Saturday, April 30, 2022

Anyone else?

“Old age arrives like the first days of fall. One afternoon you look up, or smell something in the air, and know instinctively things have changed.”
Jonathan Carroll, The Marriage of Sticks
The Publisher Says, of this book I have never read but feel the need to now: Miranda marches into her high school reunion with the confidence of a professional at the top of her field. But inside she is lost, disenchanted with her career, and as alone as a person can possibly be. As a teenager in Crane’s View, she fell in love with unrepentant bad boy James Stillman, and though they never slept together, he thrilled her as no man has since. She returns to her hometown hoping to reconnect with him, but learns at the reunion that he was killed in a car crash years ago. In the weeks that follow, Miranda is haunted by visions of the past. First she sees James, alive and healthy, and more chilling hallucinations follow. Seeking distraction, she dives into an ill-advised love affair that turns darker than she could ever imagine. To find peace, Miranda must learn to walk the razor-thin line that separates this world from the one that follows.

I am glad someone else felt it and described it for me. Something changed when the pandemic hit and here I am: Old. Just...inarguably old. Funny thing is it's not as bad as I thought it would be. I'm tired in a different way, one that sleep really doesn't fix. I'm also really weary of drama and bullshit. I don't imagine I'll say this too many more times because either this realization rings you like a bell or you are thinking, " what now...?"

Honestly, it's okay to be old, to see "The End" without a lovely, comforting horizon-line between you and it. Things get old and wear out; one's body is a thing. One's soul isn't. (And no, religious nuts, I didn't find Jesus in my Special K with Red Berries.) I don't really expect anyone to get my post, but I felt my pandemic-battered heart lift at this quote swimming past me. The author's ~73. He wrote this book twenty-five years ago, give or take. I wonder if he looked at this quote some time in the past decade and thought, as I did, "yes yes yes!" with a little lift in his emotional altitude. It is *good* to be old. It feels a bit bodily crummy from time to time(as what does not?), but I never smoked and stopped doing drugs and drinking when the wear and tear did painful things to my body. I'm way better off than most in this part of their sixties.

So why write a post about it? the less tolerant or more judgmental are snorting about now.

Starting with "because it's my blog," and moving quickly to "there are a few hundred readers who, statistically, are likely to be older than the current US median age of 38.1 years who could use a word of happy futures ahead." It *is* happy to get old. It's a privilege denied to most ever born. Pandemics kill in their millions...ten million-plus in this one...and, if you're reading this, you ain't one of 'em. Neither am I. That is a great way to get old: not dying of a nasty plague.

Happy spring, happy May Day, joyful hugs for my living friends. Things have changed...that quote is very acutely true...but we're here to figure out what comes next. For me it's making an ever-bigger dent in my TBR and writing more thoughts and feelings about those reads. I hope I'll see all y'all there.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

HARRY HAFT: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano for Holocaust Remembrance Day

HARRY HAFT: Survivor of Auschwitz, Challenger of Rocky Marciano

Syracuse University Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

HBO/HBO MAX film streaming now!
"Generally favorable" score of 72 on Metacritic, worthy of the book.

SAVE 40% on all books with discount code 05SNOW23 now through December 31, 2023. (link above)

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Alan Scott Haft provides the first-hand testimony of his father, Harry Haft, a holocaust victim with a singular story of endurance, desperation, and unrequited love. Harry Haft was a sixteen-year-old Polish Jew when he entered a concentration camp in 1944. Forced to fight other Jews in bare-knuckle bouts for the perverse entertainment of SS officers, Harry quickly learned that his own survival depended on his ability to fight and win. Haft details the inhumanity of the "sport" in which he must perform in brutal contests for the officers. Ultimately escaping the camp, Haft's experience left him an embittered and pugnacious young man.

Determined to find freedom, Haft traveled to America and began a career as a professional boxer, quickly finding success using his sharp instincts and fierce confidence. In a historic battle, Haft fights in a match with Rocky Marciano, the future undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. Haft's boxing career takes him into the world of such boxing legends as Rocky Graziano, Roland La Starza, and Artie Levine, and he reveals new details about the rampant corruption at all levels of the sport.

In sharp contrast to Elie Wiesel's scholarly, pious protagonist in Night, Harry Haft is an embattled survivor, challenging the reader's capacity to understand suffering and find compassion for an antihero whose will to survive threatens his own humanity. Haft's account, at once dispassionate and deeply absorbing, is an extraordinary story and an invaluable contribution to Holocaust literature.


My Review
: I'm not the first person to pick up a boxing story. The violence and brutality inherent in the "sport" (which was used by ancient Greeks as military training) are, honestly, repulsive to me. I'm not famous for my delight in Holocaust stories, either.

What's going on here?

Stories like Pollak's Arm and The Vanished Collection feature the Jewish élite's fates, the kind of people who knew people whose names get into history books. Statistically not all the Jews in the Holocaust, dead or alive, could be those people; Hertzka Haft was a street kid, a hard-luck story from before there was a Holocaust, and whose survival was down to the fact that he could—and would—knock the ever-livin' snot out of other people to amuse and entertain his jailers.

There was nothing easy about Hertzka...Harry, in later life...Haft's life. He was the eighth and final child his mother bore...but she was so used to it she thought she was having gas pains, and *pow* Harry hit the floor under the tub of washing she was doing. His father died when he was three; his oldest siblings blamed him for infecting their mother with typhoid fever. His rock-tough self, and her with such rugged health, barely knew they had it; poor ol' papa passed beyond the veil from it in about a week.

Things really didn't get a lot easier from there on.

What I expect will shock readers is how...clear...Author Alan Haft, son of Harry, is. He doesn't linger over Dad's hurts. He doesn't shy away from the abuse Harry endured at the hands of his oldest brother, at the hands of the "christian" establishment, at the hands of the German invaders, the New York boxing establishment. He survived it all and didn't do it by being sweet, or intellectually pondering and systematizing the awful, painful stuff he's forced to endure simply for the privilege of continuing to breathe.

He was angry and he was strong and Harry Haft used those things as rocket fuel to extract his price for the sufferings he endured. Nothing, and I mean not one thing, stood between Harry and what he knew was his due. He hit people, and I don't mean polite punching like you see in sanitized boxing movies. I mean Alan Haft, clearly a good listener, understood that Harry never hit anyone without being extremely clear that 1) he had no choice but they'd see it coming and b) he was going to make sure that he got what was coming to him.

Given my uninterest in this sort of violence...ego-driven, honor-bound, these aren't ways to earn my sympathy...why am I rating this book so close to four stars? Because I think Harry Haft was the kind of man you'd want to know, to get in good with. Harry Haft suffered fools not at all, and those men are special friends who never once let your b.s. stand in the way, who never once fail you in a pinch. The Harry Hafts of the world love entire boxing career so he could be famous...not for fun, or even money, but so his lost Leah would hear about Harry Haft, see his photo, know to come find him.

That man, that force of nature, is getting a biopic tonight, this Holocaust Remembrance Day, on HBO Max. If it's among your channels, go look for The Survivor. I question that title. Given the horrors of his life inside the camps, did he survive? His body lived on. much damage can a being endure, death, cannibalism, the unfathomably cruel suffering of existing in the Land of Plenty when so many didn't make it out? Is that "survival" in any meaningful way?

Alan Haft asks that question, not out loud, by exploring his psychotically angry, guilt-stewed, violent father's world. Interviews conducted before Harry Haft's death fifteen years ago probably saved both of their lives. How Alan Haft put together an identity is little short of a miracle, and how he dug around his own PTSD and located enough grace to offer his father this generous, honest, and deeply loving send-off is the reason you should read it, watch it, listen to the audiobook. The world's never been short of Harry Haft-like souls. We've got more incoming from the new wars.

Learning what happened will help you be that much better at reaching for their broken, abused hands instead of staring coldly, vacantly past them. Truth to tell, your world will get bigger and be better for it, like theirs.

