Friday, October 31, 2014


Douglas Clegg
Vanguard Press
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


New York Times bestselling author Douglas Clegg brings us Isis, a beautifully illustrated, unforgettable novella that is sure to become a classic tale of the supernatural.

If you lost someone you loved, what would you pay to bring them back from the dead?

Old Marsh, the gardener at Belerion Hall, warned the Villiers girl about the old ruins along the sea-cliffs. “Never go in, miss. Never say a prayer at its door. If you are angry, do not seek revenge by the Laughing Maiden stone or at the threshold of the Tombs. There be those who listen for oaths and vows….What may be said in innocence becomes flesh and blood in such places.”

She was born Iris Catherine Villiers. She became Isis.

From childhood until her sixteenth year, Iris Villiers wandered the stone-hedged gardens and the steep cliffs along the coast of Cornwall near her ancestral home. Surrounded by the stern judgments of her grandfather—the Gray Minister—and the taunts of her cruel governess, Iris finds solace in her beloved older brother who has always protected her. But when a tragic accident occurs from the ledge of an open window, Iris discovers that she possesses the ability to speak to the dead...

Be careful what you wish for…it just may find you.

My Review

At only 113 pages, this short story packs a lot of emotion into its pages. Iris Catherine Villiers is a lonely girl with an absent father and a depressed mother, and three older brothers, one of whom she is very close to. Very loosely based on the myth of Isis and Osiris, this is a sad and chilling story that explores love, loss and grief. After a fatal accident involving her favorite brother, Iris discovers that she possesses a special ability to speak to the dead.

The Cornwall setting, with its magnificent cliffs and rocky shoreline, the dysfunctional family complete with a mad grandfather and a cruel governess, and the beautiful illustrations, all make this a superbly haunting little tale that is perfect for Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On the BeachOn the Beach by Nevil Shute
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“It's not the end of the world at all," he said. "It's only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan't be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

 photo 923a08d5-7ac4-40e1-8533-0a8ec35137b8_zpsa1ff16d3.gif
An Instructional Manual from 1951 on what to do in the event of an A-Bomb attack.

On the Beach was published in 1957, but the novel is set in what was then the near future of 1963. Those years between 1957-1963 proved to be tumultuous years indeed. When I checked this book out of the library, the librarian, the same one who gave me such good material for my In Cold Blood review, said that this book terrified her, not because of the horrifying circumstances in the book, but the plodding calmness of the characters.

I was intrigued.

I wanted to ask what it was like to have read this book in 1957, but that is a rather delicate question to a woman of an indeterminate age. Luckily she bailed me out and told me she read the book much later, but still while we were up to our eyeballs in the Cold War. My Father has always said he has never been more afraid of the World Ending than in 1962 during the Cuban Missile Crisis. My bellwether librarian agreed that she remembered how difficult it was for everyone to go about their regular business with the oppressive presence of the eminent demise of civilization looming over their lives. (I paraphrase.)

I still can’t quite peg her age. I could dig around a bit and probably discover her birth date, but then that wouldn’t be very sporting of me now would it?

So it is the end of the world.

 photo TSEliot_zps43ad739b.jpg
John Riordan comic strip.

”In the last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river…

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.

S. Eliot

 photo atomicbomb_zps879109b3.jpg, Nevil Shute has the world ending with Albania attacking Italy. Egypt then bombed the United States and the United Kingdom. NATO bombed the Soviet Union because the planes used by the Egyptians were Soviet made. The Soviets bomb China because of Chinese attacks on their border. All of this nuclear infused with cobalt to insure the maximum amount of radiation fallout. So those countries that were not involved in World War III, are fully involved in the dying part of the war.

 photo cobalt_zps1c8ee25c.jpg

I glanced through some other reviews of this book. The people who didn’t like this book were looking for the standard apocalyptic novel with desperate people fleeing in front of the radiation (zombies, tidal wave, Ebola etc) hoping to live days longer or maybe even hoping for a reprieve. They wanted people clinging to every last drop of their remaining existence. I would guess that the book would have been more fulfilling for them if a pocket of those people had found a way to survive thus leaving them with some hope that they too could be among the survivors.

This isn’t that kind of book. I’m sure there were people fleeing South, but Shute focuses on the people who stay in Melbourne. The people who are measuring their lifespan in days and minutes as word arrives of radiation sickness three hundred miles away, one hundred miles away.

Dwight Towers, commander of probably the last remaining operational American submarine, has attached his vessel to the Australian Navy. He has a wife and kids in the United States. He is a practical man who knows logically they are dead, but he continues to think about them and talk about them as if they are alive. He meets Moira Davidson who drinks brandy around the clock, loses her top while swimming (see how fun she is!), and is coming to terms with the fact that she is never going to get married or do any of the things she hasn’t even thought of yet.

 photo onthebeach_zpsa4b1bcbb.jpg
1959 movie poster

John Osborne is a scientist who has been attached as a liaison officer to the USS Scorpion. Shute was an aeronautical engineer by trade. His love for machines comes out in the Osborne character. John finds a Ferrari and buys it for pennies on the dollars, even for that price it seems like an act of pure lunacy, but he has always wanted to race cars and has a stash of fuel that will make that dream come true. He organizes the final Australian Grand Prix and so many drivers come out of the woodwork that they have to organize heats to determine the drivers for the final race.

Peter Holmes is a lieutenant commander in the Australian Navy, receiving promotions so quickly due to resignations that he will soon be an admiral. He has a wife, Mary, and a daughter. He cuts down trees and expands the flower and vegetable garden. It gives Mary something to do, something to think about other than winds of death. Moria is discussing the strangeness of planting a garden with Dwight.

“Someone’s crazy,” she said quietly. “Is it me or them?”
“Why do you say that?”
“They won’t be here in six months’ time. I won’t be here. You won’t be here. They wont’ want any vegetables next year.”

 photo RadiationComic_zps66e613e3.jpg

There are old men at the Gentlemen’s Club slowly depleting the last 100 bottles of port. There are debates about whether it is ethical to move the fishing season up. There are people still going to school trying to finish course work. The people who stay are trying to be as productive with their lives as if a normal life span was still stretching out before them. ”Typically for a Shute novel, the characters avoid expressing intense emotions and do not mope or indulge in self-pity. Some reviewers thought the characters were wooden. I found the calmness of the people populating this novel more terrifying than if they had been fleeing for their lives. There was a part of me that wanted to go shake some sense into them and extort them to help me come up with a plan, but as I started to accept the circumstances I realized that the only sane course was the course they were already on.

Do you want to die in a tent surrounded by people you don’t know, going hungry more than likely; and yet, as doomed as if you’d stayed in your home surrounded by your friends and family? Do you want to take the chance that you will survive the apocalypse? I say put on a pot of tea, keep the bourbon close to hand, and finally finish War and Peace. Maybe there is even time for a quick nap in the hammock with the sun on my toes and bees buzzing by my ear.

A fascinating, historical look back to when the threat of nuclear war hung like a shadow around the sun.

***4.25 out of 5 stars***

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Curse of the Spellmans

Curse of the Spellmans (The Spellmans, #2)Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Why has Izzy Spellman been arrested four times in one month? Why is her mother leaving the house at all hours of the night to vandalize a stranger's motor bike? What is her father up to? Who is the mysterious neighbor John Brown? And who is recreating the string of vandalism Izzy is alleged to have perpetrated during her youth? All these questions and more will be answered in Curse of the Spellmans!

