Tuesday, February 27, 2018

THE INKER'S SHADOW, Allen Say's memoir-in-pictures of life as a Japanese boy in 1950s California


Scholastic Press
$19.99 hardcover, available now

The Publisher Says: Caldecott Medalist, Allen Say, presents a companion to his award-wining DRAWING FROM MEMORY - the story of his coming-of-age at a military academy and the discovery of what it means to be American.

For Allen Say, life as teen in Southern California was a cold existence. His father, one of the leading hamburger salesmen in Japan, ran a booming burger business, much like McDonald's, and sent Allen to an American military academy, so that his son could learn English and "become a success in life."

As the school's first and only Japanese student, he experienced immediate racism among his fellow cadets and his teachers. The other kids' parents complained about Allen's presence at the all-white school. As a result, he was relegated to a tool shed behind the mess hall. Determined to free himself from this oppression, Allen saved enough money to buy a 1946 Ford for $50 - then escaped to find the America of his dreams!

In this follow-up to DRAWING FROM MEMORY, Allen continues to reinvent himself as an author and illustrator. Melding his paintings with cartoon images and archival photos, Allen Say delivers an accessible book that will appeal to any reader in search of himself.

My Review: I don't think this book's full import will come home to you if you don't read Drawing from Memory first.

But I think I'm safe in saying that, once you've read that, you'll more than likely be ready for this one. Author Say came to the US shortly after WWII ended, and to California no less; the country that suffered a major and terrible defeat wasn't exactly the place most Californians were looking to get fresh immigrants from. The racism Author Say suffered was depicted very realistically.
My origins are in California. My father's a native of Venice, the location of that famous Beach, and I was born in Palo Alto. My mother, a Texan to her bones, paid exactly no attention to California's prejudice against Asians, called in those days "Orientals." Our housekeeper was Nisei Japanese, her husband Issei gardened. They were fixtures. We were, I was told by my mother, sharply criticized for suchlike goins-on by the racist neighbors. All of this meant nothing to me at the time, since Mitzi was a giant bundle of hugging and loving which made me happy so I wasn't interested in anything else.

It stuck in my mind, though, and seemed so weird to me. Seeing the realities of the situation presented from the sufferer's point of view was disturbing to my old-man self. All the casual dismissive racism. All the actively cruel racism. All of that hate stewing in the hearts of people. Why ever use so much strength to wish hurt and harm on those who've done nothing to you?
Author Say doesn't give any answer to this conundrum; instead, he makes it deeper as he shows the lovingkindness of the people who helped him. Not including his father. And somehow, in reading this story of events sixty years gone, I'm left knowing that he made good and also that good people made his path easier than many others' paths, and it makes no difference that I can tell in how outraged I feel. How illogical!

I'm human, I don't have to make sense.
As the story of Author Say's life in California continues to unfold, the many and various loves of his teenaged years come to mean more and more to the course of his life. The girls he adores from afar, the women he is so generously assisted by, the teachers whose unstinting generosity was fueled by the intense young artist's obvious promise. The story covers three years, but how extremely important those years are! At the end of that time, Author Say is all of eighteen. We know, those of us lucky enough to have encountered Author Say's work at least, what astoundingly valuable dividends those people's kindness has paid. Since 1972's Dr. Smith's Safari, there has been a new Allen Say-illustrated book available about every other year.

How lucky for us all that Author Allen Say left home as a teenaged boy. Japan's treasure became ours.
I only hope that the saga will continue before the inevitable loss occurs and Author Say leaves us forever.

Monday, February 26, 2018

STORMHAVEN, third Whyborne & Griffin paranormal Lovecrafty Massachusetts novel

JORDAN L. HAWK (Whyborne & Griffin #3)

Kindle Original
$4.99 Kindle, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Mysterious happenings are nothing new to reclusive scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne, but finding one of his colleagues screaming for help in the street is rather unusual. Allan Tambling claims he can’t remember any of the last hour—but someone murdered his uncle, and Allan is covered in blood.

Whyborne’s lover, dashing ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty, agrees to prove Allan’s innocence. But when Allan is deemed insane and locked away in the Stormhaven Lunatic Asylum, Griffin finds himself reliving the horrifying memories of his own ordeal inside a madhouse.

Along with their friend Christine, the two men become drawn deeper and deeper into a dark web of conspiracy, magic, and murder. Their only clue: a missing artifact depicting an unknown god. Who stole the artifact, and why can’t Allan remember what happened? And what is the truth behind the terrible experiments conducted on Stormhaven’s forbidden fourth floor?

It will take all of Whyborne’s sorcery and Griffin’s derring-do to stop the murderers and save Allan. But first, they must survive an even greater challenge: a visit from Griffin’s family.

My Review: My Young Gentleman Caller buys me these. He does it because 1) it earns him major points against problematic behaviors elsewhere and B) he gets to read them too. All readers of romance do it because it's a way of deriving satisfaction not ordinarily available in the real world.
I’m here because I wish to be. Because I love you as you are, right now, today.
Everyone breathing wants to hear that. How many of you have? Ever? And here it is in black and white, clear and unambiguous. Stated as fact from one lover to another. Fantasy fulfilled.

