Thursday, April 30, 2020

Three new illustrated books: LEWSER!; BOG BODIES; I WISH


LEWSER!: More Doonesbury in the Time of Trump
GARRY B. TRUDEAU
Andrews McMeel Publishing
$16.99 oversized paperback, available for pre-order

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: A mirthful and merciless skewering of the Trump administration from the senior statesman of political cartooning, Garry Trudeau.

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist whose acclaimed Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump blew up the bestseller list, G.B. Trudeau's third (and final?) collection of Doonesbury Trump cartoons takes readers through the dark heart of Trump's presidency and into 2020 election mania. Including two years' worth of original Doonesbury Sundays, full-color spreads, and 18 previously unpublished strips, the completion of Trudeau's Trump trilogy arrives just as the 2020 election is in full swing.

I RECEIVED A DRC OF THIS TITLE FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS. THANK YOU.

My Review
: You already know if this book is for you. If you voted for 45 (why are you reading my reviews, for a start) you shouldn't even acknowledge it exists. If you didn't vote at all, pre-order it immediately for July delivery. If you didn't vote for 45, but voted, well...do you like banging your fingers in filing-cabinet drawers? Do you laugh at car wrecks? Your jam awaits.

For my part, I'm just thrilled that Garry Trudeau still has the mental and visual acuity to mirror that which is painfully obvious in terms both amusing and enlightening. Even though it's a bit much taken all together. Maybe space out the read.


In a cartooning career spanning decades of political chicanery, I don't think Garry Trudeau's ever had a target-rich environment like this one. Even Nixon, as horrendous a person and a president as he was, couldn't match this "administration" for vileness. His appointees, while evil, weren't incompetent and downright stupid like 45's are. Well, you either know that or reject knowing that already; this isn't a sophistic enterprise but a tendentious one. You've been informed. Decide according to your prejudices what to do about buying the book.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


BOG BODIES
DECLAN SHALVEY (writer); GAVIN FULLERTON (artwork); REBECCA NALTY (colorist)

Image Comics
$12.99 oversized paperback, available for pre-order

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: An Irish gangster on the run after a job gone wrong stumbles upon a young woman lost in the Dublin mountains. Injured and unarmed, the unlikely pair must try to evade their pursuers and survive the desolate bog that has served as a burial ground for unspeakable murder throughout history. DECLAN SHALVEY (INJECTION, SAVAGE TOWN) and GAVIN FULLERTON (Bags) deliver a cold and poignant story of crime, survival, and regret.

I RECEIVED A DRC OF THIS TITLE FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS. THANK YOU.

My Review
: This May 20, 2020, release from Image Comics is deeply Irish, using lots of Irish cuss words and ones we in the US think of as swear words...ladies in the audience, "cunt" does not mean the same thing in Ireland!...which you'd do well to consult the Urban Dictionary about as you run across them.

The flat, brutal art and the dark, flat colors are a fine tonal match for the story of Killian, a small-time wise guy and a major fuck-up whose rope has finally run out. The son of a murdered gangster, he followed in his dad's footsteps without the talent for it. It has led to the moment in this story, a brutal life's summation and judgment; it's a morality tale, of course, but it's got a few little grace notes. Is there some hope for Killian in the afterlife, after the major cock-up that's led him to his end?

Mad Maureen, the old woman who lives in a conveniently remote place, is a sheer delight. Her weird world, the one her nephew Keano...aging in an unforgiving world as "the Bishop"'s enforcer...has made for her. It suits. It really suits. Madness is always lonely; Maureen's isn't. She has plenty of company courtesy of Keano and the Bishop.

So at the end of the story, all the chickens come home to roost. There's closure. It's like the closure of a coffin lid, yes, but it's not less satisfying for all that. What it isn't is, well, conventional.

If you're up for a dark and cruel story of consequences and simple but brutal endings, this is your noir jam. Apart from the Irish-slang issues, it's a good solid crime read.

