Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The CentaurThe Centaur by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”It must be terrible to know so much.”

A pause.

“It is,” my father said. “It’s hell.”

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Chiron depicted in Roman art. The Greeks always depicted him with human front legs. Chiron educated the children of the gods and goddesses so he is an apt mythological creature for George Caldwell to identify with.

George Caldwell is a school teacher at Olinger High School. He struggles with teaching, not because he isn’t good at it, but because he wants it to be so much more. His mind is so expansive that it often slips the bonds of Earth. One of those moments when he is taken by a flight of fancy was with Vera Hummel, a teacher as well, and also a lovely woman desired by all. John Updike is able to show off his knowledge of mythological creatures as Caldwell morphs into Chiron, and she of course becomes Venus. They discuss the gods and goddesses while flirting outrageously with each other. She extorts him to help her.

”Come, Chiron, crack my maidenhead; it hampers my walking.”

It is a good thing I wasn’t drinking coffee when I read that because it would have been spewed all over this book.

The narrative switches between George and his son Peter. Peter is a student at the same high school his father teaches at. He adores his father, but at the same time his father is so exasperating. George is self-deprecating to a painful point, and as an extension of his own view of himself, he wears a ratty cap and a dilapidated coat that make him look more like a bum than a well educated teacher. Peter is afraid for his father because he seems so vulnerable, so inept at the most mundane things, so lost in thoughts that can never be solved. In a moment of frustration, he yells at his father.

”But there’s nobody else like you Daddy. There’s nobody else like you in the world.”

The plot of the novel revolves around George and Peter trying to get home each day and encountering Herculean obstructions that keep them from arriving at their house in the country. George didn’t want to move to the country, but his wife yearned to be on the family farm. Some of George’s continuing issues with the car might have a lot to do with him never intending to own one. He prefered to live in town where he could walk everywhere he needed to be. After one of these thwarted attempts, they end up spending the night in the Hummel house. It proves to be an eye opening experience for Peter to have a day away from the chaos of their own household and have a glimpse at how normal people live. Vera truly becomes a magical goddess dispensing orange juice and bananas upon him like ambrosia.

”Intimations of Vera Hummel moved toward me from every corner of her house, every shadow, every curve of polished wood; she was a glimmer in the mirrors, a breath moving the curtains, a pollen on the nap of the arms of the chair I was rooted in.”

The novel in many ways is brilliant, reflecting an author’s mind that is brimming with intelligence and convoluted thoughts, maybe the inspiration for the labyrinth of George’s own mind. Updike does occasionally veer off course leaving the reader in the middle of the road looking in all directions for the smoke plumes of the car crash. Easily forgiven when Updike writes understated gems like the paragraph below.

”I closed my eyes and relaxed into my warm groove. The blankets my body had heated became soft chains dragging me down; my mouth held a stale ambrosia lulling me to sleep again. The lemon-yellow wallpaper, whose small dark medallions peered out from the pattern with faces like frowning cats, remained printed, negatively in red, on my eyelids.”

Peter becomes an artist. His father was a teacher. His grandfather was a priest. ”Priest, teacher, artist: the classic degeneration.” It did leave me wondering at the end of the book what exactly will the next generation of Caldwell’s be? Are they predestined to be teachers? Will they start the climb back to the priesthood?

I identified with both characters.

Less so with Peter as time marches me further and further away from those heady days of youth. His obsession with Penny Fogelman’s hot thighs; and yet, his fear of actually taking his clothes off in front of her were familiar counterweights from my own past. I was so skinny I thought any girl would think there was something wrong with me, like a bad case of ringworm or some wasting disease.

George’s mind is bulging with information comparable to a crammed bus enroute to Jodhpur. He sees life as larger than it could possibly be. He rises so high on the wings of his thoughts that when he crashes, it proves to be a long fall back to Earth. He battles daily with the odious, student stroking, Supervising Principal Zimmerman, who besides caressing female students also tortures George with obtuse evaluations of his teaching style. The question that plagues George is the one that eventually plagues most of us...there has to be more?

As the pendulum of time continues to duck walk me onward with my heels dragging and my hands grasping for purchase on anything to slow the motion forward, I too ask that question. It has become apparent to me that I can’t wait for some random act of the universe to send me on the proper path. The choice is really between accepting my fate, which some see as cowardly, but I see as yet another act of bravery, or I could pack up my paint kit and follow Gauguin’s footsteps to Tahiti.

Ok, well, maybe not THAT.

