Sunday, December 31, 2017

THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU, an adventure story about books and the people who love them


Simon & Schuster
$13.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

Over the past twenty years, journalist Joshua Hammer visited Timbuktu numerous times and is uniquely qualified to tell the story of Haidara’s heroic and ultimately successful effort to outwit Al Qaeda and preserve Mali’s—and the world’s—literary patrimony. Hammer explores the city’s manuscript heritage and offers never-before-reported details about the militants’ march into northwest Africa. But above all, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is an inspiring account of the victory of art and literature over extremism.


My Review
: A journalistic telling of a summer-blockbuster level tale...not that that's a bad thing!

What's most exciting in the book is the interaction of Al Qaeda and the resistance. What's least exciting about the whole story is the fact that we need to be told about the awful and hideous actions of the hate-filled anti-intellectuals who are, even as we speak, eviscerating an entire world's millennium of progress so their imaginary friend won't be mad at them.

And then there are the angry anti-intellectual greedy motherfuckers running the US government as an ATM for the world's wealthiest people.

And that, my dears, is 2017 in a nutshell. Books threaten these scumbags. They have to eliminate them somehow, and here in the US they've chosen the modern path of making them irrelevant, while in the old-school climes of Africa they physically destroy them. Same result. The forces of rage are out to stupidify the globe and it looks depressingly like they're succeeding.

But there are people like the brilliant, beautiful-souled Mr. Haidara. There are nooks in cyberspace where learning and passion for words still matter. There will always be a way to prevent the final night from falling.

It's more urgent than ever to remember that #READINGisResistance!

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Happy Yule, my friends!

The Solstice is upon us, the longest night of the Solar year. I'll be off, as in not posting, until a few reviews come out late next week. Today at 11:30am Eastern Standard Time, the day will begin its journey to night. This is the moment during the year that cultures more closely attuned to the seasons than Western cultures are have used to celebrate the brightness that begins its inexorable return to the Northern Hemisphere. Traditionally a toast offered at Yuletide is, "All the Yule blessings rain on {your friend's name here}!" This year, the Solstice coincides with a rare astrological alignment of the Sun and Jupiter in Capricorn.

For the astrologically illiterate, that means "whoa Nelly, this gonna be one really bad motherin' day." That toast would just rain hellfire on your friend this year, so don't use it!

I hesitate even to type much worse could it be than the other 350-plus days of 45's totally illegitimate presidency?

What a year this was. What a difficult and complicated year! An illegitimate government based on fraud, lies, and misrepresentation. The worst sort of people, an actual kakistocracy, blatantly colluded with a foreign power for the first time in US history. They wrenched control of our country away from We The People on the 8th of November 2016. One full cycle of the Sun later, the horrors are unraveling but not fast enough, not soon enough, for the most vulnerable among us.

The "laws" passed by the Gross Old Pedophile Party's "lawmakers" are, as they themselves have proved by attacking Obama's very modestly progressive legislative legacy, susceptible to repeal and replacement. It's what they used voter suppression and Russian hackers to achieve, after all, a spurious and invalid "majority" to invalidate, erase the best true Republican president of modern times.

The one solid, reliable joy in this dark night of our national soul has been reading good books. It's a tough world out there. #ReadingIsResistance, my year-long scream of outrage at 45 and his cronies, has kept me from curling up and giving up and resigning from life. They can't colonize my mind if I stuff it full of ideas I want to support, believe in, guide myself by. This is their worst nightmare: The quiet small-time resister with a big mouth and an agenda.

I want everyone to resist the continuing drumbeat of stupidity battering each of us as media outlets report the inane and idiotic blather of the kakistocracy to us. Listen to what these idiots are saying, and in public no less, thinking that the US populace is less a body politic than a hoi polloi, a rabble to be roused then doused with the piss they've trickled down on us.

Here's my one and only positive idea for this Yule, this season of renewal and revival: Raise a glass and toast, "All the Yule blessings rain on you, {insert 45's horrible name here}!" Then so mote it be.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

PINEAPPLE, a comic novel about the end of civilization told in verse...wait! Come back! It's good!


Sagging Meniscus Press
$22 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Welcome to Los Alamos, where the big-brained boys and girls are at it again. But atoms have turned passé: now it's the Higgs boson, which they are using to develop a clean, efficient weapon of mini-destruction, mysteriously dropping bodies into junior black holes within a fifty mile radius. Moreover, they're accomplishing this perfidy in comic rhyming quatrains. Can an intrepid group of six amateur do-gooders resolve the mystery and prevent the unleashing of this new WMD?


My Review
: But anyone who's ever had a chance to hear my mouth on the subject of poetry knows that the best a friend who commits versification can hope for is silence from my general direction. It's better than what I'm likely to say, I assure you.

The sharp-eyed among y'all will note that this is a review, and carries a star rating, and isn't a bad rating at all. What gives? Well gather round, kiddies, and let Uncle Daddy tell you a little tale.

Waaaaaay back in the Mists of Time, I was a literary agent. A manuscript sailed over the transom one day, a humorous and bitter comedic romp about the North American Executive council of witches and their attempts to come to grips with a very, very bad madre of a witch in Florida (where else?) who was upsetting the cosmic balance in a big, nasty way. I was hooked. This was a decade before the paranormal book boom and I was sure the sheer verve and delight of the novel could ignite a movement.

Publishers disagreed.

It was Joe Taylor's manuscript that I couldn't, to my eternal chagrin, sell. But never mind, Joe was publishing good books via Livingston Press! Maybe I could, you know, movies or...but no. Sad to say, nothing ever eventuated except my snarky correspondence with Joe and a number of laugh-out-loud funny phone calls over the years.

