Lost Souls – 4/5 Stars
I dunno if you’re into Southern, druggy, Queer, crusty, Goth vampire novels from the early 1990s, but is definitely one. Maybe you thought Lost Boys was too clean, so this one would be for you. We begin with a small bartender in New Orleans serving a drink to a teenage girl when three vampires (and vampires is a fluid term in this book with some specific definitions herein) roll in. The lead vampire–beautifully, alluring, dangerous–has sex with and impregnates the girl. They leave town and we find out the bartender is also a vampire and cares for and loves the girl while the pregnancy comes to term the fetal vampire inside her destroys her. Fifteen years we meet Nothing, the child of that pregnancy, living in Maryland with adoptive parents, hungry for something. He’s wayward, yearning, Queer, and looking for whatever thrills he can. He finds himself drawn to the music of Lost Souls, a band from the middle of nowhere in North Carolina. As things break down at home, he sets off to meet them. We also spend time with Steve and Ghost from the band, and we split further time with those same three vampires from the opening scene, and Christian, the older bartender vampire who is confronted by the father of dead mother.
There’s a lot going on in this book, but rather than a clear plot, we have a driving force as all the characters are drawn together. The novel is dripping with bodily fluids, drugs, sex, and music. I would say its not for the faint of heart because nothing is forbidden in this book at all. The three vampires haunt this book and in a really weird way, this book is almost a retelling of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark, with all the good, clear writing and human horrors.
Moonstone – 3/5 Stars
A very small novel that I didn’t know anything about going in. We begin with Iceland in 1918 while a “boy” (he’s a little older) is giving a blow job to man on a motorcycle. As we pull back a little, we learn more about this boy, a local teen, who lives the cinema, has a number of male clients drawn to his beauty, and is known quantity around the city. The date should mean something to you, because we watch as a ship from Denmark brings the Spanish flu to the island country and as the pandemic sweeps through the city, killing quickly and indiscriminately, we see the boy get sick, recover, and then devote his time to helping care for the sick. A local health officer wants to permanently close down the cinema in part because of how they spread disease but also because of a sense of moral degradation affixed to “looking” that happens there. The boy is involved in a scandal with a Danish sailor and the novel closes with the fallout from this event.
The book is small and short and as ethereal as the main character. I am reminded of something that happens in many Scandinavian novels, which is a strong Christian conservatism that doesn’t square with my modern sense of that part of the world.
Nothing but the Truth – 3/5
This is a deeply frustrating and also satisfying YA novel from the early 1990s by Avi, beloved childhood writer. The novel is told through a series of documents, cut scenes, personal accounts, and dialog. We are in a small town high school where an older English teacher, a little burnt out, has a student that presents her with challenges. He doesn’t work very hard, but this manifests in his constant little jokes that annoy her more than she wants. The boy has gotten a D for his previous quarter which has meant he can’t try out for the track team. One day he is humming during the playing of the anthem and this annoys the teacher, she scolds him and when he gets his back up, she sends him the principal’s office. This happens twice in one week and he’s suspended. His dad decides he’s a victim and calls a local politician, and the case grows and grows.
Because of our position as reader, we know the full truth, which is that everything that happened is “factual” there’s a clear failure to communicate and everything is filtered through everyone’s personal lens, and this turns something understandable into something incomprehensible. Readers now will note that this book is about how something goes viral and spins out of control and it’s something that Avi knew enough in 1990 to write a novel that spells out what happens in a single day now.
Slouching Toward Kalamazoo – 2/5
I like the writing, the cleverness, and the repartee in this novel. And that’s the end of it. I was immediately (and kind of out of character for me) put off by the content and the way it was handled that I couldn’t recover enough to enjoy it. The plot involves a precocious 8th grade boy in South Dakota having a flirtatious relationship with his young English teacher, she becomes pregnant, and he is tasked with getting her an abortifacient. When her secret is discovered, she’s run out of town wearing a large A (they were reading The Scarlet Letter).
So the way I’ve described it is a more general and neutral way to describe the plot. What actually happens is that an adult woman rapes a 15 year old boy and then extorts him to get her an abortion. I’ve read a lot of books that have different versions of this same plot (Lolita, Tampa, etc) and this one just rubs me the wrong way because it’s treated so casually. Even if he had been a high school senior, where the misfortune of the attraction could be handled differently fine. But a novel that can’t even really handle the damage and power of the relationship in remotely complicated terms just doesn’t work for me here.
A Time to Kill – 3/5
John Grisham’s first novel, which he tells us in the opening introduction he started right at the end of law school and he’d putzed around with for years. The novel is of course famous now because of the film version, but also, in my own memory John Grisham took off with The Firm, and then when it was clear he had other novels previously, this one was also passed around a lot. This was also the only novel my brother was forbidden to read when he was 12 because it opens with a really graphic rape scene. The novel is interesting, especially in light of The Firm, because that novel, while a solid thriller is absolutely empty of anything more in depth than lawyers are wild. For whatever successes or failures that this novel has in it, it’s actually trying something here. I am not sure John Grisham really knows all that much about what Black people in the South think or feel, I do think he clearly knows what it’s like to be a white Liberal lawyer in the South in the 1980s. This novel is generally pretty honest about race in ways that most novels by white writers now refuses to be. It has more than a little Faulkner in it, and obviously it’s a riff of To Kill a Mockingbird in a lot of ways. It’s solid legal thriller that actually attempts to confront some of the realities of “””””””post”””””” Jim Crow Mississippi. It knows a thing or two about the subject, and certainly how small towns work. It’s not the most perfectly written or thought out novel, but it’s also not prima facie bad either. It’s significantly stronger than The Firm, which almost feels shamelessly commercial in comparison.