Sunday, April 23, 2023

April 2023'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!


Broadway Revival
Laura Frankos
$3.99 Kindle edition, $12.99 mass-market paperback, available now

Rating: 4.75* of 5

The Publisher Says: After his husband dies from a Tantalus-3 addiction in 2079, David Greenbaum pulls himself out of despair with an outrageous plan. He couldn’t save Ramon, but he might make a difference in other lives cut short. He hijacks his brother Nate’s time machine, the SlingShot, and jumps to 1934 to save George Gershwim from the brain tumor that killed him at age thirty-eight.

That’s just the start of David’s “Broadway Revival Project.” Gershwin wasn’t the only one who died too young. How much influence can one actor-songwriter have on the Great White Way, armed with a suitcase of modern medicine and advance knowledge of nearly 150 years of musical theatre history?

But David’s actions are causing changes to the timeline that have the Rippers—the international time travel research consortium—very worried. So Nate climbs into the SlingShot, determined to track down his brother in 1930s New York, whatever the consequences.


My Review
: That's one in the "get revenge" column against Author Laura Frankos. I read this book because I saw Harry Turtledove (her husband) tweet about it not winning a Sidewise Award. The subject, the provenance, the main character and his grief at losing the love of his life to preventable cause... well what the hell else does an old theater fag need to drop a lousy $4 of his boyfriend's money on an alternative history that features exactly no damned majgickq and no fucking aliens either (sorry Dr. Turtledove)?

I didn't count on being kept in agonizing suspense while the easy, crummy ending I was dreading seemed to get closer and closer... while I dreamt about the music and lyrics that the goddesses never granted us... while I raced through the last 15% praying I wasn't going to be furious...and then ending with the very things I most wanted to see happening only through bucket of tears.

Embarrassing ones, too, the kind you can't explain to the civilians around you, who don't know or care what you have invested in the narrative or the conceit. The dining room will be interesting tomorrow... I expect a lot of side-eye.

I expect I know why this excellent story didn't win the Sidewise Award... the subject is way too weird for the WWII-obsessed field to accept its merits and the audience wouldn't know that there were actual changes to our timeline made. But if imagination and execution were the only sort criteria, this story would've won hands down.

I'm old and cynical and unwilling to give the hoi polloi a fair shake, but I think anyone who bothers to read my book reviews will like this story of a grief-addled survivor of a love cut short by addiction... twice!... will resonate to this love letter to Love, creativity, and the incredible power of focus, and should go spend the few bucks to experience Author Frankos ripping their heart to shreds. But in a good way.


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.


I'd Rather Not: Essays by Robert Skinner

Rating: 3* of five, because I laughed out loud several times

The Publisher Says: An endlessly entertaining collection of wayward autobiographical tales about a search for a richer life thwarted at every turn by beagles, bureaucrats, and ill-advised love affairs

The unlikely story of how a failed dishwasher, tour guide, cabinet maker, bus driver, bookseller and literary journal publisher became one of Australia's hottest humor essayists

Perfect for fans of humorous, thought-provoking authors like Sloane Crosley, Jenny Lawson, Samantha Irby, and David Sedaris

This wryly subversive book of adventures (and misadventures) offers an original and utterly hilarious take on work, escape, and that something more we all need.

Robert Skinner arrives in the city, searching for a richer life. Things begin badly and then, surprisingly, get slightly worse. Pretty soon he's sleeping rough and trying to run a literary magazine out of a dog park. His quest for meaning keeps being thwarted, by gainful employment, house parties, ill-advised love affairs, camel trips, and bureaucratic entanglements.

The book's 14 essays/stories can be savored one at a time, or binged.


My Review
: "Robert's distinctive voice possesses uncommon immediacy, at once humorous and soulful, self-effacing and wise. Perhaps most important of all, he is endlessly entertaining." --thus spake the Publisher with Forkèd Tongue

A read that proved, after some initial good laughs, to be an Aussie manchild whinging about how he hates masks and lockdowns because he can't go out a-hunting anymore. ::eyeroll:: Being a male is embarrassing sometimes, increasingly often in fact.