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++


I WISH
TOON TELLEGEN (poetry); INGRID GODON (artwork); DAVID COLMER (translation)

Elsewhere Editions
$14.00 ebook, $22.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Bestelling Dutch children's author Toon Tellegen matches 33 imaginative prose-poems prompted by the statement "I wish" with luminous, old-fashioned portraits by Ingrid Godon in this beautiful, unique volume perfect for thoughtful young readers.

I Wish pairs writing with a gallery of portraits inspired by old-fashioned photographs - faces staring out at us with the serious, veiled expressions of a bygone time. Scattered among the paintings are young children, men and women, and babies, speaking through Toon Tellegen's yearning language. Like dozens of confessions poured from the page, the writing presents a glittering kaleidoscope of wishes, from imagined feats of heroism to reciprocated human love.

I RECEIVED A DRC OF THIS TITLE FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS. THANK YOU.

My Review
: Toon Tellegen is a Dutch poet whose work I've liked (Letters to Anyone and Everyone was a hit with me, illustrated by Jessica Ahlberg instead of Ingrid Godon's artwork inspiring Tellegen as in this book), aimed at younger readers though it is. Permaybehaps that's why I liked it from the moment I discovered it, come to think on it; unlike most poetry, it isn't gawdawful pit-sniffing slef-absorbed and -referential narcissism and condescension. It conveys its message simply and directly, though that message is subject to the reader's interpretation. The two pieces below will demonstrate that the knowledge one brings to the read will shape the poem's meaning.
CARL
I have a little list of conditions I have to fulfill to be satisfied with myself. When I read that list, I think, there are two things I can do: either make a list that's even shorter or never be satisfied with myself. What should I do?

JULIA
When I'm sad I always think: and the saddest is yet to come... Then, besides being sad, I'm scared too.
Why do I do that?
When I'm happy I never think:
and the happiest is yet to come...
When I'm happy, I'm always just
happy.

An adult reader will sense different layers of meaning; your twelve-year-old niece will feel understood, most likely, and thus happily seen and heard. It's a wonderful gift to be given at that age. Feeling seen is a jolt, an emotional high, for adults who can command it in so many more ways than a tween can. This book is for that tween, to elicit the joyous sense of release that is Existing in the World.

Don't hesitate: This moment, this quarantined and isolated moment, is the perfect time to give this gift to the young person in your life.

And, if I'm fully honest, yourself as well.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

VAGABONDS, first English-language novel from Hugo-winner Hao Jingfang


VAGABONDS
HAO JINGFANG
(tr. Ken Liu)
Saga Press
$28.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: A century after the Martian war of independence, a group of kids are sent to Earth as delegates from Mars, but when they return home, they are caught between the two worlds, unable to reconcile the beauty and culture of Mars with their experiences on Earth in this spellbinding novel from Hugo Award–winning author Hao Jingfang.

In 2096, the war of independence erupts when a colony of people living on Mars rebel against Earth’s rule. The war results in two different and mutually incompatible worlds. In 2196, one hundred years later, Earth and Mars attempt to initiate a dialogue, hoping a reconciliation is on the horizon. Representing Mars, a group of young delegates are sent to Earth to study the history and culture of the rival planet, all while teaching others about life on Mars.

Narrated from two perspectives: Luo Ying, an eighteen-year-old girl from Mars who has spent the past five years on Earth, and Ignacio, a filmmaker in his late twenties from Earth on a job to document the delegates from Mars. Both Luo and Ignacio are trapped between worlds, with critics all around, and always under suspicion, searching for where they truly belong.

THE PUBLISHER APPROVED A DRC OF THE BOOK FOR ME VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: It will come as no surprise to any regular reader, or in fact anyone I've interacted with in the past decade-plus, that end-stage capitalism such as has gifted us with the badly botched, lethally disorganized COVID-19 plague response is not high on my list of Good Things in the old-fashioned Martha Stewart sense. Quite a lot of people (over fifteen) in the assisted-living facility where I live are dead thanks to this money-grubbing ethos. So yes, I began this read fully expecting to approve of the Utopian Martian colony and its collectivist politics.

