Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Spellmans Strike Again

The Spellmans Strike Again (The Spellmans, #4)The Spellmans Strike Again by Lisa Lutz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As Izzy tries to dig up dirt on rival PI Rick Harkey, her mother obsessively sets her up on dates with lawyers. But why do Izzy's parents kick everyone out of the house on Wednesdays? And why are fixtures and doorknobs disappearing from the Spellman house? And what's with David and the mystery blonde, or Rae and her new boyfriend?

The family of dysfunctional detectives is back in their fourth, and what would seem final if I didn't know it wasn't the last book, outing. Some series hit the skids around the fourth book but I found the Spellmans to be as entertaining as ever.

While they've all aged a bit, the Spellman cast is as hilarious as ever. Izzy has been dragooned into dating lawyers despite still being with future ex-boyfriend #12, Connor. Rae has dedicated herself to freeing a wrongfully convicted man. The Spellman parents are having intercourse. And the other characters like David and Henry are also acting strangely.

For a humorous series mystery, this sure had it's share of great moments. When spoiler and spoiler finally got together, I grinned like a mule eating an apple. When spoiler said he was dying of the cancer, I came close to shedding a silent man tear at lunch in front of a couple co-workers. While I'm glad it wasn't the final Spellman book, it felt like it was in a lot of ways by the end.

Honestly, that's about all I want to say to avoid spoilage. If you've come this far into the Spellman saga, you won't want to back out now. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

A Very Entertaining Debut Novel from Tom Cooper

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

The denizens of Jeanette, a dying community in the Louisiana bayou, have never really recovered from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. And then, as they are struggling to get back on their feet, they are walloped again by the disaster that flows to their shores in the wake of the BP oil spill. Many of the citizens of the tiny community barely eek out a hard scrabble living as shrimpers and as the oil fouls the waters for miles around, the already beleaguered shrimping industry is dealt a devastating blow.

But these are not the sort of people who will bow to the fates and give up easily. Fiercely proud and independent, they struggle on in a variety of ways, both legal and illegal, to preserve the way of life they've known for generations. The cast of characters includes a teenage boy named Wes Trench who has been estranged from his father since his mother was lost in Katrina. Wes and his father barely communicate any more, but tradition and the circumstances of fate decree that the two must continue to work side-by-side on the father's shrimp boat, falling further and further behind both emotionally and financially.

Meanwhile, a one-armed, pill-popping treasure hunter named Lindquist, when not working his own shrimp boat, pores over maps and spends countless hours roaming the bayous with his metal detector, searching for the long-lost pirate treasure that he's certain will allow him to finally fulfill his dreams. The cast also includes a pair of seriously twisted twins who are farming high grade marijuana on an island that they guard against all comers and a couple of small-time crooks on the lookout for an easy dollar.

Throw in a smarmy oil company representative who's trying to buy off for a pittance those who were harmed by the oil spill, including even his own mother, mix thoroughly, and the result is a great read that is at times hilariously funny and at others heart-breakingly sad.

Tom Cooper has gathered together a great cast of characters and set them loose in a perfectly rendered setting. He obviously knows the people and the landscape of this region very well; he writes beautifully and the story moves along at exactly the right pace. This is a wonderful debut novel that evokes echoes of writers like Carl Hiassen, Elmore Leonard and Daniel Woodrell, and I'm already looking forward to Cooper's next book.

Stewart Skewarting US Politics

America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy InactionAmerica (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction by Jon Stewart
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

America (The Book) is not the Daily Show, but it's damn close.

This is one of those cases where it might seem like a good idea to listen to the audiobook and hear the actors' deliveries in order to mimic the feeling of watching the tv show as much as possible. However, then you'd miss out on the high school textbook mock-up layout and that's missing half the point.

A Citizen's Guid to Democracy Inaction is modeled after a civics class text replete with horrible study guides, misguided questions, those pop-out boxes for more incorrect information, etc and also etc. It's all one big lampoon of laughter and I loved it!

Yes, it can sometimes be silly in a juvenile way...

“It's not that the Democrats are playing checkers and the Republicans are playing chess. It's that the Republicans are playing chess and the Democrats are in the nurse's office because once again they glued their balls to their thighs.”

And its insight isn't exactly mindblowing (or is it?)...

“If "con" is the opposite of pro, then isn't Congress the opposite of progress? Or did we just fucking blow your mind?!?”

However, occasionally a particularly spot-on, cutting remark is made...

“Classroom Activities
1. Using felt and yarn, make a hand puppet of Clarence Thomas. Ta-da! You're Antonin Scalia!”

Stewart and crew roast the U.S. Government time and again, so as you could imagine, it's a great read for Jon Stewart Show fans, it's also a good one for liberals in general and a tolerable one for Republicans who can take a joke.

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Friday, March 27, 2015

Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945

Ina Russell, Editor
Faber & Faber
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


It occurred to me today with something of a shock how horrible it would be for this diary of mine to be pawed over and read unsympathetically after I am dead, by those incapable of understanding... And then the thought of the one thing even more dreadful and terrible than that - for my diary never to be read by the one person who would or could understand. For I do want it to be read - there is no use concealing the fact - by somebody who is like me, who would understand. Jeb Alexander was a gay man who lived in Washington, D.C., during the first half of the twentieth century. From 1918, when he was nineteen years old, until the late 1950s, he chronicled his daily life engagingly and unsparingly, leaving behind a unique record of ordinary gay life before Stonewall, a history that has remained largely hidden until now. Jeb came of age as the century did, witnessing and recording political and social change from the position of insider as an editor for the U.S. Government and outsider as a gay man. Painfully shy, and frustrated in his ambition to be a novelist by writer's block, Jeb turned to his diary as a way of expressing himself as well as recording events, creating a full emotional self-portrait and unforgettable sketches of the men who made up his lively circle of friends. Jeb and Dash also details the joy and anguish of an extraordinary on-and-off love affair between Jeb and C. C. Dasham (Dash), whom he met in college and with whom he remained friends throughout his life. A rare and important historical document, a beautifully written memoir, a love story, an ode to old Washington, D.C., Jeb and Dash is a remarkable find and an enduring literary achievement.

My Review

Finally finished!

This book took me months to read and even though I was tempted to set it aside more than once, I’m glad I was patient enough to see it through to the end.

This is a condensed version of Jeb’s diary edited by his niece, Ina Russell, starting from when Jeb was 12 years old and ending a year before his death in 1965. This diary covers the years between 1918 and 1959. I loved the glimpse of history between two world wars, politics, famous personalities, plays, literature, music, observations on life and the world, and the details about gay life in a time when the word “gay” had a different meaning and homosexuality was a crime. I presume Ina Russell left out many details of Jeb’s cruising in Lafayette Square to spare the sensibilities of mainstream readers, but I think these details would have added some spice and richness and shown how dangerous and difficult gay life was for many people.

Jeb meets Dash while in college and throughout his story relays his deep affection for him. Even though his feelings are not returned, the two men remain friends for many years.

August 25, 1920
“I have at last found a friend, a lovable, handsome fellow, a realization of the friend I have dreamed of during all those lonely nights while I walked alone through the streets.”