The overwhelming impression I got, the longer I read, was that Robert's friends needed to stage an intervention and smack some sense into him...nit because he chased the dream of being A Force in le monde littéraire, but for doing so without any kind or sort of financial support. As I get older, I see things like this differently from the "let's see what happens" 'tude of youth. There are service providers whose budgets are torpedoed by your failure; there are creatives whose livelihoods (seldom monetary, more in terms of exposure and credibility) you're gaming the system with; and none of them desrve to pay the price for your lack of foresight.

Had this collection aimed its various barbs at the craptastic record of capitalism vis-a-vis the Arts, and/or making it a sugar-coated case for the desperate need for Universal Basic Income, instead of playing it for the "humor" inherent in a grown man sleeping outdoors, trying to get unemployment without seeking work, then whinging about how much he hates lockdown and masking up in a fucking pandemic I'd be smilingly recommending it to you as a browsing book. I don't think humor is best consumed in a binge. As it is, consume at your own risk of overdosing on one young guy's offended sense of his own privilege shockingly not generating wide public support.

The estimable house of Steerforth Press brought this out; seek its pleasures on their site, if so inclined.



Undertow Publications (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now


The Publisher Says: Winner of the 2019 British Fantasy Award!

Welcome to the final volume of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction! For the past five years the Year’s Best Weird Fiction has unearthed a number of exceptional and inimitable voices, redefining and broadening genre distinctions and labels, bringing a diverse new group to the forefront of speculative fiction. We hope you enjoy our final volume.

My Review:It doesn't seem logical that this is the final volume of the Year’s Best Weird Fiction. A series that's garnered nothig but favorable fannish attenton seems as though five years and the "unearth{ing of} a number of exceptional and inimitable voices, seems to me to be one of those bullet-proof, recession-resistant sales cornerstones that publishers dream of. Enter, stage left, the villain of every recent piece of bad news: the pandemic of 2020 to 2022. All the usual formulae got upended; all the supply chains that we took for granted showed us how bad an idea that is by collapsing.

Thank goodness a lot of people we never so much as give a moment's though to worked very, very hard, and at risk of their lives, or we'd've seen a complete collapse à la the Bronze Age Collapse of 3,200 years ago that resulted in hundreds of years of grim, grinding poverty for a collapsed population of warring bands and tribes. (Of course, we still might.)

For the first time in 2023, we return to the blog's very venerable institution of using the Bryce Method of discussing collections (and/or anthologies) of short fiction story-by-story.

As an award-winning anthology, I'd feel hubristic rating this anthology less than four-plus stars; who am I to second guess such a distinguished body of experts?

“Live Through This” by Nadia Bulkin

“Flotsam” by Daniel Carpenter

“The Narrow Escape of Zipper-Girl” by Adam-Troy Castro

“The Unwish” by Claire Dean

“Worship Only What She Bleeds” by Kristi DeMeester

“The Second Door” by Brian Evenson

“When Words Change the Molecular Composition of Water” by Jenni Fagan

“The Convexity of Our Youth” by Kurt Fawver

“Corzo” by Brenna Gomez

“The Mouse Queen” by Camilla Grudova

“You Will Always Have Family: A Triptych” by Kathleen Kayembe

“The Anteater” by Joshua King

“Curb Day” by Rebecca Kuder

“The Entertainment Arrives” by Alison Littlewood

“The Rock Eater” by Ben Loory

“Eight Bites” by Carmen Maria Machado

“The Way She is With Strangers” by Helen Marshall

“The Possession” by Michael Mirolla

“Skins Smooth as Plantain, Hearts Soft as Mango” by Ian Muneshwar

“House of Abjection” by David Peak

“Disappearer” by KL Pereira

“Red Hood” by Eric Schaller

“Something About Birds” by Paul Tremblay

“Take the Way Home That Leads Back To Sullivan Street” by Chavisa Woods

Monday, April 17, 2023

EASTBOUND, simultaneously propulsively paced and meditatively told translation from the French

(tr. Jessica Moore)
Archipelago Books
$14.00 ebook, $18.00 trade paper

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Aliocha is racing toward Vladivostok with other Russian conscripts packed on a trans-Siberian train. Soon after boarding, he decides to desert. Over a midnight smoke in a dark corridor of the train, the young soldier encounters an older French woman, Hélène, for whom he feels an uncanny trust. He manages through pantomime and a basic Russian that Hélène must decipher to ask for her help. As they hurry from the filth of his third-class carriage to Hélène’s first-class sleeping car, Aliocha becomes a hunted deserter and Hélène his accomplice with her own recent memories to contend with. Eastbound is both an adventure story and a duet of vibrant inner worlds. In evocative sentences gorgeously translated by Jessica Moore, De Kerangal tells the story of two unlikely souls entwined in a quest for freedom with a striking sense of tenderness, sharply contrasting the brutality of their surrounding world.