I brought this up to him as we were discussing this book. It is a simple need, the need to be loved; by simple, I mean instantly recognizable and easily understood by all. Why is it so complicated in real life, so difficult to find another who fulfills it?


Party of the first part: Flawed and unable to change. Deal with it. Party of the second part: Godlike in possessing all the abilities of a mindreader, psychologist, alchemist, trillionaire, world-class athlete, martyr, saint, and sex toy. Must possess exactly the fantasy of perfect looks on the day Party of the first part is looking at them. Must be able to change genders/sex roles/needs as Party of the first part changes whims. Must love/hate the same foods/drinks/social attitudes as Party of the first part.

Book-lovers are better than meat-lovers, who have a regrettable tendency to fart, have morning breath, leave their hair in the shower drain, forget to buy (soy/almond/2%) milk, then get annoyed/upset/offended by being taken to task for these hideous, disfiguring failings. Because they are Party of the first part in their contract with you.

Books are so much easier.

So reading, as always, comes to the rescue! Maybe not so much...who hasn't seen the memes around the text "Boys in books are just better"? Of course they are! They're your fantasy, created for you by someone made of meat and with the same fantasy life you have. It's like porn!

It IS porn. Unrealistic expectations of reality fostered...check. Perverting the consumer into expecting fantasy to come alive in reality...check. Deeply obnoxious and unpleasant stereotyping of the object of the reader's fantasy...check. Disdained by the overculture as a "lesser and unworthy" form of entertainment that remains HUGELY popular and profitable...check.

Speaking of "lesser and unworthy" forms of entertainment, in this Platinum Age of episodic entertainment (I am a resolute cord-cutter who ONLY consumes episodes on ad-free streaming, so can't call it TV anymore, while the YGC is not yet so infuriated by the vileness of advertising) we're experiencing, my Young Gentleman Caller and I indulged our fantasy of being filmmakers unafraid to make gay-male Lifetime movies out of this series of romantic paranormal novels (to call them mysteries is to misrepresent their specific strength as stories). It turns out that Boys in our Books blogger Ami asked Author Hawk about that subject several years ago:
A: If the Whyborne and Griffin series was made into TV series, who do you imagine playing the characters?

JLH: I really don’t know! It’s funny, but my characters are so vivid to me it’s difficult to imagine anyone in their places. That said, I’m sure if it did ever happen, I’d be delighted to see an actor’s interpretation.
Our only choice for Whyborne lacks brown eyes, though contacts are perfectly acceptable:
Tall, beautiful, deeply sexy but seemingly unaware of just how stunningly desirable he is. Yay Armie Hammer for being willing to play gay in Call Me By Your Name, although the role didn't require him to, errrmmm, cavort with the toothsome morsel that is Timothée Chalamet. I mean, wow, doesn't that porno play in your head the instant you see those two together on screen!

No? Straight people. How very odd y'all are.

When it came to Griffin, we had similar unanimity. Our only choice for the role was, in fact, indicative of the reason I enjoy our conversations so much. He proposed:
The choice of James Franco was perfect for me, since I'd been thinking the same thing. I was opening my mouth to mention coloring when out the YGC came with, "I think we should just switch the coloring descriptions and leave the actors as they are." This is exactly what I was thinking. I have known very few people in this life who say what I'm thinking before I can get it out, and it's always so much fun to find another one.

Is that why I enjoy the series so much? Because the lad I'm lovin' up gives them to me, reads them with me, plays mental games with me after reading them? No. Not solely that, anyway. I am a fan of the Lovecraft mythos. Author Hawk uses it as a story enhancement. I could do with it being used more, in fact. Also enjoyable to me is the love affair between broken men fighting fears and flaws in themselves while each is surprised that their lover doesn't think they are unworthy and unlovable because of these gigantic, disfiguring flaws. It mirrors my own life experience, flaws so huge the flawed think they're forever undesirable and the loving partner saying, "what's the fuss? I think you're amazing." I am not quite sure where Author Hawk is taking this series in terms of the supernatural elements. I like the Lovecraft mythos because the Elder Gods aren't personal, humanistic gods, they don't even see humans as we are so small and unimportant. We call them gods because their "powers" or abilities are so vastly superior to our own. We even call Cthulhu, explicitly not one of the Elder Gods, a god because his powers are godlike...though he is simply a superior life form in the mythos itself.

Author Hawk isn't creating a quasi-religious fantasy in the series. Whyborne, the sorcerous intellectual, specifically says he doesn't believe in a god in this entry into the series. He doesn't know why his speaking of spells works but he rejects the idea that it's due to some god giving him a gift. That's exactly what I want to hear. That's exactly what I myownself believe. There are things we don't know, questions we can't answer yet, but there's no reason to believe there is A Divine Plan made by A Divine Planner *for*our*benefit*— in fact there's a metric shit-ton of evidence that's absurdly wrongheaded.

So that is the fundamental reason I am Author Hawk's fan. I feel that the stories are aimed at me, designed to fill my specific needs for story-making. And I receive this gift gratefully from the stranger who created the stories for their own reasons, to fulfill their own needs.

