Sunday, August 31, 2014

THREE ACT TRAGEDY, mystery that lives up to its name

THREE ACT TRAGEDY (Hercule Poirot #11)

William Morrow
$6.64 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: At an apparently respectable dinner party, a vicar is the first to die...Thirteen guests arrived at dinner at the actor's house. It was to be a particularly unlucky evening for the mild-mannered Reverend Stephen Babbington, who choked on his cocktail, went into convulsions and died. But when his martini glass was sent for chemical analysis, there was no trace of poison -- just as Poirot had predicted. Even more troubling for the great detective, there was absolutely no motive!

My Review: This review is of the novel, eleventh in the series, and of the twelfth-season film adaptation for Agatha Christie's Poirot. They earn the same rating.

What a beautiful-looking film this is! The setting in Cornwall is stunning, and the house they chose for Sir Charles is breathtaking! The story is the same in both media, omitting the unnecessary written character of Satterthwaite as a less dimwitted version of Hastings.

Babbington's death is only the first of three apparently utterly unrelated murders. The second murder is horribly upsetting to all the characters. The third is simply incomprehensible to mere mortals...Poirot, of course, sees it in its proper light almost immediately. When the killer is unmasked, it is a bad, bad day for Poirot and a painful and frightening awakening for the younger characters in the story.

But the murders and the motives survive intact between the media. There isn't any need to change all that much in this installment of the series; no one's motives are altered and no action omitted. And that is a very good thing. I really enjoy a puzzler, and this one was. The ending is better on film because of Suchet's pitch-perfect delivery of his last line.

But all in all, the reason I like the story so much is that the older, distinguished gentleman gets the young and comely love-object because he is, simply put, irresistible. As we were watching along, my (absurdly younger) Gentleman Caller started to giggle. He noticed the plot point, and was highly amused that I'd suggested we watch this particular episode. I like that about him, that he sees the humor that I see.

Another delightful outing for the Little Gray Cells. Each version is a treat. Pick one, or do as I do and savor both.

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CARDS ON THE TABLE, a delightful psychological mystery book and film

CARDS ON THE TABLE (Hercule Poirot #15)

William Morrow
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It was the match-up of the century: four sleuths--Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard; Mrs. Ariadne Oliver, famed writer of detective stories; Col. Race of His Majesty's Secret Service; and the incomparable Hercule Poirot - invited to play bridge with four specially invited guests, each of whom had gotten away with murder! But before the first rubber was completed, the host was dead.

My Review: This review is of Christie's novel and the tenth-season film adaptation for Agatha Christie's Poirot. They earn the same rating.

One of the ways couples reinforce their pair bond is shared entertainment. My Gentleman Caller and I read a lot; I'm a big mystery fan, where he is less interested in the genre. We both enjoy mystery movies a good deal, though, and the Poirot series especially. Through the amazing and wonderful Internet, we can watch episodes together, discussing them in real time, or just canoodling in cyberspace. I think I'd go bonkers if I didn't have my fix of looking at his face this way.

So this evening we watched two of the movies. First up was this very entertaining adaptation of Christie's novel of psychology. Ariadne Oliver, an author surrogate character for Mrs. Christie herself, makes her first filmed and literary appearance here. Zoë Wanamaker is a wonderful choice to play Mrs. Oliver, being husky-voiced and of a distinctive and memorable appearance. It's one of the pleasures of the films that the actors cast in Christie's roles are uniformly excellent craftspeople, and Wanamaker is no exception.

In watching this adaptation, I felt a wee bit seasick. All the roles were there, just as in the book; but they had different names, unrecognizable motives, and switched-up personae. Colonel Race, a recurring Christie character, is called something else although it's only his name that's different. Rhoda and Anne completely switch purposes, though I have no earthly notion why. The motivation for the central murder is *completely* unrecognizable. It would, in fact, have been impossible for Christie to write it in 1935 and get the book published. The Superintendent is renamed and good gracious me how he is changed up! I mean to tell you, Ma Christie would likely be apoplectic over this particular bit of modification.

The victim, Mr. Shaitana, is portrayed by Alexander Siddig, who enacted the role of Doctor Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine about twenty years ago. I hadn't recalled that the man was so very tall and so very lean. As Shaitana, a furriner and an ethnic in racist 1930s London, he (Siddig) is perfectly chosen: He looks exotic and strange, skin of brown and eyes of green and wardrobe chosen to exaggerate the actor's dramatic silhouette. Mrs. Oliver as a stand-in for Christie herself comments on his foreignness by saying he "gives {her} the jitters." Really. Yech.

The mundane murder motive in the novel is considerably spicier in the film, and actually more fun for this modern audience of two. The book presents a more complete Christieverse experience, drawing the four sleuths and one suspect from the well she reused freely. Each decision has its advantages; on the whole, I can't say that one of the media is preferable to the other. I, and certainly my Gentleman Caller, don't subscribe to the Purity Test for films. The source material will always be altered to suit the demands of the medium. That's the way it works, and more often than not has to; not infrequently the adapted film is superior to the source material, if rabid ardent nut-level fans would simply see it. (And of course there are reverse cases by the scores, it's not a one-way street by any means.)

This film, substantially altered from an excellent novel, finds a different and equal excellence. The spirit of the story is intact, and is well served by the changes made for film. And as always, the role of Poirot is complete and entire in David Suchet's hands. And mincing feet. And waxed mustache. The story, either medium, is delicious and savory and a treat not to be denied oneself.

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William Morrow
$3.99 Kindle edition, availble now

Rating: 5* of five, mostly for the Agatha Christie's Poirot adaptation

The Publisher Says: Just after midnight, a snowdrift stopped the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train was surprisingly full for the time of the year. But by the morning there was one passenger fewer. A passenger lay dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times, his door locked from the inside.

My Review: Well, that was a concise-to-the-point-of-terseness summary. But I suspect most of us who are voracious or even simply serious readers of mystery fiction don't need too much more than that to recall the details to mind.

The novel, published in 1934, is a bit of a stretch for a modern mystery-reader's sense of fair play. Poirot's famous/infamous "little gray cells" are pumpin' full-bore and lead him to near-miraculous feats of deduction. The novel's Poirot is, at the end, almost cavalier about the hugely out-of-character ending. It almost feels as if Christie said to herself, "Self, I've had enough of this character's ethics and am writing MY ending not his."

Her book, her rules.

The filmed version offers more scope for fair play with the reader as Poirot is seen to do things and discover things that lead him to a startling and evidently disturbing conclusion. In keeping with the films' expansion of the Poirot character, the book's resolution is more nuanced, and affords a modern viewer more satisfaction in that the character of Poirot is clearly emotionally involved in the murder's resolution and becomes a richer, more relatable person as a result.

Both versions of the story are so improbable as to be absurd, on the face of it. But in a world run on decent principles, such a story and such a resolution would be more common than not. I feel very Old-Testament-y about people who harm children or animals for cruelty or sport.

The film's other deviations from the novel are also deepening the sense of Poirot's reality as a person, and indicative of just how very surprising this ending is within the understanding Christie has given us of Poirot's essential relationship to crime-solving. A scene at the beginning of the film, between Poirot and a soldier, is particularly important in setting the tone for this story's exceptional place in the Poirot canon. Another early scene in Istanbul is, in my opinion, gratuitous; well conceived, but not necessary, and frankly unpleasant in the light it sheds on Poirot.

But the sheer visual beauty of this film! The pitch-perfect Poirot of David Suchet! Ah mes amis, this is the treat most exceptional, this feast is the repast most gustatorial for the lover of the how you call a crime drama. It is the pleasure most complete. Replenish yourselves and your little gray cells!

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

WHY ARE YOU SO SAD?, or Updike's Rabbit in the 21st century


Plume Books
$4.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Have we all sunken into a species-wide bout of clinical depression?