When you enjoy the hell out of the first book in a series, the second book is a risky proposition, like bungee jumping, hitchhiking, or eating at White Castle with a gallon of beer already sloshing around in your innards. Fortunately, my apprehension was unfounded. Curse of the Spellmans is a worth second book.

Much like the last book, Curse of the Spellmans is a hilarious tale of a dysfunctional family and the gross invasions of privacy they perpetrate on one another in the name of love. There's also a number of mysteries but the Spellmans and their supporting cast drive the tale.

Told in a manner similar to the first book, Curse of the Spellman's isn't a linear tale. It starts near the middle, backtracks to the beginning, and then eventually makes it to the end.

Detective Henry Stone is a prominent part of the cast since Rae latched on to him in the first book. He's also my third favorite character, right after Izzy and Rae. I already had a high opinion of him but the Doctor Who marathon clinched it, even though he prefers the ninth Doctor to the tenth.

Izzy, despite her legion of flaws, is quickly winning me over. Raised in a family of investigators, she doesn't really know how to do anything else and conducts her personal life like one of her P.I. assignments.

I think Lisa Lutz's greatness comes from being able to juggle funny moments with more serious ones and still make the book work without it becoming ridiculous. A good humorous mystery is hard to come by, in my opinion, but Lutz has consistently delivered the goods so far.

I really have no gripes about this book. There's the minor quibble about there being less of a sense of discovery but it's the second book in the series. Unless the Spellmans were going to adopt a cute kid to bring new life into the series, there wasn't a lot more to unveil.

Four out of five stars. I'll be reading the rest of this series at some point.

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Monday, October 27, 2014

John D. MacDonald Ecplores Life in the Neon Jungle

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is an early stand-alone from John D. MacDonald, a writer best known for his series featuring Travis McGee. MacDonald was a prolific writer, but he was also very widely read and often incorporated social and economic themes into his books as he does here.

The book, which was first published in 1953, is set in a declining industrial city somewhere in the Midwest. At the center of the story is the family that runs the Varaki Quality Market. The patriarch, Gus Varaki, once ruled the family and the business with a strong but benevolent hand, bringing into the business and the family outsiders who had fallen on hard times and who needed a helping hand. In particular, Gus has a close relationship with Paul Darmond, the local parole officer, and Gus has offered jobs and a home to two parolees that Darmond has recommended.

But the family has fallen on hard times, emotionally if not financially. Gus's wife dies and that places a huge emotional strain on him. He later marries again, this time to a much younger woman, and his spirits are briefly revived. But then his middle child, Henry, is killed in the Korean war, and the loss saps Gus of his energy and attention.

In consequence, both the family and the business begin to drift. Gus's other son, Walter, is deeply dissatisfied with his wife and with his life in general and takes advantage of his father's distraction. Gus's only other child, a daughter named Teena, falls in with the wrong crowd and soon has serious problems of her own.

Now joining the family is another troubled young woman named Bonnie, whom Henry had married in California before leaving for Korea. Bonnie sees how things are dissolving around the family, but the question is can she do anything to stem the tide of trouble. More important, does she even care enough to want to?

MacDonald teases out of all of these relationships a compelling story that touches on themes that were particularly relevant in the early 1950s, like juvenile delinquency, drug abuse, social and economic decay, and the place of family in the larger society. The criminal activities that occur in the book are of somewhat lesser importance than these larger issues, and at the heart of the novel is its central question: Are some people simply born bad and beyond redemption, or can people who might once have made a mistake truly change, reform their lives and become productive members of society?

The Neon Jungle is a fascinating and entertaining read and it is one of a number of MacDonald's novels that have now been republished in great new trade paperback editions by Random House. This is very welcome news for long-time fans of MacDonald's who will now be able to fill out their collections, and it's also an opportunity for people unacquainted with MacDonald's work to be introduced to one of the masters of crime fiction in the second half of the Twentieth century.

Surviving WWII

Ship of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her SurvivorsShip of Ghosts: The Story of the USS Houston, FDR's Legendary Lost Cruiser, and the Epic Saga of Her Survivors by James D. Hornfischer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reads like Band of Brothers. Sounds like "the horror...the horror."

All the pieces are here: the finely crafted storytelling with intentionally-though-seamlessly placed details all fitting together and falling into place so that you hardly notice the author's hand, as you should not. You should be focused on the story, and that's not difficult as this is a terrible, true tale of war and human perseverance through some of the harshest treatment man has ever doled out to man.

Reading Ship of Ghosts you get the sense that James D. Hornfischer spent an appropriately long, careful time putting this together. From its entrance into World War II, its naval battles, its surviving crew members turned prisoners of war and their interminable struggle for survival at the hands of their inhumane captors, every facet of the USS Houston's story receives its due.

Is this book perfect? I don't know, but I couldn't think of any reason not to give it 5 stars, so I did.

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Between a Rock and a Hard Place Diplomacy

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Want to know what it would be like to try to talk Satan out of being such a dick? Consider reading In the Garden of Beasts!

Erudite but ineffectual historian, Dr. William E. Dodd was chosen to be Ambassador to Germany in the decade leading up to WWII, because President Roosevelt couldn't find anyone else willing to take on the job. In 1933 Dodd was tasked with handling relations with a rabid and deranged political phoenix named Adolf Hitler. Perhaps you've heard of him?


Dodd has brought along his family. This was going to be a nice little holiday, wherein he could finish a book he'd been working on and his family could enjoy the Germany he remembered from his school days. But that was a long time ago and German had changed. Dodd and his family's idea of Germans must necessarily change as well.

Martha! Martha! Martha!

This is just as much a story of political intrigue as it is an innocence lost/coming of age tale.

Martha Dodd, the ambassador's fetching daughter is a socialite of the first order. Men seem to throw themselves at her (even her own father, in a way). Much of the book follows her numerous trysts with many a notable figure of the day, writer Carl Sandberg for one and even Hitler himself entertained the idea of making a match.

Larson and other biographers can thank her and her father's proclivity for writing letters and journals as the reason for the wealth of insight into the lives of these somewhat innocuous people. I say "somewhat" in reference to the Dodd's ambassadorial ineptitude, while giving a nod to Martha's post WWII involvement in the cold war spy game. Now I feel I must make reparations for my use of "ineptitude," for I doubt very much that any ambassador sent over to deal with Hitler's steamroller regime at the time could've done anything to change the course of seemingly inevitable history.

Erik Larson is making a name for himself in the modern era's take on dramatic non-fiction. This subject being so recent, he doesn't have to rely so heavily on supposed conversations or probable scenarios to reconstruct hypothetical scenes. Not only does he have firsthand accounts from the Dodds themselves, but there are also preserved documents, news stories, even eyewitness accounts. What Larson does with this wealth of information is not outstandingly spectacular, but it is an admirable piece of work and an interesting viewpoint from which to approach the coming of World War II.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

How Beautiful the Ordinary: Twelve Stories of Identity

Michael Cart, Editor
Harper Teen
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


A girl thought to be a boy steals her sister's skirt, while a boy thought to be a girl refuses to wear a cornflower blue dress. One boy's love of a soldier leads to the death of a stranger. The present takes a bittersweet journey into the past when a man revisits the summer school where he had "an accidental romance." And a forgotten mother writes a poignant letter to the teenage daughter she hasn't seen for fourteen years.