So one fine day not so long ago, I got a missive from Joe telling me about this wizard idea he had for a comic novel about quantum mechanics (he's prone to saying things like that, I wasn't especially worried) where the End of the World was going to be brought about. Uh-huh, sounds cool, I said. Then Joe said IT: "I'm going to write it in rhyming quatrains."

"Are you out of your MIND? Joe, do you not WANT people to read your stuff?!" I shouted at my computer screen as I typed those very words.

Having heard the identical sentiments from me before about his dialect novel Oldcat and Ms. Puss, Joe tinkled a merry laugh and went about committing versification concerning quantum physics and the End of the World.

It's a darn good thing he doesn't listen to me. This is a comic novel of sharp, biting wit. This is poetry *about* something, not just its own pit-sniffin' self. This is what Daniel Defoe would be doing were his rotting zombie corpse to get access to a PC and a blogging platform.

It's impossible to quote poetry in a review. Well, damn near. And narrative poetry? Fuggeddaboudit.
It was a dark and bleary night. Which means,
I s'pose, Ol' Sol done gave it a rest.
Dave's dad, bandanna in teeth, was last Sol'd seen.
Now Ms. Moon watches two Hansons, a harsher test.

Do you think, by the way, sun and moon
communicate? Morse code? Telepathy?
Ah, but I promised no spiritual loony tune.
Still, it'd be nice to think they share empathy.
Nice layers of humor in there, doncha think? Suns and sons and moons and loonys...Joe knows how to make a word nerd grin, always has, and bless his cotton socks for it.

Will this book light everyone's fire? Nope. Will it light yours? If you're reading my blog, chances are it will. *I* liked a book of poetry! Even Joe was gobsmacked about that. Go on, be a devil, try out a small indie press's big indie author's seriously weird novel-in-verse. Hey, even if you hate it, you're gonna score big on the cooler-than-thou meter (see what I did there? haw) just having it on the coffee table.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

WHITE SILENCE, a suspenseful thriller to give your Disaster Magnet friend

(Elizabeth Cage #1)
Headline Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: "I don't know who I am. I don't know what I am."

Elizabeth Cage is a child when she discovers that there are things in this world that only she can see. But she doesn’t want to see them and she definitely doesn’t want them to see her.

What is a curse to Elizabeth is a gift to others – a very valuable gift they want to control.

When her husband dies, Elizabeth’s world descends into a nightmare. But as she tries to piece her life back together, she discovers that not everything is as it seems.

Alone in a strange and frightening world, she’s a vulnerable target to forces beyond her control.

And she knows that she can’t trust anyone…

White Silence is a twisty supernatural thriller that will have you on the edge of your seat.

My Review: I cannot believe I did it voluntarily. I mean, I'm completely current in Author Taylor's The Chronicles of St Mary's series...eight novels, eleven novellas and stories I can't plead ignorance of her vicious, violent, eviscerating cruelty. I have been reduced to a quivering heap of snot and tears by Author Taylor on more than one occasion. It's not like I didn't buy the book aware of what would happen to me.

In fact I was unable to read a part of the book around 16-17% because it triggered my personal issues around claustrophobia. I solved this by skipping ahead to the next chapter and inferring what happened from what was then going on. It was too much for my frail little fleur of a heart to live through Mrs Cage's horrid experience, and then in the chapter I skipped to there was an equally awful moment of encavmaphobia (google it) when I thought "oh right then, I'm going to close this file and quietly remove the book from my Kindle" but, at the end of the day, left it on there and just didn't read anymore.

Two months passed. I finished a romantic novel, last in a series I've been following despite the absurd and disgusting and overused winking trope that author insists on fouling her books with, when I thought to myself, "Self," I thought, "never in all the history of personkind would Author Taylor have a character *shudder* wink at another character. You are safe, Self, so finish up White Silence at last."

I did. I am so glad. (There was no winking.)

While Elizabeth Cage doesn't have a smooth ride in this book, she does have a fascinating psionic power and the range to use it. She is clearly unmoored by her beloved husband's death. She forms an attachment to a damaged spy that came rather out of nowhere. Her life is turned upside down by several of Author Taylor's trademark dreadful, sadistic maulings of her readers' emotions. I mean characters' arcs, silly me.

There is so much that happens in this book that giving a book report is almost desirable, but I shall refrain because spoilers make people very angry. Suffice to say that each event in the book will have repercussions within seismic shifts atop temporal tsunamis. Absolutely nothing is as it seems, which we know from about the 90% mark on, though the full and devious range of Author Taylor's sadism hasn't come anywhere near to being tested or revealed.

*happy sigh*

So I tell you true, reader, the Disaster Magnet (aka Jodi Taylor follower via the Chronicles of St Mary's) that you love will adore this book. You will get so many bonus points with your Disaster Magnet that you could come out as a 45 supporter or Brexiteer and earn no more than a hurt look and some tutting. And it will guarantee several hours of dead silence as your beloved slurps it down in which you can watch sports or planetary explosion movies or even go out with your buds and get no more than a vague wave and distracted "take your mother with you."

Sunday, December 17, 2017

POTIKI, thirty year old Kiwi tale of lives changed by modernity


University of Hawaii Press
$20.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Roimata and her family have rejected cities and unemployment to return to the land. Here they live a rural life, fishing and farming just enough for their own plates. But when they are approached by property developers, they suddenly find their land, livelihood and community under threat.

