Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Dark Places

Dark PlacesDark Places by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When person or persons unknown murdered her entire family, seven year old Libby Day managed to escape and fingered her brother Ben as the killer. Now, decades later, she's a dysfunctional and nearly penniless, and after meeting some true crime enthusiasts, isn't so sure her brother was the murderer after all. Can Libby discover the truth?

After dodging Gillian Flynn for years in the wake of Gone Girl, I finally caved it when this showed up in one of my daily cheap ebook emails. Gillian Flynn, where have you been all my life?

Dark Places is a mystery but it's one of those mysteries that also happens to be brutal and very well written, like Winter's Bone or something along those lines. Libby Day is a broken adult, having never recovered from her mother and sisters being murdered by her brother. Or were they? Libby cracks open the past like a pinata and takes a look at what falls out: not candy but a lot of ugliness, more like a brood of cockroaches.

Since I live very near nowhere's asshole, rural settings always resonate with me because I understand living miles from everywhere and what could happen in the dark of night. Libby wakes up to the sounds of her family being slaughtered. Not exactly your feel-good read.

I love that instead of some notion of heroism, Libby gets involved in her family's murder because she's nearly run out of money and has no idea how to function as a normal adult. She's a kleptomaniac and has burned every familial bridge she ever trod upon. Lyle and the Kill Club light the spark but it's the lack of money that provides the fuel, at first, anyway.

Gillian Flynn crafts one hell of a mystery yarn but it's her characters that show she's more than just another mystery lover. Ben and Libby are sympathetic figures, despite both being deeply flawed. Still, she makes you understand their motivations, making them seem all too realistic. The parallel structure of the book builds the suspense. I had no idea what actually happened that night until it was pretty much spelled out for me, which I love in a mystery.

There's not much else I want to say for fear of giving something away. Dark Places. Five stars. Read it!

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Baltimore Blues

Baltimore Blues  (Tess Monaghan, #1)Baltimore Blues by Laura Lippman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When it appears a rowing buddy of hers murdered his fiancee's boss and lover, underemployed Tess Monaghan sets about trying to clear his name. But did Rock kill ace attorney Michael Abramowitz? If he didn't, who did and why? And can Tess find out before she winds up as dead as the lawyer?

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the girl I was seeing at the time told me I would like Laura Lippman. Since she was always pushing books on me, I ignored her. Maybe she was right in that one particular instance.

Baltimore Blues is a mystery that has many more layers than it first appears, like baklava. See, I could have said "onion" but that's what everyone says when they talk about layers. Anyway, it was Laura Lippman's first trip to the dance and she did a lot better than most first time novelists.

As the title indicates, Baltimore plays a big part in the book, almost a character in and of itself, much like George Pelecanos' Washington DC, Dennis Lehane's Boston, and Lawrence Block's New York. Much like Detroit, Baltimore doesn't get by on looks. It has to work for a living, to paraphrase Elmore Leonard.

Since this was the first book in the series, Lippman had some groundwork to lay and she did it in a fairly painless way. We know Tess is into rowing, has an on again/off again reporter boyfriend named Jonathan and used to be a reporter but we don't get clubbed over the head with any of it. I liked that Tess isn't hot, wasn't involved in a love triangle, and generally behaved like a real person instead of being a moron like most fictional detectives wind up being in order to advance the plot. Also, she works in a bookstore. A lady detective that works in a bookstore? Hard to top that, ladies.

Like all great mysteries, it took me forever to figure out what really happened and it turned out I was still wrong. Part of it was misdirection but I have to say I think another part of it was that it was such a convoluted affair. That was my only gripe with the book. I thought the mystery was way too serpentine and not readily solveable. Also, I'm still pretty sure Ava was boning somebody besides Rock but that was never revealed.

So, I liked Baltimore Blues quite a lot but not enough to take it into a bus station men's room and have rough intercourse with it. I'll be reading more of Laura Lippman's chronicles of Tess Monaghan. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, September 29, 2014

A Lover Man Finds Himself in Serious Trouble

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Artie Deemer has a life that many would envy. He spends the bulk of his time sitting in his New York apartment, smoking dope and listening to classic jazz. He can afford to do so because he’s supported in luxurious style by his dog, Jellyroll, the spokesdog for R-r-ruff Dog Food and a famous star of movies and television. Artie occasionally has to take Jellyroll to a studio and put him through his paces, but it’s hardly the most demanding job in the world.

Until a year ago, Artie was madly in love with a beautiful woman named Billie Burke, an artist/photographer. He’s still a bit madly in love with Billie, but to no avail since she ditched him for another lover (or two or three). Artie is stunned when the cops interrupt one of his relaxing afternoons to tell him that Billie has been found, bound and drowned in her bathtub. The cops suggest that Artie might be a suspect in the killing and then, to make matters worse, Artie discovers that he’s overlooked a message that Billie left on his answering machine just before she was killed. In the message, she begs him to come see her at her studio and tells him that she has something for him there.

Artie decides that he has to find whatever it is she might have left for him. This means, of course, that he will have to slip into the crime scene and search it, in violation of all sorts of laws. He tracks down his lawyer, who’s hard at work losing money in a pool hall and who advises Artie not to do it. Happily, Artie ignores this sound advice; if he didn’t there would be no book, and that would be a shame because it turns out to be a pretty good one.

Artie is a very engaging protagonist and naturally, once he sneaks into the studio and discovers what Billie left him, he puts himself in the crosshairs of the NYPD and the FBI, as well as an assorted group of mobsters, con men and aging World War II fighter pilots. (The book was first published in 1987, when these flyboys would have been in their late sixties.) Artie struggles to stay one step ahead of them all as he attempts to unravel the complex mystery that led to the death of his ex-lover. He doesn’t always succeed, which means that his life expectancy may not be all that great.

This is a very entertaining book, laced with a wry humor and populated by a quirky cast of characters. It’s now available in new trade paperback and e-book editions, and readers who seek it out are sure to enjoy it.

Good Lord! Sweet Jesus!

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval VillageGood Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village by Laura Amy Schlitz
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The seventeen short skits of varying quality herein were created for school children...well specifically for one of those private schools with "The" before its name. You know, the ritzy titzy kind were it's a-okay if little Johnny skips his other classes for the rest of the day because he refuses to leave off the catapult-esque contraption he's working on for Ms. Schlitz's project on the Middle Ages. And when he fires rocks at the girls and breaks a window he is not suspended or even given the slightest reprimand. Yes, the kind of school I wished I'd gone to... (sad Jay face)

Because the skits were created to be performed by students, the characters telling their tales are generally - though not entirely - young. There's plenty of sons and daughters of tradesmen, craftsmen, farmers, minor lords, and beggars, or barring that, they tend to be apprentices. The knowledge imparted, such as crop rotation, is the sparest summary of the basic sort of stuff you'd learn in an introductory history course for the time period. I have no complaints about this and only mention it so you're aware that Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was created for the pre-highschool age. For instance, one skit does touch - and in a quite touching way - on the hardships of motherhood amongst the poorer classes but without delving into the graphic details of childbirth.

