Review Roundup: Whole Lot of Catching Up Edition

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It’s been a while since I’ve written a review and I’ve read a whole bunch in that time, so here’s a quick lightning round of reviews to catch up.

Never Really Here coverYou Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames.

Joe, a former Marine and FBI agent with an incredibly tormented past, spends his day rescuing trafficked women for the right price. After a high ranking New York politician hires him to save his daughter from a brothel, a routine job turns much messier, leaving behind a bloody trail as Joe tries to uncover the truth.

A slip of a novella, You Were Never Really Here is my first experience with the work of Jonathan Ames. I understand his output is usually more comedic in approach, and this one certainly had the air of a writing exercise, with the instructor demanding a Raymond Chandler inspired story with about 90% less dialogue. It’s very comfortably in the realms of hard-boiled crime thriller, with its protagonist, the deeply troubled veteran Joe working to free trafficked women from sex slavery (his tool of choice being a hammer) and it all going horribly wrong on a supposedly routine operation. It’s a sturdy formula and one Ames sticks to proudly.

The issue is that the story is maddeningly incomplete, ending on a cliffhanger of sorts that suggests Ames either got bored with this exercise or hit a deadline. Perhaps building to an almighty blood-fest and then not paying out was the point, but it makes for a dissatisfying ending. Still, one of my favourite directors, Lynne Ramsay, is making this into a film with one of my favourite actors, Joaquin Phoenix, so its evident cinematic potential will not go amiss in such reliable hands. A quick and easy read if you’re in the mood for it, but not much beyond that.

3/5.

Fair Fight coverThe Fair Fight by Anna Freeman.

Set in Bristol during the turn of the 19th century, The Fair Fight follows three people bound together through family, circumstance and the seedy world of underground boxing. Ruth, born in a brothel and raised by a stern mother, has never brought in the patrons like her beautiful sister, but her ferocity in the ring brings with it a possible escape from the drudgery of her life. Charlotte Dryer lives under the thumb of her callous brother and the pitying gazes of those who can’t see beyond her smallpox scars, while George, the sometime lover-turned-right hand man of Charlotte’s brother, hungers for a route into the privileged world of the upper class, and gambling may bring with it his salvation.

The selling point for Freeman’s debut, beyond its gripping premise, is a glowing cover quote from historical writer Sarah Waters, and indeed the two women’s styles are comparable on many ways. Freeman’s focus is as rich in detail as Waters’, and both women bring life to the grit and seediness of working class England where many other authors limit themselves to the echelons of the upper classes. While the bare-knuckle fighting will bring in curious readers, the sympathetic exploration of the limitations put upon women of the era is the true stand-out of the novel. Regardless of class, women seem doomed to suffer with a lack of independence and their fates controlled by men, be it personal, financial or worse. Marriage brings with it some freedoms, for both Charlotte and Ruth, but the problems don’t stop there, and Freeman details the troubles of the institution, both when it’s entered into willingly or otherwise.

The queer element of the story – George’s co-dependent and wildly destructive relationship with Perry Dryer – is sensitively handled, but doesn’t shy away from the selfishness of both men. While there is love there, both men are too preoccupied with their own narcissistic pursuits to truly explore it, and both are also far too willing to use their connection for blackmail purposes. It’s a sympathetic novel stripped of saccharine, and a strong debut for Freeman. Rich in detail and fierce in its pursuits, The Fair Fight is easy to recommend and easier to love.

4/5.

Radiance coverRadiance by Catherynne M. Valente.

Imagine a world where interstellar space travel is the norm yet the patent hoarding Edison family means black and white silent films are still the dominant form of entertainment. Severin Unck, daughter of the Moon’s most famous director, is a rising documentarian who goes missing while filming her latest project on Venus, home to the alien sized creatures whose milk sustains the population of billions. Through fragments of footage, interviews, gossip and noir-style narration, the mystery of her disappearance is told.

I think I may just have to accept that Catherynne Valente really isn’t for me. That’s a shame, because structurally and creatively, she’s on a whole new level and there was much in Radiance I was gripped by. The metatextual take on the world of film and science-fiction is wholly unique – the Moon is essentially Hollywood – and the non-linear narrative combines elements of golden age cinema, mythology, Hedda Hopper, poetry and much more.

