Finally Out by Dr. Loren A. Olson

October 10, 2011 at 6:42 pm (ARC, book review, books, memoir, nonfiction, psychology, queer interest, queer studies, reading)

With Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, Dr. Loren Olson delivers an all-in-one memoir, psychology, and self-help text about coming out of the closet in later life. Through discussion of key psychological concepts and personal stories Olson, who came out at forty, explains why the coming out process can be delayed for some men, and in doing so attempts to submarine the misconception that gay men who marry women and raise families are only using their wives and children to hide their sexuality. From deeply held religious beliefs and traditional gender norms to social expectations and fear of rejection Olson examines the numerous factors that contribute to the denial and repression of sexual identity. He also discusses the challenges unique to this particular demographic such as helping children understand and cope with their father’s sexuality, and reconciling the desire for a traditional family dynamic in a country that, by and large, does not allow gay couples the benefits of marriage.

Though it is good to see this largely ignored aspect of the gay experience given a thorough examination, Finally Out tries to be so many things at once that the text never really coalesces into cohesive narrative. The history lessons, psychological concepts, personal stories and advice contained in each chapter do not feel like parts of a larger whole, but a jumble of ideas thrown together at random. Transitions from one paragraph to the next are abrupt. When using personal stories to illustrate psychological concepts Olson often fails to explain exactly how the story relates to the concept or the overarching theme of the chapter. For example, in chapter four which focuses largely on the coming out process, Olson writes about the dissolution of his marriage. Though, yes, the break-up of Olson’s marriage certainly played a key role in his coming out process he does not actually write about how it did. He goes into detail about how and when everything went sour, and theorizes about how his wife and children felt during the divorce, but he does not frame the story within a context of coming out and that left me wondering why he chose to include this story in this particular chapter. This disconnect occurs throughout the book whenever Olson introduces a personal anecdote, and it made me feel like I was reading two separate and distinct books, not a unified text.

Finally Out contains a lot of useful information, but it is trying to do too much. Olson should have written a psychology book or a memoir, not both at the same time.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Rivers of Gold by Adam Dunn

October 25, 2010 at 12:17 pm (ARC, book review, books, fiction, mystery & suspense, New York, novels, reading, suspense/thriller)

It’s 2013 and the Big Apple has finally rotted to the core. Besieged by mass unemployment, race riots, declining property values, and a thriving criminal underground, New York City is no longer the land of opportunity. The only jobs that offer any kind of security are illegal, and the crime lords have new immigrants and recent college graduates lined up around the corner looking to get in on the action. Luckily, Renny got in on the ground floor. A fashion photographer by day and drug dealer by night, Renny moves contraband through the underground party circuit using a network of taxi cabs as his cover. But little does he know Officer Santiago of the NYPD,  working undercover as a cab driver, is hot on Renny’s tail. But Santiago isn’t interested in a little fish like Renny. He’s looking to bust Renny’s boss, Reza, before his criminal enterprise takes over the entire City.

Though the blurb on the cover promises “a mile a minute, kick-ass blast of tech noir,” that isn’t what first time novelist Adam Dunn delivers in Rivers of Gold. While he’s got the noir part down, Dunn still has a lot to learn about pacing and character development.

The first two-thirds of the novel flow like molasses. Full of unnecessary back story, and multiple information dumps that take the form of extended monologues that sound completely unnatural coming from the mouths of dope heads and police officers, Dunn saves all the high-octane action for the final third of Rivers of Gold. Unfortunately, all the tension he builds in the last few chapters of the book only lead to an average pay off.

Neither of the two main characters are strong enough to carry a novel. They reminded me of the cookie cutter characters present in most post-Jerry Orbach episodes of “Law & Order”. Renny is a dealer who thinks he’s hot shit but isn’t half as smart or cunning as he believes himself to be, and Santiago is a gruff but fair cop whose entire goal in life is to make detective. Neither of them are fleshed out any fuller than that, and because of it (cue broken record), I couldn’t bring myself to care about what happened to either of them.

Dunn is also very self-conscious in his writing. Rivers of Gold is full of sentences such as this one found on page 107, “His epiphany came in a climactic expectoration of enlightenment that nearly asphyxiated his cokehead consort.” As you can see, Dunn is so busy showcasing his ability to employ fifty cent words and alliteration he fails to deliver any actual meaning. Rivers of Gold is overrun by sentences like this.

