Wednesday, August 31, 2022

THE SPEAR CUTS THROUGH WATER, fantasy on many levels


Del Rey Books
$28.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

FINALIST for the second annual Ursula K. LeGuin Prize for Fiction. Winners were announced on her birthday, 21 October, last year, so might be again this year, but no formal announcement of that was made that I found.

The Publisher Says: Two warriors shepherd an ancient god across a broken land to end the tyrannical reign of a royal family in this new epic fantasy from the author of The Vanished Birds.

The people suffer under the centuries-long rule of the Moon Throne. The royal family—the despotic emperor and his monstrous sons, the Three Terrors—hold the countryside in their choking grip. They bleed the land and oppress the citizens with the frightful powers they inherited from the god locked under their palace.

But that god cannot be contained forever.

With the aid of Jun, a guard broken by his guilt-stricken past, and Keema, an outcast fighting for his future, the god escapes from her royal captivity and flees from her own children, the triplet Terrors who would drag her back to her unholy prison. And so it is that she embarks with her young companions on a five-day pilgrimage in search of freedom—and a way to end the Moon Throne forever. The journey ahead will be more dangerous than any of them could have imagined.

Both a sweeping adventure story and an intimate exploration of identity, legacy, and belonging, The Spear Cuts Through Water is an ambitious and profound saga that will transport and transform you—and is like nothing you’ve ever read before.


My Review
: How do you read your books? Tree book, ebook, ear reading? Where are you when you experience the stories you consume...bed, chair, front seat of the car, public transportation? All of these factors will come into play while experiencing this read.

I myownself am an obligate librocubicularist. It was a little challenging at first, reading this magisterially paced polyphony while within easy reach of the off switches on all my lighting devices. I was lights-out far more than once in the first quarter, maybe because I wasn't sure this story was going somewhere I entirely wanted to go. Especially as there's a hefty salting of second-person narration to endure as the price for learning how love animates and exculpates both lover and belovèd. What one receives for this benison bestowed on the narrative is a story of the impossibility of eternal power, unending dominance, unchallenged imperium. In the end, glory is fleeting because humans are ephemeral.

The roles we accept, and even eagerly seek, aren't unique to us. I think Jung was by far the closest to grasping the eternal truth when he posited archetypes, those massively misunderstood and mischaracterized patterns of being. But each of us seems to seek a pattern, a focus of individuation, and that seems or feels to us and to others as an inevitable end-point of a life-long search. Is it? It is for Jun and for Keema, whose story this (ultimately) is.

Echoes from a distant past? This story is. Explicitly. Designs for a present? This story is, not so explicitly though. It's decolonization writ personal; it's the massive machinery of culture caught in the tsunami of rage arising from inequality. It's deep, and very dark, and shot through with the awful truth of violence. It's just like, in other words, the real world around you.

Jun and Keema, the men whose love animates the story from beginning to end, aren't going to do the wild thing for your amusement. They are going to manifest for you the eternal story of accepting the love patiently offered you, in spite of believing you're not worthy of it. If you believe you're not worthy, you aren't; because the offering is not to you, but to the one you will become with the gift accepted.

That's not a truth I expected to see made so plain in a fantasy novel. A lot gets heaped on all the players in this astoundingly violent tale. It's shocking what hatred, spurned love, multivalent deprivation will drive a person to enact on the world. It's far and away the hardest of life's lessons to see that without one's own rage obscuring the real source of the problem. Othering and disempowering might be the means to gaining temporary, temporal acquiescence. They do nothing to improve the long-term odds of success for those who Other, who disempower, who use their own weapons against those they need to succeed. Those who use the weapon forget the other edge, the power of the spirit.

And that is the ultimate truth of the spear, the artifact and symbol of the disempowered, the metaphor for power as it is transfered in the world of rank and division. It is, in its very nature, a symbol of what enables leaders to become dictators. It is supremely easy to pass the spear on through family lines. It is always the case that the spear is turned against its user.

Never forget that. Who lives by the sword, dies by it as readily.

But Jun? His Keema keeps him safe from the spear. In spite of everything they've seen, they've been to and for and against each other, Keema is the one whose patient offering of love never wavers even when it morphs. That's how you know it's the love Jun needs, and that's how Jun finally knows he is not Jun, but Keema's Jun.

No one who has the patience, the fortitude not to check out of its reality back into ours, to read this uniquely told story will leave it the same person as they entered it. That's the best thing I can thnk of to say about a story.

Monday, August 29, 2022

REAL BAD THINGS, a very accurate title for a twisty story


Thomas & Mercer
$4.99 Kindle edition, available for pre-order; releases Thursday

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From the author of Cottonmouths, a Los Angeles Review Best Book of 2017, comes an evocative suspense about the cost of keeping secrets and the dangers of coming home.

Beneath the roiling waters of the Arkansas River lie dead men and buried secrets.

When Jane Mooney’s violent stepfather, Warren, disappeared, most folks in Maud Bottoms, Arkansas, assumed he got drunk and drowned. After all, the river had claimed its share over the years.

When Jane confessed to his murder, she should have gone to jail. That’s what she wanted. But without a body, the police didn’t charge her with the crime. So Jane left for Boston―and took her secrets with her.

Twenty-five years later, the river floods and a body surfaces. Talk of Warren’s murder grips the town. Now in her forties, Jane returns to Maud Bottoms to reckon with her past: to do jail time, to face her revenge-bent mother, to make things right.

But though Jane’s homecoming may enlighten some, it could threaten others. Because in this desolate river valley, some secrets are better left undisturbed.


My Review
: Like her previous novel Cottonmouths (my review linked above), this book is set in a rural area that could be anywhere but undeniably is the American South. At no point do we feel the curiously unmoored sensation that many crime-centered stories have, that eternal-now anywhereness. It starts from when Jane is released from steerage, I mean the commuter plane, onto the hot tarmac of a regional airport. Her mother's nasty phone message hissing in her newly single, newly homeless ear, "don't even think of running." Why Ma didn't say "again" is beyond me, because Jane's running hasn't stopped since it was "away to Boston, there a lesbian to be."

So now she's coming back to face the music for confessing to her stepfather's murder a quarter century ago. Note: confessing to. Not murdering. And that demented witch of a mother believes her, always has, she's been squatting in this nowhere town stewing in her rage and hate for the abnormal daughter who (she said she believed) murdered the abusive man who probably would've killed Ma by now had he lived.

Ah. Family ties.

Like many women with no options, her Ma had never met a nice guy and this latest one was the most violent yet. And the whole town knew it. Not a soul stepped in to help...except Jane's young love, Georgia Lee. Things go very Beautiful Creatures for a minute...Jane's brother Jason gets pulled's all a major clusterfuck, in fact, and when it all settles down there's no Warren. I mean, he's dead, but there's no body. So, no body = no crime. Confess til ya turn purple, Janey luv, no body = no crime. She does spend a goodly amount of time in juvenile detention. The second that ends, she gets the hell out of Arkansas.

What is really clear while reading this book is the quiet insanity of country life. People are all up in each other's hip pockets, they know what's happening, but not a soul interferes. Wouldn't be proper, if a woman lets a man beat her up that's her lookout. Those kids won't amount to anything anyway, so what they suffer.

It's really like this, folks. This is what the world is. And it's ugly as all get out.

Now that everything changed because there's a body, surfaced after twenty-five years, Jane's home to face the music.

What music? She was a juvenile, she was in state custody until charges were dropped, and now there's *a* body but no one knows if it's that right one. (Lotsa men disappeared from this town over the years. No one seems to've looked into it. Not like they were anybody much.)