Poised between the past and the future are the stories of now. In nontraditional narratives, short stories, and brief graphics, tales of anticipation and regret, eagerness and confusion present distinctively modern views of love, sexuality, and gender identification. Together, they reflect the vibrant possibilities available for young people learning to love others—and themselves—in today's multifaceted and quickly changing world.

My Review

I couldn’t pass up this anthology, especially after learning that Margo Lanagan is one of the contributors. I was also thrilled to see other well-known writers I haven’t discovered yet, like Francesca Lia Block, Emma Donoghue, and Julie Anne Peters.

This collection of stories focuses on teen GLT experiences from a variety of perspectives. These are well-crafted stories, filled with conflict, growth and change. Because I enjoyed the majority of these stories so well, I will forgive the omission of bisexual experiences.

My favorites in this collection:

A Word From the Nearly Distant Past by David Levithan

This short story was the basis for Levithan’s later novel, Two Boys Kissing. This was gorgeous, both in its short form and its longer form. It examines the lives of a disparate group of teenagers and is told from the perspective of the men who lost their lives to AIDS.

My Virtual World by Francesca Lia Block

This is a beautifully written, honest story about a friendship that develops online between two troubled teenagers. They talk about art, pain, sexuality, gender identity, and gradually grow to trust and love one another.

Dear Lang by Emma Donoghue

This is a letter written to 16-year-old Lang by her estranged mother. Even though Lang doesn’t remember she once had two mothers, her mom’s pain and loss is still apparent. I cried so hard and called my mom after I was done reading.

The Missing Person by Jennifer Finney Boylan

14-year-old Jimmy knows he’s a girl before he knows the wordtransgendered. One summer he dons his sister’s skirt, applies some lipstick and goes the local horse show as Jenny. I loved the vivid descriptions that allowed me to get immersed in the festivities while seeing Jenny’s unique personality emerge.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


The Terror of LivingThe Terror of Living by Urban Waite
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Do you ever just think of just doing a criminal thing sometime? Just doing something terrible. Change everything.
Richard Ford, Rock Springs, from the story “Winterkill”

Deputy Bobby Drake was up in the mountains of Washington State for purposes of relaxation, at least that is what he told everyone. When millions of dollars of cocaine start floating down out of the sky. The relaxation becomes one cop against desperate men who never want to see the inside of Monroe prison again.

Hunt is one of those men. He’s been inside. He’s done his stupid thing and paid the price in time. ”Hunt had grown up over the years, but the idea of being a continuous failure had stuck with him. He was sure of himself in all the wrong situations. A good man, made up of all the bad things in the world.” He has a beautiful wife and a small business boarding horses, but he can’t make enough money to meet his mortgage needs. He has to mule drugs out of the hills for his friend Eddie. Pretty safe occupation most of the time except when you run into a Deputy Sheriff doing some camping in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Hunt could become a wage slave, but he just can’t do it. He’s given up enough time in a cage and can’t stand the thought of doing mindless work for just enough money to keep scraping by. He needs the big score, something that will cushion him from poverty and allow him the freedom to exist the way he wants to exist.

He just got unlucky.

Drake, has his own baggage to haul. His father was the sheriff and is currently serving time for doing something similar to what Hunt was trying to do. The Sheriff was tired of being broke. When Drake calls in the results of this unexpected drug bust, because of his father’s record, he is a suspect before he is a hero.

Meanwhile powerful, impatient people are very unhappy.

The same group are using Vietnamese women to smuggle heroin into the country. Their intestines are full of thousands of dollars of pellets. Two women worth no more than a plugged nickel to these people are suddenly worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000. It is Grady’s job to collect them and extract the heroin.

Grady has a penchant for knives. He calls himself a chef, but he is really a butcher.

”In one motion, Grady pushed the blade up into the skin beneath the chin, up through the soft palate, and into the brain. There was a slight tremor on the attendant’s face as Grady twisted the handle of the knife and scrambled the man’s brains. The attendant’s warm blood came dripping down off the knife into Grady’s gloved hand and the sleeve of his sweatshirt.”

Grady is one of those people with scrambled circuitry in his brain, or maybe he actually has streamlined circuits that allow him to embrace impulse and not have a flicker of remorse for any of the results. Whenever he entered a chapter every sense of self-preservation I have was instantly activated. I felt uneasiness for even the most casual interactions that he had with people. He is sent after Hunt, but when Hunt proves elusive he decides that Hunt’s wife Nora will bring Hunt to him.

”He hoped Hunt loved his wife. He was counting on it, and he knew people did stupid things for love. They did stupid things all too often. And he thought this was probably how they had all come into this mess. How it had all begun for them. Stupid.”

Everyone is looking for Hunt and everyone is looking for Grady. Hunt and Grady are looking for each other. Drake finds himself in the middle trying to save Hunt as best he can and at the same time redeem himself for the sins of his father.

Urban Waite has written a literary level mystery that hopefully has crossed over between genres. Mystery readers should definitely read this neo-noir novel if they are fans of hardboiled Chandleresque novels, but there are also elements of Jim Thompson lurking in the prose to add some Pulp Fiction spice. Waite fills a niche recently vacated by the great Elmore Leonard. He was a writer deemed worthwhile to read for those looking for an entertainment between heavier texts of established classics or history.

The book is plot driven, but there are certainly a plethora of reflective moments when the characters are wrestling with issues of past mistakes and trying to ponder their way into a better future that gives the book substance beyond just a snappy plot.

In the acknowledgements Urban Waite listed the books and writers that influenced his need to be a writer. Poachers by Tom Franklin, Spartina by John Casey, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy, and The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene. I really appreciate it when writers do this, especially when they list more than just the authors, but the actually titles of the books as well. The result, I went to my library and pulled a copy of Dog Soldiers off my shelf to read next. A book that has been there for decades.

4.25 out of 5 Stars

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014


MandiblesMandibles by Jeff Strand
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Unusually huge fire ants terrorize Tampa, Florida. Will anyone survive this plague?

Mandibles is a creature feature by Jeff Strand about large fire ants overrunning Tampa. That's pretty much it. It follows the lives of office works, people in a dentist office, a couple stickup men, and an entomologist during the rampage of the ants.

It might be that I've come to expect home runs at every at-bat from Jeff Strand but this one didn't make me want to sit outside his house and "pretend" to run into him so we could eventually be best friends like a lot of his other books.

I love the premise but the characters didn't really do it for me this time. In my opinion, for a story like this, there needs to be a couple strong central characters to build the story around. Since this one had a death rate per page equivalent to a George R.R. Martin book, there was no one to root for for every long. It seemed like the characters I cared about the least were the ones to make it to the end. Also, I thought the ending was kind of weak and the source of the ants didn't make that much logical sense.

Still, it was a fun read for the most part. People getting stung and eaten by fire ants of unusual size was pretty entertaining and they made a believably frightening enemy. Unstoppable fire ants the size of squirrels (and larger)? No thank you, sir.

Three stars and Strand had to work hard for every one in this outing. I guess I can't be mad at him for not being perfect, though.

