Archive for the ‘book review’ category

Donald Ray Pollock & The Devil All The Time at Subterranean Books


I have a soft spot for Donald Ray Pollock. As a new (completely unknown) publisher, I asked Fred Venturini, our debut author, to make a list of his dream team of early readers to see who we could approach for writing a blurb for the back cover. He came up with seven names and I set about to find contact information for each of the authors. I wrote and rewrote (multiple times) an e-mail just to initiate contact, give a bit of background about BSP and about Fred and ask whether or not the author would be willing to accept an ARC from us and, if he liked it, consider blurbing it.

Then, nervously, I hit send.

Right away, I got a note back from Don saying that Fred’s book sounded right up his alley and that he’d be happy to give it a read. (I eventually was contacted by four of the seven authors, two blurbed the book, one said it was a little too far outside his traditional genre, and one was a little late on replying but has been a big supporter of BSP and Fred ever since publication.) The others I never heard from. After the ARCS were ready, I sent the book out to the readers and in no time at all Don had read it, written a fantastic blurb, and had given BSP and Fred an adrenaline rush from which we haven’t quite recovered. (And talk about adrenaline, have you seen our new trailer for The Samaritan? Check it out here:

So…when I heard that Don’s new book was coming out and that he would be reading at Subterranean Books in St. Louis, I knew I had to be there. And I was not disappointed. (By the way, the folks at Sub Books are awesome.)

Don is friendly and gracious (even when a fan girl–a.k.a., me–barges through the door and starts blathering on and on about how much we loved his book and how excited we were to meet him and thank him in person for giving BSP and Fred a chance, yada yada yada…) in a quiet, unassuming way. His soft, southern drawl is pitch perfect for reading the tight, spare and yet rich, descriptive sentences that characterize his writing. Sentences like these that set the stage for book:

Willard eased himself down on the high side of the log and motioned for his son to kneel beside him in the dead, soggy leaves. Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn’t know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.

Don read several passages, each one shedding a little light on one of the narrative threads woven through the book. The Devil All The Time is populated by characters who are sad and pathetic, misguided and deluded, or even downright evil, but he somehow imbues them with flashes of humanity that makes the reader care about even the worst of them.

As an admiring reader (and as a fan of the guy as a plain ol’ person), I think part of his ability to make the reader care about these hard-luck cases is the down-to-earth sense of humility that comes through in his writing. He’s not judging his characters; he’s simply telling their stories. He never lets his authorial voice intrude, never tells the reader, “Hey, watch out for this guy, he’s a son of a bitch.” Instead, we see each flawed character struggle with love and hate, fear and longing, and we come to understand something about their motivations, how they came to be so fuc*ed up. We get to know these people on their own terms. And once you know someone, it’s not so easy to dismiss them.

Don’s work isn’t easy, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Pick up a copy of The Devil All The Time and see for yourself.  As Willard says, “They’s a lot of no-good sonofabitches out there,” and all we can do is hope that Donald Ray Pollock keeps writing their stories.


Review of Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor


by Elena Makansi, BSP Summer Intern

I had the privilege of hearing author Laini Taylor’s editor speak about this book at BEA, during the YA Editor’s Buzz panel. She sold it as an exciting, beautifully written, engaging book with a kick-ass, beautiful heroine. A sort of Angels and Devils tale, set in contemporary Prague. While most of that sounded great, I was a bit turned off by the whole “kick-ass beautiful heroine” part. Of course I love reading about powerful women, and I think it is awesome that young readers, especially young women, can look up to and be empowered by these characters. However, after reading many, many YA novels with kick-ass, beautiful heroines, the idea became a bit annoying. They’re all beautiful, yet perfectly flawed in the luckiest ways—they’re stubborn or arrogant or socially-awkward-but-not-really. They’re the Chosen ones, Marked ones, Unique-in-every-way ones.

Karou from Daughter of Smoke and Bone is indeed beautiful. And she kicks her fair share of ass. She’s sneaky, mysterious, artsy, and dutifully fulfills many of the YA genre’s stock heroine’s characteristics. But this novel surprised me in a wonderful way. Karou’s characterization—indeed the characterization of all of the main players including Akiva, Zuzana, and Brimstone—goes above and beyond stock and wedges a stake right through the reader’s heart. Karou feels as if she’s missing something; she is lost, lonely, confused. The reader cannot help but just feel deeply for Karou. Through graceful and empathetic writing, Taylor takes her readers into the hearts, not just the minds, of her characters.

