Thursday, May 30, 2013

LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN, first Dan Sharp gay noir thriller

(Dan Sharp Mysteries #1)
Dundurn Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$6.49 Kindle edition, available now

WINNER OF THE 25th Lambda Literary Award—BEST GAY MYSTERY!

Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Dan Sharp, a gay father and missing persons investigator, accepts an invitation to a wedding on a yacht in Ontario's Prince Edward County. It seems just the thing to bring Dan closer to his noncommittal partner, Bill, a respected medical professional with a penchant for sleazy after-hours clubs, cheap drugs, and rough sex. But the event doesn't go exactly as planned.

When a member of the wedding party is swept overboard, a case of mistaken identity leads to confusion as the wrong person is reported missing. The hunt for a possible killer leads Dan deeper into the troubled waters and private lives of a family of rich WASPs and their secret world of privilege.

No sooner is that case resolved when a second one ends up on Dan's desk. Dan is hired by an anonymous source to investigate the disappearance 20 years earlier of the grooms father. The only clues are a missing bicycle and six horses mysteriously poisoned.

My Review: Well, that's fine so far as it goes. The "mistaken identity" is more like a con game's perp being discovered in a lie; the secret world of privilege part is heavily focused on the heteronormative christian right wing's assertion that it alone defines right and wrong.

So it's about perfectly cut out to suit my prejudices!

Round writes a deeply damaged and badly wounded noir hero in Dan Sharp, and gives him a drinking problem, a miserable proletarian past, and a penchant for dating screwed-up straight rich boys. Dan's not pretty. His appeal to the pretty men he lusts after is in his anger, his endowment, and his complete willingness to cut and run when he damned well feels like it. Means it will all be over and no lingering emotional ties need be fretted over.

Take out "proletarian" and it's me. So again, score one for Round in the designed to appeal to me sweepstakes.

The actual murder mystery bit comes with two adjunct plots, one missing person case that Dan is going to solve or die in the trying, and one complex self-realization plot:
Dan put the receiver down and stared at the wall. The room had shrunk over the last few minutes. He tried to ignore the nameless sorrow under his skin, the gnawing doubts that mocked his hope that life could be a fine thing or that happiness was possible. An acid loneliness came pouring in—the same loneliness that enticed him to drink and told him he had no friends except the one on the table in front of him.

Well, yeah.

The resolution of the missing person case, when it happens, makes Dan go on a hard journey into his bitterness about the past. His family life was, um, rough and turbulent. His missing person was under the same sort of spell that Dan was himself, and then *click* a light goes on that illuminates for Dan the murder's shape which had eluded him (and the police) until now:
Grief. It was a powerful word beginning with a soft utterance and ending in a feather's caress. There's no way to say it without beginning and ending in a sibilant whisper. Intake of breath or out, it's still the same—like a verbal palindrome. {The victim} had felt its pull, soft and seductive enough to make him sacrifice himself. He'd given in to its drowning embrace, giving up what he wanted most—his freedom—for what he couldn't live without: his boys. In doing so, he'd lost both. There wasn't a prayer or lamentation or elegy in the world that could convey, in words or music, the tragedy that this had brought about. There was nothing that could revoke or undo the senseless horror of what had happened to him....

Losing his sons was a threat the victim couldn't endure. Dan, being a deeply loving dad despite his screwed-up self, figures out the identity of the culprit, the reason for the crime, and the whole point of his own involvement in the missing person case from the blinding flash of insight that grief is at the heart of all the troubles in all these cases.

This is the way I like my noir. Dark, bitter, and with a chaser of sadder-but-wiser. I'll read the next book, and that's sayin' something for an overbooked and underlifed biblioholic.

So why not a full four stars? Because the novel, while first in a series, is far from Round's first book. There are pacing and bloat issues. About fifty pages of the book could go and no one would suffer, while the story would gain. Some scenes...notably the resolution of the first death...were rushed and not fully interwoven into the narrative, while others, notably the set-up of Dan's crappy relationship with a man destined to shuffle out of his life in short order, were longer than dramatically necessary to introduce the character flaws in Dan that we need to know about. So a small bit knocked off there, and a bit more for the curiously unnecessary and stunted relationship between Dan's son and the son's best friend, which felt completely grafted on and was unnecessary given how it ended.

But I go back to this fact: I will read the next one. I'm looking forward to it, as a matter of fact.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

New Review of a title close to my what-passes-for-a-heart 23 May 2013

I got a review in a new-to-me and really cool blog:
My newly calm spirit has mused aloud about the beauty of A DIFFERENT KIND OF LUXURY, and the charm of its contents, at The Small Press Book Review.