Monday, April 25, 2022

HAFEZ IN LOVE, so smoothly translated I forgot it wasn't English from the get-go

(tr. Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi & Patricia J. Higgins)
Syracuse University Press
$24.95 all editions, available now

SAVE 40% on all books with discount code 05SNOW23 now through December 31, 2023. (link above)

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Shams al-Din Mohammad Hafez is in love. He is in love with a girl, with a city, and with Persian poetry. Despite his enmity with the new and dangerous city leader, the jealousy of his fellow court poets, and the competition for his beloved, Iran's favorite poet remains unbothered. When his wit and charm are not enough to keep him safe in Shiraz, his friends conspire to keep him out of trouble. But their schemes are unsuccessful. Nothing will chase Hafez from this city of wine and roses.

In Pezeshkzad's fictional account, Hafez's life in fourteenth-century Shiraz is a mix of peril and humor. Set in a city that is at once beautiful and cutthroat, the novel includes a cast of historical figures to illuminate this elusive poet of the Persian literary tradition. Shabani-Jadidi and Higgins's translation brings the beloved poetry of Hafez alive for an English audience and reacquaints readers with the comic wit and original storytelling of Pezeshkzad.

Iraj Pezeshkzad was born in Tehran in 1928 and educated in Iran and then France, where he received his law degree. He was a retired diplomat, journalist, and writer. He was the author of several plays, short stories, and novels, including My Uncle Napoleon. He died on 12 January 2022 in Los Angeles.

Pouneh Shabani-Jadidi is senior lecturer of Persian language and linguistics at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University.

Patricia J. Higgins is a University Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Emerita at the State University of New York, Plattsburgh.


My Review
: First, read this:
He agrees with everyone's opinion, from black to white. With his constant refrain, "We are all children of this land," he recognizes both sides: he who believes it is night, and he who believes it is day.
"O light of my eyes, don't forget that until a few months ago you and I were among the court favorites of the then-shah. If some of these 'many' {whom Hafez claims will hide him from pursuit} enjoyed our poetry, it was because the poetry pleased the shah. The power and honor of the shah was behind our poetry. Now our poetry is just poetry. And perhaps in the eyes of these 'many,' it is not even poetry. Perhaps some of the men who praised the poems of Shams al-Din Hafez without hearing them will come to agree with His Honor, the police chief, and consider them dirty."

This seems to me to represent the tone and tenor of the book's translation...I think it also gives a flavor of the world in which we're spending a few hours. The court of an insecure, unworthy ruler, whose jobs are done for him not by workers or even lackeys, but by henchmen, is a fertile place to set a love story. Especially when the lovers are unable to come together because the obstacle to them getting their love consummated is one of the aforementioned henchmen.

Our narrator, Mohammad Golandam, is Hafez's brother-in-law and long-time best friend. He's a sensible sort; we can not say the same for Shams al-Din...he who will become, in the fullness of time, Hafez; the two men are only twenty-three at the time of this story. It's easy to see why Golandam, as Hafez (let's use his famous, and short, handle from here on) addresses him, is anxious and on needles and pins. Hafez has made many a sarcastic, cutting remark in his poetry about the new power-wielder Mobarez al-Din Mohammad Mozaffar. This self-installed prince is a "...blood-shedding creature of God {who} understands neither literature nor poetry. He is one of those dull-hearted people who, in the words of Shams Qeis Razi, don't 'distinguish between the sound of music and the braying of an ass.' His source of pleasure and happiness is cutting off heads," entirely enough to strike poor Golandam with near-lethal agita given Hafez's indiscreet, but truthful and honest, characterizations of him:
To get his aversion to him off his chest, {Hafez} had used this phrase extremely carelessly in a lyric poem about repentance after a life of drinking and wenching:
The morality officer became a pious sheikh and forgot his debauchery.
It is my story that remained throughout the bazaar.

It's not too hard to imagine a thin-skinned leader whose response to verbal disrespect shown by those less powerful than he is being, um, disproportionate, is it. The problems are, of course, many in a world run by incompetent and malicious people. The story's not complete without wild schemes and convoluted plots and hilarious misinformation campaigns...there are no better stories, in my never-humble opinion, than the ones about True Love Thwarted!

And True Love it very much is. This poem is what Hafez writes for his morning glory Jahan while he was imprisoned by his oft-insulted rival for her affections, and while she was scheming to get him out by pretending to agree to marry his captor, and while Golandam and Hafez's honorary father schemed to get her out of the unwanted marriage and back into Hafez's arms:
I swear on the life of the belovèd that if I could reach my soul,
That would be the least of the gifts to her by her slave.
If my heart was not bound to a strand of her hair,
How would I have been at peace in this dark vessel made of dust?
Your face is like the sun in the sky, unique in the heavens;
If only your heart were a bit more kind.
You said to me, "What is the worth of the dust under her feet,
If the precious life were eternal?"
I wish you would emerge through my door like a beam of light,
That divine fate would shine on my eyes.
The cypress would acknowledge its lowliness compared to her stature
If it had ten tongues like the wild lily.
You wouldn't fall out of tune with Hafez's melody,
If you weren't the companion of the morning songbirds.

Okay, I don't understand one damn word of that, but I know yearning and longing and sheer miserable wretched being-in-loveness when it smacks me across six or seven centuries. There's plenty of this poetical stuff peppered around the story. There are many readers who will see that as a plus; I want, therefore, to be clear that you will be reading a lot of poetry when you read this novel. (And the clever-clogs blog readers will now be recalling my stance on poetry, and looking at this review's star rating, and drawing some brow-knitting conclusions.)

So why am I praising this book, this poetry-laden book about a poet in love with a woman? Because it's such a delight to read. Because Hafez, every time someone talks sense to him, says "mm hmm" and carries right on being In Love with Jahan and acting as if by sheer force of his will, backed by the spiritual power generated by the huge dynamo of his adoration for Jahan, Things Will Come Out Right.

But I won't tell you if they do or they don't because some things you need to find out for yourownself.

The book concludes with a Dramatis Personae, and a Glossary; both are very handy. The Dramatis Personae include markers for characters based on historical personages, meaning those not marked are invented; though the names and actions of historical people are used, they're probably all best seen as fictional. It's worth noting that, even though Hafez's love object in this story is Jahan, a woman, there's no way in Farsi or in Persian poetry's conventions for that to be certain. It's a feature of the language that pronouns aren't gendered. While Hafez is in love with a woman in twenty-first century Iran, there's absolutely no reason for that to be the case in fourteenth-century Shiraz. I merely note this fact, quite firmly stated by the translators, as a datum of some interest to some readers.

Sunday, April 24, 2022

April 2022's Burgoine Reviews & Pearl Rule Reviews

Author 'Nathan Burgoine posted this simple, direct method of not getting paralyzed by the prospect of having to write reviews. The Three-Sentence Review is, as he notes, very helpful and also simple to achieve. I get completely unmanned at the idea of saying something trenchant about each book I read, when there often just isn't that much to I can use this structure to say what I think is the most important idea I took away from the read and not try to dig for more.

Think about using it yourselves!


The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The Irish Midlands, 1859. An English nurse, Lib Wright, is summoned to a tiny village to observe what some are claiming as a medical anomaly or a miracle - a girl said to have survived without food for months. Tourists have flocked to the cabin of eleven-year-old Anna O'Donnell, and a journalist has come down to cover the sensation. The Wonder is a tale of two strangers who transform each other's lives, a psychological thriller, and a story of love pitted against evil.


My Review
: First, read this:
A fast didn't go fast; it was the slowest thing there was. Fast meant a door shut fast, firmly. A fastness, a fortress. To fast was to hold fast to emptiness, to say no and no and no again.
How could the child bear not just the hunger, but the boredom? The rest of humankind used meals to divide the day, Lib realized—as reward, as entertainment, the chiming of an inner clock. For Anna, during this watch, each day had to pass like one endless moment.