Though I think Dunn might have been better off leaving Rivers of Gold in the proverbial trunk, there were aspects of the narrative that I found engaging. Though Renny himself is a flat character, Dunn imbued him with a very distinctive voice that was always interesting to read. I also noticed that the pace and overall tone of individual scenes improved the more characters Dunn introduced into them. Obviously, there’s something there. With a little more time and practice, Dunn probably could write the kind of pulsing narrative Rivers of Gold wanted, but failed, to be.

The verdict: Leave Rivers of Gold on the shelf; check in with Adam Dunn when his second or third novel comes out.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Arcadia Falls by Carol Goodman

April 7, 2010 at 6:15 pm (ARC, fiction, mixed bag, novels)

When her husband’s sudden death reveals an avalanche of hidden debt, Meg Rosenthal has no choice but to sell off everything she owns . With her teenage daughter Sally in tow, Meg moves to the small town of Arcadia Falls after securing a teaching job at a prestigious arts school, hoping a change of scenery will help heal the growing rift between them. But when one of the students goes missing, Meg finds herself at the center of a mystery with roots that stretch back to the very founding of the school.

Goodman’s greatest success is her ability to maintain a break neck pace throughout Arcadia Falls. Though the book starts out slow with Goodman taking the first eighty pages to introduce her cast of characters, as soon as Meg begins uncovering the secrets of the school’s founders the story speeds up, and Goodman doesn’t tap the brake until the final page. Each new piece of information follows right on the heels of the previous one, and every time I thought I had the ending figured out, Goodman threw in a new twist that always killed my latest theory.

But the pace itself – not the characters, the storyline, or Goodman’s use of language – was the only thing that really kept me plowing through the novel. Had Goodman not put the pedal to the floor when she did, I’m not sure Arcadia Falls would have kept my attention.

Why? Well, for one thing, I didn’t like the main character. Like so many of the first person narrators I’ve discussed on this blog, Meg has no personality. She is bland. She’s polite, inquisitive, imaginative, and she loves her daughter, but that’s all we really know about her. Sure, she tells us about some of the major events in her life  – how she dropped out of art school to have Sally, how she was a stay at home mom until the day her husband died – but Meg never tells us how she feels about any of those events or how they affected her on a personal level. Occasionally she’ll ruminate on her past, but she doesn’t dig particularly deep when doing so.

Goodman’s writing is neither good nor bad. It’s competent. Her words don’t light up the page, but they get the job done. They’re functional.

Arcadia Falls is full of recurring themes and motifs. One is the conflict between raising a child and cultivating an artistic life. Another is dependence vs. independence. But, again, none of these themes are explored in-depth. Different themes figure prominently at different points in the narrative, but are often dropped before Goodman can really examine what they mean to the story, and that makes the book feel incomplete.

The ending was a real problem for me. Goodman gives Meg and Sally a laughably unrealistic, fairytale ending that I probably wouldn’t have had a problem with if, A) the fairytale motif, so prominent in the first half of the book and practically non-existent in the second half, had figured more prominently throughout the story, and B) if Meg and Sally had actually earned their happy ending. As is, neither of them do much but fall victim to circumstance and aren’t really transformed by the experience.

Goodman may know how to weave an intriguing and complicated yarn, but overall, Arcadia Falls is an average book. It’s not deep and doesn’t require a lot of thought on the reader’s part. It ‘s a decent way to pass the time, but it’s not a story that will stick with you.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Hell Hollow by Ronald Kelly

March 24, 2010 at 3:03 am (ARC, fiction, horror, novels)

You can identify good writing by how easy it is to take for granted. Tight, well-crafted, emotionally and intellectually engaging prose keeps the reader’s attention focused on the story. The words, sentences, and paragraphs flow so effortlessly from page to page there is no reason to consider that someone spent months, perhaps even years,  slaving over them, or that each unit of speech was deliberately put on the page to elicit a certain response from the reader. 

