Literary Fiction & Short Story Collections


LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK
KATHLEEN ROONEY

St. Martin's Press (non-affiliate Amazon link)
$2.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: It’s the last day of 1984, and 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish is about to take a walk.

As she crosses the unpredictable landscape of a run-down Manhattan, a city anxious after an attack by a still-at-large subway vigilante, she encounters bartenders, bodega clerks, chauffeurs, security guards, bohemians, criminals, children, parents, and parents-to-be—in surprising moments of generosity and grace. As she strolls, Lillian recalls a long and eventful life that included a brief reign as the highest-paid advertising woman in America, cut short by marriage, motherhood, divorce, and a breakdown.

A love letter to city life—no matter how shiny or sleazy—LILLIAN BOXFISH TAKES A WALK by Kathleen Rooney paints a portrait of a remarkable woman across the canvas of a changing America: from the Jazz Age to the onset of the AIDS epidemic, from the Great Depression to the birth of hip-hop.

My Review: I have nothing important to add to the conversation about this book except to say that I loved Lillian enough to re-read this book (a thing I consciously avoid doing, too old to waste the eyeblinks when there are literally dozens of new books every week that I want to read). I am living the "ancient Chinese curse" (that's nothing of the sort) often translated as "May you live in interesting times," among other formulations. I was old enough to have my dinner ruined by Vietnam War body counts intoned gravely by Uncle Walter on the CBS Evening News. The inner-city uprisings in Newark, Detroit, Oakland, Watts..."Hey Hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?"...and now the next skirmish in the unfinished US Civil War as my last full decade on Earth unfolds.

I needed Lillian's mentions of The Strand and her gentleman callers and R. H. Macy's and how much she hated admitting when her mother was right. I needed her to walk for me down streets I once loved so immoderately, wearing her deeply unfashionable top-quality mink as a slew of men I loved were dying in St. Vincent's (I was probably in one of their rooms at the time she was walking!), and to feel the full weight of memory. Sometimes it's death by crushing, sometimes a warm comforter on a cold, windy night.

So thank you, Author Rooney. I needed this story to help me see that the only way out is through, to face the storm like Lillian always did, and feel the lovely ache of days gone by but never disappeared.

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DEAR MRS BIRD
AJ PEARCE
(The Emmy Lake Chronicles #1)
Scribner
$26.00 hardcover, $17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A charming, irresistible debut novel set in London during World War II about an adventurous young woman who becomes a secret advice columnist—a warm, funny, and enormously moving story for fans of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and Lilac Girls.

London 1940, bombs are falling. Emmy Lake is Doing Her Bit for the war effort, volunteering as a telephone operator with the Auxiliary Fire Services. When Emmy sees an advertisement for a job at the London Evening Chronicle, her dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent seem suddenly achievable. But the job turns out to be typist to the fierce and renowned advice columnist, Henrietta Bird. Emmy is disappointed, but gamely bucks up and buckles down.

Mrs Bird is very clear: Any letters containing Unpleasantness—must go straight in the bin. But when Emmy reads poignant letters from women who are lonely, may have Gone Too Far with the wrong men and found themselves in trouble, or who can’t bear to let their children be evacuated, she is unable to resist responding. As the German planes make their nightly raids, and London picks up the smoldering pieces each morning, Emmy secretly begins to write letters back to the women of all ages who have spilled out their troubles.

Prepare to fall head over heels with Emmy and her best friend, Bunty, who are spirited and gutsy, even in the face of events that bring a terrible blow. As the bombs continue to fall, the irrepressible Emmy keeps writing, and readers are transformed by AJ Pearce’s hilarious, heartwarming, and enormously moving tale of friendship, the kindness of strangers, and ordinary people in extraordinary times.

THIS WAS A LIBRARY CHECK-OUT. USE YOUR LIBRARY, PANDEMIC OR NO PANDEMIC! THEY NEED US AS MUCH AS WE NEED THEM.

My Review
: First, read this:
My mother always said that a lot of men think that having bosoms means you’re a nitwit. She said the cleverest thing is to let them assume you’re an idiot, so you can crack on and prove them all wrong.
–and–
I tried to take a deep breath and be British and brave, but it didn't work, and instead, the tears began. Masses of them. Where did tears like that come from and how did they get there so fast? Were they always there, just waiting for something awful to happen? What a horrible job they had.
–and–
“Find out what you’re good at, Miss Lake, and then get even better. That’s the key.”

This is the general level of the book's rhetoric. It is just this side of platitudinous, saved by the adorable—if sometimes Pollyannaish—Emmy Lake herself.

This is a perfect Memorial-Day trip read. It is fairly compact, under 300pp in hardcover, and will never let you decide it's just too much work to keep on reading. I expect that, if it isn't in development at ITV yet, it is but a matter of moments before it is. Lily James needs to know about this property soonest...she's the perfect just-pretty-enough, just-soppy-enough, Heroine.

That sounded like a knock and I didn't mean for it to. Y'all millions who love these costume books about (great-)grandparents aren't wrong for enjoying these reminders that people have lived and loved and been kind and horrible to each other, often at the same time, since forever. The story here is much less a Romance than a novel of sensibility, demonstrating Emmy's and Bunty's Keep Calm and Carry On spirit.

Terrific use for your Kindle while traveling.

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A CITY OF BELLS
ELIZABETH GOUDGE

Out of print
various prices for varying editions, depending on rarity

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Who was Gabriel Ferranti? Why had he disappeared?

Jocelyn Irvin has just returned from the Boer War with an incurably lamed leg. He heads for the cathedral town or Torminster, where he recovers his love of life in the invigorating company of his cousin, Hugh Anthony, his grandfather, the Canon, and Henrietta.

When Jocelyn moved into the little house where Ferranti once had lived, a dark Byronic spirit haunted its rooms. Was Ferranti alive or dead? Until they knew, Jocelyn and Felicity must reach out to him. Until Ferranti no longer needed them, they must yield slowly to the madness of love. So the ghost of Gabriel Ferranti guided their lives in surprising ways, and more than one bewildered heart was restored to the wonder and magic of living.

I CHECKED THIS TREE BOOK OUT OF MY LOCAL LIBRARY. PATRONIZE THEM SOON!

My Review: This delicious book was published in 1936. I decided that, since #1936Club is a hashtag review-marker going around on Twitter just now organized by Kaggsy's Bookish Ramblings, I'd join the fun.

It shows its age in the various creaky plot mechanisms that, in today's publishing world, would get this tome bounced out the doors of any major publishing house.

And what a mistake that would be. Goudge writes in a gentle, soothing voice about a time that, even in 1936, seemed distant and innocent. She writes about characters who, despite their predictable entanglements and pat problem resolutions, make the reader feel like he has added some beloved members to his family. These are characters whose motivations are always for something, never against; these are men and women whose basic focus is, "How can I best serve the people I love?"

For that reason, and almost only for that reason, this is a heartily recommended book. Anyone whose mental furniture includes mid-century English fiction (eg, Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels) will lap this up. Its Christian themes are not unobtrusive. They are also quite deftly interwoven into the story, such that the book wouldn't be the same or even as good without them. Modern writers of Christian fiction could take a lesson from Miss Goudge! (And I wish they would...does anyone know Francine Rivers's email addy?)

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THE PARIS HOURS
ALEX GEORGE

Flatiron Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Paris between the wars teems with artists, writers, and musicians, a glittering crucible of genius. But amidst the dazzling creativity of the city’s most famous citizens, four regular people are each searching for something they’ve lost.