And now here are the complaints...

So apparently Medieval folk were very poetic. Even peasants were writing rhyming verse? Some of these lowly, uneducated folk can really string together some clever lines! Ridiculous. Another issue is that Schlitz (every time I write that I swear I can smell godawful stale beer) cheats. In order to make a point or relay information, she occasionally puts words into the mouths of people who'd never say them. It's especially noticeable in the upper class characters who essentially call themselves thieves, saying that they know they are cheating the peasants, when it's very likely they thought nothing of the kind, but rather that they were doing their duty as befit their rank. Taxation, for instance, was their right. Without that money how could they govern? It was the way of things and so why would they think any other way?

Aside from such complaints and my tepid 3 star rating, this is good for what it is. If you have a dozen or more kids you need to put on a play for or have a junior-high aged child you're home-schooling, this just might be what you're looking for.

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M is for More of the Same

M Is for MagicM Is for Magic by Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

M is for the many things I always hope to get out of reading a Neil Gaiman book. Then the usual happens...

Some of these stories - "Sunbird", "October in the Chair", and "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" - appear in his excellent short story collection Fragile Things, and apparently others also appear elsewhere, mostly Smoke and Mirrors. Add to that, "The Witch's Headstone" is the precursor to The Graveyard Book. So, M is for Magic is really just a repackaging of old material.

That's been a running theme in my Gaiman reading experience. He relies on source material too much. His stories are magical, even fantastical, but his ideas are old and used. Fairytales and mythology make up the subject matter of a good deal of the Gaiman canon. Much of it is straight up taken from preexisting sources with a modern day sensibility and scant, if any, new invention slapped on it in order to call it his own. It's genius! Fantasy is the IT genre these days and the people like their entertainment to come with some familiarity, thus the man has hit upon a winning formula. Few writers can claim the kind of unbridled popular success Neil Gaiman has achieved, so it could be argued that few if any could do better work within the realms of writing he inhabits.

But I digress. Back to M is for Magic!

Whereas Fragile Things had decidedly adult content, this one gets no more racy than the suggestion of teens having "a time good" at a house party in "How to Talk to Girls at Parties". The rest is mostly stuff such as a crime noir version of nursery rhymes, a troll-under-the-bridge story, foodies in search of the ultimate meal, and a take on the quest for the Holy Grail in which an ordinary housewife finds the Grail at a thrift store and won't give it up to Sir Galahad because it looks nice on her mantel. (I could totally see one of the Pythons in drag playing the woman.)

I'm not sure exactly what the appropriate reading age would be for these stories - I'm a childless middle-aged man, what the hell do I know? - they're not for tiny tots, but they could probably be read by nearly all other age levels, even old farts, and enjoyed in some way, shape or form.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

Jeff Vandermeer  
Reviewed by Carol
Recommended for fans of jeanette winterson, environmental exploration, the New Weird
 ★    ★    ★    ★    1/2
The effect of this cannot be understood without being there. The beauty of it cannot be understood, either, and when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you.

So is it with Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer. Summaries do not do this book justice. Its story colonized me. It was not an invasion; it did not attack my brain, insistent that I continue reading. I was not forced by fear to discover if the hero lives. My limbic system did not spike me with adrenaline until I finished. Instead, slowly, phrase by phrase, the story moved into my head. Area X edged into my imagination. The biologist’s words whispered to me. Leafy tendrils unfurled around me, gently scenting the air with greenness.

The basic plot: a biologist, a psychologist, a surveyor and an anthropologist are the twelfth team sent to explore the mysterious, primitive, Area X. Other expeditions have all gone drastically wrong, but due to an inability of technology to function in Area X, no one knows exactly how or why. In order to maintain control over the trip and the experience, the team is stripped of their personal identity, leaving only their roles to define themselves. 

The biologist narrates their experience in Area X, providing a touchpoint for the reader’s conception of the world Vandermeer is working in. I found the combination of the uncertainty of the background world, the mystery of Area X and the beauty and specificity of the writing irresistible. 

I thought again of the silhouette of the lighthouse, as I had seen it during the late afternoon of our first day at base camp. We assumed that the structure in question was a lighthouse because the map showed a lighthouse at that location and because everyone immediately recognized what a lighthouse should look like. In fact, the surveyor and anthropologist had both expressed a kind of relief when they had seen the lighthouse. Its appearance on both the map and in reality reassured them, anchored them. Being familiar with its function further reassured them.

In fact, it functioned as a lighthouse for them, adrift in Area X and from each other. The biologist is a solitary woman, and her self-containment makes a profound statement. Of course, they all are particularly isolated–there is a strange lack of emotional connection between them–but the biologist’s fascination with the creation around her sets her apart.

The tension lifted somewhat, and we even joked a little bit at dinner. ‘I wish I knew what you were thinking,’ the anthropologist confessed to me, and I replied, ‘No, you don’t,’ which was met with a laughter that surprised me. I didn’t want their voices in my head, their ideas of me, nor their own stories or problems. Why would they want mine?

I finally realized the deep sense of familiarity I had reading: Jeanette Winterson’s profound, substantive writing style (Lighthousekeeping) collaborating with David Quammen’s enthusiasm for biology (I really need to bump him up on the to-re-read list). Together Vandermeer has created a sophisticated blend of science fiction, vaguely ominous, reminiscent of Sherri Tepper mid-career. Identity, connection and environment are all major themes threading through Annihilation,  themes that are often shared with the writers mentioned.

For some, the pitch-perfect writing won’t be enough to sustain them through slow plot build and even slower resolution. Like The Night Circus (review), this isn’t a plot-driven story as much as one based on both character and ideas, with writing that is truly well-crafted. It worked for me, yet I’m also left with the feeling that I might just want/need to read it again after finishing the final book, Acceptance. It’s that kind of story.

Cross posted at my blog:  http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/annihilation-by-jeff-vandermeer/

Friday, September 26, 2014

Beauty Queens

Libba Bray
Scholastic Paperbacks
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


From bestselling, Printz Award-winning author Libba Bray, a desert island classic.

Survival. Of the fittest.

The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream Pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner.  What's a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program - or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan - or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?

Welcome to the heart of non-exfoliated darkness. Your tour guide? None other than Libba Bray, the hilarious, sensational, Printz Award-winning author of A Great and Terrible Beauty and Going Bovine. The result is a novel that will make you laugh, make you think, and make you never see beauty the same way again.

My Review

I was on the fence about this book. A story about teen beauty pageant contestants stranded on a desert island just doesn’t do anything for me. After reading Stephanie’s review, I decided to try the audio version. At first, I thought it was ridiculous, irritating and just plain stupid. It wasn’t long before I was laughing and snorting in public places.

