Friday, March 28, 2014

JANEY by Richard Matturo on sale now! 4-star review


Livingston Press
$9.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Twelve Labors of Hercules might seem an easier task than warming up to someone as caustic and misanthropic as Janey. If you hate her at the beginning, though, be warned: by the end you may very well fall in love with her.

Richard Matturro (author of four previous novels: Leslie, Luna, Perseus, and Troy) is a native of Rye, New York. He holds a doctorate in English with a specialization in Shakespeare and Greek Mythology. After sixteen years at the Albany Times Union, he now teaches literature in the English Department at the University of Albany, and lives on an old farm in the foothills of the Berkshires.


My Review
: Author Matturro wrote three previous novels that were takes on classical subjects, and now gives us misery-guts Janey Heracles, a sculptress (she'd smack me one for saying that) and a general all-around Pain In The Ass of a woman. For those Louise Penny fans out there, think Louise Penny's deathless old-lady-with-a-tude Ruth Zardo before menopause calmed her caustic wit down.

No, no lie not kidding not exaggerating. Serious.

Janey's Twelve Labors are nothing short of reinventing herself in her late forties. She's got a great gallery show to prepare a piece for, but to navigate her way to that Promised Land, she must unload her literal and metaphorical baggage: Sell the empty hotel her dead parents left to her and her conventional, estrangedish sister Laura; empty the said hotel of its Augean Stables-level hoarded crap; cope with her husband divorcing her; cope with a new man, DJ Bugs Mudge, bringing his gray-ponytail-having gerontological tantric sex and laid-backness into her life; cope with Stanley the Evil Gay Imp in whose adjacent studio to hers he makes paintings of naked boys that bring him, well, something he wants...but not enough to keep him from renaming himself Stanislav. Which Janey, with her usual People Person attitude, ignores and calls him, at every opportunity, Stanley.

I found the author's breaking the book into twelve two-chapter segments named after the Twelve Labors of myth a wee bit forced, but I think for many it might be a useful way of calling attention to the point of the book: Janey is, like her namesake, laboring mightily (if in her case more than a little unwillingly and for no clearly defined purpose) to master and contain her own power, her self-transformation, her life.

In a “review” of Janey's sculpture Pillars, created for her big gallery show, author Matturro sums up Janey's journey, and a fundamental insight into human nature and life results:
The Ionic column is polished smooth and gleaming white. The Doric is discolored, stained, chipped, and pockmarked, the object of a thousand injuries and indignities. Worse, there's a diagonal crack that threatens at any moment to split it in two. ...these are the dual natures we all share after a certain age. That ideal, upright pillar we wish we were, and that damaged, blemished old post that we are. And yet one is as necessary as the other for our “life support.”

...Art indeed may not change anything, and yet on some very basic level, life is insupportable without it.
(p183, softcover edition)
A very nicely phrased way to say something that, as readers, I suspect we all agree with; and as good a summation of the reasons one would want to read this novel as any I can write. I recommend the book to your readerly mercies.

THE GALAXIE AND OTHER RIDES, winner of the sixth Tartt First Fiction Award


Livingston Press
$10.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A dozen stories of the searing pain that being alive is for many of us. The horrors of war? Nothing compared to the horrors of hatred. The joys of sex? Nothing compared to the life sentence of parenthood, the misery of loss and abandonment that always follow.

Winner of the Tartt First Fiction Award, this collection of slices of life—sliced by blunt knives from still-living flesh—collects Sigler's bleak, clear-eyed visions of life in these United States for the first time in book form. Some stories appeared in the cream of the small magazine crop, such as Roanoke Review, Silk Road, and Copper Nickel, all of which represent the diametric opposite of Reader's Digest. Stories, my friends, are alive and well in the hands of writers like Sigler. They are still doing what the best stories have always done: Gone somewhere, done something, and made the reader experience the going and doing, and emerge changed from the trip.


My Review
: A tiller of literary soil broken generations ago by such realist-mythspinners as Erskine Caldwell and Carson McCullers, Sigler finds her angles and corners in a poverty-stricken stratum of America that grows steadily (according to the census). It makes her grim visions, so angry and so hopeless as to make one wish for literary cataracts, all the more important for those of us who can afford computers and have the education to know what to do with them, and with the books we come to this place to talk about, to read and heed. She's Donald Ray Pollock and Bonnie Jo Campbell's literary love-child. The boy in the trailer on the next lot is Wells Tower.

I have one cavil with the collection as a whole. The joke here is that the stories all involve particular car models, linking the tales with the decline and fall of the US auto industry. This feels forced to me, though I must admit that having a collection of stories organized around cars made my gearhead heart warm up. But in the end, the cars are integral to the stories about half the time, and integrated into a narrative spine not at all. It won't matter to most of y'all. It was only mildly disappointing to me.

Pay attention. Truths are told here, and we all benefit from that. Read Josie Sigler's work. Now, without further ado, I'll discuss them using the Bryce Method:

Deep, Michigan (Caprice)–what does it mean to be a misfit gayboy with friends who rape you? “Buddies” who abuse you? What does it mean not to have a place at any table? 4.5 stars

My Last Horse (Mustang)–a gift of healing horses marks one woman as different, and her life's work consumes her every moment. When love finds her, how can she make the compromises and adjustments love requires when lives are at stake? 5 stars

Chicken (Comet)–when there is no future, why pretend the present matters? 3 stars

Woods (El Camino)–what happens when one smart, determined young woman escapes grinding poverty, only to return when her Iraq War-veteran brother finally dies? Can she find a way to fit the past into a future she wasn't allowed to dream of having? 4 stars

Breakneck Road (Reliant)–when a man walking home from the liquor store with his last dollar's worth of booze finds a baby in a box abandoned by the roadside, can he leave it to die? Is taking on a child when you can't find food money at the bottom of your bottle a ticket out of Hell, or a short trip to the grave? 4.5 stars

The Johns (Chevelle Malibu)–when your mother turns tricks for a living, what can possibly be the last straw that forces your childhood to end? 5 stars

The Last Trees in River Rouge Weep for Carlotta Contadino (Galaxie)–when you have nowhere to go, can you make home mean something by betraying your fellow bottom-dwellers to get what you want? 4 stars

Even the Crocuses (Impala)–when a good man bores you so bad that only a bad man will keep you afloat in your bottle, can you trust yourself not to give in and sink into the mud? 3 stars

The Ride (Hog)–what makes a good biker chick...toughness, or the fear that if you stop you'll never make it out? 3 stars

Tether (Town & Country)–what can a system designed to control and intimidate expect its victims to do if not rebel...even at the cost of their lives? 4 stars

The Black Box (Falcon)–the existential cry, “why?” answered with “why not?” 2.5 stars, weakest in the collection

A Man is Not a Star (Silverado)–what happens when a man, not very bright and not very educated, but a man with love and pride in his heart for all the things he's done to build a life for his wife and daughters, finds himself unwanted and unnecessary? One man's way out is unforgettable. But you'll want to. 5 stars, the star of this show.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

43*: WHEN GORE BEAT BUSH-A Political Fable

$1.99 Kindle Single, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: At 5:00 p.m. on September 11, 2001, an ashen-faced but composed President Al Gore stepped into the East Room of the White House to deliver a televised address to the nation. With him were former presidents Clinton and Bush, as well as Texas governor George W. Bush—flown to Washington from Dallas on a military jet, his first visit back to the capital after the close race that lost him the presidency just months before.

That’s not how you remember it?

Imagine if the 2000 presidential election had turned out differently and Al Gore had defeated George W. Bush to become the 43rd president of the United States. How might events have played out? Would Osama bin Laden have loomed as large? Would the 9/11 attacks have been even worse? Would we have invaded Iraq? Would the economy have plunged into recession?

This is the provocative alternate universe of 43*, a riveting thriller by veteran political commentator Jeff Greenfield. Richly reported and anchored in actual events, 43*: When Gore Beat Bush is the fascinating follow-up to Greenfield’s bestselling Then Everything Changed, which imagined what-if scenarios for the Kennedy, Ford, Carter, and Reagan administrations.

Greenfield takes readers deep inside the Gore administration and reveals high-level meetings, top-secret programs, and ego-fueled battles that forever altered the global landscape. And in Greenfield’s hauntingly plausible parallel universe, the law of unintended consequences has a dramatic effect on the fate of the United States.