So we have ourselves a problem. What's Jane facing? Trial? Still no body...conviction? LOLOL

Her life. Her mother. Her ex, her first true love Georgia Lee. Even the little brother who simply existed throughout this ordeal, offering nothing to Jane. All that and more; vaster than oceans and more deep is the need in Jane for answers rather than lies or silences. The answers she finally gets are deeply unsettling. I could never call the last meeting of Jason and Jane a case of healing by honesty, but it was certainly an explanation of parts of their past that seemed weird and random.

Kelly J. Ford was formed by Arkansas and she has never forgiven it for that. As revenges go, this book is a great step.

Sunday, August 28, 2022

August 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!


Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive by Marc Brackett

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The mental wellbeing of children and adults is shockingly poor. Marc Brackett, author of PERMISSION TO FEEL, knows why. And he knows what we can do.

“We have a crisis on our hands, and its victims are our children.”

Marc Brackett is a professor in Yale University’s Child Study Center and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. In his 25 years as an emotion scientist, he has developed a remarkably effective plan to improve the lives of children and adults – a blueprint for understanding our emotions and using them wisely so that they help, rather than hinder, our success and well-being. The core of his approach is a legacy from his childhood, from an astute uncle who gave him permission to feel. He was the first adult who managed to see Marc, listen to him, and recognize the suffering, bullying, and abuse he’d endured. And that was the beginning of Marc’s awareness that what he was going through was temporary. He wasn’t alone, he wasn’t stuck on a timeline, and he wasn’t “wrong” to feel scared, isolated, and angry. Now, best of all, he could do something about it.

In the decades since, Marc has led large research teams and raised tens of millions of dollars to investigate the roots of emotional well being. His prescription for healthy children (and their parents, teachers, and schools) is a system called RULER, a high-impact and fast-effect approach to understanding and mastering emotions that has already transformed the thousands of schools that have adopted it. RULER has been proven to reduce stress and burnout, improve school climate, and enhance academic achievement. This book is the culmination of Marc’s development of RULER and his way to share the strategies and skills with readers around the world. It is tested, and it works.

This book combines rigor, science, passion and inspiration in equal parts. Too many children and adults are suffering; they are ashamed of their feelings and emotionally unskilled, but they don’t have to be. Marc Brackett’s life mission is to reverse this course, and this book can show you how.


My Review
: The author's credentials are impeccable. I quite enjoyed the read, though I found it very repetitive when read straight through. It occurs to me, however, that the target market...the women who would read Marge Simpson's iconic magazine from the ancient opening credits, Fretful not ever have that much time to themselves to read a book straight through. That, plus the simple, direct language and the really easy to remember acronym RULER (see below), make this a very, very useful and helpful read for the trackless wastes of Parenthood that ZERO people are really ready for.

RULER stands for:
  • RECOGNIZING the emotion in the moment...can't do anything until you name it.

  • UNDERSTANDING the source..."why this? why now?"

  • LABELING encourages the use of precise, descriptive, "bummed out" not just " get at the root of the emotion.

  • EXPRESSING out loud, in words, what the emotion experienced really is. Hardest thing in the list to do.

  • REGULATING the expression of emotion into situationally, socially appropriate channels. Another difficult task.

  • None of these tasks are unattainable goals. Each one, in my opinion, would be more effectively done with a professional counselor within a theraputic setting. Nothing to say one can't, or shouldn't, make a start on the process by reading this fascinating (but repetitive) book.

    There are multiple editions available from $14.99. The Publisher's site will take you to your favorite bookery.


    Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: What is the nature of space and time? How do we fit within the universe? How does the universe fit within us? There’s no better guide through these mind-expanding questions than acclaimed astrophysicist and best-selling author Neil deGrasse Tyson.

    But today, few of us have time to contemplate the cosmos. So Tyson brings the universe down to Earth succinctly and clearly, with sparkling wit, in tasty chapters consumable anytime and anywhere in your busy day.


    My Review
    : I would never buy an audiobook, so this was a perfect solution. I wanted to listen to Dr. Tyson reading his own work, since he knows what he wants to convey and to stress. I had some problems this week that made reading problematic for a few days. This 3h42m listen was a great way to keep my hand in. It was also an enjoyable experience.

    Like all ear-reads, I retained about 30% of it, though.

    The things I was most interested in learning more about were the particles, and that bit stuck with me just fine. "Charm" and "strange" are opposites, apparently, in the particle zoo. I myownself think of them as two sides of the same coin.

    I find Dr. Tyson's voice to be easy on the ears. I am confident, as I listen to him, that he is in full possession of the fact and I can rely on him to educate me. He has a sense of humor that goes down well with me, so that really helped my concentration.

    It's a short book, so a hardcover is only $9.49 at Amazon (non-affiliate link).


    Son of a Gun: A Memoir by Justin St. Germain

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: In the tradition of Tobias Wolff, James Ellroy, and Mary Karr, a stunning memoir of a mother-son relationship that is also the searing, unflinching account of a murder and its aftermath

    Tombstone, Arizona, September 2001. Debbie St. Germain’s death in her remote trailer, apparently at the hands of her fifth husband, is a passing curiosity. “A real-life old West murder mystery,” the local TV announcers intone before the commercial break, while barroom gossips snicker cruelly. But for her twenty-year-old son, Justin St. Germain, the tragedy marks the line that separates his world into before and after.

    Long after his mother’s death is “solved,” closure still seems missing. Distancing himself from the legendary town of his childhood, Justin makes another life a world away in San Francisco and achieves all the surface successes that would have filled his mother with pride. Yet years later he’s still sleeping with a loaded rifle under his bed. Ultimately, he is pulled back to the desert landscape of his childhood on a search to make sense of the unfathomable. What made his mother, a onetime army paratrooper, the type of woman who would stand up to any man except the men she was in love with? What led her to move from place to place, house to house, man to man, job to job, until finally she found herself in a desperate and deteriorating situation, living on an isolated patch of desert with an unstable ex-cop?

    Justin’s journey takes him back to the ghost town of Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, to the trailers he and Debbie shared, to the string of stepfathers who were a constant, sometimes threatening presence in his life, to a harsh world on the margins full of men and women all struggling to define what family means. He decides to confront people from his past and delve into the police records in an attempt to make sense of his mother’s life and death. All the while he tries to be the type of man she would have wanted him to be.

    Brutally honest and beautifully written, Son of a Gun is a brave, unexpected and unforgettable memoir.


    My Review
    : I've read a goodly number of memoirs about hardscrabble childhoods...The Glass Castle for one, Cockroaches for a memorable other...but I was not entirely sure what to make of this one. Violence against women isn't uncommon, and the domestic violence that led Author St. Germain's mother to her death was part of an established pattern in her life. It seems very likely that she was an adrenaline junkie, a person whose emotional needs are met by the powerful stimulant our brain feeds us when we're afraid.

    Seeking out the fear isn't that uncommon a trait. Many of us climb mountains or watch horror films. The author's mother seems to have gotten her high from relationships with abusive men. It's very sad and very dangerous, and in this case lethal.

    The enormous trauma of Author St. Germain's upbringing, the immense psychic wound of his mother's murder at the hands of the man she chose to marry, and the...the strangely deficient paperwork trail her murderer's fellow cops present him with when he returns to the scene of the crime a decade on, all left me...flat. I wasn't used up, wrung out, the way I would've been if I'd been sobbing from the awfulness and waste of it all. I was just...flat.

    I suspect the reason is that I wasn't fully drawn in to the story. I did not get past the stage of reading where I lost my sense of separateness, of being outside looking in. It's an alchemical thing that happens when I'm reading certain things. I can't identify why it did not occur this time.

