Friday, May 31, 2013

The Help

Kathryn Stockett
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
Reviewed by: Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Three ordinary women are about to take one extraordinary step.

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone. 

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.
Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

In pitch-perfect voices, Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town, and the way women - mothers, daughters, caregivers, friends - view one another. A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't..

My Review

One of my co-workers, a guy who isn’t much of a reader, borrowed The Help from the library based on his English professor’s recommendation.  The guy just couldn’t stop talking about the story, so I decided to borrow the audio book.  It’s not very often I get to discuss books with people in real life and I wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip by.  Audio books are good for me.  I was so engrossed in the story and characters that I drove the speed limit on the highway and took the scenic route while running errands.   Sometimes I went out at lunch and needlessly drove in circles, or sat in the parking lot at work, waiting for a good place to stop.  

It is 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi.  Twenty-two year-old Eugenia “Skeeter” Phelan has returned home after graduating college to find that Constantine, her family’s maid and the woman who raised her, has mysteriously disappeared.  Aibileen is a black maid in her 50’s who works for the Leefolt family and cares deeply for their daughter, Mae Mobley.  She is still grieving for her young son, who died in a workplace accident.  Minny is Aibileen’s closest friend and a wonderful cook, but her mouth keeps getting her into trouble and no one wants to hire her, until Aibileen helps secure her a position with Celia Foote, a young woman who is new in town and unaware of Minny’s reputation.  

The story jumps back and forth between the three characters, all of them providing their version of life in the South, the dinner parties, the fund-raising events, the social and racial boundaries, family relationships, friendships, working relationships, poverty, hardship, violence, and fear.  Skeeter’s mother wants her to find a nice man and get married, but she’s more interested in changing the world.  Her plans to anonymously compile a candid collection of stories about the maids’ jobs and the people they work for will risk her social standing in town, her friendships, and the lives of the maids who tell their stories. 

I loved this story!  The characters really came alive for me, and the author did a good job acknowledging actual historical events which lent richness and authenticity to the story.  I laughed and cried, felt despair and hope.  This is an important story that is a painful reminder of past cruelty and injustice.  It shows how far we have progressed and how much more we still have to accomplish.   

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Canadian Gay Noir...does this sound high concept enough?

LAKE ON THE MOUNTAIN (A Dan Sharp Mystery #1)
Dundurn Press
$11.99 mass market, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 3.9* of five

The Publisher Says: Dan Sharp, a gay father and missing persons investigator, accepts an invitation to a wedding on a yacht in Ontario's Prince Edward County. It seems just the thing to bring Dan closer to his noncommittal partner, Bill, a respected medical professional with a penchant for sleazy after-hours clubs, cheap drugs, and rough sex. But the event doesn't go exactly as planned.

When a member of the wedding party is swept overboard, a case of mistaken identity leads to confusion as the wrong person is reported missing. The hunt for a possible killer leads Dan deeper into the troubled waters and private lives of a family of rich WASPs and their secret world of privilege.

No sooner is that case resolved when a second one ends up on Dan's desk. Dan is hired by an anonymous source to investigate the disappearance 20 years earlier of the grooms father. The only clues are a missing bicycle and six horses mysteriously poisoned.

My Review: Well, that's fine so far as it goes. The "mistaken identity" is more like a con game's perp being discovered in a lie; the secret world of privilege part is heavily focused on the heteronormative christian right wing's assertion that it alone defines right and wrong.

So it's about perfectly cut out to suit my prejudices!

Round writes a deeply damaged and badly wounded noir hero in Dan Sharp, and gives him a drinking problem, a miserable proletarian past, and a penchant for dating screwed-up straight rich boys. Dan's not pretty. His appeal to the pretty men he lusts after is in his anger, his endowment, and his complete willingness to cut and run when he damned well feels like it. Means it will all be over and no lingering emotional ties need be fretted over.

Take out "proletarian" and it's me. So again, score one for Round in the designed to appeal to me sweepstakes.

The actual murder mystery bit comes with two adjunct plots, one missing person case that Dan is going to solve or die in the trying, and one complex self-realization plot:

Dan put the receiver down and stared at the wall. The room had shrunk over the last few minutes. He tried to ignore the nameless sorrow under his skin, the gnawing doubts that mocked his hope that life could be a fine thing or that happiness was possible. An acid loneliness came pouring in -- the same loneliness that enticed him to drink and told him he had no friends except the one on the table in front of him.
Well, yeah.

The resolution of the missing person case, when it happens, makes Dan go on a hard journey into his bitterness about the past. His family life was, um, rough and turbulent. His missing person was under the same sort of spell that Dan was himself, and then *click* a light goes on that illuminates for Dan the murder's shape which had eluded him (and the police) until now:

Grief. It was a powerful word beginning with a soft utterance and ending in a feather's caress. There's no way to say it without beginning and ending in a sibilant whisper. Intake of breath or out, it's still the same -- like a verbal palindrome. {The victim} had felt its pull, soft and seductive enough to make him sacrifice himself. He'd given in to its drowning embrace, giving up what he wanted most -- his freedom -- for what he couldn't live without: his boys. In doing so, he'd lost both. There wasn't a prayer or lamentation or elegy in the world that could convey, in words or music, the tragedy that this had brought about. There was nothing that could revoke or undo the senseless horror of what had happened to him....
Losing his sons was a threat the victim couldn't endure. Dan, being a deeply loving dad despite his screwed up self, figures out the identity of the culprit, the reason for the crime, and the whole point of his own involvement in the missing person case from the blinding flash of insight that grief is at the heart of all the troubles in all these cases.