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Designers & Dragons: The '70s

Designers & Dragons: The '70s (Designers & Dragons, #1)Designers & Dragons: The '70s by Shannon Appelcline
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Designers & Dragons: The '70s chronicles the history of role playing game companies whose genesis was in the hallowed decade of the 1970s.

Reading about role playing games isn't as exciting as playing them but I still found this to be an interesting look into the history of the hobby. While I knew quite a bit about TSR, Gary Gygax, and the father of all subsequent RPGs, Dungeons and Dragons, a lot of it was new to me.

Appelcline briefly touches on D&Ds wargaming roots and then proceeds to take the reader to school, covering companies that made their own D&D compatible products, like the Judge's Guild and Fantasy Games Unlimited, to competitors to Dungeons and Dragons and its parent company, TSR, like GDW and their Traveler game, Chaosium, Avalon Hill, and many others.

You have to have a certain level of nerdiness to really appreciate this book. What could have been a dull journey to Nerdville was made interesting by Appelcine's engaging writing style, interspersed with quotes from the people involved.

I don't have many gripes about the game. Companies I never heard of got a lot of pages and I feel like I now possess even more role playing game knowledge that I'll never need. I thought the title was a little misleading since it purports to be about RPGs during the 1970s but it's actually about companies who started during the '70s up either the present day or they went tits up.

I don't think I'd recommend it to gaming novices but people who remember spending sexless evenings covered in nerd-sweat and Cheetoh crumbs will get a kick out of it. Three out of five stars.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five Stars

I was a big fan of Benjamin Whitmer's Pike, and I like his new book even better. It's a tough, gritty examination of the relationship between fathers and sons: violent, profane, and beautifully written.

The characters are all compelling, principal among them Patterson Wells. Wells leads a tough existence by any standard, working as a member of a crew that goes in and cleans out fallen trees in the wake of hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters. It's a brutal job, consisting of long hours in the company of other rough men, hard on the body and even harder on the soul.

As if life hadn't handed him a plate that was full enough to begin with, Wells is devastated by the death of his young son. He blames himself for not spending enough time with the boy and writes him long letters as a way of coping with the loss and attempting to make up for the time they should have spent together while they could. Wells is estranged from his wife who insists that they have to try to move on in the wake of the tragedy. Wells is simply incapable of doing so.

In the off season, Wells retreats to a small cabin out in a remote area of Colorado. There he drinks heavily and broods on what his life has become. While there, he develops a relationship with a guy named Junior, the son of Wells' nearest neighbor. Junior and his father have issues of their own, and Junior supports himself by running drugs. Wells and Junior are a potent combination and as they team up, all hell breaks loose.

To say any more would be to reveal too much. Suffice it to say that this is an excellent book that should appeal to large number of readers who like their stories on the (very) dark side. Benjamin Whitmer is definitely an author to watch for.

A Superb Sleuth Story!

The Maltese FalconThe Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You got nothin' on this book, see?! Yeah! That's right, skedaddle and quick-like!

Private detective Sam Spade smells trouble when this crazy dame walks into his office, and sure enough, his life is soon turned topsy turvy. Spade gets all tangled up in a fishy double murder. The coppers are on him, he's on to the dame and people keep popping outta the woodwork goin' on and on about this g. d. bird! If things keep up like this somebody's gonna get themselves killed dead.

Since its publication, the Spade character has become the ideal from which all other hired sleuths to follow would be molded. He's cool and calculating. He's no angel. No, he's in it for himself, yet only gets what he deserves (often a sock on the jaw) and somehow still comes out smelling like roses. This fantastically tight-wound story is a joy to read, made even more so by a hero who defines the word character.

Hammett's like an Italian tailor who's cut and sewn one of the finest suits you could imagine. It's sleek. It's stylish. You feel like a million bucks in it and you want it to last forever. Hell, with craftsmanship like that, it just might!

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Dashiell Gets His Drink On

The Thin ManThe Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Thin Man is best read with a drink in hand. Do you have a drink? Do you need a refresher? Would you like another? Above all else, it is important that you be drinking!


My god, a lot of alcohol is consumed in this book! It reads as if Ernest Hemingway had taken up crime noir.

Nick Charles, private detective, has hung up his hat. Nora, his wife, kinda wishes he hadn't. She likes wrapping her head around a good mystery. Well, a good one comes along in the form of murder for money, and Charles' old friends are all wrapped up in it.

The plot unfolds essentially in three places: at the Charles', at their friends', and at a speakeasy...each place being as well stocked with liquor as the next. Other than drinking, they don't do much of anything. And they don't really go anywhere, unless it's someplace to drink. They hang around and tie one on while they try to figure out whodunnit.

The writing is solid, the plot feels sound, the characters are a little dramatic (don't get me started on the women...these dames is batty!), but once all that's in motion, the book as a whole feels static. Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon pretty much invented this genre, so perhaps I should lay off. But I'm not always one to treat revered things precious-like...just the stuff that's precious to me.

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Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory

Daryl Gregory
2008 Del Rey

Reviewed by Carol

★    ★    ★    ★    ★ 

Pandemonium reminds me of those times when my foodie friends are dragging me to a “fabulous new restaurant” where (mostly) familiar ingredients are deconstructed, spiced and recombined in a creative way. At least this time, instead of an unsettling mess, it resulted in one of those perfect, satisfying meals that fulfill a sensory need as much as a physical one. Not so unusual that I’m left with a disturbing aftertaste, and not so routine that it is immediately forgettable. To wit:

Salvatore’s award-winning pizza with wine-poached fig, bacon and gorgonzola. Unusual but delicious take on pizza. 

Pandemonium is a lot like that. Somewhat familiar elements drawn from comic books, buddy flicks and mythology are blended together in a plot that moves quickly but respects each ingredient. Add in some complex characterization, dashes of dark humor and develop it with truly fine writing, and I’m served a book that satisfying on both intellectual and emotional levels.

The simple summary: Del is returning to his mother’s home with a dual purpose: confess a recent car accident and psychiatric hospitalization, and to meet a famous demonology researcher at a national conference. Demons are real, although their manifestations usually pass quickly, while the behavior follows certain archetypes: The Painter, the Little Angel, Truth: “The news tracked them by name, like hurricanes. Most people went their whole lives without seeing one in person. I’ve seen five–six, counting today’s.” When Del was young, he was possessed by the Hellion, a wild boy entity, and Del has recently developed suspicions that the Hellion never left him. The story follows Del as he attempts to understand and perhaps free the entity inside him.

The plot moved nicely with enough balance between introspection and action to keep me interested. What I loved the most, however, was the writing. There’s the vivid imagery:

A small white-haired women glared up at me, mouth agape. She was seventy, seventy-five years old, a small bony face on a striated, skinny neck: bright eyes, sharp nose, and skin intricately webbed from too much sun or wind or cigarettes. She looked like one of those orphaned baby condors that has to be fed by puppets”

the humor:

The question, then, was how long could a human being stay awake? Keith Richards could party for three days straight, but I wasn’t sure if he counted as a human being

and sheer cleverness (because I’ve been this lost driving in Canada):

For the past few hours we’d been twisting and bobbing along two-lane back roads, rollercoastering through pitch-black forests. And now we were lost. Or rather, the world was lost. The GPS told us exactly where we were but had no idea where anything else was.
Permanent Global Position: You Are Here.”

and the occasional snarky social commentary:

What did it matter? I imagined bearded guys all over academia working themselves into a lather over this, precisely because the stakes were so low.

