Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lonesome Dove

Lonesome DoveLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Retired Texas Rangers Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae leave behind their sleepy lives in the Texas town of Lonesome Dove to drive a herd of cattle to Montana. Will they make it alive?

When I was a lad, around the time the glaciers receded and civilization began, I was enthralled with a certain TV miniseries. It was, in fact, Lonesome Dove. Though it took a couple decades, I finally made myself read the book the miniseries was based on and I've very glad I did.

Lonesome Dove is an epic set in the dying days of the Old West. On the surface, it's the story of two men entering old age and going on one last adventure. Digging a little deeper, it's a story about friendship, loyalty, obsession, and carving out a new place for yourself in a world that's moved on without you.

The tale of a cattle drive across three thousand miles of prairie doesn't sound that interesting on the surface but McMurtry's tale is populated with a colorful cast of characters. Aging lady's man Augustus McCrae and duty-bound Captain Call contrast one another nicely. While being opposite in terms of personality, they both still have enough grit to be believable as former Texas Rangers and I have no trouble believing in their friendship.

The supporting cast also has its share of gems, like gambler and former Texas Ranger Jake Spoon, Arkansas sheriff July Johnson, former whore Lorena Wood, Gus's former love Clara, and Newt, the son of a dead whore whose father has yet to acknowledge him. While the book has an epic scope, the shifting viewpoints and colorful characters make it very accessible and a quick read for a book of its size.

While I'd seen the miniseries a couple times, this book managed to wring a few man-tears out of me. Knowing the deaths were coming made it harder somehow. I held out hope that a couple people would survive despite dying in the miniseries but it was not to be. The bottom line is that deep down, all men wish we had a friend that would haul our carcass from Montana to Texas if that was our dying request.

Five out of five stars. Go read the son of a bitch.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Matthew Shardlake Hunts for a Killer in Henry VIII's England

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Even though I read a lot of history, I've never been a fan of historical fiction and so when one of the book clubs to which I belong picked this novel as a monthly read, I approached it with some trepidation. For the most part, though, I was pleasantly surprised and I enjoyed the book more than I expected to.

Dissolution is set in England and the action takes place over a couple of extremely cold and snowy weeks in 1537. This is shortly after King Henry VIII has broken with the Catholic church and created the Church of England, with himself as the head of the church. At this point, of course, religious freedom is only a dim, distant dream, and all English people are required by law to follow Henry into the new Anglican church, whether they like it or not.

Many of them don't like it. They remain true to the Catholic church and continue to give their religious allegiance to the Pope. Many of these people will be persecuted for their beliefs and not a few will be executed. In many respects, these are not the sunniest of times.

Once establishing himself as head of the English church, Henry conveniently grants himself a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he can marry Ann Boleyn. The Pope had refused to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine and this precipitated the break between Henry and the Pope.

Henry also moves expeditiously to confiscate property in England that had belonged to the Catholic church. Most important, there were many Catholic monasteries in England that controlled vast amounts of valuable land. Henry began the process of dissolving the monasteries (the Dissolution) and appropriating their wealth. His principal ally in this effort was his vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, who was much feared by Henry's opponents.

Cromwell sends a commissioner to begin the process of dissolving the monastery of Scarnsea on the southern coast of England, but shortly after arriving at Scarnsea the commissioner is murdered. Cromwell now sends one of his protégés, a lawyer named Matthew Shardlake to investigate the murder and to conclude the dissolution of the monastery.

Shardlake is a brilliant lawyer and is devoted to the reform of the church. He is also a hunchback who has always been self-conscious and socially ostracized to some extent because of his handicap. Shardlake is accompanied by a handsome young assistant named Mark Poer, and the two make their way through the snow to Scarnsea to find a tangled web of murder and intrigue along with financial and sexual irregularities. More murders will follow their arrival and it's clear that Shardlake and his young assistant are also in grave danger every moment that they remain in the monastery. The burning question is whether or not Matthew Shardlake can accomplish his mission before both he and Mark become victims themselves of the evil that seems to infuse Scarnsea.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the atmosphere that Sansom creates. He vividly recreates the turmoil of the period along with the sights, sounds and smells of the era. The reader feels the chill in his or her own bones as the characters struggle to stay warm in the middle of the freezing cold weather. This historical detail is engrossing and the story is a compelling one.