Porter’s uproarious, intelligent debut centers on Raymond Champs, an illustrator of assembly manuals for a home furnishings corporation, who is charged with a huge task: To determine whether or not the world needs saving. It comes to him in the midst of a losing battle with insomnia — everybody he knows, and maybe everybody on the planet, is suffering from severe clinical depression. He’s nearly certain something has gone wrong. A virus perhaps. It’s in the water, or it’s in the mosquitoes, or maybe in the ranch flavored snack foods. And what if we are all too sad and dispirited to do anything about it? Obsessed as he becomes, Raymond composes an anonymous survey to submit to his unsuspecting coworkers — “Are you who you want to be?”, “Do you believe in life after death?”, “Is today better than yesterday?” — because what Raymond needs is data. He needs to know if it can be proven. It’s a big responsibility. People might not believe him. People, like his wife and his boss, might think he is losing his mind. But only because they are also losing their minds. Or are they?

Reminiscent of Gary Shteyngart, George Saunders, Douglas Coupland and Jennifer Egan, Porter’s debut is an acutely perceptive and sharply funny meditation on what makes people tick.


My Review
: Reading this book is like watching Jim Carrey play Rabbit Angstrom in a shelved TV pilot of Rabbit, Run. It's like reading John Updike's hitherto-unknown draft of a spec script called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It's quite similar to a lost Seinfeld episode in which George and Kramer get drunk and fool around...or was that an ayahuasca-fueled nightmare...?

I'm not quite sure why the publisher labeled this satire. It's black comedy, and quite dryly amusing in many spots. It's satirizing...what? Modern Society? Permaybehaps I'm no longer With It and don't get the satire. That's more than a little possible.

Porter has an MFA (ruh-roh, Raggy) from Hunter College and is blurbed by my dote Colum McCann. I entered these portals an eager acolyte in the making. I exited the service entrance wondering just how the hell I got onto the loading dock. The not-really-an-ending felt like I was here at the business end of the edifice but there wasn't a delivery truck in sight.

But two things have stuck with me, two contributions to my ever-smaller stock of Stuff I Want to Remember:
1) The image of happiness, complete and sincere and freshly made happiness, as like the feeling of putting new socks on clean feet. Can't pull the quote without spoilers. But the image is instantly relatable and also fresh (pun optional).
2) The Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory (how twelve-steppy I'm feeling today!) that Ray passes around in questionnaire form. I love it!
Why are you so sad?
Are you single?
Are you having an affair?
Are you who you want to be?
Would you prefer to be someone else?
Are you similar to the "you" you thought you would become when as a child you imagined your future self?
When was the last time you felt happy?
Was it a true, pure happy or a relative happy?
What does it feel like to get out of bed in the morning?
Do you realize you have an average of 11,000 to 18,250 mornings of looking in the mirror and wondering if people will find you attractive?
Do you think people will remember you after you die?
For how long after you die?
Do you believe in life after death?
Do you believe in life after God?
Are you for the chemical elimination of all things painful?
Do you think we need more sports?
Have you ever fallen in love?
If yes, were you surprised that it, like all other things, faded over time?
Do you hear voices?
It's like a sociology class exercise designed by someone who's drunk and lonely. I was bemused that this questionnaire was a central organizing device of the sort novel. It took up a lot of space that would have been more satisfactorily used in traditional means of character development, either of Ray himself, or the people answering his trippy survey. But it made me smile, of itself and as a shortcut to the purpose of making readers invest in the lovable loon that is Ray.

My life may not be changed by the book, but my smile muscles are exercised and my chuckle-box got wound up a time or three. I call that a win.

MOTHER OF A MACHINE GUN, a mother of a wallop in under 100pp


Lazy Fascist Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.95 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: What happens when a woman gives birth to a machine gun?

"Mother has something else to say but music won’t stop music is here to stay. For ‘music’, read language. In this headlong tumble of a novella, we see not only an (unhinged/possibly murderous) Mother searching for her (autistic/possibly murderous) son, but also we see language itself, banged up and tripping, a bleeding anatomy of Biblical, crime show, tabloid, service industry phrases joined into a body, hurtling towards impact, and wondering where its human inmates are."

—Joyelle McSweeney, author of Salamandrine: 8 Gothics

My Review: McSweeney's blurb strikes the perfect tone for this novella. Perfect, and no one really can do any better in summing up a work that clearly fell out of Seidlinger's head, sharp-edged and lethally shaped, whole and entire.

I've read three of Seidlinger's books, this being the second of them and The Fun We've Had being the first. I'm getting a picture here. A young man determinedly deconstructing identity. A tyro artist making big bold gestures in small constrained spaces. A soul in search of a mate.

So that's the art.

Now the craft: Every writer needs a trope. Seidlinger's is musical brevity. He'd be called a poet if he made less sense. It's to your taste or it's not, but it's a technique that feels to me organically arrived at, a natural result of being part of the zeitgeist this youth has sucked in with his breath and taken in with his mental food.

The short and virtually unpunctuated sentences of the piece aren't visually appealing to me. It looks like poetry, not a novel, when there is so much white space on a page, when the entire novella is only 90pp, when the one-line paragraphs are dotted hither and thither. I'm an older person, schooled in an older-still tradition of reading long, windy (both pronunciations and meanings) sentences and paragraphs and pages. I don't take to, appreciate, this technique naturally.

So I read it aloud. The dog doesn't much care. She pays attention to me while it suits her and then goes to sleep. Meanwhile the human is making noise, yeah well so what else is new.

I got a lot out of that exercise. I've come to know Michael a little, and appreciate how very hard he works to make the world around him more intense and interesting than it would otherwise be. I approve of this desire on his part, and enjoy the efforts he's made as a writer, an editor, and a publisher. Speaking aloud the words in this book made it clear to me what a scouring, cleansing thing it is to make a question out of an answer. Mother. Mother? The Mother A Mother Some Mother...and to make a question out of the verb forms of this frighteningly large concept, Mother: to Mother, to Be A Mother...activities, identities, aspirations, longings...and the object of Mother is Son. Matthew. Some mother's son. The object of mothering, the subject of being a mother.

I suspect sons wonder more about mothers and mothering than daughters, potential/actual/present mothers, do; we will never know motherhood, the condition of Mother. Daughters can be mothers, even if they choose not to be. It's a mystery sons can't enter into, and many of us wish we could comprehend it better. We would be free of Mother if we could, we tell ourselves, free at last! So what does Seidlinger do with his Mother angst? What an artist does with every lump in the throat: Speaks it into being, limns it onto the air, strokes it onto pages physical or virtual.

Reading this Mother's journey around the bend, I Mothered myself. I found it good.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

THE ADVENTURE OF THE CHEAP FLAT, Poirot episode & story

THE ADVENTURE OF THE CHEAP FLAT (Hercule Poirot short story; Agatha Christie's Poirot second season episode)

Witness Impulse
99¢ Kindle Single, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A classic Agatha Christie short story, available individually for the first time as an ebook.

Poirot is fascinated by Hastings’ talk of an unusually ‘dirt cheap’ flat in an expensive part of London. With his suspicion aroused Poirot cannot resist investigating, much to Hastings’ dismay who thinks nothing of it…

My Review: The Kindle Single is 99¢; the Agatha Christie's Poirot episode from the second season is free on Acorn TV.

Honestly, Christie was a snobbish pill, wasn't she. Such a horrible opinion of Americans, of all foreigners apparently, and it makes some of her stuff not fun to read. This one, short as it is, caused me agita twice...the American chanteuse and the FBI agent in the filmed version are take-offs of Christie's musical-comedy versions of the New York Italian in the story...and the very Christie-ish withholding of knowledge from the reader. How does Poirot know about the espionage case? Ant any rate, I like the filmed version a good deal better. That's becoming the norm for me with Ma Christie.

This second-season one-hour episode is more fleshed out and fully realized than the story, as is to be expected; but it also offers a bit more fair play for the viewer than the reader, as we learn with Poirot and Hastings the workings of international "cooperation" involving the case. Still, the offensiveness of the American stereotypes prevents me from rating this any higher than I have, and honesty prevents me from giving in to my displeasure and downrating an involving and interesting episode in the TV series below this.

But I really want to.

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Saturday, August 23, 2014

THE MAN WHO BRIDGED THE MIST, Hugo & Nebula Best Novella Winner


Author's Website
Free Download!

