Thursday, October 26, 2023

DEATH IN NOSTALGIA CITY, first in a series set in a very unusual venue

DEATH IN NOSTALGIA CITY (Nostalgia City Mystery series #1)

Archer & Clark (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$4.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: He thinks he’s on edge now…then people start getting killed…

Uptight has been ex-cop Lyle Deming default setting for years, but his new job, driving a cab in a theme park, promises to cure his chronic anxieties. Nostalgia City is the ultimate resort for anyone who wants to visit the past. A meticulous recreation of an entire small town from the early 1970s, it’s complete with period cars, music, clothes, shops, restaurants, hotels—the works. The relaxed theme-park atmosphere is just what Lyle needs—until rides are sabotaged and tourists killed. Then park founder, billionaire “Max” Maxwell, drafts Lyle into investigating—unofficially. As the violence escalates and employees get rattled, Lyle gets help. Kate Sorensen, the park’s PR director—and former college basketball player—becomes another incognito investigator. Except that she’s six-foot-two-and-a-half-inches tall and drop-dead gorgeous. So much for incognito. Together, Lyle and Kate unravel a conspiracy of corporate greed and murder.


My Review
: Well, it's Deathtober...I had to fit this in somehow...the idea of a 1970s-themed amusement park broke me out in hives...pleather, leisure suits, orange shag carpet, my 1977 Gremlin X...
...I REFUSE to post a photo of myself in my blue-jeans suit with a green shirt, REFUSE do you hear! the idea of the book was amusing to me but not in the least bit credible.

Until I realized that two billionaires run their own space programs, and that my friends is so bloody absurd and incredible that I do not think anyone anywhere ever needs, or even should dare, to question even the silliest ideas for things that could exist.

Lyle the ex-cop and Kate the ex-basketball player and current PR maven are a pair of incredible (in the original sense) sleuths. Their billionaire boss basically forces them to work together to solve his industrial-espionage problem that has grown so out of hand that other people die as a result of the rivalry. When the miscreant is unmasked, your pearls will go unclutched.

That's not the point of the read.

Lyle, an ex-cop, lives with his dad in the eldercare residential bit of the Nostalgia City theme park. Think Celebration, Florida::Disneyworld for your model here. This is, in my never-humble opinion, a stroke of genius. Make a place where elderly people with tenuous or failing grasps on Reality of the twenty-first century can sink back into the times where they last felt on top of things, unchallenged by tech that confuses and intimidates them. So you can already see the reason such a place would come under sabotage by outside interests, right? There's quite a lot of money to be made in such a venture, so of course the interests already making money off the status quo do not want their cash flow threatened. And Max, Lyle and Kate's boss, has more than a few enemies....

Lyle's cop past gives him an "in" as is expected; Kate's attitude, fortitude, and honesty are her calling cards, people trust her and are correct to do so. She and Lyle forge a friendship not a romance...thank goodness for that...because they serve the same idea of ma'at, or Justice being done for harm caused. There is, unfortunately, some hint that Romance could be in their future. I hope the author will resist this temptation and allow Kate to be a person not a sex doll.

The series starting story's involving enough, and has a lot of fun side-alleys for future installments to go down. What makes me plan to read the next one, though, is the idea that for once a man and a woman are working together as colleaugues and friends without the tediously predictable complications of Romance gumming up the works.

So far, that is...stay tuned for further developments.

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

WHERE DEMONS HIDE, or really "don't hide well enough to get away with it"

WHERE DEMONS HIDE (Rebecca Connolly #4)
Arcade CrimeWise
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Something scared Nuala Flaherty to death. When her body is found in the centre of a pentagram on a lonely moor, Rebecca is determined to find out what. Was she killed by supernatural means, or is there a more down-to-earth explanation?

Rebecca’s investigation leads her to a mysterious cult and local drug dealings. But what she doesn’t know is that crime matriarch Mo Burke still has her in her crosshairs. Mo wants payback for the death of her son, and after one failed attempt to hurt Rebecca, she is upping the ante. And this time, it could be lethal.


My Review
: Back to Stoirm Island go we all as Rebecca gets drawn into another strange, outlandish murder's resolution. The reason I like these stories is that they offer such weird ways for people to die...with very down-to-Earth explanations that fit consensus reality down to the ground. This being how I experience the world...whatever's got weirdness wrapped around it is being obfuscated by someone for some reason...I'm down for another trip.

Nuala's death was so OTT that the author's hand seemed tipped too far from the start. As her sad little life's ending proves, some people just have no luck in this world. The Children of the Dell are clearly a cult, and Nuala should've kept away. Cults are dangerous. Always. "Don't get near them" is the only advice you need about dealing with cults. Run away if they come for you, and never get into it with cultists, or Trouble will follow. This equally applies to Rebecca, of course; the difference is, she's responsible for ending the profitable cult-like existence of Mo Burke's family's drug-dealing cult of loyalties fiercely held. Not all religions need the supernatural to exist powerfully in their followers' hearts.

