Sunday, December 31, 2017


UprootedUprooted by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wizard called The Dragon watches over the valley from his tower. Once every ten years, he takes a girl from the valley as tribute. When he picks a girl named Agnieszka, he gets more than he bargained for...

One of my takeaways from The Goodreads Summit was that Uprooted was a guaranteed five star read. It didn't quite hit that high for me but it was a damn good read.

I didn't know until the acknowledgements that this was based on a Slavic folktale, though I suspected it was linked to Baba Yaga, the witch with the dancing hut I knew from mythology and, of course, playing Dungeons and Dragons. That it's based on a folk tale made sense since it immediately evoked the same feelings as other fairy tale-ish reads like The Last Unicorn, The Eyes of the Dragon, and another book I'll fill in later once I remember the name of it. Edit: I just remembered the book was Stardust.

I've seen people call this YA and romance but I don't really think it was either. There is a romantic element and the heroine is 17 but it's straight up fantasy if you ask me.

Anyway, Uprooted is the tale of a valley with a corrupted enchanted Wood growing in the middle of it that spawns all kinds of nastiness and expands every year. The Dragon is the self-appointed protector of the valley and one curmudgeonly son of a bitch. I loved him right away. He picks a girl named Agnieszka to come live at his tower and she proves to be quite a handful.

The Wood, the malevolent forest, is one of my favorite parts of the book. Its ever-present danger reminded me of the corelings from The Warded Man at times. The woods can be a scary place when you're by yourself. Imagine if you could be torn to shreds by giant stick-insects or trapped inside a tree forever.

Agnieszka and The Dragon don't immediately become joined at the genitals and their relationship develops pretty organically. Still, as with most stories involving someone hundreds of years old knocking boots with someone not yet in their twenties, I found it a little implausible.

Corruption is everywhere seemed to be the underlying theme. Even without the threat of the Wood and its corrupting influence, The Rosyans and Polnyans would have found a way to go to war.

The ending was great. I really liked that it wasn't the usual happily ever after affair. It left a lot of unanswered questions, as it should be. The Dragon wouldn't be nearly as interesting with all of his secrets revealed.

I liked the first half a lot better than the second half, though Novik can definitely write a large battle. All things considered, it was a damn fine book to end the year with. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, December 29, 2017


Josh Lanyon
Carina Press
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


On the eve of the new millennium, diamond thief Noel Snow seduced FBI special agent Robert Cuffe, then fled into the dawn. Now a successful novelist, Noel uses his capers as fodder for his books, and has modeled his hero's nemesis (and potential love interest) on Cuffe. Though he leaves Robert a drunken phone message every New Year's Eve, Noel hasn't seen or heard from him in a decade.

So he's thrilled when his former lover shows up at his upstate farm one Christmas Eve. Elation quickly turns to alarm when Robert accuses Noel of being responsible for a recent rash of diamond heists. Robert is all business and as cold as ice: it seems his only interest in Noel is to put him behind bars.

Innocent of the crimes, and still as attracted as ever to the oh-so-serious lawman, Noel plans a second seduction—providing he can stay out of jail long enough.

My Review

I have a weakness for stories about lovers on opposite sides of the law. Noel Snow is a reformed diamond thief, now horse breeder and popular novelist who bases his main character on FBI agent Robert Cuffe, a man he seduced a decade earlier and abandoned on New Year’s Eve.

Other than the annual drunken phone messages from Noel, the men have not seen or spoken to each other until the surprise visit from Robert to investigate a rash of jewel thefts in New York City. Though Noel is apprehensive, there is no denying the attraction between the two men.

I loved how Noel’s books were his way of flirting with Robert, of apologizing. The time they spent together showed glimpses of each other’s lives, past and present, all interrupted by the constantly ringing doorbell at Noel’s farmhouse. There’s the guy delivering Noel’s Christmas tree, the neighbor who needed help with rescuing a llama, and the psychic woman whose greenhouse generator stopped working.

If you want to fill your heart with warmth and Christmas spirit, this tender and funny romance is the perfect story to cuddle up with.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Last Sacrifice

The Last Sacrifice (The Tides Of War #1)The Last Sacrifice by James A. Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Petty gods. Hungry gods. Angry gods.

For as long as the world can remember the Undying go from place to place town to town looking for sacrifices for their gods. Each month they select four who are ritually sacrificed. This time they selected all from one family, Brogan McTyre's entire family. Brogan and his friends rush off to try to save them only to arrive in time to see Brogan's wife die and realize his children were murdered first. The gods aren't pleased that Brogan and his men attempted to interfere with the sacrifices and now the gods have demanded their lives for atonement or they'll destroy the world.

The Last Sacrifice is such a hopeless story yet it centered itself around topics anyone could relate to in anger, love, and injustice. A man had his entire family stolen away to be sacrificed, but he loved his family so dearly he chose to defy the gods because of the injustice. When he failed and learned his family was slaughtered he reacted in anger like anyone would.

"Tell me you would have done differently! Tell me man to man, husband to husband, and father to father that you would do anything differently to save your family!

I called in every debt I had in this world, every favor owed, every coin owed, and asked that those who call me brother help me in my time of need. I still lost them. I saw them slaughtered. I failed!"

Would you let your family be killed if it meant saving the world? I could fool myself and say the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, but those who normally say that are among the many not the few. I'd probably doom the world to save my family or avenge them just like Brogan.

The ending to The Last Sacrifice was unsatisfying, but at least the series continues on. The beginning was strong and heart wrenching as Brogan loses his family and avenges them as best he can, but things quickly devolve into fleeing and planning. The gods want Brogan and his friends as their next sacrifice so Brogan plans to kill them all. It was a bit too drawn out for my tastes. It would have been more enjoyable to see the beginning increased for greater emotional effect and then condense what happened afterward.

I also feel as though the story has provided hints that the gods are far from all powerful. On more than one occasion someone recalled a story that the current gods killed the god's who created the world and stole it for themselves. Also if these gods were as powerful as everyone thinks then why would anyone be able to defy them and live. These gods are likely vulnerable.

The Last Sacrifice tells an emotional story in a bleak world and I look forward to the sequel.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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The White Tower

The White Tower (The Aldoran Chronicles #1)The White Tower by Michael Wisehart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A thousand years ago after the Wizards Wars, people outlawed the use of magic. People caught wielding magic are rounded up by the Black Watch, taken to the White Tower, and are never seen again. Unfortunately people don't choose to have magic, they are born with magical ability. The remaining magic users do their best to hide their powers. A dark practitioner of magic is amassing his forces and anyone who does not serve him is in danger in the days to come.

I had high expectations for The White Tower after reading the prequel Shackled. Shackled was so strong and simple that immediately after finishing it, I started reading The White Tower. I had to know what happened to Ferrin. When I started reading I realized it may take a while to learn Ferrin's fate because unlike Shackled with a single point of view character, The White Tower had a whopping 21 point of view characters.

Despite the many point of view characters the story revolves around four of them. The chosen one Ty, the Guardian Protector Ayrion, the weapon smith Ferrin, and the Dark Wizard Valtor. Ty has grown up hidden with a family of wielders and doesn't know who he really is as the story begins. Ayrion is an exiled young man from a famous warrior clan. He has a magical power to see slightly in the future, a sort of spider-sense against danger. Ferrin has magical power over metal which has allowed him to become an outstanding weapon smith. Unfortunately for him his notoriety and use of magic led to him being imprisoned at the White Tower. Valtor is the main antagonist of the book. Despite being a Wizard, Valtor clawed his way to becoming the leader of the White Tower. His machinations are grand and he won't allow anyone to stand in his way.

The White Tower suffers a bit because of the authors love of his world and work. He loves it all so dearly that he wants to talk through each part of everything. He can't seem to let his many tiny details go. This leads to many chapters that seem desperate for some hard edits.

