Monday, June 30, 2014

Fighting the Drug Wars in El Paso and Ciudad Juarez

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is another story that focuses on the "war" on drugs. It's centered at the point on the U.S.-Mexico border where the cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are in many ways joined together, even though they are divided by the international border that runs between them. A street gang called the Aztecas works both sides of the line, causing serious problems both for civilians and for law enforcement personnel.

The story is told through the perspectives of several characters. Principal among them is a young man named "Flip" Morales, who has been indoctrinated into the Aztecas while in prison. As the book opens, he is released from prison and makes his way back to his mother's home in El Paso. He'd like to be left alone, but they Aztecas make it clear that they have plans for him on the outside, and almost as soon as Flip is home, the Azteca leader in El Paso, Jose Martinez, reaches out to him.

Also at the center of the story are several law enforcement officers. On the Mexican side of the border, the principal character is a federal officer named Matias Seguro. On the American side are two members of the El Paso P.D.'s anti-gang unit, Christina Salas and her partner, a guy named Robinson. There's also the almost-obligatory obnoxious F.B.I. agent who wants to trample all over the toes of the local cops and take over their investigation.

As the Aztecas seek to increase their influence over the cross-border drug trade, law enforcement officials on both sides of the border are mounting a large-scale effort to take down the gang. Caught up in the middle are the smaller fish like Flip, as well as a number of people who have no affiliation with the gang.

Through the eyes of these characters Hawken tells a fairly familiar tale and describes the consequences of the drug wars on the larger society and on the individuals who are caught up in them. The fact that the story is familiar makes it no less depressing, especially when one thinks of the millions upon millions of dollars that have been spent in this "war" over the last forty years to no discernable effect.

If I have a concern about the book, it lies in the fact that, hard as Hawken might try, none of the characters really resonates. Most of them do not have much depth, which may be a result of the fact that Hawken has created such a large cast that we don't really get to know any one of them as well as we might.

Also from a personal standpoint, I inevitably wind up comparing any book on this subject to Don Winslow's magnificent book, The Power of the Dog, which stands head and shoulders above any other book I've ever read on this subject. That might not be entirely fair to the other authors who have tackled this subject, but the truth is that anyone who does so, for better or worse, winds up standing in Winslow's shadow. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to 4.

The Scottish Play...You Mean, MacBeth?

MacbethMacbeth by William Shakespeare
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Witches, superstition and mysticism create one of the Bard's more fantastical of plays. Add to it the very real, human elements of self-doubt, manipulation, betrayal and soul-tormenting regret and you get one of the most enjoyable, poignant pieces of literature of all time.

Perhaps only Hamlet reaches a higher level of human suffering encapsulated (Yes, Lear comes close.) I love the hell out Shakespeare's most popular, most well-known play, but Hamlet's interminable introspection tends to mire the spirits and reading experience, especially re-readings. Macbeth endures just the right amount of suffering for my palate.

His betrayal of a friend for the chance to vault himself up the ladder of success seems like a very American idea, but so universal is the depiction of human failings that the story translates quite easily into the entertainment of other cultures. For an example, take the excellent Japanese film version "Throne of Blood".

(The witch scene is cree-pay!)

The Curse!
One of the things that furthers the play's legend is that many believe it to be cursed. All kinds of reasons for this have been bandied about. Disasters occurred, but those can/should probably be chalked up to chance accidents due to the high number of fight scenes and violent acts that take place. Nonetheless, a feeling developed that saying the title itself brought on bad luck, thus it was considered verboten to speak the name and so it became known as "The Scottish Play."

Scottish actor James McAvoy once explained to me the apparent real reason actors feared Macbeth: It being so popular, it was often put on by struggling theaters, but the production was so costly that instead of reviving the theater, it often hastened its financial ruin. If the theater went under the actors would then be out of work again, so landing a role in Macbeth became a double-edged sword.

Hamlet Hits Home

HamletHamlet by William Shakespeare
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"To be or not to be...," that is not my favorite line. My favorite is: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times."

It's that recollection of innocent days that gets me every time, because you know Hamlet is being swept up in a vortex of innocence lost.

STUPID ADULTS! They screw up everything!

I grew up in a truly idyllic setting. As childhoods go, mine was a joy. But then you grow up and you wake up to reality.

My introduction to Hamlet came during high school in my early teen years. It's murderous plot of family deceit and infidelity struck home, my family being likewise stricken with such maladies. The parallels were all too similar and I love/hated the play for driving it all home.

Mel Gibson's movie version came out at this time, and its over-simplification and emotional heightening was a perfect fit for a simple-minded, emotionally-blinded teen. Less than stellar, the movie nonetheless had its effect upon me, furthering the torment.

Luckily my family drama was not as murdery as Hamlet's, although if the personalities of some of the principle players were slightly more volatile, there could easily have been a bloodbath of Hamlet-esque proportions. In my reality, we all got over it, sorted it out, and moved on with our lives wherever they led. The beauty of fiction is to see the deepest of fantasies played out. It gives us - I hesitate to use the melodramatic "victims" here, but that is essentially what we amount to - it gives us release from the pent up anger when we see the wrong-doers get their comeuppance.

For that reason, I doubt I'll ever been able to view this work through a truly unbiased, critical lens. Just because it's a "classic" doesn't mean you have to adorn it with a 5-star laurel wreath, but - for what it means to me - I do.

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Walls of the Universe

Paul Melko
Tor Books
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


John Rayburn thought all of his problems were the mundane ones of an Ohio farm boy in his last year in high school. Then his doppelgänger appeared, tempted him with a device that let him travel across worlds, and stole his life from him. John soon finds himself caroming through universes, unable to return home—the device is broken. John settles in a new universe to unravel its secrets and fix it.

Meanwhile, his doppelgänger tries to exploit the commercial technology he’s stolen from other Earths: the Rubik’s Cube! John’s attempts to lie low in his new universe backfire when he inadvertently introduces pinball. It becomes a huge success. Both actions draw the notice of other, more dangerous travelers, who are exploiting worlds for ominous purposes. Fast-paced and exciting, this is SF adventure at its best from a rising star.

My Review

I love well-written time-travel and alternate world stories, and Dan said it was fun, so I knew it would be the perfect vacation read.

I was not disappointed at all. This was a very entertaining story about parallel universes, stolen lives, first love, and bullies.

John Rayburn is in his senior year in high school, living a rather uneventful life on an Ohio farm with his parents. A young man (known as John Prime) who looks just like him appears with a device that allows him to travel to other worlds. John thinks he’s full of crap, until he discovers the stranger knows quite a lot about him. Tempted by a desire for adventure, a pocket full of spending money, and Prime’s promise that he would return in 12 hours, John Rayburn toggles the switch forward and embarks on his first adventure.

Meanwhile, John Prime is glad to be rid of the device and ready to settle into his new life. While he’s getting acclimated to classes, moving in on John Rayburn’s crush, Casey, and trying to make money on technology he’s stolen from another universe, John Rayburn finds the device is broken and he’s unable to come home. So he travels a bit, eventually settling into a world where he can blend in and attempt to fix the device. While he’s there, he makes friends, falls in love with an “alternate” Casey, and “invents” pinball.

The best part of the story for me was early on, when John Rayburn discovered various universes, some frightening, and others just…wrong. I enjoyed how both boys led very different lives, yet had to work together towards the end when they encountered travelers from other universes and had to deal with a bully neither could escape from. This part could have been a lot more interesting if the bad guys were not so one-dimensional.

Still, it was a lot of fun and I’m eager to find similar stories.

Thursday, June 26, 2014


Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Suppose within each book there is another book, and within every letter on every page another volume constantly unfolding; but these volumes take no space on the desk. Suppose knowledge could be reduced to a quintessence, held within a picture, a sign, held within a place which is no place. Suppose the human skull were to become capacious, spaces opening inside it, humming chambers like beehives.”

 photo ThomasCromwell_zpsa093cc12.jpg
Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein. Cromwell was a great supporter of Holbein and personal gave him many commissions for paintings, but also recommended him to the powerful people he knew.

