Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Old Man and the Sea

The Old Man and the SeaThe Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After eighty-five fishless days, Santiago hooks more than he bargained for. Can he battle everything the sea throws at him to land his prize?

In the interest of reading a wider variety of things, I snapped this up like an eighteen-foot marlin bites a baited hook. It was definitely worth a read.

The Old Man and the Sea is the tale of an Old Man. And a Sea. It's man vs. nature at its finest. Hemingway's language is spare but very powerful. I felt every wound and heartbreak along with Santiago and was nearly as worn out as the old fisherman by the end of the tale.

If you haven't already had the ending spoiled for you, do yourself a favor and steer clear of introductions, reviews, and Wikipedia summaries. I knew the ending before I got there due to reading an excerpt in middle school and the experience would have been much better going in cold.

What else is there to say? It didn't win a Nobel Prize for Literature for nothing! For years, the only Hemingway I'd read was The Sun Also Rises and I wasn't overly fond of it. However, The Old Man and the Sea has made me a believer. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, June 29, 2015

Hoke Moseley Has a Mid--Life Crisis

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is the third book in Charles Willeford's excellent series featuring Miami homicide detective Hoke Moseley. As the book opens, Hoke, although still only in his forties, wakes up to a full-blown mid-life crisis. He's completely unable to function irrespective of his responsibilities to his two teenage daughters who live with him, to his department, and to his partner, Ellita Sanchez, who is eight months pregnant (not by Hoke) and who also lives in Hoke's home.

Unable to cope, Hoke takes a leave of absence from his job and retreats to Singer Island, where his wealthy father lives. He takes a job running a small apartment building for his father and vows that he will never leave the island again.

In the meantime, Stanley Sinkiewicz, an elderly retiree who has moved to Florida from Detroit has a brush with the law and, although he is completely innocent, he is briefly forced to share a jail cell with a man claiming to be Robert Smith.

"Smith" is really a psychopathic career criminal named Troy Louden. He has a gift for reading people and immediately pegs Stanley for the sad, lonely man he is at heart. Louden befriends Stanley, schooling him in the way to best deal with the authorities, and before long, Stanley is convinced that Troy is his new best friend.

Louden is desperately hoping to have the charges against him dropped before a fingerprint check is returned and the police discover his real identity. To this end, he asks Stanley to do him a "small favor" once he is released, and, totally won over by his new buddy, the old man agrees. The ploy works and Louden, now free, enlists Stanley to help him pull off a big job he is planning.

Meanwhile, Hoke Mosley is discovering that it's a lot harder to simplify his life than he had hoped. His father is determined to help him get a new job with the local police force, although Hoke has absolutely no interest in the job. His younger daughter joins him on the island further complicating matters, and the tenants in the apartment house generally prove to be a major pain in the butt.

The Mosley story and the Stanley/Louden story proceed along parallel tracks and for a while the reader is left to wonder how Willeford is ever going to link them up. But it really doesn't matter because both stories are very entertaining.

Willeford has populated this book with a number of unique and very interesting characters and between the lines, he has a great deal to say about the nature of family and about the workings of the capitalist system in the United States. All in all, it's a very entertaining book that should appeal to large numbers of readers.

Morrison Waxing Faulkner-esque

A MercyA Mercy by Toni Morrison
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Toni, Toni, Toni...it feels good to know you again.

A Mercy is a gorgeous narrative of a dark time that flitters from person to person: child, slave, sympathetic Dutch businessman, mother. Betrayal is ever present, even seemingly from mother to child.

The setting and subject is slavery in 17th century America, specifically Catholic Maryland. These are early days in the New World. Superstition was rife. Black magic and the devil were palpably real.

With a bevy of glimpses Morrison displays most of the facets of slavery in this period, in this place. She does not forget that it was black Africans who kidnapped and sold black Africans to white Europeans, who sold them into slavery. She did not forget that white slavery existed in this time. She wrote about a people's strife without bended knee and bleeding heart, and yet your heart will bleed.

Admittedly, I was turned off within the first few pages, because of the gypsy narration. I like permanence in my storytelling voice and this was very reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and The Fury with its variant and confusing p.o.v.s and its scene setting via murky imagery. But I stuck with it, soon was enjoying A Mercy and in the end, came to love it.

The writing is so strong, emotive and filled with vivid imagery. It is the kind of writing that inspires writers in their craft.

