Friday, December 13, 2013

Sexist Nonsense in Beautiful Sentences 13 December 2013


Vintage Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in the haunting landscape of eastern Australia, this is a stunningly accomplished debut novel about the inescapable past: the ineffable ties of family, the wars fought by fathers and sons, and what goes unsaid.

After the departure of the woman he loves, Frank drives out to a shack by the ocean that he had last visited as a teenager. There, among the sugarcane and sand dunes, he struggles to rebuild his life.

Forty years earlier, Leon is growing up in Sydney, turning out treacle tarts at his parents’ bakery and flirting with one of the local girls. But when he’s drafted to serve in Vietnam, he finds himself suddenly confronting the same experiences that haunt his war-veteran father.

As these two stories weave around each other–each narrated in a voice as tender as it is fierce–we learn what binds Frank and Leon together, and what may end up keeping them apart.

My Review: How awful it must be to be know, with the full force of society's blasting, trumpeting inculcation of knowledge that your Object of Desire will not, can not, indeed may not, ever make sense to you.

Evie Wyld presents the stories of three generations of miserable men and the women they screw up in this, her debut novel. Lady's got guts, let's hand her her just props...she writes of the horrors of war as experienced by these men with the assurance of a far more mature (in experiential terms) writer. She fails signally to give these three generations of men any distinguishing characteristics. She tells the tale through the eyes of two of the three men, in (for no apparent aesthetic or organizational reason) alternating chapters.

She writes well when we're considering lines (plenty of examples, just open the book anywhere and you'll hit a good 'un); but why did Evie Wyld tell this particular story? I don't know. And that, ladies and gents, is a problem.

So am I supposed to think she's brave, for writing about men, or am I supposed to think she's sensitive, for understanding them? I don't think she's brave because she's created one man, a miserable loser with no delusions as to his own adequacy still less superiority; a character who, no matter which name-label she slaps on him, doesn't grow, change, or even demonstrate more than lizard-brain function. I don't think she's sensitive because each and every man she limns is a shit of the first water, abusive of or vampiring off the women in the book.

I'm really, really sick of women portraying men in this light, and then having other women yodel their praises for doing this eternal, socially acceptable hatchet job on men. This book, for reasons I can't understand, is a longlister for the Orange Prize. She's got promise, I grant you, and she's got some native *thing* that makes her place evocations arm-hair-pricklingly good. But this isn't a book I will ever read again, and I don't recommend it.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Beautiful Tropical Getaway (to 1845!) for Snowed-In Folks 10 December 2013


Akashic Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1845 London, an engineer, philosopher, philanthropist, and bold-faced charlatan, John Adolphus Etzler, has invented machines that he thinks will transform the division of labor and free all men. He forms a collective called the Tropical Emigration Society (TES), and recruits a variety of London citizens to take his machines and his misguided ideas to form a proto-socialist, utopian community in the British colony of Trinidad.

Among his recruits is a young boy (and the book's narrator) named Willy, who falls head-over-heels for the enthralling and wise Marguerite Whitechurch. Coming from the gentry, Marguerite is a world away from Willy's laboring class. As the voyage continues, and their love for one another strengthens, Willy and Marguerite prove themselves to be true socialists, their actions and adventures standing in stark contrast to Etzler's disconnected theories.

Robert Antoni's tragic historical novel, accented with West Indian cadence and captivating humor, provides an unforgettable glimpse into nineteenth-century Trinidad & Tobago.

My Review:
We sat in silence, exhausted, filled-up. We didn't move. We couldn't have moved--not a muscle--because we didn't exist yet. Neither me nor him. Only the story existed, during those few final moments of silence after my father's voice had come to a halt.

Catnip. This book was catnip for me, pure uncut catnip of the finest grade. Robert Antoni teaches master's degree fiction-writing classes at the New School. Lucky men and women who take the classes, to hear him tell his stories!

At its heart, this is a simple tale of greed, passion, and the lifelong effects of believing in a dream. Chicanery is always a worry for the True Believer, because the promise of a dream come true is ever the best bait to lure them into disaster, personal and financial and, not infrequently, mortal. Something dies when a person's True Belief is taken from them, or lost, or simply abandoned (as if this abandonment is ever simple). Many times, I suspect, the pain of it is unendurable and the bereft believer sees no reason to go on...disease or despair carry him off.

Others, like our narrator Willy, live on and make life, actual life, work for them without dreams, but with some weird, warped hopes left, hopes that don't see much daylight as the ex-dreamer isn't likely to chat them about. Willy doesn't really want to have hopes. He wants to find his dreams. I think all of us know that quest's end. But the novel, well, a novel is a place to work out the truths of endings and the frailties of beginnings. This novel's truth is in the ending, and it stings the soft places of a tender soul. It also rings perfectly true and wistfully beautiful. A family, once created, is a hard thing to leave, to destroy; even death doesn't do the job.

But most families have invisible members. Some have more than others. Willy...Mr. Tucker, as he becomes...carried the invisible members of his family until, exhausted, he lost the eternal battle with gravity. How, and why, and what he made, these are all the subject of the novel, and the meat of life as we all live it.

Only most of us don't have beautiful words to wrap our truth in. Fortune smiled on William Tucker. His truth comes enrobed in lovely, lovely language, satisfyingly musical in the inward ear.

A pleasure of a read. A lovely artifact of a book. A delight on many levels, and a deeply felt, deeply moving novel.

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Monday, December 2, 2013

AMERICAN SALVAGE, extra-special story collection from a new-to-me Michigander

AMERICAN SALVAGE (Made in Michigan Writers Series)
Wayne State University Press
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.6* of five

The Publisher Says: American Salvage is rich with local color and peopled with rural characters who love and hate extravagantly. They know how to fix cars and washing machines, how to shoot and clean game, and how to cook up methamphetamine, but they have not figured out how to prosper in the twenty-first century. Through the complex inner lives of working-class characters, Bonnie Jo Campbell illustrates the desperation of post-industrial America, where wildlife, jobs, and whole ways of life go extinct and the people have no choice but to live off what is left behind.

My Review: Solid craftsmanship, a fearless imagination, and a complete lack of corrosive, cynical piety and pity make this collection of short stories exceptionally enjoyable.

I share nothing with these characters except the right to trial by jury, and yet I was enrapt by them. I loved "The Solutions to Brian's Problem" the best, since I never expect to see a male PoV on abuse by women. This book is seething with the rage of characters whose lives turned out bad, as in the TV series "Breaking Bad," and are flat-out irredeemably broken. This same territory was trodden by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed from the factual was revolting to read that book, it hurt me in ways I can't recover from, but Bonnie Jo Campbell has brought home to me the true emotional cost of indifference.

I don't thank her for that.

But I do recommend the book highly. Now, my thoughts and a rating on each story using the Bryce Method.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

MY FIRST MURDER, a Finnish Scandicrime Procedural...An Umlautfest!

MY FIRST MURDER (Detective Maria Kallio #1)
LEENA LEHTOLAINEN (tr. Owen Witesman)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Maria Kallio has just been assigned her first murder investigation. To prove to herself and her squad that she has what it takes to be a detective, she’ll have to solve the death of Tommi Peltonen. Found floating facedown at the water’s edge of his Helsinki villa, Tommi had invited his choir group to spend a weekend at his retreat. But beneath the choir’s seemingly tight-knit bonds seethed bitter passion and jealousy. As Maria sets out to determine the difference between friends and foes, she uncovers the victim’s unsavory past—and motives for all seven suspects. Now it’s up to her to untangle a complex set of clues before the killer strikes again.

The first book in Leena Lehtolainen’s bestselling Finnish crime series starring Detective Maria Kallio, My First Murder offers hard-boiled realism from a female perspective.

My Review: I gave in and read a Scandicrime book. It's a serviceable police procedural told in first person by thirtyish Maria Kallio, law student and relentlessly single female interloper in the world of career police detectives. She appears as a replacement for a broken-down cop who injured himself in the line of duty, and she rapidly worked her way up the chain of command because 1) she's a girl and b) she's tough as nails.

Now, as to the mystery part, I liked it fine but didn't love it. Some interesting characters were adequately developed. What made my eyebrows rise was the reportedness of the atmosphere in which Maria works. She tells us a wee bit, basically a log-line, about the other crimes she and her department are pursuing; not enough to make us care, more than enough to make us curious, and just enough to bring the sense of urgency about the main case of this book to a halt. Can't put this down to first-book-itis, either, since this author had her first book published when she was twelve!