Some books are perfect marriages of form and content. This is one. It's simply lovely and quite a luxe little item all by itself.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fair Warning: Nothing nice to say about this book

THE IRON LANCE (The Celtic Crusades #1) is just too overtly pro-christian to please me. Even when I was trying to be a christian. It's not a fun read.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Tornado victims need help

Heartbreaking video of Moore, Oklahoma. If anyone can spare some money, the American Red Cross needs all the help it can get:

Sunday, May 19, 2013

New Review Posted 19 May 2013

BLOOD OF THE PRODIGAL is the first in a series of mysteries set in the Ohio Amish country. I think it's well worth your time to investigate. If you get hooked, there are seven more to keep you reading.

Look in the Mystery Series tab. Plume did a terrific job making the book look good.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Last Hoorah for Sookie Stackhouse (in book form)

I can't help but sigh a bit sadly: reviewed Dead Ever After, the last Sookie Stackhouse novel, at my group blog.

It's sad to say so long after twelve years.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

New Review Posted on 14 May 2013


Can only muster three stars for this perfectly competent if pretty unexciting read. Just...~meh~

Sunday, May 12, 2013

New Sookie Reviews 12 May 2013

Books 10, 11, and 12 reviewed 13, the series finale (sob), early next week...oh how I will miss Sookie's fresh adventures!

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Sookie Week #9 posted

It's DEAD AND GONE, a dark and chilling entry in the light and funny series...but a heckuva good read. My review is in the SOOKIE STACKHOUSE page-tab.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's Still Sookie Stackhouse Week

It's Sookie Stackhouse week, so I reviewed books 6, 7, and 8 in the 13-book series

Some are better than others, for sure.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

It's a Sookie Stackhouse kind of day

I've posted my reviews of the first five Sookie Stackhouse novels in their own special category, in honor of the last novel appearing today.

Will feel weird, not knowing there's another fix on the way....

Sunday, May 5, 2013

DIRTY LITTLE ANGELS, a bitter draft of honest and unflinching observation


Livingston Press
$8.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in the slums of New Orleans, among crack houses and abandoned buildings, Dirty Little Angels is the story of 16-year-old Hailey Trosclair. When the Trosclair family suffers financial hardship and a miscarriage, Hailey finds herself looking to God to save her family. When her prayers go unanswered, Hailey puts her faith in Moses Watkins, a failed preacher and ex-con.

Fascinated by Moses' lopsided view of religion, Hailey and her brother Cyrus begin spending time at an abandoned bank that Moses plans to convert into a drive-through church. Gradually, Moses' twisted religious beliefs become increasingly more violent, and Hailey and Cyrus find themselves trapped in a world of danger and fear from which there may be no escape.


My Review
: The thing about receiving author-supplied DRCs is that one never knows whether they're the author's own files or the typeset and formatted files the publisher sells on ebook sites. Luckily for me, I'm acquainted with this publisher so I asked for and received a tree book copy of it.

When you start reading this bitter, sour-faced story of a family's complete collapse, you're expecting more Southern Gothic. Failed fathers, hate-stuffed mothers, frail, failing children, all the usual trappings...set in New Orleans, a place that (to me) reeks of failure on a generational time-scale...and what more fertile ground can there be for a teenage girl to discover the nasty, brutish, short nature of most of humanity's lives.

Hailey is desperate. She's trapped in a web of emotional blackmail and the sticky sap of rage and blame in a marriage that failed the test of character. She's savvy, sensing the sap is slowly turning into amber as pressure and heat build in her parents. Not very surprisingly, she opts to try putting her faith in the christian god. She's from the South, and it's a space hag-ridden by the manifold evils of that religion's ripeness for exploitive behavior. Of course Hailey falls in with an abusive, evil preacher called "Moses" (how original that alias is!) whose plans are just loopy enough to seem visionary to a desperate girl.

The problems that the adult reader sees instantly Hailey sees as positives...the idea of a drive-through church is simply ludicrous...but only long enough to discover that Moses is not there to help her but to use her. It's a horrible realization and it's an angry world that popped Hailey up, so it's no surprise how she ends up behaving in the end.

It's not a long story, and it's not a cheery one, but it's very tellingly presented as a slice of life. Hailey's growing into her full power of womanhood doesn't, in the end, break the mold set by her unhappy family.

It takes a fucking sledghammer to the whole structure.

