Sunday, May 28, 2023

MAGNIFICENT REBEL: Nancy Cunard in Jazz Age Paris

MAGNIFICENT REBEL: Nancy Cunard in Jazz Age Paris

St. Martin's Press
$14.99 ebook editions, $29.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Anne de Courcy, the author of Husband Hunters and Chanel's Riviera, examines the controversial life of legendary beauty, writer and rich girl Nancy Cunard during her thirteen years in Jazz-Age Paris.

Paris in the 1920s was bursting with talent in the worlds of art, design and literature. The city was at the forefront of everything new and exciting; there was no censorship; life and love were there for the taking. At its center was the gorgeous, seductive English socialite Nancy Cunard, scion of the famous shipping line. Her lovers were legion, but this book focuses on five of the most significant and a lifelong friendship.

Her affairs with acclaimed writers Ezra Pound, Aldous Huxley, Michael Arlen and Louis Aragon were passionate and tempestuous, as was her romance with black jazz pianist Henry Crowder. Her friendship with the famous Irish novelist George Moore, her mother’s lover and a man falsely rumored to be Nancy’s father, was the longest-lasting of her life. Cunard’s early years were ones of great wealth but also emotional deprivation. Her mother Lady Cunard, the American heiress Maud Alice Burke (who later changed her name to Emerald) became a reigning London hostess; Nancy, from an early age, was given to promiscuity and heavy drinking and preferred a life in the arts to one in the social sphere into which she had been born. Highly intelligent, a gifted poet and widely read, she founded a small press that published Samuel Beckett among others. A muse to many, she was also a courageous crusader against racism and fascism. She left Paris in 1933, at the end of its most glittering years and remained unafraid to live life on the edge until her death in 1965.

Magnificent Rebel is a nuanced portrait of a complex woman, set against the backdrop of the City of Light during one of its most important and fascinating decades.


My Review
: How the hell do I rate and review this book? Author de Courcy writes very well, has clearly done research I have no reason to suspect contains careless errors (ie, I as a non-expert possess no knowledge that contradicts anything contained in here), and clearly understands the role of conflict and drama in non-fiction...yet I hated every minute of the read.

Let me explain.

Nancy Cunard knew everyone, went everywhere, did everything adventurous and fun one can dream up to do when there is a giant pot of cash under one's checkbook. She was also a narcissist, and probably a sociopath. She had no moral compass I could discern from any anecdote herein. She was "mad, bad, and dangerous to know," because she could and did turn on people who had given her no cause to dislike them.

And men flocked to her orbit! They wanted sex, of course, but quite a lot of them fell for her! All the mor amazing because of her one reasonably good quality, by modern standards: she never bothered herself to dissemble. As the great majority of people prefer to be told pretty little lies by their lovers, I'd say this shows that the men who fell for her really, truly fell, to accept her honest and usually very scathing opinion of them and keep coming back. Her "honesty" (which, as presented herein, is really just brutal unnecessary unkindness) comes in for a helping of praise I don't feel is warranted. She did many laudable things in pursuit of social justice, which no one should try to minimize. Her addiction issues and mental illness, which the author is careful to make unmistakable for the reader, is obvious in hindsight from the present century's ludicrously low "heights" of enlightenment, do not excuse the abusive and manipulative behaviors she displayed. To Author de Courcy's credit, she makes no excuses for the troubling behviors but goes out of her way to explain how the Cunards were less a family than threesome of selfish, oblivious rich people. How else could Nancy have turned out?

So I liked the book. But I loathed the subject. I am not glad I know more about her than my previous awareness of her name and sterling literary taste and activities. I the knowledge that this awful person is a feminist icon to some because she was as free as the male abusers and rotters of her day. Yuck! "But they were worse!" hardly seems like a justification for someone to behave badly.

I've settled on four stars, all for the felicity of Author de Courcy's discourse, and none for this awful, abusive human being.

May 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!



Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Three brilliant novellas. One fantastic story.

Collected together for the first time, T. Frohock’s three novellas—"In Midnight’s Silence," "Without Light or Guide," and "The Second Death"—brings to life the world of Los Nefilim, Spanish Nephilim that possess the power to harness music and light in the supernatural war between the angels and daimons. In 1931, Los Nefilim’s existence is shaken by the preternatural forces commanding them—and a half-breed caught in-between.