Camille was the maid of Marcel Proust, and she has a secret: when she was asked to burn her employer’s notebooks, she saved one for herself. Now she is desperate to find it before her betrayal is revealed. Souren, an Armenian refugee, performs puppet shows for children that are nothing like the fairy tales they expect. Lovesick artist Guillaume is down on his luck and running from a debt he cannot repay—but when Gertrude Stein walks into his studio, he wonders if this is the day everything could change. And Jean-Paul is a journalist who tells other people’s stories, because his own is too painful to tell. When the quartet’s paths finally cross in an unforgettable climax, each discovers if they will find what they are looking for.

Told over the course of a single day in 1927, The Paris Hours takes four ordinary people whose stories, told together, are as extraordinary as the glorious city they inhabit.

I RECEIVED THIS BOOK VIA NETGALLEY. THANK YOU.
My Review:
A polyphonous choral piece, not an extended solo. We are not left in one narrator's head for long; all of them speak to us on this one ordinary day in Paris. Yet what is most perfectly described is, oddly enough, not Paris; it is the interior landscape of the four souls whom Alex George has plucked from his imagination as a former résident étranger from boarding school years. His life there clearly made a deep impression on him. His evocation of fellow-foreigner and city-garden puppeteer Souren's life in hiding behind the small stage he puts his shows on is almost the most heartbreaking thing in the book. Then, when contrasted with the way the lone and lonely man sets his day up, Author George slips the shiv into your ribs:
This man's music has become part of Souren's mornings, as essential as the sun rising over the rooftops of the city. The familiar melody offers him a moment of quiet grace, and this gives him strength for the day ahead. The pianist knows nothing of this, of course. He plays only for himself. Souren wonders how the arc of the man's own days is changed by creating such beauty each morning. He watches as the pianist makes his lonely way down the street. The man looks tired, defeated. He does not play for joy, thinks Souren. He plays for survival.

Souren, and Author George, are not really empathizing with the defeated creator of beauty so much as inhabiting his worn shoes as he slumps into another day.

Lovely no-longer-young mother Camille's place is really the most attention-grabbing one, though, as she was once femme de ménage, growing into confidante, of the divine auteur Proust. It is fascinating to follow her through her memories, trace her regrets, but in the end, I felt the least personal connection to her...it was flat and expected, the way she dealt with the great author; no fresh angle was adduced, but the events are certainly involving and make for good reading.

I hate it when reviewers go all coy about endings. I know why they do, of course, and I'm about to do it to you. The ending of the book is truly what makes the work a polyphony, not a dirge or an aria or even a chorale. The music to your own inner ear will necessarily be different from mine. I don't think it's wise or fair to enable you to dismiss or demand a book based on what my response to the ending might be. In this book's case, I do not think it's wise to say more than "you will be moved to a greater or a lesser degree depending on factors including your belief in human lovingkindness as a guiding star."

But the beating heart of the story is:
Some things you cannot leave behind. Your history will pursue you doggedly across frontiers and over oceans. It will slip past the unsmiling border guards, fold itself invisibly into the pages of your passport, a silent, treacherous stowaway.

Resistance is futile; escape is impossible; grace, nonetheless, finds us wherever we are.
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EVENINGLAND: Stories
MICHAEL KNIGHT

Atlantic Monthly Press
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Long considered a master of the form and an essential voice in American fiction, Michael Knight’s stories have been lauded by writers such Ann Patchett, Elizabeth Gilbert, Barry Hannah, and Richard Bausch. Now, with Eveningland he returns to the form that launched his career, delivering an arresting collection of interlinked stories set among the “right kind of Mobile family” in the years preceding a devastating hurricane.

Grappling with dramas both epic and personal, from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the “unspeakable misgivings of contentment,” Eveningland captures with crystalline poeticism and perfect authenticity of place the ways in which ordinary life astounds us with its complexity. A teenaged girl with a taste for violence holds a burglar hostage in her house on New Year’s Eve; a middle aged couple examines the intricacies of their marriage as they prepare to throw a party; and a real estate mogul in the throes of grief buys up all the property on an island only to be accused of madness by his daughters. These stories, told with economy and precision, infused with humor and pathos, excavate brilliantly the latent desires and motivations that drive life forward.

Eveningland is a luminous collection from “a writer of the first rank.”(Esquire)

My Review: I can't, in good conscience, rate the book less than four stars, but I strongly feel as though I should. If I'm honest with myself and y'all, I can think of a dozen books like this one that I've read this year alone. Lovely sentences, look at the quotes I've added, and profound thoughts that make all the sense in the world to me in my après vie. But the whole isn't as satisfying as its parts led me to believe it would be.

Again I am let down by my inability to trust the perfect signal indicator of my overall satisfaction with a read: If a writer I don't like blurbs a book glowingly, I should just save my five bucks or whatever and skip it. In this case it's Tom Franklin, he of the deadly dull Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (see review below), who crowed about this book.

There's much to like in here, but nothing really to crow about. As always, the Bryce Method follows the collection in order.

Oil and Water is an old man's projection of youth onto a bog-standard boy.
I recall that sensation so clearly from my own boyhood. You suppose all those hours will feel like freedom but they don't. Too many to fill. No satisfaction in them.
Perfectly sums up adolescence: Adult feelings without any perspective. 4 stars

Smash and Grab isn't much of anything. Had it been the first story in the collection, I'd've shelved the book and forgotten about it. Teenaged child of divorce robs her estranged father for the benefit of the burglar she tied to a dining-room chair. Made me feel the same lack of feels that the crappy film Uncle Buck did for all the same reasons. 3 stars

Our Lady of the Roses is tedious young-adult privileged girl (term used advisedly) Hadley's homecoming to Mobile from her self-exile to Providence...a city very different from Mobile...and what changes Brown has wrought on her soul.
In her clogs, Hadley was a head taller than the nun, but Sister Benedicta was possessed of density. The hallway seemed to tilt in her direction.
There is no peace in returning but not coming home. Face the demons or lay them to rest in your head. Too wishy-washy to be satisfying. 2.5 stars

Jubilee is about the gorgeous, glossy pointlessness of being contentedly rich in America.
And this: her husband is faithful.

Of that Kendra has no doubt. He brings home the occasional rumor about his tennis buddies or men he knows from work, his voice thick with disappointment. Marriages pull apart around her.

But not hers, never hers.

And it doesn't! Is that the payoff? Why should I care about sleek, surfacey Kendra? The Real Housewives of Mobile can have her. 3 stars

Grand Old Party made me laugh so hard I peed a little. No way to talk about it without spoilers...this one gets 4.5 stars, though, alone of the collection.

The King of Dauphin Island represents solid proof that no matter how often or in how many variations one tells the story of King Lear it will never finish saying what it has to tell us.
Like the long gone captains of the Confederacy, he stood watch at the edge of Dauphin Island, his old life just out of sight across the water. What he felt in those moments, pelicans skimming the chop, tankers lugging cargo to ports unknown, was not loneliness or loss, as you might expect, nor the weight of tragedy but its opposite, pure lightness, the hole left inside him by Suzette’s death as big and hollow as a zeppelin and just as buoyant, as if the shape of her absence might lift him up and carrying him away.
Solid. Quality writing, evergreen story; missing a spark to lift it over 4 stars

Landfall is the anchor novella of the collection, life ending, lives ended, an endless recursion of sad need and glorious want:
{She} considered mentioning...how she, too, was all alone. But it didn't matter. So many stupid ways to live and die. She felt a shift inside herself at the thought, a letting go...she had reached a limit now and was moving into something new.
Nice, eh? But that's it, that's fourth gear with overdrive engaged, smooth cruisin' but no oomph. 4 stars

Like I said...perfectly nice book about people you and I know, but don't really give much thought to between meetups. It feels like honest cheating to give this four stars but it is well written; it's just that it's not very interesting.

