Friday, November 29, 2013


Michele Lee
Skullvines Press
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


So you’ve raised your loved ones from the dead, but had no idea how difficult it would be to care for them.

No problem! Silver Springs is a warm, peaceful facility equipped to handle all your zombie needs. Their friendly staff will ensure they have a safe environment with daily exercise and raw meat.

Rest easy knowing they’re in good hands… as they rot.

In Michele Lee’s Rot, you won’t find an apocalypse or Romero-style flesh-eaters. This is far more disturbing.

In a world where certain people can will others back from death, Silver Springs Specialty Care Community caters to the undead for those who aren’t quite ready to let go (zombie milk available by special arrangement at the home office).

Dean, retired from the military and looking for an easier life, runs security at this zombie herding farm, but he learns that dark injustice is not unique to war. There’s a rotten core to Silver Springs. Now, Dean and a quickly-decaying corpse named Patrick are on the hunt for a woman they both love and lost to a lucrative business that specializes in greed, zombies and never having to say goodbye.

My Review

Rot is definitely not your traditional zombie tale, full of mindless, hungry zombies and lots of gore. Dean is a former military man hired as a security guard by a facility that specializes in caring for those who are raised from the dead by family members who are unable to care for them, yet unwilling to let them go.

Amy and Patrick are newly raised zombies. Amy died from a stroke, her husband no longer willing to care for her, but unable to let her go. Patrick, a gay man, was killed in a car accident and kept alive by his parents who promise to give him a decent burial once he “repents”.

When Amy goes missing, Dean and Patrick set out to find her and in the process, uncover the dark side of the Silver Springs Specialty Care Community.

This is a wonderfully dark, thought-provoking, heart wrenching and imaginative story that explores the greed, corruption, and selfishness that leads to a callous disregard of human life and one man's strength and courage to do the right thing.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Happy Thanksgiving Have Some Time Travel with a Twist!

The Anubis Gates

Tim Powers

Four Stars

Review by Zorena


Brendan Doyle, a specialist in the work of the early-nineteenth century poet William Ashbless, reluctantly accepts an invitation from a millionaire to act as a guide to time-travelling tourists. But while attending a lecture given by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1810, he becomes marooned in Regency London, where dark and dangerous forces know about the gates in time. Caught up in the intrigue between rival bands of beggars, pursued by Egyptian sorcerers, befriended by Coleridge, Doyle somehow survives. And learns more about the mysterious Ashbless than he could ever have imagined possible.

My Review

Cross Charles Dickens with H.G. Wells add some Clive Barker and throw in Neil Gaiman's absurd nature and I think you'll have the basis for this book. Don't forget a little Egyptian mythology and a Punch and Judy show! Not only did the author manage to make that all work he also threw some poetry and the original poets at you. One of the few times that poetry truly enhanced the tale rather than seeming like an awkward add on .

I was pretty much swept up from the start and that's a good thing because this ride makes no stops. The action barely gives you time to catch your breath. The story is gripping and at times horrifying. It also had humorous and even gentle moments.

The implementation of the time travel alone was enough to make me sit up and take notice. No gadgets required! Powers obviously spent some time doing research on his historical periods. Each is woven into the tale flawlessly. At times I felt I was reading a Penny Dreadful albeit a really good one.

I don't think I've truly enjoyed something this novel in a long time. More please Mr. Powers!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Scott Snyder is THE Batman author

Batman: The Black MirrorBatman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gotham's Batman, Dick Grayson, takes on the Dealer, a man selling the weapons of supervillains stolen from the GCPD evidence room, gun runners harassing a mob bosses daughter, and possibly the greatest threat of all, Commissioner Gordon's son...

You know, when DC put Dick Grayson in the Bat-costume, we all knew it wouldn't last and while I liked the issues of Batman & Robin I read, I didn't find anything earth-shattering and thought Dick's tenure as the Caped Crusader would be pretty forgettable. I WAS WRONG!

There are epic tales of the Bruce Wayne Batman that everyone mentions: The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight, Year One, The Long Halloween, the list goes on and on. This is Dick Grayson's epic.

Scott Snyder and Jock take the reader on a dark journey, following Dick Grayson as he tries to fill Bruce Wayne's shoes. While Grant Morrison made Batman fun again when he put Dick in the costume, Scott Snyder made me believe.

Batman goes up against The Dealer, Roadrunner, Tiger Shark, and even the Joker, but the most chilling villain in the Black Mirror is James Gordon Jr, the Commissioner's son. I can't even think of another comic book villain that actually scared me but James was scary because he was so real, so plausible. And I had a batgasm when he finally got what was coming to him.

That's about all I can say without giving too much away. I know I clicked the spoilers box but I didn't spoil more than the dust jacket. If I could give this six stars, I would. Scott Snyder is the real deal and I'm going to continue buying everything of his I can find.

Batman: Gates of GothamBatman: Gates of Gotham by Scott Snyder
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Someone is blowing up Gotham City landmarks and it points to someone with links to Gotham's founding fathers. Can Batman, Red Robin, Robin, and Black Bat stop the menace of... the Architect?

After the awesomeness of The Black Mirror, this was a little bit of a letdown but still pretty good. Dick continues to adjust to his role as Batman as he pieces together the identity of the Architect with the help of his partners.

