Jac Jemc’s ‘False Bingo’ Defies Convention

false bingoThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her latest collection of short stories, Jac Jemc explores the tenuousness of morality, plotting the ways in which good and evil intermingle with fear, desire and violence. Each story—touched with a sense of foreboding or uncanniness—depicts some small imbalance in the realities of its characters. From a woman who takes refuge in a crumbling, allegedly ghost-ridden former plantation to an ex-con delving into the therapeutic effects of taxidermy, Jemc reveals herself to be an ambitious writer willing to take risks for the sake of cutting into the heart of something sinister.

Jemc presents readers with a mixed bag of odd stories, alternating between sketches like “Any Other” and “Loitering” with longer pieces such as “Manifest” and “Don’t Let’s.” In some instances, Jemc writes deceptively simple narratives that contain a hint of unease. Other stories eschew conventional plotting altogether for something more impressionistic. We see this in “Get Back,” where she begins with the following sentence: “Villard took my grace with an undone, half-paralyzed anger, and so I found him daily and burned his house down on what I deemed a repeated whim.” A succession of violent acts ensue, none of which come with context or explanation. Is this the psychological portrait of a torturer, or is it another exercise in questioning the boundaries of morality?

Jemc’s transition between these modes of narration can be jarring, like encountering mismatched set pieces in a pristine stage design. But these stories beg to be reread and reexamined, and, in so doing, the grand scheme of the author’s thematic vision becomes clearer. She leaves it to readers to piece together the jagged edged remains of her broken characters and their shame, but the doomishness of it doesn’t come entirely without levity, as in “The Principal’s Ashes.” Can you imagine a classroom of seven-year-olds reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? You know, the poem with “waving genitals” and cigarette burned arms, etc. Such is the product of Jemc’s imagination.

Despite its incongruity on first inspection, Jemc manages to construct a masterful collection similar in tone to Maryse Meijer’s staggering 2016 debut, Heartbreaker. These stories, when experienced as a whole, will linger with readers as they attempt to complete the puzzle Jemc has left for us to solve.

Margaret Renkl Melds Personal History with the Natural World in ‘Late Migrations’

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This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Margaret Renkl‘s debut, Late Migrations: A  Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.

Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.

In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.

When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patterns and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things.  She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.

On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:

The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.

In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.

The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.

Melissa Rivero Explores the Immigrant Experience in Her Debut Novel ‘The Affairs of the Falcóns’

Melissa-Rivero-The-Affair-of-the-Falcons-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Melissa Rivero’s debut novel, The Affairs of the Falcóns, is a rich, multilayered narrative about the struggles of a young Peruvian family attempting to make a life in America. Ana Falcón, and her husband, Lucho, live in a vacuum where everything is dictated by money–trying to make it, not having enough of it, or coming up with ways to find more of it. Ana is driven to keep her family together in New York and clings to her dream of one day opening a restaurant. But the endless struggle for a comfortable life has Lucho prepared to send the children back to Peru–or have the whole family return. After all, he wasn’t the one who wanted to come to America in the first place.

The novel spans just a few weeks in time as the Falcóns’ troubles come to a head. We see how Ana is forced to bear the brunt of her family’s financial concerns, while also bearing the judgment leveled at her from her husband’s relatives with whom they are forced to live until they can find another place of their own. The threat of deportation and an unexpected pregnancy add fuel to an already blazing fire.

Through Ana’s experiences, Rivero creates a deeply moving portrait of immigrant life in the United States, focusing on the ways in which large communities of people are forced to live in the shadows as they silently form the backbone of our society. The endless struggle to make ends meet only reinforces Ana’s resolve. The opportunities available to Lucho in Peru–a college educated young man from a family of European descent–would never be available to Ana. As an indigenous woman from the hills of Santa Clara, Lima was not a welcome place. She was an outsider. Even Lucho’s mother never ceases to remind her that she is only a Falcón because her son was obliged to “do the right thing” when she became pregnant. Why else would her son marry so far beneath him?

Despite the violence of Peru’s military and its rebel fighters, Lucho longs for his days as a student and activist in Lima. Working as a laborer makes him bitter, leaving Ana with the feeling that life with her and the kids is a burden he never wanted to carry.

In The Affairs of the Falcóns, Rivero masterfully explores the intricate dynamics of family, love, and longing while effectively illustrating the intersections of race, class, and identity. It will almost certainly become one of this year’s finest debuts.

On “The Wife” by Meg Wolitzer

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Courtesy of imdb.com

I haven’t kept up with award show season this year, so it was quite a fortuitous surprise that the legendary Glenn Close should win a Golden Globe last night for her performance in Bjorn Runge’s adaptation of Meg Wolizter’s 2003 novel just as I finished reading it. The film wasn’t a must-see for me, nor was it the reason behind my decision to pick up the book. I chose to read it after listening to BBC Radio 4’s “A Good Read” podcast hosted by the inimitable Harriett Gilbert. Comedian Lolly Adefope picked The Wife as her good read for the segment.

