Thursday, January 30, 2014

A novel aboul identity and authenticity

Strange Bodies

By Marcel Theroux

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Strange Bodies is science fiction. But it is the kind of science fiction that is a springboard for larger conceits. In this way, it is similar to the novels of Margaret Atwood and Doris Lessing in that it is much more interested in philosophical examination than future speculation. The author Marcel Theroux has written a novel about identity and the state of reality. That put him in the company of a definitive sci-fi author, Philip K. Dick. Yet Theroux throws another philosophical log on the fire. What is authenticity? If your conscience can be duplicated and placed into someone else, is that person you? Is he every bit as authentic in his emotions and meaning as you?

A man, simply called Q, is living in a mental asylum. His identity is unknown to the doctors but he states he is Dr. Nicholas Slopen. This is impossible since the death of Dr. Slopen is well documented and the patient looks nothing like him. Through Q's chronicles and pasted psychiatric notes the mystery unfolds. We discover that Dr Slopen was asked to authenticate some letters by 18th century British writer Samuel Johnson. The letters appear authentic in the sense of subject and writing but are clearly not, due to the kind of paper used which was not in existence during Johnson's time. We are then introduced to savant Jack Telauga who can perfectly enact the writer's style. Yet there is more to this than imitation and this is where we go into sci-fi territory. Could the conscience of James Johnson, or anyone else, be transferred to a body? What does this mean for the rest of society. Would that make one immortal?

These are just some of the questions Theroux tackles. This is a somewhat complex and dense novel. Yet it is a compelling read because Theroux has created some complex and compelling characters. Slopen is not very likable at first, being stuffy and full of himself. Yet as the plot develops he is brought along by the intricacies of the plot and we see him developed into a fuller protagonist. Jack is both fascinating and pitiful, while the other characters are alive in their motives which we find out eventually. The most poignant parts of the novel for me is when Slopen ruminates on his past life as the physical Slopen, dwells on his mistakes which he can never correct. It is a emotional novel drenched in what-ifs and why-nots. But we are always brought back to identity and the idea that we are real...or are we?

Identity and the fragility of reality seems to be an occurring theme this year. I recently finished E. L. Doctorow's new book, Andrew's Brain in which the author tackles many of the same questions in a totally different way. But I found Theroux's more elegantly structured tale to be much more enlightening in this area. even if it may bring up more questions than answers.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A quality Lovecraft tribute

Dead Five's Pass

By Colin F. Barnes

Rating: 3 and a 1/2 out of 5 stars

This is the second book I've read from Darkfuse's novella series. They continue to be of good quality and pretty straight-ahead horror. Dead Five's Pass by Colin F. Barnes is a great read for the Lovecraft crowd. It is a nice addition to the Cthulhu Mythology and does a good job of combining modern horror and Lovecraftian elements. The ancient ones are stilling reeking havoc, this time in a mountain resort area and it is up to two mountain rescue professionals with a bit of history between them to try to save the world. The author is quite excellent at describing the horror of the ancient ones complete with madness and tentacles. While Barnes certainly has a good grip on this horror sub-genre, the novella also has a firm action-adventure feel as our heroes race against time. The only thing that bothered me was in the relationship between our protagonists. It seems a little too soap operatic for my taste and took away some of the dread. Yet I think most readers will not necessarily agree with me. I still see it as a firm three and a half star read and would like to read more

Friday, January 24, 2014

Quiet terror from Darkfuse


By Gary Fry

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Menace by Gary Fry is part of the Darkfuse novella series. I was given a few of the books for review purpose. Menace is the first one I've read and I have to say that, if this novella is typical of the series, it is a quality act indeed.

Gary Fry's short novella (about 60 or so pages) is a quick read but it is nicely paced and manages to convey a good bit of...if you pardon the redundancy...menace. The tale is about a model, Jane Marlow, who finds herself pregnant by a B-movie actor. She considers aborting it but soon becomes fond of the idea of having her child. She is also developing some strange behavioral and physical changes as is the father...

