So, for the past few months, I’ve been the book reviewer for the English-language magazine, In Madrid. It’s a print publication, so they don’t have all theri content available online. For that reason, I thought I’d post my reviews every month, maybe start people talking about books, giving me tips, telling me I’m completely and utterly wrong about so-and-so, etc…

Below, are the ones I just did for February (only 3, usually I do 4 but they stuck in a Spanish book this month too) and I’ll probably periodically put up the past month’s reviews as well, maybe every couple weeks. So – for book nuts – here ya go!

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Blank Gaze
José Luis Peixoto

From our neighbors to the west comes a haunting, surreal tale of life in a small Portuguese village. It has no name. No real location. It doesn’t even have an era, it exists in some unspecified “past”, like the “once upon a time” of legends. Though this is no fairy tale. Our protagonist is José, the shepherd. He is joined by The Devil (who likes gossip and red wine), the Siamese Twins linked by a pinkie finger, wise 120 year-old-Gabriel, the Blind Prostitute, the Giant, and other almost dreamlike figures. Along with these characters, ever present, through it all, is the Sun, pitiless in it’s glare. The people of this poor patch of nowhere seem to exist as if floating through the universe on an island of rocky land that is being relentlessly baked by the sun’s heat. By isolating the town, as though nothing existed outside of it, Peixoto intensifies the sensation of being trapped, which the townspeople are, by jealousy, hate, love, and fate. He skips from character to character for the narrative voice, and so also traps the reader in a succession of heads and of points of view, of raw emotions and instincts, completely stripped bare of mediation. Peixoto’s prose flows like hot wind, rapid, harsh, and penetrating it carries to the reader the many ineluctable clashes of a collection of solitary “I”s that are driven to madness, suicide, despair and ultimately, nothingness. It ain’t cheerful, but it’s damn good.

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Crusaders
Richard T. Kelly

Here in 2009, after the era of Tony Blair, comes a novel reflecting on the beginning of that era, and the society that gave rise to New Labour. Step back to 1996, where the Reverend John Gore has followed his calling to a rough area of Newcastle, where he is charged with establishing a new church, an undertaking that appears doomed from the outset. Through his organizing efforts he meets Big Steve, a hulking local man who works in “security”, Lindy – a single mom who catches Gore’s eye, Martin, the local MP, and Simon, an aggressive and ambitious fellow clergyman. Through them and their diverse lives Kelly tries to paint a portrait of a time. Gore’s lukewarm efforts in his mission, for example, make the idea of sincere ministry seem naive. While Gore’s rival Simon, and the occasional cameos by Tony Blair himself, show us that religious successes are ultimately marred by undercurrents of intolerance, and co-optation by politicians. It’s very ambitious first book, and some characters, especially Big Steve, have great potential to draw us in. But Kelly’s language is awkward, often seems incongruously formal, almost pretentious for the characters he is trying to create for us. And, quite importantly, we just can’t quite get behind our protagonist. Gore seems hopelessly devoid of the passion and spark his mission would require, and also a bit too bland for the other relationships we are to believe he is fostering. If he can’t seem to care about his mission and story, why should we?

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The Various Flavours of Coffee
Anthony Capella

It’s London, 1896, and Robert Wallis, our narrator, is a young, frivolous, epigram-spouting poet, who parties his way out of Oxford. He then finds unlikely employment with a coffee importer, Samuel Pinker, who puts the broke wordsmith to work writing a coffee tasting guide. There, among the sensual aromas of the world’s coffees, he falls for Emily, the boss’s fiercely independent daughter. In order to secure Emily’s hand, he agrees to complete a 5 year mission into the coffee lands of Africa, and so takes us around the world and back again for a look at more than just coffee. In fact, the themes are myriad: the ins-and-outs of the coffee industry, cutthroat turn of the century capitalism, women’s suffrage, slavery, colonialism, travel, and a love story… or three. Capella juggles the variety fairly well: the humorous tone that opens the book is quite chuckle-worthy at times, and the forays into deeper social issues are compelling. For example, with women’s suffrage he makes you feel the women’s frustration, desperation, even anger. It’s the transitions between light and heavy that are awkward. Wallis is such a silly figure at first that he feels out of place in his own story as events take more serious turns. It’s an enjoyable book, which presents does a good job of transporting us to a different time, but ultimately is limited by the inability of its own narrator to convince us to take him seriously and to reconcile the tone of his story.

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