Thomas Cromwell was first and foremost a thinker. The myth that we only use about 10% of our brains has been debunked in recent years, but I do think we can accurately say that for some of us our brain works more efficiently. I think if we were to sit in a very quiet room with Thomas Cromwell we might actually be able to hear the humming of his mind like the circuitry of a super computer. Henry the Eighth

I'm 'Enery the Eighth, I am,
'Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She's been married seven times before
And every one was an 'Enery
She wouldn't have a Willie nor a Sam
I'm her eighth old man named 'Enery
'Enery the Eighth, I am!

Sorry I can’t ever seem to say or write his name without that song popping into my head. Let’s try this again.

Henry the Eighth was not supposed to be king. The 16th century was supposed to be the return of the Age of Camelot when his older brother, Arthur, claimed his birthright and became king of England. It was Arthur that had been tutored and trained to be king. Henry would have been destined for the church if not for the fickleness of fate that left his brother dead six months before his sixteenth birthday. Henry the Eighth rules like a second son that was always second best. He is impetuous, bombastic, corpulent, and prone to fits of fury. He is not a stupid man and always surrounded himself with intelligent men, disciplined men, who could provide him with wise counsel. He did not always take their advice, but he did always give them a chance to make a case.

 photo Henry_VIII_Belvoir_Castle_zpsc80c4f03.jpg
The most iconic image of Henry the Eighth painted by Holbein as a mural in Whitehall Palace. It was unfortunately destroyed by fire in 1698, but survives through the numerous copies that were made of it. Notice the bulging calves. Henry was always very proud of them.

Henry preferred advisers named Thomas.

Thomas Wolsey
Thomas More
Thomas Cromwell

Cromwell worked for Thomas Wolsey and when the cardinal fell out of favor it could have been the end for Cromwell’s hopes as well. Cromwell is a lot of things, a complicated man, a sometimes hard man, but ultimately he is a survivor. It is so interesting that Hilary Mantel decided to paint a more sympathetic picture of him than what I’d previously thought him to be. He understood money and that true power does not reside with the man on the throne.

”The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

 photo ThomasMore_zps1e8368c9.jpg
Thomas More by Hans Holbein.

I first met Thomas More through his book Utopia in a class in college. The Praise of Folly by Erasmus was also required reading for the same class. I thought both books were fantastic because to truly understand the writings of these two important writers one must explore the history behind the books. So I wanted to love More, but as I learned more about him the title of his book became more and more an inappropriate extension of the man. His view of how the real world should work was not the Utopia he persuaded me could exist. He was opposed to the Protestant Reformation. He, with great fervor, began to hunt down anyone connected to the Reformation and interrogate, torture and burn them. He didn’t keep his distance from it. He was frequently down in the stench and the squalor of the dungeons watching his prisoners being broken on the rack. The flames of burning heretics danced in his eyes. He may have taken too much pleasure in his work.

My theory is anyone who wears a hairshirt all the time and scourges themselves for evening entertainment is not someone I want making decisions about my life. More may have been brilliant, but those beautiful marbles in his head were scrambled.

 photo AnneBoleyn_zps8bf6166a.jpg
There have been many beautiful actresses to play the enchanting Anne Boleyn, but my favorite is Natalie Dormer from The Tudors simply because she has that saucy smirk that could be used as such a weapon quite capable of bringing down a King or a kingdom to achieve her ambitions.

When the King, in his pursuit of Anne Boleyn, decides that the only way he is going to free himself from the albatross from Aragon, Catherine, is to break with the Roman Catholic Church. This puts the King in direct conflict with one of his most trusted advisers the before mentioned Thomas More. Sir Thomas cannot break with his beliefs. When he is asked to sign an oath supporting the King he refuses. He certainly had a martyr complex. In fact Cromwell in a last ditch effort to try and save More’s life points out his hubris in thinking of himself as a Christ figure. It was to no avail.

I do believe that Cromwell feels an uneasiness about the fates of the powerful men who came before him. He is always trying to hedge his bets, loaning money at ridiculous low interests to the aristocrats, soothing the relationship between Anne and her sister Mary (Henry’s current favorite bed warmer as he waits for Anne to pop open her corset.), taking care of embarrassing circumstances for other people, forming alliances with the enemies of his friends, and being kind to Henry’s only surviving child (Mary) with Catherine. He is always trying to anticipate the future. He worked to soften the blows to his enemies believing that someday they would be potential allies. He took in orphans, not just from his family, but even from people unconnected to him. He assessed their best aspects and put them with tutors so they would be useful to him in the future. He understands people and knows how to manipulate them and encourage them at the same time.

“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man's power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”

He is but a man and there is no time when that is more evident than when his daughter Grace dies.

”Grace dies in his arms; she dies easily, as naturally as she was born. He eases her back against the damp sheet: a child of impossible perfection, her fingers uncurling like thin white leaves. I never knew her, he thinks; I never knew I had her. It has always seemed impossible to him that some act of his gave her life, some unthinking thing that he and Liz did, on some unmemorable night.”

The sweating sickness took his wife and both his daughters leaving only him and his son Gregory alive. Maybe those deaths is why he felt so compelled to fill his house with children. It didn’t have to be his children. He thought all children were salvageable, moldable, if encouraged to work at being better at what they were best at.

Cromwell grew up the son of a blacksmith. His father beat him so severely, in fact the book opens with a scene that showed the impassioned brutality that his father was capable of, that Cromwell leaves to join the army and seek his fortune abroad. He taught himself to read. He was always working his mind like a muscle making it stronger with every book he read. With every moment he spent studying the workings of economics, politics, and psychology (he didn’t know that was what it was called.) he was giving himself the means to make better decisions, to offer better advice, to hone his cunning.

He was truly a self made man who by sheer audacity and brilliance made it to the pinnacles of power. When he becomes sick though and is at his most vulnerable the fears of a child creep into his mind.

”On the stairs he can hear the efficient, deathly clip of his father’s steel-tipped boots.”

 photo Hilary-Mantel_zps3c13b602.jpg
Hilary Mantel, what big eyes you have.

Little is known about the early life of Thomas Cromwell. He would be pleased to know that. He was much more interested in knowing everything about everyone and careful about letting others know anything about him. He was a long game thinker. Something he does one day may not make sense to those around him until much later when the dominoes fall a new direction. Mantel will clothe him, put flesh on his bones, share his innermost thoughts, and show you a man capable of being ruthless, but just as likely to be compassionate. Though Henry was particularly fascinated with lopping off heads Cromwell knew that ultimately as you eliminate one enemy you only create more. If possible it is much smarter to blackmail, confuse, or convince an arch enemy, maybe not to be friends that would be expecting too much, but at least to become a passive challenger.

There are a lot of Thomas’s in this book and at times it can seem confusing, but the rule of thumb is if you are not clear about who is speaking or who is sharing their inner thoughts that would be Thomas Cromwell.

Winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and highly recommended by the reader becoming more and more known as JK.

View all my reviews

Time Keeps On Slipping Into the Future

A Tale for the Time Being
by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Penguin Books

Reviewed by Amanda
3 1/2 Stars

You know that experience when you learn something new and only a few days later, references to it start popping up in the most unexpected of places: a television program, a book you're reading, a song on the radio, a friend mentions it in conversation? It's like the universe made certain you knew about this fact or concept because there was fixing to be a pop quiz over it and you needed to be ready. It's these types of connections and coincidences that make up A Tale for the Time Being. While it at first seems as though the novel is filled with sometimes irrelevant facts and digressions, just hang in there--Ruth Ozeki weaves them all together in a tale that serves as a metaphor for how writing and reading, or the interaction between writer and reader, can help us see ourselves in the life of another and ultimately save us from isolation and existential angst.

