Sunday, July 31, 2022

July 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!


A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings: A Year of Keeping Bees by Helen Jukes

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Entering her thirties, Helen Jukes feels trapped in an urban grind of office politics and temporary addresses—disconnected, stressed. Struggling to settle into her latest job and home in Oxford, she realises she needs to effect a change if she’s to create a meaningful life for herself, one that can accommodate comfort and labour and love. Then friends give her the gift of a colony of honeybees—according to folklore, bees freely given bring luck—and Helen embarks on her first full year of beekeeping. But what does it mean to ‘keep’ wild creatures? In learning about the bees, what can she learn of herself? And can travelling inside the hive free her outside it?

As Helen grapples with her role in the delicate, awe-inspiring ecosystem of the hive, the very act of keeping seems to open up new perspectives, deepen friendships old and new, and make her world come alive. A Honeybee Heart Has Five Openings is at once a fascinating exploration of the honeybee and the hive, the practices of honey-gathering and the history of our observation of bees; and a beautifully wrought meditation on responsibility and care, on vulnerability and trust, on forging bonds and breaking new ground.


My Review
: After getting a new, longed-for position, Author Jukes finds that wanting and having are not the same sensation.
I sometimes think that life must be a bit like tessellation for some people. You take one shape and fit it to the next and they sit comfortably together—you don’t mind a bit of repetition because it’s what makes the pattern form. Life is not like tessellation for me. Sometimes the shapes don’t fit, or I don’t fit into them, or I’m looking at the patterns but they don’t feel real or right to me.

It's a key realization, and it leads to her keeping a beehive as a means to create value and meaning in her world.

A lot of people have compared the book to H is for Hawk, which read I very much did not like. It felt deeply hypocritical to me to read of someone's love for a wild thing as they're describing how they un-wilded it. Author Jukes does not un-wild her bees, as that's been done millennia ago. And her possession of a colony evokes some very good meditative thinking in her:
Here I am pondering impermanence, having just tasked myself with the responsibility of keeping something—with sustaining it. A colony is not a book or an archivable object and you can’t hold it in a glass cabinet or on a shelf. It is live and shifting and if this one doesn’t take to our little rectangular space it’ll be out of here faster than you can say swarm.

What makes the book less than a four-star, upper-heap read is that it's too long for how short it is. Cut some chapters, bring the philosophizing to some conclusions earlier, for example, and don't repeat the same ruminations, and there'd be another star up there. As it stands I can't agree with myself to overlook this stylistic and structural lapse to grow it over three-and-a-half smiling stars.

A Kindle edition copy is $13.99. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: After Tova Sullivan's husband died, she began working the night shift at the Sowell Bay Aquarium, mopping floors and tidying up. Keeping busy has always helped her cope, which she's been doing since her eighteen-year-old son, Erik, mysteriously vanished on a boat in Puget Sound over thirty years ago.

Tova becomes acquainted with curmudgeonly Marcellus, a giant Pacific octopus living at the aquarium. Marcellus knows more than anyone can imagine but wouldn't dream of lifting one of his eight arms for his human captors--until he forms a remarkable friendship with Tova.

Ever the detective, Marcellus deduces what happened the night Tova's son disappeared. And now Marcellus must use every trick his old invertebrate body can muster to unearth the truth for her before it's too late.


My Review:
Yes, it was a sentimental Festival of Tearjerking. I enjoyed it immensely. And you probably would, too.

A Kindle edition is $14.99. (non-affiliate Amazon link) if your library's hold list is too long.


Any Other World Will Do by Alex Lubertozzi

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In a chance encounter on the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona, Vikram Bhat stumbles across a promising new recruit.

Miles Townsend, an 18-year-old kid running away from a past he’d just as soon forget, is drawn to the older Indian man, dazzled by Barcelona, and smitten with the Hotel Kashmir’s bartender, Anna de Wit, a Surinamese grad student with a genius for languages and Vikram’s first recruit.

Miles and Anna have no idea they’re being recruited. They have no idea that Vikram is neither an Indian nor a man, or that he’s a few thousand light-years from home. He has a lot of secrets, it turns out. But he means well. When a series of bad decisions reveals the fact that Vikram isn’t the only one light-years from home—and this other one does not mean well—Miles and Anna become unwitting ambassadors to Vikram’s world, a place where the locals haven’t got their shit together any better than the people of Earth.

A unique coming-of-age story, Any Other World Will Do is inventive, irreverent science fiction, a wry commentary on the primal urge to flee our troubles and the romantic way we remember the journey.


My Review
: The problem with writing SF when you don't read it is that you rehash clichés that just won't fly anymore. Not to mention that the twenty-first century climate is such that having a literal alien masquerading as a South Asian and getting away with it is...troubling.

The other planet, the one that isn't Earth, to which the two kids are persuaded to travel, is a stock reimagining of Earth-plus-some-stuff. This is not in and of itself a bad thing. After all, if Earthlings are to survive on it, and if the Tonshu natives are going to travel here and survive, they need to be similar. But the 2020s don't really support serious (message-driven, not purely brain candy) SF with mysterious instantaneous transportation between planets.

The writing isn't awful. It isn't good, either. It's unfortunate that reviews of glowing, gasping praise for it lead one to expect a better-than-average reading experience that is not available. That said, I finished it, so clearly it wasn't dreadful. For the Kindle price, not-dreadful isn't all that bad a bargain.

The Kindle edition is $2.99. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


Afro Puffs Are the Antennae of the Universe by Zig Zag Claybourne

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: No one has time for your BS...but Captain Desiree Quicho and her crew of utter badasses surely don't. Got a universe to save. Again. Commandeer one piece of out-of-this-world tech and suddenly you have an evil billionaire and a corporate queenpin on your ass, factions scrabbling at the power grab to end all power grabs, and an ultimate AI bent on a rampage of healing.

All a captain wanted was a little chill time, a few tunes, and quality barbecue.

Woe to those blocking her groove.

Four women; One machine goddess; a Hellbilly, Saharan elves, the baddest Pacific Octopus this side of Atlantis... and Humanity's balance tilting toward its biggest unknown future.


My Review
: I flat-out howled my way through this short, punchy, absolutely mad and manic story of what we all want to see...Right beating might...with women's place at the helm of the craft unquestioned, unfought-over, and unapologetically human. Which is to say, morally gray shading into gravity-well-colored. Even the Pacific Octopus.

Don't sit there staring, go buy a Kindlecopy for $4.99 and cheap at twice the price if you want a white-knuckle-speed trip through the Cosmos. (The link is a non-affiliate link.)


The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Anna Winger knows people better than they know themselves with only a glance—at their handwriting. Hired by companies seeking trustworthy employees and by the lovelorn hoping to find happiness, Anna likes to keep the real mess of other people’s lives at arm’s length and on paper. But when she is called to use her expertise on a ransom note left behind at a murder scene in the small town she and her son have recently moved to, the crime inevitably gets under Anna’s skin. Was the child kidnapped from his home by his own mother, trying to save him from his abusive father? Thirteen years ago, Anna did the same thing for her unborn son, now a troubled teen rebelling against the protected life she’s given him.

