Monday, February 23, 2015

Lawrence Block Heads Across the Borderline in Thie Classic Pulp Novel

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Three out of five stars

Borderline is a recent release from the folks at Hard Case Crime that brings together a relatively short novel and three short stories by Lawrence Block that were first published in the late 1950s and early '60s, while Block was still cutting his teeth in the crime fiction business. The novel is one that reader would have found on the rotating rack of paperback "pulp" novels down at the local drugstore back in the day, while the short stories originally appeared in the men's magazines of the era.

The crimes at the heart of these stories all basically involve human beings exploiting each other in one way or another, most often sexually. The only real "crime" story here is the last, "Stag Party Girl," in which a young woman jumps out of a cake at a bachelor party and is shot to death. A private detective, who happened to be at the party, must then sort through the other guests to determine who might have killed the poor woman and why.

The short novel, Borderline, takes place on the U.S.-Mexico border where the cities of El Paso and Juarez lie astride the border only yards apart from each other. The story is set in a much earlier day and age when people crossed back and forth across the border pretty much at will, with only an occasional cursory glance from the border patrol.

A number of characters are thrown together in the two cities, including a gambler named Marty, a recent divorcee named Meg, and a young hitchhiker named Lily who has recently arrived from San Francisco and taken up hooking in Juarez as a means of earning enough money to go to New York and live out her dreams. Finally, there's a psycho named Weaver, an ugly man who's never had a friend and who now buys a straight razor and begins to live out the violent fantasies that, until now, he's only entertained in his mind.

There's a lot of sex and violence in the book, reflecting the fact that Block first cut his writing chops by turning out soft-core porn. Meg, in particular, has come out of a sexless marriage and arrives in El Paso hot and ready to experiment with virtually no holds barred. Marty, the cynical gambler, is only too happy to oblige and takes her across the border into Mexico for some experiences she'll never forget. The real borderlines here are mostly psychological, of course, and once the protagonists begin crossing them, they soon discover that sometimes there's no crossing back.

This is a book that will appeal principally to fans of Lawrence Block who, like this one, are only too happy to read virtually anything that the MWA Grand Master ever wrote. But no one should expect that it's on a par with the material he wrote later, beginning with his brilliant Matthew Scudder series. And certainly it will appeal to those who enjoy the pulp novels of this era and continue to seek them out in used bookstores everywhere. All will be grateful to Hard Case Crime for presenting these stories in this fresh edition, complete with one of the classic pulp covers that the publisher does so well.

Whatever If America Turned Fascist?

The Plot Against AmericaThe Plot Against America by Philip Roth
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some said Philip Roth is the new messiah of modern writers. Philip Roth is overrated, said others.

So I read a couple of Roth's books, Exit Ghost and Everyman. With only those to go on, to me, Roth seemed like your typical aging curmudgeon. Nothing special, just an old man venting through literature his disgruntled annoyance at no longer being able to get an erection. I was ready to call it quits on him, but felt like maybe I should try one more.

So I read The Plot Against America. Boy, am I glad I did. What a joy!

Indeed, I enjoyed everything about this "what if", coming-of-age tale where horrors, both real and imagined, feed into and upon the novel's building tension. Horrors and the heart of a child. Childhood and the heart of a family. This is war vs. peace. The good, the bad and all that falls in between.

This is the story of a young Jewish boy growing up as American as can be in the New Jersey suburbs of the early 1940s. Germany is at war with the world. Hitler and his Nazis are at war with the Jews. President Roosevelt is campaigning for a 3rd term in office.

Then Roth throws a monkey wrench into the works, presenting an alternative universe where, instead of facing off with and defeating Wendell Willkie, FDR is confronted with and defeated by the intensely popular Charles Lindbergh. With their flyboy hero at America's helm, the isolationist Republicans as well as the Nazis themselves can use Lindbergh as a tool to meet their ends.

Aside from some fiddling with the Lindbergh baby history, that's about where the historical fiction ends. Lindbergh was an isolationist. He did occasionally let slip with an antisemitic remark. He did receive a medal from Goring on behalf of Hitler, and he did refuse to give it up. FDR did believe Charles Lindbergh to be a Nazi. Lindbergh's wife did privately wonder in her diary what the *bleeep!* her Swedish, Arian husband was thinking when he spouted anti Jewish nonsense.

There's so very much more that truly did happen, whether you believe it or not, which Roth includes in his novel, but I won't spoil the glorious tapestry that lavishly drapes the background of what is actually Philip Roth's childhood autobiography, at least a fictionalized recounting.

Much of The Plot Against America feels just like the movie Stand By Me. Boys being boys, having fun, experiencing life through youthful eyes, making mountains out of mole hills, and nearly getting buried beneath the true mountains. As a coming-of-age tale, you'll find few finer. Prior to reading this, I would've described Roth's work as Vonnegut-esque but without the humor. Here though, the humor - on occasions a bit dark - is in full throat and fine form. I love nothing more than connecting with human behavior via the stories of our interconnect childhoods. We were all young once and it is a pleasure to share that common ground. Roth shares his suburban American-Jewish upbringing at the height of Jewish persecution in the modern age and it is a joy to read.

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The Candy Man Can

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Charlie Bucket, #1)Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was ten years old and already the magic was gone from the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, leprechauns, Santa Claus and his buddy the Krampus. All was stripped of its power to enthrall. Heck, even sex had been demystified years prior.

Then along came Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It gloried in candy, my number one passion of the day. But not only that, eating candy was the means to getting even MORE candy!


Ah, the golden ticket. How, oh, how I longed for it to be a real thing! I would've traded in a half dozen Christmasses for that.

For those few who haven't read the book or seen one of the movies, finding a golden ticket in a candy bar meant you got to visit Willy Wonka's mysterious chocolate factory, which had been closed to the public and rumored to be run by a madman.

Once poor-and-ever-so-grateful Charlie makes it inside the factory everything comes alive! The amazing sights, sounds, smells and tastes! The sky's the limit (quite literally we discover in the second book). Wonka's childlike imagination seems to know no bounds!

But then things turn a bit queer. One by one, the children invited into the factory start dropping off and in the most interesting of ways. This is a fight to the finish and it becomes clear that there can be only one!

I don't know what was better, the candy or the killing off of brats. Ah but to be serious, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory brought back the wonder and excitement of my earliest memories. Thank you Roald Dahl for giving me back magic, the sweetest gift of all.

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