My Review
: First, read this:
Hélène smiles. She agreed to take Aliocha in without hesitation, without even really weighing his request, and whether suspect ease or absence of discernment it doesn't much matter, she felt overwhelmed by this young man, absolutely unique in the world in the face of his request, and she who had reserved both bunks in the compartment so she might be alone with an opening onto Siberia to remember and imagine—two ways of seeing clearly—she had welcomed this stranger. She turns her eyes and lets them drift outside: what's done is done.
...this sordid scenario where she gave herself the lucky draw, proclaimed herself the hero, the stranger who descends from the sky, saves you and then slips away, ready to rack up self-convincing statements—I did my utmost, I did all that I could—all the while knowing she’s incapable of believing it: the worm of guilt is already lodging itself in her gut.

At the end of a tunnel, the craggy relief engulfs the window and obscures the sky whole, leaving it to the traveller to invent the most plausible or the most wild off-camera scene, but Hélène doesn't need to invent anything, everything is happening here, right here in front of her: all she has to do is look at the soldier sleeping on the bunk to feel that his presence is absurd, out of place, and to see that something's off here, something's shortcircuiting. In the end, whether it was this young man or a bear stretched out there, it would amount to the same thing, the same enormity, as though the real was suddenly crumbling, subverted by powerful dreams or completely other substances capable of catalysing metamorphoses, as though the real was tearing apart under the pressure of a faint but immutable deviation, something far bigger, far stronger than it—but no, there are no dreams in Hélène's head, no drugs in her blood, the young man is well and truly there —indeed, he is the real, the tangible present moment of life, here, breathing with his mouth open a little, body rising and falling imperceptibly with each breath, and if she were to place a hand on him, on his pale and downy cheek, on his shoulder, she knows she would feel him alive, he would stir, open an eye and wake up.
...and {the mothers} gather around Valentina Melnikova, President of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers—they’re fearsome, boiling mad, determined, and if the cameras turn up they rush to fit their eager faces in the frame: I don’t want my son to go, and he’s not even a drinker! When reprieves run out, the next option is the false medical certificate, bought for an arm and a leg from doctors who slip the cash directly into their breast pockets, and the families who’ve been bled dry go home and get smashed in relief. If this doesn’t work, and when anxiety has bitten down night after night to the quick, then come the direct attempts at bribery.

No matter who or what it is you're running from, you end up entwined with other people...maybe not the same people you started your journey with, but in a connection, a relationship of some sort, with a person or some people...that is the one and only escape you, any more than Author De Kerangal's characters, cannot make happen, no matter how bad you think you want it. It is the crux of this intense record of the collision of the runaways here, a privileged outsider and a miserably exploited insider each of whom needs to run away from Life's consequences. They don't know each other and can't get conventionally acquainted because they share no verbal language, but they recognize each other unerringly as fellows of the social class "runaway". Neither can really be blamed for the intensity of the drive to escape circumstances they do not like and reckonings they cannot afford. Anyone who has made a major life-decision will comprehend this readily. It's not like we haven't faced our own inflection points; maybe we lacked the courage—or the intense, impelling force of terror—of these two who went through with separate but intertwining truly terrible decisions. Maybe we were just luckier than either of them. But I expect most will find the fact of the read to be that they are relatable, real-feeling fictional creations. These two impulsive seekers are people.