Hush and the Penguin play important roles but Gotham City itself is almost a character. While I didn't think the art was that great, Scott Snyder's writing was superb. He really makes me believe Gotham is a real place. The interplay between Damian and the other team members was probably my favorite part of the book. Man, that Damian is an arrogant little shit. Then if your dad was Batman...

Three stars. It's good but not in the same league as The Black Mirror.

Batman, Vol. 1: The Court of OwlsBatman, Vol. 1: The Court of Owls by Scott Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Court of Owls, a long rumored secret society from Gotham's past, makes its presence known in the form of a knife wielding assassin called The Talon. Can Batman hope to defeat an enemy even more familiar with Gotham than him?

For my money, Scott Snyder can do no wrong. Batman: The Court of Owls is no exception. At first glance, the tale looks like a combination of Batman: The Black Glove and Batman: Gates of Gotham but it's a better story than either so far.

I really want to gush about this but I don't want to ruin any surprises. It's not every day a body is found with Dick Grayson's DNA under it's fingernails. It's not every day you see a killing machine taking the fight to Batman or Batman being trapped by villains for days.

One thing I really liked is that Scott Snyder isn't afraid to show us Batman isn't invincible. I hate how in recent years, Batman is portrayed as a combination of Captain America and Reed Richards instead of the World's Greatest Detective, as he should be. Snyder does a pretty good job of stripping away some of that. I can't see his Batman building a Brother-Eye satellite, for instance.

Snyder's writing is superb, as always. I can tell he draws from a deeper well than many comic authors, one filled with historical fiction and conspiracy thrillers. Greg Capullo's art is good too, I guess.

The Court of Owls is an easy 4. I may even bump it up to a 5 once the rest of the story is told.

Batman, Vol. 2: The City of OwlsBatman, Vol. 2: The City of Owls by Scott Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Court of Owls is striking all over Gotham and their first target is Wayne Manor! Can an injured Bruce Wayne and Alfred fight them off and mobilize the rest of the Bat-Family? And what is Bruce Wayne's connection to the Court?

The Court of Owls storyline comes to a conclusion in this volume. Batman dons a suit of armor and kicks some undead ass as he figures out who is leading the Court of Owls in it's assault on Gotham.

I liked that Lincoln Marsh was revealed as the head of the Court and he may or may not be Batman's long lost brother, Thomas Wayne Jr, who appeared in one tale pre-Crisis, only he was an older bad seed brother in that depiction. Owlman's ambiguous end leaves the door open for more Court of Owls intrigue down the line.
That's about all there is to it. Snyder crafts a pretty creepy Batman tale and Capullo's art is up to the task. The only gripe I have is that it felt like a ton of stuff was missing, probably because I've only read the Scott Snyder Bat-title in the New 52 and not all the ancillary bat-stuff.

Four stars. Snyder is shaping up to be the best bat-writer in decades.

Batman, Vol. 3: Death of the FamilyBatman, Vol. 3: Death of the Family by Scott Snyder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After disappearing for a year, the Joker returns with a vengeance, striking at Batman where it hurts the most: his family! Can Batman stop the Joker from murdering his friends and family without killing him?

I got this from Netgalley. Thank you, Netgalley!

Here we are again, another phenomenal Batman tale from Scott Snyder. This time, he utilizes an old Bat-foe, The Joker, and sets him against the Bat-family. How does he do?

Snyder passes with flying colors. Death of the Family is the best Joker story since The Killing Joke. The Joker hits Batman where he lives, taking out Commissioner Gordon and Alfred with relative ease and sowing the seeds of mistrust within the Bat-family.

Snyder did his homework on this one, referencing some early Batman tales and bringing in A-list Batman villains to help, namely Penguin, Two-Face, and the Riddler. I was hoping he'd bring in Catwoman and we'd get an homage to the 60's Batman movie where he had a shark hanging from his leg but we can't have everything.

The Joker was a very chilling villain in this volume, capable of taking out members of the GCPD in the police station without seeming like a super hero. There's a fair amount of psychological horror in this one and at the end, it's hard to shake the feeling that the Joker did what he set out to do, to sow discord between Batman and his extended family.

The art and writing were superb. Capullo has come a long way since X-Force days and Snyder is still the lone comic writer on my must read list. Four out of five stars. Bat-fans will not want to miss.

Still on Goodreads

Memoir of a Friendship

Truth & Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is a beautiful memoir of a friendship between two writers, Ann Patchett and the poet Lucy Grealy. I read this back in 2006, and it's still one of my favorite books about the nature of friendship and the bonds that we form with others.

Ann met Lucy in college, and later they both attended the Iowa Writer's Workshop. As a child, Lucy had suffered cancer of the jaw and her face was disfigured during numerous reconstruction surgeries. Lucy wrote the memoir "Autobiography of a Face" about her experience. This is how Ann described Lucy: 

"Her lower jaw had been a ledge falling off just below her cheekbone when we started college, making her face a sharp triangle, but now the lines were softer. She couldn't close her mouth all the way and her front teeth showed. Her jaw was irregular, as if one side had been collapsed by a brutal punch, and her neck was scarred and slightly twisted. She had a patch of paler skin running from ear to ear that had been grafted from her back and there were other bits of irregular patching and scars. But she also had lovely light eyes with damp dark lashes and a nose whose straightness implied aristocracy. Lucy had white Irish skin and dark blond hair and in the end that's what you saw, the things that didn't change: her eyes, the sweetness of her little ears."

