Friday, August 31, 2018

Training Season


Leta Blake
Self-Published
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars



Summary



Unquestionably talented figure skater Matty Marcus is willing to sacrifice everything for his Olympic dream, but his lack of discipline cost him the gold once before. Now the pressure’s on. He needs a coach who can keep him in line, but top coaches don't come cheap, and Matty can't afford to stay in the game no matter how badly he wants to win.

When a lucrative house-sitting gig brings him to rural Montana, Matty does his best to maintain his training regimen. Local residents turn out to be surprisingly tolerant of his flamboyant style, especially handsome young rancher Rob Lovely, who proves to be much more than a cowboy stereotype. Just as Matty requires a firm hand to perform his best on the ice, Rob shows him how strong he can be when he relinquishes control in the bedroom. With new-found self-assurance, he drives himself harder to go straight to the top.

But competition has a timetable, and to achieve his Olympic dream, Matty will have to join his new coach in New York City, leaving Rob behind. Now he must face the ultimate test. Has he truly learned how to win—on and off the ice—during his training season?


My Review



Matty Marcus is a very talented figure skater, but poor performance and an injury have kept him out of competition. Now he’s short on cash and in order to be able to compete in the next Olympics, he accepts a six-month housesitting job in Montana for a friend of his mom’s. The natural beauty and tranquil lifestyle allows him time to recuperate from his injury and focus on his training without all the distractions of his friends and city life.

Rob Lovely is the handsome next-door neighbor and ranch hand that comes knocking on Matty’s door with an armful of firewood. Even though they are attracted to each other, Matty is preparing for competition and doesn’t need the distraction. But the heart wants what it wants and Matty and Rob inevitably fall in love.

I totally loved Matty’s flamboyant style and charming personality, and I loved how attentive he was to Rob’s 12-year-old son, Ben. But there were a lot of things that irritated me about him. His parents made a lot of sacrifices to get his career off the ground, and to me he took them for granted and squandered his talent. At least now he acknowledges his mistakes and is trying to make up for that.

Rob is a really nice guy, and though I don’t understand his attraction to Matty, he brings stability to their relationship. Their sex scenes, however, left me cold. They were repetitive, lacking in chemistry, and very unromantic. I could have done without the BDSM aspect of this story, as it felt out of character and completely unnecessary. I know Rob wanted Matty to do his best, but I’m not convinced that pain and humiliation is the way to help him achieve his goals or address his self-esteem issues. I also was disturbed that Rob felt he knew just what Matty needed sexually without considering his feelings or getting consent before engaging in high-risk practices.

On the positive side, there are a number of interesting and well-rounded secondary characters, male and female. I enjoyed reading about the grueling training and physical demands of figure skating and loved the breathtaking descriptions of Montana. The disturbing BDSM scenes detracted a lot from my enjoyment of this story, so I can’t rate it higher than average.

Thursday, August 30, 2018

War Cry

War CryWar Cry by Brian McClellan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Teado is a shapeshifting wizard who serves on the front lines of a war that has dominated his life. His platoon specializes in ambush and sneak attacks, but they are running low on supplies. In an effort to steal the needed supplies from the enemy Teado is lost behind enemy lines and struggles to find his way back.

I'm not sure exactly what I imagined War Cry would be like. It does have the feel of a more modern war with planes, motorcycles, machine guns, and other modern technology. The world features wizards such as Fire-Spitters, Smiling Toms, and Changers. Fire-Spitters name seems self explanatory in that they can spit fire. Smiling Tom's create illusions that can be made to mask an army base. Changers seem to be werewolves that don't need the full moon to transform, but they can't pass their powers on through a bite. The world and wizards have potential.

I struggled a bit with War Cry in that I didn't truly connect with any of the characters before events really got moving. The story is told exclusively from Teado's point of view and with the exception of being loyal to his platoon, I don't feel like I knew anything about him as an individual. He's a Changer as well, but that doesn't really flesh him out. The story features some other characters who show even less personality with the exception of Bellara who just wants to use her Smiling Tom powers to make people happy rather than having to be involved in a seemingly never ending war.

The story itself also didn't really draw me in as it was a largely straightforward tale of a character lost behind enemy lines with some slight differences. I felt bad for Teado's platoon as they seemed to be largely abandoned in the war effort. I also was a bit disappointed that the author never really showed the enemy. Granted they have the same types of wizards, but outside of that they were just simple soldiers.

War Cry felt like a good idea that simply wasn't developed enough yet.

3 out of 5 stars

I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2018

THE VENICE TRAIN BY GEORGES SIMENON

Venice TrainVenice Train by Georges Simenon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Was Calmar himself happy? Not just since Venice and the ridiculous episode on the train--but before? He never asked himself the question, or hardly ever, and when he did he quickly thought about something else.”

 photo Venice20Train_zps8r23yvn6.jpg

Justan Calmar is called back from vacation a few days early by his boss. He catches the train in Venice to go back to Paris and waves goodbye to his family. These prove to be the last few minutes that Calmar is the man that everyone has grown accustomed to him being.

Stable, corpulent, not overly ambitious, but he works hard enough to earn a good living for his family. He doesn’t really think about it, but his life is constricted down to a simple maze of traveling between his home and work with few, if ever, brief forays along the way. There is nothing remarkable about him, and if he were to suddenly do something remarkable or even do something differently than he always has, it would be a stunning revelation to those who know him. They would be made uneasy.

So the interest the man on the train takes in the most intimate details of his life is decidedly odd. ”Little by little, by asking one harmless question after another, the man had obtained a quantity of information about his life, his family, and his job, which he had supplied with a docility that made him feel slightly ashamed.” Certainly, Calmar would be amazed at the most intimate details people will share about their lives on a public forum, like Twitter, Snapchat, or Facebook. The man makes him uncomfortable, but for all that, when the man suggests he run an errand for him in Lausanne, Calmar readily agrees. I have visions of Strangers on the Train running through my head at this point.

He is supposed to pick up a suitcase from a locker at the station and deliver it to a woman at a specific address. Easy enough, except for what he finds when he arrives. ”At the foot of a pale-blue couch, he saw a pair of shoes, two legs, a petticoat, and then, finally, the neck and reddish hair of a woman. She was lying full length on a carpet of a darker blue than the couch, one arm stretched out, the other folded behind her back, as though it had been twisted.”

Really Georges Simenon and Alfred Hitchcock would have gotten along superbly. Simenon wrote suspenseful novels that would have translated well to make Hitchcock type films. There is story that sounds so vintage Hitchcock I want to believe it is true. ”Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon's secretary that he couldn't be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock, knowing that Simenon was capable of writing one novel -- or two or three -- every month, replied, 'That's all right, I'll wait.'”

What Calmar finds in the case will have a profound impact on his life. It is certainly one of those situations, if I were reading this with a book club, where the morality of the situation could be discussed at length. What would you do? Calmar does not handle the stress of the situation very well. ”Some weeks were painful, agonizing, in the office and at home. Sitting at the dinner table, he would suddenly feel his forehead bathed in sweat, his nerves knotted, a sense of constriction in his chest; at moments like these, he couldn’t bear to have anyone look at him.”