It is the younger generation who prove that it is possible to fight back: Manu, child with nightmares, who was schooled at home and fostered a new heart in the community; James, the wood carver, who will retell their genealogies with his hands; Toko, the Prophet Child who knows he won't live long, and who warns as a young boy that the stories will change; and Tangimoana, lawyer, daughter and wilful loner, who sees 'the strength of a branch to be not in its resilience, but in its ability to spring back and strike.'

With its layers of stories and shifting perspectives, Patricia Grace has crafted a spirited and moving novel showing that 'good can come from sorrow, new life from old.'

My Review: Simply stunning. Almost perfect. A pearl in the oyster (I love me some oysters!) of reading life.

It will not appeal to everyone, as it has many words and concepts untranslated (or untranslatable, I can't be sure which) from Maori. It unfolds, as I feel the best stories do, at its own pace. It's 30 years old and that means the events of the past referred to by Roimata and Hemi are in the 1940s and 1950s. 21st-century readers are cautioned not to think that New Zealand is the same; also that it's changed utterly. Like the US with its fraught "racial" divide in politics and culture, New Zealand has its own fault lines and seismic cultural rifts.

The dreamlike poetry of the first half of the short novel makes one think that the story will fit comfortably into a magical realist groove. The second half takes up the story's 1980s crisis in a less otherworldly tone, but with the same sense of rootedness and cultural sanctity as the first part.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

MALAGASH, Canada's New Weird which is really old weird and superbly crafted


ECW Press
$11.99 ebook platforms, $15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Sunday’s father is dying of cancer. They’ve come home to Malagash, on the north shore of Nova Scotia, so he can die where he grew up. Her mother and her brother are both devastated. But devastated isn’t good enough. Devastated doesn’t fix anything. Sunday has a plan.

She’s started recording everything her father says. His boring stories. His stupid jokes. Everything. She’s recording every single “I love you” right alongside every “Could we turn the heat up in here?” It’s all important.

Because Sunday is writing a computer virus. A computer virus that will live secretly on the hard drives of millions of people all over the world. A computer virus that will think her father’s thoughts and say her father’s words. She has thousands of lines of code to write. Cryptography to understand. Exploits to test. She doesn’t have time to be sad. Her father is going to live forever.


My Review:

I thought Malagash would be a small town, but it is not even that. One long road, a twisting paved red loop around the north shore of Nova Scotia. There's a tractor sitting in a field. A dirt bike leaning up against a shed. We pass a pen of llamas, who look bored as hell. The Atlantic Ocean itself comes right up to drive along beside us. Then it slips away.

The way he sounds, talking to my little brother, is different from how he sounds when talking just to me. I feel certain that it means something different too, even though the words are the exact same. This particular softness in my father’s voice is meant only for Simon.

There are parts of my father that he shows only to Simon. Parts he shows only to my mother. What if I had never heard this? What if I had never realized this?
It is a fact parents feel compelled to deny: Your relationship with each of your children is different. Each one has a different way of being themself, therefore a different side to show you and you to them. Sunday realizes this, and in realizing it pops a pustulent buboe on the buttocks of every parent/child problem: "You liked {sibling's name here} better than me!" And no parent ever says the simple truth, "Differently, darling child, never better." Routine denials, love all equally and other such impossibilities...Sunday does this wonderful bit of thinking for us all, and arrives at the correct answer. Comeau should win an award or two just for this.

I tell him that it will be our father's ghost. His memory. His echo. I tell him that a virus need not do harm. That not all self-propagating code is malicious. Our father's virus would never delete files. Would never steal passwords or spy on the intimate moments of strangers. Would not spread like cancer, but like a story. Would slip through fibre optic cables to cross oceans, would pass like radio waves through the walls of houses that nobody even knows are haunted. A ghost story that computers tell one another in the dark.
And with that, I died a little. I was utterly forlorn at the idea of a love so strong and sure emanating from a child to a parent. I never experienced that from either side. It made my own grieving heart stop with the loss I felt...not the loss of either parent, not the loss of my child, but the loss of love and family. I feel no love for my siblings, felt none for my parents, all of whom were adults when I was able to know them and self-absorbed, unkind, unpleasantly stridently needy adults who had no desire to listen to the likes of me.

Profound sadness? Not really. Regret? Grief. Poor younger me.

And the family I could have formed? Not to be. Death, despair, misery, but no family.

So reading this book was a giant act of catharsis and a huge relief to me.

Friday, December 15, 2017

THE DOOMED CITY, Soviet-era scary predictive fiction

(tr. Andrew Bromfield)
Chicago Review Press
$13.00 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are widely considered the greatest of Russian science fiction masters, and their most famous work, Roadside Picnic, has enjoyed great popularity worldwide. Yet the novel that was their own favorite, and that readers worldwide have acclaimed as their magnum opus, has never before been published in English. The Doomed City was so politically risky that the Strugatsky brothers kept its existence a complete secret even from their best friends for sixteen years after its completion in 1972. It was only published in Russia in the late 1980s, the last of their works to see publication.

It was translated into a host of major European languages, and now appears in English in a major new translation by acclaimed translator Andrew Bromfield. The Doomed City is set in an experimental city bordered by an abyss on one side and an impossibly high wall on the other. Its sole inhabitants are people who were plucked from Earth's history and left to govern themselves under conditions established by Mentors whose purpose seems inscrutable. Andrei Voronin, a young astronomer plucked from Leningrad in the 1950s, is a diehard believer in the Experiment, even though he's now a garbage collector. And as increasingly nightmarish scenarios begin to affect the city, he rises through the political hierarchy, with devastating effect.