A Tale for the Time Being alternates between two women who, at first, seem very different: Ruth, a writer living on a small Canadian island, and Nao, a teenager living in Japan. When Ruth finds Nao's diary in a Hello Kitty lunchbox, their worlds defy time and space to collide in unexpected ways. The diary, however, is far more serious and sophisticated than its cartoonish packaging might lead one to believe. Written inside of a "hacked" copy of Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (Nao purchases it in a craft shop in Tokyo that takes old books, guts them, and inserts new paper), Nao directly addresses her unknown reader as one would a close confidant and introduces herself as a time being, one who is aware of and chooses to exist in every moment in time, though it is becoming more and more difficult for her to do so. While reading the diary, Ruth becomes obsessed with finding the girl--at first for fear that Nao may have been a victim of the 2011 tsunami, but later for fear that she is a danger to herself. The diary allows us to experience Nao's unique voice as she relates her inability to fit into her new culture, her father's descent into depression after losing his job in the U.S., and the brutal, horrific bullying she endures at the hands of her classmates and teachers. As her diary goes on, the faux title begins to prove true: Nao is becoming more lost as time goes on.

As Ruth reads the diary and desperately searches for Nao, we learn about her life as well and find that the two women overlap in surprising ways: both are Japanese-Americans, both are transplants to a place and culture not their own, both have somewhat strained relationships with the men in their lives, both have strong connections to a revered female elder, both feel a failed sense to accomplish what they want in their writing, both have an expatriate's experience of 9/11, both worry about losing time. Nao's name often functions as a pun on the word "Now," leading to overlapping meanings as to what both Ruth and Nao, feeling stuck in time, may really be searching for--hope for a "now" in which they can fully exist without being immobilized by fear, worry, or sorrow.

While I enjoyed the book, I can't say that I loved it. Ozeki's meditations on time and existence are beautifully rendered, but sometimes difficult to understand as they rely upon the reader to retain information from previous chapters when they are echoed in later events. There is so much here and so much that I don't fully comprehend. For not only is this a story about relationships, but it's also one about the concept of time, especially as it relates to zen and quantum physics. Ozeki plays with the idea of parallel universes, of time and existence as nonlinear. While I was able to keep up with the general idea, I still feel like there's a whole layer of meaning that I kept grasping for without success. This is a book that I think I could really love upon a second or third reading as I think more and more tumblers would fall into place and allow me to really unlock the full depth of meaning here.

Surprisingly, though, I had the opposite reaction to many readers in that I often found the Ruth chapters more compelling than the Nao chapters. Nao's diary doesn't really read like a diary; instead it reads like a first person narrative. And, yeah, okay, a diary is a first person narrative, but it usually doesn't read like a novel as it's more bare bones in terms of physical details, focusing more on the emotional inner life of its writer. Nao's voice also reads more like that of an adult; for a teenager, she is very precocious and while the details of her life as an adolescent are rendered authentically, she herself doesn't sound much like a teen. In Ruth, Ozeki excels at capturing the subtle seismic shifts in a marriage and, if one pays close attention, there's much about Ruth that makes her the perfect recipient for Nao's diary. I also enjoyed the tension created by whether or not Ruth will be successful in her search for Nao--especially since the Nao she is looking for is one of the past and may or may not exist in the present, regardless of whether or not she can be physically found.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Bookish Charm

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is not a perfect novel, but it is filled with bookish charm and easy grace.

I picked up "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry" at just the right time. I wanted something light and entertaining, and (hopefully) with a happy ending. And that is what I got, with the bonus of lots of literary references, some small-town whimsy and even a little romance.

A. J. Fikry is a cranky bookstore owner in New England. His life is in a rut: He lost his wife, his store is struggling and then his rare copy of Edgar Allen Poe poems is stolen. His fortunes change when a precocious child is abandoned in his store, and Fikry surprises everyone in the town by deciding to adopt her.

While the plot is formulaic -- Grouchy Man Finds Love! -- what kicked it into the Charming category were its fun bookish comments. Fikry is a man who has lots of opinions about books. Check out this rant he delivers to a publisher's sales rep:

"I do not like postmodernism, postapocalyptic settings, postmortem narrators, or magic realism. I rarely respond to supposedly clever formal devices, multiple fonts, pictures where they shouldn't be -- basically, gimmicks of any kind. I find literary fiction about the Holocaust or any other major world tragedy to be distasteful -- nonfiction only, please. I do not like genre mash-ups a la the literary detective novel or the literary fantasy. Literary should be literary, and genre should be genre, and crossbreeding rarely results in anything satisfying. I do not like children's books, especially ones with orphans, and I prefer not to clutter my shelves with young adult. I do not like anything over four hundred pages or under one hundred fifty pages. I am repulsed by ghostwritten novels by reality television stars, celebrity pictures books, sports memoirs, movie tie-in editions, novelty items, and -- I imagined this goes without saying -- vampires. I rarely stock debuts, chick lit, poetry, or translations. I would prefer not to stock series, but the demands of my pocketbook require me to. For your part, you needn't tell me about the 'next big series' until it is ensconced on the New York Times Best Sellers list."

Hahaha! While I agree with some but not all of that speech, the point is that I enjoy characters who themselves are well-read and literary. Fikry lists different authors and stories throughout the book, and I'm excited to go look up those I have not yet read.

The book has some good bookish quotes and your usual colorful cast of small-town characters. This is a pleasant, entertaining novel and was perfect for summer.

World of Trouble

World of Trouble (The Last Policeman, #3)World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With six days until a six mile-wide asteroid crashes into the earth, can Henry Palace navigate America's dying carcass and track down his sister?

I won this in a Booklikes Giveaway. Apparently their giveaways are easier to win.

Here we are, the conclusion of the saga Ben H. Winters began in The Last Policeman. Like the conclusion of every other saga, it had a lot of expectations to meet. Did it?

Yes. Yes, it did. World of Trouble picks up months after Countdown City left off, with a world on the brink of an asteroid impact. Hank Palace leaves the sanctuary of the cop commune behind to find his sister Nico. His quest sees him crossing paths with survivalists, the Amish, and the remnants of the group Nico joined, dedicated to staving off Armageddon on a planet-wide scale.

If there is a theme to the Last Policeman saga, it's "To Thine Own Self Be True." Despite every obstacle thrown in his path over the last three books, Henry Palace keeps on keepin' on, doing what he was born to do despite the futility of it all. In The Last Policeman, he tries to prove a suicide was actually murder, despite everyone else not giving a shit. In Countdown City, he tracks down a man who may or may not want to be found. In this book, the final one in the trilogy, he wants to see his sister one last time.

World of Trouble has even more of a desperate feeling than the other two books in the series, not surprising since the world has less than a week left. Just as in the previous two books, Palace proves that he's like a dog with a prized bone, not willing to let go, once he's on the trail of something.

The ending wasn't all beer and bacon cheese burgers, either. I have to admit, Ben Winters could have taken the chicken shit way out, waved his wand, and given us all a different ending than what he presented. For my money, the ending he gave us was the only one that made sense in the context of the series.

World of Trouble was a satisfying end to a really good series. Four out of five stars.

View all my reviews

The Switch

The SwitchThe Switch by Elmore Leonard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When they hatch a plot to kidnap a millionaire's wife and hold her for ransom, Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara over look one detail: what if the millionaire doesn't want her back?

Ever wonder how the guys in Rum Punch (aka Jackie Brown) ended up where they were? This is the first caper starring Ordell and Louis and is a pretty slick piece of work, as befits a book by Elmore Leonard.

As always with old Dutch, the dialogue is slicker than a water slide covered with Vaseline. Ordell and Louis, the criminals in the piece, are far more likable than their apparent mark, Mickey Dawson's asshole husband Frank.