    I wished that it had; I expected it to because I liked the guy; if I ever met Justin, I'd want to hug him. But I was outside, looking in, and thus not 4-star-giving wrapped up in his story.

    A trade paperback is readily available for $16.00 (less if it's used) by following the non-affiliate link to Amazon.


    All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: A dark, riveting, beautifully written book—by “a brilliant novelist” according to Richard Bausch—that combines noir and the gothic in a story about two families entwined in their own unhappiness, with, at its heart, a gruesome and unsolved murder.

    Late one winter afternoon in upstate New York, George Clare comes home to find his wife killed and their three-year-old daughter alone—for how many hours?—in her room across the hall. He had recently, begrudgingly, taken a position at a nearby private college (far too expensive for local kids to attend) teaching art history, and moved his family into a tight-knit, impoverished town that has lately been discovered by wealthy outsiders in search of a rural idyll.

    George is of course the immediate suspect—the question of his guilt echoing in a story shot through with secrets both personal and professional. While his parents rescue him from suspicion, a persistent cop is stymied at every turn in proving Clare a heartless murderer. And three teenage brothers (orphaned by tragic circumstances) find themselves entangled in this mystery, not least because the Clares had moved into their childhood home, a once-thriving dairy farm. The pall of death is ongoing, and relentless; behind one crime there are others, and more than twenty years will pass before a hard kind of justice is finally served.

    A rich and complex portrait of a psychopath and a marriage, this is also an astute study of the various taints that can scar very different families, and even an entire community. Elizabeth Brundage is an essential talent who has given us a true modern classic.


    My Review
    : A domestic thriller, and a darn unsuspenseful one. There is, as we're all aware, a long tradition in fiction and in fact of men who kill their wives for what seem to outsiders as heartbreakingly trivial reasons. This is one of those stories. It's not in the least mysterious that the murderer is the murderer. It's the reason I didn't give the book more stars.

    I gave it as many as I did because Author Brundage writes about how the people in a small, gentrifying community deal with the end of their safety net of decent jobs and affordable housing. The influx of yuppies from the nearby rich-kids' college who just are not like them at all adds stress to the community. The families who figure in the murder case are tied together by their state of limbo. No one ever is charged for the crime. Although, I remind you, there's really just no doubt at all in the experienced reader's mind who did the crime.

    Anyway. The way the author slowly, slowly brings the beginnings of justice to the town's unresolved wounds makes it a worthwhile read.

    A Kindle edition is $9.99 at the 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 Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (tr. Michele Hutchison) {p79}

    Rating: 3.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: I thought about being too small for so much, but that no one told you when you were big enough ... and I asked God if he please couldn't take my brother Matthies instead of my rabbit. 'Amen.'

    Jas lives with her devout farming family in the rural Netherlands. One winter's day, her older brother joins an ice skating trip; resentful at being left alone, she makes a perverse plea to God; he never returns. As grief overwhelms the farm, Jas succumbs to a vortex of increasingly disturbing fantasies, watching her family disintegrate into a darkness that threatens to derail them all.

    A bestselling sensation in the Netherlands by a prize-winning young poet, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld's debut novel lays everything bare. It is a world of language unlike any other, which Michele Hutchison's striking translation captures in all its wild, violent beauty. Studded with unforgettable images—visceral, raw, surreal—The Discomfort of the Evening is a radical reading experience that will leave you changed forever.


    My Review
    : Excrement, depression, religious nuttery, what I strongly suspect is a suicide...all still within my tolerance. Then Obbe is disgustingly cruel to his hamster in front of his very young sisters and Jas says:
    'Right,' Dad says, 'off to your bedroom, you, and pray.'

    His shoe hits my bum; the poo stuck up it might have shot back up in my intestines now. When Mum learns the truth about {the hamster} she'll get depressed again and won't speak for days. I glance at {her brother and sister} one last time, then the Lego castle {where the dying hamster is hidden from their father). My brother is suddenly busy with his butterfly collection. He probably just beat them out of the air with his bare hands.

    That's page 79. Add in a parent hitting a child with a shoe and I am just not here for it. I don't think others will have my sensitivity to animal cruelty or using an object to strike a child, and the imagery is so well-rendered into English I forgot it was a translation; whatever there is to recommend it, I can not, and do not wish to, go there.

    It's $11.19 trade paper, or $9.99 on Kindle (non-affiliate Amazon link).


    Shutter Man by Richard Montanari (p115)

    Rating: 3* of five

    The Publisher Says: Plagued with a rare disease that prevents him from recognizing faces, Billy carries a photograph in his pocket that is his only way of identifying his next target. Killing is in Billy's bloodline, as a member of Philadelphia's dangerous Farren crime family.

    While Billy stalks Philadelphia, Detective Kevin Byrne is assigned to a series of bizarre home-invasion cases and is joined by his former partner-turned-assistant district attorney, Jessica Balzano. Their investigations circle Byrne's childhood neighborhood of Devil's Pocket, and they find themselves revisiting a crime from Byrne's past that has haunted him for decades. What Byrne witnessed as a child in Devil's Pocket jeopardizes the Farren family--which makes him the next target on Billy's hit list.

    A multigenerational story of hardship, guilt, and redemption, Shutter Man is Byrne and Balzano's most tense and personal case to date.


    My Review
    : Maybe I should've said "no" to this ARC. It's #9 in a series I've never read before. That doesn't usually go well for me, does it for you?

    Byrne, the cop, is trying to chase down a man who kills women, apparently for fun. Byrne keeps...checking out...and there are these portentous passages that Mean Something™:
    Byrne knew what he should be doing, where he should be pointing his day, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He knew that what {a guy} had seen today in the Pocket would remain between the two men. {The guy} was a brother cop, and Byrne didn't have to concern himself.

    He tried to get back to work, but that small cardboard box, and its contents, kept calling out to him like a dark specter from his youth.

    I honestly don't think there's anything in there that does a good job of making me turn the page to see what's next. It's not terrible writing; it's bland to me and, like a ginger-infused blancmange, doesn't work the way it was obviously meant to.

    It's $2.99 on Kindle, if you'd like to try it for yourself.


    Thoreau in Love by John Schuyler Bishop (18%)

    Rating: 2.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: In 1843, a repressive puritanism still hangs over Concord, Massachusetts, and Henry Thoreau, twenty-five years old, wants out. When his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, gives him an opportunity to move to New York City, the lively center of the growing nation, Henry leaves Concord with no thought of ever returning.

    In his journals, the 250-some pages about his trip to New York have been ripped out, the only substantial number of pages missing from the forty-seven journal volumes. What was so scandalous that Thoreau—or, more likely, his literary executor—decided no one should see it?

    And why did Thoreau stay only six months in New York?

    Thoreau’s biographers go out of their way to convince us that the writer was heterosexual, although he never married and wrote freely in his journal about the beauty of men. His poem “Sympathy,” one of the few published in his lifetime, is a love poem to a boy who was his student. About that poem, one celebrated biographer went so far as to say, “When he wrote ‘he’ Thoreau really meant ‘she,’ and when he wrote ‘him,’ he really meant ‘her.'” When in his journal Thoreau wrote, “There is more than maiden modesty between us . . . I have no feature so fair as my love for him,” that same biographer said, “There is little doubt that ‘her’ was meant. . . . There are, indeed, many passages . . . where Henry’s emotional experiences with women are memorialized under a camouflage of masculine pronouns.”

    By denying Thoreau's real sexuality, scholars have reduced him to a wooden icon. But this sexuality can humanize the man.

