Monday, September 22, 2014

THE BLASPHEMER, WWI meets plane crash meets philosophical atheism...only fun!


Random House
$6.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: On its way to the Galapagos Islands, a light aircraft ditches into the sea. As the water floods through the cabin, zoologist Daniel Kennedy faces an impossible choice - should he save himself, or Nancy, the woman he loves?

In a parallel narrative, it is 1917 and Daniel's great grandfather Andrew is preparing to go over the top at Passchendaele. He, too, will have his courage tested, and must live with the moral consequences of his actions.

Back in London, the atheistic Daniel is wrestling with something his 'cold philosophy' cannot explain - something unearthly he thought he saw while swimming for help in the Pacific. But before he can make sense of it, the past must collapse into the present, and both he and Andrew must prove themselves capable of altruism, and deserving of forgiveness.

The Blasphemer is a story about conditional love, cowardice and the possibility of redemption - and what happens to a man of science when forced to question his certainties. It is a novel of rare depth, empathy and ambition that sweeps from the trenches of the First World War to the terrorist-besieged streets of London today: a novel that will speak to the head as well as the heart of any reader.

My Review: Of the three books in here, I like the First World War narrative the best, followed by the London story of academic backbiting and relationship angst, and least of the three the underdeveloped metaphysical events connecting those two. One character says in the course of stitching the stories together that Darwin described angels as creations of Man, which "...have been described as the most beautiful conceit in mortal wit, and I would go along with that."

And that, me hearties, is that.

Daniel, our modern main character, sees his great-grandfather Andrew as he swims to safety. The World War One soldier was a deserter, which is a deeply shocking and shaming thing in the context of the day. Daniel's decision to save himself and not his pill of a baby-mama struck me as most tolerant of him, since I'd've taken the chance to shove her deep into the wreckage so as to be shut of the nightmare carping whinging misery-guts once and for all.

What unites these men across the generations is their cowardly self-preservation, a trait that ultimately lets each create a future for himself and for unknown descendants. It's hard to fault the men. It's hard for them to forgive themselves. It's an interesting counterpoint that Farnsdale sets up: Andrew saves himself from mass insanity and all-but-inevitable senseless death, and Daniel saves his own hide from an accident that will imperil few. Are either of the men "correct" or "justified" in their actions/inactions?

I'm still thinking about them a year after reading the book for the second time. That's a damn good sign.

But I can't go over 3.5 stars of five. The messiness of the story lines is just too egregious for me to go up, and the inventiveness and intriguing premise are too involving for me to go down. It felt to me like the subplot of Daniel's dying father needed to be pruned out, and the characters of Hamsi the teacher and the twirling-mustachioed villain Wetherby were so broadly drawn as to be uninteresting. So while not unflawed, the book was a good, solid read with interesting philosophical points jabbing the soft, lazy parts of one's novel-reading brain.

THE GOLDEN MEAN, historical fiction with balls, and wombs. Literally.


Alfred A. Knopf
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: On the orders of his boyhood friend, now King Philip of Macedon, Aristotle postpones his dreams of succeeding Plato as leader of the Academy in Athens and reluctantly arrives in the Macedonian capital of Pella to tutor the king’s adolescent sons. An early illness has left one son with the intellect of a child; the other is destined for greatness but struggles between a keen mind that craves instruction and the pressures of a society that demands his prowess as a soldier.

Initially Aristotle hopes for a short stay in what he considers the brutal backwater of his childhood. But, as a man of relentless curiosity and reason, Aristotle warms to the challenge of instructing his young charges, particularly Alexander, in whom he recognizes a kindred spirit, an engaged, questioning mind coupled with a unique sense of position and destiny.

Aristotle struggles to match his ideas against the warrior culture that is Alexander’s birthright. He feels that teaching this startling, charming, sometimes horrifying boy is a desperate necessity. And that what the boy – thrown before his time onto his father’s battlefields – needs most is to learn the golden mean, that elusive balance between extremes that Aristotle hopes will mitigate the boy’s will to conquer.

Aristotle struggles to inspire balance in Alexander, and he finds he must also play a cat-and-mouse game of power and influence with Philip in order to manage his own ambitions.

As Alexander’s position as Philip’s heir strengthens and his victories on the battlefield mount, Aristotle’s attempts to instruct him are honored, but increasingly unheeded. And despite several troubling incidents on the field of battle, Alexander remains steadfast in his desire to further the reach of his empire to all known and unknown corners of the world, rendering the intellectual pursuits Aristotle offers increasingly irrelevant.

Exploring this fabled time and place, Annabel Lyon tells her story in the earthy, frank, and perceptive voice of Aristotle himself. With sensual and muscular prose, she explores how Aristotle’s genius touched the boy who would conquer the known world. And she reveals how we still live with the ghosts of both men.

My Review: I think this is up there in ambition of storytelling with The Song of Achilles, the five-star imaginative tour de force by Madeline Miller. Aristotle as narrator of his time spent in Pella? A good idea! Tutoring Alexander means getting to the heart of the legend that surrounds Alexander and vivifying him, dusting off the fustian and falderol accreted to his tale.

Here's Alexander speaking to Aristotle:
You who understand what a human mind can be, how can you bear it? I don't have the hundredth part of your mind and there are days when I think I'll go mad. I can feel it. Or hear it. It's more like hearing something creeping along the walls, just behind my head, getting closer and closer. A big insect, maybe a scorpion. A dry skittering, that's what madness sounds like to me.

Nice. Not a teenaged person speaking, and no I'm not retroactively applying 21st-century standards to Alexander, I'm fully aware that he was a powerful king's heir and a man before he was 17. But that's not my inner ear's problem with the passage.

It sounds like speechifying. It's not faux archaic, it's not arch or overwrought. It's just...speechy. Like a modern presidential speech to the jus' folks at a Town Hall. Aristotle, a man of immense intellect and unbounded curiosity, attempts to instill those qualities in Alexander's still-forming mind:
You must look for the mean between extremes, the point of balance. The point will differ from man to man. There is not a universal standard of virtue to cover all situations at all times. Context must be taken into account, specificity, what is best at a particular place and time.

Aristotle uses some pretty vulgar (in all senses of the word) subjects to pique the youth's questing intelligence's appetite for information. (If Alexander was alive now, he'd be a Google employee assigned to counter-hacking.)
My father explained to me once that human male sperm was a potent distillation of all the fluids in the body, and that when those fluids became warm and agitated they produced foam, just as in cooking or sea water. The fluid or foam passes from the brain into the spine, and from there through the veins along the kidneys, then via the testicles into the penis. In the womb, the secretion of the man and the secretion of the woman are mixed together, though the man experiences the pleasure in the process and the woman does not. Even so, it is healthy for a woman to have regular intercourse, to keep the womb moist, and to warm the blood.

In the end, the historical Alexander and the historical Aristotle are brighter figures for Lyon's spit-polish of their statues. It's a good book, and I won't read it again. I feel it's delivered its payload of meaning and philosophical pondering to me. Alexander sums up the experience of The Golden Mean quite well:
You and I can appreciate the glory of things. We walk to the very edge of things as everyone else knows and understands and experiences them, and then we walk the next step. We go places no one has ever been. That's who we are. That's who you've taught me to be.

I can't begin to tell you how tough it was for me to finish this five-star idea and rate it under four stars. I can't honestly push it higher, for the reasons I've given. It might seem to others a perfect five, which rating I can't give but can see how a reader with a more accepting nature would.

Watch this writer. This is a debut novel, following a story collection and a novella collection as well as some YA work. There is nothing in this book, either structural or aesthetic, that suggests to me a career of mediocre ~meh~ness. Fine, imaginitive writing will come forth from her pen. I haven't read the follow-on to this book, The Sweet Girl, about Aristotle's daughter. Happen that I will, with a deal of hope for excellence.

Monday, September 15, 2014

SEPTEMBER AT WALL AND BROAD, time travel government shenanigans


$2.99 Kindle single, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: September 1920, New York City: Phillipa D’Arco makes a living investigating the past for the United States Government. Bloodless, they call her, making her one of the best operatives. So, when Phillipa fails to return back to 2057 to report her findings, Assistant Attorney General Preston Lane needs to make a decision: send in yet another investigator or lose a valuable asset.

Whatever Lane decides, he knows he’ll face consequences. But the truth behind Phillipa’s disappearance will cause ripples in time Lane can’t begin to imagine.

