Friday, November 10, 2017

OPTION B, a really useful self-help book...I can't believe I said that...

OPTION B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience and Finding Joy

Alfred A. Knopf
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: After the sudden death of her husband, Sheryl Sandberg felt certain that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. “I was in ‘the void,’” she writes, “a vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.” Her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton, told her there are concrete steps people can take to recover and rebound from life-shattering experiences. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It is a muscle that everyone can build.

Option B combines Sheryl’s personal insights with Adam’s eye-opening research on finding strength in the face of adversity. Beginning with the gut-wrenching moment when she finds her husband, Dave Goldberg, collapsed on a gym floor, Sheryl opens up her heart—and her journal—to describe the acute grief and isolation she felt in the wake of his death. But Option B goes beyond Sheryl’s loss to explore how a broad range of people have overcome hardships including illness, job loss, sexual assault, natural disasters, and the violence of war. Their stories reveal the capacity of the human spirit to persevere . . . and to rediscover joy.

Resilience comes from deep within us and from support outside us. Even after the most devastating events, it is possible to grow by finding deeper meaning and gaining greater appreciation in our lives. Option B illuminates how to help others in crisis, develop compassion for ourselves, raise strong children, and create resilient families, communities, and workplaces. Many of these lessons can be applied to everyday struggles, allowing us to brave whatever lies ahead. Two weeks after losing her husband, Sheryl was preparing for a father-child activity. “I want Dave,” she cried. Her friend replied, “Option A is not available,” and then promised to help her make the most of Option B.

We all live some form of Option B. This book will help us all make the most of it.

My Review: Sheryl Sandberg lost her husband before he was fifty. I lost mine when he was not quite 34. I connect with her pain on every imaginable level.

I also understand why she wrote this survivors' manual. She had to do something positive with her agony or it would sink her, and she was now a single mom. She couldn't afford the luxury of sinking because it would take her children down as well. That is a great reason to do the horrible, painful, disconcerting work of growing around your grief.

Make no mistake: It's awful work, hard and thankless and lonely. Your successes feel fleeting, your failures eternal, and with the best will in the world outsiders (parents, children, siblings, friends) will say, do, preach things at you that will make you furiously angry and hurt inexpressibly.

All normal.

And if you're wondering, we will all lose spouses in our lives, not necessarily to death. Grief is grief. Your loss is not unique, and your loss is not anyone else's so no one else gets to tell you how to go through it. But those who have walked the walk before you have some ideas on what you can do to make this hideous amputation work *for* you.

Yes, that's possible. I promise you that it is. And this book, with its combination of the deeply personal and the professionally informative strands of information, is a great, a wonderful, a tremendously valuable resource for someone experiencing the involuntary transformation that is grieving.

But the best thing about Option B is the fact that it excludes no one from the helping, healing conversation about grief and grieving. No matter the genesis of your trauma, grieving is a process with known parameters. All sources of trauma produce grief in their wake, and that fact...while on its face horrible and actually, in the end, incredibly hopeful. Your grief is unique to you, but grief is universal and grieving is ever-more-completely understood; this is one of the key realizations in the book. It is also the key realization that many people, lost in the fog of grief, need most to hear as it can offer them Ariadne's clew to get away from the devouring Minotaur of misery in their lightless, timeless labyrinth.

Now, the stuff I wasn't crazy about. Sandberg is astoundingly successful. Her world doesn't have survival challenges. She makes more than enough money to do whatever the hell she wants to do even if she stops going to work today and never goes back again. The other 99.99% of us do not have that luxury. If your purpose in reading this book is to figure out how the hell you're going to keep the lights on, cans of beans in the pantry, and a box of rice to go with, this isn't a helpful tome. In fact it will probably make you livid, so pass it up. But if survival isn't the problem for you, there are ideas in here to use...especially some of the out-of-the-box ones. You're likely to have a low bullshit tolerance when grieving, and Sandberg advises going with the flow here. I tend to agree with her.

BUT. Do not think, as Sandberg apparently does, that your grief will insulate you from the consequences of your newfound unwillingness to suck it up. She can tell her boss to do shit right and get away with it because she's a powerful, successful woman with oodles of money. Your manager isn't going to give you the same rope hers does, make no mistake. Adapt this concept to your circumstances. Maybe, if your desire to speak truth to power becomes overwhelming, crank up that job search and get outta Dodge before the sheriff makes you. Remember that Sandberg's journey is her own. Use the ideas though not necessarily the techniques.

Sandberg's discovery that she could find and feel happiness again is the important take-away here. You might not find a good man to have fun with. You might, in fact, not *want* to find a good man to have fun with. Here's the thing Sandberg's saying: Be available to happiness, not sewn to the shroud of wretched miserable loneliness that comes with grieving. However it looks to you. Take roads you haven't been down. Do different things, do them differently. This book isn't a prescription, it's a supplement shelf, and it can lead you back into lighter, brighter, happier life.

Let it.

Friday, November 3, 2017

CRAVINGS, proof that fame doesn't guarantee happiness

CRAVINGS: How I Conquered Food

Nan A. Talese Books
$26 hardcover, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Since childhood Judy Collins has had a tumultuous, fraught relationship with food. Her issues with overeating nearly claimed her career and her life. For decades she thought she simply lacked self-discipline. She tried nearly every diet plan that exists, often turning to alcohol to dull the pain of yet another failed attempt to control her seemingly insatiable cravings.

Today, Judy knows she suffers from an addiction to sugar and grains, flour and wheat. She adheres to a strict diet of unprocessed foods consumed in carefully measured portions. This solution has allowed her to maintain a healthy weight for years, to enjoy the glow of good health, and to attain peace of mind.

Alternating between chapters on her life and those of the many diet gurus she has encountered along the way (Atkins, Jean Nidetch of Weight Watchers, Andrew Weil, to name a few), Cravings is the culmination of Judy's genuine desire to share what she's learned--so that no one else has navigate her heart-rending path to recovery.


My Review: A lifetime spent in and out of the limelight, a lifetime of performing for audiences who cheer and boo and ignore, but performing all the same, always always putting her best out enviable life, no?

Not always. Judy Collins made her voice her fame, and when it became harder for her to perform it became another self-lacerating weapon in her battle with her body. Her diets and plans and struggles with her addictive personality are carefully presented here as *personal* struggles. Collins isn't preaching, she's giving witness to the struggle she knows many others go through. That technique is very much more effective than would be another guru prescribing actions and dictating methods for achieving the goal of being in control of one's own body.

I'm also very appreciative of the quite interesting stories behind the gurus whose dictates Collins frequently failed to follow. I found these to be some of the most useful parts of the book, as the motivations of Saviors are almost always excellent means for demythologizing and even debunking the gurus' sacred words. I hasten to add that Collins isn't out to make people feel bad or wrong about their struggles or their need for advice. She just has clear eyes when it comes to the whys of the whats of dieting.

The reason I'm not more generous with my star rating really comes down to one issue: The conquest of Collins's food addiction is so complete and so thoroughgoing that I am left with deep doubts. I don't think she's lying to me or even to herself; I think she's got an iron will forged through a generation-long struggle to control her body. What I question is the declaration of victory over something that's a fundamental part of her identity. She says she's a food addict but she's beaten it. That doesn't scan for me. I'm also not 100% Team Judy on the means by which she's conquered her food addiction, as it's *impossibly* restrictive and simply impossible for a person without her considerable financial and social resources to emulate.

This is, to me at least, the principal failing of all eating-disorder diet nutrition etc etc books. Fine great and wonderful if you're upper middle class and up, have money, servants, time at your disposal. Useless and, worse, counterproductive if you're a 60-hour-a-week wage worker whose paycheck is never quite enough, has kids, a spouse, and no one to do diddly squat for them.

That said, if you're not a desperate soul seeking a way out of the addiction trap, this is a sprightly and involving and educational read. I liked the experience of reading it quite a bit.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

BANDERSNATCH, a group portrait of the Inklings

BANDERSNATCH: CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings

Black Squirrel Books
$18.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Inklings met each week to read and discuss each other's work-in-progress, offering both encouragement and blistering critique. How did these conversations shape the books they were writing? How does creative collaboration enhance individual talent? And what can we learn from their example?

Featuring original illustrations by James A. Owen, Bandersnatch offers an inside look at the Inklings of Oxford, and a seat at their table at the Eagle and Child pub. It shows how encouragement and criticism made all the difference in The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and dozens of other books written by the members of their circle. You'll learn what made these writers tick, and more: inspired by their example, you'll discover how collaboration can help your own creative process and lead to genius breakthroughs in whatever work you do.