Also from a certain lovely blond lad who both wants and knows how to please his old man.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

DRAWING FROM MEMORY, Allen Say's gorgeous graphic memoir, full five stars


Scholastic Press
$17.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Caldecott Medalist Allen Say presents a stunning graphic novel chronicling his journey as an artist during WWII, when he apprenticed under Noro Shinpei, Japan’s premier cartoonist.

DRAWING FROM MEMORY is Allen Say's own story of his path to becoming the renowned artist he is today. Shunned by his father, who didn't understand his son's artistic leanings, Allen was embraced by Noro Shinpei, Japan's leading cartoonist and the man he came to love as his "spiritual father." As WWII raged, Allen was further inspired to consider questions of his own heritage and the motivations of those around him. He worked hard in rigorous drawing classes, studied, trained--and ultimately came to understand who he really is.

Part memoir, part graphic novel, part narrative history, DRAWING FROM MEMORY presents a complex look at the real-life relationship between a mentor and his student. With watercolor paintings, original cartoons, vintage photographs, and maps, Allen Say has created a book that will inspire the artist in all of us.

My Review: Allen Say's world doesn't exist anymore. This is the roughest part of getting truly old. The kind of universe where a twelve-year-old boy could be thought capable of living on his own is long gone. The kind of world where the famous cartoonist could be reached by the simple expedient of showing up at his place of work and saying, "I'd like to work for you," well! Need I belabor the point? Say wrote this book in a world that could be on a different planet than the one he grew up on. But from such foreign stones he built an exciting life, a life of art and creation and replete with stories that need telling.

This book, a graphic memoir I suppose, though it's less thoroughgoing than is Lynda Barry's work (eg Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor), is no whit less sophisticated.

I recently read Artist Say's magisterial Silent Days, Silent Dreams. It was such a gorgeous visual feast and so deeply affecting a tale that I couldn't bear to leave his world for long. Look above, look below...do you blame me?

Look at the great simplicity of the lines you're tricked into believing are real, three-dimensional objects:

Look at the care and attention you're not smacked with, look at the invisible framing of each image that makes it the perfect size and the perfect space for exactly that moment of storytelling to be within.

See the colors? See the volume of each object, each space between objects?

See the texture of matte-coated paper, the way that it creates the same effect as a gallery's neutral wall color does? See the fruit of more than seventy years practicing what a master, a cicerone, a sensei was wise, prescient, generous enough to give the boy artist? We receive the gift's fruit.

There was never a truer aperçu proverbialized than, "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in." To your private orchard you bring trees whose shade soothes you, yet almost never will you stop to regard still less thank the long-gone hands and long-past rains that made the tree into what it is now.

Take that moment now, be grateful to Noro Shinpei for himself and for the soothing shadows of Allen Say's talented evocation of a world we can never see any other way but through his eyes and by his hands. Let him plant you a tree.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

THE ARMORED SAINT, being an almost-5 star appreciation of a writer's unexpected gifts

(The Sacred Throne #1)
Tor.com Publishing
$17.99 hardcover, available today!

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: In a world where any act of magic could open a portal to hell, the Order insures that no wizard will live to summon devils, and will kill as many innocent people as they must to prevent that greater horror. After witnessing a horrendous slaughter, the village girl Heloise opposes the Order, and risks bringing their wrath down on herself, her family, and her village.


My Review: I have a confession to make right off the bat: I didn't request this book. My Tor.com Publishing contact, knowing I am big on books with queer representation, figured I'd like this and sent it along. I looked at it in some surprise because it's by Myke Cole, The Shadow Ops-superhero-y military SF guy. If you've paid me the smallest bit of attention before now, you know I detest superhero-y crap and am only enjoying milSF from a gay-male PoV these days. I was a history major. I've had my fill of battlefield stuff for its own sake. Talk to ME, the elderly queer gent, not the strategist/armchair general, or I got better uses for my eyeblinks.

Author Cole, I am profoundly sorry I pigeonholed your work. I was wrong to do so and I'm glad to learn the error of my intolerant ways in so pleasant a fashion.

This fantasy world is deeply satisfying. It's oppressively ruled by a military/religious Order, but run in time-honored community-based democratic ways. Being staunchly anti-religion, that setup is one I'll buy into immediately. I'm not insensible to its relevance to the current state of affairs in our current US, our very own Russian satellite state, either, though that is not to ascribe my beliefs to Author Cole. I am not acquainted with him and make no representation that what *I* take away from his work is what he intended that I take away from it. That disclaimer being made, moving on.

The basis of this story is simple: How does a person, raised in a world that does not jibe with the True North on their inborn moral compass, survive and live and love in it? Can that happen without a struggle, a fight, a battle, or even an outright war? (MAJOR SPOILER: Nope.) What does it take to be authentically yourself in a world that dislikes you for being who you are?

Heloise Factor demonstrates her nature as a skeptic and a misfit from page one of the book, so I'm not really spoilering anything. Heloise confronts the arrogant cruelty of the adult world from page one and is saved from the terrible consequences awaiting the powerless for protesting abuse of power by the skin of her teeth. It's a terrific way to understand the worldview of Heloise's society and get the general course the book will take from here on in. Heloise intuitively understands the Buddha's injunction: "Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who says it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense."
Her father was lying, not just to her, but to himself. Worst of all, he expected her to repeat the lies, to act as though up was down of her own free will. It was a stupid, wicked way to live, and the smoke still smudging the darkening sky showed her how it ended.
Beautifully said, perfectly true, and in the context of a young person just coming into her rightful place in the world, immensely powerful. It *is* a stupid, wicked way to live and it behooves us as citizens of a world that squashes our inner selves daily to remember that "First, do no harm" is not just Hippocrates talking to doctors but the accumulated wisdom of the ages speaking loud and clear to each and every one of us.

