Friday, October 24, 2014

How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity

Michael Cart, Editor
Harper Teen
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


A girl thought to be a boy steals her sister's skirt, while a boy thought to be a girl refuses to wear a cornflower blue dress. One boy's love of a soldier leads to the death of a stranger. The present takes a bittersweet journey into the past when a man revisits the summer school where he had "an accidental romance." And a forgotten mother writes a poignant letter to the teenage daughter she hasn't seen for fourteen years.

Poised between the past and the future are the stories of now. In nontraditional narratives, short stories, and brief graphics, tales of anticipation and regret, eagerness and confusion present distinctively modern views of love, sexuality, and gender identification. Together, they reflect the vibrant possibilities available for young people learning to love others—and themselves—in today's multifaceted and quickly changing world.

My Review

I couldn’t pass up this anthology, especially after learning that Margo Lanagan is one of the contributors. I was also thrilled to see other well-known writers I haven’t discovered yet, like Francesca Lia Block, Emma Donoghue, and Julie Anne Peters.

This collection of stories focuses on teen GLT experiences from a variety of perspectives. These are well-crafted stories, filled with conflict, growth and change. Because I enjoyed the majority of these stories so well, I will forgive the omission of bisexual experiences.

My favorites in this collection:

A Word From the Nearly Distant Past by David Levithan

This short story was the basis for Levithan’s later novel, Two Boys Kissing. This was gorgeous, both in its short form and its longer form. It examines the lives of a disparate group of teenagers and is told from the perspective of the men who lost their lives to AIDS.

My Virtual World by Francesca Lia Block

This is a beautifully written, honest story about a friendship that develops online between two troubled teenagers. They talk about art, pain, sexuality, gender identity, and gradually grow to trust and love one another.

Dear Lang by Emma Donoghue

This is a letter written to 16-year-old Lang by her estranged mother. Even though Lang doesn’t remember she once had two mothers, her mom’s pain and loss is still apparent. I cried so hard and called my mom after I was done reading.

The Missing Person by Jennifer Finney Boylan

14-year-old Jimmy knows he’s a girl before he knows the wordtransgendered. One summer he dons his sister’s skirt, applies some lipstick and goes the local horse show as Jenny. I loved the vivid descriptions that allowed me to get immersed in the festivities while seeing Jenny’s unique personality emerge.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


The Terror of LivingThe Terror of Living by Urban Waite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Do you ever just think of just doing a criminal thing sometime? Just doing something terrible. Change everything.
Richard Ford, Rock Springs, from the story “Winterkill”

Deputy Bobby Drake was up in the mountains of Washington State for purposes of relaxation, at least that is what he told everyone. When millions of dollars of cocaine start floating down out of the sky. The relaxation becomes one cop against desperate men who never want to see the inside of Monroe prison again.

Hunt is one of those men. He’s been inside. He’s done his stupid thing and paid the price in time. ”Hunt had grown up over the years, but the idea of being a continuous failure had stuck with him. He was sure of himself in all the wrong situations. A good man, made up of all the bad things in the world.” He has a beautiful wife and a small business boarding horses, but he can’t make enough money to meet his mortgage needs. He has to mule drugs out of the hills for his friend Eddie. Pretty safe occupation most of the time except when you run into a Deputy Sheriff doing some camping in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hunt could become a wage slave, but he just can’t do it. He’s given up enough time in a cage and can’t stand the thought of doing mindless work for just enough money to keep scraping by. He needs the big score, something that will cushion him from poverty and allow him the freedom to exist the way he wants to exist.

He just got unlucky.

Drake, has his own baggage to haul. His father was the sheriff and is currently serving time for doing something similar to what Hunt was trying to do. The Sheriff was tired of being broke. When Drake calls in the results of this unexpected drug bust, because of his father’s record, he is a suspect before he is a hero.

Meanwhile powerful, impatient people are very unhappy.

The same group are using Vietnamese women to smuggle heroin into the country. Their intestines are full of thousands of dollars of pellets. Two women worth no more than a plugged nickel to these people are suddenly worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000. It is Grady’s job to collect them and extract the heroin.

Grady has a penchant for knives. He calls himself a chef, but he is really a butcher.

”In one motion, Grady pushed the blade up into the skin beneath the chin, up through the soft palate, and into the brain. There was a slight tremor on the attendant’s face as Grady twisted the handle of the knife and scrambled the man’s brains. The attendant’s warm blood came dripping down off the knife into Grady’s gloved hand and the sleeve of his sweatshirt.”

