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Thursday, March 31, 2016
THE GOOD LIFE ELSEWHERE
VLADIMIR LORCHENKO translated by Ross Ufberg
New Vessel Press
$14.99 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: The Good Life Elsewhere is a very funny book. It is also a very sad one. Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov tells the story of a group of villagers and their tragicomic efforts, against all odds and at any cost, to emigrate from Europe’s most impoverished nation to Italy for work. The Good Life Elsewhere aims to present the complexity of a new Europe, where allegiances shift but memories are rooted in place. The book integrates small-scale human follies with strategic partnerships, unification plans, and the Soviet legacies that still hang over the former Eastern Bloc. Lorchenkov addresses the vexing question of what to do when many formerly pro-Soviet/pro-Russia countries want to link arms with their Western European brethren. In this uproarious tale, an Orthodox priest is deserted by his wife for an art-dealing atheist; a mechanic redesigns his tractor for travel by air and sea; thousands of villagers take to the road on a modern-day religious crusade to make it to the promised land of Italy; meanwhile, politicians remain politicians.
Like many great satirists from Voltaire to Gogol to Vonnegut, Lorchenkov makes use of the grotesque to both horrify us and help us laugh. It is not often that stories from forgotten countries such as Moldova reach us in the English-speaking world. A country where 25 percent of its population works abroad, where remittances make up nearly 40 percent of the GDP, where alcohol consumption per capita is the highest in the world, and which has the lowest per capita income in all of Europe – this is a country that surely has its problems. But, as Lorchenkov vividly shows, it’s a country whose residents don’t easily give up.
Russian critics have praised Lorchenkov’s work, calling this novel “a bleeding, wild work, grotesque in every twist of its plot and in every character, written brightly, bitterly, humorously, and – paradoxically, as we’re dealing with the grotesque – honestly.” In The Good Life Elsewhere, Vladimir Lorchenkov shows himself to be a fearless critic, an enduring optimist, and a master stylist. And he does it all “in vivid colors, with a pamphleteer’s spite, and a good-humored smile.”
My Review: When I was a tot, I loved the Warner Brothers-Merrie Melodies cartoons. My mother, vigilant on the subject of what and how much TV I could watch, wrinkled her nose and pursed her lips like last night's prune whip was disagreeing with her, but ultimately gave in.
Joy! Unrestricted access to the Meep-Meep Duck!
"...the...Meep...Dick, what have you been telling the boy? And what does that mean?"
As everyone my age knows already, it was the Roadrunner, and how I loved those gravity-defying falls Wile E. Coyote took, the razzberry the Roadrunner invariably blew at him, and of course MEEP MEEP!!
The entire book, I felt like the Moldovan people one and all were the collective reincarnation of Wile E. Coyote. "All the poor bastard ever wanted was some lunch," was my father's summation of the cartoons. Yeah, I thought every time another hare-brained scheme to get to Italy failed, all the poor bastards want is some food!
And somehow, through some collective karmic deficiency, not one success story leavens this heavy dough. But the icing of absurdity and dreamy impracticality kept me smiling and turning pages.
I wanted to send the poor guys contact information for the Acme Corporation, but couldn't figure out how.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
WORLD OF TROUBLE
BEN H. WINTERS The Last Policeman series #3
$14.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: There are just 14 days until a deadly asteroid hits the planet, and America has fallen into chaos. Citizens have barricaded themselves inside basements, emergency shelters, and big-box retail stores. Cash is worthless; bottled water is valuable beyond measure. All over the world, everyone is bracing for the end.
But Detective Hank Palace still has one last case to solve. His beloved sister Nico was last seen in the company of suspicious radicals, armed with heavy artillery and a plan to save humanity. Hank's search for Nico takes him from Massachusetts to Ohio, from abandoned zoos and fast food restaurants to a deserted police station where he uncovers evidence of a brutal crime. With time running out, Hank follows the clues to a series of earth-shattering revelations.
The third novel in the Last Policeman trilogy, World of Trouble presents one final pre-apocalyptic mystery – and Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond whodunit: How far would you go to protect a loved one? And how would you choose to spend your last days on Earth?
My Review: If there is one series I can *COUNT*ON* not to have extra volumes, it's this one. I can't imagine I'm spoilering this for anyone. The world ends the same time the book does.
Leading up to that finale to end all finales is our buddy Hank doin' his Hankly duty: Looking for his sister Nico and finding the odds and sods of wherever he is in his way. Of course, he has erstwhile baddie Cortez and poor, sick Houdini the dog in tow. Each presents Hank with different kinds of drags on his none-too-swift progress. Each has some claim on him. All the way through these three novels, Hank Palace has been on the Hero's Journey, with all the trappings. It's more stark in this concluding (!) volume.
But there's a reason humans have kept this storyline around so long: It's riveting. Even with the literal end of the world looming, it matters, matters, that Hank finds his sister. We want him to succeed in his quest! What possible meaning can a quest have to people who will be discrete atoms in a matter of weeks, days, finally hours.
Put something in a pressure cooker and, when the lid's open, it's very obvious what it's made of. It's the same with people. Hank? He's made of stern, strong stuff. He's taken on the pain and the fear of each person he's met and he's done his level best to rid them of it; even when he can't he's changed the others to better fit around their pain.
In his own last hours, suffering mightily the curse of the strong to bear more burdens than their own, Hank seeks out the last human he knows whose strength matches his own. As Life ends, Hank holds the hand of a girl whose burdens are as his own, and they know that moment of glad sharing we all seek after for all our lives.
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Alfred A. Knopf
$25.95 hardcover, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: From one of England's most accomplished young writers: a taut, riveting, compulsively readable novel in which a young man (with a bizarre sleep disorder) uncovers the connections between foxes behaving oddly in London, Burmese people going missing, and glow, the newest recreational drug.