My Review: Author Glyer is a past mistress of explication, as witness her previous Inkings study The Company They Keep. That book was more about who, when, and where among the English old boys' club we know as the Inklings: JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Roger Lancelyn Green, Owen Barfield, Hugo Dyson, et alii. This book delves into the how and the why of the Inklings' writing community. If literary criticism isn't your jam, this book will bore you silly. If you've never read any literary criticism, I'd encourage you to start here. Author Glyer is a dab hand at writing and a scholar to be reckoned with, two things that don't frequently coincide.

So the sugar coating is the story of the Inklings, two of whom became internationally famous for the works they made in this writers' group for the ages. The meat of the tale is, though, how this incredible group *failed* its members. Tolkien, for example, was subjected to humiliating and deeply personal insults by Hugo Dyson who detested his elves and orcs and such-like goins-on; Lewis did as well; but Lewis was quiet while Dyson was not and, in the cumulative effect of one noisy nastymonger on a group, Tolkien was driven to silence.

In a group of writers wanting to make their art better, that is Death. Shameful that it should have been allowed. And let's not fail to see the irony of the insulter being utterly and completely forgotten by History while the insulted literally changed the world.

Author Glyer offers a few prescriptions for the potential breeding grounds of today's Tolkiens in consideration of her analysis of the Inklings' failures. They are trenchant and they are excellent. If I have a grump with the book, it's the revolting Jesusy tone of a lot of it. It's inevitable, I suppose, given the endemic, emetic christianity of the group's members. I found I could read the book, not usually the case with Jesusy stuff, because it was so much more than a tract.

One facet of the book that stands out, and that merits an entire review of its own, is the beautiful illustrations by James A. Owen. The cover illustration should give you the tone Owen takes throughout the book. These are beautiful artworks and could be reason enough right there to buy the book, simply to make your eyes happy and your heart glad.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

LORD MOUSE, gay male fantasy-quest protagonist

(Lords of Davenia #1)
Dreamspinner Press
$6.99 Kindle/ebook, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Scoundrel by nature and master thief by trade, Mouse is the best there is. Sure, his methods may not make him many friends, but he works best alone anyway. And he has never failed a job.

But that could change.

When a stranger with a hefty bag of gold seduces him to take on a task, Mouse knows he’ll regret it. The job? Free Lord Garron, the son of a powerful duke arrested on trumped up charges in a rival duchy. Mouse doesn’t do rescue missions. He’s no altruistic hero, and something about the job reeks. But he cannot turn his back on that much coin—enough to buy a king’s pardon for the murder charge hanging over his head.

Getting Garron out of his tower prison is the easy part. Now, they must escape an army of guardsmen, a walled keep and a city on lockdown, and a ruthless mage using her power to track them. Making matters worse, Mouse is distracted by Garron’s charm and unyielding integrity. Falling for a client can lead to mistakes. Falling for a nobleman can lead to disaster. But Mouse is unprepared for the dangers behind the plot to make Lord Garron disappear.

My Review: I started keeping track of how many malapropisms I found in the book. I noted them on the Kindle. From when I started counting there are eight (8) notes. That's appalling. That's inexcusable. That's bad editing. It was like getting pinched or having someone pull on my beard. So annoying.

I was also a wee bit verschmeckeled by the modern-then-archaic-then-modern vocabulary:
“Worry it none,” he replied offhandedly. “I took no offense. This is what I do.” And later we can discuss ways for you to thank me, he added silently.
followed closely by
Garron threw him a look. “You sure know how to win people over.” “I can be charming,” Mouse retorted. “When need be.” And he wasn’t going to waste his time kowtowing to some entitled snob that he was going to ditch somewhere at the first opportunity. Garron pressed his lips together in a sardonic snarl. “Warn me when it’s about to happen so I know to keep an eye open for it.”

But in the end I can say I enjoyed the read because I agree so heartily with the attitudes of the men in love. I am sure as sure can be that I fell for Garron as hard as Mouse did when I read this:
“I’ve seen men,” Garron continued, “who claim themselves to be good and honorable do wicked things with ink and parchment. A most cowardly act, because they never have to face the ones they’ve wronged or feel the consequences of their deed. I have seen those who rail on about their own compassion willfully ignore those in need or treat those beneath them with contempt. “We all justify our dark behavior in some way, mask it behind some twisted form of truth that gives us license to do what we will. In my experience, people can rationalize the most reprehensible acts and sleep soundly through the night as if no blame rests upon their shoulders. Take Delgan. He has certainly justified my imprisonment and death sentence as something for the betterment of his city and his people.”
*happy sigh* A super-built aristocratic muscle bottom with progressive political convictions. Yes lawd.

Monday, September 25, 2017

THE TURTLE BOY, horror on several levels

(Timmy Quinn #1)
Kindle edition
Free! Free is Good. Try things you don't normally read if they're free.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: School is out and summer has begun. For eleven year old Timmy Quinn and his best friend Pete Marshall, the dreary town of Delaware, Ohio, becomes a place of magic, hidden treasure and discovery.

But on the day they encounter a strange young boy sitting on the bank of Myers Pond, a pond playground rumor says may hide turtles the size of Buicks, everything changes.

For it soon becomes apparent that dark secrets abound in the little community, secrets which come cupped in the hands of the dead, and in a heartbeat, Timmy and Pete's summer of wonder becomes a season of terror, betrayal and murder.

***DISCLAIMER***I know the author via social media. He didn't ask me to read or review the book.

My Review: Horror isn't my usual stomping grounds. I don't read much of it because I'm so seldom horrified, so often amused to the point of laughing out loud. For real laughing out loud. Not this time.

My longtime Goodreads friend Dan reviewed this book some time back and that convinced me to Kindle it up. I liked it fine. I even got goosebumps twice.

What horrified me in the intended fashion was the relationship between Pete and his father. The supernatural goins-on I could see why the adults dismissed as imaginitive kidness. I did myself. But no one who's ever raised, been around, or even been a subteen could ignore the horror of what happens to Pete. His father Wayne was a monster from the second we meet Pete. The scariest kind of monster: the unfightable one. There's nothing an adult can do, really, when a situation like Pete's comes to light. Report to the overstretched child protective services? Would that help or hurt? No right answer. No good answer. That right there defines horror in real life.

There are supernatural elements in this tale as well. These were not my favorite moments, as anyone who knows me might guess. But the way Author Burke handles them won my skeptical heart over in the end. The reason he adduces to the apparition we see makes sense to me. I can suspend my immediate eyeroll reflex for the idea of psychic sensitivity as opposed to Manifestations Of EVIL *cue horror movie laugh* which, well, c'mon they're just silly aren't they? I mean really.

But then there's Author Burke's way with words. This novella, in roundabout 80pp, transported me to a place I've never been (and am in no rush to go to). I like atmosphere in my reading, and here's a sample of Burke's:
In the field beyond, high grass flowed beneath the gentle caress of the slightest of breezes. The land was framed by dying walnut trees, rotten arms severed by lightning long gone, poking up into the sky as if vying for the attention of a deity who could save them.
And just like that I'm there.

But even more important to me is the sense that the childhood of one Timmy Quinn is now over. It took one touch of the supernatural to change the boy into a manchild. It is irrevocable, this change, and it happens to all of us; usually it's not this moment of connection to the numinous realms, but the moment itself is universal:
The Turtle Boy's words returned to him again and again, nagging at him and begging to be decoded: You don't know who did it. When you do, remember what you saw and let it change you. Maybe he deserves to die.
Yes lawd! I been there, I witness, I testify. It's one of the first before-and-after moments that almost everyone remembers. We have them fairly frequently in the course of childhood, but they're just part of the scenery. This one is, for most people I've ever known, memorable enough to stick in the front of one's mind. Timmy Quinn's is especially memorable, I think we can agree, and it bids fair to stick in the front of *my* mind!

The reason to read the book is, though, that one enjoys the experience of the writer writing his best stuff for you. I liked the ideas, the insights, the writer's imagination coming to the fore and leaving me with a few surprises:
He sat so close to the water they could almost hear gravity groaning from the strain of keeping him from falling in.
It's free, forevermore. Download the darn thing and make it part of your mental furniture for that reason alone! But there are many more pleasures to be had for them as wants 'em.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

A TASTE OF HONEY, second novella set in Olorumi's realer-than-reality world

(The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps #2)
$3.99 ebook, $14.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Long after the Towers left the world but before the dragons came to Daluça, the emperor brought his delegation of gods and diplomats to Olorum. As the royalty negotiates over trade routes and public services, the divinity seeks arcane assistance among the local gods.