How Author De Kerangal achieves this feat is using deft and economical prose, concise to the point of terseness, that focuses our attention on externals and surfaces and appearances...that uses the novella's tight time constraints to force the reader's, just as the characters', experience of the story into the damned claustrophobic confines of a crowded car of, a narrow corridor on, a train, then finally a small but private compartment on a long, transcontinental train...the longest single line in the world crossing the vastness of Siberia at a steady, slow 60 kph (about 40mph). Then she forbids more than passing expansion of your awareness and attention by adding a hazardous dimension of being hunted for a dangerous act of commission, of each being guilty of an actual legally definable crime. Like the classic films noirs of the late 1940s through the 1950s...most especially 1952's The Narrow Margin, another claustrophobic train-set escape-from-consequences story (unaccountably to me not widely known or loudly praised) that ends ambiguously, not resolving the fates of the protagonists with the finality of lesser stories. What the payoff of the read is can be summed up in that most uncommon of endings: the open field, the wide horizon, the absence of compulsion at last in a story that has heretofore been about the characters' compelled actions all stemming from each one's initial impulsive law-breaking decision. Unlike the usual affect of such an ending, Author De Kerangal's storytelling creates the sense of a satisfying ending out of this indeterminate state.

This is a pleasure read for those waking up to the reality that this is a world whose misfortunates live lives that are not thought of as valuable in and of temselves, but only as compulsory and unwilling sacrifices to tired and rotting systems...patriarchy, its running dog of war...whose zombies continue to create and devour ever more victims world seemingly without end. These souls, previously NPCs, are finally coming into the focus of the world's storytellers. Ever more urgent in the increasingly callous and uncaring world many around the globe are working assiduously to create.

I'm not quite there on making this a five-star read only because its bottled-in-the-train structure, finely crafted though it is, did not quite do full justice to Hélène's point of view. I knew Aliocha and victimized insider's fears more intimately than Hélène's uniquely powerful-because-outsider status and honestly felt deprived by this. An extra 15pp fleshing out her very multivalently privileged character would've been the final shove into five-star-read-hood, and would still have left this a tight, compact novella.

Friday, April 7, 2023


(Bill Hefflin #1)
Oceanview Publishing
$27.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Bill Hefflin is a man apart—apart from life, apart from his homeland, apart from love

At the start of the 1989 uprising in Romania, CIA analyst Bill Hefflin—a disillusioned Romanian expat—arrives in Bucharest at the insistence of his KGB asset, code-named Boris. As Hefflin becomes embroiled in an uprising that turns into a brutal revolution, nothing is as it seems, including the search for his childhood love, which has taken on mythical proportions.

With the bloody events unfolding at blinding speed, Hefflin realizes the revolution is manipulated by outside forces, including his own CIA and Boris—the puppeteer who seems to be pulling all the strings of Hefflin’s life.

The Bourne Identity meets John le Carre’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold


My Review
: A time and place explored as the events I saw unfold with my own eyes were shocking and appalling me and my compatriots will always make a story I want to read.

I've had decent luck with Oceanview's choices of stories they publish so far. This one is a first novel, as almost all the others of theirs I've read so far have been. As a first novel, I felt this was very promising in terms of the choice of story to be told but less so in its structure. Is ir a sentimental education? Is it a spy thriller? Is it a long-term migrant returns tale? A love story? Pick any two. The issue for me was that the author and editor tried to fit way more plot in than the story could support.

"Bill"/Fili (his childhood nickname) in his college years and his recruitment dragged me down the hardest. It's true that I don't care if straight people get hooked/hooked back up very much. I still can read about the characters, if I'm invested in them; but I saw Catherine, the college girlfriend, as a creepy, nasty person, deeply self-centered, and I felt she didn't ever care for Bill except as and when he could be useful. The lost childhood girl-friend was so generic as to be pointless as a character, almost so much so that she was a poor Maguffin. It damned near gets him killed several times, this obsession with women who don't exist except in his imagination. No subsequent revelations or events changed my opinion, either.

What worked for me was the evocation of the time and the place...a world on the cusp of a violent ending, a culture about to prove (yet again) the absolute inescapable truth of the aphorism "To every birth its blood." There is, in each increasingly menacing occurrence, a mounting sense of Bill's being in a place that is dangerous, that could claim him as its next victim. A creeping sense of dread is always useful in a spy thriller. It was present in every part of the Romanian settings of the story. Bill's discoveries about his place in the CIA, and nature of the US interest in the country's future path, all lead him to reassess a lifetime of hurts and hopes as a last-minute rooftop decision point changes him, his essential self, irrevocably.

When we reach the end of this story, the chickens of wars long past and of debts long since exchanged for the gift of a life out of reach to thank the giver for a life unearned come home to roost. The resolution was...pat...but the consequences meted out were condign, so I landed more on the forgiving snd accepting side of the story's ending. It was not a foregone conclusion that I would forgive the w-verb-bombings and the ethnic-slur pepperings and the heterosexism...but I did. That speaks volumes in the story's favor.

