Thursday, August 31, 2017

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a rare film adaptation that does the book justice


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski’s ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive “ship of fools.” It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn’t have an act—in fact, she couldn’t even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.

My Review: I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression here. I am not a sentimental old softie whose external resemblance to a conker

is meant to scare off the timid.

But books about old folks remembering their bittersweet pasts, books about people caring for and about the animals that they share their lives with, and books about losing your beloved far too damned soon in life do drive a teensy-tinsy little wedge into my sharp green spikes, revealing what I laughingly refer to as a "heart" for the briefest of moments.

Without spoilering anything, the clue I will give you to my rating of this novel is that all three stars are for Rosie.

When this book came out in 2006, it was a huge smash success. Sara Gruen touched a nerve with her evocation of the 1930s traveling-circus world. People resonated like rung bells from one end of the US to the other. I read the book then, and reacquainted myself with it recently, to remember what it was that caused the ruckus.
Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.
Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that.
I think many, if not most, of the book's fans really resonate with these assessments. I know I do. It's not the most original kind of observation ever made but it's presented in a pleasantly conversational tone, one that gives the meaning precedence over the words.

Gruen also has Jacob thinking through the problems of great age. Since the main body of the story is set quite a long time ago, Jacob gets to tell us his story unchallenged. His memories may be unreliable, how would we know?, but he gives them to us with gusto and a charming smile. That's what we all hope to do, isn't it, give the younger folks coming behind us a reason to smile as we share what we have stored in our Random Access Memory?
My platitudes don't hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik — that's all ancient history now. What else do I have to offer? Nothing happens to me anymore. That’s the reality of getting old, and I guess that’s really the crux of the matter. I’m not ready to be old yet.
Sometimes when you get older — and I’m not talking about you, I’m talking generally, because everyone ages differently — things you think on and wish on start to seem real. And then you believe them, and before you know it they’re part of your history, and if someone challenges you on them and says they’re not true — why, then you get offended because you can’t remember the first part. All you know is that you’ve been called a liar.
It's an indignity perpetrated on most of us by the vast legions of those addicted to Being Right. Really, I want to say to the I'm Right And Don't You Forget It judges, give it a rest. Believe me when I tell you your own turn in the unreliable memory chair is coming soon. It's better to treat those memories other folks choose to share with you as their stories and not be ready to hop on the Being Right Soapbox. It's a theme that Gruen seems to me to be developing, though rather in the breach than the observance.

So these quotes give you a fair sampling of the book's storytelling voice. These ideas are the ones that Gruen really bears down hard on exploring in Jacob's voice. So why am I giving all the stars to Rosie? Because this elephant, though she never utters a word, is the most vibrantly alive character in the book. Jacob is any-old-man. Rosie is not, I promise you, any old elephant! And the pleasure of Jacob and Rosie having their relationship makes this a book I didn't mind revisiting. The love affair that is the primary catalyst of all the story's action, that between Marlena and Jacob, centers on Rosie as Marlena performs her act for the circus with Rosie. Jacob, the vet, is Rosie's constant companion. Rosie is, in my mind at least, the real star of the circus and the book.

In 2011, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson added a layer to the book's luster by embodying (damn near perfectly, in my never-humble opinion) Marlena and Jacob, the star-crossed lovers at the human heart of the tale. I'm no great fan of ~meh~ movie adaptations to popular books. I've generally got some choice invective for incompetent or poorly handled film versions of books. This adaptation is one I felt got the tone, the indefinable something that made the book such a success, right. The adaptation is also visually stunning, simply pitch-perfect in its period details and an immersive delight to watch.

The one problem I had with both the book and the movie is a big one: I didn't buy the love story in either medium. I just do not get the sense that Jacob really had the grand passion for Marlena that's reported everywhere in the text and the script. I certainly don't think Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Pattinson were attracted to each other. That kept cropping up in the way of my full investment in the story.