This was a revisit to an old acquaintance for me. Not since college have I read a Toni Morrison novel. I loved it then, so why the delay? Why do we do that? When you only have one life - a single existence which could be snuffed out in an instance - why neglect the good things in life? Cherish what you have. It may be taken from you. Though we can only hope fate will be merciful.

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Man Vs Women

LoveLove by Toni Morrison
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Women clawing at and after the same man is a horrific thing to see, but hella fun to read!

Maybe "fun" isn't the perfect word to describe Toni Morrison's Love.* This is Faulknerian, not only in its language and flow, but its molasses-thick-and-dark emotional resonance. Love is like seeing a feminine take on Absalom! Absalom!: a beautifully shadowy Southern power; a corrupting energy that devours good souls.

An aloof man of substantial means in a Floridian coastal town of decades past is the sun around which competing planets revolve. These planets are women of various backgrounds all with some claim upon the man's radiant energy. Their world turns toxic as the reader witnesses the evils of too much radiation. These off-tilt and colliding friends are ripped apart, scorched whenever they come in contact with their beloved sun.

Morrison is a master at her craft, an absolute pleasure to read for those who can stomach a non-linear storytelling style. She will come at her topic at multiple angles. You must put the pieces together. Never fear, by the end this amoebic puzzle will come together in a portrait that is gorgeous, enlightening and heartbreaking. Love is life confirming, even if life can feel like one long, extended death.

* Perhaps it's not a good way to describe ANY of her books! I could be wrong, I haven't read them all, but jeez louise the woman writes some deep, depressing stuff!

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Songs of Innocence

Richard Aleas
Hard Case Crime
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Little Girl ... Found. — Three years ago, detective John Blake solved a mystery that changed his life forever -- and left a woman he loved dead. Now Blake is back, to investigate the apparent suicide of Dorothy Louise Burke, a beautiful college student with a double life. The secrets Blake uncovers could blow the lid off New York City’s sex trade ... if they don’t kill him first.

Richard Aleas' first novel, Little Girl Lost, was among the most celebrated crime novels of the year, receiving nominations for both the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Shamus Award. But nothing in John Blake’s first case could prepare you for the shocking conclusion of his second ...

My Review

I loved getting to know detective John Blake in Little Girl Lost. In crime-ridden New York with lots of people leading double lives, John maintains his innocence and is deeply affected by what he uncovers in his quest for justice.

Three years later, John’ s life is changed. He has abandoned private investigative work and decides to complete his education, so he accepts a job as an administrative assistant for the university’s writing program.

Once again, John becomes involved with a troubled and hurt young woman and once again he sets out to determine the cause of her death, this time an apparent suicide. John, however, believes foul play was involved and once he digs deeper, he learns of Dorrie’s job as a sex worker and uncovers some hard and ugly truths, about others and himself.

This is a mind-blowing and powerful novel with strong, well-developed characters. It gripped me right from the start, and left me breathless until its grim and devastating conclusion.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Full Dark, No Stars

Full Dark, No StarsFull Dark, No Stars by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

1922: A man coerces his son into helping him murder his wife. Can they keep their sanity in the aftermath?

1922 is a latter day retelling of A Telltale Heart, only with rats and a Bonnie and Clyde side-story. It's also damn good and a prime example of what Stephen King can do when he has a limited number of pages to work with instead of the entire paper output of a redwood forest.

Big Driver: After taking a shortcut down an unfamiliar road, a writer is raped and left in a culvert to die but her attacker made a mistake. He let her live...

Wow, this was a powerful, dark, unsettling tale of rape and revenge. Did I mention it was uncomfortable? A woman getting raped is much more horrifying than a nightmare clown lurking in the sewers. I kept having revenge fantasies of my own on behalf of the women in my life while reading this.

Fair Extension: When a mysterious stranger offers Harry Streeter 15-20 more years of life, he jumps at the chance. But with deals of this kind, there's always a catch...

This one kind of reminds me of The Monkey's Paw. For all the good luck the Streeter family has, shit rains down upon the man Streeter hates the most.

A Good Marriage: Darcy Anderson thought she had a good marriage until she found something her husband hid in their garage...

The point this story drives home is how little anyone really knows anyone else. Chilling and very effective.