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The river of Mist, an almost living organism, divides the Empire in two. A few Ferries make dangerous and treacherous journeys across the Mist when they can, trusting in good fortune and the uncanny skills of those plying the trade. *** A bridge across the Mist will greatly ease the suffering of those who risk crossing the river. The last bridge builder sent by the Empire died while building it. *** Kit now comes to the town of Nearside to complete the task left unfinished by the dead bridge builder. Will he be the man who will finally bridge the Mist?

This novella won both the Nebula and the Hugo Awards for Best Novella of 2011.

My Review: My Goodreads friend Nataliya recommended this novella to me today. The title, as beautiful and evocative as this author's debut collection of short fiction's was (At the Mouth of the River of Bees), hooked me; the Doc's warble of rapture sealed the deal.
There was for everything a possibility, an invisible pattern that could be made manifest given work and the right materials.
Bless you, dear Doc, bless you and those whose hurts and harms you heal with that magiqckal ability to see and fix a pattern. This story was a piece of my own pattern that was missing, and you gave it to me.

This tale of a man in a world not entirely like our own, a man whose purpose is to function and whose function is to build, that needs a way to communicate and connect its parts. Technology isn't advanced, and there's not even a HINT of majgicqk to sully the handsome, spare caternary curve of the story. It is a story of a world beset by troubles we know bone-deep, connection and confusion and longing and fear. And every character, no matter how fleeting their time or how small their space on the page, carries the weight of their piece of the pattern fairly and squarely. This is how I know I'm in the presence of top-quality writing. I see the pattern, I sense the supporting structure, and I am still *in* the story. Many writers write lovely sentences and many others imagine some strong characters, relatable and investible, and many many more create stories that bind and grip and sweep and carry me away. A very few do two of these things, and a vanishingly small number do them all. In this work, Johnson has done them all.

In a fortyish-page novella, five years of toil and change and death and learning fold into a structure as deceptively simple as an origami crane. The slow and unhurried pace at which the folds present themselves belies the time it took to craft them as well as the conciseness of their delivery. It is never easy to be brief. It is much more demanding to satisfy the jaded, spoiled-for-choice reader in a compact package.
“The soul often hangs in a balance of some sort. Tonight do I lie down in the high fields with Dirk Tanner or not? At the fair, do I buy ribbons or wine? For the new ferry’s headboard, do I use camphor or pearwood? Small things. A kiss, a ribbon, a grain that coaxes the knife this way or that. They are not, Kit Meinem of Atyar. Our souls wait for our answer because any answer changes us. This is why I wait to decide what I feel about your bridge. I’m waiting until I know how I will be changed.”
“You never know how things will change you,” Kit said.
“If you don’t, you have not waited to find out.”
Simple, direct, truthful, and (for me anyway) resonant with truth.

Perhaps the defining moment of the story, the bridging of the Mist River, came for me when Kit and Rasali experience a deeply, intensely frightening encounter with the Mist. Reflecting on it, and on the death that comes for us all at some time we can't know for sure, Kij Johnson rang my eyes like gongs:
“If {Death} comes for you?” he said. “Would you be so sanguine then?”
She laughed and the pensiveness was gone. “No indeed. I will curse the stars and go down fighting. But it will still have been a wonderful thing, to cross the mist.”
Won't it, though?

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Friday, August 22, 2014

GREYBEARD, childless post-apocalyptic Earth--chilling


Open Road Media (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$7.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Human reproduction has ceased and society slowly spirals in this “adult Lord of the Flies” by a Grand Master of Science Fiction (San Francisco Chronicle).

After the “Accident,” all males on Earth become sterile. Society ages and falls apart bit by bit. First, toy companies go under. Then record companies. Then cities cease to function. Now Earth’s population lives in spread‑out, isolated villages, with its youngest members in their fifties. When the people of Sparcot begin to make claims of gnomes and man‑eating rodents lurking around their village, Greybeard and his wife set out for the coast with the hope of finding something better.

My Review: The sombre story of a group of people in their fifties who face the fact that there is no younger generation coming to replace them; instead nature is rushing back to obliterate the disaster they have brought on themselves. Was slighty revised by the author in 2012. First published in 1964, at the tail end of one of the scariest passages during the Cold War, this post-apocalyptic look at the resilience and the lack of same in the human spirit was involving and affecting. It was also a disorganized mess.

spoilers! here be spoilers!

Chapters 1-3 take place in 2025 and on, or the mid-point of the story. Chapter 4 takes place as the world finds its way through the crisis. Chapter 5 has us back in about 2030...Chapter 6 is early days of the Accident, as the sterilization of Earth's humans is called...and then back to 2030 in Chapter 7. It's kind of a confused way to tell a story. Not that it's a complicated story, but it's always nice to have things move along in sequence when there's no reason, stylistic or otherwise, for them not to.

Aldiss' Introduction to the 2012 edition tells of the genesis of the story...a divorce, a general reduction of his life to solitude, and a desperate yearning for his lost kids...and I must say that this Introduction is what kept me going for the whole short 237ish pages. I could relate to his sense of loss and his almost desperate longing. I looked for those things in his text and really didn't find them too terribly often. Many things occur in the book, but few of them happen, if you see what I mean; Greybeard, the main character, and Martha, Greybeard's wife, aren't prone to overstatement. Jeff, a character whose slippery presence is highly emotionally charged, makes little impact in the end. Charley, the dopey religious nut, isn't much of a shakes for shakin' stuff up either. Dr. Jingadangelow (!) the snake oil salesman is fun...I picture Eddie Izzard playing the role in a movie...but rattles on and rockets off ballistically.

I didn't love the book, but it's got at its heart a futureless bleakness that I myownself resonate with. After 50-plus years and despiter a relatively recent revisuion, the Accident's specifics don't quite line up with reality. I really have no smallest problem imagining specifics that end us up in the same narrative place. One day soon, y'all should go read Sir Roy Calne's book Too Many People. I can see that causing the Accident with all too great a clarity of inner vision.

On the low end of the recommend-to-others scale, and then only to those who like post-apocalyptic stories.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

THE ZONA, post-apocalyptic excellence

Nathan Yocum

Curiosity Quills Press
$4.99 Kindle, $12.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: The Storms came, and with them disease and blight like mankind had never experienced. Most died, and those who didn't were quick to scramble for weapons, wealth, and control. Petty lords gave way to new societies, and from the ashes of old came the Reformed Arizona Theocracy, or simply put, the Zona. The laws are simple, all sins are punished swiftly and violently. The enforcers, otherwise known as Preachers, roam the lands hunting disgraced men and women. But what happens when Preachers stop killing? What happens when men of honor take a stand against their rulers?

The Zona is the debut novel by award winning screenwriter Nathan L. Yocum. Cover art by Peter Schumann.

My Review: Lead is a Preacher in the service of the Reformed Theocracy of Arizona...The Zona...which means he seeks out those lost in sin and error and delivers them, either to Purgatory or to Heaven. No trial is needed, no expiation is offered, the Church has decreed them marked (the Mark of Cain) and so Lead (so nicknamed because he was in Lead Group Two during the Battle for Las Vegas, which ended in nuclear conflagration thanks to the Mormons attacking The Zona's foot army and the People's Republic of Northern California's air force, all supposed allies in the cleansing of sin from the face of the earth) may execute his duty with impunity and without stain on his soul.

He shoots them dead on the spot, or he takes them to the foulest prison imaginable, there to die. In God's name let it be done.

You will by now have perceived that this is not the world of 2012. It is a post-Apocalyptic world, one in which The Storms have ended technological civilization, and the survivors of the initial climate apocalypse next faced catastrophic pole shift, then myriad plagues. In the space of about thirty years, humanity's glittering edifice of civilization has utterly vanished. In its place are a few shattered remnants of humankind, struggling to eke out minimum survival and to make some tiny degree of sense out of this tragedy. Up rears the Church, using its time-tested lies and bullshit to harass and hector the shocked walking wounded into a herd, dedicated to the preservation and future wealth of...the Church. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

So Lead hunts down Preacher Terence, for reasons he doesn't know...he's never told why he's going after a mark, it would only confuse his purpose...and the unthinkable happens. Lead talks to Terence, Lead listens to Terence, and Lead, for the first time since his plague-victim mother dropped dead in the fugee camp and left him to starve or not as best he could, Lead thinks. Why, he thinks., Why, he wonders. Why, he asks, am I killing people to save them? Am I saving them, or damning myself? Is this what God wants of me? Terence, who traveled this road before Lead, answers, “It's what the Church wants, and the Church is not God.”