Diago Alvarez, a singular being of daimonic and angelic descent, is pulled into the ranks of Los Nefilim in order to protect his newly-found son. As an angelic war brews in the numinous realms, and Spain marches closer to civil war, the destiny of two worlds hangs on Diago’s actions. Yet it is the combined fates of his lover, Miquel, and his young son, Rafael, that weighs most heavily on his soul.

Lyrical and magical, Los Nefilim explores whether moving towards the light is necessarily the right move, and what it means to live amongst the shadows.


My Review
: Novellas on a single strand of a larger supernatural story-verse that is parallel to the Spanish Civil War. I didn't expect to get so hooked so fast. The MCs are a gay couple in a homophobic culture but are also protected, in a very real way, by the example of The Big Boss of their Scooby group, Los Nefilim. He trusts and loves them as the people they are. His example affords them sanctuary, but there are undercurrents of past troubles between himself and Diago in even his loving acceptance...which makes the ground under Diago and his family feel shaky sometimes.

All of these things twine their way around the action of the story in a very real-feeling's a good trick to make the world feel precarious for the men doing their best to overcome their own traumas, all the while making a difference in the mortal world, as we the readers are just learning that it is.

The novellas trace the roots of the Spanish Civil War to civil war in the supernatural realms. It's complex and the author tosses you right in and expects you to figure it out. I like in medias res as a technique but be forewarned that you need to put in the effort to follow where Author Frohock leads.

It's totally worth your eyeblinks and your gold. Diago, Miquel, and young Rafael are a family we really want to see thrive... and there is nothing wasted in the world-building. That's a hint for you to pay attention to the details... they will pay off. On to the first novel in the series!

This collection is now available on the Amazon website as a $5.49 Kindle edition, and at all major retailers in mass-market paperback.


The Mathematician's Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: A comic, bittersweet tale of family evocative of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Everything Is Illuminated

Alexander "Sasha" Karnokovitch and his family would like to mourn the passing of his mother, Rachela, with modesty and dignity. But Rachela, a famous Polish émigré mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin, is rumored to have solved the million-dollar, Navier-Stokes Millennium Prize problem. Rumor also has it that she spitefully took the solution to her grave. To Sasha’s chagrin, a ragtag group of socially challenged mathematicians arrives in Madison and crashes the shiva, vowing to do whatever it takes to find the solution — even if it means prying up the floorboards for Rachela’s notes.

Written by a Ph.D. geophysicist, this hilarious and multi-layered debut novel brims with colorful characters and brilliantly captures humanity’s drive not just to survive, but to solve the impossible.


My Review
: Perfectly adequate prose telling a meant-to-be funny story about the strongly coded-as-autistic geeks in the mathematics universe. Not remotely amusing to someone, like me, who has actually autistic relatives—and we're all really sick of the math-genius trope. The comps the publisher put in the synopsis are unlike this book in every way except for being about Jews.

YMMV, of course.

This book is available new or used from the publisher's website, most retailers, or as a $14.99 Kindle edition here.


The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: By an acclaimed writer at the height of his powers, The Sense of an Ending extends a streak of extraordinary books that began with the best-selling Arthur & George and continued with Nothing to Be Frightened Of and, most recently, Pulse.

This intense novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he'd left all this behind as he built a life for himself, and by now his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement. But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he'd understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.

A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting, with stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication, The Sense of an Ending is a brilliant new chapter in Julian Barnes's oeuvre.


My Review
: Far and away my favorite read by this author. It's probably my age, but the intro- and retro-spection of our Man Of A Certain Age struck me like I was a bell. While I think anyone can appreciate the prose for what It is, older audiences will be a lot more likely to resonate to the story than younger ones. Best read in one long sitting because the cumulative effect of loss, grief, nostalgia, acceptance is very much part of the power of the read. This is why I'm releasing it back into the wild.

I think the real reason I love it so much is here:
What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully? Who had neither won nor lost, but just let life happen to him? Who had the usual ambitions and settled all too quickly for them not being realized? Who avoided being hurt and called it a capacity for survival?Who paid his bills, stayed on good terms with everyone as far as possible, for whom ecstasy and despair soon became just words once read in novels? One whose self-rebukes never really inflicted pain? Well, there was all this to reflect upon, while I endured a special kind of remorse: a hurt inflicted at long last on one who always thought he knew how to avoid being hurt— and inflicted for precisely that reason.

As though his solipsism is redeemed by acknowledging his culpability in helping ruin multiple lives! As though he can look his cruelty in the face now and make the past himself better! But how human in his despair and desperation to keep his true level of responsibility as far away as possible... and still he actually does the unthinkable and asks himself at long last... what else have I done wrong?