February 11, 1921
“I want love and affection. Damn it! All that Stevenson said about journals is true. This diary of mine is a tissue of posturing. My real thoughts on such matters as sex are not admitted even to myself. I will be frank. I am madly in love with C. C. Dasham.”

July 16, 1927
“Returned home tired and nervous. Dinner with Dash. His entrancing personality so enthralls me! So beautiful, so beautiful. I would do anything for him.”

August 1, 1936
“Dash got his ticket, checked his bag, and gave me a strong handclasp. The goodness, sweetness, and steadfastness of his loyal, generous nature shone from his wide, serious, green eyes. That may sound like a rhapsody, but it’s God’s truth.”

The love pouring from Jeb’s words made me sad, knowing that he and Dash were not meant to be. I wish Jeb had moved on and found someone else to love. I also wish he would have fulfilled his aspirations of becoming a writer instead of spending many lonely nights drinking and journaling about his sad life.

The center of the book contains photos of Jeb, Jeb and Dash, Jeb’s family, a copy of a handwritten page in his diary, and places he’s lived in and visited. I would have liked to see some photos of the friends who meant so much to him.

There was some lovely, evocative writing here and a sense of immediacy, particularly in the last section during the World War Two years. There were also a lot of mundane details and too much repetition, some of which became tedious to read.

I would recommend this to those interested in gay history, the history of Washington, D.C., and the impact significant historical events have on individual lives.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Double IndemnityDouble Indemnity by James M. Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I had killed a man, for money and a woman. I didn't have the money and I didn't have the woman.”

One of the great Noir lines of all time. Cain wrote it. Raymond Chandler used it in the movie. I could stop my review right here because that line sums up the movie perfectly.

But I can't. I love writing about books.

Walter Huff met a woman. A married woman, a woman Huff would be willing to turn himself inside out if that would insure her love. Her name is Phyllis and she has a thought, not even a plan, just a thought of what she would like to do about her husband.

Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck

Much has been made of Phyllis being a femme fatale, maybe even one of the most viperous examples in history. It has been a while since I've seen the movie and maybe Stanwyck does portray Phyllis much more deviously manipulative than what I found the book Phyllis to be. Now I'm not saying she is an angel I'm just saying she ran into a guy that even surprised himself with what he was willing to do with the hope of getting the girl.

Huff has made a career out of reading people and when he meets Phyllis she asks him a handful of suggestive questions and the guy is already formulating a full blown plan for insurance fraud. He has been in the insurance game for a long time and he knows about every angle ever thought up by anyone to try and pull one over on an insurance company. He is uniquely qualified to formulate the perfect scam.

I don't like insurance. Life insurance they are betting I live. I'm betting I die. It is kind of crazy if you give it much thought. Car insurance they are betting I don't get in an accident. I'm betting that I do. The industry has convinced us to bet against ourselves and pay for the privilege. And yet, even though I'm aware of the situation, I pay thousands of dollars of insurance premiums every year to insure one disaster doesn't sink the ship. Walter Huff would love stopping by to see me.

Huff is so intent on the details of this insurance rip-off that he never learns much about Phyllis. He doesn't even really seem to care about why she would be interested in killing her husband. She is the bunny and he is the greyhound running around the track. There is no hesitation about Huff. He leaps at the chance to help Phyllis get the insurance money. I'm not sure what was more important to him pulling off the perfect swindle (my vote)or winning the girl.

James M. Cain

Crisp, wonderful writing with pitch perfect dialogue. My recommendation is read the book and then watch the movie, a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. At least 18 films have been made from James M. Cain novels and stories. Besides this novel he wrote two other novels that are not only considered noir fiction classics, but also translated well to film, The Postman Always Rings Twiceand Mildred Pierce. In college I took a film and novel class and Mildred Pierce was one of the books/movies on the syllabus. One of the most enjoyable classes I ever took. I love the combination of two different art forms. I generally like the book better because there is usually more depth to the characters and more subplots can be incorporated into the flow of the novel. Film is restricted by length, but when they get it right they really get it right. I try, as best I can, to judge books and movies from books on separate scales. Even a movie that butchers the original source material can be a great movie. In the case of James M. Cain because he wrote such great dialogue Hollywood did not have to deviate far from his original intentions. Highly recommended!

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Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Magician

The MagicianThe Magician by W. Somerset Maugham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Arthur Burdon is due to marry his fiance, Margaret Dauncey. The pair have the misfortune of meeting Oliver Haddo, a self-styled magician and pompous ass. When Arthur assaults Haddo, the Magician hatches a plan to ruin Arthur's life in the most insidious of ways...

The Magician is a tale of revenge, seduction, and things of that nature, written by Maugham after he met Aleister Crowley. It's pretty much a horror novel, honestly.

Oliver Haddo is a revolting character that made my skin crawl and his seduction of Margaret was a little hard to read about. Arthur, Susie, and Margaret were also well drawn, flawed characters.

For a novel written in 1908, The Magician was surprisingly readable compared to many books of that era. The writing was lush and descriptive without being overly flowery and still felt pretty accessible. Haddon's occult knowledge and abilities were also very well done, not terribly flashy and somewhat believable. I have to think the way magic was depicted influence Susan Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.

The only strike against the book that I can readily come up with against this book is the ending. I felt it was a little on the anti-climatic side and kind of a downer.

The Magician is a surprisingly effective horror novel for being over one hundred years old. I may have to give old Maugham another shot some day soon. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

What the Bell Boy Saw

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Dusty Rhodes is one seriously screwed-up dude. Of course when this book was first published in 1954, no one would have thought to call him a "dude," but no one would have disputed the fact that he was a young man with some pretty nasty problems--in other words, just the sort of protagonist that you'd expect to find in a novel by Jim Thompson.

Dusty has a little bit of college behind him--how much is not exactly clear--and he had once hoped to go to medical school. But he had to drop out of school after his mother died and his father lost his job at the local high school. This is back in the days of the Red Scare, and the local crusaders have accused the elder Mr. Rhodes of signing a petition upholding the right of free speech in America. And back in that day and age, such an accusation was more than enough to get one fired from a position of such responsibility, at least in a small conservative town in Texas where the story is apparently set.

Dusty thus takes a job as the night bell boy at the Manton Hotel. He could have chosen another job at the hotel, but figuring the tips involved, this is the one that pays the most money and Dusty needs all he can get now that he's the sole support of both himself and his father who, in addition to being unemployed, is also in failing health.

Dusty is a very attractive young man, but he's only ever loved one woman and that relationship turned out very badly. He's convinced that there will never be another woman in his life but then, early one morning, Marcia Hillis checks into the hotel. She's the most beautiful woman Dusty has ever seen and he concludes fairly quickly that she is now the only woman in whom he will ever be interested again.

The Manton is a high class hotel, and they have very strict rules about bell boys fraternizing with the female guests. Up to this point, Dusty has never been tempted to chance breaking the rule, but he might make an exception in this case, especially after the delectable Ms. Hillis indicates an interest in him.

Also residing in the hotel is a small-time gangster named Tug Trowbridge. Trowbridge befriends Dusty and tips him handsomely, and any well-seasoned crime fiction reader understands that the combination of the arrival of Marcia Hillis along with the friendship of Tug Trowbridge is bound to mean trouble for poor Dusty. Dusty ultimately realizes it too, but not before he takes that fatal first step down the wrong path that always spells doom for the poor mope who finds himself the main character in a noir novel.