Another thing that bothered me is Valtor's actions at the White Tower. He captures the magic users who are known as wielders and tortures them. He either turns them to his side or takes their powers through purging. Valtor is a wielder though. He's torturing and tormenting people like him rather than figuring out a better way. One of the characters even questions it aloud saying, "Why in the Defiler's name are you hunting down, torturing, and murdering the very people you should be protecting?" Why indeed? It seems as though some sort of false rescue could sway the wielders to his side without the threat of physical harm or death. Valtor could literally accomplish the same goal in a different, less devastating, manner.

With all that being said there were some enjoyable parts to the story. I enjoyed Ferrin's tale from start to finish. Ayrion's precognitive magical powers made him interesting in the battle sequences. I thought most of the characters stories ended in exciting ways that left me interested in what would happen to them next.

The White Tower was a promising story that could have benefited from more careful editing and removing a bunch of point of view chapters from support characters.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017


Hag-Seed: The Tempest RetoldHag-Seed: The Tempest Retold by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”Ban-ban Ca-Caliban,
Don’t need no master, I am not your man!
So stuff it up your hole, gimme back what you stole,
Tellin’ you it’s late, I’m fillin’ up with rage,
I’m gettin’ all set to go on a ram-page!
Ain’t gonna work for less than minimum wage---
Live in a shack and piss in a pail,
You earn yourself money by puttin’ me in jail!

You kick me in the head, you dump me in the snow,
Leave me there for dead,
‘Cause I’m nothin’ to you.
Ban, Ban, Ca-Caliban,
You think I’m an animal, not even a man!

Now Hag-Seed’s black and Hag-Seed’s brown,
Hag-seed’s red, don’t care if you frown,
Hag-Seed’s yellow and Hag-Seed’s trash white,
He goes by a lotta names, he’s roamin’ in the night,
You treated him bad, now he’s a sackful of fright,

 photo Caliban_zpszbg2tgsk.jpg
Djimon Hounsou plays Caliban in the wonderful 2010 movie of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as Prospero.

Felix is just too busy to notice. He has his head buried in his work, directing plays at the Makeshiweg Theatre. He has been doing it so long, with such success, that in theater circles, he is in fact a bit of a legend.

While he works, others plot.

He is caught in the clouds of his own dreams.

Well, until two large men from security appear, flanking his arch-nemesis (An)toni(o). Felix is frogged marched out to the alley, with a laughably small severance check and a few bags of belongings which are stuffed into his car by Burly #1 and Burly #2.

Just like that, he is deposed, usurped, overthrown, dethroned.

Felix decides that he needs to escape the city. Everything about the city just reminds him of the theater and his past glories. He finds a shack in the country, a hovel really, a cell. He tries to read all those Russian classics he always meant to read, but finds himself instead reading children books to his daughter Miranda.

(view spoiler)

Felix broods. He ponders. He grieves for his lost magic. He plots elaborate revenge scenarios. One thing he has learned from Shakespeare about revenge is that it is best served cold.

Get to know thy enemy.

”There was Felix, alone in his neglected corner reading the Google Alerts, and there were Tony and Sal, bustling about in the world, not suspecting that they had a shadower; a watcher, a waiter; an internet stalker.”

After many years of self-imposed exile Felix decides to apply for a job at a correctional facility teaching a literature course. He is, of course, grossly over qualified, but with a wink and a nudge at the Interviewer who recognized him, he was able to take the job under the name F. Duke.

His nod to Prospero who was the deposed Duke of Milan. He hoped to make his return from exile be Prospero’s escape, as well, from the dusty corners of Felix’s past frustrations. His plans to make The Tempest cut short by his enemies can now finally be realized. He throws out the curriculum at the correctional facility class and makes it all about Shakespeare.

Doomed to failure right? How can mostly uneducated, criminal minds get into Shakespeare?

Remember the pit at The Globe where the unwashed, the dregs, the petty criminals, and prostitutes filled the theater to capacity to watch Shakespeare’s plays? They were there to get away from their own lives for a couple of hours, but also to revel in the sword fights, the treachery, the intrigue, the ghosts, the magic, the star crossed love affairs, and the madness. Maybe they didn’t always catch all the higher ideal references that are sprinkled liberally among the tombstones, blood spilling, and flying spirits of Shakespeare’s plays, but the level of success Shake and Bake enjoyed attests to the fact that the mob as well as royalty and gentry enjoyed his productions.

 photo 43310eca3a86afdeebeed31d425b307e_zpspun02jby.jpg
Yo, Shakespeare, lay some words on me bro. Painting by Mathew McFarren.

Those incarcerated with the help of The Duke started to see Shakespeare for the badass dude he was. Literacy rates increased. The program because immensely popular. ”Watching the many faces watching their own faces as they pretended to be someone else---Felix found that strangely moving. For once in their lives, they loved themselves.”

With such a hugely successful program the government should be excited about duplicating what Felix is doing in every prison in the country, right? Erhhhh not exactly. ”In their announcement, they’re going to call it an indulgence, a raid on the taxpayer wallet, a pandering to the liberal elites, and a reward for criminality.” I know this is Canada, but they must have stolen their talking points from the Republican party in the United States. Justice is about punishment not rehabilitation. In their minds those who have crossed swords with the law don’t deserve the help they need to be something more than just ex-cons when they step out of prison.

And the politician and his cronies who is coming to visit this program and see with their own eyes the overindulgence of these miscreants, is none other than Felix’s old friend Tony. As Felix dons the coat of many stuffed animals and transforms into Prospero can he set revenge aside to save the program or will all of his work just be a springboard to destroy his enemies?

 photo Margaret20Atwood_zpsfgzwqwmv.jpg
Doesn’t Margaret Atwood look capable of casting a spell or conjuring a tempest at will?

This is yet another great retelling of a classic in the Hogarth Shakespeare series. I would highly recommend reading The Tempest before reading this, but if not you can read the synopsis of The Tempest in the back pages of the Hag-Seed and that will give you an idea of how wonderfully Margaret Atwood has transformed the original into a heartwarming, brilliant new story. I could not put this book down. Highly recommended!!

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The TempestThe Tempest by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

****Spoiler alert. Which seems really funny to do with a play over 400 years old.****

 photo Tempest20Prospero_zpsv5rxakgh.jpg

”Our revels now are ended...These our actors,
As I fortold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air,
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which is inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind: we are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep…”

I’ve read this piece of writing numerous times in my life. I’ve discussed it in college classes. It has been mentioned or referred to several times in other books I’ve read over the years. Yet, I was reading along, caught up in Shakespeare’s prose. By this point in the play, I am as zoned in as if I were a petty thief, or a washerwoman, or a butcher with blood under my fingernails in the pit at The Globe, watching this play unfold before my eyes. Ariel may have even cast a spell on me from beyond the pale.

”We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

With all that exposure to these words, these bloody brilliant words, my eyes still sting with tears as if I am reading them for the first time. Maybe it is the spell of Shakespeare, but I am caught completely unawares. As jaded as I think I am, and life has proved to be less than ideal for me, my reaction to this line tells me that I still have a strand of hope twined round my soul.

I still believe in dreams.

Prospero, through the treachery of his brother Antonio, is deposed as Duke of Milan. He is sent out in a leaky boat with his child Miranda to die, but he does not die and lands on an island where he raises his daughter. He survives through the help of a savage, a Hag-seed (born of a witch), who shows he and his daughter how to survive on the island. When Caliban is overcome with desire for Miranda (he had dreams of repopulating the island with little Calibans), Prospero reacts as many fathers would, by enslaving Caliban through magic acquired from his command of the spirit Ariel.

In this time period, writers believed that magicians became powerful through their dominance over a spirit. Wizards did not have power themselves, but only by commanding a spirit to do their bidding.