Bad writing, by contrast, draws attention to itself. A reader spends more time puzzling over poorly worded or clunky sentences, more time noticing grammatical errors and continuity problems, than following the story. Bad writing steals the spotlight and prevents readers from truly engaging the work.

If bad writing is an attention whore than Ronald Kelly is her pimp and Hell Hollow the brothel she calls home. When describing Hell Hollow to one of my writer friends I told her to recall every writing “don’t” she’d ever learned in class or workshop, mix them all together, and slap a cover on the mush. That is Hell Hollow in a nutshell.

This ho-hum horror novel follows four tween-age kids as they battle the evil Augustus Leech, a con-man, magician, and murderer who is basically the Freddy Krueger of Kentucky. I can’t tell you any more about the story than that because I spent all five hundred pages correcting grammatical errors, re-wording poorly written sentences, crossing out unnecessary text and dialogue, and wondering why Kelly’s editor didn’t fix all these problem before the book went to press.

The lack of craft here is mind-boggling. Hell Hollow is full of extraneous words and adverbs, unrealistic and unnecessary dialogue, and clunky sentences. Kelly has difficulty maintaining an age appropriate voice in his twelve year old protagonist, and the pop culture references his young characters throw around are twenty years out of date.

What bothered me the most was how Kelly tried to avoid using his characters’ names as a way of spicing up the narrative. For example, on page 170 Kelly writes, “The elderly farmer sat at the kitchen table and listened as the boy’s footsteps mounted the stairs,” when he could have written the shorter and more natural sounding, “Jasper sat at the kitchen table and listened as Keith’s footsteps mounted the stairs.”

I counted more than one hundred similar monikers throughout the book. Each primary character has at least six that Kelly uses liberally when attributing actions or dialogue. The villain alone has more than a dozen. Kelly refers to him as “the traveling medicine man,” “the sadistic traveling medicine man,” “the medicine show doctor,” “the man in the stovepipe hat,” “the lanky wanderer,” “the tall man, “the dark man,” and  “the murderess showman” all long after he has introduced the character by name.

Not only is this one of the many ways amateur writers attempt to liven up dull prose, but it indicates Kelly views his characters as “types” rather than people. He repeatedly refers to his four protagonists as “the city boy,” “the farm boy,” “the handicapped boy,” and “the girl.” And that’s all they are. They aren’t given much personality beyond the stereotypical image each of those monikers calls to mind. If you read this blog with any regularity you know I can’t get into a book unless it contains at least one three dimensional character. I think complex characters can save otherwise unremarkable stories, and it’s too bad Kelly didn’t bother to write any into Hell Hollow because I found it impossible to care about a world populated by stereotypes.

Perhaps worst of all, Hell Hollow isn’t scary. Kelly fails to build any sort of tension, and seems to think describing something as “dark” and “gloomy” automatically makes it frightening. At no point did I feel like the main characters were in real peril, even as they were fighting for their lives.

Actually, Hell Hollow is scary, but not for the reasons Kelly intended. The sloppy writing and lack of craft made me scream more than once, and the corrections I continually scribbled in the margins left my hands trembling. If you’re one of those masochists who read Twilight just to see how awful it was, you might enjoy picking Hell Hollow apart. But, if you’re looking for a chilling, well written and thought out horror novel, you’d best look elsewhere.

Permalink 1 Comment

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman

January 7, 2010 at 1:50 pm (ARC, fiction, novels)

Like everything else that appears on a book cover, from art work to jacket copy, the title of Beth Hoffman’s debut novel Saving CeeCee Honeycutt sets certain expectations. First, that the reader will learn about the title character, and second, that the story will primarily concern itself with how CeeCee was saved and why she needed saving in the first place. So, I was a bit confused when Saving CeeCee Honeycutt lived up to its title within the first forty pages.

Twelve year old CeeCee is a social outcast, thanks to her crazy mother who often wanders around town dressed in a second hand prom dress and tiara, attempting to relive her glory days as a Georgia State pageant queen. With CeeCee’s traveling salesman father always out of town, it’s up to CeeCee to care for her mother; to make sure she eats and bathes when she’s depressed, and doesn’t break all of the plates in the house when she falls into a fit of rage. When Mrs. Honeycutt is hit by a truck and killed, CeeCee’s heretofore unknown Great-Aunt Tootie swoops in, claims custody of CeeCee, and takes her down to Georgia to live in the family mansion, essentially saving her from her wretched life. With half of my expectations so quickly fulfilled I wasn’t sure what to expect from the rest of the novel. What followed was little more than a recounting of all the little adventures CeeCee has during her first summer in Georgia, a narrative that fails to create dramatic tension or coalesce into an identifiable plot.