Well, it's comforting (I suppose) that I consistently never learn....

Hugo-winner Hao (Best Novelette, 2016) builds two competing Utopias. Neither sees the beam in its own eye but focuses on the mote in its symbiotic sibling's; so much easier to sell the distortion and misperception necessary to see any human-made system as anything other than dystopian. Earth's hypercapitalism has continued to devour the planet; its existence is always precarious, always threatening to collapse. Mars's collectivism is dependent on inputs from the fragile, worn-out Earth; its people are not natural innovators, never striving to Do More because, well, why? You don't get more, and there is limited support for striving.

A side note to shout out my dead father, whose aperçu about economics I quote frequently: No system will thrive that either ignores or exalts greed.

This book assumes that Earth remains viable in 2196, and is willing as well as able to continue to support its former Martian colony. I question this decision...but then I remind myself of Ursula K. Le Guin's magisterial The Dispossessed which treats similar themes in a similar setting. The use of a less sophisticated narrator in this book makes it possible for Author Hao to run the lessons past us without the dreaded "As you know, Bob..." locutions. Of course there's information to be dumped, these are STUDENTS! It worked well for me. Quite a lot of the cultural interchange between the rival systems seems, well, far-fetched is as close as I dare come. Eko, an Earth character, has come to Mars to make a documentary; he wants, in his heart of hearts, to grow closer to his dead mentor the Marsophile. Luyuang, our principal Martian character, has returned from her exchange period on Earth where she studied...wait for it...dance in the three-times-greater gravity of Earth! Mm hmm.

I don't want to get into the story's twists and turns for two reasons: Spoilers are impossible to avoid, and your experience of the storytelling voice is the best barometer of your eventual pleasure in the read that you can find. I enjoyed reading Translator Liu's gilded words and finely wrought arabesques. You might not. But download a sample, and if that unique voice isn't your jam, don't go any further. This book clocks in at over 600 pages. Writing that isn't simply thrilling to you will rapidly devolve into a waterboarding session at that length.

While I'm discussing length...the last 100pp of the book are delightfully swift and deeply exciting. The middle 200pp should be severely chopped into, ballpark figure, 75pp. Book-bloat is as common in China as it is in the USA, more's the pity. But, for the reader who vibrates like a freshly-struck bell to this writing and this political tale, the experience is a top quality one.

I can't be clearer than: Try it; you'll know right away if it is for you, as it was for me.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

THE PARIS MYSTERIES, three of Edgar Allen Poe's most delicious tales


THE PARIS MYSTERIES: Deluxe Edition
EDGAR ALLEN POE

Pushkin Vertigo
$16.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Three macabre and confounding mysteries for the first and greatest of detectives, Auguste Dupin!

An apartment on the rue Morgue turned into a charnel house; the corpse of a shopgirl dragged from the Seine; a high-stakes game of political blackmail - three mysteries that have enthralled the whole of Paris, and baffled the city’s police. The brilliant Chevalier Auguste Dupin investigates - can he find the solution where so many others before him have failed?

These three stories from the pen of Edgar Allan Poe are some of the most influential ever written, widely praised and credited with inventing the detective genre. This edition contains: "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," "The Mystery of Marie RogĂȘt," and "The Purloined Letter."

I RECEIVED A DRC OF THIS TITLE FROM PUSHKIN VERTIGO, VIA EDELWEISS PLUS. THANK YOU.

My Review
: There's absolutely no point in going over the plots of these three stories. You have a computer, or you wouldn't be reading this review. Google the plots if you're in any doubt about what these three tales have in store for you.

