The Italian Teacher by Rom Rachman

The Italian TeacherThe Italian Teacher

by Tom Rachman

Hardcover, 336 pg.
2018, Riverrun

Read: April 2 – 5, 2018

I am going to say some nice things about this book, but the thing that kept going through my mind — for at least the first two-thirds — was: haven’t I read this before? There are a couple of Richard Russo books hidden here, one Matthew Norman — and I want to say DeLillo, Tropper and Weiner, too, but I can’t put my finger on which of those — and probably a few others that I don’t recall. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — we’ve all read plenty of books that are just variations on well-established themes. What I had to ask myself was: did Rachman have anything new to say with his take? Did he throw in some interesting twists to the mix? Was it a rewarding experience for the reader? I think my answers were: not really, sort of, and not particularly.

The novel revolves around Bear Bavinsky, a painter of renown, an iconoclast, a rock star in a pre-rock star age — and a serial monogamist on his second marriage when we meet him. He’s essentially a Jeff Bridges character. His son, Charles (nicknamed Pinch) idolizes him (many of his children do, but Charles doesn’t get over it the way most do). Bear is mercurial, irresponsible, unfaithful, arrogant, and incredibly charming. Really, the difference between Rachman’s Bear Bavinsky and Russo’s Donald “Sully” Sullivan is that Bear has money (that’s just to help you understand him, not a commentary on the character). When he turns on the charm, he can get seemingly anyone — detractor, fan, or something in between — to feel important, to feel pivotal, captivating, and so on. Most people shake off this effect after a couple of days (although they seem to hold on to a little bit of it for decades) — Charles never does. He spends his life striving for his father’s attention, favor, affection — anything. He shapes his life around those things which will hopefully get Bear’s approval — and when he fails (or at least, doesn’t succeed as he hopes) in the endeavor, and/or doesn’t get Bear’s approval he has a moment of clarity, stumbles into something else and then eventually falls back into the search for his Father’s approbation.

Ironically, compared to the rest of Bear’s kids, Charles has that approval. He just doesn’t realize it — and maybe it’s because the rest have given up and don’t seek him out as much. We follow Charles’ life from childhood, to adolescence (living with a divorced mother now), in college, early adulthood and then in his 50s. Striving for significance, striving for something beyond his reach — and yearning for his father. It’s a decent, if lonely, life — and could’ve been something better if he hadn’t allowed so much of it to be shaped by his father, what Charles things his father wants, and then listening to his father’s input when he really shouldn’t.

As the jacket copy says, “Until one day, Pinch begins an astonishing plan that’ll change art history forever…” It stops being a book that I’ve read before (mostly), takes on its own flavor — and gets worse. But your results may vary.

I thought Bear was an interesting character — but not one I wanted to spend a lot of time with. I felt too much pity for Charles to really get invested in him. No one else in the book was really worth the effort. The story was unimpressive and oddly paced. Which is not to say it’s a bad novel, it’s just not one I could appreciate that much. There were conversations, scenes, etc. that were just great. I kept waiting for there to be a moment (probably the “Until one day…”) that this book turned for me — like Rachman’s last one did — and it never came.

Maybe it was just my mood, maybe it’s my utter incapability of appreciating visual art, maybe it’s actually Rachman stumbling. I don’t know — this just didn’t work for me. Am I glad I read it? I think so — if only because I don’t have to wonder what the new Rachman book is like. I’m still giving it 3 stars because of the skill Rachman displayed — I just didn’t enjoy what he did with it.

—–

3 Stars

2018 Library Love Challenge

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Pub Day Post: Mr. Neutron by Joe Ponepinto

Mr. NeutronMr. Neutron

by Joe Ponepinto

eARC, 300 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018

Read: March 1 – 3, 2018

It couldn’t be real. Just couldn’t. Besides, if someone brought a cadaver to life today, it would be under controlled circumstances—in a lab at some university, with the media and religious protesters in attendance. It would go viral on the web. He would have heard about it.