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THE BEGGAR MAID: Stories of Flo and Rose
ALICE MUNRO

Vintage Books
$16.00 trade paperback, available now

Rating: 2.5* of five

The Publisher Says: In this series of interweaving stories, Munro recreates the evolving bond between two women in the course of almost forty years. One is Flo, practical, suspicious of other people's airs, at times dismayingly vulgar. The other is Rose, Flo's stepdaughter, a clumsy, shy girl who somehow leaves the small town she grew up in to achieve her own equivocal success in the larger world.

My Review: I hate Flo, and dislike Rose, and can think of no possible reason for anyone to read more than the Pearl Rule requires or the first three stories, whichever comes first in your edition.

Lovely, lovely sentences telling deadly little quotidian stories about dreary, slatternly people. Not recommended to the point of active discouragement.

Well, now that Munro's won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature for the year 2013, it's time to explain my response to these stories.

I am no fan of Woman. I had a mentally ill mother, older sisters of extraordinary unkindness (they would disagree with this last), and a host of relationships with women that didn't meet my needs.

I don't like Woman Writers for this reason. I find their Womanness makes me itch. I recently had a strongly negative response to Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl because it played the Uniquely Woman card to unpaint the main character from a corner. That Flynn didn't mean this to be any kind, sort, or form of exoneration of the character did not, in the end, make the smallest difference to me.

Munro's women, in this book, are so estrogen-soaked that the miasma caused my male-pattern baldness to kick up a notch. They are lower class, they strive to be middle-brow, and they are thoroughly miasmically humidly Womanly.

I, as a reader, find this unpleasant, and even the sheer breathtaking crystalline perfection of Munro's writing can't make me want to spend time with these Women.

I like Tillie Olsen ("I Stand Here Ironing" is a story only a woman could tell and I can honestly say it's a top-ten story on my life list). I like Annie Proulx. I like the woman writers whose woman characters aren't Mouthpieces.

So congratulations Ms. Munro on your win. Goodness knows your career deserves recognition. And huzzah Canada for your first "born and bred" Literature winner.

But can we please dim down a notch?

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THE PRAISE SINGER
MARY RENAULT

Vintage Books
$13.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In the story of the great lyric poet Simonides, Mary Renault brings alive a time in Greece when tyrants kept an unsteady rule and poetry, music, and royal patronage combined to produce a flowering of the arts.

Born into a stern farming family on the island of Keos, Simonides escapes his harsh childhood through a lucky apprenticeship with a renowned Ionian singer. As they travel through 5th century B.C. Greece, Simonides learns not only how to play the kithara and compose poetry, but also how to navigate the shifting alliances surrounding his rich patrons. He is witness to the Persian invasion of Ionia, to the decadent reign of the Samian pirate king Polykrates, and to the fall of the Pisistratids in the Athenian court. Along the way, he encounters artists, statesmen, athletes, thinkers, and lovers, including the likes of Pythagoras and Aischylos. Using the singer's unique perspective, Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable knowledge of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century.

My Review: This book was a re-read, I feel sure, since I was hooked on her stuff in the Seventies...yet I felt curiously unfamiliar with the book. I recalled some scenes, such as Simonides returning from home to rejoin his master Kleobis in their Samian exile; I found a lot of the book to be less clear in my mind than most I've read before and choose to re-read.

I put this down to the fact that as I was reading it in 1978 or 1979, I was disappointed that the main character wasn't gay and wasn't even very excitingly drawn. (Can you tell I was a youth who loved the Alexander novels, The Bull from the Sea, The King Must Die, The Persian Boy? Especially The Persian Boy, quite salacious!)

But, in the end, as a fifty-year-old who's tastes have matured (ha), I liked this book quite a lot. It was a lovely tale of how the world has always judged others by their looks and not their deeds or talents. It presents itself as a harmless historical novel, and examines human nature minutely, unsparingly, and with what can only be called a jaundiced eye. Renault was clearly irritated at the follies of mankind. It shows in such lines as this, spoken by Simonides in his old age: "I have never desired young maids, preferrinig ripe fruit to green; maybe it is because I feared their laughter when I was a boy." (p262, Pantheon hardcover edition 1978)

Still scared of the masses. Still subject to the fears and foibles of youth. Wiser? Renault is too good a writer to make you take her view. She tells her story, and leaves you to take her meanings.

Sheer pleasure, friends, and all too seldom met, when a storyteller trusts you to read, and read again, and reach your own conclusions. Read it and conclude, and you won't be sorry.

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THE WASP FACTORY
IAIN BANKS

Scribner
$15.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.95* of five

The Publisher Says: Frank--no ordinary sixteen-year-old--lives with his father outside a remote Scottish village. Their life is, to say the least, unconventional. Frank's mother abandoned them years ago: his elder brother Eric is confined to a psychiatric hospital; & his father measures out his eccentricities on an imperial scale. Frank has turned to strange acts of violence to vent his frustrations. In the bizarre daily rituals there is some solace. But when news comes of Eric's escape from the hospital Frank has to prepare the ground for his brother's inevitable return--an event that explodes the mysteries of the past & changes Frank utterly.

My Review: Much has been said in disgust and even anger about this polarizing book. Some have called for it to be banned. Others have written the equivalent of a silent finger-down-the-throat mime.

You are all entitled to your opinion. Here is mine: This book is brilliant. It will be remembered long long after the pleasant entertainments of the day are more forgotten than Restoration drama. (Hands up anyone who knows who Colley Cibber is. And don't front. Or use Wikipedia.)

I'm also an ardent partisan of Lolita, that deeply disturbing and very beautiful book by a pedophile about his pursuit of the perfect lover. I loved Mrs. Dalloway, the chilling, near-perfect narrative of a wealthy woman's desperation and crushing ennui.

So here's the deal: Frank, and his brother Eric, aren't role models, aren't people you'd want to be around, aren't amusing compadres for a jaunt along the path to the Banal Canal. They are, like Hum and Lo and Clarissa and Septimus, avatars (in the pre-Internet sense) of the raw, bleeding, agonic (unangled, in this use) purposelessness of life. They are the proof that salvation is a cruel ruse. These characters rip your fears from the base of your brain and move them, puppetlike, eerily masterful withal, into your worst nightmares.

And all without resorting to the supernatural.

Humanity comes off badly in this book. The truth of what made Frank the person he is will leave you more chilled than any silly evocation of a devil in a religious text. Frank's very being is an ambulatory evil act. But the reason for it, the motivating factor, is the absolute worst horror this book contains. All the animal-torture stuff is unpleasant, I agree. It's not as though it's lovingly and lingeringly described. And it pales in comparison to Frank's raison d'etre.

So yes, this book is strong meat. It's got deeply twisted characters enacting their damage before us, the safely removed audience. It's making a serious point about human nature. And it's doing all of that in quite beautifully wrought prose, without so much as one wasted word.

But it's essentially a warning to the reader: Don't go there. Don't do the pale, weak-kneed versions of the rage-and-hate fueled horrors inflicted on Frank, and even on Eric. Pay attention, be mindful of the many ways we as lazy moral actors condone the creation of Erics and Franks in our world.

Pay attention.

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AURTHORA: Celtic Prince
R.W. HUGHES
Troubador Publishing
$21.29 trade paper, available now (Kindle edition $5.99!)
Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: This novel, Aurthora, is based on the legendary British warrior. It takes place in the years immediately after the Romans leave Britain and describes a land undergoing massive change - with no leader and no army to defend its shores. Authorora is born of noble blood - his father is a fervent supporter of the King of a small Celtic tribe called the Iceni. The Iceni, themselves are part of a large coalition who must work together to protect themselves from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes - fierce warriors who have laid claim to the northern regions. Authorora is tutored in battle skills by a former Roman Legionnaire, Orius. His training is tested during raid of coastal camps, but his successes in battle quickly bring him to the attention of the Celtic Round Council and he is promoted to the command of the Celtic forces. Authorora must be a tactician, diplomat and politician to retain his position which is under threat by jealous commanders and other tribes who are desperate to seize control of the lands he must protect.

