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Randall Reads: John Dies at the End, but the Story Dies Much Earlier Than That

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment

And, really, I’m not sure John does die at the end!

The first few days I was reading this, it seemed destined to land in the rare air of 4- or 5-stars. Using Goodreads’ tags for star ratings, those numbers are reserved for “really liked it” and “it was amazing,” respectively. I don’t say either of those things about books (or movies, or songs, or much of anything for that matter) lightly. Hence, when we’re talking about a work that is tagged as being “genre fiction, it was really shaping up to be quite the coup.

Unfortunately, the novel is split into two connected books, with “Book II: Korrock” not holding up to the promise and pacing that makes “Book I: They China Food!”

I first came across David Wong’s (a.k.a. Jason Pargin) novel through a list of “The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium.”  My relationship to horror writing is somewhat responsible for my love of reading, in general, as Stephen King was the man who motivated me to pick up a book and read it of my own volition (WAY back in the early 1980’s when I was actually young.

THIS cover!

I realize fully this is far from a unique story.

30 years and a degree in English Language and Literature did little to keep me closely connected to my first literary love. The list was serving to remind me that I once preferred horror novels to all others.

Hopefully, nobody has walked away already thinking I’ve ever thought of horror (or fiction of any genre, for that matter) as less worthy of readership than anything else. I don’t think that in the slightest.

I DO think, however, that the style of writing in much of what falls into some genres could simply be better. It turns out that, while I love a good, fun story, my enjoyment of it is exponentially increased when the use of language to tell it is considered.

I also tend to want deeper character development than I often see, but that’s not as important to me in these situations.

So…where was I? Yes, the list.

Who doesn’t love a list? Even when you get mad at the injustice of your favorite potential list member being excluded, you still love the list. This seemed like a good resource for finding a book to help me reconnect with a somewhat-lost love.

“John Dies at the End” was the first book in the list at #25. Between the quirky title and cover photo, I was already pretty much sold. Hence, my chuckling at the inclusion of terms like “penis doorknobs” and “demonic wiggers” in the description was just so much drawing a design into the frothy milk atop the latte: nice, but not necessary.

You’ll get immediately that this story is told in a humorous voice. I mean, did you miss the mention of “penis doorknobs.” In a sense, the voice makes this a bit less a horror novel than what I’m used to, which is as good an illustration as to the completely daft nature of trying to slap a label on everything in the first place.

Then again, what scared me when I was 10-years-old is unlikely to scare me now, eh?

It would be a mistake to dismiss the book due to a bit of immature humor, however. While it’s there, I wouldn’t say it’s too pervasive other than in a few moments. Without giving too much away, when John (of the title) essentially attacks captors with the feces being sprayed from a dog’s rear end, it doesn’t seem slapstick-y; it actually works in context.

The problem here is more one of structure.

“They China Food!” moves at a great pace, heavily seasoned with action scenes and comedic moments. When it ended, I was completely satisfied with pretty much everything about it. The author did a great job of developing a mythology around his two protagonists—John and David (the purported author of the book)—while setting things in motion at a quick clip with several memorable scenes that will undoubtedly be excellent scenes in the upcoming film of the same name.

Unfortunately, you don’t get too far into “Korrock” before realizing that the author had a great, fun story to tell, but then needed to scramble the characters into another scenario to get to novel length.

The book’s afterword, in which Pargin tells the story of how the novel was hatched as a part-time online venture that caught fire via word-of-mouth recommendations, would seem to indicate that converting the online product to a novel necessarily created unique challenges. As tight and fast-paced as the first part of the book is, the second part is at least equally as sprawling and dragging. My overall impression of the book on the whole likely suffers from the comedown from the first part, which is vastly superior, in my opinion.

See?

That being said, I look forward to the recently released sequel: This Book is Full of Spiders, because even with the structural issues I had with John Dies at the End the final accounting leaves you with a fun, new voice working the under-served confluence area of horror, comedy, and science-fiction. The adventures of John and David are unlikely to appeal to all comers, but for the right audience, this novel hits a lot of the right notes.

