Thursday, April 28, 2016

A RASKOLNIKOFF, newly translated Bove novella, hits reading pleasure centers out of the park

translated by Mitchell Abidor
Red Dust Books
$16.95 paperback, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A Raskolnikoff was originally commissioned for a series of novels called “The Great fable: Chronicle of Imaginary Characters,” in which figures from literature, theater, film, and legend were brought back to life. Other writers chose Merlin, and Chaplin's Tramp; Bove's choice was to write “a continuation of Crime and Punishment.” In a letter to his publisher he said that Raskolnikoff “Doesn't appear in flesh and blood, but his influence on the young man's spirit is very visible.”

My Review: So often US readers approach translations from the French with fear: I won't understand it, it will be impossible to mentally pronounce the names, French writers are all pervy. Small, shining gems called récits go ignored and unsold here; perfect novellas, longer and more complex than récits, never make it past the mail room of the Big Five. Just too expensive to pay for translation, editing, promotion, and then sell 10.

This is the mindset. I've seen it from the inside, and heard the rationales with my own two shell-like ears. Blessedly there are presses like Red Dust Books whose mission is to bring the finest literature the world to the English-speaking market.

Bove's work isn't familiar to a lot of that market because it hasn't been translated very completely. Red Dust is doing what they can afford to do in order to rectify that. A Raskolnikoff should help their efforts, because there isn't very much to criticize about this wonderful book. I can't compliment the translator highly enough. Nuances of tone are beautifully preserved, descriptive passages are delicately rendered:
The snow kept falling, melting as soon as it touched the ground, transforming the sidewalks into swamps. They entered a café where people were playing cards, where the banquettes were dry, where a gentle heat floated like the joy in living. ... A feeling of well-being overcame them. There are moments that are particularly beloved by the dissatisfied, transitory moments. For them these moments are a luxury, and one shouldn't only see in certain people's mania for going to new cabarets their need to get drunk, but also that of changing their status.
That snow-swamp, dryness and heat representing joy. The well-being of the dissatisfied manifesting in the craving for novelty and drunkenness. We all know people with that set of problems, or have experienced some of them yourself. To place the earthiness and the ethereal...swamps with close proximity echoes the experience of the average person's life, only better said.

But the spirit of Dostoyevsky's villainous, selfish Raskolnikov, true to the remit of the series Bove was commissioned to add to, doesn't leave much room for the finer things to come to our protagonist Pierre or his gal-pal Violette:
All the distress of a miserable life, of a joyless life, of a life that no love had ever made beautiful could be seen in his face. It was the same expression that can be seen on the faces of all men when they don't know they're being observed and when, ceasing to observe themselves or others, for a moment they are themselves.
Life's hard, then you die, and nothing alleviates the painful trudge from cradle to grave. Even God, on whom Pierre calls to defend and protect him in his innocence, speaks to him and confirms his worst possible fears, that God knows how we sever our connections to God and to each other, how we must live alone and die alone. And that is that for the man's sanity. His behavior cracks wide open, leaving Violette to follow behind him as she always does, begging for some scrap of sanity to enter his smashed, flaking personality, come home, and let her take care of him as she always has, as she builds her identity around.

Nothing about this story is uplifting, and no one here is any kind of hero or heroine. What makes this story so delightful to read isn't hope for the world to embrace and accept these broken people, it's that a flawed and cruel and useless man can utter these words to his favorite whipping post, Violette:
"On the contrary, you're an angel. You pass through suffering and ugliness while keeping your heart intact. There is nothing more beautiful than this in all the world, and you can tell anyone who wants to condemn you for any reason to come and see me. And if they don't want to believe me I'll fight them until I'm worn out."
And if anyone believes that, it sure isn't Violette. She loves Pierre, she can't leave him by himself, but she can't change him. She knows it, accepts it. And if that isn't a reason for someone to fight for her, what is? But he never lifts a finger for her, and she's unsurprised and unhurt by it.

Vanishing around the corner, this story ends with simple directness. The job that Bove set out to do, to reveal the Raskolnikov in a perfectly ordinary, utterly bizarre, wildly uncontrolled young man, is perfect and satisfying. It's a single-sitting serving of intense and beautiful inner violence and outer inconsistency.

What can I say? I loved the book. Try it and you might love it too.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

MR. PENUMBRA'S 24-HOUR BOOK STORE, smart people's escapist fun


Picador USA
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore

The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore.

With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.

My Review: A bookstore with no customers wanted. A secret society called “The Unbroken Spine.” A library of books in a code that even Google boffins have trouble breaking. In the end, a resolution to the seemingly mortal combat between tree books and ebooks that will leave the true-hearted reader smiling.

Escapist fun. Rollicking silliness. Eccentric amusement. All on offer in heaping helpings, with a garnish of goofy grins.

Election season has me on Outrage Overload, and my antidote to any ill is reading a good book. Short of terminal disease, I believe a good read will cure any ailment of mind, body, or spirit. I stopped frothing hysterically about Bain Capital owning an interest in a voting-machine contractor in Ohio for almost an hour while reading this book. Watching the evil-bastard GOP set up for another election steal like 2000 causes me to scream imprecations loudly, so Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore hath wrought a miracle!

Take a break from your cares. Read this enjoyable, entertaining book about improbable people doing implausible things to solve an impossible, absurd problem. It will leave you refreshed!

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE, what it looks like inside a narcoterrorist leader's world

(tr. Rosalind Harvey)
FSG Originals
$12.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: “A brief and majestic debut.” —Matías Néspolo,El Mundo

Tochtli lives in a palace. He loves hats, samurai, guillotines, and dictionaries, and what he wants more than anything right now is a new pet for his private zoo: a pygmy hippopotamus from Liberia. But Tochtli is a child whose father is a drug baron on the verge of taking over a powerful cartel, and Tochtli is growing up in a luxury hideout that he shares with hit men, prostitutes, dealers, servants, and the odd corrupt politician or two. Long-listed for The Guardian First Book Award, Down the Rabbit Hole, a masterful and darkly comic first novel, is the chronicle of a delirious journey to grant a child’s wish.

