Monday, April 28, 2014

"Food" for Thought...and Possibly Bulimia


ANYTHING THAT MOVES: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture
DANA GOODYEAR

Riverhead Books
$27.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A new American cuisine is forming. Animals never before considered or long since forgotten are emerging as delicacies. Parts that used to be for scrap are centerpieces. Ash and hay are fashionable ingredients, and you pay handsomely to breathe flavored air. Going out to a nice dinner now often precipitates a confrontation with a fundamental question: Is that food?

Dana Goodyear’s anticipated debut, Anything That Moves, is simultaneously a humorous adventure, a behind-the-scenes look at, and an attempt to understand the implications of the way we eat. This is a universe populated by insect-eaters and blood drinkers, avant-garde chefs who make food out of roadside leaves and wood, and others who serve endangered species and Schedule I drugs—a cast of characters, in other words, who flirt with danger, taboo, and disgust in pursuit of the sublime. Behind them is an intricate network of scavengers, dealers, and pitchmen responsible for introducing the rare and exotic into the marketplace. This is the fringe of the modern American meal, but to judge from history, it will not be long before it reaches the family table.

Anything That Moves is a highly entertaining, revelatory look into the raucous, strange, fascinatingly complex world of contemporary American food culture, and the places where the extreme is bleeding into the mainstream.

My Review: I will try almost anything once. Almost anything, stuff like eyeballs and mountain oysters and (unknowingly) dog. Mountain oysters are tasty, eyeballs are gross, and I vomited for an hour after being told the greasy, slick, icky meat was dog.

There is stuff that these damnfool eejits are *paying*money*for* that there is not a single, solitary, remote, fat, or slim chance that I would consent to sit at a table with, still less eat.

Actually, I could stop there and the review would be complete. But there's a bit more I'd like to say. Dana Goodyear writes for The New Yorker, and it shows. Her phrases are often quite euphonious, but in the end more snacklike than mealtimey:
Appetites are hard to legislate, and people usually end up doing what they want to do. The year {Upton} Sinclair wrote The Jungle, he got his first summer cold. It was the beginning of the score of ailments that led him to John Henry Kellogg's Battle Creek Sanitarium (sic), which promoted vegetarianism, and to the writings of Horace Fletcher, "The Great Masticator," who prescribed chewing your food extra-thoroughly.
I stopped subscribing to The New Yorker for that reason. Okay, back in the Shawn era we had them memorable 10,000 words on zinc, its extraction, refinement, and many uses. But now we have ephemeral, mildly interesting stuff like...

...like...

...and there you have it. The chapters in this book could have been entitled "Notes from LA" and I would've skipped gaily past them, being largely uninterested in when not actively hostile to LA. And I would've been not one smidgin less well-rounded a person.

Goodyear's entertaining moments describing the feuds and rivalres among these freaky-deaky foodies are pleasant enough. Her description of eating some of the offal these folks consume made me mildly queasy, and never...not once...made me curious enough to try some of the disgusting crap the effete of palate and overloaded of wallet gourmands herein profiled savored.

I received this copy from the publisher via LibraryThing's Early Reviewers program. That made this review possible for me to write without resorting to invective, vituperation, and contumely. Had I spent $27.95 on it, I''d be so moltenly angry even yet that it would be unwise to approach me without something normal and wholesome like a double cheesburger with bacon, mayo, and onions plus an extra-large fries prominently displayed as a token of goodwill.

Make that burger a triple.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014


WHO SINGS TO THE DEAD? (Nina Flores Thrillers #2)
MAX TOMLINSON

Sendero Press
$2.99 Kindle Original, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Who can you trust in a country haunted by its past?

On the hunt for an abducted Indian beggar girl, Peruvian National Police officer Nina Flores is determined to track down the suspected kidnapper, a man who resembles what the locals call pishtacos: tall, pale ghosts who steal children. In spite of being jumped by a mysterious attacker, and the murder of a woman who gets too close to the truth, Nina is blocked at every turn by her superiors. Then she discovers links to a second case reaching back twenty years to the country’s dirty war. Defying the powers that be, Nina forms a shaky alliance with a member of a brutal drug cartel and heads deep into the Amazon jungle. She will bring the lost one home, or die trying.

My Review: My goodness. This is another case of a thriller that thrills, but leaves some nagging questions in the reader's mind. None are fatal to the story. All are significant enough that I feel I must mention them.

I very very much enjoy the Peruvian setting. I love Ninasisa's complete and understated conviction that she can handle any-goddam-thing that Peru, the USA, the narcotraficantes, can dream up to throw at her. The view of the politics of The New Peru is, I am convinced, accurate: Good people trying to make amends and start anew, bad people trying to make a buck and get a piece of the pie, and world leaders silently tolerating what would, in their own countries, cause revolution and outrage.

Weltanschauung = Weltschmerz, I suppose. Frantz Fanon needs to reincarnate in Peru.

Nina, as she is referred to most of the time, is a poor girl from a poor family, who made it into a darn good job because her narco uncle feels bad about her orphanhood and subsidized a US university education for her. He would have preferred that she stay there. She came home and became a Tourist Police officer...an interface between Peru's lawlessness and tourists' expectations of a civilized experience.

Now she's embroiled in a chase, thinking that one of the street kids she looks out for as a form of paying it forward is being pedophilically used after being snatched off the street during Easter Week chaos by an American tourist.