Plus, Wong knows a little something about covers and titles, yeah?

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Randall Reads: “The Dead Do Not Improve” by Jay Caspian Kang

September 13, 2012 Leave a comment

Jay Caspian Kang does some writing for sports site Grantland.

I should say, he does some very good writing for GrantlandI like his style and voice. There is a complete dearth of quality sports writing these days, in my opinion, especially longer-form writing.

It would seem Grantland was founded at least partially in the interest of reviving what appeared to be a bit of a dying genre in the fast pace coverage of sports on the web.

While Grantland is only too happy to stray from the path of serious sports discussion, it’s usually toward the realm of reality television. Hence, when I heard one of the more notable writers for the site was publishing a novel, I was immediately intrigued.

Further, it appeared the novel was going to have nothing to do with sports, much less reality television, making it even more of a rare bird.

Because they’re two of my favorite things, I feel like literature and sports should naturally appeal to people. I’m mystified at how, generally, fans of either are not fans of the other. In fact, most of the time there’s a bit of an antagonistic attitude toward the other. I’ve been told this is rooted in the social strata of American public school where the jocks are commonly jerks toward intellectuals.

In my experience, that’s definitely the case in films and television, but I don’t remember ever seeing it manifested when I was in school. Does it really exist outside the exaggerated memories of those who perceived offense?

None of which is relevant to reviewing the book. This is likely among the reasons I don’t get paid to review books. I tend to wander.

What I was getting at was the idea that I mentally embraced Kang as a kindred spirit. There was some advance buzz on the novel which led me to believe the author had an appreciation for the craft of fiction writing. I already knew he was into sports, though he appears to be an NBA junkie first and foremost, which is completely outside my sports scope.

Anyhow…close enough.

The style I enjoy from Kang’s work on Grantland can be found throughout “The Dead Do Not Improve.” There is some deft work with words that made me pause and reread passages for enjoyment, rather than the dreaded “Wait…what?” I sometimes get when the story drags and I lose focus or when the author forgets that the reader is not as knowledgeable about the story and characters as they are and forget to fill in some of the blanks.

Also, there is a lot of humor in the telling of the story. It’s a little dark, I suppose, but I’m never bothered by that. You’d think that means I’ve a dark nature, but I don’t! People who know me would laugh at such a suggestion, I assure you. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. My wife can attest to this as I constantly stopped to read her passages I knew she’s agree were funny.

I was even right about that a few times.

All the dark and funny is woven into a bit of a strange noir-ish crime/mystery thingy. Maybe. It’s not really a genre with which I’m horribly familiar, but I remember thinking Raymond Chandler was cool when I was in college, so I may know just enough to declare it to be there.

What I do feel I know a bit about, and found entirely lacking here, was depth of the characters.

The two main players are Philip Kim and Siddhartha “Sid” Finch. Kim is a young, urban San Fransican who finds himself in the middle of a crime spree. Finch is a SFPD detective working the case. The narrative alternates between parallel stories centered on the two men moving toward a conclusion in which you’d presume they will both figure prominently.

Seemingly, the development of either character is set aside for social commentary (internet/social media, gentrification, Korean-American culture) while moving the plot along at a decent pace. Kang keeps it fun by introducing some intriguing elements (a pornography magnate, a cult, a surfing Chris Isaak, etc.). Unfortunately, I’m a reader who wants to get to know the principals very well before I can really invest in the events surrounding them.

On top of that, as long as I’m delving into my own personal problems that won’t necessarily reflect in your reading experience, the name Sid Finch is a direct nod to a George Plimpton piece written for Sports Illustrated as an April Fool’s Day joke. “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch” detailed the discovery by the New York Mets of a guy who could throw the ball over 165 mph and pitched while wearing a hiking boot on one foot with the other foot bare. I’m sure this reference sails harmlessly over the heads of a lot of people, if only due to it being someone aged and semi-obscure, especially among literati, but I was a devoted reader of sports magazines in the mid-1980s and was horrified at the idea that the Mets would have both Doc Gooden and this guy. (Not fair!)

