Thursday, June 30, 2016


DOGFIGHTERS Under the Hill #2
Alex Beecroft
Pronoun Publishing
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Kidnapped by the Faerie Queen, Ben is confronted with his own supernatural heritage, a royal family and a lover he doesn’t remember. His first instinct is to turn his back on them all and get back to Earth. Compared to this, Chris and his wacky cohorts seem almost…normal.

Back on Earth, Chris Gatrell is having trouble convincing the police that he didn’t do away with Ben and hide the body. Determined not to lose another sweetheart to the elves’ treachery, he presses his motley crew of ghost hunters to steal a Mosquito bomber…and prays the ghosts of his WWII crew will carry them through the portal to Ben’s rescue.

Meanwhile, Chris’s elf-trapped WWII love, Geoff, has a dragon and he’s not afraid to use it. If only he could be entirely sure which of the elf queens is the real enemy—the one whose army is poised to take back planet Earth for elf-kind.

In the cataclysmic battle to come, more than one lover—human and elf alike—may be forced to make the ultimate sacrifice.

My Review: Well. That was fun.

This being the second of two parts, and part one ending on what can only be described as a coitus interruptus-level cliffhanger, it's a darn good thing for my sanity and the health of those around me that this volume was already teed up on the Kindle.

Only Mrs. Beecroft could keep me up all night reading two back-to-back (!) romantic stories about faeries and dragons and Lancaster bombers and pretty, pretty mens NOT having hot monkey sex despite wanting to.

Some things jarred me, though, and I re-read the book to see what they were, before I wrote this review. No, no, you of little faith, it wasn't the lack of hot monkey sex (well, yes it was but I'm not admitting it publically), it was the fact that this story needed more.

Yes, that's correct, Mr. Crabby Pants said the story needed more. More words, more scenes, more time spent in the Raelmes of Phauntaieesee explainin' stuff and makin' the unreality realer.

Fast-drawn lines and suggested histories are fine in shorter works. One expects them. This read, in aggregate tree book form, probably takes 400 or so pages to tell. Make it six hundred, don't break it into two bits, and give me more!

I hear crickets. It's not that amazing, really, when you think about it. I'm always grousing and moaning about the fact that the bajillion-page nonillionologies are fatty, padded, poofy-marshmallow-dipped-in-saccharine idealess attempts to empty the wallets of the bored. And here's a book whose two worlds, well three really, could profitably be expanded to make them intersect more satisfyingly with the sweet guys who populate Beecroftite tales. Love, the falling-in kind as well as the milder, friendlier kind, is at the heart of any story Beecroftly. But the background story has such a huge impact on the tale of love she spins here that it really needed to be fuller, though not richer.

So here I am plunking a mean-spirited 3.5 stars on what should have been a five-star read. The ending, which I won't spoiler, is the main reason I got over three stars. I cried soft, sentimental tears, sniffing into my hanky, as the ending played out. Oh goodness I am a sappy old queen some days. I even called the now-former gentleman caller and we had a good mutual sniveling about the ending. (To his current man's vocal annoyance, which I confess gave me a most unworthy stab of satisfaction...guy doesn't read, and you're gonna leave me for him? Fool.)

Ahem. Sorry.

So, well, I'm certainly not yodeling rapturously from the housetops, but I would very much suggest the squeamish "ewww-ick" homophobics who have a weakness for knight-errantry, dragons, and the warm, healing glow of love rewarded by love.

BOMBER'S MOON: Under the Hill #1

BOMBER'S MOON (Under the Hill #1)
Alex Beecroft
Pronoun Publishing
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.6* of five

The Publisher Says:The faeries at the bottom of the garden are coming back—with an army.

Under the Hill, Part 1

Ben is a modern, sceptical man but the fairies are trying to abduct him. When he hires Chris's paranormal defence agency to protect him, he doesn't expect to fall in love.

Chris is a refugee from his own time. He's lost one lover to the elves already. Terrified, but determined that this time he'll do better, he promises Ben that the elves will get him over his dead body.

If only that wasn't looking so likely.

Under The Hill was voted Best Multicultural Fantasy 2013 in the M/M romance Swirl Awards. Bomber's Moon is the first book of the complete story. If you love KJ Charles' Green Men and Magpie Lord books, you'll love this.

My Review: Exactly and precisely as the book description says it is. Now, anyone who has ever interacted with me knows I'm no fan of fantasy, but there is nothing on earth more useless than a hermetically sealed mind so I tried this out. Fantasy plus men having sex with each other *must* be better than the straight kind.

Well, yeah, of course.

But there isn't any serious sex in here, so get a big ol' two-fisted grip! One little scene, nothing even close to explicit. The point of this novel isn't the zeal of the organs for each other, it's the Hero's Journey. And the Hero has a wonderful journey, from WWII to 1995 in a blink, then living through the birth of our 21st-century world, and meeting someone whose own Hero's Journey is crossgrained to his own. Ben is Indian, living in Bakewell, and working in a bank; Chris is as English as spotted dick, living in Bakewell, and fighting the forces of supernatural invasion as he once fought the Luftwaffe. They aren't instantly obviously going to fit together. And that's the fun, romantic part of the story.

But then there's the fantasy bit, complete with German fairies invading and occupying English Elven territory; an ancient prophecy that demands an English bomber crew be brought to the other world; an air force of modern fighters in the elven lands, ready to rain destruction on...well, anyone; and a princess hostage damsel in distress to satisfy the conventions, one whose seductiveness can straighten the crooked path of a lost navigator.

I've read Beecroft's Hearts-of-Oaky smexy romances, and so I knew what to expect from the prose. It's direct, it's unfussy, and it's effective. (It also needs copyediting, but that's not Beecroft's fault, it's Samhain's...I mean, calling someone "died-in-the-wool"? It's DYED and that should have knocked the publisher's eye out!) I had sort-of hoped for the Age of Sail's smut content, since I like that kind of thing, but was steeled for the mildness of the entry by previous reviews.

The issues for me, apart from the copyediting, were focused around the hanging-together-ness of the plot's big points. Why, I wondered, does it not occur to modern-day Ben (20s) to ask why Chris (late 30s) is SO old-fashioned? It's right completely out of the modern day, the way Chris behaves towards Ben, even after Chris comes out to him. How has Chris managed to live almost 20 years in the modern era and not had more of it rub off on him? How on earth does he live, I mean money-wise? They're niggles. But they're niggles about big points.

But, and this is why I rated this book at least a full star above any other with issues that size, this is a thumping good read, with lots of very interesting urban-fantasy takes on old fantasy tropes, and characters whose happiness I actually care about. Yes, yes, teenaged girls are people too, but I don't care about their Special Uniqueness and Awesome Powers even a little bit. I do care about Ben's. And Chris's. And I want them to have a happily ever after.

Because they're man-lovin' men. For once someone is talking to ME. And I like it. Thanks, Mrs. Beecroft, for doing your usual solid job of entertaining me.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

MURDER IN THE RUE CHARTRES by Greg Herren, third entry in the Chanse MacLeod mystery series

Greg Herren
Bold Strokes Books
$9.99 eBook only, available now

WINNER OF THE 20th Lambda Literary Award—BEST GAY MYSTERY!

Rating: 4.3* of five

The Publisher Says: Murder hits the Big Easy.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Chanse MacLeod returns to a different, shattered New Orleans in an attempt to rebuild his own life and face his own future. When he discovers that his last client before the storm was murdered the very night she hired him to find her long-missing father, he is drawn into a web of intrigue and evil that surrounds the Verlaine family.

My Review: There is no escape from the past. It supports us, if we're lucky; it drags us down from otherwise attainable heights, if we're not. This third installment of Herren's Chanse MacLeod mysteries reinforces this sad, inescapable lesson in a harsh and cruel and painful way, only for once it's not Chanse that does most of the suffering. Hired to look into a 32-year-old disappearance by the daughter of a vanished father, Chanse ends up fired before he can so much as cash the check...and then his client turns up dead. Odd, that...and her in the throes of planning her wedding? Something smells fishy to Chanse, who returns her retainer check in person to the dead woman's older brother. Surprise there: Chanse now has a much larger retainer check and a new client who wants the same job done. In short order, Chanse meets the patriarch of this singularly unlucky clan; loses his new client to what he is morally sure is murder; breaks up with his rebound guy, a nice-but... that he met in the last book; has a quickie with an old friend, newly single; and learns that his hag/best friend is leaving post-Katrina New Orleans. To finish her book, she says.

Rest assured, though: The right people end up in the right places and Chanse, for a wonder, actually unthaws his cryogenically preserved, battered, bruised, and broken heart, resolving to live his life and not simply exist in it because he's not dead yet.

New Orleans post-Katrina is a grim backdrop for this outing. I suspect in many ways anyone who has written about New Orleans since 2005 has written out of a sense of atonement, or expiation, or making things right, because after all they're alive and so very many aren't any more. Chanse comes home from a stay in Dallas to find that he's lost nothing in the storm or the flood; his friend Venus lost everything, for example, as did so many. The hero of a mystery series needs obstacles to make him more interesting that simply a crime-solving computer. The obstacles here, well, they're pretty grisly...driving around and seeing those horrible, horrible "X"s showing where bodies were found...refrigerators abandoned as far from homes as possible so they won't add to the mold problems, and adorned with anti-government slogans...well, this leads Chanse to a minor breakdown. No duh.

I am not, at heart, a New Orleanian. I got out of the car in 1975 and said, "Jesus, what a dump." Nothing in all the time since has made me think anything different. I don't miss going there, and wish our friends from there would come here to visit. But the city is one of the world's most popular destinations, and it's got a certain raffish charm that shines through in these books. I still don't want to go there. But I like the Chanse MacLeod character's development and growth, and I like the secondary characters like Paige, his hag, and Venus, the tall and elegant lady detective; who knows, maybe Herren has let us see a glimmer of hope for Chanse to have a shot at boyfriendly bliss!

Kinda doubt it, though. Remember what happened to "Moonlighting" when Cybill Shepard and Bruce Willis finally got it on?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

MURDER IN THE RUE ST. ANN by Greg Herren, the second Chanse MacLeod mystery

MURDER IN THE RUE ST. ANN (Chanse MacLeod #2)
Greg Herren
Bold Strokes Books
$9.99 eBook, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: When sexy gay private eye Chanse MacLeod investigates the financial shenanigans of club promoter Mark Williams, he discovers that not only does Williams have ties to the New Orleans judiciary, he also has ties to Chanse’s lover, Paul—a connection that reveals secrets about Paul’s past that Chanse had never guessed and now wishes he didn’t know. When Paul disappears, it seems his past has caught up with him in a terrifying way.