Still, Gray couldn’t dismiss the possibility. His timid psyche often cleaved to the supernatural, if only to explain the failures in his life. And dead men had been elected before, although they typically stayed in their graves and didn’t campaign.

Before I get into this — yes, this is a political satire. But it’s pretty apolitical. There are almost no political points made, few actual policies advanced or discussed, and certainly no mainstream parties are either pilloried or lauded. The satire is of this strange thing called American politics — the campaigns, the process, the press, the people involved. Conservatives, liberals, statists, libertarians, and everyone in between can read this safely without worrying about getting much tweaked by the book.

In the opening paragraphs we meet Gray (Davenport, we’re later told) and Reason Wilder. Gray is running a mayoral campaign and one of his candidate’s opponents is Reason. Right away, you can tell this book isn’t going for subtlety. We later meet Patsy Flatley (the advisor to Gray’s candidate), The Reverend Inchoate Hand, Breeze Wellington, and Randy (of various last names) — all of these names tell you a good deal about these characters (and I could’ve listed other examples). Ponepinto lays his cards on the table right away when it comes to his characters and the type of people they are.

Reason isn’t the best funded, most articulate, or most polished candidate — but there’s some impossibly strong magnetism about him and his simple promise that “Together we will do great things for this city,” without ever giving a specific idea how they’ll do that, or what a great thing might be. Virtually everyone who encounters Reason falls under his spell but Gray. Not only does Gray maintain some sort of skepticism about Reason, he notices a disturbing odor about him, the way his body doesn’t seem to work together organically, and frankly, doesn’t seem to belong together. It’s almost as if someone stitched him together from spare parts.

Once Gray starts speculating down that path, he becomes convinced that’s the case — and sets out to prove it. Along the way, this effort causes problems in his marriage (well, it brings problems in his marriage to a head); brings some powerful people into his life; and puts him in league with the strangest journalists you’ve probably encountered. This kicks off some overdue self-examination to go along with his hunt for information about Reason.

All the while, the campaign goes on: Gray’s duller than dull candidate tries to build a voter base, the well-funded front-runner has to work to remain relevant, and Reason’s cult grows in a way no one can believe (or deny). We see a debate, a fundraiser or two, press conferences, polls, and money — and the ways all of those can alter a campaign, especially the money.

One difficulty I had while reading this book was remembering it was a satire — Ponepinto’s writing frequently comes across as highly-crafted and nuanced, and then he’ll have someone named Randy do something filled with innuendo or something equally obvious or ridiculous and I’d have to remind myself I was reading a book about a Frankenstein’s Monster-like being running for mayor, and perhaps I shouldn’t take it too seriously. I do think that’s a strength of the book — I’d forget I was reading nonsense about impossible tings because the narration was just so serious. It is a funny book, at times, but not told in a way that underscores it, which somehow works.

I didn’t love the ending, honestly. But I absolutely get why Ponepinto did it — and good satires rarely have satisfactory endings anyway. This was better than a lot of them — for example, I’ve read almost all of Christopher Buckley’s novels and there’s only one of them that had an ending I can tolerate. So, “didn’t love” is pretty good. I thought the last couple of paragraphs were far too preachy, and could’ve been cut without really harming the novel and/or its message.

But before all that, we’ve got a very strange ride. You’re not going to see a lot like this — a little supernatural/monster, some pointed commentary on politics, a dash of romance, a nice friendship, and an odd collection of characters bringing all this to you. You should give it a shot. I have no idea what kind of follow-up Ponepinto might have in store, but I’m very curious.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC in exchange for this post and my honest opinions.

—–

4 Stars

Pub Day Repost: Like a Champion by Vincent Chu

Like a ChampionLike a Champion

by Vincent Chu
eARC, 238 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018
Read: January 31 – February 2, 2018

The man across from Henriette read a book. It was a very big book, a Hunger Games or Game of Thrones kind, with a sword and flame and chess piece on the cover. Dean had never read such a big book. The man was on the very last page and Dean felt guilty suddenly for spying on him during this personal moment, but he did not stop. It was not often, he reasoned, that he would get the opportunity to observe another person at the exact moment they finished a book, a big one at that. But, after the last page, the man, without so much as a satisfied nod or pensive stare, shut the thing and immediately put in his iPhone buds. This disappointed Dean.