South London, May 2010: twenty-two-year-old Raf spends his days looking after Rose, a bull terrier who guards the transmitters for a pirate radio station, and his nights at raves in dingy warehouses and launderettes, where he first hears about the mysterious glow. When a good friend disappears without a trace, Raf's efforts to find him will lead gradually and then suddenly right into the thick of a massive corporate conspiracy. And along the way, he falls in love with a stunningly beautiful young woman, only to discover that there is far more to Cherish than meets the eye. Combining the pace, drama, and explosive plot twists of a thriller with his trademark intellectual, linguistic, and comedic pyrotechnics, Glow is Ned Beauman's most compelling and virtuosic novel yet.
My Review: ...and it heals warts when you dance widdershins around it by the light of the quarter moon!
I know book publicists face an uphill battle for the public's attention (read:money), but the breathless promises of ecstatic visions and orgasmic writhings in these things is a dead turn-off. There is no plot twist, even one I didn't see coming, that's explosive. Terrorist bombings are explosive. Let's not wear the horror of the word off in such a banal context.
Anyway. That said, I had a ball reading this book. I like Beauman's sly, side-eye humor, and I appreciate his regular inclusion of gay people with no muss, no fuss, no bother about it. I think his penchant for 20-something guys with superduper rare and strange conditions as main characters should've run its course with this book's Raf who has...CPA? FRS? LLC?...hell, who cares, something that makes his sleep patterns different than anyone else's on the planet. Unlike poor Fishy in Boxer, Beetle, there's no outward sign of Raf's peculiarity, and honestly I was a bit impatient about it recrudescing in conversation so often. But the ending made every bit of it okay. The FIRST ending, I mean, not the second and mostly Schadenfreude-inducing ending which left me chortling for a half-hour after I finished the book.
The whirling, rising, dipping, spinning trip in the middle (looks like I'm not so innocent of using the hyperbole I was complaining about) of the tale never once left me thinking, "okay, I can stop here." I had to make myself stop at time-stamps, or Day changes. I might not have a job, but there's still stuff I have to do that precludes holding a book. I've learned from bitter experience that angling your head for a view of an open book during a make-out session causes hurt feelings and requires many sappy protestations of adoration, etc etc etc. Men, interestingly enough, are *more* likely to feel slighted than women are.
Never let it be said that anyone came away from my blog without some newly acquired knowledge.
But back to Ned Beauman. His books are uniformly enjoyable reads. His hobbyhorses are ridden in different ways each time. But I had to slice a star off for the guys-with-orphan-diseases trope. Mr. Beauman is 30 now. I hope very much we've seen the last of that mosquito-bite-irritating bit of character building. Mind you, I'll be buying his next book the instant I can. I feel confident that it won't be badly used money. It hasn't been yet.
Monday, March 28, 2016
EUROPE IN AUTUMN
DAVE HUTCHINSON The Fractured Europe Sequence #1
$7.99 mass market, available now
Rating: 4.5* enthralled stars
The Publisher Says: Europe in Autumn is a thriller of espionage and the future which reads like the love child of John le Carre and Franz Kafka.
Rudi is a cook in a Krakow restaurant, but when his boss asks Rudi to help a cousin escape from the country he's trapped in, a new career - part spy, part people-smuggler - begins.
Following multiple economic crises and a devastating flu pandemic, Europe has fractured into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Recruited by the shadowy organisation Les Coureurs des Bois, Rudi is schooled in espionage, but when a training mission to The Line, a sovereign nation consisting of a trans-Europe railway line, goes wrong, he is arrested, beaten and Coureur Central must attempt a rescue.
With so many nations to work in, and identities to assume, Rudi is kept busy travelling across Europe. But when he is sent to smuggle someone out of Berlin and finds a severed head inside a locker instead, a conspiracy begins to wind itself around him.
With kidnapping, double-crosses and a map that constantly re-draws, Rudi begins to realise that underneath his daily round of plot and counter plot, behind the conflicting territories, another entirely different reality might be pulling the strings...
My Review: If book 2 is out, I'm orderin' it for myself for Xmas.
This isn't a uniformly kinetic book. The characters, by whatever names their current legends require, (oh, and "legend" here is a term of art) are shown thinking, strategizing, reflecting on their world and its insanities as much as they're shown whizzing around with cool spy stuff and lots of ways to blow people up and steal their money.
My favorite piece of spyware in the book is a towel that rolls out into a computer. WANT. NOW.
Rudi, by various names, does many reprehensible things and feels...remorse is too strong...as if he's failed when he has to resort to reprehensibility to get what he's been sent after. He meets and re-meets many folks from his pasts. He is a darn good, fun hero-on-the-border-of-antihero-ness, and I want to see him in book 2, Europe at Midnight.
And now I'm going to do something really, really mean: At the end of the book, Rudi makes a complete worldview-changing discovery that is, at least for me, unexpected to the point of jaw-dropping, and I am NOT going to spoiler it. It makes some oddly rough, even poorly fitting, facts make absolute sense. Moments when I looked at a sentence and thought, "...the hell...?" weren't frequent, but there were more than enough of them for me to perk my ears. (Of course I was evilly hoping I'd get to say something condescending and unpleasant, and alas could not.)
The Fractured Europe foreseen in this series of books is only barely fiction. In fact, only a pandemic is needed in addition to the refugee crisis going on now and hey-presto Hutchinson = Nostradamus. Of course it's all safely printed on pulpwood paper. There's no expectation of this being futurology, only fiction. Excellent fiction that has me fingering my invisible copy of Europe at Midnight....
I really, really liked this book. I hope there's no let-down coming!
And lest there be any doubt, I'm acquainted with Mr. Hutchinson through social media, but I bought the book with my own United States dollars. Neither the six-toed McHutchface nor Solaris Books think I'm cool enough to pass me freebies.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
BEN H. WINTERS (The Last Policeman series #2)
$14.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: There are just 77 days to go before a deadly asteroid collides with Earth, and Detective Hank Palace is out of a job. With the Concord police force operating under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, Hank's days of solving crimes are over...until a woman from his past begs for help finding her missing husband.
