Saturday, February 17, 2018

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it's a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he'll be switched off, and they'll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad - very mad.

My Review: This is the most male book I've read in ages. I mean, there are two or three women in it but they're onscreen for a hot minute and then gone again. Mostly it's the titular Bob in one of his many regenerated/rebooted/revived selves.

And I think that's why I liked this read so much. It's unapologetic in its geekery. Bob's a tech bro who cashed out and died at basically the same moment. As a result, Bob's making his early-21st-century geekboy dreams come true by waking up in a theocracy that wants to use him to explore the galaxy...but only because they want to beat the Great Unwashed to any habitable planets there might be out there.

Monday, February 12, 2018

SILENT DAYS, SILENT DREAMS is a kids' book in name only


Arthur A. Levine Books
$21.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: James Castle was born two months premature on September 25, 1899, on a farm in Garden Valley, Idaho. He was deaf, mute, autistic and probably dyslexic. He didn't walk until he was four; he would never learn to speak, write, read or use sign language.

Yet, today Castle's artwork hangs in major museums throughout the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened "James Castle: A Retrospective" in 2008. The 2013 Venice Biennale included eleven works by Castle in the feature exhibition "The Encyclopedic Palace." And his reputation continues to grow.

Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say, author of the acclaimed memoir Drawing from Memory, takes readers through an imagined look at Castle's childhood, allows them to experience his emergence as an artist despite the overwhelming difficulties he faced, and ultimately reveals the triumphs that he would go on to achieve.

My Review: I will never be able to thank my friend Joe enough for bringing this book, this artist, this art, into my life. I am so profoundly grateful to you, old friend.

James Castle with the tools of his trade. I don't know the date, but he died at 78 in 1977, so I'll venture a guess at early 1960s...? I'm actually surprised, given how very little the people he lived among seem to have liked him, that someone took his photo at all.

Artist and Caldecott Medalist Allen Say created this artwork at the request of an Idaho-based friend of his. It was his introduction to James Castle...he says of this amazing moment, "I opened the catalog and suddenly remembered the excitement of seeing a van Gogh for the first time." I rang like a bell when I read that. I had just had the same experience opening this book and seeing Say's artworks based on Castle's.

A spread from this gorgeous book.

I've got a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of art. I'm up to speed on "outsider art" and its importance in our visual vocabulary, to our aesthetic landscape. But there hasn't been an experience quite like discovering, via Artist Say, the astonishing work of James Castle in a very, very long time. The sheer breadth of the material he left behind is astounding! Sculptural constructions, drawings in their thousands, mobiles, it's like the man was working against a deadline that only he knew about and was determined to finish saying what he had no other way to say.

The publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books (the imprint responsible for bringing Harry Potter to the US market), is bringing this to us via a damned-near perfect design and production job. The aesthetics of the design you can see for yourself above. If you don't think that it's outstandingly lovely, look at it in person. If you still don't agree, okay, but why? What failing do you adduce to this presentation of two-color artwork mixed with four-color artwork and all presented in a beautiful matte-coated glowingly white space? What artistic flaw do you find with Artist Say's beautiful, spare evocations of the grim and terrible world of James Castle?

And it was a grim and terrible world, a kind of hell that I fear with all my wobbly, trembling emotional heart isn't unique except in its reasonably happy ending. Artist Say has gone as deep as one can into the little factual material of this ordinary life. His bibliography is quite substantial...and disturbingly complete...for someone who, absent Fate's intervention, would simply have vanished without a trace from the collective memory of US society. I knew I could trust Artist Say to tell me the truth about James Castle when I read:
To emulate his unschooled style, I used the same kinds of odd materials he had used: soot and spit, liquid laundry bluing, and shoe polish, to name a few.
I had help. My wife meticulously made dolls and birds out of wastepaper and cardboard that I think the artist would have approved. I drew on ninety-year-old letters and envelopes that {his friend} found in an antique shop; and to mimic James's unsteady lines, I often switched lands—to my left hand, which hadn't learned to tell lies.
Artist Say is the right one to lead us into James Castle's work, and his life and times insofar as any of us can know them.

The Seattle Times gives us the jacket of this glorious book in its native environment, the store where you'll be going to spend USD 21.99 (higher in Canada) to bring it home with you. And now you're able to do it legally, since a Federal judge ruled that Artist Say didn't violate Castle's estate's copyrights in offering us, in 28 cases from the 150 drawings in this book, his own artistic impression of specific Castle pieces.

Isn't that a sad statement of our current society's obsession with ownership? A beautiful illustrated biography would quite probably have pleased Castle, whose early relationship with books (despite being unable to read or write) was a loving and profound one. Not at issue were any facts, any alleged misrepresentations of Castle, his family, anything...just ownership of the images and therefore the right to profit from them.