That’s just one of any number of paragraphs throughout these stories that don’t advance the plot, reveal or describe much in the way of character — but man, the little bit of flavor they add to the story makes it worth it. And don’t you just want to shake the man who finished the book by the shoulders and ask what is wrong with him? The guy appears for one paragraph, and I have a strong reaction to him. With short stories, you don’t typically get to do that kind of thing the way you can with novels, because every word has to count — and typically, that’s what Vincent Chu does, but every now and then, he stretches a bit. Typically, like the best short fiction writers, Chu gets his bang for his buck when it comes to his words — tight, economical prose that strikes just the right tone each time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like a Champion is a collection of eighteen short stories featuring all sorts of people — underdogs in one sense or another — getting a taste of victory. Some of this victory is very short-lived, some is quite Pyrrhic, but it’s there. The stories are varied in tone, in voice, in setting, in types of character — and that’s such a strength. Some will make you smile, some laugh, some are sad, some are tragic, some are somber, all are incredibly human.

There’s a lot I could talk about — if I could, I’d spend a few hundred words on “Squirrels”, the fourth story in the collection. I don’t know why, but that one sealed me appreciation for this book, and it stands out as a high point for me. There’s just something about it that worked for me, the same kind of thing that lead me to write three papers for three separate courses in college about one Updike short story. There were a couple of other stories that I could point to that were as as outstanding, but I’ll stick with “Squirrels” — a story about one man’s childhood basketball triumph in the midst of defeat — because I enjoyed it more.

With one exception (at least one that I noticed, I might have missed others), these are independent of each other. The two stories that are connected are so different in tone and subject matter that it takes you by surprise when you notice the connection — but it really works (and the connection is of a lesser importance, that not much changes if you don’t make the connection). It was a nice little touch, I would’ve liked a part three, however.

I’m not crazy about Chu’s depiction of older characters. Maybe if I only got one of the stories in this collection featuring an older character — I wouldn’t have commented. Or if I took a few more days to read this than I did, it wouldn’t have stood out to me as much, but when you get the same note or two being played so often with elderly characters it sticks out.

I don’t usually spend much time talking about the publisher of the books I post about, but when it comes to some indie presses, I should. A couple of months ago, I know I posted a link to a profile of 7.13 Books in a Saturday Miscellany, and before that I talked about another short story collection they put out. And come to think of it, I have one more book from them on my schedule in the coming weeks. If Like a Champion is indicative of what they are publishing (and it seems to be), there’s something in the water there, folks, keep an eye out for their books.

Like with every collection — be it full of short stories, essays, poems — there are some in this collection that don’t work for me — two because I didn’t get what he was going for; a couple that I’m pretty sure I got what he was going for, and just didn’t care for it. And I’m very sure that many people will get those I didn’t and will like the ones I didn’t care for — and even dislike the stories that I enjoyed, and maybe even someone’s nuts enough to not care for the ones that filled me with joy. There’s enough variety in these to appeal to all sorts of tastes — and that’s a compliment, Chu’s nothing if not versatile. But on the whole, this is a great collection of short stories, full of compassion, humanity, and talent. You’d do well to grab this one.

Note: I received a copy of this eARC in exchange for my honest opinions as expressed above.

—–

4 Stars

COVER REVEAL: Corridors of Time by Vinay Krishnan

Blurb:
Corridors of Time tracks the story of a sensitive young man who grows from carefree childhood to eventful manhood – one who stumbles before learning to stride through those dark and dense passages.

Set in Bangalore – a city of paradoxes. of gardens and garbage heaps. of technology and traffic snarls. of friendly people and failing infrastructure. when bungalows had gardens and pavements were meant for pedestrians. this is a narrative of the human spirit.