While reading the novel–the first I’ve read by Wolitzer–I was struck by the timelessness of the story and the bare-bones truth of its central theme: everybody wants a wife. In the book, Joan Castleman–the wife of literary superstar, Joe Castleman–has decided she is going to end her marriage after four decades. From the beginning, the reader understands how unhappy Joan is. The source of her deep-seeded resentment is revealed over time.

Joe has just won a prestigious award bestowed by the Finnish equivalent of the Academy of Arts and Letters, though, as Joan points out, it is not as prestigious as the award the Swedes hand out every year. This grand fete thrown in Joe’s honor pushes Joan to the end of her rope, causing her to look back on the course of their relationship and the events that let them to the present.

Joan expresses the sentiment that everyone must want a wife because she has done everything for Joe over the course of their marriage, and in return he has done nothing. He is childish, preening, and mildly stupid. How does this type of man publish such great work? We can suspect what the real source of his success is from the beginning. But even when Joan reveals the truth, readers will be shocked.

Wolitzer is a master of layering her narrative and moving back and forth through time. She renders, in perfect detail, the minutiae of the Castlemans’ failed marriage, getting to the heart of the ways in which men leech power from those who support them.

Robert Rorke’s Debut Novel ‘Car Trouble’ Is a Poignant Coming-Of-Age Story

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This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Robert Rorke‘s debut novel Car Trouble brings us back to 1970s Brooklyn—a pre-gentrified bastion of the working class that would not be considered fashionable for at least another 30 years. For Nicky Flynn, a Flatbush teenager from a large Irish Catholic family, the 1970s means more than the shifting social and political mores of the time. In the Flynn household, Nicky’s only concern is Himself—the drunken, occasionally abusive, old-fashioned racist he gets to call dad.

Patrick Flynn’s alcoholism defines much of Nicky’s adolescence. He, his mother, and his four sisters are hyper-aware of their father’s behavior at all times, always picking up on the way his eyes get glassy and his gait staggers slightly when he’s had a few too many, and perpetually holding back comments that might send his backhand their way. Nothing in Patrick Flynn’s life is spared the fallout from his disease. The only consistency Nicky observes in his father over the years is the slew of cars Himself brings home—one jalopy after another bought at NYPD auction. Each vehicle—one more garish and impractical than the last—provides his life with a veneer of glamour, however fleeting and marred by hardship. From Nicky’s perspective, each car is a milestone in his adolescence. New cars, new experiences. Good and bad. Terrifying and joyful.

I read the book’s back cover and initially got the impression that I wouldn’t like it. It’s a safe bet that anything to do with cars won’t be my cup of tea. Also, it isn’t unreasonable to expect a novel with this setting — a parade of muscle cars — to rely heavily, if not solely, upon nostalgia to carry the story’s coming-of-age narrative. But Rorke is a much better writer than that.

The overarching theme of the car as a symbol and unifying element of Nicky Flynn’s adolescence falls to the wayside as the novel progresses. At times I forgot about the cars as the descriptions of his father’s vehicles and the experiences he’s had in them take a back seat to the family dynamic that breathes life into Car Trouble.

As a narrator, Nicky is clear-eyed and levelheaded when recounting the tales of his youth. We see moments of compassion, rage, confusion, and fear filter through his composure, which, combined with his family’s resilience, offsets his father’s destruction.

That resilience from Nicky, his sisters, and especially his mother is the most poignant and moving part of Rorke’s novel. Despite the never-ending calamity that follows Himself like a shadow, Mrs. Flynn and the children form a protective barrier around him that is borne from love, fear, and self-preservation. If they don’t keep moving forward, the earth will fall out from beneath them.

It is this quiet efficiency that builds the backbone of Car TroubleEven as Nicky struggles to find himself and nurture his newfound talents, the reader cannot help but notice that, like most all teenagers, his identity is still wrapped in his family’s identity. Being a part of that efficiency is like being in a group of unsung heroes, and for better or worse, it is the springboard off which he becomes himself.

Much like Colm Tóibín‘s  Brooklyn, Car Trouble is an impressive novel that captures the essence of an era without fanfare or sacrificing the craftsmanship of a good story. It is refreshing, cathartic, and thoroughly readable.

Stephanie Perkins Unleashes Children of the Corn Horror in ‘There’s Someone Inside Your House’

51FsqF3IkgL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

This book was unexpected. Most readers know Stephanie Perkins from her funny young adult romances like Anna and the French Kiss. To say that There’s Someone Inside Your House is something of a departure would be the understatement of the century.

Perkins’ latest novel falls squarely in the domain of “slasher” horror–not so much a Stephen King novel for young adults as a salute to the great horror movies of our time. It’s Halloween meets Friday the 13th with a hint of the Children of the Corn vibe that marks most all Midwestern misadventures. The body count is high, and the pages marked by buckets of gore. Horror in young adult literature has yet to be explored in any real depth, so it looks like Perkins is determined to pave the way.