In the beginning, it was a little difficult to get to know the characters. The story is told from different perspectives and it was hard for me to get all the girls straight. Some of them had unique qualities and “secrets” that made them stand out, while others were a little flat and unmemorable.

I loved the Miss Teen Dream Fun Facts Page, the wacky footnotes that explained products and status symbols, famous personalities, and TV shows, like “Bridal Death Match, the popular TV show about brides who cage fight each other in order to win the wedding of their dreams.”

This story is a satire about the superficiality of consumer culture, politics, and mega-corporations that control everything we watch, read, and buy. It deals with racism, disability, and sexuality. There is adventure, mystery, and a dollop of romance. There are important messages here about survival, friendship, beauty, acceptance, independence, and what it means to be a woman.

Hilarious, empowering, honest, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


The MiniaturistThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


as the stars of heaven for multitude….

How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance,

and your burden, and your strife?”

Deuteronomy 1:10-12

 photo PetronellaOortman_zps8077d70d.jpg
The Miniature Petronella Oortman

Petronella Oortman is barely eighteen years old in 1686 when she marries a rich merchant named Johannes Brandt and moves to his house in Amsterdam. It is unnerving to move so far away from her relatives and all the people she has known her entire life, but it is also exciting to finally escape the boredom of the country and the oppressive slow slide into poverty that her family has been experiencing before, and progressively faster, after her father drank himself to death.

 photo b9cadd33-1a41-4802-af4a-6f058db6fb73_zpsf9b60251.png
The Miniature Peebo!

She has a parakeet named Peebo and very little else to her name when she arrives in Amsterdam. Her husband, a man she barely knows, is not there to greet her, but his sister is.

Madame Marin.

The Mrs. Danvers of Amsterdam.

In theory the household belongs to Nella, but everything is so different from her former life that she ends up doing what little she is allowed to do wrong, and every time she tries to have a conversation with one of her fellow inhabitants she seems to end up inserting one dainty foot between her lips. This isn’t due to the fact that she is spiteful or sarcastic or silly or stupid, but has to do with the plethora of secrets that infest the entire household. They are the unknowable things that make her feel exactly what she is...an outsider.

Cornelia knows.

Well she thinks she knows.

She is the household maid. She is the keyhole listener, a snatcher of pieces of conversations. She looks through keyholes sometimes seeing an arm or a leg, but never seeing the body complete. She fills in the blanks, sometimes correctly, but sometimes not, and those of us who have studied language know how critical getting one word wrong or right can be in having a proper understanding of a situation.

There is Otto as well, a man who wears his foreign heritage in the color of his skin. He is a walking circus, an inspirer of twittering conversations behind hands or for those more bold catcalls of a derogatory nature everywhere he goes. Johannes saved him from dire circumstances, so despite having to live in a hostile city his loyalty to the Brandts keeps him in Amsterdam.

 photo MadameMarin_zpsf220cc1d.jpg
The painting that inspired the author when she describes Madame Marin.

Madame Marin has never married, despite being beautiful and wealthy. She inherited this household at a young age after their parents died and saw no need to exchange it for possibly a less desirable position as a wife. As the plot unfolds we learn more about Marin and the first impressions we have of her turn out to be but a few flakes in a wind blown snowstorm. She turns out to be much more complex and more humanistic than her cold demeanor and her simmering fury will allow the world to see.

”There’s something about Madame Marin. She’s a knot we all want to untie.”

Nella has been in Amsterdam for eleven days and her husband has not visited her wedding bed. For a girl that was expecting to be “made woman” this is confusing and embarrassing. He is always busy, rushing about down to the wharf to conduct business or locked up in his study, when at home, late into the night.

”Nella inhales the air in the boat, the hint of the places he’s been, the scent of cinnamon stuck in his very pores. he smells vaguely of the musky tang she smelled in his study the night he first came home. Her husband’s brown face and his too-long hair, bleached and toughened by sun and wind, trigger an awkward longing--the desire not necessarily for him, but to know how it will feel when they finally lie together.”

He travels the world in an age where most people may never leave the city they were born in or explore further than a few miles from home. Amsterdam is a city of merchants. Greed is the worm that everyone has swallowed. Brandt has turned out to have a gift for negotiation and for swaying men with his charm and wit. He has made many men rich. He is tired of the life and finds he would rather have fluffy, roasted potatoes than a pile of glittering gilders.

”Greed is not a prerequisite for being good at business, Nella, I crave very little for myself. Just potatoes?” He smiles. “Just potatoes. And you are right, I am not a philosopher, I am merely a man who happens to have sailed to Surinam.”

“You said the sugar was delicious.”

Sugar becomes the watchword of this book. The world has a craving for it and Brandt has accepted a commission to sell bricks of it for some frenemies. The sugar, unfortunately, proves to be a “millstone” around his neck.

 photo Dollhouse_zps1a32e4cf.jpg
A dollhouse owned by a real Petronella Oortman currently in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Johannes buys his bride a cabinet, a miniature dollhouse of “her” house. It is expensive and certainly he doesn’t send the right message to his young bride who is still too closely tied to dolls and toys. His intent was generous and Nell becomes caught up in the spirit of the gift and contacts:

Residing at the sign of the sun, on Kalveerstraat
Originally from Bergen
Trained with the great Bruges clockmaker, Lucas Windelbreke

 photo MiniatureHouse_zps7e2e3621.jpg
Miniature Houses became all the rage in the 17th century. People spent ridiculous sums making their miniature houses as sumptuous as possible. Brandt had an exact duplicate of his house made for Nella, well except for one missing room, but you will have to read the book to figure out why.

Nellal orders items to make her house even more her own. The miniaturist as it turns out has some ideas of what she needs as well. She starts sending her unsolicited packages with cryptic notes and presentiments of what will be.

It all becomes rather alarming.

She writes the miniaturist receiving no replies. She stops at her shop. She sees her on the street, a splash of yellow hair, but can never catch her. She is a phantom whose intentions are hard to fathom. This Miniaturist can see into people’s souls. As spooky as it all seems these packages become Nell’s lifeline to understanding the truth.

Those secrets that everyone hoards like gold, start to be spent.

There is an English lad named Jack Philips, a fly in any ointment, an actor, a bohemian, a blackguard, a destroyer of worlds. ”Jack steps into the light at the sound of her, opening his arms wide. He is really so beautiful, Nella thinks. So wild. She cannot take her eyes off him.” He has a puzzling hold on Johannes, another of those secrets that will soon be out in the air. Nella’s own attraction to him is unsettling, but really he is just a good looking sprite of a man that can temporarily stir the hormones of anyone.

 photo JessieBurton_zps059d646e.jpg
When I saw this photo of the author I was not surprised to learn that she had worked as an actress.