“It’s the ‘butterfly effect,’” writes Greenfield, “where one dead butterfly millions of years ago leads to a contemporary world immeasurably more coarse, less kind. It’s the notion of the old nursery rhyme: ‘For want of a nail the kingdom was lost.’”

My Review: I'll lead off with the fact that I agree with Greenfield's central premise: No way in HELL was a Gore presidency going to be an easy and smooth continuation of Clinton's easy and smooth presidency. (pause for hilarious laughter) Lieberman was a stupid, bad choice for veep; Gore himself was visibly annoyed by the process of campaigning on an even footing with that simpering chimp, and it showed; and perhaps most tellingly, Gore is a smart man, and Murrikinz hates them some smart folk. Lookit what happened to that nice perfesser dude in the 1950s. (Adlai Stevenson, for the furriners and nursery crowd.)

Rep. Tom DeLay would've been a freakin' nightmare opponent as Speaker-in-fact, Sen. Jesse Helms, well, let's just say there's some folks for whom death is too good, and on and on and on. This is matched against Gore's clear strengths: at that time, 25 years in Washington as an elected official, a lifetime in politics via his daddy's Senate life, a pretty blonde wife with some wingnutty ideas about free speech that would've played well in the shitty little GOP burgs that, for some reason, haven't been ethnically cleansed. Proof positive there is no vast left-wing conspiracy, that.

And while I agree that Gore's proven effectiveness at knocking heads saved the 1996 Olympics, I don't agree with Mr. Greenfield's assessment that a Gore presidency would've been ineffective at doing much the same in DC's intelligence community. I suspect that Mr. Greenfield had excellent reasons for his the Acknowledgments, man's up on this stuff...but I dunno, this seems an easy-to-write choice, not an inevitable one. Like the millionaire tax-free battle. Like the dot-bust. Due attention is paid to the screaming rooms at Faux News and on Wingnut Central Raddee-O-Land, and their entrenched right-wing insane clown posse. These would've made Gore's life hell, as they have Obama's. Like enough, they'd've been even more strident under Gore because of their sense of outrage: He's one of us and he's not twangin' the Teabilly Horst Wessel!

Whatever my cavils about that, let me assure you the piece is well-written and contains the trademark Greenfield slyness. Moments of savorable irony for political junkies are placed hither, thither, and yon, but those without the information needed to appreciate them won't feel a sharp whizz as the ninja star slices their hair-do.

So why the mingy three-and-a-half of five rating? Because, in the end, I felt I was being in-the-roomed. I was too close to the trees and I wanted a look at the forest. Now a big part of that is the length of the piece, at under 100pp. Can't do it all, after all, when you're aiming at the lunch-plus-commute reader. But it's more than that. Greenfield knows a lot more than I do about his subject. He's telling his own story, and it's got plausibility everywhere and everywhen. So why is it that I can purse my lips and shake my head and wonder what makes you think that follows from this other thing? Just working from his own data presented in the piece, I wasn't as sold as I expected to be.

But I was sold enough to say this to you: Spend $1.99 on this Kindle Single and you'll have ~2hrs tops of well-crafted, thought-provoking, and ultimately satisfying counterfactual fun.

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THE BLIND CONTESSA'S NEW MACHINE, an extraordinarily beautiful first novel


Penguin Books
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In the early 1800s, a young Italian contessa, Carolina Fantoni, realizes she is going blind shortly before she marries the town's most sought-after bachelor. Her parents don't believe her, nor does her fiancé. The only one who understands is the eccentric local inventor and her longtime companion, Turri. When her eyesight dims forever, Carolina can no longer see her beloved lake or the rich hues of her own dresses. But as darkness erases her world, she discovers one place she can still see--in her dreams. Carolina creates a vivid dreaming life, in which she can not only see, but also fly, exploring lands she had never known.

Desperate to communicate with Carolina, Turri invents a peculiar machine for her: the world's first typewriter. His gift ignites a passionate love affair that will change both of their lives forever.

Based on the true story of a nineteenth-century inventor and his innovative contraption, The Blind Contessa's New Machine is an enchanting confection of love and the triumph of the imagination.

My Review: On the eve of her wedding to the most eligible, handsomest bachelor in her small world, Contessa Carolina Fantoni announces to him that she is going blind. He laughs dismissively, then kisses her indulgently, thus setting the tone for their entire relationship. After full blindness sets in, her eccentric childhood friend and neighbor, a married inventor and amateur scientist, creates for her the world's first typewriter, that she may continue to communicate with the outside world. And thus a passionate affair begins, one that bids fair to destroy two marriages and possibly four lives. That is hardly a new plot nor is there a shocking modern-sensibilities dénouement. But in its bittersweet presentation, it's clear that the author understands the losses of compromise and accommodation that all relationships demand of us.

I am mortally afraid of only a few things in this life: 1) Blindness; 2) being eaten by a shark; and 3) suffocating/drowning. My mother went blind a year or more before she died, and it was a torture. She read passionately, and suddenly couldn't; she was never able to adapt to audiobooks. This rings me like a bell, a tocsin of terror that has me sweating and crying as I type this on a c-o-l-d night. And this book's careful, polished prose made that horrific nightmare (literally for me, at least once a year) endurable, survivable, where in hands less skilled than Carey Wallace's I would simply have burned the book and paid the library for it.

How she did this is, she presented the onset and completion of the process in a series of vignettes that define what it is to see, and to judge the world on what is seen; Wallace makes that process so arbitrary, so essentially meaningless, that as the Contessa charts her progress into eternal night, she and the reader understand that vision as primary perception is a habit of mind. The Contessa plumbs the darkness fearlessly. She lives in it, after she accepts its permanence, with more grace than she appeared to muster during her sighted years.

It's quite a lovely achievement, and it's told in lovely sentences. Wallace, whose author photo rather distressingly resembles a high-school senior picture, had an excellent editor, and handed that editor a lovely book to begin with, you can be sure. This sort of prose doesn't get forged into being on an editor's anvil, it gets the spurs and cracks annealed out of it. Something of the book's raw state remains, thank goodness, because there are some places where opportunities are missed and others are simply AWOL where they would have been welcome. Why thank goodness? Because if this effort were to be perfect, I'd have to hunt this youngster down and kill her in furious writerly envy, that's why.

And I don't want to go to jail over a book.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

IT CAME! (that's the title, honest)


Titan Comics
$19.99 (US) hardcover omnibus, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: 1958. Driving through the British countryside, unthinkingly misogynistic space scientist, Dr. Boy Brett, and his companion, Doris Night, pop into a quaint village pub for a cheese ploughman's...

But waiting for them outside is a most unwelcome visitor: Grurk, an indestructible, monosyllabic robot from outer space, on a mission to harvest the British Blitz spirit for energy!

Pursuing Grurk in their Morris Minor, will Boy and Doris be able to save the British from a life without stiff upper lippedness, or will Her Majesty's Kingdom be forever resigned to a life down in the mouth?

Witty, satirical and a rollicking good laugh, IT CAME! is a stunning piece of work, infusing the best (and worst!) bits of the 1950s B-movie with whimsical British charm.

My Review: Yep. Not only did I **favorably** review a phauntaisee nawvelle, and not only have I read more of the author's phauntaisee nawvelles, but today I am reviewing and rating above a single star a comic book.

No, my account hasn't been hacked. No, I have not been bribed, well at least not directly, and no, I am not having hot monkey-sex with the creator. He lives in England, and I'm not able to travel.

The bribery thing is a bit weird. I got an Amazon shipment last week, and this book was in it. I didn't order it. It wasn't a separate shipment, but in the box with some other books. The one friend I had who sent me random books has disappeared from the Internet, so far as I know. Sweetienubbins blankly denied responsibility and has become a bit edgy again, so he's out.

Anyway, whyever I got the book here it is. And it's cute. I will say right up front that there is nothing about it that would make me put down twenty United States dollars of my own to procure it. But having read it in the half-hour that my dinner was baking (cauliflower, ricotta, parmesan, sausage, and pasta under parmesan/breadcrumb crust), I can think of many worse ways to wile away a spare moment.

