Review: A Brief History of 7 Killings

The language is rough, but it bounces with a jovial, yet often treacherous, Jamaican riddim. Fall on the wrong side of the beat, and you’re like to get a bullet in your belly.

A_Brief_History_of_Seven_Killings.JPGWhile certainly not brief, this book does contain its fair share of killings (more than 7). Chronicling the lives of various Jamaican ghetto dons from the late 60s all the way to the 90’s, it reads like The Godfather goes Caribbean. The language is rough, but it bounces with a jovial, yet often treacherous, Jamaican riddim. Fall on the wrong side of the beat, and you’re like to get a bullet in your belly.

I grew up in Jamaica during the 80’s, and the idyllic island life that plasters most people’s mental picture of the country was as far from the truth of my childhood as India is from the West Indies. Gangs ran amok. Thievery and murder were commonplace. When men began testing the bars on our windows at night looking for weak points in the house’s defense, my father asked a neighbor what he should do.

“Don’t bother calling the police, brethren,” our neighbor said. “When you call them, they tell you, ‘We’ll come by and pick up the bodies.’ No. Buy a machete, and wait by the window. When the first man comes through, chop de head off ‘im, and pull ‘im through. Then the next man. Chop ‘im head off too, and pull ‘im through. When they stop comin’, then the police show.”

This book–with fictional characters and factual events–lives, breathes, and speaks the Jamaican story: the best and the worst of it. It’s a book you get lost in. If the dialect is a little tricky to read, I suggest picking up the audiobook. It feels less like a reading and more like a stage play with some of the best voice acting I’ve heard on a book.

For the amazon link, click here.

Review: The Orphan Master’s Son

This is not a fantasy tale, but it is magical all the same. The magic is not light. It is dark and ominous, twisting the cords of fate until some snap and others twang off inharmonious notes that seem to sing the song of this secret nation.

51EQHor4tJLI’ll admit I was skeptical, at first, when I began The Orphan Master’s Son. How much could an outsider truly know about the everyday lives of North Koreans. Pak Jun Do’s story proved me a fool. The Orphan Master’s Son is a story of one man’s life in North Korea: his trials, his devotion to his country, his heart’s longing, and the improbably marvelous and harrowing journey that his life takes.

Adam Johnson weaves the details of North Korean life, culture, food, poverty, and propaganda into this story with such deftness that I found myself continually rechecking the title page to make sure that I wasn’t misreading a Korean name.

This is not a fantasy tale, but it is magical all the same. The magic is not light. It is dark and ominous, twisting the cords of fate until some snap and others twang off inharmonious notes that seem to sing the song of this secret nation. Yet, despite the discordant melody of disappeared people and forced labor, the citizens of this nation say that it is beautiful. How? This has been a real mystery to me as well. How have the people of North Korea not just risen up and overthrown their government. Johnson masterfully explains by recrafting the culture of North Korean propaganda in which every single word spoken by every citizen at every moment of their life has already been written by the author of the nation’s fate. It’s a brilliant tale, and review can’t do it justice because the world inside this tiny country is so unlike the world we know. It’s a place that everyone should visit.

Click here for the Amazon link.

Movies Worth Your Time: Cake

Aniston is like a sponge sopped in bitterness, sorrow, anger, and pain. She carries that burden subtly so that, at no moment, despite the heaviness of the film’s content, does she over-act to prove a point.

Time–we don’t have a lot of it, and every movie out there claims to be “spectacular”, “one of a kind”, “mesmerizing”. Let me save you some time right now and point you at films that are worth seeing for those who like thought-provoking, story and character driven, sometimes a-typical films. You may have seen them. If that is the case, let me know what you thought in the comments. If you haven’t seen them, check them out and come back for a conversation. If you’ve got any others to add to the list, pop them up in the comments feed.