Rotten Tomatoes, the internet movie-review aggregator, counts this as a mostly-fresh release. Its total number of professional reviews is a whopping 191, making its Fresh rating of 60% quite impressive. 68,000 regular civilians who use Rotten Tomatoes to track their film likes and dislikes give the adaptation Fresh ratings 70% of the time. 1.1 million ratings on Goodreads average 4.07 out of five for the novel. No matter the medium, the message to the audience comes through loud and clear, and the audience agrees with it. That, my friends, is called "huge success" and deserves the rewards thereof.

The reading group guide lives here, free to download.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, ideal book-and-movie book club choice


W>W> Norton
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: On a road crew in California, a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force sees a way to restore his family's dignity in an attractive bungalow available on county auction. But the house's owner, a recovering alcoholic and addict down on her luck, will fight for the one thing she has left. And her lover, a married cop, will be driven to extremes to win her love. In this masterpiece of American realism and Shakespearean consequence, Andre Dubus III's unforgettable characters careen toward inevitable conflict, their tragedy painting a shockingly true picture of the country we live in today.

My Review: Behrani. An exiled colonel in the Shah's army. Kathy. A fucked-up druggie living off her inheritance. Lester. A major idiot whose law-enforcement career is his last best shot at staying off welfare.

Not one of these people will leave this book better than they entered it. Kathy's only home is the one she inherited, and the county says it's not hers anymore because she hasn't paid the taxes. She has, though. She's completely unable to function in the world because she's hazed on drugs for so long that even when she's clean she can't think straight. That means she can't figure out how to prove she has complied with the law.

Behrani can't get an American life going. He has savings (one hesitates to imagine where the money came from originally) that barely keep him afloat, and jobs that demean him but are all a man with no skills except being an Army officer can get. But his son's college money is sufficient to buy a distressed property at auction. Kathy's home, as it turns out. He plans to renovate and flip it, using this as a stepping-stone to American Dream-level prosperity.

Lester comes in as the deputy assigned to be sure Kathy gets out of the home that's no longer hers. Love at first sight! Lame-o Lester and Loser Kathy...surely the white trash Romeo and Juliet!

Pretty much.

Dubus drags us through the legal system as the parties battle out the rights and wrongs of the case. No one here is a good person, just a greedy selfish prick who deserves what, in the end, is meted out to them by the author's just and pitiless exercise of karmic debt collection.

NOT an uplifting book. My withers were wrung about every twenty pages, and I took frequent breaks in order to console myself with excessive liquor consumption and sordid sexual escapades.

I love a book that brings out the best in me.

There's a scene where Lame-o Lester gets his first-ever BJ from Loser Kathy, which Dubus goes into in a bizarrely flat and affectless way that completely desxualizes the act, makes it a symptom of a pathology and not an erotic or intimate or even sexy development. It's just part of the sickness pervading these broken, unfixable people's existences.

Did you *get* that? A man wrote about the thing most men want more than food and only slightly less than air, and made it *unappealing*.

Dubus is a master of his craft. He is an artist. He can do anything he wants with words to make them dance in the reader's head to HIS tune, screw whatever you were expecting, reader! He can fashion a story that, in its outlines, sounds juicy and ripe with conflict, and make it a sharp object that will deflate whatever happy illusions were still in your head about yourself and this Murrikin Dream we're supposed to be having, reader!

And that is why you should read this book.

Book club reading guide free here.

Another reading group guide free here.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

DARKANSAS, unscary horror but horribly unscary


Dzanc Books
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Jordan is a country musician living in the shadow of his father, legendary bluegrass musician Walker Bayne. A lifetime of poor decisions has led him on an endless tour of San Antonio dive bars, where between sets he resumes accruing women and drinking himself to the brink of disaster.

Returning home to the Ozarks for the wedding of his twin brother, Jordan uncovers a dark vein in the Bayne family history: going back to the end of the Civil War, every generation of Bayne men have been twins--and one twin has always murdered their father.

As old tensions resurface, Jordan searches out the surreal origins of his family and a way to escape the murder that is his inheritance. Following the brothers' every move are a mysterious hill dweller and his grotesque partner, a duo that will stop at nothing to make sure the Baynes' cursed legacy lives on.