For those who might want a sense of the flavor, I was reminded of American Gods, of George R.R. Martin’s Wild Card world (my review) blended with Mythago Wood (my review), but done much, much better. While I had problems maintaining interest in each of the aforementioned, I had no such challenge with Pandemonium. Each bite revealed something almost familiar but somehow unexpected. There’s a lot to enjoy, and an equal amount to ruminate on after finishing. I’ll be looking for more from Gregory.

Cross posted at my blog:

Friday, October 17, 2014

We Live in Water

Jess Walter
Harper Perennial
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


The first collection of short fiction from New York Times bestselling author Jess Walter-a suite of diverse and searching stories about personal struggle and diminished dreams, all of them marked by the wry wit, keen eye, and generosity of spirit that has made him one of America's most talked-about writers.

We Live in Water is a darkly comic, moving collection of stories, published over the last five years in Harper's, McSweeney's, The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Non-Required Reading, Byliner, Playboy, and elsewhere. The stories veer from comic tales of love to social satire to suspenseful crime fiction, from hip Portland to once-hip Seattle to never-hip Spokane, from a condemned casino in Las Vegas to a bottomless lake in the dark woods of Idaho. This is a world of lost fathers and redemptive conmen, of meth tweakers on desperate odysseys and men committing suicide by fishing.

In "Thief," an aluminum worker turns unlikely detective to solve the mystery of which of his kids is stealing from the family vacation fund. In "We Live in Water," a lawyer returns to a corrupt North Idaho town to find the father who disappeared thirty years earlier. In "Anything Helps," a homeless man has to "go to cardboard" to raise enough money to buy his son the new Harry Potter book. In "Virgo," a local newspaper editor tries to get back at his superstitious ex-girlfriend by screwing with her horoscope. Also included are the stories "Don't Eat Cat" and "Statistical Abstract of My Hometown, Spokane, Washington," both of which achieved a cult following after publication online.

My Review


It usually takes me forever to get through short story collections. If a story doesn’t grab my interest, I’ll put the book down and read something else. Often, so much time has passed that I end up returning the collection to the shelf and forgetting about it.

Not so with Jess Walter’s first collection of short fiction. I inhaled these stories in just two sittings and by the end I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to:

a. empty my wallet every time someone asks for spare change.

b. take weight-loss pills that keep me up all night having wild monkey sex, but have the unpleasant side effect of turning me into a zombie completely unsuitable for nearly any type of employment.

c. grab some Greenpeace brochures, some young helpers, and create a scam to relieve rich liberals of their hard-earned dollars.

The prose is spare and powerful, making me forget I was reading a book and feeling at one with these characters who struggle through life, make poor choices, and suffer terrible injustices. Though there is bleakness and hardship here, there is just enough humor to make me laugh out loud a few times and keep the stories from being painfully depressing. The author writes from the heart and has a deep sense of empathy for his characters. It was hard for me to let them go.

The last story is Statistical Abstract For My Hometown, Spokane, Washington. It is much more than facts and numbers. Walters provides an intimate glimpse of his life and his conflicting feelings about his hometown.

Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014


The Girl with a Clock for a HeartThe Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”I always knew it was temporary. Being Audrey was temporary. I had become this different person, this person I’d rather have been--you know, in school, doing well, with a boyfriend, a boyfriend like you--but it was like I had a secret disease, or there was this clock inside of me, ticking like a heart, and at any moment an alarm would go off and Audrey Beck would no longer exist. She’d die and I’d have to go back to being Liana Decter. God, it’s like a dream now….”

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With this book title Peter Swanson was paying homage to other noir books.

I have a crazy girlfriend story.
I have an even better crazy stalker story, but I’m not going to tell you about either one of them because George Foss has a better story, a tale of deceit, a yarn woven with woe, a first love that might have lasted forever, and murder most foul.

George is an ordinary guy, maybe so ordinary that you might even think he is extraordinary. He is in his early forties. He keeps the accounting books for a Boston literary magazine. He made himself indispensable, so even when the inevitable downsizing started to leave empty desks and tragically orphaned coffee mugs in it’s wake, he survived.

He has a girlfriend named Irene though girlfriend might be imprecise. They have been friends a long time, but somehow in the long arc of their relationship things never quite came together for them to get married. They are more than friends with benefits, more like ex-spouses who still like each other and fool around with each other between attempts at relationships with other people. Although even when they are seeing other people there is no let up with seeing each other. One could say their relationship is complicated, but really it is rather uncomplicated.

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George has this rent controlled attic apartment with slanted walls and too many, just enough, bookshelves stuffed with...wait for it...books. Exactly what BOOKshelves were designed to hold. He goes to the same bar, maybe not everyday but most days, and watches the Red Sox. Irene usually meets him there and they give each other updates on the small matters of their well organized lives.

And then he sees his bar.

The girl he’d tried to forget about.

The girl that was unforgettable.

Audrey Beck/Liana Decker or she could have just as easily been Phyllis Dietrichson (Double Indemnity) /Kitty Collins(The Killers)/ Brigid O'Shaughnessy (The Maltese Falcon)

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She is a witches’ brew of femme fatales. She is the Mata Hari of George Foss’s life. He knew her as Audrey first until he discovered she was Liana. It is now becoming nearly impossible to shed our skins and assume new identities. We used to be able to ride the train from Kansas to California and somewhere around Arizona start to call ourselves by a different name. Those days are long past as we are compressed more and more into our own identities. We are stuck with ourselves unable to shake off our past or ever really get a fresh start.

Don’t get the impression that I’m feeling any sympathy for Liana because that would be a mistake.

Like a moth to the flame he has to go talk to her, after all, she was sitting in HIS BAR.

She needs help. She needs the kind of help that at first you laugh about and then she convinces you with glistening tears and a series of beautifully manipulated body signals that she is desperate. Thus, it became perfectly logical that George was going to return nearly half a million stolen dollars to her ex-boss, ex-lover for her.

That is crazy!

Why would you even contemplate such a thing George?

It is embarrassing for me to reveal this, and it is hard to explain it in such a way that it doesn’t seem stupid, but ultimately, he did it, because he wanted to get laid. Sex and gasoline make the world go around so don’t discount the importance of such a potential event in a forty something man’s life. And it isn’t as if we are just talking about sex, ordinary sex, this was mind blowing sex...fireworks, brass band playing, howling at the moon sex. This was one of those moments that when we are on our deathbed and the sepia tone memory of this event floats into focus that we will grin. It might even take some of the sting out of dying.

Was it worth the punch to the kidneys compliments of Donnie Jenks?

No, of course not.

Yes, yes, of course it was. So you piss blood for a week. It will heal.

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Ava Gardner in The Killers. A man would do a lot of foolish things for a woman like that.

This is a plot driven novel, so I can’t talk about the plot. Let’s just say that George Foss gets taken on the ride of his life and if he survives it you will buy the beers for him all night long to hear the story. You will remember Liana Decker’s name for the rest of your life. Every time she swims into your memory you will shake your head, shiver, and thank all that is holy for your amazingly pedestrian significant other. This was a terrific, perfect Sunday afternoon read. I kept muttering to myself and kept flipping pages. The ending will wake you up in the middle of the night and have you, it can’t be!