The local sheriff wants no part of Anna’s brand of hocus pocus, but he’ll do whatever it takes to bring his community and his office back under control. Anna is able to discern from the note that no one in the little boy’s family has been safe for a long time. And bringing him and his mother home could be the worst possible outcome for them.


My Review
: Domestic thrillers aren't always bad. This one is of the un-bad ilk. Anna's life hasn't been easy, or peaceful; it's been marred by violence from every man in it. Of course she has a son. But she's raised him in such a way that he's clear that interpersonal violence isn't an option.

So he runs away from her to find out why she's so het-up about this.

What happens, then, is an extended hunt for and unearthing of Anna's many wounds from source to cessation. Why I recommend it is Author Rader-Day's facility with characterization. I'm less enamored of her exposition and dialogue.
I turned in a slow circle, taking in the empty room. Something wasn't right. What was it? And then I saw. His backpack was missing from the table. "His backpack."


"I don't know," I said. A shrill alarm began to ring in my ears, and I raised my voice to be heard over it. "I don't know."

"OK," Joe said. "Let's be calm. What about his backpack?"

"It's not on the table. It's always, always on the table." I thought of the pack's dense bulk, the thump it made when he set it down.

Now, let me be clear: This isn't bad writing. It's, um, uninspired, uninspiring writing IMO, but definitely not bad...the "pack" syllable repeated as often as it is, plosive and easy to hear, just works better as audio than visual. There is quite a bit of the writing that works as an ear-read or as film dialogue but not as visualization aid. It leaves me, the reader-as-cranial-filmmaker, without any room to decide things for myself. That's not my preference in reading. Hence my less-than-half-star over the base 3. Which, remember!, means "good!"

Get the Kindle for $9.49 because it's worth it for domestic-thriller fans. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


Outlawed by Anna North

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the year of our Lord 1894, I became an outlaw.

The day of her wedding, 17 year old Ada's life looks good; she loves her husband, and she loves working as an apprentice to her mother, a respected midwife. But after a year of marriage and no pregnancy, in a town where barren women are routinely hanged as witches, her survival depends on leaving behind everything she knows.

She joins up with the notorious Hole in the Wall Gang, a band of outlaws led by a preacher-turned-robber known to all as the Kid. Charismatic, grandiose, and mercurial, the Kid is determined to create a safe haven for outcast women. But to make this dream a reality, the Gang hatches a treacherous plan that may get them all killed. And Ada must decide whether she's willing to risk her life for the possibility of a new kind of future for them all.

Featuring an irresistibly no-nonsense, courageous, and determined heroine, Outlawed dusts off the myth of the old West and reignites the glimmering promise of the frontier with an entirely new set of feminist stakes. Anna North has crafted a pulse-racing, page-turning saga about the search for hope in the wake of death, and for truth in a climate of small-mindedness and fear.


My Review
: Imaginative, inventive, and insolent prose telling the oft-told tale of good soul gone bad. It's not a new trope or even take...woman blamed for problems she can't control, runs away, lives her best life among other like-minded women...but it's very well crafted and quite fun to read.
“The point is, you live like I did, you start being able to spot what makes some people sink and other people swim. There’s a quality, I don’t even know how to describe it—sometimes it looks like luck and sometimes it looks like skill and sometimes it doesn’t look like either one. But you have it, I saw it when I met you. You’ve made a lot of mistakes, but you’re a good bet. You’ll swim.”


“If they take you, keep your head up. Don't beg for your life. Don't confess to any sin. If you die without shame, the shame is all theirs.”

These women, cast out for failing to give birth, find their world is much bigger and much sweeter when they embrace freedom from expectations. Deeply, deeply relatable to this old queer gent.

Spend $8.30 on a Kindle edition. It's well-worth it at regular price. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


Vanity in Dust (Crowns & Ash #1) by Cheryl Low

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In the Realm there are whispers. Whispers that the city used to be a different place. That before the Queen ruled there was a sky beyond the clouds and a world beyond their streets.

Vaun Dray Fen never knew that world. Born a prince without a purpose in a Realm ruled by lavish indulgence, unrelenting greed, and vicious hierarchy, he never knew a time before the Queen’s dust drugged the city. Everything is poisoned to distract and dull the senses, even the tea and pastries. And yet, after more than a century, his own magic is beginning to wake. The beautiful veneer of the Realm is cracking. Those who would defy the Queen turn their eyes to Vaun, and the dust saturating the Realm.

From the carnivorous pixies in the shadows to the wolves in the streets, Vaun thought he knew all the dangers of his city. But when whispers of treason bring down the fury of the Queen, he'll have to race to save the lives and souls of those he loves.


My Review
: As with all fantasy novels, there's a 50/50 chance I'll resonate to the story harmoniously enough to enjoy the read; odds got us to 60/40 for QUILTBAG themed stories and higher still if there's a bisexual man.

We stalled at 60/40 and never got going again. All the sex is implied; the point of the world's sexual fluidity is played as increasing the sensual options of these decadent people; and in the end, the male MC goes back to his hetero roots. So, disappointments all around. There's also a certain glacial pace issue. There's also a dearth of evidence that a professional proofreader saw the MS (eg, "sooth" ≠ "soothe" nor "horde" substituting for "hoard"), which honestly bothered me quite a lot. Still, a read I'm not sorry I made time for.

A paperback is only $8.98 on Amazon. (non-affiliate link)


The Last by Hanna Jameson

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: For fans of high-concept thrillers such as Annihilation and The Girl with All the Gifts, this breathtaking dystopian psychological thriller follows an American academic stranded at a Swiss hotel as the world descends into nuclear war—along with twenty other survivors—who becomes obsessed with identifying a murderer in their midst after the body of a young girl is discovered in one of the hotel’s water tanks.

Jon thought he had all the time in the world to respond to his wife’s text message: I miss you so much. I feel bad about how we left it. Love you. But as he’s waiting in the lobby of the L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland after an academic conference, still mulling over how to respond to his wife, he receives a string of horrifying push notifications. Washington, DC has been hit with a nuclear bomb, then New York, then London, and finally Berlin. That’s all he knows before news outlets and social media goes black—and before the clouds on the horizon turn orange.

Now, two months later, there are twenty survivors holed up at the hotel, a place already tainted by its strange history of suicides and murders. Those who can’t bear to stay commit suicide or wander off into the woods. Jon and the others try to maintain some semblance of civilization. But when the water pressure disappears, and Jon and a crew of survivors investigate the hotel’s water tanks, they are shocked to discover the body of a young girl.

As supplies dwindle and tensions rise, Jon becomes obsessed with investigating the death of the little girl as a way to cling to his own humanity. Yet the real question remains: can he afford to lose his mind in this hotel, or should he take his chances in the outside world?


My Review
: First, read this:
“A lot of people confuse movement with progress," Dylan said. "I knew it was a bad idea but what were we gonna do, barricade them in? They weren't ready to face any kind of truth."