Caliban is an interesting character. Since he was on the island first, he sees himself as king of the island. His subjugation by Prospero can be interpreted as the same type of subjugation imposed upon indigenous people all over the world. Caliban is brutal, physically strong, mentally weak, and vengeful. He knows what is important to Prospero, even more important possibly than his daughter Miranda.

”First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am; nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him,
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.
He has brave utensils--for so he calls them--
Which, when he has a house, he’ll deck withal.”

It shows how close Caliban and Prospero once were that Prospero would be sharing such dreams with Caliban. Books are what got Prospero in trouble in the first place.

”Knowing I loved my books, he furnished me
From mine own library with volumes that
I prize above my dukedom.”

Prospero, in other words, had his head buried in books so deeply that he was unprepared for his brother to usurp his place. He was searching for power and, in the process, lost what power he already possessed. Thank goodness the faithful Gonzalo took pity on Prospero and snuck his books on the boat. Nothing worse than being marooned on an island without books. To keep from going mad, I would have to carve what I can remember of the great classics into the bark of wood.

”Call me Ishmael.”

Revenge burns bright in the soul of Prospero, and when he gets his chance, he sends Ariel to create a tempest to bring his enemies to him. They just happen to be on a ship passing close to the island. What opportunity be this!

 photo Tempest20Storm_zpskt5nmu5z.jpg

King Alonso of Naples, who helped Antonio overthrow his brother, is now on the island. So is his son Ferdinand, his brother Sebastian, and of course, the main focus of vengeance for Prospero, his brother Antonio. Needless to say, treachery abounds among the troop. Antonio actively encourages Sebastian to do as he did and overthrow his brother. What better opportunity than here on an island? Toss him in a bog, or run him through with a sword, or maybe let Caliban eat him. What makes this all very interesting to me is that Prospero, using Ariel, intercedes.

When we get to the end of the play and they are all saved by the boat returning, Prospero says:

”I’ll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.”

Okay, so Prospero and his lovely daughter Miranda are about to get on a boat with all these other duplicitous, backstabbing, certainly untrustworthy, wickedly ambitious people, and he has just released Ariel from his service and destroyed his ability to summon a protective spirit?

So what are the chances that Prospero gets slung off into the ocean to be a tasty treat for a swarm of sharks and Miranda doesn’t marry Ferdinand, but becomes his mistress Mandy?

There has also been speculation about whether Caliban gets on the boat to sail back to Italy with them. In my mind, Caliban sees himself as the King of the Island, so why would he leave now that his usurper is leaving? Nice parallel with Antonio overthrowing Prospero, and Prospero overthrowing Caliban.

 photo William20Shakespeare_zpsf1ixflfb.jpg

As always with Shakespeare there is much to puzzle on in each and everyone of his plays. I’ve only chosen to discuss a few aspects of the play of most interest to me this time reading it. Next time, it could be several other aspects that catch my attention for discussion. I know there are many who do not appreciate Shakespeare, but he is worth the effort. Read Cliff’s Notes, consult Spark Notes, and read summaries of the plot even before reading the play. The extra work will increase your understanding and enjoyment of any of his plays. Hopefully, once in a while, the Bard will catch you off guard as he does me and touch your reader’s soul with words that lift that weary mantle of cynicism from your shoulders for a brief and beautiful moment.

”My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lye
A little further, to make thee a roome…,
Thou art a Moniment, without a tombe,
And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live,
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.
-----Ben Jonson

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Monday, December 25, 2017

Just What A Scrooge Needs This Time Of Year

Mr. Dickens and His CarolMr. Dickens and His Carol by Samantha Silva
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(I received this ARC in return for an honest review.)

A perfect Christmas read!

This re-imaging of Dickens' struggles and triumph during a time when his renown was at an ebb read almost like a biography. It introduces his family, publishers, agent, literary contemporaries, and many influential figures in his life. Having recently read a biography of Dickens, I recognized most of the people represented here, and I will say that Samantha Silva did a great job of bringing the dead to life.

The story follows Dickens as he plays out the elements of his A Christmas Carol book, literally becoming Scrooge, finding Tiny Tim, being visited by ghosts, overhearing friends and foe speak of him in private, and witnessing the poor and downtrodden. Through these experiences Dickens regains his Christmas spirit, while unwittingly gathering together the various ideas he would need to create his masterpiece.

Writing a Christmas book this time of year is easy money. However, taking on the backstory to A Christmas Carol, one of the most popular Christmas stories of all time, is a bit of a challenge. Your work is placed side by side with one of the greats, so you better bring your A-game. Silva did just that.

Perhaps I'm drunk on Christmas spirit and in a giving mood, but I don't think my 5-star rating is too far off the mark for what this book is and attempts to do. It's a sentimental, heartstring tugger and that's a-okay with me right about now!

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An Insane Read

The Dunwich Horror and Other StoriesThe Dunwich Horror and Other Stories by H.P. Lovecraft
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After you're finished with The Call of Cthulhu and you feel as if you still have your senses about you (You think you do, but you don't. Good try though!), give The Dunwich Horror and Other Stories a go. Herein you'll find more possessed people and plenty others driven insane, as per usual.

If nothing else, this is a wonderful foundational work on the Lovecraftian mythos that details in creepy color Cthulhu and that devilish book of magic, The Necronomicon.

The language evoked by Lovecraft is more simplified here than it was in Call... or The Horror at Red Hook. Dunwich... often reads like an old-timey newspaper story. That style tends to distance the reader from the action, but this is an intentional device used to keep up the mystery. Perhaps some might call the writing stiff at times. Maybe a modern reader or two might find this too formal. Well, this was writing about 90 years ago.

The fact is, this is still solidly spooky stuff. I'm thinking I should read Lovecraft every time Halloween comes around, if I dare...

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Sunday, December 24, 2017

Brave New World

Brave New WorldBrave New World by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In a dystopian society of genetically engineered consumers pacified by drugs and conditioning, Bernard Marx cannot seem to fit in. When he visits a Savage reservation, his eyes are opened and he brings one of the savages back to England with him...

As I continue my bleak science fiction parade toward the new year, I wonder why I've never read Brave New World before.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley takes on consumerism, the media, genetic engineering, recreational drugs, religion, herd mentality, individualism, and lots of other socially relevant topics, weaving them into a science fiction setting that our world resembles more every day.

The setting and society are the stars of the show in Brave New World. The people live in a caste system based on genetics, conditioned from birth and pacified by drugs, living to consume goods and take soma to forget their troubles. Free love is encouraged but free thinking is not. Bernard Max can't seem to get with the program and winds up nearly causing a revolution.

The characters are pretty secondary to the setting but it wasn't hard to feel sorry for Bernard, the square peg in a world of round holes. Even when he gets a measure of fame, he still can't manage to shake the feeling that something's wrong. John the Savage provides a nice contrast, an outsider looking in on a world everyone else sees as normal but he sees as hellish.

Huxley may not have thought so at the time but he may have been a futurist. Our culture seems to be moving in the direction of Brave New World all the time. The rampant consumerism, lowest common denominator entertainment, and herd mentality all seem a little too familiar. Is the internet our soma? Things to ponder...

There are some classics that are as hard to read as an insurance policy written in Klingon and then there are ones like this. Brave New World is very readable and not at all dense. The ideas are very easy to absorb, especially in this day and age. In these uncertain times, Brave New World is as timely as ever. Four and a half stars.

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Friday, December 22, 2017

An Angel in Eyeliner

Hunter Frost
Beaten Track Publishing
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


All Mitch wants for Christmas is a quiet holiday free from grief. Patching up the face of the target of a mugging in the back alley of his bar seems to throw that wish right out into the cold Chicago night. But the tatted, pierced, and skinny-jean wearing Keller Graham is fearless and proves to be more than a pair of icy blue eyes lined in black. Keller may be a thief, but Mitch never expected him to steal his lonely heart.