This book is not the equal of some of Thompson's better-known work like Pop. 1280 or The Killer Inside Me, but it's a lot of fun nonetheless. Watching poor Dusty unravel is as gripping as watching the evil schemes that some of the characters have plotted unfold, and to no one's great surprise, before long Dusty Rhodes may well rue the day he ever encountered a swell-looking babe like Marcia Hillis.

Found Is A Funny Find (sorry)

FOUND Magazine #1FOUND Magazine #1 by Davy Rothbart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

FOUND is a collection of funny and occasionally hilarious stuff (pictures, letters, "lost pet" posters, etc) found by the editor or contributors and compiled in one place for your maximum enjoyment.

Zinester Davy Rothbart took some of the better bits from his hit zine of the '90s and quickly came out with a more professional looking magazine/book type of thing. It really just speaks for itself, so...






I found FOUND to be better ingested in smaller bites than this. Too much random shit in one sitting doesn't set well. The bit-sized zine was more to my liking, but probably you're not going to be able to find it anymore, so I suggest grabbing a copy of the book and reading only a couple pages at a time.

There is no theme, no message or moral. This is just stuff. Some of it is thought-provoking. Some of it is sad. Some of it is just plain odd, because it's taken out of context. Some of it isn't so funny no matter which way you look at it. But hey, that's reality. If there is any point to all this, it's that a mishmash of street detritus can be taken as a reflection of the hopes and dreams that constantly fill and empty our lives from cradle to grave.

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Friday, March 20, 2015

Midnight Riot

Ben Aaronovitch
Random House Ballantine
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars


Probationary Constable Peter Grant dreams of being a detective in London's Metropolitan Police. Too bad his superior plans to assign him to the Case Progression Unit, where the biggest threat he'll face is a paper cut. But Peter's prospects change in the aftermath of a puzzling murder, when he gains exclusive information from an eyewitness who happens to be a ghost. Peter's ability to speak with the lingering dead brings him to the attention of Detective Chief Inspector Thomas Nightingale, who investigates crimes involving magic and other manifestations of the uncanny. Now, as a wave of brutal and bizarre murders engulfs the city, Peter is plunged into a world where gods and goddesses mingle with mortals and long-dead evil is making a comeback on a rising tide of magic.

My Review

I’m a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, even though I got tired and stopped reading after #9. After a while the stories became too repetitive and I didn’t see any significant growth in Harry’s character. His smart-ass comments that were amusing in the earlier books started getting annoying towards the end.

In the hopes I would find a fun read similar to the Dresden books, I picked up Midnight Riot. It wasn’t a bad book, but it wasn’t a great one either. Peter Grant was an interesting character. He is a constable in London’s Metropolitan Police who wants to be a detective, but his superior thinks he is better suited for pushing paper. Finding a headless corpse in The Actors’ Church in Covent Garden and talking with a ghost who witnessed the crime draws him to Thomas Nightingale, the force’s investigator of supernatural crimes. Under Nightingale’s patient tutelage, Peter learns how magic works and how to hone his investigative skills. He is kept very busy as the body count increases and his negotiation skills are called upon to help resolve the differences between the magical rulers of the Thames River. This is when the story seemed to lose focus for me. There were two stories in one, and neither was compelling enough to keep my interest. I found my attention wandering numerous times and took breaks to read other stories.

I loved that Peter is mixed race, his father a failed jazz musician and his mother a cleaning woman from Sierra Leone. While I enjoyed how the ethnic and racial diversity of London was portrayed, I couldn’t really get a feel for the city. I need more than street names, mention of famous landmarks, and references to TV shows or movies I haven’t seen or heard of. Too many acronyms became confusing and I found myself going back in the story to find out what they stand for.

Overall, the story was fast-paced, but not especially gripping. I liked Peter’s voice, his witty sense of humor and his scientific approach to magic. But like Harry Dresden, his sexual maturity never exceeds the level of a teenage boy, even though he is attracted to his colleague, Leslie, and Beverly Brook, daughter of Mother Thames. I’m not sure if I’ll continue with the series.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015


Roadside PicnicRoadside Picnic by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Intelligence is the attribute of man that separates his activity from that of the animals. It’s a kind of attempt to distinguish the master from the dog, who seems to understand everything but can’t speak. However, this trivial definition does lead to wittier ones. They are based on depressing observations of the aforementioned human activity. For example: intelligence is the ability of a living creature to perform pointless or unnatural act.”

“Yes, that’s us!”

 photo Stalker_zpsnki59goq.jpg
There is a 1979 film by Andrei Tarkovsky loosely based on The Roadside Picnic. The screenplay is by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I’m, of course, going to have to watch it.

Redrick “Red” Schuhart is a stalker. He is one of the few people crazy enough to go into “The Zone”. Thirty years ago Aliens visited the Earth. They landed at six different locations. Hung out for a while and took off.

They ignored us.

What The Frill?

Here we are the most intelligent species to ever evolve on this planet (debatable) and the big moment occurs when another, obviously intelligent species comes to visit, and they act like the snooty prom queen and king at the big dance.

You’d think we were mere bugs. Not even worthy of a good probing or dissection.

In these zones they left behind trash, as if, as one scientist put it, they had just stopped off for a roadside picnic. They also left behind traps. Things unexplainable. Things that science even has trouble labeling. One example is what Red calls a bug trap, but the “eggheads” call it something else.

”His face has become completely calm, you can see he’s figured everything out. They are all like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name. Until he comes up with one, you feel really sorry for him, he looks so lost. But when he find a label like ‘graviconcentrate,’ he thinks he’s figured it all out and perks right up.”

 photo tarkovsky_zpsm4fgv0m8.jpg

Stalkers are people who go into The Zone and retrieve objects. They then sell them on the black market for cash. They need a big payoff because every time they go into The Zone they are risking life or limb (there is this slime that melts the bones and eventually turns everything it touches into more slime). Most of the original stalkers are dead. Their corpses litter the landscape of The Zone providing guideposts for…don’t go there.

The Zone does something to them. Their kids are mutants. Red’s child becomes less and less human as she grows and becomes something unknown, unknowable. People from this area can’t emigrate because odd disasters start happening in the places they move to. The Zone owns them. Still, Red should just settle down and get a real job, a safe job.

”But how do I stop being a stalker when I have a family to feed? Get a job? And I don’t want to work for you, your work makes me want to puke, you understand? If a man has a job, then he’s always working for someone else, he’s a slave, nothing more--and I’ve always wanted to be my own boss, my own man, so that I don’t have to give a damn about anyone else, about their gloom and their boredom…”

Besides being dangerous, working as a stalker is also illegal. He soon finds himself on one last mission for a golden sphere that he has to find before The State robots get there first. It is about more than just the money. It is about outwitting everyone maybe even himself.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were Russian science-fiction writers who managed to publish most of what they wrote even under the heavy censoring hand of the Soviet Union. Ursula K. Le Guin in the forward explains it well. ”What they did, which I found most admirable then and still do now, was to write as if they were indifferent to ideology--something many of us writers in the Western democracies had a hard time doing. There wrote as free men write.” They did struggle to get Roadside Picnic published.