Grady is one of those people with scrambled circuitry in his brain, or maybe he actually has streamlined circuits that allow him to embrace impulse and not have a flicker of remorse for any of the results. Whenever he entered a chapter every sense of self-preservation I have was instantly activated. I felt uneasiness for even the most casual interactions that he had with people. He is sent after Hunt, but when Hunt proves elusive he decides that Hunt’s wife Nora will bring Hunt to him.

”He hoped Hunt loved his wife. He was counting on it, and he knew people did stupid things for love. They did stupid things all too often. And he thought this was probably how they had all come into this mess. How it had all begun for them. Stupid.”

Everyone is looking for Hunt and everyone is looking for Grady. Hunt and Grady are looking for each other. Drake finds himself in the middle trying to save Hunt as best he can and at the same time redeem himself for the sins of his father.

Urban Waite has written a literary level mystery that hopefully has crossed over between genres. Mystery readers should definitely read this neo-noir novel if they are fans of hardboiled Chandleresque novels, but there are also elements of Jim Thompson lurking in the prose to add some Pulp Fiction spice. Waite fills a niche recently vacated by the great Elmore Leonard. He was a writer deemed worthwhile to read for those looking for an entertainment between heavier texts of established classics or history.

The book is plot driven, but there are certainly a plethora of reflective moments when the characters are wrestling with issues of past mistakes and trying to ponder their way into a better future that gives the book substance beyond just a snappy plot.

In the acknowledgements Urban Waite listed the books and writers that influenced his need to be a writer. Poachers by Tom Franklin, Spartina by John Casey, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I really appreciate it when writers do this, especially when they list more than just the authors, but the actually titles of the books as well. The result, I went to my library and pulled a copy of Dog Soldiers off my shelf to read next. A book that has been there for decades.

4.25 out of 5 Stars

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014


MandiblesMandibles by Jeff Strand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unusually huge fire ants terrorize Tampa, Florida. Will anyone survive this plague?

Mandibles is a creature feature by Jeff Strand about large fire ants overrunning Tampa. That's pretty much it. It follows the lives of office works, people in a dentist office, a couple stickup men, and an entomologist during the rampage of the ants.

It might be that I've come to expect home runs at every at-bat from Jeff Strand but this one didn't make me want to sit outside his house and "pretend" to run into him so we could eventually be best friends like a lot of his other books.

I love the premise but the characters didn't really do it for me this time. In my opinion, for a story like this, there needs to be a couple strong central characters to build the story around. Since this one had a death rate per page equivalent to a George R.R. Martin book, there was no one to root for for every long. It seemed like the characters I cared about the least were the ones to make it to the end. Also, I thought the ending was kind of weak and the source of the ants didn't make that much logical sense.

Still, it was a fun read for the most part. People getting stung and eaten by fire ants of unusual size was pretty entertaining and they made a believably frightening enemy. Unstoppable fire ants the size of squirrels (and larger)? No thank you, sir.

Three stars and Strand had to work hard for every one in this outing. I guess I can't be mad at him for not being perfect, though.

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Designers & Dragons: The '70s

Designers & Dragons: The '70s (Designers & Dragons, #1)Designers & Dragons: The '70s by Shannon Appelcline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Designers & Dragons: The '70s chronicles the history of role playing game companies whose genesis was in the hallowed decade of the 1970s.

Reading about role playing games isn't as exciting as playing them but I still found this to be an interesting look into the history of the hobby. While I knew quite a bit about TSR, Gary Gygax, and the father of all subsequent RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons, a lot of it was new to me.

Appelcline briefly touches on D&Ds wargaming roots and then proceeds to take the reader to school, covering companies that made their own D&D compatible products, like the Judge's Guild and Fantasy Games Unlimited, to competitors to Dungeons and Dragons and its parent company, TSR, like GDW and their Traveler game, Chaosium, Avalon Hill, and many others.

You have to have a certain level of nerdiness to really appreciate this book. What could have been a dull journey to Nerdville was made interesting by Appelcine's engaging writing style, interspersed with quotes from the people involved.

I don't have many gripes about the game. Companies I never heard of got a lot of pages and I feel like I now possess even more role playing game knowledge that I'll never need. I thought the title was a little misleading since it purports to be about RPGs during the 1970s but it's actually about companies who started during the '70s up either the present day or they went tits up.

I don't think I'd recommend it to gaming novices but people who remember spending sexless evenings covered in nerd-sweat and Cheetoh crumbs will get a kick out of it. Three out of five stars.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five Stars

I was a big fan of Benjamin Whitmer's Pike, and I like his new book even better. It's a tough, gritty examination of the relationship between fathers and sons: violent, profane, and beautifully written.