My Review: Second of the Chanse MacLeod murder mysteries set in New Orleans, this is a more assured performance by author Herren. He winds a good tale around the sudden end of happiness for our tight-lipped hero...boyfriend Paul goes, in the space of twenty-four *really* lousy hours, from apple dumpling sweetie pie to murder suspect to missing person. Chanse reveals more to us in the course of his frantic search for Paul, and along the way steps in the dogshit-laden middle of a Federal Mob case, almost becomes a wrestle-porn whore, and winds up with a tender and loving experience of family and love and acceptance. As his entire world ends. Ain't it always the way?

I don't know if I've told my grim secrets often enough for them to be scabbed over or not, but this book ripped them scabs right off. Chanse's trailer-trash past is detailed here, and while the setting of his agonies was way way down-market from mine and my mother was the abuser not my father, we came from similar backgrounds of unknowable trigger-points for screaming violent abuse. It was harrowing to read. (Sucked to live, too.)

Then, after a very unpleasant break-up, we see Chanse's self-involvement and inability to love and care in a real and significant way for others: Check! Did that. I hid it behind being an AIDS volunteer, and put a braver face on it for the public, but oh yeah. Ask any of the women I married. Ask the men I dated. I promise they'd back me up here: Cold as a walk-in freezer when it came down to it.

And then, and then...oh my oh my...Chanse loses Paul to a vile and horrible crime, as I lost my son to his mother's drunk driving in 1981, as I lost my dearly, dearly treasured Bland to AIDS in 1992. Herren gives his reactions to the horror in a direct and laconic way, which makes them all the more affecting. Those of us only slightly and tangentially able to feel emotions anyway respond to grief in a particular way...all the color goes out of the world. There may be a storm of weeping, then *slam* the gate goes down. No more tears. And then the torment begins: You are made of lead, of iron-bound lead, and the world is papier mache. Moving is a delicate task. Nothing at all works. Drinking and drugging suddenly seem like *wonderful* ideas, so off you go!

And that, my friends, is where Herren leaves Chanse--at a bar, drink in front of him, at 11:45am.

Oh yeah. Been there, done that, and so (I suspect) has Herren. I don't think a person can make this imaginitive leap without a real solid launching pad. I hurt for him, no one should have to know what it's like. But then, isn't that what art does? Take the fortunate to the places the unfortunate know how to find? Well, whatever the source, the book takes the reader there, that awful agonized place of loss.

But then you get to close the book, put it on a shelf, and get a glass of water for your nightstand as you go to bed.

Sweet dreams.

Monday, June 27, 2016

MURDER IN THE RUE DAUPHINE by Greg Herren, first Chanse MacLeod mystery

Greg Herren
Bold Strokes Books
$9.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: For gay New Orleans private eye Chanse MacLeod, it seemed like a simple case: find out who was blackmailing his pretty-boy client's rich, closeted boyfriend, collect a nice check, and take some time off. But then the pretty boy turns up dead in what looks like a hate crime and the gay community of New Orleans is up in arms, demanding justice. In the stifling heat of a New Orleans summer, Chanse searches for an extremely clever killer on a trail leading to a gay rights organization, boys for hire, and New Orleans society, knowing he has to find the killer before the entire city explodes.

My Review: Chanse MacLeod, former LSU football star, New Orleans policeman, and present-day private detective, gets a client in the most appealing possible way for a gay male mystery: His hottie hirer picks him out, and up, at the gym. Hunky Mike Hansen is, wait for it, in love with a rich, married, closeted doctor who is being blackmailed. Mike arranges to meet Chanse at Mike's home, after getting the incriminating blackmail tape from Dr. Delicious McWallet. (We don't find out his real name until well into the book.) Chanse, worn out from the workout and still sad over his peripatetic lover's departure for another multi-day trip as a flight attendant, oversleeps and is an hour late for their meeting. Darn good thing, too, since if he'd been on time, he'd've seen Mike being murdered.

Discovering the body, reporting the murder to his former colleagues at NOPD, and then trying to stay out of the circus that ensues is the meat of this short first mystery in a series by author and anthologist Herren. Gold diggers, horny creeps, jaded reporters, single-minded do-gooders, whores and whoremongers jig and caper through Herren's pre-Katrina French Quarter and Faubourg Marigny. MacLeod's laconic page presence still allows for character development, since we're in first person. What solves the mystery is an attempted murder that, for a wonder, vivifies the term "feed 'em to the fishes." The resolution is in no way a surprise, but the way it arrives is fun.

I'm not sure Chanse would give my fat carcass the time of day, muscle queen that he is, but I don't mind hitchhiking on his betank-topped muscular shoulder. The book is a fantasy, and it's not played for realism, but it's got some good character bases for a long-legged series: gruff black lady cop, honest and forthright, whom everyone erroneously assumes to be a lesbian; Chanse's hag, reporter Paige Tourneur, is appealingly damaged and quite obviously hangin' with his hunky self out of self-protection, so fertile ground for fun developments; Chanse's lover the air mattress (gay male slang for stewards), who commits the Unpardonable Sin of saying "I love you" to Chanse not once, oh no we can ignore that, but TWICE! Chanse's attack of the fantods led me to the mirror to see if maybe Herren had a camera in there...and leads Chanse to the brink of an affair with a most, most inappropriate man.

Enjoyable fluff, this. I wish the author's editor had made him do a few of the obvious development tricks, delving just a wee bit deeper into the recurring characters' pasts, but all in all this is a good and solid effort. It lacks suspense to an almost fatal degree as a mystery, but it makes up for it in blithe and quick-witted writing. Book 2, Murder in the Rue St. Ann, awaits on the nightstand. It's only 1am, I can fit in 50pp or so, can't I?

Sunday, June 26, 2016

CAPTAIN'S SURRENDER by the inimitable Alex Beecroft

Alex Beecroft

Pronoun Publishing
$3.99 eBook (all formats), available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Ambitious and handsome, Joshua Andrews has always valued his life too much to take unnecessary risks. Then he lays eyes on the elegant picture of perfection that is Peter Kenyon. Soon to be promoted to captain, Peter Kenyon is the darling of the Bermuda garrison. With a string of successes behind him and a suitable bride lined up to share his future, Peter seems completely out of reach to Joshua. But when the two men are thrown together to serve during a long voyage under a sadistic commander with a mutinous crew, they discover unexpected friendship. As the tension on board their vessel heats up, the closeness they feel for one another intensifies and both officers find themselves unable to rein in their passion. Let yourself be transported back to a time when love between two men in the British Navy was punishable by death, and to a story about love, about honor, but most of all, about a Captain's Surrender.

My Review: I gave this book to my friend Frank the Fireman, since like the main character, Peter Kenyon, he is an adult out-comer. I wanted him to, in particular, notice the last chapter wherein Peter goes through the long, dark night of the soul as he struggles between the lifelong conditioning he's heir to...the societal and legal issues surrounding being queer in the Royal Navy of the 18th century...and his love for Joshua Andrews, his best friend, former ship-mate, and one true love.

I didn't mention that I wanted him to notice that chapter, I just sat and hoped. I was rewarded by a phone call. Frank was shaken, saying he'd done almost the precise same minuet of fear, anger, doubt, fear, rage, lust the end...honest peace.

I told him the author was a woman. He didn't say anything for a minute. "Lesbian?" he asked. "No. Married with kids." "That is one lucky man," was Frank's response.

I concur.

This book fulfills a long-felt absence in my reading life. It's an historical sea-novel, with nicely handled battle scenes and an authentic-feeling atmosphere of male camaraderie. Its flaws include a rather cavalier approach to time, as in there is no indication that the characters have to wait the extended periods they would really have been forced to endure for news, for travel, for anything. Also bothersome are some absences...backstory mostly, but also some characters have unresolved storylines, and I don't mean opening-for-sequel unresolved, I mean holes. The antagonist of Peter and Joshua is the first one who springs to mind, since he's presented in one dimension and never seen to have reasons for his actions beyond moving the plot along.

I make this point because the book is getting a four-star rating. It's not perfect, I'd really really like to see more of the men's backgrounds even if in flashback for example, but it's a beautifully realized love story with excellent atmospherics and a happy ending...and a Happy Ending, too. Well done, Mrs Beecroft, and do it again soon.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

THURSDAY, 1:17 P.M. is a very satisfying summer read as well as a deep pool of subtext


Coffeetown Press
$13.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Time stopped at 1:17 p.m. on a beautiful Thursday afternoon in Washington, DC. Duck is the only person moving in a world where all other living beings have been frozen into statues in an endless diorama. Duck was already in limbo, having lost his mother to cancer and his father to mental illness. Now, faced with the unimaginable, he approaches his dilemma with the eye of an anthropologist and the heart of a teenager trying to do the right thing under the strangest of circumstances. Ultimately, he realizes that while he doesn’t understand the boundaries between friendship and love, that uncertain territory may be the key to restarting the world.

Says Landweber, “We’ve all wanted to stop time. Thursday, 1:17 p.m. started with the idea that this particular wish could turn into a curse if you weren’t able to start time up again. After the initial thrill of being the last person moving in a frozen world, how would a person deal with the loneliness? Or the temptation to do things that you would never consider doing in the fully functioning world? But what interested me most was turning that potential nightmare into a story about one person finding meaning in a world that makes no sense.”

My Review: This book was offered to me by the publicist, and after many days, I am cheerfully offering my sincere opinion of it: Good stuff!

I think what drew me to the book in the first place was the conceit of a boy living in stopped time after his mother's awful death from cancer, and his father's descent into a world of his own, one so deep that he can't reach out or be reached by anyone. Not even his son. That's isolation! Jacob, known as Duck to friends, experiences something amazing and unprecedented as he escapes home, where his mother's body is being removed: He walks into an intersection without paying attention, in front of a speeding Mercedes that's running a red light, and...nothing. No impact. It's as if time has stopped.