One of the squashings of personal truth has always been sexuality. Female sexuality has come in for the most squashing in modern times. The very existence of female sexuality, of women's right to control their own bodies and use them as they see fit, is taking center stage in the culture wars at last. Part of that demand for control includes the right of a woman to be in an intimate relationship with another woman. This sets religious nuts aflame, as we all know. Heloise's society is as homophobic as our own. Luckily for Heloise, like we would want for any child ready to burst into adult sexual flower, she gets good, solid, commonsensical guidance:
No. It is a person you love. Not a name. Not a she or a he. A person in all their shining glory. There is a thing in us, Heloise. A seed. It makes us who we are. It is our core. That is the thing we love. It alone exists. It alone is holy. It has no home, no name. It is neither male nor female. It is greater than that.
How I wish someone had said similar words to me when I was first mooning about, utterly in love with Davy Jones of the Monkees! I assure you that my longings were understood and VERY MUCH NOT supported by my "family." Heloise's society is down on her womanhood and her same-sex sexuality. Author Cole has added to her burden of seeing through the veil of lies she's been force-fed. Now what else can go wrong in the woman-child's life?

Oh my heck.

Obviously I want you to buy and read the book, so I can't get too detailed or else why bother? Suffice it to say that Author Cole is a mean, mean man who has no smallest shred of kindness to extend to Heloise. Which is what the reading of fiction is for, right? The ancient Hellenic society that invented drama and comedy did so for this very purpose, after all, and called it catharsis. The deep cleansing of experiencing intense emotions from a safe, removed place is the source of story addiction, I am certain. What could possibly be more indicative of this than the long survival of the Mahabharata, the Iliad, the Bible? Humans are built to need story to survive. Our very consciousness could be a by-product of the mind creating explanatory narratives.

So Heloise is out of sync with her culture's narrative, and from the get-go she has a visceral experience of what happens to those who flout the keepers of the narrative's rules. And then sees her honored and beloved father support the master (!) narrative, even though it means condemning another to almost certain death, so the Greater Good will be served. And *still* she refuses to conform, to knuckle under and do what is expected instead of what is Right. That's what makes her journey one we should all follow, at the very least between the boards of a book. I hope people with probably-lesbian young (grand-)daughters will buy this book and give it to them, as well as any and all adolescents wrestling with the certainty that they're just different somehow. (Sneak in a read yourself, you'll like it too.)

The minuses of the book are fairly few: There aren't adult female models for Heloise to emulate so one wonders how she got the idea a mere girl could do what she sets out to do; the Standard Fantasy Trope of Capitalizing Things To Make Them Different is in evidence; the ghastly scourge of Adolescent Exceptionalism (see what I did there? heh) is abundantly present. In fact, if the entire point of the book wasn't so exactly in line with my own inner agenda, Heloise's headstrong foolishness in taking on the entire adult world's power structure would make me roll my eyes and consign the book to the recycle pile (which, I hasten to add, does not mean the trash but the catch-and-release world of BookMooch).

As it is, I think Heloise's theme was sung in 1979 by McGuinn, Clark and Hillman. She deserved so much more than she got from her world, as do so very many children. It's long past time adults recognized this and got on the change bandwagon. Here in the US, we need to make our children safe from death while they're at school, at home, at church (if they're forced to go there), the movie theater, the mall....

This sounds like one of my five-star reviews...where's that last tenth of a star? I took it away because I am gut-churningly jealous of how young and handsome Author Cole is. Petty of me, I know, but there it is.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

WE ARE LEGION (WE ARE BOB), amusing way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon

(Bobiverse #1)
Worldbuilders Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Bob Johansson has just sold his software company and is looking forward to a life of leisure. There are places to go, books to read, and movies to watch. So it's a little unfair when he gets himself killed crossing the street.

Bob wakes up a century later to find that corpsicles have been declared to be without rights, and he is now the property of the state. He has been uploaded into computer hardware and is slated to be the controlling AI in an interstellar probe looking for habitable planets. The stakes are high: no less than the first claim to entire worlds. If he declines the honor, he'll be switched off, and they'll try again with someone else. If he accepts, he becomes a prime target. There are at least three other countries trying to get their own probes launched first, and they play dirty.

The safest place for Bob is in space, heading away from Earth at top speed. Or so he thinks. Because the universe is full of nasties, and trespassers make them mad - very mad.


My Review: This is the most male book I've read in ages. I mean, there are two or three women in it but they're onscreen for a hot minute and then gone again. Mostly it's the titular Bob in one of his many regenerated/rebooted/revived selves.