So what was I left with? A sea of Finnish names, all of which look wrong to me, and locations I know nothing whatsoever about, and a sense of being slightly seasick as Tommi and Tomppa and Tiina and Tiiu and Riku and Antti all blended into a mass of UUUUUIIIIUUYYPPPPAAAA. Finnish, when spoken, raises my hackles with its sheer alienness. When written, it causes me distress because it's got nowhere for me to grab hold of anything to give it meaning to me. Plus everything seems to wear umlauts, those freaky-deaky fangmarks that make all previously comprehensible sounds turn into strangled moans.

It's free to borrow on your Kindle, and that's what I'd recommend you do. At $4.99, it's not a break-the-bank download, but see if you can hang with the sheer Finnishness before committing actual funds to it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Second Episode, Third Book...all good

Poisoned Pen Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When the 1920s' most glamorous lady detective, the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher, arranges to go to Ballarat for the week, she eschews the excitement of her red Hispano-Suiza racing car for the sedate safety of the train. The last thing she expects is to have to use her trusty Beretta .32 to save lives. As the passengers sleep, they are poisoned with chloroform.

Phryne is left to piece together the clues after this restful country sojourn turns into the stuff of nightmares: a young girl who can't remember anything, rumors of white slavery and black magic, and the body of an old woman missing her emerald rings. Then there is the rowing team and the choristers, all deliciously engaging young men. At first they seem like a pleasant diversion....

My Review: This numero tres in the Phryne Fisher series that I read all in a gulp one week. The library in my village had it not, but as I needed to grocery shop in Baldwin, a village or two over, I checked their liberry and lo and behold! They had this and only this volume in the series. Apparently the county likes to make reading an entire series into a treasure hunt.

Now, I get the whole terse and concise quiz when writing hard-boiled fiction. But why use it in these books, and to the point of being taciturn? Pages one through five, for example, take place in the first class carriage of the train to a place called Ballarat, filled with people who have been chloroformed for no obvious reason. Why is Phryne, the saviour (oh dear, oh dear, I'm coming all over Aussie) of all and sundry, on the train with Dot, her faithful Watsoness? What does an Aussie train carriage from the 1920s look like, who is on a train that's apparently taking an overnight trip, blah blah blah? None of these questions is addressed, still less answered.

The police in the State of Victoria appear, to a man, to be in thrall to Phryne's pheromonal field, allowing her to see evidence, trample crime scenes, interview witnesses, blah blah blah. The court system of the State of Victoria appears to have the greatest possible respect for the Honourable (oh oh, more misspelling a la Oz!) Phryne because it allows her, without demur or even so much as a meet'n'greet, to take serious legal steps.

Now, shoehorning two mysteries into 151pp is no small feat. Greenwood does this. She is, obviously and welcomely, growing in her craft with each outing. But what the hell does the sheila have against exposition?!? It can be done, and done well, and it can make or break an otherwise incredible story.

Characters from the first two books appear like mushrooms after a rain, and several new and obviously intended to be recurring characters are introduced. This does give the series the charm of feeling like one is involved in the life of the series. It's a trick that works brilliantly for Southern States writers like Charlaine Harris and Joan Hess. One character from the end of the previous book, "Flying Too High", appears again, to my discomfort and mild displeasure. I feel that I should caution parents of girls that some of Greenwood's recurring plotlines will cause you discomfort and should be brought to your attention early on. I do not encourage the very sensitively constructed to read this particular installment of the series.

But I, for reasons I can't yet fathom, want to keep reading these cocktail peanut books, and have in my moistly fumbling fingers books four, five and six of the series. So I guess it would be hypocritical to not recommend Murder on the Ballarat Train subject to the parent/sensitive caution given above.

Television Episode Review: How gorgeous the men are in Phryne's second televised episode, despite the book being third in the series, is a matter of opinion. I myownself don't get it in any of these men's cases. However, the sexual tension subplot gets short shrift in the 54 minutes allotted to the show.

What makes this episode noteworthy is the introduction of Phryne's ward, Jane, a young girl thief who will change the life of the terminally single and utterly unmaternal lady detective. It's also noteworthy that this is the first episode of the show that brings together the charming Scoobygroup of Dot, the lady's maid, the butler Mr. Butler, Jane the lightfingered lassie, and Bert and Cec the handymen/cab drivers/muscle, all in the same big, lovely home.

Another of my favorite characters, Phryne's beautiful red Hispano-Suiza touring car, makes her first appearance here as well. Australian Broadcasting Corporation and its production partners have done an amazing job with the design and the props and the costumes. The book, not a terribly exciting read for the reasons above, makes a good TV episode and is a pleasure to watch.

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Saturday, November 23, 2013

RED TO BLACK, A not very thrilling thriller that'll scare you witless

(Anna Rensikov #1)
HarperCollins (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$8.49 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Finn is a veteran MI6 operative stationed in Moscow. In the guise of an amiable trade secretary, he has penetrated deep into the dangerous labyrinth that is Russia under Vladimir Putin to discover some of its darkest secrets, thanks to a high-level source deep within the Kremlin.

The youngest female colonel in the KGB, Anna is the ambitious daughter of one of the former Soviet Union's elite espionage families. Charged with helping to make Russia strong again under Putin, she is ordered to spy on Finn and discover the identity of his mole.

At the dawn of the new millennium, these adversaries find themselves brought together by an unexpected love that becomes the only truth they can trust. When Finn uncovers a shocking and ingenious plan—hatched in the depths of the Cold War—to control the European continent and shift the balance of world power, he and Anna are thrust into a deadly plot in which friend and foe wear the same face. With time running out, they will race across Europe and risk everything -—career, reputation, and even their own lives— to expose the terrifying truth.

My Review: I enjoyed this read more than I expected to, and less than I should have. It's a very, very scary and plausible tale of a plot to use the West's greed to bring it down. After all, Marx wrote, “The last capitalist we hang shall be the one who sold us the rope.” He was a prescient thinker, was Marx.

I'm not going to go into the bits of the story because the spoilers would be epic. And also, the story told is either instantly obvious...the New Russia is a viciously capitalist and socially Darwinian funhouse mirror of the West's nastiest, least admirable qualities, and will therefore succeed in out-competing the West...or completely incredible, as to a triumphalist Teabagger idiot.

I'm on the instantly obvious side, obviously, and that's why I enjoyed the book more than I expected to. Russia's manifold social problems are all traceable to its insanely lopsided wealth distribution. That should ring an entire cathedral's worth of bells for anyone in the USA. If it doesn't, then the Teabagger idiot triumphalism is likely to obscure the evidence of a calculated takedown of Western economies.

Anyway. What didn't work well for me was the narrative structure of the book, with its reported-not-experienced quality, and the fact that the main characters were sketched more than drawn. I need to feel some sense of connection, positive or negative, to the people who are taking me on the journey that is a book. Here, in Anna and Finn, I felt I was being told a bit about the people in a not-very-close friend's long, detailed story. That was, I think, a result of the all-flashback narrative structure. The past can enhance the present in a story, there is no doubt, but the past doesn't enhance the past with anything like as much intensity. It simply becomes more flashback.

Overall, in the scheme of things, is this a thriller I'd recommend to a fellow subway rider? Maybe not, since it's so slow-paced. But for me, and those like me who lean to the political left, it's got a lot of confirmation-bias appeal. The fact that the author makes a very strong point of thanking Russian sources who need to remain anonymous is telling. And unsurprising.

And very, very disheartening.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

COCAINE BLUES, first Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries book from Kerry Greenwood

COCAINE BLUES (Phryne Fisher #1)
Poisoned Pen Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher solves theft in 1920s London High Season society, and sets her clever courage to poisoning in Melbourne, Australia. She - of green eyes, diamant garters and outstanding outfits - is embroiled in abortion, death, drugs, communist cabbies - plus erotic Russian dancer Sasha de Lisse. The steamy end finds them trapped in Turkish baths.

My Review: First mysteries aren't to be read for their mystery value, but rather for their potential to amuse and engross one in the series character. I offer my dearly beloved Russell Quant's series debut, "Amuse Bouche", as evidence...moderately good mystery craftsmanship, wonderful character development. Another example, perhaps better known to all and sundry, is Donna Andrews's "Murder with Peacocks"...promising craftsmanship, delicious character building.

This book is no exception. The mystery is ~meh~ but the sleuth and her supporting cast are either immediately endearing or anathema. I fall on the endearing side because 1) the 1920s are very interesting to me, and the series is set in 1928, and 2) Australia fascinates me. Phryne, our heroine, is a nicely imagined flapper of the day, and her background (more on this anon) is pleasantly complicated which goes a long way to explaining how she got to be the free spirit that her social milieu would not obviously produce.