Ann and Lucy became close when they were in grad school together in Iowa. They both had new dating experiences, and the slower pace of life in the Midwest made them feel like they were "impossibly rich in time." They filled their days with reading and teaching and dinner and dancing and, of course, writing.

"We shared our ideas like sweaters, with easy exchange and lack of ownership. We gave over excess words, a single beautiful sentence that had to be cut but perhaps the other would like to have. As two reasonably intelligent and very serious young writers in a reasonably serious writing program, we didn't so much discuss our work as volley ideas back and forth until neither of us was sure who belonged to what."

After grad school the two friends moved away but stayed in touch with visits and heartfelt letters, some of which Ann includes in the book. Sadly, Lucy later got involved in drugs and died too young. Ann would often dream of her, and she would have a conversation with her dear friend. "Night after night after night I find her, always in a public place, a museum, a restaurant, on a train. Every night she's glad to see me and she folds into my arms. But each time there is less of her to hold on to ... In this little way I am allowed to visit my dead."

I was drawn to the book because I had loved Ann Patchett's novel "Bel Canto," so I picked it up just on name recognition. Her writing is lovely and sincere, and it made me adore Patchett even more. I highly recommend the book to writers and to anyone who loves a good story of friendship.

Recently there was a lovely interview with Patchett in The New York Times, during which she was asked which writer, dead or alive, would she meet? This was her answer: 

"I'd want to see my friend Lucy Grealy again. I'd want to know how the afterlife was treating her, if there was anything or everything about this world she missed. She'd say to me, 'My God, how did you get here?' And I would say, 'The New York Times Book Review told me I could meet any writer, living or dead, and I picked you!' Then I imagine there would be a great deal of hugging and dancing around."

Let's All Move to Vermont!

Mud Season by Ellen Stimson
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This is a fun and light memoir about a family who moved from St. Louis to Vermont because they wanted to live someplace beautiful and rustic. Ellen Stimson and her husband liked to vacation in New England, so why not live there? They bought an old house that needed lots of remodeling, a historic country store, and along the way they picked up some chickens and sheep. 

After living in a big city, Ellen had trouble adapting to a town where you sometimes saw bears walk out of the woods and frequently had bats in the house. She also learned that you will get laughed at if you call 911 because a herd of cows escaped the neighbor's fence and were blocking the road.

The local villagers were suspicious of the newcomers and it took a while to warm up. Ellen and her family faced several humorous adventures, like when a skunk attacked their dogs, who then ran crazily through the house and stank up every room. Or when Ellen forgot she had agreed to host an open house and was doing chores and covered in chicken poop when the guests arrived. Or when she tried to organize a Fourth of July party and parade, but ran afoul of small-town politics. Luckily, some villagers always had the heart to be straight with her about what social norm she had unwittingly broken.

The book did have a sad chapter because the family's country store was not doing well and was slowly bankrupting them. But the memoir ends on an upbeat note, and Ellen also included about 30 pages of recipes.

The title is a reference to the five seasons of New England: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and Mud. The author explains using a definition from Wikipedia: "Mud Season is a period in late winter and early spring when dirt paths such as roads and hiking trails become muddy from melting snow and rain." (Wikipedia? Seriously? There are more credible sources, you know.)

Overall I enjoyed the author's stories, despite her self-amusing writing style and unnecessary use of footnotes. Most importantly, her lovely descriptions of autumn in Vermont made me want to immediately pack a bag and get on a plane to Burlington. But I promise not to buy a store.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Very Good, if Long Forgotten, Noir Novel

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This Depression-era novel quickly sank from view when it was first published in 1940. A new edition was released in 1975, with an introduction by George V. Higgins, a crime novelist who was then at the peak of his career. But even with his endorsement, the book was still little-noticed. Perhaps the third time will be the charm and the book has now been re-released with an introduction by Daniel Woodrell, a great writer perhaps best known for his book, Winter's Bone.

The main protagonist is a North Carolina farmer named Jack McDonald. Jack is about as down on his luck as any man can get in the middle of the 1930s. The Boll weevils have destroyed his cotton; he can't pay the money he owes at the bank, and the county is about to seize his land for back taxes. Jack makes what seems to be the only logical decision at this point and decides to get drunk.

He buys a jar of moonshine from a filling station operator named Smut Milligan. Smut's joint is on the outskirts of the small town of Corinth at the junction of River Road and Lover's Lane. Smut sells gas and a little food along with his bootleg whiskey. He also has some gambling going on in the back room and he pays off the sheriff who looks the other way.

Smut is an ambitious man, and over a drink he tells Jack that he's planning to open a road house and expand his operation to include a dance hall, tourist cabins and a real restaurant. He offers Jack a job as his cashier and, having no other viable prospects, Jack accepts the offer which includes room and board.

Any reader will certainly understand that a character who signs on with a guy named Smut has probably got a lot of trouble in his immediate future. Milligan will gradually entangle Jack in a variety of evil schemes and in classic noir fashion, Jack slowly sinks before our very eyes, taking one ill-advised step after another until he's finally in the jam of a lifetime.

It's hard to imagine how a book this good could have possibly been overlooked for nearly seventy-five years. Ross writes beautifully and completely immerses the reader in the sordid world he creates. He's particularly good at portraying the class distinctions that existed in a small, rural southern community at this time, and he's created a cast of believable and very memorable characters.