Aqib bgm Sadiqi, fourth-cousin to the royal family and son of the Master of Beasts, has more mortal and pressing concerns. His heart has been captured for the first time by a handsome Daluçan soldier named Lucrio. In defiance of Saintly Canon, gossiping servants, and the furious disapproval of his father and brother, Aqib finds himself swept up in a whirlwind romance. But neither Aqib nor Lucrio know whether their love can survive all the hardships the world has to throw at them.

My Review: Sheer bliss. Storytelling of the highest order. Unfolding like an origami crane, showing the reader its creases and its tucks after he has absorbed its graceful shape, it becomes a completely different story as the end arrives.


I just loved it. I can't say enough about how very different the experience of reading the tale is from the experience of having read it. I am utterly enamored of Author Wilson's magic-tech. The beauty of it is that it allows for the fantasy trappings of powers beyond the ordinary but it explains them rather more logically than I'm accustomed to. And the beautiful way Author Wilson folds in the eggwhites of real-time physics in the shape of the multiverse to the mousse of this story is a deep pleasure to me. I've always felt in some essential part of myself that we really are multidimensional beings and travel in linear time...a concept absent from physics, by the way...solely as a means of learning essential lessons on our way Out. Of what, I'm reasonably sure, is the endless recursive reincarnation that seems logical to me in an existence that is defined by energy formed into patterns and perceived as solid when it's actually anything but. Into what is a much more intriguing question. I'm looking forward to finding out.

Another case where my notes were extensive in the Kindle. Twelve of them in fewer pages than THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS, which earned no fewer than 17 notes its own good self. I think it's fair to say that Kai Ashante Wilson has a new fanboy in me. Who would not fall in love with a writer who says this:
Most would only ever guess at who and what was most precious to them—up until the day of loss: then they’d know—and most would also have to guess at why and how, or what might have been.

And then there's the glorious moment when a man knows himself for the first time:
Ah, this was why his wayward gaze alit so often on whom it shouldn’t, going back to peek howevermuch snatched away: those taut bellies and hard thighs of men heroically scrawled in scars. So yes, then: clearly two men could kiss! And what else might they do? Lie down together kissing, if they both wished it, and furthermore . . . unclothed? A desperate thrill of desire throbbed in Aqib’s loins, nearly a climax.
I assume something similar happens to young straight men, couldn't prove it by me; but that *snap* of complete clarity, the sensation of the hand settling into the glove, is expressed beautifully and accurately in that passage.

My recommendation is that you read both books in the Olorumi-verse. The best $7.98 a Kindle/ereader person will spend this fall; slightly more for paperbackers, but the pleasures are commensurate with the expenditure.

Friday, September 22, 2017

THE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS, a post-apocalyptic African fantasy setting

(The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps #1)
$3.99 eBook, $12.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors' artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.

The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.

The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

My Review: It's tough to know what to say about novellas. I can't abide book reports disguised as reviews anyway, but some indication of the plot's effects on the reader are de rigueur. I don't want to spoil the pleasures of watching Demane's world unfold before a besotted reader's eyes, yet I need to tell you some things. Which things, how many, that's the rough part for review writer me.

Here goes.

I'm utterly ensorcelled by Demane and his post-apocalyptic Africa, peopled as it is by demigods, by descendents of FTL-traveling "gods," by the many-generations-removed descendants of these gods and the mere humans left behind by them. I am fascinated by the way Demane manipulates the spacetime continuum as he discovers the scope and the limitations of his powers as a demigod. I think Author Wilson deserves a Hugo and a Nebula and a Mythopoetic award for his delicate, acute balancing act in creating a magic system that's Clarke's Law writ small: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic:
“Exigencies of FTL,” Demane answered. Distracted by a glimpse from the corners of his eyes, he lapsed into liturgical dialect. “Superluminal travel is noncorporeal: a body must become light.” A tall, thin man passed by: some stranger, not the captain. “The gods could only carry away Homo celestialis with them, you see, because the angels had already learned to make their bodies light. But most sapiens—even those of us with fully expressed theogenetica—haven’t yet attained the psionic phylogeny necessary to sublimnify the organism.”

I'm also delighted that Demane loves Isa, the Captain, and is loved in return. I'm sadly convinced that the homophobia the men face in their future world is accurately portrayed. I don't get it. I don't like it. But I've come to believe that, for reasons buried somewhere in a human culture-generating gene, straight men are always going to be fearful of gay men. I've always agreed with the assertion that the reason is they fear other men treating them the way they treat women. It makes me sigh impatiently while sneering contemptuously. Get over yourself. If some deluded guy offers you sex, say no and move on with your life. It's an activity, is sex; gay is an identity, and a recently coined one like heterosexuality. Used to be it was just a private matter. I'd prefer to go back to that system myownself.

But here we are, an untold number of generations in the future, and the divide still exists. C'est la vie. And since that accords with my lack of faith in human nature's ability to change for the better, I respond to it as a heliotropic plant does to the sun.

When Demane listens, early on, to the Captain's voice, Wilson describes it poetically:
Captain lacked the power of speech, was capable only of song. He could stand dumb, gesturing, or else make incomparable music. Even in a monosyllable, it was possible to hear him struggling to tarnish his pure tones, hoarsen their rich clarity; trying to turn his vox seraphica into a thing befitting the vulgar, violent world of a caravan guardsman. But calliphony was as inseparable from the captain’s voice as blood from a living heart, and he could do nothing, try as he might, to make any utterance of his less than the loveliest you’d heard, or would ever hear, so long as you lived.
That's both gorgeous and evocative. I love the sound of the words in my mouth as I read this passage aloud. It makes me wish I could hear the vox seraphica with my mortal ears. I also find myself eumoirous at Wilson's unabashed use of ten-dollar words. It's all too rare to find such vocabulary deployed in service of evoking emotions, not merely creating distance between reader and writer as a means of making the fantasy world more remote from reality. Kudos for that act of bravery on top of making your main character gay, Author Wilson.

And what gay love is made of!
His hand still lightly cupped the captain’s mouth. When he slid it away Captain turned vague, astonished eyes on him. They were the last shade of brown before black, color of coffee, and just now neither grim nor sad but wonderstruck. He was all soft-side-up for a change. And unplucked there on his mouth were kisses like lowhanging fruit, ripe and deeply pink.
If that doesn't feel completely real to you, without reference to your or the partner's gender, your lover has my sympathy. For me that passage encapsulates the sensation and the perception of being in love with someone. The touch, the emotion, the perception of physical reality melded with emotional resonance, that's exactly how I respond to the man I fall in love with. It's glorious to experience, of course, but to read it is an experience as glorious still: Others travel this road. I'm not the trailblazer or rear guard, I'm traveling in company. There's peace in that sensation, and there's a sense of hopefulness. Navigation can bring me into contact with other men who feel this way hip hip hooray! And that's a gift from Author Wilson to an old fart...imagine what this sensation will do for a closeted young sufferer of homophobia's vicious rage.

All in all, I highlighted 17 passages in this novella. Seventeen. That's more than most entire long novels get from me! I highlighted them because they were exquisite, because I needed them to be part of the group mind that is Goodreads (where Kindle notes and highlights are posted). I want anyone who so much as scratches the surface of this book to feel the enfolding warmth and gentle, cool stroke of the hair from your forehead, the delight of being understood and valued as you smile your way through passages of deeply and beautifully crafted prose.
Though a mind twists and turns, most complicated of all things, the body is a simple creature, and prefers love and comfort, to be where it feels safe.
I hope you, like me, will feel safe while in the Wildeeps with Demane.

Monday, September 18, 2017

ACADIE, novella-sized space opera

$10.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: The first humans still hunt their children across the stars. Dave Hutchinson brings far future science fiction on a grand scale in Acadie.

The Colony left Earth to find their utopia--a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

My Review: What I love about reading Dave Hutchinson's work is the certainty that he's going to flip the script on you at some point. Usually just after you've become comfortable with the world as it is. And always to the effect that you're longing to go back to the way things were. But, just like life, that's not on the table. You can't unsee/unhear/unlearn what's happened. It's a bear, innit?

Why would a sane person like that?! As if I'd know what sane people like, still less why.

In the space of a novella, Hutchinson packs a space opera's worth of concepts and creations. Chief among them is the first-ever pop culture mention of kudzu in a positive light. Kudzu for the uninitiated is a terrifying invader of the southern USA. It destroys any and every man-made thing in its path. It terrifies me. But given its incredibly thoroughgoing colonial growth habit and ability to fix nitrogen, it makes sense to us it for structural elements in a hab(itat) in space.