The chase is remarkably slow. Many days go by, a week or more before Nina can get close to the perp. Any police department will tell you that this is a *terrible* sign, no search, no discovery, no demand for ransom within 48 hours maximum usually means it's a recovery mission and not a rescue. Tomlinson makes sure we experience Nina's frustration, which becomes problematic because it's all we experience. There is nothing that impels us to invest in the lost child, since her older sister is the character we see more of and we don't see all that much of her. Common thriller techniques, like dates and times as chapter headings, or short fast chapters, aren't employed here. It leaves out a kind of urgency that can only help readers see how much Nina cares, that she's investing so much time.

Nina's new crush object, after the first book soured her relationship with an earlier paramour, is terribly convenient and quite promising. He is drawn with care to show what about him attracts and then interests a wary, heartsick woman of early middle age. Because he is so sketchily filled in, I can only be morally certain that he's younger than she is. That's certainly not unheard of, and it's clear that Nina possesses the attributes that interest straight men, but it does raise a question I wondered about in the first book: She's in early middle age, at 36, and no one...not one soul...says anything about her being an old maid or a lesbian or boo-turkey about it. In Peru. A Catholic patriarchy.

That ain't bloody likely, more especially since she takes such an interest in the sex workers and children of Cuzco. SOMEone would make a jibe about her getting the kids she never had, looking for a girlfriend among the whores, etc etc etc. Men are like that, and so are some of the cattier women that Nina runs up against.

And the American villains of the piece? Well, sketched in adequately to show why they're villains and what damage they've caused and endured. The ending, however, doesn't hang together where they are concerned, and the final chase scenes lack a sense of more than theatrical stakes because of it.

And finally, a niggle. Something that gets under my saddle and rubs a blister on my hide. PICK A CONVENTION. Italicize Spanish and Quechua, Spanish or Quechua, but not sometimes and then not. Also, choose a single spelling convention, either American (Cuzco) or Peruvian (Cusco). Different between books. That isn't good. Italicize Spanish AND Quechua, or just Quechua (which I'd recommend, since in Peru it's still a second language and that reinforces the Peruvianness of the books). And spellcheck is NOT your friend in Spanish. Barracho doesn't mean anything that I know of.

These are issues that affect fussbudgets like me, though, and only because I'm engrossed in the story and don't want to notice extraneous stuff like that. I like Nina, I like Cuzco, I like where it seems we're headed, and for the price I can't imagine a better deal.

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Friday, April 18, 2014

SENDERO by Max Tomlinson, a good first thriller set in Peru


SENDERO (Nina Flores Thrillers #1)
MAX R. TOMLINSON

Sendero Press
$2.99 Kindle original, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1987, the dirty war that will last twelve years and kill thirty thousand Peruvians finally reaches up through the Andean cloud forest for Nina and her family. Nina’s father is shot by soldiers, her mother raped, and her brother lost to the shadowy ranks of Shining Path guerrillas. And when Agustín Malqui, the village pastor, files a legal complaint against the military, it’s no surprise when he disappears in the middle of the night—just another casualty of the military regime.

Twenty-odd years later, Nina, now an officer in Cuzco’s tourist police, comes across a familiar name on the police printer that she scans daily for any trace of her long-lost brother. Agustín Malqui is alive. After spending years in a political prison, the broken pastor has been wandering the country, saving souls and drowning his demons in pisco. Nina tracks him down, only to lose him yet again in a police sweep of political malcontents. But before Malqui disappears, he tells her a drunken tale she can scarcely believe: that her brother Miguel is still alive.

Despite warnings and threats from her chief and the pleadings of her lover, an officer in Peru’s anti-terrorist branch, Nina presses on to find Malqui. Her search takes her through Peru’s underworld, from remote villages high in the Andes to the steaming jungle haunts of the narcotraficantes, and ultimately to a secret political prison in the altiplano, where she learns the truth about Malqui and her own vanished brother.

My Review: I've been to Cuzco twice, and Peru three times, in my life. I very much like it there, and I am a big fan of the Andean people's surviving culture. I came to the book ready to love it.

I liked it a whole lot.

There are the accustomed ebook-original glitches, typos and oddly placed punctuation marks and continuity errors. I don't want to dwell on them, but one big one is the last-name change of a major character between books one and two. I sigh, and remove one star.

Ninasisa is a really sympathetic character to build a series of thrillers on, and full marks to Mr. Tomlinson for making her believably damaged by her and her country's fraught past. Nina, as she is known in most of the book, has sustained losses that would wreck a lesser person's entire life. Nina isn't rising above her beginnings, she's building her future on making the beginnings part of it. She never hides or is shamed by her mountain-Indian origins, despite the fact that she's dating a Spaniard (a white Peruvian) from Cuzco's upper classes.

She never forgets that her roots are down low, despite a US university education and a job with the Tourist Police. She could credibly downplay the past, but chooses not to, and that provides a lot of conflict between herself and the class- and race-conscious Peruvian culture. Reading her interactions with the gigantic lower-class majority of Cuzco, the ancient Inca and modern Andean capital, rang very true to me. (My contact with same having been an Andean tour guide who was at pains to inform his American guests of the true nature of poverty.)

I removed one more half-star for the first-time novelist errors of characterization, such as the all-villain-all-the-time bad guys, and the overwhelming goodness of all the womenfolk. It's not tragic, but it informs the ending of the book, which...well...it was certainly dramatic and very well set-up by the rest of the book, but was...pat. Expected. Predictable, if excitingly written.

Make no mistake, this first novel of a series is a very worthwhile way to wile the hours away. If you've never been to Peru, you'll feel like you have after reading this. If you have been to Peru, you'll feel that little pleased jolt when Tomlinson mentions a place you've visited. It's a good read.