It has. For everyone except Duck. He's alive, he's mobile, he's a free agent in a world of statues. His adventures are just beginning. I'm sure most of us have thought what we'd do in Duck's shoes; his first response is to test the situation, determine if this is a real event by examining the world, experimenting with gravity...still works...and other forces, which don't. ELectromagnetism is halted. Anything relying on electricity like computers and human brains is offline. Water won't flow unless Duck is touching it. More parameters of the social world start to vanish from Duck the longer his situation lasts. He sleeps wherever he is whenever he's tired. It's 1:17p.m. on a lovely sunny day, unchangingly 71 degrees (Fahrenheit)...when to sleep? That's always a problem for those out of step with the rest of the world. And boy is Duck out of step! He runs around naked, playing pranks, redistributing cash from wealthy places like stores and rich mall-goers' wallets, tipping frozen people over, generally acting like a 17-year-old on a bender should. Oh yes, there's all kinds of good stuff he can eat and drink in the restaurants of frozen Washington DC, just so long as he's careful to eat already prepared food, nothing from the kitchen that hasn't been plated. Cooking has, obviously, stopped with the electricity. Natural gas, since it flows mostly like water, isn't moving either.

So here he is, in an abundant world, with easy enough access to all the necessities and luxuries; nothing, then, to do but think. Process the painful past, since he's in an eternal present. He visits his father in the loony bin, trying to make the world start again by using his father's mental disturbance as an oracle. This isn't helpful, but Duck makes the most of it by really digging into his memories of his Dad before the final psychotic break that sent Dad to the bin: Stealing a Duck, the tour bus/boat that's seen in many cities with rivers or big lakes, since he needs an ark for himself and his son to ride out the flood that's coming. Only it doesn't come. A flood of cops, yes; a flood of scared tourists as Dad drives the Duck into the reflecting pool on the Mall. Hence Duck's nickname, a brand of shame until his mother sends him to a private school. Even that wouldn't have helped had it not been for the cool cat in class, Carlos, taking a shine to Duck and enveloping him in the aura of popularity. Duck, Carlos, Mackenzie the uber-rich girl, and Grace the uber-smart and pretty darn rich girl. The Gang of Four. Duck is safe at last.

Nothing stops cancer, but his friends at least keep Duck occupied. They all care about him very much, even Grace and her surgeon parents after they delve into his Mom's condition and give Duck the same news he's already heard: No hope. Terminal. Sad for you, but we will always have a place for you in our home. And he repays them by storming out of their house, blaming them for his mother's death. (I have to think that, as parents of teenagers themselves, they get where he's coming from and hold no grudges.)

It's Grace that Duck wrongs the most, treating her with offhanded discourtesy. He stands her up for her graduation party, he blows her off socially, it's a wonder she doesn't stick a knife in his eye. Mackenzie does much the same thing to him. Carlos is above it all, his diplomat parents having instilled in him the ability to slip unscathed through muddy emotional waters filled with piranhas.

While the world is stopped, Duck looks into his friends' houses and lives: Mackenzie, well, she's not the little lady he'd hoped for; Carlos's parents are in mid-fuck, which clearly isn't something Duck would see any other time or way; Grace is nowhere to be found. Not at her summer internship. Not at home. Duck gets worried enough to check their secret stashes: Lunchboxes, vintage lunchboxes that Grace compelled Duck to buy with her. They agreed to keep their you'll-know-when-it's-time secret stuff in them. He finds Grace's suicide note. It directs him to her family's cabin seventy miles away.

Riding a stolen bike with a kid carrier attached, Duck makes it to West Virginia after riding through a thunderstorm. He takes the chance to get close to a bolt of lightning, not something you're ever likely to be able to do safely when time is unstopped, but who wouldn't want to see what lightning really looks like?

What he finds makes him into the ultimate MacGyver master. Grace has thrown herself out the window, aiming for some spiky rocks. Duck creates a soft landing place for her by stealing every mattress and sofa cushion from all the houses he can see. That way when he touches Grace's foot and she falls, she won't be hurt. And that's now of paramount importance to him because, in addition to her suicide note, Grace also left a packet of Carlos's letters to her, loving, warm letters indicating a relationship Duck knew nothing about between two of his best friends. Grace has clearly told Carlos that her real feelings are for Duck, and Carlos knows just what to do: break off their relationship and go back to being friends. Duck reads the letters and knows, the way you do, that he's in love with Grace and always was.

In the end, Duck does unfreeze the world after he has made as many things right as he can. He is now sorted out, emotionally stable in his grief, and ready to meet life on life's terms. It's a good, satisfying way to end a book. This is very much a summer page-turner with subtleties that you'll have to read for yourself. Enjoyed as a tale, it's fine; looking into the shadows cast by the rich subtexts all through the book makes the experience much richer. But either way, read it soon. It will repay you with interest.

Gay Life sixty years ago was a lot like today: Read Tom Baker's FULL FRONTAL

FULL FRONTAL: to make a long story short

$20.95 hardcover, $3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The (Self-)Publisher Says: It is August of 1957, and Tim Halladay, a caddie at the Long Shore Country Club, is looking forward to beginning eighth grade at Assumption School. Tim and his best friend and fellow caddie, Jimmy, are oblivious to the fact that they are slowly transforming into young men with secret desires.

As Tim embarks on a journey of emotional and sexual development, he approaches the world around him with a "full frontal" attitude that allows him to somehow not only survive but thrive, beginning with his first gay experiences as a shy teenager in suburban Connecticut and moving through his escapades at a Virginia army base, the Hotel Manhattan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Polo Lounge at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and lavish suites at various upscale hotels and resorts. As Tim moves from one encounter to the next, he gradually transforms, moving toward a future as a rising star.

Full Frontal shares an intriguing glimpse into the life of a gay man, as told through his eclectic relationships as he eventually discovers that true happiness is all about give and take.

My Review: What happens when history isn't recorded by Official Sources? When the world as it is gets painted and groomed and tarted up for Posterity? Go look in a history book, that's what happens. No juice, no life-as-it's-lived-ness remains, just a skeleton of facts and some fatty tissue about the one-percenters' public actions.

In recent years, historians have discovered the joys of nosing into the private lives of ordinary people via their diaries and their letters. Jeb and Dash, a non-fiction work about two gay men who lived, loved, and larked about between the World Wars, is a fun and interesting look at life otherwise unrecorded and unseen by History-with-a-capital-H.

Then there are books like Full Frontal. Short stories, fictions, that read like entries in your gay uncle's diary, and give you the naughty-naughty sensation of finding the book and sneaking a read of it before he gets home.

The ordinary life of an ordinary young man, coming of age and coming into himself, is usually the stuff of nightmares to read, listen to, or watch. We've all come of age, well most of us have, and we've all had our issues large or small with crafting an identity to suit our sense of self and place in the world.

Here, in these stories, Tom Baker brings a character into focus, sometimes sharp and others soft, whose ordinary lived life as a gay man of the Stonewall generation is vanishing from the earth. This subject isn't utterly fresh and new, goodness knows, since there have been about a Roman Legion of gay-male writers mining the shaft (in joke, don't fuss if you don't get it) in the past 40 years. What makes this book different, and altogether more satisfying on one level, is the absence of angst in the tale.

Tim Halladay was born gay, came of age finding and spending time with other boys who wanted what he wanted, and there's an end to that drama. He's a bit shy, a little bit awkward physically, and pretty much a common-or-garden modestly talented dreamer of dreams.

And that is a lovely thing to find between book covers. I've known Tim Halladays all my life, and liked them, and found their company and their stories engaging and charming. Spending a few hours with this fictional man, now cresting 70 and on the down-slopes of life; looking back over the life he's led; it all gave me, as I slither into my sixties, a happy and wistful glow. Most gay men don't have children to tell their stories to; Tim Halladay, the stand-in for many an actual man, found Tom Baker's pen and made it work for him. It's a pleasure to spend time in his company.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

RICH AND POOR, Jacob Wren's new novel of class warfare and self-doubt


$14.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Who hasn't, at one time or another, considered killing a billionaire?

Following on the critical success of his novel Polyamorous Love Song (BookThug, 2014; finalist for the Fence Modern Prize in Prose and one of The Globe and Mail's 100 best books of 2014), Canadian writer and performer Jacob Wren picks up the mantle of the politically and economically disenfranchised in Rich and Poor--the story of a middle-class, immigrant pianist who has fallen on hard times, and now finds himself washing dishes to make ends meet.

Wren capably balances personal reflections with real-time political events, as his protagonist awakens to the possibility of a solution to his troubles and begins to formulate a plan of attack, in which the only answer is to get rid of "the 1%."

Rich and Poor is rare work of literary fiction that cuts into the psychology of politics in ways that are off-kilter, unexpected, and unnerving. In drawing comparisons to fiction that focuses on "the personal as political" (including Chris Kraus's Summer of Hate and Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives), Rich and Poor is a compelling, fast-paced, and energizing read for adventure-seeking, politically active and/or interested readers who rowdily question their position among "the 99%."

My Review: Since I'm perfectly in sympathy with this book's political stance, I'll start my delighted review with the mission statement of the wannabe killer of a billionaire, whose only name throughout the book is "2":
On a social level, people have to look after each other, but on an ethical level, each of us has to look after ourselves. If you are a billionaire it is because you have done evil in the world. You have exploited and caused untold misery. You have bent laws and governments to your will. I don't want to shoot him. I want to strangle him with piano wire. I don't want to escape. I want to be caught and explain my idea to the world. I want to be executed. I now have nothing to lose. We will all be forgotten. But if ten of us manage to kill billionaires those ten will be remembered forever. Our poverty will become history. Wealth is impersonal but we will make it personal again.
It's the voice of a desperately radicalized man, fallen from the heights of lauded piano virtuoso to the depths of restaurant dishwasher, an under-the-table cash job. He's used this void-of-brain-stimulation time to meditate upon the class system, the wealth gap between rich and poor, and what he can do to redress the imbalance that we all see every day. He elects to kill a famous, or infamous depending on your politics and economics, billionaire. It will be his life's purpose. Lucky for him he has nothing else to occupy his mind.

And the billionaire, called throughout the book by the simple numeral "1," he has a tale to tell as well. His ruminations on himself, his position in society and the economic nature of the society we've built, are fascinating:
Capitalism is not the simple desire to make a profit. Capitalism is the fantasy that growth can continue at a consistent rate indefinitely. When a child is young, it cannot yet imagine being an adult, so it thinks it will keep on growing forever. The fantasy that you can grow forever is exhilarating, one of the many aspects that make children seem so alive. We live in fantasy, all of us, all of the time, to a greater or lesser extent.
So it's clear that, unlike the expected attitude of blind entitlement, 1 is a clear-sighted and fundamentally honest observer of the world. He recognizes the Ponzi scheme that is the Growth Myth. It makes 2's desire to kill him a little more problematic from the get-go. 2 doesn't know 1, and I couldn't help wondering what would happen when they necessarily met each other. Would the murder plot get sent to File 13?