Stuff still gives me the willies.

I love the use of quantum-entangled bits (qubits) for instant communication across immense distances. It sounds so plausible that I just assigned it the mental label ansible and didn't think much about it again while I was reading. It is cause for pause that I'm using one fictional communication concept to explain another in my mind...maybe I read too much sci fi...naaahhh, not possible. Quantity "too much sci fi" not defined.

It's also the script-flipping ending of the book that leads me into the star-granting stratosphere. It's delicious. It's like the Big leads to more questions than answers, which is exactly how I want my fiction. I began to go back over the beginning as I read the ending. It made more sense. It made different sense, really, not more, and that's something to savor. I've read a lot of books in my life so I'm always after a new sensation. When I find one it makes me very happy.

Which leads to that missing quarter-star. Why, given the praise I'm heaping up here, didn't I give the damn thing the full five?

Ninety-six pages. Ninety-lousy-fucking-six pages. Really, Dave? There'd better be more stories set in this universe.

Just sayin'.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

THE HEART OF THE MATTER, a book that had the opposite of its intended effect on me


Penguin Classics
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Graham Greene's masterpiece The Heart of the Matter tells the story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity.

When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic.

Originally published in 1948, The Heart of the Matter is the unforgettable portrait of one man, flawed yet heroic, destroyed and redeemed by a terrible conflict of passion and faith.

My Review: An excellent book. Simply magnificent writing, as always, but more than that the story is perfectly paced (a thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg The Power and the Glory) and deeply emotional (another thing Greene's stories aren't always, eg Travels With My Aunt).

Greene himself didn't like the book, which was a species of roman à clef. I suspect, though I don't have proof, that he was simply uncomfortable at how much of his inner life he revealed in the book. Scobie's infidelity and his fraught relationship with the wife he's saddled with must have been bad reading for Mrs. Greene. But the essential conflict of the book is man versus church, the giant looming monster of judgment and hatred that is Catholicism. Greene's convert's zeal for the idiotic strictures, rules, and overarching dumb "philosophy" of the religion are tested here, and ultimately upheld, though the price of the struggle and the upholding aren't scanted in the text.

Stories require conflicts to make them interesting, and the essential question an author must address is "what's at stake here?" The more intense and vivid the answer to that question is, the more of an impact the story is able to make. Greene was fond of the story he tells here, that of an individual against his individuality. He told and retold the story. The state, the colonial power whose interests Scobie/Greene serves, is revealed in the text to be an uncaring and ungrateful master; the rules of the state are broken with remarkably few qualms when the stakes get high enough. It is the monolith of the oppressive church, admonishing Scobie of his "moral" failings and withholding "absolution of his sins", that he is in full rebellion against...and in the end it is the church that causes all parties the most trouble and pain.

Greene remained a more-or-less believing Catholic. I read this book and was stumped as to why. The vileness of the hierarchy was so clear to me, I couldn't imagine why anyone would read it and not drop christianity on the spot. But no matter one's stance on the religion herein portrayed, there's no denying the power of the tension between authority and self in creating an engaging and passionate story. A must-read.

Saturday, September 16, 2017


(Chaos Station #5)
Carina Press
$3.49 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix’s relationship has always pushed boundaries—personal and professional alike—but their love and commitment is stronger than ever. So strong that Zander’s ready to ask commitment-shy Felix the question of a lifetime when he’s interrupted. The Chaos is being hacked, and crucial, top secret information about the project that created Zander—and his fellow super soldiers—has been leaked.

Neither man could have expected the enormity of what’s discovered at the end of the data trail: an entire colony of super soldiers run by the very doctor who changed Zander’s life forever. And now she needs them both—Zander to train her new crop of soldiers, and Felix’s new crystalline arm to stabilize their body chemistry.

With help from the unlikeliest of allies, Zander, Felix and the Chaos crew must destroy the project and all its ill-gotten information. But when the team is split up and Felix is MIA after a dangerous run, galactic disaster is a very real possibility…and Zander may have missed his chance to ask for forever.

My Review: I will miss this series very much. It came into my reading life exactly when I needed it. As endings to books go, and as endings to series go, I can't find fault or register a complaint.

There's a pearl-clutcher for yinz.

Probably my favorite scene in the whole Chaos Station universe takes place in this book: Zed and Flick are trudging across the fifty-centigrade surface of 83 Leonis Bb after tracing some vile malefactors' flight path back to it. There they discover an illegal, unregistered human colony sweltering in the revolting heat. Having lost their transportation off planet in a crash landing, they need to locate some form of beacon to get a signal to their compadres aboard the Chaos. This is not going to stop Zed from continuing a conversation he's been planning to have with his beloved for a while now: Zed wants to get married. Flick is, politely phrased, ambivalent. He has all sorts of reasons. All of which Zed has answers to, eg:
“Men have been allowed to marry other men since the fucking twenty-first century, Flick,” Zed growled.
This made me laugh and cry. How perfect, like the whole idea of not being *able* to marry is so firmly dead that it's a feeble excuse of an excuse not to marry. If there's a 23rd century, I hope like hell that's how it'll feel to the people in it.

I'm glad the end of the series was so fully satisfying. It made me smile through the misty-eyed "I always cry at weddings" sentimentality. And I loved the entire experience of reading a good SF series that had people like me as its main characters.

Goodreads user Simone made this JPEG of Zed's thoughts at the end of the book that sums this entire series up beautifully:


(Chaos Station #4)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander and Felix's relationship has been to the brink and back: the Human-Stin War, imprisonment and an actual death/resurrection. Zander's death, to be specific, and the experience has left him…changed. The mysterious race known as the Guardians chose to revive him and appointed him as their emissary. A high honor, but he could do without the group of would-be cultists following him around the galaxy.

When a recently discovered species destroys a stin probe, Zander's new role soon commands all of his time and focus. The human ambassador—Felix's ex-lover, much to Zander's annoyance—pulls them into strategy talks aimed at preserving galactic peace. Soon everyone is relying on Zander's Guardian tech to telepathically communicate with the strange aliens.

Only Felix seems concerned with the strain piling up on Zander, but he has his own resolve tested when the very stin that imprisoned him show up to a summit. Zander and Felix will both have to find a way to face their doubts and preserve their love—while preventing another galaxy-wide war.

My Review: There was more "w"-verbing (winking, which I abhor, abominate, and despise) at 74% but for that one and only time it was less than revolting in context.

I'll get to reviewing before long.


So another solid four-plus star outing in a series whose SFnal street cred, if we could only get some straight boys to read it, would carry it far beyond the m/m ghetto. The resonance is my absolute favorite race so far, not excluding humans, because "fluffy yellow partner unit" made me laugh until my belly ached. I could *see* Flick's confused amused slightly insulted mostly bemused face when he heard that. Men with curly blond hair must get similar nonsense thrown at them all the time, and the fact that he's the reasonably public partner of the Emissary of the Guardians can't make life as a mop-top any easier.

The political elements of this outing are genuinely involving, again without reference to m/m content...well, except for the fact that Flick is the space equivalent of Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, having bagged humanity's chief envoy Theo as well as Zed the Emissary. Ducks always envy the swans, hm? What is it about some people, anyway, that they can score the best and the brightest without seeming to bring anything all that exciting to the table themselves? But wait, Flick is...well...Flick is from a world where ambassadors are equivalent to unicorns and now his sweet, lovely ex is one and his amazing one-true-love man is one and he's, you know, just this guy. His head's whirling. He's interacting with the stin, the very same precise stin who tortured him almost to death during his four-year stint as a POW just cuz. He's way outside his comfort zone and he only gets more remote from it as Ambassador Theo the ex-lover sets Emissary Zed the one-true-love's teeth on edge and causes him to act like a sulky adolescent ninny. Which for all of me is the best moment in the book. I love that Zed gets all "my man step off or suffer" about his Flick. Sure it's silly! No way in hell can even the scrummy hotness that is Theo compete with Zed's amazeballs pedigree, position, and prior claim on Flick's feelings. But your man being just a little extra attentive and a scoche more possessive in the presence of a potential rival? Yes please. Very agreeable if not carried too far, and Authors Burke and Jensen don't let it get out of hand.

The tragedies that befall our heroes are testing and frightening and the stakes are unfathomably high: a renewal of the Human-Stin War with a side order of Species Four/the resonance in the stin's sights as well. Flick pays a horrible personal price to keep this from happening. Zed will have nightmares the rest of his life about Flick's sacrifice, its reason and its agent.

