Friday, August 30, 2013

The Children of Men

P.D. James
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Told with P. D. James' s trademark suspense, insightful characterization, and riveting storytelling, "The Children of Men" is a story of a world with no children and no future. The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.

My Review

I went to the library to spice up my life and came across a display inviting me to go on a blind date with a book. Each one was covered in brown wrapping paper with a big red heart. Underneath the heart was a very brief description. The one I picked up said “Receptive and chilling”.

It was fun driving home with a book I knew absolutely nothing about. I couldn’t wait to get it home, pour myself a glass of wine, strip off its cover, and learn its secrets. To my disappointment, it was The Children of Men, a book I read shortly after it came out. I liked it well enough at the time, but found that years later nothing stood out for me but the Quietus and the feral Painted Faces. I saw the film around 2007 and can’t remember a single thing about it, only that there was more action and less reflection and introspection. 

In 2021, the world is ending quietly. No babies have been born since 1995, the last one killed when he was just 25. People are getting older, trapped in routines, becoming resigned. Infrastructure is falling apart from lack of maintenance and small towns are losing their population.  

Theodore Faron is a history professor who no longer has any children of his own and none to teach. He is keeping a journal to record the last half of his life and lives a solitary existence until he meets Julian and a small group of people who desire to revolt against the dictatorship of England, whose leader happens to be Theo’s cousin Xan.  

When I first read this book, I found the characters largely bland and uninteresting and much preferred the second half when Theo and the five revolutionaries were on the run. 

Now, I found I rather enjoyed reading about Theo’s childhood and relationship with Xan, his failed marriage, the people he encounters, his feelings about the events going on around him, and the gradual process of his falling in love.

“A failed marriage is the most humiliating confirmation of the transitory seduction of the flesh. Lovers can explore every line, every curve and hollow, of the beloved’s body, can together reach the height of inexpressible ecstasy; yet how little it matters when love or lust at last dies and we are left with disputed possessions, lawyers’ bills, the sad detritus of the lumber-room, when the house chosen, furnished, possessed with enthusiasm and hope has become a prison, when faces are set in lines of peevish resentment and bodies no longer desired are observed in all their imperfections with a dispassionate and disenchanted eye.”

I enjoyed this book much more with the second reading. Maybe it’s because I am now Theo’s age and can understand his feelings much better. Or maybe I have more patience and prefer rich characterization and lovely descriptions of countryside to lots of mindless action. Now that the book is fresh in my mind, I’ll think about watching the film again.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Magical and Melancholy Reflection on Childhood

The Stolen Child
by Keith Donohue
Published by Nan A. Talese

4 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

Feeling ignored and tired of his infant twin sisters getting all of the attention, young Henry Day decided to run away one day in the 1940's. Henry never returned home; in fact, he ceased to exist, but no one noticed. Why? Henry was abducted by the hobgoblins who lived in the nearby forest and a changeling was left in his place--a changeling who had been studying everything about Henry and knew how to mimic him so perfectly that no one could tell the difference. The Stolen Child follows the boy and the changeling for the next 30 to 40 years and tells their story in alternating first person narratives that, in the beginning, are a little confusing, but rightly so as both children are confused about their identities as they each adapt to their new world. Their lives run parallel to one another and occasionally intersect to disastrous results.

A friend of mine described this book as "melancholy," and I think that's the perfect adjective to sum up my feelings after reading this book. For one, the changelings are not villains. They are all children who had their lives stolen from them and are now biding their time until they can reclaim what was forcefully and brutally taken from them. As a result, I feel sorry for both Aniday (the name given to Henry after he becomes one of the changelings) and Gustav (the changeling who takes Henry's place). Often in a fantasy, you get the joy of hating the evil-doer or the monster lurking in the dark, but here the evil is something nebulous and never clearly defined. I think this is partially due to the allegorical nature of the plot. In a sense, life is the monster in that it's a force of nature that can't be stopped or reasoned with. For each of us, our childhood must eventually end and, as children, we often can't wait to grow up and find out who and what we'll be. To do so, we have to cut ourselves away from the child we were so that we can embrace the adult we'll become. We leave a "changeling"--a collection of memories, childish desires, and emotions that revisit us throughout our lives, but the child version of ourselves is like a stranger we once knew.