My Review

On Christmas Eve, Mitch Stirling hears some noise and charges out of his bar armed with a shotgun. He stops an assault in progress, then comforts and tends to the wounds of the skittish young man dressed inadequately for the frigid climate.

Keller Graham is a petty thief who lives rough and works odd jobs to survive, saving most of his money for art school. His creative streak is evident in his drawings, the tattoos and piercings adorning his body, and the clever places he hides his money and eyeliner.

Mitch is a former combat medic grieving the loss of his partner and fellow soldier who died in combat. He was discharged for bad conduct after punching his CO who made jokes about the dead soldier and spent some time in prison. Rejected by his parents, he is living a very lonely life with Christmas being the only time of year that he can set aside his pain from the past.

“Everything is right with the world on Christmas. I give myself permission to forget all the bad – the loss, the pain, the grief – when these decorations go up. It gives me hope for a future that is as happy as I am during the holidays.”

Though the two men are like night and day, this Christmas will be a joyful respite from the hardships they both have suffered through.

This sweet story melted my heart, made me laugh, and brought a tear to my eye.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Shackled (The Aldoran Chronicles, #0.5)Shackled by Michael Wisehart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ferrin is an extraordinary blacksmith especially for his age. The reason for that is Ferrin has magical control over metal. The only problem is that he lives in a world where magic is outlawed. One night Ferrin's freedom is stolen from him when the Black Watch capture and shackle him. Ferrin bides his time waiting for the moment in which he can escape his captors.

Shackled was a strong short story. I quickly came to like Ferrin and I was enraged by the world as a whole. I tend to get easily invested in world's where people get abused in any way by something they have no control over. Ferrin and other wielders didn't ask for their magical gifts, but they are caged like animals regardless.

Shackled was also a great lead-in for the main story. It establishes the world from the wielders who hide their gifts to the White Tower where captured wielders are taken to be interrogated. The world in the story seems in many ways the typical older European setting, but the author puts his flourishes on the events taking place which make the story so intriguing.

Shackled was so good there is little chance I don't read the next book in the series.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017


Anatomy of a ScandalAnatomy of a Scandal by Sarah Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”But the truth is, women are often scared of antagonizing their assailants or they feel conflicted; not so very long ago they may have been charmed by them. And we women aim to please. It is hardwired into us that we should placate and mollify---bend our will to that of men. Oh, some of us have fought against that, and we’re seen as hard-nosed, difficult, assertive, shrewish. We pay the penalty. Why don’t I have a proper, live-in partner? It’s not just because I’m unsure if I can trust anyone sufficiently. It’s because I refuse to compromise. I refuse to woman up, you might say.”

Compromise is not necessarily a bad word, especially if the needs of both parties involved are weighed equally. Unfortunately, compromise has been a word that has been applied more to women than men. Women, through the years, have been somewhat enablers to men’s bad behavior, but they also have not felt empowered enough to say no. Inequality of pay, glass ceilings, social perceptions of their role, and systematic brainwashing have layered into their psyche a fine webbing of insecurities, which makes them much easier to subjugate. Those women who break free, and frankly even the most aggressive of women have only made small advances, are usually marginalized by friends, family, and coworkers.

Don’t you want a boyfriend? Don’t you want to get married? Don’t you want to have kids? Then play by the rules.

Historically, power is never given. It has to be taken. “Men” are not going to give up their power just because women ask nicely. Recent headlines have shown us that we are on a verge of a revolution. The question will be, will women be able to push it as far as it needs to go, or will they end up having to compromise once again?

So where does the trouble begin? Maybe it begins with a belief.

We are invincible, fucking invincible, James thought….”

That is our man James Whitehouse, a man of abundant wealth, charm, and hunkiness. At Oxford, he was on the rowing team and walked around campus like a Greek god. He was a member of a group called the Libertines, and they did their best to live up to the name of the club. For those who may not know the definition of a Libertine, here it is: a person, especially a man, who behaves without moral principles or a sense of responsibility, especially in sexual matters. The young men in this group felt fully empowered to embrace the hedonistic implications as a mandate... nay, as a right of their social status.

You see, they are rich.

To give you an example: at a restaurant, they get rip roaring drunk and start breaking the glassware. They are too drunk to drink anymore, but decide that they will still pour the rest of the Bollingers on hand at the restaurant (they call it Bolly) down the drain. The type of wastefulness that puts my teeth on edge. They can afford to do anything they want to do and be whatever they want to be.

James is paired up with Sophie, well, and with every other girl he can get horizontal or at least backed up against a wall for a good round of thrusts. Sophie is beautiful with long legs, long blonde hair, a fit rowing body, and a pristine pedigree. She would make the perfect wife for a man with his eye on a political career. As wonderful and gasp worthy as their life seems to be, I’ve found that, whether people sit on golden toilets or cracked porcelain, the human elements of existence still always come into play.

Sophie, with two kids now and a husband on the rise in politics, is going to have to make a choice. ”You want to believe your husband. She wants to destroy him.”

The she is the barrister Kate Woodcroft, who is carrying more baggage than a 747. She receives the file on the young blond assistant, who says that James Whitehouse raped her in a lift, and the bitter smile of opportunity curls the edges of Kate’s lips.

Cases like this come down to who the jury will believe and who the jury likes the best. Sexual assault or rape rarely have witnesses, so it amounts to the he said/she said arguments, and who said what, and who heard what.

Does no mean NO, or does no mean maybe? Who wouldn’t want to have sex with James Whitehouse? He is dreamy, after all.

Even as the case seems to be straight forward, preordained even, Sarah Vaughan has loaded into the plot a burning Molotov cocktail that, when it goes off, brings new meaning to revenge served cold. Switching to different narrators with each new chapter leads to new revelations that land like body blows as it becomes more and more clear how those who feel entitled are playing by different rules than the rest of us. This is a story that could have easily been splashed across the headlines of The Guardian, The Sun, The Daily Mail or The Evening Standard.

With all the sexual scandals rocking Hollywood, journalism, and politics in the United States, there have been many interesting, and sometimes heated, discussions in my household about all the nuances of the numerous accusations being made against various powerful men. I’m sure the same has been happening all across the United States in other households, as well. Hopefully, not too many men are finding themselves banished to the couch or the back bedroom. This is a book that would be interesting for couples to read together to encourage discussion of the numerous aspects that surround these issues that obviously deserve and need more understanding.

I want to thank Atria Books for supplying me with an Advance Reading Copy in exchange for an honest review.

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Edgar Allan Poe: His Life and LegacyEdgar Allan Poe: His Life and Legacy by Jeffrey Meyers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Poe’s strange, melancholy loneliness, his obsession with plagiarism, his sensitivity to criticism, his frequent requests for money, his threats of rash behavior, his overweening pride, his humiliating self-abasement and his compulsive self-destruction all contributed to his caustic and corrosive character. Yet his sense of social grievance, his brooding temperament, his fecklessness, his excitable, imperious nature were balance by his Castilian courtesy, ‘polished manners, enormous erudition, formidable conversational abilities, and indescribable personal magnetism.’”

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”Poe’s slightly tilted head, asymmetrical face and contorted expression, curling into a contemptuous sneer, reveal his ravaged condition four days after his suicide attempt in November 1848.”

Edgar Allan Poe was the first American writer to try and make a living with just the power of his pen and his prodigious imagination. Most of the other great writers of the age had university positions or rich wives to finance their scribbles. The term suffering artist might not have begun with Poe, but he certainly was the quintessential representative of the destitute, creative genius.

