Friday, May 30, 2014

The Cool Part of His Pillow

Rodney Ross

Dreamspinner Press

Reviewed by: Nancy

5 out of 5 stars


The midforties are that time in a gay man’s life when his major paradigm shifts from sexy to sensible. But when Barry Grooms's partner of twenty years is killed on Barry's forty-fifth birthday, his world doesn’t so much evolve as it does explode.

After navigating through the surreal conveyor belt of friends and family, he can't eat another casserole or swallow much more advice, and so, still numb, he escapes to Key West, then New York. He embraces a new mantra: Why the hell not? He becomes so spontaneous he's ready to combust. First, he gets a thankless new job working for a crazy lady in a poncho, then has too many drinks with a narcissistic Broadway actor. Next, it's a nude exercise class that redefines flop sweat, and from there he’s on to a relationship with a man twenty years his junior, so youthfully oblivious he thinks Karen Carpenter is a lesbian woodworker.

Yet no matter how great the retreat from the man he used to be, life's gravity spins Barry back to the town where he grew up for one more ironic twist that teaches him how to say good-bye with grace.

My Review

This story is one painful year in the life of Barry Grooms. He is celebrating his 45th birthday with Andy Morgan, his partner of 23 years, and a group of their close friends. Both men are successful in their careers, live comfortable lives, and are still deeply in love. Barry’s life is shattered when he learns that Andy and their pugs, Gertie and Noel, are killed instantly when a crane and empty 10-story building collapsed on his parked car while they were inside. Barry’s not even sure why Andy was there in the first place.

Now Barry has to deal with the sudden emptiness in his life and while reading his first-person perspective, I suffered right along with him. It took me four days to get through Barry’s story, not because it failed to hold my interest, but because it was so painful to me. Barry was like the close friend I didn’t know how to comfort. Spending too much time with him was emotionally draining, and I felt completely helpless in the face of his grief. I was thankful for his colorful friends and his supportive mom who were there to ease his grief when it became too much for me.

Andy’s very public accident hasn’t managed to stay out of the paper, and Barry is not in the mood for Christmas, so he takes off to their house in Key West, Florida. More friends, more reminders of Andy, and Barry sells his home and his business, and is off to New York City.

I loved Barry’s reminiscing that showed some of the problems he and Andy had as well as their deep love for each other:

“If only I’d known. I would have been the first to apologize, not just then, but every time we battled. Early in our relationship, my suitcase had been packed by me and, a couple of times, for me, once being told, “Go home to mother!” I scurried for the front door, screaming, “At least I have one!” This made him cry. Over time, the luggage got nicer and the arguments remained petty, but we were careful they left no permanent nicks.”
“Andy and I carried a kindergarten school photo of the other in our wallets, behind our driver’s license, a reminder of who we were before we knew the other existed.”

It’s not all sad. There were wonderfully humorous moments too, like the one that nearly had me flying off the treadmill at the gym when Barry and his sister, Olivia, were working a summer job at Winky’s and Barry had to help her find her missing wart. Yes, you read that right.

Barry’s empty life fills up again as he starts dating and takes a management job at Theatrilicious, a shop specializing in rare and unusual theatre collectibles. He eventually meets a young man who makes him feel desirable, but this is not a romance story. Barry has work to do to move past his grief. There is more loss and heartbreak before Barry does find some healing and closure.

Though this story was sad and painful at times, it was also thoughtful and humorous. If my husband should suddenly die, I have a feeling I will be looking for Barry’s story to comfort me.

Also posted at Goodreads

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Patriarch Run by Benjamin Dancer

Patriarch RunPatriarch Run by Benjamin Dancer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”About three thousand years ago there was a Chinese artificer named Yan Shi who made a robot that looked like a person. It could walk, sing and dance. And it had an eye for women.”

It was clear from Billy’s expression that he was skeptical about such things.

“One day Yan Shi brought is robot to the king. Nobody had ever seen anything like it. The exhibition went perfectly until the robot started being lewd with the women. That incensed the king.

Yan Shi knew he would lose his life if he couldn’t get the king to excuse the robot’s behavior. So he dismantled it.

When the king saw all the parts, he was amazed. The robot had muscles over the bones. Tendons and ligaments. It had hair and teeth.”

Billy had stopped eating. His eyes were but slits, and he was looking at the Colonel sideways. “How did he make it?”

“I don’t know.”

“How come the Chinese can’t make one like that today?”

“Maybe they can.”

 photo YanShi_zps62212474.jpg
Yan Shi, the artificer. Photo kindly supplied by Benjamin Dancer.

The book begins with Billy searching for the family owned herd of Bison that has busted through the fence on their way to greener pastures. I can remember many times, first thing after school, hopping in the pickup with my Dad to go put some cattle escapees back in where they are supposed to be. We owned a couple of horses, but generally we used dirt bikes and pickups to chase cattle. My brother and I had some spectacular wrecks on those dirt bikes because ground is usually put to grass because it is too rough and unsuitable for farming. Trying to keep an eye on the cattle and an eye on the ground may have prepared our peripheral vision for playing basketball, but with obstacles such as grass masked holes, hollers, and chunks of rock it wasn’t infrequent for an OOHHHH SHIIITTT to be heard coming from one of us...usually putting a grin on the other. When four wheelers came along they were a lot safer alternative to negotiating abrupt changes in terrain. (Kansas by the way is not as flat as it has been made out to be.)

Billy is old school. He and his horse Maiden go out, and certainly more gently, convince errant livestock back into the proper pasture. (The instigator of the break outs is a bull named Moses...let my bison go.) Billy even rides his horse to school, a hundred year old flashback in time. His mom is dating the Sheriff. A man that Billy respects. Billy doesn’t fully understand his girlfriend, but then that is just par for the course for any teenage boy or middle aged man or a man in his twilight years. Life is feeling pretty stable for Billy.

That is until his Dad shows up.

Jack worked for the government. He did whatever they needed him to do to keep the world or at least the United States safe. He was a true believer in the inherent goodness of America and for a while he could justify anything to himself...until he turned. A friend of his father tries to explain it to Billy.

”Each betrayal takes another piece of you. Chips you down. Decades go by. The change is slow. Then one day you wake up and see her entirely differently.”

“See who?”

“America. You realize the woman you fell in love with as a young man has always been a whore.”

On his last mission in China Jack disappears and takes with him the very technology that he was supposed to steal for his government. It is a weapon, aptly named Yan Shi, powerful enough to sabotage the digital infrastructure of civilization, basically, this weapon if deployed takes us all back to the stone age, overnight. Now you might think that Jack is planning to have the big pay day by selling the technology to the Russians or to North Korea or maybe to Pakistan, but Jack is not interested in money.. He isn’t a traitor not in that sense. He is interested in the future of humanity. He is a man obsessed with growing human population numbers and now he has the power of a god in his hands.

”The growth of the human population as I write is estimated to be 1.3% per year. At the current rate of growth the population will double every fifty-three years. Six to twelve, twelve to twenty-four billion human beings in a century. To put those twenty-four billion people in perspective, the world’s population a hundred years ago was one point six billion.

Unfortunately, the resources required to sustain our civilization are not growing at the same rate as the human population. The United Nations estimates that 15% of the population goes hungry today. That’s nearly a billion people. The balance is off.”

 photo Benjamin-Dancer_zps931f2691.jpg
Benjamin Dancer, truthsayer.