This is a book that will remind many readers of the stories of James M. Cain, particularly The Postman Always Rings Twice. Ross is certainly in Cain's league; his story is just as gripping, and he certainly deserves to be remembered along with the other of the best writers of his generation. They Don't Dance Much will certainly appeal to any reader who likes his or her crime fiction dark and dirty. Thanks to Otto Penzler, the Mysterious Press and Daniel Woodrell for bringing it back to life.

The Book That Almost Never Was

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the total output of your entire career should include only one thing, make it something special.

Not only was To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee's only novel, at one point she nearly destroyed it. That would have been a terrible loss, for - coming from an insular, white-New England upbringing - this book was a game changer for me and my young outlook on life and race relations. Having read it as a youth, it's coming-of-age or loss-of-innocence theme spoke to me while the idea of equal rights for all held by the "liberal" Southern Atticus Finch seemed heroic and opened my eyes to the closeted bigotry around me. I know I'm not alone in my reaction and the effects it had upon me.

Perhaps Lee didn't write another novel, because she took to heart the maxim "write what you know" and this was the one and only novel within her. It seems a shame such a good writer should have produced and be judged by only one book, but at least she made that one book something special.

View all my reviews

It was at Breed's Hill, dumbass

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a RevolutionBunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just love the hell out of Nathaniel Philbrick! That fella could write my obituary and I'd be happy as a pig in shit.

As a born and bred New Englander, I'm fairly well-versed in American Revolution history, but even I learned a few things from reading Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution.

Since it's more focused on a specific event rather than the entire war, Philbrick is able to dive deeper into the details, so the reader gets more info about the second tier players below the Washingtons and Adamses in fame, such as Joseph Warren, Thomas Gage, Henry Knox and John Hancock. Their backgrounds as well as the workings of their inner minds are elaborated upon. The strategies and maneuvers of the Colonials and British are laid out more minutely. Readers come to grips with this confusing conflict all while getting wrapped up in it.

Because these events are so precisely described and deliberated, I can't recommend this to everyone. But to anyone looking to learn more about the whys, whats and whos that make up the incorrectly named Battle of Bunker Hill, you may find a more scholarly text, but you're not likely to find one so deftly written in a prose that is a pleasure to read.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

A beautiful dystopia

China Mountain Zhang
Maureen F. McHugh

Reviewed by Carol
Read November, 2013
★ ★ ★ ★
China Mountain Zhang is an impressive work, well deserving of its Hugo and Nebula nominations and its Tiptree and Lambda awards. Thoughtful, precise writing and Zhang’s fully developed characterization make this a stand-out read, with only overall structure and the subject of one point of view preventing me from awarding a full five stars.

Setting is thoughtfully built; information about society is shared indirectly through character experience. China appears to be the dominant world power after the economic collapse of America and a subsequent socialist revolution. Naturally, a change in social order accompanies the shift, and China-born Chinese are at the top, followed by the ABCs (American-Born Chinese), and then the non-Chinese. In this distant future, bio-engineering has progressed enough that people can go in for genetic re-engineering. Everyone has an implanted machine interface/implant that not only provides personal information on demand but allows people to link their nervous system into computer systems. Mars has been colonized, overcrowding is a serious issue, and like many visions of future bureaucracies, getting a job or housing is almost impossible without connections or money.

One of the strengths of the book is fabulous characterization. Interestingly, in the beginning, I found the character China Mountain Zhang hard to like. A bit immature, he spends most of his time at work, with a friend, Peter, or at the flier races. Zhang is of mixed race, Hispanic and Chinese, but since his parents paid for genetic engineering when he was young, he appears to be full-blood Chinese. Born in Brooklyn, he has remained a New Yorker even after his father has left for California and his mother for Pennsylvania. His first challenge comes from his Chinese boss, who wants to introduce Zhang to his unmarriageable daughter. Issues of respect, his boss’ economic power over him and a Chinese emphasis on ethnic purity are a delicate dance to negotiate, particularly because Zhang is gay. Although New York gay culture is lively, being ‘bent’ is technically forbidden, and in China is likely to merit the firing squad. I found Zhang’s management of the his boss and the daughter somewhat immature, but appreciated it later as contrast for his personal development.

Zhang wrestles with emotional issues on a ‘date’ with malformed San-xiang:
This is a night she will remember all her life, the night when she went to the kite races. How many nights do I remember? How many special nights have I had in my life? Is it so much to give up a night?
‘Let’s get something to eat and then see how late it is, maybe stop in for a drink,’ I say. She smiles up at me. Oh, the dangers of pity.

The writing shines. McHugh negotiates the world through her characters, and the clean prose captures Zhang’s voice well, along with the voices of the colonists. Sophisticated philosophical and emotional truths are communicated in Zen-like essence. San-xiang, the boss’ daughter, shares a personal insight and the emotional core of the book:
“‘I used to think I was unhappy because my father was in trouble and we had to come here, but now I don’t think it makes any difference. If you’re a certain kind of person, you’ll be unhappy wherever you are.’
I have no doubt she considers herself that certain kind of person…
It doesn’t make any difference if you did or you didn’t,’ [go to China] she says, ‘because you would still be you. And if you were unhappy here, you’d be unhappy there.