I leaned against the wall of the stairwell as Dylan got out his set of keys. The air in here was too thick, full of dust and last breaths. It stank. I hated the stairwell but of course the elevators weren't working anymore; hadn't worked for two months, not since that first day.”


The only meaning we might have left as a species—indeed, the only thing left that might matter, that might keep us motivated to get up in the morning—is in the small acts of human kindness we show one another, and in my compulsion to be helpful, useful, to keep things moving forward, I've mostly forgotten to be kind.

There aren't a lot of things more important than kindness. There are a lot of things more important than busyness. And it is on those two poles that Author Jameson hangs her The Last Policeman-meets-Fire on the Island multi-suspect crime story, one taking place in a post-apocalyptic Switzerland largely insulated from the nuclear fallout all around.

Jon, our American PoV narrator, is making his way in the pre-apocalypse world by staying busy and making himself useful. This means he doesn't spend the time with his (possibly now-dead) family that he busy securing their future that he fails to be present today. The apocalypse, in The Fall, is a good old-fashioned nuclear one. That feels dated in 2022 but it was 2018 when the book came out, different times indeed. In any case, the fancy conference Jon's at saves his life, and that of twenty others. But what does that win us? A murder. And Jon, the busyness addict, uses his clawing need to stay active, to make stuff happen, to fix it! (Spoiler: He can't fix the victim's lack of life, which is what should matter most to everyone.)

While I get totally the desire to ratchet up the stakes in a story, this one's got built-in stakes that are unbeatable. If one is going to use murder to make things more tense, the motive had best be surprising and compelling. This one fell short on both metrics. But the honest and searching moral inventories that Author Jameson puts the characters through makes up for a lot of that. The propulsive writing wasn't matched, though, by a solid pace because of that shortfall. Where I expected to be utterly and deeply involved, I was instead a very interested bystander.

It's $12.99 on Kindle. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


Kill For Me (Victor the Assassin #8) by Tom Wood

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lethal assassin Victor lands in the middle of a Guatemalan cartel war in the latest nonstop thriller from the international bestselling author of The Final Hour.

Victor is the killer who always delivers...for the right price. And Heloise Espinosa, patron of Guatemala's largest cartel, is ready and willing to pay him just that to eliminate the competition--her sister. Heloise has been battling Maria for control of the cartel in an endless and bloody war. Now Victor decides who survives. An easy job if it weren't for the sudden target on his back.

Victor's not the only one on the hunt. Someone else has Maria in their crosshairs and will do anything to get the kill. In the middle of cartel territory with enemies closing in from all sides, Victor must decide where to put the bullet before one is placed in his head. His only chance at survival is to team up with the one person who may be as deadly as he is...


My Review
: You know how it's always the civil wars with the most casualties? You know why that is? Family hates with more passion than any other enemy. And Victor the Assassin has just taken a job to kill one sibling at the behest of another. (They're criminals. Don't stress.)

You don't often find series novels based around an amoral assassin that are simply unputdownable. This is one, though the pinnacle is still Tom Ripley. We're not up that high. But the story being told, with all its rage-fueled violence, is really shockingly...moral! The right things happen to the proper victims, the best thing that could ever happen being the end of this feud between crime-boss sisters and it does.

In a very unexpected way. Lots of fun to read, perfect for the beach, and written with a deftness that renders the experience invisible and effortless. (But *really* much so I was squicked a time or two, which is why it's not a higher rating.)

It's $9.99 on Kindle. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


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.


The Poptart Manifesto by Rick Gualtieri

Rating: 2.5* of five, all for "Ajax"

The Publisher Says: What do umbrellas, mutants, dead plumbers, and of course Pop-Tarts have to do with each other? Nothing really. However, they're all things that the author thinks about...A LOT. Take a journey down this path and see how all of the above, plus a bunch of other topics, make their twisted sense to the author.

The Poptart Manifesto is 13 short stories of weird thoughts coupled with slightly out of the ordinary events that are sure to make you think. Or not. But they might, just might, give you a chuckle or two.


My Review
: Tediously adolescent humor. Maybe I'm just an old picklepuss now, but I really expect more from someone whose SF series, The Tome of Bill, is best-selling and much beloved.

"The Poptart Manifesto," the title story, is just tiresome as this weedy dweeb waxes lyrical about the Pop-Tart to his girlfriend. "Cork Quest" reminded me, as the narrator searches for a corkscrew across the whole of Manhattan, that straight guys were never weaned. Seriously...breasts are there to feed babies. That's what they do. "Wedding Belles" was where I realized that, if things didn't turn around soon, I was gonna have to bail...guy shares room with hot girl, brags all over a wedding about it, and her boyfriend takes umbrage. Ha ha ha. "Ajax: Slayer of Trojans, Destroyer of Grease Stains" was better, a little redemption for the modest and the overlooked is always welcome. "The Epic Adventure of the Mighty Adventurers," however, swung the sledgehammer onto the last inch of the collection's coffin nail: Ready Player One meets Catcher in the Rye if written by P.J. O'Rourke. Tries for witty, achieves snarky.

I might've been less irked by the mismatch of my taste and the author's if he'd used a style sheet and hired a proofreader. "Then" ≠ "Than" ever.


You'll Always Be White To Me: A Memoir by Garon Wade

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Three years in to Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, an abandoned baby ends up in the adopted arms of a white American couple living in a Colombo home that doubles as a CIA safe house. They take him on an extraordinary journey around the globe as he’s launched into the diplomatic world of ambassadors, UN workers, and international schools.

Each summer he returns to the bayous of his parents’ small-town Louisiana, as exotic to him as the golden South African savannahs of his early childhood. He’s curious to know this America, a country he may someday be a part of. But with sincere love comes racism wrapped in the drawling sweetness of his grandparents’ good intentions.

Garon Wade’s transcendent memoir is an international coming-of-age story that explores how the heart of an orphan grew to love a world that didn’t always love him back. You’ll Always Be White To Me asks us who we are, what our common humanity is, and if it’s possible to look beyond our color and find our way there.


My Review
: What a charmed life the author has led. He was likely going to be a casualty of the Sri Lankan civil war and had the incalculable good fortune to be whisked into a world of white American privilege by a pair of professional do-gooders. His parents were loving, kind, and above all good people. They prevented his life from descending into factional or sectarian strife; but more than that, they taught him what it means to be loved fully, deeply, and forgivingly.

I'm not going to read the whole book carefully because it's just too long. It needed to be 2/3 the size it is. Repetition of themes Is still repetition and it's very, very repetitive. His life is interesting for its beginning, and relatable for his queerness marking him out as another kind of stranger among the people he's found himself...but that ain't NOTHIN' compared to the Sri Lankan cultural bias he'd've faced! (I know some Tamil queer men online and there's nothing quite like a religious-nut culture to hate its queers.)

It's $9.99 on Kindle. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


Kingdom Ascent (Tempest of Bravoure #1) by Valena D'Angelis

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: We live brave. We die free.