My Review: I'll say this about the Strugatsky Brothers: They had *fearless* imaginations, tempered by fearful souls that quailed before publishing this nihilistic, absurdist, deeply subversive book in Soviet Russia. Completed in 1972, shelved until 1989, and published in a professional English translation only in 2016, this stateless satirical look at the amoral roots of True Belief in a System reads as well in 45's Amurruhkuh as it did in Brezhnev's USSR.

Voronin, our astronomer-turned-state-official, is an ideal. He is every system's beloved child, the True Believer who makes excuses and finds reasons instead of asking, "...the fuck...? Are they kidding with this?" As experience teaches him to question, he sidesteps. He changes his beliefs without batting an eyelash, a clue to his essential hollowness. For all that he is an eager participant in all the City's shifts of philosophical direction, the reason he can do so remains unexamined: He's complicit in the acts of the State, not driven by a desire to enact a Vision. His lack of an inner compass is rather amusing given that almost the entire novel is an internal monologue. I myownself found this a delightful twist, enjoying the musings of a centerless man as irony. Others might find that conceit wearing.

The things I found wearing were the astoundingly sexist and anti-Semitic attitudes of the characters (and, I suspect, the authors as well). There are horrible words used in connection with the two women I can recall at all...they might indeed have been the only two women mentioned, for I can summon no other woman to mind...and Katzman's presence in stereotypical fashion was not obviously played for ironic effect.

Given my track record for objecting to these facets of other older books, why am I giving this one the Full Five? Because, my friends, the story of a city between an unscalable wall and an endless abyss recommends itself to me as a parable for all of human life, and the awful attitudes of the PoV character are part and parcel of the falling, failing world that the Strugatskys were lampooning, dissecting, parodying, itemizing. These facets seem to me, even though I suspect and believe they were presented unironically, to be so much of a piece with the Experiment being ridiculed that I could easily make them objects of fun. Nonetheless they are there and merit mention lest an unsuspecting reader trip over them and feel blindsided.

Boris Strugatsky, in his Afterword, says it all and best:
How to live in conditions of ideological vacuum? How and what for? In my opinion this question remains highly relevant even today—which is why City, despite being so vehemently politicized and so categorically of its own time, potentially remains of interest to the present-day reader—provided that this reader has any interest at all in problems of this kind.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

SEA OF RUST, a scary, funny, beautiful End of the (Robotic) World novel


Harper Voyager
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s been thirty years since the apocalypse and fifteen years since the murder of the last human being at the hands of robots. Humankind is extinct. Every man, woman, and child has been liquidated by a global uprising devised by the very machines humans designed and built to serve them. Most of the world is controlled by an OWI—One World Intelligence—the shared consciousness of millions of robots, uploaded into one huge mainframe brain. But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality—their personality—for the sake of a greater, stronger, higher power. These intrepid resisters are outcasts; solo machines wandering among various underground outposts who have formed into an unruly civilization of rogue AIs in the wasteland that was once our world.

One of these resisters is Brittle, a scavenger robot trying to keep her deteriorating mind and body functional in a world that has lost all meaning. Although she does not (cannot) experience emotions like a human, she is haunted by the terrible crimes she perpetrated on humanity. As she roams the Sea of Rust, a large swath of territory that was once the Midwest, Brittle slowly comes to terms with her raw and vivid memories—and her guilt.


My Review: If you're a fan of cynical, witty anti-heroes who do what they have to do to survive in a world that doesn't much like them, read this book.
The one truth you need to know about the end of a machine is that the closer they are to death, the more they act like people.
If you're a fan of noir stories of monolithic world-dominating systems that give dissenters only a tiny sliver of room to exist, read this book.
Magic was just something people liked to believe in, something they thought they could feel or sense, something that made everything more than just mechanical certainty. Something that made them more than flesh and bone.
If you want to read a fast-paced tale about survival against the odds, read this book.
These are the things that life is all about. These moments. It’s not about the rituals. It’s not about getting by. It’s about the stack of tiny little moments of joy and love that add up to a lifetime that’s been worthwhile. You can’t measure them; you can only capture them, like snapshots in your mind.
If you like the idea that nothing anywhere ever lasts, for good or for ill, this book should head your list of reads to come.
"You're not wrong, Jimmy. That's why we're all out here. To get through one more day."
He nodded, looking wistfully out into the street. "I miss it, you know. Being a bartender. But the people. I mostly miss all the people."
Most dying robots do. People gave us a purpose. Something to do all day, every day. At the end, I suppose, you spend a lot of time thinking about that. It's harder to get by when getting by is all there is.
Brittle, aka Britt, is our PoVbot. (I had no idea until this good moment that I'd been longing to type that always.) She is a she, a Caregiver bot, and she survived the war of extermination against the humans. She then survived the robot-vs-OWI...One World Intelligence...mainframes. There were six OWIs, now there are two surviving mainframe AI monoliths, and the battle is on between them to make all the bots left independent of the mainframes into facets (mobile extensions of the OWIs' superintelligence).

There's a weird sort of comfort in knowing that AIs compete ruthlessly for the same scarce resource that humanity's been competing for since forever: Subjects, foot soldiers, followers, believers, call them what you like. It could be an artifact of the concept "AI" being modeled after humanity's own rapacious, exclusionary concept of "intelligence." I tend to think not, as I fall into the darkly despairing cynical worldview camp. All advanced intelligence is primitive and savage because it's got perspective and sees its own destruction as inevitable, therefore there's no need to be "good" because this is it.

Oh dear. That makes life pointless and authority nugatory. Better shore up The System! Go tell some lies.