Not quite excellent. Not perfect. A good, solid read, delivers on its promise of action, and manages a vivid sense of place. At $2.99 for the Kindle version, it's worth that and more.


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Saturday, April 12, 2014

John DeNardo of SFSignal posted this meme

The first science fiction, fantasy or horror book I ever read was:
The first one? Ever? Gah! Too many years and too many books have passed since then. No clue.

The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I read that I'd put in my "Top 20″ list is:
The Martian, Andy Weir...just a rockin' good time all the way around, from the idea to the execution to the worldview it took to write it.

The last science fiction, fantasy or horror book I couldn't finish was:
The Player of Games, Iain M. Banks...not into it, not into the Culture I'm afraid, and I feel completely de-geeked by this admission.

A science fiction, fantasy or horror author whose work I cannot get enough of is:
Lois McMaster Bujold

A science fiction, fantasy or horror author I'm embarrassed to admit I haven't read yet is:
Tanya Huff...have some of her stuff coming!

A science fiction, fantasy or horror book I would recommend to someone who hasn't read sf/f/h is:
Rocket Science, Jay Lake...his first published novel, funny and fun and also quite exciting.

A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that's terribly underrated is:
Windeye, Brian Evenson...*shiver*

A science fiction, fantasy or horror book that's terribly overrated is:
Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card...even before he showed his behind, I didn't like this book.

Friday, April 11, 2014

A SECOND CHANCE, The Pause Button on The Chronicles of St Mary's...more please, now please



A SECOND CHANCE (Chronicles of St Mary's #3)
JODI TAYLOR

Accent Press
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now
—AND—
Night Shade Books
$12.99 trade paper, available now!

Rating; 4* of five

The Publisher Says: St Mary’s is back and nothing is going right for Max. Once again, it’s just one damned thing after another.

The action jumps from an encounter with a mirror-stealing Isaac Newton to the bloody battlefield at Agincourt. Discover how a simple fact-finding assignment to witness the ancient and murderous cheese-rolling fertility ceremony in Gloucester can result in CBC – concussion by cheese. The long awaited jump to Bronze Age Troy ends in personal catastrophe for Max and just when it seems things couldn’t get any worse – it’s back to the Cretaceous Period again to confront an old enemy who has nothing to lose.

So, make the tea, grab the chocolate biscuits, settle back and discover exactly why the entire history department has painted itself blue …

**UPDATE**Night Shade Books is issuing the whole series in trade paperback editions!

My Review: History slaps Max and St Mary's around a good bit. Kleio seems to favor the rough love school of affection. She really rides Max and the entire Institute hard this time out.

This is not the final installment of the series, at least it's not if La Taylor has any idea of what's good for her career, and yet this book is about aging, about slowing down, and not least...not at all least...about closure and releasing all that has come before as a means of surviving and also living fully, finally living fully, after carrying and shouldering and dragging the past everywhere one goes.

Max, our PoV character, isn't as young as her paper age suggests. All those months-long missions in the past have racked up the miles and the relative years. This mission, the main one of the book, is the dream of her lifetime: Return to Troy, scope it out, and watch it fall. Now, as we're accustomed to in the previous entries in the series, Max and team are not going to go by the book. We know they're on a major and incalculably valuable mission, but we also know that this is St Mary's and there will be surprises.

Yes indeed there are. Throughout the previous books, we've seen the team break the supposedly inviolable rule about interfering in the course of history, and not get squashed flat by History's revenge. Permaybehaps, then, Kleio is aiming them at certain moments to make alterations? It's a thought...but Max, who discovered a HUGE loophole in the theory of history's inviolability in book one, isn't a trusting soul and prefers her trips not to end in death where avoidable. She will not countenance terrifyingly major infractions of the rules. She pays her worst possible price for this uncharacteristic obedience.

But there is always a compensation for caution, aging people's most frequent urging on the young. Her compensation takes the series in a very surprising and new direction.

Now as book four isn't out yet (sob), let me pause here to bitch about a few things. Kalinda Black is first on my list. She's built up as Max's best friend and we see so little of her as to make her invisible. The least she could do is have a few lines here and there! She's only referred to in books two and three. I think that's very mingy.

The redoubtable Mrs Partridge, deployed strategically throughout the series, has a sister in the first book, Mrs De Winter. She vanishes. Given the sisters' ummm ancestry, there isn't *anything* the author could imagine for her to do in other contexts?

The theme I'm developing is one I suspect has led many an author down the path to Book Bloat. These novels are concise. They are lean. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, is overworded in here. Permaybehaps a wee tidge too much conciseness...there is room, while staying on story-line, to give more time to the second-billed cast. The world Taylor is creating is deliciously dotty, so let's see more of it. The serious points Taylor is making aren't going to suffer. I'm not suggesting she Robert-Jordanize the books! Just give us more side views. After all, Max is head of a department, and can reasonably be expected to need to read reports and interview returning staff...can't we eavesdrop?

The technology issues...recording devices that seem way too bulky and cumbersome not least of them...are actually, I think, handwaved away by the ending of this book. But I'll state a bit of it here: In a time-travel-verse that suggests machines simply won't travel if there is an anomaly present in the device, how do high-tech recorders make it back and forth? There have never been lost recorders? They're hand-held! Since all of this travel is to pre-computer eras, why not have something like Google Glass (only without the frames) emitting microwave signals to the pod's hard drive? No worries about competing signals...a wearable hard drive in case they're unable to make contact (though why that would be is unclear to me)...but hand-held recorders in the kind of violent worlds they're visiting seem to me to be very clunky.