I'll tell you, instead of a book report, that I downloaded the Digital Review Copy of this book wondering what would make the edition "Deluxe." There's nothing like a critical essay included here; the DRC isn't really that exciting typographically speaking; the footnotes of then-commonly-understood Latin phrases are, I *think*, in the original texts. Many now-common terms like "tibia" and "acumen" are italicized (and still other words are italicized for emphasis, Poe makes the difference very obvious) after the fashion of the 1840s when they first appeared; as Poe was busily inventing the detective (a word not coined until after Poe's death)-centered mystery model, one is prepared to forgive the spelling of "clew."

It is a hardcover edition; it is, judging from the photo below
a truly lovely object to hold and behold. The only luxe touch that it lacks is the elegance of deckled edges on the book block.

The other worthy-of-mention luxury in this edition is learning from Chevalier Auguste Dupin the genesis of ratiocination as a basis for criminology. The idea of professional policing was *scarcely* a century old at this point; the Bow Street Runners in London forming the first ever paid professional police force under the Blind Beak, Sir John Fielding, under whose stern guidance the semi-thieving days of the watch were ended at last. Dupin, then, as a logical and observant man of Justice's retinue, would've been a rare bird indeed in a time when the Law caught whoever "everyone knew" had killed the deady and he was punished. Observation being the absolute key contribution of Dupin to detective fiction:
The history of human knowledge has so uninterruptedly shown that to collateral, or incidental, or accidental events we are indebted for the most numerous and most valuable discoveries, that it has at length become necessary, in any prospective view of improvement, to make not only large, but the largest allowances for inventions that shall arise by chance, and quite out of the range of ordinary expectation.
So, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for CSI: Crime Scene Investigation came from, it's here. The presence of mildew (italics in original), the hiding of a body in a place it wasn't murdered but is calculated to be discovered in a particular manner and/or at a particular time...all that in 1840s Paris, via the imagination of M. Edgar Poe! And his creation Dupin predates the formal coining of the word "detective" by almost a decade, this honor going to Chuckles the Dick in 1850. Much as I hate to give ol' Chuckles any positive credit, this is an incontrovertible, evidence-based citation. Ick. It hurts to praise someone for inventing an excellent word when that someone is responsible for some of the lowest moments of one's reading life.

Still...there it is. Facts are, dammit anyway, facts.

Monday, April 27, 2020

SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS, a glittering gem of a debut QUILTBAG novel


SHARKS IN THE TIME OF SAVIORS
KAWAI STRONG WASHBURN

MCDxFSG Books
$27.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1995 Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, on a rare family vacation, seven-year-old Nainoa Flores falls overboard a cruise ship into the Pacific Ocean. When a shiver of sharks appears in the water, everyone fears for the worst. But instead, Noa is gingerly delivered to his mother in the jaws of a shark, marking his story as the stuff of legends.

Nainoa's family, struggling amidst the collapse of the sugarcane industry, hails his rescue as a sign of favor from ancient Hawaiian gods--a belief that appears validated after he exhibits puzzling new abilities. But as time passes, this supposed divine favor begins to drive the family apart: Nainoa, working now as a paramedic on the streets of Portland, struggles to fathom the full measure of his expanding abilities; further north in Washington, his older brother Dean hurtles into the world of elite college athletics, obsessed with wealth and fame; while in California, risk-obsessed younger sister Kaui navigates an unforgiving academic workload in an attempt to forge her independence from the family's legacy.

When supernatural events revisit the Flores family in Hawai'i—with tragic consequences—they are all forced to reckon with the bonds of family, the meaning of heritage, and the cost of survival.

THE PUBLISHER SENT ME AN ADVANCE REVIEW COPY. THANK YOU.

My Review
: I stared at the cover of this ARC for long, long minutes when I opened its garishly orange bubble-mailer. It is *lush* and deeply, for the shark-o-phobic like me, disturbing; its colors unsubtle reminders of the intensity of tropical existence, its acrobatic predator giving me the heebie-jeebies while reminding me that its life-force greatly exceeds mine, its lust for eating casts my puny efforts at survival into the shade; and its typographical choice, the handlettered look of the information about what I was holding, capped off my impression that this was vital and urgent storytelling.