I dislike Author Donoghue's prior success, Room, a lot. I found it cynical and manipulative. I got this book thinking I'd give it a good drubbing and forget this author existed afterward.

The more fool I. This is beautifully was Room...but also acutely observed and compassionately told. It was too long, it was very slow for two-thirds of its length, and it had a very strong anti-religion bias (which I share). More than anything else, I read and read and read to get more of this:
An obsession, a mania, Lib supposed it could be called. A sickness of the mind. Hysteria, as that awful doctor had named it? Anna reminded Lib of a princess under a spell in a fairy tale. What could restore the girl to ordinary life? Not a prince. A magical herb from the world's end? Some shock to jolt a poisoned bite of apple out of her throat? No, something simple as a breath of air: reason. What if Lib shook the girl awake this very minute and said, Come to your senses!

But that was part of the definition of madness, Lib supposed, the refusal to accept that one was mad. Standish's wards were full of such people.

Besides, could children ever be considered quite of sound mind? Seven was counted the age of reason, but Lib's sense of seven-year-olds was that they still brimmed over with imagination. Children lived to play. Of course they could be put to work, but in spare moments they took their games as seriously as lunatics did their delusions. Like small gods, children formed their miniature worlds out of clay, or even just words. To them, the truth was never simple.

That insight alone was worth five stars! But it came swaddled, hidden, in much too much waffle for me to give even close to all five stars.

A Kindle copy is NOW ONLY $2.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link) and, in my honest estimation, a worthwhile purchase.


Ride Around Shining by Chris Leslie-Hynan

Rating: 3* of five

Soon to be a Netflix feature film.

The Publisher Says: A provocative debut novel about a young white chauffeur and his wealthy black employer, an NBA player—a twenty-first century inversion of what we’ve come to expect stories of race and class to look like, and a discomfiting portrait of envy and obsession.

Ride Around Shining concerns the idle preoccupations, and later machinations, of a transplanted Portlander named Jess—a nobody from nowhere with a Master’s degree and a gig delivering takeout. He parlays the latter, along with a few lies, into a job as a chauffeur for an up-and-coming Trail Blazer named Calyph West and his young wife, Antonia.

Calyph is black and Antonia is white and Jess becomes fascinated, innocuously at first, by all they are that he is not. In striving to make himself indispensable to them, he causes Calyph to have a season-ending knee injury, then brings about the couple’s estrangement, before positioning himself at last as their perverse savior.

In the tradition of The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Great Gatsby, and Harold Pinter’s The Servant—not to mention a certain Shakespeare play about a creepy white dude obsessed with a black dude—Ride Around Shining tries to say the unsayable about white fixation on black culture, particularly black athletic culture, something so common in everyday life it has gone all but unaddressed.

My Review: The problem with writing a novel from the PoV of a slacker is that it begins to resemble a conversation with a slacker: Not going anywhere fast, and wherever it is you thought you were going, you're going to end up there several times because focus isn't a slacker's strong point. The clearest image I retain of the read is of Portland, Oregon. The author is at his most lyrical, and most evocative, when Portland is the object he's observing.

The publisher's comparisons are vastly overstated as comparables. This isn't in the same league as those titles. There's no subtle (or unsubtle) kink in this story...Jess is tediously heterosexual and ineffectually infatuated with Antonia (the question I had was, "why ever are these men interested in her?!" *yawn*). I've always thought that Iago was into Othello; Tom Ripley's sexuality is "whatever gets me what I want;" and Pinter's adaptation of Robin Maugham's novella is about using sex, not hopelessly bungling around with it. It's not bad, and it's a perfect story to film, but honestly finishing it felt good...because it was over.

Kindle copies are $6.99 (non-affiliate Amazon link).


The Human Front (PM's Outspoken Authors #10) by Ken MacLeod

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Winner of a Prometheus and Sidewise Award, this science fiction novella is a comedic and biting commentary on capitalism and an exploration of technological singularity in a posthuman civilization. As a world war rages on without an emerging victor, the story follows John Matheson, an idealistic teenage Scottish guerilla warrior who must change his tactics and alliances with the arrival of an alien species. This alternate history and poignant political satire flips hero types and expectations, delivering a lively tale of adventure—as dramatic and thought provoking as it is funny. Also included is an interview with the author and two essays that relate his poignant views on social philosophies.


My Review
: What a hoot...what a ride! I can't imagine how the author works in the past and still makes a future worth dreaming about. He's just better at it than the other guys from the 1970s & 1980s.

This alternate history novella, with a few explanatory notes following, gives the reader a real workout. There are a few points where I was sure I understood what he was doing...and was I ever wrong. When he decided to show me the real deal, I thought I was a bit dim for not getting it. Still love being off the beam, when we get to go this way. If you're in the mood for a read that doesn't mean what you think it means, you could do worse but not a lot better.

Kindle edition $9.99 at this non-affiliate Amazon link.


Wingwalkers: A Novel by Taylor Brown

Read the author's article about the role of "aeroplanes" in William Faulkner's life!

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A former WWI ace pilot and his wingwalker wife barnstorm across Depression-era America, performing acts of aerial daring.

“They were over Georgia somewhere, another nameless hamlet whose dusty streets lay flocked and trembling with the pink handbills they’d rained from the sky that morning, the ones that announced the coming of DELLA THE DARING DEVILETTE, who would DEFY THE HEAVENS, shining like a DAYTIME STAR, a WING-WALKING WONDER borne upon the wings of CAPTAIN ZENO MARIGOLD, a DOUBLE ACE of the GREAT WAR, who had ELEVEN AERIAL VICTORIES over the TRENCHES OF FRANCE.”

Wingwalkers is one-part epic adventure, one-part love story, and, as is the signature for critically-acclaimed author Taylor Brown, one large part American history. The novel braids the adventures of Della and Zeno Marigold, a vagabond couple that funds their journey to the west coast in the middle of the Great Depression by performing death-defying aerial stunts from town to town, together with the life of the author (and thwarted fighter pilot) William Faulkner, whom the couple ultimately inspires during a dramatic air show—with unexpected consequences for all.

Brown has taken a tantalizing tidbit from Faulkner’s real life—an evening's chance encounter with two daredevils in New Orleans—and set it aloft in this fabulous novel. With scintillating prose and an action-packed plot, he has captured the true essence of a bygone era and shed a new light on the heart and motivations of one of America's greatest authors.


My Review
: As fictional Della and Zeno Marigold make their way through this story, on the way to meeting up with Billy Falkner, I came to appreciate the readerly stance one of my sisters expressed to me: "Leave famous people out of it. Just makes things harder to buy into."

The story Author Brown (In the Season of Blood and Gold, Gods of Howl Mountain) tells here uses the Marigolds and their barnstorming to illuminate a facet of William Faulkner (fancied-up Billy) that isn't much discussed: His fascination with aviation. It's beautifully written, glacially slow of pace, and not quite up to the task of convincing me that these two stories belonged together. If your reading led you to love Last Dance on the Starlight Pier for Depression stories, or Cloud Cuckoo Land's multi-stranded take on intertwined fates told over time, then this book will get more stars from you than me. If you've grooved to Sea of Tranquility or Unlikely Animals for their gorgeously wrought images and smoothly set sentences, this book will give you happy hours.

Follow this non-affiliate Amazon link to get your own copy.


Picabia by Alain Jouffroy

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: An iconoclastic poet and painter, open to everything that was "other" and different, responsive to any form of newness—not only in art but to such external realities as machines—Francis Picabia never needed to define himself as a "modern."

"Sur-modern" rather than modern, he, like his early comrade Marcel Duchamp, was several years in advance of Dada and Surrealism, abd other avant-garde movements. A follower of nothing and no one, he, with Duchamp, was the true pioneer of modern art.

A born innovator, he paid only a passing visit—and no artistic dues—to the avant-gardes of the day and anticipated all future forms of visual expression.