Melbourne, Australia, isn't exactly on any international map as a cultural hotspot. A book set there has a lot of 'splainin' to do, to quote Ricky Ricardo from "I Love Lucy". Greenwood does comparatively little of this 'splainin' and that is a problem for this reader. Greenwood also shorts the background of Phryne, named for a famous prostitute of Classical Greece...what the hell?!? We really see here, more or less, a character sketch, a piece designed to introduce a particular attitude and mood, to the reader.

The book itself is rather too short. This goes a long way to explain the missing details I've pointed out, and the others I can't comment on without the dread spoilers. Had I bought this hardcover edition for $25, I would be a lot more testy than I am in my review. A trade paper edition for $12 would have irked me, and a mass market edition for $7 would merit a grumble.

And that's a good sign! I liked every one of these series characters and I wanted more of them. Several incidental characters could profitably bear beefing up too, like Sasha the dancer and his Princess granny; I suspect, though, that somewhere in the next 15 or so books these folks will reappear.

I've already read book two in the series, review forthcoming, and have the library looking for three and four. So do I recommend the series, flaws and all? Yes. Most definitely I do. I caution against getting your expectations too high, only because I want Kerry Greenwood to have your business for all sixteen books in the series. She's a writer with the pleasant and rare gift of being fun to read from giddy-up to whoa.


The completely scrummy Essie Davis in the title role of The Hon. Miss Phryne Fisher. She is visually perfect, in that she matches precisely my internal portrait of the character, and she is a very charming actress with a beautiful lilting voice and that "something" that stars want to keep watching her.

The show is as beautiful as the star to look at, and the flaws in the novel become the virtues in the episode based on it. The very things I found so annoying in the book, the telegraphed developments and so on, make the adaptation just about perfect for a delightful hour of TV. Netflix has the first season available, and I have watched the first five.

A definite recommendation from me. Melbourne looks charming, the actors are all more than up to their roles, and the story is perfect for an hour's visit. What's not to love?

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

11/22/63: A Novel...a wish-fulfillment...and a warning


$10.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five


In this brilliantly conceived tour de force, Stephen King—who has absorbed the social, political, and popular culture of his generation more imaginatively and thoroughly than any other writer—takes readers on an incredible journey into the past and the possibility of altering it.

It begins with Jake Epping, a thirty-five-year-old English teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, who makes extra money teaching GED classes. He asks his students to write about an event that changed their lives, and one essay blows him away—a gruesome, harrowing story about the night more than fifty years ago when Harry Dunning’s father came home and killed his mother, his sister, and his brother with a sledgehammer. Reading the essay is a watershed moment for Jake, his life—like Harry’s, like America’s in 1963—turning on a dime. Not much later his friend Al, who owns the local diner, divulges a secret: his storeroom is a portal to the past, a particular day in 1958. And Al enlists Jake to take over the mission that has become his obsession—to prevent the Kennedy assassination.

So begins Jake’s new life as George Amberson, in a different world of Ike and JFK and Elvis, of big American cars and sock hops and cigarette smoke everywhere. From the dank little city of Derry, Maine (where there’s Dunning business to conduct), to the warmhearted small town of Jodie, Texas, where Jake falls dangerously in love, every turn is leading eventually, of course, to a troubled loner named Lee Harvey Oswald and to Dallas, where the past becomes heart-stoppingly suspenseful, and where history might not be history anymore. Time-travel has never been so believable. Or so terrifying.

My Review: Review republished in observance of the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination this week.

If you had the chance to change the course of history, would you? Would the consequences be what you hoped?

Jake Epping, 35, teaches high school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and cries reading the brain-damaged janitor's story of childhood Halloween massacre by their drunken father. On his deathbed, pal Al divulges a secret portal to 1958 in his diner back pantry, and enlists Jake to prevent the 11/22/1963 Dallas assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. Under the alias George Amberson, our hero joins the cigarette-hazed full-flavored world of Elvis rock 'n roll, Negro discrimination, and freeway gas guzzlers without seat belts. Will Jake lurk in impoverished immigrant slums beside troubled loner Lee Harvey Oswald, or share small-town friendliness with beautiful high school librarian Sadie Dunhill, the love of his life?

So does a modestly successful high-school English teacher with a bad, broken marriage to an alcoholic behind him, a future of great sameness before him, and a date with destiny that cannot be foreseen, step up? What happens to Jake is, he actually gets that chance to change the world. Seriously. No spoilers here, Jake gets a chance to make 11/22/63 just another date on the calendar Pope Julius invented for us. How? Through a little rabbit-hole in time that a friend of Jake's finds, uses, and tries to accomplish the salvation of Kennedy through the use of: Living from September 9, 1958, until he can get rid of Lee Harvey Oswald before November 22, 1963. But the past, you see, doesn't want to be changed. So the guy gets terminal cancer, comes home to 2011, and zaps Jake with the job of changing the future by changing the past.

Jake does. Boy, does he ever. Way big does he change the future.

Nothing in life is free. Remember the first time you heard that? Was it your mom or your dad who laid it on you? How hard did you kick against knowing it, and for how long?

Jake takes a week. I aged a hundred years in the week Jake took. So will you.

And that's all I'll say. Well, no, not all.

Every life has its losses, mine included. They're not so interesting to other people, of course, because folks are mostly interested in their own miseries and haven't got a lot of energy to spare for the troubles of others. Okay, fine; what fiction does is, it gives us a chance to have a catharsis, in the ancient Greek sense, the reason they invented plays and melodrama and tragedy and comedy. It was therapy to go to a play and scream and cry and howl with laughter. The whole point was to get it all out. Catharsis.

I experienced many moments of catharsis in reading this book. I was wrung dry of tears on several happy and several sad occasions. I relived the might-have-beens of my own little life. I redrew the contours of history a couple times, inspired by King's redrawings.

I was swept up in a story that I so wanted to be told, and I was completely aghast when it was over because I didn't want it to be over, and I didn't want the finality of the ending to step on my gouty toes the way I thought it would.

But, like so many before me, I stubbed my toe on the stair of King's story and said ouch, before I realized it was a stair. Stairs go up, or they go down, but you'll never know which in the darkness until you feel for the next one.

But the deal is, once you know which way you're going, you're already there, committed to the movement. Exactly, in other words, like living life.

This is why Stephen King is our own Mr. Dickens. I hate Dickens' bloated, boring prose and his tedious, ridiculous plots, but he and King both write the books that offer catharsis to the audience of the age. (Just for gods' sweet sake, quit trying to pretend Chuckles is still speaking to you! And those gawdawful dull Shakespeare plays, stop it! You know you hate 'em like the rest of us do!)

The ending of the story was, for this reader, a catharsis of epic proportions. I hate and envy Jake, I bleed inside for him, I want to comfort him and slug him. I am undone by jealousy for his last harmony between past and present. I want one, too.

I got it, my last harmony, and you might too, if you'll read the 840pp of exciting and fast-paced life in 11/22/63. Please do.

Monday, November 18, 2013

ASK NOT, reviewed 18 November 2013...fifty years ago this week

ASK NOT: A Nathan Heller Thriller

Forge Books
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Chicago, September 1964. Beatlemania sweeps the nation, the Vietnam War looms, and the Warren Commission prepares to blame a “lone-nut” assassin for the killing of President John F. Kennedy. But as the post-Camelot era begins, a suspicious outbreak of suicides, accidental deaths, and outright murders decimates assassination witnesses. When Nathan Heller and his son are nearly run down on a city street, the private detective wonders if he himself might be a loose end...

Soon a faked suicide linked to President Johnson’s corrupt cronies takes Heller to Texas, where celebrity columnist Flo Kilgore implores him to explore that growing list of dead witnesses. With the blessing of Bobby Kennedy—former US attorney general, now running for Senator from New York—Heller and Flo investigate the increasing wave of violence that seems to emanate from the notorious Mac Wallace, rumored to be LBJ’s personal hatchet man.

Fifty years after JFK’s tragic death, Collins’s rigorous research for Ask Not raises new questions about the most controversial assassination of our time.

My Review: I am a big believer in Occam's Razor. The simplest explanation that fits the facts is almost always the correct one. In the case of the JFK assassination, the simplest explanation isn't the Warren Report one, it's the conspiracy theory. I suspect we'll all be dead before the truth comes out, and even then it most likely won't be the whole truth, but eventually the zombies of the facts will rise and stink up the Body Politic. Usually I think conspiracy theories are silly, for one major reason: The Gummint can't keep secrets it *wants* to keep very well. So all the leaks and the murders and deaths surrounding the assassination, in my mind, make it more not less likely that they're still trying to keep a lid on whatever really happened.