Also, as we get older, many of us look back on the innocence of childhood with a sense of nostalgia and think, if only upon occasion, "if only I could go back" or "wouldn't it be great to be a child forever?" The answer provided by Donohue is no; that the romantic view of childhood is just that--the tinge of rose-colored glasses. The changelings are not The Wild Boys; sure they are given to fun, frivolity, and mischief, but theirs is not a life to be envied. It is a constant struggle for survival against the harsh elements and the encroachment of man as civilization and suburbia threaten the wilderness where they are able to secret themselves away. They long to grow up and are trapped in tiny bodies while their emotional and mental maturity continues, unimpeded. They wait and they yearn and they think about all they will never have and all they will never be.

In presenting the changeling myth for modern times, Donohue has given us a haunting and beautiful examination of childhood and the search for identity. And he has done so in humanity’s most enduring medium: that of myth.    

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Fantasy of Manners? Yes, please!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

Susanna Clarke


Reviewed by: Terry 

4- 4.5 out of 5 stars



Fantastic story. One of the few that actually lives up to the hype. Be warned though: this is a loooong book and it is true that, from one point of view at least, it can be said that not too much happens in it. The title tells us what the two main sections of the book will cover: the lives of the last two true magicians in an alternate 19th century Britain. They are the bookish, annoying and altogether full of himself Mr. Norrell and the flighty, brilliant and altogether full of himself Jonathan Strange.

What follows is a fantasy book as written by Jane Austen by way of Neil Gaiman. Of course it's much more, and better, than that trite description implies. Mr. Norrell is a man who wants to 'own' magic. At the beginning of the story he is the sole active practitioner of the Art which has up to that point devolved into a purely academic pursuit. He has seemingly made it his life's work to hoard every available resource on the Art in England and force every other so-called Magician to abjure their claim to its practice if they cannot meet his challenge.

Jonathan Strange, on the other hand, is a young and carefree man of means flitting from interest to interest, unable to find any focus in his life. Until, that is, he discovers his unique talent for magic and ends up coming into direct contention with dour Mr. Norrell. The relationship that develops between these two characters is very interesting as Norrell, for his part, sees Strange as both his greatest adversary and, conversely, an apt pupil who is the only equal with whom the lonely old man can converse with any real pleasure or surprise. Strange finds Norrell infuriating and irritating in about equal measure, yet still seems drawn to the older man's knowledge.

In the background of the story of these two magicians and the rebirth of English Magic in general (and fueling its movement forward), are two figures of legend: the puckish Gentleman with thistledown hair (a fae inadvertently brought to the human world via some ill-advised early magic by Norrell) and the enigmatic Raven King (a human named John Uskglass, the once and future magical high-king of Britain, a human adopted into Faerie in the Middle Ages). These two figures loom large in the story, the former explicitly as he attempts to meddle with the human world for his own mischievous ends (as the fae are wont), the other much more subtly as his influence is more felt than seen behind the entirety of English magic.

The only great fault with the story is perhaps the fact that the two title characters, for all of their deeds and interactions, still sometimes seem to remain somewhat enigmatic cyphers in the background of their own stories. In many ways the secondary characters of John Childermass, Vinculus, and Stephen Black are more interesting than the protagonists. Despite this though, the story is well-told. It has a charming, archaic style that is thoroughly enjoyable which makes heavy use of academic footnotes, some of which are even more amusing and enlightening than the story on which they comment.

Overall a great story and very immersive book that I highly recommend.  


Also posted at Goodreads

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


GunsightsGunsights by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When two friends (and Arizona legends) Bren Early and Dana Moon find them on opposite sides of a land dispute, will them come to bloodshed over mining rights? And what of Sundeen, the bounty hunter that they should have killed years before...

Elmore Leonard passed away this week so I dropped what I was reading and gave this a read. While it's an early Leonard and not up to the standards of his later crime novels, all the Leonard hallmarks are still there: smooth dialogue, likeable characters, and lots of twists.

Dana Moon and Brendan Early are the ancestors of a lot of Leonard's later crime leads. They're capable, sharp-witted men, and know their way around a gunfight. When Moon finds himself on the wrong side of a mining company that Early has a stake in, things heat up.

As usual, some of the bad guys aren't all that bad and could easily be good guys under other circumstances, specifically Ruben Vega. Actually, Sundeen isn't a bad guy for a son of a bitch. If I had a hole in my cheek from a gunshot wound, I'd probably be tracking down Early and Moon myself.

Par for the course, there are lots of twists and turns. I liked that the newspaper men were fanning the flames a lot of the time. No one in the media every does that now...

The structure wasn't quite what I'm used to from Elmore Leonard but it worked well, incorporating a lot of flashbacks to establish how Early and Moon got to where they were.