Once Mickey is kidnapped, the book really takes off. Ordell does some scheming with Melanie behind the backs of Louis and Frank and Mickey steps up.

Still, I had a hard time rating this book. It was enjoyable but honestly, there isn't a lot to it. It has the standard Leonard hallmarks and was fun but it seemed really short and wasn't one of his heavy hitters. There wasn't a lot to distinguish it from the rest of the Leonard library.

The Switch had it's moments but wasn't all that memorable. In fact, I'm already forgetting some of the characters' names. Three out of five stars.

View all my reviews

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Thriller from the Creator of "Law and Order"

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This thriller is the first novel from Dick Wolf, the creator of the television series, Law and Order, and it introduces NYC police detective Jeremy Fisk. Fisk is a member of the department's Intelligence Division, New York City's mini-CIA, which is designed to combat terror threats to the most attractive target in the world.

The book opens with a flashback to an angry Osama Bin Laden trying to persuade his henchmen that in the wake of the 9/11 attack, they have to be smarter than your average stupid shoe bomber. Rather than repeating themselves, they have to take the infidel Americans by surprise and hit them at a point where they will least expect it and which will do the maximum amount of damage.

Some time later, a terrorist claiming to have a bomb attempts to break into the cockpit of a jetliner bound for NYC. It's a clever scheme that exploits a weakness in the airlines' cockpit security system, but the plot is foiled when several passengers attack and subdue the terrorist who, happily, turns out not to have a bomb after all.

The brave passengers become instant celebrities and everyone seems to be falling all over themselves, thankful that another terrorist plot has been foiled. But not Jeremy Fisk. To him, the whole incident of the ineffective hijacker seems a bit too easy and he speculates that it might just be a diversion from another attack that no one sees coming yet.

Fisk's concerns are made more anxious because the Fourth of July is approaching and along with it is coming the dedication of the new One World Trade Center at Ground Zero, which he realizes would make an excellent terrorist target. With his partner, Krina Gersten, Fisk mounts an around-the-clock effort to determine if, in fact, there's more to this episode than meets the eye. Of course, there will be.

This is a timely thriller and Wolf keeps the tension mounting and the reader turning the pages. The back cover suggests that this book is reminiscent of The Day of the Jackal, which is an all-time classic of this genre. The Intercept does not really rise to that level, but it is a very good read--perfect for a lazy summer's day at the beach.

Who Doesn't Love Seamen?!

John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American NavyJohn Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy by Evan Thomas
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poor ol' John. If only the US Navy at the time of Jones' life was the size of the man's ambition and ego, it would've been unstoppable!

If he'd lived just a few years longer, he would've been the ideal sea captain to head up Thomas Jefferson's hesitant-yet-ambitious expansion of the U.S. navy. But we do what we can with the time we're allotted and Jones did just about everything he could.

JOHN PAUL JONES: Journeyman Seaman

What an easy biography to write! The man's life reads like a legend. C.S. Forester couldn't have improved on it! Though the details are often more colorful and entertaining, here are some of the high-and low-lights of his tumultuous career:

* Rose to first mate on British slave ships, then threw away his enviable position out of disgust for the human trafficking trade.
* Saved an un-captained vessel from destruction after it was struck with the Yellow Jack fever.
* At a time when harsh punishment was not uncommon, was imprisoned and had his reputation forever damaged when a flogged man died on one of his cruises.
* Slew a mutineer with a sword over wages and fled to America, adding the name Jones to avoid persecution and leaving behind his fortune to join the American Colonies in their fight against England.
* Took the fight to the British Isles during the American Revolution, terrorizing the people who considered him a pirate, and in a valiant battle with the British navy coined the popular phrase, "I have not yet begun to fight!"

Jones was sometimes gallant and sometimes petty, but always daring, and boy did he like to let people know about it! But those were the times and tooting one's own horn was what one had to do to get ahead, so it's hard to fault the man for that.

What he can be faulted for is his pride. He often felt unduly slighted and he complained about it loudly to the people who he thought were slighting him. Unfortunately, those people were his bosses. When you bitch at your boss you're not likely to get promoted, and Jones did not. Promised appointment after appointment "fell through" for Jones, often leaving him high and dry. Yet his valor was undeniable and, against all odds, he did rise in rank over his short life.

He may have been rash, but you must give the ex-pat Scotsman credit for putting his neck on the line at a time when his own adopted country wasn't so willing to stretch their own out on his behalf.

Thomas' bio does an admirable job of painting Jones' larger than life personality. Prior to reading this the name John Paul Jones to me was associated with the bass player from Led Zeppelin.

The Other John Paul Jones:
(This Jones also dressed in frilly shirts and gave "No Quarter"(sorry), so you can see how the two might be confused!)

But now that quiet, retiring musician has been elbowed to the back of a two-man line. Thomas' almost swashbuckling-level adventure of a biography puts the sailor John Paul Jones right at the forefront!

F The Headline, Just Read The Book's Title...

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English DictionaryThe Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A man goes insane, shoots another man to death and then helps write one of the first complete dictionaries. What an odd way to enter the academic world!

And believe it or not, those aren't even spoilers! Simon Winchester gives us all that right in the title of his surprisingly riveting read The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary.

The idea of reading a book on the creation of a dictionary only sounded mildly interesting. In the hands of the wrong writer that book might not have entertained me from start to finish the way Winchester did. Granted the story has its intriguing oddities and the occasional shocking moment, but it's Winchester's ability to dramatize this hundreds-of-years-old story that makes it seem as vivid and catchy as the headlines of the morning newspaper. He is a writer who brings legend to life.

As exciting as I find it, this is a book about making a dictionary and that won't enthrall all readers. It gets an extra nudge up in the star department from me, because this is a book about words and I like words. If you're still reading this, I suspect you do too.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club 
Genevieve Valentine

Reviewed by Carol
Recommended for fans of fairy tales, romance
★    ★    ★    ★     1/2

Retelling something as familiar as a fairy tale can be a risky proposition. In some cases, magic can come out of the details as an author elaborates on a classic. For instance, I happen to love Robin McKinley’s book Beauty, a take on the old tale “Beauty and the Beast.” On the other hand, when she re-told the story again twenty years later in Rose Daughter, I didn’t care for it at all. So I brought few expectations to my reading of The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, a retelling of the fairy tale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” To my delight, I found a creative, emotionally complex story that takes the  original in an empowering direction.

In most versions of the fairytale “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” (a German version is titled “The Worn-Out Shoes“), the story focuses on a challenge to discover why a king’s twelve daughters wake up in the morning with holes in their shoes (one version here). The king is baffled and frustrated, and offers a reward to anyone who can solve the mystery–but if not, then off with his head. Many have been died after falling asleep during their watch. Before accepting the challenge, a soldier meets an old woman who gives him a magic cloak and warns him not to drink anything from the princesses. After the soldier pretends to fall asleep, the princesses dress, go through a secret passage to an underground lake, row across and through a forest of metallic trees, and spend the night dancing with princes at a ball. As they return, the invisible soldier breaks off a piece of a tree, first silver, then gold. On the last night, he steals a goblet from the ball as proof. When the king demands an accounting, the soldier provides the proof and is rewarded by marrying one of the princesses.

Clearly, the origin story is a complex bit of fairy tale, with princesses that are complicit in the deception, a father who is outside it but cruel with his consequences, and a ordinary man using magical gifts to catch the princesses in their dishonesty. Girls versus their father, a common man versus princes, and duplicity all around.

