THE ANIMATORS, by Kayla Rae Whitaker [2017]

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R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10

There’s a few moments here that easily make The Animators a 5-Star book. Just brilliant, quiet, heart-breaking moments that Whitaker absolutely nails. But there are other moments where I felt my attention drifting, wishing I knew where this book was really going. It’s a slow start, and the placing of certain events feels unusual to me. But it all gets there eventually.
When things happen in this book, they happen quickly. A sudden turn this way, then giving us a while to explore it and feel it out, before another sudden turn takes us that way.
Having an animation background myself allowed for some extra bonus treats in my reading. I’ve been through the struggle of trying to stake my place in that world. I kind of wish we were privy to more of Sharon’s struggles at the top of the book; instead, we’re quickly celebrating Sharon’s and Mel’s success in the industry. But upon reaching the end of the novel, I think readers would have been better-rewarded with a slightly different approach at the beginning.
Sharon herself, at times, felt more like a passenger than a driver in her own book. She just kind of went along with the things that were happening around her rather than controlling the action herself. In the end, I don’t know if I ever really felt like I knew her as much as I wanted to.
Flaws aside, The Animators is an exceptional debut from an author who is not afraid to write a raw, imperfect, and often disappointing world.

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UNDERMAJORDOMO MINOR, by Patrick deWitt [2015]

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R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10

If ever there was a novel that could be labelled “Irreverent” this would be it. Probably by a landslide. However, through all the flippancy, I’m not entirely sure what Undermajordomo Minor is trying to say. Something about love? Something about finding one’s place in the world? Something about wild, profane sausage parties? Maybe all of the above. Maybe none.
BUT! This twisted sort of fairy tale remains a fun romp. As is the case with Patrick DeWitt’s previous writing, the verbiage is delightful, but at times his use of language bothers me, with an almost a too-smart-for-his-own-good vibe. It’s a fine line, but I cheered more than I jeered, so let’s call it a literary victory.
If I was asked to compare DeWitt’s style, I might eventually say it’s not unlike Wes Anderson using an ink-dipped feather-pen. I’m a sucker for Anderson (like many), but I find he can hit sour notes with me from time to time, and DeWitt fits that description.
I’ll leave you with this wonderful quote from the pages of Undermajordomo Minor. Apply it to your own life:

“And what is [love] like? I’ve often wondered about it.”
“It is a glory and a torment.”
“Really? Would you not recommend it, then?”
“I would recommend it highly. Just to say it’s not for the faint of heart.”

ARE YOU SEEING ME? by Darren Groth [2014]

Are You Seeing Me

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10

Fun book by local-by-way-of-Australia Author Darren Groth. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Darren about my own writing so it was good to finally crack this one open.
Of the two main characters (twin siblings Justine and Perry) I found myself drawn to Justine more, which is unusual since Perry is arguably the more interesting character. It says a lot about Groth’s ability to write female protagonists. Are You Seeing Me? has heavy moments, lighter moments, in-between moments and moments of the absurd variety, and they all work well together. The many nods to handfuls of local sights and details, as well as a fair amount of hockey-talk were all appreciated from a personal standpoint.
I also feel this is an important book for school libraries, (dealing heavily with disability in the autism-spectrum) so if you have any pull at all, make sure they have a copy!

& Sons, by David Gilbert [2013]

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R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 8/10

Just a really good work of contemporary literary fiction. The characters all had rich histories and the author did a tremendous job at interweaving excerpts from A.N.Dyer’s collection of fictional novels. Yes, as other reviewers have commented, it is pretentious at times, but this is the nature of a work like this. Our narrator is oftentimes a confusing choice and I feel like there could have been a few more opportunities to explore Philip Topping’s surreptitious role in all of this. The writing and word choices are engaging and David Gilbert offers the reader a great deal of humor along the way. My favorite chapter was definitely the one with the pretzel scene. I wish there was actually a bit more depth to the Andy/Jeanie relationship, and Isabel really deserved another appearance, but this is a novel about men. Fathers & Sons, more specifically, and any divergence from this might have only lessened the theme. Recommended!

WIND/PINBALL by Haruki Murakami [2015]

Wind.Pinball

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 6/10

Two of Haruki Murakami’s first and previously unpublished stories, each one only around 100 pages. I was going to write my review of the first story (“Hear the Wind Sing“), but then I thought, “Nah. I’ll read the second one and then review them both! Gosh golly, I’m brilliant.” Of course, half-way through book two (“Pinball, 1973“) I’d forgotten nearly everything I liked about the first book. Yes dear readers, I am brilliant indeed.
But this is the nature of Murakami. His stories all share very similar themes and characters that even if you enjoy his work it’s sometimes very hard to differentiate them. These are not perfect stories but there are perfect moments within them both. And when Murakami gets perfect right, well it’s perfect. It’s the quiet moments of reflection; young men maturing and finding their place in the world; girls preparing spaghetti; a trip to the doctor to have wax removed from an ear canal; waking up next to a mysterious girl with nine fingers; the weirdness of discovering a barn in the outskirts of Tokyo that is filled with pinball machines and the protagonist has a conversation with his favorite one. It’s stuff like that that makes Murakami.
No, nothing really happens in these stories, but sometimes it’s just a pleasure to read the words of certain authors.

