Review: MY FAVOURITE MANSON GIRL by Alison Umminger (Atom/Flatiron)

UmmingerA-MyFavouriteMansonGirlUKA lost teenager looking for purpose in all the wrong places…

Anna has had a miserable year. Everything feels wrong with her life. And rather than stay and face the mess, she steals a credit card and books herself a seat on the first flight out of town to Los Angeles, to crash with her sister. But soon after she lands, cold reality soon dawns on her: Hollywood isn’t the escape she needs. She is trapped in a town full of lost souls and wannabes, with no friends, no cash and no return ticket.

When she’s offered a job researching the murderous Manson girls for a dubious film, she reluctantly accepts — she needs the money. But soon enough, among the fake smiles and glitter-fuelled parties, things turn from strange, to dark, to dangerous…

This is not going to be the summer Anna had in mind.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel. I’d heard some very good pre-publication buzz, and was interested in reading something different to my usual fare. What I found was not quite the novel as described, but nevertheless an interesting, engaging and sometimes thought-provoking novel. I enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: SHOPGIRL by Steve Martin (Hyperion/W&N)

MartinS-ShopgirlUSAn interesting, enjoyable novella

Mirabelle is the ‘shopgirl’ of the title, a young woman, beautiful in a wallflowerish kind of way, who works behind the glove counter at Neiman Marcus, selling things that nobody buys anymore…?

Mirabelle captures the attention of Ray Porter, a wealthy businessman almost twice her age. As they tentatively embark on a relationship, they both struggle to decipher the language of love — with consequences that are both comic and heartbreaking. Filled with the kind of witty, discerning observations that have brought Steve Martin critical success, Shopgirl is a work of disarming tenderness.

I picked this up on a whim the other week, and started reading it right away. It’s an interesting, short glimpse of a Los Angeles life. Mirabelle’s story is not one of Hollywood or celebrity life/excess. Rather, it is a calm story of a young woman looking for a place in Los Angeles life. She’s working a job that is not, to say the least, scintillating. She is dating a rather dull, narcissistic wannabe, but falls into the orbit of a wealthy Seattle businessman who lives part-time in LA. It’s an endearing, well-told story that I very much enjoyed. Continue reading

Quick Review: WAITING FOR LIPCHITZ AT CHATEAU MARMONT by Aris Janigian (Rare Bird Books)

JanigianA-WaitingForLipchitzSomeone does not like Hollywood/Los Angeles culture and society…

Set in two iconic locales — Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont and luxurious Fresno’s Forestiere’s Underground Garden — Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont is a bold and colorful critique of the California Dream through the perspective of a once-upon-a-time successful screenwriter and the wealth that taunts him. Caught between John O’Brien’s Better and, perhaps, a Christopher Guest adaptation of Waiting for Godot, Janigian’s Lipchitz is a new take on the absent protagonist and what’s inevitably illuminated by its void.

This is a strange novel. I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t love it. There are plenty of interesting and sharp observations about the fickleness and shallowness of Los Angeles and, particularly, Hollywood life, culture and business practices. It’s a well-written novel, but one that I didn’t find as satisfying as I had hoped. Continue reading

Quick Review: TRAJECTORY by Richard Russo (Knopf)

russor-trajectoryusA new anthology from the Pultizer Prize-winning author

Russo’s characters in these four expansive stories bear little similarity to the blue-collar citizens we’re familiar with from many of his novels. In “Horseman,” a professor confronts a young plagiarist as well as her own weaknesses as the Thanksgiving holiday looms closer and closer: “And after that, who knew?” In “Intervention,” a realtor facing an ominous medical prognosis finds himself in his father’s shadow while he presses forward – or not. In “Voice,” a semiretired academic is conned by his increasingly estranged brother into coming along on a group tour of the Venice Biennale, fleeing a mortifying incident with a traumatized student back in Massachusetts but encountering further complications in the maze of Venice. And in “Milton and Marcus,” a lapsed novelist struggles with his wife’s illness and tries to rekindle his screenwriting career, only to be stymied by the pratfalls of that trade when he’s called to an aging, iconic star’s mountaintop retreat in Wyoming.