This story is available free at Kristine Rusch's website until 21 September 2014.

My Review: A time-travel short story that gave me enough to get a taste for more. I like the Federal Department of Time, our gummint's controlling agency for criminal activity in the time line; and I was very interested in the competing parties' identities. Being a short story, there was not a lot of room to make fully realized characters. I was left wanting more of Philippa's take on her In Time (analogous to In Country) job's realities, the stinks and the sexism and the like, because what I did get made me think she's a pistol. Turning someone high-powered loose on the past makes for some fun moments.

And there's a clever little trap door set into the piece that allows for, demand being there, more stories with Philippa in them. I'm casting my vote "yes" because there is a sense, after reading this short work, that there's a lot going on in this storyverse and inside the head and heart of a "bloodless" woman.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

THE DAY OF THE LOCUST, 3 stars and a bumfuzzled headscratch


New Directions (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: The Day of the Locust is a novel about Hollywood and its corrupting touch, about the American dream turned into a sun-drenched California nightmare. Nathaniel West's Hollywood is not the glamorous "home of the stars" but a seedy world of little people, some hopeful, some desparing, all twisted by their by their own desires—from the ironically romantic artist narrator to a macho movie cowboy, a middle-aged innocent from America's heartland, and the hard-as-nails call girl would-be-star whom they all lust after. An unforgettable portrayal of a world that mocks the real and rewards the sham, turns its back on love to plunge into empty sex, and breeds a savage violence that is its own undoing, this novel stands as a classic indictment of all that is most extravagant and uncontrolled in American life.

My Review: First, read this:
It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.

Sad. Yes, that's it, I feel sad. This is a classic of Hollywood literature, I can even sort of see that, but it's as bleak as they come and it's all told, very little shown, at very crucial points. If this is a novel, I'm at a loss to see how; it's some biting character studies glued together by accidents of geography. To me it reads more like a treatment that had to be abandoned, was too dear to West's heart-shaped ice cube, and instead got its B12 shots, 50,000 volts, and liiiiiived.

So Tod (Death in German, get it?) HACKett (movie hanger-on, usu. a writer, get it?) falls for the vapidity that is bleached-blonde Faye Greener, as does poor rube-a-licious Homer Simpson (!!), as does no-bit extra Earle Shoop...I suspect, from some of Faye's father's mannerisms, that he and Faye got up to the badger game a time or two. What in the name of common sense is the appeal?! She's hard as nails, not terribly bright, and unbelievably self-centered. I couldn't abide her from the moment West put this in her mouth:
“I'm going to be a star some day," she announced as though daring him to contradict her.

"I'm sure you..."

"It's my life. It's the only thing in the whole world that I want."

"It's good to know what you want. I used to be a bookkeeper in a hotel,

"If I'm not, I'll commit suicide.”
That wasn't fresh and new in 1939, either. I agree that this person exists in her legions at every doorway to stardom, but Faye doesn't rise above that generic feel at any turn. After each encounter with Faye, particularly the après-cockfight cocktail party and its aftermath, I want to ask West, "...AND?! What is it, why are these men so hot-to-trot for this trollop?" He's dead these eighty-plus years, so he won't answer even if I shout, so I'm left bewildered.

Homer Simpson, apparently the lovable loser who gave cartoonist Matt Groening the name for his well-over-a-quarter-century old cartoon oaf, is the most realistic and fully drawn character in the piece. In creating Homer, West has fully focused our attention on him and relegated narrator Tod to the Nick Carraway position as he focuses on Homer and his back-story, his sad and empty existence (the part about the deck chair and the view is one of the best an most telling character tics West ladles on to Homer), and his doom (in the original Celtic meaning of Bha so an dàn duit, this was destined for thee). Homer tries and misses, tries and misses again, tries.... He's never, ever the fun guy or the sweet guy, he's the useful but horrendously annoying guy with the car and the cards.
Only those who still have hope can benefit from tears. When they finish, they feel better. But to those without hope, whose anguish is basic and permanent, no good comes from crying. Nothing changes for them. They usually know this, but still can’t help crying.
His passion for the cipher Faye comes to its absolutely clearly telegraphed and inevitable conclusion, Tod twitters and flails ineffectually to interfere with it, and in the end it drives both Tod and Homer into the climactic ending of the book:
Their boredom becomes more and more terrible. They realize that they’ve been tricked and burn with resentment. Every day of their lives they read the newspapers and went to the movies. Both fed them on lynchings, murder, sex crimes, explosions, wrecks, love nests, fires, miracles, revolutions, war. This daily diet made sophisticates of them. The sun is a joke. Oranges can’t titillate their jaded palates. Nothing can ever be violent enough to make taut their slack minds and bodies. They have been cheated and betrayed. They have slaved and saved for nothing.
And this at last wove the book together for me, made the preceding ~200pp make some sense to me. This is West's cri de coueur and shout to the gods that Prometheus is back to make trouble again.

A year later he was dead. Hm.

There is no smallest question that West can craft some lovely sentences and some incisive character sketches. He can hang all them on a plot of sorts and make your readerly curiousity bump itch so bad you have to scratch it with his tyrannosaurus-armed stories, even at the risk of running afoul of the brute's severing teeth. But here, in this book, the alchemy that elevates Miss Lonelyhearts to the cold and glittering glory of Everest's heights settles instead into the weirder, less pristine shape of Kilimanjaro: Feet in the humid heat, midsection arid and weirdly populated with things not seen elsewhere, and then the transcendent snowy glory of the ending.

Some years back, my real-life book circle read What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg. Sammy Glick, he of the title, is a character I can't forget and find myself thinking about. Sammy's is a story of hustle and flow, make and do and create...Tod never does one damned thing in this book except chase Faye and wander around. Yet which of these two books has been made into a movie? Not the solid, excellent What Makes Sammy Run?, no sirree, but this collection of grotesques gets made. In a weird sort of way, The Day of the Locust feels to me like a precursor to the viciously cuttingly unfunny humor of A Confederacy of Dunces. Both are utterly of a place, can't be told against the backdrop of any other place, and are pitilessly clear of vision. Both are the best-remembered works by their early-dead authors. And each is, taken on its own merits, marvelous parts in search of a gestalt to animate into more than some wonderful, memorable set-pieces embedded in perfunctory plotlike matrices.

LONELYHEARTS, a dual bio of a Depression-era golden couple

LONELYHEARTS: The Screwball World of Nathanael West and Eileen McKenney

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
$22.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: Reviewing this book, I am more grateful than ever to the innovator who thought up the decimal-star system. No way could I rate this four stars, and three-and-a-half is a little mingy, so I really give it 3.8 stars.

The Publisher Says: NATHANAEL WEST—novelist, screenwriter, playwright, devoted outdoorsman—was one of the most gifted and original writers of his generation, a comic artist whose insight into the brutalities of modern life proved prophetic. He is famous for two masterpieces, Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939). Seventy years later, The Day of the Locust remains the most penetrating novel ever written about Hollywood.

EILEEN MCKENNEY—accidental muse, literary heroine—was the inspiration for her sister Ruth’s humorous stories, My Sister Eileen, which led to stage, film, and television adaptations, including Leonard Bernstein’s 1953 musical Wonderful Town. She grew up in Cleveland and moved to Manhattan at 21 in search of romance and adventure. She and her sister lived in a basement apartment in the Village with a street-level window into which men frequently peered.

Husband and wife were intimate with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Katharine White, S.J. Perelman, Bennett Cerf, and many of the literary, theatrical, and movie notables of their era. With Lonelyhearts, biographer Marion Meade, whose Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin earned accolades from the Washington Post Book World ("Wonderful") to the San Francisco Chronicle ("Like looking at a photo album while listening to a witty insider reminisce about the images"), restores West and McKenney to their rightful places in the rich cultural tapestry of interwar America.

My Review: It's a good young honey who's famous for being famous marries screwed-up weirdo writer of unsalable novels, they end up dead. Kinda like the Joe Orton story, only no one here's a real man.

Nathanael West comes out worst in this dual bio. He sounds like a self-loathing closet queer and anti-Semitic Jew, with a talent for cruelty and impeccable, phony manners. (Sure could write, though.) Eileen McKenney sounds like someone we all know today, the fifteen-minutes' wonder...Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin...who would've spent the rest of her life trying to cash in on her fleeting moment of celebrity.