Rebacca, understandably, isn't going back to Stoirm to look into stuff...Chaz and Alan getting married there puts them into position to be her eyes and ears. These two are a delight! Rebecca's weird, unsettling past on Stoirm isn't going to keep these boys from doing the needed work for her; it's not going to cow them into inactivity, despite the spooky overtones to so many things; it's not going to prevent them from being their fun, funny, in-love selves as they help their friend fix the broken thread of a taken life in the world's tapestry.

No matter that there are explantions for what happened to Nuala, and what's behind the scene set to distract from her death; Author Skelton makes Rebecca and her catspaws work for every clue and struggle to make sense of the remorselessness of greed and jealousy that propel narcissists to act with cruelty and finality. Revenge? They think it's Justice. Being Right is an addiction to the narcissistic people of the world. Rebecca, and Elspeth, like being right for better reasons: Resolving evil deeds done by powerful and power-hungry narcissists. The two of them, having suffered at those hands they now do their best to tie up in handcuffs, pursue the benign factual-correctness face of Being Right. Theire news-reporting business is dedicated to it. This is an agreeable dream to me, so I suspend my disbelief that independent news-gatherers in Inverness, Scotland, could do what they do without being squashed under lawsuits and calumnies and threats to their safety.

Fiction is a balm and a blessing for letting me have these fantasies of Ma'at being served so well. Douglas Skelton's talents for dialogue and character creation are, as expected, well used and effective throughout the read. The plot isn't without its issues. At times, Rebecca doesn't see things I've come to think she should until past the time they're obvious. This is usually handwaved away but it happens. Chaz and Alan are, as mentioned, very sweet togeher if just a touch overplayed. I don't mean as a gay couple...I mean as Rebecca's sleuths, at times, they seem to be taking their roles flippantly and playing up how cute they are. These are quibbles, not issues; the fact is that reasonable readers can and will read the same words I did and not see what I saw, so I'm not in any way downgrading the story.

What, as always with Author Skelton's stories, happens is clearly a result of Rebecca's, and Elspeth's, moral values: No matter what, who, or where they are, victimizers must be stopped and brought to punishment for their wrongdoing. Mystery series are always in service of ma'at. The Egyptian personification of Justice and balance and harmony and order and even law is the one whose remit includes protecting and aiding this kind of journalist/sleuth with a powerful moral compass. It makes the genre one I resonate with on a bone-deep level. Rebecca, and all the people she surrounds herself with, resonate to Justice's gonging vibrations. I love the way Author Skelton uses, sometimes almost too much and too often, the hints of something from the Beyond being on Rebecca's side. I believe there is a Rightess in the world that is tipped out of balance when someone is victimized. Finding, in Rebecca and her crew, others who have that feeling too makes these reads deeply satisfying.

This outing's no exception. The ending is very satisfying, and will leave my fellow series-loving readers happily anticipating more from Douglas Skelton.

Monday, October 16, 2023

HEAVEN, HELL AND PARADISE LOST, new in the Bookmarked series of lit-crit titles


Ig Publishing
$15.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: A poet who crafted the greatest character in literary history with his engaging anti-hero of Satan, John Milton connected personal experience with the breadth of cosmic epic. His Paradise Lost is a touchstone of English literature.

In the latest entry in Ig's celebrated Bookmarked series, author Ed Simon considers Paradise Lost within the scope of his own alcoholism and recovery, the collapse of higher education, the imbecility of the canon wars, the piquant joys of labyrinthine sentences, and the exquisite attractions of Lucifer. Milton is easy to respect and easier to fear, but with the guidance of Simon, Milton becomes easiest of all to love.

Paradise Lost may have generated thousands of works of criticism over the centuries, but none of them are like this.


My Review

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

KING OF NOD, like Stephen King emigrated to the Low Country


Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$34.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: After twenty years of self-imposed exile, Boo Taylor finds he must return to Sweetpatch Island, South Carolina, following his fathers mysterious death. Upon his return, he is shocked to discover that the small, marshy barrier island he left behind is now covered with golf courses and swarming with tourists. It seems that everything he ran away from the violence, the hatred, the betrayal have all but vanished. But the islands ghosts are not so easily dispelled. King of Nod layers time and secrets in an intricate pattern of half-truths and glimpses of redemption that slowly dissect the riddle of the islands past and its inexorable connection to Boo's own fate.


My Review
: Lots of comparisons to Stephen King get made about this story...the setting of a landscape ripe with thoughtless change, irritating the spirits of the place; lush, descriptive language; an outsider who Just Knows he isn't who he's been told he is; and as far as it goes, all of those are accurate assessments of this read.

What doesn't get a lot of airplay is how much like King the bloated, self-indulgent length of the book is.

Robert Lee "Boo" Taylor is our PoV character. The putative son of the town doctor in Low Country Sweetgrass Island, South Carolina, he never settles in to his identity. Spoiler alert: It's much more fraught a topic than he was led to believe. Notice, please, his uber-Southern names (if they aren't obvious to you, google them) and their cultural resonances. As I think being thumped on the nose this way is not my idea of fun, I was ready to move on from this read very quickly.