It's like looking at storyboards, largely because of the conceit I suppose, but that realization enabled me not to roll my eyes and sigh gustily as the pages turned. The silliness is based in the Saturday sci-fi theater movies of my youth, the sheer awfulness of the plots and effects and acting even then apparent to me, the appeal being that the movies were...were...on my level somehow. The written sci fi I was gobbling up was ***far*** superior in execution and conception. But there were then, as there are now, moments when only the vapidity of TV will do.

This trifling entertainment fills exactly that slot, and offers an extra level of snickerdom with its in-jokes (eg, PineTREE Studios *heeheehee* and innumerable bad double entendres) and its aesthetic of taking the piss (Britishism, google it).

Speaking of which, the monster Grork is defeated, that's a spoiler! Well, you're already here, so it's defeated by being hosed with tankers of TEA!! Oh how I laughed.

Does anybody want it? I'll mail it to you. PM me.

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BEASTS OF NO NATION, art of a high order and indictment of an entire species


$13.99 trade paper, available now

This title is one of 2021's Olive Editions and it's a whopping $10!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this stunning debut novel, Agu, a young boy in an unnamed West African nation, is recruited into a unit of guerrilla fighters as civil war engulfs his country. Haunted by his father's own death at the hands of militants, Agu is vulnerable to the dangerous yet paternal nature of his new commander. While the war rages on, Agu becomes increasingly divorced from the life he had known before the conflict started a life of school friends, church services, and time with his family still intact.

In a powerful, strikingly original voice that vividly captures Agu's youth and confusion, Uzodinma Iweala has produced a harrowing, inventive, and deeply affecting novel.

WINNER OF Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction–Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award for Fiction–Los Angeles Times Book Award

My Review: Men writing in the voice of a child are at a disadvantage because childhood is traditionally thought of as a woman's preserve. Iweala writes about a boy who is only nominally a child, though; one of the thousands of boys who are compelled to serve in the civil wars and rebellions of Africa's troubled states.

He does this with force, beauty, and horror.

This moment is the narrator's first moment of joy:
Nobody is seeing me as I am getting up and walking through the tree right to the road. I am feeling breezes to my back that is pushing me to walk far far away from here and I am moving quickly quickly onto the road where I am just walking walking walking to where the sun is setting. I am looking at it and wanting to catch it in my hand to be squeezing until the color are dripping out from it forever. That way everywhere it is always dark and nobody is ever having to see any of the terrible thing that is happening in this world.
I can't stress enough that this first novel is To Be Read! The passage above, in the context of the story, brought me to tears. It's a lovely piece of writing no matter what...but coming where it does in this wrenchingly infuriating story, it's got a wallop that must be experienced.

Beasts of No Nation was published in 2005. It's written by a Nigerian man of (then) some 23 years of age. Jamaica Kincaid acted as his advisor. Someone explain to me, that all being said, why the Adichie (of similar background and age) cult got rollin' and there was not an Iweala cult...?

This author deserves your attention. Please read his work. It's not flawless, but it's head and shoulders above most things that clutter our shelves!

Strongly recommended.

Monday, March 24, 2014

HOUNDED by Kevin warned, yodels of praise and SALE PRICE lurk

HOUNDED (The Iron Druid Chronicles #1)

Del Rey Books
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, lives peacefully in Arizona, running an occult bookshop and shape-shifting in his spare time to hunt with his Irish wolfhound. His neighbors and customers think that this handsome, tattooed Irish dude is about twenty-one years old--when in actuality, he’s twenty-one centuries old. Not to mention: He draws his power from the earth, possesses a sharp wit, and wields an even sharper magical sword known as Fragarach, the Answerer.

Unfortunately, a very angry Celtic god wants that sword, and he’s hounded Atticus for centuries. Now the determined deity has tracked him down, and Atticus will need all his power--plus the help of a seductive goddess of death, his vampire and werewolf team of attorneys, a sexy bartender possessed by a Hindu witch, and some good old-fashioned luck of the Irish--to kick some Celtic arse and deliver himself from evil.

My Review: The Doubleday UK meme, a book a day for July 2014, is the goad I'm using to get through my snit-based unwritten reviews. Today's prompt, the 28th, is to discuss your favorite animal in fiction. Who else could it be but Oberon the Wolfhound?

Let me start with this:
There are many perks to living for twenty-one centuries, and foremost among them is bearing witness to the rare birth of genius. It invariably goes like this: Someone shrugs off the weight of his cultural traditions, ignores the baleful stares of authority, and does something his countrymen think to be completely batshit insane. Of those, Galileo was my personal favorite. Van Gogh comes in second, but he really was batshit insane.
Now, I ask you. Can a normally-constructed reader of any but the grimmest and least amusant of books fail to see the humor in that?

I am on record as being no fan of phauntaisee nawvelles with their styoopid Misspelynnges and Random capitaLizations to indicate magjickq is in Use. So I approach each recommended genre book with, well, trepidation. (I'm stretching for polite words that mean "strenuous desire to insult author, publisher, and recommender.") So these couple of ladies here on LT tag-teamed me, beat my head into the mat, kicked my nose through the back of my head, and started breaking bones I can't operate without until I got this book and read it.
When you're in the middle of a killing field and the fucking Chooser of the Slain tells you to do something, you do it.
Yeah. That.

The more observant of my readers will have noted the four-star rating above. This was not in the least a foregone conclusion, even with the chuckles and the muffled hoots the book provided. I am not any kind of a fan of straight-people sex, having memories of same that range from boredom on the high end all the way down to horror. Three stars is the most I'll give anything with more than a token window-dressing of girl-sex. Yes, I know lots of people do it, but it's icky and I don't want to hear about it. That fourth star?
Monty Python is like catnip for nerds. Once you get them started quoting it, they are constitutionally incapable of feeling depressed.
Okay, Hearne. I'm gaffed through the gills. Yes, my mouth still fills with nausea-water at the sex, but you've hit The Nerve. Wry and funny? Yes please. Handsome, tattooed, and Irish? TRIFECTA! Twenty-one hundred years old and talks like a lamebrained kid? Well...
I have been around long enough to discount most superstitions for what they are: I was around when many of them began to take root, after all. But one superstition to which I happen to subscribe is that bad juju comes in threes. The saying in my time was, "Storm clouds are thrice cursed," but I can't talk like that and expect people to believe I'm a twenty-one year-old American. I have to say things like, "Shit happens, man.”
And now we're on a different plane of storytelling.

In the voice of the character, the author explains why anachronism is alive and well, and does so with a level of character development that shows something I don't get very often in any book: Respect for the reader. "I'm telling you a story about an immortal magical being who lives in the armpit of creation, USA, voluntarily, and needs to blend in as much as possible. Here is how it's done, why it's done, and what you can expect from the character."

Not only is the fourth star secured to the sleeve with tiny, tough stitches, but the sale is made for book two and book three. Of seven (I think), mind you, but still that's more than I'd even *dream* of doing absent this surprising development.

As Atticus himself said, “Winning ugly is still winning.”

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AMERICAN ON PURPOSE: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot, wonderful anecdotal and warm

AMERICAN ON PURPOSE: The Improbable Adventures of an Unlikely Patriot

$11.99 trade paper, available now

Ferguson has a new project: Joy, A Podcast, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In American on Purpose, Craig Ferguson delivers a moving and achingly funny memoir of living the American dream as he journeys from the mean streets of Glasgow, Scotland, to the comedic promised land of Hollywood. Along the way he stumbles through several attempts to make his mark—as a punk rock musician, a construction worker, a bouncer, and, tragically, a modern dancer.

To numb the pain of failure, Ferguson found comfort in drugs and alcohol, addictions that eventually led to an aborted suicide attempt. (He forgot to do it when someone offered him a glass of sherry.) But his story has a happy ending: in 1993, the washed-up Ferguson washed up in the United States. Finally sober, Ferguson landed a breakthrough part on the hit sitcom The Drew Carey Show, a success that eventually led to his role as the host of CBS's The Late Late Show. By far Ferguson's greatest triumph was his decision to become a U.S. citizen, a milestone he achieved in early 2008, just before his command performance for the president at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner. In American on Purpose, Craig Ferguson talks a red, white, and blue streak about everything our Founding Fathers feared.

My Review: Scottish prole grows up in emotionally chilly, physically cold as hell Glasgow, turns to drugs and alcohol to fill gaping emotional void, screws over a variety of people as all alkies do, and one day wakes up to learn he doesn't like himself, his life, or his future. Rehab, restitution, success, and true love follow.