This story works because the author introduces these changes logically and gradually, along with strategically placed clues about what may be going on. This is not a blood and gore story. It is more of a supernatural psychological suspense story, the kind that grabs you slowly but firmly. The ending may not surprise the seasoned horror fan but it is quite satisfying in that eerie "gotcha" way. This is also my first book by Gary Fry and I am very pleased with it. I believe Fry and the Darkfuse novella series will be in my radar for a while. If you like your horror on the quietly scary and somewhat literary side then this novella is for you.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Short but not so sweet


By Chuck Palahniuk

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I'm not a big fan of Chuck Palahniuk's novels. That is a little odd since I will concede that technically he is one of the best writers alive. As i have often said, he writes like a sumofabitch. Yet he is also unrelenting in his nihilism and creates characters that are void of passion and hope. The pessimism and feeling of existential void that permeates his writing tends to be overpowering. I don't think I have ever rated one of his novels more than two stars. It says a lot about the writer, and perhaps me, that in Fight Club, the only interesting and sympathetic character is the imaginary one!

But his short fiction is another matter entirely. In the shorter format, horrific elements play out faster. The shock of the plot (there is always a shocking plot) carry you through and you will find yourself riveted, maybe grossed out but, above all else, entertained. You will also have more time to contemplate just what is Palahniuk trying to say and why did they let him out of the asylum.

Phoenix is one of those marvelous Kindle Singles. At about 30 pages even the slowest reader should finish it in an hour. But it packs a wallop. It features a dysfunctional family and a strange, perhaps psycho, mom. She is away from home and all she wants to do is hear her blind daughter's voice over the phone. She seems to blame all her misfortunes on others which is never a good sign in a story or, for that matter, in real life. In an odd way, it reminds me of the great short story, The Yellow Wallpaper with the roles reversed. Palahniuk's short fiction is clearly horrific but stays with you like the throbbing pain of a hammer-smashed finger.

Perhaps one day Palahniuk may write a novel that gives me the same goose-bumps and dread that his short fiction does. But if you are someone like me who find his novels a bit too much, or a novice reader who simply wants to check out the king of gross, then Phoenix is a good way to put your toe in the muck.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Mystery, horror, or soap opera?

Descending Son

By Scott Shepard

Rating: 2 out of 5 stars.

Descending Son wants to be a mystery, a horror novel and a soap opera all at the same time. All that does is stretch the story into a meandering mish-mash. It starts out well as a mystery with our main protagonist returning home to his ailing father after a seven year absence. A mysterious car accident and the strange demise of his father moves the novel into suspense mode. Yet after a third of the tale passes, a supernatural aspect emerges and we are in horror city. I don't want to ruin the "surprise". Lets just say it's an over used concept. This isn't to say that this type of mystery / horror hybrid of family secrets haven't been done well before. It's just that the author's blending of current events and past comes across a bit too choppy and haphazard. Not to mention that I am getting tired of the cliff-hanger ending that hints a sequel. Can't anyone write a single stand-by-itself book any more? I'm tempted to give it an extra star just for being based in my hometown but frankly, the Coachella Valley and Palm Springs locales doesn't really add much. Overall, I found this to be a major disappointment. I'm still waiting from something worthwhile from the Amazon First program.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thrilling fun with a mafia hit man and an obscene parrot

Gulf Boulevard

By Dennis Hart

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dennis Hart is a funny man. He has a style that seems to be between Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard in the witty thriller department. It can be argued that the plot in Gulf Boulevard may be slightly thin but it is still an entertaining read and it is full of pithy humor. I guess it is ostensibly a mystery but it isn't a whodunnit as much as it is a whogonnadoit. But a funny mystery it is.

So what makes Gulf Boulevard so fun? Like I said, Dennis Hart is quite clever in throwing out hilarious situations and clever repartees left and right. I mean, you gotta love a parrot that can recite every line, especially the obscene ones, from Scarface. But the crowning achievement is the character of Jason Najarian. Jason is a man after my own heart. He's a dreamer whose dream comes true. A sharp but impulsive fellow whose digs and pranks sometimes get the better of him. (Number one tip: Do not throw tomatoes at gangsters) The plot pretty much sinks or swims based on your feelings toward Jason. In my case, Jason wins the day.