My jam, in short.

Families suck. The one you were born into probably isn't the one you'd be happiest growing up in. This is an immutable law of existence and a giant gift to storytellers everywhere. But the fact is it's what you got, and you got to work with it for the rest of your life. That's hell and that's a gift. What it leaves most of us with is an aching, unfillable void of loneliness. But what your family would be, could be, is a nest of itchy twigs that poke you to go find and build and be something entirely other to its system:
Years already I'd been trying to understand what was inside me, while the rest of the world was trying it to tear it out.
–and–
There was this one philosophy class I been in at the university, where the professor was talking about force. He said people think force and power is the same thing, but really force is what you use when you don't got power.
–and–
Whenever I've made a choice in my life, a real choice... I can always feel the change, after I choose. The better versions of myself, moving just out of reach.
The voices of these characters whose family, that awful itchy nest, is wrapped in a golden mist of mythological reality, are shouting their horror and pain at the void inside them, the one that Being Different opens in all of us...and who could possibly be more different than a boy saved by a shark? Author Washburn will gladly fill you in on who: The whole damned crew, that's who, every single life suddenly changed without any notion of consent. Gods don't ask, they give-take. There's never a single uncomplicated act in a god's repertoire, that is not how the Universe works. Author Washburn knows this. He has plumbed some depths in order to bring this story to us.
If a god is a thing that has absolute power over us, then in this world there are many. There are gods that we choose and gods that we can't avoid; there are gods that we pray to and gods that prey on us; there are dreams that become gods and nightmares that do, as well.
–and–
I wanted us together, wanted them to feel with me the big nameless thing we'd worked our way into, a silence like the presence of our own private God.
He knows his god-onions, don't you agree? I get the distinct impression that he's been on the end of a god's pole before. He knows too much for it to be otherwise, imagination can not create this level of Knowing. (And anyone who wants to argue that imagination is all there is is firmly directed back to philosophy class. I got no patience to have that discussion on the forty-seventh anniversary of the first time I had it, thanks awfully.)

It's funny to say it, but this book's exuberant life-force is, at its heart, about silence.
I go itchy with want, thin on sleep. I feel her fingers in mine. The way we could be both hard and soft on each other. Her sandy voice calling out as I climb one exposed cliff after another. ... All night this all goes through me, the four hours of sleep I get.
–and–
The more I understood what we were all made of, the more everyone I'd touched stayed inside me, still crying out, showing me their injuries over and over and over and over and over.
The cacophony that is silence, the absence of color that is white, the depth of addiction and the height of passion: All facets of the same unfillable void. We do contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman famously said of himself. And still there is room for more: More life, more joy, more more more...and there can never be enough, because the essence of wanting is needing and without wanting there is no point whatever to any of this.
Take a match and hold it to the strip, start the strike. Somewhere at the microscopic level there are whole worlds of hot light that gather and jump to the match tip. That's what we were.
La commedia è finita.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

THE WHISPER MAN, Alex North's debut thriller, has so much more to say than "BOO!"


THE WHISPER MAN
ALEX NORTH

Celadon Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this dark, suspenseful thriller, Alex North weaves a multi-generational tale of a father and son caught in the crosshairs of an investigation to catch a serial killer preying on a small town.

After the sudden death of his wife, Tom Kennedy believes a fresh start will help him and his young son Jake heal. A new beginning, a new house, a new town. Featherbank.

But the town has a dark past. Twenty years ago, a serial killer abducted and murdered five residents. Until Frank Carter was finally caught, he was nicknamed "The Whisper Man," for he would lure his victims out by whispering at their windows at night.

