Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Love, Drugs, and Indie Rock

Claire Dewitt and the Bohemian Highway
Sara Gran
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Anthony Vacca's review: 4.5 out 5 stars
First and foremost, a shout-out to the good people over at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt who did me a kindness and let me read this book a month in advance of publication, so that I in turn would, you know, write this review you are now allegedly reading. I can’t say if they are gonna be happy with the result of their trust (folly), but now it's too late for them to stop me.

 Ladies and germs, welcome to my review of Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway.
This is a sequel to Sara Gran’s first entry in her series—a series that she promises will be no longer than three books, as in a trilogy, as in this is the next to last book in the series, as in you need to read the first book before this one if you really want to enjoy all the joys there are to be had in this book, as in you really needed me to expound on that point, as in I love having complete control of this review and making this sentence so unnecessarily long with its very loose use of correct punctuation—and that first entry I was talking about, by the way—before my digression from the very simple task of finishing one lousy prepositional phrase (which this in turn is also effectively doing)—is the wonderful hard-boiled gem of a book Claire De Witt and the City of the Dead.

 In the first book we met the eccentric but dangerous Claire DeWitt, one of the world’s greatest detectives. Her unusual methods for solving mysteries comes from her devotion to a nearly mystical book called Détection which was penned by an illustrious French private detective before his slip into the bitterness and despair that claimed the last years of his life. Oh, and Claire did a whole lot of drugs, which seemed to help, I guess. It certainly made it easier for her to make surreal dream-like associations between the different clues that came her way and that actually produced results.

 But Claire’s substance abuse served a much greater purpose than making the book just stand out as edgy or what have you, and this is because Sara Gran understands exactly the profound personal effect a first-person private detective novel can carry. In City of the Dead we were given quick glimpses into Claire’s personal life, before she temporarily but effectively stuffed the cracks full with drugs and alcohol. And what we saw was a woman with a deep well of sorrow, built brick by brick with self-loathing.

And in The Bohemian Highway we start really getting our chance to climb down that well and see how lonely and miserable a person Claire is when she is not at work on a case. The trouble here for Claire is that her case this time is inescapably personal.

Paul Casablancas was a fairly successful musician living in San Francisco. He and his wife, Lydia, who is also a talented musician, were local celebrities in the indie music scene and punk-rock circles. They were the end-all-be-all cool kids couple. But then someone broke into their ridiculously expensive house one night and shot Paul dead. The police are thinking it must have been some kind of robbery gone sour on account of the five guitars missing from Paul’s personal collection. But Claire has a hard time believing that because Claire has a hard time believing anything when it comes to this murder, especially that the world is now a place where Paul Casablancas no longer exists. The thing of it is, Paul is the only person Claire was really ever truly in love with.
So Claire decides that she is going to figure out what really happened to Paul. And she is also going to start doing a shit-ton of cocaine so she doesn’t have to think about herself thinking about Paul. The second of these two activities is very telling in regards to the first. Claire has no illusions about justice; she knows that finding Paul’s killer will do nothing to bring Paul back, or make up for any of the mistakes she assures herself she is guilty of having committed. The most important crime of all being that she wouldn’t let herself open up to Paul or any other human being for that matter.

This is the groundwork for one of the more impressive aspects of this novel: as in any good private detective mystery, Claire has to do a lot of footwork and talk to a lot of people. Every person she questions—all the devastated friends, band mates, past lovers—all feel the loss of Paul in their own humanly impossible to understand ways; which is to say that no one can ever know exactly how much loss fucking hurts another person. But Claire is determined to feed off their emotions in attempt to keep her rotting memories and feelings towards Paul resembling something like life.

And as the case seems to proceed no further along towards any kind of revelation, Claire begins to ruminate on a particular missing person case she worked as a teenager in New York City. These recollections serve a two-fold purpose. One, it acts as a sub-plot that intersects the chapters of the main narrative; and Two, the memories allow Claire to wallow in even more misery due to the fact that this missing person case was one of the last times she ever saw her best friend Tracy. Tracy’s disappearance was a case Claire never solved and further compounded her extreme sense of abandonment and self-loathing. And as we watch Claire in the present continually abusing her body with cocaine at an alarming rate, these scenes of a younger and more naïve Claire help to create the overwhelming sense of loss that permeates throughout every page of this book.