The premise in a nutshell: angels and devils are at war, and neither deserve to win. The plot, to a seasoned but growing older by the day YA reader, seems at first glance to be trite: an angel falls in love with a devil, but they can’t be together because they’re at war. How many different angel and devil stories have gone wrong? Many. But prepare to be wondrously (pleasantly is an understatement) surprised. This world is incredibly creative, layered with fascinating details and back story.

The seraphim and the chimaera (They’re not actually angels and devils, and they don’t actually live in heaven or hell. Those are mythical words created by naïve humans.)  have familiar attributes and characteristics, such as wings, but their personalities, histories, myths, and magic are so richly imagined as to dance off the page in a flutter of blood-spattered sparkles. And yes, there is blood. This war is brutal to the core. Taylor is unafraid; while I wouldn’t call this book an epic, the story certainly has a wide wingspan. It’s an urban fantasy set mainly in the streets of Prague, but towards the end of the book we get a glimpse into the fantastical Otherworld. The entire otherworldly realm is at war—and has been for thousands of years. In order to save their race, the chimaera and the seraphim must sacrifice…well, a lot of things. You’ll see.

Taylor’s story is gorgeous, exciting, knock-your-socks-off surprising, and so creative and just damn fun (not to mention, funny) that I’d recommend it to fantasy-loving teens, mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers alike. In fact, if it wasn’t for my mother’s own insistence that I give Karou a chance, I would have wrongfully ignored Daughter of Smoke and Bone. This book’s got magic, Moroccan marketplaces, Parisian subways,  teeth, romance, myth, gorgeous world-building, loss, mystery, wishes, and art. The only problem I have now is waiting for the sequel–especially since Daughter of Smoke and Bone itself will not be released until the end of September.

Review of Damascus by Joshua Mohr


by Elena Makansi, BSP Summer Intern

I had the opportunity to read Damascus as an ARC after picking it up from the Two Dollar Radio booth at Book Expo America 2011. I began reading it on the road home, and finished it somewhere between Wilmington, DE and St. Louis, MO.

The characters Mohr weaves in Damascus are quite wonderful and wonderfully strange. The owner of the bar, Owen (my personal favorite) has a birthmark on his upper lip that makes him look like Hitler. To hide from his own self-consciousness and escape the judgment of others, he dons a Santa suit he buys for twenty bucks on the sidewalk. His daughter, Daph, is a writer, poet, and lesbian. Her friend No-Eyebrows is suffering the very last months of cancer, hairless and sagging, grasping for hope, feeling, escape. He becomes a loyal and rule-breaking client of Damascus’ own sort-of-whore, whose office is located in the bar bathroom and whose nickname is Shambles. Then there is Daph’s friend Syl, the artist whose live show seizes two sides of a political battle and forces them together, unwittingly and with meaningful consequences.

Mohr’s firm grasp on characterization is clear. His characters are broken but shimmering, just like the shattered-mirror constellations Owen glues to the ceiling of his bar. They’re mean, vaguely gross, crass, and misguided drunkards, artists, and war veterans, yet they have a gentle, glowing core that’s soft to the touch. The reader wants these characters to hope, to feel okay, to be okay. Heroism, triumph, success—these grand concepts are perhaps even grander at a small scale, more deserved for the down and out, and even more meaningful for characters we can believe in. They remind us that the arc of one’s triumph does not have to be large to be significant, and that anyone can be a hero in their own small way. Just like the stars in the sky, Mohr’s may seem small from where we are standing, but by the end of the novel we can feel their heat and light in full-force.

My biggest beef with Damascus was the portrayal of the characters acting the pro-War side of the conflict. These on the “other side” seem stupid, violent, quick to judge, and flat. Perhaps this is an attempt to exaggerate and personify Mohr’s feelings about the war (it is part protest-novel, after all), in which case I think it would have benefited from a more compassionate outlook. Mohr uses up all of his wonder and character-insight for his Damascus-goers, and leaves very little for the art-show protestors. All of the characters in this book are misguided, but the difference is that those on the pro-War side are only misguided. They are not misguided but beautiful, or misguided but compassionate. They are simply wrong.