Dreadful people, actually, ones I'd pay not to know, and I am double glad that I didn't buy this book. Meade does a solid job reporting the facts, and even goes so far as to avoid calling West a closet case...but really, ma'am, you reported that the trog had gonorrhea of the ANUS, now does that not suggest something to you? Google the phrase "lucky Pierre" and stand back.

One of the bitterest ironies of the whole book is that Eileen's sister Ruth, the author of My Sister Eileen, became a very wealthy woman starting four days after Eileen's death...the Broadway show "My Sister Eileen" was a huge, huge hit, and spawned numerous revivals and reworkings, supporting its author all the rest of her life. I wonder if she'd've shared the gelt with Eileen. We'll never know, of course, but I suspect not. Ruth is not a likable character at all, per Meade, inclined to manic depressive episodes and a Communist True Believer (how tedious).

So why rate the book so highly? Because...these are REAL people, not airbrushed whitewashed celebrified people. They come across as, well, fascinating in their very, very, very flawed selves. Meade's made some dim corners of American celebrity life quite a lot brighter, and I suspect the likes of Kato Kaelin are busily dusting the corners of their lives.

I don't think I'll recommend this book to anyone not fascinated by Nathanael West. Really, it's just too far to go for someone just browsing around, and probably too tedious for anyone not already familiar with the time-period (1900-1940) in BOTH New York and Hollywood.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN?, a super read and a genuinely good classic Hollywood novel


Random House
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Everyone of us knows someone who runs. He is one of the symptoms of our times—from the little man who shoves you out of the way on the street to the go-getter who shoves you out of a job in the office to the Fuehrer who shoves you out of the world. And all of us have stopped to wonder, at some time or another, what it is that makes these people tick. What makes them run?

This is the question Schulberg has asked himself, and the answer is the first novel written with the indignation that only a young writer with talent and ideals could concentrate into a manuscript. It is the story of Sammy Glick, the man with a positive genius for being a heel, who runs through New York’s East Side, through newspaper ranks and finally through Hollywood, leaving in his wake the wrecked careers of his associates; for this is his tragedy and his chief characteristic—his congenital incapacity for friendship.

An older and more experienced novelist might have tempered his story and, in so doing, destroyed one of its outstanding qualities. Compromise would mar the portrait of Sammy Glick. Schulberg has etched it in pure vitriol, and dissected his victim with a precision that is almost frightening.

When a fragment of this book appeared as a short story in a national magazine, Schulberg was surprised at the number of letters he received from people convinced they knew Sammy Glick’s real name. But speculation as to his real identity would be utterly fruitless, for Sammy is a composite picture of a loud and spectacular minority bitterly resented by the many decent and sincere artists who are trying honestly to realize the measureless potentialities of motion pictures. To this group belongs Schulberg himself, who has not only worked as a screen writer since his graduation from Dartmouth College in 1936, but has spent his life, literally, in the heart of the motion-picture colony. In the course of finding out what makes Sammy run (an operation in which the reader is spared none of the grue-some details) Schulberg has poured out everything he has felt about that place. The result is a book which the publishers not only believe to be the most honest ever written about Hollywood, but a penetrating study of one kind of twentieth-century success that is peculiar to no single race of people or walk of life.

My Review: Budd Schulberg got a lot of grief for writing this "anti-Semitic" shriek of outrage at the backstabbing, grasping, greedy, hollow culture of Hollywood. Well, how else could he tell the story? The moguls of the time were almost all Jewish, and they weren't nice little yeshiva boys but street toughs with chips on their shoulders hell bent for leather to make it to the top.

Today it is a lot less true of Hollywood's power elite. Not the behavior, the Jewishness. The behavior is intact! Of this I assure you from personal experience. And people of both genders and all religious and cultural affiliations enact it there. Awful place. As one would expect from any place where there is that much money floating around. *Breathtaking* amounts of money. The greed of these people is utterly beyond the comprehension of mere mortals. "Enough" is what you say to the chauffeur you're firing who complains it's unjust.

Reading this book was a bitter and painful reliving of my education in how "no good deed goes unpunished" and I will never re-read it for that reason. But dayum! What a glorious excoriation of the moral midgets who make our movies, TV shows, and music! I am in *awe* that Schulberg got away with writing it and stayed in Hollywood! Steven Spielberg, that maker of iconically positive movies, said the book should never be made into a movie because it's too anti-movie-biz.

Guess what: It never has been. Even Ben Stiller, who wanted to star and direct, couldn't get it done when he was at his peak of fame and power.

Shows you just how true it was, is, and will remain. *shudder*

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Friday, September 12, 2014



Simon & Schuster
$1.99 Kindle sale, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Based on an incredible true episode of World War II history, Paul Malmont’s new novel is a rollicking blend of fact and fiction about the men and women who were recruited to defeat the Nazis and ended up creating the future.

In 1943, when the United States learns that Germany is on the verge of a deadly innovation that could tip the balance of the war, the government turns to an unlikely source for help: the nation’s top science fiction writers. Installed at a covert military lab within the Philadelphia Naval Yard are the most brilliant of these young visionaries. The unruly band is led by Robert Heinlein, the dashing and complicated master of the genre. His “Kamikaze Group,” which includes the ambitious genius Isaac Asimov, is tasked with transforming the wonders of science fiction into science fact and unlocking the secrets to invisibility, death rays, force fields, weather control, and other astounding phenomena—and finding it harder than they ever imagined.

When a German spy washes ashore near the abandoned Long Island ruins of a mysterious energy facility, the military begins to fear that the Nazis are a step ahead of Heinlein’s group. Now the oddball team, joined by old friends from the Pulp Era including L. Ron Hubbard (court-martialed for attacking Mexico), must race to catch up. The answers they seek may be locked in the legendary War of Currents, which was fought decades earlier between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison. As the threat of an imminent Nazi invasion of America grows more and more possible, events are set in motion that just may revolutionize the future—or destroy it—while forcing the writers to challenge the limits of talent, imagination, love, destiny, and even reality itself.

Blazing at breathtaking speed from forgotten tunnels deep beneath Manhattan to top-secret battles in the North Pacific, and careening from truth to pulp and back again, The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown is a sweeping, romantic epic—a page-turning rocket ship ride through the history of the future.

My Review: The Philadelphia Experiment, a real project that took place during WWII and produced a long-lived tale of a whole ship that *poof* vanished from Philadelphia Navy Yard, was seen in Norfolk, Virginia, then *poof* reappeared in Philadelphia in far less time than it would take to sail there, is the backdrop of this fantabulous beast of a Franken-novel. Facts are here aplenty, stitched to the imaginitive suppositions of the author, and the tale enacted by the great science fiction writers of the First Golden Age: Robert Heinlein, ex-Navy man and scientist; Isaac Asimov, unfit for combat service but a chemist earning his PhD at Columbia when roped into the Philadelphia Experiment; Lester Dent, Walter Gibson, L. Ron Hubbard (blech)...and their wives, their lesser lights, and a seemingly endless cast of characters famous if you know who they are, like Lyman Binch, the only person to work for both Tesla and Edison.

The author propels his cast from pillar to post and back again. He puts them in incredibly perilous situations, he makes it impossible for them to survive, and then rescues them via last-minute coincidences and harum-scarum action. And in the end, after assembling the dramatis personae via the most unsubtle ruse of them all, he actually solves Tunguska, Wardenclyffe, and the Philadelphia Experiment, with a side order of conspiracy theory, in ~30pp.

I'm exhausted.

Fairly happily so, I admit. The dialogue bears down a little much on the side of "As you know, Bob..." and "the reason I've brought you all here tonight is...", but for most people under 60 that really is the only way he can tell his story and make it even faintly believable.

What's most appealing about the novel is its true-to-the-pulps feel. I like the way it honors the genre of the dear, dead pulp science fiction mags of the 30s through the 60s by using--with a wryly arched eyebrow--their every convention, technique, and trope, then with a short coda, bringing the modern sensibility in harmony with the pulpish piffle that has quite enjoyably rollicked on before.

Mr. Malmont sent me a very nicely inscribed ARC of the novel when I won it in a contest on his website. It struck me that he's a lot like the old pulp writers. He's an advertising copywriter who clearly loves popular fiction in the SF genre, and is at home telling tales to entertain you, his reader, as he entertains himself. He's good at evoking mood and atmosphere. He's happiest when busiest, too.

My god...wouldn't surprise me a bit to find out he was a robot. o.0

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, apocalypse now all over again?