Not to say that your traditional YA tropes don’t fall into place in this novel; they’re just slightly rearranged to fit into the tense plot as it builds to its most destructive levels. The story is told from the perspective of Makani Young–the new girl in town. Something happened to her in her home state of Hawaii that becomes one of the novel’s “big secrets,” and she is sent to live with her grandmother in Nebraska. Makani drops hints of what happened–likely a crime she committed–so that the reader sees the extent of her guilt and how it affects her outlook on the crimes coming to light in Osborne.

Like any YA novel worth its salt, there is a romance. Makani finds herself attracted to Ollie Larsson, the school outcast, complete with a skeletal appearance, a lip ring, and bright pink hair. They hookup during the summer leading up to the novel’s events, but fall out of touch because of that classic teen power struggle we all know and love, the sizing up that occurs when two people who hang out in private come face-to-face in public for the first time, tacitly seeking the answer to the question of whether or not the other person wants to be seen with you in public. On the first day back to school, Makani feels that Ollie doesn’t want to pursue anything with her and that what they had was just a summer fling.

When Halloween rolls around (because, of course, the murders take place around Halloween), the town is turned upside down. Makani’s classmates—the best and brightest—are killed in gruesome fashion. One after the other, they get taken down by someone with a sadistic penchant for messing with the victims before they are brutalized in unspeakable ways. No one feels safe, and no one really knows who’s next.

Ollie and Makani are inevitably drawn back together as they attempt to find a pattern to the killings, much to the distrust of Makani’s friends Alex and Darby who feel that Ollie just might be involved. Or is Makani somehow involved? As the details of her past come to light, the reader finds out that the nature of her offense in Hawaii was violent in some way. She feels guilt, yes…but also something akin to understanding as the nature of Osborne’s murders become public.

Throughout the course of the novel, it’s clear that Perkins is a proper horror fan. All the plot devices are there: a protagonist with a secret, love interest that borders on danger, a pattern of crime that slowly reveals itself over time. Horror narratives that are told from the perspective of a potentially unreliable narrator are the best ones, and Perkins deftly weaves the elements of Makani’s guilt, paranoia, and rage into the unfolding of these murders.

The central narrative told from Makani’s point-of-view is interspersed with chapters told from the perspective of the murder victims. We know they’re going to die, and there’s nothing we can do to stop it. Those chapters take on a cinematic quality that makes the reader’s heart pound (mine did anyway) knowing that the inevitable is going to take its course.

While I was left a little unsatisfied with the ultimate discovery of who was behind the crimes–and why that person did what they did–the book was such an engrossing page-turner that I would recommend it to anyone who has a mild interest in the macabre. Just make sure all the lights in your house are on…

On “The Young Elites” by Marie Lu

Image result for the young elitesA friend recommended The Young Elites to me at least a year ago, and I just got around to reading it the other day. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. It’s one of the strongest YA series I’ve read in a long time–up there with the work of Sarah J. Maas and Maureen Johnson, partially because of her fantastic world-building, but mostly because of the strength of her writing.

The snappy clip of Lu’s plotting, much like Maas’ and Johnson’s, keeps the reader hooked from the beginning. There isn’t a moment when I thought a section was boring, or misplaced in the greater scheme of the narrative, which attests to the author’s crucial choices about how to present this unusual story.

The Young Elites–the first novel in Lu’s Young Elites trilogy–introduces the readers to a world that resembles Italy in the 1400s at a time when a generation of “malfetto” children is reaching maturity. Some years prior to the events of the novel, a blood fever tore through the world, leaving many dead; the few who survived were left with permanent markings.

Some of these “malfettos”–as they are derisively called–have developed special powers, and a special legion controlled by the throne, known as the Inquisition Axis, is determined to root them out of society through the passage of harsh laws and, increasingly, through state-sanctioned murder.

The story focuses on sixteen-year-old Adelina Amouteru who flees home after accidentally murdering her father with her powers. She is spared from capital punishment at the hands of the Inquisition Axis by a group of vigilante malfettos known as the Young Elites.

As she slowly joins their ranks, she learns that their ultimate goal is to overthrow the king and queen in order to finally undo the unjust system oppressing people like them. Adelina believes in their mission, but it becomes clear that there is something dark wedged deep into her soul.

Through deft characterization, Lu develops a compelling anti-hero–a protagonist who is, essentially, a villain–but who blurs the lines between good and evil in the most fascinating ways. She is joined by a series of similarly scarred Young Elites who are driven towards the same goals, but some of whom distrust Adelina.

When I reached the end of the first book, I found myself so immersed in the Young Elite world and Adelina’s fall from grace–that I know Lu had created a truly compelling piece of fiction.