Edgar was abandoned by his father at barely one year of age and then orphaned by the time he was two. Both of his parents worked on the stage, but his mother was much more successful than his father. Edgar always had a flair for the dramatic, and it isn’t hard to see that, though he never knew his parents, their skills were still part of his persona. From his mother to his stepmother to his child bride, Poe was cursed with losing the women who were most important to him. His melancholy may have been somewhat chemical, but it was burnished to a darker hue by true sorrow.

The most interesting relationship was his contentious association with his adopted father, John Allan, who donated his surname to be Edgar’s middle name . Allan was a very successful Scottish merchant, who vacillated from lavishing attention and money on Edgar to being stern, condemning, and frugal. He raised Edgar Allan Poe to be a gentleman, but did not always give him the means with which to live as one. Part of the problem came from the fact that John Allan was a self-made man and wanted Edgar to find his own footing. This disagreement between them came to a head at the University of Virginia where Poe was excelling. Allan gave him only a fraction of what he needed to live on, and Poe gambled poorly to try to make up the rest of the money. Not exactly what Allan had in mind.

I do believe this is the point where Edgar Allan Poe’s life started the descent into a lifelong struggle with poverty. He left the university without a degree. He then joined the military to spite his stepfather. This is going to be a theme of Poe’s life, his special talent to cut his nose off to spite his face. He then went to West Point and was doing really well with his studies, but decided he didn’t want to continue in the military so managed to become dishonorably discharged.

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The beautiful, but delicate in health, Francis Allan, who was Edgar’s stepmother and occasional ally in regards to his stepfather.

He made things worse, of course, by accusing his stepfather for all his failures, even as he asked for more money from him. Jeffrey Meyers included some of these surviving letters, and to be honest, I can perfectly understand why John Allan lost all patience with his stepson, which ultimately led to his disinheritance.

Ugghhh! I did, at several points in this book, want to give EAP a good shake.

There are numerous stories of people who helped Poe throughout his life, and it was a rare instance when they did not regret offering the help. He couldn’t help evaluating friends with cutting remarks. He felt misunderstood, and certainly he was right about that. His type of genius was undoubtedly unique in the 19th century, and few could fully appreciate how innovative a writer he was becoming.

Poe worked for numerous publications during his lifetime, and in every case, the power of his pen made those periodicals successful. Subscriptions jumped radically each year. He was very good at making other men rich, but just as things were reaching a really good point, he would blow it up. He’d go on a bender and disappear for several days which usually resulted in heated words with his employer. Self-destructive behavior plagued him his whole life. He had a terrible drinking problem and difficulty dealing with any kind of setback or for that matter any kind of success.

He wrote many book reviews, and he was unmerciful in his attacks on authors and their works. He was very personal with his evaluations and left many writers bruised and battered with his attacks. Poe called it unleashing his tomahawk. He truly meant to scalp his fellow writers at every opportunity. For someone who was so sensitive to criticism, he did not put himself in the shoes of those who were suffering under the onslaught of his malicious reviews. One of his favorite targets was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’m surprised Longfellow didn’t challenge Poe to a duel. He did the opposite, in fact.

”What a melancholy death is that of Mr. Poe---a man so richly endowed with genius! I never knew him personally, but have always entertained a high appreciation of his powers as a prose-writer and a poet. His prose is remarkably vigorous, direct and yet affluent; and his verse has a particular charm of melody, an atmosphere of true poetry about it, which is very winning. The harshness of his criticisms, I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature, chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.”

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Virginia Clemm Poe, the source of much guilt for Edgar due to his inability to make enough money to properly help her with her health issues. I’ve always thought of her as this fragile waif of a girl, but from contemporary accounts, she was indeed fragile, but was curvaceous and very womanly in appearance.

Longfellow also bought five editions of Poe’s work to help out the destitute Maria Clemm, the mother/Poe’s aunt of his wife Virginia, who tried her best to take care of him in his later years. The contrast between how Poe conducted himself and how Longfellow conducted himself is very telling, about how someone who should despise Poe could still see the good in him even though Poe had tried his best to eviscerate Longfellow. I don’t know much about Longfellow, but he must have been very comfortable with his abilities, and certainly, unlike many of Poe’s enemies, and they were numerous, he didn’t feel the need to splinter the bones of the corpse.

This biography gives me a clearer, more defined view of the character of Edgar Allan Poe. Like many people of genius throughout history, he was immature, reactive, self-destructive, and difficult to like. Women found him hypnotic, well mannered, baffling, and attractive, though as he tried to find a wife after Virginia died, he found it easy to obtain their attention but difficult, with his erratic history, to convince any of them to marry him. These older, intelligent women of means, the perfect match for a starving writer, were too savvy to put their futures in jeopardy with such an unreliable man, regardless of how handsome and captivating he might be. For those dedicated Poe fans out there, as am I, this might be like meeting the man for the first time.

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Monday, December 18, 2017

The continuing story of Richard Sharpe

Sharpe's Triumph (Sharpe, #2)Sharpe's Triumph by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few years back I read most of Bernard Cornwell's action-packed serial adventure series on the Napoleonic Wars. I read through to what felt like a fairly satisfactory end and then I quit for a few years. Recently I noticed I still had about a half dozen books to go, and so when I came across Sharpe's Triumph, the second book in the series and the first I hadn't read yet, I figured it was time to get reacquainted with an old friend. It's so good to be back with Ol' Sharpie!

Richard Sharpe was an orphan from the London workhouses. He's a tough fighter, who escapes life-threatening danger time and again through wit, bravery and brawn. Mostly he wins by kicking ass, sometimes literally. However, at the start of the series, he's a lowly private in the army, who's never seen action. Reading about how he became who he eventually became was answered in book one to a small extent, but Cornwell went a step farther with it in book two.

Having seen the tv show starring Sean Bean based on these books, I knew how lowly Sgt Sharpe became an officer. That is a very big deal, because someone born to such a low station in life as Sharpe would not generally rise into the officer ranks. That's just not how the British army worked back then. It took an incredibly stupid brave act of daring to rise from the rank and file to become an officer. You basically had to step to the very edge of suicide and survive to make it happen. Sharpe's feat in this regard is detailed within this book and it differs slightly from how it was portrayed on the tv show. Nice to finally get that cleared up.

Book one felt quite strange to me, probably because it is set in India and most all of the others are set in Europe, usually Spain or France. Book two is also set in India, but it definitely feels more like a standard Sharpe book. Perhaps that's because there are huge set-piece battles led by Arthur Wellesley, aka the Duke of Wellington. It also includes plot mainstays like a damsel in distress, a conniving compatriot with a personal vendetta, and a pompous and/or cruel aristocratic officer or two, all of whom manage to make Sharpe's life hell.

I haven't read these books in order, which is perhaps wrong of me since they follow a chronological order. But then again, Cornwell didn't write these in order, so if he's not going to lead by example, how am I suppose to follow? Damn it, I demand authorial leadership! I kid. I'm honestly just happy he wrote these at all. It's been an absolute pleasure reading about Sharpe's adventures.

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Cloning Tolkien

The Sword of Shannara (The Original Shannara Trilogy, #1)The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

How is it Terry Brooks did not get sued by the Tolkien estate for this book? He went to law school, how could he not see the lawsuit in this?

The Sword of Shannara parallels the Lord of the Rings series on so many points it's laughable. About a third of the way in I began to feel deja vu, like I was rereading The Fellowship of the Ring. There are best-bud insignificant protagonists, who are told to go on an adventure by a mysterious wizardy type guy. During the mini-starter adventure they nearly get done in by undeadish dudes and meet a ranger, who is an aloof royal. They meet back up in a safe haven (dwarf this time, not elf) to discuss who and how they shall proceed in their questing against the ultimate evil "dark lord". The similarities go on and on, but I'll stop here, because I'm getting annoyed just thinking about it, as well as bored and I fear you may be, too.

