Monday, July 31, 2023

A CRIME OF SECRETS (A Donner & Longstreet Mystery #1) lesbian-led Gilded Age New York series you need to read

A CRIME OF SECRETS (A Donner & Longstreet Mystery #1)
Bywater Books
$9.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: New York City, 1899.

A city on the cusp of a new century. A city growing taller, faster, a city of new inventions, new ideas—and old dangers on its shadowy streets where crime, misery, and murder lurk.

When Pauline Godfrey, a young woman embodying the coming modern age, is viciously murdered, her throat cut, private inquiry agents Finola “Fin” Donner and Devorah Longstreet must navigate a world of violence and passion, lust and betrayal, where duty is twisted into bitter obedience and love is soiled.

Fin, a tough survivor of the dockside slums, and her beloved companion, the elegant, intellectual socialite Devorah, probe deep into the festering secrets of a family, the rot and corruption of the police department, and the sinister world of the city’s thieves, whores, and thugs to find the killer.


My Review
: Sapphic sleuths in Gilded Age Manhattan? ANN APTAKER penned?! Sign me right the *bleep* up! Do I particularly care whose murder this concerns? Nope! I want the pleasure of watching as Author Aptaker upends the worldview of the hoi polloi with two people who decline to participate in their tedious little black-or-white, top-or-bottom nuanceless tosh.

That, comme d'habitude, she does. *happy sigh*

A new historical fiction crime series is always a welcome development for me.I like the QUILTBAG worlds that they inhabit to come back alive and crack the false front of heteronormative society's homogeneity without our homosexuality into flinders. Author Aptaker has done this before with the Cantor Gold Crimes series in New York's pre-Stonewall art world. They're refreshingly nonconformist and still part of the long mystery novel tradition of upholding ma'at.

I don't use "law and order" here, because cruel, immoral laws are passed daily all over the world, and vicious repressive order maintained by the small-souled pursey-lipped fear-driven fools that abound in every single time period of human history. Ma'at means something altogether more agreeable to me (and I suspect to most others): The rightness and fitness of things in the world; the always joyous sense of your world running well. Ma'at herself is the center of the Afterlife as the one who weighs the dead person's heart against her feather; if the heart is heavier than the feather, that person is utterly expunged; is prevented thereby from participating in an eternal existence of harmony and pleasure. I wonder often how many righteous crusaders for Truth God and Justice will pass this test....

Certainly the outwardly, conformally Proper and Good Citizens in this story won't. How this series will take that inner-vs-outer duality ball and run with it is set up with clarity and simplicity in the choice of main charcters. Fin and Dev are from wildly different milieux, one a rough-and-tumble survivor of the wild and violent streets and the other a Lady of Quality. Very much like Nick and Nora, Author Aptaker's couple are beautifully suited in ways they continue to discover as their time together expands and their experience of each other's kindness and blindness deepens. In this initial outing, the glossy surfaces are just not quite ever matched by smooth underpinnings. Rough exteriors can, and most likely will, smooth out. Long-unquestioned shibboleths fall, leaving no thick coatings of dust just light blurrings of their outlines. It's a gift to be allowed to see a character's growth instead of meeting them fully formed here in the first book. Well chosen, Author Aptaker!

The web of lies and vileness that Fin and Dev unravel in 1899 Manhattan is nothing if not relevant to today's world where misery is considered the proper condition of the poor, the disabled, the Other. The horrible perpetuators of that misery appall and offend these upright people, who subscribe to the ma'at I described above. The fact that they come at it from very different starting points gives rise to some of the most relatable conflicts in the story: Dev feels, for example, the ugly gnaw of jealousy; Fin the hollowness of insecurity. These being inevitable in any long-term relationship, it's good to see them here, and see them seen off by the women...together.

What I most needed on a hot July weekend when going outside was, for multiple reasons, not a great idea. It kept me engaged in, interested by, rooting for, our ma'at-maintaining duo. There's not a lot stronger recommendation I can give you.

Sunday, July 30, 2023

July 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: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the tradition of Craig Johnson and C. J. Box, Bruce Borgos's The Bitter Past begins a compelling series set in the high desert of Nevada featuring Sheriff Porter Beck…

Porter Beck is the sheriff in the high desert of Nevada, north of Las Vegas. Born and raised there, he left to join the Army, where he worked in Intelligence, deep in the shadows in far off places. Now he's back home, doing the same lawman's job his father once did, before his father started to develop dementia. All is relatively quiet in this corner of the world, until an old, retired FBI agent is found killed. He was brutally tortured before he was killed and clues at the scene point to a mystery dating back to the early days of the nuclear age. If that wasn't strange enough, a current FBI agent shows up to help Beck's investigation.

In a case that unfolds in the past (the 1950s) and the present, it seems that a Russian spy infiltrated the nuclear testing site and now someone is looking for that long-ago, all-but forgotten person, who holds the key to what happened then and to the deadly goings on now.


CW: torture, misogyny
My Review
: Lots of names to keep track of, a shifting timeline, point-of-view changes...there are things to work at in this read, as well as a graphic account of torture and aftermath. They are all necessary, not just stylistic choices.

What I liked the best about the read was the melding of police procedural in the present with espionage thriller in the past told with a good leavening of snark. This is a read that agreed with my desire to be involved in a story not just a passenger on a train to a known destination. The publisher's comparisons to C.J. Box and Craig Johnson are apt. I'm a sucker for a series set in a place I don't want to go, and that included all deserts...especially irradiated ones! I could *feel* the dryness as I read along.

I found the polygamous-Mormons subplot to be tacked-on and found it contributed nothing to my experience of the read.

Available in hardcover and ebook now from Minotaur Books.


The Decagon House Murders (House Murders, #1) by Yukito Ayatsuji (tr. Ho-Ling Wong)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: The lonely, rockbound island of Tsunojima is notorious as the site of a series of bloody unsolved murders. Some even say it’s haunted. One thing’s for sure: it’s the perfect destination for the K-University Mystery Club’s annual trip.

But when the first club member turns up dead, the remaining amateur sleuths realise they will need all of their murder-mystery expertise to get off the island alive.

As the party are picked off one by one, the survivors grow desperate and paranoid, turning on each other. Will anyone be able to untangle the murderer’s fiendish plan before it’s too late?


My Review
: It's And Then There Were None with a Japanese accent. It works the same way, it has the same strengths (puzzles are fun!) and weaknesses (set-up is improbable in the extreme). This iteration is satisfying to me in that it doesn't ignore the conventions as does make use of its own vernacular. The translator chose, for example, not to switch family names and personal names around to suit western usage. I like that, others won't, so be aware of the fact.

The prose, as translated, is a bit flat. The world the tale takes place in is largely nuanceless, so it feels like it's a kabuki performance in front of scenery instead of an equally artificial film set where volumes flicker in front of our eyes fast enough to fool them into thinking they're real. That's not a flaw to me, but it does obtrude when I try to find an emotional resonance to the killings. Maybe that's a good thing? Whatever it is, good or bad, it's a choice that left me without a fourth-star's worth of involvement.

Satisfying read, though not in the ordinary ways of series mysteries. I will, however, read them as Pushkin Vertigo publishes them.


The Mill House Murders (House Murders, #2) by Yukito Ayatsuji (tr. Ho-Ling Wong)

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Every year, a small group of acquaintances pay a visit to the remote, castle-like Mill House, home to the reclusive Fujinuma Kiichi, son of a famous artist, who has lived his life behind a rubber mask ever since a disfiguring car accident. This year, however, the visit is disrupted by an impossible disappearance, the theft of a painting and a series of baffling murders.