Okay, so that's out of the way. This novel is the third by Max Allan Collins, an incredibly prolific writer, dealing with JFK's assassination. (As a side note, it's extremely weird to me that the publisher AND Amazon do not make it easy to find the other two titles, and not one database groups the titles in a convenient, easy-to-reference way.) It's amazing to me that Nate Heller, Collins' Forrest-Gump-esque PI character of what, thirteen or fourteen novels so far, who is at every single important crime anywhere ever, isn't the star of a movie serial franchise a la Bond or TV series by now. In a world that gobbles up Mad Men it would seem to me to be a no-brainer.

Go know from this.

As I read along, I realized that I was being fed an angled view of the motivations and purposes of the assassins, a slant on the facts that brought certain facets and shapes into sharper relief than the Official Version would have us look at. As any actor can tell you, lighting matters. The same face, the same lumps and bumps, look very different seen from an angle and spotlit as opposed to head-on and strobed. I kept looking stuff up. I mean to tell you, my Google history is causing fantods at the NSA data farm even as we speak. I am amazed at the sheer breadth of Collins' scope. I am impressed at his precise eye for which piece of what conspiracy theory to use in weaving his tale. This is some intricate construction, folks, and deserves its own round of applause separate from any other praise merited by the book.

Does the book itself merit some praise? Yes. It's a given that Nate Heller will be a self-deprecating wisecracking noir hero. You like that trope or you don't, and I do. What's not a given is the way that the fictional exploits of Nate Heller enhance and augment the historical record of the day and time under discussion. Collins does that job very well.

The book is a beaut. The story is one central to our country's image of itself. The long, long tail of conspiracy theories proves that. And now, fifty years after that hideous, agonizing day, the perspective of a people who went through Watergate, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the sheer passage of time provide us with a new angle from which we can view the idea that our government can lie, cheat, steal, and kill in our names while pursuing selfish, disgusting, wrong, and venal aims.

Will Nate Heller bring to mind Edward Snowden or Pope Francis? No, more likely he'll bring to mind Bond and company. He's got a lot of knowledge about stuff that scares powerful people. He's willing to trade silence for comfort (his and ours). But that's not a surprise. This isn't a character whose morals we're in doubt about at this late date in the series. But he's our eyes and ears on the scene, and he's invaluable to us as readers because he's got no illusions at all. So he blows our comfy little illusions all to hell.

Where they belong, and where clinging to them will lead us. Go on this trip. Collins takes us to the heart of one of the most important moments in twentieth-century US history very very plausibly.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

AMERICANISATION, academia-set picaresque immigrant comedy

AMERICANISATION: Lessons in American Culture and Language

Livingston Press
$8.50 trade paper at the link above, $4.95 Kindle edition

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Biti Namoeteri, an enterprising young man from "South America's Lichtenstein," comes to the US to get a graduate degree in Spiritual Geography, never expecting to become a multi-level marketer or to fall in love with a woman named Janet Broccoli. But he does just that, and then discovers that personal injury lawsuits can be the keys to both success and failure. Woodward's narrative strategy is both accessible and experimental in this comic novel posing as a textbook.

My Review: The son of goatherds from a country described only as "South America's Liechtenstein" comes to an unnamed American university in an unnamed American city to get a Master's degree in "Spiritual Geography." (Now I want a degree in Spiritual Geography, but not a one of the local universities seems to have such a major. Blast and damn it all!) He arrives, Candide-like, with nothing but a few clothes and a shaky grasp of English. Soon he falls (literally) afoul of the predatory and transactional nature of capitalist society's definitions of intimacy...falling in love (?) with the dreadful and materialistic Janet Broccoli; becoming a mule for smarmy, unctuous Paul Roasted's Amway equivalent Ponzi scheme; providing the memorably named slimy lawyer, Angelo Tongue, with several personal injury cases. But even without Dr. Pangloss, all comes out for the best in this best of all possible profit machines...but at what cost? You are never told...but you can guess.

I fear Angus Woodward. He sees too much. He's the one-eyed man in the country of the blind, and it's very hard not to flinch and squirm as he reports his visions to us docile, dimmed-down drudges.

This book, his first novel after a collection of short fiction set in South Louisiana, Down at the End of the River, appeared in 2008, is written in the vein of a foreign-language textbook, with "Dialogues" and "Vocabularies" and "Activities" that illustrate the author's caustic disdain for what is shown to be a hollow, anti-nurturing culture Americans have allowed to be created in their name. It's scathing. It's abrasively angry. It's impossible not to laugh at lines like "Lobster Shell: Crack!" which pepper the Dialogues, reminding the reader that the author is letting you in on a joke, not simply hollering at you to PAY ATTENTION FOR ONCE and notice the lack of spiritual value in the fake friendliness that we've allowed to kudzu its way into the place once held for friendship.

Seriously y' attention...or Angus Woodward will be forced to write again...and that's gonna be uncomfortable, yet memorable.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Veterans' Day Review of a Thriller By A Veteran 11 November 2013


Maine Authors Publishing
$17.95 trade paper, available now
$4.99 Kindle edition

In honor of Veterans' Day, a thriller by a US Navy Veteran...4-star reviewed!

Rating: 3.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Modern-day Somali pirates have been capturing merchant ships for ransom. Suddenly, in a move that rattles the world's economies, giant oil and liquid natural gas tankers are mysteriously taken off Arabia and Africa, far out at sea in the darkness of night. Held for record ransom demands, these ships are taken to strange new pirate hideouts along the North coast of Somalia. When pirates fire on the responding international task force ships and aircraft, the world watches as an entirely new type of war at sea begins.

I requested a copy of this title from the author. He provided it understanding my review would appear here.

My Review: Tom Clancy's death in October 2013 opened the field for military thriller writers for the second time in his career. After he published The Hunt for Red October in 1984, military thrillers were once again on the readerly radar of many many men. Clancy dominated the field he had opened for almost thirty years.

Rest in peace, Mr. Clancy. Your successors are lining up to entertain the men, women, and boys of the world with tense, exciting, well-wrought storylines of high-stakes chases, maneuvers, and back-stage politicking. Here's one of the first to come out of the gate, and it's a strong contender for a place on the military thriller reader's Holiday present list.

Don't kid's a novel, but it's not a farrago or a fanciful conceit. Branco took a very real and worsening concern for the shipping industry, piracy based in the lawless failed state of Somalia, and ratcheted up the stakes. I suspect it's only a matter of time before the book is seen as predictive instead of entertaining. If, that is, the events haven't already played out like this, only with more silencing oil poured over them.

When Jason Stewart, commanding the USS Farragut, is ordered to look into the status of a supertanker full of liquified natural gas en route from Nigeria to Mumbai, the plot kicks into high gear and doesn't stop. Alternating sections of the story are told from the major points of view...the pirates, the motivating malefactors, the loyal henchrats...seldom staying with us long enough for the reader to become inured to the action.

Back and forth, cat and mouse, and all told in a spare, clipped narrative voice that feels more like it's overheard than written for an audience, there's just barely time to get in the swing of Lt. (jg) Christine Johnson's duty shift before we're aboard a pirated vessel and experiencing the terror of a crewman about to die, and before that becomes squicky we're in a plush Moscow office listening to a very, very ruthless and unpleasant man give orders that appall the reader who rejects Ayn Rand as a moral guide.

Navy veteran Branco can be relied on for accuracy, and savvy world citizen Branco can be relied on to "get" the power dynamics of world-straddling military forces both pro and con. There is not a jot of doubt about who is doing wrong here, but there is not a hint of lazy, demonizing anticharacterization at work either. Everyone here has a motivation for acting in a particular way, and it's never simplistic.

I am obligated by my inner elitist to mention the intensely annoying lapses in observing the conventions of standard punctuation (e.g., when mentioning a city, one must use the formula "City Name, State Name," and not "City Name, State Name" and then bang on with the sentence!), and I for one do not welcome sentence fragments or dependent clauses plopped in my dialogue without commas to set them off, and don't even get me started on the series or Oxford comma so blithely ignored throughout...but overall, as witness my rating, not even these cavils led me to stop reading (a frequent occurrence, even in well-told stories) or to smack the author upside the head with a single-star rating (less frequent occurrence, as it's more or less the nuclear option when a story is poorly told).