Peter Swanson hit the Hollywood lottery. The movie rights have been sold. James Marsh will be directing. Chris Coen will be producing. It should make a spectacular movie. My vote is for Ethan Hawke (43) cast as George Foss. I would like to see Ali Larter (38) cast as Liana Decker and Cristina Ricci (34) cast as Irene.

***4.25 stars out of 5 and rising.***

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When a freak dust storm scrubs the Ares 3 mission and Mark Watney is left for dead, he finds himself alone on Mars. Can he survive alone on an alien world until NASA is able to save him as his equipment breaks down and his supplies dwindle?

I have an aversion to any book that is over-hyped. Most of them wind up being crap and, besides, I already have more than enough things to read. Sometimes, you just have to stop being a stubborn asshole and let yourself get swept up in the hype of a critical darling.

The Martian is a hard science fiction novel about one man being stranded on Mars and trying not to die. It features such riveting activities as growing potatoes using your own feces as part of the soil and repair work on multiple pieces of equipment.

What keeps The Martian from becoming a yawn-fest is the way it is told by Mark Watney in a series of journal entries. Mark is a funny guy, serving up such gems as "My asshole is doing as much to keep me alive as my brain." He's also a Martian McGyver, fixing and re-purposing a lot of his equipment, including the Pathfinder probe, which he drove across the Martian surface in a rover to find.

The humor keeps the story going even during the dull times. Thankfully, Mark is funny without being obnoxious about it and Weir has the chops to know when the tone needs to be more serious. He also has the timing to get the most of his one-liners.

Once NASA finds out Watney is alive, they scramble to figure out a way to get him back as he battles problems like running out of air, too much water, and his growing dislike of potatoes and 1970's television. There were some pretty tense moments, especially near the end. This book has "blockbuster" written all over it when it inevitably becomes a movie.

I blazed thought this in three sittings and would have been perfectly willing to read about more of Mark's trials and tribulations, as well as his comrades on the Hermes on their long journey back to Earth. Andy Weir has hit a home run with The Martian. I'll be anxious to see what else he can do. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Cat's Cradle

Cat's CradleCat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When he embarks on a project to write a book about the creators of the atomic bomb, Jonah has no idea what he's going to unearth: Dr Felix Hoenikker and Ice-Nine, a substance that will instantly freeze any water it comes into contact with into more Ice-Nine, a substance capable of destroying all life on earth. Can Jonah find the missing Hoenikker children and secure their chips of Ice-Nine to safeguard the world?

Here we are, my second experience with Kurt Vonnegut and one of his Big Important Books. This time, he takes on science, religion, politics, and man's ability to destroy himself.

I didn't enjoy Cat's Cradle as much as Slaughterhouse-Five but they probably shouldn't be compared since they aren't the same kind of book. Slaughterhouse is experimental and timey-wimey and Cat's Cradle is much more straight-forward and easy to digest.

Jonah's project leads him to Felix Hoenikker and his three odd children, and eventually, to San Lorenzo and Bokononism, a new religion. Having been through 12 years of parochial school and a couple decades of weekly doses of church, fiction with a religious bend doesn't need much effort to hook me so I was engaged right away. Bokononism is Vonnegut's way of showing how full of shit most religions are, since Bokonon is pretty open about his religion being a pack of lies.

I don't have much else to say about Cat's Cradle. It was a piece of funny yet thought-provoking satire about science, religion, and mankind destroying itself. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, October 13, 2014

A Fitting Conclusion to a Very Good Series

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

This is the third and final volume in Ben H. Winters' series featuring Hank Palace, the Last Policeman. When the first volume, The Last Policeman, opened, Hank had just been promoted into his dream job of being a detective on the police force in Concord, New Hampshire. Sadly, though, the job is not going to last very long because in only six month's time, a giant asteroid is going to slam into the earth, ending Life As We Know It.

The Last Policeman and Countdown City detailed Hank's activities for the first five and a half months of the asteroid's approach. As civilization rapidly unravels all around him, Hank works as diligently as he can to remain a decent and responsible man, continuing his investigations at a time when many, including not a few readers, might wonder if he has lost his senses.

There are now two weeks left before impact. Food is scarce, potable water even more so. Things like the Internet, electricity, working phones, and gasoline are a dim, distant memory. Hank is reduced to traveling by bicycle and scrounging for food and water where he can find it.

His last investigation is his most personal. His sister, Nico, is his last remaining relative, but the two have become estranged for reasons described in the first two books, and Nico has disappeared. Hank is desperate to find her so that they might spend their last few days on earth together.

The search takes him to a small town in Ohio. In a world that has arrived at a post-apocalyptic state a few days ahead of schedule, hardly anything will surprise Hank or the reader, until Hank arrives in Ohio and discovers that things may have gotten even stranger than he could possibly have imagined.

I thought that the second book in the series was a bit weak, especially when compared with the first, but Winters returns to form here and provides a very fitting conclusion to what was, overall, a very unique and entertaining series. The story itself is gripping and the larger questions that have hung over the entire series grow even more important here. Readers contemplating the matter might well decide that they would have chosen to spend their last few weeks on Earth is ways far different than Hank Palace, but hanging out with the guy for the last six months has been a helluva ride.

A Tempestuous Introduction to The Tempest

The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What was that?

I expected a long drawn out battle of mariners versus a violent sea. There's a few lines of sailors fighting a storm at the start and then the rest is played out on land. Ah, "played," there's the nub! For this is an early 17th century play meant for the stage. Not a likely time and place for a lavish production with a water tank, ship and wind machine, though that would've been hella cool. Some Shakespeareanophile tell me my envisioned production went down at least once back in the day, please!

Once I figured out I'd been duped, I still didn't know what was going on. The story felt muddled and frankly not particularly intriguing. Apparently an Italian duke is trying to trying to get revenge on those who ousted him by marrying off his daughter to one of the plotters. That I understood. To make this happen, magical spirits are prevailed upon. That I understood. But who was magical, who was human, who was in between, and what was everyone's motivation, that's where I got lost.

Didn't matter. By the midpoint I'd grasped enough to follow along and what I thought was going to be a 1 or 2 star catastrophe turned out to be a fairly enjoyable romp in a semi-fairy land...kind of a mix between Macbeth or Othello and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

I listened to an audio version for this reading. I prefer to hear Shakespeare when I get the chance. I may have received a 4.0 in my Shakespeare class in college (a little more impressive than my 4.0 in my mountain hiking class), but that doesn't mean I understand half of what's being said. Put into context, the otherwise archaic phrases often will reveal their meaning.

The one thing that really perplexed me was that the actor playing Caliban, the monstrous humanoid creature stranded for years on the island, played him - as old timey, racist comedians (and Jon Stewart) would say - "Jewy". Think Alec Guinness' rendition of Fagin. Yeah, heavily over the top. Was Caliban Jewish? I thought his mom - the only person he was stranded on the island with - was a witch from Algiers. Now, I don't know from Algiers witches, but this? What is this? Oy vey...

