Friday, July 25, 2014

One Last Lie

Rob Kaufman
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars


Her name is Angela – beautiful and charismatic, she’s every man’s dream and every woman’s envy. But she wasn’t always like this and the secrets of her scarred past cling to her like a poisonous leech. Her beguilement has become the perfect disguise, hiding her silent rage and compulsive determination to get whatever she wants no matter who gets hurt, or killed, along the way.

And now she’s about to wreak havoc in the lives of her old college friend Philip and his life partner Jonathan, a loving couple whose most fervent dream of having a child has consistently eluded them. With a masterful performance, she convinces them that she’s not the person she once was and the three should have a child together through artificial insemination.

The agreement is made and from that moment on, Philip and Jonathan’s idyllic life begins to unravel. Like Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) in Fatal Attraction and Catherine Trammel (Sharon Stone) in Basic Instinct, Angela’s mask of deceit gradually disintegrates as her psychological demons claw to the surface, leaving Philip and Jonathan regretting the day they ever allowed her into their lives.

Filled with psychological suspense and pervasive foreboding, this page-turning thriller brings readers on a relentless rollercoaster ride, evoking emotional upheaval that remains long after this novel’s final word. Told from an elderly Jonathan’s hospital bed, the story quickly unfolds into a tale of legal, medical and psychological twists that turn into heartbreak, deception and ultimately murder.

One Last Lie is a timely and tension-filled novel with an ending that shocks even the most observant of readers.

My Review

Shortly after my 23rd birthday, a gay male friend asked me to marry him. We worked closely together for two years, our cubes separated by one flimsy wall. Our friendship started tentatively, gradually progressing from occasional lunches to spending quite a bit of time together outside of work. I learned he was deeply closeted and only out to me and one other gay man at work. Not even his parents knew. I also learned that despite being gay, his politics were very conservative. A few times he asked me to attend various Republican events with him as he was eventually planning to run for local office and didn’t want to be seen without a companion. So I put on my nice dress, smiled and shook hands, and tried to be a supportive friend.

Right after one of those events, he popped the question. I thought he was joking, but the intense gaze and firm set of his jaw said otherwise. I dared not laugh or tell him no, and instead asked for a few days to think about it. After thinking about it, getting married didn’t sound like such a bad idea. My friend made decent money and lived in a small house in a good neighborhood. I lived in a dumpy third-floor apartment in a bad neighborhood and my car was always in the repair shop. If we lived together, my quality of life would improve dramatically. The only thing required of me would be to attend more of those foolish Republican events and occasionally entertain other fledgling politicians. Of course, we could both date whomever we wanted, as long as we didn’t bring them home. He also promised that I could bank my salary since his was sufficient to take care of our necessities.

Lavender marriages have happened all throughout history. Could we make it work and live our independent lives? We were good friends, despite our political differences. What could possibly go wrong?

After thinking about it, I decided against marriage. Friends are not always forever. Over time, people’s needs and desires change. Good intentions could go horribly wrong. Promises are made that could easily be broken. Suddenly, that good friend becomes an enemy.

Reading One Last Lie reminds me that there are certain things you should never do with a close friend. Getting married is one. Having a baby is another.

If only Phil had listened to Jonathan…

I loved the chapters with old Jonathan. The decline of his advancing age, his lack of control and independence, and the sorrow permeating his entire being were heartrendingly authentic and his tale told masterfully.

“The old man was dying, and the worst part was, he knew it.
He could feel it in his brittle bones, popping and cracking with every move. He tasted it in his mouth – the bitter phlegm sitting on his tongue. He could even see it through the viscous film caught between his quivering eyelids.
But the telltale sign of approaching death was the feeling of surrender that had crept into his aching body – complete resignation to his current existence and to the life he’d led. The fight was just about gone.”

Flashback to when Jonathan and Phil were younger and ready to start a family. When Phil’s bout with testicular cancer and subsequent radiation treatments rendered him sterile, they looked to Phil’s old friend Angie who drops in their lives out of the blue after 15 years. Angie has successfully battled obesity, but her depression, rage and unpredictable moods are troublesome to everyone she comes in contact with.

It seems Jonathan has some problems of his own, an “irritated state of being”, according to his therapist. Things like a messy kitchen or nagging doubts and suspicion about Phil’s old friend disturb Jonathan’s neurotic sense of order.