It does beg the question of what more is, and once we find and hogtie this mythical MORE, then what? It seems to me that most of us are just never supposed to be fulfilled. The thought of fulfillment is just depressing. It reminds me of the Matrix where they designed a world where everyone was happy and the citizens started committing suicide. We should achieve I think, but maybe not achieve too much. We always have to be left with something to dream about.

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That is quite the self-satisfied smirk on John’s face in 1960, but then he can probably pull it off because he probably is the smartest person in the room.

I’m not really sure why people have quit reading John Updike. I could not put down this flawed, but wonderful book. I do hope that he does experience a resurgence of readers because there are writers in the next generation that would benefit from reading these eloquent and graceful sentences that Updike sprinkles liberally like a trail of emeralds through the texts of his books. I read this book to reconnect with his writing in anticipation of reading Updike by Adam Begley. The name of the author may be familiar to some. He is the son of Louis Begley, the writer that best carries the Updike torch forward in his own writing. However, he is 81, so someone else will soon have to shoulder the Updike legacy.

I have recently, in my hubris, launched a blog which will host my book reviews, but it will also have so much more. For example, I recently wrote a movie review of Birdman. I plan to write about whatever strikes my fancy. I thought about calling it something like The Passionate Reader, but decided I am who I am.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Trail of the Spellmans

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

Why are Rae and David Spellman not on speaking terms? Why is Mom throwing herself into numerous hobbies? What is the link between the case Izzy is working and the one dear old Dad has his hooks in? All these questions and more will be answered in Trail of the Spellmans!

My all time favorite dysfunctional family of detectives is back in a fifth installment and I'm glad to say the level of quality hasn't diminished.

In this outing, Lisa Lutz throws a few new characters into the mix. There's the infant Spellman, Sydney, Demetrius, the wrongfully convicted man Izzy helped free in the last book, and a geriatric Spellman that I don't think was every mentioned before. In addition, old favorites like Bernie and Henry Stone also have roles.

One thing I love about the Spellman series is that the titular characters aren't stagnant. They're all growing and getting older as the series progresses. David is married with a child, Rae is quickly approaching 21, and the parents are nearing retirement age. Izzy makes some changes in this volume as well, some for the good, some for ill, and one change that made me close my Kindle for a few minutes.

As always, it was amazing watching the various plots converge. Lisa Lutz is one of the few authors that manages to surprise me a couple times in each book. I don't really know what else to say. It's a Spellman book so if you've read and enjoyed the previous four, this one should be a no brainer.

The only bad thing about this series is that there's only one more volume in existence. 4 out of 5 stars.

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Monday, April 27, 2015

A Great Debut Novel From David Joy

Reviewed by James L. Thane
4.5 out of 5 stars

This is a fantastic debut novel, beautifully written with great characters and a wonderful sense of place. Set in the rural area of Cashiers, North Carolina, the protagonist is eighteen-year-old Jacob McNeely, whom we meet one night as he climbs the town's water tower to look down on the high school parking lot as his former classmates leave the building from their graduation ceremony. In particular, Jacob is searching for Maggie, the girl he loves and whose heart he broke two years earlier.

Jacob is not graduating with his class because he left school the first moment he could to join his father in the family meth business. Jacob's father is the kingpin of the local meth industry. He launders his cash through his auto body shop and pays off the cops to look the other way. In truth, Jacob comes from a long line of outlaws and he knew at an early age that he destiny was predetermined. He's been assisting his father for a good many years already, and even if he had higher aspirations, he understands that he hasn't a prayer of achieving them.

Jacob's mother lives alone in a cabin in the woods, surrounded by Jack Pines, having long ago become addicted to her husband's product line. Jacob laments that "I wasn't old enough to remember the day Daddy sent her there. The way he told it, she was stealing crank and spent most of her time climbing around the peter tree. So he sent her to this place. Loved her too much to give her nothing, but giving her anything at all squared things so he'd never have to love her again."

While Jacob knows he'll never escape from Cashiers, he hopes that Maggie will. She's the brightest and most beautiful girl in town, and Jacob know that she's one of the few who has a chance to escape, go to college and make a real future for herself. Accordingly, though they had loved each other since they were children, he broke off the relationship two years earlier so that she would not feel trapped, bound to Cashiers through him. He still cares for her very much, though, and when he sees that the future he envisions for her might be threatened, he acts in a way to protect her, irrespective of the consequences for himself.