The problem of course is that he feels guilty. He feels like he has done something wrong. His shame for his actions, he is convinced, is etched on his face. His behavior becomes erratic by Calmar standards. He might even stop and have a beer on his way home from work. OMG! His wife, used to the steady Eddie she married, begins to give him the third degree about everything he does that doesn’t fit his standard pattern. He can’t hardly stand it. Lies grow upon other lies, and the question is, can Calmar find a solution to his problems before he cracks up.

This is a vintage Simenon. The plot is compelling, and the ending is superb. A Georges Simenon book or two always finds their way into my luggage when I travel. His stories make for perfect travel companions. They are concise, twisty mysteries with literary nuances that never fail to please.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
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Monday, August 27, 2018

Butts... in Spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!



I contributed to the Kickstarter for Butts in Space and it happened to arrive in the mail on game night so we dove right in.

The rules are easy to understand and the art is hilarious. Basically, each player assumes the role of one of the Butt characters.  It's a race against time as sets are made and various pieces of the space ship are unveiled.



Building as many sets of matching cards as possible before all seven space ship pieces are revealed makes for some tense moments, especially when people start rotating the butts. I wouldn't quite put it on the same tier as Exploding Kittens or Guillotine but Butts in Space is a fun card game that will be in our regular game night rotation.

A Rootin' Tootin' Rough and Ready Shoot 'Em Up Western

Brimstone (Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch, #3)Brimstone by Robert B. Parker
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My god, the testosterone just oozes off the pages of these Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch books!

The plot of #3 gets a tad more philosophical as the story dabbles with religion more than the previous two, but that doesn't make this book anymore "deep". It's still about being macho and shooting the bejesus out of a lot of cowboys, ranch hands, and whoever else strays towards the gray side in the white vs black/good guy vs bad guy scheme of things. Get drunk and mouth off? That's a shootin'. Piss off Cole and Hitch? That's a shootin'. Shoot somebody? Oh that's definitely a shootin'!

While this one is perhaps more nuanced than others, I wasn't digging quite as much as the first two. I don't know why. Perhaps the subject matter. Parker had to paint some characters particularly annoying in order for the reader to be okay with them dying. Problem is, I already find that character trait annoying anyhow, so I got an AA dose of annoying. Having said that, Brimstone's perfectly fine and I'll move on to #4. That however will be the last of the Cole/Hitch books for me, because Parker died in media res and other author took over. I'm not interested in that nonsense, so it'll be time for me to mosey...

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A Fine Finish

Blue-Eyed Devil (Virgil Cole & Everett Hitch, #4)Blue-Eyed Devil by Robert B. Parker
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A perfectly fine finish to Parker's portion of his Cole & Hitch western series.

This one finds the pair back in Appaloosa working as hired hands for a saloon that doesn't get the protection it needs from the local sheriff. This sheriff has aspirations well beyond this podunk town and there'll be trouble for anyone that gets in his way. Cole and Hitch get in his way.

I really wish Parker hadn't knocked off in the middle of this series or at least was around longer in order to write more. I mean, these aren't the best books ever written, but they're quick, enjoyable reads. This one included.

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Friday, August 24, 2018

301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions


Vicky Oliver
Sourcebooks
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars



Summary



In today's job market, how you perform in an interview can make or break your hiring possibilities. If you want to stand a head above the rest of the pack, 301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions is the definitive guide you need to the real, and sometimes quirky, questions employers are using to weed out candidates.

Do you know the best answers to:

--It looks like you were fired twice. How did that make you feel?
--Do you know who painted this work of art?
--What is the best-managed company in America?
--If you could be any product in the world, what would you choose?
--How many cigars are smoked in a year?
--Are you a better visionary or implementer? Why?

Leaning on her own years of experience and the experiences of more than 5,000 recent candidates, Vicky Oliver shows you how to finesse your way onto a company's payroll.



My Review


I have been in my current position for nearly 5 years and was hoping to stay until I retire. The pay is low and the commute is deadly, but my supervisor is undemanding, lets me work from home once a week, and the work is easy. In spite of the long drive, I do quite a bit of walking (at least 10,000 steps a day, so I can enjoy all the fabulous restaurants!). Sadly, my supervisor is going on sabbatical and no longer has a need for my position. Instead of laying me off, he is allowing me to stay and use a large chunk of my workday for job search activities. Though I’m grateful he’s doing that, I’m apprehensive about being over 50 and looking for work.

These are 301 commonly asked interview questions answered by the author. In the beginning of the book, she suggests you tailor the questions and answers to your own situation. In all my years of working experience, I have not been asked many of these questions during my interviews. Thankfully so, because I am not good at those questions that have no right or wrong answer or brainteasers:

“If you could be any product in the world, what would you choose?”
“How many cigars are smoked in a year?”


I found many of the questions and answers tailored to higher-level corporate jobs. Those of us who work in public safety, service, trades, or clerical jobs would benefit by looking for help elsewhere. The information contained in the gray boxes was useful. Here you could find condensed chapter summaries, interviewing tips, how to handle personal questions or insensitive questions, etc.

Though I read it from cover to cover, and found some of the answers entertaining, they were a lot saucier than I’d feel comfortable with, and I found little that was relevant to my own situation.

Nevertheless, I got a job offer today, so it must have been helpful enough.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The First Adventure

The First Adventure (Feyland #0.5)The First Adventure by Anthea Sharp
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jennet lives with her video game producing Dad. She's largely on her own as her Dad is often working, but he let's her beta test the games he's working on. Unbeknownst to him, Jennet has his account passwords and is able to access all the games he's working on. Including one that's more than it seems. That game is Feyland.

The First Adventure was largely an introduction to the Feyland world. Jennet stumbled in and doesn't realize Feyland is basically a digital portal into the faerie realm. Since she's a teen it's obvious she gets hooked on the game and sneaks on whenever she has the opportunity.

The story being told isn't one I found compelling. It immediately let's the reader know that Feyland is real despite the fact Jennet doesn't know. There's a lot of implications regarding the world and what's going on, but nothing is explained or explicitly said. Jennet could be any teen as she has no overly distinctive traits other than she's a girl who plays video games and looks down on her peers she seems unworthy of her time.

The First Adventure didn't do enough to make me interested in learning more about the Feyland series.


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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

BEL-AMI BY GUY DE MAUPASSANT

Bel-AmiBel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”There are many women who would give way to a passing whim, a sudden violent desire or an amorous fancy if they weren’t afraid that their brief moment of happiness would end in a dreadful scandal and bitter tears.”

Georges Duroy comes from the provinces of France to Paris with the determination to make something of himself. He finds a job making a pittance, but fortunately he runs into an old friend from the army named Charles Forestier. Even though Duroy has no real writing experience, Forestier decides to get him hired on at La Vie Francaise as a journalist. He wants Duroy to write about some of his experiences in the army, but the cursed white page that plagues even the most experienced writers is consuming his words before he can even dip his pen to paper.