I think all of us over a certain age have quite quietly asked ourselves that.

This book is available new or used from the publisher's website, most retailers, or as a $12.99 Kindle edition here.


UNDER THE SKIN by Michel Faber

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Isserley picks up hitchhikers with big muscles. She, herself, is tiny—like a kid peering up over the steering wheel. She has a remarkable face and wears the thickest corrective lenses anyone has ever seen. Her posture is suggestive of some spinal problem. Her breasts are perfect; perhaps implants. She is strangely erotic yet somehow grotesque, vulnerable yet threatening. Her hitchhikers are a mixed bunch of men—trailer trash and travelling postgrads, thugs and philosophers. But Isserley is only interested in whether they have families and whether they have muscles. Then, it's only a question of how long she can endure her pain—physical and spiritual—and their conversation. Michel Faber's work has been described as a combination of Roald Dahl and Franz Kafka, as Somerset Maugham shacking up with Ian McEwan. At once humane and horrifying, Under the Skin takes us on a heart-thumping ride through dangerous territory—our own moral instincts and the boundaries of compassion.


My Review
: Both the book and its 2013 film adaptation get the same rating from me. A female serial killer who sends the men she targets to a dreadful fate is a terrific inversion of the bog-standard female-as-victim trope that I am mortally sick of. It's telling that the only way this is allowed to happen is if the female in question is an alien. A human female serial killer? Unthinkable!

My eyes finally rolling back to the position where I can see to type, I'll say this for Faber's now-23-year-old novel and its ten-year-old film adaptation: the thoughts each provokes are deep and discomfiting ones about the nature of our unquestioned place as the apex of all things, both as males and more broadly as humans. Just look right past the fact that even the book description makes a point of describing her breasts.

This book is available new or used from the publisher's website, most retailers, or as a $12.49 Kindle edition here.


The Good German by Joseph Kanon

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: With World War II finally ending, Jake Geismar, former Berlin correspondent for CBS, has wangled one of the coveted press slots for the Potsdam Conference. His assignment: a series of articles on the Allied occupation. His personal agenda: to find Lena, the German mistress he left behind at the outbreak of the war.

When Jake stumbles on a murder—an American soldier washes up on the conference grounds—he thinks he has found the key that will unlock his Berlin story. What Jake finds instead is a larger story of corruption and intrigue reaching deep into the heart of the occupation. Berlin in July 1945 is like nowhere else—a tragedy, and a feverish party after the end of the world.
As Jake searches the ruins for Lena, he discovers that years of war have led to unimaginable displacement and degradation. As he hunts for the soldier's killer, he learns that Berlin has become a city of secrets, a lunar landscape that seethes with social and political tension. When the two searches become entangled, Jake comes to understand that the American Military Government is already fighting a new enemy in the east, busily identifying the "good Germans" who can help win the next war. And hanging over everything is the larger crime, a crime so huge that it seems—the worst irony—beyond punishment.

At once a murder mystery, a moving love story, and a riveting portrait of a unique time and place, The Good German is a historical thriller of the first rank.


My Review
:Not my favorite kind of reading. I don't care about straight people and their hook-ups, their infidelities, or whether or not they get their HEAs.

The murder-mystery aspect of the story was well done, involving, and clever. The historical setting was genius! It not only made the mystery possible in the first place, it was essentially a second layer of novel unto itself. This is a very difficult feat to pull off. Two layers, inextricable from each other, are still somehow different registers of story. This self-harmony is the whole reason I give the read four instead of two and a half stars. Quite an achievement.

You can purchase this book new or used at most retailers, the publisher's website, or as a $12.99 Kindle edition here.


When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: It's early autumn 1964. Two straight-A students head off to school, and when only one of them returns home Chesney Yelverton is coaxed from retirement and assigned to what proves to be the most difficult—and deadly—case of his career. From the shining notorious East Side, When You Are Engulfed in Flames confirms once again that David Sedaris is a master of mystery and suspense.

Or how about...

When set on fire, most of us either fumble for our wallets or waste valuable time feeling sorry for ourselves. David Sedaris has studied this phenomenon, and his resulting insights may very well save your life. Author of the national bestsellers Should You Be Attacked By Snakes and If You Are Surrounded by Mean Ghosts, David Sedaris, with When You Are Engulfed in Flames, is clearly at the top of his game.

Oh, all right...