As Nella’s world begins to unravel just as she starts to understand it, we will see the resolve of the entire cast of characters tested, one by one, as the wheel of fate continues to turn. Jessie Burton, for such a young writer, kept a steady hand on the tiller and unspooled the plot judiciously to lend maximum impact to the final chapters. She showed wisdom beyond her years, exposing the misconceptions that we all have about each other, even sometimes those people we feel we know well. Nella learns how intolerance leads to cynicism and how dark secrets can become cancers.

No more secrets...but we all have secrets, layers of them, some are spun gold and others are a lead weight lending joy or anxiety in equal measures. Some add spice inspiring giggles and smiles when remembered. Others are sour like vinegar pulling down the corners of our mouths, stealing the bliss from any new found pleasures.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Mars Returns to Neptune

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham 
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I'm a marshmallow. I admit it. 

Which means I am a Veronica Mars fan. Which means that not only have I watched all three seasons of the TV show (ahem, multiple times), I was also one of the 91,585 backers on Kickstarter who helped get the Veronica Mars movie made.

In short, I am the perfect audience for this book. If you liked the TV show and/or the movie, you will probably enjoy this novel, which is a new mystery (this is NOT a novelization of the movie or any of the episodes). The writing is true to the characters, and while I read I could even hear them speaking the lines. Kristen Bell's narration was so good that her thoughts and dialogue are especially vivid.

About the story, it's set shortly after the events of the movie take place. (If you have not yet watched the Veronica Mars movie, there are some spoilers in the book for how that case is solved.) It's Spring Break in Neptune, California, and a young woman goes missing. Veronica is hired as a private detective to try and find her, and while she's working that case, BOOM, another girl goes missing.

The plot twists are good, and as usual, Veronica gets herself into a few dangerous situations, but she's able to use her smarts (and the occasional weapon) to get out of a jam. The story pacing was good, and I raced through the book in just two sittings. I was even satisfied with the resolution of the cases. 

The story allows for interactions with almost the full cast of the show, including appearances by Wallace, Mac, Cliff, Weevil, and a few other surprises. Sadly, there isn't much with Veronica's boyfriend, Logan, because he's on military deployment for several months, but I read that Rob Thomas says the next book in the series will have more Logan in it. (Insert fangirl SQUEEEE here.)

I'm not going to try and convince non-Veronica fans to read this (if you want to be converted, I would recommend you start watching season 1 of the TV show), but if you are already a fellow marshmallow, you should check out the book. 

Now sing it with me: "A long time ago, we used to be friends..."

The Name of the Game is Death

The Name of the Game Is Death (Drake, #1)The Name of the Game Is Death by Dan J. Marlowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a bank robbery goes pear-shaped and he is wounded, Roy Martin (aka Chet Arnold) and his partner split up, with the plan being Roy will receive payments in the mail. When the money dries up under suspicious circumstances, Roy goes on a road trip to investigate. Will Arnold get his money?

The Name of the Game is Death is a hardboiled gem that's been on my radar for a long time. Why didn't I take it from the mountainous unread pile before now?

It reads like one of Richard Stark's Parker books told in the first person. The man known as Roy Martin, Chet Arnold, and later, Earl Drake, is a slightly less mechanical version of Parker, a man that doesn't kill indiscriminately but does what it takes to get the job done. In this case, the job is finding out why the bank job money stopped being sent. The main character is pretty brutal, especially by the standards of the time this was written. Women and men alike fall beneath his guns.

Marlowe's prose is economical and punchy, again, similar to Richard Stark's. The plot has some wrinkles in it but it's pretty much a detective yarn with a criminal doing the detecting. This isn't literary fiction and doesn't try to be. It's full of bullets, booze, blood, and broads, everything a pulp detective story needs. It also has great lines like "It was as cold as a whore's heart."

Fun Easter Egg - The name of the bar Chet Arnold frequents is The Dixie Pig, the same name as the bar in The Dark Tower. I know Stephen King was into detective yarns at some point so it's a pretty safe bet he read this one.

The Name of the Game is Death is a pretty slim book but it's as long as it needs to be. Maybe the advent of e-books will user in a new golden age of detective novels that are 200 pages are less. They don't make them like this Fawcet Gold Medal classic anymore. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

Matthew Scudder Takes a Walk Among the Tombstones

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

For the last thirty years or so, I've been reading Lawrence Block's Matthew Scudder series which, for me at least, is hands down the best P.I. series that anyone's ever done. I mean no disrespect to authors like Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, both of whom I admire greatly. But their body of work is relatively small by comparison. Block, on the other hand, created a fantastic character right out of the box, put him in a great, gritty setting, surrounded him with an excellent supporting cast, and then only continued to get better and better, book after book.

I normally read one about every four months or so, working my way back through the series in order. But I'd only just worked my way back to the beginning of the series when, suddenly, the release of the movie based on A Walk Among the Tombstones was imminent. I've been reading at a much quicker pace over the last couple of months so that I'd be caught up by Friday when the movie opens at a theater near me, as they say.

I confess that I have serious reservations about the whole idea of making a movie from this series. I've studiously avoided seeing the film adaptation of Eight Million Ways to Die, in which Jeff Bridges played Scudder and in which the plot was transferred to L.A., which as any fan of the series could tell you is beyond sacrilegious to the power of about ten. After spending so much time with these books, I have my own very fixed ideas about all the characters, Scudder in particular, and about the setting. And I don't want any movie, no matter how brilliant the people involved, screwing them up.

That said, I'm probably going to see the movie adaptation of this one, assuming that the early reviews are good. I like Liam Neeson, and he's probably about as close to my idea of Scudder physically as any actor could be. Plus, the movie is set in New York and, from what I've read is faithful to the setting. Finally, of course, Mr. Block himself seems genuinely enthused about the film and I trust that he wouldn't lead me down a wrong path. But still...

As this book opens, a drug dealer's wife is kidnapped, brutally raped and tortured, then killed and returned to the drug dealer in pieces. The drug dealer is actually a fairly nice guy as drug dealers go, which is to say that he's way up high in the food chain and is not personally peddling crack to small school children. The dealer's brother knows Matt Scudder from AA, and Matt agrees to investigate the case and try to determine who the guilty parties might be.

Scudder doggedly pursues the case, as he usually does, doing research and interviewing people who might be able to shed light on the situation. He discovers that the drug dealer's wife was not the first victim of these killers and doubtless won't be the last. But will he be able to close the net around them before they claim another victim? And what will happen if he does?

The tension mounts throughout the story, leading to a great climax. But, as always, the character development is key to these stories. The street kid, TJ, who first appeared in the last book, A Ticket to the Boneyard plays a larger role here, as does Matt's main squeeze, Elaine Mardell. Fans of the series know that Elaine is a high-end prostitute that Matt first met back in the days when he was still on the job as a cop. But the relationship has reached something of a critical juncture, and the tension involved in that subplot is almost as great as that in the main plot.

As ever, it's a great ride; I can only hope that the movie comes even close to doing it justice. Wish me luck...