These two plot threads come to powerful and emotionally-energized conclusions that, for this sad bastard of a reader, left an ache in that thing we all call our heart. And as this book reaches its final pages, Gran makes her only misstep for me. She ends the book with a cliff-hanger that seems pretty non-sequitur even for a novel that is dreamy and ethereal as much as it is nasty and vicious. I am no fan of cliff-hangers stuck on the end of a book just for the sake of making you cough up the cash the next time a new book comes around. So even though this one fault kept me from making this a 100 % rabid rave review, I still found Claire De Witt and the Bohemian Highway a fantastic read for fans of mysteries as well as good-old fashioned literature. Sara Gran packs her pages with quirky and painful insights about love and trying to reach out to other people that kept me highlighting the electronic pages of my ARC again and again. And yeah, I’ll definitely be waiting to see how things turn out in a year or two when Claire makes her curtain-call in the third book in this trilogy.
Or maybe, hopefully, Claire will be back for more and more. She’s a great character and one of my favorite private detectives. So here’s for me holding out in my belief that all writers are liars. And they’re the worst kind of liars, too. They make you believe them every time.

So let me steal an idea from my friend Dan, and give this review 4 out of 5 happy stars with one cocaine-bloodied nose of a half-star passed out at the end.

The Questing Knights of the space-time contiunuum


David Zindell

Harper Collins

Reviewed by: Terry
4  out of 5 stars


This is a really enjoyable 'big idea' science fiction novel that takes place millenia in our future on the planet Icefall, also called Neverness. It's kind of _Dune_ meets Malory's _Le Morte d'Arthur_ with high level mathematics, posthumanism, and trippy metaphysics thrown in.

The story follows the life of Mallory Ringess, a trainee enrolled at "the Academy" that was founded by a pseudo-monastic order of truth-seekers called 'the Order of Mystic Mathematicians and Other Seekers of the Ineffable Flame' hoping to become a pilot. Now in this day and age a pilot is a very special kind of beast who combines the aspects of a theoretical mathematician with those of a questing knight. Using advanced mathematics the pilots are able to navigate within the manifold, a kind of hyperspace that links all parts of the universe, but whose dangers can lead the untrained or the unwary to get lost in the tangled skeins of space-time. The pilots are thus a special breed. They are men and women who live for the precarious dangers of the manifold and who search, quixote-like, for the proof of the elusive Continuum Hypothesis which would allow a pilot to fall from any point in the universe to any other without the complicated mathematical mappings normally required to traverse hyperspace.

It is also a quest for godhood as the pilots search for the secrets known as the Elder Eddas. These secrets are said to allow beings to transcended their mortality and become gods of one sort or another, and the galaxy is sparsely populated with some of these dangerous and unknowable superbeings, former humans whose consciousness is now housed in nebulae or moon-sized computers. This dangerous life has brought about the motto of the pilots: "Journeymen die", for it is few pilots who ever survive to their mastership.

The world Zindell creates is a fascinating one full of strangeness and wonder. Mallory is an interesting character, equal parts idealistic dreamer and pompous ass. His best friend Bardo is even more entertaining...a figure equal parts Falstaff and Porthos. The story bogged down a bit for me in the middle where Mallory and his fellow searchers look for the Elder Eddas among the Alaloi, a group of humans who had 'carked' their flesh and minds to become like the Neanderthals of earth in rejection of the advanced technology used by the other people of Neverness. Overall, however, this is a great tale, bursting at the seams with crazy-awesome ideas that leave a lot of food for the imagination.


Also posted at Goodreads

The Forbes 25 Reviewers - #21 Lady Danielle the Book Huntress

Today's guest is Lady Danielle the Book Huntress.  She also posts at Danielle's Book Thoughts.

How did you discover Goodreads? 
Someone on the Amazon romance forum mentioned it as a good site for book lovers. I love chatting with other booklovers and I don’t have many friends in real life who are avid readers like me, so I jumped on the opportunity. Now, it’s an obsession for me.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences? 
That would be hard! I’ve had so many interesting experiences in the almost five years I’ve been on the site.

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of. 
I, Curmudgeon—he always writes thoughtful reviews.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads? 
I don’t have a strong opinion about it. I am hoping they will have the option to import books that I buy off Amazon because I’m lazy. :)

How many books do you own? 
Over five thousand. It’s hard to do an exact count because I’d have to go through all my bookshelves and books to do that, and I haven’t had the time or energy to do so. Plus I continue to acquire more books...

Who is your favorite author? 
Anne Stuart, who writes romance with a dark edge. I want to have every book she ever written in my collection.