Brett Cavatone disappeared without a trace – an easy feat in a world with no phones, no cars, and no way to tell whether someone’s gone “bucket list” or just gone. With society falling to shambles, Hank pieces together what few clues he can, on a search that leads him from a college-campus-turned-anarchist-encampment to a crumbling coastal landscape where anti-immigrant militia fend off “impact zone” refugees.
The second novel in the critically acclaimed Last Policeman trilogy, Countdown City presents a fascinating mystery set on brink of an apocalypse – and once again, Hank Palace confronts questions way beyond "whodunit." What do we as human beings owe to one another? And what does it mean to be civilized when civilization is collapsing all around you?
My Review: This book has a helluva gut-punch in it. It has a gigantic eye-opening take on what catastrophe brings out...the apocalypse before the holocaust has surprising actors on its ever-darkening stage.
It gave my poor roommate a sleepless night or two as my light stayed on way past his comfort zone. Sorry, dude, there's books to be read!
I think, though I'm not sure, that one big reason our detective is developing and making his exit meaningful for as many as possible is that this series is a trilogy. The motivating factor being the annihilation of the planet and its people automatically limits the time available for anyone to act! It also allows Winters to load us up with telling details without making it feel like force-feeding a goose for a richer liver.
A point I'm appreciating more as the series goes on is the author's use of astronomical coordinates for the asteroid. It isn't something I saw right away, but it has slowly become a drumbeat of worry behind the plentiful action in the book. I particularly like the fact that, even though it's there from the beginning, its effect is cumulative. Sneakily so.
Off to book three!
Friday, March 25, 2016
THE MACHINE AWAKES
ADAM CHRISTOPHER The Spider Wars #2
$15.99 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: In the decades since the human race first made contact with the Spiders—a machine race capable of tearing planets apart—the two groups have fought over interstellar territory. But the war has not been going well for humankind, and with the failure of the Fleet Admiral’s secret plan in the Shadow system, the commander is overthrown by a group of hardliners determined to get the war back on track.
When the deposed Fleet Admiral is assassinated, Special Agent Von Kodiak suspects the new guard is eliminating the old. But when the Admiral’s replacement is likewise murdered, all bets are off as Kodiak discovers the prime suspect is one of the Fleet’s own, a psi-marine and decorated hero—a hero killed in action, months ago, at the same time his twin sister vanished from the Fleet Academy, where she was training to join her brother on the front.
As Kodiak investigates, he uncovers a conspiracy that stretches from the slums of Salt City to the floating gas mines of Jupiter. There, deep in the roiling clouds of the planet, the Jovian Mining Corporation is hiding something, a secret that will tear the Fleet apart and that the Morning Star, a group of militarized pilgrims searching for their lost god, is determined to uncover.
But there is something else hiding in Jovian system. Something insidious and intelligent, machine-like and hungry.
The Spiders are near.
My Review: This is book two. I have only one question: WHERE THE HELL IS BOOK THREE?!
Exciting intrigue, insane religious nutballs trying to bring Lucifer "back," twisty and unexpected politico-personal betrayals...IN SPACE! ON JUPITER!! Add in some vile, evil corporate chicanery, some love and some heartbreak...well, what are you waiting for? Go forth and buy from your favorite bookery.
Leave the lights on.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
THE BARON IN THE TREES
ITALO CALVINO translated by Archibald Colquhoun
$13.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: Cosimo, a young eighteenth-century Italian nobleman, rebels by climbing into the trees to remain there for the rest of his life. He adapts efficiently to an arboreal existence and even has love affairs.
My Review: This being a famous and well-studied book, I suppose the publisher didn't feel the need to do a sell-job on it. That little squib is barely a log-line!
I read this book first in ~1974, because it had a cool-looking jacket. It also had an Italian author, which was also cool. But the reading of it was a revelation because the titular Baron was the perfect rebel, firm of purpose and adamant of spirit. And all over what seems, at first anyway, such a ridiculous cause: Refusing to eat snails. I'd never had snails offered to me at that point, and I was in full agreement with the Baron. But as the pages flipped on, I could see what was really at stake was the right to set one's own boundaries, to establish a core identity by and for one's own self.
All adolescents resonate to that theme, I think, and that's why I'm surprised that this book isn't required reading until college. It would serve well in junior or senior year of high school. Anything that deals with the process and price of becoming and being an individual seems to me to be a good fit for that age. Plus it's beautifully translated, so it's easy to read.
And for the record, I ate snails the first time they were offered to me. They were delicious.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
THE BURNING DARK
ADAM CHRISTOPHER The Spider Wars #1
$14.99 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.75* of five
The Publisher Says: Back in the day, Captain Abraham Idaho Cleveland had led the Fleet into battle against an implacable machine intelligence capable of devouring entire worlds. But after saving a planet, and getting a bum robot knee in the process, he finds himself relegated to one of the most remote backwaters in Fleetspace to oversee the decommissioning of a semi-deserted space station well past its use-by date.
But all is not well aboard the U-Star Coast City. The station’s reclusive Commandant is nowhere to be seen, leaving Cleveland to deal with a hostile crew on his own. Persistent malfunctions plague the station’s systems while interference from a toxic purple star makes even ordinary communications problematic. Alien shadows and whispers seem to haunt the lonely corridors and airlocks, fraying the nerves of everyone aboard.
Isolated and friendless, Cleveland reaches out to the universe via an old-fashioned space radio, only to tune in to a strange, enigmatic signal: a woman’s voice that seems to echo across a thousand light-years of space. But is the transmission just a random bit of static from the past—or a warning of an undying menace beyond mortal comprehension?
My Review: Compulsively readable, like all of Christopher's work appears to be. I was up until 12:45a as the pages, it seemed, turned themselves.