Dostoyevsky, You So Crazy!

Notes from UndergroundNotes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Madness...This is madness, I tell you!

Or worse, it's philosophy, some sound, some twisted in counterintuitive logic.

In the first part of Notes for Underground the narration reads like the journal of a rambling genius or psychopath. It's difficult to decide. This section had my mind wandering in a whirl of amazement, boredom and confusion. If the entire book went on this way, as slim as it is, I doubt I would've finished it, or if I had, you'd not see a four star rating up there.

The second part of Notes... takes a standard, first person storytelling approach and felt more in the style of Crime and Punishment, only perhaps more personal. Perhaps too personal for my tastes, because I had the misfortune of hating the narrator. He is a coward, a coward who yearns to be courageous, but in all the wrong ways. He wishes to strike down those that have wronged him, but after listening to his self-absorption, imagined slights, and impossibly high and complicated morals, I myself wished to strike him down with a solid backhand, one I hope would wake him up to his own idiocy. Likely it would only get me added to his hate list.

Did you notice what happened there? I felt the urge to hit a fictional character. Well played, Dostoevsky, well played. That is the writer's genius, to craft a character I felt was real enough to touch. I don't know what he looks like other than being a small man, but I know the man's inner self, and that is knowing more about a man than anything I could glean from the outside. Ah, if only all characters were created equally well...

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Not About a Killer Mailman? What?!

The Postman Always Rings TwiceThe Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don't you love it when something you've heard about for ages turns out to be really good, but in a delightfully different way than expected? ...What do you mean, "no"? Go to hell!

I've been laboring under the misapprehension that this was a play about a killer mail carrier. Maybe that's because I grew up in a time when the phrase "going postal" was coined. (In a sidebar: Isn't it great how the English language is still evolving to incorporate new words and phrases?!) My mother had just recently joined the ranks of those crazy bastards and as the years progressed her bouts with pms turned our house into the Rumble in the Jungle once a month, so I readily expected her to go fully postal. Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. It turns out the title is just allegorical!

The Postman Always Rings Twice is a taut noir about a drifter who thinks he's the sharpest knife in the draw. He snatches up a job in one of those highwayside nothings that you can still find out there in the California desert near the Arizona border. The drifter latches on to the wife of the goodly Greek gas station/diner owner. The wife hasn't realized her western dreams. The drifter is always looking for some easy scratch. A plot is hatched and nothing goes as you think it will.

That's the beauty of this aging novel: the surprises it still holds after all these years. After all the pulp crime dramas churned out for decade upon decade now, The Postman Always Ring Twice can still ring yer bell, toots.

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Friday, September 19, 2014

After Ever After

Jordan Sonnenblick
Scholastic Press
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


An amazing sequel to the groundbreaking debut, DRUMS, GIRLS & DANGEROUS PIE.

Jeffrey isn't a little boy with cancer anymore. He's a teen who's in remission, but life still feels fragile. The aftereffects of treatment have left Jeffrey with an inability to be a great student or to walk without limping. His parents still worry about him. His older brother, Steven, lost it and took off to Africa to be in a drumming circle and "find himself." Jeffrey has a little soul searching to do, too, which begins with his escalating anger at Steven, an old friend who is keeping something secret, and a girl who is way out of his league but who thinks he's cute.

My Review

In Drums, Girls & Dangerous Pie, Jeffrey Alper was a child recovering from cancer. Now he is in eighth grade and while the cancer is now behind him, the chemotherapy treatments left him with a limp and caused some problems with thinking and memory, making it difficult to keep up with his classmates.

Jeffrey’s older brother, Steven, who was a major source of support for Jeffrey needs to “find himself” and is off banging drums in Africa. While Jeffrey’s parents continue to worry about him, he has the typical issues an eighth-grade boy must deal with, like a best friend hatching a secret plot, the new girl from California who’s totally hot, and the standardized state-wide exams every student must pass in order to enter high school.

I was hoping to find an audio version of this book, since I so enjoyed Joel Johnstone’s narration of the first story, but had to settle for the book, which I devoured in one day. Again, some of the situations were predictable, but I laughed and cried, and loved every moment with Jeffrey, his family, and his friends.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014


Authority (Southern Reach Trilogy, #2)Authority by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”In the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth.”

 photo AreaX_zps424bf064.jpg

John A.K.A. Control has been made director of The Southern Reach Facility. The last director finagled her way onto the last expedition into Area X and has never been seen or heard from again. The assistant director doesn’t only dislike him, but is working actively to undermine him. I’ve been in a similar circumstances before with a job. It is time consuming winning everybody over so that the work environment can settle into a new normal.

As it turns out Control doesn’t have months to convince anyone of anything.

There is something wrong with the building...it smells like rotting honey.

Some of “the twelfth” expedition which were all women have returned, remembering next to nothing, scattered thoughts. Soon he is focused on The Biologist, the main character from Annihilation, whose answers are not...quite...right. There is blue sky in the amnesia that makes Control suspicious that she remembers more than she is letting on.

”They were beginning to exist in some transitional space between interrogation and conversation, something for which he could not quite find a name.”

She is bemused by him.

He discovers notes by the original director about The Biologist that he hopes will offer some clarification, but they only create more questions.

”Not a very good biologist. In a traditional sense. Empathic more toward environments than people. Forgets the reasons she went, who is paying her salary. But becomes embedded to an extraordinary extent. Would know Area X better than I do from almost the first moment sets foot there. Experience with similar settings. Self-sufficient. Unburdened. Connection through her husband. What would she be in Area X? A signal? A flare? Or invisible? Exploit.

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Control has been resurrected from what should have been a career ending disastrous string of decisions on his last assigning. The type of judgment calls that haunts your career for the rest of your life. His mother, Severance, currently works for Central in some nebulous position deemed Classified. His grandfather also used to work for Central as well and filled Control’s head with all kinds of platitudes.

”So long as you don’t tell people you don’t know something, they’ll probably think you know it.”

Gramps didn’t pass along anything original, but as his situation becomes more and more tenuous Control finds his grandfather’s voice in his head very reassuring.

”Is your house in order?” the Voice asked. “Is it in order?”

That voice is not grandfather, but his contact at Central. The entity that is supposed to be running interference for him at Central and buy him time to work his way through this puzzle. But why does he always feel so damn funny after talking to him?

Then there is the plant in his desk drawer; the plant that won’t die. It is obviously from Area X. Somebody gave it a dead mouse to eat.

 photo 8f39617e-e0aa-4082-995c-6fbbe777d8e8_zpse92bde9c.png
Rabbits will do what rabbits do best, but what will Rabbits do best in Area X?

And then there is Whitby talking about the terror, the terroir. The French word meaning the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place possess and how it is interacting with plant genetics.


Why don’t we agitate it? Make it do something.