Modern Library
$11.99 Kindle editior, available 22 April 2022

Rating: 4 worried, sky-searching stars of five, with a pair of dark goggles at the ready

Don't forget there is a 3.5* film adaptation as to view here...and cheap at twice the price.

The Publisher Says: In 1951 John Wyndham published his novel The Day of the Triffids to moderate acclaim. Fifty-two years later, this horrifying story is a science fiction classic, touted by The Times (London) as having “all the reality of a vividly realized nightmare.”

Bill Masen, bandages over his wounded eyes, misses the most spectacular meteorite shower England has ever seen. Removing his bandages the next morning, he finds masses of sightless people wandering the city. He soon meets Josella, another lucky person who has retained her sight, and together they leave the city, aware that the safe, familiar world they knew a mere twenty-four hours before is gone forever.

But to survive in this post-apocalyptic world, one must survive the Triffids, strange plants that years before began appearing all over the world. The Triffids can grow to over seven feet tall, pull their roots from the ground to walk, and kill a man with one quick lash of their poisonous stingers. With society in shambles, they are now poised to prey on humankind. Wyndham chillingly anticipates bio-warfare and mass destruction, fifty years before their realization, in this prescient account of Cold War paranoia.

My Review:
It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that "it can't happen here" — that one's own time and place is beyond cataclysm.

In this time of fearful concern over genetically manipulated Frankenfoods, the triffids should give this book a fresh and timely aura, IMHO. For Soviet manipulation of plants, read Monsanto, and, well....

One of the big issues with the book is the Dreaded Infodump, pretty much all of chapter two. I know why folks don't like long expository passages, but there is always a certain amount of world-building to do in any novel, especially so in SF. So, in the end, I come down on the side of the flow NOT being interrupted by the backstory. I think it was well handled, well as well-handled as such a thing can be; Wyndham starts the chapter with "This is a personal record." That's the jumping-off place for the character's memories. That was, for me, an adequate narrative frame for the purpose of keeping the important sense of forward momentum present in the 18pp (in my Modern Library reprint) it takes to put readers in the picture.

I think I was lulled into acquiescence by Wyndham's style, as well: "Such a swerve of interest from swords to plowshares was undoubtedly a social improvement, but, at the same time, it was a mistake for the optimistic to claim it as showing a change in the human spirit." (p21, Mod. Lib. reprint) Understatedly gives the reader a sense of the narrator's already extant character and informs the retentive reader that later dark musings the narrator indulges in are not due to a freshly developed case of the post-apocalyptic blahs.

Then this chilling bit:
But there were a number of not unobvious characteristics which escaped comment for some little time. It was, for instance, quite a while before anyone drew attention to the uncanny accuracy with which {the triffids} aimed their stings, and that they almost invariably struck for the head. Nor did anyone at first take notice of their habit of lurking near their fallen victims. The reason for that became clear only when it was shown that they fed upon flesh as well as insects. The stinging tendril did not have the muscular power to tear firm flesh, but it had strength enough to pull shreds from a decomposing body and lift them to the cup on its stem.
(p31, Mod. Lib. reprint)

But how much more effective and chilling and revolting and scary when delivered in the even, measured voice of a scientist-cum-post-traumatic-stress-survivor instead of screeched at us. The narrator's reliability is well established with the reader at this point, and later horrors are subtly magnified by the unconscious impression of trustworthiness this kind of technique provides.

REAL horror, not gore: that sense of unspeakable and terrifying things happening on a Wednesday afternoon at four pm, not in some horrible abbatoir at midnight where I the reader/moviegoer know for sure and certain there are not enough wild horses to drag me.

Uh oh. I'm hearing crickets chirping. Better clam up. (But not before mentioning the 1962 Howard Keel-starring film...a twelve-years-after more horror-focused adaptation conceived and filmed during the run-up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. It has a charm all its own but it sure ain't up there with the 21st Century's adaptations!)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

VOLT: jolting as the name implies

VOLT: Stories
Alan Heathcock

Graywolf Press
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A blistering collection of stories from an exhilarating new voice

One man kills another after neither will move his pickup truck from the road. A female sheriff in a flooded town attempts to cover up a murder. When a farmer harvesting a field accidentally runs over his son, his grief sets him off walking, mile after mile. A band of teens bent on destruction runs amok in a deserted town at night. As these men and women lash out at the inscrutable churn of the world around them, they find a grim measure of peace in their solitude. 

Throughout Volt, Alan Heathcock’s stark realism is leavened by a lyric energy that matches the brutality of the surface. And as you move through the wind-lashed landscape of these stories, faint signs of hope appear underfoot. In Volt, the work of a writer who’s hell-bent on wrenching out whatever beauty this savage world has to offer, Heathcock’s tales of lives set afire light up the sky like signal flares touched off in a moment of desperation.

My Review: When reviewing collections, it's hard to know what to say about them whole and entire unless they're linked stories. With a group of stories like this book is, it's easiest and, IMO, best to adopt what I've called “The Bryce Method” in honor of an online friend who introduced me to the technique: A summary opinion, plus a short line or a quote from each story, together with a rating for the story. So as my summary opinion, I offer this: Bleak is not always to be avoided. Sometimes art needs shadows to prove there's light. These stories aren't feel-gooders, and shouldn't be attempted by those in need of uplift. There is none here, but not one of these tough, scrappy folks is gonna lie down and die any time soon. They're too scared of the God they're sure they'll meet on the Other Side.

The stories in book order, faithful as always to the Bryce Method:

The Staying Freight gives new and chilling meaning to “Took a walk, Be back soon.” Why? Coming back is going backwards. Winslow Nettles needs, and needs badly, to go forwards. 3.5 stars

Smoke is a horrible moment in a no-better-than-you man's life, one that changes him forever and not for better. How can one human bear a burden of sin alone? Better, when you're afraid of the god that you've invented, to load some onto an innocent other. Horrifying, and just beautiful. 4.5 stars

Peacekeeper brings justice to a world where there isn't any, courtesy of the local grocery-store manager turned Sheriff. Is lying always wrong? After reading this, you won't think so. A beautiful and thought-provoking modern morality tale, complete with purifying flood. 4 stars

Furlough couldn't be more horrible: A man, not a dumb kid, leads a young woman to the kind of rough justice that makes a civilized person's stomach churn. That he hates it, that it is vile and cruel in his eyes, is probably worse than the resulting nightmare. Spare, elegant, and horrifying. 4 stars

Fort Apache sets the purposeless present and the vacant future against the void inside adolescent souls and the results explode into fire, chaos, and that angst of inchoate longing that humans will do anything to escape. 4.5 stars

The Daughter sets a mother lost to random accident, a daughter whose grief severs her ties to reality wile making the whole world painfully abrasive, and a mother-of-all-storms loose in a cornfield maze. Returning to life, such as it is, is always painful, but it takes the pain of a neighbor's child to turn the daughter's rage outward again. 4 stars

Lazarus is the least successful story, to my mind anyway, but it's still head and shoulders above most anything else I've read this century. When a man is wreathed in the smoke of sacrifices to his vicious god, how can he offer moral guidance? By remaining empty. Then what's needed most, right then and there, can fill you up and come out for who needs it. “It's your song, son...It's not for me to name.” 3 stars

Volt sets the Sheriff, sworn officer of the court, against everything her hometown's about, and against her own ideas of justice instead of the law, as she cooperates with the city cops in bringing a convicted felon/Iraq war veteran in for a court date. 5 stars
...”One world was like it was back home, where folks ate cheeseburgers and kids had sleepovers and ball games and people went to work and got angry over stupid shit that didn't matter. Like their TV ain't no good, or they ain't got the right sneakers. Some shit like that.… But then there's another world, where folks ain't got a goddamn thing, and these motherfuckers'll try any damn thing to blow your ass to dust. Sarge says it was up to us to keep them worlds apart, and if we thought that shit that happened over there wouldn't make it back to some little girl's sleepover then we had our heads full-way up our asses. ...Supposed to rally us, I guess. ...But then I had to go back out that next day and the next and all I come to think on was how I ain't never had no sleepovers or ball games or none of that shit, and didn't none of it make a damn lick of sense.”
Well. There it is. The people who fight for the rights of us all don't have the privileges of us few. And we wonder how come there are so many walking wounded out there screaming their pain with their guns and dancing to the tune of radio mullahs whose hate and bile spewing nonsense feels just like their listeners do inside.