Certainly that isn't 1's focus. I don't see any evidence that 1 recognizes that 2 is a real human being, just a meat puppet standing in for all of Them:
I don't really have any positive vision of the future, don't know what kind of world I'd someday like to live in or if it's even possible to achieve something better than this. I only know that the billionaires are attacking us, again and again taking measures that serve no other purpose than to increase their own wealth and debase all other aspects of life. And when you are attacked you must fight back, in whatever way you can.
No vision of a better world? No sense that bettering the place he lives will result from killing the Evil Billionaire? I began to feel my empathy for 2 drop, having started out quite high. I can't see killing for the sake of sending a message as a justifiable motive. Taking a human life is a very serious step. In service of a better world coming into being, within a purposeful plan of larger action, okay. Maybe okay. A little bit less heinous a crime.

The next thing I know, nasty evil billionaire 1 is yet more humanized by his ruminations on the nature of friendship, in the context of losing his one and only, therefore best, friend in a corporate war:
Friendship is a strange idea, difficult to quantify and, at times, even more difficult to maintain. Clearly a friend is someone you enjoy spending time with. However, a friend is also someone you continue to support even during periods when they are considerably less pleasurable to be around. The loyalty of friendship often contains a kind of tautology or feedback loop: the longer you are friends the more loyal you become, and the more loyal you become the longer you remain friends.
A man who has hung his best friend out to dry has the gall to think he understands friendship, let alone loyalty. We're seeing only what the characters show us, naturally, but this seems a bit rich from someone who was beginning to feel more self-aware and human than his would-be killer.

While 2 is seeking ways to get closer to 1, close enough to do him in, he runs into obstacles but also has a stroke of amazing luck: He meets 1's erstwhile best friend, Emmett, a virtuoso of the corporate battlefield who has neutralized many a threat for 1 before everything went south. All 2 has to do upon meeting Emmett is offer a willing ear for his troubles:
He tells me he can't believe how bitter he has become, how sour, that all his life he had been one of the most fun, one of the happiest, one of the most joyous people anyone knew, and now he was like a crumpled piece of steel covered in rust. The way he describes himself, a 'crumpled piece of steel covered in rust,' I don't think I'll ever forget those precise words or his voice as he said them.
And back to 2 being the better man, since 1 could so abuse his best friend Emmett as to cause him to feel this caustic outraged rejection. The fact that 1 did this amid a perfect storm of business disasters that Emmett was instrumental in guiding their business through makes 1's callousness more terrible, and to Emmett more painful. I can certainly see why. But the saying "all's fair in love and war" has endured for a reason. Like a game of chess, people are pieces to be sacrificed in pursuit of the goal of the moment, at least for poorer players. A longer term vision might not have allowed 1 to cast aside a loyal friend; or perhaps not. No way to know.

But what I love most about this book is that I wondered about such things. I was fully involved in the characters' inner lives as they were revealed to me. Their thoughts and actions came to seem so real, so fully realized were their internal struggles and inconsistencies, that I was completely absorbed in the story from beginning to end. It's a wonderful feeling to get that pulled in by a novel. The author's axe was indeed being loudly ground. That didn't prevent him from making both characters very sympathetic, each in his own way. One man who has nothing left to lose decides to kill another man who fears he is losing the capacity to shock and awe friend and foe alike. His reaction to the attempt by 2 to murder him is extremely telling:
I want to give a name to my would-be killer. What should I call him? Something that will ease his presence in my mind, make him look foolish, like he is of no threat and never was, which is in fact the truth. I don't want his real name, which is meaningless to me, but instead something I control, something I own, some way to own that piano-idiot who attacked me.
That's pretty clear. "I must control and own my surroundings" isn't a thought that occurs to a man who, simply by virtue of being in a place in company, just does own it. This side of 1 is a bit sad. He's not the lion he was, he sees the end of his life's work and his life for the first time:
I go to the shelf and pick out a few poetry books to take with me. A few old favorites and a few I haven't gotten to yet. As I slip the books into my carry-on, it occurs to me that there really are a lot of poems about death, that I've always read many poems about dying, but had almost never noticed them before. They were always the ones I lightly skimmed, and I thought that maybe I could start reading these poems more carefully. It was almost nothing, but it was also a decision about my life.
Sic transit gloria mundi. His will can't help but fail soon. That dreaded pasture is ever closer.

But 2, after his failed attempt at murder, is hustled out of the city where both men live since 1 doesn't want any kind of public noise made about the bungled attempt. He travels, all unconscious, back to the land he came from, where illegal migrant workers make cheap food possible for the hungry rich to eat. He's revealing to the reader how far he's come but how deep his roots are in that soil. He begins to play piano again as he tries to think through a plan of action to help the migrants, his original people, be treated fairly by management. The tunes he plays aren't the fancy classical things that brought him fame once, but the humble folk songs he grew up hearing.

In the end, 1 and 2 face off, thanks to the somewhat grudging help of Emmett, across a field of farm laborers who are committed to winning a union for themselves. It is 2 who worries about what the future holds, since 1 is lost to thoughts of something he won't see:
If we make a union in these fields, is there anything we can do to ensure it doesn't become corrupt? Or that later it doesn't only look after the people who work here, we just look after our own, and everyone else can fend for themselves? We need to fight for ourselves, here and now, but we also need changes so large and impossible they encompass the entire world.

Though he has lost the will to see into the future, 1 isn't lying to himself. He's still very clear-sighted and unafraid to look in the mirror:
What are the clichés that accurately reflect me, that me and my class of assholes seem to say over and over again, like super-elite broken records. That the poor are lazy, that we work harder than everyone else and deserve every penny we make (in my particular case, this happens to be true), that we are the global class and therefore effortlessly, with great skill and determination, run the world.
Yes, it's a cliché; but as 1 admits, it does describe himself and his people with fairness and accuracy. There's always a reason clichés become clichés.

After 180pp spent in the company of two broken, flawed men, I emerged from my reading feeling pretty darn good about myself and my situation. And nobody rock my boat! Swimming in Denial isn't something I want to do.

Monday, June 20, 2016

THE PORT-WINE STAIN, third in Norman Lock's American Novels cycle

(The American Novels series #3)
Bellevue Literary Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In his third book of The American Novels series, Norman Lock recounts the story of a young Philadelphian, Edward Fenzil, who, in the winter of 1844, falls under the sway of two luminaries of the nineteenth-century grotesque imagination: Thomas Dent Mütter, a surgeon and collector of medical “curiosities,” and Edgar Allan Poe. As Fenzil struggles against the powerful wills that would usurp his identity, including that of his own malevolent doppelgänger, he loses his mind and his story to another.


My Review: I’ve read other reviews in the book-blogosphere that were, shall we say, indicative of a certain disappointment in the blogger’s experience reading The Port-Wine Stain. I am not among these bloggers. I liked the book. In fact, I liked it the best of The American Novels cycle that Bellevue Literary Press will be publishing through 2018. I asked their publicist for all of them published so far, since I was that curious about Lock’s aims. When they arrived (thanks again!), I started from book 1, The Boy in His Winter, which wasn’t a favorite of mine; American Meteor, second in the cycle, which definitely was a favorite of mine; so now, by book three, I think I might have absorbed a sense of purpose and a trust in Lock’s craftsmanship and artistry that others might not have the advantage of possessing.

Or maybe I just have really good taste. This book was shivery-good.
He knocked absurdly on the skull like a man impatient for a door to open. His eyes glazed over. He appeared to be in the grasp of something beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.
“Time is slowing,” he said in a leaden voice. “Each moment grows and fattens like a drop of rain on a window sash, waiting to fall.”
That’s Poe upon visiting our invented narrator, Mr. Edward Fenzil, aged nineteen and of ignoble stock, who has been gifted with a leg-up in the world by becoming bone-keeper in Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter’s medical school. Does it feel over-the-top to you? Then forevermore don’t read Poe himself! As Edward dusts skulls, Dr. Mütter gives him what amount to private lectures. It was required that he clean the operating theater after surgeries, but he was also always within reach of the great man, could pose questions, and assist the doctor with his researches on different scientific subjects.

Dr. Mütter also encourages a closeness between Edward and Edgar, saying the friendship will benefit Edward by allowing him to observe closely the workings of “the pathological mind.” But in any meddling mentor’s files there are innumerable cases like this, where the intent and the result are at opposite poles. Edgar is a man of the world, a gentleman, and overawes young Edward. It wouldn’t have been difficult, considering Edward’s youth and (in the time period) it wouldn’t be any surprise for a lower-class lad to be unfamiliar with any gentility or mannerliness.

Poe’s proffered friendship has a profound impact on Edward in so many ways. As Edgar introduces Edward to every strange corner of the city of Philadelphia, he (deliberately?) changes the young man forever:
While I knew him, he made me see—Poe did; made me understand that, unlike a bodily organ, the soul desires, even wills, its own continuance. It can be said to be the seat of will and desire and, even in its necrotic state, the root of evil. ... A Sunday school lesson or one of Cotton Mather's gaudy rants that helped to kindle the Salem bonfires is nearer to the truth of it than a fable by Poe, Hawthorne, or Melville. Evil's a malignancy beyond the skill and scalpel of {doctors} to heal or extirpate.
I’m in sympathy with this view, and would be converted to it after learning one of Poe’s lessons for Edward. In order to become a member of Poe’s Thanatopsis Society, Edward is subjected to an appalling initiation ritual involving the young man proving he is worthy of ritual transformation into a death god. Needless to say, Edward is traumatized by the nature of the initiation. So was I when I read it. The tone of the novel becomes decidedly darker after this event, matching the mental agitation of the narrator telling his story some thirty-five years and the Civil War between him and it.

No, I’m not going to reveal the ritual. Suffice it to say that anyone familiar with Poe’s stories will recognize it and feel the same horrified, claustrophobic feelings they had when it they first encountered it. You’ll know when you get there. After the traumatized Edward runs out of the Thanatopsis Club, vowing never to return, he seeks comfort in a local whorehouse, only his second visit and experience of sex. He describes it to Moran in disturbing detail, offering details that would elicit a “TMI! TMI!” from most people, myself included. But rely on Lock to stir you up, rile your easily offended inner maiden auntie:
Ravished is a nice word found in sentimental novel. Between us, Moran, the word that stuck in my mind like shit to the bottom of a shoe was fucked.
And there it is. Why I have come to enjoy so much reading Norman Lock’s writing. It is never all one thing, one note, one temperament of that note. I value this highly because I see so many earnestly presented stories chipped and chipped and finally cracked into a pile of who-cares-dust. Offend me, anger me, and I might or might not pick up another of your books; bore me and we’re done here, this conversation is over.