My Review
: Reading the copy above, it sounds...hyperbolic. And if one's never heard of him, looking at the artwork in the modestly sized and carefully scope-limited visually enhanced biographical sketch will feel familiar. "That's a lot like Matisse!" or "Huh...Abstract Expressionism through a French lens!" or "My god, that's a Man Ray image!"

They're all Picabia. And he made them first. The claim that he's a pioneer is valid.

It's also clear that Picabia was completely at home in his own skin. He never shrank back from experience, he allowed no consideration for convention (or, sometimes, even the bonds of friendship) to stand in the way of his lusty, loud progress through life. Women he wanted, he had; friends he grew away from, he abandoned; art, that is to say ART, was the product of his unceasing forward-aimed projection of himself through the world he wished to inhabit.

I first heard of this book in 2015. The friend who mentioned it to me was mildly disparaging about it, and about Picabia; she was not very well-informed about art and artists. I was intrigued immediately but, as happens so often, Life did things and I reacted. The book didn't end up on my shelves until Yule 2021.

Now that it's here it's staying. The printing is very high-quality; the design is sleek and simple, if uninspired. Or, to be less judgmental about it, I could remind myself that the design of a work about an artist is usually best if it's unobtrusive. The point isn't the design but the subject, after all. Picabia is well-served by this accessible, elegant introduction to his fascinating life and extraordinary breadth of creative output.

Hardcover copies available at this non-affiliate Amazon link.


Moderan by David R. Bunch

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: A collection of chilling and prescient stories about ecological apocalypse and the merging of human and machine.

Welcome to Moderan, world of the future. Here perpetual war is waged by furious masters fighting from Strongholds well stocked with “arsenals of fear” and everyone is enamored with hate. The devastated earth is coated by vast sheets of gray plastic, while humans vie to replace more and more of their own “soft parts” with steel. What need is there for nature when trees and flowers can be pushed up through holes in the plastic? Who requires human companionship when new-metal mistresses are waiting? But even a Stronghold master can doubt the catechism of Moderan. Wanderers, poets, and his own children pay visits, proving that another world is possible.

“As if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated,” wrote Brian Aldiss of David R. Bunch’s work. Originally published in science-fiction magazines in the 1960s and ’70s, these mordant stories, though passionately sought by collectors, have been unavailable in a single volume for close to half a century. Like Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, Bunch coined a mind-bending new vocabulary. He sought not to divert readers from the horror of modernity but to make us face it squarely.


My Review
: First, read this:
“WE’LL FIGHT! We’ll fight each other. We’ll make harsh monsters, set them loose and fight such monsters across all our space. We’ll move with engines and hard, programmed thoughts. We’ll make all manner of dragons for our involvement, and we’ll overcome them. For we’ll program the conquests a little more carefully than we’ll feed in the threats. But mostly we’ll just fight each other—each other and ourselves, the truly tireless enemies.”

Fifty years ago, these stories...I really bridle at calling them stories, it feels to me more like loosely interconnected chapters of a single, too-big-to-fail novel...appeared. I wasn't aware of them. I was too young to "get" them. I am still too young to get them...they are brilliant tours-de-force of a man's vision of a future no one could possibly want, but they're likely to get anyway.

In a lot of ways, Author Bunch's world reminds me of the world that Sandy Hook took place in, and no one stopped it from happening again.
And then the flesh-man - oh, consider. CONSIDER him - the sick few that are left. Please do. Then perhaps you will see why we in our new-shining glory, flesh-strips few and played-down, pay homage to a massive stick of new-metal placed as our guide star when New Processes Land, our great Moderan, was new!

J.G. Ballard at his bleakest, John Brunner at his most sarcastic, Joanna Russ at her most misandric. SF futures don't usually age well...this one, more's the pity, has.

The cheapest $18.95 paperback you will ever buy. There's $500,000-worth of ideas and entertainment in here.


Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Run a Google search for "black girls" - what will you find? "Big Booty" and other sexually explicit terms are likely to come up as top search terms. But, if you type in "white girls," the results are radically different. The suggested porn sites and un-moderated discussions about "why black women are so sassy" or "why black women are so angry" presents a disturbing portrait of black womanhood in modern society.

In Algorithms of Oppression, Safiya Umoja Noble challenges the idea that search engines like Google offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities, and activities. Data discrimination is a real social problem; Noble argues that the combination of private interests in promoting certain sites, along with the monopoly status of a relatively small number of Internet search engines, leads to a biased set of search algorithms that privilege whiteness and discriminate against people of color, specifically women of color.

Through an analysis of textual and media searches as well as extensive research on paid online advertising, Noble exposes a culture of racism and sexism in the way discoverability is created online. As search engines and their related companies grow in importance - operating as a source for email, a major vehicle for primary and secondary school learning, and beyond - understanding and reversing these disquieting trends and discriminatory practices is of utmost importance.

An original, surprising and, at times, disturbing account of bias on the internet, Algorithms of Oppression contributes to our understanding of how racism is created, maintained, and disseminated in the 21st century.


My Review
: The world, as the Internet has shaped it, took a promise of information access and educational opportunity unparalleled in human history and screwed it up to the point it reinforces the evils and stupidities it could so easily have alleviated.

The problem, it transpires, is both blindness..."*I* am no racist, or a sexist! Why, some of my best friends..." is not new, nor is it uncommon in any society...and neither is hubristic malevolence (Cambridge Analytica, for example). We're two decades in to a giant, uncontrolled social experiment. Voices like Author Noble's are still notable for their infrequence of prominence in the rarefied world of Congressional hearings and the European Union's creation of the GDPR.

The issues that Author Noble raises in this book need your attention. You, the searcher, are the product that Google and the other search engines are selling to earn their absurd, unconscionable, inadequately taxed profits. Every time you log on to the internet, Google knows...use other search engines, never click on any links, and Google still knows you're there. That's the Orwellian nightmare of East Germany's Stasi, they're everywhere, in every website you visit. Unlike the Stasi, they are possessed of the capacity to quantify and analyze all the information you generate, and sell it to anyone who can use it. For you or against you, as long as the check clears, Google and its brethren couldn't care less.

Learn more. Get angry. Do something! Start by getting this book. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


The Commandant's Daughter (Hanni Winter #1) by Catherine Hokin

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: 1933, Berlin. Ten-year-old Hanni Foss stands by her father’s side watching the torchlit procession to celebrate Adolf Hitler as Germany’s new leader. As the lights fade, she knows her safe and happy childhood is about to change forever. Practically overnight, the father she adores becomes unrecognisable, lost to his ruthless ambition to oversee an infamous concentration camp...

Twelve years later. As the Nazi regime crumbles, Hanni hides on the fringes of Berlin society in the small lodging house she’s been living in since running away from her father’s home. In stolen moments, she develops the photographs she took to record the atrocities in the camp – the empty food bowls and hungry eyes – and vows to get some measure of justice for the innocent people she couldn’t help as a child.

But on the day she plans to deliver these damning photographs to the Allies, Hanni comes face to face with her father again. Reiner Foss is now working with the British forces, his past safely hidden behind a new identity, and he makes it clear that he will go to deadly lengths to protect his secret. In that moment Hanni hatches a dangerous plan to bring her father down, but how far she is willing to go for revenge? And at what cost?


My Review
: First in a series, flawed, and still...something in here honestly made me think twice about the eternal eyeroll I've developed specifically for use on plucky spying heroines. I concur with the sales bunf, if you liked The Alice Network you'll do well to give this one a shot.

Not that it's quite up to the same literary standard...the plot wanders a bit midway through...but it has that compelling quality that is so frequently missing in other WWII fiction I've read.

Follow this non-affiliate Amazon link to get yours for 99¢ at twice the price!


The Book of General Ignorance: Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong by John Mitchinson & John Lloyd

Rating 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Challenging what most of us assume to be verifiable truths in areas like history, literature, science, nature, and more,The Book of General Ignorance is a witty “gotcha” compendium of how little we actually know about anything. It’ll have you scratching your head wondering why we even bother to go to school.