To sum up, it wasn't my favorite Leonard but as with all of his books, it was still an entertaining read. If penis size was proportional to the ability to write entertaining dialogue and cool characters, Elmore Leonard could have whipped his member out and clubbed narwhals to death with it. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Letters from a Murderer (Contains Spoilers)

Letters From a MurdererLetters From a Murderer by John Matthews
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a prostitute is murdered in New York and all signs point to Jack the Ripper, pathologist Thomas Colby sends his protege Finley Jameson across the pond to assist the police. Jameson teams with NYC cop Joseph Argenti to catch the Ripper but Jameson has some skeletons of his own and the police force is half in the pocket of gangster Michael Tierney. Can Jameson and Argenti catch the Ripper and end his reign of terror forever?

I got this from Netgalley. Thank you, Netgalley!

I almost didn't pick this up, feeling Jack the Ripper has been played out. However, I was watching Sherlock when this came up on Netgalley and decided to give it a chance. I'm glad I did.

Letters from a Murderer takes Jack the Ripper and plops him down in New York in 1891. Argenti, the immigrant cop, is an honest man in a dishonest place, fighting just to keep his head above water in a city of corruption. Finley Jamson is a privileged Englishman with quite a few quirks. Together, they make a pretty good team.

The supporting cast is equally good. You get Ellie, the prostitute who hasn't yet been broken by the business, Lawrence, Jameson's autistic savant manservant, and the Tierney mob. Michael Tierney reminds me of Al Swearengen from Deadwood quite a bit.

The Ripper is quite Ripperiffic and the violence is gruesome whenever he appears. I'm not sure how much Matthews drew from the actual case and how much he invented, though.

Big Fat Spoiler:  Jameson's quite a complex figure, what with his blackouts and opium habit. Seriously, does every Victorian detective have to be a drug addict? Anyway, it's a testament to Matthews' skill that even though this says a Jameson and Argenti mystery or something to that effect on the cover, he almost had me convinced that Jameson was killing people during his blackouts and/or opium hazes and unaware of it.

The way things unfolded was pretty believable. There were no huge leaps. Again, I'm not sure how much Matthews invented. Was NYC's sewer system a labyrinth of tunnels connected to the sea in 1891?

Letters From a Murderer was a gripping read and I'll be picking up the next Jameson and Argenti mystery. Four out of five stars.

View all my reviews

Monday, August 26, 2013

Elmore Leonard's Bootleggers

The Moonshine War
by Elmore Leonard

Reviewed by Kemper
4 out of 5 illegally brewed stars

I started reading Elmore Leonard in the late ‘80s when I was a teenager with a growing taste for crime fiction.  It was a great time to jump on the Leonard bandwagon because he was in the midst of a creative high that would last through the ‘90s. Three top notch movie adaptations (Get Shorty in 1995, Jackie Brown based on Rum Punch in 1997 and Out of Sight in 1998) would soon follow.

He seemed to gear down a bit after 2000.  No surprise there.  He was getting older, and if the books came a bit slower and weren’t quite as creative as some of his earlier ones, they were still pretty damn good and came out regularly.   Then in 2010 FX aired the show Justified based on one of his earlier characters, US Marshal Raylan Givens, so Elmore Leonard’s name became known to another generation of fans.  Inspired by the show, Leonard even wrote a new book that would be used for more of Raylan’s TV adventures.  He was reportedly working on another one when he died last week following complications from a stroke.
It seems silly to say that a man who was 87 years old and who had a long and distinguished career is gone too soon, but writers like Leonard become fixtures in the lives of their fans.  You get used to a new book popping up.  Every once in a while someone will put together a new movie or TV show based on his work, and when the name comes up, there’s the fleeting thought, “Damn, that guy is good.” You forget that there won’t be an infinite number of books, and that you should appreciate every one you read and like.

I had come across The Moonshine War in a bookstore several months ago, and it was one I’d never read before so I grabbed a copy.  It got lost somewhere on the steep slopes of Mount To-Read, and I didn’t give it much thought until the word came out about Leonard’s death.  Having an unread Elmore Leonard book in the house after that seemed like a crime against nature so I mounted a successful expedition to recover it.  I’m glad it was worth the effort.

Son Martin is a Kentucky moonshiner during Prohibition and while his liquor is considered pretty damn good, everyone agrees that his father’s was even better.  Before his death, Son’s father spent a year brewing up 150 barrels of whiskey that he hid somewhere in the hills to age.  That was eight years earlier and the booze would be worth a fortune now.  Unfortunately, while he was in the army Son drunkenly confided the story of the whiskey to Frank Long.  Frank is now a Prohibition agent, and he shows up demanding that Son turn over the liquor to him, but Long isn’t planning on confiscating it for the government.  He wants to sell it for himself, and when Son refuses to hand it over, Frank recruits another bootlegger to help him recover it, and the moonshine war begins.