    “Thoreau in Love” imagines the time of the missing pages, when Thoreau emerged from his shell and explored the wider world and himself before he returned to Concord, where he fearlessly lived the rest of his life and became the great naturalist and literary giant.

    My Review: I do not remember how I came to be given this book, but it has been on my Kindle since 20 June 2013. Nine years! And no review! Sinful wicked shame and contumely be heapèd upon me.

    My response to the 18% I read is best spoken in the deathless phrase of a writer whose words are endemic to Goodreads: "the words and the sentences curled themselves into knotty shapes that did not fit the shape of my brain."

    I am out.


    The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles by Jim Keeble (p59)

    Rating: 3* of five

    The Publisher Says: Julius Miles is a mathematical genius, but he is hefty of frame, awkward with the opposite sex and struggling to bring his existence into balance. When he stumbles across the girl next door naked and dead on her Victorian tiles, he starts to unravel the one equation that’s eluded him: that of his own life. And so it is that with the most unlikely of assistants – a transsexual Cupid with a penchant for drugs – he embarks on a quest to find the truth about love, death, family and how, ultimately, you make your numbers happy.


    My Review
    : Try this on for size:
    Even murder cops get bored. They're as keen as the rest of us to go home and watch television. It's not the gunslingers who solve crime but the pedants and the bores, my old man explained. "The evidence is is always there, son. Most cases are solved by a pig-headed copper going back one last time.

    There is one more thing he told me, my cop father. Because it acts as an alibi, and because they get a kick out of seeing the pain and grief they've caused, killers often attend the funerals of their victims.

    This is A Confederacy of Dunces plus equations, divided by Ignatius J. Reilly's nasty attitude towards others, times neurodivergent Othering plus fatphobia. There are a lot of characters. They speak, or think, in short bursts. There's a transgender woman playing matchmaker...and called a transsexual. Well, to be fair, this came out in 2012 and that was okay then.

    But it just is not doing it for me at all. I am releasing the tree book into the Little Free Library as of now.

    The trade paper edition is $17.95 at the non-affiliate Amazon link.

    Thursday, August 25, 2022



    Bloomsbury USA
    $28.00 hardcover, available now

    Rating: 4.75* of five

    The Publisher Says: In 1963, in a Siberian gulag, former nuclear specialist Valery Kolkhanov has mastered what it takes to survive: the right connections to the guards for access to food and cigarettes, the right pair of warm boots to avoid frostbite, and the right attitude toward the small pleasures of life so he won’t go insane. But on one ordinary day, all that changes: Valery’s university mentor steps in and sweeps Valery from the frozen prison camp to a mysterious unnamed town that houses a set of nuclear reactors and is surrounded by a forest so damaged it looks like the trees have rusted from within.

    In City 40, Valery is Dr. Kolkhanov once more, and he’s expected to serve out his prison term studying the effect of radiation on local animals. But as Valery begins his work, he is struck by the questions his research raises: why is there so much radiation in this area? What, exactly, is being hidden from the thousands who live in the town? And if he keeps looking for answers, will he live to serve out his sentence?

    Based on real events in a surreal Soviet city, and told with bestselling author Natasha Pulley’s inimitable style, The Half Life of Valery K is a sweeping new adventure for readers of Stuart Turton and Sarah Gailey.


    My Review
    : There is nothing one Earth more appalling to me than the attitude "My ignorance is better than your education, training, and expertise." It's not just wrong-headed. It is dangerous. It leads to very, very deleterious results for the people who have no say in...often no awareness of...the risks they are being subjected to by the wilfully ignorant. The Yucca Flats, Nevada, nuclear-bomb testing disaster that People magazine broke the story of in 1980...the 1956 filming of The Conqueror ring any bells, fellow oldsters?...wasn't the only such official-denial event in the world. In the USSR, there was the Ozyorsk disaster, outed to the world in the New Scientist magazine in 1976 by a brave scientist called Medvedev. (I have to say that Siberia has a very unlucky past. This disaster occurred in 1957; the Tunguska event in 1908 was a holocaust; and sixty miles away from Ozyorsk is Chelyabinsk, of 2013 meteorite explosion fame!)

    The story of the many "closed cities" in the USSR, and in today's Russia, is similarly grim, similarly marked by denial and obfuscation and outright lying. The Chernobyl disaster in 1986 was going to be treated that way, only it was far too big to tamp down and deny. So, Author Pulley has me by the nose-hairs again. Again! I am putty in this wicked writer's hands. She tells stories that make my ears perk up, the hair on the back of my neck do its wolfman imitation, and my breathing to become labored in eagerness.

    Valery K. the nuclear scientist, exiled to a colder and less hospitable part of Siberia than City 40/Ozyorsk is in, is suddenly ripped from his wretched routine without explanation or preparation. He's in the gulag...this is terrifying. But his worst fears...interrogation? execution?...aren't realized. He's sent to this comparative demi-Paradise of a place to study field mice. To assess them for effects of radiation exposure.

    So, all is explained. He's a criminal, but also a thorough scientist trained in matters nuclear. Trained, talented, expendable.

    What follows is a litany of nuclear-waste exposure nightmares. The effects on people, on the environment, are grisly. In the one plot strand I am absolutely sure is fiction (it says here) the authorities conduct radiation-exposure experiments on the people of City 40. The other plot strands, the environmental disaster, the carelessness and mismanagement that led to and characterized the ongoing handling of the disaster, are real. (Follow the links!) And gosh golly gee, wowee zowie, those sorts of things don't *ever* happen now. Especially the official lying and misleading! That could never happen in any authoritarian state in the twenty-first century, we have satellites and technology to sniff out problems, and scientists who would *never* lie to us here in the West.

    So, the timing of the title's publication is now explained.

    As one expects from Author Pulley, there are two men falling in love with each other amid the chaos and carnage that they are powerless to stop. Also as one would expect, there are events that occur that cause them trouble personally and interpersonally. I've said it before, the curse of adulthood is one never, ever has an unmixed emotion. Valery tries, in his what-got-him-gulaged way, to force officialdom to face up to the scale of the disaster. He wants to help people, to save them. Shenkov, his belovèd, is a married father, is in the game because it's the way to get ahead. And stay out of the gulag. The story, in other words, of generations of gay and bisexual men. Hide! They won't kill you if they don't have to notice your deviance.

    But like calls to like. Valery knows that Shenkov loves him; he knows he loves Shenkov; things won't go well for City 40, but can things go well for them as men, as people, as...a couple? Fortune, as always, favors the brave. There must always be blood sacrificed before one gets one's rewards.

    Morally grey characters, men past pretty on life's curve, the necessity of moving the world's blockages to make room for your authentic life: boxes all checked. The life you want, well...what do you know about how much it will cost, about what it will extract from you. You'll find out, if you're lucky. Or maybe unlucky. Most likely both. Consider, after reading the book, the title and its layers of meaning.

    The right kind of read for me, right now, and it went down like the oldest, smoothest, most deceptively sweet tequila there is.



    Bloomsbury USA
    $28.00 hardcover, available now

    Rating: 5* of five

    The Publisher Says: A time twisting alternative history that asks whether it's worth changing the past to save the future, even if it costs you everyone you've ever loved.

    Joe Tournier has a bad case of amnesia. His first memory is of stepping off a train in the nineteenth-century French colony of England. The only clue Joe has about his identity is a century-old postcard of a Scottish lighthouse that arrives in London the same month he does. Written in illegal English—instead of French—the postcard is signed only with the letter “M,” but Joe is certain whoever wrote it knows him far better than he currently knows himself, and he's determined to find the writer.