These are all cavils. In the main, by the end of this book, I was so sad to see St Mary's in my rear-view mirror (which reminds me, MORE EDDIE!!) that I shed a few more tears than were actually required. The ending will wring tears from you. As hopeful as beginnings always are, they require endings, and those aren't always easy.

And as a side note, does anyone know someone in the development department of the BBC? Or ITV? This is a *perfect* TV show. Like Sliders only smart.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

THE CHRONICLES OF ST MARY'S #2: A Symphony of Echoes, four more stars!



A SYMPHONY OF ECHOES
JODI TAYLOR
(Chronicles of St Mary's #2)
Accent Press
$3.99 Kindle download, available now
—AND—
Night Shade Books
$12.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Book Two in the madcap time-travel series based at the St Mary's Institute of Historical Research that seems to be everyone's cup of tea.

In the second book in the Chronicles of St Mary's series, Max and the team visit Victorian London in search of Jack the Ripper, withess the murder of Archbishop Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, and discover that dodos make a grockling noise when eating cucumber sandwiches.

But they must also confront an enemy intent on destroying St Mary's - an enemy willing, if necessary, to destroy History itself to do it.

**UPDATE** Night Shade Books is reissuing the series in trade paperback editions!! At LAST!

My Review: You know how, as you're watching Star Trek in any of its incarnations, you end up wondering pretty darn quick what the heck they keep talking about this Prime Directive for since they seem not to have any intention of following it? Yeah, that. The whole book is that. The St Mary's tea-soppers are set the one really big intervention that will make History match itself. It is a matter of the survival of St Mary's, so we're told, so it's okay to monkey with History. Kleio will approve.

Getting to the magic moment is, however, quite entertaining, and the key discovery made at the end of the first book is called into play very frequently. Pay attention to the details in this book, and I assume you'll want to read it after the delirious romp of #1, because some things are larded in to the chat and background that will cause a veritable street light to go on over your head when you read #3. Which I also assume you'll want to read after the sobering and still very fun events of this book.

So you've read #1, have you? Then read on: The team goes to Mary Queen of Scots' court to fix the gargantuan error in the timeline of Elizabeth Tudor dying at the chopping block instead of Her Scottish Majesty which they discovered upon sneak-peeking the Shakespeare play that the Director coerced from the Bard's pen. It is imperative, for their time to exist at all, that the error be corrected and Mary forced...or so we imagine...to marry Bothwell, which seals her doom. Needless to say, the task is accomplished, but it brought up two issues for me. One I dealt with in the opener. The other is the nagging problem of all time-travel books, to wit the competing and mutually exclusive notions of A History, one divinely ordained way for Kleio to design and her sisters the Fates to weave; the other is the Eastern philosophical and string theory-supported proposition that we live in a many-dimensioned multiverse where all things that can happen have happened are happening will happen. (English is a titanically flexible tool, and ever willing to bow to Queen Norma Loquendi, but time travel is gonna bugger the prescriptive grammarians HARD. Come to think of it, Douglas Adams mined that vein for some laughs in Hitchhiker's Guide, didn't he.)

It would seem Ma Taylor plumped for the "One True History" solution, based on the events in this book. The Timeline must be restored!

Go with it. Even if you don't think that's the case, go with it. I promise you it will pay off.

And why the hell should dodos say "grockle"? Well, why the hell not.

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

THE CHRONICLES OF ST MARY'S #1...FREE...so what are you waiting for?!



JUST ONE DAMNED THING AFTER ANOTHER
JODI TAYLOR
(The Chronicles of St Mary's #1)
Accent Press
Kindle edition FREE, available now
—AND—
Night Shade Books
$12.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: “History is just one damned thing after another” - Arnold Toynbee

A mapcap new slant on history that seems to be everyone's cup of tea...

Behind the seemingly innocuous façade of St Mary's, a different kind of historical research is taking place. They don't do 'time-travel' - they 'investigate major historical events in contemporary time'. Maintaining the appearance of harmless eccentrics is not always within their power - especially given their propensity for causing loud explosions when things get too quiet.

Meet the disaster-magnets of St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around History. Their aim is to observe and document - to try and find the answers to many of History's unanswered questions...and not to die in the process.

But one wrong move and History will fight back - to the death. And, as they soon discover - it's not just History they're fighting.

Follow the catastrophe curve from eleventh-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. For wherever Historians go, chaos is sure to follow in their wake...

A story of history, time travel, love, friendship and tea. Meet the disaster-magnets at the St Mary's Institute of Historical Research as they ricochet around history, observing, documenting, drinking tea and, if possible, not dying. Follow the catastrophe-curve from eleventh-century London to World War I, and from the Cretaceous Period to the destruction of the Great Library at Alexandria. Discover History – The New Sex.

**UPDATE** Night Shade Books is reissuing the series in trade paperback editions! AT LAST!

My Review: With a healthy dollop of the Old Sex tossed (!) in for good measure.

Addictive.

Crack-level addictive. This book was free (still is, last I looked) on Amazon for the Kindle. I've gently recommended (stop laughing) that others would do well to avail themselves of the free goodness. I slurped it up in one long day. Because, well, how does one not fall under the spell of a short, buxom, foul-mouthed redhead whose purpose in life is to cock a snook at Authority and go about the business of making the Cretaceous safe for Dinosaurkind despite the fact that we all know how it ends for them?