The brilliant Kiyoshi Shimada arrives to investigate. But will he uncover the truth, and will you be able to solve the mystery of the Mill House Murders before he does?


My Review
: Another more-than-competent hommage à Dame Agatha. This one, though, is much, much more dependent on you to pay careful attention to the dramatis personae on page 11. And pay close attention to the times on chapter opening pages! Most Anglophone readers aren't going to parse the Japanse names with the ease of those culturally familiar to us, so bookmark that page and save yourself confusion.

Enjoying, or even solving, the puzzle set before us is very dependent on you keeping track of dual timelines, and since all the same characters appear in both, this can be a challenge. It was my mistake to read this book so soon after the first one, The Decagon House reinforced my opinion of the prose as flat to my more western reading-ear as the stage-sets of Japanese theater. The ending of this entry in the ongoing series is, peculiar though it sounds in light of my comments about the prose, melodramatic. Delightfully so, I hasten to add. Made me smile and even lift my hand in a fond salute. After a gap, I will certainly read more of these Pushkin Vertigo-published pleasures.


A Stranger Here Below (Gideon Stoltz #1) by Charles Fergus

Rating: 3.5 of five

The Publisher Says: For fans of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett series, a fabulous historical mystery series set in early America.

“Deeply imagined and intricately plotted, A Stranger Here Below marries richly textured historical fiction with the urgency of a mystery novel. Fergus knows certain things, deep in the horses, hunting, the folkways of rural places, and he weaves this wisdom into a stirring tale.” – Geraldine Brooks, author of March and People of the Book

Set in 1835 in the Pennsylvania town of Adamant, Fergus’s first novel in a new mystery series introduces Sheriff Gideon Stoltz, who, as a young deputy, is thrust into his position by the death of the previous sheriff. Gideon faces his first real challenge as death rocks the small town again when the respected judge Hiram Biddle commits suicide. No one is more distraught than Gideon, whom the old judge had befriended as a mentor and hunting partner. Gideon is regarded with suspicion as an he’s new to town, and Pennsylvania Dutch in the back-country Scotch-Irish settlement. And he found the judge’s body.

Making things even tougher is the way the judge’s death stirs up vivid memories of Gideon’s mother’s murder, the trauma that drove him west from his home in the settled Dutch country of eastern Pennsylvania. He had also discovered her body.

At first Gideon simply wants to learn why Judge Biddle killed himself. But as he finds out more about the judge’s past, he realizes that his friend's suicide was spurred by much more than the man’s despair. Gideon’s quest soon becomes more complex as it takes him down a dangerous path into the past.

A Stranger Here Below is so atmospheric, so compelling and convincing, that readers will taste the grit of the dirt roads, cringe at the unsanitary conditions and medical superstitions that inflame a flu epidemic, and marvel at the immensely arduous task of carrying out an investigation using the primitive tools of the early 1800s. Fergus leaves us breathlessly waiting for the next Gideon Stoltz mystery.


My Review
: Sometimes someone dies who just needed killin'. As this very deliberately paced mystery unfolds, that's the victim. I wasn't sorry he was dead, and was a little peevish about Gideon caring so much as to keep pursuing the matter. Well, anyway, if you're in the mood for a really atmospheric historical read, here's a very good candidate.

The blurb from Geraldine Brooks should tell her fans what they need to know: It's very immersive and has three-dimensional characters. I don't rate it higher because it was slow to get moving and occasionally wandered off down interesting but unnecessary tangents. I will, however, read the next one when Skyhorse Publishing brings it out.


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.



An Improbable Pairing
by Gary Dickson

I gave up when, a the end of chapter ten, I read this:

Was there room enough in Scott's life for Geneva's pleasues and scholarly pursuits? Though it might tale a while, he was confident he'd find the right balance between his newfound friends, social diversions, and schoolwork.

His editor needs to be sent back to school. That is a wodge of stodge that couldn't possibly be a worse way to end a kills any sense of momentum, debilitates any emotional investment in the character, and, if it's absolutely crucial to the plot later, would've been better phrased as a letter home. It's believable as a twentysomething naïf's epistle to his worried Mama but dear GAWD not as a third-person omniscient narrator's voice!

As the book's now out of print, I guess I am not the only one who thought so.



Offerings: A Novel
by Michael ByungJu Kim

Rating: A very generous, probably unwarranted 3* of five

The Publisher Says: The national bestseller that Gary Shteyngart has called, "A potent combination of a financial thriller and a coming-of-age immigrant tale. . . . Offerings is a great book."

With the rapidly cascading Asian Financial Crisis threatening to go global and Korea in imminent meltdown, investment banker Dae Joon finds himself back in his native Seoul as part of an international team brought in to rescue the country from sovereign default. For Dae Joon—also known by his American name of Shane, after the cowboy movie his father so loved—the stakes are personal.

Raised in the US and Harvard Business School–educated, Dae Joon is a jangnam, a firstborn son, bound by tradition to follow in the footsteps of his forebears. But rather than pursue the path his scholar-father wanted, he has sought a career on Wall Street, at the epicenter of power in the American empire. Now, as he and his fellow bankers work feverishly with Korean officials to execute a sovereign bond offering to raise badly needed capital, he knows that his own father is living on borrowed time, in the last stages of a disease that is the family curse. A young woman he has met is quietly showing the way to a different future. And when his closest friend from business school, a scion of one of Korea's biggest chaebol, asks his help in a sale that may save the conglomerate but also salvage a legacy of corruption, he finds himself in personal crisis, torn by dueling loyalties, his identity tested.


My Review
: When, oh when! will I learn from my own oft-repeated lessons?! IF SOMEONE WHOSE WRITING YOU HATE BLURBS A BOOK, AVOID IT.

At the end of chapter 15, almost halfway through the book, I encountered what was for me the last extended metaphor of submission to authority in order always to be protected from the hideous dangers of your baser nature, and simultaneously a warning that the most comfortable illusions mask a genuinely threatening reality, in the form of a Korean folktale about a fox-spirit mother guarding her son.

It might work better for you than it did me, because the writing is...competent-plus...and has descriptive passages of some charm; Arcade Publishing is offering it and doing okay with it. I wasn't sufficiently invested to keep going after that smack upside my li'l punkin haid.



Sucker Punch: Getting Killed Can Be The Least of Your Problems
by Jim Carroll

Rating: 2* of five

The Publisher Says: Johnny Mack wanted to be an airline pilot who flew all over the world, made great money and met lots of girls. At 18 that seemed like a fair trade for a few years in the Army.

Johnny found out too late that in 1971 the Army only needed helicopter pilots. And they only needed them in Vietnam.

After an unfortunate incident involving a General’s daughter, Johnny ‘volunteers’ to go undercover on a Medevac crew suspected of selling Army medicines to the enemy.

Johnny’s control officer’s incompetence is deadlier than any enemy. Johnny’s crew are psychopathic pirates.

Then there is the regular job. Coming into hot landing zones. Loading the dead and wounded. Ignoring the screaming and thrashing about in the back. Holding the helicopter steady as bullets rip through the bird. Cleaning out the blood and gore as part of the regular post flight.

There is no one to trust. Death is coming from every direction.

As life spirals out of his control, Johnny realizes that getting killed may be the least of his problems. His sanity, his soul and everything that he believes himself to be, are in as much danger as his life.


My Review
: A double-agent black-market-busting thriller in Vietnam by the author of The Basketball Diaries? Sign me up!, said my twentysomething avatar within.