And I think that's why I liked this read so much. It's unapologetic in its geekery.
It blew me away that almost two hundred years after Shatner first famously didn’t actually say, “Beam me up, Scotty,” people still knew Star Trek. Now that’s a franchise.
Bob's a tech bro who cashed out and died at basically the same moment. As a result, Bob's making his early-21st-century geekboy dreams come true by waking up in a theocracy that wants to use him to explore the galaxy...but only because they want to beat the Great Unwashed to any habitable planets there might be out there.
People's capacity for turning dogmatic stupidity into political movements never ceased to amaze me. We've knocked off 99.9% of the human race and somehow the crazies still manage to survive. It just defies the odds.
It defies common sense as well, but that doesn't stop us. I am delighted by this validation of my low opinion of Humanity's sanity. The world Bob wakes up into is very polarized, but things aren't all that different from today. A few changes in the top echelon that are pretty much inevitable anyway. Oh, and...wait, no, discovery is a terrific tease to get the cash register to ring. And Author Taylor deserves your spondulix as much as he does your eyeblinks.

The copyright date on this is 2016. I wish to high heaven that more of y'all had read this tome before the 8th of November.
He and his cronies rammed through far-right policies with no thought for consequences.
That is the sound of Author Taylor predicting accurately the future that is our awful present. I'd ask you to read the book anyway, but really, how can you *not* when the setting precedes the world that it describes?!

Let's say that, for some reason, you're not intrigued by anything I've warbled my fool head off about. You still like to laugh, right?
Belly laughs are one of the best things about being sentient, and you should never miss a chance for one.
Funny and accurate.
Well, that’s double-plus ungood.
Please, please tell me you 1) got the Orwell reference and B) thought it was funny. Let's say you are, for whatever reason, a po-faced old noddycock of a square. Surely you'd like a little snappy thinking as a surfactant for your wet blanket?
Since I doubt, I think; since I think, I exist.

Space exploration was fully living up to my nerd fantasies.

I don’t know why I should be more bothered by the fact of original Bob being dead. Either way, I was a computer program. But somehow, the idea that I was all that was left of Bob felt like being stabbed. I had been—Bob had been—discarded.
If nothing I've mentioned makes you feel the need to splash out a whopping $3.99 on this book, then I pity your spouse/partner. I will say that other criticisms of the book that I've seen bear down heavy on the ending. I'd say they're correct. It doesn't end, it stops; but if you're not amused by it, that won't matter, and if you are, you're going to buy the second one anyway.

Monday, February 12, 2018

SILENT DAYS, SILENT DREAMS is a kids' book in name only


Arthur A. Levine Books
$21.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

UPDATE! AWARD NEWS! The 2018 American Library Association Awards honored Author Say's work with its Schneider Family Book Award for books that embody an artistic expression of the disability experience! Well-earned, well done, and congratulations.

The Publisher Says: James Castle was born two months premature on September 25, 1899, on a farm in Garden Valley, Idaho. He was deaf, mute, autistic and probably dyslexic. He didn't walk until he was four; he would never learn to speak, write, read or use sign language.

Yet, today Castle's artwork hangs in major museums throughout the world. The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened "James Castle: A Retrospective" in 2008. The 2013 Venice Biennale included eleven works by Castle in the feature exhibition "The Encyclopedic Palace." And his reputation continues to grow.

Caldecott Medal winner Allen Say, author of the acclaimed memoir Drawing from Memory, takes readers through an imagined look at Castle's childhood, allows them to experience his emergence as an artist despite the overwhelming difficulties he faced, and ultimately reveals the triumphs that he would go on to achieve.

My Review: I will never be able to thank my friend Joe enough for bringing this book, this artist, this art, into my life. I am so profoundly grateful to you, old friend.

James Castle with the tools of his trade. I don't know the date, but he died at 78 in 1977, so I'll venture a guess at early 1960s...? I'm actually surprised, given how very little the people he lived among seem to have liked him, that someone took his photo at all.

Artist and Caldecott Medalist Allen Say created this artwork at the request of an Idaho-based friend of his. It was his introduction to James Castle...he says of this amazing moment, "I opened the catalog and suddenly remembered the excitement of seeing a van Gogh for the first time." I rang like a bell when I read that. I had just had the same experience opening this book and seeing Say's artworks based on Castle's.

A spread from this gorgeous book.

I've got a reasonably sophisticated knowledge of art. I'm up to speed on "outsider art" and its importance in our visual vocabulary, to our aesthetic landscape. But there hasn't been an experience quite like discovering, via Artist Say, the astonishing work of James Castle in a very, very long time. The sheer breadth of the material he left behind is astounding! Sculptural constructions, drawings in their thousands, mobiles, it's like the man was working against a deadline that only he knew about and was determined to finish saying what he had no other way to say.

The publisher, Arthur A. Levine Books (the imprint responsible for bringing Harry Potter to the US market), is bringing this to us via a damned-near perfect design and production job. The aesthetics of the design you can see for yourself above. If you don't think that it's outstandingly lovely, look at it in person. If you still don't agree, okay, but why? What failing do you adduce to this presentation of two-color artwork mixed with four-color artwork and all presented in a beautiful matte-coated glowingly white space? What artistic flaw do you find with Artist Say's beautiful, spare evocations of the grim and terrible world of James Castle?

