, with a central premise revolving around quantum mechanics and multidimensional consciousness that might as well have been freaking Hogwarts, as little as I could keep up with the high-level real science being bandied about. Unfortunately for hard sci-fi authors, most of us are never going to consider it a thrilling climax when a group of scientists flip a switch, stare at some dots on a computer screen, perform some calculations, then excitedly declare, "It worked! It worked!," which is why hard sci-fi is fated to always exist on the cultish outskirts of genre literature. And despite his publisher's best efforts to "sex up" this story, through the cyberpunk-looking cover art and a tagline that has absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot ("Ten Million People On A Chip!"), Permutation City falls squarely into hard sci-fi territory, making it easy to see why his "dumbed-down" '90s colleagues like Gibson and Stephenson are now well-loved mainstream figures while Egan is still barely known beyond his core fan base of Larry-Niven-loving convention veterans. It should all be kept in mind before picking up a copy yourself."[...]



How Starbucks Saved My Life: A Son of Privilege Learns to Live Like Everyone Else by Michael Gates Gill

Tue, 08 Aug 2017 15:51:15 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] So let's make no mistake, the only reason Michael Gill's 2007 memoir How Starbucks Saved My Life is even readable in the first place at all is that he is so relentlessly hard on himself throughout; the very definition of a white upper-class corporate-executive douchebag, he plainly admits here that he was essentially a human monster for reacting to getting laid off in his fifties from his cushy ad-agency job (one he got in the early '60s literally because drinking buddies at Yale pulled some strings for him) by having an affair behind his wife's back, accidentally getting his mistress pregnant, then determining that he's going to "do right" by the child, despite having a 100-percent track record of fucking up the relationships with the three existing grown children he already has, and oh yes, not actually having any health insurance and being essentially homeless. That's a lot to swallow in the first 20 pages of a supposed feel-good memoir; and to his credit, writing veteran Gill (son of famed New Yorker writer Brendan Gill) pulls it off, basically by being ceaselessly harsh and unusually clear-eyed about his "pre-barista" life as a neolib one-percenter, the same kind of brutal honesty that inspired him to take a coffee-slinging job at the age of 64 at a Starbucks near Harlem where he was the only white employee (after accidentally attending a hiring fair by the company at one of their Manhattan stores without realizing it, having a young manager ask him as a joke, "I don't suppose you're looking for a job, are you?" and he after a moment admitting with candor, "Actually, I am"). It's what tips this book over into minimal readability, his zeal to not cut himself any breaks for his entitled childhood, his handshake-based former career, and the cavalier way he used to treat everyone in life who wasn't a senior corporate executive like him, best seen in his observations about how he himself immediately became invisible to his former co-workers, literally on the sidewalk sometimes when they would walk by him, the moment he put on a polo shirt and a green apron. Unfortunately, though, that still leaves the book with plenty of problems, among the more major being that he sometimes devotes entire chapters to nothing but a detailed, log-like, minute-by-minute breakdown of what a typical day at Starbucks is actually like for an employee, which is the literary equivalent of watching paint dry and had me skipping over huge portions of the manuscript out of pure tedium. (Also, Gill's infinitely upbeat enthusiasm for the empty StarbucksSpeak handed down from faceless marketing employees at the corporate headquarters ["Partners!" "Guests!" "Venti!"] was enough to make me want to claw out my own eyeballs by about two-thirds of the way through.) It all adds up to an admittedly interesting but still trouble-filled book, one you have to sort of force yourself to like despite the circumstances surrounding the true story, not because of them; and a tale that gets interrupted every time it starts getting good by another reminder of just what a inherent good ol' boy in a good ol' boy network Gill is in, despite him taking a slave-wage job in the service industry. (If you're anything like me, you'll throw your hands in the air in bitter frustration when learning on the last page that Gill managed to get this book optioned to Hollywood for a million dollars, precisely because of all his personal friends from his ad-agency days, and that it currently has Tom Hanks[...]