One thing that jumps out immediately about this one is that it’s incredibly tight at just over 200 pages.  Yet despite being relatively thin, it’s stuffed with well-developed characters who spout the typically great Leonard dialogue.  There’s also plenty of action and a couple of memorably sleazy villains in the form of a former dentist turned bootlegger kingpin and his crazy gun man.  I especially liked how Leonard lets the small town dynamics play out when Frank and his partners try to force Son to give up the whiskey by busting up the stills of all of his neighbors while leaving his alone.

Fans of Justified will see the same of Leonard elements that the show uses, and the relationship between Son and Frank is as complicated and rich as the one between Raylan and his arch-enemy/friend Boyd on the show.

The only bad thing I can say about this book is that I wish there were about twenty more like it still to come.

Lucas Davenport Goes Up Against an Art History Professor

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

The twelfth entry in John Sandford's acclaimed Prey series finds the world of the protagonist, Lucas Davenport, undergoing some major changes. His boss, Police Chief Rose Marie Roux, is about to lose her job since the mayor who appointed her is leaving office. This means, in turn, that Davenport will almost certainly lose his job as Assistant Chief as well.

At the same time, Lucas's girlfriend, Weather Karkinnen, has decided that it's time for them to make a baby. Weather has been alienated from Lucas for a long while because of an incident that occurred at the end of a previous book, but now she's back. This does not mean that Weather has decided that she would like to be engaged to Davenport again, but her biological clock is ticking and she does need someone to father the child...

In the midst of all this, a young woman's decomposing body is discovered partially buried on a rural hillside. She's been missing for about a year, and there is virtually no evidence suggesting who her killer might have been. As Davenport attempts to untangle the mystery, a rural Wisconsin marshal appears with a file he's been keeping on missing young women who have disappeared much like Davenport's victim. One of the missing women is the marshal's niece and Lucas suddenly realizes that he may have a serial killer on his hands.

He does, of course, and Lucas rallies his usual team and sends them into action. The killer is a professor of art history named James Qatar. (This gives nothing away; as is almost always in the case in these books, the reader meets the killer before Davenport even appears on the scene.) Qatar has some particularly sick fantasies that he is acting out and is capable of some pretty unsettling violence. But he's also unusually clever and lucky, and Davenport will have to draw upon all of his legendary skills if he's going to run Qatar to ground.

I enjoyed this book a lot. As always, the banter is great; it's fun to watch Weather mess with Lucas, both mentally and physically; the pace is good, and the payoff at the end is rewarding. If I have any complaint about the book (and it's a small one), it's that I didn't think that James Qatar was in the same league as many of the other antagonists in this series.

The quality of these books almost always depends on the quality of the villain as well as that of the hero, Davenport. Sandford is capable of creating some truly nasty and memorable adversaries for Lucas, and to my mind, Qatar is not among the better of them. But then, Sandford did give us a fantastic character in Clara Rinker, who appears in two of the Prey books, and so I'm perfectly happy to forgive him if he can't measure up to that level of perfection every time out of the gate. An easy four stars for this one.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Not at all blue

James Lee Burke
Reviewed by Carol
Five stars
Recommended for: fans of deeply flawed detectives and southern noir

Read on August 23, 2013, read count: twice

Sometimes I wonder if you can really like the Robicheaux series. It isn't easy witnessing a man struggle with his demons, both internal and external, to root for him and watch him both succeed and fail, sometimes in the same breath.

Dave isn't a simple person, which is one of the attractive aspects of him as centerpiece to a series. He knows his weaknesses, fights them and yet is unable to avoid following his pattern, like Sysiphus hauling the boulder again and again only to watch it roll downhill. He's been seeing a therapist since his wife died, and they have an oddly telling discussion:
"'Cut loose from the past. She wouldn't want you to carry a burden like this.'
'I can't. I don't want to.'
'Say it again.'
'I don't want to.'
He was bald and his rimless glasses were full of light. He turned his palms up toward me and was silent.'"