Valentine takes these elements and heads into a very interesting direction. Twelve girls are growing up in a wealthy but isolated household in early Prohibition New York. Rarely permitted outside, or even invited to the downstairs levels of the house to visit their mother, they are ruled by their father in an extremely circumscribed life. Jo, the oldest, has met her mother only a handful of times, and the youngest haven’t met her mother at all. It falls to Jo as the oldest to negotiate on behalf of the sisters with her father. Told in third person limited, largely from Jo’s point of view, Jo ponders her nickname “The General,” arising from the unenviable position as enforcer/mitagator of her father, but yet attempting to protect them against his rage. Unfortunately, her efforts are often underappreciated.

A ripple of relief ran through the room. It was too loud, too happy; it was a gloss over an unspoken thrum of mutiny so sharp that Jo felt like someone had snapped a rubber band against her wrist.

Early on, Jo and the second oldest, Lou, would sneak out to the movies where the girls would learn new dances. Natural talents, dancing became a way to escape their limited lives. As each successive sister was delivered upstairs, she was eventually taught to dance by her sisters. In an act of desperation, Jo suggests sneaking out to go dancing–she knows if she doesn’t let the girls blow off steam in some fashion, they might simply run away and be lost forever.  The night out dancing is a success, giving the girls hope, a reason to exist and a source of joy and discussion to fill their days. They danced through their nights, unattainable to the men at the clubs:

The girls were wild for dancing, and nothing else. No hearts beat underneath those thin, bright dresses. They laughed like glass.

Trouble begins on two fronts when their father decides to actively intrude in their lives. As he schemes to marry the girls off, he gets wind of stories about a bevy of girls dancing at local speakeasies. An ad in the newspaper strikes fear in Jo as soon as she learns of his plans.

The girls could hope that these husbands, wherever her father planned to find them, would be kinder and more liberal men than he was. But the sort of man who wanted a girl who’d never been out in the world was the sort whose wife would stay at home in bed and try to produce heirs until she died from it.

The last section follows the girls as they discover life outside their father’s house. I rather enjoyed that Valentine took her story a step beyond the simple “they escaped and they all lived happily ever after,” and looked at the challenges of making a life, and how different the idea of success could be for each sister. 

She was still trying to discover how people related to each other, and how you met the world when you weren’t trying to hide something from someone. It was a lesson slow in coming.

As in all fairy tales, characters exist largely as archetypes. With twelve sisters, it’s hard to achieve a great deal of individuality with each, but Valentine succeeds with a few, particularly Jo, Lou (the second oldest), and Doris (the sensible one). I thought Jo’s emotional dilemma was well done. The father is perfect; elegant, controlling, and all implied threat.

The setting of New York during Prohibition was nicely done. I’ve read a number of books that were quite enamored of the 1920s, but focused on the setting at the expense of character. Valentine achieves a nice balance between the magic of the clubs and plotting. My chief complaint was a writing style that felt awkward. Additional thoughts and commentary were often given in parenthesis, and the purpose/voice weren’t always clear. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the way Valentine’s tone and word choice was able to capture the emotional magic of a fairy tale but incorporate it into a real-world setting. 

Overall, I’d call it a delightful improvement on the original tale. I’d highly recommend it to fans of fairy-tales, sister bonds, coming of age stories and gentle romance.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria books for providing me an advance ereader copy.  Quotes are taken from a galley copy and are subject to change in the published edition. Still, I think it gives a flavor of the magical writing.

cross posted at my blog

Before I Fall

Before I Fall
by Lauren Oliver

Reviewed by Sesana
Three out of five stars

Publisher Summary:

Samantha Kingston has it all: the world's most crush-worthy boyfriend, three amazing best friends, and first pick of everything at Thomas Jefferson High—from the best table in the cafeteria to the choicest parking spot. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life.Instead, it turns out to be her last.Then she gets a second chance.Seven chances, in fact. Reliving her last day during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death-and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing. 

My Review:

There were times when I really struggled with this book. The main character, Sam, is awful. Her friends are awful. Her boyfriend is awful. It's so hard to get involved in a book that's populated almost entirely by terrible people. And it took quite some time. I admit that I persisted purely out of stubbornness, and I wouldn't have if the book had been much longer. I also admit that it was, frankly, a relief to be done with this book, because I wouldn't have to deal with Sam Kingston, her awful friends, and her awful boyfriend again.

Here's the thing: Before I Fall is essentially an issue book, and the issue is bullying. But the perspective we get here is from one of the bullies. And the bullies in this book, including Sam, are terrible. Classic Mean Girls stuff. Am I supposed to root for Sam? Feel bad when she dies, over and over again? I don't. I'm not at all sure that I'm supposed to. I feel like Oliver gave me permission to hate her, even to the end of the book. But it isn't entirely about her, not really. It's also about the people she's affected, especially the people she's bullied.

I can get tired of Mean Girls, especially when the Mean Girls are also the popular girls. That just doesn't match my experience in school. The popular girls were popular because (get this!) people liked them. The mean girls had their friends, sure, but they weren't what I would call popular. This is the first book that I've ever read that actually deals with that contradiction between the reality I know and the evil popular girl cliche. Sam and her friends are popular, sure, for a certain definition of popular. People are nice to their faces, sure, and they get invited to parties. But does anybody actually like them? It takes Sam almost an entire week of reliving her last day to realize the answer is, unsurprisingly, no. Very few people actually like them, and that's something Sam needs to recognize and deal with. And you know, I was just so happy that Oliver was acknowledging that people like Sam and their friends wouldn't actually be well-liked, just powerful in a petty sort of way that it helped me get through the book.

That didn't make it easy. I listened on audio during my commute, which might be a good thing. I probably wouldn't have finished if I'd actually read it. Even so, I had to take a day and a half off from listening because I just couldn't take Sam's narration any longer. Not because it was bad, mind you, but because it was too good. It was not fun to be in Sam's head. Maybe, in this case, Oliver did a little too good of a job.

Friday, June 20, 2014

This is Not A Writing Manual

Kerri Majors
Writer's Digest Books
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Real-world writing advice, minus all the lectures.You're an aspiring writer. Maybe you've just discovered your love of words and dream of being a novelist someday. Maybe you've been filling notebooks with science-fiction stories since middle school. Maybe you're contemplating a liberal arts degree, but you don't know what the heck you're going to do with it. The last thing you need is another preachy writing manual telling you how you should write.

This book isn't a writing manual. It is a series of candid and irreverent essays on the writing life, from a writer who's lived it. Kerri Majors shares stories from her own life that offer insights on the realities all writers face: developing a writing voice, finding a real job (and yes, you do need to find one), taking criticism, getting published, and dealing with rejection.

Don't have enough time to write? Learn how to plan your days to fit it all in. Not sure how your guilty pleasures and bad habits translate into literature? Kerri explains how soap operas and eavesdropping can actually help your writing. Need a reader for your first novel? Find a writing buddy or a writing group that will support you. Nervous about submitting your first piece? Learn from Kerri's own roller coaster journey to find an agent and get published. "This Is Not a Writing Manual" is the writing memoir for young writers who want to use their talents in the real world.

My Review

I was looking for something to read in the YA section, but I wasn’t in the mood for paranormals or romances. The title and the wide-open mouth on the cover enticed me to take a closer look. Normally, I don’t read books about writing. Other than keeping a meticulous journal during my childhood and teen years, I have never done any serious writing other than what was required of me for school or work.

Writing requires time, effort, self-discipline, patience, and a thick skin. Since I’m the greatest procrastinator around and don’t deal too well with rejection, I’m not convinced that being a writer is the best use of my time. But I do love words, and I love that other people have the ability to string them together in meaningful ways that make my heart sing. Reading books makes me happy, and any book that helps young, aspiring writers gain confidence is very important.

Even though it was on the YA shelf, there are plenty of useful tips that could benefit writers of all ages. Look elsewhere if you want to learn the mechanics of writing. Kerri Majors uses personal anecdotes and solid advice to show the reader how to attain the creative life. I loved this book’s conversational tone and enjoyed reading about the author’s journey to publication.