But here the more positive resonances with King kicked in. I found the first 45% hard to read but hard to quit. This is a lot like my response to King's Pet Sematary. I did finish both books, this one no more sluggishly than King's. Both ended up being what, for this materialist reader, on the unsettling side but never frightening the way, say, Sundial was. Any time we start talking about Eeeville from Beyond, I get impatient. But the parts about family, the cruelty of the ignorant, the burden of being Other in a small place...those I relate to and enjoy.

Would I read it again? No. Was my time wasted? No. I'd recommend someone cutting at least 200 pages to whip up the pace. The author has definite promise, with ideas that are worth exploring and a good eye for the details that can immerse one into the book's world. The fact is, though, these same details were splashed on so liberally that I felt submerged in a vat of Old Spice. Cut, cut, cut, and emerge with a possible world-beater.

Monday, October 9, 2023

THE CHILDREN'S BACH, reintroducing Helen Garner to the US market


Pantheon Books
$25.00 hardcover, available 10 October 2023

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: from Netgalley
Set in suburban Melbourne in the early 1980s, The Children’s Bach centers on Dexter and Athena Fox, their two sons, and the insulated world they’ve built together. Despite the routine challenges of domestic life, they are largely happy. But when a friend from Dexter’s past resurfaces and introduces the couple to the city’s bohemian underground—unbound by routine and driven by desire—Athena begins to wonder if life might hold more for her, and the tenuous bonds that tie the Foxes together start to fray.

A literary institution in Australia, Helen Garner’s perfectly formed novels embody the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s. Drawn on a small canvas and with a subtle musical backdrop, The Children’s Bach is “a jewel” (Ben Lerner) within Garner’s revered catalogue, a beloved work that solidified her place among the masters of modern letters, a finely etched masterpiece that weighs the burdens of commitment against the costs of liberation.

from Goodreads
Helen Garner has been a literary institution in Australia for decades. Her perfectly formed novels embodied Australia’s tumultuous 70s and 80s, and her incisive nonfiction evokes the keen eye of the New Journalists. Dubbed “the Joan Didion of Australia.” Now, the beloved work that solidified her place among the masters of modern international letters, is available in a new US edition.

The Children's Bach follows Dexter and Athena Fox, a husband and wife who live with their two sons in the inner suburbs of early-1980s Melbourne. Dexter is gregarious, opinionated, and old fashioned. Athena is a dutiful wife and mother, stoic yet underestimated. Though their son’s disability strains the family at times, they appear to lead otherwise happy lives.

But when a friend from Dexter’s past resurfaces, she and her cast of beguiling companions reveal another world to Dexter and Athena: a bohemian underground, unbound by routine and driven by desire, where choice seems to exist independent of consequence. And as Athena delves deeper into this other kind of life, the tenuous bonds that hold the Fox family together begin to fray.

Painted on a small canvas and with a subtle musical backdrop, is “a jewel” among Garner’s revered catalog (Ben Lerner), a finely etched masterpiece that weighs the burdens of commitment against the costs of liberation.


My Review
: How times have changed in forty years! Athena's bald, bold statement, referring to her "retarded" son, "'I’ve abandoned him, in my heart,' said Athena. 'It’s work. I’m just hanging on till we can get rid of him.'" is so very, very out of step with modern sensibilities that I suspect it will cause some readers to bail out on the read.

I think that's a pity. The writing of this polyvocal récit (yes yes yes, Gotcha Gang, I know so please just put a sock in it) is as modern as Modernism itself, is as pure and imagined with such honesty that it should not be ignored over some nasty, unkind thoughts by a mother about her child.

It WILL bother you. I suspect, without proof, that it's meant to. I know no one in this story is meant to be a comfy PoV character like you fans of Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge like to have. The Children's Bach is certainly in that domestic story genre. The characters are married, the events of the tale are within the marriage, the tone and tenor take little to no notice of anything outside the interests of the married partners. The others who appear in story are not interested in things outside Athena and Dexter's purview. It's a very closed world.

It doesn't exactly narrate itself to you, either. It's like song lyrics are, or some of the less-unbearable poetry is: Elliptical in the way it leaves you to go on the ride then build the tracks afterward. I really enjoy that in a read, though not in a LONG one, which makes this under-200-page story of domestic reality exactly the best length for the technique to be interesting and involving without overstaying its welcome.

What appeals to me the most about the read is the very unlikeability of Athena and Dexter. I know where I realized, like Rumaan Alam says in her Foreword, that I remember always where I was when I read, "She washed, she washed, she washed," though her moment was different from mine; but this is, like other Helen Garner books, the kind where the quotidian and the internal are polished well past the point of brummagem shininess into the glint of the knife that flenses you.

No, they aren't nice; they aren't pleasant; they aren't, by my standards anyway, good people. They're interesting, they're unbearably shallow and pretentious. Everyone in this story fails as a person in catalogable ways. This is proof if one needs it that the dismissive, condescending label "domestic fiction" is toothless in the face of Helen Garner's violent assault on domesticity, her ramming-into of the delimiting front door od The Family Home with her well-aimed ute/pickup truck.

But what a glorious car-crash it is.