Darkness has fallen upon the golden kingdom of Bravoure. Once the beacon of an alliance uniting four races, Bravoure is now under the oppression of an elven prince from beneath the surface. Not even the prophecy, the one that foretold his demise in the holy fires of the Dragonborn, was able to stop him.

Ahna, a runaway mage, rises above the decades of grief and returns to the fight, joining the united soldiers of the Resistance. Despite her origins, she is accepted by these brave heroes who will never let their differences stand in the way of freedom.

She and the rebels embark on a covert mission to save the kingdom, but the past and the secrets she keeps will soon come knocking, and Ahna will face her demons as she faces the false king.

Tempest of Bravoure: Kingdom Ascent is the first book of the Tempest of Bravoure series.


My Review
: Much is made, in other reviews, of the maps that begin this book. I agree; there is nothing like a map to make me feel the author's made a serious investment in their secondary world. I was very glad this story started on such a high note.

Ahna soon came to feel like every other embittered heroine in every other fantasy novel I've tried to read over the years. Her Scooby-group of friends, Kairen and David (Kairen's husband), are the relief from Ahna's darkness. The secondary world's well-enough built but, unless you're a big fan of fantasy quest novels, this one's not likely to ring your soul like a bell.

For the fantasy-loving crew, this woman-authored, woman-led series will ring bells all over. There are two more as of now. It's only $2.99 on Kindle, so the risk to your budget is low. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


The Murder of Jeremy Brookes by Tony McFadden

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: McGinnis Investigations has been operating a small but successful shop in Campbelltown, an hour south of Sydney, for over a decade. Business has been what you’d expect in a sort of rough town in a sort of rough country, with an ever increasing circle of rough and tumble clients spreading the word that Dan McGinnis’ team could get the job done, but only above board.

Nothing shady, nothing illegal, frequently successful and frequently just skirting the line.

But nothing could prepare Dan McGinnis for the depths he would plumb when a wealthy Sydney surgeon visits his office and asks him to investigate her husband’s murder. Her husband, Jeremy Brookes, was legal counsel for the owner of a right-wing media empire.

The police say he was killed during a mugging gone bad. She thinks it was a targeted attack.

Crossing powerful media types, the real killer and two other cases that seem to be connected drag Dan and his team into the darker side of politics, money and corruption.


My Review
: What I hoped for: Inspector Hal Challis, Garry Disher's sleuth. What I got: Jimm Juree, Colin Cotterill's second, less successful, sleuth.

I expected the F-word, I expected the Aussie slang, I expected the sexism (the sleuth's an honest man yet never forget he's also an ex-footballer). I didn't expect the typos, the casual-to-the-point-of-caricature minor characters' characterization, or the very progressive political loathing for fake-news purveying hypercapitalists.

While I'm pleased by that last one, and resigned to the first three, the other two dragged a sure-fire four-star read down to three stars. I'm honestly gutted by this. I love Australian fiction. I look for it to be atmospheric. When I am balked by fixable failures, I am cranky. So here's me, cranky.

The Kindle edition is $3.99, but I recommend ordering the free sample before comitting to the purchase. (non-affiliate Amazon link)


The Happier Dead by Ivo Stourton

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In the very near future the rich are able to extend their lives indefinitely, but the price of eternal youth is one that they can get others to pay. A political thriller, crime novel and stunning SF story.

The Great Spa sits on the edge of London, a structure visible from space. The power of Britain on the world stage rests in its monopoly on "The Treatment", a medical procedure which can transform the richest and most powerful into a state of permanent physical youth. The Great Spa is the place where the newly young immortals go to revitalise their aged souls. In this most important and secure of facilities, a murder of one of the guests threatens to destabilise the new order, and DCI Oates of the Metropolitan police is called in to investigate.
In a single day Oates must unravel the secrets behind the Treatment and the long ago disappearance of its creator, passing through a London riven with disorder and corruption, where adverts are transmitted directly into the imagination. As a night of widespread rioting takes hold of the city he moves towards a final climax which could lead to the destruction of the Great Spa, his own ruin, and the loss of everything he holds most dear.

A political thriller, crime novel and stunning SF story.


My Review
: I gave up on p92.

There's nothing really *wrong* with the writing. There's nothing too terribly right with it, either. I think anyone who liked Brave New World or Altered Carbon would be okay with it. I found its Englishness wearing, the sheer and evident disdain for Muslims and Africans got on my tits (as they say Over There). It's like the US's homegrown Brad Thor and ilk with different targets.

I confess that I read the ending. It was as I expected, remembering I stopped reading on p92. I don't think that's a great recommendation, myownself, but there is a certain charm in knowing what the end of a thing will be before it arrives. I just am no longer in that place in my reading life. I want to be surprised (rare) or contented with the journey (far more frequent) to get where I expected to go. I was not contented and that is not fixable after a certain point.

It's $3.99 on Kindle. (non-affiliate Amazon link)

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

UPGRADE, Blake Crouch does it all again & THE LISBON SYNDROME, near-future catastrophe propels people power

(tr. Paul Filev)
Turtle Point Press
$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: A sudden catastrophe in Europe exposes the slow-motion destruction of a generation of Venezuelans and their struggle against repression.

In The Lisbon Syndrome, a disaster annihilates Portugal's capital. In Caracas, Lisbon's sister city and home to many thousands of Portuguese, few details filter through the censored state media.

Fernando runs a theater program for young people in Caracas, teaching and performing classics like Macbeth and Mother Courage. His benefactor, Old Moreira, is a childless Portuguese immigrant who recalls the Lisbon of his youth. Fernando's students suffer from what they begin to call "the Lisbon syndrome," an acute awareness that there are no possibilities left for them in a country devastated by a murderous, criminal regime. A series of confrontations between demonstrators and government forces draw the students and their teacher toward danger. One disappears into the state secret prisons where dissidents are tortured. The arts center that was their sanctuary is attacked, and Fernando is pulled into the battle in the streets.

The Lisbon Syndrome is the most trenchant contemporary novel to offer a glimpse of life and death in Venezuela. But Sánchez Rugeles's bleak vision is lightened by his wry humor, and by characters who show us the humanity behind stark headlines.


My Review
: The Lisbon Syndrome, in this novel, is defined as "...knowing that the things we love are finite, knowing that there is no tomorrow, knowing that we won’t have enough time to do anything worthwhile, that we will disappear without leaving any kind of mark, because we don’t matter to anyone, because our existence has no relevance." It sounds like a variation on saudade to my old-white-guy ears...but the key to the novel is this sense of existential irrelevance.

It's hard not to see the Syndrome all over the post-January 6th world. It's amazing to me how Author Sánchez Rugeles built this sense of the fruitlessness of expecting change to come and simultaneously supporting the acts of making the world however much better you can where you are, using what you have. A schoolteacher whose wife leaves him in the midst of the awful disasters that follow an asteroid obliterating Lisbon uses drama, à la Station Eleven, to instill humanistic values in...anyone, everyone, especially young anyones. It's exactly what one would expect from a somewhat ineffectual intellectual. It makes a positive difference, too. And that draws attention from the Powers That Be—never a good thing. There is, at the end of Author Sánchez Rugeles's rainbow, a pot of fool's gold guarded by a troop of evil sidhe. Yet the point, the salient characteristic, of this story is Hope. Big, capital-H Hope, the kind that comes from recognizing that yes, it's hopeless, people are bastards and the ruling class is scum, but Sra. Gomez needs help with her garden and little Pepita needs eyeglasses so get it in gear and fix the small things.