In the meantime, his relationship with his father becomes increasingly rocky. His father is a strict disciplinarian who expects Jacob to obey his orders without question. Jacob is not cut from the same cloth, however, and when problems arise in the meth business and things get increasingly violent, Jacob will have some hard decisions to make.

As I suggested above, this is a great read, easily on a par with the best of Daniel Woodrell's books, and I promise that anyone who enjoyed Winter's Bone, for example, is going to love this one. 4.5 stars for me--my favorite book of the year thus far, and I eagerly await David Joy's next book.

Not My Kind of Lover

Lady Chatterley's LoverLady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Oh man, I wanted to like this soooo bad! So many people complained about it, but I misconstrued their complaints for prudishness or lord knows what. (NOTE TO SELF: Stop judging people's judgements until you can judge for yourself!)

But the fact is, two-thirds of the way in I was done with this. I absolutely trudged through to the end.

Why? It's not because this is basically porn. I luuuuvs me the sex! Apparently this caused quite a scandal and I can see why. The language is sexually explicit, unnecessarily so...or well, maybe not. I suppose it needed to be said at the time or at least some time. However, a person can only take so many fucks before they no longer give one.

And I wasn't turned off by the lengthy asides Lawrence takes while grinding his ax against the industrialization of England's Midlands. Like Melville's treatise on whales in the midst of his adventure novel, Lawrence had an agenda in writing Lady Chatterley's Lover and he often takes the reader out of the main story in order to linger upon his pet project. That can be distracting, but in this case it's not enough to make me hate the thing, not on the whole.

No, my main issue is with the writing, which is a big problem since there's so much of it in books. Lawrence is quite a capable writer, but he does get adverb-lazy now and then, and often repeats words for emphasis.

That last point can be effective, say when trying to instill a sense of forward motion when describing something that's going faster and faster. Occasionally the technique works for him. Usually it does not work for me. Some call it a poetic style. I call it bullshit...what do I mean? Well, allow me to Lawrence-ify it: The technique is bullshit in the most bullshitty sense, by which I mean, it is bullshit. As you see, it looks like I've explained myself, yet I've said nothing. Done with flair, it can sound lyrical, even powerful. To me, it sounds like so much hot air. And what does hot air sound like? It sounds like

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Down to the Bone

Mayra Lazara Dole
Harper Teen
5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nancy


This edition is different from new paperback and Kindle edition with black cover where girls are a breath away from kissing. This edition was written for reluctant readers, middle graders and very young teens. If interested in a changed, updated, rewritten, augmented edition with the same title, please find the other version.

Here's what it means to be a tortillera. It means you're a girl who loves girls. Which means you get kicked out of school faster than Mother Superior Sicko can can grimace. Which means your dramatic mom finds out. Which means you're kicked to the curb with nowhere to go, and the love of your life is shipped off to Puerto Rico to marry a guy. But this is Miami. If you have a bighearted best friends, and your broken heart is still full of love, you just might land on your feet.

My Review

Laura is a junior in a Catholic high school looking forward to summer and to celebrating her two-year anniversary with her girlfriend, Marlena. Instead, she is humiliated when her teacher reads a love letter from Marlena out loud in front of all her friends, resulting in her expulsion from school and in the loss of her friends. Her mother has thrown Laura out of the house, promising that she can return only when she reveals the name of her secret lover and changes her ways.

Laura moves in with her best friend, Soli, and her mom. Her life takes a turn for the worse when Marlena's family arranges for her to be wed to a man in Puerto Rico.

Down to the Bone is a warm, colorful, funny, and heartbreaking story with a great cast of characters that provides a glimpse into the rich, diverse, and fascinating culture of the Cuban community in Miami.

This is a great teen book, but also a lot of fun for adults too. There's a glossary in the back of Cuban slang and commonly used words and phrases. This is a wonderful story that’s all about love, discovering oneself, finding acceptance, family bonds, friendships, food, laughter, and valuing differences.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lonesome Dove

Lonesome DoveLonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Retired Texas Rangers Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae leave behind their sleepy lives in the Texas town of Lonesome Dove to drive a herd of cattle to Montana. Will they make it alive?

When I was a lad, around the time the glaciers receded and civilization began, I was enthralled with a certain TV miniseries. It was, in fact, Lonesome Dove. Though it took a couple decades, I finally made myself read the book the miniseries was based on and I've very glad I did.

Lonesome Dove is an epic set in the dying days of the Old West. On the surface, it's the story of two men entering old age and going on one last adventure. Digging a little deeper, it's a story about friendship, loyalty, obsession, and carving out a new place for yourself in a world that's moved on without you.