Forestier sends Duroy to his wife Madeleine. She will get him sorted. It doesn’t take long for Duroy to realize who in the Forestier family is doing most of the writing. As he starts to mix in the circles surrounding the newspaper, he starts to see the potential for not only continuing to better his position but also the plethora of opportunities to seduce other men’s wives.

He is a handsome rake.

”He had a fund of small talk, a pleasant voice, a caressing glance and his moustache was irresistible. Crisp and curly, it curved charmingly over his lip, fair with auburn tints, slightly paler where it bristled at the ends.”

It isn’t long before the women, and even the men, are referring to him as Bel-Ami.

As he gains confidence, he also becomes bolder. His first conquest is Madame Clotilde de Marelle.

”’I’ve never seen such pretty earrings as yours, Madame de Marelle.’

She turned to him with a smile.

‘It’s an idea I had to fasten a diamond like that, simply on the end of a wire. They look just like dew, don’t they?’

Alarmed at his temerity and terrified of saying something silly, he murmured:

‘It’s charming...but the ear must take some of the credit, too.’”


Her ample bosom first catches his eye, but of course, only a low class lout would compliment a woman’s breasts. By showing an interest in her earrings, he unknowingly hits upon something of which she is proud, her creativity. As you will see when you read this novel, Duroy frequently gets luckier than he deserves. At the same time, I can’t help rooting for him even as he takes on characteristics that are beneath a man on the rise.

Forestier is very sick with tuberculosis. The disease is wasting him away. A young man, only in his late twenties, he will not only leave a higher position open at the newspaper, but he will also leave a young, beautiful, ambitious woman a widow. Both the job and the widow are of interest to Duroy. To him, she represents the pinnacle of success, but she will only prove to be a stepping stone for a man as ambitious as he is.

The Forestier death scene is particularly poignant because of his deathbed terror of the unknown, which even envelopes Madeleine and Duroy, who are devotedly attending his last moments, despite already scheming about a life after Forestier. When Guy De Maupassant was writing this novel in the 1880s, he already knew he was living under a death sentence. Syphilis was eroding his health at an alarming rate. When he wrote Forestier’s last moments, I couldn’t help thinking that he was recording his own fears and projecting his last curtain call upon this man who was dying too young.

First things first, Madeleine changes his name. He is now Duroy de Cantel or D. de Cantel. There are reasons why actors and actresses change their names, not only to be someone else, someone larger in even their own minds when they are acting, but to also have a memorable name that will easily trip off the tongue of those who hear it. Duroy is becoming an accomplished actor in the drama of his own life.

He has come a long way from the first squalid rooms he used in Paris. ”His wallpaper, grey with a blue floral pattern, had as many stains as flowers, ancient, dubious-looking stains that could have been squashed insects or oil, greasy finger-marks from hair cream or dirty soap suds from the wash-basin. It all reeked of poverty and degradation, the poverty of Parisian furnished lodgings.”

I know it isn’t possible for everyone to experience poverty, but for me, while trying to pay for college and at times walking around with just a few slender dimes in my pocket, the prospect of missing meals certainly honed my appreciation for what being successful really means. Though being successful takes on different meanings for different people, my vision of what a successful life is has certainly changed in the last few years. ”The road to success is thus largely paved by wily mediocrity; but, fortunately, as a counterbalance and a sort of poetic justice, Maupassant takes pains to underline the basic futility of ambition.” We see this philosophy in how Duray, excuse me, D. de Cantel adjusts to his rising prosperity. He is besotted by bitter envy of the triumphs of others to the point that he can’t enjoy the vaulted position he has achieved.

Achieved may be too strong a word.

He does still recognize who he is.

”A smart, low, open carriage came by drawn at a brisk trot by two slim greys with flowing manes and tails, driven by a small blonde young woman, a well-known high-class tart, with two grooms sitting behind her. Duroy stopped and felt like waving and applauding this woman whose success had been won on her back and who was boldly flaunting her luxury by taking her drive at the same time as these aristocratic hypocrites.”

I wonder, if we looked in on Duroy twenty years in the future, if he would still see the woman as an act of defiance to be celebrated, or will he be so steeped in the conventions of his new class that he will see her as someone to be vilified for her impertinence?

The women are so well drawn in this book. I find myself admiring them more than the men. They are competent, intelligent, and in many cases, use Duroy as much as he uses them. I especially admire Madeleine Forestier, who,
through her subtle astute suggestions, guides Duroy to better opportunities, and even suggests women he should strategically get to know better. She has no illusions about how either one of them are ever going to rise to a place of comfort.

The spectre of death, the dissatisfaction with success, the unseemliness of unquenchable ambition, and the hypocrisy of the aristocracy all make for a scathing, enjoyable romp through the dark alcoves, the boudoirs, and the secluded settees of Paris, as seeking fingers grope for the flesh beneath the silk.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Tower of Living and Dying (Empires of Dust #2) By: Anna Smith Spark

The Tower of Living and Dying (Empires of Dust #2)The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazing, amazing, and amazing. The Queen of "grimdark" returns to her throne with the next installment of the Empires of Dust trilogy. This book is a masterwork of brutality covered in a silk glove, This is a bleak, bloody place...everything is crashing together to meet the most violent of ends and yet, the story Ms Spark weaves keeps you entranced and wanting to see it through to the very end.

If you haven't read this series, DO SO NOW, Imagine if George RR Martin took lots of acid and ratcheted up the tension on his books, you would sort of get the idea what this is like.

READ IT, I don't do you wrong. 900290 stars out of 5

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Monday, August 20, 2018

Rumpole Keeps on Ticking!

Rumpole Rests His CaseRumpole Rests His Case by John Mortimer
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Rumpole is getting up there in years (it's seems like in every Rumpole book the poor old blighter is "getting up there in years") and the overall tone of this book makes you think perhaps it's time for him to hang up his wig. But what the hey, how about a few more cases?!

Rumpole Rests His Case treads upon familiar plots and characters, so much so that I was half way through and sure I'd read this one before I realized it was just that I recognized the stories from the tv version, and yes, most of the storylines play out like most all of John Mortimer's enjoyable books about the ethical humanitarian lawyer Horace Rumpole.

The short stories that make up this volume -at least the first half of them- do not seem as cohesive as other Rumpoles I've read. The theme thread does surface by the end though.

What's most interesting about this one, to me at any rate, is that it was written later in Mortimer's writing career, so Rumpole is faced with some new technology, such as "The Internet". It's interesting, because Rumpole is an old dude -an old lovable dude- but old one nonetheless and set in his ways. I find charm in his cantankerous ways, especially his repulsion to most new things. He's a great chap who will go to the wall for a defendant wrongly accused, but he is a grump. I probably like it because it makes me feel a little less curmudgeonly than I am.