My Review: From page 195:
Andridge woke beneath the considered gaze of a young girl. Weakness decimated his attempts to move or speak. He was tucked beneath a blanket in a comfortable bed in a clean, well-kept house. Daylight glowed through the blind drawn over the only window. He folded back the covers and basked in the relief of fresh air on his skin. Regaining his senses overwhelmed him at first. Weakness sapped his muscles,
stiffness spread to the rigid tips of his toes. A high-pitched ringing pierced the drum of his inner ear,
when he flexed his jaw the room went mute. His tongue flopped foreign in his mouth, and he could still barely hear past his own breathing.
Oh dear.

Weakness twice. Once it decimates then it saps. Somehow his sapped decimation still allows him to fold back covers. Someone is sitting in the room looking at him and his inner-ear drum (as opposed to the outer-ear one) is pierced by ringing but he can barely hear over the sound of his own breathing and, when he flexes his jaw, the (inanimate ergo voiceless) room goes mute.

There is so, so much more of this on the other pages, this words slightly misused, this metaphors so mixed they'd break every racial purity law ever drafted, this clangorous overwrought writerly performance anxiety that I want to take the Dzanc people, heretofore in my highest esteem and most grateful graces, out to the woodshed for some serious bastinado-ing.

Gorgeous jacket, elegant text design, good-quality paper, praise from authors whose work I like and respect; and yet this is not a good book, so I can't get it up to fake a nice-person review. Not even because it was an early birthday present from a certain young man who is doing his damnedest to dig himself out of a really, really deep hole he dug for himself. It's a shame someone paid an advance for this, paid to edit it, paid to design, copyedit, proofread, print, and bind it, when it should live in the author's top drawer and another, better book now languishing in a similar top drawer should be here gladdening my heart with its aesthetic merits.

Instead, I'm ticking demerit after demerit off what was a very good idea (yes, Young Gentleman Caller, you chose well, this is my kind of story) whose promised parts...father/son musical rivalry, supernatural shenanigans foretold in an excellent dream sequence...just fail to cohere into the augured configuration.

Failure to launch.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

WINTER TIDE, a marvelous expansion and deepening of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos

(The Innsmouth Legacy #1)
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

I need some more bandwidth to become available prior to reviewing this novel. Watch this space. And don't forget to read my review of The Litany of Earth, the link to the free read is in it.

The Publisher Says: After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.

The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.

Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.


My Review: I began this book hoping it would be at least as good as THE LITANY OF EARTH (link above) and would expand my sense of the reality of Miskatonic University. I've had enough contact with the Cthulhu Mythos to have developed a deep desire to become an alumnus of Miskatonic. It is not to be, of course, Arkham being fictional as well as in coastal Massachusetts *shiver*, but it gives you a sense of how real this mythos seems to me. Current titles like Lovecraft Country and Carter & Lovecraft have passed before my approving gaze, deepening my appreciation for the talent, if not the person, of racist sexist nativist H.P. Lovecraft. There is something in the Elder Gods that answers a need in people, since there are so very many people using the Mythos today to explore the dystopia in which we live, which seems only to get worse (viz., Charlottesville, Virginia).

Author Emrys's particular flash of genius is to make the Mythos spread over time, writing an historical novel set in 1948 from the standpoint of a World War II-to-Cold-War world where Innsmouth and the Water People were interned before the Japanese were. It's brilliant. The government needed only to turn their bureaucratic gaze a few inches to get a ready-made solution to the "Nisei Threat." I was completely convinced by this. I can think of nothing to prevent this from being true...except it isn't.

Feels to me like it should be. Families like the Marshes, longtime residents of Innsmouth and leaders among the Water People who make up most of Innsmouth's population, are wrenched from the spawning grounds (being humans although amphibious, they need to breed on terra firma before they can undergo final metamorphosis and go back to the sea) and sent to desert camps. Most died in the violence of the round-up, or in the deserts, and now only Aphra Marsh of San Francisco and her brother Caleb of Arkham, Massachusetts, are left. The sole full-blooded Water People who can breed are, in returning to Innsmouth to assist the government that committed genocide against their kind, coming to grips with what it means to be the future not simply to have a future.