Then there was Angie’s boyfriend, who also had trouble controlling his temper even with Zoloft and Clozapine.

My feelings about this story were all over the place. I couldn’t wait to get back to the old Jonathan, to feel his pain and share his grief. I was so close to having a good cry, when there were more flashbacks and eye-rolling moments with an over-the-top villainess, an idiot of a boyfriend who failed to see the most obvious warning signs, who dismissed Jonathan’s legitimate fears and concerns, and who disregarded the seriousness of mental illness by making ignorant and misogynistic comments like, “…first of all, she’s pregnant. We already know women are crazy before they get pregnant, and now the hormones are going haywire."

I liked the pace of the story, but found the clues heavy-handed, making the story very predictable. It would have been a lot better had the serious issues been explored more sensitively and the secondary characters were not so one-dimensional.

This is Rob Kaufman’s second novel, and he promises “this is only the beginning”. He is an extremely talented writer adept at twisty, psychological suspense. I know his next book will be even better and I’m looking forward to it.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

That Which Does Not Break Us

The Wake of Forgiveness
by Bruce Machart
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Reviewed by Amanda
4 Out of 5 Stars

This was an impulse buy at Barnes and Noble. I ignored the book at first in favor of looking at the books around it, but then I caught the words “Tim O’Brien” during a cursory glance at a book blurb on the cover. One of my rules in life is to pick up anything with Tim O’Brien’s name on it and buy it immediately, no questions asked. To date, this rule has served me well and The Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart is no exception.

Set in Texas at the dawn of the 20th century, the novel focuses on the Skala family, which consists of an immigrant father and his four motherless sons. Vaclav’s wife, Klara, dies while giving birth to their fourth son, Karel, and the book focuses on the physical and emotional marks these men carry as a result of her death. Despite her early death, the shadow of Klara haunts every page. In a cruel and unforgiving landscape, Klara would have served as the buffer between the physical and emotional demands of pioneer life, between the immigrant and his new homeland, between father and son, and between the sons themselves. Without her, these men throw themselves against each other, against the landscape, and against life itself with a brutal tenacity that can only be born of intense pain and loss.

After the loss of his wife, Vaclav Skala, an ascetic man by nature, becomes even harder and more unforgiving in his dealings with the world. To spare his fine racing horses the detrimental effects of fieldwork, he instead hitches his four sons to the plow. Their time in the harness has left the boys with a peculiar deformity: they all have twisted necks that symbolize their skewed view of the world inflicted upon them by their father. Of all the boys, none are as warped as Karel. Having never known his mother and carrying the burden of guilt for her death, Karel is nonetheless Vaclav’s pride as Karel is a gifted horseback rider whose skills have won his father many a high-stakes gamble. As the novel goes on, the narrative moves back and forth between the story of Karel as a young boy and Karel as a grown man, now alienated from his brothers. The circumstances leading to the severing of the connection with his siblings are revealed as the book goes on and heighten the suspense as the novel moves toward its satisfying resolution.

Machart has created a tragedy that is epic in scope and is often reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s best work (in particular, All the Pretty Horses comes to mind). The language is poetic and so frequently captures the heart of the moment or the quality of the landscape with such a perfect turn of phrase that I often went back and re-read certain lines just to savor them. Another point in Machart’s favor is that his characters are complex and never watered-down; these are hard, often cruel men, but that doesn’t mean they are completely devoid of kindness, poeticism, or intelligence. They are victims of a lifestyle and a landscape that naturally cripples the finest points of humanity to ensure survival in a merciless environment. That any of the characters retain even a shred of their capacity for forgiveness is the ultimate triumph.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Coal Black HorseCoal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”He let float in the dark air his free hand and then raised it up and reached to the sky where his fingers enfolded a flickering red star. The star was warm in his hand and beat with the pulse of a frog or a songbird held in your palm. He caressed the star and let it ride in his palm and then he carried the star to his mouth where it tasted liked sugar before he swallowed it.”

Robey Childs’s mother had a dream that Stonewall Jackson had died. In her mind, if Jackson was dead, then the war was over. It was time for her husband to come home. She decides that the only course of action is for her fourteen year old son to go find his father and bring him back to the farm. It is a herculean task for a grown man, but for a fourteen year old boy it has the makings of a suicide mission. Like Joseph, she makes him a coat of many colors...well...two colors. One side is butternut gray and the other is Union blue. Her intentions were the best and there is a natural logic that she has made her son safer with the ability to blend with one side or the other.