David Sedaris has written yet another book of essays (his sixth). Subjects include a parasitic worm that once lived in his mother-in-law's leg, an encounter with a dingo, and the recreational use of an external catheter. Also recounted is the buying of a human skeleton and the author's attempt to quit smoking In Tokyo.

Master of nothing, at the dead center of his game, Sedaris proves that when you play with matches, you sometimes light the whole pack on fire.


My Review
: Very funny guy writes more very funny observational comedy essays. If you like him, you'll love it; if you are irritated and annoyed by his shtik, you won't. Never read his stuff? Start anywhere. They're all much of a muchness. Which is why, even though I got a load of chuckles out of the read, I won't be dipping back in, hence my releasing it into the rest of the world's clutches.

You can purchase this book new or used at most retailers, the publisher's website, or as a $9.99 Kindle edition here.


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 Submission by Amy Waldman (p47)

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Ten years after 9/11, a dazzling, kaleidoscopic novel reimagines its aftermath and wonders what would happen if a Muslim-American was blindly chosen to plan the World Trade Center Memorial.

Claire Harwell hasn't settled into grief; events haven't let her. Cool, eloquent, raising two fatherless children, Claire has emerged as the most visible of the widows who became a potent political force in the aftermath of the catastrophe. She longs for her husband, but she has found her mission: she sits on a jury charged with selecting a fitting memorial for the victims of the attack.

Of the thousands of anonymous submissions that she and her fellow jurors examine, one transfixes Claire: a garden on whose walls the names of the dead are inscribed. But when the winning envelope is opened, they find the designer is Mohammad Khan —Mo—an enigmatic Muslim-American who, it seems, feels no need to represent anyone's beliefs except his own. When the design and its creator are leaked, a media firestorm erupts, and Claire finds herself trying to balance principles against emotions amid escalating tensions about the place of Islam in America.

A remarkably bold and ambitious debut, The Submission is peopled with journalists, activists, mourners, and bureaucrats who struggle for advantage and fight for their ideals. In this deeply humane novel, the breadth of Amy Waldman's cast of characters is matched by her startling ability to conjure individual lives from their own points of view. A striking portrait of a city—and a country—fractured by old hatreds and new struggles, The Submission is a major novel by an important new talent.


My Review: This rubbed me the wrong way:
To Mo the ruins had a timeless quality.

"The way of all fucked-up third-world countries," his seatmate said.

They were left for dinner at a French restaurant hidden behind high earthen walls. There was a garden draped with grapevines, a small apple orchard, and a swimming pool full of Europeans and Americans dive-bombing each other. Chlorine and marjoram and marijuana and frying butter mingled in an unfamiliar, heady mix.

"Wonder what the Afghans think of this," one of the architects said, waving his hand to take in the bikinied women and beery men.

"They're not allowed in," said Mo's seatmate from the van. "Why do you think they checked our passports? It's better if they don't know what they're missing."

"Hot chicks and fruit trees: they're missing their own paradise," said someone else at the table —Mo hadn't bothered to remember most of their names. "I'm surprised they're not blowing themselves up to get in here."

"Some of them don't have to," his seatmate from the van said, his eyes on Mo.

Yes yes yes, I know I'm not supposed to like these yahoos. I know the exoticization of the "third-world" people and culture are presented as the problem. But I just don't want to read it.

I have no quarrel with the author's wordsmithery, apart from finding it a bit too predictable for me to wax enthusiastic about. Overall, the story isn't calling to me, the characters are facile, the prose is adequate but no more. Not for me, considering how few eyeblinks I have left to me.


The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne (p381)

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?

Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamourous and dangerous Julian Woodbead.

At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from —and over his three score years and ten, will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country and much more.

In this, Boyne's most transcendent work to date, we are shown the story of Ireland from the 1940s to today through the eyes of one ordinary man. The Heart's Invisible Furies is a novel to make you laugh and cry while reminding us all of the redemptive power of the human spirit.


My Review
: I know a lot of y'all are looking at the text above and wondering if I have had another stroke. I'm Pearl-Rule abandoning a read on page 381?! I don't think I owe anyone explanations but I do want to say this clearly: if something you are reading either isn't or stops working for you, IT IS OKAY TO ABANDON IT RIGHT THEN AND THERE. No one is judging you but you... though if they are, you should heed the warning they're sending you.

So. Page 360. Cyril muses about a few people he's seen die, but reflects that he hasn't seen anyone die of AIDS. Then Boyne has him think, "Not yet anyway."

