Saturday, June 29, 2019

Inside the O'Briens

Lisa Genova
Gallery Books
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Joe O’Brien is a forty-four-year-old police officer from the Irish Catholic neighborhood of Charlestown, Massachusetts. A devoted husband, proud father of four children in their twenties, and respected officer, Joe begins experiencing bouts of disorganized thinking, uncharacteristic temper outbursts, and strange, involuntary movements. He initially attributes these episodes to the stress of his job, but as these symptoms worsen, he agrees to see a neurologist and is handed a diagnosis that will change his and his family’s lives forever: Huntington’s Disease.

Huntington’s is a lethal neurodegenerative disease with no treatment and no cure. Each of Joe’s four children has a 50 percent chance of inheriting their father’s disease, and a simple blood test can reveal their genetic fate. While watching her potential future in her father’s escalating symptoms, twenty-one-year-old daughter Katie struggles with the questions this test imposes on her young adult life. Does she want to know? What if she’s gene positive? Can she live with the constant anxiety of not knowing?

As Joe’s symptoms worsen and he’s eventually stripped of his badge and more, Joe struggles to maintain hope and a sense of purpose, while Katie and her siblings must find the courage to either live a life “at risk” or learn their fate.

My Review

Alice Wexler’s brilliant scientific memoir, Mapping Fate, made me want to further explore the horror that is Huntington’s disease, so I decided to check out Lisa Genova’s fictional account of a Boston-area family who is affected.

Joe O’Brien, a Charlestown police officer, finally agrees to see a neurologist when his symptoms begin to affect his job performance. Not only does his diagnosis change his life, it also affects the lives of his wife, Rosie, and their four children, who have a 50% chance of inheriting this incurable and crippling disease.

While this story explores the disease and its devastating impact on Joe, it also, through the perspectives of his children, explores what it means to live a life at risk.

I loved getting to know the O’Brien’s, with all their quirks and flaws. I would have liked some deeper insight into the family’s relationships, particularly between the two sisters, Katie and Megan, and Joe’s relationship with his own sister, who moved across the country. I wanted to know more about what it was like for them growing up with a sick mother and not understanding what was wrong.

It must be difficult to watch a parent deteriorate from a disease knowing that there is a 50% chance a child may or may not get it. Though predictive testing is available for those at risk for Huntington’s, results from testing can have a major impact on every aspect of one’s life and the decision must be thought through carefully.

Lisa Genova does a wonderful job portraying the human, personal side of Huntington’s disease and the difficulties surrounding the decision to be tested. This is not the best fiction I’ve ever read. The prose, while not dazzling, is light, functional and accessible. I cared deeply about the O’Brien’s and appreciate the author’s efforts to raise awareness about this rare neurogenetic disorder while avoiding excessive sentimentality and melodrama.

I very much look forward to her other novels.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019


White JazzWhite Jazz by James Ellroy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”All I have is the will to remember. Time revoked/fever dreams--I wake up reaching, afraid I'll forget. Pictures keep the woman young.

L.A., fall 1958.

Newsprint: link the dots. Names, events--so brutal they beg to be connected. Years down--the story stays dispersed. The names are dead or too guilty to tell.

I'm old, afraid I'll forget:
I killed innocent men.
I betrayed sacred oaths.
I reaped profit from horror.
Fever--that time burning.
I want to go with the music-spin, fall with it.”

Lieutenant Dave Klein is in the middle of so many treacherous situations that the spread on whether he will live to see 1959 is carrying long odds. The only way he might live that long is if he is in jail awaiting trial, but even then powerful people, like the gangster Mickey Cohen or the Chief of Detectives Edmund Exley, better be convinced his lip will stay buttoned or something most sinister will happen to him before he ever gets a chance to flap his gums.

He’s got a lot to talk about.