The tale of a cattle drive across three thousand miles of prairie doesn't sound that interesting on the surface but McMurtry's tale is populated with a colorful cast of characters. Aging lady's man Augustus McCrae and duty-bound Captain Call contrast one another nicely. While being opposite in terms of personality, they both still have enough grit to be believable as former Texas Rangers and I have no trouble believing in their friendship.

The supporting cast also has its share of gems, like gambler and former Texas Ranger Jake Spoon, Arkansas sheriff July Johnson, former whore Lorena Wood, Gus's former love Clara, and Newt, the son of a dead whore whose father has yet to acknowledge him. While the book has an epic scope, the shifting viewpoints and colorful characters make it very accessible and a quick read for a book of its size.

While I'd seen the miniseries a couple times, this book managed to wring a few man-tears out of me. Knowing the deaths were coming made it harder somehow. I held out hope that a couple people would survive despite dying in the miniseries but it was not to be. The bottom line is that deep down, all men wish we had a friend that would haul our carcass from Montana to Texas if that was our dying request.

Five out of five stars. Go read the son of a bitch.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

Matthew Shardlake Hunts for a Killer in Henry VIII's England

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

Even though I read a lot of history, I've never been a fan of historical fiction and so when one of the book clubs to which I belong picked this novel as a monthly read, I approached it with some trepidation. For the most part, though, I was pleasantly surprised and I enjoyed the book more than I expected to.

Dissolution is set in England and the action takes place over a couple of extremely cold and snowy weeks in 1537. This is shortly after King Henry VIII has broken with the Catholic church and created the Church of England, with himself as the head of the church. At this point, of course, religious freedom is only a dim, distant dream, and all English people are required by law to follow Henry into the new Anglican church, whether they like it or not.

Many of them don't like it. They remain true to the Catholic church and continue to give their religious allegiance to the Pope. Many of these people will be persecuted for their beliefs and not a few will be executed. In many respects, these are not the sunniest of times.

Once establishing himself as head of the English church, Henry conveniently grants himself a divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, so that he can marry Ann Boleyn. The Pope had refused to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine and this precipitated the break between Henry and the Pope.

Henry also moves expeditiously to confiscate property in England that had belonged to the Catholic church. Most important, there were many Catholic monasteries in England that controlled vast amounts of valuable land. Henry began the process of dissolving the monasteries (the Dissolution) and appropriating their wealth. His principal ally in this effort was his vicar general, Thomas Cromwell, who was much feared by Henry's opponents.

Cromwell sends a commissioner to begin the process of dissolving the monastery of Scarnsea on the southern coast of England, but shortly after arriving at Scarnsea the commissioner is murdered. Cromwell now sends one of his protégés, a lawyer named Matthew Shardlake to investigate the murder and to conclude the dissolution of the monastery.

Shardlake is a brilliant lawyer and is devoted to the reform of the church. He is also a hunchback who has always been self-conscious and socially ostracized to some extent because of his handicap. Shardlake is accompanied by a handsome young assistant named Mark Poer, and the two make their way through the snow to Scarnsea to find a tangled web of murder and intrigue along with financial and sexual irregularities. More murders will follow their arrival and it's clear that Shardlake and his young assistant are also in grave danger every moment that they remain in the monastery. The burning question is whether or not Matthew Shardlake can accomplish his mission before both he and Mark become victims themselves of the evil that seems to infuse Scarnsea.

What I enjoyed most about this book was the atmosphere that Sansom creates. He vividly recreates the turmoil of the period along with the sights, sounds and smells of the era. The reader feels the chill in his or her own bones as the characters struggle to stay warm in the middle of the freezing cold weather. This historical detail is engrossing and the story is a compelling one.

If I have a complaint about the book, it's that about halfway through the book, the story started to drag a bit. Shardlake spends an awful lot of time wandering through the snow from one part of the monastery to another in order to interview people and it starts to get a bit repetitious. I found myself encouraging Shadlake to pick up the pace a bit. This is a book that runs 385 pages which, in my estimation, would have been much better at about 325 pages. But that is a relatively small complaint, and this is a book that should appeal to anyone who enjoys historical mysteries. 3.5 stars for me, rounded up to four.

Desperate Times...

The Crossing (The Border Trilogy, #2)The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One decision, as innocent as it may be, can fuck up your life forever. Now, you can live in fear and hide yourself away, or you can keep making those decisions and hope for the best, and if and when the shit hits the fan, you can stand strong and push on.

That's life. That's The Crossing.