Or they could think he was a spy.

Old Man Morphew runs the local mercantile establishment and when Robey wandered into town barely beginning his quest and already exhausted and hungry he offers him food, advice, a pair of pistols, and most importantly the use of...the Coal Black Horse.

It is the type of horse, standing 16 hands, with a fire in his eye and quivering raw energy that makes a man out of a mouse...if he can stay on him. A horse like that might increase a boy’s chances from none to slim.

Robey has to learn fast and lessons are handed out with hard falls and pride knuckling helplessness. He meets a man dressed as a woman, a preacher with the devil riding both his shoulders, and two scavengers that snip dead soldiers fingers for their rings and pry gold teeth from their mouths. He experiences the kindness of a pregnant woman burying soldiers as best she can, a Union Major who has the wherewithal to understand he isn’t a spy, and most importantly he meets a waif of a girl named Rachel.

Every time he has something go wrong he has just enough go right to keep himself afloat.

He has more than a passing acquaintance with hunger.

”When the coffee was boiled he poured half a cup into the drippings and could not wait, but was so hungry he burned his fingers and mouth. He slid the cake off the hoe into the gravy and ate the slurry with his fingers. He scraped the sides and the rapidly cooling bottom of the pan with the backs of his fingers and licked them clean and wiped at his mouth and then licked the back of his hand and then it was over. He knew enough to know he’d eaten like a ravenous dog and how disapproving his mother would be if she had witnessed such and how nice it would be to someday again not eat like that.”

The war finds him and etches scenes into the fabric of his memories that will scar and harden a young boy into an old man.

”War had even been made upon the cemetery and in places the ground looked as if plowed. The tombstones were broken into fragments and graves had been turned up by plunging shells. The monuments had been toppled to provide cover for a time and so they were pocked and scarred by the scrape of bullets. The bodies slumped behind the stones had absorbed the bullets made of pure, hollow, soft lead, arriving to kill at a thousand yards, fracturing and shattering bones, blasting tissue, and causing large gaping wounds that draped like cut mouths in the sun.”

Violence is a live thing like a virus that infects all who come near it. It leaves maggots in the hearts of the pure, crushes the weak, and makes the strong feeble.

”How to explain the way violence needs violence? Is that the explanation itself? Violence demands violence. This was not the pagan retribution: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. This was the law before there was law. This was vengeance and a rebellion to law. How to explain the failure to understand this and the failure to not understand there are things that cannot be understood?”

He does find his father.

”Their lives were in balance and asking and considering this question they were stepping back from fear and hopelessness and emerging into prospect. They were a teaching father and a learning son, timeless in their existence, the father born into the son as is the grandfather and the father before him and all the way back to the first. The father’s life is foreclosed and the son’s life is continuing and as always, only the unknown privileging one state of being over the other.”

I read somewhere a long time ago that there are theories that all the experiences of all our ancestors are coded into our DNA. We carry not only their genes, but their lives in our bodies. When we reproduce we are not only preserving our own existence, but the existence of all our ancestors going back to the very beginning.

I believe this to be true.

This is a story of courage, of a boy who goes on a quest not because he wants to or that he expects to find glory or fame, but because his mamma asks him to. When we weigh and measure Robey, stacking up his assets and his deficits, he comes up short of even that $4.50 that supposedly the elements of the human bodies are worth. His character, though, is worth a million dollars and change. I’d ride the river with him whenever he needed me. Highly Recommended!!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Born in the U.S.S.R.

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I. Loved. This. Book.

I loved this book so much that I finished it more than a week ago and I am still mulling it over. How can I write a review of a memoir so funny and brilliant and insightful and emotional and just plain good? My review will never be able to explain everything I admired in Shteyngart's writing. I used more than 50 Post-it flags to mark great passages. How can I share all of that?

I loved this book so much that I have already begged several friends to read it. I pleaded and cajoled them. I emailed them quotes. I shared anecdotes. I even requested a library copy for one friend, and am sharing my personal copy with another. 

I loved this book so much that I have described it as the first legitimate 5-star book I've read this year. Sure, I've reread a few favorites that I gave five stars, and another one I marked up for personal reasons, but "Little Failure" is genuine. The Real Deal. The kind of book that I consider to be truly great, and one that will still be considered great years from now. 