My Review: I received this historical novel TWO YEARS AGO in a publishers' giveaway, and I haven't written a review yet. I am a Bad Man.

To rectify that horrible behavior, I'm writing the review now. I read the book in 2011, and skimmed over it now to confirm what I remember to be the case: The writing is very heavy going. The story is wonderful.

This is Arthur without myth or legend, this is a man and a king and a warrior. Yes, he's the best at what he does. Yes, he's quick-witted and bold. But mostly he's well-trained and very well-prepared for what Fate hurls at him. Chaos is inevitable when empires take their foot off the neck of a resentful people. Look what's happened in Iraq, in Syria, in Afghanistan any number of times.

Hughes makes you aware of his learning and erudition by presenting many too many details of military movements, equipment, and engagements. It's wearing. I find the same issue in many books about war. My criticism of [The Kindly Ones], which I admired but did not like, and of [Matterhorn], which I flat-out loved, is the same as of this book. I am not that intrigued by battle minutiae. But the flip-side of that is the amazing and immersive experience of barely post-Imperial Britannia that one gets from this book.

But, and this is the source of the three-star rating, the characters Declaim and Orate, they never speak or simply say stuff. An example from page 218:
"I have a message, Sire, from Aurthora Ambrosius, Commander of the High Town Guard and member of the Great Round Council," gasped the messenger to Neila Gilberto and his son.
Really? He gasped that little peroration to people who would or should know to whom he's referring if he simply says, "Message! Message from Aurthora!" Formality from someone who's been galloping to get a message to someone who badly needs the information the sender thought enough of to send in a hurry? No. Just no.

But then my eyes rivaled the totality of Earth's GPS satellites in their rolling orbits when, on page 349, the following Was Declaimed:
Boro Sigurd was the first to speak as Aurthora entered the inner section of the tent. "Aurthora! It is good to see you again. As you are no doubt aware, our Great King has not been well, but even so some decisions have bad to be made during this time.
Dear Goddesses, where do I begin. NO I DID NOT FORGET THE CLOSE QUOTE. Yes, it's the end of the expository speechification. It's even the end of the paragraph. But there is no close quote. So I put no close quote on. Any time the "As you know, Bob..." trope appears, I want to get out my ninja stars and polish up my flensing knife preparatory to making a trip to the editorial offices, there to perpetrate painful and condign revenge on the parties responsible for setting this, this Oration in type. I understand the battle had by an editor with an author who believes he is correct. There is a point where one says, "well, this is as good as it's gonna get" and passes the project to the production process.

THIS KIND OF DIALOGUE (in its loosest possible sense) IS NOT THERE YET. It clanks and it judders and it pops the reader right out of the narrative. Which, I believe I've mentioned before, is very involving.

After two years, I feel sure both publisher and author no longer even know to whom they sent copies for review. I'm not planning to draw it to their attention because I feel guilty about it. But the book is a good yarn, a worthy corrective to the immense body of myth on the subject of Arthur. And I can think of one person on Earth I'd hand it to and expect him to appreciate, though probably not love, it.

Prove me wrong! Try it out and come tell me how you loved it.

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HADJI MURAD
COUNT LEO TOLSTOY

Oneworld Classics
$11.66 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: In [Hadji Murat], Tolstoy recounts the extraordinary meeting of two polarized cultures--the refined, Europeanized court of the Russian tsar and the fierce Muslim chieftains of the Chechen hills. This brilliant, culturally resonant fiction was written towards the end of Tolstoy's life, but the conflict it describes has obvious, ironic parallels with current affairs today.

It is 1852, and Hadji Murat, one of the most feared mountain chiefs, is the scourge of the Russian army. When he comes to surrender, the Russians are delighted. Or have they naively welcomed a double-agent into their midst? With its sardonic portraits--from the inscrutable Hadji Murat to the fat and bumbling tsar--Tolstoy's story is an astute and witty commentary on the nature of political relations and states at war. Leo Tolstoy is one of the world's greatest writers. Best known for his brilliantly crafted epic novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina, he used his works to address the problems of Russian society, politics, and traditions.

My Review: Flat prose exposing the bones of a story better told in the Wikipedia entry on Hadji Murad, the historical Avar leader.

The story was among Tolstoy's papers at his death. Louise Shanks Maude, the wife of Tolstoy's good friend and primary translator of non-fiction Aylmer Maude, included Hadji Murad in their 21-volume Oxford University Press edition of the Collected Works of Tolstoy. The Maudes were Fenians, communal-living enthusiasts, and both came from English families firmly rooted in Russia. This constellation of characteristics made them uniquely sympathetic to Tolstoy's rather unusual social views.

Louise Maude did no service to Tolstoy's memory by publishing this story after Tolstoy's death. His own attitude towards the work, based on his correspondence, seems to have focused more on finishing it and with it putting a flourish on his life-long argument with the deterministic world he saw about him. Tragedy being inevitable, Tolstoy takes the historical tale of Hadji Murad (known to him from his service to Russia in the Caucasus) and presents an honorable man's desperate struggle to escape the inescapable fate awaiting him: Death in the attempt to save his beloved family from death, which they will suffer anyway because of his foredoomed death attempting to save them from death.

How Russian.

There's a very involving tale here. What there isn't is a novel or novella of any satisfying substance. The story as it's published reads more like notes towards a novel. The action and the characters are crudely carved from Tolstoy's accustomed fine marble, but lack any fine detail and indeed are only partially revealed; most of the work needed to create a memorable character is left to the imagination of the reader. That it can be done at all is down to the artist's eye for good materials that Tolstoy possessed, refined by a long lifetime's work.

What a pity that its audience isn't legally confined to Tolstoy scholars.

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COOKING WITH FERNET BRANCA (Gerald Samper #1)
James Hamilton-Paterson
Europa Editions
$10.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Gerald Samper, an effete English snob, has his own private hilltop in Tuscany, where he wiles away his time working as a ghostwriter for celebrities and inventing wholly original culinary concoctions-including ice cream made with garlic and the bitter, herb-based liqueur of the book's title. Gerald's idyll is shattered by the arrival of Marta, on the run from a crime-riddled former Soviet republic. A series of hilarious misunderstandings brings this odd couple into ever closer and more disastrous proximity.

James Hamilton-Paterson's first novel, Gerontius, won the Whitbread Award. He is an acclaimed author of nonfiction books, including Seven-Tenths, Three Miles Down, and Playing with Water, He currently lives in Italy.

My Review: Cooking With Fernet Branca is part of oddball publisher Europa Editions's sinister plot to make Murrikins like me aware of the strange and sinister world of lit'rachoor published beyond our shores. Muriel Barbery owes her Murrikin presence to them, too. We all know how *that* turned out....

Well, before moving any farther along in this review process, let me send out the call: Does anyone know how to get hold of (wicked double entendre optional) actor John Barrowman? You know, Captain Jack Harkness of Torchwood fame? He is literally missing the key to Murrikin stardom by not reading, optioning, and making this book into a movie. It suits every single national prejudice we have: Eastern Europeans as sinister lawbreaking peasants who eat strangely shaped, colored, and named things and call them foods (like Twinkies, Cheetos, and Mountain Dew are *normal*); Englishmen as dudis (you'll have to read the book for that translation) who do eccentric off-the-wall things with food that are repulsively named and gruesomely concocted (spotted dick? bubble-and-squeak?); and Italians as supercilious effete cognoscenti of world culture, who possess the strangest *need* for vulgarity.