Book three in the Dave Robicheaux series opens in a motel, Dave dreaming of the helpless night his wife Anne was murdered. Restless and haunted, he heads to an all-night diner and runs into Dixie Lee Pugh, former roommate, master blues singer, old-time rock-n-roller and dedicated drinker. They only spend a few minutes together, but shortly after, Dixie looks Dave up for help with a couple of thuggish business acquaintances. From there, Dixie's flailing, drunken attempts to stay out of Angola pull Dave into a world of hurt. As he asks a few questions on Dixie's behalf, he runs into his former partner Clete. Dave watches him drive away and wishes him a powerful blessing:
"Whatever you're operating on, I hope it's as pure and clean as white gas and bears you aloft over the places where the carrion birds clatter."
Dave almost breaks free of Dixie's situation when the thugs threaten Alafair; Dave's inner demons take over and he finds himself facing a murder charge. Freeing himself will mean digging deeper into Dixie's connections in Montana.

Burke weaves his trademark beautiful, evocative beginning, bringing the varied landscape of the deep south to life, from Louisiana to the edges of Texas. In fact, it's fair to say that the setting stands in for Dave Robicheaux's emotions, and it seems to be raining quite a bit in the bayou these days. Unfortunately, setting doesn't seem to work as well after they head up to Montana, the land of pines, mountainous geography and multi-colored streams. Memories of the south stand in instead.

There is just a touch of humor in this, the kind that makes me smile, albeit crookedly:

"But I had never bought very heavily into the psychiatric definitions of singularity and eccentricity in people. In fact, as I reviewed the friendships I had had over the years, I had to conclude that the most interesting ones involved the seriously impaired--the Moe Howard account, the drunken, the mind-smoked, those who began each day with a nervous breakdown, people who hung on to the sides of the planet with suction cups."

Once the story moved to Montana, I found Clete and Dixie rapidly took over the story with their extravagant personalities. I didn't mind, but if anyone is more flawed than Dave, it's Clete. Clete is no fool either, and is well aware he's Dave's stalking horse:
"'Why'd you keep partnering with me at the First District after you saw me bend a couple of guys out of shape?' He grinned at me. 'Maybe because I'd do the things you really wanted to. Just maybe. Think about it.'"

Character arcs and redemption go farther than I expected, and if the villain is a bit of a sociopath, he's a frustrated sociopath with resources and its no less frightening for it. Batist is well done and avoids both disrespect and pitfalls of the loyal support character. Alafair is written appropriately for a young child, and one of my favorite moments is when Dave acknowledges the foolishness of telling her to be brave: "She had experienced a degree of loss and violence in her short life that most people can only appreciate in their nightmares."

The first read was somewhat less than satisfying, perhaps because I was pushing the mood and the speed. Burke does not write thrillers, although they certainly have their share of violence and mayhem, and his stories are not conducive to skimming. Visual setting and childhood memories are as important as suspect interviews. The second time--largely accomplished on a comfy lounge chair in the sun--was far more successful and satisfying. I always want to visit the bayou after I'm finished with Dave Robicheaux.

Highly recommended. Note: it won Burke's first Edgar Award.
Four and a half, five stars.

Cross posted at

Another Little Piece

Another Little Piece
by Kate Karyus Quinn

Reviewed by Sesana
Five out of five stars

Publisher Summary:

On a cool autumn night, Annaliese Rose Gordon stumbled out of the woods and into a high school party. She was screaming. Drenched in blood. Then she vanished.

A year later, Annaliese is found wandering down a road hundreds of miles away. She doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know how she got there. She only knows one thing: She is not the real Annaliese Rose Gordon.

Now Annaliese is haunted by strange visions and broken memories. Memories of a reckless, desperate wish . . . a bloody razor . . . and the faces of other girls who disappeared. Piece by piece, Annaliese's fractured memories come together to reveal a violent, endless cycle that she will never escape—unless she can unlock the twisted secrets of her past.

My Review:

I can't talk about the plot of this book in much detail. There's a lot to discover, and it's far better to learn the whole truth of Annaliese through reading. This is one of those situations where getting spoiled could entirely ruin the experience. The publisher summary strikes a pretty good balance between telling enough to hook a reader and keeping enough held back to preserve the secrets of the book, so I'll leave it at that. I should also point out that there are shifting timelines, and those parts of the book can happen very suddenly. You have to be ready to roll with the punches in the book. For me, the first time it happened I was a bit thrown, but I was ready for it the next time it happened.

What I can talk about is the feel of the book, the sense of getting thrown off balance every fifty pages or so. Annaliese's memory is a blank as the book begins, so she's learning at the same pace as the reader. And it takes nearly the entire length of the book to learn the whole truth of who and what and why she is. Not that every question is answered within the pages of the book. If you hate loose ends, this is the sort of book that will frustrate you. But if you can take and are even intrigued by a book that deliberately leaves things unexplained to the reader (they are, after all, unexplained to Annaliese, and we shouldn't expect them to be), then that's a point in this book's favor.