It's a good premise. Jason Nazarian hits the lottery jackpot thanks to some M&Ms and moves to Florida to be a rich hermit. However it doesn't work out that way thanks to a busybody real estate agent, a hot Native-American femme fatale, a gold-digging ex-wife, and, most importantly, a mafia hit man who happens to be Jason's neighbor. And here is where the novel hits a minor snag. As good as the premise is, it meanders a bit around the middle and doesn't really pick up steam until nearly the end. Despite all the humor, I was hoping for a little more intensity.

One of my writing teachers told me that the middle makes or breaks a novel. Here, it doesn't break it. The author is too good for that to happen. But as it is obvious that Hart is a really good writer, I was hoping for one out of the ball park. However, being his first novel, there's plenty to be proud of. There is going to be a sequel (of course) so I have high hopes for Hart's next opus.

Method acquired: Goodreads Firstreads

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Pendergast series revisited.

White Fire

By Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I've read the first novel of the Pendergast series, Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child, when it first came out in the 90s. It didn't impress me much, at least not enough to check out another Pendergast novel. I'm assuming I didn't like it because I remember hardly any of it. I have the enviable skill of being able to mentally block out books I don't like. It is a helpful superpower in which only the political rants of Anne Coulter seem to be immune to. Anne Coulter is my Kryptonite. But my talent is fairly reliable with anything else. When the recently published White Fire came under my radar as being the 13th book of the series, I figured I might as well return to it. After all, the novels seem to be popular enough to last two decades.

I must admit White Fire was fun, albeit average fun. I do remember Relic as having supernatural elements. Yet White Fire is a fairly straight mystery. Pendergast is a somewhat eccentric FBI agent with Sherlockian perception and a disregard for the unconventional. He also seems to have amassed a loyal range of sidekicks and researchers. The main character in this novel is not Pendergast but a young forensic science student and Pendergast protege, Corrie Swanson, who he has helped in previous books. There is a lot of references to characters and events for the reader who has kept up with the series yet White Fire stands well on its own. The basic premise is that Corrie is researching the history of a 19th century string of grizzly bears attacks in an old frontier town for her university thesis. That frontier town is now a winter resort for the wealthy and her investigation is not only stirring up the town elite but pointing to a bigger mystery.

I found it very entertaining. Yet I also felt it was slightly contrived. There are lots of set-up situations with sane people acting illogical. The main violator was Corrie Swanson who, for a person who is supposed to be quite bright, has a habit of doing really stupid things that would only happen if you needed it to move on the plot line like going out alone in a blizzard or ignoring the signs that say, "Caution, Do not feed the homicidal maniac". Pendergast is more interesting but he seems to have been placed a little on the back burner for this installment. But I must admit I now have an urge to go back to some of the older books.

So overall, it is a very fun read. Despite the wintery background, I would label it as a good summer read for the beach or maybe even by the fireplace at a ski resort. You really don't think you'll find me on a snowy hillside trying to break my neck, do you? I'll read. You go out there and ski, Mr. Bono.

Method obtained:  Library

Saturday, January 11, 2014

An excellent literary ghost story


By Christopher Golden

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars


I'm tempted to say Snowblind is a traditional ghost story but it isn't really. The ghosts are fairly traditional but the situation and the event that creates them is a little different. It's different enough to put some real life in these ghosts (pun is definitely intentional) and epic enough for Christopher Golden to flesh out its cast of pretty much everyone in the small town of Coventry. It is a quieter type of supernatural horror novel with an emphasis on the psychological rather than blood and gore. Yet it has more than its share of action and surprises.