As Benjamin Dancer points out the American Farmer has increased production fifty-fold. Technology has kept enough food arriving at your local grocery store (for most of us), but if something happens; if the grid shuts down; if catastrophic things happen one after another; it will be like a row of dominoes that can not be set back up. That grocery store brimming with food is now out of food in three days... maybe less. Trucks are not moving, nothing is being produced. We only have what we have on Day ZERO. Two hundred million people would be dead after the first year.

Hunger is our predator.”

So only a madman would press the button that would spell doom for so many, right?

Jack has faced the reality of numbers that most of us are reluctant to even contemplate. If he ends the world now the cost will be considerable less than if he lets “nature” take it’s course. Two hundred million dead are only a drop in the bucket of how many would die in the first year of chaos in say fifty years. If you can convince yourself that humans are a plague on this earth it becomes a lot easier to press that button, but for Jack it is much more practical than that. He sees this as a chance to save humanity not destroy it.

Billy, his mom, and the sheriff find themselves thrust into the whirlwind of Jack’s life. Various government agencies are after him. With so much at stake, Billy and the people he cares about are mere chaff in the wind.

”Bullets ripped through the patrol car ringing the sheet metal; safety glass sprayed through the cabin; stuffing oozed from the sheriff’s seat; the rear window wasn’t there anymore; beams of sunlight pierced two long holes in the roof liner.”

This is just a small taste of a larger picture Dancer paints of bullets, fear, and determination as Billy finds himself pitted against a father he never knew and a world he is just beginning to understand. This book will send a shiver of fear down many of your backs. Even though I have been aware of the population math for some time, the way Dancer presents it made me have to take a long walk between a few chapters. I believe, because I am the eternal optimist, that we will make the necessary changes not only with technology, but with education.

Maybe if we get lucky/unlucky something will scare us enough to start thinking about the future and not just the present. Hopefully that won’t be something catastrophic, but just something that will give us a good knock in the head. Dancer kept my attention throughout the book. A team of wild bison couldn’t have kept me from turning the pages of this story.

Besides Yan Shi, Dancer sprinkles a couple of other real life people into his story.

 photo EdWilson_zps3f166fa3.jpg
”This is an image of Ed Wilson who represented the CIA through a front company (Consultants International). In my story (p148), Ed Wilson tries to get Jack to help in the Iran-Contra struggle.” Photo text and picture supplied by Benjamin Dancer.

 photo HowardHart_zps455c38cd.jpg
”Howard Hart, the CIA station chief in Iran during the time Jack was there (p134). Hart actually filed the report Jack refers to in the story.” Text and picture supplied by Benjamin Dancer.

On his Amazon profile Benjamin has a great movie trailer about the book that you really should take a couple of minutes to see.

I also asked Benjamin for a couple of free stories that I hope will give you some idea of his writing chops.

Stories by Benjamin Available for Free:

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Dark Love Letter to Iceland

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Brrr! This wintry novel about a woman accused in the 1828 murders of two men in northern Iceland was filled with shiver-inducing descriptions of the harsh, yet beautiful, rural landscape. Even though I was reading this on a warm summer day, the chilly language made me think about reaching for a shawl.

Hannah Kent, who is from Australia, says she became interested in the true story of Agnes Magnusdottir when she traveled to Iceland in 2003. Agnes was the last person in the country to be executed. She was beheaded in 1830 for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Petur Jonsson. Kent researched the facts of the case and has written a compelling version of what might have happened while Agnes was awaiting her execution.

Kent's prose is lovely and so descriptive that you feel as if you are in that remote Icelandic village. The novel is a bit slow to start, but picks up when Agnes is transferred to a farmer's home to await her fate, and a compassionate reverend starts to visit her. Agnes is reticent at first, but eventually opens up and discusses her past and her relationship with the murdered men.

"I remain quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me. I cannot let myself slip away. I will hold what I am inside, and keep my hands tight around all the things I have seen and heard, and felt. The poems composed as I washed and scythed and cooked until my hands were raw. The sagas I know by heart. I am sinking all I have left and going underwater. If I speak, it will be in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves. They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say 'Agnes' and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there."

While overall I liked the book, one of my complaints was that Kent would switch between third-person and Agnes' first-person perspective, and some of the changes were so jarring and abrupt (with no visible page break) that I sometimes had to backtrack and reread paragraphs to make sense of what I was reading. This is Kent's first novel, and this kind of structural messiness should have been fixed by an editor. I think the whole story could have been efficiently told from third person, OR the shifts between the perspectives should have been telegraphed better. Kent does get credit for including a pronunciation guide for Icelandic letters at the beginning of the book, which was helpful.

But this feels like quibbling in what was a mostly enjoyable read. I liked the relationship between Agnes and the reverend, and how the feelings of the farmer's family, which were at first hostile to hosting a prisoner, slowly changed over time as Agnes proved herself a useful worker. I also liked the glimpse into the workings of a 19th-century village and the differences between the homes of the poor farmers and those of the wealthy commissioner. I would recommend "Burial Rites" to fans of historical fiction or anyone who would appreciate this "dark love letter" to Iceland.

Antipaladins and Archliches: An Interview with Jess Gulbranson

Today's guest is Jess Gulbranson, author of Antipaladin Blues.

How did you hook up with Legume Man? 
It's funny that I lived with Antipaladin Blues for so many years, and have kind of put it out of my mind for a while due to my illness, that thinking about it fresh has allowed me to dig up some really good thoughts about its origin.

I had just written 10 A BOOT STOMPING for the 3Day Novel Contest, and saw their submissions call. If I recall correctly, they posted on the wild wild west that was the old Bizarrocentral forums. I've certainly had (and will continue to have) aesthetic disagreements with the bizarro scene, but I made a lot of lifelong friends there and I would definitely not be as published as I am today without Rose and crew being so welcoming. I will always give props to that, and of course to the fine folks at LegumeMan.

What made you want to write Antipaladin Blues?
That's a tough one- why does anybody want to write anything? In this case there was a specific scene that sort of sprung into my mind and wouldn't go away: a government wizard, his black knight retainer, and some guards raiding a warehouse and killing a bunch of people. That scene is in Blues almost unchanged from how I imagined it.  The likely explanation is that I saw The Limey right around the time I started writing it. The warehouse massacre is one of my favorite movie scenes, and I do have Kannon (the protagonist) quote Terence Stamp as a shout-out.

What would you say the biggest influences on Antipaladin Blues were?
D&D, obviously, but more specifically the campaign world that I was working on as young as 9 or 10 with my best friends growing up. Blues started with the inspiration I mentioned earlier, but as I started to expand it I realized that I was more motivated by deconstruction of the typical fantasy world as expressed by a D&D campaign run by adolescents or teenagers. Keeping that artifice in mind was very important. Another big influence was old detective fiction- Chandler and Hammett. If you look at the characters in Blues, they're not epic fantasy archetypes. They're cops on the take, corrupt feds, mob enforcers, etc. Kannon himself was influenced by an idea I had about Tommy Vercetti from GTA: Vice City. The idea of a guy whose job it is to be 'evil', but beneath that thinks of himself as honorable or duty-bound, but beneath that is really a brute who enjoys breaking legs... I couldn't resist.

Are you currently a Dungeons and Dragons player?
I hang out on a notorious game design forum...if the old BC forums were the wild west, then this place is the club from Hostel. Smart people, but not shy about vivisection. One of the forum members is a Lovecraftean scholar and former Shadowrun writer, and he ran a year-long campaign of 3.5 D&D that was so fun, so literate that it has pretty much spoiled me on playing D&D. That being said, I'd still love to join a group but between my illness and unreasonably high standards, it's tough.