Think Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe, baseball was invented in America, Henry VIII had six wives, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain? Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong again. You’ll be surprised at how much you don’t know! Check out The Book of General Ignorance for more fun entries and complete answers to the following:

How long can a chicken live without its head?
About two years.

What do chameleons do?
They don’t change color to match the background. Never have; never will. Complete myth. Utter fabrication. Total Lie. They change color as a result of different emotional states.

How many legs does a centipede have?
Not a hundred.

How many toes has a two-toed sloth?
It’s either six or eight.

Who was the first American president?
Peyton Randolph.

What were George Washington’s false teeth made from?
Mostly hippopotamus.

What was James Bond’s favorite drink?
Not the vodka martini.

My Review: Once upon a time, I was smart...then I got this book. Now I am reduced to a mere mouth-breathing lump of proteins and acids and the majority of them aren't even human.

Abandon all sense of smug superiority, foolish mortal, if you succumb to the desire to get your triviality tested against The Elves. Ask not how I know.

You know you want one...follow this non-affiliate link and succumb....


This space is dedicated to Nancy Pearl's Rule of 50, or "the Pearl Rule" as I've always called it. After realizing five times in December 2021 alone that I'd already Pearl-Ruled a book I picked up on a whim, I realized how close my Half-heimer's is getting to the full-on article. Hence my decision to track my Pearls!

As she says:
People frequently ask me how many pages they should give a book before they give up on it. In response to that question, I came up with my “rule of fifty,” which is based on the shortness of time and the immensity of the world of books. If you’re fifty years of age or younger, give a book fifty pages before you decide to commit to reading it or give it up. If you’re over fifty, which is when time gets even shorter, subtract your age from 100—the result is the number of pages you should read before making your decision to stay with it or quit.

So this space will be each month's listing of Pearl-Ruled books. Earlier Pearl-Rule posts will be linked below the current month's crop.


Conventionally Yours (True Colors, #1) by Annabeth Albert


The Publisher Says: When two "big name fans" go head-to-head at a convention, love isn't the only thing at stake.

Charming, charismatic, and effortlessly popular, Conrad Stewart seems to have it all…but in reality, he's scrambling to keep his life from tumbling out of control.

Brilliant, guarded, and endlessly driven, Alden Roth may as well be the poster boy for perfection…but even he can't help but feel a little broken inside.

When these mortal enemies are stuck together on a cross-country road trip to the biggest fan convention of their lives, their infamous rivalry takes a backseat as an unexpected connection is forged. Yet each has a reason why they have to win the upcoming Odyssey gaming tournament and neither is willing to let emotion get in the way—even if it means giving up their one chance at something truly magical.


My Review
: I'm almost 20% in and I actively dread opening this book. I hate admitting to it but there's just too much of a gap between 22 and 62 for me to care about bridging it.

Your mileage may vary. The angst that is sending convulsive shudders down my abdomen may strike just the right chord for you. If you read a lot of YA, it's that but college boys. Driving their my-age professor's 1999 Town Car. By themselves. From New Jersey to Las Vegas. I will actually die of annoyed boredom before they make it into the sack together.

Stop smirking. I am *not* being an old drama queen.


Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney

Pearl Ruled at 7%

The Publisher Says: With a death toll of between 50 and 100 million people and a global reach, the Spanish flu of 1918–1920 was the greatest human disaster, not only of the twentieth century, but possibly in all of recorded history. And yet, in our popular conception it exists largely as a footnote to World War I.

In Pale Rider, Laura Spinney recounts the story of an overlooked pandemic, tracing it from Alaska to Brazil, from Persia to Spain, and from South Africa to Odessa. She shows how the pandemic was shaped by the interaction of a virus and the humans it encountered; and how this devastating natural experiment put both the ingenuity and the vulnerability of humans to the test.

Laura Spinney writes that the Spanish flu was as significant—if not more so—as two world wars in shaping the modern world; in disrupting, and often permanently altering, global politics, race relations, family structures, and thinking across medicine, religion and the arts.

I spent $1.99 on Kindlesale. It makes me mad that I can't get it back.

My Review
: I bought into the author's justification for not making the book one linear, beginning-middle-end story. The social parts and the science parts are very different and they interacted but were never remotely in sync, so trying to stay purely chronological sounded like a bad plan.

What I got instead was borderline incoherent, with paragraph-by-paragraph switches among authorial opinions, statements of fact unsupported by citations, and stodgy-wodgy bits of statistical stuff. This tiger of a topic was less ridden by the author than it rode the author. I felt frazzled by the time I realized I was not going to have a better experience later on...I flipped through some random spots and found that I was getting the same structure.

Not what I want, or what I will accept, from narrative non-fiction.


City Parks: Public Places, Private Thoughts by Catie Marron

Pearl Ruled at 21%

The Publisher Says: In City Parks, eighteen writers reflect on various parks that hold a special significance for them, sharing personal moments they associate with them. Andrew Sean Greer eloquently paints a portrait of first love in the Presidio; André Aciman muses on the passage of time and the changing face of New York as viewed from the High Line; Nicole Krauss describes the real citizens of Prospect Park-dogs!; Simon Winchester takes readers along on his adventures in the Maidan; and Bill Clinton describes his affection for Dumbarton Oaks.

Intensely personal, yet joined by overlapping themes of memory and the unstoppable passage of time, these essays create a warm portrait of parks around the world-from London to Brooklyn, Calcutta to Chicago, Paris to San Francisco-and offer a unique, thoughtful vision of their significance both to the individual and society itself. Beautifully illustrated with color and black-and-white images, City Parks is a literary anthology and collector's item that illuminates our personal histories and public experiences.

My Review: Snapshots illustrating different peoples' varyingly pedestrian to humdrum musings on their favorite public parks.

Bill Clinton's vapid maunderings about Dumbarton Oaks illustrated with very ordinary Kodachromes of trees was when I foundered. I slugged my way through to get to the ever-delightful Jan Morris's disappointingly somewhat superficial ruminations on Trieste's Giardino Pubblico, though. I was hoping for a resurrection of fun...and at the end of it, there were five little candid snaps, one of a stroller being shoved by a whey-faced person, and another of two shirtless ping-pong players playing ping-pong with their long, skinny limbs gracelessly stiffened by a poorly framed black-and-white shot...the other three made even less of an impression. Not even Jan Morris's charming, if slight, essay could prevent my final submergence under the Sea of Mediocrity.

I can't imagine why this very, very good idea elicited such a bland, uninteresting execution.


Friday, April 22, 2022

THE PONDER HEART, light-hearted, fun-loving, and just a bit darker than you think


Mariner Books (non-affiliate Amazon link, since the publisher's website is not responding)
$11.49 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Daniel Ponder is the amiable heir to the wealthiest family in Clay County, Mississippi. To friends and strangers, he’s also the most generous, having given away heirlooms, a watch, and so far, at least one family business. His niece, Edna Earle, has a solution to save the Ponder fortune from Daniel’s mortifying philanthropy: As much as she loves Daniel, she’s decided to have him institutionalized.

Foolproof as the plan may seem, it comes with a kink—one that sets in motion a runaway scheme of mistaken identity, a hapless local widow, a reckless wedding, a dim-witted teenage bride, and a twist of dumb luck that lands this once-respectable Southern family in court to brave an embarrassing trial for murder. It’s become the talk of Clay County. And the loose-tongued Edna Earle will tell you all about it.

“The most revered figure in contemporary American letters,” said the New York Times of Eudora Welty, which also hailed The Ponder Heart—a winner of the William Dean Howells Medal which was adapted into both a 1956 Broadway play and a 2001 PBS Masterpiece series—as “Miss Welty at her comic, compassionate best.”

THIS IS MY ENTRY INTO THE 1954 of books published in 1954.

