I am a Bad Person: A Review of ‘The November Criminals’ by Sam Munson

I finished reading Sam Munson’s ‘The November Criminals’ two days ago and, despite having finished three more books and started two more since then, it is still on my mind.  It isn’t the plot (essentially, teen drug dealer develops weird obsession with murder of classmate and has un-girlfriend problems) that has stayed with me; rather, I keep thinking about the characters in a kind of ‘where are they now?’ sort of way, which is highly illogical given that I spend my professional life lecturing my students on characters being fictional constructs and not actual people with lives beyond the text.cover74692-medium

But I can’t help considering Addison, the narrator and afore-mentioned small-time dealer, and why he does the things he does during ‘The November Criminals.’  While reading, I was frustrated that there didn’t seem to be any reason for his sudden immersion in the case of Kevin, someone Addison was only vaguely aware of at school, and his shooting before the novel begins.  The more I think about it, however, the more I realise this is exactly the point; that there isn’t really a good reason for it because sometimes there just isn’t a reason for something.  In some ways, Addison reminded me of Greg, the narrator of my recent favourite, ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl;’ in both cases, the narrator complains frequently about telling the story but has a specific purpose for doing so, despite being on the periphery of the events depicted.  Addison is a mess of contradictions in the way that real teenagers are; for example, he is a stoner but incredibly gifted in the study of Latin and obsessed with ‘The Aeniad.’  Throughout, even as crazy things happen around him, Addison is keen to protest his own lack of noteworthy qualities, telling the reader, “I have no personality to speak of.”  It is his very lack of quirks that makes him an engaging character, even as his actions become increasingly ridiculous and destructive.

Addison’s girlfriend, Digger, is another brilliantly-realised character.  Their relationship is  referred to as an “agreement,” by which they are supposed to be ‘friends with benefits,’ to use a phrase I really hate. But Addison’s frequent allusions to how amazing Digger is belie his attempts at nonchalance, and that is quite touching. He is right; Digger is a superb creation, although animal activists may disagree. Addison’s father is another character who demands further consideration; he seems to exist on the periphery (for example, he is unaware that his son is making thousands of dollars selling pot) but the subtext of Addison’s mother and her tragic death give the reader reason to consider the roots of his behaviour.

In terms of plot, ‘The November Criminals’ follows a pattern established by ‘stoner movies,’ with the protagonists’ self-imposed distance from reality leading them into madcap and dangerous situations, for which they are in no way prepared; attracting the attention of police officers and brick-wielding lunatics, to name but two. It falls somewhere in between ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘The Wire’ in its approach to drugs and crime, with the D.C. dialect reminding me of all the times watching the latter when I didn’t understand what anyone was saying. In the case of ‘The November Criminals,’ this added to the portrayal of the location, which interested me as I can’t think of any other books I’ve read which were set in the U.S.’ capital city but didn’t involve politics.  Munson includes some details which transcend the madness of the story, like “after the snow, when it comes, which is not always till late December or January – the snow itself is always minor, a greyish dusting.  Fragile. It never achieves that white darkness quality.  The thwarted desire for which, I think, makes children so high-strung here in the winter months.”  I could have a field day with that kind of writing in my A-level lessons.

I’d like to read ‘The November Criminals’ again at some point when I am not dying under the weight of all the books I need to read; I’d like to take the time to look again at Munson’s eloquent and entertaining style and the ways in which it makes Addison an engaging figure. The swearing and content may make me wary of recommending this to teens with a sensitive disposition, but it is definitely worth your attention.

Normal is the Holy Grail: A Review of Sarah Crossan’s ‘One’

Aside5184QoaCiCL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_ from reading at every available opportunity at all times of day, I have to read before I go to sleep; it is an essential part of my day without which I can’t get to sleep. However, in recent months, an additional problem has arisen; these days, I can’t sleep if I’ve just finished a book because I spend precious sleep-time thinking about what to read next; so, I have to start reading the next book right then, which works perfectly well until the next book is so good I have to stay up reading that, thus causing a perfect storm of reading problems and a monstrous book hangover.