Meanwhile back in Philadelphia, Edgar realizes he has taken a step much too far by subjecting Edward to what he did. Edward has spent the intervening time vowing never, never, never, so as all the adults in the room know, Edward’s still infatuated with Poe and all he knows, does, and represents. Their make-up meeting, encouraged by Dr. Mütter himself which guarantees it will occur, seems to show Edward that Edgar is genuinely regretful:
“Forgive me,” Poe repeated earnestly.
I nodded coldly. I was not above acting like a child; I was hardly more than one.
“I want you to have this,” he said, fishing a gold watch and chain from his pocket. He took a step toward me. I stood my ground. He closed the distance between us, the timepiece in his hand. “It belonged to my father, David Poe—not John Allan, who fostered me but would not adopt me. My real father was David Poe, Jr., the actor. It's said that he abandoned my mother and me. It's a lie. He died--too young: He was only twenty-seven.”

I accepted his gift. It felt substantial in my hand. In spite of myself, I was pleased to have it.
The tone of this scene is so like that of a couple making up after a fight that I had to pause and remind myself that this isn’t an erotic relationship. It was a time when, however, male friendships were much more intensely conducted than today.

The darkest turn the friendship is ever to take comes not long after the earnest apology Edgar offers, and again at a meeting of the Thanatopsis Club. Edgar has been subtly preparing us, Edward included, for a genuine and unnerving crisis. Each of his acts before this has been explainable, but this one is simply and purely cruel, evil and cruel. The concept of the doppelgänger is a bit unnerving, to be sure: A person unrelated to yourself whose appearance, and sometimes behavior, is as close as possible without being identical twins. Placed in the hands of an unscrupulous man, knowledge of another person’s doppelgänger’s whereabouts can lead to nasty mischief. Edgar having found Edward’s doppelgänger in the form of a hanged murderer, whose likeness to Edward is marred only by a port-wine stain.

Here begins Edward’s descent from nervous wreck to madman. Edgar and everyone around him will not let Edward’s fearful brain slow down for so much as a moment, playing tricks and (in Poe’s case) writing a story about an unfortunate young man named Edward who fancies he has a port-wine stain, which spreads and spreads, and...the story is incomplete. He steals the story in a fit of rage, and bewails ever having laid eyes upon Edgar Allan Poe. Edward’s unbalanced state sinks further as Edgar shows his genuine lack of human kindness by treating Edward’s fears of the port-wine stain merely as evidence of his theft and guilt.

It is a profoundly painful ending for the book, resolving Edward’s story as confinement to the best possible care in a madhouse paid for by Dr. Mütter; released after six months, returning to his former position; his medical degree paid for, as a gift, by the Good Doctor; service as a field surgeon in the Civil War; finally, after a long life, tending the needs of a few established patients such as Walt Whitman, whose impression upon Stephen Moran in American Meteor was so very intense and is the link between Dr. Edward Fenzil and his audience Moran that is at the heart of Lock’s choice of narrative style.

Dr. Fenzil thanks Moran for listening to him ramble, and for ignoring his disfigurement by the port-wine stain he carries as a reminder of a toxic friendship of long ago.

Friday, June 17, 2016

THE GOOD DIVIDE by Kali CAN choose your family...but what then?


MG Press
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the lush countryside of Wisconsin, Jean Krenshaw is the ideal 1960's dairy farm wife. She cooks, sews, raises children, and plans an annual July 4th party for friends and neighbors. But when her brother-in-law Tommy, who lives next door, marries leery newcomer Liz, Jean is forced to confront a ten-year-old family secret involving the unresolved death of a young woman.

With stark and swift prose, VanBaale's second novel, The Good Divide, explores one woman's tortured inner world, and the painful choices that have divided her life, both past and present, forever.

My Review: I asked Midwestern Gothic Press for a review copy of this novel, and they obliged me with a .mobi file which I read with the kind of focus others give sacred texts.

I was heartbroken at least a half dozen times, furious almost all the time, and ended the read with a gusty sigh for the many, many ways people hurt themselves and each other in the service of love. The book's main point...that it is the Marthas of the world that suffer for their love, silently and one I've got a very soft spot for. Women who give their all, receive little in return, and internalize their pain as completely as they can in order to get up the next morning and do it all again, are far more numerous than men or even their flashier sisters want to acknowledge.

The words on the "page" of this book (remembering I read it on a Kindle) are much like Jean herself is, simply presented and unassumingly powerful. The joys of life on a farm aren't very alluring to our many and various urbanite communities (despite the astounding number of books published by self-exiled urbanites; if it was a common thing, there wouldn't be a market for the tales, right?), since they involve very very hard physical labor and a non-stop calendar of battles against entropy. Some are won, the calf is born and the heifer gets right up to suckle it; some are lost, buildings and lives rot as they're used and used and used but can't be unused long enough to tend to their needs. In Jean's life she has lost a lot, beginning with her mother's early death, proceeding to a miserable life with her drunken grieving father, and then to the hard life of living within sight of a prize you can never, ever have. The episode with the pearls...well, if you can read that and not suffer for Jean, I don't want to know you.

It seemed to me that Jean said "I couldn't" and "I can't" a lot. That was in keeping with her character, but made me want to scream "but you already ARE and you always have been DOING IT ALL!" In the search we all live from day to day, that blind rooting around for kernels of sustenance for our deepest desires and hopes, Jean finds nothing that she doesn't immediately give to someone else. Her strength is astounding. The people she supports are, I suppose, worthy of her effort. I can't be fully sure, because we only see out of Jean's eyes and she's already decided they're worthy. I wonder if I'd like any of these folks in the flesh.

If I'm not being clear, I thought this was a wonderful book and a delightfully engrossing read. It had one or two nits I'd pick (eg, the beehive was invented in 1960 so no one would've worn one in 1952; Music Man debuted in 1957, so couldn't have been the play put on in 1952, either), but they're nits. I would strongly recommend investing your eyeblinks in this feminized modern Ethan Frome-ish novel. I am very glad that I did, and I'm a tough sell.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

GHOSTS OF TSAVO, African paranormal lion-hunting with ghostly husbands, possessed zebras, and nasty Dursleyesque families!

GHOSTS OF TSAVO Society for Paranormals #1
Kindle Edition

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Armed with Victorian etiquette, a fully loaded walking stick and a dead husband, Beatrice Knight arrives in colonial Kenya desperate for a pot of tea and a pinch of cinnamon. But she’ll need more than that if she’s to unravel the mystery of the Ghosts of Tsavo without being eaten in the process. All this while surviving the machinations of her best friend’s dashing godfather and the efforts of her safari guide to feed her to any lion willing to drag her away. What is a ghost-chasing widow to do?

This is Case #1 in the “Society for Paranormals” series: A series concerning dead husbands, African legends and the search for a perfect spot of tea. For those readers who adore “Pride & Prejudice” and would love to experience “The Parasol Protectorate” set in colonial Africa, this is for you!

My Review: A possessed zebra, "ghost" lions who turn out to be shape-shifters, an automaton with many exciting characteristics (including a ghost-in-residence who happens to be the narratrix's dead husband), a Dursleyesque family far from Privet Lane and therefore even more disagreeable than's all here, and all the moving parts are managed by our narratrix, Mrs. Knight. Bee to her most unpleasant aunt, Mrs. Steward, whose unpaid labor keeps the Steward house running. Certainly Jonas, their one African servant, isn't much help. He's unfamiliar with tea and toast, those urgent requirements of the entire British race. He has a wonderful survival knack, though, simply listening to Mrs. Steward bloviate and inserting "yes, mama" into the spaces made by her inhalations to bloviate some more.

The barely-more-than-tent-city that is Nairobi, British East Africa, upon the Steward ménage's arrival, meets with vocal disapproval from the ladies of the party, though Bobby the 12 year old son is unaware of anything about the place except that he'll get to go lion hunting. Bee, in her ever-unflappable way (how would one frighten a lady accustomed to sniffing out and dealing with werewolves?), sets the house to rights just in time to greet her shipboard friend Cilla, come to Nairobi to stay with her handsome, unsettlingly odd godfather Mr. Timmons. The Steward ladies find Mr. Timmons' presence makes the African savannah much more palatable. Lilly, the daughter of the house, is in the market for a husband as she was forced to leave London on the eve of her grand Coming Out. Bee doesn't quite know why Mr. Timmons affects her so negatively, but as an investigator of things paranormal, she has learned the long and hard way to trust the prickings of her thumbs.

But, as is usual in slightly romantic books, Mrs. Knight and Mr. Timmons are thrown together to solve the mystery of the "ghost" lions while preventing the baying packs of foolish British hunters from killing their mutual prey before the two paranormals can discover what exactly they are. As the hunt fails spectacularly on its first night (lions are, keep in mind, nocturnal hunters) and the camp is brought to a state of swirling chaos by the disappearance of the aforementioned automaton (and with it the lively ghost of Gideon Knight), seeds are sown that will reap a bitter harvest quite soon.

A mysterious, tall, dark, and handsome African paranormal contact called Kam has been communicating with Bee since her arrival in Nairobi. He appears and disappears with disconcerting silence and always utters unsettling, sibylline warning-cum-instructions that Bee must decipher in order to navigate hazardous paranormal surroundings new to her. It is his major revelation to Bee about the nature of the ghost/shape-shifting lions that propels the wild, careening ride in the last third of the story. Bee and Kam hatch a desperate plan to save the more recalcitrant of the target lions from the bumbling Great White Hunters...and unexpectedly from Mr. Timmons as well. After the comical success of this silly plan, a conversation between Bee and Mr. Timmons reveals information she would greatly prefer not to know about the living and desperately needs not to believe about the dead.

It's a rollicking good ride, similar in its tenor and pace to the much-beloved Chronicles of St Marys by Jodi Taylor. I'm very much looking forward to future installments in the series, three more already being available. I expect that they will fill in some bits of Bee's story, such as an alluded-to previous trip to Africa, West Africa that time, that has left Bee with a disfigured right ear and a goddess who appears as a praying mantis--yuck!--of any size she wishes--yikes!--as a bitter enemy.