If I have a complaint about the book, it's that about halfway through the book, the story started to drag a bit. Shardlake spends an awful lot of time wandering through the snow from one part of the monastery to another in order to interview people and it starts to get a bit repetitious. I found myself encouraging Shadlake to pick up the pace a bit. This is a book that runs 385 pages which, in my estimation, would have been much better at about 325 pages. But that is a relatively small complaint, and this is a book that should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to four.

Desperate Times...

The Crossing (The Border Trilogy, #2)The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One decision, as innocent as it may be, can fuck up your life forever. Now, you can live in fear and hide yourself away, or you can keep making those decisions and hope for the best, and if and when the shit hits the fan, you can stand strong and push on.

That's life. That's The Crossing.

Cormac McCarthy's "The Border" trilogy is where you'll find dusty plains, hard living, and a recent past populated by a people still living in an even more distant past. His characters are full of character, their own code and a new version of an old set of morals.

The Crossing is Homeric. There is a hero with a quest. There is a wise man. There are fools. And there are monsters. The hero's journey plays out upon the border between New Mexico and old Mexico, where the line dividing life and death is measured in handfuls of blood.

McCarthy's books are not where you shop for your good times and happy endings. His characters will die and you will feel pain.

I spent a good amount of time in early 2014 in southern Mexico. It was a learning experience and it helped me to appreciate what's in this novel. Not only was I able to follow along with much of the Spanish dialogue (it's basic stuff, trust me, I'm not bragging here), but the portrayal of the life and the people rings true and brings to mind images, scenes and people I saw and met during my time in that parched land.

I'm giving this five stars, not because I think it's perfect and that everyone will love it. In fact, I think many people would not like this. McCarthy occasionally veers from the action-packed path to discuss life and that irks some readers. However, I give it five stars for McCarthy's writing. It's superb. His language usage...ah, those glorious descriptions! It's all too beautiful!

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It Ain't Easy, But It's All Right

The Long Fall (Leonid McGill, #1)The Long Fall by Walter Mosley
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A new series from Walter Mosley, huzzah!

Well, it's new to me. Mosley's been at the Leonid McGill series since 2009, about 20 years after he started putting out his popular Easy Rawlins books. But instead of rewinding time back to the race-war years of 1960s Los Angeles, The Long Fall takes us on a literary drive-by of a contemporary day-in-the-life of a New York City private investigator.

Leonid McGill, a 50 year old bruiser with a brain, must weave together a number of loose threads, some more deadly and personal than a PI's typical fare. Mosley's got a winning new character in McGill, putting together a nuanced portrait of a middle-aged man with a past, who's still left wondering what his future holds, if anything.

When I see someone review a book on Goodreads and they give it a three star rating, I'm seldom inspired to read that book. However, this sort of three star rating truly means what this website claims it to be, an I "liked it" kind of book. The Long Fall is not groundbreaking, but it is compelling. You want to keep reading. There's never a moment when you're afraid your brain might explode. Instead, it delivers the occasional and pleasurable pulse quickening moment - a common pace for Mosley's work it seems - which drives the plot along to the satisfying end.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Drago Descending

Greg F. Gifune
The Fiction Works
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Private Investigator David Drago is a former policeman and Gulf War veteran struggling with his combat experiences, his time spent in the psychological ward of a veteran's hospital, and the darkness of his past. When he is approached by a mysterious client who hires him to locate his missing fiance, Jesse Greenlaw, Drago hesitantly takes the case. The problem, Jesse is also David's former girlfriend, and an integral part of the murky past still haunting him. Drago's investigation leads him into a labyrinth of violence, sexual intrigue, black witchcraft, and Satanism. The deeper he digs, the deeper he descends into a dark netherworld haunted by terrifying visions of angels and demons alike.

My Review

David Drago is a private investigator and a Gulf War veteran. Business is rather slow, so he is forced by financial circumstances to live in his office. He receives a phone call from Mr. Abdiel, who claims to be engaged to David’s former girlfriend, Jesse Greenlaw. Jesse has been missing nearly a month, and David hasn’t seen her in more than five years. He wanted a more traditional lifestyle, while Jesse was involved with porn films. David would rather put his past behind him, but Abdiel insists that David is the best person to solve this case and offers to double his fee.