ANNIHILATION, by Jeff VanderMeer [2014]

Annihilation

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 9/10

At only 200 pages, this book (the first part of the Southern Reach Trilogy) is a VERY accessible novel. When I say that, what I refer to is a few things:
1) Book Length: 200 pages certainly will not intimidate potential readers. Plus, one (not me though) could probably read it in a single sitting;
2) Characters: the characters here are sparse (there’s really only five of them) and they are simple, though quite complex in their stripped-down-ness (is that a word?). There are no names for the characters, only job titles (Biologist, Psychologist, etc.) and it works. We know instantly what their roles are and there are no names to remember/mix up;
3) Genre: Southern Reach is billed as Sci-Fi, and though it is, it is also an exploration into Horror, Psychological and Literary fiction.

To me, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation is part H.P. Lovecraft and part Stanislav Lem’s Solaris, which is a cool mix. There were a couple of legitimately terrifying moments where I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Hard to do these days.

There are also a number of truly tender moments, when the main character reflects on moments from her past. VanderMeer nailed these for me, and the book would not have been the same without them.

The title choice is interesting, and readers will know why when they reach that part in the story. Its moment in the novel is short but it sort of sums up everything and it sort of doesn’t, but still makes sense as a title, which is important.

From what I’ve read, the three parts of the trilogy are connected, though only very loosely. Annihilation could easily be read on its own without any sequels. Still, I’ll be checking out the next two and I’m excited to read what comes next.

THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt [2013]

The Goldfinch

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10

Spoiler Warning!

Very well written novel; at times Donna Tartt blew me away with her descriptions but there are other times…well, let’s just say that a 750+ page novel is bound to have more verbosity than necessary; a few more lulls in the story than I’m used to, and I typically find myself restricting my reading to a 300-350 page count. But a big book is fine too, if there’s story enough to carry it.

The fact is The Goldfinch is really just an over-bloated 400-page novel. My impression is that Tartt used the novel as a “look what I can write!” platform, spending far too many pages on peripheral ideas that really just could have used another editor to tell her, “That part sucks. Chop it.” Though in all honesty, what author wouldn’t want to show off their talent? Tartt has the talent – there’s no question – but I’m not alone in my feeling that the woman could have whittled the page count down by at least a couple hundred.

There is a major plot point in The Goldfinch that is planted around the 300-page mark and not revealed until 250-300 pages later which really annoyed me. Basically, our main character, Theo, wraps up a priceless painting he wants to keep hidden and stuffs it under his bed. Then he thinks, “No, I’ll bring it to school and hide it in my locker instead. No wait, I’ll bring it back home and put back under my bed.” It was too obvious that through the changes of location that the painting was going to be secretly switched; I couldn’t have been the only person to have seen it coming. Especially considering more than ten years go by before Theo ever bothers to actually look at the painting again, instead of the bundled-up mess of paper, tape and pillowcases. My only surprise (or rather, red-hot anger) came from the fact that I figured it wasn’t going to take so long for Me The Reader to be let in on the *cough* secret *cough*. Seriously, I spent those 300 pages with this plot twist in my head and getting increasingly pissed off. “Just open up the fucking painting already!!”

Overall, there are far too many stereotyped characters and not enough likable characters; even Theo makes enough “mistakes” in his life that we wouldn’t feel too bad if things got as bad as they could for him. But hey, his mom died, right? This makes his actions redeemable. Isn’t that how fiction works?

GRASSHOPPER JUNGLE [2014], by Andrew Smith

Grasshopper Jungle

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 7/10

Wow. I’m not sure exactly what it was I just read there, but Grasshopper Jungle is nothing if not original. Let me pose the following question to you: If the world was coming to an end due to 6-foot tall mantises hatching from the bodies of a bunch Iowans, would a 16-year-old boy still have sex on the brain? The answer, I guess, is definitely yes. Austin Szerba is confused sexually; he doesn’t know if he loves his girlfriend Shann or his best friend Robby or both. But he’s a good kid and has one of the most unique (unusual?) voices in fiction.

Author Andrew Smith’s writing style both impressed and exasperated me at times, but Grasshopper Jungle remains an unforgettable story about killer bugs, plague-detecting lemur masks, horny teenagers and testicles. And boy is there ever a lot talk about testicles in this book.

If you’re up for a wild ride, a YA work that isn’t afraid to be insensitive, give this one a try.

CHRONIC CITY [2009], by Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 9/10

Though I’m totally aware that this is not a “perfect” book, or even a must-read that can be easily recommended, this is certainly one of my favorite novels. I’ve read it twice now in the last year and a half and I’ll admit that I enjoyed it more the second time, since I knew what to expect.

It’s hard to imagine a book so wordy and so much about pot-heads and socialites (mostly pot-heads!) sitting around discussing conspiracy theories and pop culture to be so darned interesting but Chronic City is just that. A dense read, well-crafted with enough mystery for those who like it and enough ambiguity for those who don’t. Throw in ideas such as a giant tiger prowling the streets of Manhattan, mysterious chaldrons and astronauts trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and you’ve got me hooked.

Jonathan Lethem dazzles me with his vocabulary and inspires me to keep honing my own craft. In my mind, a masterpiece! Chronic City has its flaws – I could have done away with the dog-heavy chapters in the last 1/4 – but not enough to keep me from a third reading in the future.

THE EMPEROR OF PARIS, by C.S. Richardson [2012]

Emperor of Paris

R. Tim Morris’ Rating: 4/10

Just couldn’t get into this one. From the reviews I’d read, it sounded like The Emperor of Paris was a slow start for most, but if hung on to long enough would pay off. Not for me. Too many characters within a jumbled chronology made for a terribly hard read, one I found extremely hard to focus on long enough to really get into.
I get the feeling that a second read would really change my perspective on this novel, but for now there are far too many other books I need to get to!
I will say however that C.S. Richardson has a wonderful way with words; his work might benefit from a much more linear story.