As we submerge deeper and deeper into the cold, dark, high-pressure depths of human hatred of otherness and intolerance of difference, WINTER TIDE feels more and more like a howl from the edge of the pack: A better trail is over here! Come this way, accept and embrace the not-usual, accept and embrace the viewpoint of the outsider, and you'll see the whole picture much more clearly. The threats are real. They simply aren't where you're looking for them.

How perfect a co-opting of the Cthulhu Mythos that is. In keeping with the co-opting we, the sane and normal, need to do with the lunatic fringe's ideological excesses. Making the bad spirits better is, as the titanic struggles Aphra and her rag-tag family of choice endure and prevail over, extremely hard. But the will to do it, the willingness to suffer the literal and psychic pains and amputations required by it, exist in us. We need to need the end results as much as Aphra and her family, as well as her blood family, need the results of their internecine war.

Aphra Marsh for President.

Friday, August 18, 2017

WHO FEARS DEATH, a post-apocalyptic shapeshifter's survival tale

Nnedi Okorafor

DAW Books
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five


The Publisher Says: An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post- apocalyptic Africa. 

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.


My Review: Who fears Death? I suppose most living things fear death. Onyesonwu, our title character, is the product of a genesis no one should have to carry with them: She is a child of rape, a product of brutality that should have made her mother hate her. Instead, her mother names her “who fears death” and never from that moment on, despite the both of them being outcast and made into The Other, never fears anything again.

I had a very hard time with this book, wanting to Pearl Rule it on average three times per reading session. I did in fact abandon it when a major major major anti-man hot button issue occurred near the end. But this is what earns the book four stars from me: I could not not read the rest. I had to know why what happened, happened.

Am I happy I read it? Not really. It was harrowing for me. I don't like man-bad-woman-good books. There are two unforgivable things in my moral universe: Abusing animals and rape. I'm no fan of supernatural/magjicqkal stuff (Onye's a shapeshifter). What on the surface of the earth persuaded me to read this thing?! I mean, it's even praised by Luis Alberto Urrea forevermore! I shoulda stood home, as the saying goes.

But Dr. Okorafor is a sorceress. She cast a spell on me. She reached out from inside this book and she made sure my brain needed to know this, and needed it so much I'd overcome my prejudices and make it part of my mental furniture.

I will step on her foot if I ever meet the Doctor in person.

She set the book in a post-nuclear-holocaust Africa! I love postapocalyptic fiction! How am I gonna resist that? And she made explicit a disdain for the rotten, evil-souled uses of religion in oppressing and abusing people of all types. I think I purred. I know I smiled.

It's also a joy and a pleasure to me to see women, and women of color, and women of immigrant parentage, enter the lists of American English-language speculative fiction. It makes me feel that this world has a shot at survival after all. Writers are not ignored because of their bodily plumbing or skin color or weird names. (Sorry, but I'm still an old white man, and this lady's name is really seriously weird to me.) This is the world I grew up wanting to live in, and now I get to...for a while anyway...and that, more than any other factor, made me stick with the book long past my usual stop.

Should you read it? Should you turn page after page of non-European-named characters, landscapes bursting with heat and searing miseries of spirit, heroes whose lives are blighted by origins beyond their control?


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

DAWN, first volume of Octavia E. Butler's amazing Xenogenesis trilogy

(Xenogenesis #1)
Open Road Media
$8.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.

The Oankali survive by genetically merging with primitive civilizations—whether their new hosts like it or not. For the first time since the nuclear holocaust, Earth will be inhabited. Grass will grow, animals will run, and people will learn to survive the planet’s untamed wilderness. But their children will not be human. Not exactly.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Octavia E. Butler including rare images from the author’s estate.