”Killings, beatings, bribes, payoffs, kickbacks, shakedowns. Rent coercion, muscle jobs, strikebreaker work. Lies, intimidation, vows trashed, oaths broken, duties scorned. Thievery, duplicity, greed, lies, killings, beatings, bribes, payoffs, Meg--”

I’d like to tell you that Klein is an innocent, caught up in the machinations of a corrupt system, and that he is crusading to do the right thing, while trying to work the ends against the middle and the middle against both ends, but the truth of the matter is, he is as morally corrupt as the city he is paid to protect.

You need a witness tossed out a window? Call Klein.
You want a rival neutralized? Call Klein.
You need an illegal payoff dropped off? Call Klein.

Klein is a most resourceful young man just trying to make enough money to finish law school.

Some of you may have noticed the mention of Meg at the end of his list of sins. She is his business partner in a block of rentals. He is head over heels lustful in love with her. The problem is, incest is a sin, and my, my, my does Klein want to sin, sin, sin with his sister Meg.

So the trouble begins when Exley calls in Klein to investigate a burglary of a “sanctioned” drug dealer’s house. The guy’s name is Kafesjian, and his illegal activities are fronted by a string of dry cleaning stores. It doesn’t take long for Klein to realize that the story surrounding the Kafesjian burglary has a lot of sordid intrigue attached that goes well beyond the parameters of what he is supposed to be investigating. Exley, you remember Exley from L.A. Confidential, has made it clear that anything regarding Kafesjian is not to be touched. In fact, don’t even turn the rock over to start with.

As if Klein doesn’t have enough to do on his plate, Howard Hughes, yes that Hughes, calls him up and wants him to find a girl. It seems one of his actresses, Glenda Bledsoe, has gone off the reservation, and her contract with Hughes gives him exclusivity on what films she can work on, and he had her sign a morality clause as well. What? Hughes has someone sign a morality clause? Most actresses in Hollywood of the 1950s had to resign themselves to the fact that, sooner or later, they were going to be summoned to Hughes’s estate to service the beast.

Well, Klein doesn’t exactly follow Hughes’s instructions because he falls in lustful love with Glenda, which frankly proves a nice change of pace from the mooning he has been doing over his sister.

Feature:”Tall, lanky, honey blond. All legs, all chest--a grin said she never bought in. A little knock-kneed, big eyes, dark freckles. Pure something--maybe style, maybe juice.”

That “never bought in” part is what really drives Klein crazy. She isn’t an innocent, but yet there is something untameable about her that allows her to feel free to give Hughes the double middle finger salute. Klein doesn’t need to be made any more insane, but this woman is going to put another layer of care on the mound of unsavory deeds he can’t find a hole deep enough or big enough to bury.

Klein even gets caught up in the ongoing feud between ex-partners Edmund Exley and Dudley Smith. He has to play Exley and Smith and rely on their natural high levels of paranoia to keep them from realizing that Klein isn’t playing either one of them straight. One thing he knows is that Exley is the Wyatt Earp of Los Angeles. Whenever the gunfire has ended and the smear of accusations have been wiped off the wall, as the smoke clears, Exley will always be the last man standing.

Don’t bet against Exley.

The plot is, needless to say, convoluted with shotgun splattered sentences and what I can only describe as scat speak. James Ellroy takes us into Klein’s head, and what we get isn’t necessarily cohesive sentences, but broken pieces of thoughts, sometimes unfinished. Yet they convey the tortuous twists of guilt and fear that is wrapping around Klein’s brain tighter and tighter with every new revelation, with every new indiscretion.

I read quite a few hardboiled books a year. I don’t know why, but I always seem to get a hankering for them in the summertime when my blood runs hotter anyway. I have to say that there is no one working in the genre today, or maybe ever, who brings a more realistic view of the sordid underbelly of society. In fact, Ellroy makes other writers look almost naive about the extremes of human nature and the true motivations that make people into brutal, self-destructive, untrustworthy, shameful versions of themselves. If you were in trouble in Los Angeles in 1958, you didn’t call the LAPD because you might end up needing to be saved from them.

Hush hush, keep these SINsations on the QT.