I herewith confess: If Craig Ferguson was even a teensy hint queer, I'd be on a plane to Cali and camped on his doorstep with flowers, candy, and a leg iron. He amuses and impresses me even more after reading his pretty darned candid memoir.

I'm a complete pushover for a man in a kilt anyway, but when he can act and tell jokes the way this man can...! Ferguson, when hosting The Late Late Show, made me laugh so hard I cried when he said of his son's mother: "No, really, she's a lovely woman. For legal purposes." I heard nothing of his show for the next five minutes because I was shouting with laughter, and Mr. Man was a little put out that I kept referring to that line (okay, I shamelessly stole it, and I still use it, and unless I get a cease-and-desist letter I'm gonna keep right on) to the point of having a jealous fit. (Thanks, Craig!)

I am also a sucker for men who come to the USA with dreams of success and end up in love with our amazing, incredible, flawed, imperfect, conservatism-ridden paradise. Ferguson fell in love with the USA in its warty glory, and he rightly credits this astonishingly open society with a goodly measure of his own success. His talent plays an acknowledged role, but he makes sure to tell his readers that his life wouldn't be possible anywhere else. It's very heartening to me, and it's an instructive reminder that, problems and blemishes be damned, the rest of the world rightly and justly thinks we're on to something here.

Lastly, but far from least, I'm a complete sucker for a good story told by a good storyteller, and this book most certainly is that. Ferguson can't resist telling tales, no doubt polishing them up a wee bit, but not always in his own favor. He can't resist making light of things that sink many an alkie person's life, and sank his own, and thus takes the ponderousness out of the idea of recovery. I've read a fair bit of recovery literature but I'm always fatally put off by the earnest, well-meaning "Amazing Grace"-ness of it all. A person's personal spiritual awakening is, and should remain, just that: Personal. In other words, BELT UP ABOUT JESUS. Ferguson not only does, he makes it clear that he has a BIG problem with religion. *swoon* My lands, just when I thought he couldn't get more magnetically, hypnotically gorgeously attractive!

So should others read this? Yes. It's fun, funny, and touching; it's honest and it's gritty; and in the end, it's a pleasure to get to know Craig Ferguson as well as if he were the bloke on the barstool next over.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Camp NaNo Approacheth: The Classic Four-Act Mystery Novel Plot, via Ticket2Write's blog

April's Camp NaNo is going to see me pounding the keys for a new mystery series. The most recent attempt at same was considered, revised, and finally rejected...but no one can stop my subconscious! He's a story-spinnin' runaway locomotive, he is. A Famous Hollywood Actor, now deceased, came and suggested himself to me as a sleuth...and we had a nice long chat about what framework to use to tell the stories while seated at the bar of Steak Frites (an old haunt of mine in Manhattan).

There is more than a little truth to the statement that writing is the socially acceptable face of schizophrenia. Dead people talk to me in my dreams? I can shout about it on streetcorners, or sit in quiet corners and take dictation.

For now, anyway, I'm taking Option B. And shoehorning it into something like this basic outline, which I found ages ago and stumbled upon again among my bookmarks.

The original post is here.

Plotting the Mystery Novel

The classic mystery is popular fiction which follows a specific formula. Clever writers may try to change the formula, but the most clever will cling to it for a very good reason. They work within the bounds of the formula because it works!

The following outline serves the modern mystery novel, as defined by editors and publishers. A typical story will contain 60,000 to 65,000 words (205 manuscript pages) and will be divided into 12 chapters, each approximately 17 pages in length.

The Classic 12-Chapter Mystery Formula

Act I

Introduction of the crime (mystery) and the sleuth

Chapter 1

A. Disclose the crime and mystery to be solved. The crime must capture the imagination. It should have been committed in an extraordinary way and either the victim the perpetuator, or both, should be unusual. Give the reader enough information about the victim to make them truly care that the perpetrator is found out and that justice is served.

B. Early in the story, clues should be revealed which suggest both physical and psychological aspects of the initial crime. Those clues should point to suspects and motive which will cary the sleuth to the end of Act I. Some clues should point the sleuth in the right direction, others may not be obvious or be recognized as actual clues unto later in the story.

C. Introduce the sleuth who will solve the crime early, and have him or her do or say something very clever or unexpected which will establish that person as unique. Create this character with care. His or her personality should be interesting enough to sustain the interest of the reader to the very last page. (or through an entire series of books). It is not necessary to disclose all aspects of the sleuth’s personality at the onset. Let the description unfold gradually to sustain interest. Do reveal enough background to let the reader understand the world in which the protagonist functions. (Small town sheriff, Scotland Yard detective, Pinkerton agent in the old West, country squire, investigative reporter in New York City, etc.)

D. Ground the reader in the time and place where the crime occurs. It is often useful to include some sort of symbol, an object or a person, in the opening scene which serves as a metaphor for what occurs in the story. The reappearance of this symbol at the conclusion of the story will create a certain organic unity.

E. Begin with a dramatic event. Some writers offer a prologue, describing the execution of the crime in detail, as it occurs, possible from the point of view of the victim or perpetrators. The same information could also be revealed by a character, through dialogue. Sufficient details should be furnished to allow the reader to experience the event as though he or she were actually there. Another good opening would be to put the sleuth in a dire situation and allow detail of the crime to unfold in due course.

Chapter 2
A. Set the sleuth on the path toward solving he mystery. Offer plausible suspects, all of whom appear to have had motive, means and opportunity to to commit the crime. Select the most likely suspects, and have the sleuth question them. One of these suspects will turn out to be the actual perpetrator.

B. At the approximate mid-point of Act 1, something should occur which makes it clear to the reader that the crime is more complicated than originally thought. Hints may be given to allow the reader to actually see possibilities not yet known to the sleuth.

Chapter 3
A. The sub-plot should be introduced. The plot will continue to maintain the progress of the story, but the sub-plot will carry the theme, which is a universal concept to which the reader can identify. Sub-plots tend to originate either in a crisis in the sleuth’s private life, or in the necessity of the sleuth to face a dilemma involving a matter of character, such as courage or honesty.

B. The ultimate resolution of the sub-plot with demonstrate change or growth on the part of the protagonist, and will climatic on a personal or professional level. That climax may coincide with, or occur as prelude to the climax of the main plot. The sub-plot may be a vehicle for a romantic interest or a confrontation with personal demons of the sleuth. The author can manipulate the pace of the novel by moving back and forth between the plot and sub-plot.

Act II

Direct the investigation toward a conclusion which later proves to be erroneous.

Chapter 4

A. Reveal facts about suspects, through interrogations and the discovery of clues.

B. Flight, or disappearance of one or more suspect.

C. Develop a sense of urgency. Raise the stakes or make it evident that if the mystery is not solved soon, there will be terrible consequences.

Chapter 5
A. The investigation should broaden to put suspicion on other characters.

B. Information gathered through interviews or the discovery of physical evidence, should point toward the solution, although the relevance may not yet be apparent.

Chapter 6
A. The sleuth’s background is revealed as the sub-plot is developed. Tell the reader what drives the protagonist, what haunts or is missing in his or her life.

B. Make it clear that the sleuth has a personal stake in the outcome, either because of threat to his or her life, or the possibility of revelation of matters deeply disturbing to the protagonist on an emotional level.

Change of focus and scope of the investigation. This is the pivotal point in the story where it become evident that the sleuth was on the wrong track. Something unexpected occurs, such as the appearance of a second body, the death of a major suspect, or discovery of evidence which clears the most likely suspect. The story must take a new direction.

Chapter 7

A. Reveal hidden motives. Formerly secret relationships come to light, such as business arrangements, romantic involvement's, scores to be settled or previously veiled kinships.

B. Develop and expose meanings of matters hinted at in Act I., to slowly clarify the significance of earlier clues.

Chapter 8
A. The sleuth reveals the results of the investigation. The reader, as well as the protagonist and other characters, are given an opportunity to review what is known and assess the possibilities.

B. The solution of the crime appears to be impossible. Attempts to solve the crime have stymied the sleuth. Misinterpretation of clues or mistaken conclusions have lead him or her in the wrong direction, and logic must be applied to force a new way of grasping an understanding of the uncertainties.