This is the way I like my noir. Dark, bitter, and with a chaser of sadder-but-wiser. I'll read the next book, and that's sayin' something for an overbooked and underlifed biblioholic.

So why not a full four stars? Because the novel, while first in a series, is far from Round's first book. There are pacing and bloat issues. About fifty pages of the book could go and no one would suffer, while the story would gain. Some scenes...notably the resolution of the first death...were rushed and not fully interwoven into the narrative, while others, notably the set-up of Dan's crappy relationship with a man destined to shuffle out of his life in short order, were longer than dramatically necessary to introduce the character flaws in Dan that we need to know about. So a small bit knocked off there, and a bot more for the curiously unnecessary and stunted relationship between Dan's son and the son's best friend, which felt completely grafted on and was unnecessary given how it ended.

But I go back to this fact: I will read the next one. I'm looking forward to it, as a matter of fact.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Kickin' Ass and Takin' Names

Badass:  The Birth of a Legend

by Ben Thompson

Published by Harper Perennial

Reviewed by Amanda
3 Out of 5 Stars

Behold!  Herein is contained a collection of history and pop culture's most notorious badasses.  These guys and gals kick ass, take names, never give a crap, and spend their days punching humanity in the nutsack just because they can.  They believe that, if you're looking for sympathy, it's in the dictionary between shit and syphilis.  There's no challenge they won't accept, no life they will spare, no vengeance they won't seek, no maiden they won't fondle!  Why?  They all suffer from the totally sweet fever known as badassitude.  And, as we all know, there's no cure for badassitude and, even if there were, who would want it?

Yeah, was all that a little too much for you?  Well, it was for me, too.  I will readily admit that I am indeed juvenile enough to have found the cover amusing, as well as sentences like this one describing the Egyptian gods: "As an added triple-shot of one hundred-proof badassitude, almost all of these bitchin' all-powerful smite-masters were represented by human bodies with insane animal heads grafted on top, making them so King Kong mega-weird-looking that it's like riding a surfboard of insanity down the Uncanny Valley."  However, 300+ pages of this became tedious--so much so that I had to reduce my reading to a chapter or two between other books. 

It wasn't long before every chapter began to sound as though a potty-mouthed version of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' Michelangelo was "Cowabunga"-ing his way through the narrative.
However, there were some bright spots:

1)  The variety of cultures and time periods represented is impressive.  We have everything from Viking, Aztec, Greek, Egyptian, Vodoun, Anglo-Saxon, to various African mythologies represented, as well as more modern cultural icons.  (Any book where Skeletor and Darth Vader are rubbing shoulders is automatically worth 3 stars.)

2)  Hell, yes for the women represented in the book!  Kali, Oya, Atalanta, Bradamant of Clairmont, Skuld, The White Tights (it's worth reading this chapter alone), The Furies, Baba Yaga, and, my personal favorite, Medea, are all here, proving you don't have to have *ahem* a sword *ahem* to be a badass.

3)  This is the type of book that I could definitely see turning around a boy who is a struggling reader.  It's fun, opens up a variety of mythologies for further research, and uses a language all teenage boys understand.  Sure, you could get your panties in a twist because words like balls, douche, badass, scrotum, and several juvenile sexual references are made, but if you think teenage boys aren't already using that language then you are not a badass.  You're a dumbass.  And I'm of the opinion that if it takes pandering to the lowest common denominator to hook a kid on reading, it's well worth it.

Despite the fact that the "badass" conceit wears pretty thin, this is a moderately entertaining and very well-researched read.  I can honestly say that I learned a few things from it, added a few books for further reading to my "to read" list, and now have the line "He gets more ass than a public toilet seat" in my arsenal.  It was well worth the read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Gene Wolfe goes to ancient Greece

Soldier of the Mist

Gene Wolfe

Tor Books

Reviewed by: Terry
3.5 - 4  out of 5 stars

Perhaps I’m finally growing into Gene Wolfe. There are still a lot of things about his writing that irritate me, but now that I’ve got a fair number of his works under my belt (some even read multiple times) and have a clearer idea of what to expect I am finding myself more able to accept most of these elements as challenging rather than offensive. I’ve come to expect several things from a book by Gene Wolfe: an unreliable narrator of course (this narrator tends to be a ‘hero’ with exceptional abilities granted either through birth or the blessings of the gods and is usually irresistible to the opposite sex, a bit of a pill personality wise  and often follows some version of the ‘innocent fool’ template mixed with the more traditional martial hero and who tends to be less interesting than the secondary characters around him); a puzzle-like narrative that obscures more than it reveals and implies more than it states; erudition that can be somewhat oppressive in its range and obscurantism; the encroachment upon the mundane by the supernatural in both physical and immaterial ways (often in the guise of the inexplicable interference of gods or godlike beings with an agenda for the outcome of human affairs…water gods and nymphs are an especial favourite); and finally a favourite chestnut of Wolfe’s is the inclusion of some kind of vampire-like creature and/or a shapeshifter. _Soldier in the Mist_ certainly partakes liberally of all of these.