Sunday, October 8, 2023

FIXING FRANCE: How to Repair a Broken Republic, less how-to than why-should

FIXING FRANCE: How to Repair a Broken Republic

$30.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A French-Algerian journalist, born and brought up in a neglected Paris suburb, offers unique insight into crisis-ridden France from a very different perspective to the establishment elites

France, the romanticized, revolutionary land with an enlightened historical mission—Liberty, Equality, Fraternity for all—is failing its own citizens and its admirers around the world. How did the country get here, and what can be done about it?

In Fixing France, Nabila Ramdani assesses the fault lines in her struggling nation with unflinching clarity and originality.

The makeshift Fifth Republic, which emerged from the cataclysmic Algerian War of Independence, has produced extremism. Constitutional reform is urgently needed: an all-powerful monarchical president displays little interest in democracy, while a mainstream far-right party founded by Nazi collaborators threatens to deliver a head of state.

Segregated suburbs, institutionalized rioting, economic injustice, a monolithic education system, the debasement of women, deep-seated racial and religious discrimination, paramilitary policing, terrorism, and a duplicitous foreign policy all fuel the growing crisis.

Ramdani’s critique is stark but provides real hope: the broken French Republic can and must be fixed.


My Review
: More a why-should than a how-to. Author Ramdani goes through the laundry list of increasing right-wing populist horrors that the country's indulging its worst self by celebrating. She shares her very low opinion of the pantouflard Macron. She cites her own experiences and journalism, she sources a lot, but not all, her asseverations about the French Fifth Republic in her "Notes" section. A lot of "everybody knows"ism is present; the right-wing's angry voices are referred to as "{like} Presidents, they are almost always white males" and then in the next sentence, she says "{s}tated facts are scant"! Accusing your enemy of your own sin. Marine Le Pen's public schism from her Nazi-collabortating anti-semite father is treated as political theater without linking to or performing substantive analyses demonatrating it as such, for another example. This is probably true but you're writing a book advocating the disestablishment of the Fifth Republic in it sixty-fifth year, when it's one of the cornerstones of the EU and multiple supranational alliances. You need to go the extra mile with such a proposition.

I'm aware of flaws and inconsistencies in a book, in general, I agree with. I'm aware also of the genuine value proposition the book represents. Most US readers are not aware of how very new France's current government is; they have the same illusion of ancient permanence about their own. No structure of government is, or should be, permanent; that illusion is perpetuated by those who despise and fear We-The-People, because the idea of changing governments is threatening to their control of society's attention.

So, in my opinion, read this book to follow the author's poiting finger, and attend to her argument's substance, not sources. These could be more complete. The argument for a better, more just, more inclusive France, however, is in and of itself convincing and deserves close and attentive reading here in the US.

Friday, October 6, 2023

BRIGADISTES: Lives for Liberty, heartening and inspiring reminder that fighting for your principles is a worthy endeavor

BRIGADISTES: Lives for Liberty
(foreword by Jordi Borràs; tr. Mary Ann Newman)
Pluto Press
$17.95 trade paper, $10 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: 'A real treasure that we can't stop exploring'—La Republica (Barcelona)

Fanny Schoonhey was said to be the bravest woman in Barcelona. Felicia Browne decided it was time to put down her paintbrushes and pick up a rifle. The Nielsen brothers took three bicycles and pedalled from Copenhagen to the Pyrenees...

In 1936 something extraordinary happened. As the threat of fascism swept across the Iberian peninsula, thousands of people from all over the world left their families and jobs to heed the call—No Pasarán! History has never seen a wave of solidarity like it. The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with the Republic crushed, but the revolutionary dream of the International Brigades has never burnt out.

Through these 60 illustrated profiles, Brigadistes embroiders an epic story of political struggle with the everyday bravery, sorrow and love of those who lived it.


My Review
: I read the following in The New York Times's "The Morning" newsletter:
Many factors have contributed to this {present political} turmoil. Decades of stagnant living standards have caused voter frustration. Social media, along with the rise of a cable television network willing to promote falsehoods, has inflamed discourse. The decline of institutions — churches, labor unions, once-dominant local employers — has left Americans feeling unmoored. And aging political leaders have failed to groom strong successors.

But the single largest source of the chaos is the Republican Party. {...} The Republican both fractured and increasingly extreme. Tens of millions of Republican voters have embraced beliefs that are simply wrong: that Obama was born in Kenya, that Donald Trump was cheated out of re-election, that Covid vaccines don’t work, that human beings aren’t causing climate change. A crowd of Republican-aligned protesters violently attacked the Capitol in 2021, assaulting police officers and causing several deaths. Prominent Republican politicians, including Trump, have spoken positively about that attack and more generally about political violence.

Kevin McCarthy’s downfall as speaker is the latest sign of the party’s drift toward radicalism. He lost his job because a group of hard-right House members was furious with him for conducting policy negotiations that are inherent to democratic governance. “The ouster captures the degraded state of the Republican Party in this era of rage,” wrote The Wall Street Journal editorial board, a reliable voice of conservatism.— ©David Leonhardt

There's no more mainstream voice than the Times. They sort-of define mainstream in US media, whatever you might think of their editorial bias. It is a mainstream outlet, therefore, sounding the alarm about extremism taking over a once-mainstream political party with the support of tens of millions of angry people.