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Gotta love the old-school dash!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #3)The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Arthur Conan Doyle created such an intriguing vehicle for his mystery stories in the figure of Sherlock Holmes, a man almost inhuman, nearly robotic in his exacting speech and actions, so much so that the reader longs for and grasps on to the minute human aspects (a hint of carnal desire, for example) on the fleeting instances they appear.

In story after tightly-wound story intelligence and rational thought wins the day. But before it gets all too academic, Conan Doyle throws in a bit of action, some good old fashioned horror or a grotesque morsel for the reader to chew on, for he realized man can not be sustained on thought alone.

Taken on their own, each short story in this collection would receive 3 or 4 stars, but put them together and you've got a 5 star body of work. A lone stick breaks easily, but bundled together the sticks form a strong bond. Case after solved case impresses with its almost overwhelming accumulation of ingenuity. The character of Holmes eventually develops with nuggets of personal detail and, on rare occasion, even a display of pathos.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

If There's A Heaven Above

Andrew Demcak
JMS Books
Reviewed by Nancy
2 out of 5 stars


It's the early 1980's and Matt is on the cusp of adulthood in the flickering shadows of Los Angeles' Gothic music scene. He dives into a pulsating world of death-rock music, sexy musicians, and strung-out groupies in leather bondage pants and vampire makeup. Through the faded glamour and glittering whirlpool of alcohol and drugs, Matt moves from one good time to the next, searching for something more.

Then he meets Patch: shirtless, tribal-tattooed, wearing cut-off jean shorts still damp from an afternoon at the beach. Patch is a punk-rock Adonis who wears his dark hair spiked up and whose blue eyes are bloodshot from too much late-night fun. Patch doesn’t say much when they first meet, but his body speaks to Matt’s on a cellular level, pure chemistry. To Matt, Patch's tattoos tell him they are part of an invisible tribe, the night people.

But one night is all Matt gets with Patch before he disappears into the neon-washed streets. Matt sets out to find him again, sure Patch is "the One." Along for the ride are his friends Annie and Suzy, one straight, one gay. Wearing too much Aqua-Net and torn fishnets, the girls cruise L.A. in a white Mustang whose seat belts are perfect beer bottle openers. The ultimate Goths, they adore Siouxsie and the Banshees, paint their eyes with kohl, and vow to help Matt in his quest to hook up with Patch.

Will Matt be able to find Patch in L.A.'s drug-soaked clubs? Will one night be all he gets with the man of his dreams? If there's a heaven above, will Matt ever find it?

My Review


I so wanted to like this book. It took place during the mid-80’s, a time of my life I’ll always remember fondly. I had a job, a brand new car and my own apartment.

I loved my Jordache jeans.

I loved my very practical and stylish mullet.

I loved my denim jumpsuit.

And I loved Queen, Depeche Mode, U2, Kate Bush, Alphaville, Pet Shop Boys, Talking Heads.

What I didn’t love was that my younger brother was newly gay during a time of ignorance and irrational fear about the AIDS epidemic.

When I think about all the crazy shit I did then, it’s a miracle I’m still alive today.

So, even though I wasn’t a huge fan of Bauhaus or Love and Rockets, I had no reservations about spending time with three crazy Goth kids from Los Angeles – 18-year-old Matt and his best friends, Annie and Suzy.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t warm up to the characters at all. Their lives were boring, shallow, and pointless. Sure, this story explored sexuality, family relationships, drug addiction, and growing up, but it all was done so superficially. Knowing more of the characters’ feelings and thoughts rather than listening to their mindless banter would have helped me understand and empathize with them a little better.

While I enjoyed some of the memories this story evoked, I couldn’t stand being around Matt and his friends after a while. Reading this made me feel like the old woman yelling at the neighborhood kids to stay off the lawn and turn down that infernal noise they call music.

I might have tolerated this story better if it had been more skillfully written and not full of annoying similes.

“Suzy sped home like a wounded animal.”
“Her stepmother’s purse lay like an injured animal on the bed.”
“You’re as useful as a cunt full of cold piss.”
“The words came out like burning animals.”
“He grabbed it, flaying it open with his hand like a surgeon’s blade.”
“The lime bobbed in the bottle’s throat like an unkind comment.”
“The brightly ringing song rolled over us like a golden hoop.”

It’s a nice tribute to Rozz Williams and the American and English gothic rock artists of the 80’s, but I’m glad these kids are now out of my hair.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014


The Headmaster's WagerThe Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”The soil in this country is red from all the blood that is soaked into the earth. When each war ends, another soon begins. The Japanese, the French, the Americans, someone else in the future, so what does it matter what they say in Paris? The land itself bleeds.”

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World War Two came early to Shanghai. In 1937, during the Battle of Shanghai, the Japanese invade and occupy Shanghai. They stay until the end of the war. Percival Chen A.K.A. Chen Pie Sou made his way to Hong Kong where he could have some semblance of a normal life until the Japanese invade there as well in 1941.

The Japanese prove to be brutal conquerors.

He and his young bride, the lovely, spoiled, ambitious Cecilia escape to his father’s rice trading firm in Vietnam. The Japanese are there as well, but kept the Vichy French in place as a puppet government. Things are marginally better. The Japanese execute people on a routine basis, food is scarce, and the country is fracturing into all kinds of splinter groups with differing political objectives. One thing that everyone agrees on, they hate the money grubbing, arrogant Chinese.

In 1946 the Viet Nimh go to war with France in what is called The First Indochina War. Non-communists fought with communists. Stalinists purge Trotskyists. Every time one of the political factions gain control tens of thousands of people die. New alliances are formed and finally it becomes the Viet Cong and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam fighting for power.

Here come the Americans. It is 1965.

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The Soviet Union, The Chinese, and now The Americans are all now adding fuel to the fire in Vietnam. There are victims, so many victims. There are plenty of deaths, but some die fast and some die slow.

”The car’s headlights arced over the flashing legs of the fragile street girls, their bright-colored butterfly dresses,lipstick slashes on their tired grandmother mouths.”

Through all this Percival has dicey moments, after all he is a foreigner in the middle of conflict and is suspected by everyone. He decides to open a school and when the Americans arrive he decides that school needs to focus on teaching Vietnamese English. His son Dai Jai, in a moment of youthful indiscretion, holds a protest that puts him on a dangerous list. Percival enlists the help of the diabolically well connected Mak (a teacher at his school) to spirit his son out of the country to China.

The book explores the difficulties of parents in a time of war. The world has been torn apart leaving very few untouched by the detrimental effects of all out war. Many parents all across Europe and Asia, from the 1930s on, have had to make difficult decisions about their children. Are they safer with us or are they safer elsewhere and where is safe? It nearly kills Percival to be separated from his son, but he convinces himself that he has a better chance in China than in jail or in a uniform in Vietnam. The climate in Vietnam is not safe for anyone.

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An Ancient Chinese tradition for giving gifts that work equally well for passing bribes.

Percival has become an expert at bribing (special red envelopes) to an ever changing revolving door of government officials. As the Americans need more and more translators he begins to routinely double the tuition for his school. He needs the money to support not only the bribes, but his growing gambling habit and his insatiable desire for young women. ”Although a man could be selfish in seduction, he must be considerate in pleasure.”

And then he wins Jacqueline in a game of Mahjong.

”He had only sought a girl for a night.”