If money and death were not obstacles, who would you cast in an Antipaladin Blues movie?
I habitually cast my characters when writing them. Kannon looks like vocalist extraordinaire Mike Patton. Chamberlin is Samuel L. Jackson, and Averly is Jenny Shimizu. Frank's voice has always kind of gone back and forth for me- somewhere between Keith David and Bill Nighy.

Any plans to continue the story begun in Antipaladin Blues?
Yes. When it was first picked up by now-defunct publisher Evil Nerd Empire, in its uncompleted state I had imagined one long novel. The publisher insisted on having it be three short novels, so the first installment could come out ASAP. That of course was the exact opposite of what happened. Atypically for me, the next two installments (Archlich Hotel and Johnny Devil Comes To Town) are actually completely outlined and plotted. I've written a sizable chunk of book two but I'm going to get myself back on track before I continue.

What other works have you published?
My amazon page should say it all, but I do have two full novels- MEL, my first, which was written serially for an online arts mag, and 10 A BOOT STOMPING 20 A HUMAN FACE 30 GOTO 10 which, to be perfectly honest, is a fucking great book and I can't believe I wrote it at all, much less in 71 hours.

Would you say more fantasy authors need to think outside the Tolkien box with their stories?
Absotutely. The problem with the Tolkien box is that it's not even his box anymore- it's the Tolkien-by-way-of-D&D-box, and while it might be great for firing the imaginations of the multitudes, it's pretty stultifying as far as tone and subject matter. There need to be better approaches to fantasy- either stuff like Jeff Vandermeer's Ambergris books where Tolkien is implicitly rejected, or like Mary Wells' Wheel of the Infinite where Tolkien just isn't even a relevant issue.

If you woke from an opium-induced haze and found a woman with an ice pick stuck in her neck in your bed, what would you do?
I'm no spy, and I'm no murderer, I'm just a boring suburban guy who happens to already have a plan for situations like these. No details that I can share, though, because I think it is a trick that will only work once. But once will be enough. [/creepy]

Who is your favorite author? 
That's always so hard. The main influences I cite are Stephen King, Mark Twain, Hunter Thompson, HP Lovecraft, Gene Wolfe, and Marquez.

What is your favorite book of all time?
Speaking of Gene Wolfe and Marquez... I think for me it's been a tie between Shadow of the Torturer and Autumn of the Patriarch for best books ever written.

What are you reading now?
The False Magic Kingdom Cycle by Jordan Krall. It's inspiring, since it's very very good, and also very similar in structure and content to a project I had going. Makes me want to resurrect that project, even though it's really hard to compare them. Krall is an amazing writer, and he is forging his own path in the writing and publishing world.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
I've been writing ever since I can remember, intermittently. I think the very first time a book blew me away and made me write then and there was the HPL collection Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, when I was 8 or 9.

What do you have coming down the pipeline?
My 5-year-old daughter and I are working on a tabletop rpg called Castle on the Edge of the Moon. It uses FATE: Core as a system, and is equal parts Adventure Time, Fallout, and Studio Ghibli, with a sprinkling of Thundarr and Axe Cop. We're hoping to get it finished and hopefully crowdfunded this year. She's great to work with, a limitless imagination. She got her first story published this year, in a horror/bizarro anthology! I have a couple of short fiction projects that Garrett Cook and I are chipping away at, and a mostly complete novel (magical realism, see Marquez obsession above) that needs to go through the rewrite grinder. Plus some kids' books that I work on idly from time to time. Apart from that... well, I'm using my illness as an opportunity to reinvent. Not sure what kind of writer I'm going to be if/when I come out the other side. Hopefully a better one.

Any advice for aspiring writers?
An essay of mine on that topic got published a couple years ago. The thumbnail version: start now. Don't wait. This is the absolute most important first step. Don't think about agents or markets or your abilities. You may suck at first, but you always throw out the first pancake anyway, right?

Antipaladin Blues

Antipaladin BluesAntipaladin Blues by Jess Gulbranson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the forces of good prove to be a bunch of assholes, the world needs a bad guy to settle the score. With his demonic spiked armor and flaming sword, Kannon comes to the City of D to set things right...

Antipaladin Blues is a novella that takes the standard Dungeons & Dragons inspired fantasy tropes and drops them on their heads. The main character is a carnage-loving antipaladin and the rest of what will eventually resemble an adventuring party consist of a denim-wearing mage, a lady alchemist trying to make a go of things in a man's world, and Frank Burley, last of the red-hot archliches.

The worldbuilding is surprisingly good for a novella of this type. Imagine a world where wizards suppress non-magical healing techniques and the emperor plots against his own people.

The book runs on ultraviolence and anachronistic humor, reading like a twisted version of Sam Raimi's Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. There are also quite a few Dungeons and Dragons inside jokes, making for a funny read but at no time does the humor descend to a silly level. The ultraviolence is the star of the show.

The thing that separates Kannon from a lot of dark fantasy characters is that he knows what he is and loves it. There's no lamentation, no regrets, just a bastard in a spikey suit of armor kicking ass and taking names, the asses in question belonging to paladins, wizards, angels, psionicists, and all sorts of other things.

Antipaladin Blues is a fun read and I'm hoping Jess Gulbranson continues the story in the future. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

View all my reviews

Monday, May 26, 2014

A Classic Noir Novel by Bruce Elliott

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is a classic noir novel, originally published in 1952, that had long been virtually forgotten. Happily, it has been resurrected by the folks at Stark House Press and republished in a new double edition that also contains the excellent Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze.

The protagonist is Larry Camonille, who has just led a prison break in which ten cons have escaped from the state pen in Joliet, Illinois. Camonille makes his way to Chicago where his girlfriend is supposed to be waiting with the money that Camonille has entrusted to her. Inevitably, of course, he arrives in the Windy City only to find that both the girlfriend and the money are long gone.

Camonille is not in the best of health and has only one lung. He is determined to make his way to Mexico, where he believes that the weather will be better for his health. But he's broke in Chicago, and one by one, the cons he escaped with are making the mistakes that allow them to be recaptured and sent back to prison.

Camonille is determined to avoid that fate and so robs a dope house to get some traveling money. He loses that fairly quickly to a sadistic railroad detective and finds himself broke again and on the road outside a small town in Ohio. His luck seems to turn for the better when a woman named Vera picks him up in her Cadillac and gives him a ride to a roadhouse outside of town. Vera is a widow who has some miles on her, but she knows the manager of the roadhouse and convinces him to give Camonille a job as a dishwasher.

In the usual fashion of a book like this, Camonille's situation gets trickier as things move along, and before you know it, the plot involves crooked lawyers, bickering spouses and a young teenage girl who is strangely attracted to Camonille, just as is his patroness, the lush and randy Vera. It all makes for a very combustible mix that includes more than a little kinky sex, which is fairly vividly described for 1952. The poor hapless Camonille is determined to escape the lawmen who are still hunting for him and to make his way to Mexico, but all sorts of webs are tightening around him and the odds of his making it don't look good.

All fans of noir fiction should be grateful to Stark House for reprinting this book and it's companion. They are both great reads and true classics of the genre.

Sssedarisss Isss A Ssseriousssly Sssilly Assss

Me Talk Pretty One DayMe Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As the title suggests, much of Me Talk Pretty One Day revolves around speech and speaking:

> Back in school lil' David (I guess he's still kind of little, isn't he) was forced into correcting his sibilant speech by a highly determined therapist. We're led to wonder if she wasn't stamping out boys' lisps through out the North Carolina school with an ulterior motive.
> A move from NY to Paris prompts David to take French lessons in France with hilarious results.