2020 UPDATE: Amazon Prime will be the home for DuVernay's series! Victoria Mahoney, of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Lovecraft Country fame, is credited as creator and will adapt and direct the pilot.

2018 UPDATE Don't forget that, in this troubled passage in US and world history, the present Golden Age of Sci Fi on Screen will gift us with the first-ever adaptation of a Butler novel, this one, by no less a new voice than Ava DuVernay. She is the talent behind the good-buzzed adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time!
^^^Which I myownself really liked. Toxic fandom's victims abound.

My Review: I left publicly viewable notes from my Kindle reading on Goodreads. I think those are enough of a review of the specifics of the writing in this book. They're tied to passages I found important and so will, I hope, make the aesthetic points as to why I think you should read this book.

What I comment on now is the why of reading SF, fiction by women, fiction by people of color (a phrase I'm no more comfortable with than the "colored people" of my vanished youth), SF by women of color...reading and absorbing and thinking about the ideas given to you, amazingly freely and trustingly, by people you aren't like and maybe even people you don't like.

I think you should read these astounding gifts of personal creativity because they offer a close look into the ideas that someone unlike you finds important. If you don't learn what people unlike you find important, you run the risk of being caught in a labyrinth of dark sameness, a place where you don't need light because you know the contents of your environment so well already that there's no read need to take a good look at them.

And that is how we got to the point where we are as a country, here in the US as well as in the UK, and a culture, both in the West and the East. No one listens. We wait for our turn to talk without engaging our brains to process what our ears are hearing. And that's only if we're polite.

Open up a little by reading Butler's tale of the Oankali changing earthlings' genetics to improve their health and well-being. In the wake of a species-ending nuclear war, the earthlings aren't grateful to the Oankali for rescue, they're angry that they had no choice, no say, no chance to refuse being saved if it meant being used and manipulated for and by the Oankali.

Butler put her finger squarely on the conflict: The earthlings were given no choice. They were unquestionably manipulated before they were given any chance to comment on these things. They had also just blown their entire planet into an extinction event. Did they deserve a say? Butler gives Lilith the words to complain about the earthlings' treatment and the Oankali to explain but not apologize the whys of it.

In my never-humble opinion, a species that blew its home into an extinction event over stupid crap doesn't need any consultation to be offered, still less consent to be sought. Be damned good and grateful these interstellar gene machines arrived in time to do squat for you, which they didn't have to do at all. Given their culture's immense experience with and commodification of gene manipulation, they could simply have paused, grabbed some material (aka survivors of the holocaust) and used them before disposing of them.

The Oankali's ethics are superior to the earthlings', and they didn't do that. They set about repairing the damaged earth and improving the damned earthlings who caused the problem in the first place, while making every effort to understand and support them along the way.

A lot like animal researchers are doing today among cetaceans and great apes.

Oh my.

Don't like having done to us what we so blithely do to others, do we? And yet it's perfectly justified...the changes are being made for the earthlings' future benefit, after all.

After the weekend of 10 August when neo-Nazi and "alt-right" hate machines burst their closet doors of simply screaming at normal, decent people at last and began the hot war portion of their Civil War against goodness, kindness, and decency, reading a book like Dawn is an excellent primer in how this horror got started: A decent and perfectly reasonable human gets all bent out of shape and even decides she'd prefer to die rather than have her tiny little patch of personal control violated despite the certainty that she is and will continue to be better off for it.

I was never sanguine about human nature. I'm not turning any corners in that regard now. But I can see a tiny thread visible in the labyrinth: Read. Read the stuff that isn't just like you like the world to be. At least try that much, because it's no exaggeration to say your way of life is on the line. Try to hear what the Other is saying underneath the screams. We have to find the thread and follow it to our common source or we're headed the way of Butler's earthlings.

And I do not think there are any Oankali on the way to help us.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

IRREPARABLE HARM, in which a corporate attorney rediscovers her soul

(Sasha McCandless Thrillers #1)
Brown Street Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
Free on Kindle!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: There's an app for everything. Even evil.