I loved this book so much that I developed kind of a crush on the author. Poor, sweet little Gary. Gary, whose original name was Igor, was born in Russia and immigrated to America in 1979, the year he turned 7. Igor changed his name to Gary to cut down on beatings from other kids. Poor Gary had tough parents: his dad called him "snotty" because of his asthma and his mother nicknamed him "little failure." Give that boy a hug already!

I loved this book so much that I want to read all of Shteyngart's previous novels. Throughout the memoir, he mentions characters and plots in his stories that were based on his real-life experiences, and I'm excited to see the fictional versions. I also like it when good writers talk about their writing process, and I got to see little Gary grow from being a boy who wrote science fiction stories while his grandmother fed him a piece of cheese for every page he wrote, to a young man whose first novel, "The Russian Debutante's Handbook," so upset a middle-aged relative that he threw it on the floor and spit on it.

I loved this book so much that it me laugh, it made me teary-eyed, and it made me marvel at the beauty of his storytelling. Now I'm going to stop trying to convince you that it's great and just start sharing favorite quotes. In conclusion, GO READ THIS BOOK ALREADY.

"Coming to America after a childhood spent in the Soviet Union is equivalent to stumbling off a monochromatic cliff and landing in a pool of pure Technicolor."

"The first momentous thing that happens to me in Kew Gardens, Queens, is that I fall in love with cereal boxes. We are too poor to afford toys at this point, but we do have to eat. Cereal is food, sort of. It tastes grainy, easy and light, with a hint of false fruitiness. It tastes the way America feels."

"In 1982, I decide that I can no longer be me. The name 'Gary' is a fig leaf, and what I really am is a fucking Red Gerbil, a Commie ... One day after one Commie comment too many, I tell my fellow pupils that I wasn't born in Russia at all. Yes, I just remembered it! It had all been a big misunderstanding! I was actually born in Berlin ... So here I am, trying to convince Jewish children in aHebrew school that I am actually a German. And can't these little bastards see that I love America more than anyone loves America? I am a ten-year-old Republican. I believe that taxes should only be levied on the poor, and the rest of Americans should be left alone. But how do I bridge that gap between being a Russian and being loved? I start to write."

"I write because there is nothing as joyful as writing, even when the writing is twisted and full of hate, the self-hate that makes writing not only possible but necessary. I hate myself, I hate the people around me, but what I crave is the fulfillment of some ideal."

"When I turn fourteen, I lose my Russian accent. I can, in theory, walk up to a girl and the words 'Oh, hi there" would not sound like Okht Hyzer, possibly the name of a Turkish politician. There are three things I want to do in my new incarnation: go to Florida, where I understand that our nation's best and brightest had built themselves a sandy, vice-filled paradise; have a girl tell me that she likes me in some way; and eat all my meals at McDonald's."

"The terrible thing about the major belief systems (Leninism, Christianity) is that too often they are constructed along the premise that a difficult past can be traded in for a better future, that all adversity leads to triumph, either through the installation of telegraph poles (Leninism) or at Jesus' knee after physical death (Christianity). But the past is not simply redeemable for a better future. Every moment I have ever experienced as a child is as important as every moment I am experiencing now, or will experience ever. I guess what I'm saying is that not everybody should have children."

"I think of my mother and father. Of their constant anxiety. But their anxiety means they still want to live. A year shy of forty, I feel my life entering its second half. I feel my life folding up. I sense the start of that great long leave-taking. I think of myself on the subway platform at Union Square. I am invisible, just a short obstacle others have to get around. Sometimes I wonder: Am I already gone? And then I think of my wife and I feel the whoosh of the number 6 train, the presence of others, the life still within me."


SpiderstalkSpiderstalk by D. Nathan Hilliard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When his brother's family vanishes, leaving behind only a frantic phone message and a blurry photo of an immense spider, Adam Sellar hires a private detective to find them. He soon finds himself ensnared in a centuries old web of hate between two secret factions...

The cover and prologue made me think this was going to be a book about dog-sized spiders running people down and devouring them. It didn't turn out to be that kind of book at all but I still enjoyed it.