The book seized my heart at the very first paragraph, in which we are introduced to the Mission district bar at the core of the novel as a “planetarium for drunkards: dejected men and women stargazing from barstools.” This first paragraph is a portent of what’s to come. The writing is potent, poetic, and beautiful in a rough-hewn, worldly way. Some bits are pure stargazing, while other bits are a bit more down to earth, such as thorough descriptions of handjobs for an almost dead man. Damascus is graceful at heart, but full of stumbling characters and stumbling lives. Mohr’s ability to mix humor and grief and sympathy together is enviable and brilliant. I hope this book does not remain his “most accomplished novel yet” because I believe there is still lots of potential for growth for Joshua Mohr, and I hope to read more from him in the future.

Sincerity Means Never Judging The Book Before It’s Been Cooked


Here’s a review Regina Till, a fellow writer and friend, sent me after reading an ARC of The Samaritan. It is not only extremely gratifying, but it made me laugh out loud–especially since she’s eaten my cooking and lived to tell.  I’m delighted to present it in full:

Do you share this conundrum now and then, when a friend says something like, “I can’t wait for you to see my…taste my…meet my….”  (I.E. Hair style?  World class chili?  New boyfriend?) You pray there will at least be something there to which you can offer a positive comment or two.  (I.e. Green is your color!   Is that ketchup I taste?   His moustache looks so real …) Before you’ve even smelled the chili,  you’re warming up for ketchup?

A friend of mine started her own publishing company.  It features writers from the greater St. Louis region.   She and her partners leaped in with a concrete investment of money, time and know-how, and a faith that if you build it (offer excellent fiction) people (readers/investors) will come.  Their philosophy transpired out of their experience; that talent exists right here in river city and surrounds,  and with it a large pool of authors who don’t get the opportunity to be read, or the recognition they deserve, for a variety of reasons.  In addition to the pure talent of available authors, they ascribed to that time-tested (and largely cast aside in the rest of the publishing world) art of editor/author symbiosis that would nurture good into better.   It all sounded fine to me, even as I was a little doubtful that the result could challenge the stacks of unread books I have sitting next to my overflowing bookshelves.  It was that skeptic in me who prepared for a worst-case scenario. How would I kindly encourage if I honestly thought the result was at best a nice try, at worse, a one-chapter read and a painful glaze-over through the rest?   In the meantime, the chili was on the stove.

So when she announced last summer that her company, Blank Slate Press, had two new authors, and then more recently that the books were done, and the first author’s book was ready for release, I gave her the easy (for me) truth.  Congratulations!  And I meant it.  That, in itself, was an accomplishment.  Blank Slate Press fulfilled a promise to writers if nothing else.  And in only a little more than a year, no less!   That’s good news.   If the actual books proved to be only so-so, well, there is honor in trying.

But of course, the time came.  “I’ll give you an early copy, let me know, honestly, what you think,” she said.  Immediately my mind ran a treadmill of worn out platitudes and phrases.  (Fascinating premise.  The cover is eye catching!  Good use of semi-colons.)  But more importantly, how would I  (or should I even) let her down if, after reading, all I thought she was doing was feeding a delusion?  Beg off with the truth, that I am only one reader?  That I am a cranky one on top of it?  That I am, after all, no critic?

And then I read the book.  The Samaritan, by Fred Venturini.

Forget the platitudes, the semi-colons, my miss-guided B.S.  This book rocks, and I mean that literally.  It agitated my nerve, shocked my senses, punched holes in my understanding.  If you read books (maybe especially if you haven’t picked up a book of fiction in years), on the first of February you can get a copy and read for it yourself .  I urge you to do so.   With one caution:  If you’re squeamish or reticent about brutal or graphic descriptions of violence, (it is raw and explicit), then you may want to pass on this.  For everyone else, there is much more in this book than that disclaimer does justice.

The Samaritan is about loss and regret and regeneration (you read that right) and how hope slides into the crevices of our darkest spaces and moves us on, despite.  It’s about a guy named Dale, whose talents take a backseat to his humanity, and his friend, whose buried humanity regenerates along with Dale’s actual body parts.  It’s about the illusion of healing, and the ways we can, and sometimes do, sabotage the best we have to offer.  It’s about coming up for air every time, just because.  It’s also relentlessly fast-paced, with a meter in each sentence and phrase that comes at you like a line drive, scoring strikes along the way that keep you asking why?  What more?