And there it is, the basis of heresy, and it lights a rocket in Lead's soul that propels the plot into its fast, furious, fiery hot trajectory as Lead and Terence form a little family, attempt to escape the Church and its hideous, hateful strictures, share their horrific pasts (each was, in his own way, part of the Cleansing at Las Vegas, and it left them both irredeemably scarred), and evade their Crusader pursuit team.

The journey to redemption is never easy. It takes its toll on the heartiest and healthiest of men. It leads Lead through the Purgatory he sent other men to, and it sends him, naked and frightened and covered in filth, on a pilgrimage through the desert seeking New Pueblo, a purported Land of Milk and Honey, where the Old Ways still exist.

The first paragraph of the book is what did it for me. I mean, completely hooked me like I was a marlin and it was the goddamned Old Man from that Hemingway farrago.

Lead woke with the sun peeling his eyelids back like the tips of God’s fingers.  His vision shifted to focus on the haze of brown earth and the beige nothing of sand and grit.  His wrists were bound together on the other side of a sandstone boulder, pulled to an excruciating limit, shoulders popped and throbbing.  His beaten face felt like a mask worn off-center, swollen and repugnant.

I like post-Apocalyptic literature, and this novel is some good-quality stuff for my fix. It's a lot like The Road meets A Canticle for Leibowitz to produce a bastard Earth Abides. Author Yocum has a lot to be proud of in this book, and its periodic infelicities of punctuation and occasional lapses into wrong-worditis are readily overlookable because, for heaven's sake, this story is SCARILY PLAUSIBLE. Like “where did this dude get the time machine” plausible. And it's written quite well. And it's paced to maximize excitement. And it's character-development arcs are beautifully calculated to give the minor characters depth and major characters motivation and not bring the bus to a juddering halt during the info-dumps.

Applause, applause, Mr. Yocum, and may you get a mini-series contract from Starz to develop this into a multi-episode successor to The Stand yesterday at the latest. I downloaded the Kindle freebie at about 11am and did not stop reading until I was done. That's how exciting I found this book.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

RIVER OF GODS, India in 2047 brilliantly limned by an Irish dude

Ian McDonald

Pyr SF
$26.00 hardcover, $17.00 trade paper, available now
Kindle edition of this wrist-sprainer is $7.49! (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: As Mother India approaches her centenary, nine people are going about their business—a gangster, a cop, his wife, a politician, a stand-up comic, a set designer, a journalist, a scientist, and a dropout. And so is—the waif, the mind reader, the prophet—when she one day finds a man who wants to stay hidden.

In the next few weeks, they will all be swept together to decide the fate of the nation.

River of Gods teems with the life of a country choked with peoples and cultures—one and a half billion people, twelve semi-independent nations, nine million gods. Ian McDonald has written the great Indian novel of the new millennium, in which a war is fought, a love betrayed, a message from a different world decoded, as the great river Ganges flows on.

My Review: Ian McDonald. This is a name to conjure with, boys and girls. This is one fearless Irishman. This is a major major talent doing major major things. How dare he, how dare I, warble his praises when he, a white guy from the colonial oppressor state, has the temerity to write a science fiction novel about INDIA?!? There are scads of Indian writers and it's their country! Let *them* write their stories!


Read the book. Then come and tell me it should have remained unwritten because of some nonsensical national pride hoo-hah.

It's got every damn thing a reader could want: A new gender, the nutes, pronoun “yt;” a wholly new form of energy harvested from other universes; a political scandal-ridden politician who falls for our main nute character, despite his long marriage, and pursues yt desperately; a civil war a-brewin' over water rights in the now fragmented subcontinental political world; aeais (artificial intelligences) that are forbidden by law to exceed the Turing Test that establishes whether an entity is human or human-passable; and, as with any law, the lawbreakers who inevitably arise are hunted by a new breed of law enforcement officers, here called “Krishna cops.” Krishna being the Original God, Supreme Being, One Source in many parts of India, there is some justice to that, one supposes.

Recapitulating the plot is pointless. This is a sprawling story, one that takes nine (!) main characters to tell. I felt there were two too many, and would entirely prune Lisa, the American physicist, and Ajmer, the spooky girl who sees the future, because those story lines were pretty much just muddying the waters for me. I thought the physicist on a quest, who then makes a giant discovery, which leads her back to the inventor of the aeais, could easily have been a novel all on its own, one that would fit in this universe that McDonald has summoned into being. I simply didn't care for or about Ajmer.

The aeais' parent, Thomas Lull, is hidden away from the world in a dinky South Indian village. Yeah, right! Like the gummints of the world would let that happen! I know why McDonald did this, plot-wise, but it's just not credible to me. He could be demoted from player to bit part and simplify the vastness of the reader's task thereby.

So why am I giving this book a perfect score? Because. If you need explanations:

--The stories here are marvelously written.
“And you make me a target as well,” Bernard hisses. “You don't think. You run in and shout and expect everyone to cheer because you're the hero.”
“Bernard, I've always known the only ass you're ultimately interested in is your own, but that is a new low.” But the barb hits and hooks. She loves the action. She loves the dangerous seduction that it all looks like drama, like action movies. Delusion. Life is not drama. The climaxes and plot transitions are coincidence, or conspiracy. The hero can take a fall. The good guys can all die in the final reel. None of us can survive a life of screen drama. “I don't know where else to go,” she confesses weakly. He goes out shortly afterwards. The closing door sends a gust of hot air, stale with sweat and incense, through the rooms. The hanging nets and gauzes billow around the figure curled into a tight foetus. Najia chews at scaly skin on her thumb, wondering if she can do anything right. -- p388

Krishan barely feels the rain. More than anything he wants to take Parvati away from this dying garden, out the doors down on to the street and never look back. But he cannot accept what he is being given. He is a small suburban gardener working from a room in his parents' house with a little three-wheeler van and a box of tools, who one day took a call from a beautiful woman who lived in a tower to build her a garden in the sky. -- p477

Some of my favorite passages I can't put here, because they contain some of the many, many words and concepts that one needs—and I do mean needs—the glossary in the back of the book to fully appreciate.

--The concept of the book is breathtaking. Westerners don't usually see India as anything other than The Exotic Backdrop. McDonald sees the ethnic and religious tensions that India contains, barely, as we look at her half-century of independence ten years on (review written 2007) and contemplate the results of the Partition. He also sees the astounding and increasing vigor of the Indian economy, its complete willingness to embrace and employ any and all new ideas and techniques and leverage the staggeringly immense pool of talent the country possesses.

--McDonald also extrapolates the rather quiet but very real and strong trend towards India as a medical tourism destination: First-world trained doctors offering third-world priced medical care. This is the genesis of the nutes, people who voluntarily have all external gender indicators and all forms of gender identification surgically removed, their neural pathways rewired, and their social identities completely reinvented.

Think about that for a minute.

If your jaw isn't on the floor, if your imagination isn't completely boggled, then this book isn't for you and you should not even pick it up in the library to read the flap copy. If you're utterly astonished that an Irish dude from Belfast could winkle this kind of shit up from his depths, if you're so intrigued that you think it will cause you actual physical pain not to dive right in to this amazing book, you're my kind of people.

Welcome, soul sibling, India 2047 awaits. May our journey never end.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

LEAGUE OF SOMEBODIES, 3-star superhero silliness


Dark Coast Press
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Lenard Sikophsky’s father has been feeding him plutonium since the age of six in the hopes of making him the world’s first bona fide superhero. First, he must pass the unusual tests of manhood locked in the centuries old tomb, The Manaton, a secret relic passed down for generations. Falling in love with the beautiful, compulsively suicidal Laura Moskowitz doesn’t make his life any easier. But with the guidance of the Sikophsky men, the antiquated rulebook, and of course a healthy amount of plutonium, Lenard accepts his fate as an exactor of justice. . . .