Zhang at dinner with his mother encapsulates years of history in one short meal:
‘It’s a lie,’ I say, ‘and you always told me that a lie always creates complications.’ But my face is a lie as well, and she condoned that. I am sure she hears the accusation, but we never talk about my mother’s contradictions.
She does not touch me, although for a moment I think she is going to cover my hand with hers and I am afraid.

My trouble with the structure of China Mountain Zhang is not the writing, nor the characters. In her post on Tor, writer Jo Walton calls the style of China Mountain Zhang a ‘mosaic novel,’ and goes on to call it one of the best mosaic novels ever written. After doing a little research on the term, I’d have to disagree with her; interestingly, my difficulties with the book are same reasons it doesn’t quite work as a mosaic.  The term ‘mosaic novel’ refers to a collection of stories “with the aim of telling a linear story from beginning to end” despite each individual chapter reflecting multiple viewpoints or styles (sadly, at least according to academia, I’m quoting Wikipedia here). Much like it’s visual art equivalent, intention is to create an uniform whole out of individual pieces.

However, the undeniable focus of the book is Zhang, both in title and subject. In a linear timeline about a decade long, we follow Zhang through a significant emotional and professional development. Out of a multitude of chapters, there are only four where he is on the periphery, guest appearance only: a story about a cyber-kite flier, Angel; one centering on an ‘ugly’ Chinese woman, San-xiang, who seeks genetic modification; and two set on Mars, one focused on each member of a farming collective couple, Martine and Alexi. The flier’s story is interesting, but thematically peripheral. The Martian couple’s story collective story gives insight into the new society and is satisfactorily self-contained. San-xiang’s explores issues attractiveness post-genetic modification. Given that the title is the main character’s name, and the bulk of the collection is focused on Zhangs’s viewpoint, growth and experience, as a book it doesn’t quite achieve the goal of the mosaic, but also falls strangely short of linear narrative.

My one other concern is (hidden after the break)

The Iron Thorn

The Iron Thorn
by Caitlin Kittredge

Four out of five stars
Reviewed by Sesana

Publisher Summary:

In the city of Lovecraft, the Proctors rule and a great Engine turns below the streets, grinding any resistance to their order to dust. The necrovirus is blamed for Lovecraft's epidemic of madness, for the strange and eldritch creatures that roam the streets after dark, and for everything that the city leaders deem Heretical—born of the belief in magic and witchcraft. And for Aoife Grayson, her time is growing shorter by the day.

Aoife Grayson's family is unique, in the worst way—every one of them, including her mother and her elder brother Conrad, has gone mad on their 16th birthday. And now, a ward of the state, and one of the only female students at the School of Engines, she is trying to pretend that her fate can be different.

My Review:

There's a lot going on in this book. The setting is unusual. Steampunk, in 1950s America. It's set in a city called Lovecraft (Boston, I think), which is, appropriately, infested with horrible things that would be at home in one of Lovecraft's stories. But they aren't supernatural, of course. That wouldn't be rational. Instead, the creatures that stalk the city of Lovecraft, ghouls, nightjars, and springheel jacks alike, are people infected by the necrovirus. Some infected turn into bloodthirsty creatures, and others go mad. Like Aoife's mother, and brother, and, in time, probably herself. All of this is set up in just the first 50 pages, and it only gets more complicated from there. So many writers wouldn't have been able to handle such a huge, complicated system of ideas. But Kittredge is able to weave it all together into an easily comprehensible, complete world. And although she can't entirely avoid infodumping, she does it as little as possible, and spreads the exposition through the book.

There's also a good cast of characters. Aoife is a good narrator, bright, capable, and with the best of motivations throughout the book: her family and friends. At no point did I find her thoughts or actions unbelievable or inconsistent with her character. Her growing relationship with Dean didn't take over the book, because she had more important things to worry about, and the trajectory of it was plausible to me. I also liked her friendship with Cal. Kudos to Kittredge for giving Cal the sort of casual, paternalistic brand of sexism that I'd expect to see out of characters from the 50s, without letting it turn Cal into a villain or even an unsympathetic character. Hard balancing act.

My one small complaint about the book is that there's so much exposition at the front, out of necessity, that the first half drags a bit. But once the world's been set up, it's a much quicker read. It's the one thing that kept me from loving this book entirely. Since so much has already been established, I expect that the other two books in the series will have less of that. And the ending is enough of a game-changing cliffhanger that I'm eager to read them.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Liars' Club

Mary Karr
Penguin Books
Reviewed by: Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


When it was published in 1995, Mary Karr's The Liars Club took the world by storm and raised the art of the memoir to an entirely new level, as well as bringing about a dramatic revival of the form. Karr's comic childhood in an east Texas oil town brings us characters as darkly hilarious as any of J. D. Salinger's—a hard-drinking daddy, a sister who can talk down the sheriff at twelve, and an oft-married mother whose accumulated secrets threaten to destroy them all. Now with a new introduction that discusses her memoir's impact on her family, this unsentimental and profoundly moving account of an apocalyptic childhood is as "funny, lively, and un-put-downable" (USA Today) today as it ever was.

My Review

After reading Will's intriguing review of Lit: A Memoir, I decided it was time to explore Mary Karr’s work, so I went to the library and borrowed The Liars' Club. Written in 1995, this memoir explores the author’s dysfunctional childhood in sweltering and swampy Leechfield, Texas.