Yes indeed, a good time will be had by all!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

BROWN BOTTLE: A NOVEL by Sheldon Lee Compton, honed like a knife & wielded without mercy


Bottom Dog Press
$17.00 trade paper, OR $8.00 Kindle, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Wade “Brown Bottle” Taylor is an alcoholic trying to protect his nephew Nick from the hardness of their region, Eastern Kentucky, and the world in general. He must end Nick's involvement with drugs and drug dealers in the area, and, fueled by his love for his nephew, Brown knows he must be the one to intervene to save him. But in order to save Nick, Brown must first save himself, overcoming a lifetime spent convinced he was unworthy. Brown Bottle's journey is one of selflessness and love, redemption and sacrifice, if only for a time.

My Review: When I saw that Donald Ray Pollock, of KNOCKEMSTIFF fame, called the author of this novel "a hillbilly Bukowski," that was it. I asked Bottom Dog Press for a review copy and was blessed with one. And let me say this right up front: Pollock's assessment is spot-on.

"Brown Bottle" is the unkind-yet-accurate nickname given to Wade Taylor, co-centerpiece of the story's arc with Stan Collins. Brown is an alcoholic and a Vietnam vet. Stan is a plain, common-or-garden alcoholic. They live in Portville, Port County, the farthest eastern stretch of Kentucky. Coal was king until the 1970s, and now opiods and meth are the kings. Sadly, the two alcoholic tough men (who don't indulge in drug use) each have a beloved relative involved with drugs. Brown's nephew Nick, abandoned by his mother when at the most annoying rebellious stage of adolescence, is a drug user and petty thief; Stan's little brother Tuck is the picture of the repulsive little guy who deals to feel big:
Tuck had always been made smaller made than Stan. Narrow shoulders, tiny hands and short fingers. Even as a young man his brown eyes were always watering like he'd been crying and his face never took hair well. What he had instead were four or five patches of hair that looked like a cluster of bee stingers popping straight out from his cheeks.
It's not tough to work out the conflict that inevitably will arise between the strong protectors of these weak men. Nick is the North Star in Brown's sky, the one decent thing he thinks that's ever come out of Port County Taylors. He felt that way about Mary, Nick's mama, until she walked away and left Brown in charge (or not, it didn't seem to matter to her as she skedaddled to Ohio with some kind of snake-oil sellin' preacher) of Nick's arrival into manhood.

And here's Stan, living across the highway from Tuck's trailer, watching the streams of vehicles come, park, and go in minutes flat. He hates that this crazy business has made his brother a prisoner of drug suppliers and users, skittering from pillar to post in order to balance supply and demand. He himself is a disabled miner, a man of no use to anyone except his wife Hen (short for Henry, don't know why she's named that) and wanting to save Tuck. This being the Appalachians with the culture of self-reliance and clannishness that is native to hardscrabble places the world over, Stan doesn't figure on calling in the troopers unless forced to. He figured without Brown's iron determination to cut Nick off at the supply end of his drug habit.

So what's a protective uncle to do? Scare the living daylights out of Tuck, that's what. Bust in the trailer door, shake the little rat around some, make sure he thinks twice and doesn't sell Nick another snort. Good plan. But Hen, though she's not Tuck's biggest fan, also has a reason to keep the scrawny little shit alive: Stan's disability and her joblessness don't make ends meet, but when Hen sells some opiods on the side for Tuck the books balance. Like most American households, the wife is the paymaster, so Stan's oblivious to the source of their continued (relative) comfort. Hen sees Brown breaking in the trailer door, fears the worst, and calls the cops.

Now cops aren't, public opinion aside, blind, deaf, and dum-dums. The local deputy, Dan, knows there's mischief being made in Tuck's trailer. He has reason to worry because his only daughter is dating Brown's nephew Nick, and that can't be good for her sobriety. Since Dan's local aristocracy (used to run the local IGA Foodliner, inherited from his daddy), he takes it as a personal affront on all levels that he can't quite prove the reality of illegality going on under his nose. He can, and does, have the place under surveillance, so when Hen's 911 call is radioed out, the response is swift. Not so good for Brown, caught in the act of smacking Tuck around. But no one in Port County doesn't know Brown was a babykiller in Vietnam so they're all scared of him; he's a drunk, so they're scared he'll wow out while sloshed; and his crusade to save his nephew isn't news, either. Sentenced to AA meetings, big whoop.

Nick and Ashley, Dan's daughter, are late to the party at the trailer, finding Tuck gone and the place empty. They decide it's time for them to be big kids about their habit and break into the trailer to steal some supplies. It turns out the supplies are very, very abundant. The plan changes from steal some and use to steal all and set up as dealers. It's Tuck's way of buying really nice stuff for his crappy trailer and they have plans to set up house and get married when they get some money....

What they don't know is that Brown used the AA meeting to make some discoveries and now has Tuck all trussed up in his hunting camp, a place full of Brown's past:
{T}here hung that mirror still. Splotches like mold or something had collected from the corners toward the middle, but Brown was able to see enough of himself in it to feel a fair amount of disgust. No more than the usual amount. He scratched at his chin growth. Did a rat eat your razors? That's what his daddy would say. He wished his chin jutted out more like Clint Eastwood or James Dean or whotheheckever. Instead, you could barely see his chin, it hid so far back against his neck.
The wheels of tragedy are now set in motion. Self-loathing, the need to redeem something from a painfully wasted life, and the sheer revulsion of the strong for the weak cause Brown to plan Tuck's carefully hidden demise. Sadly, Tuck's victims Nick and Ashley have also concluded that Tuck needs taking out; it's sad because, unlike Brown, these two can't bring themselves to do the deed personally, so they turn to Port County's resident no-fail contract killer:
There were a lot of botched kills throughout the eastern part of Kentucky when the work fell outside his control. Six or seven years ago, a man from Perry County was shot point blank in the head and left for dead in the middle of downtown. Problem was, the bullet had traveled between the man's scalp and his skull halfway across his head and exited the same way it had entered on the other side. The whole thing had left him with only fingernail-sized contusions on both sides of his head. He identified the guy who shot him and saw him arrested and convicted of attempted murder.
Now, it's true that a situation like that was a rare one, but part of doing a job right was minimizing the chance for something to go wrong.
The callousness of this internal monologue is courtesy of Fay, an Ulsterman and killer for his side in Ireland. He's known to everyone in the area, and they're more scared of him than of Brown or the law. Good reason to be, after all, since he lives quite nicely on no visible means of support and there's no shortage of disappeared, presumed dead, enemies in Port County. Nick and Ashley decide to hire him to eliminate Tuck while making the mistake of telling Fay how they plan to get the money to pay him.

All hell breaks loose.

Stan's hunting for Tuck. Brown's hunting for Nick and Ashley. Fay's abusing Ashley's mother to get the name of her supplier, Hen. Hen's trying to stop everything from spinning out of control. Dan's sure that if he gets hold of one of these people, he'll unravel the whole mess without any noticeable bloodshed (maybe Tuck dies, oh dear oh well). Fay and Stan and Hen and Brown and's a helluva ride, there are deaths good and bad, and in the end the price owed to the law is paid by Nick and Ashley, who go to prison for possession with the intent to deal narcotics since they stole Tuck's stock.

In the end, Brown's is the one purpose served. Nick comes out of prison early, sober at last. He knows to whom he owes his thanks, the thanks he's too late to deliver:
He's on the school bus and Uncle Wade is standing outside the window. The bus hasn't pulled out yet and Uncle Wade is punching the air and ducking his head and giving him a thumbs up sign and then a big smile. The big smile says do not worry. It says you can do this. ... His smile says a lot and so do his punching hands and his hooked thumbs, and before everything else it can possibly say, it says the thing Nick needs most. The big smile says I love you.
Too late, too late; a job well done by a man ill-used from every quarter.

Sheldon Lee Compton jumps onto my must-buy list with this dizzyingly fast-paced, beautifully choreographed, blood-soaked book. And will someone please tell Norman Reedus that his Oscar-winning role's right here in this book?

Monday, June 13, 2016

KNOCKEMSTIFF by Donald Ray Pollock...reposting 5-star 2010 review

Donald Ray Pollock

Anchor Books
$16.95 trade paper, $5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this unforgettable work of fiction, Donald Ray Pollock peers into the soul of a tough Midwestern American town to reveal the sad, stunted but resilient lives of its residents. Knockemstiff is a genuine entry into the literature of place.Spanning a period from the mid-sixties to the late nineties, the linked stories that comprise Knockemstiff feature a cast of recurring characters who are irresistibly, undeniably real. A father pumps his son full of steroids so he can vicariously relive his days as a perpetual runner-up body builder. A psychotic rural recluse comes upon two siblings committing incest and feels compelled to take action. Donald Ray Pollock presents his characters and the sordid goings-on with a stern intelligence, a bracing absence of value judgments, and a refreshingly dark sense of bottom-dog humor.

My Review: Published in 2008, this collection of eighteen interwoven stories about the lives of the men and women and children caught in rural poverty is the first work by Donald Ray Pollock. He lived in Knockemstiff, a real, honest-to-goodness place. He escaped, sort of, by working for thirty years in a nearby town's papermill.

I don't remember who introduced me to the term “hillbilly noir.” Authors like Bonnie Jo Campbell of American Salvage fame as well as Pollock fall into this category of writers who mine the vein of American underclass misery worked so brilliantly by John Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell. Noir it certainly is, thematically and in its laconic, almost kabuki play-like, emphasis on grotesque surfaces, implying that every action and every gesture is born out of unfathomable darkness and unbearable pain. The Publishers Weekly review of this collection compares Pollock's work to Winesburg, Ohio. I agree, from a structural point of view, but Sherwood Anderson's grim stories are the comedy stylings of P.G. Wodehouse compared to this collection.

Pollock is brilliantly successful at portraying Scratch that.

Donald Ray Pollock is brilliant.

I've been bitch-slapped by this writer's ten-inch dick of the imagination. The stories treated me the way those hillbillies treated Ned Beatty in Deliverance. No part of my brain will ever again be clean and unviolated.

There is one story in this collection that, in my humble (!) opinion, doesn't measure up and doesn't belong: “I Start Over,” about a trip through the Dairy Queen drive-through, would be the star turn of any other writer's collection of stories, but here it merely fills up page count and takes the book over 200pp. Left out, no one would notice or feel a lack.

There are two stand-out stories for me, two that should be in high-school literature anthologies and passed from reader to reader with whispered injunctions just to read it, read it: “Schott's Bridge” is the bleak and horrifying story of a young gay man and his fate in this grim, grim world; and “Bactine,” the shortest story in the collection, a quick hit of despair and decline, as two young men escape the present into a futureless fog. They are, in simplest terms, heart-stopping.