Rumpole Rests His Case does not gather together the best of Mortimer's work, imo, but it is a serviceably good read that should bring a bit of joy to fans.

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Friday, August 17, 2018

American Road Trip



Sarah Black
Dreamspinner Press
Reviewed by Nancy
3 out of 5 stars



Summary



A single moment—or a single mistake—can change everything.

When Captain James Lee Hooker and his lover, Sergeant Easy Jacobs, were in the Army, they made a mistake that got a young soldier hurt. Three years later, they’re civilians again, living far apart, haunted by what they lost. Now that young soldier needs their help.

With his grandmother’s one-eyed Chihuahua riding shotgun, James Lee climbs into Easy’s pickup for a trip across the American Southwest. They set out to rescue a friend, but their journey transforms them with the power of forgiveness.



My Review



This is a nicely written, lightly humorous romance about two Army veterans, Captain James Lee Hooker and Sargeant Easy Jacobs, who were former lovers. Separated for three years because of demands of their rank and the injury of a soldier in their charge, Easy now needs Jamie’s help tracking down the young soldier, who is Easy’s cousin.

I love road trips and second-chance romances, and this story was full of tenderness and heart, but I was missing the intense emotional scenes, the pain, and the healing that come from such a long separation and guilt about Austin’s injury.

This is a slow-burn romance. Long hours in Easy’s truck force both men to talk about the past, share their feelings, and rekindle their love. I enjoyed their journey and the people they met on the way.

Truth be told, I crave the angst, which this story had none of. The conversations Jamie and Easy had were superficial, mostly in an attempt to avoid conflict.

Tino, the one-eyed Chihuahua, was full of personality and his antics made me laugh out loud. I loved all the reasons the guys came up with for how Tino lost his eye.

Overall, a pleasant enough story, but not one I’d visit again.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

The Crown Tower

The Crown Tower (The Riyria Chronicles, #1)The Crown Tower by Michael J. Sullivan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some unexpected things are happening and a university professor appears to be behind them all. Professor Arcadius has brought together a fighter without equal and an incredibly skilled thief. The two are polar opposites and hate one another, but Arcadius has managed to convince them to do one job for him. To steal a single book from a seemingly impregnable fortress.

The Crown Tower could easily have been titled how Hadrian met Royce. Michael J. Sullivan made a good point in saying that Hadrian and Royce wouldn't have been an instant success as a team because of their differences. It's amazing neither tried to kill the other one. For anyone who has read Riyria Revelations suffice to say Hadrian is even more of an optimist while Royce is far more pessimistic.

The story is told largely from three prospectives. Two of these prospectives are obvious as they come from Royce and Hadrian. The third, for me at least, was unexpected. The third prospective came from Gwen. I have to admit I rarely gave Gwen much thought despite her unique position and abilities in Riyria Revelations. I also have to admit, I wouldn't have cared in the least to see her storyline almost completely abandoned. There were at most two or three things about her I was curious about and those simply didn't warrant the number of pages spent detailing her rise from prostitute to lady of her own house.

The Crown Tower was good, but didn't quite hit the spot for me. I did find myself feeling the old Riyria magic towards the end of the book though.

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Wednesday, August 15, 2018

DYNASTY: THE RISE AND FALL OF THE HOUSE OF CAESAR BY TOM HOLLAND

Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of CaesarDynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar by Tom Holland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 photo Augustus203_zpsbcjgqzkl.jpg
Octavian the man. Augustus the God.

”When people think of imperial Rome, it is the city of the first Caesars that is most likely to come into their minds. There is no other period of ancient history that can compare for sheer unsettling fascination with its gallery of leading characters. Their lurid glamour has resulted in them becoming the archetypes of feuding and murderous dynasts.”

The women are schemers, and the men are ruthless. Even Augustus and Claudius, who are considered the more humane and least insane of the Caesars, also wade through the blood of their enemies, those confirmed and those suspected, to maintain their always tenuous hold on power.

”Tiberius, grim, paranoid, and with a taste for having his testicles licked by young boys in swimming pools.

Caligula, lamenting that Roman people did not have a single neck, so that he might cut it through.

Agrippina, the mother of Nero, scheming to bring to power the son who would end up having her murdered.

Nero himself, kicking his pregnant wife to death, marrying a eunuch, and raising a pleasure palace over the fire-gutted centre of Rome.”


”The first Caesars, more than any comparable dynasty, remain to this day household names. Their celebrity holds.”

I discovered Tom Holland when I picked up his first book Lord of the Dead, which was a novel about Lord Byron as a vampire. Of course, Lord Byron would make a perfect vampire. I then started hunting down his other horror novels as assiduously as Van Helsing, and in many cases I had to order them from England to be able to read them.

Then he disappeared.

Or so I thought.


Then I discovered his book Rubicon, which ends where this book begins. At first, I thought it must be a different Tom Holland, but after some research, I discovered it was the same man, a horror scrivner remade into a writer of the horrors of history. He doesn’t list his novels in the first few nonfiction works; after all, he has become a serious writer of history and doesn’t want to muddy the waters with claiming those rather lurid novels that I found to be delicious fun. (As I’m writing about them, I’m getting the itch to go read one again.) In this book, listed along with his nonfiction work, are those early horror novels. He must have reached a point in his career where he no longer had to think of those books as orphaned children, written by another man who was lost in the fetid, murky waters of pulp fiction.

 photo Tom20Holland_zpsqlk5kh9b.jpg
There is a vampire horror novelist still lurking behind those eyes.

The significance of this for you, dear reader, is that his nonfiction books are written to entertain you. That does not mean they are not serious in nature for it is obvious he has done his research. He has a practiced eye, from writing to fiction, to know what readers want to know. For instance, Augustus saves the empire twice from complete destruction, which is actually fascinating with all the power struggles that the death of Julius Caesar causes. What is equally fascinating is that as Augustus grows older and becomes a God (the wheels might have started to come off the chariot), he becomes more conservative. He imposes those views on a traditionally hedonistic Roman population. The problem is the only child of his loins, Julia, doesn’t get the message, or she feels that being the child of a god that she is beyond reproach.

 photo Julia20the20Elder_zps9nymdguj.jpg
Julia, one of history's most famous adulterers.

The stories regarding her infidelities are numerous and legendary, but for me, the following statement attributed to her actually makes me gasp. ”Far from dismissing the rumours of adultery, she dared to mock the censoriousness of those who spread them. How could the stories that she had cheated on Agrippa possibly be true, she was once asked, when Gaius and Lucius look so very like him. ‘Why,’ she answered, ‘because I only ever take on passengers after the cargo-hold has been loaded.’”

There are plenty of people to scurry back to her father and relate these outrageous statements to him. Whether there is truth in all the allegations that land at her sandals, who can say? She certainly does not quell those rumors, but merely breathes more life into them. The end result is that Julia is exiled to an island by her dictorial father. Ovid, the poet concerned with the artistry of the bedroom, in particular seducing married women, is another thorn in the godly backside of Augustus. He too pushes things too far and is exiled, which is worse than death to a man obsessed with culture.