But that's about all there is to the main topic in this 5 disc set*. The rest is a mixed bag of topics:

> A stint as an avant garde performance artist.
> Drug use.
> His hilariously red-necked brother.
> The lives and deaths of family pets.
> Annoying American tourists.
> Teaching a writing course and having no idea how.
> Learning guitar from a sexist midget.
> Stories about his entertaining father.

That mixed bag of topics brings with it a mix in tone. Some pieces are just flat out funny, while others have a deeper meaning and seem almost too serious to laugh at...and yet I do.

Is there a mix in quality as well? My little jury of one is out on that still. I've listened to this one many times, maybe more than any of his others, and while I enjoy the heck out of it, there are long stretches where I wasn't laughing. Usually the ha-ha down-time is filled with me pondering expansively upon his chosen subject matter, so I'm never bored or disconnected from the Sedaris experience. But those looking for wall-to-wall laughs be warned.

* You really have to listen to Sedaris read is own material to get the full funny out of it. He is a humorist after all, and much like a comedian, you wouldn't get as many laughs from reading a script of their stand-up routine as you would from watching them live.

F-ed Up Family No Matter How You Dress It Up

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and DenimDress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sedarises are crazy-ass muthafuckers! Loco gringos, hombre, loco.

Out of everything he's produced (I've read all of his major work and only missed a few short pieces) this is my favorite David Sedaris book. Yet, I don't recommend it...

...not always, not to everyone. The subject matter can be too much for some people, especially if they've been told that Sedaris is a humorist and then they encounter some the more depressing details of his real life experiences. I laugh my ass off at the bottom-feeder characters and occasional bargain basement morals herein, but some people will wring their hands and say, "Oh how awful."

Get over it and enjoy the ride, is my approach. The ride includes experiences of being gay and coming out (horrible and hilarious!), portraits of various family members that bring the people as vividly alive as any long-running tv show is capable, and living on his own for the first time, which includes apartment living in general and specifically the trials of low-income housing.

Sedaris is a master at what I call autobiographical short stories. They are short form pieces about his life and his life reads like carnival folklore, so seemingly unreal at times it feels surreal.

Some of his other books are not quite so warts-and-all. If you try Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim on for size, realize it may not suit you. Perhaps try on another first and ease your way into this strange fashion.

Audiobook Note: Listening to Sedaris read the audiobook is a must. He wrote the stories, hell, he lived the stories, so he knows how they're to be read. I've listened to him enough now that I can not only read his work in his voice, but also accurately guess at the necessary inflection in new material. Yeah, it's a gift...

Friday, May 23, 2014


Lauren Myracle

Amulet Books

Reviewed by Nancy

4 out of 5 stars


When her best guy friend falls victim to a vicious hate crime, sixteen-year-old Cat sets out to discover who in her small town did it. Richly atmospheric, this daring mystery mines the secrets of a tightly knit Southern community and examines the strength of will it takes to go against everyone you know in the name of justice.

Against a backdrop of poverty, clannishness, drugs, and intolerance, Myracle has crafted a harrowing coming-of-age tale couched in a deeply intelligent mystery. Smart, fearless, and compassionate, this is an unforgettable work from a beloved author.

My Review

I became curious about this book after it was mistakenly nominated as a finalist for the National Book Awards, instead of another similar-sounding title. It also appealed to me because it is about teenagers growing up in the rural south, the problems kids normally deal with, and the bigotry, poverty, drug addiction, and provincialism that affects everyone.

17-year-old openly gay Patrick lies comatose in a hospital bed after a brutal beating that occurred at the convenience store where he works. Though the evidence proves this is a hate crime, the town sheriff is quick to write it off and blame outsiders. Patrick’s friend, Cat, feels the truth is a lot closer to home and sets out to investigate despite admonitions to “leave it be”.

Living in a large city comes with its own set of problems, but after reading this story I’m really glad I didn’t grow up in the rural south. I hate the well-meaning, but too inquisitive people, and the fact that anything you do can become the subject of gossip, never to be forgotten. I hate the insular society that does not welcome change or embrace differences, the suspicious people who judge others, yet keep their own shameful secrets well hidden.

This is a gripping, realistic story with deeply flawed characters and a vivid setting. Cat’s own past has kept her from fully engaging with the people in her life, but Patrick’s savage attack breaks her out of her shell and forces her to peel back layers of the town’s façade to learn the truth about others and herself.

It is a grim story with many wounded souls, many problems, and few solutions. Patrick may be the most obvious victim, but he is far from the only one. And that just makes me sad.

Also posted at Goodreads

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Who Says Words Will Never Hurt You?

by Max Barry
Published by Hodder & Stoughton

3 1/2 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda

Are you a cat or a dog person?

In the world of Lexicon, your answer reveals everything they need to know about you.  Who are "they"?  They are the poets, people who are hardwired to resist persuasion and to use language as a weapon against the rest of us.  Studying linguistics, personality and psychology, poets have the ability to subvert free will and compel us do as they wish.  The most powerful poets are given pseudonyms that appropriately demonstrate their mastery over language and, thus, over society:  T. S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, W. B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf.

Lexicon tells the story of Emily Ruff, a homeless teenage grifter who shows promise as a poet, and Wil Parke, a man who unknowingly survived an apocalyptic event in Broken Hill, Australia.  As Emily is recruited by the poets and sent to an exclusive school to cultivate her gifts, Wil is on the run from would be assassins for reasons unknown.  As their stories intertwine, Barry explores the power of words and the sway they hold over us.

Lexicon is a clever exploration of modern society.  In our media saturated culture, we are surrounded by words from a variety of sources, most of whom have a vested interest in persuading us to adopt their viewpoint or engage in action that is beneficial to them.  What are politicians, corporations, pundits, and advertising executives if not "poets"?  And, more often than not, they succeed in manipulating and coercing the American public.  There is so much spin that it's often hard to tell where the truth ends and the fiction begins--even more chilling is that many people don't even care, content to let the bias of others "think" for them.

While I enjoyed the premise of Lexicon and was certainly drawn in by Barry's fast-pace, the sense that it could have been more nagged at me.  Its premise is one that could lend itself to a more complex, nuanced examination of the ability of speech to influence, but Barry keeps it at surface level.  While Barry's intent seems to have been to write a fun, intelligent thriller, I would have readily signed on for something more substantial.  For example, the purpose of the poets and the intricacies of their organization is never revealed, and the specifics of how their influence works is given only a basic "nuts and bolts" explanation.

However, I was still set to give this a 4 star rating just for its inventiveness and the fun I had along the way, until the unsatisfying end.  No spoilers here--I'll only say that, for all the originality of the premise, the ending was underwhelming and predictable.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


The Killer AngelsThe Killer Angels by Michael Shaara
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see men fight for pay, or women, or some other kind of loot. They fight for land, or because a king makes them, or just because they like killing. But we’re here for something new. I don’t … this hasn’t happened much in the history of the world. We’re an army going out to set other men free.”

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain

 photo battle-of-gettysburg-map-on-july-3-1863_zps2bcf9496.png
The position of all the troops on July 3rd, 1863. The last day of battle. You can see the famous fishhook deployment of the Union troops in blue.

I hadn’t really thought about how unusual it is in the history of the world for men to be fighting for the freedom of others. It was one of many times while reading this book that Michael Shaara crystallized some thoughts for me. I love those moments when I read something, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that another tumbler has clicked into place. With every click I have come one step closer to understanding everything. ( a mad thought that doesn’t last long) So the North was preserving the Union and freeing the slaves, but what exactly where the boys in butternut fighting for.