And it was a grim and terrible world, a kind of hell that I fear with all my wobbly, trembling emotional heart isn't unique except in its reasonably happy ending. Artist Say has gone as deep as one can into the little factual material of this ordinary life. His bibliography is quite substantial...and disturbingly complete...for someone who, absent Fate's intervention, would simply have vanished without a trace from the collective memory of US society. I knew I could trust Artist Say to tell me the truth about James Castle when I read:
To emulate his unschooled style, I used the same kinds of odd materials he had used: soot and spit, liquid laundry bluing, and shoe polish, to name a few.
I had help. My wife meticulously made dolls and birds out of wastepaper and cardboard that I think the artist would have approved. I drew on ninety-year-old letters and envelopes that {his friend} found in an antique shop; and to mimic James's unsteady lines, I often switched lands—to my left hand, which hadn't learned to tell lies.
Artist Say is the right one to lead us into James Castle's work, and his life and times insofar as any of us can know them.

The Seattle Times gives us the jacket of this glorious book in its native environment, the store where you'll be going to spend USD 21.99 (higher in Canada) to bring it home with you. And now you're able to do it legally, since a Federal judge ruled that Artist Say didn't violate Castle's estate's copyrights in offering us, in 28 cases from the 150 drawings in this book, his own artistic impression of specific Castle pieces.

Isn't that a sad statement of our current society's obsession with ownership? A beautiful illustrated biography would quite probably have pleased Castle, whose early relationship with books (despite being unable to read or write) was a loving and profound one. Not at issue were any facts, any alleged misrepresentations of Castle, his family, anything...just ownership of the images and therefore the right to profit from them.

Had I been related to Castle I'd've cringed in shame for the picture painted of a cold, uncaring, even cruel "family" that frankly seems to me to be culpably negligent and abusive of their child/sibling/educational charge. They sound like horrible people and I'm glad they're dead.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

THRESHOLD, second novel in the Lovecraftian paranormal series starring Whyborne & Griffin

(Whyborne & Griffin #2)
Kindle Original
$4.99, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five, rounded up (actually out of four because there's a cat presented as a suitable companion animal for humans, which costs the perpetrator one star automatically)

The Publisher Says: Introverted scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne wants nothing more than to live quietly with his lover, ex-Pinkerton detective Griffin Flaherty. Unfortunately, Whyborne's railroad tycoon father has other ideas, namely hiring Griffin to investigate mysterious events at a coal mine.

Whyborne, Griffin, and their friend Christine travel to Threshold Mountain, a place of dark legend even before the mine burrowed into its heart. A contingent of Pinkertons—including Griffin's ex-lover Elliot—already guard the mine. But Griffin knows better than anyone just how unprepared the detectives are to face the otherworldly forces threatening them.

Soon, Whyborne and Griffin are on the trail of mysterious disappearances, deadly accidents, and whispered secrets. Is Elliot an ally, or does he only want to rekindle his relationship with Griffin? And if so, how can Whyborne possibly hope to compete with the stunningly handsome Pinkerton—especially when Griffin is hiding secrets about his past?

For in a town where friends become enemies and horror lurks behind a human mask, Whyborne can't afford to trust anything—including his own heart.

My Review: These stories are all in the Lovecraft Mythos. I think I wasn't au fait when I began the series. This makes my feelings about the reads quite different.

Whyborne and Griffin get invited to dinner at the home of Whyborne's much-despised daddy. He hires Griffin, thus also his son, to investigate paranormal doins at a mine that supplies his railroad. They recruit Christine Putnam, Whyborne's Egyptologist/Annie Oakley-level shot colleague at the Ladysmith Museum, as the backup muscle. (Seriously, does it matter why she's along? She has to be, so let's go with it.) They go to some ghastly little horror-movie burg in West Virginia (a state in which I say, from my own experience, there is nothing but horror-movie burgs):
The heights blocked the prevailing west-east breezes, leaving the air stagnant and still. Mosquitoes hummed above pools of water in the unpaved streets, and sweat prickled my neck beneath my collar. I longed for a bit of shade, but the lack of trees anywhere within the town made it a forlorn hope.
And this, laddies and gentlewomen, is Whyborne's first-ever trip away from Massachusetts! I can see the setting, I can feel the depths of utter horror poor, poor Whyborne experiences as he sees this vista of how the other 99.99% live.

The town is insular, cut off from reality, and that makes it vulnerable to alien invasion by creatures from outside our dimension of reality. (Watch that linked video on the Lovecraft Mythos!) In fact, the same thing that the white folk are using the mountain for...coal...is what attracted the aliens to the site. I don't know what spidercrabscorpion aliens would want with coal, but then I wouldn't, would I, what with being human and all. The aliens are called yayhos by the humans they...get to know...and are really, really, really revolting. It's mentioned several times that they smell of ammonia. Not a favorite smell of most humans. And what they say they want, just to be left alone to pillage our planet, makes them deeply analogous to Western colonial powers using Africa in the same late-19th-century timeframe as these books are set. The yayhos have a deep-seated need to learn and explore. Check. They have a callous indifference to whom they hurt in the process. Check. Small groups of them can inflict major damage on us, the natives. Check.