Brutal world events and brutal governmental responses to them make this a sometimes disheartening read. "How much more can a human endure?!" I asked myself more than once in these seven chapters. The truth is: A lot more. The novel's inspiration was the astonishingly awful year, 2017, when the Venezuelans threw themselves a constitutional crisis and an acceleration of the protests ongoing since 2014. This explainer will give you some context, if you're curious, but the simple truth is that Author Sánchez Rugeles is fictionalizing, not reportage-ing.

I'm pretty sure a lot of you are staring at the screen wondering if I've lost my mind recommending this read to wobbly weary North Americans in the midst of an unfolding crisis of our own. Permaybehaps. But I'm not doing so in the "eat-your-spinach" Savonarola-of-storytelling mode. I think Translator Paul Filev has done an extraordinarily good job of making this Spanish-to-English story clearly and succinctly Author Sánchez Rugeles's story while imbuing it with English-language prosody of clarity, compactness, and elegance. The subverbal vocalizations of the lines are rhythmic and the sounds of the words used are poetic in the best sense of the word.

Why, when the novel's set in Caracas, is the title The Lisbon Syndrome, and why is the catastrophe that has changed the city set in Lisbon? I'm speculating when I say this, but to me, the sizable Portuguese community in Caracas and its reason for being...Portugal's long, tortuous fascist dictatorship resulting in lots of exiles, which was ended by a revolution that caused chaos and produced more emigrants...gave the author his loud echoes of modern Venezuela and its convulsions.

While it's possible that your battle-weary eyes might not get aimed at such a dark corner of our literary world, I'm here to say I hope you'll visit Author Sánchez Rugeles's "believe me, bad as it is, it could be worse!" story universe. He's done post-apocalyptic fiction right.



Ballantine Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

One of Time Magazine's 100 Must-Read Books of 2022

The Publisher Says: “You are the next step in human evolution.”

At first, Logan Ramsay isn’t sure if anything’s different. He just feels a little . . . sharper. Better able to concentrate. Better at multitasking. Reading a bit faster, memorizing better, needing less sleep.

But before long, he can’t deny it: Something’s happening to his brain. To his body. He’s starting to see the world, and those around him—even those he loves most—in whole new ways.

The truth is, Logan’s genome has been hacked. And there’s a reason he’s been targeted for this upgrade. A reason that goes back decades to the darkest part of his past, and a horrific family legacy.

Worse still, what’s happening to him is just the first step in a much larger plan, one that will inflict the same changes on humanity at large—at a terrifying cost.

Because of his new abilities, Logan’s the one person in the world capable of stopping what’s been set in motion. But to have a chance at winning this war, he’ll have to become something other than himself. Maybe even something other than human.

And even as he’s fighting, he can’t help wondering: what if humanity’s only hope for a future really does lie in engineering our own evolution?

Intimate in scale yet epic in scope, Upgrade is an intricately plotted, lightning-fast tale that charts one man’s thrilling transformation, even as it asks us to ponder the limits of our humanity—and our boundless potential.


My Review
: I loved Dark Matter. I really, really liked Summer Frost. I was lukewarm about Recursion, to my distress. And now I'm conflicted about Upgrade. It's a good story, one I liked reading. But it's very dependent on your being willing to listen to medical-terminology-laden lectures to get the full impact of.

That isn't an easy ask. Genetics is a field where the Acronym Anteater sends his tongue into overdrive, clawing down mound after mound of random alphanumeric snippets and that incredibly long, sticky tongue smooshing them into a lumpy paste of confusing same-but-different ever-shifting compounds. I got lost multiple times.

But the work I put in looking stuff up and the time I spent reading whatever "for Dummies"-level materials I could kept me grounded in Author Crouch's not-distant future of humans suffering for the hubris of a few visionary souls. It's important thought-experiment material, all of it, and Author Crouch doesn't think we should wobble blindly on our unicycles down a cobblestone alleyway when we could, and should, think and talk about what can and what might should not be done to our bodies.

I know it sounds like I am trying to foist an "eat-your-spinach" book onto you this time. I promise that I am not. What I am asking each and every one of the book's potential readers to do is to be ready to think about how a man whose hubristic scientist mother was his idol, his exemplary scientist-in-service to humanity, would reach the conclusions and decisions he does when he learns he's been used as a genetic the one that got her reviled.

When he grasps that his continued existence has been rendered debatable by the unauthorized, illegal actions of people with an agenda that he will serve, whether dead or alive.

He's no longer himself, husband-father-government agent of law enforcement. He is An Example, a Test Case, a now-capital-lettered being without any say in the matter, and the matter is life and death for us all.

Those stakes got your interest? They got, and kept, mine. Up, in fact, until 4am they kept mine.

Monday, July 25, 2022

FLYING SOLO, charming story of adults in the midst of Life and love


Ballantine Books (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$13.99 Kindle edition, available now

One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: A woman returns to her small Maine hometown, uncovering family secrets that take her on a journey of self-discovery and new love, in this warm and charming novel from the New York Times best-selling author of Evvie Drake Starts Over.

Smarting from her recently cancelled wedding and about to turn 40, Laurie Sassalyn returns to her Maine hometown of Calcasset to handle the estate of her great-aunt Dot, a spirited adventurer who lived to be 90. Along with boxes of Polaroids and pottery, a mysterious wooden duck shows up at the bottom of a cedar chest. Laurie’s curiosity is piqued, especially after she finds a love letter to the never-married Dot that ends with the line, “And anyway, if you’re ever desperate, there are always ducks, darling.”

Laurie is told that the duck has no financial value. But after it disappears under suspicious circumstances, she feels compelled to figure out why anyone would steal a wooden duck — and why Dot kept it hidden away in the first place. Suddenly Laurie finds herself swept up in a righteous caper that has her negotiating with antiques dealers and con artists, going on after-hours dates at the local library, and reconnecting with her oldest friend and first love. Desperate to uncover her great-aunt’s secrets, Laurie must reckon with her past, her future, and ultimately embrace her own vision of flying solo.


My Review
: There's something really wonderful about reading stories that center your own concerns. I'm older than most of these characters, younger than a few, but they're not just starting out, figuring out Life, for the first time. They're part of it, settled into it, and now...there needs to be More.

Laurie and Nick dated eons ago, fell out of touch, and now that Laurie's back in their hometown to settle up her Aunt Dot's estate, she's back in touch with Nick because...well, because she wants to be. Because he wants to be, too. They're grownups with crack-ups in their pasts. They're adult children of people they love and care for. They're professionals and they're nice people.