These are beautiful and brave and sad and wrenching demands for anyone with fifteen dollars to spend on a frippery like a book, or with enough luck to live where there's a library, to pay attention.

Ours is not the only world. No oceans separate us from the enemies we've made within.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

THE BIBLE BOYS, charming gay coming (!) of age novella


Cerberus Inc.
$2.99 Kindle original, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A Sin. An Abomination. Teenagers Caleb and Matthew had been told by the radical fundamentalist church that dominated their families' lives that a love like theirs—between two boys—was unnatural and forbidden. That it would damn them forever. The religion controlled their families like puppets, watched their every move, made keeping a secret almost impossible. They had only one chance to be together...and it would be a daring one right under the noses of the very people who would condemn them...

My Review: How charming this was! How wonderful the breaking-free fantasy is for all of us who don't have Golden Boy stamped on our lives the instant we're born. (Which is to say "all of us.")

But really. "I wanted to know what it felt like to be joined to you!" Spoken by a 20-year-old in the throes of passionate virginal lovemaking with his 18-year-old lover? Hell, ANYone experiencing passionate lovemaking even NOT for the first time who can be that articulate? Please. If you can focus long enough to emit a sentence like that, someone's doing something wrong.

So there's that. And then there's the religion thing, which anyone who's ever read anything I've ever posted since I got a personal ISP account in 1993 can tell you is right up my alley. Yes, religious people are unkind to those who are different, and young religious people are very unkind to everyone like all other young people. But these pantomime villains! The creepy youth pastor wantin' to nosh on some chicken! Wee bit overstated.

So it sounds like I'm going to make this a bad 3-and-a-half star review. But that's not my purpose. Mr. Skinner sets a beautiful scene with his descriptions of the Clare farm, the over-barn apartment, the flowers and the corn and the stock tank. The horse Perseus. The fireflies and the shooting stars. Just lovely, all of it.

But the stars are all for this, an essential and a true and a beautiful expression of an eternal reality we grope blindly for then so often drop and shatter when we find:
Love does not make cowards. It creates heroes.

DEMON OF THE AIR, Aztec Mexico City had murders too

DEMON OF THE AIR (Aztec Murder Mystery #1)

$7.59 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Mexico-Tenochtitlan, in the year Twelve-House: the vast, teeming city of the Aztecs at the height of its glory. sacrificial victim up the steps of the Great Pyramid to celebrate the Festival of the Raising of Banners. at the ritual slaughter of the so-called Flowery Death. Yaotl's only worry is how to explain it to his master. questions about the sorcerers who have vanished from his impregnable prison, Yaotl realises he needs answers soon. threaten the future of everything he knows.

My Review: I felt transported to pre-Conquest Tenochtitlan. The main character is a very complex and involving man, and it's fun to get to know him. The world he inhabits is deeply interesting and drawn in careful, artlessly presented detail. Levack should give lessons in world-building to most historical novelists, since evreything I learned was tied to character development not to mere didacticism.

The mystery itself was not as wonderful as the storytelling that got us to the end. It's predictable, and I can't say that I as a queer man appreciated the villain's queerness being presented as a source of his villainy. It's accurate to the times and the culture, of course, and there's nothing that suggests it's gratuitous except that one really didn't need any information about sexual orientation to make the mystery make sense.

A flaw, and a serious one at that. It feels like the author could be venting some personal animus in this characterization, though I have no evidence of this and can't support it with anything aside from my own feelings. An entire star taken off my personal rating. But withal, the author's abilities are such that I have all the books in the series lined up on the night-table ready to be read.

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Monday, September 8, 2014

SOMEBODY TELL AUNT TILLIE WE'RE IN TROUBLE!, hot off the Kindle and ready to make you smile


Hekarose Publishing
$3.99 Kindle original, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Mara’s in hell! Neither one of the guys in her life is talking to her. Paul, her ex-boyfriend, is afraid she’s going to give birth to a baby demon—complete with horns and hooves. He wants proof that he’s actually the father. And her best friend, Gus, is so obsessed with his new boyfriend and his plans for the late, great, Lord Grundleshanks the Poisonous Toad, he has no time for anyone else.

After Gus flips the seasons and manages to bring summer into winter, everything starts going weirdly wrong. Summer refuses to leave. Household electronics start going haywire. When J.J., a local boy, vanishes from Mara's car, Mara begins to suspect he's been turned into a rat. But it’s such a crazy idea, who could she possibly talk to abut it? Then, her dead Aunt Tillie shows up to warn her that Gus is in trouble—big trouble—and it’s up to Mara to save him.

Before Mara can stop him, Gus opens up a portal to Hell and the Devil comes calling. Now, she’s got her hands full, trying to find out what happened to J.J., assure Paul she’s not going to give birth to a mythological creature, and broker a truce between Gus and the Devil before Gus becomes Hell’s newest resident.

My Review: I think there's something magical about these books. I mean that in the literal, not the figurative, sense. I was casting about for a Sunday review to tart up and post on my blog, and a random person "Like"d my review of the first Toad Witch mystery at Goodreads. Why the heck not, it's the weekend, thought I, some supernatural silliness will go down a treat. Part of posting reviews to my blog is finding a link to the publisher's information; that led to Amazon; and there was an enticement to pre-order the next book in the series, which just *happened* to be dropping onto one's Kindle the next day!

*hattip to Miller's efficacious spellmongering*

I've read it now, and found it fun, light, and charming. I enjoyed my time back in Devil's Point, Wisconsin, and was happy that Mara and Gus were sparring and bantering and charging ahead into uncharted waters (in winter, in Wisconsin!), heedless and hedonistic or hangdog and fearful, and not infrequently both by turns.

I've scored it a quarter point lower than the first installment because such annoyances as possessives used for plurals, almost-correct words (instance is used, instant is meant), and variant spellings within a line of each other (the character of Forrest is called Forest several times) should, by this second book, be ironed out by a better-paid proofreader and separate better-paid copyeditor.

Irascible and brimful of zest for living, Aunt Tillie the shade reminds me of a passed-away Ruth Zardo from Louise Penny's Three Pines. Gus and Mara are a lot like Olivier and Gabri from that series, snappish and loving by turns. These are compliments, as I'm sure most reading this would know; I'm invested in the characters. I like the ongoing problems Mara has, as a mom-to-be, with her baby-daddy, because the set-up for her pregnancy is...unusual...and caused baby-daddy "Post-Possession Stress Disorder." I like the way Miller is layering in future plots based on the Hellmouth's location under Mara's cottage and the struggle against De Debbil Hisse'f it provides.

It's kind of the anti-Garden Spells, in a way; all the sweetness ripped from the bones of the story, but left behind is the generational sisterhood of magical protectresses. If that's a trope that appeals to you, the reasonable cost of these paranormal suspense novels should make them a no-brainer one-click purchase.

It worked on me, after all.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

BURIAL TO FOLLOW, supernatural novella


Haunted Computer Books
$2.99 Kindle original, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Jacob Ridgehorn dies, it's up to Roby Snow to help his soul move along to its proper reward. Roby can only accomplish this through the means of a very special pie. And Roby must complete his mission, or face down Johnny Divine, with his own soul at stake.

My Review: Roby Snow tends to the grieving families of Barkersville's newly departed. His job, it seems, is to insert himself into the survivors and influence the outcome of their grieving process to match what the departed loved, or not so loved, one needs to get into the afterlife. He's got his hands full with the Ridgehorns, starting with patriarch Jacob, the late Jacob, who wants to be sure his Massey Ferguson tractor doesn't get sold out of the family, that his selfish nasty son and slutty daughter get what's coming to them, and the good girl he loved best is at peace. It falls to Roby, as it has so many times before, to make sure the entire clan eats the funeral pie made by neighborly church-going friend Beverly Parsons. It's mandatory, you see. Not just because it's mannerly to eat the huuuge amount of food that friends and neighbors heap on the grieving family in the South, but because...well, because, and best not to monkey with some traditions or look too closely into them.

Roby, Beverly, town undertaker Clawson, and a mysterious old blind garage owner called Jimmy Divine all have roles to play in this spooky carnival of sin, retribution, and score-settling that is the front porch to an afterlife that doesn't seem to look much like the one described in the Barkersville Baptist Church. Roby, at the end of the day, will explain why it's all unfolding the way it should, though:
Roby had no relatives to eat his pie. Nobody could help him pass over, nobody could send him down the road to Judgment. Nobody had ever loved him. And he’d never loved anyone else.
The author is, or was at the time this novella was written, a journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountain area. No further explanation needed, then, for how he got so deep into the psyche of Southern family dynamics surrounding death, and the regional death customs that are so deftly and quickly delivered to the reader. It's a spooky and atmospheric novella, one that's just exactly the right length to tell you its story and not have either empty spots or padded places. You know enough by the end of the tale to know why it's happening this way, and how it's going to play out from here on in.