Rohan, an idealistic young sports lover experiences rejection, dark dejection and isolation and hurtles down the path to self-destruction.

Shyla, attractive and successful is everything his heart yearns for and his body desires, except, she is married!
Chandrika, simple and devoted fails to understand the man she loves.

The shuklas long for justice denied by the system.

And khalid fears nothing and no one …anymore.

About the Author:

Vinay Krishnan describes himself as a ‘complete Bangalorean’. A student of Clarence High School, he graduated in Humanities from St Joseph’s College. Earning a diploma in Business Administration, he began his career at Usha International Ltd and rose to a position of Senior Sales manager. Vinay has now set up a construction firm of his own. He also writes and devotes his time to an NGO assisting people with disability. The city of his dreams, Bangalore, where he stays with his wife and daughter, continues to inspire and exasperate him. He can be reached at – vinaykrshnn@yahoo.com.

Praises for the Book:

The book is simple in style and content, for often it is this simplicity that bewilders and rouses Interest.
~ Shri S . Rajendra Babu, Former Chief Justice of India

The book has excellent literary craftsmanship, passion humour and adventure. Highly recommended.
~ Mr. Namboodiri, former Asst. Editor, Deccan Herald

This charming book about old Bangalore is written in a racy easy-to-read style.
~ Deccan Herald, Bangalore.

This Cover Reveal is brought to you by Author’s Channel in association with b00k r3vi3ws
 
 

 

Pub Day Repost: Where Night Stops by Douglas Light

Where Night StopsWhere Night Stops

by Douglas Light
eARC, 252 pg.
Rare Bird/Vireo, 2018
Read: January 12 – 13, 2018

She smells of lemons and warm cinnamon and isn’t very pretty. Sliding onto the barstool next to me, she says, “Can I sit here?”

The bartender, the woman, and me — we’re the only people in the bar. She can sit anywhere. It’s not just a seat she wants.

I study her a moment then catch the bartender’s eye, the order is placed without a word. Whatever the woman wants. Alcohol, like long marriages, has a language of its own, one not composed of speech.

Now, that’s how you start a novel.

So, our narrator is orphaned the night after his high school graduation — however odd it may feel to call someone on the cusp of adulthood an orphan, he is one (and the back of the book says so). Suddenly his college dreams, plans for the future are gone, as is his past (other than memories). He finds his way from Iowa to Seattle and takes up residence in a homeless shelter. The closest thing he has to a friend there sets him up with a way to make some money — more than he’d been able to scrape together from an under-the-table gig at a gas station.

It’s obviously not above-board, but it’s good money. What else is a kid with no ties to society, no dreams, no means and nothing better to do? We bounce back and forth between the opening scene (and what follows) in the bar and his burgeoning criminal career. He bounces all of the globe playing small roles in what are likely significant crimes. The resulting story is a combination of tragedy, comedy of errors and Bildungsroman. All of which leads up to a concluding scene that is at once unexpected and the only appropriate thing that could’ve happened.

As a reader. you’re never impressed with our narrator’s choices. You may understand them, but it’s hard to be behind them. Especially because after a certain point, our young man makes a giant mistake. The reader knows this — and has to hope that whatever he does, he figures out his mistake or gets out of this life soon.

The plot’s decent and will carry you along well enough. But it’s not why you will stick with this book (at least not primarily), it’s Light’s writing. In the middle of all this, there are sentences like, “Walking the empty night street, my kidneys rattled with anxiety.” I’m pretty sure this is biologically nonsensical (I haven’t bothered to check with my son’s nephrologist, but I was tempted to), but that doesn’t stop it from being incredibly effective — you know precisely what Light’s going for there, and in the moment, your kidneys felts a little weird. There’s something to his writing that made me stop every so often to re-read a sentence or paragraph or passage — not because I missed something or didn’t understand what was happening, but because Light captured a moment, an idea, or phrase in such an engaging way that I didn’t want to move on.