”They kept on insistin’ they wasn’t fightin’ for no slaves, they were fightin’ for their ‘rats.’ It finally dawned on me that what the feller meant was their ‘rights,’ only, the way they talk, it came out ‘rats.’... Then after that I asked this fella what rights he had that we were offendin’, and he said, well, he didn’t know, but he must have some rights he didn’t know nothin’ about. Now, aint that something?”

33% of Southerners owned slaves. Mississippi and South Carolina had much higher percentages at 49% and 46%. So why did all those Southern boys rich and poor fight for the ‘rats to keep slaves? Most Southern Americans, as do most Americans today, had an expectation that they would be rich someday, the eternal optimists. Those poor white sharecropper farmers aspired to be slave owners. It is the same reason why I hear people who live below the poverty line saying they didn’t believe it was ‘rat that the government was taxing the one percenters more than the rest of us. It doesn’t make sense, but then they...might...just win the lottery...someday.

 photo RobertELee_zpsc51ecac1.jpg
General Robert E. Lee on Traveller. Lee said, “Well, we have left nothing undone. It is all in the hands of God.” Longstreet thought : it isn’t God that is sending those men up that hill. But he said nothing. Lee rode away.

This book is centered around the three days of the battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Robert E. Lee, overall commander of the Confederate army and GOD to many, is trying to make a final thrust North to force the Union to seek terms. His men loved him unconditionally.

”The secret of General Lee is that men love him and follow him with faith in him. That’s one secret. The next secret is that General Lee makes a decision and he moves, with guts, and he’s been up against a lot of sickly generals who don’t know how to make decisions, although some of them have guts but whose men don’t love them.”

He is a different man than he was at the start of the war. Some would say he is a brilliant tactician, but if you walk the grounds of the battle of Gettysburg which I have not had that opportunity physically, you will discover that Lee gave his generals an impossible task. The battle smells of desperation. Shaara makes the case that Lee was already suffering from the heart condition that would eventually kill him.

”But it was not the pain that troubled him; it was a sick gray emptiness he knew too well, that sense of a hole clear through him like the blasted vacancy in the air behind a shell burst, an enormous emptiness.”

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General James Longstreet loyal despite his fervent disagreements with Lee on tactics.

Lee was feeling weak and mortal at Gettysburg. He wanted the war ended now. It certainly clouded his judgement. He was a man of faith and honor. In Pennsylvania he put too much faith in God finding his cause righteous and he depending too heavily on the honor of his troops to make it to that grove of trees at the top of the hill. He had a brilliant commander in Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Longstreet argued to slide around the enemy and to fight another day. If truth be known he disagreed with this whole thrusting North business. He wanted to build trenches and fight a defensive war. You don’t win glorious honorable battles fighting a defensive war and Lee was addicted to winning battles. There is a whiff of Shakespearean tragedy around Longstreet.

”It was Longstreet’s curse to see the thing clearly. He was a brilliant man who was slow in speech and slow to move and silent-faced as stone. He had not the power to convince.”

He was a strong, commanding figure until he got around Lee.

”Longstreet felt an extraordinary confusion. He had a moment without confidence, windblown and blasted, vacant as an exploded shell. There was a grandness in Lee that shadowed him, silenced him.”

He was an eccentric as well. He was living more in his mind than in his body.

”Longstreet touched his cap, came heavily down from the horse. He was taller than Lee, head like a boulder, full-bearded, long-haired, always a bit sloppy, gloomy, shocked his staff by going into battle once wearing carpet slippers.”

Lee counted on him, but unfortunately he would have traded Longstreet for Stonewall Jackson every day of the week and twice on Sunday.

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General John Buford died a few months after Gettysburg from Typhoid Fever. He was a huge loss to the Union side.

Shaara also takes us into the minds of Union men like General John Buford who arrived at Gettysburg and realized the importance of deploying troops on the high ground against a superior Confederate force. He knew he had to hold out until reinforcements arrived. He’d done this before.

”He had thrown away the book of cavalry doctrine and they loved him for it. At Thoroughfare Gap he had held against Longstreet, 3,000 men against 25,000, for six hours, sending off appeal after appeal for help which never came.”

What impressed me about Buford was his ability to think out of the box and adapt to any situation. Unfortunately for the Union he didn’t have long to live or his name may have been further immortalized in Civil War history books.

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General John Bell Hood

There was also Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who commanded the 20th Maine. He was a school teacher by trade, a professor at Bowdoin before the war broke out. He and the Maine troops were positioned at the far left of the Federal line. He was on Little Round Top facing the seasoned veteran General John B. Hood. Hood was a Longstreet man and firmly believed in the concept of a defensive war. Despite their objections to Lee’s tactics Hood and Longstreet did everything they could to obtain the objectives.

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The 20th Maine’s bayonet charge.

Chamberlain’s men fired until they ran out of bullets and then Chamberlain in an act of desperation yelled:

”Let’s fix bayonets.”

Chamberlain and his remaining men charged down the hill in the face of enemy fire and because of the ferocity of their attack Hood’s men turned and retreated.

There are descriptions of battles so elegantly told that the horror is somewhat mitigated by the eloquence of Shaara’s writing. Bravery is not just for Custeresque men like General Winfield Scott Hancock who inspired such loyalty from his acquaintances, even those dressed in gray, such as his best friend General Lewis Armistead. Shaara describes the true crisis of consciousness these officers were facing. Most of them had fought together in the Mexican-American war, went to West Point together, drank together, and had been united as one before this war where politics forced them to choose sides against the friends they had once fought with.

”They’re never quite the enemy, those boys in blue.”
“I know,” Lee said.
“I used to command those boys,” Longstreet said.
“Difficult thing to fight men you used to command.”
Lee said nothing.”

By the end of this book I felt I knew all these men as intimately as I know friends I’ve known for decades. It is as if Shaara raised them from the dead, one by one. They are talking skeletons with nothing but truth rattling through their teeth. Their souls are showing through their pale gray ribcages enscrolled with their most intimate thoughts. They hid nothing from Shaara not their fears or their desires. The war has never been more real to me. Highly recommended!

View all my reviews

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Stay Gold, Sodapop

Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

This was a surprisingly enjoyable read. I generally avoid celebrity memoirs, but I saw a nice excerpt from Rob Lowe's latest one, "Love Life," about how emotional he was when his son went away to college, and decided to give his first autobiography a chance.

I am a child of the 80s, so I grew up with Lowe's movies and those of the so-called Brat Pack. The Outsiders was popular when I was a kid, and I also liked St. Elmo's Fire and About Last Night. Lowe's book had good behind-the-scenes stories about those movies and others, and he was frank about his womanizing and drinking problem back then. One sobering story occurred when Rob was about 14 and he met John Belushi at a party. When Belushi heard that Rob wanted to be an actor, Belushi said, "Stay out of the clubs." Rob wrote, "I should have listened. Instead, I got my first agent."

Lowe also describes how he got his start in acting, and his early friendships with Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, C. Thomas Howell, and every other 80s movie star you can think of. One of my favorite chapters was about making The Outsiders, in which Rob played Sodapop, and how close the cast became during a long shoot in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, a lot of Rob's scenes were cut from the 1983 movie, but 20 years later, Francis Ford Coppola made a director's cut that restored a lot of that footage, and was more faithful to the S. E. Hinton novel.

Rob admits he had a reputation for partying in the 80s, but his redemptive moment came after he met Sheryl, the woman who has been his wife since 1991. He went to rehab and maintained his sobriety, and he has continued to do good work in movies and TV. (I thought he was great on The West Wing and Parks & Recreation.) 