Attorney Sasha McCandless is closing in on the prize after eight long years: she's months away from being made partner at a prestigious law firm. All she has to do is keep her head down and her billable hours up.

Then a plane operated by her client slams into the side of a mountain, killing everyone aboard. Sasha gears up to prepare a defense to the inevitable civil lawsuits.

She quickly realizes the crash was no accident: a developer has created an application that can control a commercial plane's onboard computer from a smartphone. Now it's for sale to the highest bidder.

Sasha joins forces with a federal air marshal who's investigating the crash. As they race to prevent another airline disaster, people close to the matter start turning up dead. Sasha must rely on both her legal skills and her Krav Maga training to stop the madman before he kills her.

Sasha will need to rely on her legal training and her Krav Maga training in equal measure to find and stop a madman before he strikes again.

My Review: If you'd like to see how far Amazon has to go with its integration of Kindle highlighting into it title quotations, go look at this. Yikes.

Anyway, lookee here at me writing a review! And of a book I read on the Kindle, where if I'm lucky I get around half of what's going on! And follow that link to see just one of my mechanical issues with the Kindle as a note-taking device...I left three notes myownself, all carefully done, and they're only visible to people who bother to read them. Mine make sense, I promise, and I didn't leave dangly bits of sentences or anything. Why aren't they in the quotes? I could not tell you.

But back to why I'm reviewing a Kindle thriller: I think you should read it. I was engaged all the way through, even the parts where Author Miller walks me through the steps of a krav maga attack/defense, which she did several times when once would've been enough. Better yet, most of the time I was excited. Me! The cynical old "and how many times have I read *that* trope?" pursey-lipped nay-sayer! Excited! As in "can't you go up to the dining room for dinner, I'm reading" excited!

Why, you ask...and I'm glad you did because I was fixin' to tell y'all anyway...because Author Miller is a lawyer, and it shows, who *gets* that a legal case is a story with multiple main characters, a built-in motive for a crime, a cast of necessary characters already in place, and a plethora of available outcomes from one established set of facts.

Which is my attempt at tweaking her lawyerly nose with a dryly legalish presentation of the compliment that she followed the winding maze of legal hoo-hah without being predictable or, as I prefer to think of it, lazy. Writers who set the pattern for themselves and then just follow it write well-plotted but often...uninspiring...stories. It feels to me as though Melissa Miller tried to do that but was foiled in her attempt by the stroppiness of both Sasha and Naya, and the exasperated admiration of Judge Cook for Sasha was also (I suspect) a little bit of a surprise to Author Miller. I got the feeling Leo needed to catch up with Sasha a time or two when he was led by the outline to expect her *here* but she was *there*. These are good things. They show me the story was alive when it was published.

The parts of the story that left me the most contented were the usual suspects in a series mystery: ma'at is served, the bad are punished in a manner both swift and condign, and the events of the story leave the landscape intact but altered. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first book published by Author Miller. It is the first in her series of ten thrillers starring Sasha.

And I suggest you think before you buy: The other titles are $4.99 each. You'll want them. I do, and am choosing which pennies to pinch so as to procure them next month.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, a Cthulhu mythos delight

$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

My Review: If I make a criticism of this wonderful story, it's the author's choice of the novella form to tell it.

My critique (meant to be a helpful form of criticism, the latter of which leaves no room for action or explanation) is (spoiler: that Charles Thomas turned into Black Tom offstage and in a convenient hurry, which is also:/spoiler) about the issues that in part arise from that choice of form.

Author La Valle's tasty new twist on the Cthulhu mythos is an example of later creators using the source material better than the original creator did. This story even nods to the man from Providence himself! I've left a wide swath of ten notes on highlights and they should all be read as part of this review.

I particularly admire Author La Valle's depth of characterization in the limited space of a novella. Otis, Thomas's father, in particular comes to more vivid life in his short time on the age than he would have in the weaker, less passionate grip of a lesser writer. The evocation of Red Hook's louche miasmic atmosphere was shivery good; the notion of Flatbush as countryside where cottages and even a run-down mansion could exist, and mentions of "rural Brooklyn," left me verschmeckeled but in that time were plain old facts.