So no one needs to smirk condescendingly about the one-dimensionality of the story. It is making its social commentary and coming (!) to the correct, socially progressive conclusions on many fronts. The conditions for the miners in the town are portrayed accurately and judged harshly; race relations enter into the story and are dealt with accurately and found wanting; the role of the Pinkertons, Griffin's erstwhile employers, as forces of regressive and repressive capital is presented as part of a sub-plot linking Griffin to Elliot, the Threshold Pinkerton manager and Griffin's long-ago savior when he ran away from home to go to the Big City of Chicago.

Also coming out (!) of this entry in the series is the acknowledgment and inclusion in the arc of Griffin and Whyborne's relationship are the two stonking elephants in the room: Whyborne's life of privilege vs Griffin's hardscrabble beginnings; and Griffin's horrible, nightmarish confinement to a madhouse after he first encounters the Lovecraftian side of life. That was lightly touched on in the first book, Widdershins, but here we're faced with the man who found Griffin and made him a Pinkerton in the first place in Elliot. He was also the man who, after Griffin faced the madness-inducing terrors that cost him a partner in service of a Pinkerton case, slung Griffin into a madhouse. And walked away, never looking back. Elliot and Griffin have a lot to say to each other. They say it at an inopportune moment, sadly, leading to Whyborne coming to the hotel where he, Griffin, and Christine are all staying just as Elliot is leaving Griffin's room. A fight, unsurprisingly, ensues, in which some hurtful stuff is said and much, much miscommunication is experienced.

Griffin pleads to Whyborne in defense of his libidinous history with Elliot and with his dead partner Glenn, whose wife and kids were offered up to Whyborne as misdirection when he wanted to know if Griffin freaked out about Glenn's death because they were intime. Finding out that no lie was told makes not one jot of difference, of course, to Whyborne's sense of outrage:
“Believe me when I say I did a great deal more with other men, some of whom, yes, were married. It’s not unusual, you know. Many men like us have a normal family as well.”
It was, and is, ever thus. I speak from long, long experience when I say that this is going on right now and chances are much better than even that you know a couple where one or the other of the partners is in denial about her/is sexual preference. Especially if you live in a red state, or are a member of a religious community with strong opinions about how gawd wants people to eat/dress/fuck. Almost certainly you do if you're over 50.

But the author has much more in store for us than mere social engineering. We're going on a guilt trip! Perfidy abounds; double dealing reaches art-form nicety; the irredeemable are all around us, and their fate is condign. The biggest surprise comes as Griffin and Whyborne come out to each other as lovers:
The fingers of his free hand caught my chin, gently turning my face to his. His green eyes shone, and the smile on his mouth was soft and sweet. “You are my joy, Ival {this is Griffin's hideous nickname for Whyborne, who unsurprisingly hates to be called Percy}, and I love you more than I thought possible.”
Emotion tightened my throat. “As you are mine.”
“Even if I’m just the son of a farmer from Kansas, who happened to have a talent for mimicking his betters?”
I traced the line of his jaw, until my fingers came to rest just beside the curve of his lips. “You’re not just the son of a farmer from Kansas, or even the orphaned son of an Irishman, or anything else.”
“I’m not? Then who am I?”
“A good man. A man who wants to do what is best, by his friends and the world. But more importantly, the man I love.”
His smile was like the breaking of sunshine through clouds. “I think I can live with that,” he said, and kissed me again.
And that right there? That slayed me. What makes me read light romantic fiction, given the years and years of reading...forty-nine years since I got my own library card, fifty-two since I asked for and got my first very-own book...one might wonder. This is what: I want to believe. After almost sixty years on this wide green Earth of ours, I still want to believe that stories tell us truths we're waiting to live, show us goals we can actually achieve, let us love the loves we let go of, lost, failed, never found, just as if they were here and now.

There's not a lot of sex in these...wait...I've recently been told a book that had so little sex in it that I described it as heterosafe was, in fact, not so. I'll say this: The sex in this book is put in places and set at heat levels that match the storytelling. It's not shoved into places it shouldn't go, in other words.

I stared at that phrase for a good while before deciding to leave it there. If that double entendre makes you purse your lips, do not ever, ever buy, borrow, or gawd forbid *read* these books!

Thursday, February 1, 2018

WIDDERSHINS, first paranormal mystery novel in a Lovecraftian Massachusetts

(Whyborne & Griffin #1)
Widdershins LLC (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 eReader platforms, available


Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Some things should stay buried.

Repressed scholar Percival Endicott Whyborne has two skills: reading dead languages and hiding in his office at the Ladysmith Museum. After the tragic death of the friend he secretly loved, he’s ruthlessly suppressed any desire for another man.

So when handsome ex-Pinkerton Griffin Flaherty approaches him to translate a mysterious book, Whyborne wants to finish the job and get rid of the detective as quickly as possible. Griffin left the Pinkertons following the death of his partner, hoping to start a new life. But the powerful cult which murdered Glenn has taken root in Widdershins, and only the spells in the book can stop them. Spells the intellectual Whyborne doesn’t believe are real.

As the investigation draws the two men closer, Griffin’s rakish charm threatens to shatter Whyborne’s iron control. When the cult resurrects an evil sorcerer who commands terrifying monsters, can Whyborne overcome his fear and learn to trust? Will Griffin let go of his past and risk falling in love? Or will Griffin’s secrets cost Whyborne both his heart and his life?