While, not incidentally, nourishing a serious and well-requited pash for a dark-haired omnicompetent quiet dynamo of a man, fighting most satisfactorily against the evil-hearted plotting of a seriously tall and elegant femme fatale (in the best and most literal senses of that term) and battling to save THE LIBRARY AT ALEXANDRIA!!!!!!

And so much more!

Does anyone remember the Paratime series by H. Beam Piper? Darn good fun, similar in nature to this series in that the Paratime Police dash about trying to maintain the intended course of History. The difference is that this series assumes there is One History, as opposed to Paratime's many many historys in a multiverse. Both have their strong points, from a narrative structural angle, and their weaknesses.

Knowing how pantiwadulous so very many people become at the merest whiff of a spoiler ::eyeroll::, I will say that Taylor's History has a very...personal...stake in the Universe. Go find out fer yer darnself!

Now. Nothing is flawless. No book is absent goofs, errors, infelicities. This one is no exception. The only one I feel it necessary to mention in this context is that age-old problem of time travel stories, getting it all to hang together. Several characters are set up with a specific backstory that, to the reader, would lead them to know of their own personal knowledge certain other characters. Yet they don't. But they do know other things that fit within the backstory. That's an oops moment.

The others, merest minor gaffe-lets. Punctuation spacing errors, the odd repeated word, blah blah blah. Nothing that merits more than a grunt of annoyance. And each of those is measured against several laughs, a few giggles, a large number of grins, and the odd sniffleback at moments of sentiment. The less disciplined will shed a tear or two, or stand accused of heartlessness.

In short: Excellent fun for the reader in need of fun, thrills, and a larger sense of significance that can easily be ignored if the mood is light. Free. Now, what on earth are you waiting for? Free! Go! GO!

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Monday, April 7, 2014

BLOOD ON THE TRACKS by Cecelia Holland...the past as prologue, I fear (and I hope)


BLOOD ON THE TRACKS
CECELIA HOLLAND

Kindle Single
99¢ available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Great Railroad Strike of 1877 wrenched American history onto a new course. Focusing on events in Baltimore and Pittsburgh, this essay brings this dramatic and bloody confrontation to life, as ordinary people, driven to the wall by oppression, rose against their masters. This was the opening act in long years of savage struggle for the rights of labor that continue to this day.

My Review: Holland's historical fiction was my eureka moment of reading about history. The Firedrake, her 1965 novel of the Norman Conquest from the PoV of an Irish mercenary, woke me up as a 12-year-old voracious reader. I knew, from long-ago picture-book reading about the Bayeux Tapestry, that history was a story. That revelation made me an eager reader of all things historical (I checked out the Larousse Encyclopedia of World History so often and for so long that the librarians finally refused it to me!), but it took a novel to raise awareness that history was people's stories, average people, no one "significant" or "important"--just folks. (Specifically, the scene on one of William's ships crossing the Channel where the PoV character pees over the side when he wakes up, how human and familiar is that?)

So I saw this essay as I was browsing the Kindle store, and knowing that Holland had an entire series about the influence of the railroads on 19th-century California, I knew this would be an interesting piece of her research that didn't fit into the books.

Well. I swaNEE, boys and girls, there is interesting and there is interesting and this is the latter. The railroad riots of 1877 had barely been a blip on my mental radar as a part of labor history. (Regular readers of my reviews will recall that my views are to the left of the soulless vampire bastards that create and support the current economic system.) I had no idea of the depths of outrage that sparked this multi-city explosion. This wasn't an orchestrated, ideology-driven rebellion. This was the ultimate expression of individual people's fury and rage at the heartless, soulless exploitation of their labor for the luxury and happiness of a very, very few.

I imagine I could stop there, and most of y'all would understand why I gave the piece four stars.

But the thing that novelists do, even when they venture into non-fiction, is structure reality into a narrative. It's the way humans like to get their information, as witness the existence and survival of narratives from thousands of years ago. "Generals" Brinton and Pearson, leaders of militias called upon to suppress the rioting in Pittsburgh, were polar opposites in their approaches to the situation. Pearson's local Pittsburgh militia had a strong base of local knowledge and Pearson himself was one of the few actors in the drama with a shred of common sense. Naturally, he was sidelined and ultimately sent home. Brinton, a Philadelphia import to the scene, was by-the-book and inflexible...until shit got real and people started fighting in earnest. His men were the only ones to shoot to kill.

That did not end well.

Pittsburgh blew up, fires were set, bystanders...a four-year-old girl among them...died. This was in defense of bosses who had cut working men's wages ten percent, and announced that labor cuts were imminent. Pronunicamentoes proclaimed from the luxury of their fabulously well-appointed private rail cars. Baltimore had similar events, though for a shorter time. Martinsburg, West Virginia, where the crisis began, fared slightly better. But all were railroad towns and each had a large population sacrificed to the larger profits paid to a very few.

Greed is disgusting.

And this all takes place against the backdrop of an economy in free-fall from the Panic of 1873, unaided by the scandal- and corruption-plagued Federal Government, and record-breaking profits for the wealthiest. Does this have a revoltingly familiar sound? People made homeless, left to starve, unable to find any work ringing bells too?

Holland's point is simple: Every time capital is left without strong and painful chains, people suffer. We forget or ignore this lesson to our societal cost, and we're paying that cost yet again.

Read this historical essay. Then think about the events in Greece. In Ukraine. The Occupy movement. Just for a moment, one small shining moment, THINK ABOUT SOMEONE ELSE.