A case in point: last night, I finished reading ‘The Western Lonesome Society’ at 10.06pm, went up to bed and started ‘One’ by Sarah Crossan, planning to read a couple of chapters before having a restful night of dreaming about libraries and first edition Victorian novels. But then something disastrous happened; ‘One’ turned out to be SO OUTSTANDING that I had to stay up to read the whole thing (and then, obviously, start something else. Honestly, my life is literally ridiculous), thus delaying my bedtime by two hours.  I am basically a rock star but with no musical talent and more books.

The only thing I knew about ‘One’ before starting it was the subject matter, which you can probably deduce from the cover; it’s about a set of conjoined twins called Grace and Tippi. What I did not know was that the book is written in free verse (poetry that does not use rhyme or rhythm, for non-English teachers).  Each chapter is a poem, ranging from just a couple of lines to several pages long, and the speaker is Grace, the left-hand twin, who narrates a deeply touching story without excessive sentimentality. It is an extraordinary feat.

The book begins with Grace and Tippi being told they have to start attending a mainstream high school, forcing them to confront the interest, prejudice and fear of their peers. Crossan cleverly draws on universal teenage experiences – first kisses, teen rebellion, sibling relationships – while giving them an entirely unique dimension as we view them through the eyes of Grace, who knows she can never achieve true intimacy or independence. Grace initially fears the gaze of her classmates, acknowledging “the probability that I’m/ another person’s nightmare” – Crossan manages to make Grace reflect on her situation without ever descending into self-pity, although you do feel that such a state of feeling would be entirely justified.  If anything, Grace has an admirable sense of perspective which makes her an even more compelling character:

On the news are stories about

child abuse and famine and genocide and drought

and I have never once thought

that I would like to

swap my life for any belonging to those people

whose lives are steeped in tragedy.

I loved the way in which Crossan has written the novel; using poetry as a storytelling form has the almost paradoxical effect of downplaying the emotional aspects of Grace’s narrative, with all the blank space on the page allowing the reader room to really reflect on what is happening and how it is being described. There’s no reference to why Grace speaks to us in this way – it isn’t a convenient school project or anything; it is simply a natural and coherent stylistic choice and I thought it was wonderful.

Although unique in its style and content (I can’t think of any other books about conjoined twins), ‘One’ shares a sort of emotional register with ‘Wonder’ by R.J. Palacio, and the twin-bond has common ground with my beloved ‘I’ll Give You the Sun;’ Crossan’s ‘Apple and Rain’ also focuses on a sister relationship and that’s a book I recommend too. ‘One’ caught me by surprise because I knew so little about it before reading; I do not usually like surprises, but this was a welcome one. I cannot recommend this enough to literally all humans who can read.

All Looks Quiet on the Western Front: A Review of Robert Garner McBrearty’s ‘The Western Lonesome Society’

UnknownThe discovery of NetGalley has led me to some books which I otherwise would never have encountered and one of these is ‘The Western Lonesome Society’ by Robert Garner McBrearty, published in September. It is  described as a “quixotic, hilarious, over-the-top Western’ and what person in their right mind doesn’t love the word “quixotic”?

‘The Western Lonesome Society’ is a very peculiar book, with several stories interwoven; Jim O’Brien is ostensibly the protagonist, seeking the retell the story of his ancestors who were kidnapped and raised by the Comanche, whilst also pondering his own childhood kidnapping. Jim fantasises about the potential rewards of telling these separate but interconnected stories, while other tales also intrude upon the narrative; a (deliberately terrible?) story written by one of his students, as well as his own journal of a long-ago family holiday.

For me, the most compelling of these strands is the Comanche kidnapping in 1870; brothers Tom and Will are taken by the tribe and adopted by the warrior, White Crane, with each boy reacting very differently to their circumstances. The struggle between the settlers and the Comanches, exemplified through this microcosm, provides the most interesting passages of McBrearty’s short novel (I read it in one sitting).  Both the short and long-term consequences of the taking of the boys create tremendous dramatic thrust.