I might go so far as to say that Latro, the main character in _Solider of the Mist_, is pretty much Gene Wolfe’s wet-dream of a protagonist. Here we get a narrator so unreliable that he has to sift through his own words each day in order to make sense of them, never mind the poor reader! In this Latro is pretty much the polar opposite of Severian, Wolfe’s hero from the New Sun series: where the young torturer-apprentice from the last days of Urth was cursed with an eidetic memory (which he still parsed to his own convenience) Latro is cursed with a loss of short-term memory that makes him unable to remember anything that happened to him on the previous day. This state of affairs was brought about by a head injury suffered by the mercenary in (as we find out through the course of events) the battle of Plataea as he fought for the Persian King Xerxes against the Greek Confederacy. The resulting story follows a format not altogether unlike the movie ‘Memento’ in which a character in a similar situation was forced to rely on post-it notes, journals, and tattoos to help him remember who he was and that he was on a path of vengeance. For his part Latro has been writing out the events of each day on a scroll and is forced, at least at those times when he is lucky enough either to be reminded by others or happens to read the injunction to “Read This Every Day” that is emblazoned on the outside of his scroll, to go back and read his own composition in order to understand where he is and who everyone around him might be. Like I said…the perfect Gene Wolfe narrator. The reader of course participates in this attempt to make sense of strange and inexplicable events at the same time as Latro does.

To add to the confusion for the modern reader (and really, it wouldn’t be a Gene Wolfe book if he wasn’t trying to confuse you now would it?) is the fact that we are placed squarely in the ancient world and Latro tells us the names of events, places and characters in a literal, and sometimes misconstrued, translation of their name. Thus, for example, Athens becomes “Thought”, the island of Achaia is “Redface Island”, and Corinth becomes “Tower Hill”. I have to admit that I found this aspect of the novel to be something that added to the flavour of the text for me as opposed to one that jarred. I suppose I felt that in adding to the strangeness of the names of places that would otherwise seem too familiar to me from other sources I was better able to approach the world of classical Greece in a new and interesting way. The final layer of confusion and obfuscation is added by the fact that in this world the gods and eldritch beings of classical mythology do indeed walk amongst men and are ever ready to utter a gnomic phrase or attempt to further their own mysterious ends by manipulating mere mortals. They are usually invisible to those who walk only in the mundane world, but as strange things begin to come visibly to the fore as we read it becomes apparent that a bizarre side-effect of Latro’s injury is an ability to see this invisible world clearly (though of course it’s always possible that Latro is just having hallucinations). Sometimes these supernatural beings attempt to aid Latro with cryptic guidance while others seem inimical to whatever actions he attempts to take. Either way it becomes apparent that he is a pawn in their great game.

In essence the story is about Latro’s quest to be healed of his malady, or barring that to at least find out where he comes from and return to his native land. Of course, even with a prophecy from the Shining God to guide him (or perhaps because of it) things are not that easy. We follow Latro across the land of the Hellenes as he attempts to follow the path laid out for him by the god with the aid of several new friends and allies he picks up along the way. We are treated throughout to a view of the Greek Confederacy during the time of the Graeco-Persian wars from the point of view of a true outsider. We also glimpse many of the gods and supernatural beings with which their country appears to be densely populated and learn that more often than not human events appear to have been driven by the will of the gods and reflect wars that, while perhaps more grand in their scope, are no less petty in their motivations. I especially enjoyed Wolfe’s characterization of the gods which seemed to be partially Graves-ian in the anthropological and geographical emphasis he placed on their names, powers, and nature, but which didn’t lose its eldritch character for all of that. These are not the relatively clear-cut (though all-too human) versions of the Greek gods most readers may be more familiar with. Beneath the veneer of civilization and regal glory the chthonic hearts of these gods are dark and dangerous indeed.  The world of ancient Greece that Wolfe presents is a fascinating one and the struggles and wars of the gods that impinge upon the world of mortals is intriguing, he seems to have a real flair for the numinous and its impact on human life. I think having just finished _The Iliad_ was a distinct advantage for me in coming to this book. Not only was I still ‘in the mood’ for the world of ancient Greece, but I was even able to see some of the same concerns (and many of the same characters) even though the events portrayed in _Soldier of the Mist_ are happening centuries after the fall of Troy. I also didn’t get the feeling that Wolfe was simply writing modern characters into an ancient setting, his characters were relatable and all displayed familiar aspects of human nature that rang true, but they also seemed to be uniquely suited to (and representative of) their own milieu. I quite enjoyed this book and dove immediately into the sequel _Soldier of Arete_. I haven’t lost all of my reservations in regards to Wolfe’s method and madness, but overall I think I’m becoming more willing to sit back and enjoy the ride…I just make sure to stop and look around a lot more than I might feel is needed for another author.

Also posted at Goodreads

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Whosday - Two Doctor Who Novels

After my torrid love affair with Star Wars novels, media tie-in novels have always been literary butterfaces for me.  However, since I'm fairly obsessed with Doctor Who, I've dipped my toe back into the fetid pool of media fiction.  How did it go?  The results were mixed.