My Review: First, I must get this off my chest: THIS IS NOT A NOVEL. At ~35,000 words, it could be called a novella, a work of 15,000 to 40,000 words (definitions vary on this point, but ALL definitions include 30,000-40,000 words in them and this is that length) that features fewer conflicts than a full novel and more complex ones than a short story. I don't think it's a novella because it's a first-person story and features only one fully developed character, Tochtli (“Rabbit” in Nahuatl, relax we'll get there). It's a récit , a form of narrative that has a simple through line, is told from one PoV and quite often in first-person present and past, and offers little in the way of contextualization, of “world-building,” as it's all in the narrator's PoV. I hate the publisher and the trade folk yip-yapping NOVELNOVELNOVEL about a 70-page (generous margins, several blank pages in the text) so as to get over the reading public's aversion to “lesser” forms. How about we review the piece as it is, and urge the reading public to read it without misleading them? Someone buying a novel expects that it will do what novels do, really explore one or two conflicts with results and resultant changes in characters' lives. Not happenin' here.

Well, okay, I'm all shouted out now.

Terrific story, this one of a drug king's kid and the many oddities paranoia and isolation have allowed to blossom in him. The names, all taken from Mexico's major native tongue of Nahuatl (the Aztecs spoke it), are all of animals...the narrator's name means Rabbit, his father's name means Rattlesnake, his tutor's name means Deer, and on. They're all like gang nicknames, playing on the culture of nicknames that describe some major thing about a person. Rattlesnake? How can you not perceive a drug lord as a cold-blooded, dangerous, venomous critter? Rabbit? Scared, small, needs to be hidden away—suits our narrator's life to a T.

Translator Rosalind Harvey has done a marvelous, if British, job of rendering a precocious kid's usages and crotchets into spottily adult language. I haven't read the original Spanish, so I don't know how faithfully she's reproduced Villalobos's original, but I suspect quite well. The language has that certain “feel” that good translations do, a kind of smoothness and polished gleam that speak of quality made from quality. That Tochtli is an odd kid is to be expected, that he uses (frequently!) words he's just learning is to be expected, and since those words...sordid, pathetic, devastating...are a little above his actual grasp, the author's use of them in the kid's mouth makes several very trenchant points.
Yolcaut (Rattlesnake) watched the news with me and when it was over he said some enigmatic things to me, First he said:
“Ah, they suicided her.”
And then, when he'd stopped laughing:
“Think the worst and you'll be right.”
Sometimes Yolcaut speaks in enigmatic and mysterious sentences. When he does that it's pointless to ask him what he means, because he never tells me. He wants me to solve the enigma.
Before I went to sleep I looked up the word prestige in the dictionary. I learned that prestige is about people having a good idea about you, and thinking you're the best. In that case you have prestige. Pathetic.
It's all part of building the reader's awareness of the twisted, strange, uncomfortably exaggerated natural parental protection of our kids. Other details include Tochtli's always painful stomach cramps that the doctor can't find a cause for, Tochtli's obsessive passions for things like being a Japanese samurai who's mute and therefore enigmatic (!), his endless list-making. The kid would've been strange no matter what, but Yolcaut (Nahuatl has no dipthongs, so say each letter as if it were a Spanish vowel or a Basque consonant) being what and who he is has made the problems giant-sized.

It's a disquieting little thing, and it's quite darkly amusing, and it's—Praise the Muses!—it's original. It's balm for a weary-of-~meh~ reader's soul. You'll love it, or you'll hate it, but you won't walk away wondering what it was that you just read.

Monday, April 25, 2016

THE ROPE SWING: Stories by Jonathan Corcoran chronicles West Virginia's economic and social decline in beautiful sentences

This review also appeared at The Oak Wheel.


Vandalia Press
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A once-booming West Virginia rail town no longer has a working train. The residents left behind in this tiny hamlet look to the mountains that surround them on all sides: The outside world encroaches, and the buildings of the gilded past seem to crumble more every day.

These are the stories of outsiders—the down and out. What happens to the young boy whose burgeoning sexuality pushes him to the edge of the forest to explore what might be love with another boy? What happens when one lost soul finally makes it to New York City, yet the reminders of his past life are omnipresent? What happens when an old woman struggles to find a purpose and reinvent herself after decades of living in the shadow of her platonic life partner? What happens to those who dare to live their lives outside of the strict confines of the town’s traditional and regimented ways?

The characters in The Rope Swing—gay and straight alike—yearn for that which seems so close but impossibly far, the world over the jagged peaks of the mountains.

My Review: As a whole, this collection deserves possibly more than four stars, but I couldn't get past a feeling of distance that prevented me from becoming fully wrapped up in the life of this West Virginia town. No less a luminary than Jayne Anne Phillips (Lark and Termite remains a favorite of mine years after reading it) praises Corcoran's work. He even got a laudatory review from KIRKUS! I hope his life partner had that embedded in lucite.

As is my habit with collections, I'll go story by story (called the Bryce Method) and give some opinions on each:

Appalachian Swan Song sets the tone for this collection of loosely interlinked collection of vignettes limning the decline and death of a small West Virginia town whose economic purpose has been served, so it is cut adrift by the rest of the money-making world. The very last passenger train is ceremoniously leaving town. All the great and the good, including the widow of the former governor, gather at the depot to ride the last train or to wave it adieu. Festively marking their world's death seems strange, doesn't it? But there was a time that the major civic events of most towns' lives were marked in similar fashion. It's certainly gone out of style now. It's hokey, it's corny, but it was also a way to experience community. Certainly not something we do much of here in the 21st century. Like passenger trains, it's something that seems worth reviving.