Though Mary Karr and I did not have similar childhoods, there were definitely certain life situations and reactions to them that I could relate to and I came to realize that no matter how different people’s lives are, there are always things that will connect us. I was enthralled by her writing, which is very intimate and lyrical and enabled me to empathize with her.

Just like my dad, Mary’s dad saved receipts from nearly every bill he paid (and he always voted Democrat).
“It was a feat Daddy never got to perform, but on nights when he spread the receipts out chronologically, he made it clear to my sister and me that every day some suit-wearing, Republican sonofabitch (his term) weaseled a working man out of an extra three dollars for lack of a receipt. He would not be caught short. These notorious Republicans were the bogeymen of my childhood. When I asked him to define one (I think it was during the Kennedy-Nixon debate), Daddy said a Republican was somebody who couldn’t enjoy eating unless he knew somebody else was hungry, which I took to be gospel for longer than I care to admit. Maybe the only thing worse than being a Republican was being a scab.” 
 My brother was an obedient child and always stayed still while my dad was smacking him. To me, that made no sense and just made it easy for my dad. If I put enough energy into evading and escaping, dad had to spend energy grabbing for my wrist or bending over to yank me out from under the bed. This did not exhaust him, as I hoped it would, but only made the beating worse when he finally got a hold of me.

“Of course, I am famous for running in the middle of a spanking. It makes me proud that Daddy used to run too. I always figured only a dumbass would just stand still and take it.”
So Mary’s parents weren’t so great, but I loved the details she used to bring them to life. Even with all their flaws, I found it difficult to dislike them totally. My parents weren’t so perfect either. For the most part I was able to get past that when I remind myself they are human beings with flaws, and children don’t come with an instruction manual, and people just do the best they can. It’s not always good enough, but it’s easier to understand and empathize with your flawed parents when you’re not putting them up on a pedestal attributing superhuman qualities to them.

This is a very worthwhile story about hardship, family relationships, survival, and growing up. It is absorbing, disturbing, hilarious, honest and difficult to put down. I am looking forward to reading about Mary’s teen years.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Calling All Smegheads!

Reviewed by Zorena


The first lesson Lister learned about space travel was you should never try it. But Lister didn't have a choice. All he remembered was going on a birthday celebration pub crawl through London. When he came to his senses again, with nothing in his pockets but a passport in the name of Emily Berkenstein.
So he did the only thing he could. Amazed to discover they would actually hire him, he joined the space corps and found himself aboard Red Dwarf, a spaceship as big as a small city that, six or seven years from now, would get him back to Earth. What Lister couldn't foresee was that he'd inadvertently signed up for a one-way jaunt three million years into the future... a future which would see him the last living member of the human race, with only a hologram crew mate and a highly evolved cat for company. Of course, that was before the ship broke the light barrier and things began to get really weird...

My Review

I'm not usually a fan of book tie ins with movies and television but this was so much like the BBC show's episodes in book format that of course I loved it! I've been a fan of the show since it started and was gleeful when I found there were actually novels I had to at least try them. It tells the tale of the Red Dwarf crew from the start. It includes a lot of what was in the first two series as well as a ton of details that you wouldn't know if that was your only source. Then it throws in whole new story lines and tangents. Lister's back story of how he ended up on Red Dwarf was something I had wanted to know for a long time.
This is one book I would compare to Adams style and it holds its own admirably. Kudos to Grant and Naylor. I really must find the rest of the books they have written for Red Dwarf. I've also noted there are audiobooks of this and the other novels read by Chris Barrie (Rimmer)! I would be a total smeghead if I didn't add then to my listening list as well.Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers
Red Dwarf #1

Bob Grant and Doug Naylor

Five Stars

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Have Sword, Will Travel

Lone Wolf & Cub, vol. 1: The Assassin's Road

Kazuo Koike & Goseki Kojima

Dark Horse Comics

Reviewed by: Terry 

4 out of 5 stars

A ground-breaking manga first published in Japan in 1970, Koike & Kojima’s “Lone Wolf & Cub” series follows the exploits of a laconic master assassin whose most defining characteristic, aside from his near unstoppable lethality and ingenious tactics, is probably the fact that he wanders Tokugawa- era Japan pushing a baby cart containing his three-year-old son Daigorō. As a result they are known throughout the country as Lone Wolf and Cub, a mysterious assassin ‘team’ who, for 500 ryu (gold pieces) will kill anyone so long as all details about the victim and circumstances are provided. The series became a pop-culture phenomenon in Japan, spawning six movies (they’re quite good), four plays (thanks Wikipedia!), a television series, and numerous rip-offs and homages. This volume is part of the reprint series published by Dark Horse comics starting in 2000 and contains nine of the adventures of Lone Wolf and Cub.

If you’re going to read this series you should be prepared for a few things: graphic violence involving samurai combat and assassinations is prevalent as is (usually violent) sex scenes and nudity…so not one for the kiddies. Also keep in mind that the basic premise behind each of the stories is usually a depiction of the various assassinations undertaken, and invariably completed, by Lone Wolf and Cub. There can, as a result, be an apparent sameness to many of the stories once the novelty of a new victim being dispatched in a unique way loses some of its shine. Keep in mind, however, that as the stories build we begin to get glimpses into the life and motives that drive Ogami Ittō (the eventually revealed name of the assassin) and each individual ‘adventure’ starts to tie in to the larger story arc of his tale of loss and vengeance. You will also be treated to some wonderful artwork and storytelling depicting both the stunning natural beauty and convincing historical details of 17th century Japan.