The issue for me, as with the last book of hers I read, is that her highly decorative prose keeps me at a distance. Valente uses ten words where one would suffice, and eventually it becomes tiresome, even as the words themselves dazzle with their florid stylings. Often it feels like Valente is more concerned with demonstrating her admittedly impressive skills than telling the story, which meant it was easy to get lost amidst the decoration. For the patient reader with a preference for very descriptive prose, Radiance is an easy recommendation, but even with my enjoyment, there’s too much in the way for me to enjoy this as much as I admire it.

3/5.

Philospher Kings coverThe Philosopher Kings by Jo Walton.

Two decades after the Goddess Athene’s attempt to establish Plato’s Republic fell apart due to her own insolence – and Sokrates fucking everyone’s shit up – the residents of the Just City have splintered into various factions, while some remain on the original settlement to try and continue the work they started. Among them is Apollo, God and Athene’s brother, who is still living as a human with his family. After tragedy strikes, leaving him a widower, he swears revenge and sets out with his demigod children to uncover the culprit and bring vengeance to the family name.

Walton’s The Just City remains one of my favourite reads of 2016. Her cerebral combination of science-fiction, philosophy and character study created an enthralling world that challenged as well as excited. The sequel continues down that path, picking up the various themes of autonomy, power and faith while never allowing itself to become bogged down amongst the abstract. The middle book in a trilogy, The Philosopher Kings explores the ramifications of meddling in time as the settlers of the city form their own groups with varying beliefs mashed into something new – including elements of Christianity, despite Jesus not being born for another few hundred years.

Apollo’s journey is one of self-discovery. The god turned human is an often conflicting mix of excellence and obliviousness; he’s physically ideal but often emotionally stunted. With his lover dead, he suffers through the stages of grief in a manner he finds utterly bewildering and unable to cope with. His various children, aware of their father’s origins, share his sadness yet live with their own issues as they understand their potentials to be gods themselves. Each new city they visit, populated by old friends and enemies, presents a new vision for the world with points to applaud and parts to condemn – much like The Just City. There are no easy answers, and Walton is skilled in her approach to an often labyrinthine world. It’s not quite as wholeheartedly gripping a read as the first part, but with one hell of a conclusion hinted at, it remains a highly satisfying follow-up.

4/5.

Tampa coverTampa by Alissa Nutting.

Celeste Price is beautiful, ambitious and seemingly has the perfect life. Her husband is hard working and as handsome as she is pretty, their house is the image of middle class Floridian aspirations, and soon she’ll be starting her job as an 8th grade teacher. She’s also a sexual predator whose preferred targets are 14 year old boys.

It’s rare to see a book explore the mind of a female sociopath, particularly one so brazen in their pursuits. Celeste is not the Humbert Humbert of her gender – she’s far too proud of her perversions for that. Told from her point of view, Tampa tells Celeste’s story as she begins her new job with the purpose of finding a young man who fits her profile, isolating him enough to meet her purposes, and fulfilling her life-long fantasies. Celeste does not justify her actions as somehow acceptable or rooted in deep-seated pain, nor does she take the Lolita route and twist the truth to victimize herself. She takes real pride in her skills and abilities to target boys she knows would never turn down someone of her beauty or power. She holds all the cards and delights in bragging about it.

Tampa can be a difficult read at times, particularly during the many scenes where she ‘seduces’ her 14 year old victim, Jack Patrick. The detail is not skimped on, but it’s important to note that it’s never condoned or fetishized. Celeste’s fetish is not seen as cool or sexy, even as her defence lawyer leverages those assumptions to their benefit. Nutting’s sharp writing and perceptive style reminds the reader to never forget just how dangerous this woman is, and how inexcusable her actions are, regardless of the performed bravado of adolescent males. The precision of her plan and ability to manipulate everyone around her – because nobody ever suspects the pretty ones – are not the actions of a woman who doesn’t know what she’s doing. Sadly, it lets itself down somewhat in its final part, when everything is exposed to the world. Celeste goes from a woman in control to one pushed around by her savvy and equally sleazy defence lawyer. It felt out of place for a woman so focused on herself to relinquish any control of her narrative to someone else. She would have been smart enough to help craft the case against those prosecuting her. It’s not a book for everyone, but Tampa is merciless in its exposing of the double standards of gender and sexual assault.

3.5/5.

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