The Rope Swing Ah, adolescence! That horrible, awkward, miserable time when your body and mind stop making sense even to you! Add being queer and living in a dinky little burg with people you've known your whole life and, well, what could possibly go right? I think all Adult Survivors of Childhood can relate to the misery of knowing (sort of) what you want (but are terrified) to say to your crush object:
He's afraid that he'll cower into himself again like every other day, and then say nothing at all when he really wants to say everything--to speak his body and his heart into existence.
And the poor lad in this story has a crush object who is quite clear about what he wants, leading the two of them out onto the rope swing that ends hesitation and compels action. The story ends there, in that magic, liminal space of having made the jump but not the landing.

Pauly's Girl For me, the second-most relatable story in the collection. The weird grief-space of the intimate, platonic partner of a dead "friend" isn't in any way acknowledged by existing support systems. A dear and valued woman-friend of mine, whom I'd known for 26 years, died suddenly. I was distraught, and those around me at that time looked at me as though I was a head case for being upset that someone I'd spoken to daily, someone I'd traveled tens of thousands of miles with, was missing from my world. It is an amputation, and others don't spare that relationship's specialness a moment's thought. Pauly's girl can't quite figure out what to do, think, or feel, since she's always had Pauly around to lead. The story ends hopefully, though:
She walked down the lawn and surveyed the world as they'd both seen it--the wild limbs of the leaning apple tree, the golden-brown evening sky, the black silhouettes of the mountains. The trunk and the branches of the tree had bent over the years, under the weight of the heavy fruit. One of the biggest branches had grown down from the canopy of the leaves, all the way to the ground and straight along the grass...the end of that same branch had begun growing up again, at a right angle, the wood bending toward the sky.

Through the Still Hours is a painful reminder of a tale that no matter what, with the best of intentions, relationships change and not always for the better. A male couple, living in the midst of all the people they've always known, celebrate their fourth anniversary in a sexless, silent struggle to come to grips with their basic incompatibility. Who knows when it began to eat at one or both of them, who cares why, now is the moment the problem comes to a head like a boil. Their oblivious friends, the supposed celebratory dance outing, none of it is distracting enough. Over is painful, but real.

Felicitations is the least interesting story to me, perhaps because the world of the wealthy West Virginians is the setting. I've been around those people most of my life, and they are boring to me. The doctor sexing up another doctor story does nothing for me, either. As to the stakes set into the story, well...seems to me she is cold and selfish and he is a wussy, and that's without interest to me, too. YMMV, of course.

Corporeal sets a misfit adolescent girl on a search for her father. Her mother's a class-A head case, her father lives on the wrong side of the tracks in a place that at best is somewhere most of us would consider the wrong side of the tracks. She speaks to her father's neighbor, an older man finishing out his allotted span in squalor and drunkenness. It's sort of exciting for an adolescent to relate to an adult one-to-one. As such things often do, however, her social time with the old man ends with his grappling with her, kissing her. And then from wherever his decency sank some bubbled up and he throws the child out. As she leaves to slink quietly home, she comes to a decision:
She was not sure if she knew her father, or even if she wanted to anymore. She wanted to go home into her bed and hide under the covers. She took her father's key from her key ring. She left it carefully on the doorstep and ran through the quiet night toward home.

Hank the King follows a colossal loser through his daily routine, until one too many screaming matches with his wife send him off to gamble and drink his empty, loveless day away. He finally gives up his last masculinity-defining object, a prized gun, and returns to his loveless home, gives his wife $1000, and goes on a bender. Wonderfully enough he loses all his stake money, all his winnings, and none of his despair. Happy ending? How would that even look to a man in Hank's kind of life? And so I say it's wonderful because Corcoran doesn't pretty it up or grubby it down. It's real, it's true. Trust him. Trust Hank, too.

Excavation takes a pair of teens into the forbidden precincts of a condemned and collapsing school, relic of the town's palmier days as a transportation hub for the Appalachian treasure being stripped out...wait, different these two kids, scared of the dark, musty, and truly dangerous building, go searching for something, anything interesting to take out and prove they were there. When a fire starts by means unknown, they're trapped until they put their heads together and escape through a double-boarded window. Running away, they discuss in a swivet the fear of being blamed for the fire. In the end, holding hands, the fire consumes the superfluous grandeur of the school and cements this young pair into a couple.

Brooklyn, 4 a.m. is a tender love letter to a long-term partner. It is short and it is complete and it is full of joy.

A Touch upset me quite a lot, as it focuses the attention of an older, neurotic mess of a man on a young survivor of a horrific hate crime. The nature of the crime brings me to the edge of screaming, but I will leave it for you to discover. The older man's response, a repelled fascination that his drinking buddy encourages him to leave by not being so obvious..."leave the poor man alone"...ends with a close approximation of stalking, yet another point of anger for me. So while I can't say I enjoyed this story, I can attest to the honesty and effectiveness of the writing: I was a trembling, nauseated wreck when I finished it.

My take on Jonathan Corcoran is that we'll hear more from him, and it will be good and get better. Start here with this collection, say you knew his writing when.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT, my very best read of 2009...a Steinbeck, of course


Penguin Classics
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: Ethan Allen Hawley, the protagonist of Steinbeck’s last novel, works as a clerk in a grocery store that his family once owned. With Ethan no longer a member of Long Island’s aristocratic class, his wife is restless, and his teenage children are hungry for the tantalizing material comforts he cannot provide. Then one day, in a moment of moral crisis, Ethan decides to take a holiday from his own scrupulous standards.

Set in Steinbeck’s contemporary 1960 America, the novel explores the tenuous line between private and public honesty that today ranks it alongside his most acclaimed works of penetrating insight into the American condition. This edition features an introduction and notes by Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw.