Twenty years later, Lenard’s son Nemo is introduced to the same destiny as his father, only this time the violent entity called THEY are in dangerous pursuit. Lenard’s life and the legacy of his family are put to the test when he is forced to defend everything he loves.

My Review: Well! THAT was fun. I liked reading Sattin's just-slightly-OTT prose, I liked the comic-booky story, and I liked the relative absence of typos and mangled parallelisms.

I thought I would scream occasionally...the women in the book are, well, how to put this diplomatically...girls. No other way to say it, they're girls, in the old-fashioned pejorative white-man-on-top sense.

And Nemo is less introduced to his destiny than inducted into it. Like Geek Love, a disturbing book on similar themes of parental manipulation and dysfunction, each generation of Sikophsky boys has A Destiny and Will Follow It. Or Else. This being an evergreen theme, I was really looking forward to Sattin's trippy take on it.

In this, I wasn't in the least disappointed. I offer this odd little passage from the book as evidence of Sattin's skill with trippy:
In 2003, Lantana, The Savage, Zatkin, watched the sky over Kansas for signs of impending doom.
In that forlorn sea of cattle, wheat, corn, and sorghum grain, he'd come to Finney, following the anonymous, electronic chortle of a villain calling himself The Brother who apparently had a nuclear bomb aimed and ready in the direction of the Sunflower State.
Lantana watched the sky, his toga still in the humid Midwestern slough as the sun made hell of his retinas. He wasn't sure he even believed that The Brother existed, that this anonymous, self-proclaimed villain, in all probability, was some sex-deprived soul out of Ohio with a mouse pad and a pink, pimpled penis.
Trippy, like I said. The image of a superhero named after a flowering vine standing in a cornfield with his glad-rags limp in the heat? Yes, priceless. Contrasting that with the old stand-by nerd stereotype, effective.

But therein also the problem with the book. This is a good idea, told well enough to go over, and not an out-of-the-park homer for one big reason: A lot happens, and very little changes. As I've made this same observation about Neil Gaiman's works (and been trounced and screamed at for it), this problem isn't unique to Sattin. I do wish the ending hadn't been quite so...not rushed, exactly, but tacked-on feeling. The natural end of the book was earlier, in a wide and featureless sky. Then came a bad case of the knit-knit-knits as some future history was rammed down my throat, fitting about as well as a long woolen scarf would on an August day.

But hear this: I enjoyed this weird and wonderful journey. I'm glad I took it, for all that I had reservations about it. Sattin deserves a shot at your eyeballs. He's got more to say.

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Monday, August 18, 2014

DEEP TISSUE, stories that work you over


Livingston Press
$10.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Jeff Tapia’s collection Deep Tissue is written in a preposterously excruciating style that mimics the often preposterous and excruciating everydayness of modern life. In the title story, a man seeks revenge against his soon-to-be ex-wife by destroying her new kitchen appliance. In “Fear’s,” a disgruntled security guard asks his good-natured buddy to help him cut off his foot. The middle-aged woman in “The Dark Continent” keeps the lump in her breast a secret from her new partner only to discover – belatedly – that he has a secret of his own. Mimicking the soulless rummage of the information age, Deep Tissue explores the poignant needs and desires of everyday people engulfed in a phony world.


My Review
: My favorite of these stories is "Horns Overflowing." In light of the recent Steubenville rape-story idiocy, the story of a married couple's Thanksgiving meal with the shade of their imprisoned son had an even greater impact on me than it might have otherwise.

Walter tells Rex not to worry about it. He says he really wants to come in. He says he can tell his wife wants to talk about their son again. Walter asks Rex if he ever told him he even had a son. Rex answers. Walter asks him if he remembers the story about the frat-house rape. Joan gets a sick look on her face. Walter tells Rex it was in all the papers. Joan gets up from the table. Her chair tips back against the buffet, and her napkin falls to the floor. Joan does not pick it up. Joan leaves the room. She goes into the kitchen. The kitchen has both a pantry and a closet. Joan keeps things like the vacuum and the ironing board in the closet. Joan really wants a new bagless vacuum.
Marital cruelty. Material escape. Maternal avoidance. Masterful.

I read the collection slowly because there is only one style the author is working in, and you're looking at it. I like it. I don't, however, want to read all twelve stories in a gulp because comma-phobic sentence building isn't restful reading for me.

I'd say the author's strength is also his weak point, in that his style is so very integral to the stories being told. Everyday sentences adding up to quotidian revelations of petty emotional crimes. And the effect of all of them together is less than the pleasure of each considered in its own space.

Pick this book up, the Kindle edition's only $8, and read it story by story between longer books. These stories are very good, this writer has a voice (how rare that is!), and we should be happy to support him so we can see what he does next.

EARTH ABIDES, 70+ year old post-apocalyptic excellence


Mariner Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A disease of unparalleled destructive force has sprung up almost simultaneously in every corner of the globe, all but destroying the human race. One survivor, strangely immune to the effects of the epidemic, ventures forward to experience a world without man. What he ultimately discovers will prove far more astonishing than anything he'd either dreaded or hoped for.

My Review: Call him Isherwood. (Cause that's his name.) On a camping trip in the mountains, Ish gets bitten by a rattlesnake and barely survives. Clearly he can't call for help on his cell because 1) the mountains and 2) 1949. After all his sufferings, Ish drives down the mountain and finds Los Angeles...gone. Just not there. (Oddly, there are also not heaping mounds of dead bodies everywhere...he's only been gone a week or so, and the Plague killed quick. That nit being picked, I resume.) Ish spends his time alternately looking for survivors and ruminating on the justice and inevitability of the plague:
As for man, there is little reason to think that he can in the long run escape the fate of other creatures, and if there is a biological law of flux and reflux, his situation is now a highly perilous one. During ten thousand years his numbers have been on the upgrade in spite of wars, pestilences, and famines. This increase in population has become more and more rapid. Biologically, man has for too long a time been rolling an uninterrupted run of sevens.
When he stops being stunned, he sets out to contact and assess his fellow survivors. He spends a lot of the book out a-wanderin', and he picks up here and there some fellow remnants. No one is a medical research genius or a high government official or anything, thank goodness, so no one knows where this plague came from, how many are dead in other places, or any of that other stuff that pockmarks other post-apocalyptic stories I've read. I completely buy that the survivors are shocked and isolated, where I've always been hmmphy about the better-informed-character stories.

Any road, time passes, life goes on, babies are born and people die and food is grown in tune with nature. We revert, in other words, to the way things were for ~10,000 years before monoculture and factory farming. Ish ages, and the younger people without strong attachments to the pre-apocalyptic world start to think about what the meaning of life is:
If there is a God who made us and we did wrong before His eyes—as George says—at least we did wrong only because we were as God made us, and I do not think that He should set traps. Oh, you should know better than George! Let us not bring all that back into the world again—the angry God, the mean God—the one who does not tell us the rules of the game, and then strikes us when we break them. Let us not bring Him back.
If there is an apocalypse while I'm alive, I'm makin' this my post-apocalyptic mission: Disestablishing religion. Ish is my soul-brother in this regard. But as you can imagine, he's fighting a rear-guard action despite being the oldest person anyone knows, and also the last survivor of Before in the Now. Having lived through the AIDS apocalypse, some days I feel the same way.

And as it must, Death comes for Ish at last, putting an end to his moanings about the stupidity of the human race for making the same mistakes that cost us so dearly before, his pessimistic views on the sustainability of his made tribe, and his invaluable store of knowledge...despite the fact that the whippersnappers don't listen:
Then, though his sight was now very dim, he looked again at the young men. "They will commit me to the earth," he thought. "Yet I also commit them to the earth. There is nothing else by which men live. Men go and come, but earth abides."
I suspect all of us over a Certain Age feel this way to a greater or lesser degree. Plague or no plague, Youth isn't inclined to listen to Age, and apocalypse is relative. My apocalypse...the endangerment of tree youth's Bright New Dawn, bulkless environmentally sound infinite stories! Yes, I'm going, I'm going, stop pushing me!