When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Tue, 08 Aug 2017 15:34:14 -0400

(image) jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] I had fully been expecting Paul Kalanithi's When Breath Becomes Air -- in which a 36-year-old neurosurgeon writes a memoir about his own upcoming death by cancer -- to be a weepy tearjerker; so it's a testament to Kalanithi's writing skills that it's instead a clear-eyed, thought-provoking intellectual treatise about mortality and why humans react to the subject in the ways they do. Then again, it helps that Kalanithi actually acquired degrees in literature and philosophy before going to med school, and in fact only turned to medicine in the first place in a roundabout way; always fascinated by the human mind and in the ways humans interact with each other, he first spent his twenties delving into the arts to find answers to these subjects, only to realize that the true way to satisfy his curiosity was to directly study the biochemistry of the brain itself, putting himself through a grueling ten-year training ordeal that nearly ended his marriage, just to finally graduate and promptly be informed that he had a year left to live. Unfortunately, though, the book isn't very good for the purpose it had been originally been recommended to me; for like most middle-aged children of elderly parents in declining health, I find myself wrestling these days with Big Questions about the end of life, the quality of that life at the end of it, and what the proper way is for both the people at the end of that life and the people around them to react to such developments, and had hoped that this book might shine some light on these weighty issues. Kalanithi's main conclusion about it all, though, is basically, "Impending death is an inherently confusing, horrifying and baffling thing, and I reacted to it with pretty much all the chaos that everyone else does too...although it did help a little bit to start believing in God again." (Also, be aware that the last 25 pages of this 225-page book are written by Kalanithi's wife after his death, sort of summing up what happened once he got too sick to write; and she's a much worse writer, one who regularly wallows in sentimentality like a 22-year-old suburbanite bathing in cheap cologne before a night at the clubs, making a substantial amount of this book's total page count easily skippable altogether.) The reason to read this, then, is as a primer on how to handle impending death with a kind of grace, dignity and thoughtfulness that's rarely seen in people about to die, obviously the main reason the book's become so popular in the year now it's been out; but don't pick it up expecting any kinds of insights on mortality, because Kalanithi has none to give, which obviously is itself a telling statement about whether there actually are any kinds of insights about mortality to share in the first place, but you don't need to read the whole book simply to know that the answer here is "no." But that being said, it's still a really well-done memoir, one that deliberately skips all the easy beats that usually come with this subject in order to deliver something much more intelligent and honest. It comes recommended in that particular spirit. Out of 10: 8.5"



Wilders (Project Earth) by Brenda Cooper

Tue, 08 Aug 2017 15:16:32 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] To be fair, the premise behind Brenda Cooper's new series-starting science-fiction novel Wilders is legitimately pretty great; namely, in a post-ecological-crisis future, the power of nations has fallen apart to be replaced by a return to autonomous city-states, leading to a series of domed socialist paradises comprising former metropolitan areas (our story takes place in "Seacouver," which stretches from Seattle to Vancouver and has scooped up all the smaller cities that laid between), where crime and poverty have been conquered through an army of robots and a pervasive surveillance state. Now these autonomous regions have started venturing back out into rural areas in order to "rewild" them (that is, to remove all the former manmade structures like highways and small towns, leading to a new continental utopia of unspoiled nature dotted here and there by billion-person cities), just to discover that there are way more Tea Party climate-deniers still living out in those areas than they had ever thought, and that they're mighty pissed about the city-slicker libtards abandoning them when everything first went to hell. Unfortunately, though, the problems with the actual novel itself start early and don't let up. For example, although not a direct ripoff of The Hunger Games, the book's details and overall tone are "Hunger-Gamesish" enough that it will make some readers uncomfortable; the pacing leaves a lot to be desired, with the too-few interesting developments surrounded by literally dozens of pages of filler conversations and meandering rides across the countryside, forgivable if they had led to a deeper understanding of the characters but increasingly intolerable as simple page-count-filling cotton candy (the closer to the end of the book you get, the more you'll find yourself skimming through entire chapters); and the book suffers from "Franchise Building Syndrome" too much as well, very nakedly inserting entire subplots and groups of characters that are quite obviously not going to play a serious role until book 2 or 3, making the book often feel like one of those minor superhero movies that exists only to introduce situations that will eventually play out in the "cinematic universe" team-up blockbuster four years from now. The most serious crime this book commits, though, is of being a Young Adult novel being marketed as a book for grown-ups; and as regular readers know, CCLaP has sort of taken this on as a political cause in the last couple of years, the fight against the continual infantilization of the American arts that's been happening more and more since the original rise of Harry Potter, including our new policy of no longer accepting books for review at all when the main character is under 18 and the storyline deals mostly with coming-of-age issues. I went ahead and accepted Wilders because it skates just above that cutoff line -- our hero Coryn is officially college-aged in the book, and the marketing material promised that the story would go in dark, adults-only directions as it continued, which combined with publisher Pyr's good reputation made me optimistic. Unfortunately, though, Cooper sabotages herself by often characterizing the non-minor Coryn not just in Young Adult terms but sometimes even younger than that; the author literally describes the character as someone who "giggles at dogs," thinks she shares a mystical connection with the horse that's been assigned to her out in[...]