Doctor Who: The Coming of the TerraphilesDoctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles by Michael Moorcock
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the far future, The Doctor and Amy fall in with a group of historical reenacters, the Terraphiles, and join them in their competition to win the Arrow of Law, an artifact that may be the key to saving the multiverse. But what does the Arrow of Law have to do with the notorious space pirate Captain Cornelius or the theft of Mrs. Banning-Cannon's hideous new gargantuan hat?

On the surface, this looks like slam dunk for me. Michael Moorcock, author of The Dancers at the End of Time - Good. Doctor Who - Good. A strong P.G. Wodehouse feel remniscent of The Code of the Woosters - Good. Too bad it wasn't.

The ingredients are all there. At the core, this feels like a P.G. Wodehouse book set in space. Bingo Lockesley is a lot like Bertie Wooster and Mr. Banning Cannon could easily be someone that puts Bertie up to a hare-brained scheme. Moorcock even writes this more like a Wodehouse book than his normal style. It's very remniscent of Dancers at the End of Time in that respect.

The Arrow of Law is a lot like the maguffin in many of Moorcock's Eternal Champion books and the Cosmic Balance winds up playing a big part. Captain Cornelius is likely an aspect of the Eternal Champion and one of the more interesting characters in the book. I like what Moorcock's done with the 500th century and its denizens. However...

My main reason for 2-ing the hell out of this is the lack of The Doctor and Amy Pond. The Doctor and Amy are barely in it and don't do a whole lot. It reads like Moorcock had a novel set in the future already written and just crossed out two of the character's names and changed them to The Doctor and Amy Pond. As a Michael Moorcock book, I'd give this a high three. As Doctor Who book, it's barely a two. When I read a Doctor Who book, I want to see the TARDIS in action and the Doctor using his sonic screwdriver in every chapter, not playing some nutcracker game and looking for a missing hat.

To sum up, it's a case of the ingredients not coming together properly, like stirring the missing eggs and vanilla into the rest of the cake batter after it's already baked for ten minutes. I will think hard before I pick up another Doctor Who tie-in. Unless Neil Gaiman or John Scalzi should happen to write one.

Doctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas AdamsDoctor Who: Shada: The Lost Adventure by Douglas Adams by Gareth Roberts
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Doctor and Romana receive a mysterious distress signal, leading them to Cambridge University, home of The Doctor's old friend and fellow Time Lord, Professor Chronotis. Chronotis inadvertantly lets a Time Lord artifact, a book entitled The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, pass into the hands of a clueless young student. Unfortunately, an egomanic called Skagra also has designs on the book and will do anything to get it. Can The Doctor find the book, stop Skagra's nefarious scheme, and unearth the secrets of Shada?

I have a confession to make. Before getting hooked on the adventures of the eleventh Doctor and began backtracking, my only exposure to Doctor Who was on Sunday nights, waiting through Pertwee and Baker episodes for Red Dwarf to come on. I've since mended my ways.

I recently read Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles and was disappointed with it despite it having been written by Michael Moorcock. I'm happy to say that this one was loads better.

Crafted from mostly unfilmed Douglas Adams's scripts, Shada is the tale of three Time Lords against a man with a sphere capable of absorbing people's minds. Skagra, the villain, manages to be simultaneously menacing and somewhat ridiculous. From his first appearance at the Think Tank, Skagra presents a capable threat to the Doctor. The subplots involing the unspoken feeling between the grad students, Clare and Chris, as well as Professor Chronotis and his place in the secret history of the Time Lords, kept things from being The Doctor running from enemies on every other page.

The meaning of the title, Shada, is only revealed about 75% of the way through. I don't want to spoil anything but I would love to see Shada depicted in a future Doctor Who episode. I guess I'll have to settle for watching Tom Baker's run as the fourth Doctor.

The writing was very engaging. There were tastes of Adams' style throughout but without as much absurdity as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The Guide was even mentioned once in the text. References to past and future Doctor Who episodes were littered throughout, even mentioning edible ballbearings. I loved when Roberts had the Doctor poke fun at his supposed reliance on the Sonic Screwdriver. "I'm about to not rely on it for everything again in a moment" or something to that effect.

In conclusion, Shada is everything Coming of the Terraphiles wasn't. There's plenty of the Doctor and the Sonic Screwdriver gets a fair amount of use. While there is a lot of the Doctor and companions running from enemies, there's a good amount of humor and dramatic tension as well. I wouldn't say it's a must read for Doctor Who fans but it's a lot of fun.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Nick Stefanos Goes Down to the River

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

First published in 1995, this is the third and final installment of George Pelecanos's series featuring Nick Stefanos. In the opening book,A Firing Offense, Nick left his job at Nutty Nathan's electronics store and got his license as a P.I. But as this book opens, Nick, who has a major drinking problem, is supporting himself by tending bar at The Spot, a somewhat less-than-genteel establishment. Being a P.I. is still something of a sideline for Nick.

At this point, Nick is dating a woman probably better than he deserves and who is also developing a significant problem with booze herself. Needless to say, Stefanos is not the best influence in this regard. One night, Nick goes on a hellacious bender and winds up dead drunk, down by the Anacostia River. During the course of the night, a car pulls up near the spot where Nick has passed out. He awakens sufficiently to hear two men drag a third out of a car and shoot him. Nick can't raise his head high enough to see either the killers or their car, but he is alert enough to deduce from the sound of their voices that one of the killers is white, the other black.