Full Dark, No Stars isn't my favorite King book but it's chock full of Kingliness and is an excellent example of what sai King can do when he isn't allowed to write phonebook sized tomes. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, June 22, 2015

A Great Debut Novel from Christine Carbo

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

The Wild Inside is an excellent debut novel with a unique and very sympathetic protagonist.

As a fourteen-year-old boy in the Fall of 1987, Ted Systead went camping with his father in Glacier National Park in northwestern Montana. While the two of them slept that night, a large grizzly bear attacked their tent, dragged Systead’s father away and mauled him to death. Fortunately, the bear did not return to attack Ted, but the boy, though physically safe, was very badly traumatized by the episode.

Twenty years later, Ted Systead is still haunted by the events of that night. He now lives in Denver and works as a Special Agent for the Department of the Interior, investigating crimes that occur in the national park system. But when he’s assigned to lead a death investigation in Glacier National Park, he’s forced to confront not only a complex criminal case, but the personal demons he still harbors inside as well.

The victim of the crime is a low-life meth addict named Victor Lance. Lance was found duct-taped to a tree in the park and shot. While he was still alive and unable to defend himself, a grizzly bear found him and finished off the job that the killer had left undone.

The fact that the death was so horrific, that it occurred in Glacier, and that a grizzly was involved, all hit a bit too close to home for Systead, and at times seem to compromise his ability to function effectively. He’s also hampered by a lack of evidence, by uncooperative witnesses, and by a park supervisor who’s more concerned about avoiding bad publicity than he is in assisting the investigation. But Systead forges ahead, determined to see justice done, no matter the personal and other obstacles that confront him.

Carbo, who lives in Whitefish, Montana, obviously knows the park, the surrounding area and the people of the region very well. She’s at her best in describing the great scenic beauty of the park as well as the small and sometimes not-so-scenic communities that surround it. Many of the people of the area are loners, suspicious of outsiders, and are especially wary of federal authorities. Sad to say, there is an ongoing problem with meth and other drugs in northwestern Montana, and Carbo doesn’t shy away from showing us the toll that drug abuse is taking on these people and their communities. The end result is a gripping story that explores both the wilderness of the natural world and that of the human psyche. Readers will finish the book looking forward eagerly to Carbo’s next effort.

Not A Manly Lion

A Lion Among Men (The Wicked Years, #3)A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! Yes, A Lion Among Men has them all!

This is the Cowardly Lion's story in a nutshell...and a few other nuts are de-shelled as well. Watching cowards in action is hard to stomach. We forever wish them to be brave, to show some sign of courage. But that is not the Lion's way. Following him on his cowardly journey through life is taxing.

On the other hand, if you're a superfan of Oz - the sort who's at least read the Baum originals if not all of the myriad fanfic out there - Maguire's re-imaginings of the Land of Oz can be enthralling. He gives one-dimensional characters two and even three dimensions. He turns the map of Oz into a living geography. It's interesting to see what he's done with the place!

If you're not hep to Maguire's take on Oz, here's a word of warning: He has a somewhat comic approach and his material is occasionally blue. It's not all potty talk, but expect a fuck or shit now and then, along with the occasional mention of sex in it's many forms. His infusion of reality into a fantasy world matures the source material. Sometimes it works, sometimes it misses the mark. It's not always easy to go from serious to ridiculous and back again.

If A Lion Among Men is said to miss its mark - as many critics complain - it's due to a lack of a truly engaging story. Again, I point to the coward issue. Sure, one can sympathize with the Lion and his unfortunate courage-sapping beginnings, but sympathy runs out eventually upon seeing someone constantly fleeing and abandoning obligations and friends.

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Friday, June 19, 2015

For the May Queen

Kate Evans
Coyote Creek Press
5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nancy


It’s 1981 and 17-year-old Norma Rogers’ parents drop her off at the college dorms. Soon, Norma finds herself drunk and nearly naked with three strangers. The strip poker event is the first of many experiences that prompt Norma to question who she is and who she wants to be. Norma’s relationships with an array of characters induce her to grapple with society’s messages about women, sex, and freedom. Many tumultuous events take Norma through an array of troubles, pleasures, and thrills: from drug use and ominous encounters with strangers, to rowdy parties and road trips, to queer coming-out surprises. In the midst of these incidents, Norma reflects on her desire for freedom, (sexual and otherwise). Ultimately Norma comes to see that there are many ways to live and love.