I'm sixty-three, and the outer me trudged through horny-straight-boy stuff until he was ready to scream; then, at the end of chapter 23, the final blow to my youthful avatar was struck: "We'd never been called by the Ghost 4 call sign either. Everybody else just called for a Dustoff."

Absent a lot more typing, I can't give you the whole context for that, but it was too much of the same kind of Army-speak in too little space for my tolerance. Which, I think I mentioned was already over-stretched by horny-straight-boy boob-obsessed boringness.

I had the thought, as I read along, that Waino Mellas of six-stars-of-five must-read Matterhorn fame, never once gave me this kind of eyerolling impatience. It seems not to be the subject matter, then, but the execution I'm not responding well to.

Friday, July 28, 2023

BROUGHT TO BOOK, first of ten very, very cozy English-village mysteries

BROUGHT TO BOOK (Rona Parish #1)
Severn House
$6.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Rona Parish is asked to write the biography of an acclaimed thriller writer who drowned in unusual circumstances, is she diving into danger?

Biographer Rona Parish is exhausted after finishing her latest project on Arthur Conan Doyle, but her hope for a break between jobs is dashed when the wife of late bestselling thriller writer, Theo Harvey, asks her to write his biography.

Theo Harvey drowned mysteriously six months ago. No one knows why . . .

Theo’s inexplicable death six months ago left many unanswered questions. Why did he retreat from the limelight six years ago, only to reappear three years later and produce two outstanding, if much darker, novels? And what is the truth behind his mysterious drowning? Rona Parish is determined to uncover the truth behind his death, but at what cost?

Intrigued, and with her golden retriever Gus by her side, Rona starts to piece together the author’s life. But someone doesn’t want her to uncover Theo’s secrets. And they’ll go to any lengths to make sure they stay hidden . . .

A page-turning cosy mystery set in the fictional English market town of Marsborough in the stunning Chiltern Hills.


My Review
: First published twenty years ago, this supremely cozy, very definitely page-turning first-in-series mystery introduces a biographer sleuth...first time I've run into that one!...with a happily unconventional home life, a tidy income from her main career, and a bottomless well of curiosity. It felt to me like a story, and is told in a style, from sixty years ago.

I do not intend an insult with this statement of an observation.

Gender politics will derail any discussion of why I personally find myself squicked out by stalkery behavior. The cultural conversation about this behavior was only just getting started back then, so I can't really point a shaming finger at it; just something I myownself find unpleasant to read. This book, like some of the ones we labeled "romantic" many decades ago, valorizes some things I characterize as really stalkery behavior. That's a very big nope from me. I get it, in the sense that, at a point near the end of the story, the plot really needed something to happen at precisely that juncture. Why the other something that was in already set in motion by a different character and was, in fact, in progress and that occurs with near simultaneity wasn't enough for the author only she knows. A choice she made that I was appalled by, and it really caused me to reassess the prior appearances of the stalkery character in a much less flattering (to the author) light.

A trope that just won't die is the villain infodump. There is one of these at the end. I really rolled my eyes so hard I saw my brain as the guilty party settles in for a cozy chat with people whose murders are essential to the sociopath's happy getaway. The sociopaths I've known wouldn't be that careless. This is, from their point of view, a necessary act not to be lingered over because the risk to them getting away with their awful decision decrease with every delay or diversion from its accomplishment. I've never known a stupid sociopath.

The age of the story shows in multiple ways, eg the fact that Rona goes to her publisher's office and hands him an envelope with a printed version of an article she's submitting. Wow, does that take me one even five years later would conceptualize this as a possibility! It's actually a bit wistfully charming. It dates events, but that's not necessarily bad...just a passing note for informative purposes.

The series character's world is most charmingly set up, and I would absolutely love to live in that village. I would be seriously surprised if a revelation that genuinely shocked me regarding Rona's twin wasn't going to loom large in a future installment. The changing technology of the day wasn't ignored, because Rona does look up the subject of her proposed biography on the Internet (still capitalized back then) and discusses what she's found with the subject's widow. Rona also notes the biography subject's lack of a computer to the widow. So it became even more odd in my eyes that she submitted her article on paper.

There is an instance of an animal being harmed, but it is set up so that the event, while bad, doesn't kill the animal in question. It is used, I felt, gratuitously, though it's later revealed to have been the last straw for the one committing the harmful act. It fell short of my slam-the-book-shut threshold because it's clear there's not going to be fatal outcome very soon after it occurs.

What I most want to convey to you is how high my hopes were set up, and then to be let down by the issues I've detailed above was a deep disappointment. There was every reason to think I'd found a ten-book series that's clearly complete (the most recent was published in 2017) to dive into.

Unfortunately that's not to be. I don't care to risk my own money on books that bid fair to repeat these kinds of unwelcome to me tropes.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023


THUNDER BAY (Rebecca Connolly #1)
Arcade CrimeWise
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: Stoirm’s secrets are worth killing for in this gripping thriller for readers of All the Missing Girls and Neon Prey.

When reporter Rebecca Connolly gets a tip that suspected murderer Roddie Drummond will be returning to the island of Stoirm, she smells a story. Though never convicted in the death of his girlfriend Mhairi fifteen years earlier, Drummond is still guilty in the eyes of many islanders, and his return for his mother’s funeral is sure to stir up old resentments, hatreds, possibly even violence. Rebecca has another reason for going to Stoirm. Her own father came from there, but he never went back, and he always refused to speak of it or say what drove him away.

Defying her editor, Rebecca joins forces with local photographer Chazz Wymark to dig into the mystery surrounding Mhairi's death and her unexplained last words, “Thunder Bay”—the secluded spot on the west coast of the island where, according to local lore, the souls of the dead set off into the afterlife. When a string of violent events erupts across the island, Rebecca discovers the power of secrets, and she must decide what to bury, and what to bring into the light.

Longlisted for Bloody Scotland's McIlvanney Prize for best crime book of the year.


My Review
: Journalists make great sleuths for a series because asking questions and poking into stuff others would prefer to leave alone is literally their job description. They're also, by training, very, very sensitive to being lied to and misdirected. Plus the police know they really need what journalists have...the public's they tend to understand that cooperation is the best way forward if both sides are to get what they want and need.

This series opener relies on an investigative journalist, Rebecca Connolly, ignoring her editor's instructions to leave a juicy story about a past crime alone. A murder happens, the everyone's eyes a guilty man...fled his little gossipy island community after the Scottish verdict is handed down (loosely translatable as "not guilty but don't do it again"), leaving all islanders convnced that he absolutely murdered the beautiful, popular girl he was living with. Now, fifteen years later, he's back. Things on the island are changing, luxury vacation destination development is being proposed, opposed, and debated, and here's Roddie coming home to a place that emphatically does not want him.

What unfolds is a corking raking-up of old secrets, including some from Rebecca's family that's from this island. There is an expected amount of anti-social behavior, mostly in the past, but the homophobia and domestic violence here could offend a sensitive reader. It isn't prurient in its use but it is present and neither downlayed nor valorized. Your personal thresholds for this kind of action should be your guide in picking the book up.