That's the set-up, however, for one of the best endings I've read in a book lately. The resolution of the war threat and the reward for Flick's horrifying sacrifice is...sweet beyond belief, balm for so many wounds these awful author-ladies have put our guys through. I would give the book five stars just for the ending.

I can't quite do that. The ashushk have had their major inning. The stin, well, not sure that we need a lot more stin assholishness but we'd be better informed if we saw a weentsy bit more of their culture for some whys. It's the resonance that causes me to dock a half-star from the rating. I know, because it's been made clear, that the series ends with book five. You introduce me to the resonance and expect I'll trot happily alongside the carriage as it briskly bowls AWAY from the coolest aliens yet?! (Sorry, Qek.) In one of this era's billion-page-per-volume nonillionologies, sure okay I get it we'll be back around this way one say soon.


So very not cool. I'm being kind because ending but absent that I'd probably bust this one down a whole star or even two for the tease this represents.

Write more books in this series, please. Not with Zed and Flick, even, just in the wonderful and rich universe. Space operas are a blast to read, and I am completely at your mercy, great BurkeandJensen, for writing a solid one with men like me in it.

SKIP TRACE, third CHAOS STATION series novel gay SF

(Chaos Station #3)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Zander Anatolius has been revived from the fatal effects of the super-soldier program, but now he has to face his estranged family and tell a story few would believe. With his lover and the crew of the Chaos at his side, Zander returns home to a media frenzy, threats from the military and pressure to join the family business.

Felix Ingesson still struggles with the horror of believing Zander dead. And no matter how strong their emotional connection is, Felix feels out of place in the glittery world of Zander's rich family. His lover would be better off without a broken, low-class ship's engineer holding him back.

My Review: When the crew receives word that another of Zander’s former teammates needs rescue, Felix travels with the Chaos...setting Zander free. But when Zander is arrested for treason, the men realize they need each other as much as ever—not only to survive, but to make their lives worth living.

I'd definitely read these as SF novels without hesitation. It's lagniappe that they include hot gay sex scenes. Written by nice straight ladies. Which I still very much do not comprehend. I'll try for a review very soon.


So I've finished the series now. In a lot of ways, this is where the tone of the books changes. This is the moment of truth for the couple as well as for Flick and Zed the men. After the astonishing events of Lonely Shore, anyone could be forgiven for needing to take a breath, step back, and just be for a while. Being Flick, he doesn't do this by halves. He walks to the Chaos, climbs on board, and flies into the black without saying one damned word to Zed. Who is, unsurprisingly, dealing with the very public fallout of the previous book's events, and the very private and equally life-altering family ructions that a wealthy youngest son can expect when he comes home from being thought dead in a vicious war trailing clouds of glory and his one true love the lower class station rat.

Flick looks at the world the Anatolius name entitles Zed to enter and his brain freezes, his balls try to climb inside to hide, and his spirit screams "FOR ALL THOSE USELESS GODS' SAKES RUN RUN RUN!!" He has no idea what fork to itself was scarce in his household. He has no concept of how to simply kept him from being naked, for the most part. All those educated, cultured voices! All the smiles that feel like sneers!

Zed just sees the living room full of brothers, parents, sisters-in-law waiting to go in to dinner.

That's a gap. And Flick running away hurts like stin poison. But he's not just running away, he's running to save a needy comrade. Zed's troubles escalate, his powerful family limbers up the big guns (Lawyers, Guns, and Money style). Unlike Warren Zevon's spoiled brat holed up in Honduras, though, Zed is targeted by the very people he's given up his humanity for, the AEF. He is still an embarrassment for the AEF because his existence means they have to acknowledge their disgusting super-soldier program that caused Zed so much damage. Now the AEF have received a small gift from the Universe: Zed's recent actions have placed him within their reasonable grasp, and they take full advantage of this to plot the final solution to the Zed Question.

Flick? He's not having any of it. He might be skittish as all hell from a bad childhood, enslavement at the stin's claws, and almost a decade of living in the vacuum of Zed's presumed death (while, ironically, it's Flick's presumed death in stin slavery that makes Zed vanish so utterly into the super-soldier program) that he can't and won't tolerate threats to his true love no matter who makes them. It is a constant in his life and the series.

But the current imbroglio is challenging in so many ways, and the superbaddies are so thick on the ground, and the resolutions to the Chaos crew's problems continue to be just out of reach, and...well. I can tell you this much without spoilering anything: Power corrupts and those in power see everything through the stinking atmosphere of their corruption.

The book ends with our augmented crew still flying, still precariously free, and still very much a real-feeling family. Pain and happiness come from so many of the same roots in intimacy, don't they. Blessedly for Zander and Flick, those roots are deep as the oceans in each man's soul. So satisfying.


(Chaos Station #2)
Carina Press
$3.99 ereader platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: All they can do is live day to day...

Felix Ingesson has returned to his duties as the Chaos's engineer with Zander Anatolius, his ex-boyfriend-turned-broken-super-soldier, at his side. Hope means something again. But there's nothing Felix can do to battle the alien poison flowing through Zander's veins, or his imminent mental decline. With each passing day, the side effects of Zander’s experimental training are becoming more difficult to ignore.

When the ruthless Agrius Cartel seeks their revenge—including an ambush and an attempt to kidnap the Chaos’s crew—Zander is pushed over the edge. He can no longer hide his symptoms, nor does he want to. But hurting Felix when he’s not in control of himself is Zander’s worst nightmare—when it nearly happens, he agrees to seek help. Even if that means trusting the unknown.

As Zander places his life in alien hands, Felix appoints himself his lover’s keeper. And though he tries to be strong, he can’t ignore the fact that he might lose Zander…forever this time.

My Review: Burke & Jensen slayed me. They made every choice inevitable and each response inescapable. And, in the end, ma'at is preserved.

There is more to say but I can't find the words or the coordination to type them just now.
*******THE NEXT DAY********

This is going to be one of those "why this book made me feel thus-and-such" reviews. If those personal-reflection reader response reviews piss you off, and gawd knows there are plenty who feel that way about them, scroll on.

For most people, falling in love doesn't fix things, it fucks them up. Falling in love with someone whose background is the diametric opposite of your own is exciting, and challenging, and well within the definition of "a really crappy idea." Felix the station rat and Zander the rich kid...inherent inequality in the relationship's power structure and all the resentment that breeds on both sides...none of that is delved into very deeply because the current story arc is very much about survival. Zed's survival as a living being and Flick's survival as an emotional being.

The titanic tsunami heading for the men is the physiological modifications that Zed, hollowed out by the incalculable and unfixable loss of Flick to the stin, volunteered to undergo. His transformation into a part-stin superwarrior, done in a last-ditch effort to stem the tide of losses to the stin, was a success in that Zed can replicate the stin warriors' greatest advantage over humans: the ability to phase shift, or locate themselves physically in a dimension just enough different from 4D spacetime to prevent humans from touching (therefore killing) them, but still close enough to allow those in it to see and interact with targets trapped within 4D spacetime.

In a universe with 11 dimensions as M theory requires, that's plausible to me, as is the existence of j-space, the hyperdimension that allows interstellar travel without breaking the cosmic speed limit c . Scientists are eyerolling, wincing, and generally scoffing I'm sure. Plausible is all I myownself require of fiction, not strict scientific rigor. I want writers of SF to allow me room to suspend my disbelief, not require me to fling my admittedly meager scientific knowledge out the proverbial airlock.

Back to Zed...his abilities helped win the war (sort of) for humanity because he disobeyed direct orders and saved a group of civilians even though it ran the very real risk of revealing his and his team's megasuperdouble secret modifications. His act was publicly revealed without his knowledge and this fictional universe's superpower, called the Guardians because no one knows what they call themselves, step in with their superpowers and call a halt to the stins' effort to eradicate humanity. Then Zed and his fellow modificatees are...abandoned. Cut loose. Left to twist because supporting them would mean acknowledging them and that would have horrendous political consequences.

Support them? What, pray tell, is the problem with that? Don't we always support our veterans? Hmm? Don't we always take care of the men and women who are damaged and the families who are destroyed by the will of the politicians in pursuit of the Greater Good?
/enraged sarcasm

Zed and his team are losing themselves. Losing their minds, literally, as in the depredations of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia and disease...kuru for one nightmare-inducing example. Flick is trapped in hell with the man he loves vanishing before his eyes. Zed will be there, fully himself one moment and the next he's simply gone. Unresponsive at best, inappropriately responsive at worst, defaulting to his military training in managing phase shifts to respond to threats. Who happen to be his friends aboard the Chaos and his true love. When Zed comes back from one such moment while throttling the life from Flick, everyone knows the end of Zed's life is coming closer by the moment. It's impossible he'd want to kill Flick.