Just as Tom and Jake settle into their new home, a young boy vanishes. His disappearance bears an unnerving resemblance to Frank Carter's crimes, reigniting old rumors that he preyed with an accomplice. Now, detectives Amanda Beck and Pete Willis must find the boy before it is too late, even if that means Pete has to revisit his great foe in prison: The Whisper Man.

And then Jake begins acting strangely. He hears a whispering at his window...

THE PUBLISHER SENT ME A REVIEW COPY OF THIS TITLE. THANK YOU.

My Review
: The town of Featherbank has this as its primary claim to fame:
If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken.
If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home.
If your window’s left unlatched, you’ll hear him tapping at the glass.
If you’re lonely, sad, and blue, the Whisper Man will come for you.
You're the young single dad of a weirdo son. You know this town's had five young boys kidnapped, interfered with, and murdered. So what do you do, give the place a three-hundred-mile berth as you decide where to run away from your grief and your complete inability to grok your sweet, sensitive son?

Not if you're Tom Kennedy! You *move*there*to*write*! TSTL, anyone? Exacerbated by the fact your spawn is prime meat for this lunatic?

But he's in jail, the perp's been caught, so there's no risk.

Horseshit, says I, my son and I will be moving to Mallorca or Auckland, NOT FEATHERBANK. However, I possess a strong streak of risk-averse-ness that Pa Kennedy doesn't.

Why'd you read it, I hear the review-readers asking. Knowing what was gonna happen, why put yourself through it, the crowd snorts inwardly.
That was the thing about going to sleep. It kind of scrubbed things. Arguments, worries, whatever. You could be scared or upset about something, and you might think sleep was impossible, but at some point it happened, and when you woke up in the morning the feeling was gone for awhile, like a storm passed during the night.
–and–
Guilt. Fear. Anger. Once loose, any one of them would charge off, dragging the others along like dogs chained in a pack. And that was no good at all.
–and–
It was a daunting prospect, because it was all such a jumble, and there was also so much I didn't know and perhaps never would. But then again, I wasn't sure that in itself was a problem. The truth of something can be in the feeling of it as much as the fact.
–and–
But he could read the whole book of his father now and he knew that none of it had ever been about him. His own book was separate, and always had been. He had only ever needed to be himself, and it had just taken time—too much time—to understand that.
This is not ground-breaking prose, jaw-dropping insight, beauteous lapidary phrase-making of a high order; it is, instead, the commonplace recognition of Life's Little Thumps said in ways that any one of us can feel, really and viscerally, instead of the more rarefied and intellectual pleasures of Writing for the Critics.

Tom and Jake, and ultimately the male reader whose relationship with his maleness is built on a partial vacuum, are males groping for a point of commonality that is uniquely theirs. The normal female intermediary is gone. Most men don't try very hard to reach around Ma to get to their sons. Tom has no choice. And, haltingly and awkwardly, he makes connections to and bridges with Jake.

That, theydies and gentlethem, is worth reading average-to-good prose and forgiving the *sheer*boggling*idiocy* of moving your son to a town of known serial-killing-boys past. This is a rare thing. This is a love story about a man who works his brain into a frenzy to find a way to let his son know what all sons most want to know:

Daddy loves you.

Monday, April 6, 2020

THE AOSAWA MURDERS, Author Riku Onda's English-language debut


THE AOSAWA MURDERS
RIKU ONDA
(tr. Alison Watts)
Bitter Lemon Press
$6.94 Kindle edition, $14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: On a stormy summer day the Aosawas, owners of a prominent local hospital, host a large birthday party. The occasion turns into tragedy when 17 people die from cyanide in their drinks. The only surviving links to what might have happened are a cryptic verse that could be the killer's, and the physician's bewitching blind daughter, Hisako, the only person spared injury. But the youth who emerges as the prime suspect commits suicide that October, effectively sealing his guilt while consigning his motives to mystery. The police are convinced that Hisako had a role in the crime, as are many in the town, including the author of a bestselling book about the murders written a decade after the incident, who was herself a childhood friend of Hisako’s and witness to the discovery of the murders. The truth is revealed through a skillful juggling of testimony by different voices: family members, witnesses and neighbors, police investigators and of course the mesmerizing Hisako herself.