My Review: I finally bought this bagatelle for myself, after literally years sitting on my wishlist, this past birthday. I figure at *mumbletymumble* years old I can finally let go of the fear that They Will Not Approve and read whatever the heck I darned well please. Including paranormal romps with scads of gay sex and significantly smaller helpings of logic.

Uh huh. Like I can publicly admit how old I am in the context of reading *blush*shame* a, um, y'know, a book like this one is.


Fine. No really. FINE.

It's *deep breath* a smexy silly romance with True Luuuv and Evil Monsters and Supernatural Creatures! It has No Redeeming Social Value! I read it because it was A Good Story!

There, are y'all happy now? Whatever tiny scrap of credibility I ever had as a book reviewer is gone.

And that, my chick-a-biddies, is how romantic fiction readers of every stripe are made to feel. It's complete crap and it's indicative of a nasty, judgmental streak in the culture of literacy. *What* are you reading, philistine, tut the superiority addicts, don't call that literature, don't sully our ever-so-pure air blathering about your, your, lesser, baser, frankly uninteresting...books (so called) that do nothing but entertain those of, frankly, limited intellectual capacity. I wonder what these reviewers, these Guardians of the Gates, would do if their precious darlings of Literature were subjected to the eighteenth century's test of worthiness in reading matter: "Novels?! Men do not read novels. The weaker sex read novels because they are not capable of processing True and Fine Thinking such as scholars read! Men who write entertainments such as novels are merely pandering to the feeble and inferior baser instincts of the ladies. Shame! Shame on you, sir, for hastening the decline of Our Noble Culture!"

This is how it always goes through the generations. So let's stop judging what each other read and be happy that some people enjoy reading more than staring at screens. Although to be fair, I did read this on Kindle, so....

Having had my rant about the foolishness of judging others, I continue to the book at hand, first of a series of paranormals set in fictional Widdershins, Massachusetts. This town was settled after its founding father escaped from Salem during the Witch Hunt. He was, unlike the other poor sods tried and judicially murdered for witchcraft, guilty as original sin of the crime. Theron Blackbyrne was a beautiful, hunky blond Sodomite as well as a witch. His reach, sadly, exceeded his grasp, as certain essentials needed for the grand spell he wanted to cast, the one that would buy him immortality, eternal youth, and all the boy booty he could dream of, were simply unavailable in the New World. So he left some explicit instructions with his acolytes on what they needed to procure and when they needed to use it to resurrect him in order that he be able to complete his spell.

Several centuries elapse. The acolytes, surprise!, weren't at all eager to resurrect the master in whose service they'd become rich...poor followers are useless, ask any politician...in order to hand over all their worldly acquisitions. Um, no thanks, I'm good. He molders in the grave, they use the bits and bobs they got from Blackbyrne to acquire more bits and bobs, time passes and the town of Widdershins grows in prosperity as a port city, the local worthies open themselves a museum with an Egyptian antiquities focus...the items needed for Blackbyrne's resurrection accumulate, almost in spite of the great and good...and then a tragedy occurs that properly starts our story.

Percival Endicott Whyborne, wimpy bookish kid turned scholarly shirt-lifting introvert, introduces himself to us as the second son of an overbearing Widdershins magnate. He is also, in his own mind at least, the murderer of his childhood crush object who also happens to be his father's best friend's son. His unnatural lust for this friend is bound up in his survivor's guilt based on his inability to rescue the boy who drowned in a lake.

It is Whyborne's fate to act as the catalyst for Blackbyrne's resurrection. It is his good fortune to have the esoteric knowledge, the robust support systems, and the steely moral center to offer resistance to the terrible forces Blackbyrne would like to harness in his quest for immortality...including Yog-Sothoth, mentioned by name! Luck is on Earth's side, since Whyborne went to Miskatonic University in Arkham and learned all sorts of useful philological tricks.

H.P. Lovecraft's Mythos has long, long, long tentacles.

Whyborne, who detests being called Percy, has the excellent fortune to meet and fall in lust, in love, then into the arms of, strong, capable, experienced Griffin Flaherty. Another lad of the time whose Sodomitical tendencies were the catalyst for his exile from his only home and then his worst nightmare coming true, Griffin likes cats (an entire star off my rating of the book for that horrible lapse in authorial judgment) and goofy, gawky men, which makes him the best possible partner for Whyborne. The worst nightmare part is the bit that's most important. Griffin, you see, has experienced the dark and terrifying reach of the Mythos into ordinary life first hand. Its indelible mark on his soul means he will go to any length to combat the entry of those from Outside into our safe little home. Whyborne is embroiled with the Blackbyrne followers by virtue of birth and constitutionally unable to tolerate their wickedness by nature. He and Griffin must combat the actual demons and face their personal ones simultaneously and together.

The remaining half-star was lost to this book by the sheer improbability of a multi-century evil cabal surviving in Puritanical Massachusetts, the improbably used facets of Lovecraft's Mythos with Egyptian mythology, and assorted anachronistic speech patterns. My standards for entertaining fiction aren't all that high, but Griffin's invented nickname for Whyborne (since he understandably dislikes Percy) flew straight into my craw and stuck there."Ival"? How is that even pronounced?!

The next entry in the series is a short work called Eidolon. I'll be reviewing it soon..