The desperate hail-mary play of taking Zed to Qek (the ashushk pilot)'s home world to seek treatment for the incurable and rapidly progressing condition that induced stin-state abilities have gifted Zed with is, ultimately, unsuccessful and Zed dies during the last-ditch treatment. The Guardians swoop in, take Zed's body, and fix him; during his time being fixed by them, Zed learns he has a higher purpose in the Guardians' plans for the galaxy and they want him to remain among them. The pull of his all-pervasive love for Flick leads him to decline the opportunity to fully be whatever they plan for him to be, and with great sadness the Guardians return Zed to his true love, his dear friends, and his family.

Now comes that personal stuff. Flick's grief on losing Zed again (remembering that they were separated by war for a decade) is so accurately and harrowingly rendered that I was left a sobbing wreck. I've experienced a lot more grief than most people have because I was a young gay man during the AIDS epidemic. Loss was common. Grief was pervasive. And then I went and fell in love with a man who had full-blown AIDS.

Three years of good days, bad days, worse days, hospitalizations, spending nights in bedside chairs, doing small practical things like sponge baths and, later, diaper changes, holding Bland's hand when he was only bodily present and crying as quietly as I could hoping against hope he'd come back and then hating myself for wishing it on him as he came back in horrible pain. Two friends of ours, Joe and Domingo, would come and get me every so often and take me to some restaurant near Columbia Presbyterian and feed me something. I'd usually break down and sob somewhere along the line, and I still can't quite believe that they kept doing it for me, for Bland, subjecting themselves to public embarrassment like that. I was well beyond caring about suchlike nonsense at that point.

Then came the day that, looking at Bland lying helpless and hooked to a ventilator, a morphine drip, IVs of useless drugs trying to combat the cytomegalovirus killing him exquisitely painfully and slowly, and the fog of my wretchedness lifted for the first time in what felt like forever. I went home to compose myself and, for the first time in what felt like forever, didn't cry the entire subway ride from St. Luke's-Roosevelt to my home in Battery Park City.

My stocky Bajan wrestler was dead and he was never coming back. His body was there, and once in a while he'd try to come back to me sitting there holding his hand by squeezing it and focusing for a brief second or two on me before the fog came back. I was holding him inside this hell because I loved him and he loved me and I couldn't let go.

So the next morning I went, as always, to the hospital. Walking into the ward in a clear, in fact crystalline and brittle, bubble of purpose. I found Bland's younger sister sitting with him, a deeply religious young woman of the finest kind. She loved the sinner and, if she hated the sin, she kept it to herself, for which I was and am grateful. I sat down next to my true love, took his other hand, and said, "I love you too much to see you suffer this way. It's time to let go. Let go and go home, my love." I repeated this for hours as he tried to...I don't know what, speak or brief spurts between vacancies. His sister held his other hand and, when I couldn't speak, said the same thing to him.

We left together. She drove me home, I thanked her for the ride, and she said, "no one could ever hope for a better friend than you are to my brother. Thank you."

That night Bland died. He was 34. I was 31.

It was two years before I could sleep in our bed. It was six years before I could climb out of the bottle and coke vial to decide to live again. (A terrifying heart arrhythmia made the choice stark.)

And, this past May, it was twenty-five years since Bland Jentry Carr and I died. I put together a face to wear while I did the whole existing thing, but I was gone and not for the first time in my life. Whoever I am now is not the man I was or would have been if I'd kept hold of my Beejay. I suppose it's one reason I attract young men as a funny way this old crippled-up man is really just 25. I'm not sure how I got here, to be honest, and there are days when I'm not sure I'm all that happy to be here, but here is where I am. Like Flick, I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other until I do what needs doing.

But I won't get Flick's miracle. Reading about it, however, satisfied something very, very deep inside me. That something that says "yes" to the bass thrum of loving another being so completely that their happiness and your own are completely entwined.

I still talk to Bland every morning as I shower and move through my routine. I don't believe in a god, I don't believe in a heaven, but I do believe that the huge energy of a human life leaves some mark, some dent in the fabric of spacetime, and I address myself to that. It is enough for me to express my love for all the men I've lost over the horrible plague years to those dents in spacetime. Reality is unforgiving, but fiction kisses it better.

Read this series. It kisses your hurts better (after inflicting them, that is).

CHAOS STATION series reviews, 5 books of good SF with gay leads

(Chaos Station #1)
Carina Press
$1.99 ereader platform editions, available now

Rating: 4 happy stars of five

The Publisher Says: "You're not real. Felix Ingesson is dead."

The war with the alien stin is over, but Felix Ingesson has given up on seeing his lover, Zander Anatolius, ever again. Zander's military file is sealed tighter than an airlock. A former prisoner of war, Felix is attempting a much quieter life keeping his ship, the Chaos, aloft. He almost succeeds, until Zander walks on board and insists that Felix isn't real.

A retired, broken super soldier, Zander is reeling from the aftereffects of his experimental training and wants nothing more than to disappear and wait for insanity to claim him. Then he sees footage of a friend and ally—a super soldier like him—murdering an entire security squad with her bare hands and a cold, dead look in her eyes. He never expected to find Felix, the man he'd thought dead for years, on the ship he hired to track her down.

Working with Felix to rescue his teammate is a dream come true…and a nightmare. Zander has no exit strategy that will leave Felix unscathed—or his own heart unbroken.

My Review: Romantic fiction doesn't need much to keep the people buying...lovers separated by factors within their control and/or outside their control who, despite the obstacles, choose to make love work. It's a trope that's worked for millennia, it will work for as long as human beings keep falling in love.

This story goes above and beyond the basics in an important way. It develops the world the men who are the primary couple inhabit to a significantly greater degree than others in the genre. It is also the most fully science-fictional SF romantic novel I've read. I'd read it for the SF elements, albeit I'd judge it more harshly than I do as a romantic novel.

Part of that is altered expectations. At one time fifty or so years ago, world-building in SF was much lighter and less multidimensional than it is today. Novels were 200-ish pages as a matter of course and now they tend towards the 400-page end as a matter of course. There is vastly greater scope to do world-building in that kind of length. This novel, in common with most others in the romantic fiction genre, is 200-ish pages, so has the scope of a fifty-year-old SF novel for world-building plus the need to bookhorn in love and sex in a way that was and largely is unthinkable in mainstream SF.

Authors Burke and Jensen do a really fine job of this balancing act. I am impressed that they take the basic furniture of two disparate genres and re-cover them in harmonious upholstery, creating a charming and eclectic mental space for their men, women, and aliens to inhabit. It takes a good deal of work to do this at all, and even more to do it well.

I found the series in the Gay SF reading group and, on a hunch, Kindled the whole lot at once. Relieved that I did because I'm most certainly going to read them all. Zed and Flick are a terrific creation in that they're just guys. One's a tinkerer, one's a serious soldier, together they're little boys playing house and they're wounded warriors desperately seeking balance and order in lives mangled along with their tortured, altered bodies.

Flick/Fixer/Felix fixes stuff. He focuses on stuff because he was captured by the alien stin (and a note here on how very much I approve of Burke and Jensen's use of the lowercase for the aliens' race-names; we're not Humans, now are we?) and, while enslaved as a miner, tortured just for the fun of it by the insectoids. Stuff doesn't pity him or find him disgusting or try to help him. It waits for him to do what needs doing to fix it. His most powerful need is to belong, the be along with a group that gets him. His great good fortune is that he has that in the crew of the Chaos.

Elias is the captain, his business partner, and as close to Flick as a beloved older brother. Elias is straight but like everyone else in the spacers's world he couldn't care less what other people do in their sex lives. Elias is probably the least developed character, existing in relation to Flick and supplying needed perspective when a PoV change suits the story. He is believable for all that: His focus is on the bodily and mental health of the small crew he took on as his family. He's a dad. He makes sure everything is ordered and safe for his kids to be able to play and work and be as happy as they can be. He worries about them all, loves them all, and exasperatedly picks up after them, scolding all the while. I relate to Elias, and love him.

Nessa, the doctor, is Elias's love interest. Flaming red hair and a protective streak a mile wide have combined to seduce Elias and enchant the crew. Flick even loses his defensive shields when Nessa pushes him. She is a committed healer and makes everyone's health an obsession. It's hard not to see her as Dr. McCoy from TOS, with curves. I wished from the minute she came on my screen that I could book an appointment with her. She's the kind of doctor I'd love to find IRL.