I loved Ida (our captain and PoV character is so yclept) for his square-jawed, straight-shootin' inability to lie, tolerate lies, or accept anything less than the facts in any arena. I know him, of course, from a squazillion other books, movies, and TV shows. He's surrounded by snakes and fools, and he's one man against the Universe.
Except he doesn't exist. All the computer records and Flyeyes (combination secretary, file clerk, and cyborg) who run the world's electronic memories agree that Ida isn't. His great military victory against the Spiders (more cyborgs, this time *really* scary) also isn't. And it's one of the very few victories in the war.
This does not sit well with Ida, whose medal for the matter means a lot to him. He can't investigate effectively in the Coast City's orbit around one of the weirdest energy masses in Fleetspace. That's what we call the equivalent of the Free World from the Cold War years.
Ghostly happenings, a lot of fist-fights, a few really really handy coincidences, and the story gets its deeper tale all nice and set up. That's not a knock on the book, by the way. This is a fully realized story on its own, and its resolution is such that the lukewarm responder wouldn't feel the lack of an ending as in so many other series books.
There are a lot of in-jokes (a starship called the Bloom County, for a wonderful example, and a starship called the Carcona captained by a man named Manutius for an Italian flavored other) and a bunch of ideas that suggest, to me at least, that Christopher has read Rupert Sheldrake's books. This is a darn good entertainment with a serious and still shivery point to it. Jeff, Roni: Go now and procure. Everyone else, at least flip through it and see what grabs ya.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
THE LAST POLICEMAN
BEN H. WINTERS
$14.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.
The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?
My Review: I just loooooooooove it when the author, while playing fair with me, still surprises me with the solution to the crime(s). Mr. Winters has done this, and to a very satisfying T.
As apocalyptic tales go, this is one of the few that doesn't make me wrinkle my nose and schplurgle my lips in distaste. I completely buy that, facing extinction, the privileged population of the US would go all Bucket List and do all the stuff they didn't or couldn't before The End was writ large across the skies. It seems solipsistic, selfish, and inconsiderate...pure-D Murrikin behavior. But even with The End coming, gun-hoarders are seen as nutballs, just like they are now. I can believe this.
I also completely understand Henry Palace, our detective, staying on the job. He loves the job. He needs a challenge so he doesn't go nuts. He believes in a large, abstract greater good called "Justice" and he doesn't think that a little detail like the impending end of the world diminishes the need for and the right to Justice.
Gag...I'm making him sound like some kind of Eagle Scout...if it helps dispel some of that distasteful miasma, he also sleeps with a key witness. What ensues from that has to be read to be absorbed, especially in light of the killer's identity.
Off to pick up book two for some bedtime reading!
Monday, March 21, 2016
ANN CLEEVES Shetland Islands Mysteries #5
$25.99 hardcover, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: Ann Cleeves returns to her critically acclaimed Shetland Island series with this stunning mystery featuring Inspector Jimmy Perez, who readers will remember from Raven Black, White Nights, Red Bones, and Blue Lightning. When the body of a journalist is found, Detective Inspector Willow Reeves is drafted from outside to head up the investigation. Inspector Jimmy Perez has been out of the loop, but his local knowledge is needed in this case, and he decides to help Willow. The dead journalist had left the islands years before to pursue his writing career. In his wake, he left a scandal involving a young girl. When Willow and Jimmy dig deeper, they realize that the journalist was chasing a story that many Shetlanders didn't want to come to the surface. In Dead Water, a triumphant continuation to her Shetland series, Ann Cleeves cements her place as one of Britain's most successful crime writers.
My Review: Cleeves' trademark simplicity of language, her amazing gift for limning a character in a sentence and a setting, her painterly use of color and composition to make the story richer: All present, all accounted for. And it's not one single bit of a surprise that British television pounced on these tales. May they have the monster (comparatively) success that Cleeves' other sleuth-series, Vera, has had.
Originally the books were to be a quartet, which I think we all know means four of something. Here we are on the *fifth* book in the quartet...and a cynical little part of me (known as "the whole body and soul") thinks this fifth entry was inspired by the TV show's existence. I feel it shows in the too-muchness of everything in the story. Too much angst, and from more than only Jimmy the widower. The secondary cast is all angst-ridden, frustrated, scared of something happening, something not happening, something coming out to embarrass them. This gets wearing. In the extreme. It took three days for me to read a book whose predecessors were devoured in hours.
One big surprise is the role of the Fiscal, previously a testy martinet. A new light is shone on her character and a resolution is crafted for her that I myownself felt was too sympathetic. The resolution of the mystery, in fact, seems too sympathetic, and the guilty are, well, sprung on us in a feat-of-detection solution to the logic puzzle that all mysteries are. This isn't my favorite of the series, but I can't deny myself the pleasures of reading even an oversized undermysteried Ann Cleeves novel.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
CONQUISTADOR OF THE USELESS
CINCO PUNTOS PRESS
$16.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: Joshua Isard’s debut novel is a hoot. Our hero Nathan Wavelsky moves into the burbs with his wife. Life is good. He’s a successful slacker. He doesn’t want to rock the boat. His definition of a good time is listening to his favorite bands on his iPod and staring at the grass and the poplar trees in his backyard. As a mid-level corporate manager, he does what his bosses tell him. If they want somebody fired, he fires them. No questions asked. But the boat does start to rock. He innocently gives a copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle to a teenage girl and his neighbors are righteously appalled. His wife’s hormones start to tango and now she wants a baby. Sure, he enjoys sex, but that doesn’t mean he wants a baby in the house. Worse, his best friend wants him to climb Mount Everest. Nathan likes to camp and hike, but climbing the Himalayas? He could die, for God’s sake. He just wants to be left alone. But no chance. Shit begins to happen.
My Review: I can't help myself. I have to ask a not-really-rhetorical question that I've already heard many answers to: Why didn't this book light up the tills of all the bookeries of the country? Why isn't at the least a modestly large cult following hollering about this book?