My Review: This is a wonderful short novel by a master of his craft at the peak of his form. It is also his last novel.

Some people at the time it was published felt it was a wrong turning for Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Tortilla Flat) to abandon both the west coast that had made him famous and brought his considerable social conscience to the world's attention for an east coast grifter's POV. The Winter of Our Discontent is a story that has nothing but shades of gray. Everyone in it is shady somehow. That is, I think, what verschmeckled the reviewers and made the public angry. Up until then, there were clear-cut Good Guys and Bad Guys in every Steinbeck tale., no one qualifies as all good or all bad.

The POV is of Ethan, a man who is the degenerate scion of a venerable family. He is married with teenaged kids, and he will do anything to support his family. Including, to their horror, work for an Italian grocer as his clerk. The nerve of the man, a son of the founder of his town, working for someone who *should* be his gardener, according to his friends and his kids.

Well, he thinks, how can I help it, we all gotta eat. So he hatches a plot that will restore the family "honor" by swindling a friend. He goes through with it. He gets what he wants. And, frankly, so does the "swindled" friend, an alcoholic prowling for his next few thousand drinks.

This isn't really Steinbecky stuff, it's too hard to pin down from a moral standpoint. On the other hand, it's superbly told, and it's amazingly well crafted, and it's undoubtedly the best thing Steinbeck wrote after 1950. Reviews were harsh, sales were poor, and Steinbeck lost heart for fiction after that. He published two travel books before his death in 1968, a mere 30 years after "The Grapes of Wrath" burst on the scene. Imagine the wonders he could have produced had he lived to an Updikey 80-plus.

What a wonderful read, and so overlooked...please don't overlook it any longer!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

At The Small Press Book Review, my take on THE BOY IN HIS WINTER: An American Novel

Rating: 3.75* of five

New ‪‎review‬! THE BOY IN HIS WINTER: An American Novel Bellevue Literary Press sent me the book at my request.

Review posted at The Small Press Book Review by literary gatekeeper Mel Bosworth, arbiter of good taste and merit. Clearly he must be, because he publishes my reviews.

This is one of three loosely linked novels by Norman Lock and published by the amazing folks at Bellevue Literary Press. I'll be reviewing them all before publication day for the third one,THE PORT-WINE STAIN, due out in June.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Time Commences in Xibalbá, a fantastical tale of sex, identity, violence, and time

(tr. Nathan C. Henne)
University of Arizona Press
$22.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Time Commences in Xibalbá tells the story of a violent village crisis in Guatemala sparked by the return of a prodigal son, Pascual. He had been raised tough by a poor, single mother in the village before going off with the military. When Pascual comes back, he is changed—both scarred and “enlightened” by his experiences. To his eyes, the village has remained frozen in time. After experiencing alternative cultures in the wider world, he finds that he is both comforted and disgusted by the village’s lingering “indigenous” characteristics.

De Lión manages to tell this volatile story by blending several modes, moods, and voices so that the novel never falls into the expected narrative line. It wrenches the reader’s sense of time and identity by refusing the conventions of voice and character to depict a new, multi-layered periphery. This novel demands that we leave preconceptions about indigenous culture at the front cover and be ready to come out the other side not only with a completely different understanding of indigeneity in Latin America, but also with a much wider understanding of how supposedly peripheral peoples actually impact the modern world.

The first translation into English of this thought-provoking novel includes a concluding essay by the translator suggesting that a helpful approach for the reader might be to see the work as enacting the never-quite-there poetics of translation underlying Guatemala’s indigenous heart. An afterword by Arturo Arias, the leading thinker on Indigenous modernities in Guatemala, offers important approaches to interpreting this challenging novel by showing how Guatemala’s colonial legacy cannot escape its racial overtones and sexual undertones as the nation-state struggles to find a suitable place in the modern world.

My Review: Eighty-two pages of story; fifteen pages of Translator's Introduction; twenty-five pages of academic essay placing the story and the author into context for the American student.

If you're still reading at this point, you're one tough bugger. The essays are fine, if you're in the mood for academic prose and a discussion of the merits of psychosexual colonial identity theft. I think that's what it's about. The essay, that is.

I don't pretend to know what the story itself is about. Pascual, the main character, is a proper shit of a person, the village that grounds the novel is made up of silly gits, mean girls, a few sluts, one gay guy who lusts after Pascual and is called Hen, not Juan, when the two are alone.

It makes sense in context, I promise.

The village, the real purpose for the story of Pascual, is enchanted and enchanting in the traditional Latin American magical realist way. There's a wind at the beginning of the book...the description can't be excerpted, I'm not up for that much typing...and there are any number of sun-rising-in-the-west moments that make the story itself feel more like a retold folk tale than a novella. (Which this is, despite the insistence of the academics that it's a novel.)

It's a short, interesting moment in Guatemalan cultural studies. It's got some lovely imagery, and it's got copious annotations explaining the concepts that periodic Spanish words connote. It's lyrical in measure, it's beautifully proofread (and isn't it sad as all hell that I mention that in a review?), and I can't quite give it four stars because I don't feel one bit moved to learn more of these characters. I'm incurious. And a big part of that is the brevity wrought by the author's choice of length. More, please. This iteration of the tale is worthy and is even pleasurable in spots. But it just never quite reaches the empyrean blue that's clearly within the author's native grasp.

Read it, by all means, you of Hispanic-colonial descent, to learn how the Maya survived...for you of leftward-leaning politics, it's an endorsement of your smug dismissal of post-colonial guilt-shedding so in vogue. The majority of the readerly public isn't likely to clasp the book to their collective bosom.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

MISTER BLUE, another Archipelago Books winner

(tr. Sheila Fischman)
Archipelago Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: By the Governor General Award and Quebec-Paris Prize-winning writer, a novel about a struggling writer and Mister Blue, his cat and sole companion until the day they discover a copy of The Arabian Nights in a cave along the beach. Tinged with melancholy, Mister Blue is at once playful, understated, and deeply human.