Had I been related to Castle I'd've cringed in shame for the picture painted of a cold, uncaring, even cruel "family" that frankly seems to me to be culpably negligent and abusive of their child/sibling/educational charge. They sound like horrible people and I'm glad they're dead.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

THRESHOLD, second novel in the Lovecraftian paranormal series starring Whyborne & Griffin

(Whyborne & Griffin #2)
Kindle Original
$4.99, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five, rounded up (actually out of four because there's a cat presented as a suitable companion animal for humans, which costs the perpetrator one star automatically)

The Publisher Says: Introverted scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne wants nothing more than to live quietly with his lover, ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty. Unfortunately, Whyborne's railroad tycoon father has other ideas, namely hiring Griffin to investigate mysterious events at a coal mine.

Whyborne, Griffin, and their friend Christine travel to Threshold Mountain, a place of dark legend even before the mine burrowed into its heart. A contingent of Pinkertons—including Griffin's ex-lover Elliot—already guard the mine. But Griffin knows better than anyone just how unprepared the detectives are to face the otherworldly forces threatening them.

Soon, Whyborne and Griffin are on the trail of mysterious disappearances, deadly accidents, and whispered secrets. Is Elliot an ally, or does he only want to rekindle his relationship with Griffin? And if so, how can Whyborne possibly hope to compete with the stunningly handsome Pinkerton—especially when Griffin is hiding secrets about his past?

For in a town where friends become enemies and horror lurks behind a human mask, Whyborne can't afford to trust anything—including his own heart.

My Review: These stories are all in the Lovecraft Mythos. I think I wasn't au fait when I began the series. This makes my feelings about the reads quite different.

Whyborne and Griffin get invited to dinner at the home of Whyborne's much-despised daddy. He hires Griffin, thus also his son, to investigate paranormal doins at a mine that supplies his railroad. They recruit Christine Putnam, Whyborne's Egyptologist/Annie Oakley-level shot colleague at the Ladysmith Museum, as the backup muscle. (Seriously, does it matter why she's along? She has to be, so let's go with it.) They go to some ghastly little horror-movie burg in West Virginia (a state in which I say, from my own experience, there is nothing but horror-movie burgs):
The heights blocked the prevailing west-east breezes, leaving the air stagnant and still. Mosquitoes hummed above pools of water in the unpaved streets, and sweat prickled my neck beneath my collar. I longed for a bit of shade, but the lack of trees anywhere within the town made it a forlorn hope.
And this, laddies and gentlewomen, is Whyborne's first-ever trip away from Massachusetts! I can see the setting, I can feel the depths of utter horror poor, poor Whyborne experiences as he sees this vista of how the other 99.99% live.

The town is insular, cut off from reality, and that makes it vulnerable to alien invasion by creatures from outside our dimension of reality. (Watch that linked video on the Lovecraft Mythos!) In fact, the same thing that the white folk are using the mountain what attracted the aliens to the site. I don't know what spidercrabscorpion aliens would want with coal, but then I wouldn't, would I, what with being human and all. The aliens are called yayhos by the humans they...get to know...and are really, really, really revolting. It's mentioned several times that they smell of ammonia. Not a favorite smell of most humans. And what they say they want, just to be left alone to pillage our planet, makes them deeply analogous to Western colonial powers using Africa in the same late-19th-century timeframe as these books are set. The yayhos have a deep-seated need to learn and explore. Check. They have a callous indifference to whom they hurt in the process. Check. Small groups of them can inflict major damage on us, the natives. Check.

So no one needs to smirk condescendingly about the one-dimensionality of the story. It is making its social commentary and coming (!) to the correct, socially progressive conclusions on many fronts. The conditions for the miners in the town are portrayed accurately and judged harshly; race relations enter into the story and are dealt with accurately and found wanting; the role of the Pinkertons, Griffin's erstwhile employers, as forces of regressive and repressive capital is presented as part of a sub-plot linking Griffin to Elliot, the Threshold Pinkerton manager and Griffin's long-ago savior when he ran away from home to go to the Big City of Chicago.

Also coming out (!) of this entry in the series is the acknowledgment and inclusion in the arc of Griffin and Whyborne's relationship are the two stonking elephants in the room: Whyborne's life of privilege vs Griffin's hardscrabble beginnings; and Griffin's horrible, nightmarish confinement to a madhouse after he first encounters the Lovecraftian side of life. That was lightly touched on in the first book, Widdershins, but here we're faced with the man who found Griffin and made him a Pinkerton in the first place in Elliot. He was also the man who, after Griffin faced the madness-inducing terrors that cost him a partner in service of a Pinkerton case, slung Griffin into a madhouse. And walked away, never looking back. Elliot and Griffin have a lot to say to each other. They say it at an inopportune moment, sadly, leading to Whyborne coming to the hotel where he, Griffin, and Christine are all staying just as Elliot is leaving Griffin's room. A fight, unsurprisingly, ensues, in which some hurtful stuff is said and much, much miscommunication is experienced.