The characters are all compelling, principal among them Patterson Wells. Wells leads a tough existence by any standard, working as a member of a crew that goes in and cleans out fallen trees in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. It's a brutal job, consisting of long hours in the company of other rough men, hard on the body and even harder on the soul.

As if life hadn't handed him a plate that was full enough to begin with, Wells is devastated by the death of his young son. He blames himself for not spending enough time with the boy and writes him long letters as a way of coping with the loss and attempting to make up for the time they should have spent together while they could. Wells is estranged from his wife who insists that they have to try to move on in the wake of the tragedy. Wells is simply incapable of doing so.

In the off season, Wells retreats to a small cabin out in a remote area of Colorado. There he drinks heavily and broods on what his life has become. While there, he develops a relationship with a guy named Junior, the son of Wells' nearest neighbor. Junior and his father have issues of their own, and Junior supports himself by running drugs. Wells and Junior are a potent combination and as they team up, all hell breaks loose.

To say any more would be to reveal too much. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book that should appeal to large number of readers who like their stories on the (very) dark side. Benjamin Whitmer is definitely an author to watch for.

A Superb Sleuth Story!

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You got nothin' on this book, see?! Yeah! That's right, skedaddle and quick-like!

Private detective Sam Spade smells trouble when this crazy dame walks into his office, and sure enough, his life is soon turned topsy turvy. Spade gets all tangled up in a fishy double murder. The coppers are on him, he's on to the dame and people keep popping outta the woodwork goin' on and on about this g. d. bird! If things keep up like this somebody's gonna get themselves killed dead.

Since its publication, the Spade character has become the ideal from which all other hired sleuths to follow would be molded. He's cool and calculating. He's no angel. No, he's in it for himself, yet only gets what he deserves (often a sock on the jaw) and somehow still comes out smelling like roses. This fantastically tight-wound story is a joy to read, made even more so by a hero who defines the word character.

Hammett's like an Italian tailor who's cut and sewn one of the finest suits you could imagine. It's sleek. It's stylish. You feel like a million bucks in it and you want it to last forever. Hell, with craftsmanship like that, it just might!

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Dashiell Gets His Drink On

The Thin ManThe Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Thin Man is best read with a drink in hand. Do you have a drink? Do you need a refresher? Would you like another? Above all else, it is important that you be drinking!


My god, a lot of alcohol is consumed in this book! It reads as if Ernest Hemingway had taken up crime noir.

Nick Charles, private detective, has hung up his hat. Nora, his wife, kinda wishes he hadn't. She likes wrapping her head around a good mystery. Well, a good one comes along in the form of murder for money, and Charles' old friends are all wrapped up in it.

The plot unfolds essentially in three places: at the Charles', at their friends', and at a speakeasy...each place being as well stocked with liquor as the next. Other than drinking, they don't do much of anything. And they don't really go anywhere, unless it's someplace to drink. They hang around and tie one on while they try to figure out whodunnit.

The writing is solid, the plot feels sound, the characters are a little dramatic (don't get me started on the women...these dames is batty!), but once all that's in motion, the book as a whole feels static. Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon pretty much invented this genre, so perhaps I should lay off. But I'm not always one to treat revered things precious-like...just the stuff that's precious to me.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory
2008 Del Rey

Reviewed by Carol

★    ★    ★    ★    ★ 

Pandemonium reminds me of those times when my foodie friends are dragging me to a “fabulous new restaurant” where (mostly) familiar ingredients are deconstructed, spiced and recombined in a creative way. At least this time, instead of an unsettling mess, it resulted in one of those perfect, satisfying meals that fulfill a sensory need as much as a physical one. Not so unusual that I’m left with a disturbing aftertaste, and not so routine that it is immediately forgettable. To wit:

Salvatore’s award-winning pizza with wine-poached fig, bacon and gorgonzola. Unusual but delicious take on pizza. 

Pandemonium is a lot like that. Somewhat familiar elements drawn from comic books, buddy flicks and mythology are blended together in a plot that moves quickly but respects each ingredient. Add in some complex characterization, dashes of dark humor and develop it with truly fine writing, and I’m served a book that satisfying on both intellectual and emotional levels.

The simple summary: Del is returning to his mother’s home with a dual purpose: confess a recent car accident and psychiatric hospitalization, and to meet a famous demonology researcher at a national conference. Demons are real, although their manifestations usually pass quickly, while the behavior follows certain archetypes: The Painter, the Little Angel, Truth: “The news tracked them by name, like hurricanes. Most people went their whole lives without seeing one in person. I’ve seen five–six, counting today’s.” When Del was young, he was possessed by the Hellion, a wild boy entity, and Del has recently developed suspicions that the Hellion never left him. The story follows Del as he attempts to understand and perhaps free the entity inside him.