And now for the truly, unspeakably, beyond-Lovecraftian terror contained in this work: AMC is making a TV series out of it in 2018.

Be very, very afraid.

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE ISLAND OF BOOKS, romantic historical escapism

(translated by Rhonda Mullins)
Coach House Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The library at Mont Saint=Michel was once known as the city of books. It is there, within the grey walls of its monastery, that a portrait painter grieving the sudden death of the woman he loved finds refuge. And it's there, between the sea and the sky, five centuries later, that a novelist tries to find her words again. They meet in the pages of a notebook left out in the rain.

Like the manuscripts out bereaved—and illiterate—painter is asked to copy over earlier texts, The Island of Books reveals traces of a time before Gutenberg beneath its present. With all the passion and intellect we've come to expect from her, Dominique Fortier offers us a moving homage to books and to those who write them.


My Review: Exquisitely rendered grief. Author Fortier is outstanding at making the experience of life-altering grief full and real:
Seen from above, the monks all looked like with their brown cowls, the pale halos of their tonsures on the tops of their heads. They were small and interchangeable.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

MISSIONARY is my six-star read of 2017, deserves your paltry money and your eyeblinks


$4.99 electronic edition, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: The Prophet provides everything for the Flock, demanding absolute devotion in return. Before allowing men to wed, they must serve Him, which they do willingly to get their brides. There’s only one little problem. When each man has multiple wives, there’s simply far too many boys.

Knowledge isn’t always power, but ignorance isn’t always bliss…

Jacob Wright’s questioning nature has always gotten him into trouble. The only book he has access to is The Word, but he thinks too deeply about the contents, far more than a devout boy should. When he’s called by the Prophet to serve a mission, Jacob believes his quest for answers has begun, only to discover the more he knows the less he believes.

Kerioth Marshal is an authoritarian, keeper of all knowledge past and present. His duty is to oversee the missionary center library, holding close the secrets of the Prophet. He’s accepted loneliness as part of his job, but then Jacob comes, offering him an escape from isolation. At first, Jacob’s inquisitive nature amuses and enchants him, but how long will it be before Jacob realizes Kerioth has saved him from one horrible fate only to subject him to another?

My Review: Where do I begin...first, this book was a complete surprise to me. Its existence was a surprise. Its subject matter was a surprise. Its imaginative universe was a gobsmacking surprise. So yeah, I was surprised.

Second, I would never have found the book had it not been for a Goodreads group called Gay Science Fiction. I'm coming out of a nasty reading slump and that makes me, to be frank, unwilling to translate from the heterosexual into my native tongue. I'm tired of reading about women who don't like their husbands, are abused by their fathers, etc etc etc. And the unbearable white heteronormative genre that SF has always been gets dreary too. I needed a resource to guide me past yet more gynergy or, worse still, misogyny. I found the group, I found the bookshelf and, best of all, I found one of the mods had posted about this title finally being available.

I read the synopsis above. Mmm...high stakes! Daddy/son relationship! A religious dystopia! Check, check, and check on my readerly desiderata list. A $3.99 gift card later, I settled in for a long summer's afternoon of getting safely riled up about fiction instead of world events that upset me.

Fucking hell.

This North Korea-run-by-Mormons tale smacked my teeth in, kicked my kneecaps, and made the Kindle pages blink past as fast as my thumb could tap the screen. In the Flock's territory, the Prophet is the autocratic leader of the church and the state. The Prophet's many, many wives have given him many, many children. The other church leaders have equally cushy tushy supply. The average man has three wives, the more status he has the more wives he adds.