My Review: This magical moment of Southern history was first published in The New Yorker magazine, with the whimsically funny line drawings in my Kindle edition, in 1953. How I wish I had been there, that I'd seen it in that form...I was, obviously, unable to attend the 1956 Broadway performance of the play adapted from this book (being still as yet unborn) but I certainly saw the PBS Masterpiece Theater production with Peter MacNicol and JoBeth Williams as Uncle Daniel and Edna Earle Ponder. It was...fine. Not a patch on the read, but...fine. Like 2001 itself, it was no patch on 1953, or 1956.

The reason this novella marches on, I think, is that it is the perfect length and in the precise emotional register for Miss Eudora Welty's powers to come full bore on it. I am certain that its long-term popularity is down to Miss Edna Earle Ponder and her absolutely amazing narrative voice:
I used to dread he might get hold of one of these occasional travelers that wouldn’t come in unless they had to—the kind that would break in on a story with a set of questions, and wind it up with a list of what Uncle Daniel’s faults were: some Yankee.
Miss Teacake Magee lived here all her life. She sings in the choir of the Baptist Church every blessed Sunday; couldn’t get her out. And sings louder than all the rest put together, so loud it would make you lose your place.
The Peacocks are the kind of people keep the mirror outside on the front porch, and go out and pick railroad lilies to bring inside the house, and wave at trains till the day they die. The most they probably hoped for was that somebody’d come find oil in the front yard and fly in the house and tell them about it.

It's the voice that I sense in all Miss Eudora's very best writing, the voice of a certain woman whose presence in every Southern matriarchy is inevitable: The "excellent woman" of Barbara Pym's stories with a different accent and a slightly more acid tongue. In Miss Edna Earle, I do believe the type reached her apotheosis. She narrates the whole sorry saga of Grandpa Ponder's attempts to corral his son's bizarre, generous heart within the Institution of Marriage. After all, the mental institution couldn't even hold him a week. The problem is, you see, Uncle Daniel Ponder isn't crazy. Isn't, in fact, much of anything except smilingly delighted to be alive, and willing to do whatever it takes to give that same joy to others. And Miss Edna Earle, being a true-born Ponder and a lot sharper than Uncle Daniel, sees Grandpa's point...helps him as best she can...and, when the marriage "didn't hold out," she accepts Uncle Daniel's just going to need watching so he doesn't give away the whole of the Ponder fortune.

Nobody thought to worry about the dear soul finding another wife.

This time, though, as one might expect, Uncle Daniel finds the wrongest wife possible: A silly little girl of seventeen from a family of no-count nobodies. The shock of it! Why, Grandpa Ponder finally succumbs to this shock to "the Ponder heart" and now where is Miss Edna Earle going to get help dealing with Uncle Daniel? Especially now that his little child bride is all of a sudden dead....

What follows is an absolutely side-splittingly funny murder trial, a startling bunch of revelations about Uncle Daniel (not really) and a juicy trial for the gossips to chew over til Kingdom Come (that bit's true). There is, as always, The Welty Touch over every square inch of this magical little farce. There's the occasional nasty epithet, but never from Miss Edna Earle or Uncle Daniel; there's not one single sign of modernity in the story, in the structure or the tale of it. This is the way Southern women of a century ago told their stories to anyone who desired to listen.

I desired to listen.

Wednesday, April 20, 2022

SUBTLE BLOOD, third and (almost) final Will Darling Adventure, and HOW GOES THE WORLD, tidy-up small tale to complete this series

(Will Darling Adventures #3)
KJC Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Will Darling is all right. His business is doing well, and so is his illicit relationship with Kim Secretan--disgraced aristocrat, ex-spy, amateur book-dealer. It’s starting to feel like he’s got his life under control.

And then a brutal murder in a gentleman’s club plunges them back into the shadow world of crime, deception, and the power of privilege. Worse, it brings them up against Kim’s noble, hostile family, and his upper-class life where Will can never belong.

With old and new enemies against them, and secrets on every side, Will and Kim have to fight for each other harder than ever—or be torn apart for good.


My Review
: This is how you end a series...not with a whimper, but a loud, resounding bang.

The entire world could've finished exploding and I'd've ignored it. I needed to know how this tale ended. I needed the series to live up to the start. (It did.) This is a rare enough occurrence that I wanted to mention it especially, and early in my review. If you're looking for a series to read, read this one; it's got the exciting action and the romantic tension and the period details that make a good read a superior one. Take a look at The Sugared Game's review to see how serious I am...despite the w-bomb Author Charles dropped on me, I still recommend the series. (Might not've had there been another one in this book. But there wasn't.)

In this last planned story of Will Darling and his belovèd Kim Secretan, we're treated to the strange spectacle of Kim without commitments to anything more than Will's bookshop, Will's bed, and Will himself. It's sweet, it's domestic, and it's peculiar! It also is destined to be but an interlude, as we know since the series is called "The Will Darling Adventures" not "The Will Darling Stories." As Kim's life Will's is ever more firmly anchored in Kim. Their expanded time together suits Will so completely that he can only be happy, even though...well, there's the little problem of boredom, isn't there, in the dailiness of life.
The list, as he well knew, comprised most of {his bookselling rival}’s hopes, dreams, and sexual fantasies, since he shared the deceased Lord Aveston’s love of Elizabethan and Jacobean music. Will couldn’t tell a madrigal from a macaroon, but he hadn’t got the job for his bibliographic skills. In fact, he’d spent much of his time with the Avestons simply chatting to the new viscount, a pleasantly dim young man who was far more interested in swapping war stories and rattling on about cricket than in anything that might be classed as intellectual pursuits.

Fear not...the long arm of Author Charles isn't about to leave us mired in the muck of Life as most people live it.
Will sighed. “We didn’t all go to Eton.”

“Aristocracy means ‘rule of the best’, and I can’t think of any company in which Chingford would be counted as best, including the average gaol. Yet the hereditary principle demands we grant power, authority, and vast swathes of land to a man who couldn’t run a whelk stall if you gave him a copy of How To Run A Whelk Stall with corners turned down to mark the good bits.”


Will felt a whole-body wave of refusal. It was bad enough Kim being Lord Arthur Secretan: he couldn’t become a marquess. It would be impossible. He’d vanish into a world of stately homes and impossible wealth, somewhere Will couldn’t hide and would never belong. They’d never belonged together in the first place. Everything between them had been built piece by piece over a chasm, and that bridge had proved fragile enough in the past without having to bear the crushing weight of Kim’s heritage. They wouldn’t survive this. He’d lose him. “Oh shit,” he said.

It's Kim's family, you know it's bad and going to get worse; you also know that Will's anxiety about Kim's privileged upbringing, Kim's membership in the aristocracy, and Will's unworthiness to be with such a Personage is going to hit overdrive...along with Kim's complete and utter indifference to anything except what keeps him apart from Will. Which, if he has any say whatever about it, will be nothing now, nothing to come, nothing ever.

Kim, like most members of his class, has a lot to say about what happens in the world.

And, as noted above, we're whisked from Will's inherited bookshop into Kim's ancestral manse, with Kim driving the vehicle of their love-match at the destination of not inheriting the worldly goods he so deeply detests.
“Because even if they did think we were fucking, they wouldn’t believe I was anything more than your bit of rough, would they?”

“No,” Kim said. “That’s the daily drip of insult you can expect as things are now, which is why I don’t want them to get worse. Because you are everything more, and I resent to the bottom of my soul that you should feel any other way. Wait for me; I’ll call you. Be good.”


It wasn’t just that the place was so big and so lavish and so horribly empty. It was that as they walked through room after room, decorated with trappings Will didn’t know how to appreciate, the tomblike silence of the place descended on them both. Kim’s descriptions were mannered and forced, and when he didn’t speak, it was not in the usual way they were quiet together, but in a nothing-to-say way that made an empty space between them. And how could Will talk when it felt like he was on a Cook’s Tour of a stately home, and everything he said was an advertisement of how little he belonged?