Chapter 9
A. Have the sleuth review the case to determine where he or she went wrong.

B. Reveal the chain of events which provoked the crime.

C. The crucial evidence is something overlooked in Act I, which appeared to have been of little consequence at the time it was first disclosed. That evidence takes on new meaning with information disclosed in Act III.

D. The sleuth (and perhaps the reader, if a keep observer) becomes aware of the error which remains undisclosed to the other characters.

Act IV


Chapter 10

A. The sleuth weighs the evidence and information gleaned from the other characters.

B. Based on what only he or she now knows, the sleuth must seek positive proof to back up the yet undisclosed conclusion.

Chapter 11
A. Resolution of the sub-plot

B. The protagonist, having been tested by his or her private ordeal, is strengthened for the final action leading to the actual solution of the mystery.

Chapter 12
A. The Climax - a dramatic confrontation between the sleuth and the perpetrator in which the sleuth prevails. The more “impossible” the odds have been, the more rewarding the climax will be.

B. Resolution - Revelation of clues and the deductive process which lead to the solution. Establish that the case has been solved and justice has been served to the satisfaction of all involved (except, the villain).

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Camp NaNo Approacheth: Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula, reblogged from Moorcock's Miscellany (2005)

This is, bar none, the simplest statement of how to write a structure-dependent narrative (fiction or non) I've ever seen. Bookmark! Save! Copy with a quill! But INTERNALIZE this, writers. Obviously the word count will vary for novels or narrative non-fiction.

Here is Lester Dent's Master Plot Formula. Thanks Mister Dent, and apologies to Savoy for us lifting it here!

This is a formula, a master plot, for any 6000 word pulp story. It has
worked on adventure, detective, western and war-air. It tells exactly
where to put everything. It shows definitely just what must happen in
each successive thousand words.

No yarn of mine written to the formula has yet failed to sell.

The business of building stories seems not much different from the
business of building anything else.

Here's how it starts:


One of these DIFFERENT things would be nice, two better, three swell. It
may help if they are fully in mind before tackling the rest.

A different murder method could be--different. Thinking of shooting,
knifing, hydrocyanic, garroting, poison needles, scorpions, a few others,
and writing them on paper gets them where they may suggest something.
Scorpions and their poison bite? Maybe mosquitos or flies treated with
deadly germs?

If the victims are killed by ordinary methods, but found under strange
and identical circumstances each time, it might serve, the reader of
course not knowing until the end, that the method of murder is ordinary.
Scribes who have their villain's victims found with butterflies, spiders
or bats stamped on them could conceivably be flirting with this gag.

Probably it won't do a lot of good to be too odd, fanciful or grotesque
with murder methods.

The different thing for the villain to be after might be something other
than jewels, the stolen bank loot, the pearls, or some other old ones.

Here, again one might get too bizarre.

Unique locale? Easy. Selecting one that fits in with the murder method
and the treasure--thing that villain wants--makes it simpler, and it's
also nice to use a familiar one, a place where you've lived or worked. So
many pulpateers don't. It sometimes saves embarrassment to know nearly as
much about the locale as the editor, or enough to fool him.

Here's a nifty much used in faking local color. For a story laid in
Egypt, say, author finds a book titled "Conversational Egyptian Easily
Learned," or something like that. He wants a character to ask in
Egyptian, "What's the matter?" He looks in the book and finds, "El
khabar, eyh?" To keep the reader from getting dizzy, it's perhaps wise to
make it clear in some fashion, just what that means. Occasionally the
text will tell this, or someone can repeat it in English. But it's a
doubtful move to stop and tell the reader in so many words the English

The writer learns they have palm trees in Egypt. He looks in the book,
finds the Egyptian for palm trees, and uses that. This kids editors and
readers into thinking he knows something about Egypt.

Here's the second installment of the master plot.

Divide the 6000 word yarn into four 1500 word parts. In each 1500 word
part, put the following:


1--First line, or as near thereto as possible, introduce the hero and
swat him with a fistful of trouble. Hint at a mystery, a menace or a
problem to be solved--something the hero has to cope with.

2--The hero pitches in to cope with his fistful of trouble. (He tries to
fathom the mystery, defeat the menace, or solve the problem.)

3--Introduce ALL the other characters as soon as possible. Bring them on
in action.

4--Hero's endevours land him in an actual physical conflict near the end
of the first 1500 words.

5--Near the end of first 1500 words, there is a complete surprise twist in
the plot development.

SO FAR: Does it have SUSPENSE?
Is there a MENACE to the hero?
Does everything happen logically?

At this point, it might help to recall that action should do something
besides advance the hero over the scenery. Suppose the hero has learned
the dastards of villains have seized somebody named Eloise, who can
explain the secret of what is behind all these sinister events. The hero
corners villains, they fight, and villains get away. Not so hot.

Hero should accomplish something with his tearing around, if only to
rescue Eloise, and surprise! Eloise is a ring-tailed monkey. The hero
counts the rings on Eloise's tail, if nothing better comes to mind.
They're not real. The rings are painted there. Why?


1--Shovel more grief onto the hero.

2--Hero, being heroic, struggles, and his struggles lead up to:

3--Another physical conflict.

4--A surprising plot twist to end the 1500 words.

NOW: Does second part have SUSPENSE?
Does the MENACE grow like a black cloud?
Is the hero getting it in the neck?
Is the second part logical?

DON'T TELL ABOUT IT***Show how the thing looked. This is one of the
secrets of writing; never tell the reader--show him. (He trembles,
roving eyes, slackened jaw, and such.) MAKE THE READER SEE HIM.

When writing, it helps to get at least one minor surprise to the printed
page. It is reasonable to to expect these minor surprises to sort of
inveigle the reader into keeping on. They need not be such profound
efforts. One method of accomplishing one now and then is to be gently
misleading. Hero is examining the murder room. The door behind him begins
slowly to open. He does not see it. He conducts his examination
blissfully. Door eases open, wider and wider, until--surprise! The glass
pane falls out of the big window across the room. It must have fallen
slowly, and air blowing into the room caused the door to open. Then what
the heck made the pane fall so slowly? More mystery.

Characterizing a story actor consists of giving him some things
which make him stick in the reader's mind. TAG HIM.



1--Shovel the grief onto the hero.

2--Hero makes some headway, and corners the villain or somebody in:

3--A physical conflict.

4--A surprising plot twist, in which the hero preferably gets it in the
neck bad, to end the 1500 words.

DOES: It still have SUSPENSE?
The MENACE getting blacker?
The hero finds himself in a hell of a fix?
It all happens logically?

These outlines or master formulas are only something to make you certain of
inserting some physical conflict, and some genuine plot twists, with a little
suspense and menace thrown in. Without them, there is no pulp story.

These physical conflicts in each part might be DIFFERENT, too. If one
fight is with fists, that can take care of the pugilism until next the
next yarn. Same for poison gas and swords. There may, naturally, be
exceptions. A hero with a peculiar punch, or a quick draw, might use it
more than once.

The idea is to avoid monotony.

Vivid, swift, no words wasted. Create suspense, make the reader see and
feel the action.

Hear, smell, see, feel and taste.

Trees, wind, scenery and water.



1--Shovel the difficulties more thickly upon the hero.

2--Get the hero almost buried in his troubles. (Figuratively, the villain
has him prisoner and has him framed for a murder rap; the girl is
presumably dead, everything is lost, and the DIFFERENT murder method is
about to dispose of the suffering protagonist.)

3--The hero extricates himself using HIS OWN SKILL, training or brawn.

4--The mysteries remaining--one big one held over to this point will help
grip interest--are cleared up in course of final conflict as hero takes
the situation in hand.

5--Final twist, a big surprise, (This can be the villain turning out to be
the unexpected person, having the "Treasure" be a dud, etc.)

6--The snapper, the punch line to end it.

HAS: The SUSPENSE held out to the last line?
The MENACE held out to the last?
Everything been explained?
It all happen logically?
Is the Punch Line enough to leave the reader with that WARM FEELING?
Did God kill the villain? Or the hero?

EDITED TO ADD: Want to know of formula writing works? From Wikipedia: " Of the 181 Doc Savage novels published by Street and Smith, 179 were credited to Kenneth Robeson; and all but twenty were written by Dent."