Hoffman might as well have named CeeCee Cinderella. She has about as much personality as the fairytale princess who is defined entirely by her personal hardships. CeeCee has no strong desires, opinions, or hobbies. Though she is an avid reader Hoffman doesn’t ever show her relating to books in a passionate way. Children who turn to books to escape difficult home lives tend to develop a strong relationship to reading in general. They experience books on a deep emotional level, often coming to view them as friends. Yet, the most CeeCee ever says about her involvement with books is “I like to read.” Though books are supposedly her refuge CeeCee does not seem to have any strong feelings about or attachment to books.

Despite the fact that the story is told in first person by CeeCee herself, Hoffman never bothers to take the reader inside CeeCee’s head. CeeCee tells her own story with the emotional distance of a third person narrator which made me wonder at Hoffman’s choice to write in first person. The whole point of writing in first person is to give the reader access to the narrator’s thoughts, emotions, and biases. But CeeCee never tells the reader how she feels about the events unfolding around her. She doesn’t have any strong reaction to her mother’s death, no lasting worries about moving in with a relative she’s never met, and no problem adjusting to her new life.

Though CeeCee admits she deals with difficult issues by putting them out of her mind, as someone who often utilizes the “I’m not going to think about it” method of coping myself, I can say from experience that it takes effort to ignore things you don’t want to deal with. It’s a constant struggle that takes a mental and emotional toll. For CeeCee, however, there’s nothing hard about it. She finds it easy to ignore her mother’s death, her father’s absence, and cruises through the novel hardly suffering a moment of anguish. Her lack of character combined with the unrealistic way she so easily deals with loss made it impossible for me to care about or relate to CeeCee.

If CeeCee is Cinderella then Georgia is the Magic Kingdom. Everyone who lives there is kind, problems magically work themselves out, the good guys always win, and the bad guys are always punished. The story skips along from one minor complication to another, all of which are resolved before they have time to turn into a major plot point that might force the characters to work at finding a solution. Hoffman could have written a very complex story about grief, racism, and the ways we cope with circumstances we can’t change. Instead, she created a fairytale world where bad experiences are easy to put behind you and there’s always a happy ending. It’s a choice that saves Hoffman from having to create three dimensional characters, deal with difficult subjects, or build a truly engaging plot.

Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is an easy novel. It does not require a lot of thought power on the part of the reader. If you’re not all that concerned about plot or character development and you’re looking for a simple read, this is the book for you. But, though I enjoy escapist literature as much as the next gal, to really get into a book I need to have fully fleshed characters to connect with. Without them there is no story, and Saving CeeCee Honeycutt is an example that proves the rule.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Big in Japan by M. Thomas Gammarino

October 16, 2009 at 12:04 pm (ARC, fiction, literary criticism, literature, novels)

Big in Japan was the second book I managed to snag from Library Thing’s Early Reviewers Program. Considering how I felt about the first one, I did not have high hopes for M. Thomas Gammarino’s debut. But this character driven rumination on the relationship between physical desire and spirituality was a delicious surprise. At turns crass and cerebral, Big in Japan captures the distinctive blend of ambivalence and desperation that characterizes the transition from childhood to adulthood.

Big in Japan follows the exploits of twenty-four year old Brain Tedesco, guitarist for the Philadelphia based progressive rock band Agenbite. When the group realizes their independently released debut album is selling slightly better in Japan than in the States they convince their manager to send them on a promotional tour of Japan to boost sales. As the band tours Tokyo, playing venue after empty venue, they are forced to admit the tour is a failure. But having fallen in love with a Japanese sex-worker named Miho, Brain is too distracted to care. When Brain suddenly quits the band, deciding to stay behind and marry Miho rather than return to Philadelphia, the story kicks into high gear.