Cormac McCarthy's "The Border" trilogy is where you'll find dusty plains, hard living, and a recent past populated by a people still living in an even more distant past. His characters are full of character, their own code and a new version of an old set of morals.

The Crossing is Homeric. There is a hero with a quest. There is a wise man. There are fools. And there are monsters. The hero's journey plays out upon the border between New Mexico and old Mexico, where the line dividing life and death is measured in handfuls of blood.

McCarthy's books are not where you shop for your good times and happy endings. His characters will die and you will feel pain.

I spent a good amount of time in early 2014 in southern Mexico. It was a learning experience and it helped me to appreciate what's in this novel. Not only was I able to follow along with much of the Spanish dialogue (it's basic stuff, trust me, I'm not bragging here), but the portrayal of the life and the people rings true and brings to mind images, scenes and people I saw and met during my time in that parched land.

I'm giving this five stars, not because I think it's perfect and that everyone will love it. In fact, I think many people would not like this. McCarthy occasionally veers from the action-packed path to discuss life and that irks some readers. However, I give it five stars for McCarthy's writing. It's superb. His language usage...ah, those glorious descriptions! It's all too beautiful!

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It Ain't Easy, But It's All Right

The Long Fall (Leonid McGill, #1)The Long Fall by Walter Mosley
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A new series from Walter Mosley, huzzah!

Well, it's new to me. Mosley's been at the Leonid McGill series since 2009, about 20 years after he started putting out his popular Easy Rawlins books. But instead of rewinding time back to the race-war years of 1960s Los Angeles, The Long Fall takes us on a literary drive-by of a contemporary day-in-the-life of a New York City private investigator.

Leonid McGill, a 50 year old bruiser with a brain, must weave together a number of loose threads, some more deadly and personal than a PI's typical fare. Mosley's got a winning new character in McGill, putting together a nuanced portrait of a middle-aged man with a past, who's still left wondering what his future holds, if anything.

When I see someone review a book on Goodreads and they give it a three star rating, I'm seldom inspired to read that book. However, this sort of three star rating truly means what this website claims it to be, an I "liked it" kind of book. The Long Fall is not groundbreaking, but it is compelling. You want to keep reading. There's never a moment when you're afraid your brain might explode. Instead, it delivers the occasional and pleasurable pulse quickening moment - a common pace for Mosley's work it seems - which drives the plot along to the satisfying end.

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Friday, April 17, 2015

Drago Descending

Greg F. Gifune
The Fiction Works
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


Private Investigator David Drago is a former policeman and Gulf War veteran struggling with his combat experiences, his time spent in the psychological ward of a veteran's hospital, and the darkness of his past. When he is approached by a mysterious client who hires him to locate his missing fiance, Jesse Greenlaw, Drago hesitantly takes the case. The problem, Jesse is also David's former girlfriend, and an integral part of the murky past still haunting him. Drago's investigation leads him into a labyrinth of violence, sexual intrigue, black witchcraft, and Satanism. The deeper he digs, the deeper he descends into a dark netherworld haunted by terrifying visions of angels and demons alike.

My Review

David Drago is a private investigator and a Gulf War veteran. Business is rather slow, so he is forced by financial circumstances to live in his office. He receives a phone call from Mr. Abdiel, who claims to be engaged to David’s former girlfriend, Jesse Greenlaw. Jesse has been missing nearly a month, and David hasn’t seen her in more than five years. He wanted a more traditional lifestyle, while Jesse was involved with porn films. David would rather put his past behind him, but Abdiel insists that David is the best person to solve this case and offers to double his fee.

Drago Descending was brilliant and had me riveted from the first page! David is a wounded man, coping with his war experiences, his failed relationship, his dreams, his nightmares, and using alcohol to deaden the pain. Drago’s investigation leads him into the world of the porn film industry, Satanism, and the evil people do. Drago is a tough guy, but he also has a vulnerable, sensitive side. He still has deep feelings for Jesse and will make the ultimate sacrifice to save her.

I really enjoyed this fast-paced, gripping story with a cast of engaging and complex characters, and look forward to more of Gifune’s work.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Invisible Cities

Invisible CitiesInvisible Cities by Italo Calvino
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan talk of cities Marco has visited.

Where to begin with this one? I thought the writing was beautiful. Calvino and his translator painted vivid pictures of various cities, each a seemingly magical realm with its own quirks. As Marco tells more and more stories, Kublai questions the nature of his empire.