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Sunday, June 16, 2019

The charming "Kingdom of Exiles" by Maxym M. Martineau is a winning fantasy

“Kingdom of Exiles” by Maxym M. Martineau is a captivating fantasy with interesting characters, good world-building , magic, and a brooding romance that heats up over time. Leena is a Charmer, with the rare magical gift to enchant magical animals and monsters.  She is in exile from the Charmer homeland of Hireath. A victim of an unscrupulous member of the Charmer Council.  She is forced by circumstances to sell her captured monsters, a crime in Hireath. She is in the midst of such a sale, when she is accosted by a member of the Cruor, a group of undead assassins, hired to kill her by someone from Hirearth.

 Used to bartering in the world outside of Hirearth, Leena barters with Noc, the male guild master of the Cruor; she will give four assassins a magical beast in exchange for their termination of the assassin contract.  It’s a good bargain, but as with any bargain, it’s the unwritten rules that get you, and Noc holds back a major catch, that unless Leena dies, he will die.

The story alternates between Noc chapters and Leena chapters so we get two perspectives of the action.  Leena’s charms as a Charmer and a woman soon come to captivate Noc and the other members of the assassin group, and Noc is soon entranced. Leena is running from her demons, an evil Charmer, who used one of Leena’s monsters against her, but Noc is running from death, his death and the death of countless others, caused by a curse that he bears, that even dying and being reborn as a Cruor has not vanquished.

Martineau’s depiction of the magical forces in the novel shines.  The Cruor have magic, the guild leader can revive dead people and once a member of the guild, the assassins can become shadows, vanish and reappear, and move incredibly fast. Noc, has his own powers as well.  However, Martineau powers up the appeal of the novel with her magical creatures, who come alive on the page. Form the amorphous Iky, a short timer from the beast realm, but an invisible creature able to grow limbs and become solid to the Gyss, a magical creature, who grants wishes but claims a powerful penalty for each.

But the story is not limited to Leena’s creatures. There are some cool battle scenes.  Leena ability to discern which creature will suit each of  the assassins on the quest and gifting of them. There is also the budding romance between Noc and Leena.

Noc, however is looking for his own beast, because he wants the curse lifted.  But Noc does not want to love Leena because of his curse, but he cannot kill her because of his attraction to her and hope that he can lift the curse. 

For a book about a quest with assassins, they come off as honorable and likeable. It is Leena’s past that catches up with them and Leena and Noc will have to join together to defeat the evil Charmer bent on torturing Leena into submission.

This charming novel should be on your short list for the summer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019


Swan SongSwan Song by Robert R. McCammon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

”The sky was filled with waves of moving, blinking stars. Wheels of light rolled across the darkness over the trailer court, and streaks of yellow fire zigzagged upward into the haze that obscured the moon. Thousands upon thousands of fireflies were passing overhead like galaxies in motion, their signals forming chains of light that stretched from west to east as far as Swan could see.”

 photo apocalypse_zpsbn5ibjzt.jpg

It would be pretty, right? All those missiles streaking across the midnight sky. The end of the world wrapped in the gossamer of sparkling, awe inspiring enchantment. Once the guidance system tells these glowing tubes to descend to the earth, they explode into these nearly perfect, cylindrical, fiery mushroom clouds that reach for the sky.

”It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.”---R.E.M. (Oddly enough that song was released in 1987, the same year as this novel.)

Well, maybe not so fine. I’ve had debates about end of the world scenarios. People talk about what they would do to survive, but my hope is to be at ground zero. I like culture and civilisation and don’t really want to scramble about in a Mad Max world. Of course, if by some chance my book lined ivory tower were to survive, I would really appreciate it if someone would drop off a bit of food and a bottle of red wine occasionally.

Josh Hutchins, a world weary professional wrestler known as the Black Frankenstein, is on his way to Garden City, Kansas, for a match when the world decides to end. Someone would think that Kansas would be a good place to be for a post apocalyptic event, with its small population and lots of desolation. It would be my state of choice, especially for a zombie apocalypse, for those reasons and the fact that the horizon goes on forever in every direction. Line of sight, right? From my tower window I can see those lurching, slobbering brain eaters coming from miles away.