Sunday, August 17, 2014



Tachyon Publications
$3.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.4* of five

The Publisher Says: In the golden era of sci-fi TV, why were alien crustaceans so darned literal? Beloved 1950's star Uncle Wonder must create the ultimately irreverent television show — or crayfish from outer space will inflict their death-ray on an unsuspecting viewership.

It is New York City, 1953. The new medium of live television has been kind to young pulp-fiction writer Kurt Jastrow. Not only does he enjoy scripting a popular children’s space opera, Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers, he also plays an eccentric tinkerer on Uncle Wonder’s Attic.

But Kurt’s world is thrown into disarray when two extraterrestrial crayfish-like creatures arrive at the studio. Certain that the audience for a religious program program represents "a hive of irrationalist vermin,” the crustaceans scheme to vaporize its two million viewers. Kurt and his co-writer have a mere forty hours to write and produce an explicitly rational and utterly absurd script that will somehow deter the aliens from their diabolical scheme.

My Review: What a lark! (And I don't mean either the cigarette or the Studebaker
). If you're old enough to have watched Lost in Space or Star Trek at night, you'll resonate with this tale's daffy Firesign-Theater-esque Smothers-Brothers-y energy; if Captain Video crossed your eyestalks as a sprog, a sharp pang of nostalgia will pierce your vitals to add tears to the grins.

Anyone born in, say, 1965 or later, well now...come try the waters of your elders' Glorious Pools. It is a shocking amount of fun to see every shibboleth twisted in the mouths of desperate, deranged people attempting to avert no avail, and yet no catastrophe ensues. And the reason it doesn't will, if you have an irony bone at all, leave you wryly pursing your mouthparts. Religion takes its licks...there is nothing on this Earth so satisfying as the mental picture of Jesus arguing that playing god is a bad idea on a show called Not By Bread Alone...but so does rationalism by way of a surrealist romp of acid-trip proportions. Eight-foot-tall blue lobster-women wearing the statue of Prometheus from Rockefeller Center as a necklace tend to fall on the surreal end of my personal story-telling spectrum, don't know about you.

What prevents this from achieving full five-star glory for me is the frenetic pace and unwieldy cast. Too many faces, too little screen time. There was a lot to do, and I enjoyed seeing it done; but a bit more book or a few fewer folks would've served the tale being told better. The Qualimosans were so incredible that they would simply lose yet more credibility with more face-time; it's the secondary characters, Saul Silver the editor of Andromeda magazine, Walter Spalding the producer, a few others...who needed a bit more room to make their deeply funny and still very believable quirks more than Thespian masks.

This is a minor grumble, however, hidden in a major guffaw. The fun that I had reading this delectable morsel of mash-up gumbo made this trim volume a sterling value.

Friday, August 15, 2014

THE IRISH VILLAGE MURDER, Fourth mystery in a series I won't pursue


Minotaur Books
$6.99 mass market paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Despite County Wicklow's dismal autumn rain, American translator Torrey Tunet is happy to be back in Ireland after a European assignment. She's longing for a lovely peat fire in her Ballynagh cottage when she spots a forlorn child fresh off the Dublin bus with no one to meet her. Reluctantly taking charge of delivering the child to Gwathney Hall, Torrey walks right into trouble. Historian John Gwathney has just been brutally gunned down, and the child's beautiful Auntie Megan--Gwathney's housekeeper and perhaps his lover--appears the likeliest suspect. But Torrey doesn't agree. She knows many eyes watch from behind the lace curtains of an Irish village, and no secrets are kept for long. Now, she's snooping into other people's business from the pub to the police station. Will her questions prove damning to a ruthless killer? Or deadly to herself?

My Review: Fourth in the series, I read this first. And to be honest, while it wasn't awful, it was nothing special and I don't want to pursue the series.

Why? Because. Well, if I'm honest, because it's got a staccato rhythm to its dialogue that made me twitch. Reminded me of an Ellen DeGeneres monologue, an experience I do NOT enjoy. People trail off, start up again somewhere else, and then simply run out of stuff to say.


And then there are the chapters. They're perfect commercial-break-during-NCIS length. For others, this might be a good thing, but for me not so much. Plus I am less interested in clothing than author Deere appears to be. It isn't at all a *bad* book, just not one I found addictive. The mystery, which centers on a child, for once doesn't center on the danger to the child. I'm pleased by that, and by the community warmth and charm, and the sleuth's infectious good humor. She's a positive person, carping aside, and that makes for a better read than average. Try it...maybe start with the first one, The Irish Cottage Murder, but don't be reluctant if you're in the mood for a cozy and can deal with the dialogue's quirks.

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Monday, August 11, 2014



Thomas Dunne Books
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says:When the Internet suddenly stops working, society reels from the loss of flowing data, instant messages, and streaming entertainment. Addicts wander the streets, talking to themselves in 140 characters or forcing cats to perform tricks for their amusement, while the truly desperate pin their requests for casual encounters on public bulletin boards. The economy tumbles further and the government passes the draconian NET Recovery Act.

For Gladstone, the Net's disappearance comes particularly hard following the loss of his wife, leaving his flask of Jamesons and grandfather’s fedora as the only comforts in his Brooklyn apartment. But there are rumors that someone in New York is still online. Someone set apart from this new world where Facebook flirters "poke" each other in real life and members of Anonymous trade memes at secret parties. Where a former librarian can sell information as a human search engine, and the perverted fulfill their secret fetishes at the blossoming Rule 34 club. With the help of his friends, a blogger and a webcam girl both now out of work, Gladstone sets off to find the Internet. But is he the right man to save humanity from this Apocalypse?

For fans of David Wong, Chad Kultgen, and Chuck Palahniuk, Wayne Gladstone’s Notes from the Internet Apocalypse examines the question “What is life without the Web?”

My Review: When I was a teen, something Amazing happened to me and my generation. My drama-fag friends and I, at various peoples' houses, spent every Saturday night watching The Funniest Show Ever Made: Saturday Night Live!! Brand new, unprecedented, unlike anything else ever!!!!!!!! (Remember we were adolescents. Caps and exclams and complete lack of perspective were then, as they are now, de rigueur.)

One Saturday night, I couldn't go to whoever's house to watch that week's episode for some reason. I made my mother, at the time 55, watch it with me by promising it would be Hilarious, Momentous, Life-Changing!!!! She, faithless to the dour brand of nutsoid Protestant Puritanism she'd taken to supporting, agreed and watched the whole thing.

I howled! I clapped! I bopped along with the musical guest and Supergenius G.E. Smith! And, as the credits ran, I turned to Mama and demanded, "wasn't that the funniest thing ever?!" She smiled at me and delivered the most withering possible response: "It was indeed! Imogene Coca and Sid Caesar were hilarious in the first sketch, and Jack Benny and Rochester were perfect in that second one."

That is precisely how I feel now: This book was right funny indeed, back when Peter de Vries did the social satire in 1965, and Thorne Smith did the smutty bits in 1935. And damn me if I didn't see Trudeau's Zonker Harris from 1975 somewhere in there.

There is nothing new under the sun, chick-a-biddies, and when enough sunrises have awakened one, there's a distinct lack of surprise in shock humor and topical tropism. Those over 40 are strongly discouraged from reading this book; those over 30 reminded to expect smiles not guffaws.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY, small glittering gem of a novel


NYRB Classics
$12.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In J. L. Carr's deeply charged poetic novel, Tom Birkin, a veteran of the Great War and a broken marriage, arrives in the remote Yorkshire village of Oxgodby where he is to restore a recently discovered medieval mural in the local church. Living in the bell tower, surrounded by the resplendent countryside of high summer, and laboring each day to uncover an anonymous painter's depiction of the apocalypse, Birkin finds that he himself has been restored to a new, and hopeful, attachment to life. But summer ends, and with the work done, Birkin must leave. Now, long after, as he reflects on the passage of time and the power of art, he finds in his memories some consolation for all that has been lost.

My Review: A few, a precious few only, moments in life are trapped in the diamond facets of unforgettability. The moments that, in the movie we're all directing inside our heads at any given moment, define our character. In all senses of that word. Be they happy, sad, public, private, we all have them; very very few of us talk much about them; and almost no one makes art from them.