Will it bring him ”closer to the truth about Area X, and even if the truth was a fucking maw, a fanged maw that stank like a cave full of putrefying corpses, that was still closer than he was now.”

Control is opening that door that defies the first rule of every horror film…DON’T OPEN THE DOOR.

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Control would have been so much more focused if he’d had Dana Scully licking his face.

This was such a surprise after reading book one. I was expecting to be up to my armpits in malicious people eating foliage, attempting to keep my brain from going completely Gonzo, and hopefully finding answers to some lingering questions about Area X. Jeff Vandermeer switches gears on us and puts us in the middle of an X-File with a Fox Mulder without the steadying influence of a Dana Scully. The suspense builds beautifully with many moments of...that was odd...until finally it reaches a crescendo with Control on the run not only from Area X, but also from the people at Central. And now I MUST read Acceptance.

ANNIHILATION review Book one of the Southern Reach Trilogy

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

An American in England

Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book combines several of my favorite things: travelogues, England, and the charm of Bill Bryson.

It is the book version of comfort food.

So you can understand why I instinctively reached for this audiobook on the the first day of my new job. I wanted something comforting. And humorous. And British.

I was instantly gratified. Bryson begins his book about touring England by describing how intensely Brits will argue about distance and driving routes:

"If you mention in the pub that you intend to drive from, say, Surrey to Cornwall, a distance that most Americans would happily go to get a taco, your companions will puff their cheeks, look knowingly at each other, and blow out air as if to say, 'Well, now, that's a bit of a tall order,' and then they'll launch into a lively and protracted discussion of whether it's better to take the A30 to Stockbridge and then the A303 to Ilchester, or the A361 to Glastonbury via Shepton Mallet. Within minutes the conversation will plunge off into a level of detail that leaves you, as a foreigner, swiveling your head in quiet wonderment ... Give two or more men in a pub the names of any two places in Britain and they can happily fill hours. Wherever it is you want to go, the consensus is generally that it's just about possible as long as you scrupulously avoid Okehampton, the North Circular in London, and the Severn Bridge westbound between the hours of 3 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. on Monday, except bank holidays when you shouldn't go anywhere at all."

The whole book was immensely enjoyable. The plan was for Bryson to take a last tour of England before he and his family moved to America for a few years. (Bryson is from the States, but his wife is British.) He was going to travel mostly by public transportation, because his wife wouldn't let him have the car. (HA!) There did not seem to be a logic to his journey -- instead he went hither and thither as he desired, sometimes jumping on a bus or train if it happened to arrive while he was standing there. A few times he broke down and rented a car or took a cab, but he always gave a good reason.

As someone who has not visited England in more than 15 years (and what a sad realization it was to do the math), I could only relate to a few stops on his journey. But I still loved his meanderings and his musings. And I will continue to find more Bill Bryson audiobooks because they are just so delightful.

Some favorite quotes:

"I can never understand why Londoners fail to see that they live in the most wonderful city in the world. It is, if you ask me, far more beautiful and interesting than Paris and more lively than anywhere but New York -- and even New York can't touch it in lots of important ways. It has more history, finer parks, a livelier and more varied press, better theaters, more numerous orchestras and museums, leafier squares, safer streets, and more courteous inhabitants than any other large city in the world."

"I spent two days driving through the Cotswolds and didn't like it at all -- not because the Cotswolds were unlovely but because the car was. You are so sealed off from the world in a moving vehicle, and the pace is all wrong. I had grown used to moving about at walking speed or at least British Rail speed, which is often of course much the same thing."

"I have a small, tattered clipping that I sometimes carry with me and pull out for purposes of private amusement. It's a weather forecast from the Western Daily Mail and it says, in toto, 'Outlook: Dry and warm, but cooler and with some rain.' There you have in a single pithy sentence the English weather captured to perfection: dry but rainy with some warm/cool spells. The Western Daily Mail could run that forecast every day -- for all I know, it may -- and scarcely ever be wrong."

And They Called Her Spider

And They Called Her Spider (Bartleby and James Adventures - Galvanic Century - Book 1)And They Called Her Spider by Michael Coorlim
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An assassin called The Spider strikes her targets at will and it's up to consulting detectives Wainwright and Bartleby to stop her. Can the scientist and the fop stop her before she ruins Queen Victoria's platinum jubilee?

This was a kindle freebie. How could I resist a Holmeseque mystery featuring an assassin dressed as a Jester?

And They Called Her Spider is a short steampunk mystery set in an alternate London with all the usual steampunk trappings. However, unlike a lot of steampunk that uses goggles and boilers as set dressing, the steampunk elements are actually important to the tale! How refreshing!

Wainwright, the reclusive inventor, and Bartleby, his social butterfly partner, aren't Holmes and Watson but the y make a good team. The Spider was a capable threat and the way they discovered her origins was very Holmesian. It was an enjoyable little morsel.

The only issues I have with this book is that it was too short. I wanted more of everything! More Wainwright and Bartleby! More Spider! And more of the world they all inhabit! This was just some cheese fries when what I was really wanting was a mountainous brisket sandwich! 3.5 out of 5 stars. I'll be on the lookout for more of Michael Coorlim's tales of the Galvanic Century.

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You Are Sloth!

You Are Sloth!You Are Sloth! by Steve Lowe
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You click on a spam email and wake up a sloth after an all night bender. When people start acting strangely, you team up with Randy the Retard and Cross the Asshole, your friends/neighbors, and start getting to the bottom of things. Can you save the city?

You are Sloth! is a tale of spammers, brainwashing, and drunken debauchery, told in the second person point of view by you, the hapless apartment dweller transformed into a sloth. It's kind of like Kafka's the Metamorphosis, only instead of being transformed into insectoid vermin, you're transformed into a sloth, and instead of being an exploration of the alienation and isolation, it's a collection of dick jokes. Okay, so it's not very much like The Metamorphosis but it is pretty entertaining.

Steve Lowe delivers the chuckles in this slim book. While the situations are funny, dialogue is Steve Lowe's forte. Sloth, Randy, and Cross all have great dialogue that sounds like it's out of a Judd Apatow movie. The spammer's broken English is really authentic if you've every opened one of their ineptly crafted missives.

So yeah, I enjoyed it but I didn't enjoy the shit out it. It wore a little thin after a while and the ending went a little long. Other than that, it was a fun read. How many books have you read that have the phrase "death by bukkake" in them? 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

An Entertaining Romp from Tom Kakonis

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

In the late 1980s and early '90s, Tom Kakonis established himself as a writer who created very good plots but who was especially gifted at populating each of his books with a cast of eccentric, interesting characters and then setting them into motion with sometimes truly inspired results. Now twenty years later, he returns with Treasure Coast, a book which clearly demonstrates that he hasn't lost a step in his time away.