Unfortunately, there are strategic military reasons why the Russkies would want to blow up Kansas, and they have more than enough of these glowing tubes of destruction to wreak havoc in every state of the Union. Josh finds himself, after the fallout, the guardian of an orphaned nine year old girl, whose trailer trash name is Sue Wanda, but fortunately, she has been nicknamed Swan.

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Well, try having an apocalyptic event, and you will find out.

Now Swan is a very special young lady, and as she grows up over the next seven years, her natural affinity for growing plants evolves into something quite spectacular. “‘Everything can think and feel, in its own way,’ she replied, and she looked up at him. The eyes in her young face were very old, Josh thought. ‘Bugs, birds, even grass—everything has its own way of speaking and knowing. Just depends on whether you can understand it or not.’”

Josh, in the midst of all this destruction and hardship, has had his own epiphany about life. ”Josh opened his fist and drew his arm back. The insect kept going, out of the light’s range and into the darkness on its purposeful journey. Who am I to kill such a thing? he asked himself. Who am I to deliver death to even the lowest form of life?”

Swan, you see, can bring apple trees back to life. She can plant corn seeds in infertile, radiated soil and make it grow. She is the most important human being on the planet, and there are people looking for her.

There is Sister Creep, well not as creepy as her name would imply, is seeing visions and knows she must find Swan to give her something she will need desperately in her coming battle against pure evil.

There is Colonel Macklin who, with the help of his teenage henchman, Ronald Croninger, has built what they call the Army of Excellence (AOE) and are marching across the midwest killing all who refuse to join them and stealing the food and supplies of everyone they encounter. Assimilate or perish.

There is one creature more insidious than Macklin and Croninger and their whole army combined. You can call him Friend, *shudder*, or The Man with the Scarlet Eye, or The Man of Many Faces, or if you want to try to think of him as something more human, you can call him Doyle Holland. He knows he has to destroy Swan because she is a beacon of hope amongst the chaos. “‘Hope hurts me,’ he said. ‘It’s a disease, and you’re the germ that spreads it. We can’t have disease at my party. Oh, no. It won’t be allowed.’”

So what is Doyle exactly? He isn’t a man. A demon? The devil? He can shape shift, manipulate, control minds. He takes credit for all the chaos and evil in the world.

Doyle can feel the power of Swan, and she can feel his weaknesses. It is an unsettling meeting. ”He blinked uncertainly, and in his eyes Swan saw fire and savagery, a core of pain past human suffering and so furious that it almost ripped her own heart to shreds. He was a scream wrapped up in straw, a little, weak, vicious thing gnashing inside a monstrous facade. She saw what he was made of, and she knew him very well.”

Swan is also suffering a radiation inspired malady, as are many people, that is called a Job’s Mask. ”Her head was covered by gray growths that had begun as small black warts, had thickened and spread over the passage of years, had connected with gray tendrils like groping, intertwining vines. The growths had covered her skull like a knotty helmet, had enclosed her facial features and sealed them up except for a small slit at her left eye and a ragged hole over her mouth through which she breathed and ate.” They can feel their faces shifting under the growths. (view spoiler)

The epic post-apocalypticThe Stand by Stephen King was published in 1978, and this novel was published in 1987. Some could say Swan Song is an ode to King; some will say it owes a lot to the King novel, and some would say they enjoyed The Stand more. I have read The Stand recently, and I must say that I enjoyed Swan Song much more. The writers chose different ways to destroy the world. It doesn’t really matter what destroys civilization the point of post-apocalyptic stories is what the writer makes of the wreckage and hopefully the redemption. King had his religious prophets, and McCammon had, for me, a much more compelling character in an earth goddess trying to lead humanity back on the path to civilization. I liked the plotting and flow of Swan Song better than the plot devised by King for The Stand.

They are both epic length novels each weighing in at around 1000 pages, but for me Swan Song was more smooth sailing than The Stand. I read Swan Song extremely quickly, in just a few days, while I lingered over The Stand for a couple of weeks. In this heavyweight bout, the winner is…Swan Song in the glowing green trunks.