The next morning, Nick finally awakens and stumbles down to the riverbank where he finds the body of the victim, a young black man. He makes an anonymous call to the cops, reporting the killing, and then beats feet.

The cops are convinced that it's a drug deal gone wrong or perhaps a gang killing and they don't appear to be putting a lot of effort into solving the case. But Nick knows that it's highly unlikely that a black man and a white man would be cooperating in either scenario. The killing has sobered him, at least temporarily, and he decides to investigate the crime himself.

Stephanos finds it significant that the victim's best friend is now missing and he teams up with a straight-arrow newbie P.I. named Jack LaDuke who has been hired by the missing boy's mother to find him. Together, Nick and LaDuke will be drawn into a seamy world of drugs, gay porn, violent crime and lots of other unpleasant activities as they attempt to find the missing boy and solve the killing.

As is usual in a novel by George Pelecanos, the major force in the book is the setting and atmosphere that he creates. The seedy underside of Washington, D.C., where virtually all of his books are set, comes alive and is vividly rendered. You can feel the poverty and despair, smell the cigarette smoke, and practically taste the liquor.

As always in a Pelecanos book, music plays a key role, and hardly a page goes by that does not find Stefanos listening to one musical group or another, a great many of whom no one else has ever heard of, and at times it can seem like Pelecanos is simply showing off in this regard, effectively pointing out to the reader that he is cooler and way more hip than the reader could possibly ever be.

But this is a small complaint about a very good book from a writer early in his career who would only grow more talented and produce even better books in the years to come. It should appeal to any reader of crime fiction who likes his or her action down and dirty and who understands that in real life, sometimes there are no happy endings.

Football & Murder - The Things That Made America Great

The Prophet
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown & Co.

reviewed by Kemper
4 out of 5 future NFL stars

This story is kinda like if Coach Eric Taylor on Friday Night Lights and Nick Stefanos from the crime novels by George Pellecanos were brothers who had been pulled apart by a family tragedy and now faced a killer.

Actually, I’m just being glib and that’s not doing justice to this book. Let’s start over:

In 1989, Adam Austin was a high school football star and his younger brother Kent looked to follow in his footsteps. As their team was in the middle of a season that would culminate in a state championship, Adam blew off giving their sister Marie a ride home one night, and that moment of teenage irresponsibility had horrible consequences when Marie was abducted and murdered.

Over 20 years pass. Adam now works as a bail-bondsmen with a private detective’s license, and Kent became the football coach of their old high school team. While Adam is a hard-drinker who spends his nights hunting down criminals who miss their court dates, Kent is a sober church going family man and community leader. Adam wallows in his guilt over Marie’s death by living in their childhood home and preserving her room exactly as it was when she died, but Kent tries to avoid any mention of his late sister. The two brothers have barely spoken in years after Adam became enraged at Kent for visiting their sister’s killer in prison and praying for the man.

As Kent prepares his undefeated football team for the play-offs, a young woman visits Adam with a request that he track down her father who was just released from prison. Adam makes a quick hundred bucks without missing his next beer, but this act results in a brutal murder that again links the two brothers in tragedy and rocks their small Ohio town.

I thought this one would be a straight up thriller, and while it has a few of those elements, it’s really more like Lehane’s Mystic River in that it’s about the impact to a family and a community caused by a crime, and all the ways that people try to make their peace with that. It’s the different lives and attitudes of the two brothers that really make this book hum as it examines how they dealt with their grief and loss, and how they both took it to extremes that are sadly understandable.

Adam thinks that Kent committed an unforgivable offense to Marie’s memory by offering forgiveness to her killer without understanding that it was how Kent was able to get some closure. Kent believes that Adam’s refusal to move on is just a stubborn decision on his part, but he can’t see that Adam has never found a way to forgive himself for her death.

Koryta does an excellent job of making both of these men sympathetic. Instead of the caricature of a screaming football coach who only cares about winning, Kent is a thoughtful and kind man who truly believes that he’s helping teenagers become upstanding adults, and he holds himself to extremely high standards. Adam seems like a cynical and lazy drunk at the beginning, but he’s also a determined man who refuses to let anything stand in the way of dealing with what he feels responsible for.

And oddly enough, this is also a book about sports. Kent sometimes feels silly at worrying about football games in the midst of everything going on, but he also knows that carrying on is the only way to get through something terrible. He struggles to strike a balance between letting his players know what’s really important versus what a championship would do for their struggling small town. Football is one thing that Adam and Kent can still talk about, and as Adam notes, sometimes it makes you feel better to just to hit the shit out of somebody.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Lunatics and Luck

Edgar is back and in fine fettle...for his age, which is more than considerable. The Guardian of Otherhand Castle is alarmed when kitchen maids start dying in extremely unlikely ways and an extremely hairy tutor arrives to bore the two older children of the household with such things as geography homework.

Matters get ever stranger, what with coins coming to rest on their edges and a certain sticky monkey ceasing to harass all and not everything is going badly, but still, there is a Mystery to be solved and in such circumstances a Raven of the highest calibre is required.

Yes, more baffling goings on as related by what should by now be everybody's favourite raven. He's such an endearing character and the humans are fun, too. So why not spend a quick two or three hundred pages in their company, once more?

I noticed that in the first volume the illustrations were integral - part of the story telling. This was noticably not the case this time out; it seemed like one could live without them if necessary - but I wouldn't want to - they add a lot to these GothicKmost of comedic mysteries.