I loved this book. To me, it feels as timely and as timeless as The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. In a lot of ways it's the same sort of indictment of a culture that Sloan Wilson made: How does a man do a soulless job, make a living at it, and still manage not to spend one erg of energy asking himself the central question of a worthwhile life: Why?
Nathan drifts along with his wife Lisa, not imagining a future any different from the present, when *blammo* Lisa gets the baby message from her hormones at the same time as the couple's mutual college friend Mark shows up to entice Nathan into the most insane adventure on the surface of the Earth: Climbing Mount Everest.
Nathan, Lisa, and Mark are the age of my generation's children. They were, as Nathan notes cynically, raised with the belief that every single one of them was a special little snowflake who could do anything! anything! without mentioning what might happen if the anything they wanted to do was "nothing much." Nathan's nothing much is working for the Sirs, as he calls them, doing a mid-level management job very well. Lisa has her college-admissions job. They live in a nice, leafy suburb of Philadelphia. Why, Nathan thinks, isn't this good enough? Like Tom and Betsy in The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, Nathan and Lisa have just not talked about some important items for future plans, and now it all happens at once: Lisa's hormones, Mark's insane desire to have Nathan with him summiting Everest, and now the Sirs want Nathan to take on a more remunerative and responsible role at his pretty pointless job.
And with that, Nathan's suspended solids crystallize. Yes, of course, he tells the Sirs, but I'll need ten weeks leave first. I have to go climb Mount Everest with my old college buddy. Amazingly, after some ritual posturing, the Sirs agree; the training begins, Lisa has several meltdowns but ends as we all, including her, know she will: Supporting Nathan. An expensive venture, requiring a lot of training, to do something that Nathan and Lisa both agree has no real value.
In the end, of course, it's the things that have no "value" that are the most precious. As we leave Nathan and Lisa, they're still "slackers," neither has gone into Greenpeace or the Occupy movement; but what they are as people, who they are as a couple, has crystallized.
Luckily for us all, it's a diamond that glitters in front of us and not mere salt. Make some noise, readers, order copies, read them, write reviews! Isard's work should be celebrated!
Thursday, March 17, 2016
THE CUSTODIAN OF MARVELS
$7.99 mass market, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: You’d have to be mad to steal from the feared International Patent Office. But that’s what Elizabeth Barnabus is about to try. A one-time enemy from the circus has persuaded her to attempt a heist that will be the ultimate conjuring trick.
Hidden in the vaults of the Patent Court in London lie secrets that could shake the very pillars of the Gas-Lit Empire. All that stands in Elizabeth’s way are the agents of the Patent Office, a Duke’s private army and the mysterious Custodian of Marvels.
Rod Duncan returns with the climactic volume of the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire, the breathtaking alternate history series that began with the Philip K Dick Award-nominated The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter.
My Review: If I did not already have information to the effect that this volume merely concludes the first series of books about the Gas-Lit Empire, I would even now be stowing away on a container ship bound for the UK with murder in my heart and author Duncan in my sights.
As things stand, I am thrilled by the ending of the book...by the entire last third, in fact...and the justice meted out therein. It's no secret from my earlier reviews that this is a series I've completely given myself over to. I have a suspicion that this is due to the talents of Mr. Duncan in applying his professional knowledge of science and computing to create a plausible explanation for this amazing world and its terrific characters. In previous reviews, I've described the point of departure for the series as unlikely in the extreme. I only now, at the very end of the third book in the trilogy, understand why this particular point of departure from the world we inhabit was chosen. In fact, it couldn't have worked in any other way. I will not spoiler this for anyone else, but keep the origins of the Gas-Lit Empire in your mind throughout the book and you'll be given an even richer reading experience than you'd have any other way.
I've got quibbles, of course, I'm a reader with thousands of books under my belt so it would be improbable for me not to have. I wonder how Miss Elizabeth Barnabus came to the final conclusion she did during the heist at the end of the book in such a hurry. But honestly, any quibble I have is more akin to brushing my husband's coat on his way out the door than to yanking at cards in a house of cards. Specks, mere specks, nothing more.
If it isn't crystal-clear from the foregoing, I am urging with great certainty and compulsion that you go forth on the instant and order whichever of these books you haven't yet read. If you haven't read any, buy the series in bulk. I waited an agonizing year before getting my copy of THE CUSTODIAN OF MARVELS, and I don't want others to suffer as I have done.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
Ah, the French, the French...always a way to wile away an afternoon: THE COLORS OF INFAMY by ALBERT COSSERY
THE COLORS OF INFAMY
ALBERT COSSERY translated by Alyson Waters
$12.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: A delightful, deeply funny novel about the triumph of the perfect prankster — an elegant gentleman pickpocket in Cairo.
His eyes “shine with a glimmer of perpetual amusement”; his sartorial taste is impeccable; Ossama is “a thief, not a legitimated thief, such as a minister, banker, or real-estate developer; he is a modest thief.” He knows “that by dressing with the same elegance as the licensed robbers of the people, he could elude the mistrustful gaze of the police,” and so he glides lazily around the cafés of Cairo, seeking his prey. His country may be a disaster, but he’s a hedonist convinced that “nothing on this earth is tragic for an intelligent man.”
One fat victim (“everything about him oozed opulence and theft on a grand scale”) is relieved of his crocodile wallet. In it Ossama finds not just a gratifying amount of cash, but also a letter — a letter from the Ministry of Public Works, cutting off its ties to the fat man. A source of rich bribes heretofore, the fat man is now too hot to handle; he’s a fabulously wealthy real-estate developer, lately much in the news because one of his cheap buildings has just collapsed, killing 50 tenants. Ossama “by some divine decree has become the repository of a scandal” of epic proportions. And so he decides he must act. . . .
Among the books to be treasured by the utterly singular Albert Cossery, his last, hilarious novel, The Colors of Infamy, is a particular jewel.