The writing isn't good. Adverbs abound. I know there's an anti anti-adverb movement out there right now, but trust me people, your motives are misguided. You think the uptight lit nazis are going overboard, but I assure you, you do not want to read sloppy, lazy writing. I swear, too many times in this book will you find lines like: "Blah, blah, blah," the sad hero said sadly. Seriously, there was a "sad" and "sadly" together in the same sentence in reference to the same person at one point in this book. It was sad.

The narration was annoying. I had to go with the audiobook on this one though. There's no way I would've finished it otherwise. However, Scott Brick threw up a brick on this one. He's usually good for non-fiction works, but his attempt at accents was laughable (Is this character supposed to be Scottish or Liverpudlian? Oops, never mind! Apparently he's Cockney) and his dramatic reading was overwrought. In fact, now that I think about it, he's always on the edge of melodramatic inflection.

The version I went with was annotated, so every once in a while Brooks himself would pop on to give some insight into the book. When Brick read the first line and then Brooks interrupted, I didn't think I was going to make it, not at that snail's pace. However, the pace did pick up and Brooks' quick and tidy additions provided mostly enjoyable and an occasionally informative interludes.

But hey, enough of my yakkin'! The fact is, this is an epic work with some interesting elements, some of which do tarry from LotR territory. Imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, I feel like Brooks' heart was in the right place. And if nothing else, he was young, enthusiastic and inexperienced. For his legion of fans, it's for the best this book was not buried in legal proceedings and that its author was able to launch a long and fruitful career, for which many readers are grateful.

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Friday, December 15, 2017

Psycho USA: Famous American Killers You Never Heard Of

Harold Schechter
Ballantine Books
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars



In the horrifying annals of American crime, the infamous names of brutal killers such as Bundy, Dahmer, Gacy, and Berkowitz are writ large in the imaginations of a public both horrified and hypnotized by their monstrous, murderous acts. But for every celebrity psychopath who’s gotten ink for spilling blood, there’s a bevy of all-but-forgotten homicidal fiends studding the bloody margins of U.S. history. The law gave them their just desserts, but now the hugely acclaimed author of The Serial Killer Files and The Whole Death Catalog gives them their dark due in this absolutely riveting true-crime treasury. Among America’s most cold-blooded you’ll meet

• Robert Irwin, “The Mad Sculptor”: He longed to use his carving skills on the woman he loved—but had to settle for making short work of her mother and sister instead.

• Peter Robinson, “The Tell-Tale Heart Killer”: It took two days and four tries for him to finish off his victim, but no time at all for keen-eyed cops to spot the fatal flaw in his floor plan.

• Anton Probst, “The Monster in the Shape of a Man”: The ax-murdering immigrant’s systematic slaughter of all eight members of a Pennsylvania farm family matched the savagery of the Manson murders a century later.

• Edward H. Ruloff, “The Man of Two Lives”: A genuine Jekyll and Hyde, his brilliant scholarship disguised his bloodthirsty brutality, and his oversized brain gave new meaning to “mastermind.”

Spurred by profit, passion, paranoia, or perverse pleasure, these killers—the Witch of Staten Island, the Smutty Nose Butcher, the Bluebeard of Quiet Dell, and many others—span three centuries and a host of harrowing murder methods. Dramatized in the pages of penny dreadfuls, sensationalized in tabloid headlines, and immortalized in “murder ballads” and classic fiction by Edgar Allan Poe and Theodore Dreiser, the demonic denizens of Psycho USA may be long gone to the gallows—but this insidiously irresistible slice of gothic Americana will ensure that they’ll no longer be forgotten.

My Review

I discovered Harold Schechter while taking criminal justice electives toward my degree in General Studies. During my Intro to Criminal Justice class, I read Deranged, a bone-chilling account of one of the most monstrous of serial killers. Arrested for the kidnapping and brutal murder of 10-year-old Grace Budd, Albert Fish confessed to kidnapping, torture, rape, murder and cannibalism of many more young victims. Though the subject matter was deeply disturbing, this was quite possibly one of the best true-crime books I’ve ever read. During my Juvenile Justice class, I picked up Fiend, the story of Jesse Pomeroy, the youngest person in Massachusetts to be convicted of first-degree murder. Because he was only 14, his death sentence was commuted to life in prison. Then I read Fatal, about Jane Toppan, a nurse guilty of poisoning numerous elderly patients in her care.

I like Harold Schechter’s writing style. His books are well researched and rich in historical details. Not only is he skilled at bringing the past to life, he excels in exploring the mindset of individuals and societal attitudes at the time the crimes were committed.

Though I have a few more of his titles on my shelf, I haven’t read any more until I recently borrowed a copy of Psycho USA from the library. This book is different in that this is a collection of short accounts of little-known criminals from the past. In the introduction, Schecter explains why certain crimes are forgotten while others remain vivid in our collective memories.

“The crimes that come to define an era tend to be those that reflect its most pressing anxieties.”

Unhappy with rising taxes, increasing financial difficulty and wanting revenge on his community, Andrew Kehoe set off explosives that destroyed a school and his house and farm, killing his wife along with 38 children and injuring 58 others. Not only was this crime eclipsed by Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight, Americans were just not fearful of terrorism in 1927.

There are poisoners, serial killers, kidnappers, torturers, and rapists. Some were mentally ill, making me wonder if psychological intervention could have prevented their crimes. I was shocked by the number of criminal and accidental deaths due to poison in the Victorian era, a time when there was no control over sales and people needed affordable ways to control vermin.

The stories are presented chronologically, starting with the late 1700’s and ending with 1961. While I enjoyed these snippets, I prefer the author’s full-length books that go into much greater detail.

Thursday, December 14, 2017


Mystic (Nightblade Epic #2)Mystic by Garrett Robinson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Mystic Jordel is in search for the fugitive wizard Xain. Jordel will only say he needs Xain for a fight that's coming, but nothing more. Loren seeks to find Annis and resume her life of adventure.

Mystic is a book about running away. People are chasing Loren constantly and she uses a carriage, her feet, a boat, and horses to run away...for nearly the entire book. If Loren isn't running away she's making plans to run away.

When Loren isn't running away or planning to run away she's making terrible choices. I don't know that any character in any book has survived so long after making so many terrible choices. Granted she was slightly smarter than she was in the first book, but that was the most horrible display of decision making I ever witnessed.

I'd like to say there were good points, but they were rather obvious. The magestones come into play and shortly afterward it's apparent what the result will be. A new piece of information about Loren's dagger is learned, but it felt mostly irrelevant.

The story in Mystic and the first book of the series has no actual plot. The only thing it seems the characters have done is run away. There are a few quick moments where other things happen, but they are quickly replaced by the characters running away some more.

Perhaps the biggest head scratching part of the story is that for some reason all of the main characters look to Loren for advice. Loren the bad decision maker born in a back water little town most haven't heard of is looked to for guidance from everyone. I'll grant that she has skill with stealth and lying, but outside of that she needs to sit down, be quiet, and be glad they let her come along.

Mystic and the series as a whole are just not for me.

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Richard Nixon: The LifeRichard Nixon: The Life by John A. Farrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”The president ‘was an almost completely political animal. He was neither moral nor immoral, but was amoral,’ said Farmer, the civil rights leader….’I don’t think right or wrong entered into it.’

‘Nixon would have been recorded as being a very great president had it not been for the fatal character flaw,’ said Farmer. ‘He did not believe in anything.’”

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I can remember in 1994 when Richard Nixon died that one of my friends, who has been an unrepentant hippy her whole life, said she was going to the Nixon funeral, but only if it was an open casket. She wanted to make sure the SOB was really dead. Nixon certainly inspired this level of animosity, not only in political enemies, but the numerous personal enemies he made over the years for being...well...a dick.

”’When you got into a campaign, especially with a guy like Nixon whose guts we hated, it was easy to get combative. You’re not running against a nice guy. You’re running against a first-class son of a bitch.’”