In the afterword Arkady has a list of all the letters and petitions that were exchanged between various Russian committees trying to get approval. ”Eight years. Fourteen letters to the ‘big’ and ‘little’ Central Committees. Two hundred degrading corrections of the text. An incalculable amount of nervous energy wasted on trivialities...Yes, the authors prevailed; there’s no arguing with that.

But it was a Pyrrhic Victory.”

 photo arkady-and-boris-strugatsky_zpsom36tzj3.jpg
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The book was published in Russian in 1972 and translated into English in 1977. This edition, that I read, is a new translation with all the original text, as the authors intended, reinstated. There is a 1979 movie as I mentioned above. The book also inspired a video game called. S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

I absolutely love this concept. Hollywood has spent so much time making us worry about Aliens coming to Earth to enslave us, to steal our natural resources, to take over the planet, to use us as incubators for their spawn etc. We are completely unprepared to be ignored. We really don’t like being ignored.

The book can be read on many levels. It is an enjoyable fast paced read on the most basic level. For those that like to apply philosophy, politics, and psychology to their reading there is plenty of hooks to keep you pondering the true meaning of different situations. It is a book, that without a doubt, will give the reader more with each new read. This is one of those terrific finds that I may have never read without the guidance of friends on GR. Our compiled knowledge is oh so much greater than when we read alone.

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Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Four women, the twelfth such expedition, enter the mysterious Area X to observe and collect samples. Will the calamities that have befallen previous expeditions befall them as well?

I'd read four Jeff VanderMeer books prior to this one and they were all unsettling in one way or another. This one was par from the course.

Annihilation is a horror tale about secrecy, the unknown, and insanity. The biologist is the narrator and an unreliable one at that. The other characters are known only by their job function as well, giving the book a depersonalized feel. The story is more about mood and the character of the biologist than it is about exploration.

This is one of those books that I have a hard time quantifying my feelings about. It was really strange and I was captivated by it but I'm not precisely sure I'd say I liked it. There were more than enough unanswered questions to make me want to read the next book in the series, however.

With Annihilation, VanderMeer has crafted a creepy ass tale that would make H.P. Lovecraft shiver. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, March 16, 2015

Lucas Davenport Goes to the Republican National Convention

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

It's the summer of 2008, and the Republicans have selected Minneapolis as the host city of the convention where they will nominate John McCain for the presidency. Inevitably, the convention will bring to the Twin Cities, in addition to all the politicians, a gaggle of protestors, potential assassins and terrorists, street people, con artists, grifters and other assorted crooks. The cops will have their hands full, as will Lucas Davenport's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Slipping into town amidst the lesser criminal talents is a high-powered gang of robbers headed by Rosie Cruz and Brutus Cohn. They have several targets mapped out, including a number of political operatives who will be sitting in their luxury hotel rooms with suitcases full of cash--in each case, over a million bucks. This is dirty money that will be passed out in blocks of untraceable cash to be used for paying street expenses during the campaign. The men with the money are sitting ducks and the best part is that, once the crew has ripped them off, they can't even report the crime because what they're doing is illegal.

Davenport, though, is alerted to the presence of the crew in town and begins the process of trying to track them down. But it won't be easy, especially in the general chaos that surrounds the convention, and when bodies start falling unexpectedly, the task becomes all that more urgent.

And, as if Davenport weren't busy enough, an old nemesis and Davenport's young ward, Letty, combine to cause even more trouble. Some years earlier, a small-time pimp named Randy Whitcomb, disfigured one of Davenport's snitches, who was a hooker in Whitcomb's stable. In retaliation, Davenport beat Whitcomb within an inch of his life and for that Davenport was forced to leave the Minneapolis PD, at least temporarily. Later, Whitcomb was shot and paralyzed by another police officer, but Davenport was on the scene for that development as well, and Whitcomb has been seething with rage ever since.

Now confined to a wheelchair and attended to by his one remaining hooker and a drug-addled sidekick, Whitcomb decides to take his revenge on Davenport by attacking Letty. Letty, who is now fourteen going on thirty-seven, trips to the plan. She's afraid that if she tells her father, Lucas will go ape-shit and kill Whitcomb, something that she thinks would not be good either for Lucas or for herself. She thus decides to handle the Whitcomb problem on her own.

All of this makes for a hugely entertaining book that's at times both terrifying and hilarious. Sandford is the master of mixing these elements, and as usual, the characters and dialog are great; the plot rolls along at a rapid clip, and

My Bad Romance

Coal RunCoal Run by Tawni O'Dell
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the book that broke my desire to be a part of the local book club scene.

"Book club scene" sounds so hip, doesn't it? Well, the only thing hip about the book club I was involved in was the talk about broken hips the old ladies in the group kept on about. If I had to guess at the median age of the members, I'd say it was somewhere around 105 years old.

But I digress...

Dangerously close to a romance novel at times, Tawni O'Dell's Coal Run was still enjoyable enough for me not to hate myself for having read it. Maybe it was because there's talk of football in it, I don't know.

The female author did a credible job creating her male characters, but surprisingly her female characters are fairly cardboard-esque. They were stereotyped tools for the male main character to use or be manipulated by through the course of the novel.

The story itself, a man fighting his demons, was enjoyable and I liked the local-color details of the small Pennsylvanian coal mining town, but all in all this is disposable stuff.

It was a book club pick and there's no way in hell I would've read it on my own. So, by the time I was done and realized the time I'd wasted on it, I was left with a sick feeling in my gut...like I had a fever and the only prescription was no more book club.

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Bad Poetry Makes A Good Rock Song

The American Night: The Lost Writings, Vol. 2The American Night: The Lost Writings, Vol. 2 by Jim Morrison
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Welcome to the American Night...

I didn't understand what it meant and yet it meant so much to me, this immature 18-year-old still finding out about the world by inserting himself into the universe of others. Along came Jim Morrison, singer/poet, a forever-young manchild...so appealing to a youth entering adulthood unwillingly.

Morrison's words, scribbled out in notebooks upon rooftops in Venice, California, would become the basis of lyrics to the inflammatory songs created by late '60s rockers The Doors.


And many of those scribbles are found within The American Night: The Lost Writings, Vol. 2: The End, The Soft Parade, Moonlight Drive, Soul Kitchen, L.A. Woman, When the Music's Over.

Perhaps it's that familiarity which made this second volume of Morrison's work more enjoyable to me. I already knew and loved the entire Doors catalogue and here, now and then, popped up the lyrics to one of their tunes. And there was more familiarity to latch on to, as seen in live performances, such as his "rock opera" the Celebration of The Lizard...

Is everybody in?... Is everybody in?... Is everybody in?... The ceremony is about to begin.

Morrison and his words could be oh so very melodramatic.


He seemed to intentionally revel in the bizarre, if for no other reason than to shock. Take for instance Lament for the Death of My Cock (which I think I used for a school English project my senior year):

Lament for my cock
Sore & crucified
I seek to know you
acquiring soulful wisdom
you can open walls of

How to get death
On the morning

T.V. death
which the child

which makes
me write

Slow train
The death of my cock
gives life

Guitar player
Ancient wise satyr
Sing your ode
to my cock
caress its lament
stiffen & guide

It goes on and on like this. Silly stuff. Never did figure out the point of breaking up the lines like that. Did he think he was writing out the lines of a song? Perhaps and why not, some of this tripe did get turned into songs...well, the better stuff anyhow. However, much of this needed editing to say the least and most should never have seen the light of day. It's the stuff of teenaged angst. What artistically-minded kid didn't fill up a notebook or two with their unintelligible, overly emotional ramblings? I filled six, myself!