Added emphasis because, well, DAMN.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Camp NaNo Approacheth: Some writing tools reviewed THE NEW ASTROLOGY by Suzanne White


St. Martin's Griffin
$21.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Though the practice of astrology is many centuries old, it is only perhaps once in a generation that a thoroughly new, totally original way of looking at the zodiac is discovered. The New Astrology is such a system.

For those convinced that there is nothing new under the sun--or the stars--Suzanne White offers a startling and provocative thesis: There are not 12 but 144 signs of the zodiac, each distinct, each unique, each vital to everyone's quest for self-understanding.

By combining the astrological systems of the traditional Chinese (terrestrial) with that of the Occident (celestial), Suzanne White demonstrates that each of us is governed by two signs. Hence, a Capricorn Tiger is likely to be quite different from a Capricorn Cat, as is a Leo Dog from a Leo Dragon, and so on. This unique blend of Western and Chinese Astrology gives detailed analyses of each of the 144 signs, including individualized sections of love, sex and romance, business, money, careers, home life and compatibility (or lack of it) with other signs.

Already a best-seller in France, The New Astrology is a massive undertaking and the result of more than a decade of research and study of the two systems. It offers insights into not only our own lives, but also those of all who are close to us. Suzanne White's prose is lucid, candid, and suffused with a sense of fun, but The New Astrology is above all a serious tool for self-awareness and understand the rich variety of human nature all around us.

My Review: No, I don't believe in astrology's powers of prediction; no, I don't subscribe to the practice of astrology for any purpose other than entertainment.

So why review the book at all? Because, writer friends, if it's not on your shelf today, get it on there via Prime in two days. Like, order now, I'll wait.

You see, Ms. White has thoughtfully made 144 character sketches in some detail for you! And she has helpfully diagrammed the best matches and the worst nightmares of each character!! MC needs to be brave? Pick a Leo sign...Leo/Dragon works. MC needs a bad first marriage? Pisces/Cat (her term for what traditionally is called Rabbit). Then a HUGE chunk of your work is done for you. It is AWESOME.

Oh, and real people? Well, they all have birthdays. Go look 'em up! Don't know which Chinese zodiac year 1677 is? There's a chart in the back of the book!

So what with this, and with Michael Moorcock's truly, absolutely never-fail method of fast execution (for which link one is grateful to one's minion Dantastic Book Reviews' own Dan), you are so good to go it's not funny.

My own tip to add to the pile: Always, always, always have poetry anthologies, Bartlett's Quotations, and the Bible nearby. You will need a title, at the very least; an epigraph is handy, too; and goodness knows a quick cheat-sheet of sonorous sentences can be a fabulously useful thing, too.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes, a 6-star must-read novel


Atlantic Monthly Press
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five, but it deserves six

The Publisher Says: Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and James Jones's The Thin Red Line. It is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.

My Review: Waino Mellas, newly minted Marine infantry lieutenant, arrives in the tender embrace of Bravo Company a scared, green, awkward, scared, stupid, scared kid and, after a huge amount of pain, loss, and hellish enraging waste of life and liberty, becomes a man.

No, really.

Marlantes was a Marine in Vietnam. He took thirty years...longer than most of this planet's people have been bring forth this horrifying, harrowing, agonizing artwork. I expect we will not see another book from him, or if we do, it will be so radically different from this one as to be unrecognizable as created in the same brain.

The pain and the horror are obviously not going to let him go. He's exorcised them as best a man can in writing this book. But I don't feel a sense of relief at the end of this book. I don't finish up when he stops writing. I think that's because the experience of reading this book is so shattering. OBVIOUSLY! OBVIOUSLY!! it's no smallest patch on actually living this book, but it's a rare experience to read something so complete, so clearly delineated in its scope and its purpose, and that has power...ask a demolitions person about the power of an explosion contained in a box...but more than that, it has purpose. I don't know Marlantes. I don't know that I want to. I know enough about him after reading this book to hate the idea of sending kids across oceans to kill other human beings before I think they're even ready to *love* other human beings, because so many of them won't live to become the man he has.

I hate that fact so much that I hurt inside. I want to scream and cry and rage and mourn and weep with the mothers and fathers whose souls are now scarred and deformed by the pain of losing a child. It won't help, they're launched on a horrible personal journey, but GODDAM IT they're people whose lives changed forever because of some stupid slogan like "national interest."

Ahem. The book.

So, what has Marlantes wrought? A long, hard journey of a book that millions will read some of, and back away one of the few who go the distance, and you will never, ever forget the journey or the guide. Worth it.

Monday, March 17, 2014

2014 Nebula-Nominated Novella reads...SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE by Catherynne M. Valente

Free Online Excerpt
Saga Press
$14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Valente’s adaptation of the fairy tale to the Old West provides a witty read with complex reverberations from the real world. Snow White is the daughter of a Crow woman abducted and forced into marriage by an unloving white magnate called only Mr. H. She gets her name in mockery, as white is “the one thing I was not and could never be.” When her father remarries, Snow White’s glimpse into the second Mrs. H’s mirror suggests they share the yoke of female subservience, but the two are inevitably at odds—so the young woman dons a man’s clothes and, like Huck Finn, chooses the “Indian Territory” that so frightens Mr. H’s world. Enter a pursuing Pinkerton’s detective, a pony named Charming, seven kick-ass outlaw ladies, and a variety of showdowns as Snow White searches for meaning, love, and a semblance of belonging. Any attempt to derive a simple message from this work would be an injustice to the originality of the atmosphere, the complexity of the interplay of its elements, and the simple pleasure of savoring Valente’s exuberant writing.


Saga Press Says: Forget the dark, enchanted forest. Picture instead a masterfully evoked Old West where you are more likely to find coyotes as the seven dwarves. Insert into this scene a plain-spoken, appealing narrator who relates the history of our heroine’s parents—a Nevada silver baron who forced the Crow people to give up one of their most beautiful daughters, Gun That Sings, in marriage to him. Although her mother’s life ended as hers began, so begins a remarkable tale: equal parts heartbreak and strength. This girl has been born into a world with no place for a half-native, half-white child. After being hidden for years, a very wicked stepmother finally gifts her with the name Snow White, referring to the pale skin she will never have. Filled with fascinating glimpses through the fabled looking glass and a close-up look at hard living in the gritty gun-slinging West, this is an utterly enchanting story…at once familiar and entirely new.

My Review: Wow.
Flush and jangle with silver and possessed of a powerful tooth for both spending and procuring more of whatever glittered under the ground, Mr. H traveled to the Montana Territory on a horse so new and fine her tail squeaked. He disliked to travel in company, being a secretive man by nature. Mr. H had a witch’s own knack for sniffing out what the earth had to give up. The notion of a sapphire rush brewing in the Beartooth Range pricked up the north of that comstock-compass stuck in his heart. All the way out in San Francisco he felt the rumble of the shine.
And off we go.

I've said before that Valente is a favorite phrasewright of mine, and I've read enough of her books to know that she and I share a taste for the image that strikes the tiny knife-edge balance between lush and purple. I know also that her storyteller's eye is unerring, and that her vision of what makes a story worth telling is 20/20. She loves the stories that underpin the bland-, the dry-, the melba-toasty-ness of modern literature. The fairy tales, the myths, the folk stories that kept folk enraptured as the details piled up, and the words wove their nets, and the piles of details fell on you and knocked you into the wordnet and the storyteller, with that unerring eye, shot you through the heart with an ending.
Mr. H encountered the woman who would be his first wife by chance alone. She turned up like an ace of spades in the general store, trading elk meat for cotton cloth and buttons. Her brother, who had shot the beast, escorted her. But the girl did the bargaining. She had good English and did not like the owner of the general store.

The terrible covetous heart of Mr. H immediately conceived a starvation for the girl not lesser in might than his thirst for sapphires or gold. In the lamplight her hair had the very color of coal, plaited in two long braids and swept up at the brow into what I have heard called a pompadour. Her dark mouth was a cut garnet, her skin rich copper, her eyes black diamonds for true. She looked over her shoulder at him and her body hardened to run if such became necessary. Mr. H took this slight stiffening as a sign that his feeling was returned.
And thus The End. Wait, what? This is the beginning! Ah yes, well observed. The beginning of a finely crafted story is also the ending, both of itself and of the earlier story that precedes the story, because there is no beginning and there is no ending. Except in stories. And never in stories.