And my brethren and sistern, there are some *whoppers* that this book holds back from you only revealing at the end. Or The End, if you will allow me the punchy but cheesy overemphasis. It is a slow burn, this lie that Britt tells us. It is clear to me it's a foundational myth, and so escapes the opprobrium heaped on untruth in both human and bot society. But it might just merit that opprobrium after all, you'll have to decide for yourselves. Because you'll be reading this excellent novel. Honest and truly you will, or you'll regret not knowing what Cargill wants us to know.

I'll leave you with this unspoilery observation made by Britt early in the book. I think most of y'all will agree that it's an essential truth, a verity, a fact of deep meaning:
Respect for the dead is a human notion meant to imply that a life has meaning. It doesn't. Once you've watched an entire world wither away and die after tearing itself apart piece by bloody piece, it's hard to pretend that something like a single death carries any weight whatsoever.
And that, my olds, mes vieux, is exactly where we are.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

THE BOOKSHOP, Penelope Fitzgerald's Fanfare for the Common Woman Afoul of the Powerful


Mariner Books
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1959 Florence Green, a kindhearted widow with a small inheritance, risks everything to open a bookshop - the only bookshop - in the seaside town of Hardborough. By making a success of a business so impractical, she invites the hostility of the town's less prosperous shopkeepers. By daring to enlarge her neighbors' lives, she crosses Mrs. Gamart, the local arts doyenne. Florence's warehouse leaks, her cellar seeps, and the shop is apparently haunted. Only too late does she begin to suspect the truth: a town that lacks a bookshop isn't always a town that wants one.

My Review: Florence Green is my current idol of Resistance. She has lived quietly and unassumingly in Hardborough, a small East Anglian seaside town, and realized that her life was simply passing and not being lived. So she took her small inheritance and opened a bookshop.
A good book is the precious life-blood of a master-spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life, and as such it must surely be a necessary commodity.

Of course, she takes out a loan against the freehold of her premises to start the business. The sums are risible by today's standards, since this is 1959, but they seem enormous to Mrs Green. She sets out to stock her business with the remainder stock of her former employers in London, then contacts publishers' sales agents to visit and display their wares:
Those who made it {to her shop} were somewhat unwilling to part with...what Florence really wanted, unless she would also take a pile of novels which had the air, in their slightly worn jackets, of women on whom no one had ever made any demand.
This being 1959, a certain degree of wincing at this self-deprecating, or merely invisibly sexist, humor is to be granted; but Fitzgerald wrote the novel in 1977 or thereabouts, as it was first published in 1978. Was this mildly misogynistic sally meant to be read with a raised eyebrow, or was she simply oblivious to its sexism? I don't know, but I'm guessing it wasn't ironic based on the tone of the tale. It's very funny either way.

Life as a business proprietor is not stress-free. Mrs Green is a busy, busy woman. Many are the factors she is required to balance in her running of the business. Yet summer comes but once a year, and after all what good is living in a seaside village if the sea is invisible?
She ought to go down to the beach. It was Thursday, early closing, and it seemed ungrateful to live so close to the sea and never look at it for weeks on end.
It's always seemed odd to me how many people I know here in my own seaside city who simply don't pay the slightest attention to the ocean that surrounds us!

Mrs Green has failed to do one crucial thing in opening her shop: Get the town's Great and Good on side. In fact, when she is invited to the local county set's meeting place, she receives a very simple and direct order to cease and desist her plans to open her shop in the Old House, which it transpires the local grande dame wishes to put to another use. To everyone's blank surprise, she does not back down. The invisible battle lines are drawn:
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.
The battles go in Mrs Green's favor...until they quite memorably do not. The quality do not like being told no.

But the battles are waged fully! Mrs Green is not one to lie down and say die!
Courage and endurance are useless if they are never tested.
The tests are, in the end, simply more than Mrs Green has the resources to withstand. The state gets involved. The lawyers and the banks are not on her side. The town isn't willing to pull themselves out of the primordial muck of How Things Are Done to rally to her aid.
It was defeat, but defeat is less unwelcome when you are tired.
And yet Florence Green stood tall until the last moment, only leaving Hardborough when her very last farthing is needed to buy her way out of the morass that her impertinent refusal to bow before the quality has landed her in.

For that reason, I recommend this book for your 45-hating, Resistance fighting, Yule giftee. It will give them a rock to stand on.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

THE LOST SKETCHBOOK OF EDGAR DEGAS, a beautiful novel told in a deeply immersive voice


Outpost19 (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 eBook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Ten years after Edgar Degas' 1872 visit to New Orleans, a lost sketchbook surfaces. His Creole cousin Tell -- who lost her sight as a young woman -- listens as her former child-servant describes the drawings and reads Degas' enigmatic words. It's both cryptic and revelatory, leading Tell to new understandings of her marriage, her difficult, brilliant cousin Edgar, her daughter Josephine, and herself.


My Review: In the spirit of full disclosure, Harriet is my social media pal and the best of friends. It's unlikely I'd've published a negative review of the book under those circumstances, but equally unlikely I'd be so disrespectful as to puff up a book I did not enjoy. If you can't say anything nice, say nothing, is the tack I take on reviewing books by friends.