The book is set on Florida's Treasure Coast, basically the Palm Beach area along the Atlantic. It opens as Jim Merriman, a compulsive gambler whose luck has turned so bad that he's now barely eking out a living as a bookstore clerk, travels cross country to visit his sister who is near death. Jim and his sister have not been particularly close for years, but as she expires she makes him promise to watch after her son, Leon.

Leon is twenty-one but appears to be much younger. His mother has left him $25,000, and so Merriman figures that the kid should be in pretty good shape, at least until Leon reluctantly confesses that he owes $45,000 to a loan shark. The debt is long overdue and even as Leon outlines his problem, two particularly nasty enforcers are on their way to collect. It was Uncle Jim who taught the kid how to gamble in the first place and that, along with the promise he made to Leon's mom, persuades Jim that he can't abandon his nephew in this time of crisis.

On the brighter side, while sneaking a cigarette outside the medical center, Jim encounters the very beautiful and sexy Billie Swett. Like Jim, Billie hails from the Dakotas and has had an "interesting" past, culminating in a job where she gave manicures at a place called Get Nailed. There she fortunately met a client named Lonnie Swett. Lonnie is an older, gross, pig of a man, but he's also enormously wealthy and when he offers make Billie the fifth Mrs. Swett, she readily agrees to swap her nail files for a huge diamond wedding set. Jim and Billie are clearly attracted to each other, though, and probably no good will come of that.

Kakonis adds to the cast a "preacher" with a mail order degree who, with a young female assistant, is selling mail order tombstones and helping bereaved and gullible rubes send and receive messages to and from their loved ones in the Great Beyond. Kakonis then turns all of these people loose in pursuit of their various objectives, most of which involve a quick score of one sort or another. As all of their paths intersect, the plot becomes increasingly roiled but Kakonis has a great deal of fun with these characters, and so does the reader.

The characters are all very well defined, and, with perhaps one exception, each is sympathetic in his or her own way. The story is very engaging and often hilariously funny. As another Michigan writer, Kakonis has often been favorably compared to Elmore Leonard and, on the strength of his earlier series featuring Timothy Waverly, I thought it was a very fair comparison. With Treasure Coast, Kakonis demonstrates that he clearly deserves to be considered in the same league as Leonard, certainly in the quality of his output if not in the quantity. Set in Florida, Treasure Coast also evokes comparisons to Carl Hiaasen, and fans of either author are sure to enjoy this book very much.

Collected Genius

Collected FictionsCollected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading Jorge Luis Borges's Collected Fictions is like being thrown into the ring with a merciless prize fighter, getting the shit kicked out of you, and loving every minute of it.

These pieces felt more like punches than short stories. Borges jabs to your head, jarring your brain with damning conversations with his future self, invented libraries of the Universe and stories that make you feel like a lost kid on your way to Algebra class but accidentally ending up in Trigonometry. Then he switches his stance and digs at your body with primal blows. Petty gangsters, simplistic machismo, knife fights, all with such savage bravado that you can taste the cheap liquor and cheaper blood.

I said at the top, "loving every minute of it" and perhaps that needs to be tempered. There were times, in certain stories, where my head spun and I wanted to drop to the canvas and not get up. It seemed to be all too much. But I knew if I stayed on my feet and in the ring for the whole 12 rounds I would be rewarded richly. I was. Get in the ring and you will be too.

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A Less Than Heavenly Hemingway

The Garden of EdenThe Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Hemingway knows how to draw up a batshit crazy lady...but to be honest, I'm not even sure this is a genuine Ernest Hemingway novel. It might be a forgery. But we'll get to that later.

The Garden of Eden puts a newlywed couple's relationship under the microscope. David and Catherine are honeymooning in the Mediterranean. David is a writer. Catherine is a crazy bitch. David needs a security, time to write and support in his pursuits. Catherine needs occupation. She has too much time on her hands to allow her off-kilter mind to wander where it will, and it wanders down strange, dark and spiteful paths.

The Eden aspect comes in when Catherine can't leave well-enough alone. (David even nicknames her "Devil" least the metaphor should go over your head.) Everything was fine, yet she had to tamper with the creation of man and woman, what that means, who holds what role and then reversing it.

Hemingway has been criticized for his use of repetitious dialogue, but here it works well to create an aura of crazy. Catherine repeats her insane pleas, her cloying begging, her bizarre demands, and it drives you nuts. So, well done! Hemingway has also been criticized for, well, just being boring. He writes about people doing virtually nothing. As they say, write what you know, and after a while Hemingway did nothing but write, lounge about, eat and drink. So that's what he writes about and honestly, I don't need to know what kind of drink you had, because buddy, you drink inconsequentially ALL the time.

The posthumously released The Garden of Eden reads like a repeat. He worked on it about 20 years later, but it feels so very much like The Sun Also Rises that one wonders why Hemingway would write the same novel over again and try to pass it off as something new. Well, maybe he'd run out of ideas.

Where it diverges is in the sheer nakedness with which Hemingway approaches the transgender subject. Sure, he created manly women in the past, but this is flat out ambiguous and explicit sexuality. I find it strange that he should delve into the topic considering he all but abandoned his son Gregory after he came out to him as a transgender person. The idea apparently seemed abhorrent to Ernest, so why would he write an entire novel about it? Well, maybe he'd run out of ideas. Yes, running out of ideas has become a theme here. I think it's a fair criticism. I mean, if nothing else, you know you've been at it too long if you find that yourself as a writer writing a novel about a writer writing a novel.

Gregory had aspirations to be a writer, after a fashion. In the '70s he wrote a generally well-received biography on his dad. Then this book mysteriously appeared in the '80s. Perhaps the Hemingway family estate was running a bit low on funds and thought, hey, why not refill the coffers with a "new" Hemingway novel. Fans would go gaga over a newly unearthed book by Papa.

I'm jumping to conclusions like taking a leap off a cliff, but stranger things have happened. I don't doubt that there was an unfinished Hemingway manuscript laying about (apparently there was more than one), but there are so many things about this one that lead me to believe that in the very least it was tampered with to a great degree. Here are a few of those things:

The aforementioned deep look into a subject Hemingway seemed to be repulsed by.

At one point the character talks about writing "in dad's style." It's like Gregory giving the reader a cheeky wink-wink. And, whoever the writer is, he does it more than once.

Copying Papa's style is not impossible. In fact, reviewers making fun of Hemingway do it all the time here on Goodreads.

The story David is writing deals heavily with "daddy" issues, which - from what I've read - Gregory suffered severely from.

The big game hunter in David's story is Hemingway and the hunter's son sounds just like Gregory.

He says "fuck hunting". Hemingway would never say fuck hunting! :)

Of course all this could be Hemingway just writing about his relationship with his son, so I don't put a great deal of stock into it. Remember, this is just a loose theory.

Regardless of whether this is Ernest Hemingway's book or not, the fact is, this book is not a good read. There are some good points: the character study of a young author and that of a nutter going off the deep end. But this could've been summed up in half the time. This is not a long book, but it's too long for the very little that happens. Boredom set in for this reader at about the midway point.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds. Not terminal at all.