It’s risky to place an emotionally stunted character at the apex of a novel, and Brain Tedesco is nothing if not stunted. At the start of the story he is still living with his parents and working a crappy minimum wage job stocking shelves at a local pharmacy. He has never had a girlfriend, his deep anxiety, insecurity, and social awkwardness having paved the way for rejection after rejection.

The problem with emotionally stunted characters is they’re incredibly difficult to render sympathetically. All too often they’re immaturity and lack of self-awareness make them come off as whiny and annoying. And even though Brain is whiny at times, I never found him annoying. Gammarino imbues him with a naked vulnerability that is endearing and relatable. Even when Brain’s behavior crosses the line from self-defeating into selfish and cruel, I couldn’t write him off as just another man behaving badly. His motivations were far too complex and his psyche too broken for me to turn on him, and that says a lot coming from a person who is always prepared to turn on a character she feels is acting like an idiot. Gammarino deserves a world of credit for creating a character whose humanity is never eclipsed by his moronic behavior.

Brain is also kind of OCD. He is obsessed with order and routine; the kind of guy who has a place for everything and  insists everything remain in its place. Initially, Brain is not happy about going to Japan. The trip is a major deviation from his normal routine; a disruption on par with leaving a magazine that belongs on the coffee table laying haphazardly on the couch.

But Brain’s desire for order also translates into a taste for purity. Brain is a virgin, and a typical one at that. He is a total horn dog consumed by sexual thoughts, yet reveres the idea of love. He believes love and sex to be neatly and inextricably linked, one following naturally on the heels of the other. So, it’s no surprise that Brain is automatically taken by the pristine beauty of Japanese women – women so physically and behaviorally different from women back in the States. On page 19 as his band mates discuss the pros and cons of sleeping with easy women, Brain thinks, “Horniness dried you out, made you haggard and ugly. These japanese girls weren’t that. They were so pure.” Drawn in by what he perceives as the unsullied beauty of the natives, Brain begins to view his trip to Japan, its alien language and culture, not as a disruption but as a coming home of sorts. He sees it as a place where his hunger for purity and order can be adequately satisfied.

Early in the story Brain visits the Tokyo National Museum where he comes across a series of scroll paintings of “hungry ghosts.” They are described on page 67 as “…[D]enizens of one of the Buddhist Hell realms. They had mountainous bellies and needle-thin necks that made it physiologically impossible for them to sate their hunger. In each of the scrolls, the ghosts…could be found squatting in latrines, trying and failing to gorge themselves on human waste.”

It quickly becomes apparent that Brain himself is a hungry ghost. His insatiable desire to do and be something more than the anxious, insecure, angry boy that he is leads him to a life of debauchery. He gluts himself on sex until the activity becomes toxic; a mechanical act that he no longer enjoys but can’t bring himself to stop.

This compulsion to internalize that which is poisonous stands in stark contrast to his search for the pristine, though both spring from the same well of insecurity and both shield him in some way. By accepting only perfection Brain kept himself from having to engage the material world, whereas consuming only the profane prevents him from having to fully engage others on an emotional level. It is only as Brain learns to balance the needs of the body with the needs of the mind and spirit that he begins to grow up.

Gammarino’s writing is strong and evocative, if a little self-conscious at times. Big in Japan maintained a sense of urgency throughout that had me rushing to turn each page.

Normally, I’m a serial reader. I finish one book and dive straight into another. I couldn’t do that with Big in Japan. I had to take two days to emotionally process the story before I could bring myself to start a new book, that’s how much it got to me.

Haunting, sad, and unflinchingly honest Big in Japan will leave your mouth watering.

Permalink Leave a Comment

The Late, Lamented Molly Marx by Sally Koslow

April 21, 2009 at 6:33 pm (ARC, fiction, novels) (, )

I acquired The Late, Lamented Molly Marx through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program. If you haven’t already, I insist that you go sign up right now. It’s a wonderful thing. The way it works is publishers send the good folks at Library Thing advanced review copies of their upcoming titles, and Library Thing gives the books away to site users in exchange for reviews. Each month a list of books available through Early Review is posted on the site, and registered participants can browse the list and request the ones they’d like to read. The requests are entered into a lottery and the randomly chosen winners receive advanced copies.