One thing to note is the way in which, while we come to learn a lot about both Ogami and Daigorō as the stories progress, in many ways it is the secondary characters who really shine in these stories. Even though they are usually people we will never see again, often because they don’t survive the issue, they really do come to life on the pages and often resonate far beyond the confines of their individual stories. Their diversity is also impressive as they exemplify a truly varied range of characters, lifestyles, and outlooks within the Tokugawa-era Japan that Koike & Kojima bring to such vivid life on the pages. One final element to note: Ogami is an assassin who has willingly ostracized himself from normal human society and he acts accordingly, thus we do not have the somewhat dubious paradox of the ‘good guy assassin’. Ogami is certainly often sympathetic, and when he is able to do so he is often more than willing to help those in need, but he is first and foremost an assassin with an agenda of his own that overrides all other concerns and thus he will always finish the job, whether we think his victim deserves their end or not.

“Son for Hire, Sword for Hire”: Koike & Kojima drop us in media res as we are observe a secret meeting between a nobleman and an unknown assassin. His assignment is to kill a high ranking noble who schemes to gain control of his Han as well as ‘the Guardian Eight of Mibu‘ who defend him. Ogami uses both his skill with weapons and tricky planning to earn his gold as he faces off against the group of famed warriors that guard his mark, a fairly typical scenario for LW&C. We see that Ogami plays the long game even in this very first story as he safeguards himself against not only his opponents, but also his employer.

“A Father Knows his Child’s Heart, as Only a Child Can Know his Father’s”: We learn that Ogami is truly single-minded in his devotion to his path of vengeance, even to the point of using his own son as a tool in his missions, whether that be as bait or in other ways. As far as Ogami is concerned both he and Daigorō truly are united in their endeavour and both father and son “walk the path of meifumado”, or Hell on Earth.

“From North to South, From West to East:” Ogami uses his martial skill to despatch many assailants, but proves that it is his strategic and tactical decisions that truly make him formidable. A child once again proves the key to Ogami completing his mission, though this time it isn't Daigorō.

“Baby Cart on the River Styx”: Ogami and Daigorō are caught between corrupt government officials, a shift in local power, double crosses, and an imminent gang war between rival Yakuza clans. I have to admit that I didn't fully follow the intricacies of the plot in this one, maybe they got the story from Raymond Chandler?

“Suiō School Zanbatō”: Ogami again uses Daigorō in his plans, this time to draw a samurai into a fight he can't win. When his victim’s friends look for vengeance Ogami utilizes the secret of his Suiō School Zanbatō technique to even the odds.

“Waiting for the Rains”: Ogami uses Daigorō as a way to secretly transport both instructions and payment from his current employer and then shows how his thorough research into both his victims and his employers leads him to success.  Even though only drawn with minimal strokes the background story of two of the secondary characters revolving around love deferred and promises kept even in the face of death was pretty striking.

“Eight Gates of Deceit”: Ogami proves his martial skill as he faces off against eight famed female assassins and then proves his superior strategy and forethought in the midst of a wily trap.

“Wings to the Bird, Fangs to the Beast”: Ogami and Daigorō come across a village famed for its hot springs spa that has become overrun by a gang of rōnin where they meet a hooker with the proverbial heart of gold. This seemed like a pretty light issue with not much to it aside from the proverbial fight and a partial reveal about Ogami’s background.

“The Assassin’s Road”: The final story of the volume gives us a flashback glimpse into the events that led both Ogami Ittō and his son Daigorō to choose the path of meifumado and head out on the ‘Demon’s Road’ of assassination. Schemes at the highest levels of government have targeted Ogami and his family and only his cleverness allows him to escape his most dangerous foes with his life.

What can I say? LW&C is truly a classic of the genre and as long as you can stomach some significant scenes of violence and a ‘hero’ whose gray shades significantly into black at times, then I highly recommend it. Especially excellent for its depiction of a historical era and society so different from what we know that still manages to bring the characters it presents to vivid life.

Also posted at Goodreads

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Lost Boy

Coreyography by Corey Feldman
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Once you get past the ridiculous title and intense cover photo, this is a good memoir. I read very few celebrity biographies, but Corey Feldman's appealed to me because I grew up watching his movies. I loved "The Goonies" and "Stand By Me," and even the campiness of "The Lost Boys."

What I didn't know back then was that Corey's personal life was hell. His parents were abusive and neglectful, and for much of his childhood he was the sole breadwinner of the family. He had started acting in commercials when he was 3, and he worked steadily until he was a teenager. Both of his parents did drugs and Corey's paychecks were frittered away. If he lost an acting job, his mother would beat him. Once she beat him so hard that he blacked out. She also tormented him by constantly telling him he was fat and ugly, and that he was klutz.

Corey was so miserable that he tried to kill himself. When he was 12, he swallowed a bottle of aspirin. Later he found one of his grandfather's guns and came close to pulling the trigger, but he couldn't go through with it.