If this isn't ringing every alarm bell you possess, you're not paying attention. Ignoring the very real threat to the entire flawed, screwed-up, but still HUGELY better than dictatorship, electoral representative democracy we're constantly arguing about and trying to improve is unacceptable.

In the 1930s, capitalism failed. The immiseration of millions led to radical action against the banksters and rentiers running the casino economy. They didn't like that. Their response was to beat back reform everywhere they could, and Spain was the test case. Much of the tactical expertise deployed by the Nazis at the start of World War II was honed in their support role during the Spanish Civil War. Fascism's victory there was resisted by fractured, in-fighting groups of very idealistic people. The stories of the thousands of Brigadistes, youthful (usually) volunteer fighters determined to resist the ugliness and viciousness of fascism already on display in Italy and Germany, come into soft focus in this illustrated series of biographical sketches. Because the young people weren't famous, or interesting in and of themselves, they usually left little public trail...barring outliers like Jessica Mitford and Esmond Romilly. The authors don't, then, rely on the usual biographical resources to tell their stories. The journals and letters and scraps of stories here presented are all the more effective for it.

These young people, my parents' ages more or less, believed in their cause of resisting the hegemonic and totalitarian agenda that defines fascism, enough to go and stake their lives on a foreign country's future. They believed, correctly, that one battle won was one too many in an existential war for freedom, however flawed, versus repression, however seductive its illusion of security.

Young people today are inspiringly angry at their elders again...are vocally angry about our generational failure to confront climate change and economic injustice, and the other manifold disasters we've left them to clean up. This book should remind all the older folk to review their consciences in the face of the crises facing us, remember our moral principles and shun our anger-clouded impulses towards cruelty and, at long last, start doing the right thing.

For younger people, this is your proof that this is a fight worth fighting. Your Great-grandparents fought and lost. You see around you the consequences of that loss. Do not give in to despair! The battle needs fighting, the penalty for inaction is hideous.

Thursday, October 5, 2023

A TRAITOR IN WHITEHALL, entertaining mystery set in WWII's corridors of power seen from below


Minotaur Books
$28.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: From Julia Kelly, internationally bestselling author of The Last Dance of the Debutante, comes the first in the mysterious and immersive Parisian Orphan series, A Traitor in Whitehall.

1940, England: Evelyne Redfern, known as “The Parisian Orphan” as a child, is working on the line at a munitions factory in wartime London. When Mr. Fletcher, one of her father’s old friends, spots Evelyne on a night out, Evelyne finds herself plunged into the world of Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s cabinet war rooms.

However, shortly after she settles into her new role as a secretary, one of the girls at work is murdered, and Evelyne must use all of her amateur sleuthing expertise to find the killer. But doing so puts her right in the path of David Poole, a cagey minister’s aide who seems determined to thwart her investigations. That is, until Evelyne finds out David’s real mission is to root out a mole selling government secrets to Britain’s enemies, and the pair begrudgingly team up.

With her quick wit, sharp eyes, and determination, will Evelyne be able to find out who’s been selling England’s secrets and catch a killer, all while battling her growing attraction to David?


My Review
: Period details FTW. I was reading along thinking how little I actually knew about life in WWII when the main character finds a body in a place I had no vaguest awareness of the need for or existence of: A sun treatment room.

A what now? Sun-treatment? What on Earth is that?

It was about that time that my interest and pleasure in the read sharpened to the point of reading past my bedtime. I'm a mystery fan anyway, being a big believer in ma'at and the scales of justice needing to be balanced. The victim of the murder wasn't a lovely person, as is customary in series mysteries set in the Halls of Power. It was a lovely grace note, the first of several, that the victim was discovered in the sun-treatment room. This afforded the author a perfect opening to reveal this very interesting, perfectly sensible detail's existence. It gives the story an extra gloss of period authenticity, as does Evelyne's Agatha Christie-reading habit. The author's an experienced historical novelist and it shows in these sorts of unexpected moments that firmly root the story in time without becoming stodged up like a research paper gone metastatic.

Evelyne, our main character, is an oddball in the world where she's been plonked because nothing in her background suggests she's a prospect for Greater unwanted daughter placed in a boarding school by her always-absent father after her mother's death when Evelyne was thirteen, she's been given few solid opportunities to develop her intellect beyond the ordinary. As is typical for series mysteries, as fans of the genre know, she's got the most important character trait of a sleuth: Ungovernable curiosity, starting from when her Maman (a French lady, who raised her daughter mostly in France) supposedly committed suicide. Luckily her absent rich-bastard father's friend circle includes powerful people who need that precise characteristic in a woman of presentable lineage (if always stained by the loucheness of her foreignness), adequate education, fluency in French, and unexceptionable looks.

Evelyne's sudden arrival in the bunkers...referred to by the acronym "CWR" or "Cabinet War Rooms"...of busy workers surrounding the Prime Minister isn't cause for anyone to take much notice, exactly as the Powers That Be need it to be. She blends into the scenery. As her job is to ferret out a traitor who's already established in those hallowed halls, everything's proceeding acording to plan.