The characters in this hilarious romp are the most dysfunctional group of misfits and ignoramuses and stereotypes ever deployed by an English-language author. They do predictable things, yet Hamilton-Paterson's deftly ironic, cruelly flensing eye and word processor cause readerly glee instead of readerly ennui to ensue. The whole bizarre crew...the lumpenproletariat ex-Soviet composer, the Italian superdirector long past his prime, the English snob who refers to Tuscany's glory as "Chiantishire" and "Tuscminster"...gyrates and shudders and clumps towards a completely foreseeable climactic explosion (heeheehee). And all the time, snarking and judging and learning to depend on each other. In the end, the end is nigh for all the established relationships and the dim, Fernet Branca-hangover-hazed outlines of the new configurations are, well, the English say it best...dire.

Read it. Really, do. And I dare you not to laugh at these idiots! The charm of reading the book is that one needn't look at that...that...illustration...on the cover, but inflict it on those not yet In The Know enough to be reading it themselves.

And seriously...John Barrowman needs to know about this. Pass it on!

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THE DOG STARS
Peter Heller

Alfred A. Knopf
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3* of five

THIS COPY RECEIVED FROM NOT THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW as a giveaway...thanks y'all!

The Publisher Says: A riveting, powerful novel about a pilot living in a world filled with loss—and what he is willing to risk to rediscover, against all odds, connection, love, and grace.

Hig survived the flu that killed everyone he knows. His wife is gone, his friends are dead, he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, his only neighbor a gun-toting misanthrope. In his 1956 Cessna, Hig flies the perimeter of the airfield or sneaks off to the mountains to fish and to pretend that things are the way they used to be. But when a random transmission somehow beams through his radio, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life—something like his old life—exists beyond the airport. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return—not enough fuel to get him home—following the trail of the static-broken voice on the radio. But what he encounters and what he must face—in the people he meets, and in himself—is both better and worse than anything he could have hoped for.

Narrated by a man who is part warrior and part dreamer, a hunter with a great shot and a heart that refuses to harden, The Dog Stars is both savagely funny and achingly sad, a breathtaking story about what it means to be human.

My Review: I've tried and I've tried to think of a nice way to say that I don't like Iowa Writer's Workshop stuff because it's always Very Writerly. I was, as you see, unsuccessful. It's always full of good lines, it's always got charming or beautiful or moving imagery and characters with flaws and sometimes even dialogue with some zest.

But it's always Very Writerly. Thick and heavy and nutritious like spelt or brown rice. Sulphur molasses in gluten-free muffins. Serious and Good For You.

I hate that. Sorry, Mr. Heller, but that's you all over.

I like dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories, since I am the least chirpily optimistic person walking on Planet Earth. I want them to make sense, however, and not be rehashes of zombie munch-fests. This one makes sense. The pandemic that collapses the population? Totally buy that. The evil/vile behavior of the humans afterwards? Totally buy that. (Actually, from what I see, we haven't waited for an apocalypse to behave like scum to each other. But I digress.) The source of the dog Jasper's jerky treats? Brilliant, and also very frugal.

I like the story, too, up to the point where Hig, our pilot main character, flies off and Finds Himself. I know, I know, all characters must go through stuff and change as a result of it to make a novel really interesting. But the fact that Hig goes off'n gits him a woman is a little over the top. It's artificial feeling, like something inside Heller (or an editor outside Heller) said "there's no hope! give the poor bastard hope!"

It was, in my humble opinion, a wrong turn. The story up to then was an interesting, stream-of-consciousness exploration of an average joe who, inexplicably, survived the Apocalypse and kept on moving, breathing, numb from loss and scared, but real. And then, suddenly, he gets A Message and has to move move move to find the source! And he finds him a gal! Who knows, maybe that little impotence problem will clear up, they'll have a family....

That's not the same book I started reading, and I don't much like that book.

But in good conscience, I can't tell you it's a bad book. It's a pretty good book that could've been a really, really good book. It takes the subverbal vocalizations of its main character and puts them front-and-center, makes the style the point, makes the point the pleasure of reading. I just have this one little problem with the whole enterprise: It feels to me like it's been overthought, overwrought, and overworked. All down to that workshoppy aesthetic, and that happyendingitis that comes from thinking about the audience and not the story.

Well, so. Three and a half stars for the good, good phrases Mr. Heller has made and the promise of that first half. It will do.

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SWAMPLANDIA!
Karen Russell

Vintage Contemporaries
$12.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 3* of five (two full stars lost to that cheap, sensationalistic ending)

The Publisher Says: The Bigtree alligator wrestling dynasty is in decline—think Buddenbrooks set in the Florida Everglades—and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, is swiftly being encroached upon by a sophisticated competitor known as the World of Darkness.

Ava, a resourceful but terrified twelve year old, must manage seventy gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief. Her mother, Swamplandia!’s legendary headliner, has just died; her sister is having an affair with a ghost called the Dredgeman; her brother has secretly defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their sinking family afloat; and her father, Chief Bigtree, is AWOL. To save her family, Ava must journey on her own to a perilous part of the swamp called the Underworld, a harrowing odyssey from which she emerges a true heroine.

My Review: The Bigtree family, two-generation swamp folks, have reached the end of their useful lives as purveyors of alligator wrestling and mild amusements to the tourists of fictional Loomis County, in the Ten Thousand Islands. Chief Sam Bigtree loses his wife Hilola, and after that the will to make his living there in the swamps with his three children, 17-year-old Kiwi, 16-year-old Osceola, and 10-year-old Ava. The book follows the misadventures of Ava, who is left alone on the island with the older, but seemigly tetched, Osceola, a girl who believes with all her heart that she is in touch with the spirit world, and specifically with a dead teenaged dredgeman from the 1930s called Louis Thanksgiving. Ava, older in spirit than Ossie, pokes fun at her sister's new beau the ghost. Things turn scary when Ossie, in the grips of what she insists is a spirit possession, abandons Ava and sets out for some Calusa Indian mounds which are locally believed to be a gateway to the underworld. Kiwi, meantime, has gone to "the mainland" (a place of fear and derision to the Bigtrees one and all) to work at the competing theme park. His journey from odd man out to local hero with self-confidence is about 1/3 of the book, told from third person limited PoV. Ava's hunt for Ossie through the swamp country, as aided by a tall, skinny stranger called the Bird Man, is the bulk of the book, told in first person as a flashback. What happens to Ava in the swamp is terrifying, what with the belief she has of traveling a spirit landscape into the Underworld in search of Ossie. What happens to Ossie on a similar journey is harrowing when we finally hear it from her mouth. All is finally put right in this weird and fractured family, the deus ex machina unfolding its long and shining arm to bring forth happiness and contentment. Of a very mitigated sort.

Well, now. Where to begin. Lushness and loveliness of language? Yes, there is that. Resonant Hero's Journey to the Gates of Hell, complete with safe return? Check. Obligatory abuse of women and children by older men? Sadly, that's here too, though God knows I wish it wasn't.

This is a first novel by a talented writer. I am sorry to say that it relies a little too much on currently fsahionable tropes to merit a good rating. I am sick unto death of novels by women that use adult males as bogeymen, from neglectful father to deceitful and abusive "helper." Stop it. It's boring. And, in case any of you women writers want to think outside your comfort zone for a second, what message is this sending to the girls in the world? Be afraid of men? And to the boys, you are intrinsically bad and evil and not to be trusted by women? Are these little details not immediately obvious to you, and if not, why not?