Unfortunately, very little actually happens. While they are very well written, the individual city tales read almost like entries in a poet's travel journal. There's not really an actual story unless you consider an ongoing conversation between two historical figures a plot.

While I'm glad I read it and I thought the writing was masterful, I don't feel like gushing about this particular book. Three out of five stars.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Wow Mao, You Really F-ed Sh!t Up

Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New ChinaOut of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China by Philip P. Pan
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought China got it's shit together after Mao's death. Apparently I was wrong.

Out of Mao's Shadow by Philip Pan is yet another book notched in my ongoing self-education of that huge honkin' thing known as China. I've got two reasons for my interest.

One, China is a world player now. When I was a kid, China was the overpopulated country that produced cheap plastic goods, and that was essentially it. Now China is stretching out and opening up. They are interacting with the rest of the world. On the one hand that's exciting and on the other hand - the uniformed and superstitious hand - it's a little scary. Why? Back when I was that aforementioned kid, China was staunchly Communist and buddies with our archenemy the USSR. In the '80s, if there was one thing our elders/leaders in America wanted us to know, it was "Communism...BAD!!!" End of story. That's all you needed to know. But since then I've grown up and China has matured as well. I felt like it was time we bury the past, shake hands and get to know one another.

The second reason for my recent interest and studies of all things China is that my brother has been over there working as a teacher for a few years now. The Chinese are rabid to learn English these days it seems, so my bro is over there saying shit and explaining himself, mostly to kids, who are utterly fascinated by the pasty-faced whitie. This has led to a desire to know a little more about what he's experiencing.

So I've read history books on China's past (and wow-e-wow they've got a past AND some to spare!). I learned about Mao's Cultural Revolution. Now it was time to get with the times, so I turned to Out of Mao's Shadow, a collection of journalistic stories about the people crushed by and fighting back against the authoritarian, one party system that has ruled China since the Chairman's death.

This book dashed my misconception that today's China was burgeoning utopia for capitalism, free speech and democracy, the facade their government has cultivated for the last few decades. Some Chinese want these things, the others will hold on to power at all costs. China leadership likes prosperity, but they also covet ultimate and total control. New ideologies blend with old tactics and human rights become the doormat on the way to profit.

Story after heartbreaking story, Pan details the constant clash between the people and the people who rule them. It's a war made more complex by China's tumultuous past and the back and forth clashes of the Cultural Revolution that sometimes pitted friend vs friend, even parent vs child. Aging generations, jerked around and left confused, are pensively mixing with youth, if they're not too afraid to get burnt once more, and so the country is filled with an amoebic populous unsure of itself, its place and its future. I can only hope for the best.

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Jake Blake Goes on a Wild Ride

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

First published in 1956, Wild Wives is a short but very entertaining novel from Charles Willeford, the author of Miami Blues and a number of other crime novels.

Jake Blake is a struggling San Francisco P.I. who lives in the same cheap hotel where he has his office. One slow afternoon, Florence Weintraub, the inevitable Hot Babe essential to the beginning of practically any classic P.I. story, waltzes into his office insisting that she's desperately in need of his help. Even though she's twenty-six years old, her father allows her absolutely no freedom whatsoever and has her accompanied wherever she goes by two goons who are allegedly there to protect her. She'd just like a couple of hours to herself, she says. Could Jake possibly help her lose the two thugs?

Well, of course he can, for twenty-five bucks a day plus expenses. And when the lovely Florence agrees to the terms, one thing inevitably leads to another. Florence is very attracted to Jake and once they finally elude her guardians, they go out to dinner, which Jake naturally adds to the expense account. Other more interesting activities accompany the dinner, and Florence insists that she'd like to see Jake again the following day.

Complications ensue and poor Jake soon finds himself entangled in a mess he never envisioned when he accepted Florence's seemingly simple assignment. It's an engaging story with plenty of Willeford's deadpan humor and enough action to propel the story forward at a fairly rapid clip. While not quite on a par with some of Willeford's better known books, it's still a fun read and will appeal especially to those who have read and enjoyed the author's other work.

Friday, April 10, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Raymond Carver
Vintage Books
4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nancy


This powerful collection of stories, set in the Northwest among the lonely men and women who drink, fish and play cards to ease the passing of time, was the first by Raymond Carver to be published in the UK. With its spare, colloquial narration and razor-sharp sense of how people really communicate, the collection went on to become one of the most influential pieces of literary fiction.