Until someone's murdered. (There's a reason I'm being coy about who's been murdered. If you know too soon, there's no way you won't know who the titular traitor is.) The murder makes everything higher stakes and involves Evelyne with the inevitable love interest, David. Another facet of the series mystery is the de rigueur presence of a love interest or interests. David's clearly being positioned for this. This is, for me, the least interesting facet of the story. How would David, a senior aide established in the hierarchy, even think to team up with Evelyne, a mere girl and of known-but-stained ancestry? In 1940s Britain? That high in the Government (even if it's not quite the way we're led to believe)? Hmm, said my inner skeptic. Most especially I find the borning relationship between them Doomed because David prefers American thrillers to Evelyne's beloved Mrs. Christie. This is a less bridgeable gap than between a reader and a mundane.

While the usual first-mystery flaws are present, eg too much information comes too easily into Evelyne's grasp for her position in the hierarchy and people "grit" and "roar" things far too often, the author is clearly a skilled storyteller. The TV adaptation unspooled before my eyes, in six-part ITV period-mystery glory. It's the kind of book one reads with keen pleasure in its strengths, and forgives its lapses readily. At least this picky one did.

If you're in the market for historical mysteries, this one will scratch the itch. Nothing too deep, nothing too fluffy, just the right level of interesting background and emotional investment possibilities. Bring the sequel!

Wednesday, October 4, 2023

THE BLACK TREE ATOP THE HILL, folk-gothic horror novella & MENEWOOD, decade-in-the-making sequel to HILD


$16.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: What came first in this Gothic Western, the ghosts, or The Black Tree Atop the Hill? Set in an alternate American old-west that is hauntingly familiar yet strangely off-putting, Marisol is the first to see the tree on the hill, but that’s only to be expected. As the witch of Jack Boyd’s ranch, her job is to notice threats, even amid a most disastrous calving season. It is up to Marisol and the ranch’s ghost to work together to stop mysteriously spreading trees from taking over their ranch, California, and the entirety of the country. But real magic requires sacrifice, and Marisol is not certain she is prepared to accept the consequences of what she must do to stop the trees’ advance.

This is a story about believing in intuition against the rain, about the violence of nature and of those who inflict it. Gothic gardeners explore the question of nature’s home in a progressing world.

Oozing with conflicting resolutions and twisty insides, this is a stunning debut by Portland artist Karla Yvette.


My Review
: I'm not sure how I got through the awful animal-horror bits. Must be because they weren't perpetrated upon the poor things after they were alive, but were part of a really awful curse that was put on this ranch—and the rest of California—in this altered Western. Folk horror-Gothic horror-tinges of cosmic horror...why the heck would I, materialist extraordinaire, like reading this?!

For one thing, it's short and succinct. Marisol's got a job to do, protecting people from the rampant ill-meant magic flowing everywhere. She doesn't dawdle around being scared or feeling put-upon, she focuses on her protection duties...thank goodness!

What worked best for me in this read was the pacing. A close second was the fact thar Author Yvette never put in any excessive "world-building" aka infodumping're where you are, get used to it...and that works best when I'm being asked to suspend disbelief for the space of a novella. If this were a full-on novel, I'd miss the infodumping. The brevity of a novella, which is the exact right length for this story, is stodged up by too much detail of the rules the characters are all playing by. They know them, and I'm happy to follow their lead...for this long, anyway.

Marisol, as expected, carries the story forward. Her ideas about the curse, about the ghost of the rancher's dead wife, and her job, are the really interesting part of the read. The thing that always engages my forward-going gears in a read is a story of underdogs who face down the Powers That Be when it would be easier, and more sensible, to give in and give up. Not being too much of a giver-upper, I like that plot. The Lodge, in this story, functions as a church of sorts regulating magic and punishing its, of course, defined by the Lodge. Marisol's magic isn't sanctioned by the Lodge yet she's the one who figures out what the heck is making things on Jack's ranch go so awfully wrong. That's always going to poke the people I don't like in their softest spot: Their hegemony.

All the way around a good tale well-told, an interestingly off-kilter from consensus normality setting, and a heroine whose power comes from her own resources. Definitely a winner for me!



$35.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In the much anticipated sequel to Hild, Nicola Griffith's Menewood transports readers back to seventh-century Britain, a land of rival kings and religions poised for epochal change.

Hild is no longer the bright child who made a place in Edwin Overking's court with her seemingly supernatural insight. She is eighteen, honed and tested, the formidable Lady of Elmet, now building her personal stronghold in the valley of Menewood.

But Edwin needs his most trusted advisor. Old alliances are fraying. Younger rivals are snapping at his heels. War is brewing—bitter war, winter war. Not knowing who to trust he becomes volatile and unpredictable. Hild begins to understand the true extent of the chaos ahead, and now she must navigate the turbulence and fight to protect both the kingdom and her own people.

Hild will face the losses and devastation of total war, and then she must find a new strength, the implacable determination to forge a radically different path for herself and her people. In the valley, her last redoubt, her community slowly takes root. She trains herself and her unexpected allies in new ways of thinking as she prepares for one last wager: risking all on a single throw for a better future...

In the last decade, Hild has become a beloved classic of epic storytelling. Menewood picks up where that journey left off, and exceeds it in every way.