Drago Descending was brilliant and had me riveted from the first page! David is a wounded man, coping with his war experiences, his failed relationship, his dreams, his nightmares, and using alcohol to deaden the pain. Drago’s investigation leads him into the world of the porn film industry, Satanism, and the evil people do. Drago is a tough guy, but he also has a vulnerable, sensitive side. He still has deep feelings for Jesse and will make the ultimate sacrifice to save her.

I really enjoyed this fast-paced, gripping story with a cast of engaging and complex characters, and look forward to more of Gifune’s work.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Invisible Cities

Invisible CitiesInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan talk of cities Marco has visited.

Where to begin with this one? I thought the writing was beautiful. Calvino and his translator painted vivid pictures of various cities, each a seemingly magical realm with its own quirks. As Marco tells more and more stories, Kublai questions the nature of his empire.

Unfortunately, very little actually happens. While they are very well written, the individual city tales read almost like entries in a poet's travel journal. There's not really an actual story unless you consider an ongoing conversation between two historical figures a plot.

While I'm glad I read it and I thought the writing was masterful, I don't feel like gushing about this particular book. Three out of five stars.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Wow Mao, You Really F-ed Sh!t Up

Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New ChinaOut of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought China got it's shit together after Mao's death. Apparently I was wrong.

Out of Mao's Shadow by Philip Pan is yet another book notched in my ongoing self-education of that huge honkin' thing known as China. I've got two reasons for my interest.

One, China is a world player now. When I was a kid, China was the overpopulated country that produced cheap plastic goods, and that was essentially it. Now China is stretching out and opening up. They are interacting with the rest of the world. On the one hand that's exciting and on the other hand - the uniformed and superstitious hand - it's a little scary. Why? Back when I was that aforementioned kid, China was staunchly Communist and buddies with our archenemy the USSR. In the '80s, if there was one thing our elders/leaders in America wanted us to know, it was "Communism...BAD!!!" End of story. That's all you needed to know. But since then I've grown up and China has matured as well. I felt like it was time we bury the past, shake hands and get to know one another.

The second reason for my recent interest and studies of all things China is that my brother has been over there working as a teacher for a few years now. The Chinese are rabid to learn English these days it seems, so my bro is over there saying shit and explaining himself, mostly to kids, who are utterly fascinated by the pasty-faced whitie. This has led to a desire to know a little more about what he's experiencing.

So I've read history books on China's past (and wow-e-wow they've got a past AND some to spare!). I learned about Mao's Cultural Revolution. Now it was time to get with the times, so I turned to Out of Mao's Shadow, a collection of journalistic stories about the people crushed by and fighting back against the authoritarian, one party system that has ruled China since the Chairman's death.

This book dashed my misconception that today's China was burgeoning utopia for capitalism, free speech and democracy, the facade their government has cultivated for the last few decades. Some Chinese want these things, the others will hold on to power at all costs. China leadership likes prosperity, but they also covet ultimate and total control. New ideologies blend with old tactics and human rights become the doormat on the way to profit.

Story after heartbreaking story, Pan details the constant clash between the people and the people who rule them. It's a war made more complex by China's tumultuous past and the back and forth clashes of the Cultural Revolution that sometimes pitted friend vs friend, even parent vs child. Aging generations, jerked around and left confused, are pensively mixing with youth, if they're not too afraid to get burnt once more, and so the country is filled with an amoebic populous unsure of itself, its place and its future. I can only hope for the best.

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Jake Blake Goes on a Wild Ride

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

First published in 1956, Wild Wives is a short but very entertaining novel from Charles Willeford, the author of Miami Blues and a number of other crime novels.

Jake Blake is a struggling San Francisco P.I. who lives in the same cheap hotel where he has his office. One slow afternoon, Florence Weintraub, the inevitable Hot Babe essential to the beginning of practically any classic P.I. story, waltzes into his office insisting that she's desperately in need of his help. Even though she's twenty-six years old, her father allows her absolutely no freedom whatsoever and has her accompanied wherever she goes by two goons who are allegedly there to protect her. She'd just like a couple of hours to herself, she says. Could Jake possibly help her lose the two thugs?