Watch out for the most shocking of events connected to one of Otherhand Senior's inventions! Nothing came as more of a surprise in a book full of very unlikely happenstances!

Also seen at:

Bioshock Infinite: Infinitely Good

Sesana and Carol were both tempted into playing BioShock: Infinite, the latest in the BioShock game series developed by Irrational Games and published by 2K Games, released in 2013. Formatted for PC, Playstation and Xbox 360. Infinite is set in 1912, in the flying city of Columbia. Players take the role of Booker DeWitt, a former Pinkerton Agent. Booker is on a mission to “save the girl,” a young woman named Elizabeth. In the process, they discover a great deal about Columbia and each other.

Warning: extensive spoilers follow after the jump.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The violent wisdom of Cormac McCarthy

No Country for Old Men
Cormac McCarthy

Reviewer: Trudi
Rating: 5 of 5 blood-soaked stars

This book broke my brain. On the surface, McCarthy is weaving a modern day western aptly soaked in blood and ruthlessness, where the line between hero and villain is sharply drawn. On that same surface, what we have is a cast of archetypes – the weary sheriff who has stayed too long and seen too much; the everyday man living right until he is undone by greed; the young and dutiful wife committed to “standing by her man” no matter what; and finally, the relentless villain who will cut down any and all who cross his path.

That’s on the surface.

Even if you only read the book for that tale it is an awesome and rewarding one – tense, violent, dark, oppressive. Who will live? Who will die?

But as you read, your brain is going to want to do a lot more thinking about the story; in fact, the story will demand it. Those archetypical characters will demand it too. Like a hologram, just shift them a few degrees to the right or left and they become much more nuanced than you first thought, showing other angles and deeper reflections.

Who is Anton Chigurh? A blood-thirsty villain? an amoral badass? a demented sociopath? ... yes, yes and yes. But he also walks through the story doling out justice Old Testament style. There is that Biblical quality to him. You’ve committed your sins, and now the reaper has come a-calling. Not for vengeance, not for his pleasure, but for justice. Chigurh does not like loose ends. There is an order, a natural balance to things that must be maintained. The moment Llewelyn takes the money his fate is sealed. There is nothing from that moment on that will ever deter Chigurh from collecting on Llewelyn’s death and restoring "order".

Chigurh's character made me think about free will versus destiny. What are the choices any man or woman makes to get them to the exact moment he or she is now? Is it all random or has it been predestined all along? I’m not sure what Chigurh believes. The coin he carries speaks of a belief in chance (aka destiny). Chigurh respects the coin. Heads you live, tails you die. Llewelyn acts on free will, but once the act has taken place he seems destined to meet his final end, at least Chirgurh seems to think so. If Chigurh is the consequence or punishment doled out for a misdeed, does this make him Llewelyn's destiny?[Certainly if Carla Jean had called the coin correctly, Chigurh would have let her live. He seems to deeply respect the other “laws” at work around him. The moment that Llewellyn takes the money, his fate is sealed. There is nothing from that moment on that will ever deter Chigurh from collecting on Llewellyn’s death. That debt must be paid. It is non-negotiable. What is negotiable is Carla Jean’s life: if Llewellyn had returned the money as requested, Chigurh would have let her live. (hide spoiler)]

Yet, there is a randomness to Chigurh's killing philosophy in the sense that like the proverbial Hand of Death, there will always be innocent bystanders. “Innocence” does not compute, nor is it ever a factor. Bad things happen to good people all the time, even when you’re minding your own business you can be violently drawn into someone else’s. Is what we call random chance just destiny in disguise? There is nothing about being collateral damage that smacks of free will to me. 

I love Carla Jean. She is a heap of contradictions: vulnerable but strong, na├»ve but wise. She is loyal and loving and though she finds herself in a heap of trouble, does not buckle under the pressure. [Her confrontation with Chigurh is my favorite scene of the entire novel. I find it heartbreaking. This is an innocent facing death. It’s not fair, it shouldn’t be happening, but it is. Chigurh offers her a faint hope with the coin toss, but even that does not pan out for her. What breaks my heart the most about her death is that she went out of this life believing Llewellyn did not love her, that he had betrayed herLlewellyn is a good man. I don’t believe it's naked greed that makes him run off with the money, but a hope for a better life, an easier life for him and Carla Jean. I think he is a man filled with love and a lot of the choices he makes in this novel he makes thinking only of his young wife and the life he wants to give her.

This novel made my head explode with questions. McCarthy gives the reader a lot to ponder and chew on, but there are just as many places where McCarthy is mute and leaves it up to the reader to do all the work and come up with some answers, and, as in life, answers are not easy to come by.

The Blue Blazes

Chuck Wendig's The Blue Blazes

The Blue Blazes
Chuck Wendig
Angry Robot Books
Available May 28th, 2013

Have you ever walked into a party and seen someone just command everyone’s attention? Maybe they’re telling a joke, a captivating story or performing some ridiculous feat, you’re not sure. You lean over and ask someone what’s going on. They either shush you or they calmly say, “Oh, that’s just <insert name here>, he’s/she’s awesome.”  That’s Chuck Wendig.