I was a bit naive back then…

Anyhow, every time Finch’s name appeared in the novel, I was immediately unable to stay immersed in the story. I was simply too hyper-aware of the reference.

Speaking of references…all the hip-hop references land like lead balloons with me. No clue. No impact. Not interested enough to look it up.

Hence, I’m torn. I enjoyed the style and voice Kang delivered (pop culture-isms excepted). I also found a lot of the elements of the setting to be interesting. Just very let down and uninterested in the characters. In other words, the elements that worked for me really worked, but I could not get over the things I found disappointing.

My general sense is that the average reader is going to really enjoy this debut novel, so I’d have to recommend taking a look at it, with the only reservation being that if you’re the type of reader who wants to really get to know the characters well, you’d need to at least need to put that aside for this one.

Randall Reads: Empire State by Adam Christopher

August 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I fully wanted and expected to really enjoy this novel.

When I decided to read “Empire State,” all I knew about it was that there was a science-fiction angle as well as superheroes in a noir-ish story.

I also knew it came from Angry Robot Books, an imprint with which I’ve had mostly positive experiences, and that the sample I read of author Adam Christopher’s upcoming book, “Seven Wonders,” had me hooked nearly instantly.

Further, two of my favorite reads of the last few years have been very successful in layering detective/mystery/noir story elements into genre-type novels.

China Mieville’s “The City & The City” remains among my all-time favorite novels, having very successfully set a murder mystery in a world with a very interesting sci-fi (is ‘speculative’ a better word?) angle.

Low Town” by Daniel Polansky features more of a fantasy world (you know, medieval England with magic and dragons and all that?) in which the protagonist moves while trying to figure out who’s doing some murders.

“Empire State” actually has some interesting parallels with the Mieville work, particularly in that there are parallel worlds at the center of each novel’s setting.

It would be unfair to wish that Adam Christopher were as tight a story teller as Mieville, primarily because I feel very few writers I’ve read even come close to that level. However, I do feel like Christopher would have benefited from more-stringent editing or plot outlining. The fact of the matter is, there’s so much going on in this novel, that it’s hard to find the focus.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the things floating around a little too freely in “Empire State”:

  • Prohibition-era gangsters
  • superheroes
  • steampunk-like technology
  • prototypical noir detective
  • alternate/parallel worlds
  • religious cult activity
  • robots
  • war
  • male bonding/friendship
  • political power manipulation of information to citizenry
  • gay rights
  • split-personality disorder/duality of a personality

There’s likely some things I’m forgetting, but you get the point. That’s a lot of stuff to juggle. Ultimately, it leads to a lack of clarity as to what the story is about.

I would promise to not ruin it for you, but I am still fairly unsure myself. Even after three consecutive climactic scenes at the end of the book, you’re still unclear as to what the motivations behind the book’s initial conflict were in the first place. It’s not giving much away to say the two superheroes of the story have a big fight, which is crucial to the creation of the world in “Empire State.” The Space Pirate and the Skyguard were once a cohesive unit in fighting crime, but split. Why? Several people in the novel wonder this as well, which would lead a reader to think you’ll learn why.

Along similar lines is the issue of the extreme thinness of the characters in this story. Even Rex, the story’s protagonist, is little more than an archetype with a few personal issues thrown in to flesh him out a little, but it’s so very little that you don’t get a real sense of who he is.

I should admit here that there is a convention in the story that somewhat explains why the characters might seem half-formed, at best, but I think that would be a little cheap an answer as to why you don’t get a good sense of anyone in this book. Several characters have fairly large roles in the important events in the story, but their motivations are a complete mystery because they’ve not been developed much, if at all. All of which leads to a general lack of interest in how the dramatic conflicts ultimately resolve.