    The search for M, though, will drive Joe from French-ruled London to rebel-owned Scotland and finally onto the battle ships of a lost empire's Royal Navy. In the process, Joe will remake history, and himself.


    My Review
    : An exciting visit to the Aetherverse, to which we were introduced in The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (below)...or so it seemed to me.

    It cost me so much to read this book, with its star-crossed lovers, its perception of time as layered and mutable, and its grotesque unfairness, the first time. It wasn't easy a second one, either, even though I knew what was coming.

    Yes. I, testy oldster with less than two decades left to him, read a book twice.

    There is that much to unpack. There is that much to process. There is that kind of thought put into the structure of the story. All that makes an investment of eyeblinks that big both desirable and at some level necessary.

    The nature of Time (as the Tenth Doctor called it, "wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey...stuff") and the nature of family feature heavily in this tale. Two men whose fates...whose lives entangle across timelines of startling "points of divergence" or "PoDs" but never forget each other. Imagine loving someone enough, with so much of yourself, that you remember them when you don't remember yourself.

    That is the definition of the stakes in this alternate history/time travel novel. There's a weird place, in Scotland for once, where time doesn't behave as we think it should. This remains a weird, slightly underexplained, phenomenon throughout the iterations of the story. In every timeline, Man A meets Man B, falls in love with him, then for Reasons leaves him. Man B doesn't change much, if at all. His name is Kite. His past isn't fixed, though it's the little things that change. For Man A, the one who does the leaving, the past, the present, and the nature of each is...mutable. The world is, oddly, full of people like him who come to themselves in a place where they have no memories and no trauma to explain that lack.

    We, readers, know what it is. We know because there is a man, red hair, terrible burn scars, and Man him Joe, call him Jem, what you will...recalls him with love. He doesn't really know why. He isn't happy anywhere. He can't find connection to anyone around him. He floats, unanchored, when away from Kite. Who is a Napoleonic-Wars naval officer with a bad past. He's building a better future, he hopes, by letting Jem/Joe go through the Scottish time gate. But it's at his own expense. He's too used to that, to doing hard and painful things, as a result of his bad past.

    What came through to me most strongly was the nature of Love. There is a scene early in the book where Joe, as he was at that time, was raped. By his wife. Who should've been his sister-in-law. And she gives birth to his daughter Lily, whom he adores. He struggles against his love for Kite for several years to stay with her. In the end, he can't fight it and they reunite...and Lily is never born. Yet always alive to Joe, Jem, Man A. A truly Torquemadan torment, losing your child.

    What the hell! A man getting raped by a woman?! What's the old lunatic talking about? My own life: It's happened to me, perpetrated by my mother. And that is how I know that Author Pulley got the sensation, the misery of that kind of coercion, exactly and precisely correct. It was shattering to read. It was the very first time in my over-sixty years on this planet that I have read anywhere my private and unshareable truth. It healed and soothed me in a way I didn't anticipate ever experiencing.

    If that is not enough to convince you to read the book, then how's this? These men are very dishonest with themselves. They can't afford not to be. But neither man has ever, for a single moment, lost his love for the other.

    Come for the wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey...stuff. Stay for the family that only love can form. Revel in the struggles of true lovers to live their truth.


    (The Watchmaker of Filigree Street #1)
    Bloomsbury USA
    $26.00 hardcover, available now

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: 1883. Thaniel Steepleton returns home to his tiny London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow. Six months later, the mysterious timepiece saves his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. At last, he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan. Although Mori seems harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggests he must be hiding something. When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interferes, Thaniel is torn between opposing loyalties.

    The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the reader on an unexpected journey through Victorian London, Japan as its civil war crumbles long-standing traditions, and beyond. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past.


    My Review
    : I was hoping this would be a five-star read. I hope that every time I open a book, albeit often with a forlorn sense of the hopelessness of such a thing. But this one, with Queer desire and relationship on offer? Yes please! Gimme!

    Mori and Thaniel, the men in question, are indeed heading down Relationship Road. In no kind or sort of hurry, mind you. They live in *London, *Victorian times, with...magic? sort-of kind-of magic...that involves seeing the multiverse and manipulating your present to bring about a future you like the best from the possibilities. I love this idea, and the use of this trope alone would've gotten the book four stars!

    The way it's handled is also really compelling to me, with Mori making his odd little machines to nudge reality into new shapes. I was also fascinated by Thaniel's kinesthesia...D# is yellow, for example...but too little was made of this for my taste, more of a small grace note. In particular I was sad that Thaniel didn't twig to something he heard being the proof he needed of what was happening around him...but he was simply too stressed out, I think was the reasoning behind that failure.

    Quite a lot that I missed first time round.

    I was sure I recalled this read pretty accurately, and was mildly taken aback by the amount of information I glided past before...for example, the way Thaniel says things to his, um, er, to Grace that, um, kind-of unhappen as the ending approaches...and now, on a years-later re-read seem *hugely*significant* and almost spoilery.

    But that's because I really already knew them, and how they'd play out.

    So what would I call this read, a re-read or a new read? It's kind of both. I've read The Kingdoms (see above) between that initial experience and this one, I'm hip to the author's tricks in a way I wasn't before; I was revisiting the story because I'm reviewing The Half Life of Valery K (see above) now, as well. It's clear as crystal that any author develops stylistic tropes, won't call them tics unless they irk me somehow, and Author Pulley's a one for hiding relationship signals in plain sight. It's a bit disappointing that Grace, after her *horrible* behavior, isn't made to suffer any consequences. Given that there's a second book with Thaniel and Mori at its center, which I haven't read, that could still be possible.

    I've got the best of both worlds, then, revisiting an older read that's altered in interesting ways in light of later reads by the same author. It made this meditation on the etheric reality of chance and destiny intertwining so much richer than it was at first.

    Monday, August 22, 2022

    HOME GROWN TALENT, second Creative Types series M/M rom-com

    (Creative Types #2)
    Amazon Kindle (non-affiliate Amazon link)
    $4.99 on Kindle, available now

    Rating: 4 singed-by-profanity stars of five

    The Publisher Says: Are you for real?

    From the outside, it looks like model and influencer Mason Nash has it all—beauty, fame, and fortune. With his star rapidly rising, and a big contract up for grabs, Mason’s on the verge of hitting the big time.

    When an opportunity arises to co-host a gardening slot on daytime TV with his ex’s brother, Owen Hunter, Mason is definitely on-board. And he intends to use every trick in the book to make the show a hit—including agreeing to his ruthless producer’s demand to fake a ‘will-they/won’t-they’ romance with his co-host…

    Owen Hunter is a gardener with a huge heart and both feet planted firmly on the well-tilled ground. He’s proud of the life he’s built and has absolutely no desire to be on TV—yet somehow he finds himself agreeing to do the show.

    It’s definitely not because he’s interested in Mason Nash. The guy might be beautiful—and yeah, his spoiled brat routine presses all Owen’s buttons in the bedroom—but Owen has no interest in a short-term fling with a fame-hungry model.

    As the two men get closer, though, Owen starts to believe there’s more to Mason than his beautiful appearance and carefully-curated online persona—that beneath the glitz and glamour is a sweet, sensitive man longing to be loved.

    A man Owen might be falling for. A man who might even feel the same.

    But in a world of media spin and half-truths, Owen is dangerously out of his depth. And when a ridiculous scandal explodes online, with Owen at its heart, it starts to look as though everything he thought was real is built on lies—including his budding romance with Mason…


    My Review
    : Remember the story of Lewis and Aaron, the grumpy/sunshine boss/PA delight set in the TV world? It lost enough points for its SIX w-bombs not to get to five stars despite my deep affection for its story line and its delightful silliness. All that was wrapping a quite serious love story between two sad, lonely men whose lives are dedicated to a world that uses them for what it can get.

