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REVIEW: Galveston

galvestonAuthor: Nic Pizzolatto

2010, Scribner

Filed under: Thriller, Literary

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 3
Depth..... 7

I don’t know what happened to Nic Pizzolatto, but I’m sorry about it.

This is the most distressing novel I’ve ever read. I don’t mean it’s the most violent, although there is some gut-churningly intense violence. I mean the effect of reading this novel is that of having a heavy weight of despair slowly suffocate you. By the end, I was emotionally exhausted and long since ready for it to be over.

That’s not such a far cry from Pizzolato’s more well-known work, HBO’s True Detective, which airs the final episode of its first season on Sunday. That show might be the finest mystery drama I’ve experienced in any medium. It features a tangled mystery at its core, but with a bleak, bizarre, and disjointed telling of that mystery. True Detective’s characters are outstanding, simultaneously unlikeable wrecks of humanity, and fascinating, magnetic alter-heroes boasting a uniqueness rarely seen in a police procedural.

While Galveston has a few of the same tics, and a lot of similarly great prose, as True Detective, its premise isn’t nearly as captivating and its ending is more devastating than satisfying or anything else.
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REVIEW: The White Rail

Author: Clarinda Harriss

2014, Half Moon Editions

Filed Under: Literary

white rail

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 10
Entertainment..... 10
Depth..... 9

Reading Clarinda Harriss’s fiction is like reading another version of Laura Lippman’s and Anne Tyler’s Baltimores mixed up together, from the genteel dilapidation of old Baltimore to the dangerous underbelly of the city’s streets. The White Rail is a slender volume, precious as a poetry collection, consisting of six stories, all set in Baltimore or nearby.

Harriss is first and foremost a poet, and her stories brim with a love of language, the sound of it, spoken by her characters (“Sista, you got some junk in yo trunk,” a random voice says in “The Vinegar Drunker.); the sounds of words together (“…lesbian sex poems whose I’s and S’s send the readers’ tongues licking and lapping like lascivious lovers.”); she wallows gleefully in their rhymes, their rhythms, the derivation and evolution of words.  Indeed, two of the stories, “In the House” and “Bone to Bone,” might accurately be said to be about poetry.  In both, Harriss considers the tension between the everyday street rhythms of spoken language and the metric requirements of formal verse.  “Bone to Bone,” a weird tale of “identity theft” regarding a Pulitzer Prize-winning black female poet, highlights the tension between vernacular poetry, its jazz rhythms, off-rhymes, and the formal verse structures of the traditions of English literature, Elizabethan sonnets, Metaphysical poetry, etc.  “In the House” might be characterized as doing the same, but with regard to Emily Dickinson and African-American poets.
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REVIEW: Dominion

dominionAuthor: CJ Sansom

2014, Mantle

Filed under: Historical, Literary, Thriller

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 7

I’m still on my audiobook kick, and I’m still sorting potential titles by length. Dominion weighs in at a solid 21 hours, or just over 700 pages in print. In an odd way, that’s its downfall: length. If this were a short novel, or better yet a short story, its side-story plot arc would be interesting, if still not worth all the world-building. As it is, this is a very well-written alternate history novel that manages to realistically document a quite boring back corner of an epic war.

The premise, or at least the advertised premise, is a great one. In 1940, in real life, when Neville Chamberlain stepped down as prime minister of Britain, Winston Churchill became prime minister, and led Britain and the free world to stand up against the Nazis.

In Dominion, when Chamberlain steps down, Edward Halifax is made prime minister instead. Halifax immediately surrenders to the Nazis and Britain becomes a territory of the Third Reich. Churchill goes into hiding and leads a far-reaching Resistance against the occupation of the Nazis. The first chapter of the book depicts that pivotal moment in history with vivid realism and gravitas befitting it.

Unfortunately, that’s almost the only time we see Churchill in the entire novel, and it’s the last time the actual action in the book matches up with the enormous scale invoked by writing an alternate history of World War II.
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REVIEW: The Alloway Files

allowayAuthor:  E.J. Roller

2013, New Stein Publishing House

Filed Under: Literary

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 8

Like Joseph Heller, E.J. Roller has a fine sense of the absurd.  The Catch-22 world she creates in The Alloway Files seethes with the bureaucratic insanity of a city public school system, pointless rules and procedures perpetuated for their own sake, a bleak, darkly humorous landscape against which her protagonist, Ellen Alloway, struggles so as not to sink “all the way” into it, indistinguishable as a drop of water in the ocean.

Roller sardonically describes “the dark gray of the four-lane road, the light gray of the sidewalks, the faded gray of the run-down rowhouses, the rumbling gray of the clouds above, and the ominous gray of the school headquarters behind her.”  And Ms. Alloway? “…her brain had already gone as gray as her surroundings.”  Employed by the public school system, Ms. Alloway has been banished to the “Temporary Reassignment Room,” for reasons that are unclear, even to her.   Like Captain John Yossarian before her, Alloway will nevertheless try to inject a sense of value into this world.  (Significantly, the novel is dedicated to “the un-reformed.”)
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REVIEW: Harvest

harvestAuthor: Jim Crace

2013, Nan A. Talese

Filed Under: Literary, Historical, Thriller

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 5

I’ve been sitting on this review for a couple of months now. That’s in part because I’ve been crazy busy, and in part because I really don’t have much to say about this book. I don’t mean that as a knock, Harvest is a quick and pleasurable read, a historical fiction quasi-thriller by a very talented author. It’s a good book, but in the end a pretty unremarkable one. So apologies ahead of time that this review is as much summary as anything.