Carr made art from a crystalline moment. Cold, glittering art, fire banked in its facets, glinting at the reader from sly angles and unexpected edges. Was this akin to his own character defining moment? I certainly don't know, but I suspect so. It's the best explanation I have for small moments clearly real and recalled in fresh, bright colors and sharp, focused images.
She lived at a farmhouse gable end to the road--not a big place. Deep red hollyhocks pressed against the limestone wall and velvet butterflies flopped lazily from flower to flower. It was Tennyson weather, drowsy, warm, unnaturally still. Her father and mother made me very welcome, both declaring they'd never met a Londoner before. They gave me what, in these parts, was called a knife-and-fork "do," a ham off the hook, a deep apple pie, and scalding tea. In conversation it came out that I'd been Over There (as they called it) and this spurred them to thrust more prodigious helpings upon me.
Novelists store moments like this, personal moments, in vaults that all of us have. The difference is the vault of the artist preserves all the details and nuances. Most of us come back from the vault with tatters and shreds; Carr, and others like him, come back with precious parures that flash a dazzle upon us commoners.

The genius of this short novel, under 50,000 words, is that it doesn't tart up the glory of the images with overwrought settings. Keep it simple, make it well, and quality will out. It is a joy to find laughs and savors in the same book. It is a rare joy to find them polished to a deep flash, set at just the right moment, and not vulgarly paraded for our approval but rather simply put in their proper place and left for us to notice as we will.

I made a run at this book after reading most of a very, very unhappy and terrible book. I was weighed down, felt that page-turning was labor. After a good sleep, I picked this gem up again and began at the beginning. It was the correct decision.
We can ask and ask but we can't have again what once seemed ours for ever--the ways things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They've gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.
How much poorer my world would be without the quiet luxury of these images in it.

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Saturday, August 9, 2014

A SPECTACLE OF CORRUPTION, second historical thriller


Random House
$17.00 trade paper,$11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Moments after his conviction for a murder he did not commit, at a trial presided over by a judge determined to find him guilty, Benjamin Weaver is accosted by a stranger who cunningly slips a lockpick and a file into his hands. In an instant he understands two things: Someone had gone to a great deal of trouble to see him condemned to hang--and another equally mysterious agent is determined to see him free.

So begins A Spectacle of Corruption, which heralds the return of Benjamin Weaver, the hero of A Conspiracy of Paper. After a daring escape from eighteenth-century London's most notorious prison, Weaver must face another challenge: how to prove himself innocent of a crime when the corrupt courts have already shown they want only to see him hang. To discover the truth and clear his name, he will have to understand the motivations behind a secret scheme to extort a priest, uncover double-dealings in the unrest among London's dockworkers, and expose the conspiracy that links the plot against him to the looming national election--an election with the potential to spark a revolution and topple the monarchy.

Unable to show his face in public, Weaver pursues his inquiry in the guise of a wealthy merchant who seeks to involve himself in the political scene. But he soon finds that the world of polite society and politics is filled with schemers and plotters, men who pursue riches and power--and those who seek to return the son of the deposed king to the throne. Desperately navigating a labyrinth of politicians, crime lords, assassins, and spies, Weaver learns that, in an election year, little is what it seems and the truth comes at a staggeringly high cost.

Once again, acclaimed author David Liss combines historical erudition with mystery, complex characterization, and a captivating sense of humor. A Spectacle of Corruption offers insight into our own world of political scheming, and it firmly establishes David Liss as one of the best writers of intellectual suspense at work today.

My Review: Last time we saw the Lion of Judah, aka Benjamin Weaver (né Lienzo), he had brought a species of justice to some victims of the South Sea Bubble. Now he's standing in the dock, convicted of a murder he didn't commit and facing the death penalty.

Well, there's nothing like making the stakes obvious from the get-go: Fail to solve the crime you've been convicted of and die; solve the crime and bring the political system of your homeland to its knees. Drama for *days*!

And well-done drama, if a bit crowded. Inevitably, setting stakes this high means that some smaller areas of interest (eg, the "romance") don't come to satisfying fruition. But there is more than enough good stuff here to make the less successful moments less important than the overall tale's pleasures. It's very satisfying to see a man of honor operating in that cesspit of dishonor that has always been, and seems as if it will always be, political action.

What I enjoy most about Liss's historical fiction is that it is obvious to me that he roots the action in fact while still making a cracking good yarn. He sees history as "his story," as the college-freshman joke went. And that's how I got interested in history, and it's why I find satisfaction in reading David Liss's books.

A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, thriller about the South Sea Bubble

A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER (Benjamin Weaver #1)

Random House
$17.00 trade paper, $11.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Benjamin Weaver is an outsider in eighteenth-century London: a Jew among Christians; a ruffian among aristocrats; a retired pugilist who, hired by London's gentry, travels through the criminal underworld in pursuit of debtors and thieves.

In A Conspiracy of Paper, Weaver investigates a crime of the most personal sort: the mysterious death of his estranged father, a notorious stockjobber. To find the answers, Weaver must contend with a desperate prostitute who knows too much about his past, relatives who remind him of his alienation from the Jewish faith, and a cabal of powerful men in the world of British finance who have hidden their business dealings behind an intricate web of deception and violence. Relying on brains and brawn, Weaver uncovers the beginnings of a strange new economic order based on stock speculation--a way of life that poses great risk for investors but real danger for Weaver and his family.

In the tradition of The Alienist and written with scholarly attention to period detail, A Conspiracy of Paper is one of the wittiest and most suspenseful historical novels in recent memory, as well as a perceptive and beguiling depiction of the origin of today's financial markets. In Benjamin Weaver, author David Liss has created an irresistibly appealing protagonist, one who parlays his knowledge of the emerging stock market into a new kind of detective work.

My Review: An honorable man sets out to right a wrong that he cares relatively little about. His quest leads him to wrongs he didn't know were possible, and that he cares a lot about righting. He can't fix it...nobody could then, and nobody can now...because it's all to do with human greed and viciousness.

David Liss came to my attention with this top-notch thriller. He takes the abstruse and impersonal concept put forth by (then-newly minted) economic scientists called "economist"s Hand of the Market, squeezes that bastard tight, and shakes out of it the economists' worst nightmare: The human cost of their depersonalized, accountability-free rent-reaping mills.

What makes Weaver a compelling character is his almost unbelievable level of alienation from every sector of London's social web. A Jew estranged from his family by disobedience. A Jew in the Christian London that persecutes Catholics, allegedly fellow Christians. An educated man who fought with his fists for money. An absolute outsider.

It makes for the best fictional characters, this does, and even better for a sleuth in a mystery. He has access to but not membership in many groups. He can ask questions because he's Different, and he can't be bought off by assimilation--too far outside the pale of anyone's social-group tolerance--nor can he be threatened by exclusion (from what that he isn't excluded from already?).

A successful thriller combines plausible action in service of believable stakes by a character with a definite and powerful moral compass. Delivered here in trumps. It's a pleasure to read a book that makes it clear that markets, all markets always and everywhere, must be controlled, damped down, and regulated to prevent the vile and contemptible from abusing the greedy and gullible. It is, in the end, the rest of us who pay the bill. It was ever thus. It will ever be thus, world without end.

Until we're no longer human beings, that is.

Friday, August 8, 2014

SPLENDORA, a 1970s first novel with bite


Open Road Media
$10.99 digital edition, available now

Rating: 4 very nostalgic stars out of five

The Book Report: The book description rots on ice. Here is the jacket copy from the 1978 hardcover I checked out of the library:

“Splendora: A steamy East Texas armpit of a town where Sue Ella Lightfoot furthers her study of “sexual motives” with every issue of Real Crime magazine while Agnes Pullens drills young ladies in the finer arts of Dance and Expression (tap-dancing, tumbling, and recitation inclusive) and Zeda Earl Goodridge faces a life of ruin if her Christmas yard display doesn't take first prize this year. Timothy John Coldridge was born and raised here, was fussed over and admired by all—Esther Ruth's beautiful grandson, Little Timothy John.