What is your favorite book of all time? 
That’s a tie between Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase

What are your thoughts on ebooks? 
They are a good adjunct to my paper book reading. I think they help to expand the available books because indie authors can more easily break into the publishing game. I like that books that are out of print are becoming available as ebooks. And I like when I can get good books for very cheap prices.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing? 
I think it’s a good thing because it allows more writers to get their books out, but it’s a double-edged sword. Self-publishing has a stigma because there are many poorly edited and unpolished works out that should have been more stringently edited before they arrive under the public eye. As a result, many roll their eyes when they hear about a self-published author/book, thinking it will live down to the reputation.

Any literary aspirations? 
I love to write. One day I will actually get something I wrote published. :)

Locke & Key

by Joe Hill & Gabriel Rodriguez


Locke and Key, Vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraftoooooo.... an eerie old mansion on a woody estate, strange mysteries and dangerous secrets, a tangled and forgotten past, a san francisco family of three - father slain - seeking a new life on an island named Lovecraft off the coast of massachusetts, in a place called The Keyhouse. a beautiful girl who lives at the bottom of a well, an insane killer on the hunt for magical keys, doors that open into odd places, walk through one door and change your gender, walk through another door and turn into a ghost... who knows what else? the mysteries multiply. awesome!

the art is excellent: a muted kind of vivid, smooth and professional, with a sometimes whimsical but basically realistic approach to illustrating the characters. and the writing is even better. characterization and narrative feel carefully honed, sketched with smaller strokes, intimate details parsed out slowly, the mysteries unfolding at an even pace, flashbacks that adroitly serve to both increase suspense and to render each character completely understandable, the narrative sinister and endearing and magical all at once - and always compelling both the quick turn of the page and the more contemplative search for hidden meaning in past pages.

i really enjoyed this one a lot. i wish i had read it on Halloween. or on a rainy day in a creaky mansion on an island off of massachusetts. heaven!



oooooo..... more eerie adventures on that strange island in that creepy Keyhouse with that poor, haunted family. wonderful! while the first book was focused on slowly bringing the family and the reader into this fascinating world - introducing a handful of magical keys, throwing out a few hints of the incredible backstory, setting up a confrontation between the family and both a dreadful psycho & a creepy spirit villain - the second book zooms in on one particular key and one particularly fertile concept.

Locke and Key, Vol. 2: Head Gamesthe key in question is fascinating: it gives you the ability to unlock your own head, put things into it (like a textbook! who needs to study? just pop that baby right into the box and all the answers are instantly available), and take things out as well (like bad memories... like fear... like an ability to feel sadness or doubt or even cry). and how this is exactly accomplished is one of the most enjoyable and rather jaw-dropping conceits of Head Games. i literally gasped out loud, then laughed and laughed and laughed. awesome.

Head Games is a lot more than just a perfectly realized and fairly unique idea. it takes that idea and expands upon it, in a truly literary style. no, scratch that, not "literary"... this is a graphic novel and the artist Gabriel Rodriguez is an equal partner in the undertaking. his art is wondrous. the word that comes most immediately to mind is limpid. Head Games deals with a lot of cloudy, ambiguous, mysterious goings-on and the art illustrates these mysteries with a clarity that is nearly hallucinatory. does that make any sense? a kind of hallucinogenic, so-real-it's-stylized pellucidity.

but back to what i was saying. what makes Joe Hill such a strong writer is that he doesn't just unveil his gem of an idea and leave it there. he expands upon it, he works through it: what the inside of a person's imagination may look like (some extraordinary details there), how someone's fears and emotions can both hold them back and make them who they are, how we are controlled by our memories of different events and how those memories may differ from reality, how different people engage in different ways with their own personas, and more. a lot of food for thought. it is exciting to see how Hill plays with his ideas while keeping them carefully rooted in an astute, clear-eyed view of how our emotions rule us - how the human mind actually works.

all that plus the stories of two very different but equally tragic supporting characters, a villain who is slippery & cunning & menacing & yet terrifically real, a well-developed gay character, an increasingly intriguing backstory, and some very endearing kid protagonists.



Crown of Shadowsoooooo... the eeriest of the eerie, The Crown of Shadows! and what exactly is a crown of shadows? well, the wearer of this fell crown becomes the Dread Lord of All Shadows. and what exactly does that mean? well, shadows become solid and are now at your beck & call - to dance, to fight, to search for magic keys, to battle man and woman (and poor little children and headstrong teenagers as well), to wreak havoc and to bring down terror amongst your enemies. i want one! i can think of a lot of things i could accomplish with this nifty crown.

dark, devious, delicate, occasionally despairing, often delightful... this fourth installment in the Locke and Key series is yet more imaginative, high-quality adventure. kudos, creators! this series is surely one of the finest achievements in graphic novels birthed in the new millenium. the art is typically splendid - vivid, beautifully colored, often happily surprising. the sight of a giant-sized Tyler opening up the Key House like it was a dollhouse - opening it up from the inside - was worth the price of admission. just as well-done: a marvelous opening battle between two swirling ghosts (with two very different agendas).