The novel is centered around the events surrounding two blizzards in a small New England town. These two blizzard are 12 years apart but the first one leaves the population dreading a recurrence of the abnormally cold and vicious ice storm. The author starts the tale with a bang as the first blizzard causes the disappearances or death of many of the town residents. There are also reports of "Ice Men" in the storm. At the end of the novel, we find the answers in the second storm but ut it is the middle part of this story that puts the emphasis on literary in the term, "Literary horror". Golden places a lot of characters in the novel, perhaps too many, but each of them bring different problems, different regrets, and different desires to the story. It is in some ways a small Petri dish of human behavior. I especially like the town sheriff who is still feeding his failures from the first storm and the two brothers of which one survives and one dies ...and returns. Despite the huge cast of characters, I didn't have all that much trouble following them precisely because Golden made them all so interesting. Overall an excellent intelligent horror novel with a creative plot and a nice little twist at the end. I recommended it to anyone who enjoys supernatural thrillers and horror tales.

Method acquired:  Netgalley

Monday, January 6, 2014

Cats can read too!

This review is from Maslow the Wonder Cat.

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Sleepy Kitten (Despicable Me)

By Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, and Eric Guillon


Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Hello, mere mortal humans. This is the feline version of Despicable Me addressing you.

Marvin brought home this book one day. He said I might like it . First thing I noticed was that it had really thick pages. I figured Marvin thought I might not be able to chew up the cardboard pages so easily. Fine. I love a challenge. But then I saw the title, Sleepy Kittens. So I set aside demolition mode and read it. It was a really cute story about three kittens who didn't want to go to bed. Their mother brushes their fur, gives them a bowl of milk, and sings them a lullaby. Eventually the kittens go to sleep. The end.

Not exactly War and Peace, is it?

But it is a fun book with cute drawings. The really cool thing is that it comes with three finger puppets representing the three sleepy kittens. Plus there are three holes in the sturdy pages so your little play out the plot. For instance when Mama gives them a bowl of milk they can pretend to drink the milk. It is probably the only time kids can play with their fingers in the milk and not get yelled at. I tried to place my paws in the puppets but my claws kept getting stuck. Now the three finger puppet kitties look like they got their chests ripped open.

However, despite my four stars for it being a really cute book, I feel I must warn parents about a potential problem. I am worried that, as the kids play with this book, they will get the idea that it is OK to put their fingers up Kitty's butt. This is not OK. This could result in a dangerous and potentially fatal situation, more so for the kid than the cat. I repeat. Sticking fingers up a cat's butt is not OK. But diligent monitoring by the caretaker should alleviate any disaster.

I wish to thank Manny Rayner for recommending this book to me. I guess you don't hate cats after all.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Hard-edged suspense

The Bitch

by Les Edgerton

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Bitch. Three strikes and you're out. Ha-bitch-ual criminal. One more pop and I knew the judge would be peering down at me over his wireframes and saying, "Jacob Bishop, I hereby sentence you to life imprisonment. Have a nice day, loser."

And in one paragraph. Les Edgerson not only explains the title but sets the stage for his crime noir masterpiece about bad choices and even worse consequences.

The premise is a common enough one. ex-con Jacob Bishop. with two strikes against him, gets out of prison, falls in love and gets his life together. He and his pregnant wife are about ready to open their own business when his old cell mate shows up with a proposition involving a heist. It's bad enough that Jacob owes his friend for saving his life but other secrets are out too and blackmail is not out of the question.

From that point on, the dominoes fall and Jacob is in over his head...perhaps. Edgerton has not set up the most original plot, yet this book stands about the others in one major way. I dislike novels where the protagonists continue to make stupid illogical choices. Jacob's decisions may be stupid but they are not illogical. They fit well in the mindset of the characters and the situations they are presented. They fell real and logical based on the fact they are the makong the best decisions in the best, if corrupted and unhealthy, way they know how. This is something I know a little about, having worked with parolees and probationers. As wild as the action gets, I felt it could happen. Perhaps a few too many people coincidentally end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Also his girl friend maybe falls in line a little too easy. Yet these are minor annoyances considering how riveting the novel is and how well the action and consequences flow.

Edgerton has a gritty style and excels in the street wise, prison accented dialog that permeates this tale. This is one of those story that never let up. I think I put th book down once to answer the phone but that was it. It has an almost perfect ending. Some may think it is a little too open and sudden but I thought it was just right. With one novel, Edgerton has entered my short list of favorite suspense thriller writers, including Charlie Huston and Joe R. Lansdale and he is giving hard-nosed icons like Mickey Spillane a run for the money.