But the story that made me hurt the most, though it's not the finest structurally or stylistically, was “Knockemstiff.” Two strangers in a Cadillac convertible, husband and wife, pull into Maude's store for gas, and for the wife to take photos of the “Welcome to Knockemstiff” sign. The husband makes small talk with the clerk, commenting that “[i]t's hard to believe there's people that poor living in this country.” Their condescending words and actions are invisible to them. It's simply inconceivable to these privileged people that others are not, well, envious but impressed by them. They're blind to their cruelty.

I am that California goon, insensitive lout that he is. I've driven through countless places like Knockemstiff in my expensive car, looked out my window, and thought, “No way. This is a movie set. No one lives here, lives like this.” I've stopped for gas, bought a bag of chips, made inconsequential chat with the clerk, wondering the while how he drags himself out of bed to face another day in that kind of place.

I don't want to believe it's true, you see, and I don't like to think that it's not the subject of outrage and outreach and action.

It isn't. Donald Ray Pollock is their voice, these people in the hollers, shouting at us to look, to look, to see the cost of indifference. He's singing an old song. He's doing it well. He's making art, and seducing the susceptible into seeing the invisible, the ignored, the ignoble and unrefined. His artistry is superior. His eye is unerring. His ear is emotional sonar.

Donald Ray Pollock is brilliant.

I, THE SONG is 4 stars good and will teach important lessons

I,THE SONG: Classical Poetry of Native North America

University of Utah Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: I, the Song is an introduction to the rich and complex classical North American poetry that grew out of and reflects Indian life before the European invasion. No generalization can hold true for all the classical poems of North American Indians. They spring from thirty thousand years of experience, five hundred languages and dialects, and ten linguistic groups and general cultures. But the poems from these different cultures and languages belong to poetry unified by similar experiences and shared continent.

Built on early transcriptions of Native American “songs” and arranged by subject, these poems are informed by additional context that enables readers to appreciate more fully their imagery, their cultural basis, and the moment that produced them. They let us look at our continent through the eyes of a wide range of people: poets, hunters, farmers, holy men and women, and children. This poetry achieved its vividness, clarity, and intense emotional powers partly because the singers made their poems for active use as well as beauty, and also because they made them for singing or chanting rather than isolated reading.

Most striking, classical North American Indian poetry brings us flashes of timeless vision and absolute perception: a gull’s wing red over the dawn; snow-capped peaks in the moonlight; a death song. Flowing beneath them is a powerful current: the urge to achieve a selfless attention to the universe and a determination to see and delight in the universe on its own terms.

My Review: That this book exists at all is damned near miraculous, considering the holocaust brought to this continent by European diseases; the racist contempt of European settlers for the "savages" they found here after Columbus "discovered" the Caribbean; and the sheer magnitude of a task such as this, listening and writing and listening and questioning and listening and revising all the writing already done. Field anthropology, though that term is far from the concepts in thinking of the era in which most of these poem/songs were collected (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), is damned good and hard. Adapting yourself to the rhythm of an alien society, learning the place of each person, identifying multiple sources of information, earning their trust; never-ending tasks that, with a single careless comment or a mistranslated word, can have dire consequences for broken trust.

As one would expect in an academic press's book, the poems/songs preserved and translated here for modern urbanites to enjoy are thoroughly organized, the organization is completely intuitive and easy to use, and the material translated is fascinating. Unlike many an academic book, I, THE SONG is also very beautiful. Many of us are familiar with artist George Catlin's many paintings and drawings of the even-then vanishing Native American material culture and people. His painting, Double Walker, a Brave, dated 1832, is the cover image of the book. It is a magnificent painting of a magnificently attired man smoking a beautiful decorated pipe. It is also such an astonishingly present image that I expected to smell the pipe smoke and hear Double Walker speak. It is a perfect cover image because it sets the entire tone of the volume. This is no ordinary, familiar poetry in a moderately pretty package. This is a rare and privileged view into the minds and hearts of peoples either dead and gone, extinct from the earth, or so marginalized by the modern world as to be invisible unless one is looking for them.

the song,
I walk here!

In this shaman's song, song and singer merge. The song, visible in the singer's breath on chilly mornings or after ceremonially smoking, wears the breath and the singer. Sometimes, song, singer, and the Holy Person who gave the vision, and the song that sprang from the vision merge. Walking about, the shaman becomes the song.
From these very first words, the tone of the explanatory text is set. The spiritual beliefs are presented in real time, that is as facts of life, simply unquestioned reality. The song, this song, can morph as the shaman receives new visions: dogs, gods, warriors, anything the Holy Person sends into the shaman's mind. It's a different relationship to the universe than that of modern Western culture. If for no other reason, that is a reason to spend a very reasonable $19.95 on a pretty book. It will look both beautiful and hoity-toity on your coffee table. It will give people an accurate index of your intellect without your needing to say a word.

How many books can claim all that?

Sunday, June 12, 2016

TRAIN TO POKIPSE, the last book midwifed by the legendary Barney Rosset


Underground Editions
$9.99 trade paper, $7.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Set in New York during the George W. Bush years, TRAIN TO POKIPSE has become an underground critical sensation since it was first published in a limited, highly sought-after edition in 2012. The last book to be edited and championed by famed publisher Barney Rosset, POKIPSE bookends a literary canon of twentieth century masters that includes Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and William S. Burroughs. Including a beautiful new introduction from Occupy Wall Street co-creator Micah White, TRAIN TO POKIPSE is finally available to a mass audience in this first-ever digital edition. White, who was named one of Esquire Magazine's most impacting millennials, reasserts TRAIN TO POKIPSE's standing as the the millennial generation's foremost literary work: "The novel you are about to read is a timeless chronicle of the psychological origins—the collective mood and affect—that catalyzed Occupy Wall Street... TRAIN TO POKIPSE deftly captures the essence of what compelled the millennial generation of cognitariat youth, over-educated and burdened with student debt, to suddenly throw aside ironic nihilism and rise up in an earnest spiritual insurrection."

My Review: Rami knows me from Twitter, where we both follow "Barney's Wall," a tribute account to publishing legend Barney Rosset. I got a Kindle copy of the book after we had discussed it for a while; I wasn't sure what I'd find, but had confidence in Barney's taste. It was not misplaced.

I was in Manhattan's downtown scene in the 80s and 90s, and had a blast. That's all I'm going to say in public. I recognized the life that our main character is living as my own attempt to run away from crippling depression and the wretched misery of anxiety that I never knew was there. I figured that was how everyone felt; none of us talked about it because, well, why?

Like Rami's creation, I also had relationships that rotted away from under me; I didn't think it was my fault, of course, but hey presto! comes the dawn and my self-sabotage smacked me in the teeth. Unlike the main character in Rami's novel, I waited until I was 54 to crack under the strain of coping and then spent four and a half months in the bin. I have to wonder, having read this novel, if I wouldn't have done better to have cracked thirty years earlier...but anyway, all of which is to say I relate. I relate to this little pisher's adolescent posturing, angst, escapism,'s all part of me as much as it's part of the narrator.

That's a fine feat of writing, ladies and gents. A man closer to sixty than to forty reads himself into a book written by someone younger than his own child? Impressive prose-making. It's a wonderful feeling to see the art of storytelling safe in the hands of the millennials, even the dangerous high-wire balancing act of non-linear narrative is alive and well. It's there, however, that I grade Rami down a bit.

Non-linear narrative in TRAIN TO POKIPSE, with its time-shifts and varying ages of one narrator, requires something to knit it together. That something is up to the author; Rami chose a big risky knitting yarn in using the cocaine habit. It isn't entirely successful because unless one's been there it's simply repetitive unrelatable woollyness. Coke makes you feel sharp and masterful; then you crash into a vat of lint. (So I'm told.) (It says here.) That's fine for a shortish stint in a novel, but grows dull. What he has written here is faithful to the experience, no argument. But the dullness of the experience is in its many pleasures vanishing in that vat of lint.

But let's not forget that it takes big people to make big mistakes, and that this is a first novel. Rami Shamir. Learn his name, because you'll be hearing it again. And again. Thank the good Muses for that!

Saturday, June 11, 2016

THE KNACK OF DOING, exciting and beautifully crafted short stories


Black Sparrow Books/David R. Godine, Publisher
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The Knack of Doing is the debut collection of short fiction by Jeremy M. Davies, the author of the acclaimed indie novels, Rose Alley (2009) and Fancy (2015). Playful, fantastical, gruesome, and tender by turns, these stories run the gamut from parody to tragedy and back. Overflowing with "wit, irresistible ingenuity, and a stupefying narrative abundance" (Harry Mathews), perverse, playful, and highly comic stories that take dead aim at fictional and literary convention. These stories run the gamut from parody to tragedy and back, and reimagine the art of storytelling for the twenty-first century.

My Review: In Days of Yore, my youthful audience, the knowing bookstore-browser of a certain taste and class would react to the presence of the Black Sparrow Press colophon with 1) immediate and unmannerly snatching, clutching, and unwilling surrendering to even the cashier; or 2) a delicate shivering, nothing so gross as a shudder, because the authors the press published were...louche, not parlor-chat material (eg, Wyndham Lewis, John Fante). I was in category 1.

Now Black Sparrow is an imprint of David R. Godine, Publisher. Godine books were also to be greedily snatched because (unlike Black Sparrow books) they were gorgeously designed and produced, and the Godine colophon was a rock-solid guarantee of an excellent book and an excellent novel or story (you DO remember the difference between books and novels/stories, right?). When I asked the Godine folks for a copy of this book and they obliged, off I went down the rabbit-hole into the weird world of modern publishing and its shifts, changes, disappearances and reappearances, and general not-like-it-was-ness.

Twelve stories and a novella in about 200 pages of text? Whew. Economy of expression, anyone? I’ll probably never match that in making my comments, comme d'habitude, story by story in the Bryce Method, and can pretty much promise my attempts at summation will be significantly more prolix.