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Sunday, April 6, 2014

THE LANTERN by Deborah Lawrenson, lovely but not spooky


THE LANTERN
DEBORAH LAWRENSON

HarperPerennial
$17.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.875* of five

The Publisher Says: A modern gothic novel of love, secrets, and murder—set against the lush backdrop of Provence.

Meeting Dom was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to me. When Eve falls for the secretive, charming Dom in Switzerland, their whirlwind relationship leads them to Les Genévriers, an abandoned house set among the fragrant lavender fields of the South of France. Each enchanting day delivers happy discoveries: hidden chambers, secret vaults, a beautiful wrought-iron lantern. Deeply in love and surrounded by music, books, and the heady summer scents of the French countryside, Eve has never felt more alive.

But with autumn’s arrival the days begin to cool, and so, too, does Dom. Though Eve knows he bears the emotional scars of a failed marriage—one he refuses to talk about—his silence arouses suspicion and uncertainty. The more reticent Dom is to explain, the more Eve becomes obsessed with finding answers—and with unraveling the mystery of his absent, beautiful ex-wife, Rachel.

Like its owner, Les Genévriers is also changing. Bright, warm rooms have turned cold and uninviting; shadows now fall unexpectedly; and Eve senses a presence moving through the garden. Is it a ghost from the past or a manifestation of her current troubles with Dom? Can she trust Dom, or could her life be in danger?

Eve does not know that Les Genévriers has been haunted before. Bénédicte Lincel, the house’s former owner, thrived as a young girl within the rich elements of the landscape: the violets hidden in the woodland, the warm wind through the almond trees. She knew the bitter taste of heartbreak and tragedy—long-buried family secrets and evil deeds that, once unearthed, will hold shocking and unexpected consequences for Eve.

My Review: Nameless Narratrix tells us the tale of woe of loving a man who did Something Awful. She tells us this while living in his Provencal hameau, which is haunted by some dead French people as well as a few living ones. The hameau is crumbling, with plaster and masonry all falling at random times and in random places. The house gives the new couple a gift or two, including an old iron lantern that figures into the sad life story of the last French proprietrix of the hameau. (Have you gone and looked up hameau yet, so I can stop typing the itals?)

There's an absent, though not known to be dead, wife; there's a tale of Love Gone Wrong; there's a lot of carryins-on about people disappearin' right left and through the middle for at least 40 years; there's misunderstanding piled onto miscommunication via idiotic refusals to ask or answer simple, direct, interrogative English-language sentences.

It's Rebecca meets The Horseman on the Roof set in modern times. I found it unspooky in the extreme. I also found it lushly beautifully crafted, line by line. It's gloriously good at evoking Provence, its people, and its tourist-based economy that replaced actual work producing actual, tangible objects. And it should be read with a glass of young and hearty red wine, a plate of orange-butter-herbes-de-Provence Christmas cookies, and a lover of one's preferred configuration at the ready to sate the appetites the book will awake.

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Friday, April 4, 2014

HOWL: A GRAPHIC NOVEL howls louder almost 60 years on


HOWL: A GRAPHIC NOVEL
ALLEN GINSBERG
illus. ERIC DROOKER

HarperPerennial
$19.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: First published in 1956, Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is a prophetic masterpiece--an epic raging against dehumanizing society that overcame censorship trials and obscenity charges to become one of the most widely read poems of the century.

My Review: This comic book...oh dear do pardon, Graphic Novel...was a Yuletide gift, so I sorta hadda look at it and oooh and aaah.

Thing is, I meant it. The film of Howl with yummy-looking intellectual James Franco as Allen wasn't all that well received. I liked it. I thought, long as you're making movies out of poems, why not pick the one that's best in show. Howl is exactly that...a howl...and it's the one incisor left in the toothless, rotted, stinking jaw of modern American poetry.

Ahem. Not that I have a prejudice, you understand.

Drooker's artwork might be familiar to the graphically inclined, and it will please or it won't on its own merits. I happen to like it quite a lot. But the crucial point here is whether the art and the poem mesh, combine, in such a way as to create something that's different from either of the parts, whose sum is greater than the parts by virtue of synchrony.

Yes. Indeed yes. The parts are a lovely object, some pretty artwork, and a major poem of the last century. The sum is a wallop between the eyes with a padded, velvet-covered crowbar.

Finally! A graphique nawvell that's better than a comic book!

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Thursday, April 3, 2014

DEATH OF A COZY WRITER...who badly needed killing!


DEATH OF A COZY WRITER (A St. Just Mystery #1)
G.M. MALLIET

Midnight Ink Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From deep in the heart of his eighteenth century English manor, millionaire Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk writes mystery novels and torments his four spoiled children with threats of disinheritance. Tiring of this device, the portly patriarch decides to weave a malicious twist into his well-worn plot. Gathering them all together for a family dinner, he announces his latest blow – a secret elopement with the beautiful Violet... who was once suspected of murdering her husband.

Within hours, eldest son and appointed heir Ruthven is found cleaved to death by a medieval mace. Since Ruthven is generally hated, no one seems too surprised or upset – least of all his cold-blooded wife Lillian. When Detective Chief Inspector St. Just is brought in to investigate, he meets with a deadly calm that goes beyond the usual English reserve. And soon Sir Adrian himself is found slumped over his writing desk – an ornate knife thrust into his heart. Trapped amid leering gargoyles and stone walls, every member of the family is a likely suspect. Using a little Cornish brusqueness and brawn, can St. Just find the killer before the next-in-line to the family fortune ends up dead?