May there really be an earth goddess among us waiting to save us from ourselves.

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Sunday, June 9, 2019

Car Crashes & Other Sad Stories

Mell Kilpatrick
Taschen Books
Reviewed by Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


An incredible and utterly unique historical document. This book contains selections from the photographic collection of one Mell Kilpatrick, a news photographer from South California who relentlessly pursued his profession during the 40s and 50s, capturing images from the plentiful crime scenes and in particular automobile collisions that came his way. Kilpatrick was an obsessive witness to the effects of the post-war explosion of car culture in California, and through his lens he repeatedly viewed the fatal consequences of speed. technology and reckless abandon. His work might have remained lost and unknown, sealed away in his locked darkroom, untouched since his death in 1961, if it hadn't been brought to light by collector and dealer Jennifer Dumas, who found the 5,000 negatives and realised she'd stumbled upon something very special. Although he covered other 'stories' apart from crashes, including shots of everyday life in the small towns he visited, it is the roadside images that dominate the collection. They are an unsparing archive of human tragedy. Picture after picture unveils yet another tableau of disaster with infinite variations -- the fragile shells of cars collapsed and upended, corpses hidden or fully revealed, stoic cops and laughing bystanders dealing in different ways with the reality of sudden death. It is this combination of the banal or ordinary and the appalling horror of the moment of impact that makes Kilpatrick's work a fascinating experience.

My Review

While this disturbing and unpleasant book is far from my favorite Taschen books, I can’t give it less than 4 stars. The black and white photographs are mostly of car crashes that occurred in southern California in the 1940’s and 1950’s. While some photos just show the demolished car, others show the twisted, lifeless bodies that will never again enjoy a car ride. The other sad stories referred to in the book’s title are murders, suicides and pedestrian deaths.

It’s a truly gruesome find, yet there is an artistic, evocative quality to many of the photos. Mell Kilpatrick started his career in 1948, photographing evidence for insurance companies, as well as car accidents and crime scenes.

One of my favorite photos in this collection is of a young man with a bloodied face and wrapped in a blanket sitting by his totaled car while what appears to be his parents are standing on either side looking down at him with stern expressions. Mom’s hands are akimbo and dad’s are in his pockets. Behind the car, there is a police officer and curious onlookers.

When I was no longer able to look at the corpses, I focused on the other details in the photos – the car wrecks, the empty beer cans strewn in the back seat, the laughing teenagers, the shocking lack of safety features in cars.

I would have liked more details about the photos other than street names. Maybe knowing the names and ages of the victims would be too much, but I’m kind of morbid like that.

Even though lap and shoulder safety belts were around in the late 60’s and early 70’s, I was never forced to wear them as a child and my mom always refused to wear them for fear of wrinkling her clothes. My brother and I loved the freedom of sliding side to side in the bench seats. It was easy to crawl around on the floor, open the windows, or even snuggle up next to the rear window. Little did we know we were riding in a death trap.

This is definitely not for the squeamish, and certainly not a book I’d leave laying around for my guests to look at.

Saturday, June 8, 2019

Steven Kotler's "Last Tango in Cyberspace" meandering plot dooms this near future thriller

Steven Kotler channels his best William Gibson, in the new sci-fi thriller “Last Tango in Cyberspace”, which plot centers on corporate greed, drugs and eco-terrorism. Unfortunately, Kotler does not completely pull it off.   One problem is the meandering plot.  Marketed as a thriller, one could wish for more action.  Instead, Kotler overindulges in a veritable smorgasbord of near future predictions. From a deep dive into marijuana variants that only Seth Rogan could understand to bar code branded people to vegan people who are eating grown cultured beef, the novel is full of ideas about the future.  And some are interesting. There is a deep dive into animal rights and why people should be more protective.  But Kotler tries too hard to fit some of them in.  And Kotler also seems to have a fascination with “Dune”, the Frank Herbert, magnum opus, which will play a significant role in the story.  Even the title is cited several times in the text, as if the author is trying to convince the reader that the novel is about cyberspace, when in reality it’s mostly about drugs and the cyberspace connection is merely a loose tie-in.