My Review

When I started reading, I found these stories a little too spare, a little unfinished. They were snippets of lonely people and troubled relationships, but nothing I could really sink my teeth into. I set the book aside and when I picked it up a second time, I discovered that these stories are better digested when read with fewer interruptions. Although these stories are about a variety of characters, I found their commonalities, differences, views and struggles very compelling, if not always enjoyable. Reading the stories consecutively helped to draw me in and connect me with the characters. The words, though brief and simple, were astonishingly effective at portraying the human condition with grittiness, humor, and poignancy and showing a glimpse of American society.

Here are a few memorable lines from some of my favorite stories:

"There was a little rectangle of lawn, the driveway, the carport, front steps, bay window, and the window I’d been watching from in the kitchen. So why would I want a photograph of this tragedy?” – from Viewfinder

"Things are better now. But back in those days, when my mother was putting out, I was out of work. My kids were crazy, and my wife was crazy. She was putting out too. The guy that was getting it was an unemployed aerospace engineer she’d met at AA. He was also crazy." – from Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit

"The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon. There were things that needed talking about, important things that had to be discussed. They’d talk again. Maybe after the holidays were over and things got back to normal. He’d tell her the goddamn ashtray was a goddamn dish, for example." – from A Serious Talk

"But what I liked about knights, besides their ladies, was that they had that suit of armor, you know, and they couldn’t get hurt very easy. No cars in those days, you know? No drunk teenagers to tear into your ass." – from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Fix a drink, have a smoke, and discover Raymond Carver.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Lost Level

The Lost LevelThe Lost Level by Brian Keene
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When occultist Aaron Pace begins experimenting with travel between dimensions, he finds himself trapped in The Lost Level, a realm purported to be inescapable. Will Pace buck the odds and find his way back home?

I've never read Brian Keene before and this is far from his normal fare, a planetary romance of sorts rather than his usual horror fare. While it wasn't my favorite book of this type, it was quite enjoyable.

As I mentioned above, The Lost Level is Brian Keene's homage to the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Land of the Lost, and similar works. While it obeys the conventions of the Sword and Planet/Planetary Romance genre, complete with buxom warrior women and many-legged creatures, Keene puts his own twists on it.

Rather than being a dynamo like John Carter, Aaron Pace is an occultist but still fairly capable. While traveling The Labyrinth, a dimension connecting many others via portals, Pace stumbles into the Lost Level, an inter-dimensional Sargasso where the flotsam of the multiverse collects. Soon after arriving, he meets Bloop, a creature resembling The Beast of the X-Men, and Kasheena, a nearly naked warrior woman. Together, the trio try to find Kasheena's settlement in the hopes of getting Pace back to earth.

Keene does a good job aping the style of the genre without sacrificing his own voice. His descriptions of the denizens of the Lost Level were vivid without being too flowery and he managed to convey a feeling of jeopardy throughout, unlike a lot of similar books.

The Lost Level setting itself was pretty cool. I love the idea of an inescapable garbage dimension populated by all matter of things, from cowboys to dinosaurs to the Nazi Bell. Since I was a Keene virgin prior to this book, some of the references were lost on me but I did notice references to the Rising and the Clickers sequels.

The Lost Level was a lot of fun but I wished it was about twice as long. 3.5 out of 5 stars. Keene's Labyrinth mythos has me intrigued and I'll be sampling more of his works in the future.

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Monday, April 6, 2015

Poor Jack Reacher Is Just Trying to Hitch a Ride...

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

Late one night in the middle of winter, Jack Reacher is standing by the road on an Interstate highway cloverleaf in the middle of nowhere, Nebraska. It's cold, there's very little traffic, and he's trying to hitch a ride that will get him to Chicago, from where he can make his way by bus or train to Virginia, which is his ultimate destination.

Catching a ride under these circumstances could be difficult in the best of times, but Reacher is a huge guy (much, much bigger than Tiny Tom Cruise), and he's sporting a recently broken nose that makes him look even more intimidating. Most reasonably normal travelers aren't going to take a chance on a guy who looks like this, especially at this time of night, and fifty-odd cars pass by without stopping. Finally, ninety-three minutes after Reacher first stuck out his thumb, a car finally stops.

The car is carrying two men and one woman who are wearing matching shirts and whom Reacher initially decides are on some sort of corporate team-building exercise. He accepts their offered ride and they speed off into the night. But as Reacher listens to them talk and watches their body language, he realizes that something is clearly off-norm here.

Meanwhile, back up the road, a man has been stabbed to death in an old pumping station by what would clearly appear to be a professional killer. Two men were seen leaving the scene and the local sheriff puts out an APB. Almost immediately, though, the FBI swoops onto the scene along with some other very secretive government types. Clearly, this is more than your average, run-of-the-mill homicide.