I didn’t know much about Nixon’s early days in California. John A. Farrell gives some background. The deaths of several members of his family seemed to have a lifetime impact on Nixon. I was more interested in what kind of man he was after he got back from service in WWII. I thought maybe I would see the progression of a brash, idealistic, young man who eventually evolved into the brooding, wounded Darth Vader who resigned in 1974. His opponents, from Jerry Voorhis for the 1946 House seat to the ‘pink lady’ Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950 for the Senate seat, were both completely unprepared to face the type of tactics that Nixon was willing to unleash. Winning was everything. There was no sense of decorum in a Nixon campaign. There was no progression, Nixon was as ruthless at the beginning of his career as he was at the end of his career.

I know you are going to be shocked about this, but there were two main staples of Nixon’s campaign tactics. One was to paint any Democrat as soft on communism, thus dubbing Helen Gahagan Douglas as the pink lady. Two was to lie and, when caught in a lie, to lie about ever saying the lie. Then, bludgeon the opponent for using unfair tactics by calling Nixon a liar.

Sound familiar?

When he was campaigning to be Dwight D. Eisenhower’s vice president, he called President Truman a traitor. Which is a *gasp* moment. Where is the line that should never be crossed? Then, he denied saying it. He became furious when reporters started carrying around tape recorders to his events. We have discovered in the current political climate that even getting a politician on tape may not be enough to convince his party followers to condemn him.

I was surprised to learn that Richard Nixon was Tricky Dick Nixon from the first moment he decided to become a politician. There was simply nothing he wouldn’t do to win a campaign. It was all about winning and achieving power. Whatever he had to do to make that happen was not weighed on a moral scale, but was weighed by how much it would help him win and by a calculation of what his chances were to get away with it.

I knew he was diabolical, but underneath it all, I thought maybe there was merit. I’d, over the years, began to give him some credit for being a good statesmen, after office. I considered him a thoughtful writer who seemed to see the world with more objectivity and not through the darkened optics of a warped Nixon lens.

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This is the moment in the speech when Richard is showing how he has the universe by the nuts and how he is going to squeeze until he gets what he wants.

His famous Checkers speech, when he went on the air and defended his use of campaign finances, was that moment in time when his footnote to history could have been smaller. Eisenhower was about to drop him from the ticket as his vice president. This is one of those moments in time where Nixon could explode, casting his boiling vile and deep seated hate for the world in all directions. He could have been the disgruntled civil servant who throws grenades over his shoulder as he walks out the door. This speech was given with such feeling and passion that he brought tears to the eyes of the film crew, not to mention the public.

How does he do that? He doesn’t even like people enough to pull off a speech like that. The only thing I can think is that his adoration for himself overcame his natural loathing for himself long enough for him to save his career. He didn’t want “them” to win.

Escaping these moments, and there are many throughout his career where he should have been politically destroyed, kept enhancing his ego, gave fire to his paranoia, and, ultimately, lead to his spectacular demise.

”’Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?’ mused Henry II, and a knight seeking royal favor murdered Archbishop Thomas Becket in the cathedral at Canterbury. Did Richard Nixon order every breach of the law? No. But in May 1971 he called for the wiretapping of his Democratic foes. And in June he instructed Haldeman and Colson: ‘You’ve got to really have a sophisticated assault upon the Democrats. Humphrey must be destroyed. Muskie must be destroyed. Teddy Kennedy must be.’ It wasn’t hard for Nixon’s knights to know what the sovereign wanted. Nixon’s mutterings led not to Canterbury, but to Watergate.”

The dubious men who were hired to carry out these clandestined tasks called themselves The Plumbers, but plumbers all over the world should be insulted because of what bumbling fools they turned out to be. Certainly, Nixon did not specifically order everything these idiots attempted to do, but to be frank, Nixon loved the covert nature of their cloak-and-dagger enterprises. He wanted to know details so that he could relish in the belief that he was smarter and craftier than his moron opponents. What sinks him is a White House tape from June 23rd. Oh, yes, the taping setup that would help him write books about his life as president after office. He would have plenty of time to write books, sooner than he thought.

Farrell talks about some interesting things that have been revealed for the first time. I’m not going to go into detail because those are the type of things that encourage people to read the book for themselves, but one particular covert Nixon action is haunting for me because it led to seven more years of war in Vietnam. The cost in blood and money was going to be steep.

I was also really bothered by his selection of Spiro Agnew as vice president. ”The selection of Spiro Agnew revealed Nixon at his worst. It was a cynical nod, a race-baiting wink--a catastrophic blunder. It was Nixon’s first ‘presidential’ decision--the choosing of a running mate--and a disaster.” Nixon referred to Agnew as the ”assassin’s dilemma.” I felt the same way when George H. W. Bush selected Dan Quayle, or how about George W. Bush putting Dick Cheney one heartbeat away from the presidency, or how about the baffling choice of Sarah Palin by John McCain? Are these choices merely hedges against assassination? Nixon was that cynical. I’m not sure these other presidential candidates were, but sometimes I do wonder.

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Dick, if you stare into the camera with enough intense concentration, maybe the world will burst into flames.

Farrell’s writing style is very fluid. He does not become bogged down in minutiae. Certainly, my perspective has shifted once again about one of the more conflicted and controversial figures in American history. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself, and here we are stuck with another paranoid, delusional, blustering court jester in the presidency. People tell me how boring they find history to be, but they don’t seem to realize that, by reading the past, you are reading the present and the future. It is infinitely fascinating.

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Monday, December 11, 2017

A mystery throwback...or throwaway

The Secret of Chimneys (Superintendent Battle, #1)The Secret of Chimneys by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rather silly at times - sometimes intentionally, sometimes not - The Secret of Chimneys is not one of Agatha Christie's finest works. It is, however, an enjoyable enough read for mystery fans who like a throwback.

When a rather dashing young drifter accepts a friend's job on the prospect of quick cash, he gets himself into a deep bit of doo-doo. This murder mystery amongst the upper classes draws in political intrigue at a lord's estate. A random and playfully portrayed cast of characters populate the novel and give it a life that elevates it above the serviceable plot.

It was interesting to read a Christie book with a detective other than Poirot. Superintendent Battle does not figure as prominently in the story as Poirot usually does and Battle doesn't have half the charisma of the diminutive Belgian. The aforementioned dashing young drifter does most of the heavy lifting in that regard, and in this way the book reminded me of Dorothy Sayer's Lord Peter Wimsey series, the first book of which came out two years before The Secret of Chimneys. Hm, very suspicious...

With all the evidence laid out before us, I would deduce that what we have here is a perfectly fine read and anyone who's already a fan of Christie's will enjoy it, so I should think.

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Poor Expectations Snatched Away!

Invasion of the Body SnatchersInvasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow, this was waaay better than I expected it to be! Hurray for pleasant surprises!

I expected pure pulp. I figured this was a toss-off, dime-store sci-fi novel that benefited from the success of two film versions. I haven't actually sat down and watched either the 1956 or '78 movies (though I have seen The World's End, the Wright/Pegg loose take on it), so the plot hadn't been fully spoiled and reading the book would provide some surprises and a bit of entertainment. I got that and more!

If Invasion of the Body Snatchers is any indication, Jack Finney was a very competent writer. There's a natural flow to this book. The main character, a doctor who knows all the people in his small Bay Area town, narrates in a marvelously conversational manner. You'll probably like the doc right off and find it as easy to root for him as I did.

And the plot is similarly well-constructed in a way that you immediately are drawn into the story and are pulling for the protagonist and his posse....

I just realized that I'm writing this review in a cagey manner, trying my best to avoid spoilers, such as mentioning that alien beings invade Earth in order to obtain individuals, a sort of invasion of body snatchers, if you will. Yeah, I wouldn't want to give anything away!