More points for the characters, particularly our narrator. Annaliese starts from a very vulnerable position, naturally. No memory, apparently victim of a horrible crime, and being sent to live with people she is told are her parents but she can't remember nor have any immediate feelings for. And she shows that vulnerability, but she is by no means a weak character. I would describe her as someone determined to find herself in a stable life, but not someone willing to let others do that work for her. As a character, I found her fully believable. And the same goes for the secondary characters, particularly her parents. Quinn definitely thought about the impact this scenario (a vanished child returns after a year missing) would have on a loving family.

There is romance, of course. This is YA. Luckily, the romance developed at a believable pace and for believable reasons. No instalove! I understand what Annaliese sees in Dex, and what he sees in her. And it doesn't distract from the main point of the story. The romance doesn't take over the rest of the book, which is probably the main reason I like it. It's not that I have a problem with romance, I just don't like it taking over stories when I should be able to concentrate on what are, in the context of the book, much more important things.

I was just riveted by this book, especially towards the end. I read it mostly during my lunch break at work, and at the end of my breaks surprised both by how quickly lunch had gone by and how much I'd managed to read in that time. And that's why I'm bumping up this 4.5 star book to 5 stars. It isn't perfect, but it is wonderful.

I won an ARC of this book from The Midnight Garden blog. Thanks, guys! I loved it!

Also reviewed at Goodreads.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

A Double Dose of Chris F. Holm's Short Fiction

8 Pounds: Eight Tales of Crime, Horror & Suspense
Chris F. Holm
Poisonville Press
Available Now! (Kindle Exclusive)

In 8 Pounds, author Chris F. Holm presents us with eight tales of crime, horror and suspense.  The stories themselves provide glimpses into selfishness, self-preservation, betrayal and straight up horror.

“On the first day, nobody paid it no mind.  Sure, the power flickered and the gutters overflowed, but most just figured it’d blow over by daybreak.
On the second day, the river swelled.  Folks took off work to haul sandbags to the riverbanks, hoping to keep the rising waters at bay.  They worked for hours in the wind and wet, and in the end, that river breached its banks and sent ‘em running.
On the third day, they found the body.”

Look, if that doesn't grab you right away, I don’t know what will.  The collection starts off strong with Seven Days of Rain, a story about guilt and doing what’s right despite your own best interests.

While I wasn't a huge fan of the follow-up, A Better Life, Holmes hits us with a thriller in the third story about a woman on the run and an unsuspecting good Samaritan caught up in her circumstances with A Simple Act of Kindness.

The book moves along smoothly with the pulse pounding Eight Pounds.  Holm turns the suspense up to eleven as two best friends share drinks at a pub – one harboring a secret from the other.  The tension rises when the guilty party suspects he’s been outed leading to a memorable conclusion.

He snorted, took a drink.  ”We’re all of us the killing kind,” he said.  ”With the proper motivation, any one of us is capable of just about anything.  Murder. Theft. Betrayal.  But then you of all people should know that.”

Aside from the very short The Well, the collection finishes up with a classic crime caper in The Big Score and a coming of age story in The World Behind.  While I felt The Well seemed out of place and had a bit of a puzzling ending, the two stories that followed finished strong.  The Big Score kept me guessing right until the very end while The World Behind tugged on the ol’ heartstrings.

Overall, while I felt it was not as strong as its stellar successor, Dead Letters, 8 Pounds is a good collection of varied stories from a great author.  Given its bargain price on Amazon right now – you should give it a read.

Dead Letters: Stories of Murder & Mayhem
Chris F. Holm
Poisonville Press
Available Now! (Kindle Exclusive)

I think I’m finally starting to come around on short story collections. While I’ve read a few that I couldn’t quite get behind, the ones that I’m enjoying are seemingly outnumbering the ones I don’t. I was a big fan of John Connolly’s Nocturnes as well as Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars and now you can add Chris F. Holm’s Dead Letters to that exclusive club.

There’s a lot to like about this collection. While most of them were enjoyable, a select few completely blew me away. My favorite of the bunch involved a couple moving into a home believed to previously have been inhabited by a famous writer from Maine. Without giving anything away, Holm crafted an ending that gave me chills the likes of which I cannot recall. In addition to that, there’s a fantastic story involving a murder mystery featuring the characters from Rankin Bass’ Rudolph The Rednose Reindeer. Holm had me laughing out loud injecting these G-Rated personalities into a noir-style setting.