Thus begins another action-packed page turner from Lee Child. Reacher is on top of his game, broken nose or not, and there are two very interesting female characters along with an assortment of bad guys and government bureaucrats who, as we all know, should simply get the hell out of the way and let Reacher get the job done right.

I really enjoyed the first three-quarters of the book, but this is three stars for me, rather than four, because the last quarter of the book didn't measure up to the setup. I don't want to give anything away, and so I'll simply note that the payoff seemed a bit drawn out and even a little tedious.

One always has to suspend a great deal of disbelief when reading a book like this, and I have no problem doing so. But the end of the book seemed a little over the top even for a Reacher novel and not nearly as inventive or as interesting as the climaxes of most of the other books in this series. Still a fun read, but the first sixteen Reacher novels have perhaps set my expectations a bit too high for this one.

A Relaxed Thriller

All the Flowers Are Dying (Matthew Scudder, #16)All the Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Block lulls you into a sense of ease. His words read like a meeting of two long-time friends over a cup of coffee. They don't necessarily have a great deal to say to one another, they just enjoy each other's company. And then next thing you know someone's been shot/stabbed/raped and a murder is being solved.

That happens through out All the Flowers are Dying. There's an ebb and flow of action from start to finish that sometimes switches between the two like flicking on and off the lights. It's a good pace. Just before you have the chance to get too bored with a slow scene, Block's there at the switch to wake you up.

Some of his writing is quite vivid and gorily graphic. At other times he shows Hitchcockian restraint with a crafty subtly that reminded me of Patrick O'Brian's work. It's been a long career for Block, who began with dimestore crime novellas. What we have with this sixteenth edition in his Scudder series is a maturation of the often ham-fisted crime noir potboiler of yesteryear into a more earthy, human story. Characters are fleshed out, motives delved into more deeply.

Yes, I've intentionally avoided summarizing the book on any level. Spoilers would abound with any attempt. Just know that there are bad guys, good are bad people, good people, but topping the population are your average-joe gray people. There is crime. There is resolution. There is also a good deal of reality and graspable humanity, as well as repulsive inhumanity. It's a veritable melting pot of all that is now.

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Friday, April 3, 2015

I Can't Think Straight

Shamim Sarif
Enlightenment Press
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed by Nancy


Tala, a London-based Palestinian, is preparing for her elaborate Middle Eastern wedding when she meets Leyla, a young British Indian woman who is dating her best friend.

Spirited Christian Tala and shy Muslim Leyla could not be more different from each other, but the attraction is immediate and goes deeper than friendship. As Tala’s wedding day approaches, simmering tensions come to boiling point and the pressure mounts for Tala to be true to herself.

Moving between the vast enclaves of Middle Eastern high society and the stunning backdrop of London’s West End, I Can’t Think Straight explores the clashes between East and West, love and marriage, conventions and individuality, creating a humorous and tender story of unexpected love and unusual freedoms.

My Review

This was the perfect book to read while I was snowed in and work was closed.

Tala is a Palestinian living in London. She’s very outgoing and forthright. After three engagements, her parents really hope this one will stick. Hani is a very nice guy and Tala loves him. Leyla is an Indian Muslim. She works at a job she’s not passionate about, while her true love is writing. Other than a mutual attraction, Tala and Leyla have little in common. They both come from strict, traditional cultures that don’t have a very positive view about homosexuality. Despite these difficulties, the two women eventually fall in love.

The romance happens a little fast, and the plot is rather predictable. Still, I gulped it down in one sitting and enjoyed this light and pleasant story. What I liked most about it is the glimpse into middle-eastern culture, the clash between traditional and western values, religious and class differences, and the interactions between lovers, friends, and family.

There was a large cast of interesting, well-developed secondary characters and other minor characters that could have been fleshed out a little more. I was especially curious about Tala’s uncle, Ramzi, who was likely gay. It would have been so much easier on Tala if they were closer and opened up to each other about their sexuality. Another interesting minor character was Rani, Tala’s mother’s Indian housekeeper who occasionally spits in her coffee. I get that she probably resented the family’s wealth, but I didn’t understand her acrimony.

If you are looking for graphic sex scenes, look elsewhere. This is a thoughtful and humorous story about two young women who eventually find themselves and choose a different path. The ending made me smile.

Maybe I'll watch the film while the book is still fresh in my mind.