I RECEIVED A DIGITAL REVIEW COPY FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS. THANK YOU!

My Review
: I can't believe we've been denied the voice of Author Onda for lo! these many years. She's been creating a giant ouevre since 1991. It's wonderful that we have so much good stuff to come; it's a howling shame that English-language crime-fiction readers haven't had Author Onda's words until now.

But let me tell you why that's a crime. Mystery novels, ones with a sleuth you follow around as she pokes her nose into many places that people with secrets would strongly prefer she didn't or cops whose sense of honor will not let them close an unsolved case, are thick on the ground. The true-crime genre is booming in this Time of Plague. But these are books that run on formulas. They're hugely appealing formulas, ones that reinforce the ma'at of society and thus fly in the face of most peoples' lived experience. They sell in their millions because their audience (which skews female for series-mystery fiction and true crime) hungers with a near-starved need for Justice to be served, even if the law is flouted.

Author Onda, via the very talented Translator Alison Watts, doesn't present us with such a jigsaw puzzle of a book, with correct answers that form an interlocked and coherent image. She gives us a crossword puzzle...yes, there are correct answers...several of them...and it's your job to sort out which ones make the desired connections in the overall mass of information. Just don't expect a portrait of a killer!

And thus the source of my, frankly, mingy rating of four stars. Hisako, the blind (a great deal is made of this, many mentions) young woman who sat calmly by as seventeen people died in agony around her, is presumed guilty by everyone.

Except me.

Why did she do it? There's always a reason, no matter how twisted, that someone murders another person...let alone seventeen people...and that is what the story lacks. People have opinions, files contain facts, and none of it adds up to Hisako being the murderer to me. I don't necessarily need the ribbon tied in a bow on the solution; I do need a sense of the solution's fairness and rightness. I don't get that from this marvelous, multi-modal story. Every voice is well-crafted, as one would expect (this story was published in Japanese in 2005, some 14 years into Author Onda's career) from a storyteller at the peak of her powers. But they're all singing a dirge for Hisako when I want the story to be a threnody.

My reservation aside, I want to assure all and sundry that this read is rewarding, and provides that delicious shiver of Evil's presence albeit at a safe remove. It is delightful to discover the work that Author Onda has done is not going to run dry any time soon...if we buy Bitter Lemon Press's editions of them! I strongly urge you to do that pronto.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

And now about these reviews....


In an older piece from The Atlantic, Maria Popova meditated on the ease of making, and finding, criticism of the arts in an online world. As someone whose opinions, strongly held, are often enough mistaken for and attacked for being Statements Of Inerrant Fact, I was struck by midcentury monadnock John Updike's reasonable requests of reviewers as quoted in Popova's article:
My rules, drawn up inwardly when l embarked on this craft, and shaped intaglio–fashion by youthful traumas at the receiving end of critical opinion, were and are:
1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.

2. Give him enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book's prose so the review's reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.

3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy precis.

4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending. (How astounded and indignant was I, when innocent, to find reviewers blabbing, and with the sublime inaccuracy of drunken lords reporting on a peasants' revolt, all the turns of my suspenseful and surpriseful narrative! Most ironically, the only readers who approach a book as the author intends, unpolluted by pre-knowledge of the plot, are the detested reviewers themselves. And then, years later, the blessed fool who picks the volume at random from a library shelf.)