Of course, this being a situation that Cannot Be Discussed with Kim's laughingly-termed-family, and his odious brother Chingford is going to make things hard for the faggot loser traitor brother he's spent his entire life detesting, despising, and resenting, despite the fact that the aforementioned man is doing his utmost to prevent Chingford from being hanged for murder.

He's not only ungrateful and a jackanapes, he's deeply stupid. Every action he takes in the course of this story is evidence of the fact that Chingford is all that is bad and unworthy about the aristocracy. And there is not a single second at which he changes course. In some people, there is no impulse to decency. Chingford is one of those people.

But Kim, with his Will standing ever vigilant and always prepared for violence, at his shoulder, does not give up. He runs out of ideas for actions to take on Chingford's behalf; he loses his cool, abandons his self-assurance, and still...with a lot of help from Will's observational skills and his own finely honed instinct for making a lot of waffle sound portentous...comes into the very information that will allow him to rescue his clot of an elder brother and never so much as see him, or his objectionable father, again.

This being a K.J. Charles novel, you know that will not be the end of it.

Chingford, like so many thick people, snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
He led the way along, and round, and down the stairs to a corridor where they came face to face with Lord Chingford. He was wearing plus fours. Will had always thought they were the stupidest way you could wear trousers short of putting them on your head, and Lord Chingford’s appearance wasn’t changing his mind.

“Christ,” the Earl said in lieu of greeting. “Must you be underfoot all the damned time?”

“I’d prefer not to be,” Kim said. “Perhaps we could have the conversation that I came here for, and then I can remove myself from your presence.”

I can sense your despairing moan from here. You're correct: This is Chingford dodging the shield Kim is prepared and able to offer him, so he can make a much, much worse hash of things.

But that is just the icing on the cake. The rich, buttery madeira cake. The full-bodied, overloaded friutcake. The truly astounding stupidities that Chingford commits aren't for this brief review to reveal. For one thing I don't want to be shouted at about spoilers and for another, there is so very much pleasure to be had in the journey this story takes to get our men to their Happily Ever After that I want to leave it to you to explore and experience. It is...absolutely...bloody...perfect.

I can't recall too many times I've said that. I can recall that, each time I have, I've meant it.

A three-plus book story about a pair of gay men in a time and a place that doesn't like that mode of existence, that brings them together over class lines and around high-stakes spy-story threats, and brings the pair of them and their found family safely home believably (within the universe depicted) is a beautiful thing. In this story cycle, a man damaged by what he had to do to survive in the Great War's trenches meets a badly damaged aristocrat, a queer younger son with quirky (by the standards of his class) moral principles, who declines to serve in that war in any way, and from those opposite poles they fall in love. Along the way, spycraft is used to bring very, very nasty people to justice, if not always via the law. In the course of this, our main men hash out issues between themselves, issues that stem from their miserable pasts, and they discover the true joy of the tales being told: Making a Life out of what was only an existence.

Their discussions of the problems they've faced already, of the issues they can foresee, and the deep-seated terrors of Being Together in the Cold, Cruel World that any couple of any configuration must face are very real.
“A future. You know the concept? The shape you want the rest of your life to take? I want mine with you, all of it. A future, a forever. I love you.” He said it quite calmly, as if it was an established fact. “People say I love you to madness, but I love you to sanity, because loving you is the sanest thing I have ever done. You are everything to me, Will, and I cannot lose you to my miserable family and an accident of birth.”


“Stop being strong at me. You weren’t ready for that conversation, that’s all.”

“No. I wasn’t. Thanks for understanding that. I just...”


“I did not panic.”

“I don’t think the less of you for it. But you definitely panicked.”

“Sod off.”

“It’s merely an observation.”

“Sod off.”

“If it’s any consolation, I’m still more of a shambles than you.”

“I’m beginning to wonder,” Will muttered. He brushed his lips over Kim’s fingers, and felt the sense of—not panic, obviously, but extreme nervous tension recede.

Real conversations. Ones I can hear myself having. Ones I have in fact had. And that's the beauty of the whole-series read, as the capstone of a series of stories wherein we've made an emotional investment in the characters: It's not life, it's better than, more organized than, and more fully fleshed than the life mere mortals can expect to lead.

Will, I think, has the best way of putting his—probably all of our—feelings into his relatable perspective.
So he’d do better. He had to: he wasn’t giving this up now. There was something in Kim that called to something in himself with a fierce urgency like the baying of hounds on the scent, and that was all that mattered. Yes, there were going to be problems and he’d have to make sure he didn’t add to them by, for example, punching any more rich people. But he’d never felt the sort of connection with another human soul that he did with Kim, and he wasn’t letting it go either by choice or by stupidity, and that was all there was to it.

That is, in fact, all there ever is to it.


(Will Darling Adventures #3.5)
Author's website
Free PDF download

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: The Positively Final Appearance: a two-part epilogue with Daniel and Archie at a house party and Kim and Will in a gentleman's club, because those are definitely settings that go well for them.

Epilogue to Think of England/Will Darling Adventures.

My Review: As the author says: "This isn’t a standalone story at all. It will make sense only if you’ve read Think of England, Proper English, and the Will Darling Adventures trilogy, and contains spoilers for some of those."

This is absolutely true, and one would do well to heed her words.
Bill and Jimmy, Pat and Fen and Daniel: at dinner, they all looked to Archie almost as they had twenty years ago, with no glare of electricity to expose weary eyes and wrinkles. That in itself made him reflect on quite how much they had, or had not, changed.


“...I’m sure I told you I met him in my club? Not the Symposium. And...well. I saw him look at Curtis.”

Will, it is safe to say, does not have the gift of spotting people’s inclinations and affections. If there is a direct opposite of that gift, in fact, that’s what he has. At least he takes my word for these things.

“Really? Sir Archie? Bloody hell.”

Will and Kim meeting Daniel and is a heart-filling, eye-watering, nose-blowing moment. It means a lot to see the world from one's agèd viewpoint acknowledged and made part of the future. It was inspired of Author Charles to have Archie and Will meet, but to tell it from Kim's point of view. We don't need to hear the two of them connecting, in fact it would feel so invasive as to cause embarrassment. Daniel and Kim, however...well. Sneaky, weaselly bastards the pair of 'em, can't violate their space since they'll violate yours without a qualm.

But only if they must. And that really is one of the main messages of this series. Boundaries, while they are there to be pushed, must also be respected. And that was the burden of the refrain throughout these delightful reads.

I don't know about you but I need to believe this world can exist. It contains an honor and honesty so much more deeply rooted than the stereotypical conceptualization of the concepts we're accustomed to. It doesn't shy away from hard choices or minimize risks behind lazy, or worse, dishonest screens of Propriety.

Neither Archie nor Will would consent to be in harness next to a dishonest man. A liar, well...clearly that's got to be done, doesn't it, to accomplish the goals. As to those goals, it's the clever ones that figure those out. Archies and Wills feel the trust they feel for their men because they see what the sneaks point at and are smart enough to get it, though utterly incapable of articulating it for themselves.

In this short read, we cap five books and a story with the assurance that, come what may, these men whose love and whose lives are valued at little to nothing by the rest of the world are all right, will be all right, and have made their place in that unforgiving and intolerant world big enough to bring more of our kind into, their safety to assure.

World without end.

Monday, April 18, 2022

THE SUGARED GAME, second of three Will Darling gay spy adventures, and TO TRUST MAN ON HIS OATH, its coda

(Will Darling Adventures #2)
KJC BOOKS (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Real Rating: 4.5* of five, rounded down because even though we went alllllmost a whole MM romantic mystery without a single w-bomb splattering my Imperial aesthetic hems, there the bastard was, so call it four...well, no, leave it at four-and-a-half stars because it was bloody good fun

The Publisher Says: It's been two months since Will Darling saw Kim Secretan, and he doesn't expect to see him again. What do a rough and ready soldier-turned-bookseller and a disgraced shady aristocrat have to do with each other anyway?