“…they were one person back then, one voice meant to draw you into trouble, hypnotic as strippers and capable of the same broken promises.”

“It was an endearing reaction to behold, seeing the light beaming through the seams of his ego.”

“Funny how hatred of something causes sign-building, but a passion to defend something just causes anger.”

“I cradled his head and started bawling, a cry that no bite could control, the kind of blazing sorrow that puts a bellows squeeze on lungs.”

It’s a man’s book; (a book about men and the boy’s voice inside that spurs them on), that women will feel true.   And while the premise is fantastical, the yearning to make a difference in this world, to shout “I was here” that seeps from the flesh and dreams of these characters, is something I think most of us feel at one time or another no matter our gender, our background or our specific desires.

Bravo to the author, Fred Venturini.  And to Kristy Blank Makansi and BSP, this reader is sincere; I’ll be glad to recommend this book to anyone. Just don’t ask me about your chili recipe.

All I can say is THANK YOU to Reggie, who I knew would tell me the truth–no matter what. To read a chapter of The Samaritan for yourself, click on over to  Pre-ordering ability is coming soon.

In case you’ve been marooned on a desert island…


Before you read any further, Blank Slate Press would like to thank Anna, our University of Chicago summer intern, for the work she’s done and the enthusiasm she brought to our new adventure in the future of publishing. We hope you’ll hear more from her in the future. And now, before she leaves us to return to the cold (or at least not desperately hot) north, her book review:

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

This book review is probably redundant considering the widespread critical acclaim that literary master Gabriel García Márquez is in the habit of receiving. I have decided to write it anyways, though, in the off-chance that someone who has spent the last 50 years on a barren island in the middle of the vast Pacific has recently returned to civilization, the internet, and the Blank Slate Press blog. Such a person would have missed the 1967 publication, and consequent general adulation, of the book that I consider to be among the greatest ever written: Cien años de soledad, or 100 Years of Solitude.

The epic multi-generational story of the Buendía family is not one that I could properly analyze in a short book review, or even in a short book. Márquez weaves a tale that stretches across the lives of a large number of spectacularly unique characters, from the devastatingly beautiful and unsettlingly simple-minded Remedios, to the enigmatic, adopted Rebeca, prone to eating dirt and plaster, to the 17 brothers all named Aureliano and all destined to be gruesomely assassinated. Yet the truly amazing quality about Márquez’s writing is his ability to take this multitude of distinct stories, each filled with its own victories and heartbreaks, and create from them the undeniable feeling of a cohesive whole: a chronicle of love, anger, beauty, and solitude that transcends and defies the very concept of time.

This feeling that Márquez’s writing creates – that of an inexplicable link somehow crafted out of joy, love, suffering, loyalty, and above all, solitude, which unites the different generations of the Buendía family – is perfectly suited for the delicate magical realism which appears throughout the novel. Whether the surreal images that Márquez subtly weaves into his everyday occurrences (like the yellow butterflies that surround young Meme, filling the air around her with a fluttering brightness more thickly the closer she is to her lover) are responsible for the feeling of timeless unity or whether they merely complement it, I cannot say. What I do know, however, is that in 100 Years of Solitude Márquez has created a work whose richness of language is paralleled only by the richness of its characters. As I read about each of the members of the Buendía family, I feel along with them the painful, beautiful, aching love and desolation that marks them as a family “condemned to one hundred years of solitude.” It is an experience, and a novel, unlike any other I have had the privilege to read.

-Anna Tripodi, intern

Book review: The Winter Vault


After having read The Winter Vault by Anne Michaels, I feel like it’s almost a moral obligation to share it with as many people as I can. Michaels, who started her career as a poet, draws a lot of comparisons to her contemporary Michael Ondaatje – and for good reason, since the prose of both authors is so heart-achingly beautiful and lyrical that it really seems to somehow be as much poetry as it is prose. In my opinion, though, The Winter Vault does more for its genre (lyrical prose?) than do the books of Ondaatje or Michaels’s other novel, Fugitive Pieces. To explain what I mean by this, I should give a quick overview of the plot.