Alastair Reynolds
Gollancz 2009

Reviewed by carol
4/5 stars

Terminal World is my first Alastair Reynolds, a science-fiction writer known for galaxy-spanning space operas, and has a plot and tone pretty much the opposite of space opera:

Meroka, meet Doctor Quillon,’ Fray said. ‘He is, as you correctly surmised, the new package. I’ve just been telling him you you’re going to do such an excellent job of getting him out of Spearpoint.’
‘Hope you told him it isn’t going to be no joyride… Looking at three hard days to get you out, if all goes to plan, which mostly it won’t. Three days of dirt and worry and less sleep than you’ve ever had in your life. Then we have to find the people Fray’s lined up to take you to Fortune’s Landing, and hope they haven’t changed their minds.’
‘You can throw in danger as well,’ Fray said. ‘Cutter’s ticked off some angels. They’ve got deep penetration agents in Neon Heights, and they’ll be aiming to stop him from leaving town.’” 

The story begins with a perspective bait and switch as we follow two employees of a morgue wagon waiting for their 9 to 5 to be over. En route home, they are diverted to pick up a body on a nearby ledge. Surprisingly, it is not just an ordinary body–it is the body of an angel, an advanced human from a more elevated and technologically superior zone. There’s a certain morgue coroner who pays a little extra for unusual specimens, so the two attendants deliver the body to Dr. Quillon. It turns out the angel is just barely alive, having made the one-way journey to warn Quillon the angels are coming for him. Quillon heads to his friend and underworld contact, Fray, a former policeman. Fray’s been expecting trouble ever since Quillon revealed who he is and strongly encourages Quillon to leave the city quickly.  Fray provides an escort, Meroka, to lead Quillon out of Spearpoint. She’s a fierce fighter with a tendency to shoot second, cuss first, and has a chip on her shoulder when it comes to anything angelic. The two leap from frying pan to fire as they try to escape Spearpoint. The only possible refuge is the Swarm, the only other large colony of people on the planet. Before they reach Swarm, they’ll have to cross a wasteland, avoiding roving bands of Skullboys and the carnivorous cyborgs, the Vorg. And from there, it gets stranger.

The setting for Terminal World is a fascinating concept. It takes the idea of microecosystems as applied to mountains and does something quite similar with technology. In ecosystems, a different biome corresponds with shifts in elevation, small ecosystems adapted to changes in atmosphere and precipitation. Lower levels in the Sierra Nevadas, you might see mixed grasslands and woodlands, mid-levels are varieties of pine forests, and at the highest alpine elevations, there will be no trees at all.  

So it is with Spearpoint, a needle-like tower extending into the upper atmosphere of the planet–only instead of environmental zones, there are technological zones.  The highest up, the closer you are to ‘angels,’ flight, and nanotechnology. Next level down, electricity and computers. Further down, the industrial age. Go further, and you descend into Horsetown, where mechanical items barely function. To complicate travel, as life crosses ‘zones,’ it is subject to ‘zone sickness’ (the world’s version of altitude sickness), particularly if the shift from one zone to the next has a steep technology curve. I was impressed with the world-building and thought zones were an extremely creative idea. While they aren’t well explained at first, the journey and careful reading elaborates on many details–except how they originated. The ending has some explanation, but I rather thought there were more fantastical overtones than science ones.

Characterization was my sticking point, the reason I was able to set it down for a week or two and pursue shinier books. It was hard to find emotional resonance with any of the characters. Given the length of the book, I didn’t have the feeling that I knew very much about the major players, even by the end. Although the narrative is largely from Quillon’s head, I found him the least interesting. Inconsistent in ideals and action, he acted more as a mouthpiece for philosophical/moral issues than a person with his own drive. Although his concerns often served to move the plot forward, I did a flashback to the old days of literary fiction and sci-fi when the story was a treatise about human nature as much as plotting. I appreciated two of the female characters, and found they interested me more than Quillon. Meroka, Quillon’s guide out of Spearpoint, is the loner guide, cynical and practical. Curtana is an airship captain, almost loyal to a fault and devoted to her ship. I enjoyed their characters and their determination. I was less enamored of a mother-daughter duo who were essentially defined in terms of their relationship.

Plot is sweeping in scope. While it initially has a feel of detective noir, a dark and dangerous night, it quickly segues into a fugitive chase, ricocheting from hazard to hazard. When Quillon and Meroka meet the airship-borne Swarm city, the prior defenders of the Spearpoint, the story shifts again. It becomes more about city politics, ethics, exploration and a potential rescue mission. The result is an amazing variety of ideas and events crammed into one book; while I found each discrete segment told well, it doesn’t quite gestalt at the end.

The ending was the really most disappointing aspect of the story. Not because there was one (I really only have so much endurance for extreme length), but because it went into a slightly mystical scenario that turned out to have little resolution. 

Overall, there’s a little bit of kitchen sink to this story that makes it a bit indescribable. It has the length and detail of Way of Kings, the action of The Iron Jackal, but without the brisk dialogue and personal characterization to propel it into five-star territory. Certainly entertaining, but as always, your mileage may vary.

cross posted at my blog at:  http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2014/08/30/terminal-world-by-alastair-reynolds/

The Liar Society

The Liar Society
by Lisa Roecker

Reviewed by Sesana
Two out of five stars

Publisher summary:

Kate Lowry didn't think dead best friends could send e-mails. But when she gets an e-mail from Grace, she’s not so sure.

To: KateLowry@pemberlybrown.edu
Sent: Sun 9/14 11:59 PM
From: GraceLee@pemberlybrown.edu
Subject: (no subject)

I'm here…
sort of.
Find Cameron.
He knows.
I shouldn't be writing.
Don't tell.
They'll hurt you.

Now Kate has no choice but to prove once and for all that Grace’s death was more than just a tragic accident. But secrets haunt the halls of her elite private school. Secrets people will do anything to protect. Even if it means getting rid of the girl trying to solve a murder...

My Review:

I liked the idea of a mystery set at an exclusive prep school. And it starts off strong, with an email from a dead friend. But it kind of stagnates after that.

The biggest stumbling block is our protagonist, Kate. Despite narrating the entire book, she never really emerges as more than a sketch of a character. Neither does anyone else, really. Worse, most of her girl detective stuff comes from being directed to specific places at specific times by the mysterious person emailing her from her dead friend's account. Which, incidentally, she never really considers might be anyone but, something I had a really hard time swallowing from a character of her age. It should have been her theory all along.

Like I said, the other characters are flat and interesting as cardboard. I only kept reading to find out what happened in the end. And I was disappointed. There's a lack of resolution that's really unsatisfying. The basic idea isn't bad, but it needed more interesting characters, a protagonist who doesn't need quite so much nudging, and a more satisfying ending.