Forkhead Box brings to somewhat dingy life one Schaumann, the official executioner at Sing Sing. In his spare time, he breeds mice. They don’t all live, obviously, since he’s breeding them for various qualities. And clearly such a hobby, carried on in his basement, is obvious to his family.
Why keep secrets in any case? It would not have occurred to Schaumann that a deceit was worth the making. (It would not have occurred to Schaumann that a painting or poem was worth the making.)
I was a smidge puzzled about this title. I Googled the phrase and came away with a much enhanced appreciation of the story. I won’t spoiler it for you, as I’m strongly in favor of discovery being left to the individual. 4 stars

Sad White People (are there any other kind?) introduces Chris and Chris, a young couple (M/F) who are just about to end up as statistics. Or maybe in News of the Weird. I’d bet both. 3.5 stars

The Terrible Riddles of Human Sexuality (Solved) um, well now, umm…
5. Large and purple pastries filled with grape, threatening to drip down over a tobacco-stained counter on which loose gray hairs stir in the air conditioning. What am I?
(Answer: May can imagine the texture of the driver’s ears in her mouth. Cartilage is sexier than skin or bone. She is assembling a bok of aphorisms. May sees her mouth in the rearview: wide, with perfect square herbivore’s teeth. She spots lipstick on an incisor, even in the darkness of the cab, and takes out her hankie to erase it.)
Sixteen non-sequiturs starring May, a worker, though not exactly a prostitute, as you’ll see. Her world is bizarre. It is also completely bewitching. I love May the way I love Marilyn Monroe, simply drinking in all that she pours forth. 3.5 stars

The Dandy’s Garrote shows, in one Proustian sentence, how hard it is to know, socialize, love, care for, writers. Heh. 3.5 stars

Ten Letters chronicles the fearful imaginings of a father as his wife takes his twin sons, Willie and Nillie, to England via Cunard liner. So we’re already clear it’s set in the past, which is reinforced by the (imagined?) presence on the cruise of a phrenologist called Mahaffy. Phrenology, the pseudoscience responsible for more immoral mischief in the world than you’d ever imagine! That supporting beam of eugenics, apologist for racism! Well, anyway, dad has written ten letters to his sons, one for each day of the cruise, and he’s very worried about the influences they’ll fall under with Mahaffy paying court to their mother as a way to phrenologize the boys. His fears become more and more outlandish even as he admits (in his letter) that he would have nothing to say to any of his family were they all face to face. A tale of missed connections, misconnections, and misery caused and endured and perpetuated in the name of conventional expectations. 4 stars

The Excise-Man makes a lot of mileage out of the distaste of the colonial-era drinkers for paying the Crown its excise tax. (That never stopped, did it, since moonshiners are still (!) with us today.) The mob that pursues the excise-man makes a lot of stops, always just missing the slippery guy. At one inn, Cooper the innkeeper reveals to the assembled men that he is responsible for the rotation and motion of the planet Mars. He shows the men the apparatus. They’re all duly impressed, as is the reader, with the baroque conceit of planets controllable by machines human beings operate. But the excise-man! They want his hide! No sooner do the mob’s men leave Cooper’s inn, they meet up with various folks from their town...but old, so much older than is possible...Rip van Winkle and the Headless Horseman and Faust would all recognize this tale. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, because it surely is. 4 stars

Kurt Vonnegut and the Great Bordellos of the Danube Delta doesn’t involve Kurt Vonnegut or the Danube Delta or bordellos...directly, anyway...but is instead a thorough and thoroughly amusing dissection of writing, advice about writing, and the writer’s eternal dilemmas: Is this genius or junk, should I keep going or quit, am I kidding myself?
It seems I don’t need or want to go anywhere anymore. And I don’t see how words want, or what words want. I know, however, that I do want to read a story that makes me want to go blind. I want to root for a story that wants me to want something that I could not possibly want.
Do you believe this? Are you rooting for me?
It’s this kind of guff that writing advice produces. It’s the most complicated learning process of them all, learning how to make people want to read your words. I think it’s only possible to learn by doing, and that’s advice I got from...well...I got. And give. And Kurt Vonnegut? His eight rules for fiction writing success are very respectfully sent up. It’s a fun story to read, a pleasure to have read. 4 stars

The Sinces begins every paragraph with the sentence fragment, “Since you went away,...”, this being the lament of an abandoned husband. I found it more interesting as an exercise than a told tale:
Since you went away, I dream often of the end of the world; but by this I mean an end only to the comforts I still have in life, and the replacement of my familiar abstract distresses with the more acute ones represented by exposure to the elements, fighting for subsistence, resocialization into a community to which I can offer even less than I do the nominally civil, protective one I’m a member of now; that is, I often have nightmares.
It’s not a long story, thank goodness, and I for one say “good on ya, ya savvy sheila” to the lady for walking away from this navel-gazer. Still, it’s got an interesting point. I can’t remember what it is, but I remember thinking, that’s interesting; I should write that down; but, sadly, no pens were in reach and my computer was charging so not within reach; and by then, I’d forgotten it anyway. 3.5 stars

On the Furtiveness of Kurtz brings the jealous loathing of an abandoned husband for Madame’s new amour propre to its apotheosis:
But didn’t it occur to you, reading this book, Kurtz would ask, that such a verb is hardly in the spirit of plain-dealing? Didn’t it occur to you that to say of a man that he scuttles rather than walks isn’t, wasn’t, fair to him?
I don’t make the rules, Kurtz! The words I have to describe suspect or unattractive characteristics are themselves suspect or unattractive. When I speak of the scuttling, furtive Kurtz, it will seem to you that I am saying that he is the sort of man who, characteristically, scuttles and furts. Who could blame us if we didn’t want to meet such a man?
Or, as Conrad said the same thing: He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath: “‘The horror! The horror!” 4 stars

Illness as Metaphor bravely, if bewilderingly, co-opts the title of Susan Sontag’s famous long essay on exactly what it sounds like it’s about. A young woman’s mother, apparently with unintended (?) malice, announces to the nosy world that her daughter is ill.
They call now, incessantly, my mother’s friends, and ask what my disease is usually called. I can’t help them. I can say the name to myself, yes: silently. I can caress its syllables with the intangible tongue I’m still able to wag in my dreams of health. When it comes, however, to forcing the word, wet, into the air, and then through the thirty-six pinpricks in my telephone receiver, I am incapable.
I’ll be frank: I don’t care a single, solitary, tiny bit about this woman on page one of her blahblahblah. One thing she says resonates with me in a positive way: “You don’t appease illness by containing it. You appease it by spreading it.” So many illnesses are describable this way, social ills, mental illness, physical ailments, all appeased by their spread, their purpose to do entropy’s heavy lifting. Overall, though, not my favorite in the collection. 3 stars

Henrietta the Spider couldn’t be better named. The plump heroine, married to a skinny man and living with the man’s skinnier sister right next to their bedroom wall, snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Henrietta finds escape in killing their dog via spider-bites, which she’s also had but survived handily. As Henrietta loses herself in a haze of melancholy, her husband and sister-in-law dance attendance on her, try to ginger her up; in her turn, she hunts for the spiders that bit the dog to death and puts them in the beds of these kind souls. Nothing untoward happens. Damn. But as Henrietta lounges in a hot bath, her spider bite (long forgotten) starts acting up…. 4 stars

The Knack of Doing feels like the lack of doing. The husband/father/nephew we’re reading about has many people around him doing, acting on the world and being acted upon in return. Our nebbishy man has a moment of clarity as he defines his place in the world:
Is it that it skips a generation? He means this knack of doing. His uncle and now his son are or were, what, in the thick of life, the marrow or whatever, they decide and their decisions have consequences, they are agents, they act, they effect. Or: the species, the culture, it acts through them--they are in concert with what is basic in the animal, while he, in his neck of the woods, at his desk, in the dark...he is the chaff, he is what’s discarded, cut out, boiled away; already he’s overripe.
I don’t know if he’s overripe, but he’s sure as hell rotten with self-pity. The title story of the collection, this couldn’t better sum up what you’re going to get when you get here: men mired down, men weighed heavily upon, women who abandon them, and the consuming, subsumed rage that destroys and disfigures our modern world. 3.5 stars

Delete the Marquis is a postmodern novella, a riff of the late Wayne Dyer-esque “think it into being” school of self-help, and an hommage (intentional or not) to Philip K. Dick’s “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” mixed with The Count of Monte Cristo.

Don Miguel, a broke and broken hack writer, with a broken...let’s say he’d be a Cialis customer and leave it at that...pays a visit to the Mesmerist healer, Marquis de Puységur, whose Animal Magnetism cure for all that ails him is paid for by hack-writing crummy period romances under the names supplied by le Marquis. This visit Don Miguel is accompanied by that most annoying of traveling companions, someone that one used to know but can’t quite place, and one is very sure that it’s preferable not to. Victor, it turns out, is the young boy who tended Don Miguel’s father in his dying days. This is shocking, since threadbare Don Miguel sees before him not the deformed, stupid peasant lad he remembers, but a bright and wealthy (if overdressed) and articulate man also on his way to avail himself of the Marquis’s services thus also of Don Miguel’s:
I lost no time in making clear to the man that there were, indeed, no Victors on my client list (to my sure and certain knowledge), and in that case--though I could not guess what he hoped to achieve with his persiflage--I hadn’t been able to write a word for anyone in at least three years’ time, this sorry admission demonstrating that we had not even begun to pry open the gate through which we might escape Victor’s labyrinth of dissimulation; as such, there could be no doubt, I said, that he was nothing but a singularly maladroit confidence man, whose plans to rob me or otherwise do me ill patently required the attentions of a ghostwriter of genius to revise into a workable draft.
On goes the parrying and thrusting, Don Miguel trying to evade the bullets Victor shoots into his character and his role in all the ills and developments of the world as we know it. Handy for Puységur, isn’t it, to have the author on his string, dependent on him and yet he depending on the hack.

Finally, as the men roll up to the Marquis’s gorgeous chateau, Victor shoots the fatal bolt into illusion’s meaty, beating heart:
It would be one thing for you to give us everything that you have given willingly, but it’s quite another for the Marquis to use you as a lamp does its oil, or, perhaps more appositely, a pen its ink.
Is there parity between the Marquis and the hack? Because each is solely dependent on the other for his place in the world, or is the hack’s involvement, being unwitting (he never remembers his visits to the Marquis thanks to his Animal Magnetism treatments), his absolution from guilt?

It’s a lovely, baroque conceit and made in the language of the period it takes place (as Victor notes), and in its arc it also strikes the self-help community’s tendency to invent or repurpose every cultural trend’s leavings, like any good scavenger would. 5 stars

As a whole, this collection was a pleasure to read. It promised me it was (or Rikki Ducornet did in her blurb and Davies was once her editor at Dalkey Archive so I can trust her) “...really dark, like a black chocolate bar deviled with morning glory seeds and strychnine.” And it delivered on that promise, delivered on the promise to make me laugh (“wit and a stupefying narrative abundance” per Harry Matthews), Davies is an author who delivers. If you want what he’s delivering, it’s a festive and pleasurable read. I wanted. I got. Isn’t that the best way to finish a review?