Chuck is that guy that everyone is talking about that somehow you don’t know. He’s been building his reputation over the years with some critically acclaimed work but unfortunately, I’ve had my blinders on preferring to narrow my reading material to a select few genres and authors. It wasn’t until this year that I’ve really started to broaden my horizons and Chuck Wendig is one of my latest discoveries.

I first stumbled across Chuck when I was prepping for an interview with Adam Christopher. I wanted to avoid asking Adam anything that he’d already been asked a thousand times (a difficult task) when I came across an interview he did with the website, Terrible Minds. Terrible Minds is a blog created by Mr. Wendig where he interviews other authors and muses about anything that crosses his mind. Not only did I become a fan, I saw that he was also an author. Not only is he an author but an author that had a book scheduled to be released by Angry Robot – a publisher that I’ve become enthralled with over the past few months. When I saw that the ARC (advanced reader copy) became available, I snagged it as quickly as possible.

The Blue Blazes is an urban fantasy tale that mixes the criminal underworld with the spiritual underworld. When combined, it produces a hard hitting and brutal exercise in awesome. Mookie Pearl works for The Organization, a gang that holds great power and influence over the majority of the organized crime within New York City. When its leader becomes stricken with terminal cancer, Mookie is sent to retrieve a cure that may or may not even exist. The prospect of traveling within the local underworld is not something Mookie is looking forward to but seeing as his loyalty is unwavering, he sees no other option.

In mixing the surface dwellers with the underground, the underground have an advantage in assuming a physical appearance akin to ours. The only way to see them for who they really are is to smear a clay like substance often dubbed, “Peacock Powder” on each of their temples (think Roddy Piper’s shades in They Live!). As the novel progresses, Mookie hears of another drug similar to the blue called “The Red”, in which an acquaintance explains:

“..that shit’s like bath salts had a baby with steroids or something, man. Makes you go crazy. He went nuts. Tore up his mother’s house. Ate her dog.”

The underworld is filled with these select pigmentations that can alter one’s perception, strength or even cure diseases. The one Mookie is after is labeled Death’s Head, or sometimes known as “The Purple”. Long considered to be an urban legend, Death’s Head is believed to cure the incurable and bring those back to life that had passed on.

Not only does Mookie have a hell of a challenge ahead of him (mind the pun) but he also has to deal with his rebellious daughter, Nora. Nora was more than a little tired of living in her father’s shadow and playing a background character to his duties with the mob. So she chose to hit him where it hurts, his father figure boss. Despite his frustration following her actions, his love for her never falls to the wayside. Given his career choice, what option did he have? In order to function like the hard-ass that he was, he had to push his family to the back burner.

“Mookie’s not a man given over to much guilt. In his line of work, guilt is a boat anchor around the ankle, a too-full colostomy bag hanging from the hip. It’s a burden. A does-nothing-for-you-but-slow-your-ass-down burden. Guilt will make you hesitate. Shame makes you weak. And Mookie’s tough. Tough like an anvil.”

Chuck’s got some excellent writing chops. Like the above, there are more than a few lines that had me laughing out loud. Aside from both the action and intensity that Chuck writes with, he isn't above throwing in some abrasive comedy to boot.

“He wants to know who did this. So he can break a baseball bat off in their bowels”

“..And it’s then and there that Mookie decides he’s going to steal a fucking city bus and hit the Holland Tunnel and find this guy’s house and drive the bus over his head”.

I was seriously hooked on this. The Blue Blazes feels like it should exist in the same realm as Frank Miller’s Sin City, both have lovable oafs in Mookie Pearl and Marv respectively and a similar level of extremely stylized violence. Wendig crafted a world here that could produce an endless number of stories. Possibly a prequel or spin-off in regards to the brief introductions for each chapter from an early underworld explorer attempting to map out its environment.

It should be worth noting that Angry Robot is kicking out some fantastic cover art and The Blue Blazes is no exception. Working with Joey Hi-Fi, the same artist as his previous novels, Chuck has some great eye-grabbing artwork to grace the cover. The smaller shot I have at the top of this review seriously does not do it justice. Head over to Terrible Minds to see a hi-res shot.

I’ll be checking out some more Wendig going forward. His Miriam Black series has received a great deal of praise and I doubt it’ll be long before I catch up.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
By David Mitchell
Reviewed by Stephanie
5 out of 5 stars

I can find no fault with Cloud Atlas. 

Because of that I have had a difficult time coming up with this review.  This book could have gone all wrong, its premise could have easily tipped this book over the edge into gimmick but David Mitchell pulled this off seamlessly.  It blows my mind.

This book is six very different stories, occurring in different time periods that on the surface have nothing to do with each other.  Yet they have everything to do with each other.  

In 1850, a lawyer crosses the pacific during which he falls seriously ill and is treated by a doctor on board with unusual methods.
n 1931 a young composer of questionable morals works his way into the house of an old, formerly great composer who, due to late stage syphilis has lost his edge.   During his time there he writes his masterpiece.

In 1975 an ambitious reporter working for a gossip rag goes after a big story that makes her a target.
Present day, an older gentleman working in publishing finally finds success, after working his entire life, with a book with ties criminal types.  He soon finds trouble as well.  In an attempt to find a safe place to lie low he ends up in a retirement home against his will.

In the near future, people are cloned and are genetically engineered for slave labor.   They are called fabricants, and one fabricant, Sonmi 451 starts to think outside of the box.  When she does all hell breaks loose.