I’m not sure if this is a very literary thriller, or a literary novel playing with thriller tropes. Nor am I sure that I care, but this is the kind of book that can appeal to both target audiences. It’s a good example of either genre, and a better example of why the distinctions are specious. There’s an interesting crime story here; a character study; a look at what happens to someone who has no connection to his future, society, or his past — oh, and it’s a good read, too.

Disclaimer: I received this ARC in exchange for my honest opinion about the novel, I appreciate the opportunity, but it didn’t influence the above.

—–

4 Stars

Like a Champion by Vincent Chu

Like a ChampionLike a Champion

by Vincent Chu

eARC, 238 pg.
7.13 Books, 2018

Read: January 31 – February 2, 2018

The man across from Henriette read a book. It was a very big book, a Hunger Games or Game of Thrones kind, with a sword and flame and chess piece on the cover. Dean had never read such a big book. The man was on the very last page and Dean felt guilty suddenly for spying on him during this personal moment, but he did not stop. It was not often, he reasoned, that he would get the opportunity to observe another person at the exact moment they finished a book, a big one at that. But, after the last page, the man, without so much as a satisfied nod or pensive stare, shut the thing and immediately put in his iPhone buds. This disappointed Dean.

That’s just one of any number of paragraphs throughout these stories that don’t advance the plot, reveal or describe much in the way of character — but man, the little bit of flavor they add to the story makes it worth it. And don’t you just want to shake the man who finished the book by the shoulders and ask what is wrong with him? The guy appears for one paragraph, and I have a strong reaction to him. With short stories, you don’t typically get to do that kind of thing the way you can with novels, because every word has to count — and typically, that’s what Vincent Chu does, but every now and then, he stretches a bit. Typically, like the best short fiction writers, Chu gets his bang for his buck when it comes to his words — tight, economical prose that strikes just the right tone each time.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like a Champion is a collection of eighteen short stories featuring all sorts of people — underdogs in one sense or another — getting a taste of victory. Some of this victory is very short-lived, some is quite Pyrrhic, but it’s there. The stories are varied in tone, in voice, in setting, in types of character — and that’s such a strength. Some will make you smile, some laugh, some are sad, some are tragic, some are somber, all are incredibly human.

There’s a lot I could talk about — if I could, I’d spend a few hundred words on “Squirrels”, the fourth story in the collection. I don’t know why, but that one sealed me appreciation for this book, and it stands out as a high point for me. There’s just something about it that worked for me, the same kind of thing that lead me to write three papers for three separate courses in college about one Updike short story. There were a couple of other stories that I could point to that were as as outstanding, but I’ll stick with “Squirrels” — a story about one man’s childhood basketball triumph in the midst of defeat — because I enjoyed it more.

With one exception (at least one that I noticed, I might have missed others), these are independent of each other. The two stories that are connected are so different in tone and subject matter that it takes you by surprise when you notice the connection — but it really works (and the connection is of a lesser importance, that not much changes if you don’t make the connection). It was a nice little touch, I would’ve liked a part three, however.

I’m not crazy about Chu’s depiction of older characters. Maybe if I only got one of the stories in this collection featuring an older character — I wouldn’t have commented. Or if I took a few more days to read this than I did, it wouldn’t have stood out to me as much, but when you get the same note or two being played so often with elderly characters it sticks out.

I don’t usually spend much time talking about the publisher of the books I post about, but when it comes to some indie presses, I should. A couple of months ago, I know I posted a link to a profile of 7.13 Books in a Saturday Miscellany, and before that I talked about another short story collection they put out. And come to think of it, I have one more book from them on my schedule in the coming weeks. If Like a Champion is indicative of what they are publishing (and it seems to be), there’s something in the water there, folks, keep an eye out for their books.