I’m a relatively recent convert to Russo fandom. I read the author’s campus novel, Straight Man a few years ago, and started to collect all of his other novels. I finally got around to reading the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls, which I very much admired. Ever since, I have been eager to read more of his work. Trajectory collects four of Russo’s shorter fictions, and offers an excellent entry point in to his fiction. I very much enjoyed this book. Continue reading

Review: IF WE WERE VILLAINS by M.L. Rio (Flatiron/Titan)

An excellent literary thriller

Oliver Marks has just served ten years in jail – for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day he’s released, he’s greeted by the man who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, but before he does, he wants to know what really happened a decade ago.

As one of seven young actors studying Shakespeare at an elite arts college, Oliver and his friends play the same roles onstage and off: hero, villain, tyrant, temptress, ingénue, extra. But when the casting changes, and the secondary characters usurp the stars, the plays spill dangerously over into life, and one of them is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless.

M.L. Rio’s debut novel turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. The writing is excellent, the story is gripping, and the characters are varied, realistic and engaging. An easy, early contender for best novel lists. I very much enjoyed this. Continue reading

Quick Review: THE IMPOSSIBLE FORTRESS by Jason Rekulak (Simon & Schuster/Faber)

An endearing tale of adolescent attraction and distraction

What happens when a fourteen-year old boy pretends to seduce a girl to steal a copy of Playboy but then discovers she is his computer-loving soulmate.

Billy Marvin’s first love was a computer. Then he met Mary Zelinsky.

Do you remember your first love?

The Impossible Fortress begins with a magazine… The year is 1987 and Playboy has just published scandalous photographs of Vanna White, from the popular TV game show Wheel of Fortune. For three teenage boys — Billy, Alf, and Clark — who are desperately uneducated in the ways of women, the magazine is somewhat of a Holy Grail: priceless beyond measure and impossible to attain. So, they hatch a plan to steal it.

The heist will be fraught with peril: a locked building, intrepid police officers, rusty fire escapes, leaps across rooftops, electronic alarm systems, and a hyperactive Shih Tzu named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Failed attempt after failed attempt leads them to a genius master plan — they’ll swipe the security code to Zelinsky’s convenience store by seducing the owner’s daughter, Mary Zelinsky. It becomes Billy’s mission to befriend her and get the information by any means necessary. But Mary isn’t your average teenage girl. She’s a computer loving, expert coder, already strides ahead of Billy in ability, with a wry sense of humor and a hidden, big heart. But what starts as a game to win Mary’s affection leaves Billy with a gut-wrenching choice: deceive the girl who may well be his first love or break a promise to his best friends.

I very much enjoyed this novel. The Impossible Fortress has a little bit of everything: young love, a daring heist, some mystery, and a fair amount of nostalgia. It is also very well written. If you’re looking for an amusing coming-of-age novel, then I’d recommend this. (Especially if you are in your 30s/40s…) Continue reading

Review: ALL OUR WRONG TODAYS by Elan Mastai (Doubleday)

MastaiE-AllOurWrongTodaysUSAn excellent debut novel, one of the first must reads of 2017

There’s no such thing as the life you’re “supposed” to have.

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed… because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career and — maybe, just maybe — his soulmate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future — our future — is supposed to be.

Elan Mastai is the writer of, among other things, The F Word — a movie set in Toronto that I found utterly charming and amusing. When I discovered that he’d written a novel, I immediately tried to get a review copy. I eventually did (thank you, Doubleday!), and I am delighted to report that the novel did not disappoint. All Our Wrong Todays is an endearing, amusing, thought-provoking novel. Certainly, it is one of the year’s first must-reads. Continue reading