A few other great ones include “Action”, a hilarious bank robbery involving pretentious artists that goes awry, “A Native Problem”, a downright chilling tale involving cannibalism (or zombies) and “The Man With The Alligator Shoes”, a story that seems to mirror the frustration following the 2008 market crash.

Oh, and it would be a crime not to mention the story that kicks things off. ”The Putdown” was certainly interesting enough given the style in which Chris chose to narrate the story. For someone not from the south, writing in a southern twang had to have been challenging. However, it was the ending that gripped me. I knew after finishing that solid opener, I had some interesting stuff ahead of me.

At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I can’t get enough of Mr. Holm’s work. Between his Collector series and now this short story collection, he’s an author that everyone should be looking out for in the coming years. Now, time to get 8 Pounds.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Small Change

Elizabeth Hay
Reviewed by: Nancy 
3 out of 5 stars


These twenty superbly crafted linked stories navigate the difficult realm of friendship, charting its beginnings and ends, its intimacies and betrayals, its joys and humiliations. A mother learns something of the nature of love from watching her young daughter as she falls in and out of favour with a neighbourhood girl. An intricate story of two women reveals a friendship held together by the steely bonds of passivity. A chance sighting in a library prompts a woman to recall the “unconsummated courtship” she was drawn into by a male colleague. With trenchant insight, uncommon honesty, and dark humour, Elizabeth Hay probes the precarious bonds that exist between friends. The result is an emotionally raw and provocative collection of stories that will resonate with readers long after the final page.

My Review

I was at the McGill University Bookstore looking for something by a Canadian writer I hadn’t heard of. On the sale table, I came across this collection of stories by Elizabeth Hay, finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, and the Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Impressive. 

Bethie is the narrator of the story. Was Bethie a fictional character or was the author revealing certain aspects of her life and personality through the main character? Maybe a little of both. At times Bethie seemed too real, too honest. I often felt like I was intruding on her private thoughts.

“And here was I, where I had wanted to be for as long as I had been away from it – home – and it didn’t register either. In other words, I discovered that I wasn’t in a place. I was the place. I felt populated by old friends. They lived in my head amid my various broodings. Here they met again, going through the same motions and different ones. Here they coupled in ways that hadn’t occurred really. And here was I, disloyal but faithful, occupied by people I didn’t want to see and didn’t want to lose.”

These loosely linked stories delve into women’s friendships – the difficulties, the joys, and how love, loss, marriage and children can change friendships over time. Reading these stories forced me to examine my own life and contemplate why I have difficulty maintaining close friendships. Maybe it started when I was a child, much too introverted and different to fit in. Or when I was a teenager, forced to leave my two closest friends behind when my parents wanted to leave the big bad city. These stories made me glad I keep people at a distance and manage to avoid the problems that can happen between friends. They also make me feel that I’m missing a vital part of life.

Also posted at Goodreads.

REPOSTING LOST REVIEW Ninth Jay Lake Pre-Mortem Read-a-thon.

KALIMPURA (Green Universe #3)
Tor Books
$27.99 hardcover, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: This sequel to Green and Endurance takes Green back to the city of Kalimpura and the service of the Lily Goddess.

Green is hounded by the gods of Copper Downs and the gods of Kalimpura, who have laid claim to her and her children. She never wanted to be a conduit for the supernatural, but when she killed the Immortal Duke and created the Ox God with the power she released, she came to their notice.

Now she has sworn to retrieve the two girls taken hostage by the Bittern Court, one of Kalimpura’s rival guilds. But the Temple of the Lily Goddess is playing politics with her life.

My Review: That's a fine summary, as far as it goes; but it doesn't touch on the fact that Green, our first-person narrator, spends her entire coming-of-age in thrall to capricious, unkind gods and goddesses who can barely be arsed to help her stay alive, and will at the drop of a hat turn on her to harm her for mysterious (sometimes not so mysterious) reasons.

Yay religion.