Judah “Lion” Zorn is an “empathy tracker”, who is able to discern emerging trends in society. Sir Richard, who runs Artic Pharmaceuticals has hired him to track down the leader of a cult, who may have information about a new drug about to hit the market. The drug helps with autism, so Artic’s motives may be good.  The problem is that the new drug increases the empathy that people feel for others, including animals. So a noted hunter, who may have taken the drug, is found dead, his head mounted like the other prey he killed on the wall of his trophy room.  And there may be cross interests at work. Jenka, who works for Arctic is in charge of “special creatives” is involved. His assistant Penelope, is also a player, who will become more important to Zorn as the story progresses. The Cult leader will be met on the way but missed but then found again.  Arctic Pharmaceuticals motives will, in the best cyberpunk tradition, to be grey at best.

I found the novel to be a slow slog. It does pick up in the second half, but there is still too much meandering around. There are many sharp science fiction speculative ideas in the story, but digging out the nuggets is not worth the time to discover them. Kotler can hold your interest, but there is better fare out there.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019


Proust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things ProustProust's Overcoat: The True Story of One Man's Passion for All Things Proust by Lorenza Foschini
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”At the ball, Marcel Proust sat down in front of me on a little gilded chair, as if coming out of a dream, with his fur-lined cloak, his face full of sadness, and his night-seeing eyes.”--Marthe Bibesco

 photo Proust by Cocteau_zpskoc3wr8o.jpg

Jacques Guérin was a man of elegance and charm. He made a fortune from the perfume business, showing a savvy mind for marketing, for anticipating shifting market trends, and for outmaneuvering his competitors to gain market share. He was a very successful person if we are weighing people on a capitalist scale.

Being a perfume baron didn’t make him interesting to me, not in the least. Now Guérin the collector of rare books, manuscripts, and fine things, that was a man I found to be fascinating. Guérin was a Proust fanatic, but he also appreciated and supported other writers. In fact, he gave Jean Genet safe haven on more than one occasion when he was down on his luck or just emerging from prison. I loved the way Genet described his friend and benefactor. ”There is no better way to express my gratitude than by proclaiming the joy I feel in knowing a reader for whom fetishism is a religion.”

Guérin had met Proust’s brother, Dr. Robert Proust. The meeting did not go well. It was only after Robert died that Guérin found himself caught up in a desperate struggle between the widow and the remaining possessions of the great Marcel Proust. She despised her connection with a man who was unabashadely homosexual, wrote such extravagantly embarrasing books, and showed such disregard for the bourgeois way of life. Mrs. Robert Proust wanted to destroy or sell everything in her possession that had once belonged to Marcel. Backyard bonfires destroyed numerous notebooks and letters. Inscriptions were ripped from books. It was enough to bring anyone who loved literature to their knees. A malicious assault like this on the ephemera of a writer denied all of us those glimpses of the man behind the words.

Guérin was determined, through begging and with satchels full of cash, to save what he could. It was interesting how vehement stances might be based on moral issues, but that money almost always softened the fervancy of the need for punishment/destruction.

The author Lorenza Foschini was not only telling us the story of Guérin, the foremost Proust collector, but also of her own search for Proust’s fur lined overcoat. ”If I try to imagine Proust. I close my eyes and see him covered in his dark coat, as he was so often described by those who knew him. Reading In Search of Lost Time, I can only visualize the Narrator swaddled in his otter-lined overcoat.” Proust was sickly and spent most of his time in bed, writing, writing, and writing some more. He was determined to capture all his memories in exquisite detail before the Grim Reaper, who had been resting a chin on his shoulder his entire life, could finally collect his soul.

This was about a collector, a fur lined overcoat, and a writer who died with very few possessions, but who left us with a treasure trove of his wonderfully composed thoughts.

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