The preceding three hundred plus pages of "funny" digs at Ireland and its culture, at catholic church hypocrisy, at closeted gay life, should have prepared me for this. But it hit me exactly wrong... for all the reasons I have listed. The tone and tenor of the story is irritating. It's been irritating to me from the get-go. Having a character narrate a chapter from the womb is a risk, and one I don't think he succeeded in landing. The every-seven-years structure of the chapters is arch and borderline twee. Many are the folks who loved Cyril and his slow unwinding of the mummy-wrappings of his awful past.

I am not among those folks. YMMV, as always.

Sunday, May 7, 2023

FOLK SONGS FOR TRAUMA SURGEONS: Stories, 2021's Shirley Jackson Award-winner for Best Single-Author Collection


Meerkat Press
$8.95 ebook editions, available now

WINNER of the 2021 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Single-Author Collection!


The Publisher Says: With Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons, award-winning author Keith Rosson once again delves into notions of family, identity, indebtedness, loss, and hope, with the surefooted merging of literary fiction and magical realism he's explored in previous novels. In "Dunsmuir," a newly sober husband buys a hearse to help his wife spread her sister's ashes, while "The Lesser Horsemen" illustrates what happens when God instructs the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to go on a team-building cruise as a way of boosting their frayed morale. In "Brad Benske and the Hand of Light," an estranged husband seeks his wife's whereabouts through a fortuneteller after she absconds with a cult, and the returning soldier in "Homecoming" navigates the strange and ghostly confines of his hometown, as well as the boundaries of his own grief. With grace, imagination, and a brazen gallows humor, Folk Songs for Trauma Surgeons merges the fantastic and the everyday, and includes new work as well as award-winning favorites.


My Review

Per the Mudge standard, I'll use the Bryce Method of short, separate impressions and distinct individual ratings for the stories to give you an understanding of this award-winning author's debut story collection after who-knows-how-many anthologizations.

The Lesser Horsemen it's a little hard to believe that Pestilence didn't get that call from The Good Lord in 2020. A workplace comedy starring the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as The Good Lord gets them the therapy they so desperately need. 3.5 stars

At This Table

Baby Jill

Their Souls Climb the Room


This World or the Next



Yes, We Are Duly Concerned with Calamitous Events

Winter, Spring, Whatever Happens After That

Forgive Me This



The Melody of the Thing

Brad Benske and the Hand of Light

Saturday, May 6, 2023

LOKI'S RING, latest from the deep wells of Stina Leicht


Saga Press
$18.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Gita Chithra embarks on a mission through space to save the robot she loves as a daughter—or risk losing her in the depths of Loki’s Ring—in this intergalactic space adventure from beloved author Stina Leicht.
Gita Chithra, the captain of the intergalactic ship The Tempest , is used to leading her crew on simple retrieval and assistance missions. But when she receives a frantic distress call from Ri, the AI she trained from inception—making her like a daughter to Gita—she knows she’s in for something much more dangerous.
Ri is trapped in the depths of Loki’s Ring, an artificial alien-made solar system, and says everyone in the vicinity has been infected and killed by a mysterious contagion. Gita and her team investigate, only to discover horrors at every turn, and are soon stranded themselves, leaving them vulnerable to infection and attack.
Forced to call on an old friend to help them out of this mess, Gita must succeed or risk losing everyone she’s ever loved.
My Review: This story, set in the same story-verse as PERSEPHONE STATION, is propulsive, exciting, and deeply cool.
What you need to know, going in, is that Author Stina is of the present moment. This means that there are female and non-binary leads, there are straight, gay, polyamorous relationship configurations, there are artificial people called AGIs and not one thing is ever made about any of it.

As it should be. Unless the relationship is the point of the plot, or subplot, these are the details that enrich the story. That's all. I'm delighted with this. I'm excited that Author Stina is telling an old fashioned adventure and chase story with some first-contact elements and a healthy side of anti-capitalist messaging with all these characters following their varying bliss paths... and it's published by a major house with a real marketing push behind it. The happy, it will not stop.
Except there's more: this story is set in the already rich and enticing story-verse that my doted-on PERSEPHONE STATION was set in! (Go read my almost-5* review of that one.)
I know a perfect rating is always the hope of every reader, but the multiple viewpoints used in the story kept me from feeling quite as connected to the characters as a perfect rating would require. This technique is totally demanded by this particular story, but the desire to get to know just that little bit more about the AGIs, for example, left the tiniest niggle of "more, please" in this reader.