My Review: Another weird little French novel, like the others I've reviewed over the years. Set in Cairo, written by an Egyptian-born French writer, this lovely work pokes ungentle fun at the well-documented foibles of the kleptocracy. Of particular interest to me was the revelation that honor was foisted on the poor by the rich in order to give them something that costs nothing, but will provoke them into spending hugely and warring indiscriminately.
Well! Blow me down and call me shorty! I've always suspected "honor" was some kinda con game.
As one would expect in a short French novel, the pleasures are more subtle and rely on the reader to winkle them out. Cossery wasn't one to revise and extend his remarks, as the politicos in Congress say; he believed laziness was a form of appreciative meditation, offering the lazy man the opportunity to see, really see, the beauties of the world and appreciate them appropriately. Material goods could never compete with the world's splendors. Time spent in offices, robbing the poor, was time never regained to be spent more productively and seductively in idleness.
Every character in this book has hold of a facet or two of this world-view. I think it should be spread far and wide, and made the height of fashionable aspiration.
But wait...isn't the materialism of current culture saying that very thing...? Erm...uh...gee....
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
THE HEART OF A DOG
MIKHAIL BULGAKOV translated by Michael Glenny
$15.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4*of five
The Publisher Says: A new edition of Bulgakov’s fantastical precursor to The Master and Margarita, part of Melville House’s reissue of the Bulgakov backlist in Michael Glenny’s celebrated translations.
A key work of early modernism, this is the superbly comic story of a Soviet scientist and a scroungy Moscow mongrel named Sharik. Attempting a medical first, the scientist transplants the glands of a petty criminal into the dog and, with that, turns a distinctly worryingly human animal loose on the city. The new, lecherous, vulgar, Engels-spouting Sharik soon finds his niche in governmental bureaucracy as the official in charge of purging the city of cats.
A Frankenstein fable that’s as funny as it is terrifying, The Heart of a Dog has also been read as a fierce parable of the Russian Revolution. It was rejected for publication by the censors in 1925, and circulated in samizdat for years until Michael Glenny translated it into English in 1968—long before it was allowed to be officially published in the Soviet Union. That happened only in 1987, although till this day the book remains one of Mikhail Bulgakov’s most controversial novels in his native country.
My Review: Anyone who's ever read The Master and Margarita already knows that Bulgakov is a rebel, an anarchist, and damn good and funny with it. His thoughts were, based on the novels I've read, contrarian in the extreme as well as profoundly sensitive to practical concerns:
“The rule apparently is – once a social revolution takes place there’s no need to stoke the boiler. But I ask you: why, when this whole business started, should everybody suddenly start clumping up and down the marble staircase in dirty galoshes and felt boots? Why must we now keep our galoshes under lock and key? And put a soldier on guard over them to prevent them from being stolen? Why has the carpet been removed from the front staircase? Did Marx forbid people to keep their staircases carpeted? Did Karl Marx say anywhere that the front door of No. 2 Kalabukhov House in Prechistenka Street must be boarded up so that people have to go round and come in by the back door? What good does it do anybody? Why can’t the proletarians leave their galoshes downstairs instead of dirtying the staircase?’And the simple truth about revolution that probably contributed heavily to the book's suppression in the Soviet era:
‘But the proletarians don’t have any galoshes, Philip Philipovich,’ stammered the doctor.”
“People who think you can use terror are quite wrong. No, no, terror is useless, whatever its colour – white, red or even brown! Terror completely paralyses the nervous system.”He saw the terror around him, saw the results, and distilled a response into a short phrase. That's writing that's a joy to read.
But we can't leave revolutionary-era Moscow without hearing from the eponymous heart-haver. Early in the book, we're told the sad tale of an unwanted dog whose people-savvy beats that of most of the humans I've ever met:
Eyes mean a lot. Like a barometer. They tell you everything-they tell you who has a heart of stone, who would poke the toe of his boot in your ribs as soon as look at you-and who’s afraid of you. The cowards – they’re the ones whose ankles I like to snap at. If they’re scared, I go for them. Serve them right..grrr..bow-wow…”All hail Michael Glenny, of blessed memory since dying in 1990. Without him, Bulgakov's banned and suppressed works might remain out of the English-speaker's reach.
Monday, March 14, 2016
THE HEN WHO DREAMED SHE COULD FLY
SUN-MI HWANG translated by Kim Chi-Young, illustrated by Nomoco
$15.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3* of five
The Publisher Says: This is the story of a hen named Sprout. No longer content to lay eggs on command, only to have them carted off to the market, she glimpses her future every morning through the barn doors, where the other animals roam free, and comes up with a plan to escape into the wild—and to hatch an egg of her own.
An anthem for freedom, individuality and motherhood featuring a plucky, spirited heroine who rebels against the tradition-bound world of the barnyard, The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly is a novel of universal resonance that also opens a window on Korea, where it has captivated millions of readers. And with its array of animal characters—the hen, the duck, the rooster, the dog, the weasel—it calls to mind such classics in English as Animal Farm and Charlotte’s Web.
Featuring specially-commissioned illustrations, this first English-language edition of Sun-mi Hwang’s fable for our times beautifully captures the journey of an unforgettable character in world literature.
My Review: Jonathan Livingston Seagull meets Babe. To compare the book to Charlotte's Web is damned near heresy. In every generation, there's another fable of Independence Declared by ____ and the Struggles of _____ to xxxx. This is the 21st century's international publishing phenomenon in the genre, which the provincial, smugly self-satisfied Murrikin Megapublishers got 15 years after most places did.
If you're 14 and a sad, lonely, misunderstood girl, this is ideal to stuff into your locker. Also a grandmother's ideal gift for same. Older folks who've just become grandparents, adoptees and their mommies, those who are sentimental as all get-out, queue up for your copy.
The illustrations are so very spare and lovely and evocative that I gave the silly text 3 stars. But my serious objection to the book is that the hen's one true dream, the longing of her soul, the reason she's ready to fight a weasel fagodsake is:
She want to become a real hen and hatch an egg.So, in other words, Motherhood Makes the Hen.