There is certainly enough action in “Empire State” that it is bound to have a more-receptive audience available out there somewhere than the one it found when I cracked it open (or whatever the ebook equivalent to ‘cracking a book open’ is).

I’ve had many a discussion with other readers who, like me, enjoy genre fiction but are frustrated that the level of writing falls often far behind the level of great ideas and stories. This is only a real problem when the result is a story that goes in too many directions with characters not well-enough developed to see it though.

It pains me to say that this is the case with “Empire State.” I will hope for better luck with “Seven Wonders” when it’s released next week (because it really does sound good!)

Randall Reads: The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers

Like many, I was captivated by the hissy fit thrown by Christopher Priest with regards to the nominees for the 2012 Arthur C. Clarke Award.

You know how whenever anyone ever publishes a “Top X” list of any nature, some are quick to discredit the list entirely because so-and-so was left off, showing that anyone connected to the construction of the list is a complete idiot? Well, Priest took that fairly common article comment and expanded it to a blog post, first listing a few novels he thought were easily more worthy of being on the “short list” than those that actually made it, then taking shots at the nominees before calling for the sacking of the entire panel of judges and/or scrapping the 2012 edition of the awards altogether, which he ultimately called a “modest suggestion.”

Because asserting your assessment of a pile of books is so incredibly superior to that of those charged with the assessment that they should just cancel the awards altogether is “modest.”

Same scale as a presidential candidate casually suggesting college students should just borrow $20K from their fathers upon finishing school to launch their business ventures.

Hey…it’s just a modest suggestion…no biggie…

Anyhow, in Priest’s semi-scathing take-downs of the shortlist, only the ultimate winner came out relatively unscathed.

“Of the six shortlisted novels, I can find only one which I think is something we should be proud of. I refer to The Testament of Jessie Lamb, by Jane Rogers ”

As much as I otherwise wanted to be dismissive of Priest’s opinion as he was of China Mieville’s “Embassytown,” which I rather enjoyed, I couldn’t help but wonder how Rogers’ work alone survived the angry scatter-shot of the post. Had it not then won the award, I’m not sure whether I’d have followed up on it, but it did and I did.

Had I only paid slightly more attention to a criticism Priest included later in that same paragraph as the quote cited above: “It is not to my mind a wholly achieved novel: it is written with real style, excellent characterization and a lot of genuine emotion, but to be fully realized as a work of speculative fiction it needs a wider canvas, a sense that larger events are mounting in the background.”

Sidebar: If you ever run into Christopher Priest on the street, for whatever reason, and he pays you a complement on something, I think it’d be best if you brace for what’s coming next.

Because something’s coming next and, hurtful though it may be, it may also be spot-on.

He absolutely nailed this one, for sure.

“The Testament of Jessie Lamb” is not to my mind, also, a wholly achieved novel. The style is there. You can certainly say the characterization is excellent, even if you can’t find anything likable about the protagonist. Plenty of genuine emotion…well, I assume it’s genuine, but it’s hard for me to accept the annoying protagonist as being a little over-the-top captive to the whims of her emotional state from minute to minute.

Jessie Lamb is a teenager at a time when some really heavy world events are playing out, the progenitor of which is a disease that essentially makes procreation impossible. Hence, without some creative workarounds, the human race can see itself being extinct in the very near future.

That little piece of information alone would be more than enough to suck me in. It may be I’m a sucker for the whole dystopia thing, but I was immediately interested in what that world would look like.

Unfortunately, other than being mentioned as happening, you learn little to nothing about the terrorists, suicide bombers, gangs, roadblocks, religious cults, trafficking of kidnapped children, spiking suicide rates, and new social divisions between men and women including a new acceptance of homosexuality.

Or, all the stuff that would make this a vastly different book and of a great deal more interest of me than an intent focus on the thought patterns of a single teenage girl coping with the world around her and trying to find a way to contribute to its betterment in some significant and tangible way.