Read this book and be the best writer you could possibly be! The world needs more writers so I can have more books to read.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


A Fine BalanceA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“You see, we cannot draw lines and compartments and refuse to budge beyond them. Sometimes you have to use your failures as stepping-stones to success. You have to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair.' He paused, considering what he had just said. 'Yes', he repeated. 'In the end, it's all a question of balance.’ ”

 photo ElephantBalancing_zpsda454c56.jpg
A Fine Balance

I sometimes take a moment to focus on the corner of my office. The way the two walls come together forming a line, a demarcation. I think of it as bringing the two halves of my brain together, to focus, to think, to ponder. It is an illusion of course, but I’m fortunate that some of my life can be given to fanciful thoughts like thinking I can marshal the powers of my mind by staring meditatively at a conjunction. We all worry about things, ponder things, and even dream about being somewhere else or about being someone else. We all have loose threads that bother us, sometimes they are consuming us, and little do we know these bothersome threads are becoming stronger, like a man imprisoned, who spends vast amounts of time doing pushups and situps, waiting for the bars to open.

But it is a small matter,

because I eat three meals a day, take a hot shower every morning, and sleep six solid hours a night on a bed that is not too soft nor too hard.

I have rights that protect me from my government (at least for the moment). I have law enforcement that doesn’t have to be bribed to protect me from those that wish to do harm for harms sake. I have a circle of family and friends who wish me well and will lend a shoulder to lean on if I falter. I have healthcare and life insurance in case I am unlucky. I live in a bubble of civilization that almost insures me a certain length of life span.

So when I do get time to snip those loose threads of my life I’m doing so with a brain that has the luxury of worrying about something more than just NEEDS. As large as my “problems” become they are still,

but a small matter.

There are a vast array of characters in this novel. Some are at a slightly higher economic level than the rest, but regardless of their circumstances no one can feel safe, no one can worry about matters beyond the most basic needs of water, food, and shelter.

The bulk of this story occurs in 1975 in an unnamed Indian city by the sea. It is the time of The Great Emergency which really means that the government has declared a form of martial law...for the safety of the people of course. They have implemented a rigorous Family Planning Program that at first entices people with cash and better ration cards for food if they are willing to have the operation for sterilization. When bribery doesn’t elicit the results the government wants their methods become more invasive and more drastic.

The government also implements a beautification program that translates to bulldozing all the temporary structures that have been erected around the city. These were thrown together to house the influx of country people coming to the metropolis to try and scrounge a living doing what others don’t want to do. The hodge podge of housing built out of cast off materials, rubbish to people of means, is not beautiful, not in the way that we are taught to evaluate beauty, but the creativity and the determination to build something for themselves is beyond beauty. It is simply magnificent. As they make a little money they fix something, add something, make it more their home.

 photo IndianSlum_zps3abff849.jpg
You build it and they will come. There is no field of dreams in this India.

So the government eliminates these eye sores, but does not provide a place for these people to live. They are thrown to the elements to shift for themselves. If truth be known the government would like to see these people vanish, stacked in the same pile as the rubbled remains of their homes.

“What sense did the world make? Where was God, the Bloody Fool? Did He have no notion of fair and unfair? Couldn't He read a simple balance sheet? He would have been sacked long ago if He were managing a corporation, the things he allowed to happen...”

The two tailors Ishvar Darji and his nephew Omprakash were there when the bulldozers started knocking down homes. Only after all the homes were destroyed did the monster machines stop for twenty minutes to allow people to salvage what they could.

The tailors are working for a woman named Dina Dalal who is fortunate to have her own apartment. She still mourns the death of her husband taken from her in a freakish accident many years ago. She nearly went over the brink with grief. “Flirting with madness was one thing; when madness started flirting back, it was time to call the whole thing off.” She has a relationship with her brother that is complicated. She dislikes having to accept his help; and yet, finds herself going to him for money when she is short of rent. In a bid for more independence and more financial security she decides to start making clothes for a large manufacturing company, but her eyesight is failing and so she hires Ishvar and Omprakash to do the sewing.

 photo AFineBalance-IshvarDarji_zpseed07876.jpg

Further help arrives in the form of Maneck Kohlah, a rich boy in comparison to the other people in the apartment, who contributes much needed rent while he is going to school.

She is not supposed to run a business out of her apartment. She is not supposed to sublease. The landlord is looking for any reason to get his hands on this apartment so he can finally break the rent controls. It is a recipe for disaster born out of desperation. It is a bid for freedom.

“After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents - a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices, casual or deliberate, which add up to that one big calamity we call life.”

Through a series of unpredictable events they all end up living in the apartment together. The tailors out on the veranda. Dina shoehorned into the sewing room. Maneck in Dina’s old bedroom. There are difficulties mainly because Omprakash begins to resent Dina’s position as overseer. Om perceives her as a big shot, a rich person, when nothing could be further from the truth. Being a manager myself I really identified with Dina’s issues. She would try to be more lenient and the two men would take more and more advantage of her. She would try yelling and the men would become resentful. She would try negotiating with them, but any concessions she was willing to make was never enough. How quickly the men forgot how bad things were before the found the benevolence of the woman with an apartment.

Despite those issues for a little while, too short of time, they were happy.

“…God is a giant quiltmaker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don’t fit well together anymore, it’s all become meaningless. So He has abandoned it.”

The mystery of happiness. It is so hard to obtain and so difficult to duplicate. You can bring together the same people under the same circumstances and not be able to achieve it again. There is a magic missing, a zing, a spice, a mood or just the will to let it happen.

There are a host of satellite characters who add so much vitality to this novel. My favorite was the Beggarmaster. As his title indicates he managed and took care of an army of beggars. He also, for a price, extended protection to people like the tailors, to people like Dina. He is as powerful as a magistrate and the police know not to mess with him or his people. He sees everyone the same whether they are people missing limbs or people still retaining every body part they came into this world with. He sees the world through the lens of the poor.

”Freaks, that’s what we are--all of us.”... “I mean, every single human being. And who can blame us? What chance do we have, when our beginnings and endings are so freakish? Birth and death--what could be more monstrous than that? We like to deceive ourselves and call it wondrous and beautiful and majestic, but it’s freakish, let’s face it.”

The Beggarmaster would have been perfectly at home stepping into a Dickens novel as would many of the characters in this novel. Many reviewers have made comparisons to Charles Dickens and nowhere is it more apparent than in the cast of characters that Rohinton Mistry has assembled. Dickens would have also certainly loved taking on the issue of forced sterilization, the issue of sanitation, the issue of deprivation, and the overreach of a government completely out of touch with the largest majority of their population...the poor.

You will find yourself living with these characters. You will even feel like you are sharing their deprivation through the power of a gifted writer’s words. Success is fleeting. Disaster ever present. Hopelessness is a shadow around everyone’s heart. No one is immune and everyone is walking on the ledge hoping the wind doesn’t blow. The things that matter to them the most are the essential things. The very things the rest of us take for granted.

 photo Rohinton-Mistry_zps39c7eec4.jpg
Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry very well may have written a masterpiece. I want to thank Lynda McCalman for not only recommending it, but also for saying it was her favorite book. I can’t resist when people say a book is their favorite book. So what I would like is for everyone to share their favorite book with me on the comments thread. I will do my best to eventually read every one of them that I haven’t read before. This novel is Highly Recommended!

View all my reviews

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Running Down a Dream

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

You don't stop running because you get old; you get old because you stop running.

After hearing my running friends rave about this book for years, I finally got around to reading it. And now I owe them an apology, because I had gotten so sick of being preached at about chia seeds and running barefoot and vegetarianism and ultramarathons that I have been quietly rolling my eyes whenever anyone mentioned this friggin book.