Special mention for naming the town “Barkersville,” which took me a full minute to get...he doesn't call the main road “Clive Street,” but that's about the extent of his restraint!

One thing I promise you: Funeral pie will never look quite the same to you again.

SOMEBODY TELL AUNT TILLIE SHE'S DEAD, fun paranormal romp & first in series


HekaRose Publishing
$3.99 Kindle original, available now

The SECOND Toad Witch romp is arriving today, 7 September 2014!

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A little magic can go a long way - to really screwing up a girl's life!

Mara is having the worst month of her life. At least, that's what her cards tell her and they've never been wrong. She's evicted from her apartment, loses her job, and is banned from Beverly Hills. So when the tarot cards predict her imminent demise, she uses a little magic to make her world right.

Suddenly, an aunt she's never met dies, leaving Mara as her sole heir. But when Mara moves into her inherited home, she discovers Aunt Tillie never moved out. She's still one pissed-off old lady, even postmortem, and she blames Mara's magical meddling for her death.

When Mara accidentally releases a demon and awakens the spirit of the most powerful witch in history, Tillie's ready to kill her - literally. It's the only way she can think of to save the girl from herself. The witch and the demon, however, have other plans for Mara's body!

My Review: Mara's a thirtysomething Angeleno girl with the best kind of life a slightly portly, extremely witchy fag hag can have: Her GBFF Gus keeps her in snack food and gossip, her gay uncle/landlord keeps her in a super-cool apartment for less than market rent, and her spirit guides keep her in grocery money by enabling her to read Tarot with such accuracy she's scary. All in all, an enviably calm existence.

Until it isn't anymore. Gay uncle's new inamorato has a mama who needs a job, so he installs her as manageress of the apartment complex where Mara lives. Trouble is, the lady's a wacko fundamentalist with a major hate on for witches like Mara. Since what makes Mama unhappy keeps Uncle from gettin' laid, Mara has a month to vacate.

*Just* in the nick of time, and thanks to an ill-advised piece of spellcrafting, Mara's Great Aunt Tillie dies and leaves her a beautiful cottage in Devils Point, Wisconsin, on the shores of Lake Superior. (Side note: One pities the lassie on the first whiteout due to a lake effect blizzard, being from LA and all.) Mara packs up her entire worldly goods and sets out for Wisconsin in Gus's SUV, which she has traded her beloved 1965 Mustang convertible for (stupid woman).

Arriving in her new home-sweet-home brings many unsettling feelings, including being possessed by an ancestress, hit on by a super-centenarian, boinked to exhaustion by a ghost, and chatted up by a poison toad. It also brings a sense of complete and utter satisfaction, because after a lifetime of rootlessness, Mara is Home.

In the end, what Mara has to do to defend her home is heroically demanding of her witchly talents and worldly energies. Her life, however, is at stake, and her world finally has contours that please and delight her, so Mara sets about making what's hers safe and welcoming for her chosen family, no matter the cost to herself.

I think most of us desire a trip down the river of another's life as an escape, and so we read fiction or gossip magazines (minimal difference there), or watch "reality" TV, or listen to Faux News and pretend it's truthsome and logical.

When that mood hits, there needs to be something at hand that will scratch the itch as well as offer some pleasure in the process. This story did that for me on a few levels. I was quite taken by the characters...I've even been told by some "friends" that the annoying, arrogant, opinionated Gus reminds those perfidious ingrates of me!...and I was quite pleased with the author's plot-crafting.

I wasn't quite so taken with a few details, such as the missed opportunities for world-building and the overdrawn secondary characters that don't get the screen-time (so to speak) that their qualities set readers up to expect. Still, these are quibbles, and readily susceptible to ironing out as the series (Toad Witch, blurgh not the name I'd've chosen) progresses.

This is an investment of $3.99 that pays Kindle owners back with smiles, thrills, and fun in abundance. I say hit the Buy Now button without any hesitation.

You'd think that church of his would teach him tolerance. Whatever happened to love thy neighbor?"

"Did you miss the Crusades? The Inquisition? Since when has any fundamentalist religion taught religious tolerance?"

"You have a point," he snorted.

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Saturday, September 6, 2014

ALL I KNOW ABOUT MANAGEMENT I LEARNED FROM MY DOG, a concise guide to business life


Skyhorse Publishing
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When 91-year-old legendary management guru Martin Levin decided to adopt a dog by the name of Angel, he thought he was in for an interesting experience, yet not a challenging one. It didn’t take long for him to learn that he was wrong. Very wrong. Following one of the guiding mantras of his life to never stop learning, Levin found that each day with his dog brought new insights. Through interacting with Angel, he began to recall some personal adventures that added to this insight. And as it turned out, his journey led him toward realizing the Four Golden Rules of Management:

Rule 1: Trust and Leadership
Rule 2: Communication
Rule 3: Problem Solving and Decision Making
Rule 4: Perseverance

In the end, Levin found that his Four Golden Rules of Management were so simple that even Angel understood them. Thus, if a manager can develop trust, it will lead to corporate excellence, provided he or she is able to communicate effectively, make the right strategic decisions, and, above all, persevere. Levin’s book is one to entertain, inspire, and educate business executives (and dog lovers).


My Review: Martin Levin lost his wife of sixty-eight years, so he went and got a dog. The dog needed to be coaxed into a relationship with him, as she had been abused by a man before coming to a local shelter. Levin's seventy-plus years of business acumen got a sharp workout in the process of leading his dog Angel into her new life as his Service Dog.

Okay, them's the bones. The meat is, do you love dogs, and do you like Levin's personable, guy-in-the-next booth personality? You know the answer to the first one already, but let me tell you about the ninety-something Mr. Levin: If you don't like him, I doubt seriously you have a sense of humor.

Levin takes his cogent and credible four maxims lightly, telling stories on himself and his late-life love Angel the dog that relate to the facets of his principles. These stories are amusing, in that way that the modest and elderly raconteur learns is going to keep his audience attentive. No belly laughs (well, one if you're willing to be a little mean-spirited, involving a wheelchair) but a sense that the man regaling you is entertaining you on more than one level.

I'm compelled by my curmudgeonly perfectionism to complain about the use of the possessive for the plural, the strange comma usage...not in places it would help clarity, used in places not necessary...and other punctuation foibles, and some deeply picky referential infelicities (eg, short story titles are enclosed in quotation marks, not italicized). I noticed them, and even winced a bit, but kept reading.

It's impossible to live a full and rich life for over ninety years and not come away from it with many a story, and luckily Levin has shared a few of his choice ones in a brief, informative, and very useful package. I'd say it's most useful to an entrepreneur with a young business, or a post-entry-level management candidate.

THE TIDE KING, immortality in an herb...take it or not?


Black Lawrence Press
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Stanley Polensky and Calvin Johnson serve in Germany during World War II. Calvin, near death after being shelled, is given a bewitched herb by Stanley but then left for dead. Each soldier returns from the war and years pass. Calvin, discovering that he cannot age and cannot die, searches for Stanley to get answers.

Michalski's The Tide King is the story of burnette saxifrage, an herb rumored in Polish folklore to provide those who eat it with immortality, and its effects on three generations of a Polish family over two continents beginning in 19th-century Poland and ending in 1976 America.

But it is also the story of young men’s sacrifice during great wars, of a young child's experiences during the holocaust and being a war orphan, of the curiosities of the American century, such as 1950s country music and smoke jumpers in the Montana mountains and 1970s New York. Just as Viking king Cnut, who was rumored to be so powerful that he controlled the tides at his feet, discovered “how empty and worthless is the power of kings,” Calvin Johnson and others cursed by the herb find in The Tide King that the power of youth and immortality is an empty gift, for they will continually witness the death of their families, lovers, dreams, and ideals.

My Review: Magic, real magic, carries a price that must be paid, and requires a coldness of spirit that can't be faked. Amateurs cannot fathom the horrors they unleash by assuming that magic fixes things, makes things better, creates rather than destroys.

