I would like to think I'm not a pushover for a five-star review. "I call it like I see it," is the way I go about it. Even my favorite series of books, the Patrick O'Brian Master and Commander series, does not get five stars throughout.
I think, though, I'm a real sucker for graceful craft, where the writing comes off almost like a magic trick. You watch (or more often in my case) listen to the story unfold, and things happen that make you say "Wow!" or "What?" or "I'm insanely jealous of your artistry!" Here's a perfect example. As with most books, I purposefully avoided finding anything about Beautiful Ruins before I began reading it. I simply knew that it felt like a book I could potentially really enjoy. The book takes the point of view of several different characters, and fortunately for the reader, there are some wonderful characters to enjoy. Of all of them, I found the characters of Pasquale Tursi and Pat Bender the most interesting to follow (two opposites, in many respects, but both devoted to the same beautiful woman). Not only does the story shift character point of view, but it shifts chronology, moving back and forth in time as the author, Mr. Walter, navigates the reader through his tale. In this way, there are some very interesting reading moments, where we realize something for the first time, but this is something the characters have known and lived with for many years. Conversely, there are other moments when the reader has knowledge from the future that the characters have yet to discover. When a book is written this way, there is great potential for it to become a convoluted cluster f**k, but Jess Walter somehow brings it all off wonderfully and gracefully. I haven't been so impressed with a novel's twisty organization since reading Life After Life earlier this year. Walter writes best in what might be called "short-story mode," meaning that the novel feels like a linked set of beautifully rendered vignettes that, while functioning as a whole, could also exist independently as short stories. In this way, it has a very different, more intimate feeling than a more typically structured novel with a broader and more well-defined story arc. I'm guessing some of his short story collections could really kick ass! I also have to say that this book made me laugh out loud a lot - not an easy feat at all, as I find a lot of humor rather lame. In all, I was truly impressed and will definitely keep an eye out for some of Jess Walter's other works in the future.