But once I got into the story, all of my eye rolls stopped. Sure, there were a few groans about McDougall's punchy, magazine-writing style that doesn't always translate well to book form, but overall, this was an engrossing read. It covers a motley cast of outdoorsy characters from America and Mexico, including the elite runners of the elusive Tarahumara Indian tribe, several incredible foot races, research on running and training methods, and there is even a captivating digression into how the Bushmen of the Kalahari go hunting.

At its heart, the story is about human endurance, compassion for others, and the theory that our bodies were "born to run." There is a thoughtful chapter on the evolution of homo sapiens from other mammals, and the ways in which the human form is designed to be able to cover an incredible amount of distance.

"Know why people run marathons? Because running is rooted in our collective imagination, and our imagination is rooted in running. Language, art, science; space shuttles, Starry Night, intravascular surgery; they all had their roots in our ability to run. Running was the superpower that made us human -- which means it's a superpower all humans possess."

As mentioned, there are also sections on the nutritional power of chia seeds, vegetarianism, and a training theory that runners should spend more time barefoot to build up their strength. I won't lecture you about any of that as I had found it exhausting when others preached to me (there is a line between enthusiasm and evangelism), but I did find the information interesting and will take it under advisement.

Along the way, McDougall shares his own stories of running injuries and how he found different trainers to teach him ways to run more efficiently and with more joy. Yes, joy.

"How do you flip the internal switch that changes us all back into the Natural Born Runners we once were? Not just in history, but in our own lifetimes. Remember? Back when you were a kid and you had to be yelled at to slow down? Every game you played, you played at top speed, sprinting like crazy as you kicked cans, freed all, and attacked jungle outposts in your neighbors' backyards ... That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain ... Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else."

The narrative builds to an amazing foot race in the blazing hot Copper Canyons of Mexico, with some top American athletes competing against a group of Tarahumara runners. Friends, I would be lying if I said I made it through that incredible story without getting choked up by the beauty of what happened that day. I could share quotes, but I think you need to read it in context and experience the grit and grace and humanity for yourself.

This book was so inspiring that I vowed to make an effort to go running more often. And I shall run with joy and compassion in my heart.

Lost in the Forrest: An Interview with Forrest Aguirre

Today's guest is Forrest Aguirre, author of Heraclix and Pomp.

The first time I remember seeing your name was for the Leviathan 3 anthology.   How did that come about?
Jeff VanderMeer was then actively running Ministry of Whimsy Press. I had contacted Jeff at one point to let him know just how impressed I was by Stepan Chapman’s The Troika, which I found at my local Borders. As a result of that contact, I joined the Storyville writers’ email group, a group of 15 or so authors and editors, mostly from the UK and the US. Jeff was a part of that group. Through our discussions there, we realized that we had a shared taste in aesthetics. He had already edited Leviathan 1 and 2 with co-editors, and asked if I’d be interested in being a co-editor on Leviathan 3. I had read the first two Leviathans, along with The Troika So I was very excited for the offer and accepted immediately. I really owe it all to Jeff. He mentored me on how to edit and helped me to avoid some of the pitfalls that sometimes plague new editors (who are also writers), giving advice such as “never put your own story in an anthology you’re editing.” I learned a lot from Jeff in that editorial process.

 Some time after that, your short stories started popping up.   Was the transition from editor to short story writer a difficult one?
I had begun writing short stories before editing Leviathan 3, but I was not very good at it. Editing Leviathan 3 helped me a great deal in understanding good story construction and, probably most importantly, the concept of “voice”. When you first start writing you can trip in one of two ways: 1) your writing is so generic that you have no “voice” or 2) the other extreme, where your “voice” gets in the way of a reader’s understanding. Now I had read a lot of fiction before that time and done my share of literary analysis in college, but I hadn’t seriously written fiction until my last year of graduate school. Since I was coming from an academic background, my writerly voice was awfully stilted and overly intellectual. I recall asking Jeff to have a look at a story I had written wherein I had used the word “myriad” a . . . well, a myriad of times. After red-penning that word several times, he simply wrote in the margins “You have to stop using that word!” And he was right. So doing the editing on Leviathan 3 gave me a more keen eye for my own errors, repetitive words, and bad constructions. It wasn’t a difficult transition to move from seeing the errors in other people’s work to honing my stories from the raw mess of a first draft to something more polished.

For those unfortunate souls who are unaware, give us the elevator pitch for Heraclix and Pomp.
Heraclix is a flesh golem, an artificial magical construct made up of the pieces of several dead men. Pomp is a fairy. They are thrust together by their mutual victimization by the Faustian sorcerer, Mowler. Pomp, who is immortal, is nearly killed by Mowler and must face the prospect that she can die. An accident kills Mowler, and Heraclix and Pomp are freed. Now Heraclix is mystified by himself. If he is composed of all these parts, who is he, really. Or, more properly, who was he before dying and being reborn? Underlying all these existential questions is the premise that Mowler might not be so dead, after all and, in fact, he might be striking a deal to seal his own immortality, at the cost of both the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires.

How did you hook up with Resurrection House for Heraclix and Pomp?
Mark Teppo knows my agent, Kris O’higgins. Mark was starting this new endeavor, Resurrection House, and Heraclix & Pomp had caught his eye. He offered, we accepted.

What would you say the big inspirations behind H&P are?
H&P started as a conversation in an apartment building hallway with one of the guys in my old Dungeons and Dragons group. We were talking about how you could run a cool 2-person adventure. I came up with the idea of a flesh golem and a pixie, simply because their respective strengths and weaknesses would complement each other well in the context of the game. That led to a short story, which is now embodied in Chapter 1 of Heraclix & Pomp. I submitted that story to John Joseph Adams, who sent a very nice rejection letter saying that it was on his short list for the anthology he was doing, but that he felt it would be best served with more “breathing room” as a novel. So I considered the end of the chapter and thought “well, what happens next?” This led to the novel. I was heavily influenced by certain music to provide a mood for each character, and that is reflected in the acknowledgements. As far as literary influence goes, there were several, including Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, Schacter’s Searching for Memory, Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina, and Guy Davis’ graphic novel The Marquis: Inferno. I have a complete list of “Heraclix & Pomp’s Top 20” at my blog, which spills all the beans. Thematically, I wanted to explore what would happen when an immortal, timeless, and carefree being was suddenly faced with the real possibility of death. And, since I’m reaching middle age, I thought a lot about the role that memory plays in who I am today and how I see myself. But what if I didn’t know my past? How would that affect the way I think, my desires, my actions? And what if I wasn’t who I thought I might be? I’ve changed a lot since my teenage years – my high school classmates would hardly recognize me, not because of physical changes, but because of mental, emotional, and spiritual changes. So these questions were in the back of my mind the whole time I was writing the book.

If there was going to be an animated Heraclix and Pomp movie, whose voices would you use?
Heraclix would have to be Ron Perlman, either animated or live-action. Pomp would be Kate Bush in all her eccentricity that weird, squeaky voice she sang with in the 80s would be perfect for Pomp. Mowler would be voiced by Ian McDiarmad after he had gargled some hot gravel. Porchenskivik, Christopher Lee, the kinder, gentler version. Von Graeb would have to be Benedict Cumberpatch. I'd want the sexiest male voice I could think of, and that's it. For Von Helmutter, Werner Klemperer (Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heros). Remember him? But he’s dead and probably not for hire. Second choice, Richard Griffiths. I'd want Neve Mcintosh as Lady Adelaide, simply because I loved her as Fuchsia in the BBC production of Gormenghast. Mark Hamill could do all the other voices by himself, probably.

Are you into historical fiction?   H&P seems more akin to historical fiction than fantasy at times.
That has more to do with my academic training than anything. I have a Master's in African History from the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Truth be told, I haven't read much historical fiction, but I have read a lot of history!

When Forrest Gump was in the theaters, how long did it take you to want to strangle all the people making Forrest Gump jokes at your expense?
What people? Oh, are you talking about the corpses buried in my back yard? In all seriousness, That still happens. My snarky rejoinder is “Oh, ha ha ha ha! I've never heard that one before!” followed by the look of death. Seriously, people, can you come up with something more original?