If you're up for a bracingly told, frankly and honestly observed coming-of-age story set in an iconic if still catatonic since Katrina location, this is a story you'll love. I did.

Friday, May 3, 2013

AND SO IT GOES, A Life of Vonnegut--warts and all

AND SO IT GOES: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life

Henry Holt & Co. (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: The first authoritative biography of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., a writer who changed the conversation of American literature

In 2006, Charles Shields reached out to Kurt Vonnegut in a letter, asking for his endorsement for a planned biography. The first response was no ("A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer"). Unwilling to take no for an answer, propelled by a passion for his subject, and already deep into his research, Shields wrote again and this time, to his delight, the answer came back: "O.K." For the next year—a year that ended up being Vonnegut's last—Shields had access to Vonnegut and his letters.

And So It Goes is the culmination of five years of research and writing—the first-ever biography of the life of Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut resonates with readers of all generations from the baby boomers who grew up with him to high-school and college students who are discovering his work for the first time. Vonnegut's concise collection of personal essays, Man Without a Country, published in 2006, spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold more than 300,000 copies to date. The twenty-first century has seen interest in and scholarship about Vonnegut's works grow even stronger, and this is the first book to examine in full the life of one of the most influential iconoclasts of his time.

My Review: Shields, whose biography of Harper Lee was a New York Times bestseller, is set to do it again with this life of the ineffable Kurt Vonnegut, father to Kilgore Trout, Billy Pilgrim, and the unforgettable Montana Wildhack. If any of these names fails to ring a bell with you, please exit the room via the door marked “DUH”. Anyone sixty-five or under should recognize failed SF writer Kilgore Trout as the real hero of Breakfast of Champions (and Vonnegut’s ironic alter ego). Anyone of any age who fails to recognize Billy Pilgrim or Montana Wildhack as the forces in Slaughterhouse-Five hasn’t read the book. Shame! Shame!

Shields began this project with Vonnegut’s blessing. While he was a very short way into the project, Vonnegut suffered the fatal accident (in exactly the way he predicted he would, more than thirty years before it happened) that silenced his curmudgeonly trumpetings from the marshes of sanity, where he spent a forty-year career attempting to bring the rest of us into awareness of the fact that we’re heading the wrong damn way down the shaggy, overgrown path of conformity and unquestioning obedience to Authority. Vonnegut himself wasn’t a willing follower of much of anything, be it a rule or a custom or an order. He did what was expected of him as a husband and a father, in his day and time, but the book illuminates the unspoken reluctance of his participation in any life that wasn’t of, and in, the mind. Writing was Vonnegut’s ruling passion. It trumped all things corporeal. It gave him, as Shields brings out without beating us over the head with the knowledge, a sense of himself as an actor in the world and not just a spectator.

After Vonnegut’s death, his widow and his oldest son pulled back from full participation in the preparation of this life. I think that was not a good decision, myownself, because a more appreciative and less tendentious biography I have yet to read. I think the author’s intent was to write a real life of the man, not to grind an axe to a sharp edge in order to slice and dice the reputation of anyone. That’s rare. And it’s a delight to see it done so well.

I don’t know about you, but this Boomer cut his literary teeth on Vonnegut. No one can claim full citizenship in the USA without reading Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s in the Constitution, it just has to be. The experience of the firebombing of Dresden, firsthand, from an emotional standpoint and by a man who lived through it, is something that all of us in this self-satisfied, we’re always right, country need to experience. It’s not an anti-war novel. It’s not a screaming polemic. It’s a man’s attempt to put his life into perspective, and that life includes one experience…the firebombing…that renders perspective forever out of reach. And Vonnegut was always looking for perspective in his work. The author of this life seeks out the actors in his life, and then more or less gets out of the way while they fill him in on what it was like to know Kurt Vonnegut.

In a strange way, I think this book would have appealed to the negative, curmudgeonly, perpetual victim that was Vonnegut, because he would have at last seen his own life in perspective.

Perfect he was not. He stank as a father. He wasn’t a good husband to his first wife, insulting her, cheating on her, demanding she be his servant girl (though it’s never put this way in the book, it was really really clear to me that this was so); he was a crap friend to some very deserving people, eg Knox Burger, whose editorial support Vonnegut repaid by pusillanimously giving then withdrawing his very significant business dealings from Burger, who had founded a literary agency on the strength of Vonnegut’s being his client. But his talent was in storytelling, in distilling the life he wasn’t good at living into thought-provoking and very trenchant morality tales.