Pictures at a revolution : five movies and the birth of the new Hollywood by Mark Harris

Tue, 08 Aug 2017 15:01:46 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "[This was also published at my website, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography.] Over at the film-nerd social network I belong to, Letterboxd.com, one of the tasks in this month's "Movie Scavenger Hunt" is to watch one of the films discussed in Mark Harris' 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution; and I thought this would give me a good excuse to finally read the book itself as well, which I've been wanting to do ever since it came out. An ingenious blend of Hollywood insider tale and legitimate history text, Harris takes the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar -- Bonnie & Clyde, The Graduate, In The Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Dr. Dolittle -- then simply recounts the stories of how all five got made in the years previous, showing the sometimes very different circuitous routes based on what kind of production it was. (Bonnie & Clyde, for example, took three years just to find a financier, because no one in Hollywood thought this bizarre little story full of sex and violence would ever get theatrical distribution, much less past the censors in the Hays Code office; Dr. Dolittle, on the other hand, a desperate last attempt by Hollywood's old guard to have another hit on the level of the recent My Fair Lady, was warmly embraced by the studios from day one, even as its budget eventually swelled to today's equivalent of half a billion dollars, at the same time that test audiences were giving every indication that it would become the massive disaster that it eventually turned out to be.) By stringing all these stories together, then, and especially interspersing their development details based on the chronological order of all five, Harris almost accidentally tells a much grander story about the changing nature of the American arts in general during these years, enfolding a series of related moments that were happening at the same time that helped turn this particular year in film history into a watershed moment that we now know as the birth of "New Hollywood." (In the same years as these movies were being made [1964 to 1967, counting the development periods], Walt Disney also died, the last of the active Warner Brothers retired, the Hays Code was officially abandoned, interracial marriage was decriminalized, the first Hollywood studio was sold to a multinational non-filmmaking corporation, and Esquire published its famous "The New Sophistication" article, which for the first time codified the '60s into THE SIXTIES...not by coincidence written by David Newman and Robert Benton, who also wrote the Bonnie & Clyde screenplay, under the stated goal of making "America's very first French New Wave film.") I had already known a bit about how the New Hollywood paradigm came about in these years; but Pictures of a Revolution lays out the story in all its messy, fascinating detail, all the more remarkable for Harris taking an "inside-out" approach in actually telling the story, painting a much bigger and more sweeping picture merely through the act of describing how these five particular films actually got made. Full of literally hundreds of anecdotes that are just begging to be retold at dinner parties to impress your friends, this is an astute, insightful, yet highly entertainin[...]



Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan

Wed, 14 Jun 2017 14:34:01 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.) In a way it's easy to describe to American audiences the plot of celebrated French author Delphine de Vigan's new book, Based On A True Story; it's essentially an intellectual version of the old B-pic thriller Single White Female, in which a public artist meets and gets along with one of her fans, the fan turns obsessive, and the fan eventually attempts to take over the artist's life, moving into her house and gaining access to her email and eventually even showing up to public events dressed and acting like her. But this gets a lot more complicated and metafictional when it comes to de Vigan's book; for the artist being stalked is her herself, the whole thing written as a true memoir even though it clearly is not, the project inspired by the fact that the last novel de Vigan published, 2011's Rien ne s'oppose à la nuit (Nothing Holds Back the Night), was a semi-autobiographical novel about coping with her real-life mother's bipolar disorder, which made her a mainstream celebrity in France but also garnered her passionate hatred among certain circles for "exploiting" the real-life mental illness of another person for her own personal gain. What True Story is, then, is a meditation on where exactly the slippery line lays between real-life events and made-up details when it comes to the act of a novelist writing a fictional novel, the same subject famously explored in John Irving's The World According to Garp; but instead of doing this the usual dry academic way of writers her type, here she presents it as a supermarket pulp, clearly taking a cue off Paul Auster by weaving herself into this story of fandom gone wrong, even while cleverly presenting the details in a way so that it might turn out that the mysterious "L." is in fact a figment of de Vigan's stressed, overly exhausted, nearly burnt-out imagination. (None of de Vigan's friends ever meet L; she always rents pre-furnished apartments so to leave no trace of herself after leaving; the fake emails she sends out to de Vigan's friends are always in de Vigan's name; the details she tells de Vigan about her personal life turn out to have all been culled from the books in de Vigan's library, etc.) It's a very clever and thought-provoking book, not just an astute examination of the creative process but also a commentary on the times we currently live in, when reality TV and edgy documentaries are all the rage, and more and more of those reality-fans are complaining about "why should they care" about a "bunch of stuff that never happened" when it comes to contemporary fiction. De Vigan clearly has some complicated issues regarding the public reaction to her last book, and also clearly struggled with the question of what to write next, of how one could ever return to fiction after having suffered such a maelstrom of public reaction from a book based mostly on real-life events. This is one of the smartest and most entertaining ways she could've addressed these issues, and should satisfy even her harshest critics that she can still write compelling and dramatic stories even when not relying on the crutch of real life, even while proving that there's still a vital and necessary place in our society for stories about a "bunch of stuff that never happened," that fiction at its best is as moving and teaches as much about[...]



Tacky Goblin by T. Sean Steele

Tue, 13 Jun 2017 12:04:17 -0400

(image) jasonpettus's review: "(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.) It says a lot that in just the few weeks between finishing T. Sean Steele's Tacky Goblin and sitting down to write this review, I had already forgotten nearly everything about it, and had to dig the book back out to remind myself even what it was about; as I've said here before many times, that unfortunately is just the nature of the bizarro genre in which Steele is writing here, which for those who don't know is essentially the act of taking a cartoon and writing it out in literary form. That certainly lets bizarro tales be "original, hilarious and inventive," as author Joe Meno raves about this book in the dust jacket's blurbs; but that also completely obliterates any sense of stakes a bizarro tale might have, with no one ever in danger or peril because you never know when a spaceship full of talking dogs might show up to save everyone, making it nearly impossible to give a damn about any of the characters, what happens to them, or what the ultimate resolution of the story may or may not turn out to be. Even with this attitude, though, for some reason I get sent bizarro novels literally on a weekly basis, so I suppose here I'll sum up the way I always sum up with such books -- not too bad, not too good, definitely clever, but a story you'll forget literally a day after you finish it. Buyer beware. Out of 10: 7.5"



Unreliable: A Novel by Lee Irby

Tue, 13 Jun 2017 11:23:58 -0400

(image) jasonpettus's review: "(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.) The central premise at the heart of Lee Irby's Unreliable is a fascinating one, and led me to believe that this would be one of the few crime thrillers I would actually like, a genre I usually find intolerably formulaic; namely, a failed mystery author and current college professor announces to us on page one that he recently killed his ex-wife, but then immediately follows that up with the confession that he might actually be kidding, promising a metafictional meditation on the act of genre writing and the nature of unreliable narrators, a taut psychological thriller in which we never know whether this guy is messing with us or not until the very end. Unfortunately, though, Irby pulls a pretty big switcheroo as the book continues; for the more we read, the more we realize that this "did he or didn't he kill her" shtick is simply a cheap gimmick designed to draw readers in, but that the story itself is nothing more than a character-based literary dramedy about a deeply flawed middle-aged son visiting his family and old hometown, and all the wacky foibles that happen within such a milieu, having nothing to do with murder whatsoever. That unto itself is not necessarily a terrible thing -- once you get past the premise, the rest reads much like a smart and witty Richard Russo or Michael Chabon tale, benefiting from its deep look at the town of Richmond, Virginia right at a point when it is internally debating the future of the Dixiecrat-era Confederate statues still dotting the city -- but when you were expecting a serious and dramatic crime thriller that doubles as a Postmodernist statement on the act of writing crime thrillers, as its dust jacket unambiguously promises ("Irby plays with the thriller trope in unimaginably clever ways"), the bait-and-switch on display here can't help but to be a big disappointment, not the fault of the author but a problem clearly resting on the shoulders of the Doubleday marketing staff. Now that you know the situation, you'll be able to approach this book with the right mindset and enjoy it a lot more than I did; but do yourself a favor and shed any assumptions you might have about this being an actual crime novel. Out of 10: 6.0, but 8.0 if you ignore the dust jacket"