Overall, this was a nice, diverting read -- an excellent start to summer.

500 Ways to Tell a Better Story

500 Ways to Tell a Better Story500 Ways to Tell a Better Story by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes, the stars align and magic happens. Like when I happened to be chewing through the second draft of something I wrote years ago and Chuck Wendig makes one of his writing books free for one day only in honor of his birthday. 500 Ways to Tell a Better Story is a collection of writing tips told in Chuck Wendig's trademark humorous style.

- 25 Lies Writers Tell
- 25 Realizations Writers Need to Have
- 25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character
- 25 Reasons Now is the Best Time to be a Storyteller
- 25 Reasons You Should Quit Writing
- 25 Things All Writers Need
- 25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds
- 25 Things I want to say to So-Called Aspiring Writers
- 25 Things to Know About Writing the First Chapter of Your Novel
- 25 Things Writers Should Know About Creating Mystery
- 25 Things You Should Know About Creativity
- 25 Things You Should Know About Transmedia
- 25 Things You Should Know About Word Choice
- 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Fantasy
- 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Sex
- 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Short Stories
- 25 Ways to Earn Your Audience
- 25 Ways to Fight Your Story's Mushy Middle
- 25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story
- 25 Ways to Write Full Time

As with 250 Things You Should Know About Writing, Chuck covers a wide range of writing topics in a style that's very similar to the one he uses on his blog, complete with copious penis references. If his blog makes you want to strangle him, you probably won't dig this.

There's a lot of overlap in this, both between topics and with the topics covered in 250 Things You Should Know About Writing. I thought the selection on Writing Fantasy was the shining star of the book, thought useful writing nuggets could be unearthed in every chapter.

I wouldn't say this book was essential but if you're into Chuck Wendig and need some writing advice, you could do a lot worse.

View all my reviews

Doctor Who: The Silurian Gift

Doctor Who: The Silurian GiftDoctor Who: The Silurian Gift by Mike Tucker
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In a future where the petroleum supply is nearly exhausted, an industrialist is extracting a mysterious superfuel called Fire Ice from a lake beneath Antarctica. But what is the super fuel and what is the beast that is attacking workers? That's what The Doctor and a journalist named Lizzie are trying to find out...

This one started out great. There were greedy businessmen, short-sighted environmentalists, dinosaurs, a mysterious hairy beast, and Silurians. Then things started getting unnecessarily complicated.

The Doctor as well written and I liked the Silurian plotline, as I always do when the scaly ones make an appearance. Then the Sea Devils showed up and things got a little cluttered.

It had its moments but The Silurian Gift fell a little short for me. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Again for the Defense: Mickey Haller

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is another excellent Mickey Haller courtroom drama from Michael Connelly. As the book opens, Mickey is called to the L.A. jail to represent a pimp who is accused of killing one of the women he "represents" in a dispute over money. The pimp had booked a date for the woman at an expensive hotel. But the woman calls the pimp and tells him that there's no one in the room and that she has come home empty-handed.

The pimp admits going to her apartment and arguing with her, insisting that she was simply holding out the money on him. He even admits to putting his hands around the victim's throat, but insists that she was alive and well when he left her.

The cops believe they have an open-and-shut case, and when Mickey is called in, things are not looking good. They get even more complicated when it turns out that the victim was a former client of Mickey's. Mickey always had something of a soft spot for the woman, whom he knew by another name. He believed, mistakenly, that she had taken the stake Mickey gave her, left the life and started anew. He's embarrassed to discover that he's been played.

Mickey takes the case, and no reader will be surprised to learn that it quickly becomes even more complicated than it initially appeared on the surface. Even more surprisingly, Mickey's client may actually be innocent. Proving that, however, will not be all that easy and along the way, Mickey makes some very powerful enemies and may put himself and those around him in grave danger.

As always in a book by Michael Connelly, there's plenty of action, great dialogue and tension that builds to the proverbial shattering climax. The courtroom scenes are especially gripping and confirm Connelly's position as a major player in the legal thriller genre.

Saturday Night Dead: Buried SNL Stories Unearthed

Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was ThereThirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss: The Early Days of SNL from Someone Who Was There by Tom Davis
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Captivating for its often hilarious and, in the very least, entertaining stories about life as a writer for Saturday Night Live in its earlier years.

Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss is an autobiography of sorts, sketching out Tom Davis's life with a patchwork of details. Davis was Al Franken's long-time writing partner. The duo formed up early in their lives, working out bits that garnered them, if not fame and fortune, enough notoriety to attract the attention of SNL's producer Lorne Michaels.

Davis is a natural writer, so the book is interesting enough on its own, but once the stories featuring SNL alumni kick-in...that's when the good shit hits the fun-fan! There are plenty of oddball and incredible tales that many of the principles would no doubt rather weren't published. If you enjoyed the show in the 70s and 80s, this is for you.

Where Thirty-Nine Years of Short-Term Memory Loss falters's in the title. Davis took a lot of drugs when he was young, not all of which were entirely beneficial, especially in relation to his current state of coherence. The latter half of the book gradually succumbs to his disjointed mind, as the stories flitter from one topic or time period to an entirely different one without the slightest segue or any seeming purpose. Occasionally a story ends for no apparent reason at all. At other times you're left wondering just how reliable Davis' memory is and how skewed the facts may be.

Even with all its failings, if you get through just half of this book you'll have consumed a chunky collection of prime-grade comedy.

Exposing Paul

Paul McCartneyPaul McCartney by Peter Ames Carlin
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Get Back To Where I've Never Gone.
I've read about the Beatles and I've read about Lennon, but I'd never read about McCartney, and I supposed it was about time. You see, because of bios and whatnot that I've read about Lennon, my boyhood idolization of him lost its shine. As a consequence, Paul's star rose subconsciously in my mind, and I knew that wasn't fair. It was time to level the playing field and Peter Ames Carlin's book steamrolled it.

I Should've Let It Be.
Paul McCartney has the reputation of an attention-grabbing, soulless popstar. Sure, the people say, he's written some catchy tunes, but Lennon's the one who pumped heart and soul into the lyrics. I knew the reputations (and I also knew to take some of that with a grain of salt), but what I didn't expect was the level of Paul's desire for fame: Paul to manager Brian Epstein, "If we all make it, that's fine. But if we don't, I'm going to be a star, aren't I Brian?" That sort of bare selfishness coming from a boy talking about his best mates makes it hard to stomach McCartney's attempts to portray the Beatles as all-for-one, four musketeers, blood-brothers for life. Everything's cool! Everything's groovy! We're all in this together! It wasn't and they weren't.

Take A Sad Song And Make It Sadder.
Death, tragedy, yes yes, the man's had it all and it's quite sad, but what really saddened me was Wings-errorera McCartney's attachment to the Beatles and Lennon. On the one hand it feels like puppy-dog, younger brother devotion to big dog/older brother figure John. On the other hand it stinks like a desperate man grasping to put it all back together, like a drunkard who's just realized his damaged marriage is all he's got.

I'm Happy Just To Read Of You
Icky, yes, this book makes me feel icky about Paul McCartney, but Carlin takes his digs at all four members as well as many in their entourage. But no, it's not all bad. I doubt I would've finished the book if it had been a cover to cover slam-fest of the man and all around him. The book just shows him worts and all. It's even-handed, almost journalistic. I hesitate to say it's completely unbiased, because Carlin clearly loves the music. He spends a great deal of time going over almost each song, especially during the Beatle years. Readers will find many pages worth of in-studio stories, as well as what they were thinking and going through while writing chart-toppers and life-alterers, those many three minute moments that have gone straight to the hearts of so many listeners. This isn't "my" music, I was born in '72, but The Beatles and post-Beatles songs were played heavily on the radio in my youth. I remember being about 4 years old sitting on an old area rug in the living room picking at the rubber matting underneath it through the foot-worn holes and thinking the lyrics to the song playing in the background, Band On The Run were actually "band on the rug," as in rubberband, the stuff I was plucking at. Oddly specific song, I thought. Regardless of my confusion (I've got it sorted now, thank you), the Beatles have played a major role in the soundtrack of my life, and I love them for it, even after reading this.