It’s a little unfair to review the book this isn’t as opposed to the book it is, but the entire time I was reading it, I couldn’t help but continually wish for Rogers to step back several paces and allow me to see just how crazy things have gotten from a perspective a bit removed from that of a fickle teenage girl. Though I don’t care to think of myself as necessarily needing to be able to identify with a protagonist in order to connect with a book, it would have greatly helped in this case. The best I could do was to sympathize with her father, which is more than just a gender thing, but I’d not care to give away the plot points in this regard for anyone who may seek this out.

And, maybe you should. I seem to be among the (very) few who do not have a generally positive response to the novel.

Just know that despite the intriguing setting, the book is really about a girl and her thoughts and how she perceives things. Once you are set with that, you’re much more likely to read the award-winning novel seeming to be enjoyed by many, rather than wishing for the book I thought I was going to be reading when I picked it up.

Randall Reads: Is this a Lame Book, or What? ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian Produces a Dud

April 14, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m a baseball fan.

I’m not as big a baseball fan as most who have made it their life to work in and around baseball, I would guess.

With this in mind, I’ll have to at least admit that I’m probably not the ideal audience for Tim Kurkjian’s paean to the game he covers for ESPN, “Is This a Great Game, or What?

This would mean there IS, somewhere, an ideal audience for the book. From what I can tell, however, those people aren’t ever going to turn away from discussions about statistics and baseball anecdotes to do much other than watch a baseball game.

There are 16 chapters in the book, each centered on a theme. Each theme is addressed by the insertion of a series of anecdotes.

THAT’S IT! THAT’S THE BOOK!

May of the themes and related anecdotes seem to be meant to bolster Kurkjian’s opinion that baseball is simply superior to other sports in many ways. That is, until you get near the end where he laments the fact that the game seems to be losing the interest of people en masse due to an overall lack of interest in favor of sports with more action.

The fourteenth chapter is a series of 25 questions seemingly meaning to challenge long-standing bits of conventional baseball tradition, which would be fine, but they’re all delivered with a bit of a condescending, eye-rolling tone which makes me think that, when Kurkjian discusses an item such as, “Why do we rank teams by the highest batting average, not the most runs scored,” the underlying thought is that Kurkjian simply is understanding the game at it’s absolute best-level of appreciation and the rest of us all suffer from a similarly elevated level of enlightenment.

It wears thin.

Another major flaw with this book is the feeling it was slopped together. I can think of at least three anecdotes that were repeated in different areas of the book. There’s no doubt that it is interesting that Billy Wagner switched his predominant throwning arm after breaking an arm as a child, but it just needs mentioned the one time. The only thing I get out of it being told a second time is that you should have either hired or fired an editor somewhere between writing and publishing this book.

All that being said, there are some funny bits in the book. I thought the chapter about ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” was plenty entertaining. Plus, admittedly, there ARE a lot of interesting anecdotes to be had.

Ultimately though, there’s not enough cohesion here to make it a must-read. It might be a good bathroom book, in that you could pick it up and flip to any page and not be any more or less engaged in the whole of the book than would be someone reading it straight through. If the goal of the book WAS to change the mind of a reader disinclined to agree with Kurkjian’s assertions of the superiority of baseball, I think it’s a failure (much like his annoyingly persistent and Candyland theory that Babe Ruth would be as good as he was, if not better, if he were plunked down in today’s major leagues.)

And, to be clear, I’m writing this as I try to listen to and watch the Detroit Tigers baseball game in a different browser window. I DO think it’s a great game; I am just comfortable with my and your level of understanding and enjoyment of it…even if you believe that Babe Ruth nonsense.

Satan is Real! “The Devil All the Time,” by Donald Ray Pollock

The word “devil” is in the title. If this might bother you a little bit, don’t read this.

The cover is a bit creepy. If this makes you hesitate, don’t read this.

There is some violence. If you are the sort who can’t be past such subject matter, don’t read this.

There are, in fact, some fairly nasty people and events found in the text of this book…

Surely, you are either in or out by now. No need to continue down this road.