The very best thing about this story is the intensity of place in it...the island, the islanders, the outsider (Rebecca) come to stir things up and ask questions about her own family connection to the place...all vividly described and strategically deployed to lure the reader in and cause the readerly radar to see false images and think they're facts. This requires Author Skelton to deploy an unweildy cast of characters and to require the undivided attention of his reader. The late Connolly père backstory, and its deep-past relationship to the story told here, felt like that one-too-manyeth bite of pecan pie with whipped tasty but just should've stayed on the plate because now it's all a wee bit much. The rhetorical palate-cleansing swig of coffee that is Rebecca's full comprehension of her father's reason for being so closemouthed about his youth on the island wasn't quite enough to keep the fifth star on this stellar debut effort. The big reveal of it was, to be honest, anti-climactic to me because I thought "...really...? this is what you were traumatized by, with all the other stuff going on?"

So, not a perfect read but, as a series-starter, darn good entertainment. Worth your eyeblinks and your gold.


THE BLOOD IS STILL (Rebecca Connolly #2)
Arcade CrimeWise
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Investigative journalist Rebecca Connolly returns in this riveting, immersive thriller from the author of Thunder Bay—for readers of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and Denise Mina

When a man in eighteenth-century Highland dress is found dead on the site of the Battle of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie led his forces to a rout seared into Scottish memory, Rebecca Connolly takes up the case for the Chronicle. A controversial film about the rebellion and battle is being shot nearby, and it has drawn the ire of the right-wing nationalist movement Spirit of the Gael. Is there some link between the murder—the weapon used to impale the man leaves no doubt it was murder—and Spirit of the Gael or the shadowy militant group New Dawn, thought to be associated with them?

Meanwhile, in the working-class part of town, Rebecca's assignment to cover a protest against the placement of a convicted child molester into the community leads her to Mo Burke, the unlikely protest leader. Mo is a formidable woman, but she is also the matriarch of a known crime family and usually prefers to shun the spotlight. What has drawn her out? And what of her two grown sons, who share in the family business? The older one, Nolan, with Ben Affleck good looks, is clearly intrigued by Rebecca, as she is by him, despite her better instincts to steer clear of their dangerous, violent world.

And then another body is found, this one wearing the Redcoat uniform of the victorious British army.


My Review
: There's a theme developing here...huge casts of characters, this time with lots of Scots Gaelic spellings for many things, people, organizations. Rebecca, our sleuth, stumbles into another community buzzsaw as she covers the protests against a convicted pedophile being housed in a working-class neighborhood that happens to be the turf of a crime its most literal sense. The matriarch, Mo, is an understandably publicity-shy person. She has broken her public silence to lead the protests against the pedophile's housing among her people. Add in a right-wing politico out to woo voters to his vile cause by stoking paranoia (*sigh* in Scotland, too?) to a terrorist organization sowing fear and distrust plus a major motion picture using the touchy site of the Battle of Culloden and we're away!

The narratives are as expected loaded with wonderfully observed and described moments, people, emotions, and places. Possibly a bit harder to take in with equanimity are the anonymous narratives of a survivor of sexual assault. I was put off by them, but as the ending unfolded, I understood why Author Skelton made that particular choice. Be aware that it exists in the narrative, but also that it serves a plot purpose beyond prurience.

Journalism is undergoing a lot of changes in the internet age. Rebecca's job is, she feels, unstable because there have been some executive ownership shifts at her paper. What that means for her future is, clearly, to be determined...along with her interesting taste for local crime-family man Nolan. His mother, redoubtable Mo, isn't at all pleased with her son because he's done with crime and because he's been clear with her that he's not going to back away from fascinating, exciting Rebecca. This conflict is very clearly going to cost all concerned a lot of tears, stress, and heartache. *eager hand-rubbing*

The deaths at Culloden and the ugly truths undergirding their choice of methods and victims are part and parcel of the changes Brexit and the forces underlying it have revealed in Scottish society. The passions that nationalism, or I suppose tribalism is closer to the meaning I want, evokes in people are never more blatant than when History puts on her Mythmaking apron and brews up social poisons of stunning strength. What Author Skelton does with this, as with Mo and her criminal family, is scrape off the filthy film of facile propagandizing (he reserves that for Finbar the politico) for a clear-sighted look at why people adhere to often deeply destructive Causes and ideals. Means are never separable from ends. Ends are never separable from needs. Needs dictate the means at one's disposal. Round and round we go, where we'll stop nobody knows...even up to the moment that death results from in/actions that seem perfectly reasonable on their face.

There's a truly terrible sacrifice demanded by Justice, of course, and it strains everything in Rebecca's journalistic world, as well as in her emotional core. The journalist's liaision she of necessity maintains with the police is costing her dearly, and won't stop in the future. Her enemies have chosen her, as she would prefer not to make enemies at all. But that's what makes the complexity and enmeshment of the reader's intellect in the casuistries Rebecca must purvey, or puncture, or both in turn, so worth the effort.

You won't be surprised that I can't give five stars to a series mystery, given the nature of the beast is to scratch the ma'at rash that murder represents erupting on the body politic. Treading the same ground comes with costs. One of them is breaking new ground, so this four-and-a-half star read is as close to five as I myownself feel I can come.

I will say that the ending is both condign and very sad. It sets us up for some dark future probabilities and honestly I can't wait to see them.


A RATTLE OF BONES (Rebecca Connolly #3)
Arcade CrimeWise
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1752, Seamus a’Ghlynne, James of the Glen, was executed for the murder of government man Colin Campbell. He was almost certainly innocent.

When banners are placed at his gravesite claiming that his namesake, James Stewart, is innocent of murder, reporter Rebecca Connolly smells a story. The young Stewart has been in prison for ten years for the brutal murder of his lover, lawyer and politician Murdo Maxwell, in his Appin home. Rebecca soon discovers that Maxwell believed he was being followed prior to his murder and his phones were tapped.

Why is a Glasgow crime boss so interested in the case? As Rebecca keeps digging, she finds herself in the sights of Inverness crime matriarch Mo Burke, who wants payback for the damage caused to her family in a previous case.

Set against the stunning backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, A Rattle of Bones is a tale of injustice and mystery, and the echo of the past in the present.


My Review
: First, read this:
              Near Ballachulish, the Scottish Highlands, 1755
The red-coated soldier was a bloodstain against the dull sky and drab scrub on the hill.

It had a name, this desolate lump above the waters, a heathenish Scotch concotion of sounds, but he was damned if he could pronounce it. To him it was little more than a pox-ridden mound of dirt that drew the elements like a hedge whore did corn-faced beard-splitters.

The waters of the lake shivered as chill breeze weaved its way up the hill to find his solitary figure standing post. Private Henry Greenway huddled deeper into his coat, watching the small ferry being rowed across the narrows. He wished he was in his billet, a cup of hot grog in one hand and a mutton pie, warm from the oven, in the other. This was a pointless duty, a punishment for not taking proper care of the Brown Bess he now crooked loosely in one arm. His sergeant would be displeased to see him cradle the gun so carelessly, except there was no one here to bear witness, except the blasted elements and the one he guarded, who was beyond caring, Greenway wagered.

There's no question that scene sets a very clear tone...and it's one that very much resonates through this third entry in the Rebecca Connolly thriller series.

With the new life she lucked into at the end of book two lurching into gear, Rebecca Connolly can truly feel the cold truth of freedom on her neck: No one can say no but no one needs to answer her questions, or give her leads, or so much as consider offering her the chance to do what she most wants to do: fix stuff.