But the book in question is, as noted above, lush and lovely of language. Its phrases are smooth and silken in my mental ear. Its images are beautifully crafted. Its mythic structure is nicely handled, though I could have done completely without the whole Kiwi thing. One hopes that Karen Russell will see past this lazy co-opting of trendy shibboleths and create something as beautifully thought out as it is written.

Should you read this book? Yeah, well, they're your eyes, blink 'em at whatever makes you happy. Me, I'd go to the liberry to get the book, not shell out most of $30 to procure it.

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ONCE UPON A RIVER
Bonnie Jo Campbell

W.W. Norton
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Pearl Ruled (p82)

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Bonnie Jo Campbell has created an unforgettable heroine in sixteen-year-old Margo Crane, a beauty whose unflinching gaze and uncanny ability with a rifle have not made her life any easier. After the violent death of her father, in which she is complicit, Margo takes to the Stark River in her boat, with only a few supplies and a biography of Annie Oakley, in search of her vanished mother. But the river, Margo's childhood paradise, is a dangerous place for a young woman traveling alone, and she must be strong to survive, using her knowledge of the natural world and her ability to look unsparingly into the hearts of those around her. Her river odyssey through rural Michigan becomes a defining journey, one that leads her beyond self-preservation and to the decision of what price she is willing to pay for her choices.

My Review: Oh heavy, heavy sigh. I cannot make myself read more of this beautifully crafted book. Campbell's trademark gorgeous sentences are not enough to propel me any further into the life of sixteen-year-old Margo Crane. I don't want to read about Margo's consensual sexual adventures with an adult man.

I just don't.

But let me tell you what's right with this book: The writing. Oh. Oh. Campbell is describing a harsh and unjust world in words that make me vibrate like a tuning fork that's just found its note. Campbell's descriptions of Michigan make me ache to see it for myself. Her deft, cruel characterizations are inarguably fine...nice, in the original sense of the word...I don't want to use the word "precise" because that conjures the spectre of Henry James, and that scares people off, but precise they are.

I hate like poison that the beauty of the book, its lovely wideness and its supremely inviting lushness, are closed to me by my own shuddering disgust for teenaged girls and heterosexual congress. But that, I fear, is where I am and what I feel.

DO NOT TAKE THIS AS A WARN-OFF!! I recommend to the straight people who like gorgeous writing and coming-of-age stories that this book rise to the top of the pile immediately! If it's your first try at a Bonnie Jo Campbell book, so much the better, and so much the more exciting for you. She is a talent to be savored and supported with book purchases.

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THE SISTERS BROTHERS
Patrick deWitt

HarperCollins
$16.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Hermann Kermit Warm is going to die. The enigmatic and powerful man known only as the Commodore has ordered it, and his henchmen, Eli and Charlie Sisters, will make sure of it. Though Eli doesn't share his brother's appetite for whiskey and killing, he's never known anything else. But their prey isn't an easy mark, and on the road from Oregon City to Warm's gold-mining claim outside Sacramento, Eli begins to question what he does for a living-and whom he does it for.

With The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt pays homage to the classic Western, transforming it into an unforgettable comic tour de force. Filled with a remarkable cast of characters-losers, cheaters, and ne'er-do-wells from all stripes of life-and told by a complex and compelling narrator, it is a violent, lustful odyssey through the underworld of the 1850s frontier that beautifully captures the humor, melancholy, and grit of the Old West and two brothers bound by blood, violence, and love.

My Review: Achilles and Patroclus in the Old West. Brothers whose adult lives are spent murdering in the service of a venal master, the Commodore, without question or conscience. Eli Sisters, in this story, awakes to conscience, and as is inevitably the case, disaster, ruination, and tragedy ensue.

Pleasant way to wile away the hours. Some anachronisms niggled at me. I thought the storytelling voice was charming.

That's it, really. Nothing world-shaking. A very nicely made novel about people I'd cross the street to avoid in real life. If television is too unspeakably grim and Nabokov is too much work, this'll pass the time.

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BETTER LIVING THROUGH PLASTIC EXPLOSIVES: Stories
Zsuzsi Gartner

Pintail Books
$11.99 ebook editions, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada's most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney's.

In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we'd live in if we all got what we wanted.

Angels crash land, lovers speak IKEA, a mountain swallows tony West Coast properties, and a killer stalks the great motivational speakers of North America.

These stories ruthlessly expose our covert fears and fathomless desires and allow us to snort with laughter—while grieving at the grotesque world we’d live in if we all got what we wanted.

My Review: When reviewing collections, it's hard to know what to say about them whole and entire unless they're linked stories. With a group of stories like this book is, it's easiest and, IMO, best to adopt what I've called “The Bryce Method” in honor of an online friend who introduced me to the technique: A summary opinion, plus a short line or a quote from each story, together with a rating for the story. So as my summary opinion, I offer this: Please don't try so hard, Ms. Gartner, you have real and delicious talent when you don't reach quite so far for the laugh/wince/frown combo.

The stories in book order:

“Summer of the Flesh Eater” is a Lord of the Flies-esque tale of men behaving badly. I re-read that book already, it wasn't a success, and it isn't here either. 3 stars, all for the women's characterizations.

“Once, We Were Swedes” is almost perfect, a surreal and sweet tale of a couple growing apart and growing old in their separate ways, losing and somehow not understanding the loss of their once-intense connection to each other. The idea of IKEA product names being a loving, erotic language is hilarious to me, which is probably why I give it 4.5 stars.

“Floating Like a Goat” is the midnight letter that you write in your head, the one that exorcises the demon-strength rage and hate that you feel over some small thing. Anna writes this letter to Shayala Subramanium, her daughter Georgia's kindergarten art teacher, after getting the word from “Miss S.” that Georgia is “failing to meet expectations” in art class. Funny, pungent, familiar. 3.875 stars, that last eighth of a star for the Dobbie (of Harry Potter fame) reference.

“Investment Results May Vary” juxtaposes the lives of Honey Fortunata, overachieving shady real-estate lady and Filipina stereotype, with kidnapper and superannuated slacker Nina, in a strange little tale of ecological vengeance on the overprivileged. Unsuccessful. 2 stars.

“The Adopted Chinese Daughters' Rebellion” refines the author's disdain for the white, overprivileged, left-leaning elite who adopt the unwanted girls from China and then attempt to raise them with Chinese cultural referents to a new, diamond-bladed sharp edge. I think Gartner is a major practitioner of “snarktire,” a kind of steroidally enhanced satire with an extra-curled lip. 3 stars for chutzpah.

“What Are We Doing Here?” chronicles the terrible date that a hipster-chick-wannabe has with a middlescent (over 40) semi-famous photographer of woman intellectuals of A Certain Age. She thinks it's a party he's invited her to; he's made steaks and baked potatoes. Her little world is unbearably unimportant, and his unbearably self-important. It doesn't go well. It does, however, go a long way to making the divide between the generations and the genders snap into sharp focus. 3.5 stars.

“Someone is Killing the Great Motivational Speakers of Amerika” pits a mom-type motivational speaker of deeply digressive dullness against the rainforest of western Canada, while in the company of a teenaged son, his twenty-something girlfriend, and some miscellaneous bores. Footnotes can be fun; they aren't, here. 2.5 stars.

“Mister Kakami” sends up The Film Industry, which is a little bit expected from a Vancouverite, much as it would be for an Angeleno. Pseudo-kudos for not forgetting to use the anti-Semitic stock character, The Jewish Producer. 2.5 stars.

“We Come in Peace”--angel/aliens narrate their time inhabiting human teenagers. The very least amusing story in the collection, and pretty much a damn good thing it was followed by the best. 2 stars.