My Review

It is 1981. Norma Rogers is 18 years old, a college student, and on her own for the first time in her life. As someone who was only a year older than Norma in 1981, I can relate to having too much freedom, too many choices, and not enough guidance. “If it feels good, do it” was definitely the motto of life in the 80’s. Or at least it was for many young people at that time.

Right from the beginning, I was drawn into Norma’s life – the parties, the friendships, the joy, the struggles, and the sadness. Kate Evans has created a cast of unique and vividly portrayed characters that are so easy to connect with emotionally. Each character, from her distant boyfriend, Jack, to her dorm neighbors Goat, Liz, Benny and Chuck, her roommate, Stacy, and her parents and sister, had a significant impact on her life while she was in college and in the years after.

I loved every moment with Norma, her friends and her family. They allowed me to relive the pain and pleasure of my own youth, difficulty with parents, old friendships, ex-lovers, the hangovers, the highs, wanting to fit in, needing to be loved. I enjoyed the 80’s cultural references, the snappy dialog, the twists and the surprises.

A wonderful story!

Thursday, June 18, 2015


Reagan: The LifeReagan: The Life by H.W. Brands
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Reagan was called ‘the great communicator’ with reason, He was the most persuasive political speaker since Roosevelt, combining conviction, focus, and humor in the manner none of his contemporaries could approach. Reagan’s critics often dismissed the role of conviction in his persuasiveness; they attributed his speaking skill to his training as an actor. But this was exactly wrong. Reagan wasn’t acting when he spoke; his rhetorical power rested on his wholehearted belief in all the wonderful things he said about the United States and the American people, about their brave past and their brilliant future. He believed what Americans have always wanted to believe about their country, and he made them believe it too.”

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How can you not like Ronald Reagan? People disagree with him. People hate his politics. People (me) even believe he broke the law, but at the end of the day he really believed in America, and he revived some faith in the office of President...well…for a while. The Republican party has been searching for the next Reagan ever since he left office in 1988.

They have not succeeded.

”Pessimism pervades the thinking of conservatives, who tend to believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket. They might be right, but they aren’t fun to be around. Barry Goldwater appealed to people’s heads, but he left their hearts cold. Reagan was as conservative philosophically as Goldwater, but his sunny mien made Americans feel good about themselves and their country and made him irresistible at the polls.”

Unfortunately, in recent presidential elections the race has become a popularity contest. When the press is asking potential voters which candidate they would rather have a beer with, I can’t help but think that the press is actually encouraging people to assess candidates by the most shallow considerations. I had someone who worked for me who said he voted for George W. Bush because “he was a dummy like me.” Another person said that she was not going to vote for John Kerry because “his face is TOO long.” Candidates with extensive voting records, like Kerry, are finding it hard to win the presidency due to (obviously having too long a face) their voting records deconstructed by their adversaries who can always find pork in any bill and make a case for irresponsibility. Candidates with shorter times in office, and thus fewer opportunities to go on the record, fare better, like Barack Obama.

So if the trend is for less qualified candidates who have a nice smile or who have a special talent for composing quips or are a great speaker or just look damn good on camera, then the candidates most qualified generally don’t have much of a chance. If we accept that this is the future of the presidency, then we need to make damn sure that those candidates surround themselves with the very best counselors/advisors available. Second term presidents suffer more for many reasons, but one reason is the very best of the staff that they had for their first term generally move on because of burnout and/or a need to go back to the private sector to restart their careers.

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Reagan had a good working relationship with all the world leaders. As you can see they formed their own superteam. Pope John Paul, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan.

Jack Matlock was appalled at how little Reagan knew about the Soviet Union despite the fact that he railed against “the evil empire” every chance he got. ”Dealing as he did with Reagan every day, he was struck by the president’s spotty command of historical facts. Reagan had had very few contacts with Soviet officials and still tended to base many of his judgments more on generalities, even slogans, than on a nuanced understanding of Soviet reality.”

Reagan, fortunately, proved a quick study and was truly interested in the information, not enough to have ever picked up a book, but with these professionals tutoring him he was able to learn his lines.

His summit meetings with Mikhail Gorbachev regarding the reduction of the nuclear arsenals of both countries was frustrating to read. Gorbachev might be the most progressive leader ever seen to rise to power in Russia or the Soviet Union. He was convinced that changes needed to happen, and his first order of business was to end the cold war before it broke his country. His predecessors Chemenko, Andropov, and Brezhnev, who all died shortly after getting into office, would have never considered making the broad stroke changes that Gorbachev was proposing.