But when Will encounters a face from the past in a disreputable nightclub, Kim turns up, as shifty, unreliable, and irresistible as ever. And before Will knows it, he's been dragged back into Kim's shadowy world of secrets, criminal conspiracies, and underhand dealings.

This time, though, things are underhanded even by Kim standards. This time, the danger is too close to home. And if Will and Kim can't find common ground against unseen enemies, they risk losing everything.


My Review
: I did not see the ending coming. It's very hard to fool someone who's been reading as long as I have about something this central to the story for two whole books. I am clearly a sociopath because, as the finale debuted in the theatre (note misspelling intentional) of my mind I, the audience, was on my (mental) feet shouting for more gore. Gore there is, be forewarned.

But oh how satisfyingly deployed.

In my review of Slippery Creatures, I commented that the story resembled Notorious (Ingrid Bergman, Cary Grant {who is the perfect model of Kim Secretan IMO}, Nazi spies) only with 1940s hunk Steve Cochran (my mental casting director's choice for Will Darling) in the Bergman role.
This time, as Richard Hannay is directly referenced in the text of the story, I thought of The Three Hostages because we're doing a similar amount of worry about and protecting people from unseen assailants and malefactors. But honestly, I say seek your parallel in the twists and turns, the puppetmaster-pulling-strings artfulness of North by Northwest. The hostages, their fates, the supporting characters' various interrelationships...similar enough that I kept picturing Will in Eva Marie Saint's wardrobe.
I will say that it was a tad disturbing. Nothing compared to what Will would've thought of it, of course.

This outing is more, shall we say, meaty than the first...we're starting from what every lover dreads, being ghosted by the belovèd:
“Don’t look at me,” Will said. “I’ve no idea what he’s up to. I haven’t heard from him since I don’t know when.”

He knew exactly when: the second of January. It was currently the twenty-second of February. That was a sore point he had no desire at all to discuss, so he added, “I’m not sure if he ever uses the title. It’s not compulsory, is it, if it’s one of those whatsits?”


Will wasn’t a country girl, courted and cast aside by a London seducer, and it would not do to give the impression that he felt jilted. Kim’s demeanour gave no indication of regret, still less a desire to resume relations, and Will was damned if he’d embarrass himself by behaving differently.

Only you very much are, Will, you're in love so far out of your league it isn't remotely funny. The wonderful part is that, unlike the incredibly unrealistic plot of Maurice, we're not left wondering what on Earth the two of you will talk about the twenty-two hours a day you're not actually fucking. And Kim's world has already cast him out, to the edges and fringes at least if not all the way out, so there's little danger of you having the awful luck of attending too many of the parties that Author Charles skewers so beautifully in this story...and where Will acquits himself creditably, if not brilliantly, all to serve his mate Maisie as she and Phoebe, Kim's fiancée and Will's friend, start Maisie's rise in the World of Fashion:
"...You need to dress for your own body, not pretend you’ve someone else’s, don’t you think?” (Quite revolutionary, Maisie!)


“I don’t know how to break it to you, dear boy, but if Maisie pursues a career in fashion, she is likely to meet people of the homosexual or sapphic persuasions. Try not to be shocked.”


“So Phoebe thought she should learn to react in an environment where a misstep wouldn’t hurt. As it turned out, she is sure-footed, and a quick study. I see why you both like her so much. I’d like to know her better myself.”

From Kim, that is the highest praise imaginable! And it makes me think more of him as Maisie is the simplest kind of person to underestimate: The honest, forthright, always-herself good-mannered cheerful soul. It doesn't do to underestimate them, yet people so often do. And here's very aristocratic Kim, son of a marquess, seeing her and valuing her appropriately. I enjoy that facet of the character quite a lot. It's of a piece with his genuine, growing love for Will. Who, need I mention, is utterly in love with Kim. Being men, things aren't great in the communication department...but the sex is smokin' so the connection is there., about the sex...yep, it's there and belongs there. It is decidedly not straight-people friendly. You know your own tolerance for reading about sex, listen to your instincts. If you're willing to be adventurous, this series will definitely reward you with a cracking good spy story and a couple seeking their happiness in spite of a hostile world...which does not include any of the people that matter the most to them.

In this entry the stakes for Will and Kim are astronomical and the results are long-lastingly resonant. They're required, in the course of resolving the matter of the first book's primary antagonists, to confront demons within and without human forms to which they each...both...have deep ties. It's clear that Kim possesses facts he isn't sharing, and while that can be good spycraft, it's unmitigated hell on relationships:
He didn’t delude himself that asking Kim to tell him the truth meant it would happen, either. They’d been honest with one another as far as it went, and that was something, maybe even a lot, but Will had a feeling all it had achieved was to dig their foxhole deeper.


“Go on, go,” he said. “Don’t come back. Keep your precious secrets if that’s all you care about, and leave me alone. This isn’t forgivable.”

Kim went. He didn’t even have the decency to give Will a fight or slink out shamefacedly; he just picked up his coat and hat and left. The door closed behind him, setting the bell jangling.


Will had more self-respect than to trail after him any more.

Horseshit. There is, in every love story, the moment when communication breaks down, both parties are backed up against different walls, and things are at an impasse. In that moment, one feels as though "The End" has appeared on the screen and it's time to gather one's detritus and toss it into the bin on the way out of the theatre. This is almost never true in real life, and pretty much never, ever in fiction. Self-respect and being in love are two ends of one balance beam only in the most simplistic stories, and Author Charles does not traffic in those.

But, as usual, it takes Very Very High Stakes to overcome the grumpy pride of men and compel them to reassert their pair bond. The stakes in this story, which were already quite high, elevate to existential-threat levels. There is so very much riding on Kim getting this issue, the one from last book, very much for the men, for their found family, for the U.K. as a whole...that the savvy reader knows the price for Kim will be high. Will, given the choice of what to do and how to do it:
“Do you know Lepanto?”

“The Chesterton poem?”

“There was a bit I was trying to remember...I looked it up afterwards. ‘Dim drums throbbing in the hills half heard, Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred, Where risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall, The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall.’”

Kim’s lips parted. Will held his eyes, willing him to believe. “That’s you.”


“I,” Kim began at last, and had to try again. “I would like to be—not alone.”

“Shoulders right here. Suitable for leaning on, crying on, or standing at for the purposes of a fight.”

Have you ever, in all your born days, heard a more moving, more vivid and intensely felt, declaration of love than that? This is the spine-stiffening speech, the statement of commitment, that Will uses to arm Kim for a confrontation his entire lifetime's worth of guilt and insecuritites tells him he can only lose.

It's no spoiler to say that Kim and Will's a series! this is two of three!...but there are the necessary costs to the men. They are deep, painful extractions of value, they are seriously out of proportion to the success the men have delivered, and they are going to lead to a fireball of a series-ending book three, Subtle Blood.

...if only she hadn't befouled the experience with that w-bomb at 89%/page 214....


(Will Darling Adventures #2.5)
Author's website
Free PDF download

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A Will Darling Adventures interlude.

Set a week after the ending of The Sugared Game (so contains mild spoilers for that book).

My Review: It's important to understanding the gestalt of Will and Kim to read this short piece. It feels to me like it was clipped off the end of the book, and made into its own thing, instead of being the epilogue it feels to me like it should've been.

I was very moved by the sweetness of Will's acceptance of Kim's faults, amply displayed in previous instalments of the series; and his acceptance of Kim's worthiness of trust. It takes a lot to expose your vulnerability to someone whose track record of treating you is spotty on the plus side. Importantly, though, Will acknowledges that Kim has always come through when the stakes are high and the situation is grave.

I'm also very moved by the way the author frames the conversation, as it accords well with what I know of biphasic sleep: a period of wakefulness in the middle of one's night that disinhibits the usual censorship functions, that allows one's conversation to open doors and breach walls that seem impossible during ordinary daytime. Then, when the needful things are said, sleep returns and the day that dawns, dawns brighter than it would have otherwise.

I was charmed; I was also better prepared for Subtle Blood, so I recommend the read to you, too.