Go ahead and read the prologue. Experience a short scene with the Russell family through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy already haunted by his father’s twin obsessions of drinking and praying. That should either drive you the other way or drag you into Knockemstiff, Ohio en route to wild ride through the lives of some stark characters wandering the haunted hillsides of Donald Ray Pollock’s first full-length novel.

If you’re like me, you’re going to be thrilled.

The characters alone are enough to keep your attention throughout the span of the book. You have the aforementioned Arvin Russell, who witnesses some interesting prayer tactics on the part of his father, who is desperately attempting to enlist the help of the divine to heal his terminally ill wife The creative use and manipulation of religion and its true believers creates a stable of quirky people operating in separate story lines, touching only lightly until they collide in spectacularly horrific ways. Think “slow motion train wreck.”

Our cast of characters include:

Arvin and his parents, which we’ve covered enough without telling the story (I’ve mentioned I don’t do story recap, yeah?)

Arvin’s grandmother and the orphaned girl for whom she cares.

Roy and Theodore: When first you meet these two, Roy dumps spiders over his head as part of a sermon, accompanied by the guitar playing of wheelchair-bound Theodore. Theodore loves Roy.

The Flamingo Lady and Flapjack the Clown: Barely in the book, but a perfect place to mention them. (In fact, if you’ve gotten to the point where you’re reading that there is a character called ‘Flapjack the Clown,’ and are not already arranging to own the book, I can’t help you.)

Carl and Sandy: The depiction of this couple has to be the reason so many reviews of this novel mention Quentin Tarantino. I mean, I guess you can make a case for them evoking Mickey and Mallory, but it would be a weak case, indeed. I am not much a fan of reviews that compare the work being reviewed with other works with a greater resonance in pop-culture spheres. I hate to just dismiss it as lazy, but it IS lazy and often misses the mark. This here, is a great example. There’s a lot of violence. Does that make it Tarantino-esque? I wouldn’t deny the man is known for including a lot of bloody mess in his films, but I always think of the alluring dialogue in his films. There’s nothing in Pollock’s writing that will remind you of Jules and Vincent discussing Parisian fast food.

And, right after I called it lazy…

There is a LOT of violence here. I know some people are sensitive to that and will automatically be unable to move past it to see the strength of this piece, which is some highly stylized writing. If you’re reading it and can’t stop thinking of how violent it is, that’s obviously a problem. It reminds me of the first time I saw an episode of “Deadwood” on HBO. I hadn’t been following the story, so I wasn’t absorbed into enjoying the local color, characters or plot well enough to not hear the word “FUCK!” being exclaimed every fifth syllable. It kicked me out of the story again and again to where I failed to make the 30-minute mark.

Watching the series from the beginning, however, had a bit of a numbing effect to where I’m not sure I didn’t imagine how much they were cursing my first experience. Make no mistake; I’m aware there is still a lot of cursing, but now it just seems all part of that local color I learned to understand to enjoy way back in tenth grade when we discussed “The Outcasts of Poker Flats,” by Bret Harte.

Of course, the language in “Deadwood” doesn’t quite drive the action the way the violence does in “The Devil All the Time.” Not a perfect analogy in that sense. I was just trying to say you’d do well to look around the blood to get to the meat.

It’s probably fair to address a perceived flaw or two if I’m going to request you overlook something else.

Any reader is going to pick up a book with all these story lines and assume they’re going to be tied together at some point. The ways all the assorted characters are brought together when they’re brought together does give one a bit of a “Oh, COME ON!” reaction. I don’t wish to say “predictable” because I don’t think it is that, but there is an element of tidiness to it that is a bit incongruous with the messy lives of these characters. Ultimately, it’s not a huge deal. I mean, when you read a Jason Bourne book, you know he’s ultimately not going to be killed. Here, you’re put early in a position of knowing that something is coming and, hence, can somewhat see it coming at you. Again, doesn’t ruin it for me.