It is hard to like Augustus in his later years simply because he becomes more concerned about his own immortality, even more than preserving the few remaining members of his family. His heirs have been dropping like flies, and the rumors of his wife Livia poisoning them to clear the way for her son by her first marriage, Tiberius, are becoming harder to ignore.
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Germanicus and Agrippina by Rubens, the power couple of the Roman Empire representing all that Rome believed themselves capable of.

Germanicus and his wife Agrippina are the apple of the eye of the Roman Empire. They are not only a beautiful power couple (bigger than Benniffer or Brangelina), but they are also proving very capable quelling any uprisings across the wide expanse of the reach of Rome. She, unlike most Roman wives, travels with her husband on his military campaign so his successes are more their mutual achievements, and that makes the people of Rome love them even more. When Germanicus dies under rather odd circumstances, that clears the way for Tiberius.

Tiberius is so stiff necked and puckered assed that he was must have squeaked like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz when he walked. Holland sums him up very well. ”Bloodstained pervert and philosopher-king: it took a man of rare paradox to end up being seen as both.” We focus on his perversions, but he is actually very capable. Before succeeding Augustus, he wins several critical military campaigns. He just is horrible at promoting himself. He feels above it all and winning is just what he is supposed to do. Why should it be a surprise to anyone? He spends a good deal of time on his pleasure island of Capri and basically tells the world to go screw itself. He has a peaceful reign but, like all the Caesars, certainly becomes ruled by rampant paranoia.

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Tiberius

It isn’t paranoia if people are really trying to kill you. The problem with the House of Caesar is that they don’t always target the right people or, in the course of suppressing conspiracies, bring death to such a broad sweep of people, who may or may not have been involved in a conspiracy, that they leave their friends about as equally depleted as their enemies.

Next in line is the infamous Caligula, who kills just about everyone who could possibly be considered a legitimate heir. He is the son of Germanicus, and any empathy that he was born with must have been burned out of him in the course of watching his family members die one by one. Tiberius’s comment was: ”I am rearing them a viper.”When Caligula is killed by his own Praetorian Guard, well mostly for being a psychopathic asshole, the only real option as his successor is his gibbering fool of an uncle.

Claudius survives numerous purges of his family by acting like a simple minded, helpless imbecile. The senators that bring him to power probably have it in mind that he will be easy to control.

He is not.

He is a student of history and natural science. He is infinitely smarter than anyone could comprehend. Because of his infirmities, he mostly has to travel through the eyes of others. Ambassadors knowing his interest in the arcane bring him specimens from all over the world. (If you have not watched the miniseries I, Claudius starring Derek Jacobi, it is excellent.)

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Claudius

When Claudius breathes his last, the empire is left with Claudius’s great nephew Nero. His mother is Agrippina the Younger, daughter of Germanicus. The rumors of imperial incest between mother and son run rampant throughout Rome. Instead of denouncing those rumors, much like Julia, he embraces them. ”It was noted that he kept as one of his concubines a woman who looked exactly like Agrippina. And that whenever he fondled her, or showed off her charms to others, he would declare that he was sleeping with his mother.”

When Rome burns and Nero is one of the main suspects (after all his main concern is beautifying Rome, and how better to do that than to have a clean canvas to start from), he blames those pesky, noisy, obnoxious Christians. Between 900 and 1000 are killed and murdered (St. Jerome calls them martyrs.) in various creative ways. We don’t know for sure if the Christians had anything to do with the burning of Rome, but given the Sodom and Gomorrah events being sponsored and encouraged by Nero, I can see them convince themselves that burning Rome would be doing God’s work.

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Nero was a cheeky looking bastard.

Nero believes strongly in applying pageantry to all aspects of his life, including executions. ”Spectacle, illusion, drama: these were the dimensions of rule that truly mattered. Attentive though Nero might be to the grind of business, his true obsession was with a project that he felt to be altogether worthier of his time and talents: to fashion reality anew.”

Augustus dies in bouts of blood, possibly from a poisoned fig. Tiberius may have been smothered by a pillow. Caligula is hacked to pieces by his own guard. Claudius may have been poisoned, but the wily, old bastard might have just died from old age. Nero commits suicide moments before a sentence of death is to descend upon him. The women don’t fare any better. They are starved to death, exiled, beheaded, run through with swords, and poisoned.

What a family! Despite their best efforts to destroy themselves they manage to hang onto power from 27BC to 68AD. It isn’t long after their passing, despite the bloody uncertainty of their reigns, that Rome misses them.

They must have missed the flair, the pageantry, and the insanity.

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Monday, August 13, 2018

God Help The Child

God Help the ChildGod Help the Child by Toni Morrison
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Giving a Toni Morrison book only 3 stars seems ridiculous in light of some of the 4 and 5 star ratings I've doled out. What I'm saying is, Morrison can write the pants off of most writers. Whether you like her stuff/style or not, it must be admitted that the woman can string together one word after another in a very pleasing manner.

Having said that, God Help the Child did not enthrall me as others of hers have. I'm not 100% sure why. There could be a number reasons, here are some of them:

There weren't too many characters in this one that I particularly liked. Most were repulsive in some way shape or form, at least the main characters, of which there are nearly a half dozen. It's not that Morrison did a poor job creating them, it's that she did too good a job and by chance I'm not a fan of who these people are.

Another issue might be that I prefer Morrison's stories when they're set in the past. This one was her most modern setting yet, out of the books of hers that I've read. I love when she sets the scenes of days past. She does it so well and her style meshes with bygone eras like peanut butter and chocolate.

The subject matter here -child molestation- is particularly hard reading. The characters may be fictional, but that doesn't lessen the kick-to-the-gut feeling you get every time the narrative focuses on the subject.

All in all, it's a tough read. Certainly not bad, just tough for the aforementioned reasons.

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Sunday, August 12, 2018

The Winter Box

The Winter BoxThe Winter Box by Tim Waggoner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Todd and Heather's marriage has been on the rocks for some time. When they get trapped at home with no power during a blizzard, they're forced to confront their problems by the terror that lurks within... the Winter Box!

Okay, I made The Winter Box sound like a Twilight Zone episode. I guess it could be but it's more like a ghost story/cautionary tale.

Todd and Heather have drifted apart over the years and the specter of divorce is lurking in the background. When they get snowed in, weird things start happening and they're forced to work on their marriage, though it may be too late.

The Winter Box is a chilling tale in many ways. The blizzard and power outage are the least so. Much more chilling is what they let happen to their marriage and the shitstorm emanating from the Winter Box.

I've said many times that ebooks have once again made the novella a viable form and this is a prime example. The Winter Box is a fantastic story. I can't say enough good things about it. Five out of five stars.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

The Other Side


Shawn Lane
JMS Books LLC
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars



Summary


Dr. Ray Carmichael is a wealthy African-American doctor and political activist running for office on the platform that the brutality and corruption of the local police force is out of control. Nick Sorenson is a white cop who grew up poor and almost lost his life in gangs and crime before turning his life around by joining the police force.