Jean, an aspiring botanist, and Avery, a young engineer, meet at the building site of the Lawrence Seaway between Lake Ontario and Montreal, among the towns and settlements soon to be submerged by the new construction. The story of their love and the life that they build together is crafted through the parallel plots of their time in Canada and their trip to Egypt for the building of the Aswan Dam. When tragedy strikes, the two separate without ever truly falling out of love; and it is in the second part of the novel, when Jean takes up with Polish émigré Lucjan, that Michaels takes a turn towards self-reflection. After devoting a large portion of her novel to the power of poetic language, weaving tenderly through the topics of love and human connection, to address and even overcome the tragedies that time brings, Michaels introduces a character whose beliefs reject this power completely. Haunted by his past, Lucjan espouses a kind of utilitarian cynicism that dismisses the ability of flowery language (lyrical prose, we may call it) to deal with the harsh realities of life.

To me, the best thing about Michaels’s writing is her refusal to oversimplify things into black and white. As the dams are being built, she brings up both the benefits of modernity and the heartbreak of the people being forced from their homes. While Jean is with Lucjan, it is easy to see both his healing influence on her and the hole that is left as she misses Avery. And most importantly, The Winter Vault offers no conclusive answer about the power and relevance of the genre to which it belongs; Michaels simply presents her beautifully crafted work along with its built-in criticism and lets her readers decide.

–          Anna Tripodi,  summer intern

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand


By Helen Simonson
Random House. 358 pp. $25 (Kindle edition $9.99)

Last Saturday, I browsed through the Indie Next list and decided to download Helen Simonson’s first novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Boy, am I glad I did. This completely charming book is about breaking down boundaries, maintaining manners, minding multicultural sensitivities, and bridging generation gaps. But it is mostly about falling in love.

Major Ernest Pettigrew, a retired British army officer, is a man of impeccable manners who has lived alone in the small village of Edgecombe St. Mary since his wife died six years earlier. At sixty-eight, Major, as everyone in the village knows him, is an attractive target for various spinsters and widows, He has, in fact, already briefly entertained and then abandoned the notion of becoming a bit friendlier with one acquaintance named Grace. However, after he learns about the unexpected death of his brother, he distractedly answers the doorbell to find the local Pakistani shopkeeper, a widow named Mrs. Ali, on his doorstep asking to collect the fee for his newspaper. In his muddled and somewhat disoriented state, he uncharacteristically blurts out the news of his loss to Mrs. Ali who shepherds him back into his living room, makes him some tea and starts them down the road toward a romance neither thought they would ever find again.

Major Pettigrew is a thoroughly engaging character who I fully expect to see on BBC TV or on the big screen sooner or later. A perfect gentleman who values politeness and good manners above all else, Major, to his surprise and his own consternation, is also a sarcastic wit who is not above delivering a well-placed and well-deserved verbal jab to anyone that disappoints or annoys him —and that turns out to be just about everyone, including his son who shunned the army to become a grasping, shallow London financier.

Born and raised in Cambridge to a professor of Pakistani descent, Mrs. Ali is also thoroughly likeable. Smart, well-read and, of course, beautiful, she tries to tread the delicate line between respecting her late husband’s family, honoring her Muslim faith, trying to do right by her nephew and his new-found son, and her desire to be accepted by local villagers. The budding relationship between Major and Mrs. Ali, one that is nurtured by a love of Keats, a stubborn independence, and shared drives into town, is complicated by a planned real estate development, the love lives of the younger generation and the prejudices of both the local English gentry and Mrs. Ali’s Pakistani relatives. All the subplots are woven together in one outrageous scene at the “Mughal Empire”-themed annual country club dance at which Major shocks the local luminaries by inviting Mrs. Ali as his date. While the members of the club parade around in rented saris, Pith helmets and colonial British uniforms, much of the local Pakistanis are serving as kitchen help and waiters. It’s inevitable that the evening end badly.

The evening does ends badly, very badly, and Mrs. Ali leaves town. Despondent and disgusted with himself, Major relies on the solid, dependable Grace who, truly full of grace and intelligence, gently encourages Major to follow his heart.

Ms. Simonson has written a witty book that made me laugh and cry. I recommend it for everyone who enjoys a bit of British wit with their romance.


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