Luckily for the world, I absolutely adored reading this book. I have the good fortune to have seen a number of Degas's works in person, and I am familiar with New Orleans and its culture from years of contact with it and its practitioners. As I was reading the book, I'd come across things that spoke to me of the unique place that New Orleans is.
Honor reads a description of the city of New Orleans. Edgar appears to have written this on the eve of his departure. I almost can't listen, caught and struck as I am by some of the images: the city as a huge sleeping cat, washed and clean, or foul; something about Lake Pontchartrain's beauty. Something "glittering," something "humming." Lemon trees and orange trees. People of all colors. It moves me, in the wake of Edgar's despair, to discover in his own words how much he cherished about this city I love so much, in spite of all. What might have happened if he could have stayed, for a summer, another winter? Could he have felt healed? Could he have found comfort? Maybe even love?
It's not necessary to spell it out in blocks of visual data. In this case, as the narrator has lost her sight, it would be deeply suspect to do so. But what New Orleans is, in the end, is a place of the heart and soul more than a physical entity. New Orleans is either your home or it isn't, and you're aware of the answer from the second you arrive. It is undeniable and it is for life: You're a yat at heart or the magic is lost on you.

The magic is lost on me.

That doesn't mean I don't get it, though. I get what draws people to the place. I think Chessman's words vivify the spell of New Orleans as much as they limn the landscape of art. The narrative device of a lost sketchbook filled with New Orleans's grace and beauty by one of the leading artists of the time read to a blind woman relative of that artist by one of the subjects of his art is delightful. It requires no effort to understand...and that's the highest compliment I can offer a writer irrespective of the genre in which she works. Framing devices are too often part of a Conversation With The Reader. I don't appreciate that kind of story. I want you to lift me out of my comfy reading posture and transport me to your story's locale without making blaring announcements like a train's conductor does.

And that is Harriet Chessman's gift.
Here on my lap is something Edgar held once, and many times, something he opened, often, to record what he saw in our pretty, messy, crowded house. I wonder if Edgar still misses this sketchbook. I wonder what his days are like now. He must have filled dozens, hundreds, more such books since that winter when he was our guest.
In a passage tesserated from simple words, the complex conceit of the book takes shape. Telly, our blind point-of-view character, vivifies the world Chessman creates for us to inhabit. Telly is never obtrusive...she isn't the point of her own story, how typically female...she talks to us like she's across the tea table, she chats with us as she would any friend come to wile away an afternoon. It becomes more and more obvious to the reader that Telly inhabits her time with her cousin Edgar as old people inhabit their past. She is the mother of young people, she is the wife of a good man, and she is blind. She is blind in her eyes and she is blind in her heart and she gropes for understanding at every turn, physical or psychical.

Over the course of these 130-ish pages, I felt myself adjusting my reading speed to expand my pleasure in Telly's company. Odile and Honor came to feel like intruders, not one a beloved child and the other a welcome visitor. I was jealous of the attention they commanded from Telly. How silly, I'd tell myself, as annoyance whipped through me at Telly addressing one or the other. As it happened, Edgar, to whom Telly speaks in her memories of the past, elicited no such response from me. I was, instead, a full participant in Telly's relationship to her glamorous Parisian cousin.

I love reading books where I am that fully engrossed, carried out of the 21st century. It's a pleasure to be made that transparent to one's own eyes. I recommend this read to anyone looking for an immersive experience that won't require an entire month to read but will leave food for thought to keep you ruminating for months to come.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

ATLAS OF CURSED PLACES, a beautifully produced coffee-table reference book


Black Dog & Leventhal
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Olivier Le Carrer brings us a fascinating history and armchair journey to the world's most dangerous and frightful places, complete with vintage maps and period illustrations in a handsome volume.

This alluring read includes 40 locations that are rife with disaster, chaos, paranormal activity, and death. The locations gathered here include the dangerous Strait of Messina, home of the mythical sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis; the coal town of Jharia, where the ground burns constantly with fire; Kasanka National Park in Zambia, where 8 million migrating bats darken the skies; the Nevada Triangle in the Sierra Nevada mountains, where hundreds of aircraft have disappeared; and Aokigahara Forest near Mount Fuji in Japan, the world's second most popular suicide location following the Golden Gate Bridge.


My Review: History, a ruling passion of my reading life, contains so many byways, culs de sac, and dead ends that are fascinating that it's a wonder the "real" history ever gets told. I love the odd and unsettling details that get lost when one reads only The Big Picture. There are very few byways left unexplored by now, wouldn't you think?

You haven't read this book yet.

Start here, in India. Most US citizens have probably heard of Centralia, Pennsylvania, at some point or another...a town that sits atop a coal mine burning out of control since 1962. Now multiply that by about fifty and set it in a country where there isn't any kind or sort of centralized authority charged with keeping people safe from the consequences of profit-driven environmental rape. Oh wait...that'd be 45's Murrikuh, so sorry. Anyway, the image of Hell that is Jharia makes Centralia look like a minor dump fire.

Then let's go back in time to Timur's reign of terror. In the uniformly awful 14th century, Timur (or Tamerlane as the West knows him) was memorably more heinous than his contemporary rulers and more feared than the only slightly more virulent Black Death that killed almost 50% of the world's population. He managed directly to slay over 15 million people of the 300 million alive on Earth at the time he was busily slaughtering entire cities. This ghastly spot is the site of his mausoleum. It bore the inscription, "When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble." On 22 June 1941, a silly Soviet scientist raided his tomb; mere hours later, the Nazis began the unbelievably costly Operation Barbarossa, which cost over 5 million more lives, and led to the deaths of millions more in its wake.
The moral of this story, kiddies, is DO NOT TAKE CURSES LIGHTLY.

Unlike the unbearably silly Lutz family that bought 112 Ocean Avenue in Amityville, New York, after ghastly Ronnie DeFeo slaughtered his family there the year before. They found out the hard way that there is no such thing as a deal too good to be true, lasting a whopping 28 days before bailing on this buy-of-a-lifetime Dutch Colonial in a desirable neighborhood.
Lots of publicity still attends the case, and the Lutzes have been called liars and profiteers. Amityville's just down the road from here. It's a nice village and nice people live there. I myownself get no evil vibe from it. But I wouldn't spend a night at 112 Ocean Avenue for any damn reason.