    The authors? Nice people, one supposes, but severely addicted to carpet w-bombing the reader. Six was bad. TWELVE IN THIS STORY. Twelve! Using any word not a conjunction, pronoun, proper name, or toponym (and that one's iffy) twelve times in one's story is simply too damned many.

    Anyway. The story, as expected from these two mavens of the genre, was a cracker. Owen raised his teenaged brother after their mother's death; as a barely fledged kid himself he...did a great job. He worked. He protected. He never left his brother in the lurch as he got left. His brother's grouchy personality, built to withstand misery and grief, was just more than he could handle. I think it's the most touching story I've ever read, and Owen's power as a character largely began from that base. When we meet him in this story, he's along for the ride at an awards show for Lewis's hit TV show, Leeches. One of the participants' plus-ones is young Mason Nash...Lewis's ex, met at the beginning of episode one, a model/Instagram influencer. Owen judged him harshly while Lewis was dating him. Mason rather curled his lip at Owen, too.

    So guess what happens!

    It's a rom-com. You know what you're getting, you know when you're going to get it, and this being 2022 we know we're in for some sex. The sex scenes add to the relationship drama, and the last one in particular was deeply, deeply relatable to anyone who's ever had a long-term relationship. So used well, written well, satisfyingly up to snuff on the heat-level scale...nothing tepid about these guys!...and exactly the proper amount of smexytimes for the story. (It doesn't hurt that I identify with Owen, either.)

    One of the surprises in the story was the deeply sympathetic portrayal of "an influencer" or massively online person as a regular guy trying to make a living in a very cut-throat industry...two, really, as he was modeling as well as Instagramming his life. Or lifestyle, I all the surface-gloss purveyors of Fantasy, there's a lot of effort behind the Glamour. Then there's Owen, simple son of the soil that he is, who runs a gardening business that doesn't require him to tart anything up for the cameras and likes it that way. But...key realization...Owen is a caretaker, with all the control and trust issues that implies. So, funnily enough, is Mason (real name it's not, but you'll find that out for yourself). Different angles, same path, and Owen'd been on it longer so has much, much more invested in the identity without really taking in his façade's effects on others. Mason's simply never, as a twentysomething, thought much about anyone he wasn't responsible for.

    What draws the men together is what ultimately causes the only serious explosion neither is equipped to handle: Working together on something neither has any control over. It was a shock to me that Owen said yes, but thinking about myownself in my thirties, well...yeah, I see it. Mason's early-onset adulthood led him to reflect, "Responsibility, once assumed, was almost impossible to put down." This being an eternal verity known to most all of us who've taken it up as Owen had to do, as Mason must do, left me nodding along. Not for the first, or last, time, either. The authors are quite able to repackage Received Wisdom as new knowledge to their characters. It's one of the things that makes me enjoy these stories of younger people more than many, if not most, others.

    The unfairness of Mason's life, as it leaks little by little into Owen's awareness, makes their estrangement that much more painful for them both. It was, TBH, about as blatantly signaled as can be. For a wonder, that actually worked to heighten its effect because of a choice I imagine was organic to the process of writing a series with two authors: Dual narrators. It's surprising to me how well the technique, mated to this story line, caused me to flip the pages past faster and faster. Kudos! By the end of the story, each knows the other's burdens, and it truly works as relationship binder. And the happily-ever-after that is part and parcel of the genre's promises to its readers arrived in a welcome, more grounded way than I thought it would...if at the expense of feeling a wee bit rushed.

    Rein in the w-bombing, please, and bring on #3 soon!

    Friday, August 19, 2022

    DJINN PATROL ON THE PURPLE LINE, a scary-but-fun trip through an unimaginably huge world


    Random House
    $18.00 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: In a sprawling Indian city, a boy ventures into its most dangerous corners to find his missing classmate. . . .

    Through market lanes crammed with too many people, dogs, and rickshaws, past stalls that smell of cardamom and sizzling oil, below a smoggy sky that doesn’t let through a single blade of sunlight, and all the way at the end of the Purple metro line lies a jumble of tin-roofed homes where nine-year-old Jai lives with his family. From his doorway, he can spot the glittering lights of the city’s fancy high-rises, and though his mother works as a maid in one, to him they seem a thousand miles away. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line plunges readers deep into this neighborhood to trace the unfolding of a tragedy through the eyes of a child as he has his first perilous collisions with an unjust and complicated wider world.

    Jai drools outside sweet shops, watches too many reality police shows, and considers himself to be smarter than his friends Pari (though she gets the best grades) and Faiz (though Faiz has an actual job). When a classmate goes missing, Jai decides to use the crime-solving skills he has picked up from TV to find him. He asks Pari and Faiz to be his assistants, and together they draw up lists of people to interview and places to visit.

    But what begins as a game turns sinister as other children start disappearing from their neighborhood. Jai, Pari, and Faiz have to confront terrified parents, an indifferent police force, and rumors of soul-snatching djinns. As the disappearances edge ever closer to home, the lives of Jai and his friends will never be the same again.

    Drawing on real incidents and a spate of disappearances in metropolitan India, Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is extraordinarily moving, flawlessly imagined, and a triumph of suspense. It captures the fierce warmth, resilience, and bravery that can emerge in times of trouble and carries the reader headlong into a community that, once encountered, is impossible to forget.


    My Review
    : One of my take-aways from living through the twenty-first century as an immigrant to its reality is that there are a *shocking* number of souls that just...vanish...with no explanation, no investigation, and no closure for their families or friends. Author Anappara knows this...she is a journalist, she hears the howls. The question I have is the same one I had when the Ciudad Juárez femicides first came to light: What the actual fuck are the police doing?

    That being an unanswerable question without delving into immense mountains of sociopolitical research and studies, I'll go to the next part of the issue raised in the story: Caste and sectarian animosities and prejudices come in for scary, extra-believable spotlighting in here. It's like the awfulness I really wasn't privy to before Katherine Boo's book came out (whatever the criticisms Boo gets, I for one hadn't heard anything about these issues before I read it) sprang to life in the eyes of a nine-year-old boy. He's the only one who cares that Bahadur has gone much, that is, as the child's mother cares.

    Very much raised by TV while being resentfully and carelessly monitored by his gifted older sister (a quietly important strand is the terrible, sexist manner that the capitalist system exacerbates her mistreatment, the not terribly bright but terribly endearingly bumptious and energetic Jai gets a scooby-group of kids together to seek out Bahadur. What unfolds is proof that kids are great narrators, if lousy cops. The scooby-group is convinced (well, two-thirds convinced) that there's a Djinn on the eponymous Purple Line of the city's subway. No, there isn't; if you came hoping for a fantasy read, go in peace. What they do discover is, however, very relevant.

    There are things in the telling of the story that didn't work well to make it into a satisfying read: The neglected sister who watches Jai does something that removes her from sympathy to distaste. It's not pretty, it was perfectly understandable, but it actually made the central search more complicated and showed that adolescents are not the best choices of parent subsitiutes. The final solution of the mystery at the heart of the book is desperately sad; it's also not what was signaled as one of the book's themes, the complicity of the capitalist world in the destruction of families and ways of life, as well as exacerbating the existing sectarian horrors plaguing India. In my view, this was a narrative error, since it took the wind out of the sails of at least half the book's points. And, perhaps most tellingly, the multiplicity of narrative voices was less an enrichment of the story than a lessening of tension. This is very often the case in crime fiction.