Even if you haven’t read Vonnegut before now (!), read this life. It is a great roadmap to the 20th century’s preoccupations. And, I will just bet, it will make the previously unexposed curious enough about this mordant, tendentious, ironical storyteller to pick up one of his books.

New Review Posted 3 May 2013


$17.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Seven years in the making, Sacred Games is an epic of exceptional richness and power. Vikram Chandra's novel draws the reader deep into the life of Inspector Sartaj Singh--and into the criminal underworld of Ganesh Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India.

Sartaj, one of the very few Sikhs on the Mumbai police force, is used to being identified by his turban, beard and the sharp cut of his trousers. But "the silky Sikh" is now past forty, his marriage is over and his career prospects are on the slide. When Sartaj gets an anonymous tip-off as to the secret hide-out of the legendary boss of G-Company, he's determined that he'll be the one to collect the prize.

Vikram Chandra's keenly anticipated new novel is a magnificent story of friendship and betrayal, of terrible violence, of an astonishing modern city and its dark side. Drawing inspiration from the classics of nineteenth-century fiction, mystery novels, Bollywood movies and Chandra's own life and research on the streets of Mumbai, Sacred Games evokes with devastating realism the way we live now but resonates with the intelligence and emotional depth of the best of literature.

My Review: WOW. What a book! It's over 900pp long! It's as overwhelming and complex and befuddling as Bharat itself is, for an uninitiated Murrikin tourist.

It's also fabuolously, gorgeously wrought, and very much worthy of being a bestseller. It never will be, for several reasons.

First: It has, and needs, a glossary. Second, it needs but has not an organized-by-relationship Cast of Characters. Third, it's a blinkin' wrist-sprainer of a hardcover and would be fatter than the Bible if it was turned into a mass-market paperback. Fourth, it's just as challengingly fragmented as Ulysses, only more fun to read.

Okay, first comes the glossary. Honestly, I don't know what to tell you about this. I think, based on personal experience, that it's best simply to immerse yourself in the sea of the book, experiencing it the way you would Mumbai if you went there without a tour guide. Just wander along behind Vikram, looking over his shoulder and listening to the people he's talking to; he's the author, after all, and we should trust him to lead us not into the temptation to give up, but deliver us to a satisfying conclusion to the stories he's telling us. He won't disappoint. But if you constantly flip back and forth, back and forth, to the glossary, it'll get wearing and make that giving-up option well-nigh irresistable. Just let the language happen, let yourself see the words without having an instant picture of the concrete reality but rather absorbing the ideas behind them. "Chodo" doesn't need to mean something explicit to you for you to realize that it's being used to describe physical intimacy. You'll get that point PDQ. Let it happen naturally! Try to move past your ingrained logic-and-analysis patterns to experience something afresh.

Second, there are a LOT of people in this tale, and a more complete league table of them would have been helpful where a glossary was not especially so. I think it's useful, in books of more than 20 characters, for publishers to offer us the chance to refresh our memories about who's who and what role and relationship they have in the book. I'd make the publisher do this retroactively but that's not practical...Harper Collins isn't taking orders from me, for some strange reason.

Third, the immensity of the tome! Gadzooks and Godzilla! Had this book sold in the millions, Canada would be devoid of tree-cover. 928pp!! Now, having read the book twice, I can honestly and objectively say that at least 150pp could have come out and left the beauties of the book intact. I think it's a common problem among publishers, though, this inability, or unwillingness, or inexpertise at the art of good editing. I know it's hard. I know because I've done it, and done it very well. But I also know that the end product of a good, collaborative edit is a fabulously improved book.

Fourth, Vikram Chandra's fractured PoV for storytelling. This is the reason an organized Cast of Characters is needed...who's who is provided on p. xi-xii, but it's not complete, and it's not broken into groups by relationship. But the voices are, for third person-limited narrative, beautifully differentiated. The "Inset:" tags are clues to the changes of viewpoint, but we never leave the third person-limited narrative voice; it's challenging to make that not seem flat, like the PoV character suddenly knows things he can't possibly have access to; and for the most part, Vikram Chandra does it well. The last "Inset: Two Deaths, in Cities Far From Home" isn't quite as smooth as others, and in my never-very-humble opinion could be dispensed with whole and entire without damage to the rest of the story.

So why am I so mingy in giving this book a mere 3.5 stars? Because it's too big a commitment to ask a reader to make when it could have been shorter and better told. But folks, India is a huge, huge, huge place that has a lot of English speakers in it. They're going to be producing more and more books in English. I really, strongly advise you to start acclimatizing yourselves to this new reality by picking up works by talented storytellers like Vikram Chandra. Start here, start learning to let Hindi words reveal themselves to you, sink back into the immense, soft seas of India's talented storytellers...unless you want to learn Mandarin, that is.