A word or two about the publisher. This was the second book I've read from New Pulp Press. The other one was Last of the Smoking Bartenders by C. J. Howell. New Pulp Press seems to specialize in thrillers and suspense with a literary bent. Emphasis on the word "literary". From the two books I've read, I can say it is an exceptional small publishing company and it would be worthwhile to keep a eye on them...not to mention checking out their past inventory. 
Method acquired:  Netgalley

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Finally! Economics made interesting.

Lost Foundations

By Rand McGreal

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

My Dinner with Andre with economists.

Does anyone remember the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre? It was a surprise hit about two men talking over dinner. That was it. But it was utterly fascinating with the two men discussing slightly alternating views on life.

Rand McGreal uses a similar but ultimately fundamentally different conceit to espouse his views of economics. In this fictional essay that is presumably meant to introduce the economic theories of Richard Cantillon to the layman, McGreal is at an impasse on his book about the 18th century economist. While he is sitting in a Seattle restaurant, he is greeted by what appears to be an eccentric homeless person who confidentially has the same name as the economist. But eventually McGreal comes to believe it is the same person and they have a discussion about economics and the financial state of our modern society. Unlike My Dinner with Andre, McGreal and Cantillon are soon walking around Seattle and McGreal is taking as much delight in introducing Cantillon to 21st century America as Cantillon is having correcting McGreal interpretations of his ideas.

In the preface, McGreal warns the reader to "do not judge the book by the vehicle of communication, but the ideas you meet." Well, I'm a book reviewer, not an economist. So the quality of the communication is an essential if not over-riding part of my judgement. But McGreal need not worry for he is an excellent communicator taking ideas that may seem dry to some readers and presenting them in an entertaining way. If McGreal's goal is to popularize the theories of Cantillon, he appears to have a good start. I found this short book very easy to read despite its topic and had a few smiles along the way.

Yet it is clear that the author wishes to persuade too. The economic theories of Cantillon, and of the author's, state that wealth is a product of entrepreneurs not the government. He decries the Keynesian position that government spending and regulation of interest rates will ever produce productivity and relieve us from our financial dilemma. There's a lot more but I think I presented a simple summary well enough. I think it is safe to say the author takes a relatively Libertarian stance on the role of government in free enterprise.

As I said, I'm not an economist. My university background was in Sociology which I would say has an uncomfortable relationship with economics. Most social scientists feel that Economists spend to much attention to abstract numbers rather than to the twists and turns of human nature and social patterns. I'm also sure most economists would disagree with this. Back in the late 70s, a finance analyst friend who was quite knowledgeable in economics told me I knew nothing about the field. He was probably right. But since he also told me that simultaneous high inflation and high unemployment was an impossibility a few months before the nation became entrenched in the simultaneous rise in inflation and unemployment made me wonder about his own knowledge. Of course, I do not hold that against the author. I'm just stating I take economic truths with a grain of salt just as I do other soft sciences including sociology and psychology. I would wonder aloud to Mr McGreal and ghostly Cantillon whether their viewpoint of entrepreneurship, which makes sense to me up to a certain point, still hold when those bastions of free enterprise become multi-national corporations that operate as a government unto themselves. Can it be said that massive corporations primarily produce wealth through products rather than having the only goal of increasing wreath (meaning money in this case) for their constituents in any way, shape or form?

But I digress a bit and I do reveal my own bias which is perfectly fine. The main point is that McGreal writes a fully delightful romp that expresses his views with clarity and insight without being dull. Not only that, but he also gives this admittedly Keynes (and Krugman) biased layman a lot to think about. If you have the slightest interest in economics and the financial state of the world, this is essential reading. Even if you don't, it is worth a try. The ending leaves open the possibility of other dialogues with historical figures in economics and I welcome such endeavors.

One more thing I learned. When in Seattle, hunt down the first Starbucks and look for those Minimus/Maximus food trucks!

Method acquired:  Goodreads Firstreads