My Review: Well! That was nice. I reviewed this author's first entry into a newer series, Wicked Autumn, in 2011, and I was underwhelmed. The identity of the killer and the motive for the killing in that book annoyed me beyond measure. That series isn't one I'm inclined to follow, given how very many there are to sample.

THIS series, however, is a bit more to my liking. I think the character of St. Just, the policeman, is bland, a little uninteresting, but the characters of the bit players were vivid and amusingly overstated. I enjoyed the process of unwrapping the secrets and lies told by the many suspects in a series of nasty homicides, and the golden-age-mystery nature of their interconnections.

Was it fresh, new, and exciting? No, not really, and not even particularly fresh a take on why the victims were offed. But, and this is crucial, the pace is excellently maintained and the cast is well presented...no character is slighted and none is made too much of as a red herring. It's a tough balancing act and Malliet gets it just right.

So just maybe I'll get the next one from my village liberry and see what it has to show me. Pretty darn good work to overcome my annoyance with another series by the same author.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

THE IMPERFECTIONISTS isn't perfect...but it's excellent, and on sale!


THE IMPERFECTIONISTS: A Novel
TOM RACHMAN

Random House
$1.99 Kindle Edition, available now! (April 2014)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Set against the gorgeous backdrop of Rome, Tom Rachman’s wry, vibrant debut follows the topsy-turvy private lives of the reporters, editors, and executives of an international English language newspaper as they struggle to keep it—and themselves—afloat.

Fifty years and many changes have ensued since the paper was founded by an enigmatic millionaire, and now, amid the stained carpeting and dingy office furniture, the staff’s personal dramas seem far more important than the daily headlines. Kathleen, the imperious editor in chief, is smarting from a betrayal in her open marriage; Arthur, the lazy obituary writer, is transformed by a personal tragedy; Abby, the embattled financial officer, discovers that her job cuts and her love life are intertwined in a most unexpected way. Out in the field, a veteran Paris freelancer goes to desperate lengths for his next byline, while the new Cairo stringer is mercilessly manipulated by an outrageous war correspondent with an outsize ego. And in the shadows is the isolated young publisher who pays more attention to his prized basset hound, Schopenhauer, than to the fate of his family’s quirky newspaper.

As the era of print news gives way to the Internet age and this imperfect crew stumbles toward an uncertain future, the paper’s rich history is revealed, including the surprising truth about its founder’s intentions.

Spirited, moving, and highly original, The Imperfectionists will establish Tom Rachman as one of our most perceptive, assured literary talents.

My Review: I was very remiss with this book. It came out in 2010, and I read it that year. I've since gifted it to several others. Did I set down a review? No! Lazy lazy me. That doesn't mean that I don't encourage you to read it, because I do.

There is nothing of the novel about the book, though. Don't go in thinking you'll get Time's Arrow bedecked with cohesive details. You're getting interconnected short stories set in the same world. But say that to the marketing people at any publishing house, the buyers at every bookery, and even the Woman in the Street, and watch their eyes dim and their arms cross and their butts shift uncomfortably in the chair. Stories = Death in publishing. Less than a third the copies of a novel, be it hit, bestseller, or failure. So disheartening! So very annoying to me, too, since what is a chapter except a deeply woven short story set in a shared universe?

Anyway. Enough about that.

Why should all you storyphobes read this book?
“What I really fear is time. That's the devil: whipping us on when we'd rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won't hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past- it doesn't feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It's as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There's that line from Heraclitus: 'No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.' That's quite right. We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn't the end of life but the end of memories.”
That's one of many passages that made me pause, reach for the Book Darts, and mull. Memories are us, we are our memories, life is a brief flash before the eyes and then a deposit on the stockpile of memories. Yes. Well. What makes that okay, for me, is the existence of literature and the presence in my environment of books. So Rachman puts it to me, in this passage, that my stockpile of memories is susceptible to loss and reminds me that it's something to fear...except:
“You can’t dread what you can’t experience. The only death we experience is that of other people. That’s as bad as it gets. And that’s bad enough, surely.”
Aha. Yes. As bad as it gets is losing the memories to come! Agreed, and in a very odd way, it soothed a bit of my ill temper at the inevitability of death. (I'm still ticked at the prevalence of loss, which is in fact a thing to dread.)

That is the bargain one makes in forming relationships, though. Loss is a part of it, whether to death or separation. We're always in a process of loss after a certain age, or a process of *consciousness* of loss to be precise. It's the defining characteristic of being in relationship. Or A defining characteristic, as Rachman points out:
“I have to wonder if you're not being slightly naive here. I mean, are you saying that you want nothing from people? You have no motives? Everybody has motives. Name the person, the circumstances, I'll name the motive. Even saints have motives -- to feel like saints, probably. ... But still, the point of any relationship is obtaining something from another person.”
For good or for ill, that is the basic motivation, the essential need, the driving desire of them all, be they romantic, sexual, casual, intense, fleeting, or enduring. We want something, unless we're Bodhisattvas. That makes the whole of human existence sound so tawdry, doesn't it?

But nothing in all of the Universe is unmixed. Not even the pure chemical elements are unmixed. After all they each and every one began their existence as hydrogen, the simplest thing in all of creation, and were forced, compressed, annealed into their current pure states by the explosion and death of a star. From that death, that ultimate transformation of a bright and shining object into a myriad of other, unshining things, all of existence as we know it flows. Our own lives show us that endings are beginnings and all beginnings are neutral. It's what one does next, what flash of the present one accepts into the stockpile of memories, that determines which endings are "good" and which "bad." Rachman says this more succinctly, I think, when he writes, “Anything that's worth anything is complicated.”