This is not a message I think needs further spreading. It has metastasized in our various cultures to the point that rich first-world folks go buy themselves a baby girl at the Chinese Baby Bazaar, or spend absurd amounts of money doing medical hoo-hah and get themselves their very own genetic descendants.
With seven billion people on the planet, this obsession, this personal value marker, needs to be re-thought and revised.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
TRANSLATION IS A LOVE AFFAIR...Jacques Poulin does everything right, so *his* translator doesn't have to
TRANSLATION IS A LOVE AFFAIR
JACQUES POULIN trans. Sheila Fischman
$14.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4.5* of five
The Publisher Says: A quietly affecting modern fairy tale told with humor and warmth, Translation is a Love Affair is a slender volume of immense humanity. A Quebecois novelist with a bad back and his vivacious translator discover a stray cat with an SOS attached to its collar. They embark upon a search for its owner, and when they discover a young girl with bandaged wrists they are drawn into a mystery they don't dare neglect. The world Poulin creates is haunted by dark memories, isolation, and tragedy, yet it is one in which languageand love are the most immediate and vital forces, where one human being hearing a cry of distress of another is compelled to shed one's own inhibitions to respond.
My Review: What a joy it is to discover such a famous novelist, he said with irony dripping onto his keyboard. In a properly order world, Poulin would be as well known in the US as in Canada, and just as justly celebrated.
This tale was a joy to read from "Naked as a trout, I was stepping out of the pond..." to the last spoilery paragraph. I finished it in a few hours, and read about half of it a second time. I am a sucker for stories of made families, as opposed to birth families; I love the idea of the love affair consummated by the intimate connection and tender caring actions of both people despite the long lifetime's difference in their ages. (Well, I would, wouldn't I, being a single mumble fiver now?)
After work he often called me to talk about this and that, or because he'd forgotten a word or the title of a book, or to ask me a question, such as: 'How can I keep brown rice from tasting like shrimp shells?'Simple and direct, no ornamentation, a short passage sums up the flavor of a deep and cherished connection. That is fine philosophizing as well as deep thinking.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
WHAT BELONGS TO YOU
$23.00 hardcover, $10.99 Kindle, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: On an unseasonably warm autumn day, an American teacher enters a public bathroom beneath Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. There he meets Mitko, a charismatic young hustler, and pays him for sex. He returns to Mitko again and again over the next few months, drawn by hunger and loneliness and risk, and finds himself ensnared in a relationship in which lust leads to mutual predation, and tenderness can transform into violence. As he struggles to reconcile his longing with the anguish it creates, he’s forced to grapple with his own fraught history, the world of his southern childhood where to be queer was to be a pariah. There are unnerving similarities between his past and the foreign country he finds himself in, a country whose geography and griefs he discovers as he learns more of Mitko’s own narrative, his private history of illness, exploitation, and want.
What Belongs to You is a stunning debut novel of desire and its consequences. With lyric intensity and startling eroticism, Garth Greenwell has created an indelible story about the ways in which our pasts and cultures, our scars and shames can shape who we are and determine how we love.
My Review: The sentences are lovely, the affect on me was about that of graphene aerogel. I am too old, I think, to find novelty in what seems to me a perfectly ordinary young gay man's exploration of being gay. He met his lust object in the bathroom! *gasp* He PAID him!! *clutching of pearls*
So what? Anybody out there read OUR LADY OF THE FLOWERS, QUERELLE, CORYDON? How about DANCER FROM THE DANCE, NOCTURNES FOR THE KING OF NAPLES? I read them all (and a boatload of Gordon Merrick's salacious sudsers) early enough in life to be gobsmacked by these themes.
But this book is marketed to grown-ups, not teens, and stylistically it's a pretty arabesque, but so wispy and pale as to vanish up its own tailpipe (so to speak); I think it's a disservice to 17-year-olds not to let them read the ungraphic sex scenes and a disservice to experienced readers to call this pretty puff of smoke stunning, intense, or erotic (the publisher's copy says all three).
Four stars, all for handsomely carved phrases and beautiful descriptive scene-setting. But if you're over 35, maybe this should be a library borrow.
Saturday, March 5, 2016
$16.00 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: A divorced, middle-aged English professor finds himself increasingly unable to resist affairs with his female students. When discovered by the college authorities, he is expected to apologize and repent in an effort to save his job, but he refuses to become a scapegoat in what he see as as a show trial designed to reinforce a stringent political correctness.
He preempts the authorities and leaves his job, and the city, to spend time with his grown-up lesbian daughter on her remote farm. Things between them are strained - there is much from the past they need to reconcile - and the situation becomes critical when they are the victims of a brutal and horrifying attack.
In spectacularly powerful and lucid prose, J.M. Coetzee uses all his formidable skills to engage with a post-apartheid culture in unexpected and revealing ways. This examination into the sexual and politcal lawlines of modern South Africa as it tries desperately to start a fresh page in its history is chilling, uncompromising and unforgettable.
My Review: (One-line summary from Book Circle days) Wonderful writing, is there a story here?
I think I must have been in a foul humor when I wrote that. There is indeed a story here. And after seeing the 2009 movie, I decided to revive this review to get to that story.
About disgrace, about the taking of grace from another being, about the horrors of which grace, in its religious meaning, is capable of holding back.
David Lurie, fifty-two, isn't a bad man. He isn't a good man, either. He is a human male possessed of a libido and enough facility of mind and tongue to service that libido's demands. This means he is also capable of performing, to the absolute minimum standard, the demands of teaching the youth of Cape Town, South Africa, a subject barely worthy of attention: "Communication." Not, you will note, English, or a language, but the abstraction of communication, whole and entire.