It is evident from the outset that Jim is not the most reliable story-teller; the “shadowy” therapist to whom he unloads his neuroses is clearly imaginary, making Jim’s self-doubt all the more evident as even the counsellor he invents is uninterested in the major points of Jim’s anecdotes. These sections are comedic, with Jim claiming the “damaging effect” of his childhood experiences and even the therapist he has created questioning his qualifications to make such an assessment. The novel progresses and one is forced to question just how many of Jim’s exchanges take place in his mind  As Jim unravels further, the novel’s structure and mixture of narratives becomes more complex, but with a satisfying conclusion of the most interesting plot lines even as Jim’s paranoia seems irreconcilable with reality.

‘The Western Lonesome Society’ is a really entertaining read; it contains both moments of humour and action sequences which grab the attention.  McBrearty successfully incorporates elements of the modern novel with the Western tradition, creating a novel which is rich in imagery and incident.

I’ll Have The Hurt Locker Cappuccino: A Review of Michael Ebner’s ‘Movie Game’

23635534‘Movie Game’ by Michael Ebner begins with an incident cinephiles will relate to; Joe, our protagonist, is so enraged by a couple talking during a film that he follows them home and vandalises their front door. “Movie talkers attract stalkers” is his motto and it is one he wholeheartedly follows through. It’s an opening that grabs the reader’s attention, refusing to give it back until the end of the novel.

Essentially, ‘Movie Game’ is about a film-obsessed teenager, his overactive libido and his messed-up family, but that’s a reductive way to describe it; there’s far more afoot here than you find in a typical YA novel and, if anything, I would suggest it is more of an adult book due to the varied references and ideas.  A theme that runs throughout is the use of fiction as escapism; Joe’s sister, Loren, leans on novels, while Joe depends on films to forget his reality, even as it becomes increasingly unreal.  Ebner neatly sums this up in the narrative: “their excessive consumption of fiction was an essential distraction from their broken home.”  This is an idea emphasised later on in the action too, and it provides an interesting prism through which to view the events of the story.

I describe this as a weird book in the most complimentary way possible.  Film references are interwoven throughout, immersing the reader in Joe’s obsession; the lines between the fictions he enjoys and the fact of the story are blurred by Joe’s conscious mission to make his life cinematic. The tough-guy dialogue often reminded me of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade or Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, which I think is quite a feat; the sparsity of the language and its lack of emotion point to the trauma of Joe’s adolescence (don’t worry; this is not one of those books) and his preference for ignoring it.  The noir-ish tone runs throughout; there are femme fatales (albeit femme fatales whose modus operandi is to offer intimate favours in return for their targets reading a book), shadowy government agents and serious crimes in the background while Joe spends his time sneaking into his local multiplex.  There are also some delightful turns of phrase; one character, we are told, “talked like he wished he could live in the ’60s indefinitely but wanted to take everything from the Apple Store with him,” providing descriptions which allude, rather than tell.  Another favourite passage of mine made clear Joe’s manifesto on cinema behaviour: “snack consumption was legal but Joe expected anyone dining on the distracting shit to synchronise chewing with car chases and shootouts regardless of the genre. The Popcorn Pig was treating the space like a pie-eating contest. The buttery snack was his instrument and he was doing a sound check with the venue’s acoustics.”  Sigh.

In case you’re wondering, the eponymous ‘Movie Game,’ goes as follows: a player names a movie, the next player names an actor from that film and then the next player names a film featuring that actor, and so on.  I kept trying to play along but, sadly, all I watch these days is ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ which proved pretty unhelpful.

I really recommend ‘Movie Game.’  It’s inventive, knowing and witty, clever without being irritating. I woke up disgustingly early this morning and, rather than internally cursing my sorry luck, I thought, ‘oh good, now I can finish this book before anyone else wakes up.’  Now there’s one for the dust jacket.