Essentially, you’re either going to like the style, tone, and storytelling capacity of Donald Ray Pollock or you won’t. I’d imagine this book and author to be somewhat polarizing in that sense. I’m going to call myself a fan, which means I may or may not admit to overlooking some things in favor of an overall joy of reading the book. This also means that, should you say it’s no good, I reserve the right to dismiss you with a “eh…what do you know?!”

DEVIL! DEVIL! DEVIL!

Randall Reads: Out of Disaster, Salvation…Jesmyn Ward’s “Salvage the Bones”

February 19, 2012 1 comment

Poverty. Single-parent family. Teenage pregnancy. Alcoholism. Dog Fighting. Dismemberment. Hurricane Katrina.

As top-line topics go, “Salvage the Bones” touches on some pretty big bummers.

That being said, there is a constant breeze of humanity and family blowing through Jesmyn Ward’s pages, strongest after the storm has passed and the waters have receded.

People much smarter about literature and the written word awarded this novel the 2011 National Book Award for fiction, so I write this with a heavy amount of consideration that there’s a good chance I’m missing/misunderstanding something about this novel. This is not to say that I found the book to be poorly written or any such thing. To the contrary, there is quite a lot I enjoyed about this book. The story, language, and characters all have a way of sticking with you.

But, until one of those smarter people are able to explain to me what I’m missing, I would have to opine that it is not the best book I’ve read published within the window for qualification for that prize. (Yeah, I preferred “The Tiger’s Wife.” Sue me.)

This may all come down to one (perceived) flaw, to be honest. It is such a big flaw, however, I’m surprised it didn’t hinder the novel’s rise to glory and that I haven’t read other reviews finding fault with it.

Of course, all that means is that it’s probably more a personal hang-up and those smart people would just shake their heads at my words in disappointment. This would be sad because I know Victor LaValle to have been among the panelists who selected the award winner.

I like LaValle!

I have to say, however, that it eventually drove me CRAZY how many times Esch (the narrator and protagonist) refers to Medea as she’s reading about her in Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology” and becomes an über-obvious parallel for her own story.

Well, there are elements which might not be as clear, but, (un)luckily Ward and Esch are there to point them out for you page after page after page. It’s a little maddening, making me want to scream, “ALRIGHT! I GET IT ALREADY!”

Except that I often read during my bus commute to and from the city and would, at least be an unwelcome drawing of unwelcome attention. At most, I could be thrown off the bus due to the misunderstanding.

Anyhow, this became such a prominent thing within the story that it began to hinder my enjoyment of the otherwise-masterful storytelling. I distinctly remember turning a page and quickly skimming to see where the next reference to Medea and Jason and the Argonauts would be. Not finding one for three consecutive pages felt like a triumph.

A triumph I celebrated quietly.

I hate to linger on this singular issue too much, especially as it seems to have not bothered anyone else too much. It is MY review however, and it is a huge part of my overall experience of having read the book.

Since it was not enough to otherwise ruin the book for me, though, I shall proceed.

Ward does a great job of drawing her scene and characters. “The Pit” and its inhabitants are memorable and likable, warts and all. Esch and her brothers–Randall, Skeetah, and Junior–are the primary family members through which you experience the story, with their deceased mother’s spirit playing as big a role emotionally as their Daddy does physically. You’ll instinctively love Big Henry and be suspicious of Manny. In fact, I think those two secondary/tertiary characters are as memorable as any I can think of.

Generally, I don’t do story recapping, because I don’t really like to read story recaps in book reviews. I think it’s fairly well known this book takes place in the week leading up to Hurricane Katrina hitting the gulf coast. It would be a mistake to confuse that event to be the novel’s subject matter. It certainly has some allegorical qualities, but this is a much smaller (hence, larger) story about people and family and overcoming and love (“love as certainty”).

Keep in mind before picking it up, however, there are some heavy, heavy topics in this book (remember the first line of the review?). If it’s going to just bum you out,  then…sorry. If you can see through some rough times (reading about dog fighting isn’t going to appeal to many, I’m sure), you’ll get a lot out of this book…even if the continued referencing to Greek mythology gets tired.