I requested The Late, Lamented Molly Marx because it sounded interesting. Molly Marx has everything a woman could want, a husband with a thriving medical practice, a beautiful daughter, and a great job as a freelance stylist. It isn’t until Molly is found dead on the bank of the Hudson River that it becomes apparent how un-charmed her life truly was. As Molly adjusts to the afterlife she can’t help but peek in on the people she loved as they struggle to solve the mystery of her death, and get on with their own lives

This was my first foray into chick lit, or women’s fiction, or whatever you call books marketed specifically to single, employed, middle-class, twenty and thirty something females. I studiously avoided the genre for years because I bought into the idea that chick lit was vapid fluff featuring superficial heroines. And, guess what? I was right!

The world of Molly Marx is all expensive bistros, Upper East Side duplexes, high fashion, interior design, and weekends abroad. All of the primary characters are rich and beautiful; they have high end, well paying jobs and never want for anything. They are sexy, glamorous, and shallow as rain puddles.

Intellectually, I understand why chick lit is popular. Like most mainstream literary fare it is pure escapist fantasy. Chick lit lets the reader experience what it’s like to be rich and powerful, graceful and fawned over, envied and ass-kissed. But, I guess I’m an anomaly because I’ve never had any interest in the rich and fabulous. Those aren’t the kind of people I want to spend time with, on or off the page. I prefer starving artist types; people who find a way to fit four roommates into a studio apartment just so they can afford to live in Manhattan; Salvation Army shoppers who aren’t necessarily into vintage clothing but can’t afford to shop at Old Navy, let alone Saks; Full-time college students who work full-time jobs, handle full course loads, and somehow manage to log hours at a required internship to boot. It’s true that challenge builds character, which might explain why the people who populate Molly’s world are so boring.

The biggest offender is Molly herself. Molly is completely passive. In life she never acted on her own desires, choosing instead to allow others to act upon her. She married her husband, not because she loved him, but because he was the first man to ask her. She moved from Greenwich Village to the Upper West Side, not because she wanted to, but because her mother-in-law wanted them nearby. She had a child, not because she wanted to, but because her husband thought it was time. Indecisive and naïve, Molly is more comfortable allowing others to make decisions for her than taking the time to figure out what she really wants.

She isn’t much different in death. Narrating the story as a disembodied spirit passing time in the Duration, Molly is able to watch over her nearest and dearest as they go about their lives, but is forbidden to interfere. She must remain passive, observing the aftermath of her own death, unable to ease the pains and shames it brings to light.

This makes Molly a problematic narrator. Though her voice is strong and punchy, her inability to act makes her a non-entity in her own story. More than once I wondered why Koslow chose to write this book in first person. She could have told the story just as effectively in third person for all the insight Molly’s perspective brings to the book. It’s difficult to invest in a character that spends her entire life and death acquiescing to others to such an extent that it robs her of her personality. And although I’m willing to concede that might be the whole point, it doesn’t make for very absorbing reading.

I never warmed up to the supporting characters either. Molly’s best friend, Brie, the heterosexual who dates women, is a fashion model turned lawyer who makes more money in a month than most people make in their whole lives. Molly’s husband, Barry, is an overly entitled, emotionally distant, compulsive philanderer. Lucy, Molly’s fraternal twin sister, is plain by comparison and her “sturdy” body makes her a shoe-in for the role of jealous frump. Each one is a caricature of a caricature, so flat and predictable it’s hard to care about them.

Pace is a problem in The Late, Lamented Molly Marx.It gets off to a slow start, taking nearly two hundred pages to find its rhythm. The story revolves around the investigation of Molly’s mysterious death. However,  Koslow is never clear about what makes it mysterious. It seems as though Molly was involved in an unfortunate biking accident, and the reader is never told what led the police to proclaim her death “suspicious.” As a result, the investigation never feels particularly pressing. I had a hard time understanding why the lead detective became so emotionally invested in a case that seemed so banal.

The combination of a dull protagonist and weak plot makes the book drag. Tack on an ending that manages to be overly tidy while failing to answer any questions, and you can understand why I won’t be picking up another piece of chick lit any time soon.

Permalink Leave a Comment