Joe Hill's writing remains top-notch. this volume has less characterization than previous volumes and often feels like a non-stop whirl of action. all of that is accomplished perfectly. but he remains a writer of depth; in between and during the adventures, we see Kinsey continue to form tangible, supportive, rather off-beat friendships and we continue to see the impact of her literal removal of the ability to feel either fear or sadness. rather a mixed bag, that. we also see the drunken mother... remain a drunken mother. not a whole lot of wish fulfillment there. the mother is sympathetic, sad, pathetic, and monstrous - all at once.



Locke & Key Volume 4: Keys to the Kingdomoooooo... the eeriest of rollercoaster rides, a rush of images, sinister vistas zooming in and out of view, unreal tableau cascading pell-mell, willy-nilly, hurly-burly: an homage to Bill Watterson, a bloody battle between birds and wolves; racial dismay and distortion in an insane asylum; a hockey loss, a greenhouse comes alive, sprouting wings, battling chains, battling squirrels, a death-tune, the end of friendships, battling teddy bears, battling friends, the worst way to win at hockey; an homage to EC Comics, soldiers in battle, a ghost with an agenda and an autistic child, a "philososcope"; a long-awaited confrontation, the return of a terrible tune, a terrible death, a terrible transformation... Hill (brilliant writing) and Rodriguez (brilliant art) unleash everything at once and the effect is wonderfully disorienting, the carefully scattered puzzle pieces begin uniting in mad spurts, the slow pace moves into fast-forward, everything comes together, everything falls apart... my hands gripped this volume too tightly, my eyes wide, my mouth agape, my brain began to hurt...



oooooo..... eerie backstory time! and the infernal force behind it all is... and this is no spoiler because hey check out the title of the first volume... CTHULHU! of course. i've been waiting for that title to have real relevance. ah, Cthulhu. ::happy sigh::

well maybe not Cthulhu specifically (rest in peace), but one of his siblings: that fetid pool of unlife, the "she-goat of a thousand young"... Shub-Niggurath! yay!

Locke and Key, Vol. 5: Clockworksthis is another superb volume in the superb series. this one is all about the reasons why and the how things happened and the when - most importantly, the when. the featured key takes you back in time to witness various important events. we get to see revolutionary america. we get to see the dead father of our young protagonists, when he and his peers were about their age. we get to see lots of things.

[Enter Positive Comments Here]. i can say nothing about this series that hasn't been said before, by me and by many others. it is brilliant. the dynamic characterizations, the layered mysteries, the sadness and melancholy and loss and sense of wasted potential and wasted lives, the feeling of a grand adventure gone terribly wrong, the genuine sympathy that Hill creates for his vividly depicted cast, all the subtlety and nuance... all there, intact. the art is just as wonderful. i love it! across the board, no complaints.


Locke & Key: Guide to the Known KeysLocke & Key: Grindhouseone-shots
oh these

picture if you will a sick child. the child is brave, the child is sweet, the child is loved. the child longs for adventures his frail little body will never allow him. the child will die in agony. picture if you will a father. if you were the father to such a child, what would you do? you are a father who has done things, who can do things, magic things. and yet there is no magic cure. but perhaps you can do something yet. create a fantasia, create a perfect childworld. bring back ghosts from the past. take your child backstage of the world's theatre and show him that there is wonder there too. take your precious child to the moon, and beyond!

picture if you will a home invasion. a trio of scumbags, each one worse than the last. they truck in death - murder and rape and molestation; they deserve death themselves. picture a happy home waiting to be invaded and picture a happy family of sitting ducks. does this make you anxious? never fear! the home is The Keyhouse. the family is armed with keys. Magic Keys! pity instead the hapless home invaders. no, scratch that. rejoice in their destruction! it is well-earned and especially tasty.

Hill constructs a sweet and ever so sad fable in the first - a paean to what can never be and what may still be, in dreams, in a father's hopes and fears for his child, in places a child may go but never return. Rodriguez matches him with art that is by turns winsome, grounded, and just a little bit phantasmagorical.

Hill creates a vivid and visceral tale full of mordant humor in the second. you've seen these characters before, in cheap grindhouse films. here they are placed in a new setting, The Keyhouse - but with all of your typical grindhouse film's jacobean-revenge-drama-writ-small nastiness left intact. Rodriguez matches him with art that is influenced by film noir and low-budget horror movies and, of course, ugly grindhouse cheapies.

good stuff!