“Better Living Through Plastic Explosives” is scintillating, a lovely rumination on middle age, gardening, memory, motherhood, and the bitter, angry darkness that can swallow the soul of someone who “settles” in life. Also? Funny as hell. 4.75 stars

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LAZARUS IS DEAD: A Biography
Richard Beard

Europa Editions
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Brimming with wit and humor, Lazarus Is Dead transcends genres as it recounts the story of a great friendship lost and re-found.

In the gospels Jesus is described as having only one friend, and when this friend dies, Jesus does something that he does nowhere else in the Bible. He weeps. Novelist Richard Beard begins here. Mixing Biblical sources, historical detail, fascinating references to music, art, and writers as diverse as Kahlil Gibran and Norman Mailer, and abundant reserves of creative invention, Beard gives us his astonishing and amusing take on the greatest story ever told about second chances.

As children, Lazarus and Jesus were thick as thieves. But following a mysterious event, their friendship dwindled in early adulthood. One man struck out and became a flamboyant and successful businessman, the other stayed behind to learn a trade, and ultimately to find his calling in an unprecedented mix of spirituality and revolutionary zeal. Lazarus Is Dead is set during the final period in each man’s life—or, to be more precise, each man’s first life. Both know the end is near and, though they’re loath to admit it, they long for reconciliation. For that to happen they will need to find reasons to believe in each other before time runs out.

My Review: *Europa Editions sent me an ARC for review.*

Lazarus has always bothered me. In the times of my life when learning about the holey babble was a survival mechanism, I was always verschmeckeled by the point of bringing the dead guy back and then just dropping the storyline like the actor got a better part somewhere else. Okay! Cool! Back among the living, and...and...?

Looks like Beard had much the same response. He did something about it. (Well, I did too, but kicking christianity to the curb wasn't Beard's response.) He imagined the story again, from the top, and made sense of it without deviating from the biblical account. He added to the biblical account, but didn't change what was there.

And you know what? This is a good damn book, because it's based on a damn good story. Is it gut-bustingly, raucous-guffawingly funny? No...it's sly and witty and erudite, like a joke Voltaire would tell, not one Adam Sandler would tell. The pleasure of reading the book is in savoring, not in slurping it up.

Beard's not one to waste time on explanation, though, so if you're interested in getting the maximum amount of smirk per page, read this with Wikipedia open and look up things you don't know about. I promise you Beard didn't do that, but you're reading the book where he had to think it up and write it. His is a heavier burden. You get to skate on the surface.

But what a surface. Lazarus...the dead man walking...the holy zombie, my father called him to the screeching fury of my mother. Is there a better story in the bible? Well, apart from the rape and incest bits. They're all over the place, just open 'er up and start skimming. He rose from the dead! How cool is that! Beard's imagining of it is pretty cool, and very human. How many writers would think to have the resurrected guy take a bath, and smell his breath to be sure it's not stinky? Human details like this make the story one to savor.

And as a teaser, pay attention to how the chapters are numbered. There's a game in there. These are sixteen well-spent dollars for you who will buy the book.

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TOBACCO ROAD
ERSKINE CALDWELL

Open Road Media
$9.50 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.25* of five

The Publisher Says: University of Georgia Press's sales copy--Set during the Depression in the depleted farmlands surrounding Augusta, Georgia, Tobacco Road was first published in 1932. It is the story of the Lesters, a family of white sharecroppers so destitute that most of their creditors have given up on them. Debased by poverty to an elemental state of ignorance and selfishness, the Lesters are preoccupied by their hunger, sexual longings, and fear that they will someday descend to a lower rung on the social ladder than the black families who live near them.

My Review: Ye gods and little fishes! Talk about "been down so long it looks like up to me!"

A shockingly honest book when it was published in 1932, it's still a picture that comparatively rich urban Americans need to see. The details have changed only a little in 80 years. This kind of poverty not only still exists, but these horrific racial prejudices do too. Read Knockemstiff (or my review found here, of course) and The Galaxie and Other Rides and VOLT: Stories for the modern-day honest storytellers mining the same vein of American life. Winter's Bone is its direct descendant! So many of the works I've labeled hillbilly noir...and this is the granddaddy of 'em all. I loved the fact that it was so grim when I first read it as an angry, angsty teen, and it still, or again, aroused my loathing and ire when re-read last year at 52.

I can't remember not thinking that people were vile, irredeemable scum, and reading books like this taught me I wasn't the first to have this insight. Even the best are brought low by the vicious kicks of a merciless gawd. They keep going to church, though, to get kicked again...ultimately the solace of "at least we're not black" (though they use the other word I can't stand even to type) isn't enough to overcome the characters' various phobias and anxieties.

This won't make sense to someone who hasn't read the book, and will if one does read or has read it, but constitutes no spoiler: GO RATS!! Sic 'em!

A megaton of misery detonating in your brain, leaving craters a mile wide for compassion to leak out of.


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CROOKED LETTER, CROOKED LETTER
Tom Franklin

William Morrow
$24.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: one grudging star of five

The Publisher Says: Tom Franklin's narrative power and flair for characterization have been compared to the likes of Harper Lee, Flannery O'Connor, Elmore Leonard, and Cormac McCarthy.

Now the Edgar Award-winning author returns with his most accomplished and resonant novel so far; an atmospheric drama set in rural Mississippi. In the late 1970s, Larry Ott and Silas "32" Jones were boyhood pals. Their worlds were as different as night and day: Larry, the child of lower-middle-class white parents, and Silas, the son of a poor, single black mother. Yet for a few months the boys stepped outside of their circumstances and shared a special bond. But then tragedy struck: Larry took a girl on a date to a drive-in movie, and she was never heard from again. She was never found and Larry never confessed, but all eyes rested on him as the culprit. The incident shook the county—and perhaps Silas most of all. His friendship with Larry was broken, and then Silas left town.

More than twenty years have passed. Larry, a mechanic, lives a solitary existence, never able to rise above the whispers of suspicion. Silas has returned as a constable. He and Larry have no reason to cross paths until another girl disappears and Larry is blamed again. And now the two men who once called each other friend are forced to confront the past they've buried and ignored for decades.

My Review: Tedious sentences telling a tired old story in an unfresh way.
Carolyn twisted his head harder, and Larry pushed at her arm but she had his hair and he told himself not to cry. Then she slammed his head down, hard, onto his desk. Everybody laughed so she did it again.

He stole a sideways look and saw her face. He'd never been that angry. He didn't think he had the ability to summon such anger, or the right. With her other hand Carolyn grabbed his arm and twisted it so he fell out of his desk, The Shining landing beside him on the floor.

This fight is important. I could not possibly, even upon making an effort, be less interested; also, the stupid and incredible (in the original sense) stuff about the kid thinking those thoughts while a girl is beating his head against the desk just finished off my willingness to go any further into the story I already didn't like.

From the publisher's puffery above, I'd be in a suin' mood if I was Elmore Leonard, Harper Lee, or Flannery O'Connor's executor. This ramshackle bloviation is nowhere in the same territory those monadnocks occupy.

Plus I do not ever wish to read the word "nigger" again. I was raised by a mama who smacked me when I said it as a four-year-old. "Daddy says it!" I protested. "If you can't learn to be better than your daddy, you won't be much in this life."

Maybe I'm not much in this life. But I don't use that word or its horrible ilk. And I don't hang with people who do, even in books.

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WHISPERS IN DUST AND BONE
Andrew Geyer

Texas Tech University Press
out of print; various prices

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Diverse in setting and broad in range, these award-winning stories all turn, in some way, on the passing of the rural Southwest Texas way of life and its stamp on those who leave there. Ranging from bare-bones narratives to magical realism and ever lush in regional particulars, the stories all center on a sense of place. Sharing a point of origin and a journey, their characters weave in and out of the stories, looking for new starts-for answers-and seeing the world through dry eyes. They explore exotic Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, and a dig site in Peru and make a voyage of discovery down the Amazon River. They lose faith in God and find it again in such unlikely places as a water lot in South Carolina. The displaced protagonists all search for something elusive, something lost, yet in Geyer's hands are yoked by a tension that is somehow always new and always compelling.