Qek is the resident alien, a little blue woman instead of a little green man. Only she's not a woman, exactly, but a genderless ashoshk individual who identifies as a woman in order to live more easily among the humans she left her home world to study. Her race is technologically ahead of humanity, and like humanity has suffered the scourgings of the stin, so she is the pilot of the ashoshk-engined Chaos as she understands the tech better than anyone else on the ship. She is, as well, Flick's friend. Among the genderless ashoshk, Qek's offer of friendship to Flick is very deep. In a novel I love, Islandia, there is a concept of friendship similar to the ashoshk one called "linamia" or "powerful non-sexual love." It is a concept that, I fear, is largely missing in modern human culture and I think that's a sin. It's also a lifeline for poor, shattered Flick. Qek delights me, the anti-Neelix, the soothing and sweet and calm eternal outsider with sharp eyes and a soft heart.

Zed. Yes, well, then there's Zed. A younger son in a family of immense wealth and power, Zed chose a career in the military to be with Flick, his childhood bestie and young-adult first love. The war with the stin erupted and the two young lovers are separated forever by Flick's capture and presumed death at the claws of the stin. The powerful man whose love is fully, passionately given to the station rat boy he spent his childhood hanging with, suddenly has nothing. No bestie, no lover, nothing. (Except obscenely large piles of money and a family that adores him, but let's not get too logical...the man we're discussing here is very, very young and has zero perspective so let's go with his view of things.) So he volunteers to become a covert operative for his army, then for the black-ops experiment that informs the entire rest of his (drastically shortened) life. Zed is destroyed by Flick's loss and, unlike Flick who strives to endure and survive and make it the hell out of stin captivity, seeks annihilation so he can stop his agony of emptiness. In peacetime, Zed's the kind of man who self-medicates his agony. Me too, Zed.

Now all the characters are required to band together to rescue an old friend of Flick and Zed's who is on a rapid downward spiral. They find her, rescue her, lose her, fight a battle to recapture her, and the complications mount. New enemies are made, old wounds renewed. And the bittersweet joy of love regained, Zed and Flick's true and deep love for each other, widened to include their crew, is adulterated by the progressive nature of Zed's black-ops experimental enhancements. His downward spiral, slower than his and Flick's friend's spiral, is nonetheless real.

He's going to hell, but he's taking the scenic route and that leads right to Flick's bed. The place he's wanted to be for nine long, hellish years of knowing that Flick was dead.

And I plan to go right along with them all.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

THE OBAMA HATE MACHINE, a 2012 title that should've prepared us for 2016

THE OBAMA HATE MACHINE: The Lies, Distortions, and Personal Attacks on the President--And Who Is Behind Them

Thomas Dunne Books
$26.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Toxic Talk, Bill Press exposed the ways in which the extreme right-wing media has done an end run around the American voting populace by exerting a disproportionate control over open political debate. In The Obama Hate Machine, Press returns to show how the Right has taken rhetoric to slanderous new levels in attacking the nation’s forty-fourth president.

While presidents and presidential candidates routinely have been subject to personal attacks, the outright disdain Obama’s extremist opponents have for the facts has inspired an insidious brand of character assassination unique in contemporary politics.

Obama was born in Kenya . . . Obama sympathizes with Muslim terrorists . . . Obama is a communist who wants to institute death panels and touch off class warfare…The extent to which these unfounded assertions have taken hold in the American mindset shows just how ruthless, destructive, and all-powerful the right-wing machine—hijacked by extremists in the media and fueled by corporate coffers—has become. The author reveals how corporate interests such as the infamous Koch Brothers continue to steer political coverage away from fact-based dialogue into the realm of hysteria. Bill Press also observes this phenomenon is not limited to the airwaves and provides an “I Hate Obama Book Club” list, calling out the scores of anti-Obama tomes—and even some from the Left—that have helped drag politics even deeper into the mud. 

In his characteristic on-the-mark arguments sure to appeal to anyone on the Left or in the Center, Press shows how the peculiar nature of Obama-hating subverts issue-driven debate and threatens not only the outcome of the 2012 election but the future of the American democratic system.


My Review: I do not know what to say about this book. The people who should read it won't. The people who do read it will, if not sociopathic by nature, weep uncontrollably for the horrific fate of our country.

I tell myself that it's good, this outrage and pain I feel when reading the horrors perpetrated in the name of partisan conservatism, because when I stop feeling those feelings it will mean that I have given up any hope for change AWAY from the viciousness, the brutal ignorant selfishness, that is characteristic of today's “conservatives.”

Go to the library. Read Chapter 5, “The Brothers.” Sixty pages of documented and repugnant thuggery perpetrated by the Koch brothers against the democratically elected president of the United States of America. If it stirs in you no outrage against the monstrous, vile, and greedy people who pretend to care about the fate of the Americans who do the work that makes them rich, go buy your jackboots and practice your “Sieg heils” because that's the world people like you are passively agreeing to live in.

The Right is WRONG. And their actions against President Obama (not my favorite person, but still he's the president) are very, very, very close to seditious. They talk treason and call it free speech...which they've paid their millions to ensure for themselves and their horrifying, selfish, greedy views.

I tell myself it's good that these betrayals hurt me so, these smacks in my besotted citizen's face, because when they don't hurt anymore, I'll have given up on change, on reason, on life. I skate ever closer to this dread eventuality.

ZEITOUN, Hurricane Katrina's nasty cover-up of systemic racism

Dave Eggers

$12.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. In the days after the storm, he traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. A week later, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared.

Eggers’s riveting nonfiction book, three years in the making, explores Zeitoun’s roots in Syria, his marriage to Kathy — an American who converted to Islam — and their children, and the surreal atmosphere (in New Orleans and the United States generally) in which what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun was possible. Like What Is the What, Zeitoun was written in close collaboration with its subjects and involved vast research — in this case, in the United States, Spain, and Syria.

My Review: Okay. I herewith open my piehole for the crow to be inserted. I have said nasty, judgmental things about Eggers's writings, and I meant each and every one of them. I still do.

But this book is excellent, and this book is Eggers's, so it is obvious that the old adage about a stopped clock being right twice a day applies to writers and writing as well.

It's a direct, elegantly simple telling of the nightmare side of the American Dream. It's powerfully focused, unlike every other one of Eggers's overpraised books that I've read, and it's superbly structured, with no room for improvement in pacing and character development that I can find.

I don't believe I'm typing these things, someone reassure me that this is *me*! Every criticism I've leveled at this guy's previous writing is out the window! Will they turn off the gravity next?

But truth is truth, and honesty compels me to say: I haven't enjoyed a book this much in ages. Well, enjoyed is a strange term to use for the true and factual, and awful, story of a decent, honorable man made the butt of society's opprobrium for no reason other than his religion and origins. But the book is deeply enjoyable, because at every turn, Zeitoun's decency and honor and integrity shine through. That alone makes the book worth buying and reading. Add to that the fact that, rare in this world failed of kindness, Zeitoun summons the best and the most positive people to him in his desperate hours.

I am disappointed that Twilight *shudder* and The Life of Pi *retch*, vastly inferior books to this one, and to name but two of the many, many books this applies to, have more copies on Goodreads. your part to change this, and go buy a copy. Then read it. It will, contrary to any expectation you might have, leave you uplifted and happier for having read a book about Hurricane Katrina and an Arab immigrant. Very strongly recommended.

And, thanks to my friend Terri for making me read this...even sending me a it will be extremely hard to release back into the bookosphere. That I will *have* to buy a replacement is a small economic price to pay.

********Addendum in 2013: Yes indeed, Zeitoun has been arrested and accused of crimes recently, and many have taken this as an invalidation of his post-Katrina experiences. Apparently no thought is given to what these experiences of injustice in The Home of The Free might be expected to do to a man is irrelevant to those who hold this opinion. That's just bad, sloppy thinking. What happened to Zeitoun after Katrina is still real, and his story of that time is still one of a horrifying miscarriage of justice using "race" as a flimsy, transparent attempt at justification.

And of course, from the vantage point of 2017, the story never quite got better, as Kathy Zeitoun alleged a long pattern of domestic abuse, attempted to have Zeitoun re-arrested, etc. etc. Again...and again...and again it must be said that, even if every awful thing ever said about the man is true, none of it excuses the horrors he experienced at the hands of the legal system.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, a rare film adaptation that does the book justice


Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 3* of five

The Publisher Says: Though he may not speak of them, the memories still dwell inside Jacob Jankowski’s ninety-something-year-old mind. Memories of himself as a young man, tossed by fate onto a rickety train that was home to the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Memories of a world filled with freaks and clowns, with wonder and pain and anger and passion; a world with its own narrow, irrational rules, its own way of life, and its own way of death. The world of the circus: to Jacob it was both salvation and a living hell.