Death Metal Epic (Book Two: Goat Song Sacrifice) by Dean Swinford

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 12:02:31 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this essay, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted illegally.) It's interesting that I should be dealing with two different sequels this week to two different first novels I also reviewed in the past, because they provide a tidy lesson on the good and bad ways to go about writing such sequels in the first place. For while ST Gulik's Sex, reviewed yesterday, felt as if he had gotten to the last page of its predecessor, Birth, and had just kept on writing the exact same story while his publisher went about the business of printing and releasing the first 200 pages, leading to a book that was hard to get excited about and difficult to write a compelling review for, Dean Swinford's Death Metal Epic Book Two: Goat Song Sacrifice is a sequel much more in the style of how we think of them, transporting our hero into an entirely different location and milieu than in book 1, and raising the stakes as far as both his troubles and the level of success that's in his grasp. To remind you, the first volume is a clever blend of coming-of-age tale and historical record of the death metal scene of the early 1990s, in which we watch our hapless twentysomething hero Azrael stumble through a series of indignities concerning several metal bands in his south Florida hometown, culminating in a poorly funded and ill-fated tour of northern Europe organized by his fly-by-night record company, the novel ending with him running out of money, getting stuck in Belgium, but having become friends with several local death-metal figures who are internationally known and revered among the tiny niche community of fans around the planet (but for more on the real people and events that Swinford is fictionalizing here, see the 1998 journalism book Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind). That's essentially where volume 2 picks up, as "Azrael" (now simply going by his birth name of David Fosberg) decides to stick around Belgium for the time being, joining a new band with worshipped icon (and mom-couch-surfing, possibly autistic) Svart, getting ingratiated into "ground zero" of the international death metal community while struggling with women, learning the local language, and wondering when they'll stop being a band that exists only on paper and actually write their first song. That's really the saving grace of these books, is that they're not just detail-perfect looks back at the '90s death-metal scene but also sneakily grander tales about arrested-development twentysomethings finally maturing into adults (kicking and screaming the entire way, mind you, but still). And that's why book 2 here is a worthy sequel to book 1, because Swinford goes to the trouble of showing David actually growing a little bit and learning something from the endless disasters of the previous volume, becoming a wiser and more skeptical musician who is simultaneously traversing the minefields of DSL (Dutch as a Second Language), dating again after a bad breakup, and renting his first-ever EU apartment. The results are engaging and charming, and inspires you to root strongly for our hero's success; and that makes the book's surprise climax all the more gripping, settin[...]



The Outfit: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels) by Richard Stark