If you've read down this far, you're clearly a fan (or someone with some time on your hands) so I suppose I could recommend this book to you. I might also recommend The Doors' album An American Prayer. It takes snippets of spoken word by Morrison from the compositions included in this book, so you get to hear him reading them in the way he intended. Unfortunately, the remaining Doors members decided to add their own backing tracks, jam sessions and incidental noise to the background, which was not in keeping with Morrison's original intention. Eh, it is what it is.

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Friday, March 13, 2015


Debbie McGowan
Beaten Track Publishing
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Haunted by the abuse of his now missing father, seventeen-year-old Sammy stumbles upon the seedy world of drug addiction and prostitution of London’s West End in the 1980s. Cold, desperate and exhausted, he takes shelter in a trash-filled alley behind a strip club, unaware that what is about to unfold will change the course of his life.

Set during a period of significant social and cultural change in the early 1980s, Champagne opens up a world of seedy revue bars, prostitution, abuse, drug addiction and the devastating effect of AIDS. Centred around the events of a declining revue bar and its regeneration, a young man comes of age and finds his first love whilst looking for his estranged, abusive father. Through dark humour and strong characterisation the book is not only eye opening but also manages to capture a truly unique time in popular culture.

My Review

It was the unusual title and bold cover illustration that caught my eye. Plus the fact that it took place in the UK during the 80’s which I imagine was as tumultuous a time as it was in the US.

17-year-old Sammy is prowling around the alley of a dingy, disreputable club, determined to find the father who heaped abuse on him and his mom. Instead of finding his father, he finds an opportunity to start a new life when he is offered a job sweeping the floor and doing other odds and ends at the club.

Sammy gets to know the other employees and regular patrons, and becomes intrigued with the moody and alcoholic Champagne, one of the club’s regular dancers. Sammy’s fear and shyness that is preventing him from approaching her is palpable.

“She beckoned him to come in, but he was finding it hard to move, so utterly overwhelmed that she had finally noticed him. He fixed his eyes on the small patch of floor he could see through the piles of costumes thrown across to a rail against the back wall of this tiny, square, hot dressing room with its strange orange glow. Shaking almost beyond control, he picked up the costumes and hung them untidily over the rail, aware of the beads of sweat forming on his bare neck. He could feel her staring at him, and he froze, the colour rising from his chest, his breath becoming heavy and laboured.”

Champagne is not who she appears to be, but Sammy’s love has not wavered, even though finding out the truth was like a gut punch.

I loved watching Sammy’s growth throughout the story, as he learns about himself, and as he is forced to accept responsibilities and acquire some business sense after coming into possession of an inheritance. Though he still loves Champagne, that love is not returned, creating emotional turmoil in young Sammy’s life and affecting his future relationship with Frank. Even though Sammy is not always a likable character, I appreciate all his flaws. He feels complex and unique.

I also loved the variety of characters, some of which are even more troubled than Sammy is. This is a beautiful and heartbreaking story that left me angry, sad, frustrated, and hopeful. It is also uneven, and could benefit from the skills of a good editor to streamline the writing, address the shifting points of view, and scene transitions. I would have liked more of the action to take place outside the club, as it felt claustrophobic at times. The smoke and stale beer smell was starting to get to me, and I needed a breath of fresh air.

The open-ended non-ending left a whole lot of loose ends, which can be frustrating to those readers looking for closure. To me, it represented a new beginning for Champagne and Sammy. I very much look forward to seeing what life has in store for them.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

RIP, Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett passed away this morning.  Thanks for the untold hours of entertainment, Terry.  You'll be missed.

Snuff (Discworld, #39)Snuff by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Commander Sam Vimes of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch and his wife Sybil take Young Sam and go on vacation to Sybil's ancestral lands in the country. Fortunately for the Commander, crime soon rears its ugly head and he soon finds himself ensnared in a web of lies, smuggling, and murder! Can Vimes get to the bottom of things before he finds himself at the bottom of the river known as Old Treachery?

I always forget how good Terry Pratchett is during the year or years between new books. To the outsider, it would be easy to dismiss the Discworld books as silly fantasy novels. While they are silly, the Discworld books always deal with real issues as well. In this case, slavery and drugs. Snuff raises questions of what it means to be sentient, human rights, and the evils of looking the other way when something bad happens.

Pratchett's writing reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse's more with each passing book. I lost count of the clever lines. I even noticed reference to Tombstone ("I don't think I'm going to let you arrest me today."), Deadwood, and Jane Austen.

The characters are what drive the Discworld stories. Good thing, because they could easily degenerate into mindless silliness otherwise. Sam Vimes and his relationships with his family and the people of Ramkim were what made the story. Vimes' pep-talks with Feenie about what it means to be a copper, his caring tolerance for his son's fascination with poo of all kinds, and his feelings toward the goblins showed why Pratchett is more than just a fantasy writer.

The plot itself was pretty good. A goblin is murdered while Sam Vimes is on vacation and he starts pulling at threads to find out why, leading him to discover smuggling and corruption. The disgusting religion of the goblins is explored and, by the end, society is changed. Goblins haven't been touched upon very much in the Discworld series so far and I'd say Pratchett did a great job developing them in Snuff.

I can't pretend this book was perfect, though. The last fifty pages dragged a bit. That's about the only gripe I have, actually. It's the best Discworld book in years.

I Shall Wear Midnight (Discworld, #38; Tiffany Aching, #4)I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Things are hostile toward witches on The Chalk and Tiffany Aching aims to find out why. But how can she with the future mother-in-law of the new baron gunning for her? Can the Nac Mac Feegle help her clear her name and the name of witches everywhere?

Terry Pratchett has been one of my "buy everything" authors for years now and this book is a good example why. It would be easy for old Pratch to phone it in at this point. He's written something like 50 Discworld books and has been stricken with early onset Altzheimers. I'm proud to say there was no phoning in, or even texting in, in this one.

Like all of the Discworld books, this book is about something. It's about prejudice and mass hysteria, how seemingly rational people can be driven to do some pretty irrational things. It's funny how a lot of people dismiss the Discworld books as fantasy parody when they're so much more.

The Nac Mac Feegle, demented Scottish smurfs that they are, provide comic relief as always. Preston, the guard who's too smart to be a guard, provided a believable future love interest for Tiffany. Tiffany herself has come a long way since the Wee Free Men. Her grace The Duchess was such a foul villainess I couldn't wait to see her taken down a peg. The Cunning Man was pretty horrible as far as Pratchett villains go. And the cameos by Vimes, Nanny Ogg, and Granny Weatherwax were worth the price of admission.

Something that not many people mention, Terry Pratchett does a lot to advance the concept of the fantasy witch as more than juts a cackling hag. He portrays them more like shaman or jacks of all trades, doing whatever is necessary for the people in their steading.