When Ray’s brother is beaten by a couple of police officers after a traffic stop, Nick is the Internal Affairs detective put in charge of investigating the incident. Dr. Carmichael's obvious distrust of the police force rubs Nick the wrong way, and the man becomes a pain in his neck. Too bad, because neither of them can deny their attraction to each other.

Ray has Nick removed from the case when he decides he’d rather date the man than fight with him. In spite of their differences, they begin an affair and grow closer. Until an explosive incident at a family gathering puts nagging doubts in Nick’s head -- he's not sure if they can overcome the differences that separate them.

When Nick is about to lose everything important to him, will he realize his budding relationship with Ray is worth trying to see the other side?



My Review


I read The Other Side in one sitting and was blown away by the intensity and emotional depth of this story. Dr. Ray Carmichael is a wealthy African-American doctor who is running for political office and has little use for the police department. Nick Sorenson is in charge of the investigation of police misconduct involving the beating of Ray’s brother. In spite of the obvious differences between the men and the conflicts that stem from their value differences, there is no denying the physical attraction they both have for each other.

I’ll admit it took me a little while to warm up to the hoity-toity Dr. Carmichael, with his custom-tailored suits, Bel-Air mansion, and full housekeeping staff. What did he know about the real world, the struggles of poor and working-class people, the cars that won’t start, the low-paying jobs, the impact of drug abuse on the addict and their family?

At first, I thought there was no way a relationship between Ray and Nick could ever work. They had different upbringings, came from different social classes, and had different problems. Boy, was I ever mistaken! I enjoyed watching these two men as they struggle, resolve conflicts, and develop love and respect for each other.

A very moving, sexy, and satisfying romance! I will definitely be looking for more of Shawn Lane’s work.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

We Ride the Storm

We Ride the Storm (The Reborn Empire, #1)We Ride the Storm by Devin Madson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Through war empires rise and fall. War is ready to tear down the Kisian Empire. Some like Princess Miko, a daughter of a traitor, will fight to preserve the empire. Some like exiled Rah e'Torin will fight because he has no choice. One woman, Cassandra, fights to make the voice in her mind go away. Blood will be spilled as a storm wipes away an empire.

We Ride the Storm reads like a low magic version of A Song of Ice and Fire. There are bastards, traitors, secrets, horse lords, and so many lies. If that was where the similarities ended I wouldn't mind, but two of the three point of view characters felt heavily inspired from A Song of Ice and Fire.

Princess Miko was perhaps the most naive and needy character I've seen since reading Sansa Stark in A Game of Thrones. Miko seems to go through Sansa's arc as she begins as considerably naive with some plots of her own and becomes massively manipulative as the story continues. She seemed to be too naive to survive, but like Sansa she kept managing to stay alive. Miko did have some differing qualities from Sansa as she was incredible with a bow and she has some political sense.

Rah e'Torin, the exiled Levanti captain, hung on to his honor more than any character I've seen since Eddard and Robb Stark. Rah would rather be executed than submit and it was only the threat of death to those under his charge that got him to go along at all. Rah is stiff necked and determined. Honestly he seemed like a gigantic pain to have around. He and the rest of the Levanti felt like a slightly more civilized version of the Dothraki from A Song of Ice and Fire. They love their horses and are deadly fighting from them. They are nomadic people who care nothing for wealth and civilization as a whole.

The third point of view character, Cassandra, is the one who received the least amount of page time. Cassandra happened to have the only story I felt was truly intriguing, but she gets massively ignored in the second half of the book. It seems Cassandra has another woman's mind living in her body and in order to ignore it she drinks. The other woman can take control of Cassandra's body at times and she largely disagrees with everything Cassandra does. The other woman can do even more interesting things than that, which is why I wanted a lot more of her and a lot less of the Kisian War. I forgot to mention Cassandra is also a whore assassin and apparently very good looking despite her being a little old for a whore.

Dom Leo Villius is the one other character of note. He has an interesting arc and he's incredibly mysterious. He has some power or someone powerful backing him and I would have much rathered see his point of view rather than Miko or Rah.

The war storyline was largely predictable. Nothing happened that truly felt like a shock. Nothing happened that even excited me. Generally I enjoy a good war story, but I found myselt wanting to know the origin of the other woman in Cassandra's head or how Leo could do the things he did.

We Ride the Storm is a story that had quite a bit of under used potential. I'm curious to see if the sequels will focus more on the interesting tidbits rather than being a lesser version of A Song of Ice and Fire.

3 out of 5 stars

I received this ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Wednesday, August 8, 2018

HAVOC BY TOM KRISTENSEN

HavocHavoc by Tom Kristensen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”Behold the man. But wasn’t it a lie to maintain that he had sought for the spiritual? He with his Mongoloid features? The infinitude and intractability of the soul?

Anyway what had come of it?

A ruined marriage and a lost job. Here he was. Brawling and broken window panes. Tawdry seduction and infidelity. Ridiculous conversion and a home gone up in flames. Hallucinations and havoc. And Ecce Homo! Was it a man who stood here? And whiskey, whiskey, whiskey!

I have longed for shipwrecks,
For havoc and sudden death.”


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Ole “Jazz” Jastrau has a respectable job writing book reviews for the newspaper Dagbladet. He has an apartment, a wife, a child, and all the books he could possibly read. He has the same dissatisfaction that all people have, wondering if this is it. Is this all? These are mild concerns, but then two communist friends shove their way into the apartment, on the run from the police, and in the course of their discourse with Jazz, they shove wedges and crowbars into the cracks of his insecurities and make them into yawning chasms of all consuming rebellion.

He begins to drink too much.

His wife and child move out.

The books, his livelihood, piled about his apartment are oppressing him with their demands to be read. ”It was impossible to escape one’s fate. There lay the stack of review copies---waiting, waiting.” There are many of us reviewers who have suffered from a cacophony of imploring overtures, not only from new books and their anxious authors, but also the books from the past that still haunt us with their beseeching appeals for our attention.

”Yes, of course. He was going to resign. It was like peeling a whole layer of opinions from himself. He no longer wanted a steady job as a producer of opinions. Infinity---was that not what he was seeking? He wanted to be an infinite person, one who was initiated into the mysteries.”

Jazz is railing, in his own fashion, at the shape of the world. He doesn’t see what he gains from being a productive member of it, except increasing levels of responsibility and a growing distance from what makes life real.

Whiskey seems to be the quickest way to go to the dogs. If he becomes a drunken lout, little will be expected of him. He can focus on reaching the divine, which frankly, whatever that is becomes more and more muddled in his mind. Whiskey induced philosophical hallucinations of Jesus and Nietzsche lead to an ill-fated attempt by Jazz to convert to Catholicism.

Giving up the religion of economics to clutch at faith? Leaping from one blazing inferno into yet another?