Far into the future, we find Zachry living in Hawaii just as people did in the distant past, in tribes and in huts and with zero technology.  Language itself is even breaking down.  He meets a young woman that shows up on a ship that still has technology.

Zachry’s story is the center of the book and is the only one that is told completely without a break.  All the rest are told up to a certain point and then they break and start with the next story in order.   Once we hear Zachry’s tale we move backwards and hear the conclusion to the earlier stories to end up where we started, on the ship crossing the Pacific.  It’s a bit like an onion.

All of these stories could have been written by different authors.  You have an historical novel, a crime mystery, a comedy, a sci fi and an apocalyptic novel all mashed up and connected. 


People do the oddest things in the name of winning

Moonwalking with Einstein
By Joshua Foer
Reviewed by Stephanie
4 out of 5 stars

I’m a competitive person. A few years ago I would have added the word “very” in front of competitive; I’ve mellowed as I’ve aged but I remember the lengths I went to in order to be the best at whatever I deemed important.  I’m fairly certain I would not go to such lengths to win a memory competition.

Joshua Foer thought it was a dandy idea…..

Joshua found himself in the world of competitive memory when he decided he wanted to do a journalistic book about the subject and the people in it.   Apparently, and I didn’t know this, there is a world competition for memory.  These people memorize long lists of numbers, decks on top of decks of cards, poetry….ect, all to repeat what they remember to some judges in hopes of winning.  My question was why?  What purpose could this possibly serve?  Who needs a skill like this and when would one have the need to memorize 20 decks of cards?

As the author points out in the book, we no longer need to remember much of anything these days, all our electronic gadgets serve as our external memory.   When was the last time you memorized a phone number?  Pretty close to “a really flippin long time ago” I would guess. 

To accomplish the mind boggling feet of, say, memorizing the order of cards in many set of cards in just minutes, they use the technique called mnemonics.  What this is, is making a visual backdrop for each card, or number, or object and putting them in ‘memorable’ situations doing strange things……and apparently the raunchier the better.  Trust me you don’t want to know what his mind had conjured up for Bill Clinton and a Watermelon, but I will never forget it.

Competition got the better of Foer, and he went from writing a book about memory competitors to being a competitor himself.   He wanted the American memory championship bad!    So bad he resorted to wearing blacked out goggles with small holes in them to see whatever he studying and to wearing earmuffs  to minimize distractions. 

That's dedication.

Beautiful Boy: A Father's Journey Through His Son's Addiction

David Sheff
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


What had happened to my beautiful boy? To our family? What did I do wrong? Those are the wrenching questions that haunted every moment of David Sheff ’s journey through his son Nic’s addiction to drugs and tentative steps toward recovery. Before Nic Sheff became addicted to crystal meth, he was a charming boy, joyous and funny, a varsity athlete and honor student adored by his two younger siblings. After meth, he was a trembling wraith who lied, stole, and lived on the streets. David Sheff traces the first subtle warning signs: the denial, the 3 A.M. phone calls (is it Nic? the police? the hospital?), the rehabs. His preoccupation with Nic became an addiction in itself, and the obsessive worry and stress took a tremendous toll. But as a journalist, he instinctively researched every avenue of treatment that might save his son and refused to give up on Nic.

Beautiful Boy is a fiercely candid memoir that brings immediacy to the emotional rollercoaster of loving a child who seems beyond help.

My Review

I never understood the appeal of meth. It’s made in clandestine labs using an array of chemicals that are flammable and hazardous to your health. The drug is highly addictive and has dangerous side-effects. Your teeth fall out, your jaw collapses, you get those ghastly sores and ulcers, your cheeks become hollow, and your eyes are sunken in. And that’s only on the outside. On the inside, your brain looks like Swiss cheese, you become paranoid, irritable and even violent.

At one time, cocaine was my drug of choice. No fancy paraphernalia, no needles, and it’s a plant derivative. The high doesn’t last as long and if I want to stop, there are no physical withdrawal symptoms. Plus, it had the added benefits of keeping my weight down at its lowest, making me the life of the party, and acquiring more friends than I knew what to do with. So it has to be healthier for you, right? Who was I kidding?

My job performance suffered, I became paranoid, I was hardly eating at all, and I slept only sporadically. There were nosebleeds, jitters, dry mouth, running nose, and depression. There was the scary emergency room visit for an asthma attack during a party where drugs, alcohol and cats were rampant. My neglect to mention my drug use to the doctor treating me nearly caused me to have a heart attack.

One morning I woke up and decided enough is enough. My love affair with the drug was over as quickly as it started. Since that day, I never touched the stuff again.

I’ve read stories about drug addicts, but none told from a parent’s perspective. Nic Sheff, a college student in his early 20’s, continues to battle his addiction. This is a beautiful and painful story told by his dad. He’s not a perfect man and he’s made a lot of mistakes, but there was never a doubt in my mind that he loves his son dearly. Through the ups and down of Nic’s addiction, his dad’s constant worries and fears ultimately affected his health until eventually he sought the help he needed and learned to create healthy boundaries.

I’m looking forward to Nic’s story – what made him start using, his relationship with his parents and siblings, and the effects his parents’ divorce had on him.

All I can say is I’m glad I don’t have kids. 

Also posted at Goodreads.