The first time Corey slept over at a friend's house, he was shocked when the boy's parents tucked his friend in at bedtime and said they loved him. Corey realized what he was missing and that his family wasn't normal. He often cried himself to sleep and wished he could escape. Eventually he started experimenting with drugs and alcohol, which set him on a path to addiction and gave him a bad reputation.

As if that wasn't awful enough, Corey wrote about how he was frequently molested by older men, and said pedophilia is a serious problem in the entertainment business. His longtime friend and fellow actor, Corey Haim, was raped on a movie set when he was just 11. In a disturbing description, Feldman looked at a photo from his 15th birthday party and saw that there were five different child molesters in the picture, along with himself and Haim. He said they were surrounded by "monsters." Feldman said he later tried to bring charges against one of his abusers, but the statute of limitations had run out.

One of Corey's childhood idols was Michael Jackson, who became a good friend. Corey's home life was so screwed up that Michael's house was a safe haven for him. The memoir has several sweet stories of hanging out with Michael, going to Disneyland with him while wearing a disguise, and attending Michael's elaborate parties. Years later, when MJ was accused of molesting children, Corey spoke up in his defense. In 2001, Michael broke off their friendship when he heard a rumor that Corey was writing a book about him, which Corey denied.

Hollywood is so far removed from my world that I had never seriously considered the plight of child actors. It's just not fair to put kids under such pressure to earn a living and support a family. When parents ask Corey for advice on how to get their child into the movie industry, he tells them to "get these kids out of Hollywood and let them lead normal lives."

I'm glad I read this memoir, even though I'll never again be able to watch those beloved 80s movies the same way. Corey tells some good behind-the-scenes stories about making "Gremlins," "The Goonies," "Stand By Me," and "The Lost Boys," and fans will probably appreciate this book. But the details of his abuse and neglect are very disturbing and sensitive readers should be warned.

Corey closes the book on an upbeat note, saying he's been sober for years and he's happy to have a son, Zen, who is now 8, and is still focused on his movie and music career. He hopes that talking about his abuse may help prevent other children from the same fate.

History Is Important, You Guys

1776 by David McCullough
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

There are several reasons why I think this book is important, and it has a lot to do with the state of our schools. You've probably heard that public education in America is becoming more of a shambles each decade. I work at a community college and often feel like I'm on the front lines of this battle. While we have a number of good students, we also have a fair number 18- and 19-year-olds who simply aren't prepared for higher education and who, if the economy weren't so degree-oriented, probably wouldn't choose to go to college at all. A number of factors have been blamed for the decline of American schools, but one of the biggest culprits in my opinion is the overemphasis on standardized testing, especially as codified by the dreadful No Child Left Behind Act.

Both students and teachers have complained that high schools place so much emphasis on memorizing facts for the annual tests that it leaves little room for critical thinking, or interesting stories of history and literature, or anything else that makes learning fun and inspiring. I think this is a travesty, and it's not just the students who are being cheated — it is all of society, because without an educated citizenry we are lost.

We. Are. Lost.

Every time I see the title of McCullough's book, 1776, it reminds me of this issue because of an incident in a colleague's classroom. An English professor was making a point about how people today rely so much on their smartphones and the Internet that no one bothers to remember anything anymore because they assume they can just Google it. The professor pointed out that this lack of internal knowledge can hinder understanding and complex thinking. As an example he asked his students when America was founded. 

Dead silence. 

There were about 30 students in the class, and none of them knew. The professor said, "Seriously? You don't know when our country was founded?" After a few more moments of silence a student meekly raised his hand and said, "If we didn't have to memorize it for the test, we probably don't know it."

Big sigh.

OK, boys and girls, America was founded on July 4, 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. This event happened in the midst of the American Revolutionary War, which is the focus of McCullough's book. 

I wanted to read 1776 for several reasons. First, I had loved McCullough's biography on President Harry Truman and was eager to read more of his books. Second, it has been almost 20 years since I was in an American history class, and I wanted to revisit the details of how my country was founded. The stories, myths and legends about each nation are passed through the generations and become part of someone's culture and identity. I don't think these stories should be forgotten.

The book focuses on battles with the British between 1775 and 1777. It opens with a quote from a letter written by General George Washington in January 1776: "The reflection upon my situation and that of this army produces many an uneasy hour when all around me are wrapped in sleep. Few people know the predicament we are in." 

Reading this book reminded me of how fragile America's independence was. Few of the "rebels" had military experience. Weapons and gun powder were in short supply. Because the colonial men had volunteered to fight, some resisted following military orders and didn't understand army discipline. Plus, the Brits controlled the sea. But for a few lucky turns of fate, the British might have won the war. McCullough concluded the book with this summation: "Especially for those who had been with Washington and who knew what a close call it was at the beginning — how often circumstance, storms, contrary winds, the oddities or strengths of individual character had made the difference — the outcome seemed little short of a miracle." 

My favorite stories in the book were of the fortification of Dorchester Heights during the Siege of Boston, the Battle of Long Island and how the colonialists managed to retreat the entire Army in one night, and Washington's crossing of the Delaware. McCullough weaves a pleasant narrative and makes long-ago events seem very real. I liked his inclusion of quotes from letters, and the details of each military strategy, including how the weather was that day. And his description of Washington made me want to read a good biography about him.

I listened to this on audio CD, and McCullough is an excellent narrator. I highly recommend it to fans of history. Hooray for lifelong learning!