She's got to build her reputation all over again, in a new and different world of newsgathering, and she loves it. When Rebecca's last adventure ended in so much loss, yet so much opportunity being spread before her, this story is the one that unfolds to her horrified fascination. James Stewart, Tanist of Clan Stewart and a wrongfully convicted victim of judicial murder, has a strong resonance with an imprisoned modern-day James Stewart convicted of murdering his politician lover...though to be honest there's pretty much no sensible motive (at least to my mind) for him to have done so, and he insists that he didn't, just as the eighteenth-century James did. Because I am indifferent to spoilers, I wikied up the long-ago story and spent the rest of the book looking for the ways the current story resonated with it. Rebecca, not having my information, gets involved in this fearsomely complex muddle blind to these clues. This situation is, unsurprisingly, one that draws in her old foes from the last book. It was handled in what I found to be a plausible way.

The main character is one I love spending time with, and love sharing troubles with. This outing into the world of crusading journalism is as deeply satisfying as before. Rebecca has a difficult group of folks whose involvement in her current investigative project is central...the mother of a jailed innocent, for example, has every reason not to respond positively to a journalist...but no access to an established powerbase to give her an effective lever to prise open their minds. All she's got is her tenacity and her inability to admit defeat.

These qualities work wonders. They usually do. Afua, the mother of the present-day innocent James Stewart, is a vividly drawn rageball, betrayed and abused by those with power over her and her son's fate. She's's cost her a lot, but when you have no one to turn to you need to be strong...and she's got a mother's outrage at her child's ill treatment fueling her. Watching as she learns to tolerate Rebecca's "interference" in her own chaotic efforts to free her James was frustrating for me. Stiff-necked inflexible people are maddening!

What makes The story satisfying to read is the usual tension between a homophobic culture and the reality of the ease with which anyone Othered can be used to hide real criminals on the one hand, and Author Skelton's clear and unwavering presentation of these gay people as ordinary, average people. It's distressing but refreshing to see the sexual nature of the characters simply be a fact, and only the bad actors and evildoers investing in their Othering for the lowest of motives.

Literally everything about these reads is immersive...landscapes, relationships among the characters, the background concerns of twenty-first century Scotland and of news media outside major cities and underneathe international radar, which is of course where all of us live our real lives. They're present and they're intentional but they aren't competing for your readerly attention. Author Skelton makes the propulsive story much richer by allowing the reader to choose how much thought to devote to these interrelated parts while assuring the main focus is always what we saw on the marquee.

Far and away my favorite of the three reads to date.

Monday, July 24, 2023

LOW EXPECTATIONS, riffing on Dickens goes right for a change


Text Publishing
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: I begin to record the history of it all, because if I don’t I will explode, leaving nothing to tell of me but a pile of ash. In this history I will try to leave nothing out, but I will also be careful not to incorporate any extraneous unnecessary shit. Like objectivity. Objectivity is for those who don’t have a point to make, or a side to take. There is only one side to this story and that’s mine.

1970s, Western Sydney. A boy and his mum living in a street where neighbours keep an eye on everyone else’s business. A detested bully. And a family secret, barely hidden.

Devon Destri flies under the radar. He doesn’t talk to anyone, calls himself hard of speaking, and doesn’t correct anyone’s assumptions of his low intelligence. If no one knows otherwise, no one will expect anything of him, and maybe he won’t need to expect anything of himself—that is, beyond running a highly lucrative porn-magazine racket. Only his fiercely loyal friend Big Tammy and Krenek the Hungarian refugee know that Great Expectations is his favourite book, or that he can read at all. But when Devon starts to piece together his mother’s secret, his intellect and charm are put to startling and devastating use.

Stuart Everly-Wilson’s Low Expectations is a heartbreaking and hilarious story of resilience, revenge and love that captures the complexity of vulnerability and bravado. Devon Destri, with his sharp wit and gift for one-liners, is a character you’ll never forget.


My Review
: Anyone who's read anything I've written here in the past ten years knows that I admire one thing about Dickens: nothing. A chore to read at best, an excruciatingly twee sentimental boor at least, he's famous wherever English is spoken because he makes average people feel smart, and smart people feel godlike, for "getting" his stories and their layers. To me, that's like congratulating yourself for knowing tomatoes are fruits but having the sense not to put them in fruit salad.

Low Expectations stars a teen, one with multivalent social and physical challenges, whose favorite book is Great Expectations. So coming of age, Dickens veneration, and Australian setting. Not an immediate fit for my US-centric, anti-Chuckles the Dick self, then.

I got within an ace of giving it five stars just for being raucously its ownself.

You who belong to the Church of Chuckles know he's fond of the sesquipedalian sentence, the orotund ekphrasis, the hifalutin verbiage. Quite why Devon, our PoV character, loves him, then is Dickensianly (in the "stop-hitting-me-with-the-message" sense) clear. He's "hard of speaking," a beautiful little Dickensian (in the best sense of fulfilling a need for a phrase that no one knew was there except him) creation for someone who simply doesn't want to speak much. Better not to let anyone in on his secret: he is a smart, observant, sensitive guy stuck in a world that just has no place for that kind of time-wasting, but expects people to be hard, both -working and -hearted, to make it in their working-class world. Devon feels safe in his hidey-hole with the special needs kids, he refers to it as the "spaz Gulag" and now let's talk about lanuguage. Diametrically opposite to Dickens, Devon's narrative voice is choppy and frequently heavy on the "worty dirds," as a teacher of mine called them. He absolutely has no respect for anyone who isn't worthy in his eyes, including himself. For the 2020s US audience this can lead to pursed lips and furrowed brows. Either check your fifty-years-later, wildly different culture expectations of politeness at the door, or don't pick the book up...and I strongly encourage the former choice. The alchemy of the story is, like Devon's favorite story, in the way the entire experience of reading it subverts the thoughts and expectations you started out with so often that the wonder is you emerge with any expectations left.

This bitter draft of gall and wormwood comes about because our hard-of-speaking narrator learns a truly life-changing secret about the mother he disrespects and denigrates. As she's raised him by herself, I don't think you need a lot of brainpower to figure out what it's about. I will say that it didn't seem hugely surprising to me when it was revealed; I was by that time exasperated with Devon for not picking up on it before he did. What matters in this rough-tongued kid's world is keeping himself a small enough target to avoid more than the irreducible minimum of abuse and also attention. It makes him a more-than-ordinarily solipsistic adolescent. His eyes are sharp...his attention is not focused outside his self-defined sphere of defense. As he's breaking the law, he's wise to keep his thoughts from straying too far afield. Adult readers who're parents will, I'm sure, think the right thoughts about how the family-related things end up before they do.

With the laundry list of CWs, why would I rate this book so highly? Because I'm Devon's age and, even though I grew up in Texas, the culture of cruelty wasn't a lot different there. Instead of someone telling a loudly pruriently foulmouthed and prejudiced tale of the modern day in order to shock and appall and titillate, this story recounts the way it was in that time and place, and does so with clarity and purpose. The world was what it was, but Devon is a work in progress, and by the end of the book the Devon we met is appreciably more adult in the postive ways than I ever expected him to be.

But for all that, peruse the CWs and make sure you're not going to pass out when they come to pass because they all do.

Friday, July 21, 2023

DO ELEPHANTS HAVE KNEES?: And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins, whimsical explainer of Darwin's famous theory

DO ELEPHANTS HAVE KNEES?: And Other Stories of Darwinian Origins

Cornell University Press
$27.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Thinking whimsically makes serious science accessible. That's a message that should be taken to heart by all readers who want to learn about evolution. Do Elephants Have Knees? invites readers into serious appreciation of Darwinian histories by deploying the playful thinking found in children's books. Charles R. Ault Jr. weds children's literature to recent research in paleontology and evolutionary biology. Inquiring into the origin of origins stories, Ault presents three portraits of Charles Darwin curious child, twentysomething adventurer, and elderly worm scientist. Essays focusing on the origins of tetrapods, elephants, whales, and birds explain fundamental Darwinian concepts (natural selection, for example) with examples of fossil history and comparative anatomy.