There are three things I liked about this book: First, I love the world that Lake builds. I mean, I don't necessarily love *the*world*, but the world-building yields results that feel real to me. I find the fact that Green really inhabits that world, really notices and attends to it, an effective device for a character who is a species of assassin. It makes perfect sense that she would be vigilant and attentive and well-informed. So is James Bond, for many of the same reasons. It's believable that Green says this to us:
For all the imposing glory of the frontage of the Temple of the Silver Lily, the rear facing was as anonymously crowded and busy as the back of any other substantial institution. Carters, beggars, small tradesmen--a steady traffic passed in the alley behind. We slipped into the stream, walking briskly with our heads turned down. Most of the servants in this city or any other walked briskly. A shuffling step would have cried out that we wished not to be recognized.
Swiftly we merged into the crowded streets beyond, losing ourselves away from the Blood Fountain with its swarm of angry Street Guildsmen. After about six blocks, I pulled the limping {fellow traveler} into someone's walled garden to rest a short while beneath the shade of a papaya tree. It was a shame about the latch on their gate, which I was forced to cut through with the god-blooded dagger.
I feel the alley traffic jostling me; hear the angry crowd noises, see Green testing gates surreptitiously, finding one her extraordinary dagger can be used in the ordinariest of ways, to cut the latchstring on; strain with her in supporting a lamed companion in an effort to escape unnoticed from people who wish to harm both of them. It's an economical passage typical of many that make Lake's imaginary city of Kalimpura such a layered and believable place.

At multiple points in the series, but most notably in this last book of three, Green passes casual comments that can stop you in your tracks if you're paying attention. She muses that the Prince of the City's thugs would, in a city that wished its streets to be policed, be a watch; here in Kalimpura, it suits the rich and powerful that the streets not be policed. Green also notes that her struggles against the enemies of the Lily Blades (her order of assassins) are those of a have-not against haves; she muses that the poor hide from the powerful and administer their own forms of justice exactly as the powerful do among themselves, as well as attempting to on the powerless. How pefectly observed, and apt for us in the twenty-first century "land of the free," too.

Again, it makes sense that an assassin would think these thoughts, or at least a top-ranking and powerful one would. She has to have a clear picture of the ground in order to negotiate its twists and curves successfully, not getting herself killed.

And this is all a succinct evocation of Green's state of mind, hypervigilant, as well as an expression of the reason she's so very good at her killing. She does not miss a trick, her eye is sharp and her grasp of what she needs to do to survive this godless passage is firm. Her self-directed wryness is catnip to me, too.

As Green is in a religious order, and in direct communication with her goddess (a fact that many in power in her order and her world find extremely threatening), she finds herself needing to put religion in a place, a slot, in her world-view, with borders and limits:
The memory of the divine is like the memory of pain--you know you have experienced it, but you cannot relive the experience...I have come to realize this protects us all from the sharp edges with which the world is filled. Every day dawns like shattered glass, then passes to depart on bladed wings, which only the ignorant and the lucky survive unscathed.
Yes, indeed, this is true. Anytime the divine touches a human being, the consequences are dire. Look at the fates of all the prophets! But also, and tellingly, Green equates the experience of divine communication with pain. It causes her pain, it gives her pain, it spreads pain in the world. When a particularly terrible problem needs solving, Green summons the sea from its bed and smashes the problem, causing much death, bringing much pain to the survivors, and wracking her with guilt.

But it accomplished her purposes, and nothing else would have. So the guilt and pain are, of necessity, borne and worn away. Like all pain, Green's pain wears her edges down, sharpens her inner blades and polishes her outer ones, and carves her a new shape.

This is called adulthood. She achieves it. She survives the process, where many do not. They succumb to addiction and fantasy and apathy. Green does not. She accepts that her future won't look like her past or her plans, and moves into it without undue drama.

Note the word "undue." She fights and kicks against the demands of the universe, like we all do, but she doesn't give way and fill the skies with her whining. Goodness knows she has a right to. She chooses instead to get on with the work in front of her.

And that is the third thing I truly appreciate about this trilogy, and this volume in the trilogy. A story where someone comes of age is common as pig tracks. (My mother's memorably sniffy dismissal of my almost-third wife.) I love the fact that this woman comes into her full growth by embracing her own power and choosing not to rely on anyone or anything outside herself. I love that she loves her children, her companions, and her world enough to do what needs doing despite the fact that some people can never forgive her or understand what she has done.

In the end, I love the fact that this novel, likely Jay Lake's last published in his lifetime, expresses better than any I've read in a long, long time the simple truth that, "In the end, so is the beginning. In the beginning, so is the end:"
The first thing I can remember in this life is my father driving his white ox, Endurance, to the sky burial platforms. His back was before me as we walked along a dusty road. All things were dusty in the country of my birth, unless they were flooded. A ditch yawned at each side to beckon me toward play. The fields beyond were drained of water and filled with stubble, though I could not now say which of the harvest seasons it was.
Though I would come to change the fate of cities and of gods, then I was merely a small, grubby child in a small, grubby corner of the world.
And so does the time spent with Green, and Jay Lake, end where Green begins. Hail, and farewell. You and your creations have enriched me. Thank you. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.

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