Spiderstalk is the story of two warring native American tribes, The Dog People and The Spider People, who both derive their power from neurotoxin in a particular species of spider's venom. The Dog People merely use the venom but the Spider People live in symbiosis with the giant spiders. Adam Sellars gets caught in the middle when his family takes a wrong turn and falls victim to one of the spiders.

The book this most reminded me of was The Furies, which I read earlier in 2014, although I liked this approach to the "secret beings fighting a secret war among us" much better.

The worldbuilding was top notch, as were the various factions within the Dog People and the Spider People. For a book that I originally thought was going to be a bunch of people killed by giant spiders, things were very intricately plotted regarding the spiders and the history surrounding them. Carbon nanotubes, bitch! Actually, the reason I thought prevented spiders from becoming super huge monsters, namely their book lungs, wasn't mentioned but I really liked that they had webbing and exoskeletons made of naturally occuring carbon nanotubes.

That being said, I thought some of the characters were a little thing and a lot of thriller cliches were present. There wasn't any gun porn, though, so that was a plus.

Spiderstalk was an entertaining thriller not without a lot of creepy bits. And free on the Kindle as well. If you're into spiders, you'll enjoy it quite a bit. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Dead Skip

Dead SkipDead Skip by Joe Gores
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When repo man Bart Heslip is found in a coma in a wrecked, repossessed Jaguar, his college, former cop Larry Ballard, can't shake the idea that someone staged the accident to cover something up. Armed with only his wits and Heslip's last two days worth of cases, Ballard goes up against a three day deadline to find a would-be killer.

I initially bought this because I knew it was a crossver with Richard Stark's The Plunder Squad. It proved to be a pretty read all on its own.

Dead Skip reads like an episode of The Wire if The Wire was about a bunch of private detectives working for Dan Kearny and Associates, a repo agency. Ballard runs all over San Fransciso and surrounding areas, running down any lead he can find, looking for the man who put Bart Heslip in a coma. Needless to say, it boils down to legwork and talking to people, not booze and broads.

The case was serpentine in its complexity and not easily solveable. The dead leads outnumbered the useful ones by 12 to 1. By the time Ballard finally got on the trail, I was as worn out as he was.

Kearny and Ballard were both fairly well drawn characters for a book of this type from the era when it was written. Kearny doggedly looking for his man reminded me of Matthew Scudder a bit. Kearny could have easily been a world-weary police chief in another life.

The crossover with Parker made me want to reread all the Richard Stark novels. Speaking of Stark, the writing reminded me of Ed McBain collaborating with Richard Stark, despite both of them being pseudonyms and not actual people.

Dead Skip was a fun read and not just because of the Parker crossover. I'll be looking for the subsequent DKA books. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, July 21, 2014

Hector Diaz Investigates a Death in Mexico

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Amanda Smallwood is a young, attractive and sensuous artists' model who leaves her home in Texas and eventually winds up in San Miguel de Allende, a backwater Mexican town that seems to attract a lot of foreign artists and drifters. She settles into the community, posing for a number of artists, sleeping around here and there, and developing a number of friends, acquaintances and lovers.

When Amanda's mutilated body is discovered just off the town square late one night, the job of tracking down her killer falls to the local police inspector, Hector Diaz. Diaz immediately understands that he will be under the gun to solve the murder ASAP. If the victim were a fellow Mexican, there would be much less pressure, but the brutal killing of an attractive American woman will be very bad for the tourist business which is central to the town's economy. To reinforce the point, the mayor is on the phone demanding a quick solution to the crime barely minutes after Diaz learns of it.

Such a solution will be difficult. Diaz must penetrate the American expat community to learn who Amanda Smallwood was, what she might have been up to, and who might have wanted to kill her. Was it simply a jealous lover? Was it a would-be lover that she had rejected? Could it have been a drifter or a serial killer who was simply passing through, or could it have been something much more sinister?

Diaz is determined to solve the crime, but his small police force is not very well trained or disciplined and most of the officers will not be of much help. For that matter, Diaz himself occasionally gets distracted by the promise of a drink or an attractive woman.

This is a very gritty, hard-boiled story that pulls very few punches. The reader is forced to get down and dirty with Diaz and a lot of other rather sleazy characters, and the end result is a lot of fun for readers like me who enjoy this sort of thing.

I confess to having two relatively minor complaints about the book: Hector Diaz is an intriguing protagonist and I liked him a lot. But he's also one of those characters who drinks his way through the book to a point where the reader can no longer suspend disbelief. The truth is that anyone who drinks as much as this character would be down for the count on any given day, long before he was able to do anything productive, let alone solve a complicated crime.