And they're still...again...relearning how to love. With each other, with their wildly separate lives and their mutually exclusive homes. They are, in short, deeply relatable to me. This book came to me as a not-quite recommendation from a LibraryThing friend who read it and resonated to its companionate themes. I'm resonating to the, well, the desire to make a relationship work that has a lot of strange contours to it and that precludes cohabitation for the foreseeable future. But is still a full, fun, vibrant, living relationship. It's not that common to see this kind of thing in fiction, though I'm aware that it exists in reality.

What happens in the course of Nick and Laurie's rediscovery of each other is a story that weaves together the best of humanity...generous, kind, unselfish souls sharing gladly all that they're asked for, looking for ways to give even more...and the worst, the dishonest and selfish impulse to lie and cheat and steal. In the course of that element of the story being resolved, in a believable way, these two main charatcers go on the real voyage of discovery inside themselves and in relation to the many, many people in their orbit.

I found a lot to enjoy in this read. I laughed out loud at Author Holmes' trademark funny lines:
“...we were pretty much out of cabinet space between the actual dishes and the food dehydrator he had bought himself and then used to make jerky a total of two—as in ‘one, two’—times.”

“How was the jerky?”

“Wretched. It tasted like wet cigarettes. We could have used it to repel raccoons.”


“...But yes, she started doing senior synchronized swimming at the Sarasota Y recently. She’s going to be in a recital. The theme is Hooray for Hollywood.”

The sound Dot made was closer to a hoot than a laugh. “Good for her. Whatever it takes to get your legs over your head.”

Fun, funny stuff that totally makes sense to someone who lives in an assisted living facility, and regulary talks about it to someone who doesn't. Author Holmes never stints on the real-life elements of her stories, so far at least, and we should all pray to the Muses she never tries to.

The real-life stuff's not *all* fun, of course, and there's a lot of relatable material in that as well:
“This is just a gruesome job. I feel so bad, like a grave robber.”

{The reseller} nodded. “You are far from a grave robber. Remember, she had these things for as long as she needed them, and they probably brought her a lot of happiness. But they most likely won’t bring you any, so there’s not a lot to gain from your coming down hard on yourself because you want to let stuff go.”


“Nah. Believe me, you don’t want to get married if the marriage you’re going to have is not the same marriage as the one you’d like to have.”

It's not deathless prose that stuns with its lapidary gleam and brilliance; it's the way your smarter-than-you friend with the sense of humor talks sense into you when you're falling off of/under/for something. It's comfortable, comforting, and relatable in the best ways.

It's a book I'm glad I read by an author I'm glad is getting contracts. That's more than enough for me right this minute. It felt like a slightly selfish, wicked little gift I was giving myself, reading this pleasant tale about people like me with concerns I could relate to. Giving it a few hours made a whole bunch more of them more pleasant, and that's worth four starts and a thank you every day.

Sunday, July 24, 2022

WRITE TO DIE, Hollywood whydunit story & THE HIDDEN KEYS, Quincunx series' fourth entry

(Quincunx series #4)
Coach House Books
$19.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Parkdale’s Green Dolphin is a bar of ill repute, and it is there that Tancred Palmieri, a thief with elegant and erudite tastes, meets Willow Azarian, an aging heroin addict. She reveals to Tancred that her very wealthy father has recently passed away, leaving each of his five children a mysterious object that provides one clue to the whereabouts of a large inheritance. Willow enlists Tancred to steal these objects from her siblings and help her solve the puzzle.

A Japanese screen, a painting that plays music, a bottle of aquavit, a framed poem and a model of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater: Tancred is lured in to this beguiling quest, and even though Willow dies before the puzzle is solved, he presses on.

As he tracks down the treasure, he must enlist the help of Alexander von Würfel, conceptual artist and taxidermist to the wealthy, and fend off Willow’s heroin dealers, a young albino named ‘Nigger’ Colby and his sidekick, Sigismund ‘Freud’ Luxemburg, a clubfooted psychopath, both of whom are eager to get their hands on this supposed pot of gold. And he must mislead Detective Daniel Mandelshtam, his most adored friend.

Inspired by a reading of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, The Hidden Keys questions what it means to be honourable, what it means to be faithful and what it means to sin.


My Review
: I'm not sure how to tell you about this book. Let me tell you about honorable-thief Tancred:
Tancred was a tall and physically imposing black man, but he was also approachable. He could not sit anywhere for long without someone starting a conversation. This was, his friends liked to say, because his blue eyes were startling and his voice deep and avuncular. So, when he wanted to be alone without necessarily being alone, Tancred answered in French—his maternal tongue—when spoken to by strangers. Few who came into the Dolphin knew the language.

This, I believe, explains Author Alexis's project nicely. He makes a mythic figure, of prodigious endowments of soul and talent, and sets him down at a nexus of Toronto's many worlds. He then seems to stand back and let 'er rip. It feels to me as though Author Alexis more or less "took dictation" when writing this story, and its immediate predecessor Fifteen Dogs (which I read almost a decade ago). The less-than-propulsive pace and the slightly meandering sense of place are, in my observation, best explained by this reality of the creative process. A more plot-driven project, one that was constructed not discovered, wouldn't keep this:
The city had been built by people from innumerable elsewheres. It was a chaos of cultures ordered only by its long streets. It belonged to no one and never would, or maybe it was a million cities in one, unique to each of its inhabitants, belonging to whoever walked its streets.

But, in this structure of discovery, Tancred's observation goes a long way towards making it plain that we are on a quest that surpasses its material goals. Part of the manifestation of this is the quite long time frame of the story...there is time, between Tancred meeting the woman on whose behalf he goes on this quest for and the time he actually begins the quest, for him to suffer an acutely painful personal tragedy...and its, politely said, abrupt ending.

It's a sad, death-haunted quest. It's a life-affirming choice for Tancred to take it on. It's amazing how much fun it is to watch a character decide to give up a past of anti-social thievery and remain a thief, only pro-social now. It's a book with a lot of good aperçus, and a few moments where one wonders what the heck Author Alexis was thinking. Tancred isn't a traditional series-mystery sleuth. The two books featuring him I've read aren't really properly series mysteries. They're no less delightful for that. The puzzle set by, and for, Tancred's client is resolved neatly at the end. Permaybehaps a bit too neatly...the source of the missing star.

But the reason it's got four of 'em is down to moments like this:
“I believe God is an impediment to good. All those people acting in his name don’t bother to think their actions through. They’re incapable of good...No, that’s not right...There are any number of them who accidentally do good. ... What I mean is it’s more difficult to do good with God in the equation.”

Heady stuff, philosophically in my wheelhouse, and not the only example I could've chosen. Spoiled for choice gets a book a good rating.



Thomas & Mercer (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Hollywood’s latest blockbuster is all set to premiere—until a faded superstar claims the script was stolen from her. To defend the studio, in steps the Harold Firm, one of Los Angeles’s top entertainment litigation firms and as much a part of the glamorous scene as the studios themselves. As a newly minted partner, it’s Rory Calburton’s case, and his career, to win or lose.

