Spencer Stephens

Author of 'Church of Golf.' Also a student of nearly everything.

Category: Book Reviews

I only review new or soon-to-be-released books and I focus, as much as reasonably possible, on books by lesser-known authors. I won’t review a book unless I really like it.

Book Review. “Daphne,” by Will Boast. Liveright, 2018.

daphne.cover .1 225x300 Book Review. Daphne, by Will Boast. Liveright, 2018.Whether to live within the limits of our most fragile selves? Whether the safe harbor or the open ocean? A suffering mind or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?

These are core questions, urgent questions, in life and in literature. They were central for Hamlet and for Bilbo Baggins, and they remain so in the world around us – for astronauts, for Shark Tank contestants and for commercial fishermen. The questions are also central for Daphne, the protagonist in this insightful and completely lovely novel. Continue reading

Book Review. “Crowsong for the Stricken,” by Ted Morrissey. Twelve Winters Press, 2017.

crowsong.tiny  Book Review. “Crowsong for the Stricken,” by Ted Morrissey. Twelve Winters Press, 2017.In a long-ago American village, an ordinary place settled by people with Anglo-Saxon names like Patterson and Abernathy, spirits occupied unlit corners of dank basements. Some of them trolled for sex. They picked out village daughters whose extreme niceness grew from fear of rejection. Slithering past intact hymen, the spirits entered the girls, impregnated them. They talked in false confidence with select villagers and conspired to divide friends. Some, they followed at a distance. They whispered, were heard by strangers and inspired fear, then turned dramatic; they allowed themselves to be felt and seen for moments at a time. What follows is, for a reader, Frankenstinian dread.

So it is that Ted Morrissey, in his new book, embeds us in a community of Germanic Midwesterners,  a group that is function-oriented, studious and politely Christian. These are people who would covet a set of nice tools and then hope no one found out. The earliest generation of villagers revealed by Mr. Morrissey complies strictly with their town’s rules on how and when to quarantine Plague families. The town fathers commonly torched the homes of Plague victims, bodies sealed inside. Morrissey follows those who think they’ve seen ghostly movements in windows while houses were being consumed. Did some get burned who weren’t yet dead?

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Book Review. “The Loyal: The Story of Atwood and the Second Civil War,” by Christopher Wilde. The Bend Publishing Company, 2017. 

the.loyal .cover .2nd Book Review. The Loyal: The Story of Atwood and the Second Civil War, by Christopher Wilde. The Bend Publishing Company, 2017. One can speculate about charismatic extremists who might thrive in the shadow of a hateful president, a man greedy for control of an entire country. Christopher Wilde has done so in his new novella, a provocative read that is absorbing, realistic and deeply frightening.

Wilde’s book documents the rise of a revolutionary hero and an actuarial genius named Atwood, a woman bent on control. She is the sexy blond wizard at the tip of a lethal spear: She heads a nationwide movement of millennials. She blames baby boomers for bringing children into a world of want and sucking the life from them. Atwood claims that boomers selfishly control the wealth, the jobs, the health care system and the government. Narcissistic to the core, boomers elected the worst of their own as president, a man who promised to safeguard the boomers’ dominance. The world contains every part of young adults’ birthright, but the boomers maintain a death grip. So, Atwood declares war.

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Book Review. ‘Manhattan Beach,’ by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 2017.

manhattan.beach .cover .2nd Book Review. Manhattan Beach, by Jennifer Egan. Scribner, 2017.There are many windows into our past. Few offer a view that is as detailed, as accurate or as absorbing as ‘Manhattan Beach.’

The protagonist in this lovely piece of historical fiction is a working-class girl of Irish descent, Anna Kerrigan. She is freakishly unlucky but stalwart, living in Depression-era New York City. The names of the neighborhoods she frequents are lit on road signs with the flickering, colored lights of gangsterism and industrialism that illuminated Gotham during the Roosevelt years. Most will have heard of Anna’s neighborhoods and will recognize the connotations that go with the names. These are the places around Sheepshead Bay where the Navy built battleships, where Syndicate underbosses ran jazz clubs and gambling parlors, where prostitutes and loan sharks were always at one’s elbow. This is the place and the time into which mobster John Gotti was born.

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Book Review. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2017.

s l140 Book Review. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” by Jesmyn Ward. Scribner, 2017.Some lives get so ugly and hopeless that, even to an outsider, crystal meth and murder look perfectly sensible. That’s one of several Faulknerian themes baked into this thin, memorable novel.

The family at the heart of this story is impossibly poor and seemingly stuck in the red mud of Mississippi’s gulf coast. It never gets any better. The dear and the innocent are slain and their ghosts haunt. The desperate and unwary have babies with men who their parents know are suited only for life in prison. And the children, the simple ones who are slapped down when they speak of severe hunger, they study the scenes. They try to guess which path might permit their survival. You might find yourself recognizing advantages you didn’t know you had.

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Book Review. “My Absolute Darling,” by Gabriel Tallent. Riverhead Books, 2017.

 Book Review. My Absolute Darling, by Gabriel Tallent. Riverhead Books, 2017.One hundred pages into ‘My Absolute Darling,’ it was already the best book I’ve read this year. Like many others, I picked up this first-time novelist’s work only because Stephen King called it a masterpiece. Mr. King admitted feeling green because (his words) he could never have written anything so good. The book is a masterpiece: You will marvel at the writer’s gift for making you eagerly turn pages so that you can keep up with a story rooted in the disgusting.

This is a human horror story. It is about a fourteen-year-old girl who learns to cope with her sexually and physically abusive father. The book’s beauty and substance come from the writer’s presentation of people, places and emotions. His descriptions compel a deliberate pace so that you don’t dare miss Mr. Tallent’s blue-black narrative of a horrific man doing horrific things, of a girl torn between loyalty and hate.

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Book Review. ‘Born to Run,’ by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster, 2016.

springsteen.cover  200x300 Book Review. ‘Born to Run,’ by Bruce Springsteen. Simon & Schuster, 2016.There are two big things about Bruce I took from his accessible, cozy autobiography. The first: The Boss is a businessman. He’s all about the contracts, the rights, the residuals. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Given what Bruce admits, the label sticks. He is the bandleader. Always. Everybody else is an employee; their work and compensation are defined by written contracts. Bruce and his manager dictated all the thousands of things that made up a Springsteen tour: dates and locations, the players, the rehearsal schedule, transportation, hotels, meals. The songs are his. The set list is his. The profits? His. He tells of one band member (Mr. Springsteen is discreet and doesn’t identify him) who, mid-tour, demanded a raise. Bruce asked for proof there was one comparable musician who made more. End of conversation.

Bruce doesn’t say what he pays his band but leaves the impression he is no Scrooge. He seems to care deeply about the people who work for him. Many have been friends since before the day when his mother paid for his first guitar. For those who are no longer his employees, friendships remain. Bruce successfully mixes business and personal relationships as very few have (and as very few should dare try).

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