In 2020, the latest news is that two seasons of Netflix India (distributed internationally) are made; there might not be a third, at least partially because of the COVID-19 plague. I have watched all sixteen episodes, and I will be disappointed if they don't make a third season. I will say this: The dialogue doesn't quite live up to the novel's, being more film-noir cliché witty instead of wearily authentically tired-cop and sleep-deprived criminal. But damn is this not Bollywood! No one's shiny clean, the colors are muddied and flash by fast, the people are just...people.

It is a lovely job of bringing the series to the screen so I urge you to watch it.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


New review posted on Shelf Inflicted!

I loved WHO FEARS DEATH by Nnedi Okorafor in spite of myself. She's a sorceress! I swear I will step on her foot if we ever meet. Post-apocalyptic Africa plus gorgeous sentence-crafting equals excellent reading. Don't miss out.

Read it here: Shelf Inflicted

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reviewing Reflections 1 May 2013

Reviewing a book is a weird thing to do, when you think about it. Who cares what I, or anyone else, thinks about a writer's blood, sweat, and tears, her/is endless hours of toil and enormous investment of emotional energy? Shouldn't it speak for itself?

Yes. It should, and it does. Reviewing a book isn't, or shouldn't need to be, interpreting the author's work, it's appreciating the author's entire process of creation. And by appreciate, I mean "recognize the full worth of" not necessarily "be grateful for."

I recognize the full worth of books that I don't like by writing reviews of them. Even a scathing, nasty personal attack is an appreciation of the full worth of a book. All the time, all the effort that Author poured into the book has elicited from me a response that was strong enough to impel me to write it down and tell people about it. That is a giant achievement.

I read a lot. I don't review the huge majority of what I read. Some of the books are abandoned before the Pearl Rule point (Nancy Pearl's statement of the rule of 50: Before you're 50 years old, read 50 pages of a book to make a fair judgment; after age 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages to be fair to the book). It seems unnecessary and unhelpful for me to review those. Most often I abandon books because they're ~meh~.

And that is a horrible thing to say about anyone's blood, sweat, and tears. Far, far better to hate something than to uncare about it, after all that work.

But back to my main idea: Why should you care what I think about a book? Well, maybe we're friends, and you know enough about me to think I might know a little about this reading fad. Maybe you're looking to pick holes in my ideas about a pet book of yours that we disagree about. Maybe you're not too sure what a particular book will offer you is worth the investment of your eyeblinks, and seek a range of opinions about it.

But more often than not, people read reviews because reading, that most solitary of pursuits, is actually very social. You're reading a book that puts you in a one-on-one contact, and a very intimate one, with an author. You're more aware of that author's thoughts about the story than you are about your mate/marital partner/child/parent's ideas about anything at all. A book is a deep, prolonged conversation between yourself and a stranger. It's legitimized cheating for those in relationships.

And then there's the wider community of readers. Other people (ideally a lot of them) are reading this book too! They're having their own illicit trysts with the author's brain! Isn't it at least a little bit intriguing to wonder what it is that they're getting from this sharing? If you're hating the experience of reading a book, and everyone else adores it, don't you at least wonder if there's another kindred soul out there feeling no love for the beloved?

And that's where reviews and reviewers come in. A lot of people don't like reviews that tell them the story of the book, some for fear of spoilers and some for sheer irritation at having to read inept synopses. (I'm the latter...spoilers make me no nevermind.) Some people want the story told them so they have a context for the response that is a review. It's that response, the personal reaction of a specific reader, that is so interesting to me, and to many who read reviews.

I write the sort of reviews I like to read: Tell me *why* you personally responded to this book, what it called up for you, what missing pieces it gave you in the puzzle of life; or tell me why it failed you, what the author set you up to expect and didn't give you.

Even when, as is so often the case, I disagree with a person's take on a book, it's very interesting to me to know what it is. I get value from hearing opinions I don't share. I've re-evaluated books I thought I didn't like because I've read ideas about them that made me question my response. I've changed my mind about a fair few, too.

That's why I care about book reviews. I can't possibly read everything I already own before I die. With the time I have, I want to be part of a community conversation about the books of our lives, listening to the responses and reactions to these uniquely intimate experiences that define reading.

That's what I hope you're getting out of reading book reviews, too. A perspective not your own on an experience uniquely your own. How cool is that, to have available to you at any time and from any imaginable point of view?