Griffin pleads to Whyborne in defense of his libidinous history with Elliot and with his dead partner Glenn, whose wife and kids were offered up to Whyborne as misdirection when he wanted to know if Griffin freaked out about Glenn's death because they were intime. Finding out that no lie was told makes not one jot of difference, of course, to Whyborne's sense of outrage:
“Believe me when I say I did a great deal more with other men, some of whom, yes, were married. It’s not unusual, you know. Many men like us have a normal family as well.”
It was, and is, ever thus. I speak from long, long experience when I say that this is going on right now and chances are much better than even that you know a couple where one or the other of the partners is in denial about her/is sexual preference. Especially if you live in a red state, or are a member of a religious community with strong opinions about how gawd wants people to eat/dress/fuck. Almost certainly you do if you're over 50.

But the author has much more in store for us than mere social engineering. We're going on a guilt trip! Perfidy abounds; double dealing reaches art-form nicety; the irredeemable are all around us, and their fate is condign. The biggest surprise comes as Griffin and Whyborne come out to each other as lovers:
The fingers of his free hand caught my chin, gently turning my face to his. His green eyes shone, and the smile on his mouth was soft and sweet. “You are my joy, Ival {this is Griffin's hideous nickname for Whyborne, who unsurprisingly hates to be called Percy}, and I love you more than I thought possible.”
Emotion tightened my throat. “As you are mine.”
“Even if I’m just the son of a farmer from Kansas, who happened to have a talent for mimicking his betters?”
I traced the line of his jaw, until my fingers came to rest just beside the curve of his lips. “You’re not just the son of a farmer from Kansas, or even the orphaned son of an Irishman, or anything else.”
“I’m not? Then who am I?”
“A good man. A man who wants to do what is best, by his friends and the world. But more importantly, the man I love.”
His smile was like the breaking of sunshine through clouds. “I think I can live with that,” he said, and kissed me again.
And that right there? That slayed me. What makes me read light romantic fiction, given the years and years of reading...forty-nine years since I got my own library card, fifty-two since I asked for and got my first very-own might wonder. This is what: I want to believe. After almost sixty years on this wide green Earth of ours, I still want to believe that stories tell us truths we're waiting to live, show us goals we can actually achieve, let us love the loves we let go of, lost, failed, never found, just as if they were here and now.

There's not a lot of sex in these...wait...I've recently been told a book that had so little sex in it that I described it as heterosafe was, in fact, not so. I'll say this: The sex in this book is put in places and set at heat levels that match the storytelling. It's not shoved into places it shouldn't go, in other words.

I stared at that phrase for a good while before deciding to leave it there. If that double entendre makes you purse your lips, do not ever, ever buy, borrow, or gawd forbid *read* these books!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

WIDDERSHINS, first paranormal mystery novel in a Lovecraftian Massachusetts

(Whyborne & Griffin #1)
Amazon Kindle
$2.99 eReader platforms, available

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Some things should stay buried.

Repressed scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne has two skills: reading dead languages and hiding in his office at the Ladysmith Museum. After the tragic death of the friend he secretly loved, he’s ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man.

So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible. Griffin left the Pinkertons following the death of his partner, hoping to start a new life. But the powerful cult which murdered Glenn has taken root in Widdershins, and only the spells in the book can stop them. Spells the intellectual Whyborne doesn’t believe are real.

As the investigation draws the two men closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. When the cult resurrects an evil sorcerer who commands terrifying monsters, can Whyborne overcome his fear and learn to trust? Will Griffin let go of his past and risk falling in love? Or will Griffin’s secrets cost Whyborne both his heart and his life?

My Review: I finally bought this bagatelle for myself, after literally years sitting on my wishlist, this past birthday. I figure at *mumbletymumble* years old I can finally let go of the fear that They Will Not Approve and read whatever the heck I darned well please. Including paranormal romps with scads of gay sex and significantly smaller helpings of logic.

Uh huh. Like I can publicly admit how old I am in the context of reading *blush*shame* a, um, y'know, a book like this one is.


Fine. No really. FINE.

It's *deep breath* a smexy silly romance with True Luuuv and Evil Monsters and Supernatural Creatures! It has No Redeeming Social Value! I read it because it was A Good Story!