Well, of course he can, for twenty-five bucks a day plus expenses. And when the lovely Florence agrees to the terms, one thing inevitably leads to another. Florence is very attracted to Jake and once they finally elude her guardians, they go out to dinner, which Jake naturally adds to the expense account. Other more interesting activities accompany the dinner, and Florence insists that she'd like to see Jake again the following day.

Complications ensue and poor Jake soon finds himself entangled in a mess he never envisioned when he accepted Florence's seemingly simple assignment. It's an engaging story with plenty of Willeford's deadpan humor and enough action to propel the story forward at a fairly rapid clip. While not quite on a par with some of Willeford's better known books, it's still a fun read and will appeal especially to those who have read and enjoyed the author's other work.

Friday, April 10, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Raymond Carver
Vintage Books
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nancy


This powerful collection of stories, set in the Northwest among the lonely men and women who drink, fish and play cards to ease the passing of time, was the first by Raymond Carver to be published in the UK. With its spare, colloquial narration and razor-sharp sense of how people really communicate, the collection went on to become one of the most influential pieces of literary fiction.

My Review

When I started reading, I found these stories a little too spare, a little unfinished. They were snippets of lonely people and troubled relationships, but nothing I could really sink my teeth into. I set the book aside and when I picked it up a second time, I discovered that these stories are better digested when read with fewer interruptions. Although these stories are about a variety of characters, I found their commonalities, differences, views and struggles very compelling, if not always enjoyable. Reading the stories consecutively helped to draw me in and connect me with the characters. The words, though brief and simple, were astonishingly effective at portraying the human condition with grittiness, humor, and poignancy and showing a glimpse of American society.

Here are a few memorable lines from some of my favorite stories:

"There was a little rectangle of lawn, the driveway, the carport, front steps, bay window, and the window I’d been watching from in the kitchen. So why would I want a photograph of this tragedy?” – from Viewfinder

"Things are better now. But back in those days, when my mother was putting out, I was out of work. My kids were crazy, and my wife was crazy. She was putting out too. The guy that was getting it was an unemployed aerospace engineer she’d met at AA. He was also crazy." – from Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit

"The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon. There were things that needed talking about, important things that had to be discussed. They’d talk again. Maybe after the holidays were over and things got back to normal. He’d tell her the goddamn ashtray was a goddamn dish, for example." – from A Serious Talk

"But what I liked about knights, besides their ladies, was that they had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn’t get hurt very easy. No cars in those days, you know? No drunk teenagers to tear into your ass." – from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Fix a drink, have a smoke, and discover Raymond Carver.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Lost Level

The Lost LevelThe Lost Level by Brian Keene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When occultist Aaron Pace begins experimenting with travel between dimensions, he finds himself trapped in The Lost Level, a realm purported to be inescapable. Will Pace buck the odds and find his way back home?

I've never read Brian Keene before and this is far from his normal fare, a planetary romance of sorts rather than his usual horror fare. While it wasn't my favorite book of this type, it was quite enjoyable.

As I mentioned above, The Lost Level is Brian Keene's homage to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Land of the Lost, and similar works. While it obeys the conventions of the Sword and Planet/Planetary Romance genre, complete with buxom warrior women and many-legged creatures, Keene puts his own twists on it.

Rather than being a dynamo like John Carter, Aaron Pace is an occultist but still fairly capable. While traveling The Labyrinth, a dimension connecting many others via portals, Pace stumbles into the Lost Level, an inter-dimensional Sargasso where the flotsam of the multiverse collects. Soon after arriving, he meets Bloop, a creature resembling The Beast of the X-Men, and Kasheena, a nearly naked warrior woman. Together, the trio try to find Kasheena's settlement in the hopes of getting Pace back to earth.

Keene does a good job aping the style of the genre without sacrificing his own voice. His descriptions of the denizens of the Lost Level were vivid without being too flowery and he managed to convey a feeling of jeopardy throughout, unlike a lot of similar books.

The Lost Level setting itself was pretty cool. I love the idea of an inescapable garbage dimension populated by all matter of things, from cowboys to dinosaurs to the Nazi Bell. Since I was a Keene virgin prior to this book, some of the references were lost on me but I did notice references to the Rising and the Clickers sequels.

The Lost Level was a lot of fun but I wished it was about twice as long. 3.5 out of 5 stars. Keene's Labyrinth mythos has me intrigued and I'll be sampling more of his works in the future.

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