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.