So why a four? Why not five? I'll tell you, Arnold. For one thing, the ending was a little too easy. For another, too many plot threads were swept under the rug. Amber, the girl who's dad beat the hell out of her, was forgotten for most of the book after spending time with the kelda of the Nac Mac Feegle. The Duchess, likewise, was defused at the wedding near the end and it seemed out of character. The thread of Letitia being a witch came out of left field and also didn't go very far. It could be that old Pratch is planning another Tiffany Aching novel but I was under the impression that this one is the last.

All in all, this was a worthy addition to the Tiffany Aching saga and the Discworld series. Lots of laughs and also some thought provoking stuff.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (Discworld, #28)The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Maurice, a talking cat, leads a group of talking mice and a stupid-looking kid into a town called Bad Blintz looking for one last score with their pied piper scam. Only Bad Blintz has troubles of its own...

Terry Pratchett really knows how to write a kids book. I would have devoured this thing when I was a lad. Maurice and the rats are good characters, as is Keith, the aforementioned stupid-looking kid. The origin of Maurice and the rats' intelligence was fairly well done. Hell, it's a fantasy story. How much explanation do you need? Pratchett took the classic story of the pied piper and Discworld-ed it up with questions of philosophy, destiny, and leadership. And rat-kings.

Why only a three? The rat king bit felt tacked on at the last minute, although I enjoy me a good rat-king. While the humor was good, I didn't feel it was as good as the adult Discworld novels, subtle sex jokes excluded. Being a Discworld novel, things didn't quite end up all hunky-dory at the end but it was still a good ending.

Pratchett crafted a good young adult novel here. If you have some YA's in your house, go ahead and nab this one for them.

Unseen Academicals (Discworld, #37)Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Football (soccer to Americans like myself) is all the rage in Ankh-Morpork and Vetinari, the Patrician, has given Unseen University the duty of refining it from a street game to an organized event. Only some people don't want it organized. Can the Unseen Academicals, with Trevor Likely and the mysterious Mister Nutt, overcome football's rowdiest hooligans?

The thing about Terry Pratchett is that while his stories take place in a fantasy world, they are about real world events and concepts. This one speaks about stereotypes, prejudices, the fashion industry, and sports as religion. The romance between Trevor and Juliet is an obvious sendup of Romeo and Juliet, except that they're fans of opposing football teams.

The story itself is pretty funny. Lots of one-liners and wordplay. I spotted a P.G. Wodehouse reference that I wouldn't have gotten the last time I read a Pratchett book. The wizards are a funny bunch. The story of Mr. Nutt was well done, as was the modelling subplot. I hate to admit it but slight goosebumps arose when Trever Likely stepped up.

While I wouldn't say this is one of my favorite Discworld book, it's definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Hey, Boo

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

OK, everyone needs to stop what you're doing and go find a copy of Sissy Spacek reading this book. I am not exaggerating when I say it is the best audiobook performance I have ever heard. 

I have read To Kill a Mockingbird perhaps 10 or 12 times in my life, and it is one of my favorite books, but this was the first time I listened to it. Sissy was the perfect narrator for Scout, and she also did a fantastic job at all of the other voices. If you like audiobooks, this is a must-listen. (And if any publishers are reading this, please hire Sissy to narrate more Southern literature. Her voice is so soothing she could charm a cat out of a tree.)

What struck me about the story this time is how sadly relevant the issue of racial prejudice and inequality still is, even though the book was first published in 1960. At the heart of the novel is the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man who is accused of raping a white woman, Mayella Ewell. What quickly becomes apparent is that Tom is innocent, and Mayella was actually beaten by her father, Bob Ewell, when he caught her trying to kiss a negro. 

Atticus Finch, the hero of the novel, does his best to defend Tom, but the jury (and most of the town) convicts him anyway, and Tom is condemned to death. Atticus' two children, Jem and Scout, are deeply upset by the case, especially when Bob Ewell continues to threaten them.

This book reminded me of the police shooting and riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and of innumerable other stories in the news of African-Americans not being treated fairly by officers or the courts. I would like to find hope in what Atticus said when he's trying to explain the Tom Robinson case to Scout: "Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

There is so much to love in this book. Scout, whose real name is Jean Louise, is a tomboy and she is our narrator. The story occurs over several years, and we watch her grow up. Harper Lee has a terrific sense of humor, and Scout's antics always make me laugh. 

One of Scout's best friends is a boy named Dill (a character reportedly inspired by Harper Lee's real-life friendship with Truman Capote) and at the start of the book, the kids are obsessed with a reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley. Boo is a mystery throughout the story, and when he finally appears, well, I usually have to wipe a few tears from my eyes.

Oh Harper Lee, why did you only write one book? This novel is a gem, a true American classic. It has been a favorite of mine since I first read it in 8th-grade English, and I think it has had an impact on every generation who reads it. And based on the news, it sounds like it is still needed.

Favorite Quotes
“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view ... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” 

“The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” 

“As you grow older, you'll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don't you forget it — whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, he is trash.” 

“I think there's just one kind of folks. Folks.”

The Boy Detective Fails

The Boy Detective FailsThe Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When he was a youngster, Billy Argo was the best teenage sleuth Gotham City, New Jersey, had ever seen. That is, until his sister killed herself, sending Billy to the mental institution for a decade. Now that he's out, the boy detective has one last mystery to solve...

Back when I was a lad, sometime around the time the dog was first domesticated, I was a big fan of kid's mysteries like the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, and the stupendous Encyclopedia Brown. They were soon lost to the sands of time as I gravitated toward more adult fare. Never did I ponder what might have happened to Encyclopedia Brown when he grew up.

The Boy Detective Fails is a quirky little book, written in the style of the mysteries I mentioned above, but with much more adult themes. In some ways, it reminds me of Sarah Gran's Claire DeWitt books, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead and Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway. Adulthood was not kind to the boy detective, not even after he gets out of the mental institution.

The mystery that seems to plague the boy detective is what caused his sister's suicide. On some level, though, I think the real mystery Billy Argo has to solve is the mystery of adulthood and finding his place in a world that no longer welcomes him as it once did. Even his old foes like Von Golum find themselves without purpose besides tormenting the other denizens of the group home they share.

Joe Meno does a great job using the style of the books he's drawn his inspiration from. Once Billy befriends the Mumford kids and becomes entwined with Penny Maple, the book is very hard to put down.

The post-modern quirks might irk some readers but I thought they were used well within the context of the story and didn't feel like gimmicky crap.

The Boy Detective Fails is a charming, poignant tale that should appeal to fans of the children's mysteries of yesteryear. It's an easy four star read.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

Steve Carella Hunts for the Killer of the "Calypso King"


Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

George Chadderton is a musician who bills himself as the "Calypso King." Late one rainy September night, he leaves a gig with his manager and as the two are walking down the street someone comes up from behind them and shoots George to death. The killer also wounds George's manager in the shoulder. The manager falls to the ground and the killer stands over him and fires directly at his head. But the gun is empty and the killer is forced to flee, leaving the manager still alive.

A few hours later, it's still pouring rain, and a hooker who's looking for one last trick is shot to death with the same gun that killed Chadderton. Chadderton's murder took place in Isola's 87th Precinct and the case falls to veteran detectives Steve Carella and Meyer Meyer. They wake up the newly-widowed Mrs. Chadderton to give her the bad news while surreptitiously checking to see if she might have been the shooter herself. (They don't yet know that there is a second victim because the hooker was killed in another precinct and it will take a while before anyone realizes that the ballistics match.)