In the introduction, Morten Høi Jensen sums up the novel perfectly. Havoc should come with a health warning. Tom Kristensen’s novel, about a thirty-something literary critic who loses himself in a maelstrom of drink, jazz, and sex, is one of the most disturbing and absorbing accounts of self-destruction in modern European language.”

There is music. ”This feeling was tempered somewhat, as it was by the jazz from the worn and scratchy records on the phonograph.”

There is drink, of which Tom Kristensen has firsthand knowledge. ”On more than one occasion, his nighttime exploits landed him in a cell at the local police station, where it was joked that Kristensen didn’t have enough blood in his alcohol content.”---Morten Høi Jensen

There is sex and the accompanying worry of disease. A woman by the name of Black Else keeps showing up, and despite warnings from his friend Vuldum that she is diseased, Jazz can not stay away from her. By attempting to avoid her, he just keeps finding her. After an unwise assignation, he sees her as a vision caught against the backdrop of a fire from across the street. ”...fiery shadows, bloody shadows. The naked female body floated upright but obliquely through purple waves, arms outstretched above its head. A greenish darkness lurking in the shadowy armpits. Black Else! Her breasts became so full in the reflections of the red light flickering on the yellow skin. Feminine curves. Just then a tongue of flame shot up across the way and ignited another curtain--an elongated feminine arm, a demanding feminine body, supple, alluring, devouring. A raging fire. Yes---a woman.”

There is seduction. Not by Jazz, but of Jazz by a married woman named Luise Kryger. ”The neck of the pajama top had fallen aside, and in the glow from the pink fabric one of her breasts, which had come to view, shone with a fresh and youthful charm, and the dark nipple caught his glance and fascinated him by its disproportionate size, so large was the brown aureola surrounding it.”

That dark nipple is going to cause Jazz all sorts of irritations with the unwanted attentions of her cuckold husband, who keeps trying to usher him out of town with a cluster of Øre notes.

There is also the heady backdrop of Copenhagen pollution. ”Standing beneath this wide-open expanse they both instinctively drew a deep breath of cool evening air, seasoned with gasoline and perfume and the fetid odor of many people, to which was added the acrid aroma of metal and coal smoke from the subterranean railway---a slightly intoxicating draught of poisonous liqueurs that the big city had to offer in spring.”

This book has never been out of print in Denmark since it was published in 1930. There is a good reason for this, because the concerns of Jazz are the same concerns of the modern age. As society demands more from us for less in return, and we become aware of the true shambles our belief in the system has made for us, the urge to drop out becomes more and more appealing. There is a cautionary tale mingled with the booze, slutty encounters, and the “deviant” music that going to the dogs creates just as much anxiety as being a productive member of society. Hedonism certainly has some attractions, but the cost proved too high for Jastrau and, in the end, to be equally dissatisfying. Perhaps we all should do some unpeeling, but at a moderate speed so we don’t find ourselves face down in a gutter with a mangy critter licking our sweaty, whiskey swollen faces.

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Monday, August 6, 2018

Not the Best Block, But Still Damn Good

Out on the Cutting Edge (Matthew Scudder, #7)Out on the Cutting Edge by Lawrence Block
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not topnotch in the Scudder series, Out on the Cutting Edge is still nonetheless a quality Block book.

While the three star rating (it would be closer to 3.5 and I rue GR's lack of half stars!) might seem low for a "quality" book that I would still recommend, I have my reasons. The biggest problem with this one is that our aging, alcoholic, ex-cop turned unlicensed private detective hero Matthew Scudder doesn't really solve the crime. I mean he puts the pieces together, but the pieces fall into his lap by chance.

HOWEVER! He does solve another crime that you might not have seen coming. There's a nice twist towards the end. But that's part of the problem. A lot happens at the very end and the lead up to it is long and drawn out due to a lack of action. Scudder books could hardly be called "action-packed" by the longest of stretches, but usually there's a little more balance. Even the tension, that harbinger of action, is mostly absent.

None of that hardly matters though. I can still find a good deal of enjoyment in these books even when the plot doesn't pack a punch and all we do is watch Scudder go on dates and to AA meetings. Block's descriptions of NYC from back in the day (this one is set in the late Summer of '86, if I have my baseball references correct) and his excellent characterizations are utterly enjoyable to lose oneself in. He makes you feel like one of Scudder's buddies (if Scudder had anyone you could call a "buddy"), just hanging out with him during his wanderings about the city, like taking a Sunday drive with someone real chill. But no one here is what you would call "cool". These people have seen some shit and have the scars to prove it. The good guys, the bad guys, and all the guys in between (actually most fall into the "in between" category) have been slapped about by life. In this series, Block paints life perfectly.

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Sunday, August 5, 2018

Tampa

TampaTampa by Alissa Nutting
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the surface, Celeste Price and her husband are the perfect couple. He's a cop and she teaches junior high. However, her secret ravenous lust for young boys threatens to tear them apart...

Yeah, this is one of those polarizing books. It asks the uncomfortable question "If a gorgeous 26 year old teacher wants to bed a very willing 14 year old student of hers, is it really rape?" A wise man once wrote "the best villain is the one who thinks he's the hero" and Celeste definitely thinks she's in the right.

The book is written in a funny, vulgar style, so much so that you forget you're reading about a sociopathic child predator at times. The style reminds me of a more humorous, more vulgar Megan Abbott. The plot, however, is a sexuallized reverse Lolita, I guess. Celeste pursues and persuades a boy into a sexual relationship with her and they furiously bump uglies until the train gets derailed. A couple derailments, in fact. In some ways, it reminds me of a Jim Thompson book. You can tell how abnormal Celeste is and know it's only a matter of time before everything goes to several shades of shit.

The book made me feel dirtier than the floor of a porno theater but it was compulsively readable. It simultaneously made me wish I had a Playboy centerfold for a teacher in eighth grade and made me glad I didn't.

Uncomfortable but readable is my final feeling on the book. It was a gripping read and I'll be interested to read whatever Alissa Nutting writes next. Four out of five stars.

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Friday, August 3, 2018

Somatesthesia


Ann Somerville
Self-Published
Reviewed by Nancy
5 out of 5 stars



Summary



2042, post-peak oil America. The FBI and NSA have been merged into a single entity — the Federal Justice Agency — with wide-ranging investigative powers across state borders. Within it, a small core of elite agents, Special Crime Investigators, are brought in on the most difficult, dangerous cases to offer their expertise and abilities.

New SCI Devlin Grace meets his partner, enhanced agent Connor Hutchens, for the first time. Connor is odd and damaged — but with the ability to hear, taste, feel, see and smell well beyond the senses of ordinary people. Together they must solve a dangerous, perplexing case before more children are killed or mutilated - and resist their growing attraction to each other, which could put their careers and their safety in great peril.