Jacob was there because his luck had run out—orphaned and penniless, he had no direction until he landed on this locomotive “ship of fools.” It was the early part of the Great Depression, and everyone in this third-rate circus was lucky to have any job at all. Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, was there because she fell in love with the wrong man, a handsome circus boss with a wide mean streak. And Rosie the elephant was there because she was the great gray hope, the new act that was going to be the salvation of the circus; the only problem was, Rosie didn’t have an act—in fact, she couldn’t even follow instructions. The bond that grew among this unlikely trio was one of love and trust, and ultimately, it was their only hope for survival.

Surprising, poignant, and funny, Water for Elephants is that rare novel with a story so engrossing, one is reluctant to put it down; with characters so engaging, they continue to live long after the last page has been turned; with a world built of wonder, a world so real, one starts to breathe its air.

My Review: I don't want to give anyone the wrong impression here. I am not a sentimental old softie whose external resemblance to a conker

is meant to scare off the timid.

But books about old folks remembering their bittersweet pasts, books about people caring for and about the animals that they share their lives with, and books about losing your beloved far too damned soon in life do drive a teensy-tinsy little wedge into my sharp green spikes, revealing what I laughingly refer to as a "heart" for the briefest of moments.

Without spoilering anything, the clue I will give you to my rating of this novel is that all three stars are for Rosie.

When this book came out in 2006, it was a huge smash success. Sara Gruen touched a nerve with her evocation of the 1930s traveling-circus world. People resonated like rung bells from one end of the US to the other. I read the book then, and reacquainted myself with it recently, to remember what it was that caused the ruckus.
Age is a terrible thief. Just when you're getting the hang of life, it knocks your legs out from under you and stoops your back. It makes you ache and muddies your head and silently spreads cancer throughout your spouse.
Although there are times I'd give anything to have her back, I'm glad she went first. Losing her was like being cleft down the middle. It was the moment it all ended for me, and I wouldn't have wanted her to go through that.
I think many, if not most, of the book's fans really resonate with these assessments. I know I do. It's not the most original kind of observation ever made but it's presented in a pleasantly conversational tone, one that gives the meaning precedence over the words.

Gruen also has Jacob thinking through the problems of great age. Since the main body of the story is set quite a long time ago, Jacob gets to tell us his story unchallenged. His memories may be unreliable, how would we know?, but he gives them to us with gusto and a charming smile. That's what we all hope to do, isn't it, give the younger folks coming behind us a reason to smile as we share what we have stored in our Random Access Memory?
My platitudes don't hold their interest and I can hardly blame them for that. My real stories are all out of date. So what if I can speak firsthand about the Spanish flu, the advent of the automobile, world wars, cold wars, guerrilla wars, and Sputnik — that's all ancient history now. What else do I have to offer? Nothing happens to me anymore. That’s the reality of getting old, and I guess that’s really the crux of the matter. I’m not ready to be old yet.
Sometimes when you get older — and I’m not talking about you, I’m talking generally, because everyone ages differently — things you think on and wish on start to seem real. And then you believe them, and before you know it they’re part of your history, and if someone challenges you on them and says they’re not true — why, then you get offended because you can’t remember the first part. All you know is that you’ve been called a liar.
It's an indignity perpetrated on most of us by the vast legions of those addicted to Being Right. Really, I want to say to the I'm Right And Don't You Forget It judges, give it a rest. Believe me when I tell you your own turn in the unreliable memory chair is coming soon. It's better to treat those memories other folks choose to share with you as their stories and not be ready to hop on the Being Right Soapbox. It's a theme that Gruen seems to me to be developing, though rather in the breach than the observance.

So these quotes give you a fair sampling of the book's storytelling voice. These ideas are the ones that Gruen really bears down hard on exploring in Jacob's voice. So why am I giving all the stars to Rosie? Because this elephant, though she never utters a word, is the most vibrantly alive character in the book. Jacob is any-old-man. Rosie is not, I promise you, any old elephant! And the pleasure of Jacob and Rosie having their relationship makes this a book I didn't mind revisiting. The love affair that is the primary catalyst of all the story's action, that between Marlena and Jacob, centers on Rosie as Marlena performs her act for the circus with Rosie. Jacob, the vet, is Rosie's constant companion. Rosie is, in my mind at least, the real star of the circus and the book.

In 2011, Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson added a layer to the book's luster by embodying (damn near perfectly, in my never-humble opinion) Marlena and Jacob, the star-crossed lovers at the human heart of the tale. I'm no great fan of ~meh~ movie adaptations to popular books. I've generally got some choice invective for incompetent or poorly handled film versions of books. This adaptation is one I felt got the tone, the indefinable something that made the book such a success, right. The adaptation is also visually stunning, simply pitch-perfect in its period details and an immersive delight to watch.

The one problem I had with both the book and the movie is a big one: I didn't buy the love story in either medium. I just do not get the sense that Jacob really had the grand passion for Marlena that's reported everywhere in the text and the script. I certainly don't think Ms. Witherspoon and Mr. Pattinson were attracted to each other. That kept cropping up in the way of my full investment in the story.

Rotten Tomatoes, the internet movie-review aggregator, counts this as a mostly-fresh release. Its total number of professional reviews is a whopping 191, making its Fresh rating of 60% quite impressive. 68,000 regular civilians who use Rotten Tomatoes to track their film likes and dislikes give the adaptation Fresh ratings 70% of the time. 1.1 million ratings on Goodreads average 4.07 out of five for the novel. No matter the medium, the message to the audience comes through loud and clear, and the audience agrees with it. That, my friends, is called "huge success" and deserves the rewards thereof.

The reading group guide lives here, free to download.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG, ideal book-and-movie book club choice


W>W> Norton
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: On a road crew in California, a former colonel in the Iranian Air Force sees a way to restore his family's dignity in an attractive bungalow available on county auction. But the house's owner, a recovering alcoholic and addict down on her luck, will fight for the one thing she has left. And her lover, a married cop, will be driven to extremes to win her love. In this masterpiece of American realism and Shakespearean consequence, Andre Dubus III's unforgettable characters careen toward inevitable conflict, their tragedy painting a shockingly true picture of the country we live in today.

My Review: Behrani. An exiled colonel in the Shah's army. Kathy. A fucked-up druggie living off her inheritance. Lester. A major idiot whose law-enforcement career is his last best shot at staying off welfare.

Not one of these people will leave this book better than they entered it. Kathy's only home is the one she inherited, and the county says it's not hers anymore because she hasn't paid the taxes. She has, though. She's completely unable to function in the world because she's hazed on drugs for so long that even when she's clean she can't think straight. That means she can't figure out how to prove she has complied with the law.

Behrani can't get an American life going. He has savings (one hesitates to imagine where the money came from originally) that barely keep him afloat, and jobs that demean him but are all a man with no skills except being an Army officer can get. But his son's college money is sufficient to buy a distressed property at auction. Kathy's home, as it turns out. He plans to renovate and flip it, using this as a stepping-stone to American Dream-level prosperity.

Lester comes in as the deputy assigned to be sure Kathy gets out of the home that's no longer hers. Love at first sight! Lame-o Lester and Loser Kathy...surely the white trash Romeo and Juliet!

Pretty much.

Dubus drags us through the legal system as the parties battle out the rights and wrongs of the case. No one here is a good person, just a greedy selfish prick who deserves what, in the end, is meted out to them by the author's just and pitiless exercise of karmic debt collection.

NOT an uplifting book. My withers were wrung about every twenty pages, and I took frequent breaks in order to console myself with excessive liquor consumption and sordid sexual escapades.

I love a book that brings out the best in me.

There's a scene where Lame-o Lester gets his first-ever BJ from Loser Kathy, which Dubus goes into in a bizarrely flat and affectless way that completely desxualizes the act, makes it a symptom of a pathology and not an erotic or intimate or even sexy development. It's just part of the sickness pervading these broken, unfixable people's existences.

Did you *get* that? A man wrote about the thing most men want more than food and only slightly less than air, and made it *unappealing*.

Dubus is a master of his craft. He is an artist. He can do anything he wants with words to make them dance in the reader's head to HIS tune, screw whatever you were expecting, reader! He can fashion a story that, in its outlines, sounds juicy and ripe with conflict, and make it a sharp object that will deflate whatever happy illusions were still in your head about yourself and this Murrikin Dream we're supposed to be having, reader!

And that is why you should read this book.

Book club reading guide free here.

Another reading group guide free here.