I liked the story. I was excited to see what happened next. I'd say that any reader who laments the loss of Tom Clancy's military thriller creation machine should celebrate this Veteran's Day by ordering a copy of Bob Branco's book and sinking into a satisfied haze of acronyms and action.

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Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Joys of Jeeves and Wooster, Renewed at Last!


St. Martin's Press
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Bertie Wooster (a young man about town) and his butler Jeeves (the very model of the modern manservant)—return in their first new novel in nearly forty years: Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks.

P.G. Wodehouse documented the lives of the inimitable Jeeves and Wooster for nearly sixty years, from their first appearance in 1915 (“Extricating Young Gussie”) to his final completed novel (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen) in 1974. These two were the finest creations of a novelist widely proclaimed to be the finest comic English writer by critics and fans alike.

Now, forty years later, Bertie and Jeeves return in a hilarious affair of mix-ups and mishaps. With the approval of the Wodehouse estate, acclaimed novelist Sebastian Faulks brings these two back to life for their legion of fans. Bertie, nursing a bit of heartbreak over the recent engagement of one Georgina Meadowes to someone not named Wooster, agrees to “help” his old friend Peregrine “Woody” Beeching, whose own romance is foundering. That this means an outing to Dorset, away from an impending visit from Aunt Agatha, is merely an extra benefit. Almost immediately, things go awry and the simple plan quickly becomes complicated. Jeeves ends up impersonating one Lord Etringham, while Bertie pretends to be Jeeves’ manservant “Wilberforce,”—and this all happens under the same roof as the now affianced Ms. Meadowes. From there the plot becomes even more hilarious and convoluted, in a brilliantly conceived, seamlessly written comic work worthy of the master himself.

My Review: I first encountered Bertie Wooster and his fantasy England in 1972. My sister's bookstore, located on a weird little corner near the old-money part of Austin, stocked a good deal of then-living P.G. Wodehouse's books because the older ladies who patronized the place loved him. I was sitting around there one day, a little bored, and picked up Jeeves and the Tie That Binds, then the most recent book in the series. Came time for me to leave, I begged and pleaded and promised to do actual work if I was allowed to take it with me.

And thus began what is, to date, an unabated addiction. Jeeves and his endless fund of arcane knowledge became my hero immediately. Clearly he loves dimwitted that's not fair of me, Bertie isn't dim. Bertie, that's better, Bertie has a limited intellectual scope. He's utterly dependent on Jeeves because he's never going to be able to keep up with the crowd, and he's got such a loving and generous nature that it's impossible not to see which way that parade is headed, and it's not a nice part of town.

A co-dependent relationship? Yes, probably so. Is that a problem? For whom, might I inquire? It suits Jeeves down to the ground and it's survival for Bertie. Need one's manner of living pass any other test?

Of course it raises the question of the future of each of these men. Are they locked in an eternal stasis, doomed to be each other's closest living companion? That could get claustrophobic. But hell, these are silly fantasy novels!

I see from the delights of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells that I was not alone in having these vaguely disquieting thoughts. Bertie and Jeeves are, through a combination of Bertie's yearning for his vacation romantic entanglement and Aunt Agatha's threatening to invade Berkeley Mansions' sacred precincts, compelled to quit London's fleshpots and rusticate in Melbury-cum-Kingston in aid of Bertie's pal "Woody" Beeching's romantic designs on one Amelia Hackwood, presently gone awry. it is, of course, the merest chance that Amelia Hackwood's best friend and her father's ward happens to be Georgiana Meadowes, Bertie's erstwhile vacation romance....

And we're OFF! Let the slamming door sex-farce, without the sex, commence. It is a delight to return to the world of commodious country houses staffed by efficient and tolerant worker-bees, owned by irascible, kind-hearted curmudgeons, generous if financially precarious, in need of a certain ward to make a monetarily advantageous marriage to a bland, unpleasantly parented drip so the family manse won't be sold to make a private school....

The formula is, for those susceptible to its music-box intricacies, still robust, and in Sebastian Faulks's capable hands, burnished to a new and warming glow.

Faulks has chosen, by placing Bertie in the (rather incredible) role of Jeeves' valet, to emphasize the Upstairs, Downstairs qualities inherent in the Woosterverse ab initio, but left almost entirely alone by Sir Plum Wodehouse in the original stories. We hear of the General Strike, a development that anchors the series in a specific year...1926...which Wodehouse never did. It also gives a small insight into Bertie's and Jeeves' characters, in that Bertie is utterly oblivious to the existence of the Strike and Jeeves' précis of the events is wholly favorably received by Bertie. The plot twist involving Bertie in the belowstairs world is, well, unbelievable in the extreme...Bertie wouldn't know the first thing about how to behave or what to do while waiting at table!...but all is, as usual with a Wodehousian plot, brought into satisfying retrospective focus by Jeeves' summation of the actual events, seen from a nuts-and-bolts perspective.

It is this that defines the appeal of Wodehouse's novels and stories for me: Like music boxes or magic illusions, it's all a matter of perspective as to what one sees of events. From the front of the house, there is an illusion of seamless and inevitable progress from set-up to resolution; at the end, the illusionist allows us to see the mechanics of how he fooled us into seeing only what sustains the seamlessness.

That said, there are areas of story development that are sadly deficient in this effort. I found the Venables family, in particular, received short shrift. As Venables junior is Bertie's romantic rival, it seems to me that the odious swine should be developed to be more odious so that the audience may fully despise him. Promising starts are made with his *ghastly* book-writing career, but not used nearly enough. Venables senior and mater are underdeveloped for the freight they must carry, too.

I know that, when a book is billed as an homage, it must nod frequently to the preceding works on whose developmental shoulders it stands. The many mentions of the inhabitants of the Woosterverse are inevitable. The cameos and walk-ons are as well (loved the brief appearance of Esmond Haddock, for example). A few fewer of these, given more substance, would possibly have worked more to spice and enliven the Woosterverse; as it was, the sheer bulk of the passing references gave the book a slight feel of the soap-opera farewell after a beloved actor dies and the character must be retired. Many poignant memories are evoked, but the effect can be to bring the reader out of the present book, which is the place one wants to be. After all, I paid my twenty-some dollars to be in this exact spot, didn't I?

And I love it. I batten on it. I've missed the deft and skilled application of wit and humor to novels of manners, morals, and fun. Thank you, Sebastian Faulks, thank you, Estate of Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, and thank you, Saint Martin's Press. I am refreshed and uplifted and very grateful.

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Monday, November 4, 2013

OFF-TOPIC: The Story of an Internet Revolt

Rating: 5* of five

I'm rating others' contributions to the book, not my own.

If resistance is futile, like I've been told over and over again by people who're bored or impatient with protest reviews and continued commentary against being surveilled by the site owners here, then what exactly is the point of this book?

Resistance isn't futile. The Borg can't be beaten by force, so hide among them and trip them up.

Demand transparency. Okay, they're going to collect data, which is fancy talk for watch your ever mouseclick and cursor twitch. Demand to know what they're doing with the data, and what data they're collecting, and what criteria they're using to evaluate that data.

Being a citizen makes demands of you. Shirking them because it's not fun or it's boring means nothing except you'll get what you deserve...less and less.

Your at-cost copy can be had here. No one involved in the project sees any money whatsoever from your purchase.

Saturday, November 2, 2013



Bloomsbury USA
$25.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.8* of five


When you haven't had sex in a long time, it feels like the worst thing that is happening to anyone anywhere. If you're living in Germany in the 1930s, it probably isn't.

But that's no consolation to Egon Loeser, whose carnal misfortunes will push him from the experimental theatres of Berlin to the absinthe bars of Paris to the physics laboratories of Los Angeles, trying all the while to solve two mysteries: whether it was really a deal with Satan that claimed the life of his hero, the great Renaissance stage designer Adriano Lavicini; and why a handsome, clever, charming, modest guy like him can't, just once in a while, get himself laid.

From the author of the acclaimed Boxer, Beetle comes an historical novel that doesn't know what year it is; a noir novel that turns all the lights on; a romance novel that arrives drunk to dinner; a science fiction novel that can't remember what 'isotope' means; a stunningly inventive, exceptionally funny, dangerously unsteady and (largely) coherent novel about sex, violence, space, time, and how the best way to deal with history is to ignore it.


My Review: My review, if I was up for it, would be nothing but retyping the entire novel in this space. You don't need to read my yodels of praise and warbles of inducement to buy the book, you need to read the book.