But the seemingly tame civil trial turns lethal when Rory stumbles upon the strangled body of his client’s general counsel. And the ties that bind in Hollywood constrict even tighter when the founder of the Harold Firm is implicated in the murder. Rory is certain the plagiarism and murder cases are somehow connected, and with the help of new associate Sarah Gold—who’s just finished clerking for the chief justice—he’s determined to get answers. Will finding out who really wrote the script lead them to the mastermind of the real-life murder?


My Review
: Sarah and Rory, a pair of overprivileged and overeducated entertainment lawyers, deny their hawt, sweet luuuv until they can't anymore. And then they solve a crime committed against people I could not work up enough spit to lob into their faces, still less piss on if they were on fire.

It makes it really hard to review a book when that's one's response.

The prose is prosaic, the story's not relatable because one doesn't relate to such dislikable souls. And there I was, flipping the Kindlepages...I needed to know why, not who, in this story. It was a satisfying why, so I felt my time was well-enough spent that I'm not after getting up a pitchfork parade to get Author Rosenberg. I was a lot less forgiving about The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington, as you'll recall; but that was mostly pique at raised expectations being dashed. The fact is that Author Rosenberg's prose doesn't scintillate but it also doesn't obfuscate.

Easily the most effective use of his prose was the ruminations that Rory entertains as he's going through his legal maneuverings in the various trials he's involved in. Time in Rory's head is among my best memories of the read because he really thinks there in front of us. I am not a lawyer and am fascinated by the way that legal argument affects one's thought processes. It's a shoo-in, therefore, that the story will succeed for me on that level.

Sarah's "Impulse-control disorder" is where the wheels really come off for me. This person has a disorder that, in someone who was a Supreme Court Justice's clerk, would be *disastrous* and a disqualification from ever being considered for such a position. And how many Supreme Court Justices would hire such a person knowingly, as we're told Sarah was? Also, a private-investigator's license might also be unobtainable in California due to this diagnosis. If it isn't, I'm very worried.

So the read's not a hit, not a whiff, just a pleasant-enough way to spend a few wastable hours.

Friday, July 22, 2022

THE VANISHING SKY, home-front chronicle of German commonfolk & NAZI WIVES: The Women at the Top of Hitler's Germany, uppermost class' viewpoint

NAZI WIVES: The Women at the Top of Hitler's Germany

St. Martin's Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$17.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, Hess, Bormann—names synonymous with power and influence in the Third Reich. Perhaps less familiar are Carin, Emmy, Magda, Margarete, Lina, Ilse and Gerda...

These are the women behind these infamous men—complex individuals with distinctive personalities who, as they fell under Hitler's spell, were drawn deeper and deeper into a perverse version of reality.

In Nazi Wives James Wyllie skilfully interweaves their stories, exploring their roles in detail for the first time against a backdrop of the rise and fall of Nazism and in the context of the aftermath, notable for the resolute lack of contrition from those wives who survived.


My Review
When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,
He shouts to scare the monster who will often turn aside.
But the she-bear thus accosted rends the peasant tooth and nail,
For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.
–Rudyard Kipling, "The Female of the Species"

We're not supposed to notice things like this in the time of "Believe Women"...yes, of course, if they're telling the truth, but always, always LISTEN to women with open minds...but the women in this book were not exemplars of twenty-first century womanhood's new (!) course. They were awful, racist, anti-semitic, and deeply spoiled people, as one would expect.

Ilse, Carin, Emmy, Gerda, Eva, Margaret, Lina, and Magda married men who ran the worst, most heinous government of the twentieth century. They knew, either from direct evidence or from the unavoidable lessons of sheer propinquity, the kind of men they were married to, and they acquiesced at the minimum and ably assisted in other cases (thinking of Magda Goebbels most especially) in forming and maintaining the ethos of the Reich.

Not one of the women who survived WWII ever expressed regret or remorse for her, or her husband's, actions. These women were prototypical, stereotypical Mean Girls. They reveled in their luxurious lifestyle, they shut down whatever empathy they possessed when confronted with anything that challenged their world, and most especially in the case of Magda Goebbels (who went so far as to murder her children when defeat was inevitable) showed no obvious signs of possessing a conscience.

That made the read kind of revolting on some levels and deeply upsetting on others. I wasn't aware of the facts presented by Author Wyllie. In many ways I wish I still wasn't! But the truth is, the authorial choice to refer to the men by their surnames and the women only by their first names made teasing apart which horrible woman was attached to what vile man more complicated than it needed to be. This is also a function of the organizational principle used, that of dealing with the entire pack of wolves as a whole. I found myself flipping around, looking to connect (eg, Gerda Bormann's, the most often) strands. Gerda was far and away the woman I found least interesting, coming across to me as a Stepford wife without much to recommend her in either positive or negative ways.

All that said, the organizational longueurs are the source of the rating but the informational content earns the author and the book my recommendation. I'm glad someone has, at long last, foregrounded the role that women played in the Third Reich, at the highest levels, in setting, supporting, and even exemplifying the worst of an awful regime.



Bloomsbury USA (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: For readers of Warlight and The Invisible Bridge, an intimate, harrowing story about a family of German citizens during World War II.

In 1945, as the war in Germany nears its violent end, the Huber family is not yet free of its dangers or its insidious demands. Etta, a mother from a small, rural town, has two sons serving their home country: her elder, Max, on the Eastern front, and her younger, Georg, at a school for Hitler Youth. When Max returns from the front, Etta quickly realizes that something is not right-he is thin, almost ghostly, and behaving very strangely. Etta strives to protect him from the Nazi rule, even as her husband, Josef, becomes more nationalistic and impervious to Max's condition. Meanwhile, miles away, her younger son Georg has taken his fate into his own hands, deserting his young class of battle-bound soldiers to set off on a long and perilous journey home.

The Vanishing Sky is a World War II novel as seen through a German lens, a story of the irreparable damage of war on the home front, and one family's participation-involuntary, unseen, or direct-in a dangerous regime. Drawing inspiration from her own father's time in the Hitler Youth, L. Annette Binder has crafted a spellbinding novel about the daring choices we make for country and for family.


My Review
: First, read this:
“You’ve got to do the right thing. You’ve got to use your mind,” she said. “That’s what the real God wants. People should do the right thing but they never do.”


They should have hung their heads, but people didn’t feel shame anymore. They lied and after a while they believed the lies they told, and this is how it went.


“He’s not coming back,” Ushi pushed her cup aside. “People leave and they don’t come back. My Jens is gone and my Jürgen, too.” Her voice quavered. “They’ve wrecked the world, these men, and still they’re not done. They’d take the sky if they could. They’d take the air we breathe, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

The Stockholm Syndrome of an entire nation, an entire class of people, is the shocking subject of this novel based on the facts as the author knows them surrounding her own family's WWII experience.