I considered it a qualified success, though I warn readers about the convenient-reveal ending.

There's a really interesting development on the way: THE BUCHAREST DOSSIER is now optioned for film adaptation by Cody Gifford, Kathie Lee Gifford's son.


THE BUCHAREST LEGACY: Rise of the Oligarchs
(Bill Hefflin #2)
Oceanview Publishing
$28.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The CIA is rocked to its core when a KGB defector divulges that there is a KGB mole inside the Agency. They learn that the mole' s handler is a KGB agent known as Boris. CIA analyst Bill Hefflin recognizes that name—Boris is the code name of Hefflin' s longtime KGB asset. If the defector is correct, Hefflin realizes Boris must be a triple agent, and his supposed mole has been passing false intel to Hefflin and the CIA. What' s more, this makes Hefflin the prime suspect as the KGB mole inside the Agency.

Hefflin is given a chance to prove his innocence by returning to his city of birth, Bucharest, Romania, to find Boris and track down the identity of the mole. It' s been three years since the bloody revolution, and what he finds is a cauldron of spies, crooked politicians, and a country controlled by the underground and the new oligarchs, all of whom want to find Boris. But Hefflin has a secret that no one else knows—Boris has been dead for over a year.

While the novels in the Bill Hefflin Spy Thriller Series stand on their own and can be read in any order, the publication sequence is {actually very important, ignore this sentence}.


My Review
: I did not see this set-up coming. I like that in a spy story, especially a series. What I *did* see coming was that the author would keep using the ethnic slur "gypsy" which as a Romanian he should know is the semantic equivalent of the "n" word...but wait! there's more, as the infomercials used to say....

Considering how the previous book ended, I was expecting to feel pretty indifferent to the life Bill's received from his immigrant parets and their sacrifices, from Boris and his scale-balancing, being placed under threat. I was, in fact, uninterested in his fatherhood, his marriage to the still-icky-to-me Catherine, all that pop-music-scored montage material. Once Bill's in the vice-grip of his old job's new bosses and he's back in Bucharest, I stopped speed-flipping and resumed reading.

What we have is a spy story that really bites into the apple of all (especially the best) spy stories: who're the "good" guys when absolutely everyone is lying through their (false) teeth and giving you Bambi-eyes through colored contacts as they try to distract you with a hand job while picking your pocket and measuring you up for a swift stab?

The good news is that the story is up to its convolutions now. The sub-optimal news is that the ending goes places I found repugnant and disturbing. The sheer velocity of the spy bits would get an honest four-plus stars. The ending's shenanigans lopped that half-star right back off. The chasing around and the inclusion of Catherine in the spying got my happy grins. The way the author treats his ethnic slur use won me back to his side. The resolution of Bill's quest for roots was also quite deftly sewn into the material of the plot. There's a degree of...I suppose wistfulness is the word I'll that resolution, and it was laced with a very true-to-life salting of disillusionment. Like most all of us, Bill does not leave his twenties with his idealism intact; like almost any of us who become parents, he discovers the oceanic depths of the connection between parent and child. He becomes a different, more dangerously grounded man.

As the body count that results from this mounts, I felt that most agreeable glow of the thriller reader, "they deserved it", suffusing me regularly. I don't think a single murder was committed before my bifocals that I'd've flinched away from in real life. That is a good trait in a spy story. As the action in this story moves around the globe more than the first one, I was satisfied that the author chose to focus most of his descriptive and evocative prose on Bucharest as it transitions from failed Communist state to failing oligarchy. I am very unfamiliar with Bucharest so I was most interested in the parts of the story in that setting.

But the psychosexual peek into the author afforded by the ending was greatly not to my taste. I'm sure I'll read another one of these, should one eventuate; I'm forewarned that there will be disagreeable ladlings of heterosexual activity; I can only hope the author will feed me more Romanian atmosphere to help mask the bitter taste of it. I'd really like to smack the copyeditor, too, for failing to catch things like "peak" for "pique" and other such homophones. The w-verb bombing is present, too, and honestly should be a fine-able offense.

On the whole, a guarded and qualified endorsement of the story.