So it's there, in the space defined by the story and its ending and the ending and its story, there is where Valente writes her beautiful sentences and tells her well-made tales and gives the reader whose heart hasn't sized itself down to hold only the ghostly, pallid, dust-flavored ephemera of "reality" a chance to exult in landscapes that even physics is finally catching on to. Go look up the myth of Indra's Web and then watch The Elegant Universe if you think I'm blowing smoke.
By now I expect you are shaking your head and tallying up on your fingers the obvious and ungraceful lies of my story. Well, I have told it straight. A body can only deliver up the truth its bones know. Its blood which is its history. My body is my truth...
So many more. Many phrases speaking truths I knew but didn't know I knew, and plucking bright moments from the stream of consciousness that is all of life. I could, I suppose, copy-and-paste the whole novella excerpt here as a kind of meta-review, a review that reviews by simple mirroring. I think they call it plagiarism, though, and there are lots of folks who frown mightily on that, not least (I feel morally certain) Author Catherynne M. Valente, owner of the copyright to these quoted words. But believe me when I tell you that, unless there is no lock inside you that, when properly keyed, opens a door into the icy hot bath of wonder, you'd like it best if I said nothing and Valente said it all.

Why, since I'm blowing big and hot like Old Faithful, am I not giving the excerpt I read five whole, shiny stars? Why deduct that parsimonious, pursey-mouthed tenth of a goddamned star? Because, as beautiful and as delightful as the reading experience was, I am happy and I am refreshed but I am not looking at the world through altered eyes. The fifth full star is for books that mark changes in my life, delivered by them. I give comparatively few five-star ratings because there aren't that many moments in a normal, non-schizophrenic soul's life.
Once, I took a bead on a seagull and shot it plumb out of the sky. I did not expect to come close to it. As soon as it dropped down toward the sea my heart fell through a hole in my chest. I looked for the bird all over the meadowy grass, crying miserable. The sun set my tears to boiling. I talked myself into the notion that I would find the seagull wounded through the wing and keep her and mend her and teach her to love humans and live in a house. She would help me and bring me fish and be my companion. She would sleep in my bed with her soft head against my shoulder.

I found the poor bird down at the bottom of a green hill. I had put my bullet straight through her black eye.

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

SOLO by Rana Dasgupta...lovely and unsettling, unnerving and deeply satisfying


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
various prices, now out of print

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: With an imaginative audacity and lyrical brilliance that puts him in the company of David Mitchell and Alexander Hemon, Rana Dasgupta paints a portrait of a century though the story of a hundred-year-old blind Bulgarian man in a first novel that announces the arrival of an exhilarating new voice in fiction.

In the first movement of Solo we meet Ulrich, the son of a railroad engineer, who has two great passions: the violin and chemistry. Denied the first by his father, he leaves for the Berlin of Einstein and Fritz Haber to study the latter. His studies are cut short when his father’s fortune evaporates, and he must return to Sofia to look after his parents. He never leaves Bulgaria again. Except in his daydreams--and it is those dreams we enter in the volatile second half of the book. In a radical leap from past to present, from life lived to life imagined, Dasgupta follows Ulrich’s fantasy children, born of communism but making their way into a post-communist world of celebrity and violence.

Intertwining science and heartbreak, the old world and the new, the real and imagined, Solo is a virtuoso work.

My Review: It's very tough to reduce this book to a synopsis. Ulrich, born in the dawning years of the 20th century in Sofia, Bulgaria, is the thwarted and stunted son of a Germanophile railway engineer. His Philistine father and dreamy mother battle their lives away, not listening or hearing or caring; they end up deaf. Ulrich ends up unable to feel, to engage with life, or to make sense of the world. His wife and son vanish; his career grows ever thicker and more ungainly to fill the space; then, one day, it too vanishes. What he is left with, after a lifetime of failure and eventual blindness, He is a void encompassed by flesh. He is one hundred when we meet him. His slow, exquisite dis-integration is the resolution of the story of his is the final act of a mind unable to bear frictionless, affectless existence one more second.

It is beautiful. Rana Dasgupta, the author of Solo, is only now forty. I hate his skinny ass. This is the book James Joyce would've written if he'd ever found his way past the success of the tedious and pretentious Ulysses. And here this guy with a short story collection under his belt unrolls this gorgeous Caucasian carpet of a book before he's forty! Hate is so mild a term for the envious longing and shivering, ecstatic loathing that possesses me as I read his sentences, and twine myself about his fractal geometry of a story.

Rather than try to make things clear to you myself, let me quote to you from pp334-335 of the book:
"He was like the other half of myself," says Boris...Ulrich says, "You haven't lost {him}, you know. I don't know if it helps to say that. I lost a friend once myself, and I know how it goes.
"He'll find his way inside you, and you'll carry him onward. Behind your heartbeat, you'll hear another one, faint and out of step. People will say you are speaking his opinons, or your hair has turned like his.
"There are no more facts about him -- that part is over. Now is the time for essential things...Gradually you'll grow older than him, and love him as your son.
"You'll live astride the line that separates life from death. You'll become experienced in the wisdom of grief. You won't wait until people die to grieve for them; you'll give them their grief while they are still alive, for then judgment falls away, and there remains only the miracle of being."

In reading that passage again, I feel like Annie Dillard's bell..."it was as though I had lived my entire life as a bell and never known it until I was struck"...and I finally unraveled the book I'd read: Meditation on failure and grief? No; not that; a more subtle and wonderful thing: Like "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", a shout in the face of closed minds to open, to live, to exist fully if only for one glittering moment.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

THE WARDEN (Chronicles of Barsetshire #1)

Oxford University Press
$9.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The Warden centers on Mr. Harding, a clergyman of great personal integrity who is nevertheless in possession of an income from a charity far in excess of the sum devoted to the purposes of the foundation. On discovering this, young John Bold turns his reforming zeal to exposing what he regards as an abuse of privilege, despite the fact that he is in love with Mr. Harding's daughter Eleanor. It was a highly topical novel (a case regarding the misapplication of church funds was the scandalous subject of contemporary debate), but like other great Victorian novelists, Trollope uses the specific case to explore and illuminate the universal complexities of human motivation and social morality.

My Review: First read in the 1980s, during the first Reagan Administration, I was struck at how little things had changed in the past 130 years. Mr. Bold's lawsuit and its unintended consequences, the fuss and kerfuffle over the uses of “public” (really now, could the specific bequest of a trust to support a charitable activity and administered by the church be considered public today?) funds in a manner the onlooker simply didn't like...think Chrysler bailout, but not International Harvester or US Steel...all of this resonated with me.

Eleanor Harding was no one's fool, hooking up with that pill of the first water John Bold! And I have to say that the portrait of Dickens as Mr. Popular Sentiment made me chortle.

But on re-reading the book in 2012...well...the magic eluded me. I think this was a book that needed the element of not knowing the ending to make the events fun. Since I knew already who was going to do what, I had no huge amount of interest in following the path laid out for me. It was still amusing. It wasn't ever gripping, but it was involving. Now, after 30 years, much of what took place had fled from my head until the words hit my eyes. But as they returned, it was as blocks and lumps and boulders, not flowing back into the river of my thoughts like cool springs and bright brooks.

Good Victorian stodge. But once was enough.

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Friday, March 14, 2014

2014 Novella Nebula Award candidate reading continues: TRIAL OF THE CENTURY by Lawrence M. Schoen

TRIAL OF THE CENTURY (Conroyverse #1.5)

Hadley Rille Books
Free Download at link

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Slipping in just under the 2013 wire, I’m pleased to announce the release most recent novella, “Trial of the Century,” in which the Amazing Conroy must seek out assistance from the Arconi — the same aliens he ripped off in the very beginning by smuggling a fertile buffalo dog to break their monopoly and build his financial empire. They’re his only hope to awaken Reggie from the coma that I left him in at the end of book one.

My Review: Up for a 2014 Novella Nebula! That's a big deal. The novella was published in a small-press multi-author collection, but the author has quite wisely elected to provide the potential voting public with access to the story in PDF, MOBI, and EPUB formats (see the link above).