    This explains a lot of why this carefully crafted and involvingly told story didn't get all five stars from me.

    What was so enriching in this read was the manner of making evident the luxury of a safe, secure childhood anywhere not already rich. What made me think the hardest was the additional, personal light shone on the family of a disappeared child, the struggles of parenting while extremely poor, the harshness of communities that, under threat, are coldly calculatedly indifferent in their actions if not always their hearts...they simply can't afford to be fully realized communities such as existed before capitalism fastened its teeth in India's neck.

    Thursday, August 18, 2022

    MICKEY7, cloning of a mind and body into an "expendable"


    St. Martin's Press
    $27.99 hardcover, available now

    One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

    Soon to be adapted into a major motion picture from Oscar-winner Bong Joon Ho (Parasite) starring Robert Pattinson and Steven Yeun

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: The Martian meets Dark Matter in Edward Ashton's high concept science fiction thriller, in which Mickey7, an "expendable," refuses to let his replacement clone Mickey8 take his place.

    Dying isn’t any fun…but at least it’s a living.

    Mickey7 is an Expendable: a disposable employee on a human expedition sent to colonize the ice world Niflheim. Whenever there’s a mission that’s too dangerous—even suicidal—the crew turns to Mickey. After one iteration dies, a new body is regenerated with most of his memories intact. After six deaths, Mickey7 understands the terms of his deal…and why it was the only colonial position unfilled when he took it.

    On a fairly routine scouting mission, Mickey7 goes missing and is presumed dead. By the time he returns to the colony base, surprisingly helped back by native life, Mickey7’s fate has been sealed. There’s a new clone, Mickey8, reporting for Expendable duties. The idea of duplicate Expendables is universally loathed, and if caught, they will likely be thrown into the recycler for protein.

    Mickey7 must keep his double a secret from the rest of the colony. Meanwhile, life on Niflheim is getting worse. The atmosphere is unsuitable for humans, food is in short supply, and terraforming is going poorly. The native species are growing curious about their new neighbors, and that curiosity has Commander Marshall very afraid. Ultimately, the survival of both lifeforms will come down to Mickey7.

    That is, if he can just keep from dying for good.


    My Review
    : Well, what can I say. I liked THE END OF ORDINARY well enough...inventive use of science, interesting personal stakes, but curiously flat. I wanted to read this book because I loved the science premise (remember Doctor Who's Gangers? My favorite slave race, narrowly displacing the Ood). Also because, well, look at the title of this blog and tell me why I might be interested in the story.

    I was particularly taken by Mickey7's job on Niflheim, the planet where the action takes place. Oh dear...the Spoiler Stasi will be after me...look, I'm kind of hamstrung here by the endless whinging of the spoilerphobes. So, let's just say, if the possibility of knowing something about a read will utterly devastate your pleasure in it, go somewhere else.

    Mickey Barnes chose life as an expendable because, frankly, it was the best way to get on a colony ship away from Earth. This particular colony ship has religious nuts on it, however, and as is always the way with those sort of people, they've decided their imaginary friend doesn't like...really, hates, though for poorly explored reasons...expendables. They're abominations. After all, I thought to myself, once you're dead, their big bully in the...wait, they're on a a spaceship, where the hell is their gawd in such immense skies? how's she keeping tabs on 'em, some sort of spiritual Ring or Alexa?...anyway, your eternal torments are supposed to begin with death (unless, that is, you're one of Them, and even then it's not 100% guaranteed you'll get the post-mortem goodies). Mickey7, whose previous six deaths were pretty horrific, is still up for doing his job now they're on the ice planet Niflheim. Problem is he's gone and fallen into a crevasse. No one's going to bother rescuing an expendable. That's sort of the point of them...he'll be reconstituted into Mickey8, the cycle will continue.

    Mickey7's luck is that he survives and makes his way back to the colony, somehow thinking they won't have reconstituted Mickey8. He's handed the religious nut in charge the lever he needs to bludgeon the colony into following his hate-filled plan for the colony to be expendable free. After all, their resources are strained to the limit and, even though expendables get less to eat and fewer material benefits than the religious nuts, they really can't afford another mouth to feed.

    But someone please explain to me again how religion is a force for good and compassion in the world.

    What results from this unprecedented situation is a kind of slamming-doors farce, with 7 and 8 agreeing to take on the task of splitting their Mickey-duties to both stay alive; needless to say, that fails. What made it fun to read, and the source of my four-star rating, is the sheer propulsive power of Author Ashton's use of Mickey7 as the first-person narrator. It was immediately clear to me that I was going to be investing in this character. His matter-of-factness was endearing to me, where a more emotionally fraught close third-person narration wouldn't have given me the impetus to keep reading.

    The filmed version we can expect in, permaybehaps, 2024 is set to star Robert Pattinson and Steven Yeun. Brad Pitt's company is set to produce, and Bong Joon-ho is set to direct. IF, that is, David Zaslav's flensing knife spares the project now that Plan B Entertainment's new home Warner Brothers is owned by his philistine self. Star power isn't much to Discovery, they like cheap and flashy.

    We'll always have the fun, funny, and very provocative-idea-laden book.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    BRONZE DRUM, ancient Viet legend brought to a new, unaware audience


    Grand Central Publishing
    $17.99 trade paper, available now

    One of NPR's Best Books of 2022!

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: Gather around, children of Chu Dien, and be brave.
    For even to listen to the story of the Trung Sisters is,
    in these troubled times, a dangerous act.

    In 40 CE, in the Au Lac region of ancient Vietnam, two daughters of a Vietnamese Lord fill their days training, studying, and trying to stay true to Vietnamese traditions. While Trung Trac is disciplined and wise, always excelling in her duty, Trung Nhi is fierce and free spirited, more concerned with spending time in the gardens and with lovers.

    But these sister's lives—and the lives of their people—are shadowed by the oppressive rule of the Han Chinese. They are forced to adopt Confucian teachings, secure marriages, and pay ever‑increasing taxes. As the peoples' frustration boils over, the country comes ever closer to the edge of war.

    When Trung Trac and Trung Nhi's father is executed, their world comes crashing down around them. With no men to save them against the Han's encroaching regime, they must rise and unite the women of Vietnam into an army. Solidifying their status as champions of women and Vietnam, they usher in a period of freedom and independence for their people.

    Vivid, lyrical, and filled with adventure, The Bronze Drum is a true story of standing up for one's people, culture, and country that has been passed down through generations of Vietnamese families through oral tradition. Phong Nguyen's breathtaking novel takes these real women out of legends and celebrates their loves, losses, and resilience in this inspirational story of women's strength and power even in the face of the greatest obstacles.


    My Review
    : The Trung sisters are actual historical people who lived in 1st-century CE Vietnam. The country we know as Vietnam is, in fact, largely their legacy...these two women were the tutelary spirits of the local ethnic group's desire to be out from under the extremely heavy burden of the Han Empire, ruled by the Han Chinese people. ("Han" in Chinese just means "people" so you certainly know you're not ethnically labeling them when using the term.)

    What Author Nguyen has done with this retelling of the Trung Sisters' legend is, given where and with whom he's published his novel, to offer the wider American public something that has been lacking all my life: A sense of Vietnam as an actual country, not simply a state created by then screwed over by, colonial masters. The Viet people are distinct from their neighbors in many ways, not least of them their foundational myth retold here. The sisters were daughters of a local aristocrat whose claim to fame was instilling in them a sense of themselves as different from the Han people oppressing them with taxes and slave-labor demands. This led to the sisters, when their father was murdered by the colonial masters, being made an example of. (A thing thoroughly unpleasant, I needn't remind you...the powerful don't and have never stinted in their cruelty towards those they wish to make examples of.)