Is the book funny, as is claimed for it in so many "real" review sources? Here's something I marked on page 7:
Klugweil, meanwhile, was a twenty-four-year-old so languid as to be almost liquid, except when he went on stage and broke open some inner asylum of shrieks and contortions, wild eyes and bared teeth—which made him perfectly suited to Expressionist acting and almost useless for any other type. He'd been at university with Loesser, who had always wondered what he was like during sex but had never quite had the cheek to make an enquiry with his dull girlfriend.
Page seven and I'm chuckling, building to a snorting laugh. This is my kind of humor, this droll and dry as a good martini sort of language making ironic-verging-on-facetious observations of all those about the main character...and which observations comment quietly on the main character himself.

What about the romance mentioned so prominently in the book's sales materials, and in "mainstream" reviews? Loesser pursues the elusive, rich, and utterly madcap Adele Hitler (no relation) across continents, despite this exchange from page 54:
"You'll fuck the man who brings your coffee just because he's handsome, and yet I chase you for two years and --"
She waved her hand as if to swat him away. "Oh, please let's not get into that again. 'Love is the foolish overestimation of the difference between one sexual object and another.'"
"Who said that?"
"I saw it on the wall at a party."
"Oh, so it must be true! And all my devotion means nothing?"
"I'm flattered, but there'd be no point in us even trying. You're the sort of man who couldn't stand it if I were unfaithful, but you're also the sort of man I couldn't help but be unfaithful to. You're that type. You're an apprentice cuckold."
Well, all righty then! That's him told. Loesser's anguished suspicion that Adele is right wars with his indignation at being evaluated, pigeonholed, and relegated to a non-starter position before he can make so much as a move. This propels the rest of the novel.

For noir tropes, we have Loesser's falling in with one Dr. Voronoff, famous in the demi-monde of Paris for his impotence cure: Insert the testicle of a monkey between a man's own testicles and let its nature suffuse the aging roué with unquenchable virility. For madame, there is a similar cure for the debilities of aging: Skin cream made from the foreskins of newly circumcised babies. Fresh, innocent skin cells from a body part famed for its stretchiness...well, what could possibly make more sense? A can't-fail nostrum for wrinkles and crow's feet! And Loesser, plus an accomplice-cum-con man called Scramsfield (who promises Loesser that he will reunite him with Adele, already vanished to Los Angeles), will happily liberate wealthy, stupid American women from their desperately needed money in order to survive the Great Depression.

After a spectacular failure in the quackery trade makes Paris too hot for Loesser, he continues his pursuit of Adele to Los Angeles, and here the story becomes an extremely strange (even stranger, I suppose) send-up of Golden Age science fiction tropes, decadent capitalist stereotypes, rumors of Hollywood loucheness, all of which so deeply informed the interwar popular culture's storytelling.

Teleportation. Actual physical teleportation. Research and development for same. It's almost incalculably difficult to imagine how this could be done on a macro scale in today's scientific universe, but thankfully Beauman hasn't set his story in our world but in 1935 (as it now is in the story). And here we come to a place in the narrative where, although there is no diminution of the chuckle-inducing phrasemaking or the wince-cringe-and-giggle observation that's characterized the book until now, the window-dressing is just that, decoration.

The heart of this book is yearning. Everyone in the book yearns for something, be it a person, a state of feeling, a quantum of knowledge, a passed opportunity, a deed desperately regretted that's in need of recall; yearning and searching for the way to fill the void left by the object yearned for. Adele, that object of Loesser's yearning, seeks to fill her own void by assisting in the creation of an actual, physical teleportation device, being the amanuensis and magician's assistant to Professor Bailey of the currently rechristened California Institute of Technology. The Professor has the most yearning of anyone in the entire book, stretching back to a time in Los Angeles history when what was then the Throop College of Technology welcomed a Midwestern boy called Bailey....

I don't believe anyone would thank me for the spoiler that completes that sentence. It's worth the trip to discover it yourself.

This novel was longlisted for the 2012 Booker Prize, and I see why. Beauman's linguistic playfulness and inventive use of tropes in ways both satirical and satisfying to trope fans is amazing when one considers his revolting youth. (He is under thirty, which I consider an affront to God. No one born after Man left the Moon for the final time to date should understand the world Beauman builds with deft and dextrous motions. Ain't natural.)

I left this reading experience amused, satisfied, and to my own surprise, quite moved. I liked the process of getting to the end of the story. I liked the scenery painted for me along the way. I liked the moral, or to give it less gravitas, the point of Beauman's engrossing, enfolding, bemusing narrative. I really want to know what happens next in Beauman's career. I hope I can keep all my buttons in the proper buttonholes until he finishes his ideas' fermentation.

I've rated the book under five stars, which all of the foregoing would seem to support, because I wasn't catapulted to a new level of spiritual awareness or aesthetic ecstasy (0.1 off), and because the dust jacket of the hardcover edition is coated in some sort of spoodge that has the hand-feel of the years-old bacon grease that coats the interior of a none-too-clean greasy spoon's range hood (0.1 off, after an entire star disappeared; seemed unfair to Beauman, since *he* didn't choose this icky stuff. If I come to find out he *did* choose it, another star off, and no mistake).

Friday, November 1, 2013

THE ALUMINUM CHRISTMAS TREE, a religious tale about gratitude and self-worth...only GOOD!


Thomas Nelson Books
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Rating: 3.5 very surprised stars of five

The Publisher Says: The shiny aluminum tree was the symbol of everything he thought was right in their lives and everything she thought was wrong. It was 1958 and Jimmy Jackson had it all: a wife, two kids, and the promotion that was his ticket to success. Finally, he could afford all those things he had gazed at in the Sears Roebuck catalog. But now that he had the money, would he find that the true cost was more than he could pay?


My Review
: A gift from a delightful old friend, this book arrived at precisely the right time. I was not at my most pleased and happy the day it came. I read the whole book in a sitting, and was much restored and refreshed.

Thomas Davis tells an oft-told tale of a man's descent into depression caused by his single-minded pursuit of material success with no nods towards his inner needs. His wife recounts the tale to her sympathetic audience after his death, which causes her to move to a new, smaller home in town from their half-century long country life on an apple orchard. She tells her cousin and his wife, who are helping her pack and move, the story of the year that almost ended the marriage most people thought was perfect.

I think the story of any well-lived life contains the passage that Mildred, our narratrix, recounts. It's instructive to be reminded of this in fiction as well as fact. All of us fallible humans can run off the rails, and it's often only after losing "everything" that we realize how much we really have that *can't* be lost, only thrown away.

The book breaks no new ground anywhere, but it takes the reader on its well-worn path with a pleasant tone and a loving heart. I can't recommend it to the cynical or the youthful, but anyone over 40 will recognize the situation and could probably benefit from a reminder of its perils and the tenuous nature of human relationships. Take care of them, feed them, prune them carefully, and a lifetime will seem too short.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Wickedness! Halloween read: WICKED BUGS and WICKED PLANTS, Posted 30 October 2013

WICKED PLANTS: The Weed That Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities
Amy Stewart

Workman Books
$18.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A tree that sheds poison daggers; a glistening red seed that stops the heart; a shrub that causes paralysis; a vine that strangles; and a leaf that triggered a war. In Wicked Plants, Stewart takes on over two hundred of Mother Nature s most appalling creations. It s an A to Z of plants that kill, maim, intoxicate, and otherwise offend. You ll learn which plants to avoid (like exploding shrubs), which plants make themselves exceedingly unwelcome (like the vine that ate the South), and which ones have been killing for centuries (like the weed that killed Abraham Lincoln's mother).

Menacing botanical illustrations and splendidly ghastly drawings create a fascinating portrait of the evildoers that may be lurking in your own backyard. Drawing on history, medicine, science, and legend, this compendium of bloodcurdling botany will entertain, alarm, and enlighten even the most intrepid gardeners and nature lovers.

My Review: Bite-sized reports of the horrible horrible scary itchy deadly horrible doings of the Kingdom Plantae. Illustrated with beautiful woodcuts by Briony Morrow-Cribbs, that are, by themselves, worth the price of the book.

I swear I have never bathed so often as when I read this book. Hibiclens, pHisoHex, witch hazel, lavender water...every cleansing agent I possess...applied to every inch of my quite sizable person, at least three or four times for every plant I read about. Even my shoulder hair is falling out from over-washing. (There go the last long, wavy locks I'll ever have....)

*Most* satisfyingly, the horrid, nasty, icky-ptoo-ptoo nonfood CORN is included in the book! (Yes it is too: pp38-39...comes in for harsh treatment because the body *can't use it* in kernel form! Take THAT corn-on-the-cobbers! Horrible stuff, corn on the cob. Oughta be banned.)