Even if you're quite aware of the plot, and how can you not be, you will nonetheless probably find this an enjoyable read. I know I'm quite glad I picked it up!

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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Keller's Fedora

Keller's FedoraKeller's Fedora by Lawrence Block
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After Dot convinces him to come out of retirement for one last job, Keller has to play detective to figure out who the client wants eliminated, his wife's lover. Only things get complicated...

At the end of the last Keller book, I was hoping Block would let his hitman for hire rest. However, now I'm glad he didn't. Keller's Fedora was a fun read.

Keller's Fedora sees Keller buy a new hat and take the train north to bump someone off, leaving his wife and daughter in New Orleans. As with all Keller tales, the joy is in his interactions with Dot and in watching Keller use his ingenuity to get the job done.

Yeah, I sure was glad to see my favorite stamp-collecting hitman again. Block's writing is as crisp as ever, as slick as blood and brains on the head of a hammer. Keller's tender side and relationships with other characters set him apart from other killers for hire.

The case proved to be a tricky one but Keller and his fedora eventually got the job done. The first killer was easy enough and Keller figured out away to clean up the complications later, as he usually does.

Keller's Fedora is quite an enjoyable novella from one of my favorite living crime writers. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, December 8, 2017

Tseng Kwong Chi: Performing for the Camera

Amy Brandt
Chrysler Museum of Art
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


This volume is the first comprehensive survey of the work of Tseng Kwong Chi (1950--90), a revered photographer and performance artist of the 1980s. Reproducing more than 100 works by Tseng from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, and including archival materials from his commissions for the Soho Weekly News, the book presents Tseng's best-known self-portrait series, East Meets West, as well as lesser--known works, plus portraits of his friends Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kenny Scharf, among others.

My Review

“My photographs are social studies and social comments on Western society and its relationship with the East. [I pose] as a Chinese tourist in front of monuments of Europe, America and elsewhere.”
Tseng Kwong Chi

After reading Keith Haring’s biography by John Gruen, I became increasingly curious about Tseng Kwong Chi, the photographer who documented Keith’s subway drawings and was known for his own gently satirical work, including East Meets West, which features himself in a Mao suit in front of major American and international tourist sites, and his final work, the Expeditionary Series, contemplative photographs taken in the US and Canada and featuring the artist as a diminutive figure dwarfed by the majestic landscape surrounding him. During the Reagan era, the artist had fun photographing influential conservatives for his Moral Majority series.

Tseng Kwong Chi’s work was playful, yet deep and thought-provoking. I enjoyed revisiting his photos of Keith Haring and his work, and the other artists who participated in the East Village 80’s art scene, such as Kenny Scharf and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Sadly, Tseng Kwong Chi died of AIDS complications in 1990 at the age of 39.

This is a wonderful coffee table book with thick pages and crisp color and black and white photos. I enjoyed the thorough analysis of the artist’s work, and the last story written by his sister, Muna Tseng, which was a glimpse into the artist’s childhood and family life.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


The Long HomeThe Long Home by William Gay
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”He held in his hands a human skull. It was impacted with moss and mud, a salamander curled in an eyesocket, periwinkles clinging like leeches to the worn bone. Bright shards of moss clung to the cranium like perverse green hair. He turned it in his hands. A chunk of the occipital bone had been blown away seemingly by some internal force, the brain itself exploding and breaking the confines of the skull. He turned it again so that it seemed to mock him, its jaws locked in a mirthless grin, the two gold teeth fey and winsome among the slime and lichens.”

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Who did this skull belong to? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

Everybody was so busy trying to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads they could spare little time over worrying what a man like Dallas Hardin might be up to. He took over Thomas Hovington’s farm while he was stoved up with some illness that bent his spine like it was a piece of black licorice. Hardin didn’t need a magical staff or the will of God to part the legs of Hovington’s wife, Pearl. She came readily to the task. Hardin also took over the moonshine business, as well.

People talked, sure, but who was going to do anything about it? Hardin was rough cut, like a knot infested piece of yellow pine. ”Hardin’s vulpine face was leaner and more cunning than ever, the cold yellow eyes more reptilian. Or sharklike, perhaps, lifeless and blank save a perpetual look of avarice. And he went through life the way a shark feeds, taking into its belly anything that attracts its attention, sucking it into the hot maw of darkness and drawing nourishment from that which contained it, expelling what did not.”

He was a predator who took what he wanted just to see what someone else would do to keep it. If he was having an issue with a neighbor, everyone was just happy he didn’t have an issue with them. They took wide turns when they walked around Dallas Hardin. Most people were pretty simple in this rural area of Tennessee in the 1940s. William Tell Oliver, who had observed Hardin’s business and personal practices from the shadows among the trees, described a typical person populating this region of Tennessee. ”She had no interest in anything that happened in a book, on the radio, in France or Washington, D.C. Nothing that was not readily applicable to her life. If you can’t eat it, fuck it, or bust it up for stovewood, she’s got no use for it.

Higher ideals, in other words, were not of interest, and it made these people easy to manipulate and even easier to buffalo. Oliver had reached a point in life where he might have spent time pondering the cosmos, but really he just wanted to be left alone to raise his goats and enjoy the peacefulness of a simple existence. When the lad Nathan Winer, to whom Oliver was partial, went to work for Dallas Hardin building a honky tonk that could be stocked with whores and booze, Oliver had a feeling in the marrow of his bones that, sooner or later, somebody was going to have to do something about Dallas.

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Thomas Hovington had a daughter named Amber Rose who was about Nathan’s age. Nathan had never seen anything as saucy and pretty as her, with her nice angles and soft curves. Dallas Hardin had been raising her like a fatted calf, with a mind that someday she would be his. Desire and perversion were twined in a hillbilly tango as Nathan and Dallas squared off. Boy against shark. Nathan had been slinging a hammer all summer, and his forearms were like pieces of molten iron. In a fair fight, Nathan would sling Dallas around like a dry corn stalk and smash him to pieces, but Dallas didn’t fight like that. He’d stack the deck and come at you from your blindside, with darkness slung around his shoulders.

Besides Dallas was focused on what he wanted.
Nathan was understandably distracted.

”The wind sucked through the cracks by the windows and told of a world gone vacant, no one left save these two. He thought of his hands on her throat, of his weight bearing down on her, forcing her legs apart with a knee, sliding himself into her. Dark and nameless specters bore their visions through his mind. He thought of her supine in a shallow grave, her green eyes and the sullen pout of her mouth impacted with earth, the cones of her breasts hard and white as ivory, ice crystals frozen in the red hair under her belly. The rains of winter seeping into her flesh, the seeds of springs sprouting in the cavities of her body.

‘Why you lookin at me like that?’

‘I ain’t.’”

He shore is.

A woman, even if she was a mere girl, would drive a man, especially one still shaking off the last vestiges of boyhood, crazy.

William Tell Oliver could see it all playing out like an old song that always ends the same way. Someone was going to have to do something, and he couldn’t deny that the someone, who was going to have to do something,… was him. ”He knew that the world was wide in its turnings and it was fraught with dark alleyways and pastoral footpaths down which peril lurked with a patience rivaling that of the very old.”

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William Gay has some intense dark eyes, like holes in snow cleaved by icicles.

Simply amazing writing, so lyrical it will make your teeth ache, like you just took a drink of melted snow. I had so many notes of so many great passages that I had a difficult time deciding what had to be shared with my faithful, reading audience and what would have to be found by them when they read the book themselves. I’ve heard wonderful things about William Gay over the years and bought his first two books with his signature adorning the title pages. I’m so glad I did because he departed this world in 2012, taking the rest of those wonderful, electric phrases and exploding, earthy thoughts, which he would have shared with us,... to his grave. This book certainly qualifies as Hillbilly Noir with some soaring Mozart moments.

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