Etta Huber is frantic, as what wife of a dementia-suffering husband (Josef) trying to get into the war wouldn't be; as what mother of a returned soldier (Max) suffering from what we would call PTSD wouldn't be; as what loving, protective mother of a young teenager (Georg) caught up in a vision of glamour obfuscating the war's reality wouldn't be. The situation with Max is, of course, the one she's got the most emotional room for. No sane recruiter would take her retired-schoolteacher husband whose grasp of reality is deficient to wield a weapon, surely? Max, the bright and shining boy who left, is gone forever and here in his place is...a burden, frankly. In a time when the food-growing region the Hubers live in is getting less and less well-fed, another mouth isn't a joy...then Georg is sent to the Eastern front, which destroyed his brother Max, to dig defenses in what everyone knows is a vain effort to stop Allied tanks attcking German troops.

Etta isn't coping well with any of this. What she doesn't know is that she's got a stronger boy in Georg than she thought. He's been unable to believe the nonsense he's been fed in the Hitler Youth. He's fallen in love with one of the other boys, which (since this is simply unthinkable and impossible for Hitler Youths) has formed a strong resistant core in him. He ends up deserting before the boys get to the front, and walks home. Through war-torn Germany. On his own.

Max's horrors are always with him, and his behaviors worry his Mutti. Of course, he was always the odd kid:
Even when he was little Max had a way of fixing his eyes on her and asking questions that had no easy answers or no answers at all. "Mutti?" he'd asked her once when he was only six, "where do birds go to die? I see birds every day and never a dead one. Where do they go then?" and Etta could only shake her head at her boy, who thought of such things.

"They go someplace nice," she told him, "where it's quiet and the cats won't find them and the wolves and foxes neither. That's why we don't see them. They go to bird heaven." He looked at her a long while and then he nodded, satisfied with her response. It made sense that birds could find their way to heaven. They flew beneath it every day. It would only take a breeze to bear them up and through the gates, only a breeze and they were gone.

Much like Max himself disappears, vanishes from his loving mother's ability to care for him...forever. It's one of many heartbreaks in Etta's world.

What a world it was. She, and her other bog-standard German neighbors, have noticed there are people disappearing. Most of them simply note this fact without a lot of interest, but note it they do. The rare German whose instinct is to help in whatever small way she can the disappearing ones, is fighting a losing battle as we-the-readers know. But the fact is no one, inside or outside Germany, knew what was going on in the camps where the disappeared went. It wasn't good...but it was factually unknown until after the war. This novel is set *during* the war, and the author presents the unease of the people with the ever-increasing evidence of their leadership's lies and obfuscations.

In the end, what earned this book a mere shade over three stars was its overly slow pace. Many things were dwelt on that could've been done away with or been less of a focus. The voices of the Germans are, on the other hand, exactly how the German folk I knew in my life sounded: Formal, deliberate, and slightly obscured behind any words they did say. This doesn't mean it was always fun to read their ponderous utterances. But it was the purpose of the author to tell a family story. I expected it to have more of that feel to it. Instead it became a deeply personal historical account of the agonies of your way of life's death.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW, AND TOMORROW...taking Shakespeare literally is good strategy


Alfred A. Knopf
$28.00 hardcover, available now

One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

Now an Oprah Magazine Favorite Book Of 2022!

One of Time Magazine's 100 Must-Read Books of 2022

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In this exhilarating novel by the best-selling author of The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry two friends—often in love, but never lovers—come together as creative partners in the world of video game design, where success brings them fame, joy, tragedy, duplicity, and, ultimately, a kind of immortality.

On a bitter-cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn't heard him, but then, she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom. These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favors, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even twenty-five years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won't protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts.

Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, Gabrielle Zevin's Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow is a dazzling and intricately imagined novel that examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love. Yes, it is a love story, but it is not one you have read before.


My Review
: When you're old, like me, you don't expect to follow middle-aged peoples' passions because you raised them so you know there's just stuff not shared between generations. One of those things is gaming. I've watched people get really passionate about the games they're playing and, frankly, wanted to yawn in their face. I do not see the appeal. But, knowing this was going to be the spine of the story, I was ready for that and factored my indifference out of the story's appeal.
Sadie had often reflected that sex and video games had a great deal in common. There were certain objectives that needed to be met. There were certain rules that shouldn't be broken. There was a correct combination of movements—button mashes, joystick pivots, keystrokes, commands—that made the whole thing work or not work. There was a pleasure to knowing you had played the game correctly and a release that came when you reached the next level. To be good at sex was to be good at the game of sex.

What we're left with is the childhood friend, I think most of us have had one, whose idea of a good time marches well with our own and whose ability to connect with our quiet places makes them invaluable and necessary companions. This is not to say they're romantic-partner material, and in some odd way I think that romantic facet, if present, actually works against this sort of long-term companionship. The relationship that Sam and Sadie take with them through their lives is that companionably silent, creatively clicking connection. It's a wonderful thing to find and, mirabile dictu, Author Zevin makes the force of it real, present, and never overplays her hand with it. A tremendously admirable and no doubt difficult achievement.
Why was it so hard for him to say he loved her even when she said it to him? He knew he loved her. People who felt far less for each other said "love" all the time, and it didn't mean a thing. And maybe that was the point. He more than loved Sadie Green. There needed to be another word for it.


To allow yourself to play with another person is no small risk. It means allowing yourself to be open, to be exposed, to be hurt. It is the human equivalent of the dog rolling on its back—I know you won't hurt me, even though you can. It is the dog putting its mouth around your hand and never biting down. To play requires trust and love.

The hardest thing to admit to yourself is that you're the Bad Guy in someone else's fairy tale of life and love. Someone out there thinks of you with acute hurt and badly wounded feelings. Sam and Sadie are that to each other, as well as companionable besties. It's complicated, and it wouldn't do to spend time spoilering it, but suffice to say that the ability to betray, then to forgive yourself and seek forgiveness from the betrayed, is another very difficult thing to present in any believable way in fiction. Author Zevin does that, too.
"We work through our pain. That's what we do. We put the pain into the work, and the work becomes better. But you have to participate. You have to talk to me. You can't ignore me and our company and everything that came before."

It's a story about the depths of devotion to an idea, an ideal, and a cause in service of one's burning passion to make and be more than one is. It's a story about Love being, in the end, enough to make even failure less important. It's a story about Sam and Sadie making a life with each other: even though not spouses, they're necessary in each others' world because...well, because.
“I thought you were worried I was going to die," Sam said.

"No. You'll never die. And if you ever died, I'd just start the game again," Sadie said.

"Sam's dead. Put another quarter in the machine."

"Go back to the save point. Keep playing, and we'll win eventually.”

There it is, in that brief passage. That is what some connections offer, and what some of us luck into once or twice in a lifetime. It's precious beyond price and it's the heart of this loving story of the messy, cruel, angry thing we call life.

Why, then, have I given the read a mere four stars? Because I am, as noted above, old. It is not a story written for me, and so I am not as invested in it as I would be if I were 42 not 62. I expect that others will love the delicate and intricate love among all three main protagonists without the sense I had of being spoken around at the dinner table. It's a fate, like bed-wetting, that comes around again after being left behind in childhood. Hence the lack of a fifth, or fraction of a fifth, star. Still a story I'd encourage you to read. (With an agèd person caveat.)