My Review
: Pearl-clutchers get your grips ready: I'm going to say some nice things about a christian abbess.

Of course, her christian belief is...muted? inflected? yes, the ancient practices of seventh-century Northumbria (a name she wouldn't have known of or used, but firmly established in our modern idea of the time and place). Her christian belief is, by most modern standards, heretical. The Roman priests in this story don't come off that well. They're not alone. King Edwin, whose godmouth Hild is still, is singularly blind to the way his rulership's grip drives the agendas of many angry, ill-willed forces around him.

They are using deeply predictable pathways to bring his rule down, yet he needs Hild's counsel to identify the threats. It's ever thus: Power is as always its own worst enemy. Look at the extensive historical record. All dictators eventually fall, even if it's sometimes quite a lengthy process. What Griffith does brilliantly is in the construction of the story of Hild's rise and the fall of an older world. Her inventions and fictionalizations of this history make sense of some things that our few contemporary(ish) sources apply generous slatherings of handwavium to. It's not, in the end, a story with huge depths of character but rather one with immense scope and sweep of events, and actions taken, purposes found, lives changed and morphed. That being a good kind of historical epic strategy, I'm on board.

Good thing, too, as there are seven hundred-ish pages of Hild's story.

Expect action, don't expect explication. The last book's, um, meatyness and squalor as I think it's fair to characterize it, is still a major register of the narrative voice. You're going to want to bookmark the maps, the notes, and the glossary. There is also, in the ebook, a hyperlink to the author's website where there is a wealth of information about who was who and who never really was and what the hell all those freaky-deaky names mean. In fact this historical novel has more source citations than many history books claiming factuality I've read here recently. It works very much to Author Griffith's favor that she spends a goodly amount of time in her endnotes explaining why she made some choices regarding names and naming conventions, as well as giving a Cliffs Notes course in the unreliability of our best sources on the grounds of non-neutrality.

For this cranky old man reader, Hild is only coming more and more to matter as she moves from fey young girlhood to her surprisingly potent womanhood. I love the fact that this woman, this member of a group outrageously repressed and abused for the majority of the millennium-plus since Hild's death, is the only person powerful enough to change the course of the world (go look up the Synod of Whitby). That isn't in this book, but it'd better be in a future one. This character is far, far too amazing to drop now!

A hardcover of this length is pricey and hard for older and disabled people to manage as an object as well as a significant purchase. All I can say is that the read is worth accepting these obstacles to get in your head.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023



Self-published (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$5.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: All's not fair in love and war.

As the Great War rages, two brothers, Leo and Alex, are ensnared in a captivating love triangle with the stunning Adelaide. While Leo is the unwavering protector, Alex, the enigmatic seducer, ultimately captures Adelaide's heart.

Their lives are further complicated by a baby girl of hidden Jewish lineage—a secret burden Leo chooses to bear alone. When the brothers are drafted to war, their world is torn apart, leaving Adelaide to navigate the treacherous waters of survival and betrayal.

As years go by and the landscape of their homeland changes with Hitler's rise, the family secrets become a ticking time bomb. Margot's true lineage, hidden in plain sight, becomes the very thing that may tear the family apart.

Dive into Roberta Kagan's heart-stopping saga of love, secrets, and the harsh price of betrayal during one of history's darkest times.


My Review
: Another day, another family saga.

Secrets, lies, reprobate men, stupid women who believe them; why does this plot still appeal? Because all of us like to see the struggle of life played out in such a deeply misguided way so we can feel smug, is my guess. "I wouldn't do that," we say, without thinking of the innumerable bad decisions we've made on any number of fronts.

I myownself liked the viewpoint of an ordinary, working-class family coping with the endless horrific challenges of economic and social chaos in the wake of devastating wartime losses and privations. Not so great for this reader was the writing style, which I'll characterize as "serviceable." So the focus of my attention is squarely on the way the grim costs of war and then defeat are borne by women. The role Adelaide fulfills, provider, nurturer, support and helpmeet, is frankly superhuman. The stoic resignation of the Heroic Woman was overplayed; the longing, yearning, crying out stuff wore on me.

The second part of the book is clearly the one that the author was more interested in. The three sisters raised by Saint Adelaide the Mother are coming of age just as Hitler is rising to power by promising to Make Germany Great Again. (This line never fails to get the stupids into line behind it, does it?) Of course, we know the future they're groping towards will explode a time-bomb that Alex planted decades ago, and Saint Adelaide the Mother isn't even aware of the awfulness ahead despite knowing only a little of the story.

Kitchen-sink drama and a setting we don't see often, from a viewpoint we see even less of than the setting. The one caution I'll repeat is that the writing isn't more than okay at any point, so if the time and place don't appeal, it's not likely to thrill you.

Monday, October 2, 2023

THE CIPHER, award-winning first novel from Kathe Koja republished after 30 years


Meerkat Press
$3.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: "Black. Pure black and the sense of pulsation, especially when you look at it too closely, the sense of something not living but alive."