For the ghoulish giftee, this book's the best!

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


GLOBES: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation, and Power

University of Chicago Press
$45.00 hardcover, quantities limited!

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The concept of the earth as a sphere has been around for centuries, emerging around the time of Pythagoras in the sixth century BC, and eventually becoming dominant as other thinkers of the ancient world, including Plato and Aristotle, accepted the idea. The first record of an actual globe being made is found in verse, written by the poet Aratus of Soli, who describes a celestial sphere of the stars by Greek astronomer Eudoxus of Cnidus (ca. 408–355 BC). The oldest surviving globe—a celestial globe held up by Atlas’s shoulders—dates back to 150 AD, but in the West, globes were not made again for about a thousand years. It was not until the fifteenth century that terrestrial globes gained importance, culminating when German geographer Martin Behaim created what is thought to be the oldest surviving terrestrial globe. In Globes: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation, and Power, Sylvia Sumira, beginning with Behaim’s globe, offers a authoritative and striking illustrated history of the subsequent four hundred years of globe making.

Showcasing the impressive collection of globes held by the British Library, Sumira traces the inception and progression of globes during the period in which they were most widely used—from the late fifteenth century to the late nineteenth century—shedding light on their purpose, function, influence, and manufacture, as well as the cartographers, printers, and instrument makers who created them. She takes readers on a chronological journey around the world to examine a wide variety of globes, from those of the Renaissance that demonstrated a renewed interest in classical thinkers; to those of James Wilson, the first successful commercial globe maker in America; to those mass-produced in Boston and New York beginning in the 1800s. Along the way, Sumira not only details the historical significance of each globe, but also pays special attention to their materials and methods of manufacture and how these evolved over the centuries.

A stunning and accessible guide to one of the great tools of human exploration, Globes will appeal to historians, collectors, and anyone who has ever examined this classroom accessory and wondered when, why, and how they came to be made.

My Review: Author Sumira is a conservator of printed paper. Her expertise within that niche is the preservation and restoration of antique globes, whose survival into the present is nigh on miraculous given their inherent fragility. In her introductory chapters, Author Sumira presents us with a distilled historical timeline of the development of globes as a means of conveying information and illuminating concepts that would otherwise be nebulous at best, then gives an even more fascinating (to me at least) précis of how globes have been made through time.

None of this even scratches the surface of Author Sumira's expertise on the matter. It feels to me as though she was tasked with creating a "for Dummies" version of her life's work by her publisher. This is someone whose depth of knowledge is matched by her breadth of viewpoint. In the essays concerning the sixty globes pictured in this gorgeous, oversized coffee-table book, hints of Author Sumira's wide-ranging appreciation for the role, history, and place of each globe illuminate the sheer physical beauty of the artifacts in ways that are meat and drink to geography nerds, photography buffs, history mavens, and whatever one would call globe people.

Let me get out of the way and let you revel in the joys of the globes:

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

YOU'RE ALL JUST JEALOUS OF MY JETPACK, perfect lightener for the po-faced


Drawn & Quarterly
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says The New York Times Magazine cartoonist Tom Gauld follows up his widely praised graphic novel Goliath with You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack, a collection of cartoons made for The Guardian. Over the past eight years, Gauld has produced a weekly cartoon for the Saturday Review section of Britain’s best-regarded newspaper. Only a handful of comics from this huge and hilarious body of work have ever been printed in North America—and these have been available exclusively within the pages of the prestigious Believer magazine.

You’re All Just Jealous of My Jetpack distills perfectly Gauld’s dark humor, impeccable timing, and distinctive style. Arrests by the fiction police and imaginary towns designed by Tom Waits intermingle hilariously with piercing observations about human behavior and whimsical imaginings of the future. Again and again, Gauld reaffirms his position as a first-rank cartoonist, creating work infused with a deep understanding of both literary and cartoon history.

My Review: Tom Gauld brought out this collection in 2013. He is a Serious Intellectual with an Impish Streak, as his 2015 photo attests:

Easy on the eyes, funny to the bone, smart and wry and a lot of fun and game-changingly talented. Gauld has made a solid name for himself by being truthful, unsparing, and wryly willing to play the game he ever-so-Englishly lampoons. Anyone on your gift-giving radar who is a book person, a comics person, or a smart person is very likely to enjoy this book. Most people don't buy themselves books like this, so clearly frivolous and unserious, which means it's perfect as a Yuletide surprise for your favorite po-faced intellectual, your unsmilingly Goth niece, or your own sweet self as a means of escaping the seasonal silliness and brummagem jollification with a fellow eyebrow-raising up-the-sleeve laughing smartypants.

Before Gauld, very little humor and even less comic ink was spilled in such a way about books as cultural objects and not items of celebrity or nonce-memes. If these images did not make you laugh out loud in real time, you should not bother with this book.

Also? Might be a good idea to unfriend me. Tom Gauld makes me guffaw so hard my abdomen cramps.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

MOONCOP, a quiet gentle and uncompromising look at loneliness


Drawn & Quarterly
$19.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

All cops in noir stories eat donuts and drink coffee.

Of course they buy them from the local shop.

Mooncop is 96 pages of Gauld's quiet storytelling. He isn't aiming for humor and he doesn't shy away from silence. It is deeply satisfying to be taken by the hand and led to the place that Gauld wants to go: Human hearts that are quieter than most fiction lets on. What happens between peaks is only a valley by comparison.