At eighteen, Timothy John left Splendora, unhappily. Now, at thirty-three, he returns with a dazzling companion: Miss Jessie Gatewood, the new hired-by-mail librarian, come to operate the county bookmobile. Draped (and impeccably accessorized) in Victorian finery and drenched in social graces, Miss Jessie takes the town by storm. But though it might be said that Timothy John arrived with her, it might also be said that he arrived within her...and therein lies the tale. Aided at every turn by a cast of relentless eccentrics, Miss Jessie endures a series of thoroughly splendid adventures. But while genteel romance, high drama, torment, and Technicolored bliss capture center page (Can the organza'd charms of a spinster booklady capture the cloistered heart of Assistant Pastor Brother Leggett? Will Maridel Washmoyer's yardful of Styrofoam igloos thwart Zeda Earl's anticipated Yuletide triumph?) a more subtle underscoring theme persists: What can Timothy John mean to Splendora...or Splendora to Timothy John?”

My Review: My 2000 review: "Seminal literary gay novel of my early queer phase. Wonderful writing and affecting characterization."

Well. Um. You see, I was really young when I read this, and in the throes of coming to terms with impending fatherhood. I figured if you were a gay guy, you'd like to be a woman, like Timothy John seems to want to be. (The idea of transgendered people was not part of my mental furniture.) I'd banged a bunch of guys by this time, and I knew for sure and certain that I wasn't interested in a life of bread-and-water imprisonment within heterosexuality's grim and cheerless razor-wire fences and brooding gun emplacements, but kid = duty so I did it. At least with other guys I knew what the hell we were talking about. But books like this one, they set me on a completely wrong path. Gay, woman...same diff, right, since Timothy John lived as a woman, right? I DO NOT WANT A WOMAN NOR TO BE A WOMAN said my insides. But look! said the outside world, it's in a book!

So I laughed when I was supposed to and patted myself for being Literary Enough to get the point of Swift's humid plot (Miss Jessie and Brother Leggett get engaged but Bro can't deal and comes out to Miss Jessie who says hey cool me too and they have a religion/salvation fight and one thing leads to another and Timothy John burns down his house while Brother Leggett is racing up to spirit him away to live as man and whatever and the town matriarch speeds them off with a happy {if toothless, this is East Texas we're talkin' about} smile). But reinforcing the wrong ideas in my head did not make my life easier, nor did a subsequent encounter with The Carnivorous Lamb with its brother-incest lovers. EWEWEW. No thanks! Gordon Merrick cheesy romances! Yes! But then there was that whole duty thing.

I held onto this as my idea of a Good Gay Novel for a very long time. Re-reading it now, at over 50, I realize it's an artifact of the author's's set in some amorphous 40s-50s type time when there was train service to burgs like's gawkily written, it's pretty garishly bedizened with Faulknerian structure and O'Connoresques of characters, and if this were my first read, I'd probably Pearl Rule it and move on with my day.

Time may indeed heal, but it also inflicts, wounds.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

RENE, a novella by Eric Shonkwiler

photo of Eric Shonkwiler by Sabrina Renkar

Fiddleblack Ltd
FREE online read in three parts, part I, part II, part III; index to all three parts

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Book Report: In a timeless American space and a placeless American landscape, Rene and Lilah eke out a hardscrabble life. Young Rene works in town and drives her rattletrap Chevy Townsman wagon down a patch of bad road to the tumbledown house she shares with her pale, ill mother Lilah. It is Lilah's unstoppable nasal bleeding that sets the women on a hard course, one that takes every tiny piece of easy left to them and grinds it to powder.

All endings are beginnings, though, and on their quest to stop the endless bleeding that's defined their existence, the pilgrims meet a crazy white woman-witch who promises nothing and delivers healing; a black family with even worse problems than their own; and four helping hands when no one was looking for any more gifts. Returning to Horn (short for Hornblower) and Sawyer, their family of dogs, the healing set in motion by their arduous journey gives the end and the beginning of this tight, spare tale its terrific wallop.

Eric Shonkwiler is a writer preoccupied with ruination. He can be followed on Twitter @eshonkwiler. He has had writing appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from The University of California--Riverside, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone.

My Review: Look at that photo up top. This is the face of the young man who's just kicked me square in the cojones and rapped my noggin with a two-by-four just to be sure I got the message. And I guarantee you he's young enough to be my kid. (And the less charitable members of the audience are now cueing up their sarcasm font to comment about grandkid-aged, don't I mean; beat ya to it nyah.) So how, I want to know, does this revoltingly young person already know this:
One of the biggest sicknesses this world has is expectation. We all expect other people to be a certain way or to do a certain thing. Most people, they spend their whole lives under the wants of other people.
I expect the answer to that question is uncomfortable. The story Shonkwiler's telling here is uncomfortable, and yet comforting...I understand Rene's problem, I deeply understand Lilah's hurts, and I can't tell you why anyone would do any of the things I know they've all done. But I know they're doing whatever they can, however they can do it. And that's what makes this short read, an hour and a half at most, so deeply satisfying.

The golden youth's first novel, Above All Men, is in my to-be-reviewed queue. I've urged the book on many of y'all already. Okay, you want to know why? Read this novella. This kind of lean, no-BS storytelling is how he rolls. All of y'all who've made my online life a misery because I don't like Bore-max McClotty...oh dear, I mean Cormac McCarthy, I've got such fat fingers today...heed this: Shonkwiler uses the same style of simple, unadorned prose, the same "difficult" *sigh* technique of not using quotation marks to indicate dialogue, and the same rural setting, and does what the older man never could do. Shonkwiler makes (miserably) living, (barely) breathing, emotionally vital (if suffering) people that I can invest in. And he does it in under 20,000 words.

I say that's talent, high-order talent, and some very serious writing chops. Now let's see what else he can do, what's next for him. The only way that's going to happen is if we support him by reading and discussing and recommending AND BUYING his work.

You have your instructions.

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SHORTCUT: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas does what it says...and less

SHORTCUT: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas

Avery Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A presidential speechwriter for Bill Clinton explores the hidden power of analogy to fuel thought, connect ideas, spark innovation, and shape outcomes

From the meatpacking plants that inspired Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line to the "domino theory" that led America into Vietnam to the "bicycle for the mind" that Steve Jobs envisioned as the Macintosh computer, analogies have played a dynamic role in shaping the world around us—and still do today.

Analogies are far more complex than their SAT stereotype and lie at the very core of human cognition and creativity. Once we become aware of this, we start seeing them everywhere—in ads, apps, political debates, legal arguments, logos, and euphemisms, to name just a few. At their very best, analogies inspire new ways of thinking, enable invention, and motivate people to action. Unfortunately, not every analogy that rings true is true. That’s why, at their worst, analogies can deceive, manipulate, or mislead us into disaster. The challenge? Spotting the difference before it’s too late.

Rich with engaging stories, surprising examples, and a practical method to evaluate the truth or effectiveness of any analogy, Shortcut will improve critical thinking, enhance creativity, and offer readers a fresh approach to resolving some of today’s most intractable challenges.


My Review
: While this treatise on how The Hidden Persuaders so ably identified and flensed by Vance Packard in 1957 use the shortcuts of analogy and its partner metaphor to manipulate us is interesting, it left me a little...empty. Okay, I said to myself as I finished reading this:
According to {well-regarded psychology researchers}, metaphors create realities in people’s minds that become guides for action. Since those actions tend to reinforce the metaphor that inspired them, metaphors often become self-fulfilling prophecies.


A good analogy serves as an intellectual springboard that helps us jump to conclusions. And once we’re in midair, flying through assumptions that reinforce our preconceptions and preferences, we’re well on our way to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. When we encounter a statement and seek to understand it, we evaluate it by first assuming it is true and exploring the implications that result. We don’t even consider dismissing the statement as untrue unless enough of its implications don’t add up. And consider is the operative word. Studies suggest that most people seek out only information that confirms the beliefs they currently hold and often dismiss any contradictory evidence they encounter. what? It's the "now what" that I missed. I am glad the author delivered a reminder that we're all bathed in a soup of microwaves and advertising in roughly equal proportions. I wanted, and based on the sales copy though I would get, something that spent as much or more time pointing out how to manage my Pavlovian responses as identify them.

I was not given anywhere near enough actionable information to rate the book higher than I did. And that saddened me.