The imagery of the children's story offers a way to remember and recreate scientific discoveries. By juxtaposing Darwin's science with tales for children, Do Elephants Have Knees? underscores the importance of whimsical storytelling to the accomplishment of serious thinking. Charles Darwin mused about duck beaks and swimming bears as he imagined a pathway for the origin of baleen. A "bearduck" chimera may be a stretch, but the science linking not just cows but also whales to moose through shared ancestry has great merit. Teaching about shared ancestry may begin with attention to Bernard Wiseman's Morris the Moose. Morris believes that cows and deer are fine examples of moose because they all have four legs and things on their heads. No whale antlers are known, but fossils of four-legged whales are. By calling attention to surprising and serendipitous echoes between children's stories and challenging science, Ault demonstrates how playful thinking opens the doors to an understanding of evolutionary thought.


My Review
: One third concise, accessible potted biography of Charles Darwin, two-thirds essays offering new, if odd, pathways to contextualizing Darwin's famous Theory of Evolution by means of natural selection. It's enjoyably presented, contains enough illustrative figures to give the reader a sense of what they're reading about, and makes its science plain.

I really don't get the inclusion of quotes from kidlit. It's not always apt, at least it wasn't so to me, but it really didn't ever detract from my reading of Dr. Ault's stories. If you, like I did, think this book is aimed at younger audiences, get that misconception out of your head now. Maybe a high-school senior at the youngest, more likely a not-very-science-oriented twentysomething is at the sweet spot. The older reader whose science education is behind the curve will get a lot out of the read because it's packed with reasonably current science. Really good analogies and examples bring meaning to often abstract concepts. The vocabulary pulls no punches, so have your preferred reference source handy. There are endnotes aplenty, and the index actually functioned as an was, after all, published by a university press. All of this, on top of the popular-science tone of the author's presentation, gave me a very enjoyable reading experience.

This review was written in 2017 and posted to my Science, Dinosaurs, & Environmental Issues tab. I've moved it to facilitate my indexing project.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

QUEEN WALLIS, a klaxon to the complacent and/or inattentive to the aims of today's global culture wars


Sourcebooks Landmark (publisher's Amazon affiliate link)
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: The thrilling sequel to Widowland, a feminist dystopian novel set in an alternative history that terrifyingly imagines what a British alliance with Germany would look like if the Nazis had won WWII.

London, 1955. The Leader has been dead for two years. His assassination, on British soil, provoked violent retribution and intensified repression of British citizens, particularly women. Now, more than ever, the Protectorate is a place of surveillance and isolation―a land of spies.

Every evening Rose Ransom looks in the mirror and marvels that she's even alive. A mere woman, her role in the Leader's death has been miraculously overlooked. She still works at the Culture Ministry, where her work now focuses on poetry, which has been banned for its subversive meanings, emotions, and signals that cannot be controlled.

A government propaganda drive to promote positive images of women has just been announced ahead of a visit from Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first American president to set foot on English soil in two decades. Queen Wallis Simpson will be spearheading the campaign, and Rose has been tasked with visiting her to explain the plan. When Rose arrives at the palace, she finds Wallis in a state of paranoia, desperate to return to America and enjoy the liberty of her homeland following her husband's death. Wallis claims she has a secret document so explosive that it will blow the Protectorate apart. But will the last queen of England pull the trigger on the Alliance?


My Review
: Fahrenheit 451 meets The Handmaid's Tale and they then mind-meld with Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four in a world where Edward VIII with his Nazi sympathies never abdicated.
As a life-long devotee of alternative history, I've seen so damn many "Germans win WWII" ideas that I refelxively shy away from reading yet another one. This one, being the second in a series I didn't read the first one of, would usually get zero attention from me for both those reasons. The way this subverted my defenses was to offer me a golden moment: My abiding contempt for the Windsors leads me to be amused and more than a little pleased that things turn out badly for them in this story.

The idea that the American Queen Wallis, a rapacious, greedy person whose grudges were legendary, would want to give up her life atop the heap is so unlikely as to be risible; but this isn't rigorous allohistorical scenario design, it's tendentious warning-blaring. It's meant for the world with Erdoğan, Orban, Modi, and Putin trotting around unassassinated in it, to detail a few of the not-at-all unlikely societal effects thereof on decent human beings. Most especially women. Author Carey is excellent at the evocation of the personal costs of totalitarian rule based on religious "principles" and there's no doubt that the cult of eugenics, written into law, would function quite well as a "moral" force like religion.

It delights me that the job our PoV character, Rose, does is to bowdlerize literature and history books to conform with the prevailing power's ideological needs. The Power of Literature is immense and very, very scary to the Powers That Be. One thing I don't see discussed in pop culture is how extremely easy Rose's job would be now: Push a patch to all Kindles and Kobos, and the "subversive" text is in compliance with Their needs. Think that's far-fetched? Read some Cory Doctorow links.

The topics Author Carey deals with in this book are so very timely that I could feel them pulling me along as the pace slackened after about 35% of the way through (a converation between Rose and Queen Wallis). The last about 15% was fast-paced and exciting, but without my deep identification with the author's evident desire to bring home the existential threat women and Others face in today's increasingly fascistic world, I'd've taken longer to finish the read.

While I have cavils on the history front (why is Eisenhower president in a 1955 where WWII wasn't like ours? why is there no mention of presumably vanished millions of Jews?), I have none on the timeliness and urgency of the author's purpose in writing the book. I'll say that I felt slightly at sea occasionally. I put this down to not having read Widowland, so I recommend you do that first.

Rose is no superheroine. She's a very slightly moist, sometimes even drippy, everywoman whose moral compass isn't aligned with her culture's. She has the decency to follow it, and not the mob. She is, then, who we can reasonably aspire to be if the worst happens.

Well worth your time and treasure.

Monday, July 17, 2023

DEAD OF WINTER, chilling in more than one way, plus tension and puzzles to think through


Poisoned Pen Press
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From bestselling author Darcy Coates comes Dead of Winter, a remote cabin in the snowy wilderness thriller that will teach you to trust no one. There are eight strangers. One killer. Nowhere left to run.

When Christa joins a tour group heading deep into the snowy expanse of the Rocky Mountains, she's hopeful this will be her chance to put the ghosts of her past to rest. But when a bitterly cold snowstorm sweeps the region, the small group is forced to take shelter in an abandoned hunting cabin. Despite the uncomfortably claustrophobic quarters and rapidly dropping temperature, Christa believes they'll be safe as they wait out the storm.

She couldn't be more wrong.

Deep in the night, their tour guide goes missing...only to be discovered the following morning, his severed head impaled on a tree outside the cabin. Terrified, and completely isolated by the storm, Christa finds herself trapped with eight total strangers. One of them kills for sport...and they're far from finished. As the storm grows more dangerous and the number of survivors dwindles one by one, Christa must decide who she can trust before this frozen mountain becomes her tomb.


    If you need trigger warnings, this is not the read for you.

My Review
: What you need to know is that this author's already famous, and has done this work for over twenty books now. This means there are Expectations from Darcy Coates readers, plus the hook is baited with care and attention to the creation of more Darcy Coates readers. This effort is successful, and pays off. The sentences flow past you, making perhaps only a modest impression separately. The cumulative effect, like the river's flow of my metaphor, is powerful and impressive. I'm not all that impressed with the author's effort until I step back and consider what the journey I've been on has left me to feel and think about.