Come Together Ratings: 4.3
I'm struggling with the rating on this one. It was just about 5-star-enjoyable and it gave me everything I'd want out of a Paul McCartney bio, but still, I came away from the reading with a bad taste in my mouth. It's no fault of the author. Blame it on the doe-eyed manchild on the cover.

Sunday, May 18, 2014


by Tracey Porter

Four out of five stars
Reviewed by Sesana

Publisher Summary:

When sixteen-year-old Lark Austin is kidnapped from her Virginia hometown and left to die in a snowy forest, she leaves behind two friends who are stunned by the loss. As Lark's former best friend, Eve can't shake the guilt that this tragedy was somehow her fault. Meanwhile, Nyetta is haunted each night by Lark's ghost, who comes through the bedroom window and begs Nyetta to set her soul free. Eve and Nyetta realize that Lark is trapped in limbo, and only by coming together to heal themselves will they discover why.

My Review:

 This is a small book, and I read it very quickly, but I think it's going to stay with me for awhile. It's risky, especially in such a short book, to use three POVs. Porter was able to juggle them quite well, enough to make each of the three voices distinct. The fantasy elements are quietly integrated into the book, without entirely taking over until the end.

But what made this book most effective for me was the way that Porter confronts rape culture, using thoughts that make sense for a teen girl to have, especially when using Eve's POV. When she wonders why nobody seems to be trying to keep girls from getting murdered, when she gets angry that all she and her friends are being told is what <i>they</i> should do to avoid being victims, when she notes (sadly? bitterly? both) that girls getting raped and murdered is normal... They're honest, painful reactions to the reality that Eve is being confronted with. I wouldn't call this a Message book, but it definitely has something to say.

But there is a certain flatness to the book, mostly in the peripheral characters. This is probably a side effect of how short the book is, and how internal all three POVs are. I got absorbed enough in the three girls' interlocking stories that I hardly noticed until I was thinking about the book later. But I did read this very quickly, in one sitting without major interruption, which probably helped the flow.

Lark is beautifully written, which makes it bearable to read. Because otherwise it's painful, without solutions or answers to the larger issues. Which is, I'm sorry to say, terribly realistic. Maybe what Porter is saying is that, unless evil is confronted, nothing can be done to stop it. The answer isn't telling girls to wear modest clothing and take self defense, it's creating a world where wearing a leotard after gymnastics class isn't a justification.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Coffee Will Make You Black

April Sinclair
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Set on Chicago's Southside in the mid-to-late 60s, Coffee Will Make You Black is the moving and entertaining tale of Jean "Stevie" Stevenson, a young black woman growing up through the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The novel opens at a time when, for black families, seeing a black person on television was an event; when expressions like "I don't want nothing black but a Cadillac" and "Coffee will make you black" were handed down from one generation to the next without comment. Stevie is a bookworm, yet she longs to fit in with the cool crowd. Fighting her mother every step of the way, she begins to experiment with talkin' trash, "kicking butt, " and boys. With the assassination of Dr. King she gains a new political awareness, which makes her decide to wear her hair in a 'fro instead of straightened, to refuse to use skin bleach, and to confront the prejudice she observes in blacks as well as whites. April Sinclair writes frankly about a young black woman's sexuality, and about the confusion Stevie faces when she realizes she's more attracted to the school nurse - who is white - than her teenage boyfriend. As readers follow Stevie's at times harrowing, at times hilarious story, they will learn what it was like to be black before black was beautiful.

My Review

I couldn’t resist the title. When I was little, my mom used to give me my own mug with a little bit of Café Bustelo and a lot of sugar. It made me feel pretty grown up that I was drinking coffee with my parents. My grandmother would look at me disapprovingly and say, “coffee will make you black.” Well, obviously it wasn’t working, so I would hand my empty mug back to my mom and ask for a refill. Then she would tell me that too much coffee is no good for you. But if it makes me black, how can that be a bad thing?

I was tired of being white. Most of the white kids in my neighborhood were Jewish and came from far wealthier families than my own. The Puerto Rican kids all spoke Spanish and were various shades of brown. Though my dad was born in Puerto Rico, he had a very pale complexion. My mom, on the other hand, has that rich brown shade I so desired. Looking more like my dad than my mom made it difficult for me to fit in. My closest friend was Jewish, but I enjoyed hanging out with the black girls. They were the best at Double Dutch jump rope and tried to teach klutzy me, but all I ever got to be was a turner. My friend Penny sometimes asked me to braid her hair. Oh, what fun! It was so unexpectedly fine and easy to style. Some days, she would wear it loose with a plastic headband. Other days she would come to school in cornrows with colorful beads on the ends. Penny stuck up for me when a couple of girls harassed me on the school bus. I loved her colorful clothes and no-nonsense attitude. Whenever I was with her, no one would mess with me. One day I wanted to bring her home. My mom said it was OK, since my dad was working and wouldn’t be home until evening. While Penny was visiting, my dad shows up unexpectedly and spouts racial invective, causing poor Penny to run out of the apartment in tears. That was the end of our friendship. She eventually moved out of the neighborhood and so did I.

After Penny, I developed a crush on Joanne Chesimard when I saw her on TV passionately speaking about revolution. She was beautiful, eloquent, and wanted to change the world. I wanted to be just like her when I grew up and refused to believe she had anything to do with bank robberies and killing police officers.

Life is a series of disappointments, but black is beautiful.

All big cities have similarities. Even though Jean Stevenson “Stevie” grew up in Chicago, many of her experiences triggered sweet and painful childhood memories of growing up in the Bronx. This is not only a story about the problems of growing up and gaining independence. There is a lot here about family relationships, friendships, race relations, the feminist movement, standards of beauty, discovering one’s sexuality, and the turmoil of life in the 1960’s.

Stevie sometimes hangs out with the wrong crowd. She defies her mother’s attempts to make her “white” by resisting hair straighteners and skin lighteners. Stevie just wants to be herself and embraces her life with passion.

This was a funny, moving and heartwarming story about growing up. I’m looking forward to Stevie’s college years in the sequel, Ain't Gonna Be the Same Fool Twice.

Also posted at Goodreads

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

The Serpent of Venice: A NovelThe Serpent of Venice: A Novel by Christopher Moore
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Gondola knifes through vasty night
Past dying stars of lantern light
And distant cries of tart’s delight
Ride drunken songs to bawdy heights.
Beneath a bridge doth stand the fool,
Crafting plans to free young Drool.
By stealth or guile or cutting throats,
No plots commence without a boat.

We find Pocket at the beginning of this novel in a bit of a pickle. He is shackled and chained in a room that is so close to the sea that when the tide comes in water rises to his armpits. His enemies have left him there to die much the same way enemies always seem to leave James Bond in a precarious situation, but never stick around to actually see the hero eviscerated, drowned, crushed, impaled or sliced by a laser.

 photo Goldfinger_zpsee281512.jpg
If Pocket were a foot taller and not so much the fool he’d be Bond, James Bond.