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 12:23:23 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "The best compliment I can give the "Parker" novels by Donald E. Westlake is to admit that they've completely hijacked my usual schedule of reading and reviewing contemporary novels for the CCLaP website; originally planned to be a fun airplane diversion when I flew from Chicago to New Orleans and back about three weeks ago, I ended up reading the first book in the series, 1962's The Hunter, from start to finish in just half a day, and have since been greedily devouring the rest at a rate of a book or two every week, blowing off all my other reading commitments no matter how much I realize I shouldn't. (Sorry, all you authors who are patiently waiting for your book to be reviewed at CCLaP.) That's high praise indeed from someone who usually doesn't like crime novels that much, with the key being that the main character is just so utterly fascinating, who like Ayn Rand's Howard Roark is less a real human being and more an example of the "theoretically perfect" version of the philosophy the author is trying to espouse (Stoicism here in the case of Westlake, versus Objectivism in the case of Rand). A professional thief who only pulls off one heist a year (netting him in today's terms somewhere between a quarter-million and a half-million dollars each time), so that he can spend the other 51 weeks lounging poolside at resort hotels and having rough sex with trust-fund blue-bloods with a taste for danger, Parker doesn't give even the tiniest little fuck about anything or anyone that falls outside of this monomaniacal routine, never negotiates nor compromises when it comes to his take or who he'll work with, doesn't have even the slightest hesitation about torturing or killing people who get in his way (yet avoids doing it anyway, simply because physical abuse is the "lazy" way to get what one wants, and being lazy is the first step towards getting caught), and possesses a psychotic distaste for such banal activities like "talking" and "having friends" or "acknowledging the inherent worth of the human race." (A true misanthrope, these pre-PC novels are not for the linguistically faint at heart, filled on every page with dismissive contempt for women, homosexuals, and people of color; although in Parker's "defense," such as it is, he also displays such contempt for most of the straight white males he meets too.) There are 24 novels in the Parker series (which Westlake published under the pen-name "Richard Stark"), most from the '60s and early '70s, the series then activated again in the late '90s and up until Westlake's death in 2008; but the first three form a trilogy of sorts, in that they all concern one overarching storyline that spans from one book to the next, and so make a tidy reading experience for those who are curious about the series but don't want to make a 24-book commitment. (Most of the others are franchise-style standalone stories that each follow a similar blueprint -- Parker decides on his heist for that year, Parker obsessively plans out his heist for that year, then everything goes to hell when Parker actually tries pulling off his heist for that year.) The first, The Hunter, will seem familiar to many because it's been made into a movie so many times (including 1967's Point Blank with Lee Marvin, 1999's Payback with Mel Gibson, and 2013's Parker with Jason Statham); in it, we pick up a year after a heist that went bad becau[...]



The Man with the Getaway Face: A Parker Novel (Parker Novels) by Richard Stark

Fri, 02 Jun 2017 12:22:13 -0400

jasonpettus's review: "The best compliment I can give the "Parker" novels by Donald E. Westlake is to admit that they've completely hijacked my usual schedule of reading and reviewing contemporary novels for the CCLaP website; originally planned to be a fun airplane diversion when I flew from Chicago to New Orleans and back about three weeks ago, I ended up reading the first book in the series, 1962's The Hunter, from start to finish in just half a day, and have since been greedily devouring the rest at a rate of a book or two every week, blowing off all my other reading commitments no matter how much I realize I shouldn't. (Sorry, all you authors who are patiently waiting for your book to be reviewed at CCLaP.) That's high praise indeed from someone who usually doesn't like crime novels that much, with the key being that the main character is just so utterly fascinating, who like Ayn Rand's Howard Roark is less a real human being and more an example of the "theoretically perfect" version of the philosophy the author is trying to espouse (Stoicism here in the case of Westlake, versus Objectivism in the case of Rand). A professional thief who only pulls off one heist a year (netting him in today's terms somewhere between a quarter-million and a half-million dollars each time), so that he can spend the other 51 weeks lounging poolside at resort hotels and having rough sex with trust-fund blue-bloods with a taste for danger, Parker doesn't give even the tiniest little fuck about anything or anyone that falls outside of this monomaniacal routine, never negotiates nor compromises when it comes to his take or who he'll work with, doesn't have even the slightest hesitation about torturing or killing people who get in his way (yet avoids doing it anyway, simply because physical abuse is the "lazy" way to get what one wants, and being lazy is the first step towards getting caught), and possesses a psychotic distaste for such banal activities like "talking" and "having friends" or "acknowledging the inherent worth of the human race." (A true misanthrope, these pre-PC novels are not for the linguistically faint at heart, filled on every page with dismissive contempt for women, homosexuals, and people of color; although in Parker's "defense," such as it is, he also displays such contempt for most of the straight white males he meets too.) There are 24 novels in the Parker series (which Westlake published under the pen-name "Richard Stark"), most from the '60s and early '70s, the series then activated again in the late '90s and up until Westlake's death in 2008; but the first three form a trilogy of sorts, in that they all concern one overarching storyline that spans from one book to the next, and so make a tidy reading experience for those who are curious about the series but don't want to make a 24-book commitment. (Most of the others are franchise-style standalone stories that each follow a similar blueprint -- Parker decides on his heist for that year, Parker obsessively plans out his heist for that year, then everything goes to hell when Parker actually tries pulling off his heist for that year.) The first, The Hunter, will seem familiar to many because it's been made into a movie so many times (including 1967's Point Blank with Lee Marvin, 1999's Payback with Mel Gibson, and 2013's Parker with Jason Statham); in it, we pick up a year after [...]