Jacques Poulin (1937-) is the author of twelve novels. Among his many honors are the 1978 Governor General’s Award, the 1990 and 2000 Molson Prize for the Arts, and the Gilles-Corbeil Prize in 2008. He lives in Québec City.

My Review: This book arrived in a surprise package from my sister, and we must be sharing some aetheric connection: Two days before I got the package, I was dithering between this Poulin title and Translation is a Love Affair to put in my Amazon cart for Money Day! Heh. Now I can read both!
'Books contain nothing, or almost nothing, that's important: everything is in the mind of the person reading them.'

If you were trying to find an idiotic remark, that one took the cake!
Thus speaks Jim, addressing an intimate audience, and self-talking his own, self-defined failure as a writer. You see, his (probably) imaginary love object won't show him her face, only leaving traces of herself in a riverside cave and a moored sailboat that slowly, steadily is repaired and painted and generally tarted up in the course of Jim's summer obsession.

By the end of the story, Jim's first novel-writing project has been abandoned, a love story that contains no lovers only friends. His second project, just begun as we leave the ramshackle house of Jim's youngest years, gains wind in its sails by his first, possibly first ever, emotional risk-taking act. It's not exactly a stunning shocking pearl-clutching shock, but it is amazing nonetheless. It is a pitch-perfect end to a beautiful chamber opera. I can't wait for the next one to arrive!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

THE BOOK OF LIFE, a strange and wonderful discovery


Valancourt Books
$17.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in the twilight of the Edwardian era, this is the story of Francis Froxwell, a young orphan fascinated by his grandfather's 'Book of Life', a ledger that lists the immense wealth he and his relatives will inherit when the old man dies. Unhappy at boarding school and treated coldly by his relations, Francis finds solace in the thought of his future fortune and a possible baronetcy. Francis's only friends are his uncle Demetrius, whose affair with a divorcée has made him the black sheep of the family, and Jimmy Waring, a disgraced ex-schoolmaster and the brother of Demetrius's mistress. As Francis finds himself unwittingly caught up in the intrigues of these two men, a chain of events is set in motion leading to sex, scandal, blackmail, and death . . . and the elimination of at least one name from the 'Book of Life'.

An unjustly neglected novelist, C.H.B. Kitchin (1895-1967) was best known for his early mystery novels and was frustrated later in life when he continued to turn out minor masterpieces like Ten Pollitt Place (1957) and The Book of Life (1960), which won critical acclaim but were largely overlooked by the book-buying public. This edition features an introduction by Francis King.

My Review: There is a little teensy warm spot in whatever it is that passes for my heart saved just for old-fashioned, mannered stories and prose. This book sat directly on the spot, and almost extinguished the warmth.

The story of an orphan with Great Expectations isn't new or fresh, but the spin Kitchin (almost) puts on it...coming of age as gay in the Edwardian Era...was tenuous at best, and sank with barely a bubble in the narrative flow. So, in the end, it's Great Expectations Disappointed and some highly noxious people benefit from the main character's fall from grandparental favor.


But there is still a lovely lilt to Kitchin's words. The characters, for all the unpleasantness of their personalities, are sharply and wittily limned in vitriol and rosewater. In some moods, that's enough. For me, this wasn't one of those moods. Too bad.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

THE DAEDALUS INCIDENT, a swashbuckling pirate-filled alchemy-run space opera

The Daedalus Series #1
Night Shade Books
$7.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Bizarre earthquakes are rumbling over the long-dormant tectonic plates of the planet, disrupting its trillion-dollar mining operations and driving scientists past the edges of theory and reason. However, when rocks shake off their ancient dust and begin to roll—seemingly of their own volition—carving canals as they converge to form a towering structure amid the ruddy terrain, Lt. Jain and her JSC team realize that their routine geological survey of a Martian cave system is anything but. The only clues they have stem from the emissions of a mysterious blue radiation, and a 300-year-old journal that is writing itself.

Lt. Thomas Weatherby of His Majesty’s Royal Navy is an honest 18th-century man of modest beginnings, doing his part for King and Country aboard the HMS Daedalus, a frigate sailing the high seas between continents . . . and the immense Void between the Known Worlds. Across the Solar System and among its colonies—rife with plunder and alien slave trade—through dire battles fraught with strange alchemy, nothing much can shake his resolve. But events are transpiring to change all that.

With the aid of his fierce captain, a drug-addled alchemist, and a servant girl with a remarkable past, Weatherby must track a great and powerful mystic, who has embarked upon a sinister quest to upset the balance of the planets—the consequences of which may reach far beyond the Solar System, threatening the very fabric of space itself.

Set sail among the stars with this uncanny tale, where adventure awaits, and dimensions collide!


My Review: Swashbuckling naval battles against heinous French pirates! In space!! Benjamin Franklin on an inhabitable Ganymede, and an alchemist to boot!

Manned permanent habitations on Mars! Greedy corporate slimebuckets causing havoc and costing people their lives! Space bureaucracies throttling (or doing their best to, anyway) any initiative in their subordinates!

Either one of those makes a darn good yarn, a familiar-enough plot to keep the pages turning and still, in Martinez's capable hands, the yawns at bay. Both together gave me the geekgasm of a lifetime. Lt. Shaila Jain, RN, is the kind of kickass leader and quick thinker that gives young women today a chance to develop a sense of agency, owning their own power and future. It doesn't hurt that she falls for a handsome man with a French accent, and then spends the books trying to keep him safe from his own inexperience and lack of fighting ability.