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Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev

Gorbachev wanted Reagan to keep his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), so famously called Star Wars, in the lab for ten years, but Reagan refused, even though the experts felt they were longer than ten years away from trying to deploy any part of it in space anyway. The two leaders walked away without a deal. It was a real missed opportunity.

Gorbachev ended the Cold War, not Ronald Reagan.

Reagan’s famous speech about tearing down the wall in Berlin actually created a problem for Gorbachev who had already planned to bring the wall down, but that speech made it seem as if he was tearing the wall down because the United States demanded it. Reagan’s timing may not have been good for Gorbachev, but it was an excellent opportunity to add to the myth of Ronald Reagan.

Reading this book brought me a much better understanding of Nancy Reagan, maybe even giving me a slightly more positive view of her. Every day of her life was devoted to her husband. She would do anything to make sure he was successful. This at times made her very vindictive. It also spun her in occult directions, like consulting an astrologer about Reagan’s travel schedule. She didn’t run Reagan, but she ran everything in his life that he didn’t care about. She had a very good reason, as it turns out, to be paranoid about his safety even before John Hinkley Jr. tried to assassinate her husband.

”Nancy knew of the fatal pattern that had long afflicted presidents elected in years divisible by twenty. Since 1840 every chief executive so elected had died in office: William Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, Franklin Roosevelt, Kennedy.”

Anybody else getting goose pimples.

I was hoping when I decided to read this book that H. W. Brands would be discussing the Iran-Contra Affair in detail. Maybe he didn’t go as deep into details as I was hoping for, but he did provide me with confirmation that Reagan did know. I can remember watching Colonel Oliver North in front of congress. I even rooted for him, admiring this one man who had been selected as the fall guy, standing up to the significant power of congress. He wasn’t the master mind. He was a soldier following orders. Reagan wrote in his diary:

”On one of the arms shipments the Iranians paid Israel a higher purchase price than we were getting. The Israelis put the difference in a secret bank account. Then our Col. North gave the money to the Contras.”

I do not recall

became the constant refrain to any of the questions asked of those in the administration called to testify. Even Reagan was deposed after he left office, and it is painful to watch. He is addled and fumbling for words, really a shell of the man who was once “the great communicator.” The Iran-Contra affair plunged his poll numbers to an all time low for him. His number never really recovered until many years later when people remembered how good he made them feel about being Americans more than they remembered the times he had stumbled.

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The Villain Who Deceived or Hero Who Obeyed?

I loved the way H. W. Brands talked about the fickleness of politics. The points in an administration when one thing going right or one thing going wrong can make a huge difference. Jimmy Carter was a perfect example of a president who couldn’t catch a break. ”Paul Volcker was Jimmy Carter’s gift to Reagan; it was Volcker who squeezed the inflationary expectations out of the economy and put it on the path to solid growth. And he did so at just the right time for Reagan. If Volcker had taken charge of the fed two years earlier, the economy might have improved sufficiently that Carter and not Reagan would have been elected in 1980. If Volcker had arrived two years later, the recession that routed the Republicans in the 1982 elections could have swept Reagan from office in 1984.”

Reagan gave people a cozy, dependable feel. He was the model for the perfect grandfather that everyone knows they can go to for comfort and encouragement. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was a master at putting everyone at ease. No one who worked with him wanted to disappoint him. Though our oldest president in age, he brought an energy and a sense of infinite possibility to every speech he gave. Thinking of the speech he gave after the Challenger incident reminds me that he was also capable of expressing tenderness in a way that made all of us feel he was grieving with us. The fact that he was an actor did not contribute to his success as president as much as I believe the time he spent as a sports radio announcer. He had to think on his feet and developed a real sense of how best to keep people entertained while sitting behind that microphone.

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Reagan behind the microphone

If he is the model for future presidents, then the role of president will have to change. In some ways maybe it already has. Reagan was not cerebral, but he had the same ability as his hero Franklin Roosevelt to communicate through more than just words, through inflections and pauses to convey a sense of well being in the face of calamity. Going forward I can see the people that a president surrounds himself will be ever more important. Scary to think of all those non-elected officials determining the course of our lives, but if we aren’t going to elect the most qualified to the highest office, then we will have to hope that the best and the brightest will continue to volunteer for public service.

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