When a strange hole materializes in a storage room, would-be poet Nicholas and his feral lover Nakota allow their curiosity to lead them into the depths of terror. "Wouldn't it be wild to go down there?" says Nakota. Nicholas says, "We're not." But no one is in control, and their experiments lead to obsession, violence, and a very final transformation for everyone who gets too close to the Funhole.


My Review
: Republished thirty years on, this debut horror novel far exceeds my memory of it; when it came out, I wasn't interested in its eldritch overtones and dismissed its literary charms far too readily for that reason. Still not that interested in cosmic horror, as horror anyway, since the crap people do to each other every day scares me a lot more than some Evil Force somehow making people do awful stuff or, sillier still, does awful stuff to them despite being disembodied...possession and so forth come under the heading of mental illness untreated or undiagnosed in my materialist worldview.

But honestly, so what. This is a story, fiction with all that implies. Author Koja's been at this gig for decades now, and it's clear she started strong with this debut. Like all well-made fiction, this novel tells us truths about ourselves and our world. Self-harm, suicidal ideation, depression, all come into the story and are treated with due respect. This being thirty years ago, maybe not the way we'd talk about them now, but they aren't presented as reasons to become a victim.

The power dynamics of this book are very intricate. Upper hands slip. Control falters. People don't behave in reasonable ways, ever! The story unspools at a fairly brisk clip and rewards your attention to its details. Since this is a body horror novel, you know violent changes will be wrought on humans. It's part of our culture to revel in this strange obsession with involuntary body modification and/or death. Not always to my personal taste. This story's main appeal isn't its physical violence but its quieter, less obtrusive dealings with the power within a relationship, how it's used, what it does to the parties involved...and, on that level, this story *rocks*! Can't recommend it unreservedly, see the CWs, but recommend it I do to my fellow #Deathtober fans.

Sunday, October 1, 2023

THE PRESIDENT'S WIFE, historical fiction about very interesting relationship that helped change the Constitution & world history


Sourcebooks Landmark (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The incredible story of the First Lady who clandestinely assumed the presidency

Socialite Edith Bolling has been in no hurry to find a new husband since she was widowed, preferring to fill her days with good friends and travel. But the enchanting courting of President Woodrow Wilson wins Edith over and she becomes the First Lady of the United States. The position is uncomfortable for the fiercely independent Edith, but she's determined to rise to the challenges of her new marriage—from the bloodthirsty press to the shadows of the first World War.

Warming to her new role, Edith is soon indispensable to her husband's presidency. She replaces the staff that Woodrow finds distracting, and discusses policy with him daily. Throughout the war, she encrypts top- secret messages and despite lacking formal education becomes an important adviser. When peace talks begin in Europe, she attends at Woodrow's side. But just as the critical fight to ratify the treaty to end the war and create a League of Nations in order to prevent another, Woodrow's always-delicate health takes a dramatic turn for the worse. In her determination to preserve both his progress and his reputation, Edith all but assumes the presidency herself.

Now, Edith must contend with the demands of a tumultuous country, the secrets of Woodrow's true condition, and the potentially devastating consequences of her failure. At once sweeping and intimate, The President's Wife is an astonishing portrait of a courageous First Lady and the sacrifices she made to protect her husband and her country at all costs.


My Review
: Charming historical fiction about two people of riper years whose love for each other is tested, re-tested, and ultimately short-lived due to death.

So many things about Woodrow Wilson are awful to me. A racist, an ivory-tower academic without the track record to be the strong-arming law-ramming president thr first World War demanded; but most of all the man who gave away the keys to the economy to the banksters of Jekyll Island's cabal in 1913, thus dooming us to cycles of boom and bust that would only get worse every time the banksters clawed more money from our pockets to feed their greed and gambling addiction.


That not being what this book's about, let me tell you about it, not him.

First of all, it's a novel about two older people whose lives are mostly behind them finding comfort and companionship at the end. That one of them is the president of the US is, in a strange way, tangential to their story. They had a true connection to each other as people, as a man and a woman left alone by the deaths of their spouses. Author Wood gives us the sense that, had they met without this central fact being present, they likely would've had an affair because they were so simpatico. The way their relationship played out, so very publicly, and at such high volume, meant that the end of the affair was inevitably going to be marriage...nothing less would assuage the "moral standards" of the day. Edith Bolling was, thank goodness, a practical person, aware of the world around her and its demands; also to be praised is her full belief in Wilson's political and social progressivism (as far as it went, anyway), so her voice was added to his, not in conflict with it in the battles he was waging.

The Great War, as World War One was called at the time, was only one item on Wilson's plate and isn't the major focus of the book. More weight is given to the all-important enfranchisement of women. This is the one unqualified success of Wilson's presidency. Edith Bolling Wilson was influential on the president's support for this amendment to the Constitution.

Again, more important than the history lesson of the book is the close relationship between these two people. The background of their lives together was always public, and the work they did together was consequential to this very day. But they themselves, as people, are Author Wood's focus. She does not present them as superhuman archetypes. Thy are believable characters, strong people with powerful convictions, who found each other in the last act of the play that is a human's life. Their needs and their interests matched so well that it feels, to this elderly reader, as though they each found the satisfaction of an entire lifetime's search for their best partner.

It's a fine story, about interesting people, and it's told well. Enjoy it soon.