Makes a nice counterpoint to 3Lt. Thomas Weatherby, RN, whose career in the 1779 Navy also takes him into space. Now the fun begins, as the alchemical nature of manned space flight in this era is revealed by the number of ways it can and does go wrong. One of those ways leads poor Weatherby to a space equivalent of the Caribbean pirate port, Port Royal, Jamaica. And there Weatherby finds a drunken alchemist who becomes his best friend and a serving wench (in more than one sense of the word) who becomes his One True Love. Unlike Jain's French paramour, though, Weatherby's is perfectly capable of kicking ass and taking names by herownself. Bit shocking to a stodgy middle-class tradesman's son who has bought himself into the higher status of the officer corps.

Among our delicious surprises is the existence of a bona fide intra-solar system alien species, the Xan of Saturn. Their colonial outpost is Callisto, again an inhabitable world unlike in our own just as amazing solar system. The Xan and their intra-solar system rivals based on Mars had the kind of war that our paltry timeline threw itself in WWI, leaving devastation on Mars, an exploded fifth planet called Phaeton (now called the Rocky Main, to our blah asteroid belt), and one Martian survivor who, for his evils, is imprisoned in interdimensional space.

Throw all this into the pressure cooker, turn the fire up high, and let 'er rip. The resulting explosive action propels every character onto a course not entirely predictable, and as the pieces of hot story fly around, a lot of painful damage gets done. But like the "self-building" pyramid on Mars, the story reassembles itself into a satisfying similar-but-different shape. If the tale isn't to your taste ::side-eye:: the resolution as it is will be good enough to leave the book as finished and whole in your mind.

Me, I want more. Now. Ahoy, Second Chance! One to board, please!

Monday, April 11, 2016

WHAT MAKES YOU DIE, suspense/horror set on Long Island (again!)


Apex Book Company
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: To see more is to find oblivion…

Tommy Pic’s hallucinations come and go and leave sticky notes for him during his bipolar swings. Coming out of a blackout in an unfamiliar psychiatric ward, Tommy Pic awakes to his missing childhood love, his dead brother, his alive family, and a message from his agent that his latest screenplay may yet be his ticket back to Hollywood fame and fortune. If only he could remember writing it.

Searching out the hallucinations that will write Acts 2 and 3 of the screenplay that will oust Zypho as his best-known work, Tommy goes chasing his kidnapped childhood love, a witch from the magic shop, the komodo dragon he tried to cut out of his gut on Christmas Eve.

… This is what makes you die.

My Review: This book is bittersweet because its author died of a brain tumor last July. His career output was good-quality suspense and horror fiction, and a brief note from his widow posted on Facebook suggests that there could be posthumous goodies.

Let no one speak ill of the dead, runs the Roman maxim, and I have no ill to speak. I enjoyed this read, found it compelling, finished it in a day or so. The problems that knocked a whole star-and-a-half off my rating were all about the cohesion of the events in the book. A man having blackouts and talking to dead people is bound to have a continuity issue or two in his brain. On paper, these come across more as scattershot than as planned and placed pieces of the one story: Tommy Pic's life.

It's a good book, give it a try, just don't expect too much formal structure and all will be well.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

STILLWELL, an eerie short novel about haunted Long Island


Red Feather Publishing
$9.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Paul Russo’s wife just died. While trying to get his family’s life back in order, Paul is being tormented by a demon who is holding his wife's spirit hostage on the other side. His fate is intertwined with an old haunted mansion on the north shore of Long Island called Stillwell Manor. Paul must find clues dating back hundreds of years to set his wife's soul free.

My Review: A deeply disturbing book, full of the horror of inconsolable grief. As Paul Russo spirals down into the abyss of loss, he tries to keep enough contact with reality to feed and raise his kids. He gets help, of course, this being an Italian family from Long Island. No one can help him cope with the dream-visions of his late wife being pursued, tormented, by a shaggy beast.

His daughter sees the ghost of her mommy, too, and this supercharges his effort to lay the ghost to rest. His position as a real estate agent allows him access to an unusual house, scene of a murder/suicide. He finds evidence there that locates the source of his nightmares in the past, with a Colonial-era young girl who falls in love with the wrong man. The usual consequences occur, ie she dies nobly; Paul lays her ghost to rest and in the process lays his own burdens down, too.

This was a very quick read, and one I'd recommend especially to fellow Long Islanders. It was a pleasure to meet Mr. Cash. I hope to see more of him.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

AUTHORITY, Jeff Vandermeer's second Southern Reach novel, slips a little

Southern Reach #2
FSG Originals
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: After thirty years, the only human engagement with Area X--a seemingly malevolent landscape surrounded by an invisible border and mysteriously wiped clean of all signs of civilization--has been a series of expeditions overseen by a government agency so secret it has almost been forgotten: the Southern Reach. Following the tumultuous twelfth expedition chronicled in Annihilation, the agency is in complete disarray.

John Rodrigues (aka "Control") is the Southern Reach's newly appointed head. Working with a distrustful but desperate team, a series of frustrating interrogations, a cache of hidden notes, and hours of profoundly troubling video footage, Control begins to penetrate the secrets of Area X. But with each discovery he must confront disturbing truths about himself and the agency he's pledged to serve.

In Authority, the second volume of Jeff VanderMeer's Southern Reach trilogy, Area X's most disturbing questions are answered . . . but the answers are far from reassuring.

My Review: We're not in Area X anymore, Toto, and therein the problem. Control, our PoV character, is hastily tossed together to provide a camera platform for the bureaucratic machinations and clandestine-agency wars.

It's so frustrating to read a good book that's encased in a less-good book. Like those canned hams from the 1960s, the meat is tasty but who put this weird spoodge all over it?

After much hither-and-thithering, not to mention an amazingly large amount of dithering for an executive, Control runs away from (almost) everything...and the ending makes up for most of the beginning. But really, editor, couldn't a few of those go-nowhere side trips have been pruned? (eg, Whitby's art project, Cheney's existence) It takes such a boatload of attention to track them.

