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  • Cam Rhys Lay

Fiction Reviews: Lightning Round

11 reviews of one paragraph or less.


I made it a goal this year to write and post reviews for every book I read this year. Well... it's December and I've done a pretty piss-poor job of this. Between starting a new job, trying to write myself, and hitting my goal of reading fifty books (four to go!), book reviews have sort of fallen off as a goal of mine. Here is my attempt to make up lost ground by writing a bunch of especially short reviews for a bunch of the works of fiction I've read in the last few months.


1. Cherry by Nico Walker

Cherry is a book about a US army veteran who becomes a heroin addict and bank robber after coming back from Iraq. A substantial part of the book is about the narrator's time in Iraq, which I found fascinating; however, the second half of the book is a repetitive story of the narrator and his girlfriend trying to find drugs and eventually resorting to crime in order to fund their habit. People have compared the book to Denis Johnson's Jesus's Son, which is a staple in MFA classes, but which I personally didn't like very much. Still, the fact that Jesus's Son is broken up into stories rather than a novel make that book more bearable than the second half of this one. I suppose this book does a good job of depicting what it's like being a drug addict. Unfortunately, there's only so much of that I want to read. I had very little context coming into this book and in a lot of ways I was most interested to hear the story of the book's writing and how it's largely an autobiographical novel. Bottom line: Cherry is at times riveting, but often nauseating. That might be the point, but I don't have to like it.


2. Bright Lights Big City by Jay McInerny

This is the story of a white, privileged, twenty-something in NYC in the 80s, who is pretty shitty at his job as a fact checker for a respected magazine and is often doing coke. This book is an easy target for those who would be prone to call out "white, male writers who don't understand their privilege." And they'd have a point. For instance, the narrator of this book spends a significant amount of time grappling with the loss of his beautiful, runway model wife (insert eye roll). All this might start to sound like I didn't like the book, which wasn't the case. Despite all of its objectively annoying qualities, I really liked it. In fact, as I read it dawned on me that the book felt like the kind of book I was trying to write in my twenties (minus the coke). Bottom line: Bright Lights Big City is a book that's easy to hate, but that many (including me) will love anyway.


PS: I just realized there was a movie in the 80s staring Michael J. Fox...


3. Normal People by Sally Rooney

I really liked Rooney's first novel Conversations with Friends, but I liked Normal People even more. It's a rather straight forward story of a young man and woman over the years from late high school through college. They orbit around each other--sometimes as friends, other times as a couple. At first I couldn't quite figure out why I liked this book so much. The writing is very good but not notably spectacular. Still, something about the story and these two characters' relationship just made me interrogate my own coming of age: the decisions I made, good and otherwise. And isn't that what the best literature does? Make us interrogate ourselves? Bottom line: read it.


4. Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This is a fictional oral history of a 70s rock band that comes together when singer-songwriter, Daisy Jones eventually joins rock band, The Six. This is an eminently like-able book and the format which feels at first slightly annoying, is the mechanism that really allows Reid to efficiently build her characters. After reading the book, I tried to research if the characters were based on any real-life band. At best, it appears the story of the band bares some passing resemblance to Fleetwood Mac (though there are clear differences as well). Nestled in the book is a kind of impossible love story between Daisy Jones and the front man of the Six, Billy Dunne--but I actually found this romance subplot to be the least interesting. Far more captivating than the two protagonists' romantic chemistry, was their creative chemistry, and the book does an amazing job of capturing the manic highs of a perfect creative marriage. Bottom line: a breezy read that is hard to dislike.


5. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Jonathan Franzen has long been held up as the quintessential example of the out-of-touch, privileged, white, male writer. But wow, the guy sure can write. If you looked up the phrase "deft observer of human behavior" in the dictionary, Franzen's picture should be there, front and center. And whereas, The Corrections, the book that first brought Franzen to fame, was equally excellently written, Freedom is far more affecting and human book. Bottom line: if you like literary fiction, you should read this book.


6. A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

I'd previously written about how the work of Joe Abercrombie's First Law world would make the perfect source material for the next Game of Thrones. Abercrombie continues to make a case with this novel set some thirty years after the original First Law trilogy. The characters are once again round, complicated and dynamic--and unexpected twists abound. Another innovative aspect of these books is how the world itself is dynamic, with industrial technology beginning to show up in what was before a strictly medieval world. Like much of what Abercrombie does, this flies in the face of your typical Tolkien-esque fantasy where, somehow thousands of years pass without any technological advances. If I might make one criticism it would be that the main characters are nearly all descendants of characters from earlier books, which does make the books a little "fan-servicey." Bottom line: if you've read the preceding First Law books, this is an absolute joy and must read.


7. Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

I've imagined a scenario that might be total fiction where Delia Owens first presented her agent/ editor a draft of this book that was solely the coming of age story of a girl in the marshes of North Carolina. The agent/ editor would tell her, "This is beautiful and great, but you know what would help it sell even better? Making it a murder mystery." And so, the version of Where the Crawdads Sing that so many have read was born. Me and my wife listened to this as an audiobook during our trip to Alaska this past summer, and while we were engaged with the book all the way through, I couldn't help feeling that the first two thirds was a quiet, beautifully written book, whereas the last third felt more like a disposable (if still well executed) thriller. Bottom line: this book is flawed in my opinion due to the last third, but it's still a very worthy read.


8. & 9. Outline by Rachel Cusk; Motherhood by Sheila Heti

I'm grouping these two because they're both billed as novels despite very much straddling the line between memoir (I presume) and fiction. Outline is the story of a writing instructor's trip to Greece and the long conversations she engages in while there. There isn't much plot, but there is something meditative and beautiful about the writing. Motherhood on the other hand is the story of a woman (ostensibly Heti herself) and her struggle with deciding whether she wants to have children. Throughout the book, the narrator uses an oracle in order to guide her life and line of thinking, often to fascinating results. In many ways the book can be thought of as a kind of sequel to Heti's last book, How Should a Person Be? which was similar in how it straddled the line between memoir and fiction. Bottom line: both interesting reads if you're craving something honest and different.


10. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

I couldn't help thinking that pop culture sort of ruined this book. So ingrained in our collective consciousness is the punch line of this book (that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are the same person!) that it's almost impossible to read this the way it was surely intended. It's like going back to Empire Strikes Back and trying to un-know the fact that indeed, Darth Vader is Luke's father. Bottom line: interesting to read as a historical artifact, but a lot of its original punch has undoubtedly been blunted by knowing the twist.


11. Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Similar to my review of Austin Grossman's Soon I Will Be Invincible, Meddling Kids is a book that's strong on premise, but ultimately not that satisfying. In this case, the premise isn't one of giving superheroes/ super villains psychological depth, but instead examining a kind of real-life Scooby-Doo gang as they get back together to solve one last case. Like Grossman's book, this is high on cleverness, but low on everything else. Bottom line: maybe read this if you LOVE Scooby Doo and or HP Lovecraft; otherwise, it's a pass.



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