She was intoxicating. Her smell. The way she looked at him.

”There was the rising scent of wilted jasmine flowers and burned rice in the bottom of pots. A flashbulb of lightning burst close by, and thunder chased it. Rain surged through tree leaves, reddened the roof tiles like fresh blood. Water rippled over the curved clay, spilled to the terrace below, flooded the gutters and coursed along the street of men and women huddled in thin plastic ponchos. It fell from the top of the window and splashed on the sill, sprinkling Percival and Jacqueline.”

For the moment it was as if they had been anointed by the universe.

It is always amazing the number of obstacles that are flung in the path of love. There are the normal difficulties, but for Percival there seem to be a growing number of issues that threaten to separate him from what he is beginning to believe may very well be the love of his life. His wife Cecilia is chasing after wealthy men and long ago divorced him to facility the chasing. The problem is Percival is doing business with those pesky, moralistic, Americans. He has started to rely more and more on his friend Wak to manage the school as he spends more and more time pursuing his pleasures. Now it is fine for the headmaster of a prestigious English School (he did oversell his qualification and his education level) to gamble, to drink too much, to fornicate with young ladies at a nightly rate, but for him to take such a young mistress, well that is going over the line.

Love equals risk. Love in a war zone equals megaton risk.

Percival is first and foremost a gambler, a gambler that has relied on a abundance of good luck his whole life. He will make a wager with the universe once again and hope that the right Mahjong tiles continue to find his fingers.

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Pre-1960s mahjong tiles.

Monks are lighting themselves on fire.

”He did not cry out at first, but only hunched forward, the contours of his body and robe all softened by the violent caress of undulating fire. Flame dances as if part of the saffron garment, and the seated man’s mouth was a black hole within his melting face. Somewhere within, the throat shrieked, gave agonized testimony. The color of the fire and the fabric were one, until the fabric darkened to char. The voice was silenced and then there was only the sound of fire like water, like lapping waves.”

Things get much more complicated as he finds out that people he trusts aren’t exactly who he thought they were. He has been riding a board, standing up in fact, and been able to maneuver every new swell even with a constant changing of the political weather.

And then the Americans leave.

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The Americans leave behind their allies, hundreds of half breed kids most of whom are slaughtered by the Communists or allowed to starve.

Percival’s ability to survive will be tested once again. He has a son with Jacqueline and once again he has to make a decision on how best to protect a son.

I’ve never read anything about Vietnam from such a unique perspective. A Chinese man equally discriminated against by everyone; and yet, able to become indispensable to each new administration running the country. There are certainly overtones of Graham Greene in this novel. The intrigue, the tribulations of a foreigner in a destabilizing country, the espionage, the lust/love of the exotic, and the well meaning, but clueless Americans reminded me of The Quiet American. Vincent Lam spins all of these aspects into such a delicate web of interlacing subterfuges that I found myself completely ensnared in his plot. I marveled at the ability of anyone to survive under the constant threat of shifting alliances, the debilitating specter of paranoia, and the constant weighing of short term happiness against a life time of what ifs.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gone Girl

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When his wife goes missing, Nick Dunne quickly finds himself the prime suspect. Did he kill his wife? Was their marriage as perfect as it seemed? Or was there someone sinister going on all along?

One the heels of reading Dark Places and catching a dose of Gillian Flynn fever, I decided to take on her show dog, Gone Girl. People are bastards, bastards coated in douche bags and then rolled in a pile of assholes. That's the life lesson I learned from reading Gone Girl.

Told using a more or less parallel structure with shifting viewpoints between Nick and Amy, both unreliable narrators, Gone Girl is less a mystery than a study of just how underhanded people can be to one another. The disintegration of Nick and Amy's relationship kept the book going in the beginning, before its full scope was revealed.

Gillian Flynn is a master of manipulation. I lost count of how many times I switched my allegiance from one character to another, bouncing around like a ping-pong ball. Once the truth of what really happened unfolded, I was pretty much aghast.

The dying small town of Carthage is one of those rural settings that I love in a crime book. When you've got the Big Muddy rolling right next to your town, it's a great way to dispose of any incriminating evidence.

It's probably going to be akin to blasphemy is some people's eyes but I actually preferred Dark Places to this one for a few reasons. The pace in Gone Girl was a little on the slow side at times. The scheme was a little too far fetched, even though it's would be doable given the right sociopath. The ending also kind of sucks and the book felt like it was about twenty pages too long. The biggest advantage Dark Places has over Gone Girl is that I cared about Libby Day. Nick and Amy could both get run down by a garbage truck and I wouldn't bat an eye.

Gone Girl was a pretty good read, as expected. Gillian Flynn reads like a grittier Megan Abbot or the illegitimate spawn of Jim Thompson on one of his many drunken benders. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Slaughterhouse-FiveSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time and experiences the events of his life out of chronological order. War and absurdity ensue.

I've never read Kurt Vonnegut up until now and when Slaughterhouse-Five showed up in my cheapo ebook email a few days ago, I decided it was time. Get it?

Slaughterhouse-Five is often classified as science fiction but it reads more like Kurt Vonnegut trying to make sense of his World War II experiences through a humorous (at times) science fiction story. It also seems to be a Big Important Book, due to novelly things like themes of anti-war and the absurdities that come with it. It also uses a non-linear plot structure to illustrate the timey-wimey nature of Billy's affliction.

There's not really a whole lot to tell. Slaughterhouse-Five is basically a collection of non-chronological events in Billy Pilgrim's life: his experiences in World War II, his life after the war, and his abduction by the Tralfamadorians, aliens who view events in time simultaneously rather than chronologically.

The bleakness and black humor go together surprisingly well, like beer and White Castles. I have to wonder, though, if Slaughterhouse-Five would be as highly regarded as it is if it didn't land on so many banned book lists over the years. Nothing like some controversy to get people to read.

While it wasn't pants-shittingly awesome, I enjoyed it quite a bit and I'll likely pick up another Vonnegut book in the future. Four out of five stars. So it goes.

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Monday, October 6, 2014

Dark Magic Indeed

The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To call Joan Didion cold or even heartless - true as it may be in the light of The Year of Magical Thinking, this monument to the analytical dissection of grief - is itself a cold and heartless condemnation. We all grieve in our own way. This is hers.

After losing numerous family members suddenly and too soon, Didion then lost her husband and daughter within the span of a year. This book is her cathartic contemplation of that loss.

Heartrending, yes occasionally. Heartwarming, no never. Didion's demeanor is all too cerebral. It is as if she has educated herself above emotion. Certainly it can be said that some educate themselves beyond their own well-being. In this case, we see a mind so removed from the everyday reality of man as to answer "a motherless child" instead of "a nut" when asked to fill in the blank for "Sometimes you feel like ____." The result, when pushed to produce a book about grieving for loved ones, is an academic's deconstruction. No, it is not without feeling, she is still human after all, but stoicism is her strongest suit.

Beyond the almost biting cynicism you get beautiful language, great observations and insights to, let's call it, a different kind of emotion.

I assume, and sincerely hope, she never reads reviews like this. She shouldn't care what snarky assholes think of her work, not this work and not after the experiences she went through that brought it about. One who suffers so many visits from Death should not give two shits or even one single flying fuck what the rest of the world thinks.

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