I think the slightly different angle on the same basic story as Annihilation is simply not a strong enough framework to bear the expectations raised by it. The very fact that the main character is known to all and sundry as "Control" is perhaps the single most telling tiny clue: it feels as if Vandermeer wasn't terribly interested in him or in this angle on Area X. Still and all, the sheer...audacity, bravura, something in that family...of the series can't be denied or ignored. Thus a half-star higher rating than I felt the novel qua novel earned.

Friday, April 8, 2016

ANNIHILATION, first of three Southern Reach novels, gets a full four stars

Southern Reach #1
FSG Originals
$13.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.

This is the twelfth expedition.

Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.

They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

UPDATE DECEMBER 2016 The 2017 film via indie filmmaker Alex Garland looks really intriguing.

My Review: Winner of the 2015 Nebula Award for science fiction novels and the 2014 Shirley Jackson Award for horror novels, this novel earns accolade after award heaped on top of praise for a good reason: It is eerie, atmospheric setting plus glimpsed monsters plus the recrudescence of the inner evil in all humans. And it's very well written.

We're well into this short book before something truly scary happens; before that, it was all spooky suggestions. The first truly scary thing was the discovery of one woman's mutilated, fungus-laden intense impact!

One thing I must note about Mr. Vandermeer's work is that he seems inordinately interested in fungi and molds. **shudder** The shroom-o-phobic members of the audience are warned. Everyone else, I recommend the book with mild reservations, but only mild ones, about the SF-resistant ladies. I myownself would say try 50pp, for what that's worth.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

THE PRESIDENT, a non-Inspector Maigret Simenon novel...damn good, too

translated by Daphne Woodward
The Neversink Library
$10.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.8* of five

The Publisher Says: Restored to print for the first time in more than forty years, The President was hailed by the New York Times as a “tour de force.”

At 82, the former premier lives in alert and suspicious retirement—self exile—on the Normandy coast, writing his anxiously anticipated memoirs and receiving visits from statesman and biographers. In his library is the self-condemning, handwritten confession of the premier’s former attaché, Chalamont, hidden between the pages of a sumptuously produced work of privately printed pornography—a confession that the premier himself had dictated and forced Chalamont to sign. Now the long-thwarted Chalamont has been summoned to form a new coalition in the wake of the government’s collapse. The premier alone possesses the secret of Chalamont’s guilt, of his true character—and has publicly vowed: “He’ll never be Premier as long as I’m alive... Nor when I’m dead, either.” Inspired by French Premier Georges Clemenceau, The President is a masterpiece of psychological suspense and a probing account of the decline of power.

My Review: I got a CARE package from one of my old pals from Texas, filled to the brim with Simenon works...but not the Maigret stories, to my relief (read 'em all) and delight (I've never read any of the non-Maigret books)! The President is a delicate and careful autopsy of a once-powerful man's reluctant and relieved laying down his armaments. His life always consisted of public service, unmarried and childless and grasping for the levers of power to make his isolation into welcome solitude.

Simenon's Maigret novels are, as murder mysteries must be, formulaic. Simenon's gift came from creating a rich and satisfying story from these commonly available materials. It's a bit like watching Meryl Streep in a movie: She IS the role, she can't be more than glancingly perceived as the actress who starred in any other movie. Chameleons have that do cuttlefish...yet to find the gift of remodeling one's self in our smelly, sweaty human selves amazes and delights us every time.

This 152-page tale is a welcome surprise in this era of bloated, dull series books that could and should have been short stories. In my view, the less an author says, the more s/he has to focus and deliver a high-quality experience. Simenon wrote what was necessary to illuminate the long career of the eponymous president and place it in an historical setting. The impact of the actions taken by the president become, by design but still of necessity, quiet bombshells...silent even in their death throes.

This is a book to savor, to sip and ponder the complex flavors mixed in exacting proportions. A simple story, made well, translated carefully, and presented without hype. It is a treat in a literary landscape as pillowy-soft and cloyingly sweet as today's is simply to be told that great hearts still beat faster in pursuit of desired items and outcomes. And they remain great hearts, giving their all and making no excuses.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

EUPHORIA, a rare treat...anthropology, New Guinea, and good reading in one book!


Grove Press
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

$1.99 on Kindle today!

The Publisher Says: English anthropologist Andrew Bankson has been alone in the field for several years, studying the Kiona river tribe in the Territory of New Guinea. Haunted by the memory of his brothers’ deaths and increasingly frustrated and isolated by his research, Bankson is on the verge of suicide when a chance encounter with colleagues, the controversial Nell Stone and her wry and mercurial Australian husband Fen, pulls him back from the brink. Nell and Fen have just fled the bloodthirsty Mumbanyo and, in spite of Nell’s poor health, are hungry for a new discovery. When Bankson finds them a new tribe nearby, the artistic, female-dominated Tam, he ignites an intellectual and romantic firestorm between the three of them that burns out of anyone’s control.

My Review: Five stars were well within reach, in fact were more or less guaranteed, but there was a problem. Well, isn't there always. But this is my happy place:
I asked her if she believed you could ever truly understand another culture. I told her the longer I stayed, the more asinine the attempt seemed, and that what I’d become more interested in is how we believed we could be objective in any way at all, we who each came in with our own personal definitions of kindness, strength, masculinity, femininity, God, civilisation, right and wrong.
Yum. And many more like it:
It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on the place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion – you’ve only been there eight weeks – and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at the moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.
But the beautiful writing is only part of the story. The plot follows, not overly closely to be sure, the New Guinea experiences of Margaret Mead and her team. But as we draw closer and closer to the end, the setting changes to Australia and becomes pot-boilery, overheated, and unconvincing to me.