My other complaint has to do with the author's abuse of similes. Raymond Chandler was the master of this particular art form and while a lot of writers have attempted to imitate him, very few have managed to pull it off as well as he did. Woods is trying way too hard here and after a while some of his efforts just seem silly. At one point our intrepid hero comes under a hail of gunfire, and "too young to die, he hugged the earth like a lusty whore."

I have no idea how any whore, lusty or otherwise, might hug the earth, but by this point my patience with this sort of thing was really wearing thin. As I say, though, these are minor issues. On the whole, I really enjoyed the book and I expect that most other hard-boiled readers will as well.

Where Is Jeeves, Anyway?

How Right You Are, Jeeves (Jeeves, #12)How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeeves was right, but that title is wrong!

The statement in title form, How Right You Are, Jeeves does two things. It tells you that Jeeves is going to offer up correct advice, as per usual. It also leads you to believe that Jeeves will play a large role in said title, and that is not the case. They should've stuck with the alternate title Jeeves in the Offing.

Jeeves is Bertie Wooster's manservant. Jeeves has extracted Bertie from many a mishap. When Bertie is without Jeeves, he often finds himself neck-deep in the soup. When a Jeeves & Wooster book is without Jeeves, the book often drowns.

How Right You Are, Jeeves is a perfectly adequate addition to the J & W series, but it's not one of P.G. Wodehouse's best. It lacks the wit and fun that fill the pages in spades when both Bertie and Jeeves are doling out the words. In this story, Bertie is left to fend for himself for the most part while his manservant is off on holiday. Jeeves briefly pops his head in to comment on the proceeds, but that's about it.

Drawn again to Brinkley Court to partake in his aunt's French chef par excellence Anatole's cooking, Bertie soon finds himself embroiled in one ridiculous scheme after another, where the bog standard love triangle looks more like an octagon. The plot is a tad muddier than usual, as I don't feel Bertie has any great impetus pushing him on as is the case in other books.

Another reason for this one feeling flat could be that it was written later in Wodehouse's life, being published in 1960 when he was 79. He would go on writing and publishing for another 15 years, but this is his twilight era stage and perhaps the old tried and true plots are getting a bit tired at this point.

Even so, any Wodehouse fan can find plenty to enjoy in How Right You Are, Jeeves, such as recurring characters Aunt Dahlia, Sir Roderick Glossop, Bobbie Wickham, and the 18th century cow creamer.


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Enjoyable Repetition In The Old Bailey

Rumpole MisbehavesRumpole Misbehaves by John Mortimer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The song remains the same, but there's something so likable about Rumpole, that old curmudgeon of a London barrister, that it doesn't matter if each book feels a little like a repeat.

On the surface, this story is just another Rumpole petty crime court case with the Timsons in-tow, however, sex slave trafficking turns out to be the seedy underbelly.

On the home front, Rumpole's wife Hilda is intrigued by the advances of a judge into studying for the bar, as well as participating in her usual pastime of pushing Rumpole towards a silk robe, the garment of a judge. This time around even Rumpole himself seems interested in seeing that become a reality, but longtime readers know the likelihood of it happening is slim indeed.

Why? Well, look at it this way. Rumpole is very much like The Highlander in that he never ages. He is perpetually on the verge of retirement for decade upon decade. The series started in the late 1970s and ran for 30 years. Rumpole's age is hard to pinpoint exactly, but he always appears to be in his late 50s to early 60s irregardless of the hippies, discos, punks, Johnny Depp movies, iPods or the post 9/11 world whirling about him. Fashions came and went, events befell humanity, but Rumpole motored on, never changing right up to the end.

Rumpole Misbehaves was one of, if not, the last book in the series that John Mortimer published before his death (I only know of one collection of Christmas stories that came after this and that was published posthumously,) so I found myself actually investing some real hope that Rumpole might finally succeed in getting silk for himself and rising from lawyer to judge. I thought, heck, maybe Mortimer sensed the end was nigh and threw the old boy a bone. Not likely?

I don't feel I'm spoiling anything terribly important here. No, because the real moral of Mortimer's stories is morality. Rumpole maybe be rough around the edges, but what we like about him is his willingness to put right before wrong regardless of the consequences to himself. This fat, cigar-puffing grouch is as close as a white knight as you'll get these days.