Do you expect me to talk Brabantio?
NO, Mr. Pocket, I expect you to die.

Before Pocket can manufacture his magnificent escape he has a wee bit of problem with a sea creature, a serpent, a black dragon in fact, who has a powerful lust for Pocket’s knob. Pocket is potentially one of the horniest fools in existence, but even he finds the claws and the rough foreplay exhausting. It goes on for night after night. It will turn out to be the least he can do because this black serpent turns out to be the instrument of his revenge on those that are trying to kill him. He also has an issue in true Shakespearean style with a less than helpful chorus who is filling his ears with doom and gloom.

And so, chained in the dark, naked and bedeviled by a hellish creature unknown, after five changings of the tides, the fool went mad.

I am not mad!

Fear did twist the jester’s tiny mind--stretch it past the limits of sanity until it snapped--and shivering and pale, he went mad.

I am not mad!

Stark, raving mad. Bonkers. Drooling, frothing, barking mad.

I am not bloody mad, you berk!

You’re shouting at a disembodied voice in the dark.

Oh fuckstockings. Good point. Well, a bit knackered, perhaps, but not bloody mad.

 photo Chorus_zps1e710612.jpg
The Bloody Chorus is trying to drive poor Pocket MAD!!!

Did I mention that Pocket is a FOOL? Not a fool in the same sense as most people you may know, but really truly a King’s fool. He is temporarily out of work, but then it seems everyone has a job for him. All he wants to do is mourn the loss of the great love of his life Cordelia, maybe shag something other than a sea serpent, drink copious amounts of alcohol, and stuff his gullet with a buffet of rich foods.

First he has to liberate his friend Drool, a mountain of a man, from captivity. Pocket meets a pretty Jewish girl who has exactly what he needs, or rather her father Shylock has exactly what he needs...a big bag of gold. Now Drool is a special case who asks every woman he meets if he can see her tits and is constantly needed to relieve the strain that his breeches can barely contain. He does have some strange skills more in line with Rainman.

”It’s a gift, nature’s way of compensating him for being an enormous, beef-brained child. He can remember whole conversations, hours long, and recite them back word for word, in the voice from which they sprouted, and not have a fluttering notion of what he’s been saying.”

To make the duo a trio there is also a monkey named Jeff who has a special predilection for humping headwear. It is very disconcerting for the person wearing a hat. As an afterthought Pocket liberates a young man by the name of Marco Polo.

There are also plenty of women populating this novel who are performing the world’s oldest profession.

”Shag a virgin, five shillings. Sail you off the edge of the world* for six,” she called by routine, bored.

*It’s AD 1299. “Around the World” hasn’t been invented yet.

Pocket doesn’t usually hang out with the best class of citizen, but as dangerous as that might seem it isn’t half as dangerous when he becomes caught up in the schemes surrounding Othello and the wicked man named Iago whispering in his ear. It wasn’t Pocket’s idea, but the bloody ghost finally showed up, and she happened to be his lost love Cordelia who knows perfectly well the right sentiments to motivate Pocket into being helpful. As usual Pocket, through the dint of his unusual skills (pissing everyone off), will have to figure out a way to save the world once again and more importantly keep himself alive in the process.

 photo ChristopherMoore_zps5306fe25.jpg
Christopher Moore attired properly to tell this tale.

Christopher Moore has taken the plays The Merchant of Venice and Othello added a dash of The Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe and produced another adventure for the most unlikely of heroes The Fool Pocket. As Carl Hiaasen says on the front cover: ”Shakespeare and Poe might be rolling in their graves, but they’re rolling with laughter. Moore is one of the cleverest, naughtiest writers alive.” I enjoyed this book, but it suffered in comparison to the first book with Pocket titled Fool. I certainly caught myself chuckling reading this one, but when I was reading Fool I would occasionally have put the book down because I was laughing too hard to hold it. Certainly read Fool first and if you enjoy that one you won’t be able to resist this one.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Funny Lady

Bossypants by Tina Fey
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Listening to Tina Fey perform this book was much more enjoyable than reading it in print. I first read this back in 2011, and I liked it OK, but after hearing a friend rave about how much fun the audio was, I decided to give the CD a chance.

It was hilarious! Some mornings I was laughing so hard while driving to work that other drivers would stare at me. Tina Fey performs different voices and really sells the stories. One of my favorite chapters was about her father, Don Fey: "He's just a badass. He was a code breaker in Korea. He was a fireman in Philadelphia. He's a skilled watercolorist. He's written two mystery novels. He taught himself Greek so well that when he went to buy tickets to the Acropolis once, the docent told him, 'It's free for Greek citizens.'"

The story that had me guffawing to the point of being noticed by other motorists was about a weekend when Don Fey decided to rent a rug shampooer, but the machine seemed to be defective: "'Defective' was a big word in our house. Many things were labeled 'defective' only to miraculously turn functional once the directions had been read more thoroughly. If I had to name the two words I most associate with my dad between 1970 and 1990, they would be 'defective' and 'inexcusable.' Leaving your baseball glove in a neighbor's car? Inexcusable. Not knowing that 'a lot' was two words? Inexcusable. The seltzer machine that we were going to use to make homemade soda? Defective. The misspelled sign at the Beach Boys Fourth of July concert that read 'From Sea to Shinning Sea'? Inexcusable. Richie Ashburn not being in the baseball hall of fame yet? Bullshit. (Don Fey had a large rubber stamp that said 'bullshit,' which was and is awesome)."

The stories about her dad were part of Tina's larger narrative about how to raise an "achievement-oriented, obedient, drug-free, virgin adult." She lists Calamity, Praise, Local Theater, flat fleet, and Strong Father Figure/Fear Thereof. Tina also had great stories about her youthful adventures in a summer theater program, her experience with the Second City improv group in Chicago, and how she got her start on Saturday Night Live.

Tina is good at making fun of herself and her accidental celebrity status. There is an interesting chapter about the 2008 presidential election, when she famously portrayed Sarah Palin on several SNL sketches. Meanwhile, she was busy working on her show 30 Rock, and there was one particularly hectic week that Oprah Winfrey was going to appear on 30 Rock, which was the same day of Tina's first Palin skit.

"Saturday, September 13, I got up at 6 a.m. and filmed my scenes with Oprah at Silvercup Studios in Queens. She was great. She really does smell nice. And I got to hug her a lot in the scenes ... Between setups I sat with my daughter on my lap and watched Governor Palin on YouTube and tried to improve my accent. Oprah seemed genuinely concerned for me. 'How much rehearsal time are you going to get?' 'Do you have tapes of her to listen to?' 'You're going there right after this?!' (By the way, when Oprah Winfrey is suggesting you may have overextended yourself, you need to examine your fucking life.)"

Another favorite section of the book is when Tina shares her theory that the Rules of Improvisation can change your life. Put simply, the rules are that you should agree with your partner, and then build on it. This is known as YES, AND. "In real life you're not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to 'respect what your partner has created' and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you... To me, YES, AND means don't be afraid to contribute. It's your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion."

Speaking of good discussions, I liked how Tina addressed the issue of women in comedy, and how she has dealt with various forms of sexism and ignorance in her career. She talked about how much things have changed since she first started at Second City and SNL, in that more women are getting roles on comedy shows. 

One chapter that dragged was about her sitcom 30 Rock. Tina talks about her favorite jokes and episodes, and I think it would be boring for a reader who has never seen the show. The chapter was even boring for me, and I watched several seasons of 30 Rock.

But overall, this was a very enjoyable book to listen to. It is rare for me to recommend listening to a book rather than reading it, but in this case, I think the performance is better than the print.