It is, however, one of the last passages set in the 1930s that made me shout at the page: The events of the ending made little sense in the context of the story that preceded them. Unworthy of a writer of the caliber Lily King is.

But the ride...the pages flying and the telephone ignored and the dinner gulped...that can't be discounted or devalued by a misstep, no matter how infuriating I found it.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

AGENT 6: a huge disappointment, suspenseless and sloppy

Leo Demidov #3
Grand Central Books
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 2* of five

The Publisher Says: THREE DECADES.


Tom Rob Smith's debut, Child 44, was an immediate publishing sensation and marked the arrival of a major new talent in contemporary fiction. Named one of top 100 thrillers of all time by NPR, it hit bestseller lists around the world, won the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award and the ITW Thriller Award for Best First Novel, and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. 
In this spellbinding new novel, Tom Rob Smith probes the tenuous border between love and obsession as Leo Demidov struggles to untangle the threads of a devastating conspiracy that shatters everything he holds dear. Deftly capturing the claustrophobic intensity of the Cold War-era Soviet Union, it's at once a heart-pounding thriller and a richly atmospheric novel of extraordinary depth....


Leo Demidov is no longer a member of Moscow's secret police. But when his wife, Raisa, and daughters Zoya and Elena are invited on a "Peace Tour" to New York City, he is immediately suspicious.

Forbidden to travel with his family and trapped on the other side of the world, Leo watches helplessly as events in New York unfold and those closest to his heart are pulled into a web of political conspiracy and betrayal-one that will end in tragedy.

In the horrible aftermath, Leo demands only one thing: to investigate the killer who destroyed his family. His request is summarily denied. Crippled by grief and haunted by the need to find out exactly what happened on that night in New York, Leo takes matters into his own hands. It is a quest that will span decades, and take Leo around the world--from Moscow, to the mountains of Soviet-controlled Afghanistan, to the backstreets of New York--in pursuit of the one man who knows the truth: Agent 6.

My Review: Unsuccessful. That's about the size of it. This is an unsuccessful book.

There's not a lot of suspense. There are some tense moments, yes, but they're all in the moment. Suspense is built from wanting to know what is coming, how this knot will part, what secrets will we learn.

Those expectations weren't well met, and weren't well set up. It's an okay novel, a sort of late-Soviet Doctor Zhivago, but it's not thrilling and I stopped caring about what would happen next after the central murder takes place.

The ending is just flat-out terrible and the author and editor should be held up for prolonged public ridicule for having the bad sense and poor sensibilities to foist it on readers who loved Child 44 and liked The Secret Speech.

A poor performance on all parts. The thing I liked best was that I read this in large type, which made a big difference in low-light reading comfort. To be avoided except by completists.

Friday, April 1, 2016

EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT weaves many threads into a glorious tapestry. Thanks Dave Hutchinson!

(Fractured Europe Sequence #2)
Solaris Books (non-affiliate Amazon Link)
$6.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In a fractured Europe, new nations are springing up everywhere, some literally overnight.

For an intelligence officer like Jim it's a nightmare. Every week or so a friendly power spawns a new and unknown national entity which may or may not be friendly to England's interests. It's hard to keep on top of it all.

But things are about to get worse for Jim. A stabbing on a London bus pitches him into a world where his intelligence service is preparing for war with another universe, and a man has appeared who may hold the key to unlocking Europe's most jealously guarded secret...

My Review: I have to disclose that, although I bought this book with my very own United States dollars, I'm pals with the author on social media. Believe me it affected my reading and opinion-making not at all, since an honest review is a better gift than a bunch of hot air. Also note that there are spoilers for EUROPE IN AUTUMN following.

At the very end of AUTUMN, a concept was introduced that's central to this book: The existence of "pocket universes," a modern-day physics concept that boggles my tiny 2-volt brain. It's defined as: "A pocket universe is a concept in inflationary theory, proposed by Alan Guth. It defines a realm like the one that contains the observable universe as only one of many inflationary zones." Wikipedia rocks, and everyone should throw some donations at Jimmy Wales.

So anyway, this pocket universe concept is the source of some really bad-ass events in the world we live in, including a hideous pandemic flu that's done what the Black Death did to 14th-century Europe. The devastation caused much economic misery. But as we all know, money for "black ops" will always flow copiously because there's always a secret to learn, one to protect, and no one dares to reveal it publicly in case The People rise up and shut off the money pipe. So our story threads all center on British Intelligence, the surviving Professor of Intelligence from a pocket universe called "the Campus," and the beloved (to me) Coueruers du Bois we learned so much about in AUTUMN.

All the adventures, the nightmares, the violent justice and injustice meted out are in search of a means to neutralize a threat to whatever place the character's loyalty lies. These people play hard and for keeps. Much bloodshed. All of it for ends that, in my opinion at least, make our world's conflicts seem as foolish as the story's stakes. Why is the mere existence of people your country can't or doesn't control so intolerable as to justify genocidal biowarfare?

EUROPE AT MIDNIGHT doesn't answer this question, raising it and examining it from several sides, but foregoing a simple and pompous jingoistic resolution. The use of pocket universes allows the author to compartmentalize the stories, in best spy-fiction fashion. The twist is that these pockets were created, not discovered, by a family of map-makers. The conflicts, therefore, are engineered and need not ever have happened had the greed and selfishness of one group not taken form in such an unusual way.

Or so it seems in this novel. The pocket countries that litter the near-future Europe after the pandemic, the pocket universes...were they created? Were they discovered and exploited, as the powers that be exploit the fragmentation of today's populations at the hands of venal and manipulative oligarchs?

If I've learned one thing while reading the Fractured Europe sequence, it's that perspective alters everything. I don't for a single second imagine that Hutchinson won't change our perspective on Fractured Europe in EUROPE IN WINTER, forthcoming late this year. Goddesses willing and the crick don't rise.