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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard

Servant of the Underworld 

Aliette de Bodard

2010 Angry Robot

 Review by carol
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2

Looking for something besides medieval European-based fantasy? Too many werewolves just looking for love in your reading? Tired of airships and clockworks? (Note: I’m not even bringing up the zombie references, but yes, you can have too much of the walking dead). Aliette de Bodard’s trilogy Obsidian and Blood might just be the solution to the fantasy reader looking to genre-bend. The first book, Servant of the Underworld, is a fascinating stand-alone book, so don’t let commitment issues prevent you from reading.

Acatl-tzin, the High Priest of the Dead, is interrupted in the middle of a ceremony easing the passage to the Underworld for a dead noble. Ceyaxochitl, the second in command of the Mexica Empire, requests his presence at the scene of a crime. A priestess has gone missing from her chambers, and all that is left is copious amounts of blood and the odor of jaguar-magic. Although Ceyaxochitl would normally be in charge of the investigation, she has matters of the Empire preoccupying her at the moment, and besides–the chief suspect is Acatl’s estranged brother. Acatl’s relationship with the Underworld means he is particularly well-suited by both magical ability and forensic skills to investigate deaths. Unfortunately, attempting to clear his brother will mean Acatl will need to confront their mutual animosity. As the investigation grows more complicated, he’s forced to take on an aide, the cocky Teomitl, and even interrogate the gods. It seems the missing priestess is at the center of a great power struggle where almost everyone has a stake–except Acatl, who wants to avoid it.

Chichén Itzá

I can’t remember any fantasy that’s transported me more thoroughly to another Earth-time and Earth-culture. What is truly impressive, however, is that Bodard imbued the story with the feel of belief in the magics and the gods. I felt a empathetic connection. On her website Bodard states “See, I’m a writer–not a historian, not a researcher. I did my best with a mountain of sources, but I’m no expert and no Nahuatl, so it’s highly possible (and, indeed, highly probable) that the Obsidian and Blood books include some mistakes.” I don’t believe her–the world she created feels more authentic than most urban fantasies set in the here and now, and the fact that she actually shares further reference reading demonstrates more cultural respect than most. What is even more impressive is that she did it old-school science-fiction style, dropping the reader into a new world without narrative information-dumping. She admits to a few authorial cultural changes here and there, particularly shortening the incredibly multi-syllabic names, easing up on the human sacrifice and modifying the concept of dual gods, but it certainly isn’t anything but an expert would recognize. What I did note was the sense of place, the jungles and floating islands, the native foods, the elaborate dress. With her descriptions, I was reminded of ponderous stone statues at the Met, the steep stairs at Chichén Itzá, the rhythm of a Navajo chant. 

Jaguar ‘cuauhxicalli’ sacrificial vessel, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City

There are a few shortcomings, none of much consequence. Occasionally a descriptive phrase or two for a character is repeated. Given Bodard’s thoroughness in outlining and detail, I’m guessing the repetition was intended as a person-clue as much as the names, which are occasionally similar. I expected to be uncomfortable with certain cultural aspects given prior knowledge about Aztec human sacrifice, but I was unprepared with the frequency of the ritual animal sacrifice. Eventually, though, Bodard helped me came to understand it, at least culturally. The ending, while satisfactory, is a bit too neat in some ways, as well as falling prey to a common fantasy trope. For some readers, the cultural immersion might feel too alien in a genre accustomed to wrapping 21st century beliefs in the trappings of whatever time period it chooses to play in (I’m talking to you, neo-Victorian steampunkers). Most significantly, Bodard does so well as the recreating a Meso-American culture from 1480 that it is a little challenging to empathize with the characters. Come to think of it, the way many sci-fi and fantasy writers get around the alien culture-empathy challenge is to give the reader a more modern human to identify with. So kudos, Bodard, for not including a time-traveler and challenging the reader to identify with Acatl. 

This isn’t a book that will appeal to everyone. It isn’t a quick, breezy beach read–it requires some mental stretching and attention. This is the thick, homemade dark chocolate version of hot chocolate, not the instant Carnation version with little stale marshmallows. If that sounds appealing, I highly recommend it. I’m looking forward to the next book.

Book trailer and sample chapter available here.

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