Mrs. Chadderton is a very attractive woman who works at a topless club. She appears to be devastated by her husband's death and has no idea who might have wanted to kill him. Sadly, there appear to be no leads at all, and in investigating the victim's background, the detectives discover nothing of interest save for the fact that Chadderton's brother, Santo, seems to have disappeared into thin air seven years earlier.

That's neither here nor there, and the case presents one of the toughest challenges to confront Carella and friends in any of the first thirty-three books in this series. This is also one of the best books in the series, and it first appeared in 1979. By then, McBain had really hit his stride and this is one that any fan of the series will not want to miss.

A Pleasure To Read Of Vietnam Horrors

MatterhornMatterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was in the shit. Karl Marlantes put me there.

Matterhorn is a deep and penetrating look within the Vietnam War. It's the sort of horribly realistic novel that can only be reproduced by the survivor of an atrocity.

Highly decorated Vietnam War veteran Karl Marlantes had been at work on this book since the war ended. If you ever need an example of an artistic project into which the artist has poured his blood, sweat and tears, you can point to Matterhorn.

The book follows 2nd Lieutenant Mellas, a squeaky clean Ivy League kid who signs up and intentionally gets himself stuck in with the grunts, the high school flunkies who make up the front line fodder. Mellas wants to be one of the boys. He also secretly longs for medals and promotion. His desires and inexperience could get him killed. It could get a lot of boys killed and the boys don't like that.

Matterhorn is not all doom and gloom from beginning to end. I doubt I would've finished it if it were. No, Marlantes does an excellent job in building the tension. He starts things off light. There is levity through out in its proper place. Then the trouble is escalated. The tension is tightened. You feel the frustration, elation, despair...hope.

I hesitated to read this. After all, wasn't it enough that I'd seen Platoon and Full Metal Jacket? Vietnam is a sad chapter in history. Did I really want to revisit it? However, word on the street was persistent: this is great, don't miss this. I'm glad I didn't give it a miss. And neither should you.

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That Old Familiar Gauntlet...

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If the first book, A Game of Thrones felt to me a little like stepping into an iron maiden, its sequel A Clash of Kings felt like slipping on a well-smithied gauntlet. Ooooh yeah...feel it.

The problem with the first book was that I felt poked and prodded with a 101 different characters, all new to me and all with their own disparate agendas. It took me half the book just to get the names straight and it's a huge honkin' book! But with A Clash of Kings there aren't nearly as many new characters and new story lines to contend with, so I was able to relax and enjoy the read, rather than feel as if I was back in school cramming for a test.

Okay, and now for the twist!

I don't think A Clash of Kings is as good a book as the first. It's perfectly fine. The story is linear, the narrative flow makes sense, there's plenty of action, but there's also a lack of enchantment that the first book had in spades. Technically there is just as much and maybe more magic in the second book - it definitely leans more on fantasy elements - but the MAGICALNESS is missing. To put it another way: The first book swept me away like a pretty pretty princess! The second book bought me lunch at Mickey D's and dumped me on the curb.

In the end, I think I'll give them both the same 4 star rating, but for different reasons. A Game of Thrones evoked, entertained, confused, but enthralled. A Clash of Kings carried on the story smooth and steady.

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Friday, March 6, 2015

Suicide Notes

Michael Thomas Ford
Harper Teen
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


I'm not crazy. I don't see what the big deal is about what happened. But apparently someone does think it's a big deal because here I am. I bet it was my mother. She always overreacts.

Fifteen-year-old Jeff wakes up on New Year's Day to find himself in the hospital. Make that the psychiatric ward. With the nutjobs. Clearly, this is all a huge mistake. Forget about the bandages on his wrists and the notes on his chart. Forget about his problems with his best friend, Allie, and her boyfriend, Burke. Jeff's perfectly fine, perfectly normal, not like the other kids in the hospital with him. Now they've got problems. But a funny thing happens as his forty-five-day sentence drags on: the crazies start to seem less crazy.

Compelling, witty, and refreshingly real, Suicide Notes is a darkly humorous novel from award-winning author Michael Thomas Ford that examines that fuzzy line between "normal" and the rest of us.

My Review

Suicide Notes has 45 chapters, each one representing a day in the life of 15-year-old Jeff, who is in the psychiatric ward of a hospital after his suicide attempt on New Year’s Eve.

Trust me; this story is not nearly as depressing as it sounds.

Jeff is quick, witty, sarcastic, and absolutely hilarious as he manages to evade any “real” discussion with his psychiatrist, Dr. Katzrupus, also known as Cat Poop, about what made him try to kill himself.

During his 45-day “sentence”, Jeff learns more about himself as he endures individual and group therapy, makes friends, experiences grief and loss, and comes to terms with his sexuality.

The story takes a more serious turn when Jeff gradually opens up to Cat Poop, and details of his family life, his friendships, the events that led to his suicide attempt, and the reason for it begin to unfold.

I really loved this story told from Jeff’s perspective and had a very difficult time putting it down. His thoughts, feelings, confusion and pain all rang true and brought me back to my own teenage years. I would highly recommend this story to teens that are gay, straight, or somewhere in between, and to adults who remember what it was like, or just want to understand.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015


The Night InspectorThe Night Inspector by Frederick Busch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”It was the War. The interests of money and the will of our Commander decreed it. Battle for the rights of the industrialists, battle for the rights of the agriculturists, battle on behalf of bullyrag Abe, who saw himself, I insist, as the issue: my will, my national entity, my idea of indivisibility. Crush the farmboys and the desperate Negroes into one another with a thunderclap. And see to it--be sure!--one William Bartholomew receives the national hoofprint in his head. I’m a coin imprinted with Abe’s earnestness.”

 photo The_Sharpshooter_on_Picket_Duty__2_1863_zpsgzzaqh3n.jpg
The Sharpshooter by Winslow Homer on display at the Portland Museum of Art. Billy implies that he was the model for this painting.

I would say that William Bartholomew had just cause in being bitter, but when we weigh the cosmic scales of justice there is generally always a few ingots of information that we may not choose to put on the scale for fear that it will determine a different outcome contrary to our feelings. It is rare that a finger is not on the scale even by those that are duly elected to judge the rest of us. For those of us not wearing robes we may allow emotion to override the details, but then who among us has the right to judge Billy Bartholomew.

He was sanctioned in what he did. He was a killer for Abe.

”The colonel was a girlish-looking young man in a creased but clean-looking uniform, and he had long, fine fingers with which he tapped on the air, as if working out the proper phrase, or, for all I knew, the rhyme scheme of a poem. I put a bullet into the side of his head, which appeared to disintegrate as he went over, hands and elbows loose in the air, a cloud of sprayed blood remaining behind an instant where he had been. The ink spilled, and the pen hung in the air although the writer was gone while the shot still echoed.”

Billy was a sharpshooter. A man lauded and reviled in the same breath.

Every man in that war had the opportunity to become a killer. Some fired their weapons high on purpose. Some thought God was guiding their bullets. Some believed it was just a damn dirty job that had to be done. Some didn’t know they liked killing until the war introduced them to the Devil. Some killed themselves rather than jeopardize their souls in taking the life of another. Some men reveled in finally being able to embrace their baser natures.