cake-cake-posterCake. I’ve heard a lot of talk about Reese Witherspoon’s Wild, but not much about Jennifer Aniston in Cake. I’ve seen Wild, and, yes, it was good. It was the best acting of Reese’s career, and the story was important, but it felt lacking due to having to compress an entire memoir into a film. Cake, in my opinion, is the better movie. It, too, sees the best acting from its main character, Jennifer Aniston. Aniston is like a sponge sopped in bitterness, sorrow, anger, and pain. She carries that burden subtly so that, at no moment, despite the heaviness of the film’s content, does she over-act to prove a point. All she has to do is look at you and you see the weight of her life in her eyes. The movie begins in a chronic pain support group, where one of the members has committed suicide. It follows Aniston’s character as she processes that suicide and continues to manage, or mis-manage, her own pain. Slowly, her character opens up to us like a crushed orchid unfolding. As more becomes known to us, we are left asking ourselves how we could possibly have managed anything better.

Review: The Martian

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The Martian is like a twelve hour math class. It’s the most fun twelve hour math class you will ever have the chance to take, and its well worth the time. I know that’s not much of a pitch, but let me explain. Mark Whatney# is the lead character of this book (for much of it, he is the only character). He’s a mechanical engineer and botanist who gets stranded on Mars. He is the only living person on the planet and has to figure out, daily, how he is going to survive in an environment that is constantly trying to kill him. That means math, lots and lots of math, but this is James Bond math. It is math that, depending on whether you get it right or not, can either save you or kill you. Those are pretty high stakes. Imagine what a rush it would be if you were sitting in a classroom, knowing that if you forgot to move the decimal, your face would implode. Many of you probably had a teacher capable of such terror, so maybe that’s not the best illustration. Even if you don’t like math (which I’m not particularly fond of), Whatney’s wry sense of humor and “if there’s a way to get off this friggin’ planet, I am going to find it” attitude make the entire book feel light and unencumbered by the restrictive narrative environment that Andy Weir has to work in.

The actual narrative structure of the book is unusual. What begins as a first person account told through log entries later meets a third person narrative of the reactions of the rest of NASA to news of Whatney’s survival and their desperate attempts to rescue him. This threw me at first glance, but I quickly adjusted.

Some might criticize the book for the “unprofessional” nature of Whatney’s blog entries, and I can see how a few of them go over the top, but I would have rather had the humor than just a dry lecture on the conductive qualities of spacecraft siding. Additionally, if you were stranded on Mars all by your lonesome and you knew you were going to die without ever seeing another person again, I think you might drop the pretense and just say what you’re thinking as well.

So, is it worth the read? If you’re looking to get off planet, but not go as far as a true Sci-Fi novel, I’d say “yes”. It gives you a lot to think about; places you up there. While you’re reading it, you’ll be looking up at the night sky, imagining what it would be like to be out there, all alone, like Robinson Crusoe, but on a whole ‘nother world. That’s a thought worth contemplating for a while.

Review: Blue Ruin

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Blue Ruin’s best trait is its slow reveal. If you did not read the synopsis or look at the movie’s poster, you wouldn’t know it was a revenge thriller until a good twenty minutes into the movie or so. It opens with wit and a melancholic humor that helps you quickly attach to the main character, Dwight. He is a homeless man, living off what he can scrounge and what he can steal. Isolated from people, he is still drawn to them, to a life he once knew. I won’t give up too much more, because, as I said, every small revelation is a slow unraveling of the backstory that weaves together with Dwight’s current actions to create the tapestry of chaos and violence that lays over a growing number of bodies like a sheet at a morgue. I will say this, however. Dwight is not the perfect action hero. He is no ex-marine or ex-cop or ex-mafia hitman. He’s just a normal guy, a little pudgy around the edges and not accustomed to pulling a trigger. He makes mistakes, and he is punished for them. That’s what made this revenge thriller so refreshing. Give it a shot. It’ll be worth the night.

Review- 11/22/63: A Novel

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Stephen King’s Needful Things was the book that turned me on to reading and writing again, after a long hiatus. The book set the bar quite high for other thrillers and here’s why:

King is a master of atmosphere. Other authors focus on creating a terrifying villian. King, however, simply traps his very human characters in a horrific situation, like putting two starving guinea pigs in the same cage, then watches them eat each other. These characters are going about their ordinary lives when something changes, be it an invisible dome snapping down over their town or a mist that rolls in with monsters in its wake or an old shopkeeper who sells people the things they want for a simple favor. This change is what all of King’s readers have come to love about his writing.