There are always, always comparisons of "stranded together, death stalks them" stories to And Then There Were None. Inevitable; unfair. The standard-setter of the subgenre will usually win because that's the nature of literary analysis. When one is held up to a known standard, one is seldom going to be the one coming out on top in the comparisons. So let's get this out of the way: Darcy Coates isn't Dame Agatha. And you know what? That's just fine with me. I enjoy the set-up enough to get the story on its terms, not my literary snobby standards.

One of those standards is mysteries don't reveal the gore; thrillers do. Author Coates, then, delivers a thriller. Given a lot of her work is horror, that isn't in any way out of character. Also notable is the truism that thriller characters live to die, and more often than not aren't given a lot of development before or after their deaths. Another tick in the thriller column.

The freak-storm trope always decreases my pleasure in a mystery/thriller. If it was unexpected, how did the miscreant plan and execute (!) all these elaborate endings? How were these people, all with vile secrets that meant I was utterly indifferent to their murders (in a couple cases, actively pleased they'd died horribly), assembled with the assurance that they'd be incommunicado? That was always the flaw in my own pleasure when reading this particular set-up by anyone. It means I've literally never rated one of these reads above four stars.

Looking above, you'll see all four of those stars. I loved the experience of being chilled to the bone by Author Coates's wintertime evocation. I was, ironically, delighted with the murderer's choices of victims. The issue for me was there were too many of them for the sketchy characterizations to keep me interested in their fates. Being inside Christa's head made the technique inevitable. The use of very short chapters suits the need to keep the story moving but ultimately make that action, propulsive as it is, feel more repetitive than it should in order to propel the story to greater-than-the source heights. The tragedies, as I've said above, seem less effective as character establishing mechanisms than as justifications for the brutality inflicted on these rotters because there isn't the scope to do more than report them.

Cavils like these aside, I join the chorus of Goodreads readers wondering where the hell the movie is—I can already see it, done by (say) Guy's got his blend of violence and moral ambiguity and visual power.

Do I know anyone who knows him? Give him a copy!

Friday, July 14, 2023

THE KINGDOM OF SAND, older isn't always wiser


$18.00 trade paperback, available now

Rating: 4* of five

LONGLISTED for the 2023 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction!

The Publisher Says: One of the great appeals of Florida has always been the sense that the minute you get here you have permission to collapse.

The Kingdom of Sand is a poignant tale of desire and dread—Andrew Holleran’s first new book in sixteen years. The nameless narrator is a gay man who moved to Florida to look after his aging parents—during the height of the AIDS epidemic—and has found himself unable to leave after their deaths. With gallows humor, he chronicles the indignities of growing old in a small town.

At the heart of the novel is the story of his friendship with Earl, whom he met cruising at the local boat ramp. For the last twenty years, he has been visiting Earl to watch classic films together and critique the neighbors. Earl is the only person in town with whom he can truly be himself. Now Earl’s health is failing, and our increasingly misanthropic narrator must contend with the fact that once Earl dies, he will be completely alone. He distracts himself with sexual encounters at the video porn store and visits to Walgreens. All the while, he shares reflections on illness and death that are at once funny and heartbreaking.

Holleran’s first novel, Dancer from the Dance, is widely regarded as a classic work of gay literature. The Kingdom of Sand displays all of Holleran’s considerable gifts; it’s an elegy to sex and a stunningly honest exploration of loneliness and the endless need for human connection, especially as we count down our days.


My Review
: I'm getting older. No, let's not be American about it: I'm old. Stories are very comforting when they tell you about yourself as you'd like to be. They're less comforting when they hold a mirror to ourselves as we are.
This isn't a comforting story for me to read.

Dancer from the Dance was the roadmap for how I wanted to be in the 1970s: Rooms full of men fucking each other's brains out? Parties with mind-altering substances galore?! Sign me up! I'm ready to start this kind of life! This book, not so much.

Mostly because illness, isolation, and the slightly tedious repetitiveness of sex are my reality, and aren't very interesting to me unless they're freshly observed. Let's be honest, what's ever going to make this stuff fresh to those within it? It is not, as far as I can see, possible to make excitement and anticipation from the routine, mundane, quotidian life of Getting Old. Bearing in mind as I do daily that getting old is a privilege denied to most people, it is a curiously samey process. I'm aware that there are people aging vigorously and pursuing, in their seventies, activity levels I never attained. I'm also aware that I am stunningly lucky not to be dead or permanently cognitively impaired after January 2023's strokes. I don't mean there's only one way to get old: I mean getting old, no matter which way you slice it, has certain common themes that don't rev my readerly engine above idle speed.

I looked over what I've just written, thought "this doesn't sound like a four-star review," and called my Young Gentleman Caller to read it to him. Thank goodness I did! After A Long Silence, he finally said, "Tedious repetitiveness? Thanks a lot." Explaining to him what I actually meant, aside from reassuring his bruised feelings about my real opinion of his prowess, clarified the subject that's bothered me about the book since I read it.

Holleran's over a decade older than I am. As I read about the life he was describing, I thought about the sameness of the unnamed PoV character's life as repetitive, even...perhaps especially...his unchanged relationship to sex. The expectation of desire for the same kind of sex into one's older age isn't a sign of vigor to me, but a sign of arrested adolescence. The concerns about isolation, in that context, also read as adolesent fears of not being Hot, of never finding friends/boyfriends/partners when it feels like everyone around you has them, in general of FOMO.

Seriously? You're still on about this? is what I'd say to this guy if I met him. I don't want an orgy or a three-way anymore, I want to spend that hour and a half in the more rewarding, interesting leisurely touching, stroking, and communing with Rob, the man I know and want to know better. That's a whole different experience from cruising the porn store as does our aging Casanova. Part of that is, again, down to my good luck. There is someone in my life who elicits these feelings from me, and is willing to reciprocate them. That's what I thought Earl meant to our PoV character, whose lack of a name feels to me like a reinforcement of this guy's utter and complete adolescent narcissism. "Only I am Real, everyone else is an extra in the movie of my life." And this is in spite of the fact that PoVman is basically spending the whole of his time in this book narrating Earl's decline and fall into the Endless!

Oh dear, again I'm veering into the not-highly-rating territory.

This is why I've had such trouble reviewing the book. It's a much better literary experience than I'm making it sound like. Look at the thoughts it's causing me to examine! Look at the depth of attention it summons out of me! I'm having interesting, important conversations with my Young Gentleman Caller because I need his help to process my feelings about the read.

Author Holleran is a fine wordsmith, with an opera librettist's ear for sentences that sing in my ear:
I believed somehow in the absurd idea that if you ate right you could live indefinitely. Even when, a decade after my mother‘s death, I began getting skin cancers, all I could think of was: how could this be? Given all the broccoli I’ve eaten? It must be loneliness, I concluded, the lack of a person to live for other than myself, since we are also told that health is psychosomatic.
The town to which Earl and my father retired was not one of those artificial communities created for people in the last stage of life with which Florida is associated. But it had its share of the elderly. It was good to be reminded by the Regular of another stage of life, especially when I stopped off at the post office on my way home from his shack. The people moving slowly toward the post office on walkers when I went to get the mail induced both pity and admiration; pity for their condition, admiration for their determination to keep going.
The Church believes in the Resurrection, and at the Resurrection the body and soul are united. What age the body is, and exactly how the two are rejoined , I don’t know; when I asked my friend, he said, “I’ll have to get back to you on that one.”