Jen Michalski knows this. She writes her fable of eternal youth and perpetual healing as the painful, costly thing it is. Michalski offers this modern take on The Picture of Dorian Gray as a parable of kind intentions gone metastatic. Stanley Polensky means well when he curses the dying Calvin Johnson with eternal youth. Calvin Johnson means well when he offers his "gift" to the one woman he's ever loved, as she is old and dying. Heidi Polensky, daughter of a mother who wanted nothing to do with her and a father who didn't sire her, means well when she curses herself with eternal youth to keep her one true love, Calvin, company.

And none of these good intentions have the slightest effect on the painful reality: Control is an illusion, and control of death is fraught with so much unknowable baggage as to be a terrifying power to be devoutly avoided.

Michalski, much published and well versed in the narrative arts, gives us a chilling ride through the blasted emotional landscape of life's losers. Stanley and Heidi are the people one sees walking to the bus stop, hunched and defeated, going...well, I've never known where they're going, can such sad faces actually have jobs, or families, or lives? Surely they're actors, characters...but here they're alive, and yes they're as sad and defeated as their faces. But they're also human beings longing for more, and tragically, they get it.

Like characters from myths, the Polenskys haven't learned what to hope for, wish for, or how to use a gift (sparingly and after much thought!), because no one anywhere ever has believed they could have a gift at all. But Calvin, the recipient twice over of the Polensky's gifts, is possibly more to be pitied than even they are. A golden boy who will eternally be a boy, grows into an angry and desperate man, choosing dangerous and difficult things to do with his unearned life, and "succeeding" at every turn.

But alone. Always, forever, beautiful and accomplished and alone. It is so unspeakably frightening to imagine being beautiful and isolated by a secret no one could possibly dream is true....

Had the novel focused on these three characters, and spent its time exploring their realities, I'd give it my highest recommendation in spite of copyediting problems ("$230 dollars" is one tooth-gritting example). But the introduction of a magical elder, Ela, and her Holocaustic childhood plus the portentous attempt to draw the herbal curse from a misty past, falls very flat for this reader. The ending, a journey undertaken to fix that which the characters' "gifts" have broken, is a hollow clanging hatch being shut on a well of wonderful ideas.

The very real pleasures of Jen Michalski's writing are enough to make the novel well worthy of your book-buying dollars. It makes me feel sad that I can't be passionately warbling paeans of encouragement to you. But I am sure that, if you buy the book, you will spend pleasurable hours savoring its mellow, lovely prose. And that's enough to make it worth you while.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

ROOSEVELT'S BEAST, damn near perfect father-and-son novel


St. Martin's Griffin
$22.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: 1914. Brazil’s Rio da Dúvida, the River of Doubt. Plagued by hunger and suffering the lingering effects of malaria, Theodore Roosevelt, his son Kermit, and the other members of the now-ravaged Roosevelt-Rondon scientific expedition are traveling deeper and deeper into the jungle. When Kermit and Teddy are kidnapped by a never-before-seen Amazonian tribe, the great hunters are asked one thing in exchange for their freedom: find and kill a beast that leaves no tracks and that no member of the tribe has ever seen. But what are the origins of this beast, and how do they escape its brutal wrath?

Roosevelt's Beast is a story of the impossible things that become possible when civilization is miles away, when the mind plays tricks on itself, and when old family secrets refuse to stay buried. With his characteristically rich storytelling and a touch of old-fashioned horror, the bestselling and critically acclaimed Louis Bayard turns the story of the well-known Roosevelt-Rondon expedition on its head and dares to ask: Are the beasts among us more frightening than the beasts within?


My Review: Listen to this:
After all these years, his best friend is malaria.
Even on the brink of an Alaska summer, it comes calling: a bone-deep chill one night, a ministry of sweat the next. Calling him back to old battles.
And we're off, down the River of Doubt with Kermit Roosevelt and his famous father (of whom Kermit's eldest half-sister, Alice, said, "Father wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral") and somebody scientific who, frankly, interested me not at all.

Kermit tells us about this factual trip in moderate detail, enough to make the facts of the journey come across as lived, not reported. That's a frequent issue I have with historical fiction, the author's telling of the tale sounds like a highly embellished report and not a novel. Enough is here to make the atmosphere come humidly to life; not so much as to feel ponderous. Here, like this, listen:
Here was the thing about traveling down an uncharted river: You could only say how long you'd been traveling; you could never say how long it would be.
It's the precise sort of thing I'd expect the clever son of an overwhelmingly larger-than-life father to say, to focus on distances and travels and quotidian concerns because his giant of a father (Roosevelt was maybe 5'8" in body but 12'12" in spirit) has sucked up the glory-hounding until he's simply got nothing else to think about.

And then on an overnight stop, Kermit and TR are kidnapped by a previously uncontacted native group (I do so loathe the locution "undiscovered tribe"—and who, might one inquire, determined that being contacted was being discovered, like their lives before Europeans showed up weren't real?). Their freedom can only be bought by ridding these people of their monster, a killer of Grendel-ish horrific-ness. Two days the men seek and revoltingly find the Beast's results, and only when they are living out a nightmare of misery and a cleansing, purifying agony of memory and rage do they really encounter the Beast...within, as always.

Both are shattered and neither is ever the same after this trip. (Factual again, after the invented Beast interlude.) Kermit succumbs slowly to the depression and addiction that killed his paternal uncle, and TR himself gives up, defeated for the only time in his life...and by himself, as in the end are we all. TR can't face the even the notion that anyone will ever so much as hear a whisper of his ordeal (oh, and Kermit's, but you know whose rep is foremost on TR's mind):
“You are asking us to lie, Colonel?"
"I am asking you to omit. Surely, amidst the...the infinite gradations of human venality, that particular sin ranks low." The old man kneaded the folds of his throat. "What happened out there belongs out there. The jungle has it; let the jungle keep it...”
A novel of fathers and sons, of myths and monsters, and of identity and fate. It's written in Bayard's accustomed voluptuous prose, and it's got the usual peaks and valley in plotting. I myownself wish that the Beast had been nailed down, shown to be either real or a projection of mass psychosis or a deeply experienced malaria dream. Nonetheless, I'm sure many will find this blurring of borders exactly to their taste, and even those among us for whom that's not the draw to the story needn't let it cause us too much pain. Simply decide for yourself what interpretation you want to put on it, and do so. Bayard's story will support it.

And that's about the best compliment I can give a writer, that one there.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

RED SHIFT, unjustly neglected mismarketed and beautiful


HarperCollins Children’s Books
$12.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Collins YA editionA disturbing exploration of the inevitability of life. Under Orion's stars, bluesilver visions torment Tom, Macey and Thomas as they struggle with age-old forces. Distanced from each other in time, and isolated from those they live among, they are yet inextricably bound together by the sacred power of the moon's axe and each seek their own refuge at Mow Cop. Can those they love so intensely keep them clinging to reality? Or is the future evermore destined to reflect the past?

NYRB edition (now O.P.)In second-century Britain, Macey and a gang of fellow deserters from the Roman army hunt and are hunted by deadly local tribes. Fifteen centuries later, during the English Civil War, Thomas Rowley hides from the ruthless troops who have encircled his village. And in contemporary Britain, Tom, a precocious, love-struck, mentally unstable teenager, struggles to cope with the imminent departure for London of his girlfriend, Jan.

Three separate stories, three utterly different lives, distant in time and yet strangely linked to a single place, the mysterious, looming outcrop known as Mow Cop, and a single object, the blunt head of a stone axe: all these come together in Alan Garner’s extraordinary Red Shift, a pyrotechnical and deeply moving elaboration on themes of chance and fate, time and eternity, visionary awakening and destructive madness.

My Review: Why didn't I hear about this back in 1973? I'd've lapped it right up with happy warbles and gruntled slurps. But what completely baffles me is how anyone could read this unpunctuated marvel of modernism and say, "YA shelves, next!" or even more utterly inapt, "Fantasy novel incoming!" WHAT. THE. ACTUAL. FUCK. are these people thinking? Teens might get absorbed in the time-travel element, and some goodly percentage of them will like the Cormac McCarthy-esque attributionless dialogue, but the fantasy reader is going away very sorely disappointed. Yes, there's a goddess, and heaven knows we're up to our hips in angsty teens. BUT THAT'S NOT THE POINT!