I haven't had the pleasure of reading the author's previous Conroyverse tales, but will as soon as they arrive. Every award season should contain a fun and amusing discovery, and this was it for me. Schoen has created a very appealing, slightly louche, and vaguely dishonest stage hypnotist-turned-rat-bastad-capitalist-billionaire pet lover in Conroy. His buffalo dog Reggie is the love of his life, it seems, and the coma mentioned above is causing him untold miseries and lost sleep. Well, dog-loving Jindohead that I am, what could be more precisely aimed at my softest spot? There is no smallest doubt that I was going to read this!

And I did, knowing it was an interstitial not-quite-novel intended to plug a plot hole in the much-longer main Conroyverse narrative. What I gleaned from the read is that this is old-fashioned science fiction, multiple species and FTL travel and all that wonderful, bygone stuff. The buffalito (another and apparently interchangeable name for buffalo dogs) is a species controlled by the Arconi, who appear to be galactic Puritans not only incapable of telling lies (try to imagine civilization without the ability to jolly your mate along with periodic strategic misdirections!) but perfectly able to tell when you are lying...they're telempathic.


So the buffalitos are the Universe's most useful animals, sweet scruffy furry little puppydoggish beings that eat anything, literally anything at all, and produce oxygen from it. Now where do I place my order for about 50? Conroy having smuggled Reggie off Arcon, he builds an empire based on Reggie's fertility producing more and more buffalitos and hands the Arconi their teeth in the scramble for more clients!

They are Not Amused. They destroy Conroy's rival business empire, force him to flee for his life, and as he's now an entertainer on an intergalactic cruise liner, he's in a position to keep ahead of the Puritan bastards.

Until his beloved Reggie falls into that coma. And the Arconi come to "help him" fix taking him back to Arcon and putting him on trial for crimes against the Arconi economy.

Since this is all before book 2 in the series, we know he wins his trial and Reggie comes out of the coma, but the how is an amusing meditation on the many techniques of lying a human has in his quiver. Lying by omission, misdirecting attention, answering a question with a question...none of these are LIES so they don't register as lies with these aliens.

Much amusement and chuckling. Many rueful pursings of the lips. A few impatient snorts. But all in all, this novella served me best by introducing me to Schoen's humorous revival of Golden-Agey SF with all the wild-black-yonder any adventure traveler in an armchair could want. Considered as a separate entity, the novella is lacking in suspense, as it's clear what the outcome will be; but the manner in which we get there is good fun.

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Thursday, March 13, 2014

BURNING GIRLS by Veronica Schanoes, as concetrated and as powerful as any ancient fairy tale

Free Kindle download

Rating: 4.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Burning Girls by Veronica Schanoes is a fascinating dark fantasy novella about a Jewish girl educated by her grandmother as a healer and witch growing up in an increasingly hostile environment in Poland in the late nineteenth century. In addition to the natural danger of destruction by Cossacks, she must deal with a demon plaguing her family.

At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.

My Review: Most fairy tales, myths, folk stories, and the like have gone through the lapidary process of retelling and refining to fit the mouths of many generations, each with its own set of prejudices and needs. Writers building on this huge pile of glittering gems are able to take shortcuts and make vague gestures, sure that wide swathes of their audience will catch the nuances and those that don't won't care too much.

It was doubly welcome, then, that Schanoes made it her business to avoid the lazy and (I don't doubt) tempting "look! look! I got this idea here!" gestures. Instead she uses the fine word-instruments with sharp points that create the facets in a fiery gem of story. Her retelling of a long-beloved folk tale will surprise you, so I won't give away its source. What I will say is, when the big reveal came, I was dreading and expecting it, the story had taken its final switchback turn of inevitability, and I was just hanging on to the hope that, by some miracle of authorial will, that last, smallest chink of light wouldn't...

...but you know, stories have their own gravity, they obey a physics that won't be denied, and Fate simply Is.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

WAKULLA SPRINGS, a novella up for a and atmospheric and good fun

$2.99 Kindle Single, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Wakulla Springs, in the deep jungle of the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. And that's just the local human beings over the last seventy-five years. Then there are the prehistoric creatures...and, just maybe, something else.

Ranging from the late 1930s to the present day, Wakulla Springs is a tour de force of the human, the strange, and the miraculous.

At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.

My Review: This novella, approximately 99 pages, was free because of its nominated for a 2014 Nebula award. While I liked the story a lot, and saw the good writing and the deft plotting, I don't see how on earth it's SFnal but horrorful.

I was very taken with the multi-generational premise. We travel from mother to son to granddaughter to mother again, and that kind of structure mirrors many of my experiences of the world: We frequently return to origin points to discover, to nourish, to measure ourselves against a yardstick we know others in our personal world have used before us. The fact that the yardstick is Olde Tyme Movies made it more fun for me. I like the 1930s and 1940s B-movies because, like TV shows in our day and age, they represent the low culture, the mass market, the common sensibility of their time. It's fascinating to compare the bugaboos and the stereotypes of those times to our own times.

So as we visit the deeply circumscribed world of African-American women under Jim Crow laws, moving to the early civil rights struggle, and finally to the modern era's deep concern with the environment...the highlights of the past 75 years...I was carried along as characters I liked and admired did their best and lived their lives and made their peace with what life handed them, and made the best and the most of what that had to offer.

At novella length, there isn't room to do much more than rough in the kind of shades and shadows that make a novel such a satisfying read. The authors did a very good job of this indeed.
The last of the sun touched the very tops of the trees; everything else was shadows. Then even that light faded, the blue of the sky deepened, and the stars began to wink on. The moon rose over a bend in the river, and a trickle of white light made a river of its own, sparkling down the middle of the dark water.
All around her the grass and trees were a-hum with the soft shirring of unseen creatures. Mayola remembered what Odell had said in his tourist voice, about the fairies that lived deep below in the springs. In the daylight, she had known it for a tale, but now it seemed like it might really be true.
But the form "novella" means, by definition, less room to maneuver, and so these moments are like Florida's hammocks...bits of solid land amid a watery world. The trip is an eventful one, like any visit to an untamed landscape is. The events aren't all equal heights, either. They shouldn't be, of course, but the abandonment of the setting so lovingly described for the built environment, and not the nice part of it, in Los Angeles feels like the brakes of a jetliner do when you're landing in one: crunchbouncebouncescreeeeeeeewhoooooompaaaannnnnd stop. When the shift happened, I mentally dropped the book to three stars in sheer annoyance.

I was grudgingly adding back a half-star for the authors' continuing to follow the thread of monster-movie/Hollywood film/civil rights, in spite of the annoyance I felt at the change of scene, when the last chapter came along and back I was in Wakulla Springs.

Ah. Yes. That's better.

And the ending itself, the last paragraph of the tale, left me with a smile and an appreciative murmur of praise. Don't read this paragraph if you're spoilerphobic:
And beneath the river's surface, a creature reached for Anna's boat with a webbed hand, its talons approaching the metal hull. Then it changed its mind and kicked away, back down into the depths where it dwelled, away from the light.
That's a very apt, fitting, suitable ending for this tale of place and personhood and the world's infinite mystery. For all we look and study and learn and classify, there's always a deep place that is itself, and not ours nor any of our kind's business.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

BRIDGE OF SNOW by Marie Rutkoski...short, lovely, moving

Free, online only

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Ignore the stirrings of war. Let the carriage to a royal ball wait. There is a story to be told: of a starless night, a mother and her sick son, and a mortal who falls in love with the snow god, and will do anything to have her...

Read “Bridge of Snow,” which is set in the world of Rutkoski's newest novel The Winner's Curse.

My Review: Some days, my friends, are made for storybooks and fairy tales and the quiet words of mothers to their children. This day was one of them.

I saw a mention of this story on BookLikes and, feeling mildly annoyed at life as well as sore of hands so unable to hold my usual sovereign rememdy a book, decided to read it in spite of the fact that fantasy and I are old and cold enemies. That was a good decision. The story is a slice of life, a moment in time that any one of us will, most likely anyway, relate to from one or both perspectives. We've all been children, and I hope against hope cherished by one, both, all three four or five of our parents; many of us have had the role of parent too. And the moment in time that this story reveals is a simple and profound one: What is my place in the Universe? Where do I belong, who do I belong to?

Both people in this story discover the answer to that nested set of questions is more profound and more flexible than we think it is, and more difficult to express openly and honestly. Paradoxically, it is more important than mere words can convey to say the truth and the whole of it. There is never a sure thing in life. Say what you need to say, now.

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