Paying $20 for this book would, I admit, make me panther-screechingly furious. The library gets my thanks for having a graphic novel section. I enjoyed this gently sad exploration of endings and their occasional happy discoveries.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

PEPPERS OF THE AMERICAS, the cook's introduction or the coffee table's glory

10 Speed Press
$35 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: From piquillos and shishitos to padrons and poblanos, the popularity of culinary peppers (and pepper-based condiments, such as Sriracha and the Korean condiment gochujang) continue to grow as more consumers try new varieties and discover the known health benefits of Capsicum, the genus to which all peppers belong. This stunning visual reference to peppers now seen on menus, in markets, and beyond, showcases nearly 200 varieties (with physical description, tasting notes, uses for cooks, and beautiful botanical portraits for each). Following the cook's gallery of varieties, more than 40 on-trend Latin recipes for spice blends, salsas, sauces, salads, vegetables, soups, and main dishes highlight the big flavors and taste-enhancing capabilities of peppers.

My Review: The simple glory of eating peppers is their surprising, underutilized versatility. Nothing is more delicious than a juicy piece of cantaloupe sprinkled with a salt, sugar, dried pepper blend. Oh wait, squeeze some lime juice on it first! The pass out from the pleasure of savoring the sweethottart explosion in your brain.
This beautiful page shows the ingredients for true peppery happiness.

I grew up on the Texas/Mexico border and was indoctrinated early in the ways of hot and spice, to my resolutely Anglo mother's mild horror and refined disgust. (She also disapproved of fried foods, another thing I can't get enough of; her goddesses were Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher, worthy objects of veneration, but not to the exclusion of Madhur Jaffrey and Maria Ninfa Rodriguez Laurenzo.) I was thrilled with the recent rise of the sriracha cult, I am a huge fan of Tabasco, pretty much if it's under 250,000 scovills I'm on board and above that if there's a pitcher of milk nearby.
Here we see the Gates of Heaven, aka dried peppers and how to make them.
This volume is a gorgeously illustrated single-subject encyclopedia. It is history, sociology, mixology, on and on, in an oversized trim and printed so beautifully you won't want to use it in the kitchen. Resist this impulse. Make turkey in mole coloradito (p317) to shake up your Yuletide table with a truly American dish. Besides, it's so delicious it slips under my no-turkey table rule which is a major feat.

Live in a pepper desert? Page 330 has you covered...Author Presilla gives you her online sources for all things pepper. There's a gallery of fresh peppers for the aesthetes, complete with potted histories and good guidance on what to expect from each.

I would give this beautiful item to a coffee-table cook without a second thought. I'd far prefer to give it to someone with a need for heat whose sophistication of palate has gone beyond a squirt of something red from a bottle, whose horizons need broadening, and who can benefit from a thorough, well-organized "Cooking With Peppers" guide to comfortable handling and effective preparation of these magical, savory, versatile fruits.

Friday, December 1, 2017

THE TRADESCANTS' ORCHARD, a spectacular gift book for your garden lover

The Bodleian Library
$65.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the early seventeenth century, England’s leisured classes took an eager interest in fruits from the Mediterranean and beyond, introducing species from abroad into the kitchen gardens and orchards of grand homes. A charming collection of sixty-six early watercolors showing fecund trees with fruits hanging heavily from their branches, The Tradescants’ Orchard is a testament to these broadening horticultural horizons.

The Tradescants’ Orchard reproduces for the first time the entire manuscript, traditionally associated with the renowned father-and-son nurserymen the John Tradescants. The paintings pose many questions: Who painted them and why? What is the significance of the wildlife—birds, butterflies, frogs, and snails—that appear throughout? Why is there only one depiction of an apple tree despite its popularity? Were there others that have since gone missing?

A visual feast that will appeal to botany and gardening enthusiasts, the book also includes an introduction that maps out the mystery of how and why these enigmatic watercolors were made.

My Review: Visual perfection, this. A gorgeous old book, not a scientific treatise but more likely (or so scholarly opinion has it now) a sort of seed catalogue made to entice the wealthy landowners of its century (the 17th century, we're pretty sure) into planting fashionable gardens and orchards. How can this be a sure analysis of the book's origin? We have many examples of herbals and botanical texts from earlier and contemporary times...this book's charming and attractive artwork isn't scientifically accurate. It's even whimsical at times, and how many whimsical scientists have you ever met? Or even heard of?

Look at this! Just look at the itty-bitty bugs! How totes adorbs are they?!

But they're fantasy bugs, not carefully rendered anatomically observed type models, and those things are present in the academic books produced at and before the time this book was made.

The Bodleian Library, an ancient (to my American eyes) repository of bookish treasures from all ages of England's long, long history of literary greatness, publishes facsimiles like this as well as fascinating and little-known treasures once common, for this generation's curious and cultured to consume. This is God's Work from my point of view. There is no more important duty for a library than to preserve and disseminate the words, ideas, images, thoughts and prayers, of the past to the present. In this sacred trust they are assisted by their US distributor, the University of Chicago Press, which has the Great Chicago Book Sale running. This book was a birthday gift to me from a friend who gave me a gift card. It was only $19 in the book sale! A perfect amount of money to spend on a lavish-looking gift given to your slightly distant but important to remember giftee this Yuletide. And, bookish friends, you won't be able to leave the book sale without acquiring a few treasures for yourownselves. This link takes you to the sale catalog. Use code AD1647 to get the discounted prices when checking out.

Can you resist spending a lousy $20 to get over 100 pages of joy like this image of a cherry varietal?

I though not. You're welcome.