Billy was a killer long before he joined the Union army.

His Uncle took it upon himself to see to his brother’s family after Billy’s Dad died. He was reasonably wealthy so the family was not a burden to him. He was a businessman and didn’t see the sense in giving money without something in return. He was very clear in his demands. It was either his brother’s wife or his brother’s son, it didn’t matter which, but one of them was going to have to service his carnal appetite.

It wasn’t so much that Billy killed him, but how he killed him. Which brings us back to his decision to be a sharpshooter. There is a darkness in him. He wasn’t up in those trees shooting men for Abe. He was up in those trees shooting men because he was good at it. He liked it.

Sure, he had doubts. He wasn’t a total psychopath, but maybe it had more to do with the fact that he could hear the hoof beats of retribution. Abe wasn’t going to be there when that horseman arrived. Billy was going to have to face it on his own.

 photo Lincoln-Age_zpsk8ruelyx.jpg
Abe carried the burden of what he asked you to do Billy. His face shows the blemishes of war.

”My head burned from within, like one of the ruined manorial houses, all roasted black shell and sullen embers, which I had seen before the hunters took me down.”

It was an unlucky shot. It was a bullet from a mirror, his counterpart on the other side. It was a bullet meant to kill him, but it exploded the magazine of his rifle, sending shrapnel and liquid fire into his face.

He begged them to kill him, but a debt is a debt and Billy hadn’t paid all of his yet.

He wears a mask. His face is a horror show too damaged to repair.

He moves to New York, the city of commerce. He starts making money. He places investments for himself and others. He meets Jessie a prostitute who lifts his mask and kisses the rigid scars of his battlefield face.

”I wondered who had passed down eyes of such coloration if her mother was African or Polynesian, and her father a slave. There was a white man in the woodpile, I thought. I thought, too, of the loveliness of her face, the strength of her long throat, the savagery in her tattoos. She was a letter I had read with my fingers, like a man long blind who at last has a message he was years before intended to receive.”

Jessie has plans for Billy. Everyone craves affection. A monster needs it more than most. The tattered remnants of his soul are hers for the taking.

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Herman Melville

Bartholomew meets the writer of The Whale. A man ignored by readers. A man now besot with drink. A man who instead of devoting his time to scribbling is working for the government as a Custom Inspector on the docks of New York. Frederick Busch does an excellent job bringing Melville to life. For those that are big fans of Melville this will be the next best thing to meeting him. You may not greet him at his best, but you will certainly be left with a view of him that rings true.

To help Jessie Billy Bartholomew knows he needs Melville. He takes him on a tour of the seamier side of town. A look through a peephole in a bordello lends weight to Billy’s request of Melville. It also leaves everyone in the party feeling dirty. ”I showed you a look at bad behavior and sorrow. Like it was minstrels kicking and strumming just for you.” They paid to look through the peephole to give them distance from these disgusting liberties being taken, but by being an observer without action they became part of the problem.

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There is ugliness in this novel beyond the disfigured grotesqueness of Billy’s shattered face. With poverty rampant in 1867 and so many more widowed women and orphaned children from the war vulnerable to the desires and profits of the strong, it wasn’t only the South suffering through darkest days. Busch doesn’t shy away from the grit, the stench, and the ruthlessness of this time period. In fact, he pushes the reader up to the peephole and whispers in your ear…”what are you going to do about it?”

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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Southern Drama

Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

This book is beautifully written, but I did not enjoy it. It is a grim story of poverty, child abuse and rape. The prose may be lovely but the drama is harrowing.

"Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies."

Bastard Out of Carolina is the story of Ruth Anne Boatwright, but everyone calls her Bone. She was born out of wedlock and doesn't know who her daddy is. Her mama tried several times to get the word "illegitimate" removed from Bone's birth certificate, but the courthouse clerk just smirked at her.

"Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she'd ever spent bent over other people's peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground. The stamp on that birth certificate burned her like the stamp she knew they'd tried to put on her. No good, lazy, shiftless. She'd work her hands to claws, her back to a shovel shape, her mouth to a bent and awkward smile — anything to deny what Greenville County wanted to name her."

Her mama eventually married a man named Glen, and that is when Bone's real troubles began. Glen couldn't keep a job or pay the bills, so the family often went hungry and had to move a lot. Glen also had a fierce temper and started molesting and beating Bone, and she didn't know what to do. Her mama seemed to know Glen disliked Bone, but she said she loved him so much that she wouldn't leave him. After several years of abuse, Bone's aunt saw the bruises on her, and she was finally taken away.

Poor Bone. She blamed herself for making Glen angry, and she hated that her mama couldn't protect her. At times she would get so mad that she wanted to fight him, and other times she just wanted to disappear. Those passages were some of the most heartbreaking in the book.

"I was no Cherokee. I was no warrior. I was nobody special. I was just a girl, scared and angry. When I saw myself in Daddy Glen's eyes, I wanted to die. No, I wanted to be already dead, cold and gone. Everything felt hopeless. He looked at me and I was ashamed of myself. It was like sliding down an endless hole, seeing myself at the bottom, dirty, ragged, poor, stupid. But at the bottom, at the darkest point, my anger would come and I would know that he had no idea who I was, that he never saw me as the girl who worked hard for Aunt Raylene, who got good grades no matter how often I changed schools, who ran errands for Mama and took good care of Reese. I was not dirty, not stupid, and if I was poor, whose fault was that?"

I had previously read Dorothy Allison's memoir Two or Three Things I Know For Sure, so I knew that this novel was semi-autobiographical. From the author's afterword:

"Writing Bastard, I had imagined that girl — or rather some girl of thirteen or so who hated herself and her life. I had imagined that, reading Bone's story, a girl like her would see what I intended — that being made the object of someone else's contempt and rage did not make you contemptible. I was arguing against the voice that had told me I was a monster — at five, nine, and fifteen. I was arguing for the innocence and worth of that child — I who had never believed in my own innocence." 

"The mythology of rape and child abuse had done me so much damage. People from families like mine — southern working poor with high rates of illegitimacy and all too many relatives who have spent time in jail — we are the people who are seen as the class who does not care for their children, for whom rape and abuse and violence are the norm. That such assumptions are false, that the rich are just as likely to abuse their children as the poor, and that southerners do not have a monopoly on either violence or illegitimacy are realities that are difficult to get people to recognize. The myths are so strong they subvert sociological data and personal accounts."

Truthfully, the afterword was my favorite part of the book. Besides sharing her motivations for writing the novel, Allison also discussed how some schools around the country have censored and banned the book, and how she grieved whenever she heard such news. If you want to read Bastard Out of Carolina, try and find a copy that has the afterword (mine was the 20th anniversary edition). 

That said, I don't know if I can recommend this novel because it was so grim. I am glad that some readers have found comfort in seeing issues of abuse brought to light, but it will be awhile before I can shake those awful images. 

"I do not want to be the person who acts always out of fear or denial or old shame and older assumptions. I want to be my best self — the one who set out to tell a story that might make a difference in the lives of people who read it. Unafraid, stubborn, resilient, and capable of enormous compassion — someone like Bone."