5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author's ouevre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it's his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. (emphasis added because damn, this is important!) Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in an ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. Never, never (John Aldridge, Norman Podhoretz) try to put the author 'in his place,' making him a pawn in a contest with other reviewers. Review the book, not the reputation. Submit to whatever spell, weak or strong, is being cast. Better to praise and share than blame and ban. The communion between reviewer and his public is based upon the presumption of certain possible joys in reading, and all our discriminations should curve toward that end.
While I will never at all understand the spoilerphobia of so very many people, I will do my best to honor it. Someone, I promise you, will *al*ways* find fault and screech "spoiler" at the most innocuous-to-my-eyes things. They, being Gravely Injured, feel free to vent copious spleen upon the perp of the heinous crime. I'm tired of hearing their collective mouth, so I am making ever more serious efforts not to give away important points. I accept that I will, from time to time, fail in someone vocal's eyes. C'est la guerre.

Here's a funny thing about writing about someone else's writing: Who cares? Why read reviews? Who asked you, as a former friend snarled at me once. I am not an academically trained critic; I follow no school of literary theory in writing about the books authors, publishers, and librarians give me, or that I buy with my very own United States dollars. What I do is called "reader response" criticism, a school of thought that has at its heart the silly idea that the reader, as opposed to the writer or the writer's intent, or the writer's execution, of the work is central to understanding the value of it.

I think of the reader as the source of the value a book has, not the writer or her unknowable (in my eyes) "intent." So I tell you what I felt about the book. I almost always use extended passages of the author's own prose in making my points. In short works that is sometimes impractical; in some cases it's simply impossible, like the extremely long single sentence that is Ducks, Newburyport (which I adored five stars'-worth but was unable to figure out how to review). I judge a book's success or failure based on how well it did the job of involving me, entertaining me, educating me; sometimes all of those things (and more) at the same time. Why is that valuable, I've been asked ("Who asked you" as mentioned above); yeah, so? seems to be the sneering tone I'm meant to hear.

There are, without exaggeration, hundreds of thousands of new, newly translated, newly re-translated, revised editions of books made available each and every year. I don't mean to alarm you, but the inescapable conclusion one must reach from that datum is that there are a whole helluva lotta books you will never hear about, let alone read. So let my biblioholism and seven-decade and counting lifetime of eclectic reading help you identify one or two you really shouldn't miss. I don't use affiliate links; I am unpaid by anyone; there's no advertising here. You'll get my opinion of a book's success or failure at its job, which is to impact me positively in the manner I procured it to do.

That opinion, being mine, is only of value to you if you know what it is; thereafter you can judge for yourself if your taste is close to mine, far from mine, on a different plane of existence from mine, and weigh your purchases or library holds accordingly. Hey, it's free! No ads to ignore, no secret commissions to cynically smirk about, zip zero nada rien requested or required from you. I hope you'll find my writing amusing as well as informative. I always love blog members leaving notes about what they agree or disagree with, but it's not required since you don't need to join up in order to read up.

So take what I'm freely offering with whatever sized salt measure suits you, strap on your anti-sarcasm armor, sharpen your Fork of Facetiousness, and ride!

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

It's APRIL AT LAST!! So that means...


Yes, that's right, it's the month I long for all year! Here at last! It's NATIONAL POETRY MONTH!!

As is my time-honored habit, I will feature reviews of poetry collections and anthologies from all corners of the World Poetical. Religious poets and children's poesies are, as I know you expect them to me, my very very favorites and will be singled out for devoted attention.
Now, never you fear, fellow poetry lovers: I will also seek high and low for books of poetry in translation as well! How else can an educated, cultured person like we all are expect to understand, to really *grasp* the hearts of people not like us if we don't read their poetry as filtered through a translator's eyes? It's plainly impossible! And ridiculous to try.
I will spend each and every one of April's thirty days elucidating the finer points of the poetical world, digging deep into the arcana of poetry criticism to explicate these sometimes difficult-to-grasp topics. What else can I do, my old and dear friends, except my all and my best to assist you in poetical-reading discovery? Why, it would be unthinkable for me to abandon you to the wilds of the Poetry-MFA Nexus without so much as Ariadne's Clew.

And do it I shall not.





(psst...look at the calendar)