Mmm hmmm.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A New View of an Ancient Novel, THE TALE OF GENJI

Rating: 5* of five

This review at A Dribble of Ink says more about why Genji matters than I can ever do.

I read the book in 1974. I got a hardcover Modern Library edition from my decade-older sister, who owned a bookstore. I read it in one solid week of enchantment, followed by a year of revisits and studies of the notes and other references. (The librarians at my high school agreed with the kids who teased me for being weird.)

This is a new translation, I have a copy, but many chunksters await my attention that I haven't read before. I'll get back to it. I look forward to getting back to it!

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Not an April Fool's joke...STILL LIFE, the first Gamache mystery, $2.99 today!



STILL LIFE (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache #1)
Louise Penny
Minotaur Books
$14.99 trade paper, available now...KINDLE EDITION $2.99 ON 1 APRIL 2014!!

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Winner of the New Blood Dagger, Arthur Ellis, Barry, Anthony, and Dilys awards.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec and his team of investigators are called in to the scene of a suspicious death in a rural village south of Montréal and yet a world away. Jane Neal, a long-time resident of Three Pines, has been found dead in the woods. The locals are certain it’s a tragic hunting accident and nothing more but Gamache smells something foul this holiday season…and is soon certain that Jane died at the hands of someone much more sinister than a careless bowhunter.

With this award-winning first novel, Louise Penny introduces an engaging hero in Inspector Gamache, who commands his forces—and this series—with power, ingenuity, and charm.

My Review: Oh, the raptures of a first novel that also inaugurates a mystery series! It's like your first piece of birthday cake as a kid...OMIGOD this is good wait whaddaya mean I gotta wait another whole year to get another one you stink and you're mean *waaahIwantmymommy*

But crafty old fifty-plussers like moi wait. We lurk behind the bakery, sniffing the ineffable esters of birthday cakes destined for the inexperienced and the impatient and the indiscriminate, mentally filing away those scents most closely followed by moans and slurps of ecstasy, biding our time and hoarding our book-calories (aka money) to see which annual yumyums consistently produce those sounds and smells.

Here it is, ladies and what-all-else, the first birthday cake from Canadian cake-baker Louise Penny, and my GOD was it worth the wait!

A friend sent this to me as a Christmas gift. It came after self-same friend raved and jumped up and down and yodeled the praises of the series, featuring Inspector Gamache of the Quebec Surete (I can't help myself, I hear Gestapo jackboots and Euro-sirens every time I see that word) and the odd, off-kilter inhabitants of Three Pines, Quebec. I was practically panting with eagerness to get this package, which when it arrived proved to contain *several* of the Gamache series.

Being a good Virgo, I snatched up the first in the series, and applied eyes to page. Steadily. For four hours. I was 2/3 through with the book then, and *forced* myself to put it down because a) I had to walk the dog, b) I had to feed my 91-yr-old aunt, and c) I had to pee.

Let's talk about mystery series for a minute. I like them, as readers of past reviews will yawningly recall, because they satisfy my need for order, for the world to work *right* for a change. I think a lot of people feel similarly to me. But a series, iteration upon iteration of similar plots/characters/motivations/dialogue...what makes a well-read consumer of Lit'rachure such as I, and so many fellow Goodreadsers, am/are seek these books out? Comfort? Yes, but... Ease? Yes, but... Quality.

Some of the best storytelling going on in literature today happens in mysteries and thrillers.

Yeup, you can love or loathe Grisham's writing, but you CANNOT fault, in any way, his eye for a story. You can fairly say it's not to your personal taste, but don't even TRY to say it's "not good." Likewise James Patterson, Stephen King, Iris Johansen, et alii. There is a reason these folks are bestsellers, and it is NOT that the People got no taste. It's that these are storytellers, entertainers, creators of worlds we-the-people want to inhabit if only for a moment.

As was Homer, may I remind the snobs. No one thought much about Homer's stuff, except that it was rollicking good fun. Nobody even bothered to write it down for a few centuries *after* writing was invented. Somewhere on the Times bestseller list is the work of the Homer our culture will be remembered for, and it's not likely to be Faulkner. (Horrible thought: What if it's HEMINGWAY?!?)

Louise Penny's Three Pines is a place I want to go and stay, eating Gabri's bounteous cooking and flirting with Olivier and lusting from afar at unattainable Peter and gossiping unkindly with Ruth...then settling in for a long, quiet snifter with Gamache and Beauvoir and Clara, to think it all through and come to a reasoned conclusion about life. I am there with these people, these words-on-page creations that have the life only a deep well of talent can water into existence. I believe them. I think you will, too.

I offer this moment from very near the end of the book, when Clara realizes who murdered her very best friend:

Clara stared at her reflection in the window of {the victim}'s kitchen. A ghostly,frightened woman looked back. Her theory made sense.
Ignore it, the voice inside said. It's not your business. Let the police do their work. For God's sake, don't say anything. It was a seductive voice, one that promised peace and calm and the continuation of her beautiful life in Three Pines. To act on what she knew would destroy that life.
What if you're wrong? cooed the voice. You'll hurt a lot of people...But Clara knew the voice lied. Had always lied to her. Clara would know and that knowing would eventually destroy her life anyway.

If that doesn't make you sprint out to get this book, nothing else I can say will.

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