Bah. Modern "education" rots. So David, after he loses his erotic focus Soraya, leaves it and Cape Town behind to join his daughter Lucy in the countryside. She has a farm there, and it is the farm that leads to dis-grace, the shedding of grace, the negation of grace, for father and daughter alike. Horrors occur that I have no desire to relate to you, and that should keep those readers whose anxiety buttons are easily engaged far, far away from this book.
I don't think Coetzee likes people too terribly much.
The ending is the final act of dis-grace. I strongly strongly urge dog-lovers not to read the ending. Put it this way: I'd love the ending had it featured a cat. Now, does that scare y'all off? Good.
But the writing. Oh me, oh my.
A rik to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad.Thus the musings of a father after a horrific crisis. David Lurie is dis-graced. Grace is no longer part of David Lurie's mental furniture, and while he fights it for over 100pp, in the end, at the ending, David Lurie accepts his fate:
He is disgraced.
Thursday, March 3, 2016
THE OLD MAN AND HIS SONS
$13.95 trade paper, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: These are the Faroe Islands as they were some fifty years ago: sea-washed and remote, with one generation still tied to the sea for sustenance, and a younger generation turning toward commerce and clerical work in the towns.
At the post-hunt whale-meat auction, Ketil enthusiastically bids for more meat than he can afford. Thus when Ketil is seventy, he and his wife struggle to repay their debt.
Heðin Brú (1901–1987), novelist and translator, was considered the most important Faroese writer of his generation and is known for his fresh and ironic style.
My Review: Well, blow me down and call me Shorty! A man who lived through the great transition from subsistence to (relative) affluence in one of the world's remotest settled areas reared up on his hind legs and delivered a jeremiad about it!
I don't speak Faroese, and to my knowledge have never met a Faroese person, so I have no clue if translator West did a good, bad, or indifferent job of translation. In my head these characters had Icelandic accents, since I have met people from Iceland, which is the closest place of any sizable population to the Faroes. This is telling of my response to the book in toto. I don't have much of a place to put it in my mental filing cabinets.
The story, such as it is, centers on an unnamed mother/wife, a husband/father called Ketil, and their youngest son called Kalv. He's a sandwich shy of a picnic, is Kalv, and deeply ashamed and embarrassed by...jeez, everything. Any action he takes is accompanied by anxiety before and tears after. It gets wearing. The mother/wife is a commonsensical old party, always quick to point out the practical solution to the petty or great problems caused or perceived by her menfolk. And do they see problems and troubles! The thatch on the house-roof leaks. Can't get more straw. Oh well, put buckets out. Go south to get the straw? Woman, are you mad? But the men bring home an elderly stray man who is from that southern village, and of course they must take him home as it's a matter of honor. And then the two fools get him killed.
I'd say "oops, spoiler!" except for the fact that I don't expect anyone to read the book. It's God's Little Acre in the North Sea. As it was written in 1940 and only translated into English directly from the original in 1970, we can safely assume the translator felt he was working on an historical document. It has its place in world literature, I suppose, but it's not something I'd push you to read.
So how does that lack of joy turn into a 3-1/2 star rating? It has the virtue of being short. It has a sense of place that I like, the rainy, cold, windy barely sub-Arctic north. And in spite of all other qualities, it's a wistful look at the reality of progress. There's winners and then there's losers. Ketil and his like are always the losers. It's a good idea to keep the losers in your mind's eye, because it's easy to dismiss and ignore Them when in fact it's really all, always and forever, Us.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
$7.99 Kindle edition, available now
Rating: 3.5* of five
The Publisher Says: Arvid Traneus returns to Sweden following a lengthy assignment in Tokyo. He is a consultant for a major company, a sort of modern day-warrior in the service of the global economy. He is successful, but also ruthless, some would say brutal.
He returns home to his estate in Levide on the island of Gotland where his wife is waiting for him. Or where he thinks she'll be waiting for him. But all is not as he left it. "Time waits for no man", as his closest neighbor puts it.
Four days after Arvid's return, the family maid discovers two dead bodies on the living room floor - a man and a woman. At first, the police assume it to be Arvid and his wife, but once they manage to identify the badly disfigured man it turns out to be Arvid's cousin, while Arvid himself has disappeared without a trace.
Håkan Östlundh is back with the fourth installment in the series about Fredrik Broman and his colleagues at the Visby police department. As in his previous books - Sea Wrack, The Diver, and Terror - The Viper takes place on the idyllic but isolated island of Gotland, where escaping one s past often proves more difficult than in the city.
My Review: It's very rare that I'll jump into an ongoing series anywhere but at book #1. This case was an exception because:
He was hovering in darkness, dangling weightlessly in somethingthat was beyond night. The world had no beginning, no end. Perhaps this dense blackness was in fact nothingness. And yet he was there, conscious that he was in motion, rocking through space. Or through nothingness.Help me, I'm falling into book #4 in a series and I can't get up! Per Carlsson, the translator, had quite a lot of talent on display for rendering Swedish into English mellifluously. The book's reading quality is excellent from beginning to end.
The Traneus family is a horrorshow. Think Jerry Springer meets Breaking Bad. Reading about the fractured, wretched people made me feel normal, and that's quite a feat. As is ordinary for me and Scandicrime, it got to be a bit more than I really wanted to handle several times. What was not ordinary is that I couldn't stop reading because it was such a rich, delicious dessert for my starved pretty-prose brain locus.
That did not keep my inner bookkeeper from tallying the dropped story-lines and conveniently vanishing characters. Yes, the book was a pleasure to read, but the loose ends weren't really dealt with adequately, and the coda that takes place in Arvid Traneus's other home, Tokyo, felt unnecessary and the motivation for it flimsy...it left more dangling ends than it clipped off.
The characters are all very nicely limned, even a few that have no storylines in this book (eg, Broman's wife Ninni). It's a pleasure to read that's mitigated by some either directionless or unnecessary cast members and events.
That's why I'm only giving what would normally be a full four-star or more book three and a half stars. That said, I'm planning to get the other three books before it and (hopefully) enjoy them. My suggestion is that you do the same.