Who is your favorite author?
Italo Calvino. I wish I could write like Italo Calvino. There's a dainty elegance undercut by a faint hint of cynical irony that I love in his writing. I have several others that I love to read, including Brian Evenson, Thomas Ligotti, Rikki Ducornet, Gene Wolfe, Alistair Reynolds, along with the classics, like Poe and Lovecraft. But Calvino takes my most-favored author slot.

What is your favorite book?
The one I'm writing at the time. It's impossible to pick one book that is my favorite. I have favorites in several sub-genres. For example, Hamlet's Mill is my favorite book on whatever it's on (good luck finding a thesis), while The Roots of Civilization is my favorite work on paleontology and Schacter's Searching for Memory is my favored book on neuroscience. But I'm hard pressed to think of a single non-fiction book that is my absolute favorite. As far as speculative fiction goes, I suppose Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun is my favorite science fiction series. I don't read a ton of fantasy, to be honest, but that Erickson guy has a good thing going so far. My favorite type of books are surreal, with a touch of magic, dark, and philosophical.

What are you reading now?
I just finished reading Hofstadter's Gdel, Escher, Bach, which was grueling and rewarding. Right now I'm reading Mieville's Perdido Street Station. I've read his other stuff, but had missed this one. I had a conversation with him once at a convention where we talked politics for about an hour. Thankfully he didn't ask if I had read it. By the way, China is a gentleman of the best kind. A scholar and a gentleman.

Is there a book that made you want to be a writer?
Yes! Stepan Chapman's The Troika. When I first read it, I was blown away. “People can actually write this cool stuff and get it published?” I said to myself. Apparently, they can.

What's next for Forrest Aguirre?
I am currently working on a science fiction novel tentatively entitled Solistalgia. I'm about 80% done with the first draft. It will need some draconian edits, but I'm pretty happy with the story and the characters, thus far. In the meantime, I'm sure you'll see the occasional short story popping up here and there. I'm also working on a role-playing game supplement that will take a while to get done. I have no illusions about actually making money from it, though, and will probably have to self-publish it as a labor of love. Of course, there's always kickstarter . . .

Any advice for aspiring writers?
Stop surfing the net and start writing. At the very least, take some quiet time to observe the world around you and write the perfect sentence about something or someone that catches your attention. Then build from there.

Heraclix and Pomp

Heraclix & PompHeraclix & Pomp by Forrest Aguirre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When his creator is killed, a golem named Heraclix leaves Vienna with a fairy named Pomp in tow in search of answers. Heraclix seeks the former life (or lives) of his constituent body parts and Pomp wants only to understand the human way of life. They travel to the Near East and back again with a short detour to hell. Will they ever find the answers they seek and will they like the answers they get?

Forrest Aguirre has proven himself to be a hoopy frood in recent years so when he asked if I'd read an ARC of his first novel, I could hardly say no.

Heraclix and Pomp brings a lot of different elements to the table. It's part historical fiction, part fantasy, with some political intrigue thrown in. Forrest Aguirre's prose feels like a mix of Peter S. Beagle and Gene Wolfe to me, dense but with a certain poetic beauty to it.

Heraclix, the dour golem, and Pomp, the curious fairy, go from one European locale to the next in their search for answers, encountering ghosts, demons, Turks, Romani, necromancers, as Heraclix slowly pieces together who his body parts used to belong to. Intrigued yet?

Forrest's depiction of Hell was one of my favorite parts of the book. The Lord of the Flies and his minions were pretty grotesque. I wasn't a fan of the political intrigue at first but I was sucked in eventually.

If you're looking for some beautifully-written fantasy that doesn't trod along all the familiar paths, you'll enjoy Heraclix and Pomp. Four out of five stars.

View all my reviews

Countdown City

Countdown City (The Last Policeman, #2)Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When retired policeman Henry Palace is approached by his childhood babysitter to track down her missing husband, he's on the case. But with only seventy-seven days until an asteroid crashes into Earth, will he be able to track the missing man down amidst rioting, looters, and the rapidly disintegrating infrastructure?

The second Henry Palace book is even better than the first. It sees Palace riding his ten-speed bicycle all over New Hampshire, looking for a former state trooper that doesn't want to be found in a world with no internet and no phones.

As with the previous volume, the case takes a backseat and the book is really a character study of Henry Palace and the rest of the inhabitants of the world. What would you do with only seventy-seven days to live?

Palace has grown on me quite a bit. His single-mindedness has begun to remind me of another favorite character of mine, Roland the Gunslinger, only Palace's Dark Tower is a missing man named Brett Cavatone. Neither of them like what's at the end of the quest, either. Even Palace isn't sure why he does what he does. Hank Palace has gone from being an overgrown hall monitor to a non-alcoholic version of Matthew Scudder fairly quickly.

The supporting cast is pretty interesting, all good examples of what life in a pre-apocalytpic world must be like. Nico, Palace's sister, was both infuriating and endearing. The college campus/anarchist encampment was both ridiculous and all too likely. I imagine a lot of people would offer services similar to Cortez's if the manure was about to hit the windmill.

Once again, the case was a tough nut to crack. I had no idea what was going on and I really have no idea what's going to happen in the third book. Will the asteroid be deflected after all?

Like The Last Policeman, Countdown City is very self-contained. There's no cliffhanger and you probably wouldn't even need to read the first volume to enjoy it. 4.5 out of five stars.

View all my reviews

Monday, June 16, 2014

Dani Britton Is On the Run in Redemption Key


Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

In The Widow File: A Thriller, S. G. Redling introduced a young data analyst named Dani Britton who worked for an exclusive and secretive security company near Washington, D.C. One afternoon, while Dani was away from the office, virtually all of her co-workers were murdered in an effort to conceal some of the work that the company was doing. The villains behind the attack on Dani's firm then sent a savage hit man named Tom Booker to finish the job by eliminating Dani. Booker failed in the effort, and both he and Dani wound up badly injured in the course of his attack on her.

Nine months later, Dani is now mostly healed, but she still bears both the physical and psychological scars of the attack. Determined to put her past as far behind her as physically possible, Dani takes a job at a fishing camp called Jinky's on Redemption Key in south Florida. She's basically doing grunt work--cleaning rooms, making repairs, wrangling kayaks and tending bar. She's also vigorously working out, attempting to get back into shape and otherwise trying to keep her head as far down as possible.

A place like Redemption Key naturally attracts a lot of odd, strange and curious characters. Many of them, like Dani, are on the run; not all of them live within the strict confines of the law. The owner of the place where Dani works is a guy named Oren Randolph. Randolph is basically a good guy and a good boss, but he does provide a service to various criminal elements. His fishing camp, far off the beaten track, is an excellent place for people to do deals that they'd rather not consummate in the light of day. For a fee, of course, Randolph provides the meeting room and serves as a facilitator, keeping the peace between and among parties who are not always peaceful and who do not always trust each other.

Dani's area of expertise while working for the security company involved her uncanny ability to "read" people. Randolph soon recognizes her talent in this regard and begins assigning her to tend bar and serve food and drinks at the meetings he's facilitating. She can read the mood of the room and of the meeting participants and help Randolph keep things on an even keel.

Inevitably, though, sooner or later one of these complex negotiations is bound to blow up, causing major problems for everyone involved, Dani included. And when it does finally happen, it couldn't come at a worse time, because other dangerous threats from the life Dani fought so hard to leave behind are suddenly converging on her once again.

It would not be fair to say any more about the plot, but Redling has created here a cast of very intriguing, off-beat characters and dropped them into a well-drawn setting and a riveting story. The tension mounts with every page, and the climax is as unexpected as it is heart-pounding. This is another excellent entry in this young series.