Crace’s novel is set in a post-Medieval English barley-farming village, in the days immediately following the yearly harvest. Some youths get a little carried away in the festivities celebrating the occasion, and what was intended as a minor prank ends up burning down the barn of the property’s lord.

Their lord, however, is in the process of losing his rights to the land to an in-law’s inheritance claim, and the new guy is a Sheriff of Nottingham type, who wants to leave his impression upon the peasants swiftly and forcibly. So some drifters found on the outskirts of town are scapegoated, and punished for the boys’ crime.
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REVEW: On Love

[This philosophical, yet humorous novel chronicling the different stages of a love affair is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Alain de Bottononlove

2006, Grove Press

Filed Under: Literary

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 8
Depth..... 10

We’ve all been through break-ups. When a relationship ends, our response falls somewhere between shrugging our shoulders and crawling in a hole. In either case, rumination and reflection is inevitable, as massive life change demands at least a glimpse from that hole. On Love is surely the result of an extended such stint, a perspicacious novel that does a remarkable job of detailing the finer points of a nearly universal human experience through a singular example.

Exactly what this book is is difficult to pin down. It’s a novel, of course, but one that’s part humorist’s rumination, part case study, and part philosophical treatise. It’s an intellectual book, drawing all sorts of connections to philosophical thought. Yet at the same time it is grounded in a cultural reality, very much an investigation of a love affair particular to the post-sexual revolution era, one in which the power dynamic in a couple is both liberated and, perhaps in its freeness, more fractious. There’s a certain longing on display here, one which we’ve all experienced to some degree, for the type of everlasting storybook love promised us by media, or by the superficial observation of those around us, maybe even by the postwar social mores that demanded the suppression of marital discord by our grandparents’ “greatest” generation.


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REVIEW: Archangel

[This collection of historical short fiction focusing on women in science is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Andrea Barrettarchangel-2013-by-andrea-barrett_original

2013, Norton

Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories, Historical

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 9

Quality linked story collections are a rare breed. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio and Andrea Barrett’s own previous collection–and National Book Award winner–Ship Fever, Barrett’s Archangel elegantly presents separate and distinct stories that work together to build a complete work greater than the sum of its parts. I love books like this, that artfully blur the line between story collection and novel.

There are only five stories here; each is lengthy, but not quite novella length. There is no concrete unifying plot thread, although characters (or their relatives) and locations bridge the stories, which span about 40 years between the end of the 19th century up to the cusp of World War II. Instead, the stories are woven together thematically. Much like Ship Fever, Archangel focuses primarily on women characters in scientific circles, primarily naturalism, though not exclusively.
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REVIEW: The Dog Stars

dogstarsAuthor: Peter Heller

2013, Vintage Contemporaries

Filed Under: Literary, Sci-Fi

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 8
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 7

Finally, a (recent) post-apocalyptic (post-trauma?) novel that manages to be both “literary” and not-a-letdown. Heller’s novel is both brisk and poignant, without stepping all over its own feet in an attempt to be something more than it is: a novel about a dude and his dog trying to survive after civilization’s collapse.

Dog Stars is set in the immediate aftermath of a worldwide pandemic that wiped out most of the human race, and effectively toppled human civilization. The humans that remain scavenge for existence, endangered not only by other desperate humans, but by a climate that is suddenly quite unbalanced without technology’s influence on the atmosphere. Game is dying out; drought makes agriculture increasingly difficult.
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REVIEW: Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish

LDMDCPAuthor: David Rakoff

2013, Doubleday

Filed Under: Literary, Poetry

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 5
Depth..... 6

I wanted to love this book. I wanted to love this book so much that after receiving the most useless form reply ever to my request for a review copy from Doubleday’s publicity division, I went to my local independent bookstore (support the Harvard Bookstore) and bought it new, fully intending to love every line and then praise it here on Chamber Four.

In case you couldn’t already guess, things just didn’t work out that way. Maybe I set my expectations too high, or David Rakoff did. I love his writing, all of his essays and every piece he ever did for This American Life. I wanted his posthumously published novel in verse to transcend his other work. I wanted a grand finale.

Instead, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish is just a finale, one last work from a great writer, which leaves me above all with the impression of how much more he might have done with even just a little more time.
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REVIEW: The Fault in Our Stars

fault-in-our-stars[This heart-breaking young adult cancer novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: John Green

2012, Dutton Books

Filed under: Literary, Young Adult

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 10

A week ago, I had the urge to read John Green’s phenomenally popular young adult novel about a girl with cancer. I just assumed that we’d already reviewed The Fault in Our Stars, since it’s absolutely everywhere, so when I went to find out who I should borrow it from, I was shocked to find no mention of it anywhere on Chamber Four. So let’s correct that now.

I’ll keep this short, because I don’t imagine I’ll be telling you anything you haven’t already heard, as TFIOS is that rare, pleasurable case where a huge hit lives up to considerable expectations.
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