He sets a scene so thoroughly that it smells and tastes like you are sitting at a diner, drinking a gritty, bitter slosh of coffee while you overhear the conversations that carry on around you. Then an unseen hand turns the dial on the thermostat up just a little and the scene shifts. Soon, things are tense and that tension doesn’t let up when the villain leaves, because something has changed in the ordinary people that still live in the hamster cage.

I could go on about Stephen’s knack for plot-craft, but I intended to talk about 11/22/63, and that I shall. Truthfully, I could have used a little more of that sense of foreboding. The entire novel was heavy on the nostalgia, but a little light on the suspense for my tastes. There were those moments when everything is going wrong, but I didn’t feel as compelled into finding out just how bad things could get, because there were a few too many rays of sunshine in this piece. This could be what some readers are looking for. They don’t want a white-knuckle thriller, just an escape to a different time. If that’s what you’re out to find, then this is a great book. King doesn’t just write suspense or horror, after all. He’s the author of The Green Mile and Shawshank Redemption as well, both beautiful works of the nobility and strength of the human spirit. Others have felt this one falls closer into that category. I felt he was trying to straddle the fence a little and could have gotten off on either side.

The premise is interesting. You walk into the pantry of a diner in 2014 and out into the past. You could stay for five years, but when you go back into the diner, you’ve only been gone for two minutes. You go back into the past, but it’s always the same day and every time you go back, you reset everything you did to the timestream on the trip before. Now, one of the characters thinks so much of the world’s evil could be undone if someone could just keep JFK from being assassinated. Then the mission begins. An ordinary goes back to stop a killing (a few killings, actually).

I would like to have seen a little more darkness and desperation in the main character, Jake Epping. For most of the novel, he seems to wander around trying to figure things out, making up life as he goes along. It’s believable. He’s not a superhero and stepping back in time would definitely put you on your heels, but I didn’t get much of a drive from him for most of the book.

One thing that King does excel at in this novel is his research. It is exhaustive. He knows everything from obscure dog-racing scores to the kinds of cigarettes smoked in his locals fifty years ago. That was, perhaps, the most impressive thing about the book for me. It gave the whole story an air of authenticity is critical to works of science fiction. It took a while, but his theories of time-travel presented an unusual slant on the organism, or machine, of time and how our actions affect the nature of reality. It was a payoff, however, that I would have like to have come sooner.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable, believable story, but I would not say it is one of King’s best. The suspense is quite watered down by the length of time it takes to tell the tale and the span of years that it covers. Suspense is not everything, however, and if you want a story that is one part thriller and three parts homage to the 50’s, then this is the perfect tale for you.

As I Lay Dying Review

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As I Lay Dying was, honestly, like wading through an ever changing current of words. Faulkner’s ear for dialect is as keenly tuned as a master violinist’s toward the reverberations of his instrument. That being said, however, Faulkner’s writing style, when expressed in the stream of consciousness ramblings that fill this book, is…well to say “confusing” would be an understatement. The book is well worth the read if you enjoy reading for the sound of a character’s voice. There are some unique voices here. If you’re not one for meandering monologues on life’s meanings and odd sentence composition, then I’d suggest you leave this one on the shelf. If you choose to read this book, opt for the audiobook as the various readers help to make better sense of the unbroken style of Faulkner’s prose.

An example of when Faulkner gets confusing: 

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home.”

An example of when Faulkner gets it right:

“He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like those others: just a shape to fill a lack that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that anymore than for pride or fear.”

and…

“I notice how it takes a lazy man, a man that hates moving, to get set on moving once he does get started off, the same as when he was set on staying still, like it aint the moving he hates so much as the starting and the stopping. And like he would be kind of proud of whatever come up to make the moving or the setting still look hard. He set there on the wagon hunched up, blinking, listening to us tell about how quick the bridge went and how high the water was, and I be durn if he didn’t act like he was proud of it, like he had made the river rise himself.”