There, are y'all happy now? Whatever tiny scrap of credibility I ever had as a book reviewer is gone.

And that, my chick-a-biddies, is how romantic fiction readers of every stripe are made to feel. It's complete crap and it's indicative of a nasty, judgmental streak in the culture of literacy. *What* are you reading, philistine, tut the superiority addicts, don't call that literature, don't sully our ever-so-pure air blathering about your, your, lesser, baser, frankly uninteresting...books (so called) that do nothing but entertain those of, frankly, limited intellectual capacity. I wonder what these reviewers, these Guardians of the Gates, would do if their precious darlings of Literature were subjected to the eighteenth century's test of worthiness in reading matter: "Novels?! Men do not read novels. The weaker sex read novels because they are not capable of processing True and Fine Thinking such as scholars read! Men who write entertainments such as novels are merely pandering to the feeble and inferior baser instincts of the ladies. Shame! Shame on you, sir, for hastening the decline of Our Noble Culture!"

This is how it always goes through the generations. So let's stop judging what each other read and be happy that some people enjoy reading more than staring at screens. Although to be fair, I did read this on Kindle, so....

Having had my rant about the foolishness of judging others, I continue to the book at hand, first of a series of paranormals set in fictional Widdershins, Massachusetts. This town was settled after its founding father escaped from Salem during the Witch Hunt. He was, unlike the other poor sods tried and judicially murdered for witchcraft, guilty as original sin of the crime. Theron Blackbyrne was a beautiful, hunky blond Sodomite as well as a witch. His reach, sadly, exceeded his grasp, as certain essentials needed for the grand spell he wanted to cast, the one that would buy him immortality, eternal youth, and all the boy booty he could dream of, were simply unavailable in the New World. So he left some explicit instructions with his acolytes on what they needed to procure and when they needed to use it to resurrect him in order that he be able to complete his spell.

Several centuries elapse. The acolytes, surprise!, weren't at all eager to resurrect the master in whose service they'd become rich...poor followers are useless, ask any order to hand over all their worldly acquisitions. Um, no thanks, I'm good. He molders in the grave, they use the bits and bobs they got from Blackbyrne to acquire more bits and bobs, time passes and the town of Widdershins grows in prosperity as a port city, the local worthies open themselves a museum with an Egyptian antiquities focus...the items needed for Blackbyrne's resurrection accumulate, almost in spite of the great and good...and then a tragedy occurs that properly starts our story.

Percival Endicott Whyborne, wimpy bookish kid turned scholarly shirt-lifting introvert, introduces himself to us as the second son of an overbearing Widdershins magnate. He is also, in his own mind at least, the murderer of his childhood crush object who also happens to be his father's best friend's son. His unnatural lust for this friend is bound up in his survivor's guilt based on his inability to rescue the boy who drowned in a lake.

It is Whyborne's fate to act as the catalyst for Blackbyrne's resurrection. It is his good fortune to have the esoteric knowledge, the robust support systems, and the steely moral center to offer resistance to the terrible forces Blackbyrne would like to harness in his quest for immortality...including Yog-Sothoth, mentioned by name! Luck is on Earth's side, since Whyborne went to Miskatonic University in Arkham and learned all sorts of useful philological tricks.

H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos has long, long, long tentacles.

Whyborne, who detests being called Percy, has the excellent fortune to meet and fall in lust, in love, then into the arms of, strong, capable, experienced Griffin Flaherty. Another lad of the time whose Sodomitical tendencies were the catalyst for his exile from his only home and then his worst nightmare coming true, Griffin likes cats (an entire star off my rating of the book for that horrible lapse in authorial judgment) and goofy, gawky men, which makes him the best possible partner for Whyborne. The worst nightmare part is the bit that's most important. Griffin, you see, has experienced the dark and terrifying reach of the Mythos into ordinary life first hand. Its indelible mark on his soul means he will go to any length to combat the entry of those from Outside into our safe little home. Whyborne is embroiled with the Blackbyrne followers by virtue of birth and constitutionally unable to tolerate their wickedness by nature. He and Griffin must combat the actual demons and face their personal ones simultaneously and together.

The remaining half-star was lost to this book by the sheer improbability of a multi-century evil cabal surviving in Puritanical Massachusetts, the improbably used facets of Lovecraft's Mythos with Egyptian mythology, and assorted anachronistic speech patterns. My standards for entertaining fiction aren't all that high, but Griffin's invented nickname for Whyborne (since he understandably dislikes Percy) flew straight into my craw and stuck there."Ival"? How is that even pronounced?!

The next entry in the series is a short work called Eidolon. I'll be reviewing it soon..