The plot moved nicely with enough balance between introspection and action to keep me interested. What I loved the most, however, was the writing. There’s the vivid imagery:

A small white-haired women glared up at me, mouth agape. She was seventy, seventy-five years old, a small bony face on a striated, skinny neck: bright eyes, sharp nose, and skin intricately webbed from too much sun or wind or cigarettes. She looked like one of those orphaned baby condors that has to be fed by puppets”

the humor:

The question, then, was how long could a human being stay awake? Keith Richards could party for three days straight, but I wasn’t sure if he counted as a human being

and sheer cleverness (because I’ve been this lost driving in Canada):

For the past few hours we’d been twisting and bobbing along two-lane back roads, rollercoastering through pitch-black forests. And now we were lost. Or rather, the world was lost. The GPS told us exactly where we were but had no idea where anything else was.
Permanent Global Position: You Are Here.”

and the occasional snarky social commentary:

What did it matter? I imagined bearded guys all over academia working themselves into a lather over this, precisely because the stakes were so low.

For those who might want a sense of the flavor, I was reminded of American Gods, of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Card world (my review) blended with Mythago Wood (my review), but done much, much better. While I had problems maintaining interest in each of the aforementioned, I had no such challenge with Pandemonium. Each bite revealed something almost familiar but somehow unexpected. There’s a lot to enjoy, and an equal amount to ruminate on after finishing. I’ll be looking for more from Gregory.

Cross posted at my blog:

Friday, October 17, 2014

We Live in Water

Jess Walter
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


The first collection of short fiction from New York Times bestselling author Jess Walter-a suite of diverse and searching stories about personal struggle and diminished dreams, all of them marked by the wry wit, keen eye, and generosity of spirit that has made him one of America's most talked-about writers.

We Live in Water is a darkly comic, moving collection of stories, published over the last five years in Harper's, McSweeney's, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Non-Required Reading, Byliner, Playboy, and elsewhere. The stories veer from comic tales of love to social satire to suspenseful crime fiction, from hip Portland to once-hip Seattle to never-hip Spokane, from a condemned casino in Las Vegas to a bottomless lake in the dark woods of Idaho. This is a world of lost fathers and redemptive conmen, of meth tweakers on desperate odysseys and men committing suicide by fishing.

In "Thief," an aluminum worker turns unlikely detective to solve the mystery of which of his kids is stealing from the family vacation fund. In "We Live in Water," a lawyer returns to a corrupt North Idaho town to find the father who disappeared thirty years earlier. In "Anything Helps," a homeless man has to "go to cardboard" to raise enough money to buy his son the new Harry Potter book. In "Virgo," a local newspaper editor tries to get back at his superstitious ex-girlfriend by screwing with her horoscope. Also included are the stories "Don't Eat Cat" and "Statistical Abstract of My Hometown, Spokane, Washington," both of which achieved a cult following after publication online.

My Review


It usually takes me forever to get through short story collections. If a story doesn’t grab my interest, I’ll put the book down and read something else. Often, so much time has passed that I end up returning the collection to the shelf and forgetting about it.

Not so with Jess Walter’s first collection of short fiction. I inhaled these stories in just two sittings and by the end I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to:

a. empty my wallet every time someone asks for spare change.

b. take weight-loss pills that keep me up all night having wild monkey sex, but have the unpleasant side effect of turning me into a zombie completely unsuitable for nearly any type of employment.

c. grab some Greenpeace brochures, some young helpers, and create a scam to relieve rich liberals of their hard-earned dollars.

The prose is spare and powerful, making me forget I was reading a book and feeling at one with these characters who struggle through life, make poor choices, and suffer terrible injustices. Though there is bleakness and hardship here, there is just enough humor to make me laugh out loud a few times and keep the stories from being painfully depressing. The author writes from the heart and has a deep sense of empathy for his characters. It was hard for me to let them go.

The last story is Statistical Abstract For My Hometown, Spokane, Washington. It is much more than facts and numbers. Walters provides an intimate glimpse of his life and his conflicting feelings about his hometown.

Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The Girl with a Clock for a HeartThe Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”I always knew it was temporary. Being Audrey was temporary. I had become this different person, this person I’d rather have been--you know, in school, doing well, with a boyfriend, a boyfriend like you--but it was like I had a secret disease, or there was this clock inside of me, ticking like a heart, and at any moment an alarm would go off and Audrey Beck would no longer exist. She’d die and I’d have to go back to being Liana Decter. God, it’s like a dream now….”

 photo the-girl-with-the-long-green_zps0577ccb9.jpg
With this book title Peter Swanson was paying homage to other noir books.

I have a crazy girlfriend story.
I have an even better crazy stalker story, but I’m not going to tell you about either one of them because George Foss has a better story, a tale of deceit, a yarn woven with woe, a first love that might have lasted forever, and murder most foul.

George is an ordinary guy, maybe so ordinary that you might even think he is extraordinary. He is in his early forties. He keeps the accounting books for a Boston literary magazine. He made himself indispensable, so even when the inevitable downsizing started to leave empty desks and tragically orphaned coffee mugs in it’s wake, he survived.

He has a girlfriend named Irene though girlfriend might be imprecise. They have been friends a long time, but somehow in the long arc of their relationship things never quite came together for them to get married. They are more than friends with benefits, more like ex-spouses who still like each other and fool around with each other between attempts at relationships with other people. Although even when they are seeing other people there is no let up with seeing each other. One could say their relationship is complicated, but really it is rather uncomplicated.

 photo GirlGoldWatch_zps9cb8743e.jpg

George has this rent controlled attic apartment with slanted walls and too many, just enough, bookshelves stuffed with...wait for it...books. Exactly what BOOKshelves were designed to hold. He goes to the same bar, maybe not everyday but most days, and watches the Red Sox. Irene usually meets him there and they give each other updates on the small matters of their well organized lives.

And then he sees his bar.

The girl he’d tried to forget about.

The girl that was unforgettable.

Audrey Beck/Liana Decker or she could have just as easily been Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity) /Kitty Collins(The Killers)/ Brigid O'Shaughnessy (The Maltese Falcon)

 photo doubleIndemnity_zpsa9cdf477.jpg

She is a witches’ brew of femme fatales. She is the Mata Hari of George Foss’s life. He knew her as Audrey first until he discovered she was Liana. It is now becoming nearly impossible to shed our skins and assume new identities. We used to be able to ride the train from Kansas to California and somewhere around Arizona start to call ourselves by a different name. Those days are long past as we are compressed more and more into our own identities. We are stuck with ourselves unable to shake off our past or ever really get a fresh start.

Don’t get the impression that I’m feeling any sympathy for Liana because that would be a mistake.

Like a moth to the flame he has to go talk to her, after all, she was sitting in HIS BAR.

She needs help. She needs the kind of help that at first you laugh about and then she convinces you with glistening tears and a series of beautifully manipulated body signals that she is desperate. Thus, it became perfectly logical that George was going to return nearly half a million stolen dollars to her ex-boss, ex-lover for her.

That is crazy!

Why would you even contemplate such a thing George?

It is embarrassing for me to reveal this, and it is hard to explain it in such a way that it doesn’t seem stupid, but ultimately, he did it, because he wanted to get laid. Sex and gasoline make the world go around so don’t discount the importance of such a potential event in a forty something man’s life. And it isn’t as if we are just talking about sex, ordinary sex, this was mind blowing sex...fireworks, brass band playing, howling at the moon sex. This was one of those moments that when we are on our deathbed and the sepia tone memory of this event floats into focus that we will grin. It might even take some of the sting out of dying.

Was it worth the punch to the kidneys compliments of Donnie Jenks?

No, of course not.

Yes, yes, of course it was. So you piss blood for a week. It will heal.

 photo AvaGardnerKillers_zps9d32eba7.jpg
Ava Gardner in The Killers. A man would do a lot of foolish things for a woman like that.

This is a plot driven novel, so I can’t talk about the plot. Let’s just say that George Foss gets taken on the ride of his life and if he survives it you will buy the beers for him all night long to hear the story. You will remember Liana Decker’s name for the rest of your life. Every time she swims into your memory you will shake your head, shiver, and thank all that is holy for your amazingly pedestrian significant other. This was a terrific, perfect Sunday afternoon read. I kept muttering to myself and kept flipping pages. The ending will wake you up in the middle of the night and have you, it can’t be!

Peter Swanson hit the Hollywood lottery. The movie rights have been sold. James Marsh will be directing. Chris Coen will be producing. It should make a spectacular movie. My vote is for Ethan Hawke (43) cast as George Foss. I would like to see Ali Larter (38) cast as Liana Decker and Cristina Ricci (34) cast as Irene.

***4.25 stars out of 5 and rising.***

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