Like with every collection — be it full of short stories, essays, poems — there are some in this collection that don’t work for me — two because I didn’t get what he was going for; a couple that I’m pretty sure I got what he was going for, and just didn’t care for it. And I’m very sure that many people will get those I didn’t and will like the ones I didn’t care for — and even dislike the stories that I enjoyed, and maybe even someone’s nuts enough to not care for the ones that filled me with joy. There’s enough variety in these to appeal to all sorts of tastes — and that’s a compliment, Chu’s nothing if not versatile. But on the whole, this is a great collection of short stories, full of compassion, humanity, and talent. You’d do well to grab this one.

Note: I received a copy of this eARC in exchange for my honest opinions as expressed above.

—–

4 Stars

Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord by Dennis Malley

Revised after being inspired by a comment from Bookstooge to talk about something I really should’ve included initially.

Profane Fire at the Altar of the LordProfane Fire at the Altar of the Lord

by Dennis Maley


Kindle Edition, 314 pg.
Jublio, 2018

Read: January 19 – 23, 2018


Infamous papal indulgence-seller, Tetzel is falling out of favor with the German people — which means economic trouble for him, as well as those he’s paying to assist him. One such person is David, a little person (“dwarf” in sixteenth-century eyes), a con man, juggler, and entertainer. He gets himself in some legal trouble and draws upon his dubious ethnicity and a character he played to some success in the past and convinces the court that he’s a member of one of the Lost Tribe of Israel, living in Arabia, sent to Europe to secure partners in a new Crusade. To stay out of legal trouble, he has to embark on a tour of various cities to try to recruit the help of assorted kings, bankers and Bishops of Rome. Along the way, David finds a kindred spirit in Diogo, a womanizing actor hiding out as a deckhand on a merchant ship. Diogo joins David as an assistant, translator, and more.

The backdrop to these antics is a loose survey of early sixteenth-century history of Europe — the politics, diplomacy, and wars the characterize the relations between France, Spain, England, the Holy Roman Empire, German princes, German peasants, and the Popes. As I said, it’s a loose recounting, told mostly in summary form with a conversational tone.

Watching these two lie, deceive and sneak their way through the hearts and purses of Europe is a good time. I could have used a couple of female characters that were better drawn, but David and Diogo are an amusing pair. At one point, a rift between the two arises and one of them begins to believe their own press (among other things) and their lives get more interesting.

Despite the title, there’s really nothing that is satirical about religion — true believers, anyway. David and Diogo are shown as scoundrels throughout. Tetzel’s appearance is fairly matter-of-fact about what he did, Tyndale and Luther are mentioned frequently, but only for what they actually did (true, colored by popular mis-characterizations of their work, but not done to insult/defame/mock them). The various Popes and Cardinal Wolsey are discussed in terms of their political machinations (mostly having to do with becoming/staying Pope). When it comes to people of actual religious belief (Lutheran, Roman Catholic, Jewish or Kabbalistic), Maley is pretty-hands off, he doesn’t comment at all about the belief — yeah, several people are duped by these scoundrels, but that doesn’t mean that their faith isn’t real.

In the Acknowledgements, the author states that this “book’s purpose is to entertain. The standard of its scholarship is low. I am not a historian.” It’d be nice if that came before the text, so I didn’t spend so much time hemming and hawing about some of the history/depictions of historical characters.

Actually, now that I mention it — this novel would’ve been stronger without all the historical ramblings — yes, they were amusingly told. But it added nothing to the story. Not just because as a reader, you need to take his history with a generous helping of salt; but all the history primarily served to distract the reader and detract from the story of these con men. Yes, some of it — some — was helpful for some context, but the other 97-95% of the historical material could have been excised to help the rest of the novel.

Nevertheless, this was a funny story with some amusing characters. This wasn’t a typical religious-fraud satire, although it easily could’ve been — and that’s to be commended. Like many satires, Maley had some trouble toward the end and the plot threatened to get away from him — but he was able to bring things back into shape by the conclusion, which is a pretty neat trick, too. Flawed, but entertaining, it’s worth a shot.

Disclaimer: I received this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion in this post. I thank him for the shot.

—–

3 Stars