My Review



In 2042, America finally comes to its senses and decreases its use of oil significantly while relying on solar, wind and water power. As a result, automobiles have become nearly obsolete and trains have become the primary mode of travel for commuters and industry alike. The cost of imports has become prohibitively expensive, forcing people to become more self-reliant and produce more local products. Crime is still prevalent, and the Federal Justice Agency, a group of elite agents with jurisdiction over state borders, strengthens its crime-fighting abilities by pairing up agents with scientifically enhanced senses with “normal” agents.

Devlin Grace is new to the agency. He’s devoted to his family, committed to his work, and protective of his new partner, Connor Hutchens.

Connor is the enhanced half of the duo. Although he has superior hearing and sight, he has a social anxiety that makes it difficult for him to interact well with others. His childhood was traumatic, having been abandoned by his real parents and then losing his adoptive parents along with his eyesight in a car accident. He was then adopted by an emotionally distant Japanese scientist who provided a good life and security for his young charges as he experimented on them.

Though the two men couldn’t be more different, they work well together and efficiently put their brains and abilities to use in solving a series of bizarre kidnapping cases. Despite agency rules against fraternization, it is inevitable that the two men eventually fall in love.

I enjoyed the fast pace of this story, the growth of Connor and Devlin in and out of their relationship, the well-developed secondary characters, and the twists and surprises that made me think, made me laugh, and brought a tear to my eye. I felt the ending was wrapped up a little too quickly and neatly, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.

Another winner from Ann Somerville!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Little Wren and the Big Forest (short story in Unfettered II)

Unfettered IIUnfettered II by Shawn Speakman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Little Wren and the Big Forest

The forest near Wren's house is something of a mystery. Only her father ever enters, but only just slightly. When Wren's brother enters the forest following a sheep, he doesn't reappear. Wren's father and mother follow until only Wren remained. Now Wren could follow her mother's instructions or she could enter the forest to see if she can find her family. Wren may be little, but she's no coward.

Little Wren and the Big Forest is a fairy tale about the dwarf Gronbach. He's a vile clever creature who cares only for himself. Wren is a simply written girl like any protagonist of a fairy tale. The story is simple, but it's point is achieved, do not trust Gronbach.

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Wednesday, August 1, 2018

A TOWN LIKE ALICE BY NEVIL SHUTE

A Town Like AliceA Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”I suppose it is because I have lived rather a restricted life myself that I have found so much enjoyment in remembering what I have learned in these last years about brave people and strange scenes. I have sat here day after day this winter, sleeping a good deal in my chair, hardly knowing if I was in London or the Gulf country, dreaming of the blazing sunshine, of poddy-dodging and black stockmen, of Cairns and of Green Island. Of a girl that I met forty years too late, and of her life in that small town that I shall never see again, that holds so much of my affection.”

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There was a 1981 mini-series starring Bryan Brown and Helen Morse.

Our narrator is a solicitor by the name of Noel Strachan who is ”as solid as the Bank of England, and as sticky as treacle.” He becomes involved with an estate that seems to be a straightforward affair, but soon it evolves into his most all consuming case.

It involves a woman named Jean Paget, to him more of a girl, but as we learn her story, we find out just how much of a woman she really is.

Paget’s story is based on true events. This story is set in Malaya, but the real story is set in Sumatra. The women and children taken by the Japanese during the war are Dutch, not British, and Nevil Shute gets many things wrong. Some of that is translation problems, and some of those are changes necessary to tell the story he wants to tell. The Japanese take all foreign nationals in Malaya prisoner. They separate the men from the women, haul the men off to camps, and don’t have a clue what to with the women and children.

So they march them in what turns out to be random directions towards mythical camps for women and children that never materialize. With every brutal mile, their ranks are thinned, and the youngest woman among them becomes their de facto leader.

Jean Paget.

She befriends a truck driver from the Australian outback, Jim Harman, who steals much needed supplies at great risk. Eventually, he is caught.

”’I stole those mucking chickens and I gave them to her. So what?’ said Joe.

The ’So what?’ turns out to be a very big deal indeed.

”’They crucified him,’ she said quietly. ‘They took us down to Kuantan, and they nailed his hands to a tree, and beat him to death. They kept us there, and made us look on while they did it.’”

This is a story that Paget tells to Noel Strachan, and he shares the story with us. Over the course of the novel, she continues to write to him about her life. Despite the age difference and the impracticality of a relationship, it is easy to see that Strachan has fallen in love with Jean Paget, and as it turned out, so did Joe Harman.

Joe Harman is based on a real man by the name of Herbert James ‘Ringer’ Edwards. He was every inch the man that Shute describes in his novel.

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Look at that jaunty angle to his hat.

In this edition, there is a wonderful afterword by Jenny Colgan. She makes the case that writers, craftsmen and craftswomen, like Nevil Shute, Bernard Malamud, Elizabeth Taylor, Robertson Davies are largely forgotten by the reading community today. Interestingly enough, I have several books by all these writers in my personal library. I am the consummate pursuer of writers, exactly like Shute, who have been relegated to the past, left for dead, but who are in need of a resurrection with a new generation of readers. He has certainly left his mark on me. I think about Shute’s book On the Beach at least once a week. It is one of my favorite post-apocalyptic books. I have a feeling I will be similarly haunted by A Town Like Alice.

Nevil Shute Norway is his full name. To keep his engineering life and his writing life separated, he existed under Norway in one and Shute in the other. He became caught up in the disastrous airship craze between the world wars, and he is brought to life so vividly by David Dennington in his historical novel The Airshipmen.

Shute’s writing style is crisp, concise, and straightforward. There is romance, but he presents it in such a practical fashion that the plot never bogs down in the melodrama of star crossed lovers. ”But Shute was a storytelling craftsman to his bones; an aeronautics obsessive-- there are very few authors who are also excellent engineers. He never constructs a lazy or shoddy sentence, any more than he’d have let the wings fall off one of his aeroplanes.”

After receiving her legacy, Jean ends up in the outback of Australia, being exactly the can-do woman she was in Malaya. She wants to build the sparse few buildings of Willstown into the next Alice Springs. I find this part of the story so inspiring. She is such an natural entrepreneur. She asks the right questions. What do people need? What do people want that they don’t even know they want it yet? What must we do to make each venture profitable? How does she keep the young women from running off to the big cities? No young women means there are no young men. In many ways, she is like Bugsy Siegel who envisioned casinos in the desert. She wants to build A Town Like Alice.

She uses her legacy to build something.

There is one major plot twist which is dangled so masterfully by Shute, but the reveal is not a grand fireworks affair. That just isn’t Shute’s style. He brings it in subtly, as if to say,...of course, this is what really happened.

Poor Noel Strachan meets the girl of his dreams forty years too late, but fate does at least let him meet her. You, too, can meet Jean Paget and Joe Harman and get to know what poddy-dodging means and ringers, but more importantly, if you love a good story as well crafted as the airplanes you trust your life to, then you should be reading Nevil Shute. His books should not be forgotten. Blow the dust off them in your local library and paperback exchanges, and let his stories live in your mind as they do in mine.

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