There's a lot of this kind of thoughtful, careful observation in the book. Given the gargantuan tragedy and Black-Death-level reaping of the men in his generation's cohort, observing is safer than involving. The porn store isn't a casual or haphazard choice for the narrator's sex life. The reporting of life is safer than the living of it:
One of the great appeals of Florida has always been the sense that the minute you get here you have permission to collapse.
Leaving Florida, nevertheless, I always felt regret; though when I found myself back in New York my mother's voice on the telephone seemed so shrunken and small, I vowed that I would never waste time in that town again. How could I? I was not responsible for her happiness; she wanted me to live, and life was wasted every day I was there. Look how the noiseless spider, the relentless metronome, the secret thief, had staked their claim on even these two people, these once glamorous parents who had turned into a pair of country mice.
Florida was where they lived, where I kept coming back, though nobody asked me questions anymore about what I was doing. One day, when I was sitting in the back seat of the car as we were waiting for a railroad train to go by on our way to the mall, my mother turned back to me and said, apropos of something I forget, "You are a separate person, you know," but I felt I wasn't. I couldn't get away from them, which is why I kept coming back to Florida.
I see in the distance on streets I don’t usually take, merely because I can see the glow of blue and green lights, the two most satisfying Christmas colors, no doubt because they are so melancholy.

I didn't find my life changed by this book but I did find in it much to interrogate, about myself, my present, my past; and that's a very rare thing for a book to do in a world of escapism and avoidance of the depths of experience. That Author Holleran did this while using surfaces and appearances and absences made it impressive to me on a literary level while keeping me at a greater distance from PoVman's life than I'd require to give the book my highest accolades.

Make no mistake, this is a good book. It's not great, but it's good, and I hope you'll read it one day soon.

Maybe borrow it from the library, though.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

BROTHER ALIVE, creative, boundary-crossing "realism of a larger reality"


Grove Press
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* 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: From the winner of the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award and the CLMP Firecracker Award, and finalist for the NBCC John Leonard Prize, comes an astonishing debut novel about family, sexuality, and capitalist systems of control, following three adopted brothers who live above a mosque in Staten Island with their imam father

In 1990, three boys are born, unrelated but intertwined by circumstance: Dayo, Iseul, and Youssef. They are adopted as infants and live in a shared bedroom perched atop a mosque in one of Staten Island’s most diverse and precarious neighborhoods, Coolidge. The three boys are an inseparable if conspicuous trio: Dayo is of Nigerian origin, Iseul is Korean, and Youssef indeterminately Middle Eastern. Nevertheless, Youssef is keeping a secret: he sees a hallucinatory double, an imaginary friend who seems absolutely real, a shapeshifting familiar he calls Brother.

The boys’ adoptive father, Imam Salim, is known for his radical sermons, but at home he is often absent, spending long evenings in his study with whiskey-laced coffee, writing letters to his former compatriots back in Saudi Arabia. Like Youssef, he too has secrets, including the cause of his failing health and the truth about what happened to the boys’ parents. When Imam Salim’s path takes him back to Saudi Arabia, the boys will be forced to follow. There they will be captivated by an opulent, almost futuristic world, a linear city that seems to offer a more sustainable modernity than that of the West. But they will have to change if they want to survive in this new world, and the arrival of a creature as powerful as Brother will not go unnoticed.

Stylistically brilliant and intellectually acute, Brother Alive is a remarkable novel of family, capitalism, power, sexuality, and the possibility of reunion for those who are broken.


My Review
: I'll start with a quote, though not one from the book:
“Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom—poets, visionaries—realists of a larger reality.”      —Ursula K. Le Guin in her 2014 National Book Award speech

It seems to me that UKL was thinking of Zain Khalid.

In his debut novel, he takes on a lot...A LOT...of terribly important subjects of immediate world relevance. As a result of this, some storytelling basics don't get their arguably necessary due, eg howinahell does a single Saudi man enter the US and live in New York City with not one soul thinking it odd he's raising kids of wildly disparate ethnic backgrounds? Social services would be involved in these kids' lives in the real NYC.

So, okay, I'm not going to go too hard after that kind of stuff because it's just not that relevant to the author's purpose. Be aware that details like this are left open, and decide if that matters a lot to you. I decided it didn't and moved on to Youssef, Iseul, and Dayo's life with Father. Salim, their radical reformist of a father, is ironically named something that means "correct, free from error, safe, intact, unharmed, unblemished, healthy" while also drinking whisky in his coffee (much against his religion's explicit orders) as he pens famously incendiary sermons on Muslim identity. (See what I mean about Child Protective Services? There'd be a home visit or two.) What makes this more important is that it's Youssef who's narrating this story...his benignly neglected son notices the father's behavior that doesn't quite fit with the mesage. He and his brothers (and Brother, his possibly real/probably imaginary/not quite sure if he's corporeal other, sometimes animal sometimes human self. The boys, like siblings do, just accept the way things are, and move on with growing up and growing apart. Youssef questions the origins of his family but never the reality of it; they, in turn, seem to know about Brother but find their own concerns...who were their parents? Where did their Imam-dad get them?...more compeling and involving than some imaginary friend of their brother's. That same brother who is the one whose non-standard thinking unearths the secrets they've wondered about.

A parent worth his salt would notice this kid's persistent and consistent hallucination and get him some help...not Salim. He's got bigger problems. He wants these boys to be models of what he thinks is right-thinking, morally correct men! While demanding they conform, he models the opposite in his Westernized behaviors, and ignores a sign of burgeoning mental health issues in Youssef. Which is why this section of the story involved me so deeply. I was malignly neglected, while being told I was not who they wanted me to be, by my family (especially my parents) and was re-experiencing the outrage I now feel at their dereliction of duty on these boys' behalf. It kept me fanning the pages for sure.

The action shifts from lower-class Staten Island in post-9/11 world to Salim's story of from whom and why he got these kids. This is interesting, but it's really lightly gone over, and is the set-up for the final section set in The Line, Saudi Arabia's astounding city of the future that they're building with the oceans of money petrochemical exploitation has given them permission to create using slave labor from around the developing world. (This isn't foregrounded, but there's a strong streak of anti-capitalism in Zain Khalid's anti-colonialism. These are very agreeable qualities to me, but note their presence before deciding to make a run at this long, magisterially paced book.) It is in this last section that I lost my sense of the author being in full control of his narrative. A disease process, the shift of Brother from a child's fantasy key to a very different one as Youssef, now a gay young adult, resumes the narrative's reins.

This near-future Paradise is poorly thought out, to me as a long term reader of speculative fiction. The satirical, I suppose, take on the use of state power melded to religious coercion (not the author's words), made me think of so many literary writers' attempts to use genre conventions in not-new, not-fresh ways to make their points. I like ambiguity, and I approve of the author's politics, but I wanted the end section to finish before it did because too many simple snips that could've brought the purpose of the piece into focus weren't made. The result is meandering and unfocused ideas veiled by some fantastical, onnly-slightly-exaggerated elements. Go big or go home, Author Khalid: It's SF or it's not.

What it was, as a whole read, was beautifully written on a sentence level family saga with a gay undercurrent. It really deserves praise and support because it's hugely ambitious and frankly uninterested in your whiteness. It merits your eyeblinks because it's got a solid core of story that, my crotchets and misgivings aside, is draws the story-hungry reader along.

I'm very glad I read it. I hope you will, too.