Okay, I've been ungently squawked at for spoilery reviews. (Good lord, grow up people! Don't read reviews of books you want to read if you're phobic about it!) There are three stories here. All of them take place in a very very tight geographical locus. They are separated by 1500 years (earliest to middle) and 300 years (middle to modern). The dialogue is all modern English, and still Alan Garner manages to convey a sense of the temporal location of the story...if you're paying attention!

And all the teens are able to experience each other. It's all psychometric in genesis (go look it up if it's new to you), and Garner handles it *beautifully* by not Explaining it, only making sure you know what happens as a result of the time loops.

I'm not sure what else I can say without giving too much of the game away, so let's cut to the chase: I don't like phauntaisee nawvelles and I'm pretty durned hmmmmm about time travel these post-Outlander days. And this novel, this gem of a McCarthy-writes-The Sound and the Fury-with-Virginia-Woolf novel, hooked me, gaffed me through the gills, landed me in the bottom of the boat and (at the very very end) exploded my teensy ickle brain-like thing with wowee.

So why aren't all sorts of people warbling their lungs out about it? Same reason I didn't until today: Never heard of it. I picked it up, idly, unsuspectingly, from a shelf in the house...looked at the "99¢" Day-Glo orange Jamesway sticker on the silver-foil coated jacket, winced, and then

and then

oh some more and then

And now here I am, warbling about a YA time-travel teen-angsty romantic novel. With me on how weird that is? See the thing that doesn't fit the picture, namely me smiling?

Buy. Read. Yes.

ANCILLARY JUSTICE, Hugo, BSFA, Arthur C. Clarke Award's okay

ANCILLARY JUSTICE (Imperial Radch #1)

Orbit Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: On a remote, icy planet, the soldier known as Breq is drawing closer to completing her quest.
Once, she was the Justice of Toren - a colossal starship with an artificial intelligence linking thousands of soldiers in the service of the Radch, the empire that conquered the galaxy.
Now, an act of treachery has ripped it all away, leaving her with one fragile human body, unanswered questions, and a burning desire for vengeance.


My Review: Pleasant enough. I'm not convinced that Leckie has moved the goalposts for female empowerment by preferentially using she in place of he, which so far as I can see is what's new and different about this book.

Congratulations to Ms. Leckie for winning her many awards, and to Orbit for seeing the potential in the book. I have missed everything the awards committees have seen, and am almost certainly the poorer for it. I feel no more Enlightened in my gender-role attitudes than I was before, and am not going to remember this book in about a day. The xenophobic imperialists the Radch were mildly interesting. The pragmatic handling of religion on the Radch's part was refreshing and appealing.

But Hugo Award, BSFA Award, Arthur C. Clarke Award? Really? I'm obviously missing something major. I don't see it.

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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

THE INNOCENT MRS. DUFF, a suspenseful, enjoyable 1940s read


Out of Print
from $4.27 used trade paper (with THE BLANK WALL), available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Jacob Duff has it all: A beautiful and much younger second wife, a young son, a nice suburban house a train ride from the office in New York City and a position in society he was born into that shapes him. Now one year into his second marriage, Jacob questions his decision to wed a woman he feels will never fit into his mold of the proper wife for a man of his social station, but he is cognizant that any decision he makes will face the stern scrutiny of his Aunt Lou, whose wealth Jacob will inherit upon her death. What to do....

My Review: A Canadian Book Warbler made me do it. She warbled so loudly about this book that, well, what's a mere mortal to do except give in, order one, and read the damned thing? And now, like Raymond Chandler before me, I am a fan and have several other Holding novels to read.

Boy do I owe that Canadian big for this. What a fun, exciting, and well-made psychological novel of suspense this is. I was completely riveted. Mr. Jacob Duff is our PoV character, and a more revolting, self-pitying, entitlement-driven piece of work is impossible to imagine. Mrs. Reggie Duff, young and beautiful but of a lower social class than Duff is, has a loving heart, a naive trusting nature, and a poor education. Jay Duff, scion of Duff's late wife and himself, is a typical boisterous boy and loves his stepmama Reggie a lot, while alternating between fear of and indifference to his father.

Not one of these folks will emerge from the novel unscathed. Duff the snob wants to divorce Reggie because she's not well-bred; his eccentric Aunt Lou won't hear of it, reminding Duff that he married Reggie for exactly that quality and now he needs to suck it up and deal. Whiny spoiled Duff begins to scheme, to cast about for ways and means to get his own stupid, selfish way.

In the course of doing exactly the wrong thing, Duff manages to kill, cause the death of, and/or ruin the lives of every single person in his way. He's despicable. And yet Holding writes this story, from his PoV remember!, in such a way that it's really unputdownable. I am delighted that I read this entertaining and suspenseful book.

What I can't figure out for the life of me is why this novel, unlike its edition-twin The Blank Wall, never got adapted to film. Imagine a blond, fortyish actor (maybe Trevor Donovan?) who's got a squeaky-clean image taking on the progressive decline and degeneration of Jacob Duff! It's a crying shame no one's done this story of innocence in the clutches of selfishness, and greed's corrosive temptations, on film.

THE LONG WAY HOME, Louise Penny's tenth Three Pines novel

THE LONG WAY HOME (Chief Inspector Gamache #10)

Minotaur Books
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Happily retired in the village of Three Pines, Armand Gamache, former Chief Inspector of Homicide with the Sûreté du Québec, has found a peace he’d only imagined possible. On warm summer mornings he sits on a bench holding a small book, The Balm in Gilead, in his large hands. "There is a balm in Gilead," his neighbor Clara Morrow reads from the dust jacket, "to make the wounded whole."

While Gamache doesn’t talk about his wounds and his balm, Clara tells him about hers. Peter, her artist husband, has failed to come home. Failed to show up as promised on the first anniversary of their separation. She wants Gamache’s help to find him. Having finally found sanctuary, Gamache feels a near revulsion at the thought of leaving Three Pines. "There’s power enough in Heaven," he finishes the quote as he contemplates the quiet village, "to cure a sin-sick soul." And then he gets up. And joins her.

Together with his former second-in-command, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and Myrna Landers, they journey deeper and deeper into Québec. And deeper and deeper into the soul of Peter Morrow. A man so desperate to recapture his fame as an artist, he would sell that soul. And may have. The journey takes them further and further from Three Pines, to the very mouth of the great St. Lawrence river. To an area so desolate, so damned, the first mariners called it "The land God gave to Cain." And there they discover the terrible damage done by a sin-sick soul.

My Review: So, no spoilers. Let's just say that at least one person of my intimates will end this book smiling from ear to hobbity ear.

Now, the book. I mean, the object that is a book, not the novel inside the book. The dust jacket is printed, quite unusually, on case-spine binding paper. It's got an unusual and strong texture similar to painting canvas, which is appropriate; it makes the jacket image far more like the beautiful painting it is, which is a lovely touch; and they spent the spondulix to spot-varnish the author's name and photo, and the title, in a bid to look luxe. They succeed. The presentation is commensurate with the contents, classy and attractive and off-plumb enough to be irresistible.

The design of the jacket is important. Pay attention to it. Pay attention to the image artist. Pay attention to the image title.

Of the author's style I shall not speak except to say, if you're reading this book ten of the series, don't complain because you *knew* what you were in for before the book arrived. I myownself like it.

I wasn't entirely surprised by the ending, as it was more or less what I'd figured was inevitable. The action in the last three chapters kept me deeply involved. There is an element to the resolution of the story that I found weirdly out of kilter, but in the end found I wasn't willing to get sniffy about.

The book Gamache is reading appears to be, weirdly, a tract or sermon by Puritan Anthony Tuckney. What that might be doing in his hands I have no idea, given that he and his father (one presumes) are Catholic by upbringing...but then again, cosmopolitan and intellectually curious people read widely. The African-American spiritual Balm in Gilead is a lovely song. The book is a very important piece of the book's trajectory.

Errrmmm. Uh, well now. Without spoilering a lotta lotta stuff, the only other thing I can say is how much I appreciate being able to spend time with the Three Pinesians established and transplanted. I also appreciate the, uhhhmmm, recently established familial interconnections and their high-quality handling by Penny. Rang very true to me, both the ease and the unease thereof.

Potential converts: Start at the beginning, Still Life, and persevere. By the end of book 2, Penny is in her stride. Fans: DO NOT SKIP BOOKS 8 or 9! WAAAYYY important stuff happens and you can't just "pick it up" from context without losing some very very important subtext. Remember how Penny loves to layer her stories!

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