Famous blurbers: Andrew Geyer's earthy, edgy, colorful stories range from Texas to Peru, reflecting life's frustrations and occasional small triumphs.—Elmer Kelton
The contents...reads like the track listing of some Marty Robbins album-dusty and elegiac, but with that ten-dollar smile, that flash of white teeth under a hat brim. Even when the stories take you to South Carolina, or South America, still, it's Texas. The real one.—Stephen Graham Jones
The most important work of fiction to come out of the Southwest since Woman Hollering Creek.—Michael Hathaway

My Review: I am a native Californian. Lived there for a whopping six years, then made visits because my divorced parents couldn't bear to be in the same state. (Not that I think they were wrong...two people that negative and vicious in one state is too many.) I was yanked away from the world I knew to start life anew in Mercedes, a horrible little burg in farthest-possible South Texas...which, in the mid-Sixties, was an unbelievably stark contrast to wealthy urban/suburban Northern California: POOR PEOPLE! MEXICAN PEOPLE (Matamoros, Mexico is closer to Mercedes, Texas than is San Antonio or Laredo)! SPANISH!! EEEEEEEEK! Oh, and heat. Lots and lots of heat.

And ya know what? I hated the heat. I hated my mother, and sister. But I didn't hate horrible, podunk Mercedes near as much as I hated, and still hate, plush piss-elegant pointless Los Gatos, California. I liked the Mexican migrant kids, I LOVED barbacoa and breakfast tacos and quesadillas and refritos and enchiladas (to my mother's enduring horror). I liked Spanish...and for the first time in my life, I felt like there was something to this idea people called “home.” Cali? Never did fit. Haven't been there in 20 years, and am not at all sure I'll ever go back.

Fast forward from 1966 to 2004. I'm living in Austin at that time, my mother having died and left me her house there. I found this collection of sixteen stories, published by Texas Tech University Press, at BookPeople (Austin's excellent unchain book heaven), on a shelf marked “Staff Recommendations.” Since money wasn't a problem for me then, I bought it on a whim...what a whim.

Peru! The Amazon! Ranch country in South Texas! Powpowpow the book-bullets hit me, spun me, felt like fire as they got in under my skin and made me smell smells I'd forgotten I knew (caliche roads, anyone?) and think about the life I almost led in places I'd been and left behind.

But, and I know this is such a boring cliché to hear again and again, but it's the characters and their voices that pinned me to my chair and kept the pages turning. Andrew Geyer made, in this collection, a believer out of me, and I'll read all his books one day before I die. Every one of the stories has someone in it that I knew, or know, or am related to. I recognize them, their concerns, their attitudes and prejudices. I don't always like them, but I know them, somewhere in the calcium in my bones I know them and their life and their deep fear of change. Change, in this world, is Never Good. Here, from my very favorite story, “Trust Jesus,” is a succinct statement of why:

At 6:15 she was standing on her front porch watering gardenias and watching another line of thunderstorms split and go around her. The same thing happened almost every day. Some days they came so close all she could smell was the rain. The wind whipped up dust from the fields until it drove like buckshot into the shuddering mesquites, and Clara Nell started to pray. 'Jesus,' she whispered. 'Jesus, Jesus....' But the only thing that came out of the sky was her topsoil. Every day the wind took a little more, and it hadn't rained in almost a year.--p27, hardcover edition

As soon as the pattern of things changes, the certainties shift, the roots of survival are attacked. I forget this. I can't keep it in the forefront of my mind because I'm not this kind of person at heart, I'm a change-loving city-dweller by nature and design. Conservatism, which I regard as a character flaw to be rooted out and extinguished by all right-thinking people, has its roots here in this South Texas archetype tough ranch woman.

Andrew Geyer reminds me, in these stories, that nothing comes from nowhere...that people think and feel and believe what they do for reasons that make sense to them. That, in spite of my judgments, the world will always have these folks in it, and best to adjust to that immutable law of human nature.

This is why I read. To remind myself not to disappear up my own ass. People are different, not (only) wrongheaded. I hate being made to think, don't you?

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

FIGHT SONG
Joshua Mohr

Soft Skull Press
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: When his bicycle is intentionally run off the road by a neighbor's SUV, something snaps in Bob Coffen. Modern suburban life has been getting him down and this is the last straw. To avoid following in his own father’s missteps, Bob is suddenly desperate to reconnect with his wife and his distant, distracted children. And he's looking for any guidance he can get.

Bob Coffen soon learns that the wisest words come from the most unexpected places, from characters that are always more than what they appear to be: a magician/marriage counselor, a fast-food drive-thru attendant/phone-sex operator, and a janitor/guitarist of a French KISS cover band. Can these disparate voices inspire Bob to fight for his family? To fight for his place in the world?

A call-to-arms for those who have ever felt beaten down by life, Fight Song is a quest for happiness in a world in which we are increasingly losing control. It is the exciting new novel by one of the most surprising and original writers of his generation.

My Review: Have you ever wondered what would've happened if Updike and Cheever had mated while watching a Rock-and-Doris comedy on an acid trip, produced a son, and infused him with García Márquez's sense of the absurd? No? Don't bother, his name's Joshua Mohr and he'll table-dance for you at the bargain price of $16 (less if you don't mind doing business with soulless dream-killing conglomerates).

I hated Rabbit Angstrom because I felt too close to being him. I envied Falconer because I wanted to be more like him. Bob Coffen, in this book? I'd've pantsed him at every opportunity. Treated him as his noxiously virile, annoyingly macho neighbor Schumann treats him. Can't help it, doughy indeterminate blobs make me itchy under the balls and I need to victimize them. I'm a guy, sue me.

So why would I read a book told from his PoV, and give it more than a single grudging star? Well, back up there at the top of my review, I mentioned García Márquez. There's magic in here that I can't resist, there's an absurd brio to Bob's cluelessness and amorphousness, that calls to a corner of my sense of humor. It's the same corner where my ill-tempered glee at the plights of the characters in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie lives. In fact, this is much like a Buñuel script made for HBO. Softer edges, more marshmallowy feel-goodness, but just as many quirked eyebrows and cut eyes. Bjorn the illusionist/marriage counselor is proof enough of that, but add in Bjorn's penchant for, well, punitive mesmerism (poor Schumann!) and his multiply unfaithful pansexual wife....

Okay, all that sounds like a rave. Why not four stars? Because I detest Bob's bologna-on-Wonder-bread acceptance of his grim ball-busting wife's Rightness and her power to determine what it is he should be. I am no supporter of heterosexual marriage, not a shock to regular readers. It's a giant mistake to pin your hopes for happiness on a being of a different species from your own. But to supinely accept her authority, as he does from beginning to end, goes against every single fiber in my being, whether in fiction or in fact. There goes a half-star. Another half-star for the workplace scenes, which I found tedious in the extreme and so far as I could tell made no difference to the plot. The last quarter comes off because the ending, while amusing, while magical, did nothing to resolve the basic conflict of Bob versus "Robert," the created, foisted-on-him identities from work or wife.

Those are my issues, then, one strictly personal and two rooted in the author's choices within the text. But on balance, unless there is some gigantic rock of resistance in you to the underdog-finds-happiness story, this telling of it will repay your eyeblinks.

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

2 comments:

  1. It is a tad ridiculous that you cannot read a book with the word "nigger" in it. Good luck with Flannery O'Connor...

    ReplyDelete

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