How, you might wonder, does that work. The women are property, barely educated since their purpose in the world is to bear children (one woman is revealed to have died giving birth to the eighteetnth child). They have no semblance of rights, and are married off as early as twelve years old. The average man has no semblance of meaningful rights. He's led by the Prophet's local guy, he's required to make his children perform physical labor for the Prophet starting as young as five years of age, and the Prophet has set up a system to "call into missionary service" prepubescent boys who are...misfits...some too aggressive, some too full of questions, some physically unfit...and from there springs our story.

Jacob Wright is bursting with questions about everything. His father, his first, second, and third mothers, his teachers can't keep up. In an information-poor society they aren't equipped to answer the questions anyway. But no amount of disapproval can keep Jacob from asking and wondering and pondering. Thus it is that he is called to the missionary training center, where he expects to be trained and sent out among the Heathens outside the Gate to convert them. Jacob's bus ride to the missionary center is excitingly interrupted by a military attack from the heathens, whom Jacob sees for the first time. He sees desperate, dirty soldiers who will attack a busload of children, and cracks form in his idea of why he's off to become a missionary.

Things do not go as expected by Jacob. Nor do they go as planned by the theocratic machinery. Kerioth, the missionary center's authoritarian (head dude in charge of being in charge), interviews Jacob and senses something within the boy that makes him special and valuable. Kerioth singles Jacob out for special education, pays him personal attention, and generally makes life in the rigidly compartmentalized and hierarchical center endurable.

As time passes, Jacob learns more and more about Kerioth and more and more about the Flock's society. He is, after his eighteenth birthday, finally admitted into Kerioth's extremely difficult work world as well as his bed. The child has become a young man; the questing intelligence has matured into a worthy and beloved intellectual companion to the lonely and isolated Kerioth.

The job of be the Flock's memory of dead times and forbidden one that Kerioth shares to a limited degree with Jacob. The years that flow past the men are full of silences both beautiful and tense. The slow unfolding of Jacob's understanding of the Prophet, his family, and the very terrifyingly evil way the Flock keeps its promise of three wives for every average man, more for men of higher status, is a titanic blow to Jacob's sense of the rightness of the world he grew up in.

And, at the end of the book, the natural and inevitable and inescapable conclusion to the story... completely upended and shook around and pounded on the storytelling rocks Author Renner has gathered, placed, balanced, and mortared into place, like an octopus being tenderized for dinner. Tentacles of tale meat flail in every direction. Eyes and brains pop against the solid foundation rocks with the force of the change in direction.

But for once this sudden shift isn't cause for puma-screaming killing rage. It is a far, far, far more important story that, in the last lines, Author Renner promises us.

Six stars for that alone.

Also boosting the six-of-five case is Kerioth's intense and respectful passion, love, and need for Jacob. In a society that spends huge effort on controlling all females, males are untrammeled in any meaningful psychosexual ways. Kerioth could have started sexing up Jacob the second he saw the boy had he wanted to. Not one peep would've been uttered by anyone. Kerioth is so appalled by the idea of sexual abuse of children that he simply refuses to countenance it.

This resonates with me, as the child of a sexually abusive pedophile mother. It made me feel Kerioth, for all his fears and quirks, was at heart a decent man with a bedrock of honor from which he operates.

Jacob's growth into a partner for Kerioth is satisfying as well. Jacob never stops learning. Jacob also has a sneaky streak in his pragmatic nature. He "manages upward," so to speak, leading Kerioth to the conclusions that Jacob wants him to arrive at. The more information Jacob acquires, the more he leads his true love Kerioth into rebellious and seditious thought-patterns.

But the secret that the missionary center conceals...its true purpose to the so extremely NOT what Jacob or I was expecting that it rockets this theocratic dystopia to the very top of my reading list for 2017. It is stunning. I can't even hint at it. I want everyone I know to read the book RIGHT NOW so we can all discuss this, this, I can't even be coherent, this abomination, this darker, more horrifying, more unspeakable cousin of the Final Solution.

Yes. I went there. Author Renner has, in these 300-ish pages, created a nightmare theocracy that is built on something worse than the Final Solution.

Fear him. Words have power. Read his $3.99 vision of a hell so awful you will not be able to look away or to fully process its scope.