So many awful horrible, itch-inducing theings described in one small place would normally mean stay the heck away from it, but Stewart really does a fine job of making her villains fascinating, if not sympathetic. Hope she writes a novel one day soon.

WICKED BUGS: The Louse That Conquered Napoleon's Army & Other Diabolical Insects
Amy Stewart

Workman Books
$18.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: too busy scratching to give it one.

The Publisher Says: Amy Stewart, perpetratrix of Flower Confidential (a book I loathed), has given us bite-sized bios of horrible, horrible, horrible little creepy/crawly or fly-y/stingy horrible things with lots of horrible legs and horrible, horrible ways of mating and reproducing in general. Most of the worst ones are female. Just like in life.

My Review: I've finished it, and so far I've determined that I suffer from:

--Guinea worm disease
--Lyme disease
--sand-fly infestation under my itchy toenail

I've taken eleven showers with surgical scrub so far. I expect that, when I go outside next (after the haz-mat suit is delivered), I shall be ridiculed...but I *won't* be a feast for the horrible disgusting vile scary critters this book is about!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

THE TERRA-COTTA DOG, second Montalbano culinary adventure, I mean mystery!

THE TERRA-COTTA DOG (Inspector Montalbano #2)
ANDREA CAMILLERI (tr. Stephen Sartarelli)
Penguin Books
$12.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Terra-Cotta Dog opens with a mysterious tête-a-tête with a mafioso, some inexplicably abandoned loot from a supermarket heist, and some dying words that lead inspector Montalbano to a secret grotto in a mountainous cave where two young lovers, dead fifty years and still embracing, are watched over by a life-size terra cotta dog. Montalbano's passion to solve this old crime takes him, heedless of personal danger, on a journey through the island's past and into a family's dark heart amid the horrors of World War II.

My Review: I am truly gruntled and kempt after reading a Montalbano novel. Sleek, in fact; one could go so far as to say consolate.

The mystery, that is the modern-day mystery of arms-dealing and law-breaking, gets short shrift in this delightful book. It gets passed to Montalbano's second-in-command, Augello, at Montalbano's discretion, after Augello pitches a hissy fit and acts like a neglected wife because Montalbano runs a team within a team to do his real work.

Things Go Badly. In fact, a character I loved very much pays the ultimate price for Augello's jealous fit. But Montalbano, whose head everything ultimately falls on, has already turned his attention to Livia, his quite extraordinary lover from Genoa, and a mystery from WWII.

One guess which of those two gets neglected.

The point of these books is how much a mystery gets hold of one, how deeply set the hook is when it's properly baited for the mysterian. (Other than the name of a one-hit wonder band, I've never actually used that word before, and "I do not think that word means what you think it means." {Princess Bride reference}) Sure, yeah, people are smuggling submachine guns and stuff, mmm-hmmm get back to me if something needs my attention but some a-hole killed two kids in the Act of Luuuv 50+ years ago, then put them in a cave where evidence assures us they were NOT shot, and with some very odd burial goods...a bowl of money, a jug of water, and a terra-cotta statue of a dog...and then sealed them up carefully and invisibly. WTF? as Montalbano most certainly wouldn't have thought, who does that? What kind of story makes that not only okay, but so urgent as to force someone to do it?

Exactly what I was wondering. Montalbano is my kinda guy. There are people to *do* the modern-day, not-very-challenging stuff, and even when they get stuff wrong (as they did, to his almost-fatal detriment when a shoot-out costs him the life of a friend and a month in the hospital) things will turn out, they always do...just learn to live with the consequences...but only he, Montalbano, cares to or can ferret out the seemingly unimportant but emotionally charged secrets of the past.

I was walloped upside my little punkin haid by the ending of this book. I could NOT believe an American publishing house would do this! Of course, they only did it ten years after it became a bestseller in *the rest of the world*, but let's let that slide. They did it, thank you Penguin, and they made a lovely object of the book, and they have published all of the series in proper order *smoochsmooch* on their corporate ham-producing-areas to boot!

I won't encourage anyone to read these books because, if you need encouragement, you're not the Right Stuff for them. (*snicker* THAT oughtta cause a stampede!)

Monday, October 28, 2013

FOLLOWING TOMMY by Bob Hartley, review posted 28 October 2013


Out of Print; various prices from multiple sellers

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: FOLLOWING TOMMY tells the story of the O'Days, two young brothers living in an Irish American, wor king class neighborhood on Chicago's West Side in the 1960s. As thieves they are the bane of the neighborhood until the arrival of the first African American family.

"FOLLOWING TOMMY is a powerful, mesmerizing debut novel by Bob Hartley. Sharp-edged and honed to perfection, this novel takes us back to the Irish ghetto of the West Side of Chicago in the early '60s. These characters pack-a-punch to the gut: tough, perceptive and shrewd. An unforgettable read."—Meg Tuite

"In Hartley's novel, set in the heartland of America, we dive deeply into disturbing pathos of intriguing and relatable characters. His keen narrative balances so the lively dialogue, and we feel we know, or at the very least, can relate to so much of his book. I urge you to read this remarkable debut, FOLLOWING TOMMY."—Robert Vaughan


My Review
: This first novel has the virtue of brevity. The language that Bob Hartley, whose MFA was awarded by the University of Pittsburgh, deploys in service of his story is a model of concision. The story the author tells is, to my ears, honest and true and quite devastatingly probable. The two O'Day brothers are mildly violent, badly educated petty criminals. The working-class Chicago they inhabit is divided between churchgoers and wise guys, and they are the latter, to their mother's despair. Her early death deprives the boys of nothing in the way of guidance, as they are in their late teens at the time. Her contribution to the story is minimal, so the reader doesn't miss her either. This is probably a function of the shortness of the book.

Perhaps my less-than-ecstatic response comes from my inability to relate to Jacky, our first-person narrator. He's a straight teenaged hooligan whose desire for and discussion of the girls he imagines while masturbating grated on me. It might also be that I internalized more completely than I'd like to examine the class prejudices of my family and regard the "family" of drunks and hooligans that the O'Days represent with lips pressed firmly together so as not to curl them while dismissing these common-as-pig-tracks people with labels like "white trash" and "bogtrotting shanty Irish bastards."

Whatever the source of my absence of goodwill towards the book, it took me a month to read its 104pp and I was angry the entire time I was reading it. I suspect that Hartley deserves praise for this, because I responded to the characters as real people, and the story as more of a confession than a novel. Jacky and Tommy commit acts of idiot violence, they get caught and suffer at the hands of a casually brutal neighborhood cop (nicknamed "the Giant"), and while I don't like the cop any better than I like any of the other people, I at least felt he had some purpose in his viciousness that I could relate to if not condone.

The evocation of the early-1960s changing world, the one in which African-American people like the O'Days' new neighbors on Menard Street, were at last imagining a better and fairer world was within sight, was painfully spot-on. Hartley gets the sociopath Tommy's response to an African-American family moving into the Irish neighborhood chillingly accurately, at least from the people I've known over the years who had this experience. The fact that I experienced none of it, as I lived in a lily-white world of privilege and watched the race wars on our 26-inch color TV, makes that observation suspect. But Hartley brings me close enough to these yobbos that I can smell their greasy hair and cigarette stink, so I trust that he's got the responses down pat.

Encountering the O'Day brothers, then, wasn't in any particular a homecoming experience. It was an outrage. Jacky's passive, follow-the-leader nature caused me the kind of pain that sucking on an alum stick causes...puckery-lipped, tongue-curling, bad-tasting spitlessness. Tommy, the sociopathic shitheel older brother that Jacky follows, evoked the kind of nauseated disdain that I find myself prone to when confronted with blank-eyed hate-filled people. That Tommy's violent actions, escalated to new heights, lead to the conclusion the novel presents is a grim reality of life lived on those terms. That Jacky makes his decision about what kind of life he wants to lead in terms of Tommy and his actions is sadly believable.

Hear my passionate disdain for the people brought to life here and decide for yourself what kind of reading experience this short novel will be for you. One thing I am quite sure of: You will not be left indifferent. Angry, perhaps. Not indifferent, not bored. That is a lot more than I can say for most books I'm exposed to. If this debut is a reliable indicator of Bob Hartley's intended career path, his writing will earn him a following among the Jim Thompson and Donald Ray Pollock fans.

I first reviewed FOLLOWING TOMMY for The Small Press Book Review, specialists in bringing attention to the underknown and often unsung writers and publishers doing some of the best work in fiction publishing today.