    What makes the Trungs different, in the sweep of two thousand years of History, is that they didn't command men. Other women have done that. The Trungs had no truck with pusillanimous men, knuckling under to the Han overlords to stay alive.

    They raised an army of liberation. Made up of women. As traditional Viet women, that is to say the rulers of their world, they were simply doing what came naturally. Protecting your homeland on the fierceness of those who stand to lose the most by its subsumation into a foreign empire makes a lot of sense.

    Not, as you'll imagine, to the Han. The rebellion wasn't successful in all its aims, freedom and matriarchy lost to the simply overwhelming military might of the Han, but the sense of the VIET as a PEOPLE was deeply ingrained.

    There is a much-needed glossary in the book; I've seen some criticism of the author's use of formal, seemingly stilted language. Honestly, it seems that way to me too. Then I consider an important fact: This is a legend. It's the distilled essence of the legendary founders of the Viet people's sense of themselves as a unique, valid, culturally rich polity. Rules of twenty-first century grammar and usage, even in Viet which most decidedly this book isn't written in, would be inappropriate. And, let's face it, if you are the kind of reader who blenches at a modicum of work being asked of you to experience this, or any other, story, there's a sea of bland, blah word-blobs out there. Go fish.

    Me? I'll be here with the Trungs, a little in awe and a lot in love.

    Tuesday, August 16, 2022

    If You Hear "ANYBODY HOME?" for gawdsake say no! & FALTER KINGDOM, horror-adjacent YA bodysnatching


    CLASH Books
    $18.99 trade paper, available TODAY!

    Rating: 4.5* of five

    The Publisher Says: What came first, the home or the desire to invade?

    A seasoned invader with multiple home invasions under their belt recounts their dark victories while offering tutelage to a new generation of ambitious home invaders eager to make their mark on the annals of criminal history. From initial canvasing to home entry, the reader is complicit in every strangling and shattered window. The fear is inescapable.

    Examining the sanctuary of the home and one of the horror genre's most frightening tropes, Anybody Home? points the camera lens onto the quiet suburbs and its unsuspecting abodes, any of which are potential stages for an invader ambitious enough to make it the scene of the next big crime sensation. Who knows? Their performance just might make it to the silver screen.


    My Review
    : I am on record as loathing the chest-pokey, accusatory second-person narrative voice. Looking at the rating above, you're entitled to wonder what happened to that vat of extra-thick contumely I keep simmering away on the Stove of Rage firing my soul.

    Author Seidlinger (MOTHER OF A MACHINE GUN, the ineffable six-stars-of-five THE FUN WE'VE HAD) pulls it off better than I have seen it done elsewhere. This post-apocalyptic Clockwork-Orange level story of the inevitable end of surveillance capitalism's seemingly unstoppable rise...Siri, Alexa, Ring, Google's absolute right to track your every move to earn more profits ring bells? poking your chest to remind you of who it is, exactly, who's consuming these "conveniences." The second-person feels accusatory because it is an accusation, a Zola-level J'accuse...! to our corrupt, passively complicit consumer ethos.

    The joke here, it's no spoiler to say, is an "unscripted reality show" based around a home invasion. No one would watch that for real, would they, a group of people being terrorized for our amusement? I present In Cold Blood, book and film, as countervailing evidence for the antiquity of this trope being used for entertainment...there are other, older, examples of hostage-taking entertainments like Key Largo but they moved the action to a slightly less personal no one's got any sound footing to tut and scoff at the premise. Not even me, the maharajah of TutAndScoff.

    So what happens? You know already what happens, there's a family of sorts that gets home-invaded and different things happen to them. Nothing, in keeping with the reality-TV format, is personal. It's all done for the viewers, the audience (note that these words are from different senses and this should be very closely attended to), the dramatis personæ having only designations like "Invader #1" or "Victim #4". In his usual "you didn't imagine this would all be on the surface, did you?" style, Author Seidlinger slings his arrows into the tiniest cracks in the jaded consumer's armor, making this a book far better delectated than consumed. It is, in fact, horror in the sense it's really quite horrifying in what it says, but a supernatural-horror fan will leave the read unhappy, while a revenge-driven horror fan won't get far into it before discovering their needs are not being met. This is more existential horror, a horror that eases the bathroom door open inch by inch before ripping open the shower curtain and flinging cold water on you in order to elicit the screech of terror, outrage, and angry embarrassment at Being Caught.

    Make no mistake: You're caught.

    You're the one watching; you're the one there's a meta-home-invader to explain to, and to coach "Invader #3" and cohorts. You're the reason this story exists, is being enacted before your "horrified" eyes. You, consumer of the fear and anguish of others.

    Which is why I will now say something I have never said before, and never expect to say again:
    Second-person narration rocks.



    Unnamed Press
    $16.00 trade paper, available now

    Rating: 4* of five

    The Publisher Says: Hunter Warden just wants some peace and quiet. He wants to watch unboxing videos and be lulled to sleep by the monotone voices and smooth talking YouTube hosts. He wants his parents that are always working to either totally leave him alone or be around for once. After a few beers, Hunter decides to get away from it all and go for a run in Falter Kingdom.

    When you run the gauntlet at Falter Kingdom, a tunnel next to a park on the outskirts of suburbia where local high school kids go to drink and smoke, one of two things can happen — nothing or you catch a demon.

    The cold spots, locked doors, scratches on the wall, and disappearing laptop immediately alert Hunter to the fact that a demon is haunting him. He knows the signs, he's seen the videos of people that are possessed, and everyone knows someone that has had to get an exorcism. Hunter knows that he should get rid of it, but he can't help but enjoy the company of "H," despite this demon's sinister intentions.


    My Review
    : Make friends with the Darkness Within. There's never going to be a way to get rid of it, so pick a coping strategy: Denial will fail in quicktime; submission will have dreadfully uncomfortable consequences; but making friends with the Darkness Within, making its vision and its urgings (not to mention urges) a source of strength...that way billionairedom lies!

    The real question this book presents to its younger-skewing audience is: Who exactly is it that's possessed? What makes someone a possessor? Where, in other words, does the real power lie? (Wordplay decidedly not optional)

    What makes this a four-star read but not a five-star one, for me, is Hunter as a stream-of-consciousness narrator. He doesn't think like a high-school senior, said the grandfather of more than one such being. It's only problematic, to be honest, because it's a book aimed at the high-school aged crowd. If it were simply another of Author Seidlinger's unease-inducing, perception-defying novels, I'd never even bring it up. But aimed where it is, I expect it to go there; it didn't make the trip in this reader's perception.

    The story the Falter Kingdom is accessed, what the Falter Kingdom the usual Author Seidlinger-esque mindfuck of "sure, look at the pretty surfaces, but remember that this author dude laughed through the entire Saw franchise." It's perfect, in terms of believably attracting the teen-boy victims these demons are in search of. It's believable metaphorically..."don't go into that tunnel," says Adult, thus guaran-damn-teeing the kid will and thus will learn from this's handled in a quite amusingly perfect way, and it satisfies the narrative need for a driver of action.

    I'm all for it. Read, remember, respond with the desired shivers and frissons and half-laughs of memory.

    ***As an aside, this review vanished from Goodreads last year which caused me no little amount of angst. Must've been a victim of the stupid-people-friendly redesign's early stages. Luckily it's been safely parked on my YA tab, but this year's publication of ANYBODY HOME? brought it into the full glare of public scrutiny.