Small presses, ones with editors and designers and passionate owners, are doing what we most need done in the Groves of Readerly Delight. They are using their critical faculties to decide what kind of work they want their own names associated with. They are making editorial changes, guiding writers to the best book that the story they want to tell can make. They are surviving on sales that make Amazon's shrinkage (theft and damage) allowances look like titanic bestselling sales department wet dreams.

I feel about this the way I feel about censorship: Don't let some witsy-teensy group of strangers make your aesthetic decisions for you! Find books by first-timers AND BUY THEM. Find small presses that publish things you're interested in AND BUY THEM. Vote for diversity and choice the only way that matters in business: with your dollars.

It matters, and it matters a lot, that us real readers who love our chosen hobby do this. Even if it's taking a chance with our scarce reading allowances. One purchase a month from a small press and/or a first-time author! Give the writers, the publishers, the editors whose labor is at best meagerly rewarded some much-needed practical support.

I already do. And I promise you I'm poorer than you are.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

OPEN CITY, Teju Cole's PEN/Hemingway Award for First Fiction-winning novel


Random House
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five


The Publisher Says: Along the streets of Manhattan, a young Nigerian doctor doing his residency wanders aimlessly. The walks meet a need for Julius: they are a release from the tightly regulated mental environment of work, and they give him the opportunity to process his relationships, his recent breakup with his girlfriend, his present, his past.

But it is not only a physical landscape he covers; Julius crisscrosses social territory as well, encountering people from different cultures and classes who will provide insight on his journey—which takes him to Brussels, to the Nigeria of his youth, and into the most unrecognizable facets of his own soul.


My Review
: The annus horribilis of Julius, a Nigerian psych resident in Manhattan. He is estranged from his mother, his only surviving parent; never knew his German maternal grandmother; is alone and adrift in the cold (too cold for his tropical self) and cruel city. He responds to his recent loss of a girlfriend to the lures of San Francisco by walking. He lives in Morningside Heights, a small college town on Manhattan's far Upper West Side; he works his last year of residency at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, one of the city's medical gems; he attends a concerts of music I'd pay money to avoid (Mahler! PURCELL! *shudder*); and he walks.

His ramblings take him to every part of Manhattan, later also Brussels where he spends a month looking quite haphazardly for his probably dead German grandmother whom he does not find; his trained ear allows him to listen to text and subtext in his many conversations with many and various people of most every ethnicity these famously open cities have to offer. He is, in Christopher Isherwood's very apt phrase, a camera ("I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording not thinking...."); we are never treated to a view of the man holding the camera, but rather we are in the camera as he swings it about. In the end, there are no actions to report of Julius, but he makes up for his passivity with his introspection, and his clearly flawed impassivity to the emotional realities of others.

I had no idea this book was coming to me. In a truly random act, Random House's Random House imprint delivered me a signed copy of the book, with the editor's card (thank you, kind sir! Nice to get a gift from someone I don't know!) and a photocopied rave review of the book from The New Yorker. I read the first 10pp anyway, since The New Yorker and I almost never agree on books.

I was hooked. I was claustrophobic and annoyed and hooked. I had no idea books like this, the truly interior novels of the nouvelle roman ilk, were still able to be published in the USA. I mentioned above that we never, ever leave the camera that is Julius's head; all experiences are filtered through his eyes, heard with his ears. It's actually physically confining, this technique; like being tied up and read to. NOT a favorite activity of mine, for the record; either of them. It's a species of intimacy that I find quite discomfiting. But it works here because the narrator is so completely unable to be anywhere but here, think about any time but now; his excursions into memory are forced, and intentionally so (I think; Mr. Cole and I aren't acquainted, so I impute motives to him on no basis but my eyes).

Annoyingly, Julius is not very good at contextualizing his world. This is the risk an author runs in writing from inside the tightest and narrowest of boxes, the human skull. Of course, no sane person runs around through the day contextualizing his or her own story, so that's hardly a mark against the author's fidelity to his vision. But it makes Julius a little less of a forceful presence and more of a miasmic infestation in his own book. I was left feeling that the bedbugs (horrible bloodsucking little fiends) resembled the narrator a little too closely. Both are simply *there* and the fact of them is meant to be enough to set action rolling. I mildly disagree, but that's neither here nor there in evaluating the book's merits.

And merits it has. The prose is begulingly poetic. The lushness of description would feel out-of-timely off-putting were it not for the sense of inevitability and rightness the descriptions provide. The structure of the book (the hardest personal and professional year of a residency, that last one) isn't in any way innovative, but it's used to excellent effect. Julius, based on reading this book, seems like the sort of man who would be interesting to run into on his walks around Manhattan. I suspect the same would be true of Mr. Cole. Whatever force impelled the author to write this book, however the shock to his system that's the sine qua non of bringing forth such a sustained and elaborate feat of craftsmanship was delivered, it's my hope that another will be delivered soon. In the meantime, I'd suggest investing in this book will prove a winner for most sophisticated readers.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

THE SOUND OF THINGS FALLING, a rough-tongued honey-voiced lesson for complacent US people

(tr. Anne McLean)
Riverhead Books
$8.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In the city of Bogotá, Antonio Yammara reads an article about a hippo that had escaped from a derelict zoo once owned by legendary Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The article transports Antonio back to when the war between Escobar’s Medellín cartel and government forces played out violently in Colombia’s streets and in the skies above.

Back then, Antonio witnessed a friend’s murder, an event that haunts him still. As he investigates, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past. His journey leads him all the way back to the 1960s and a world on the brink of change: a time before narco-trafficking trapped a whole generation in a living nightmare.

Vásquez is “one of the most original new voices of Latin American literature,” according to Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, and The Sound of Things Falling is his most personal, most contemporary novel to date, a masterpiece that takes his writing—and will take his literary star—even higher.

I read What We Talk About When We Talk About Magical Realism by Fernando Sdrigotti in the LARB, and it reminded me of this terrific read.

My Review
: To every rule its exception: This book is praised highly by a writer whose work I abhor, Jonathan Franzen; and ordinarily that means I will avoid the book so as not to read even a Pearl-Rule 46pp of something I'm bound to hate.

Ha ha ha, rules. I liked this book a lot. Well, "like" is a weird word for the emotional resonance of the book. I responded to the book like a tuning fork responds to a smack.

The fact is that I am a fan of Latin American literature because, like this book and author, most of the translated works are political and tendentious in their natures, and so are the authors. So am I. So it's usually a good fit.

This story, which feels as personal as the blurb suggests it actually is, made me very uncomfortable, as I watched Colombia's descent into warlord rule and civil failure. I suspect I'd feel the same fearful anger if I were to visit Montana or Idaho or Wyoming, places that white supremacist/apocalyptic christian cultists have claimed for themselves. When nutball extremists take over a place, it's a failure of civil authority, and that is a crime. The net effect is the same as the drug cartels' takeover of Colombia in the 1970s or the current failure of civil authority in Mexico today or the Cascadian separatist movement here.

These are not positive developments, they have tremendous costs in personal misery, and they are much to be deplored. Vásquez does his deploring by focusing tightly on the emotional and psychic costs of civil failure to a small group of friends, Antonio's friends and his good self. It's a sad, sad chronicle of horror and rage. And it's wrapped in beautiful words expressing solidly grounded truths:
Adulthood brings with it the pernicious illusion of control, perhaps even depends on it. I mean that mirage of dominion over our own life that allows us to feel like adults, for we associate maturity with autonomy, the sovereign right to determine what is going to happen to us next.

Translator McLean has done a marvelous job of making poetry in the English, and while I haven't read the original Spanish text, I can only say that she is unlikely to have made such handsome bricks without good, abundant straw.

If I must pick a nit, and I must, it's that the structure of the novel is a tad more complex than is strictly speaking necessary to tell the author's very involving story. It's not hard to follow, but it's just artificial enough to pop the reader out of the narrative flow. That's almost never a good thing. (Okay, it's never a good thing, but I've learned not to make absolute statements because some little twidgee or another will come along and say something tiresome about my opinions and frankly I'm over it.)

I hope, that issue aside, that you will all race out to your local bookeries and procure copies of this book. It's got something important to say to us in the USA about the incredibly high cost of allowing dissent to become dissolution. Colombia failed its citizens, and their agony only slowly passes. Mexico is mid-failure, and is much closer to us. And yet we allow our own idiot rebels a far freer hand in obstructing and undermining our governmental institutions and shredding our social fabric in the name of some illusory "right" they assert that they have to do this to us all.

Read the book. Learn the cost. The price of the right wing's version of freedom is too goddamned high, and Vásquez knows it first hand. Please listen to him.