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A. Ross (Washington, DC)
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Spit and Passion (Blindspot Graphics)
Spit and Passion (Blindspot Graphics)
by Cristy C. Road
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.47

4.0 out of 5 stars Bold and Graphic Memoir Highly Recommended for Outsiders, 22 May 2014
I've always known Cristy Road to be a multidimensional artist, playing in bands, writing and publishing zines, and producing amazing artwork. I even commissioned her to do the cover of a one-issue zine I did years ago. However, other than knowing she's a bit of an icon in the queer punk community, and must be a big Green Day fan based on her nom de plume, I didn't really know anything about her. This short-but-striking memoir of her life at ages 11-13 chronicles not only her home and school life, but her raging inner turmoil as she tries to work out her identity.

It's a classic story of a kid from a loving, but somewhat repressive cultural context -- she grew up in a Cuban-American family in Florida with traditional Catholic attitudes toward homosexuality. School life is no better, as the misery of middle school in the early 1990s (cruel girls, idiotic boys, hormones everywhere) is further complicated by her inner sense of being different. Like so many alienated kids, Road finds consolation and connection in music -- in her case, the pop-punk of a Green Day tape loaned to her by another outsider at school.

As someone who both also found connection through punk (in my case The Clash), and bought Green Day's debut EP, 1,000 Hours, when I was still in high school in 1989, I can completely understand the depth of her passion for her new discovery. So, even though I'm a middle-aged straight white guy and didn't face her agonies about sexual identity and otherness, her memoir still strikes a chord. And of course, her trademark illustrations and text is amazing as always. She's got such a bold, confident and distinctive style -- here sometimes deployed in ways that are more imaginative and grotesque than usual. Highly recommended for teens and tweens everywhere who don't feel like they belong.


The Gods of Guilt (Mickey Haller 5)
The Gods of Guilt (Mickey Haller 5)
by Michael Connelly
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.90

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Weakest in the Series, 22 May 2014
For legal razzle-dazzle crime novels, the Mickey Haller series is hard to beat. I loved The Lincoln Lawyer and have been on board for the rest of the series, but this fifth entry left a little something to be desired. In it, Haller is hired by a scrawny man accused of killing a prostitute. It seems he was a kind of quasi-pimp to her -- he set up her web presence as an escort, managed her bookings, and took a cut of her fee. Soon enough, though, Haller has identified another suspect and managed to tie this murder into a whole series past events, including the framing on a mid-level cartel member.

More so than in past books in the series, the story really becomes a detective tale, as Haller and his investigator trawl these past cases for connections, and a legal basis to tie what they find in the past to the current defense case. Meanwhile, he also works on trying to salvage his relationship with his daughter and starts up a new romance with a yoga instructor.

Connelly's strength is not his writing, its his plotting. For some reason, it's not enough for him to lay out situations so that the reader can very easily infer why people do or say things, Time and again in this book, he has to stop and take a sentence to spell out each and every motivation, as if it hadn't been made obvious in the preceding paragraphs. It's kind of insulting to his readers and I'm surprised his editor didn't go through and fix these.

But as complex as the plot is in this case, Haller's success hinges almost entirely on his tricking the villains into doing something very stupid which he gets on camera. It's awfully hard to buy that these guys would take such a large risk over something that, even if brought forward, wouldn't have won the day for Haller. I dunno, maybe I need to go back and reread that section, because it just didn't seem that plausible. One other plot point that was problematic for me is that the case against Haller's client is at least partially built on his having an argument with the dead prostitute about getting his share of the money. It seems like someone savvy enough to build nice online sites would be able to figure out a simple way to do all the payments electronically so that the services being purchased are cloaked.

Issues with the writing and plotting aside, it was generally pretty enjoyable, and fans of series will get their Haller dose.


SCIENCE FICTION 101 BEST NOVELS
SCIENCE FICTION 101 BEST NOVELS
by D BRODERICK
Edition: Paperback
Price: 10.37

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Good to Dip Into, 11 May 2014
Conceived of as a sequel to David Pringle's Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels - 1949-1984, this book serves as a genre menu of some of the tastiest morsels of the last 25 years. I don't consider myself to be much of a science-fiction reader, maybe a handful of titles a year, but I was surprised to see that I have read 12 of the 101 titles in the book. As with all such "Best" lists, I'm sure there is plenty of debate to be had about those that are on the list and those that aren't -- but I have zero qualifications to weigh in on that angle.

Presented chronologically by publication date, each book is given a two or three page critical appraisal, positioning it and its author within the context of earlier writers and themes within science fiction. This can sometimes get a little highbrow, with references to Lacan, Freud, Jung, Marx, Jameson, and other thinkers and theorists (surprisingly, Barthes and Derrida are MIA). There are also plot summaries, many of which can stray deep into spoiler territory -- so beware.

I can't say that I've earmarked very many of the selections to go find and read (so far, the two I have are Richard Calder's Dead Girls, Mary Rosenblum's Chimera, and Michael Faber's Under the Skin), but it is proving to be a good way to acquaint myself with a number of books and authors I've heard of, but know nothing about. Recommended for casual science-fiction readers like myself, looking for an overview of contemporary science fiction.

Note: The book has one huge flaw, which is that the type is minuscule, either 6 or 7 point I believe. It doesn't matter how old you are or what your eyesight is, this is inexcusable design and typesetting.


Chop Chop
Chop Chop
by Simon Wroe
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 10.39

1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Foreshadowing Robs Kitchen Caper Narrative of Tension, 11 May 2014
This review is from: Chop Chop (Hardcover)
Having just finished a light restaurant novel I really enjoyed (Bread and Butter), I thought I'd pick this one up, as it looked to be a wilder and funnier take on the world of fine food preparation. The story is narrated by "Monocole", a sad sack of an Englishman who's just graduated from a middling university with a middling English lit degree and zero life skills. He's moved to the big city (London), with the aimless romantic notion that he'll make something of himself, but more importantly, escape the suffocating family home and his parents disintegrating marriage.

He accidentally lands a job as the lowest of the low in the kitchen of "The Swan" a middling restaurant in Camden. The first third of the book is a kind of typical fish out of water introduction to the wild world of kitchens, including characters such as Racist Dave, The Dark-Eyed Girl, the ebullient Ramilov, and the hateful boss, Bob. Cue wild antics and huge learning curve. The, just as he's settled in and gotten marginally comfortable in his new job, along comes his deadbeat father, cadging a place to sleep and spending money.

The first-person narration is a bit heavy on both the foreshadowing that something epicly awful will transpire to land someone in jail, and on flashbacks to his older brother's death when they were children. The former revolves around a corpulent gangster (The Fat Man) who apparently has mysterious blackmail info on almost every other character in the book. The latter resurfaces periodically in somewhat heavy-handed fashion.

The book is dark, often funny -- if only mildly for the most part (there's a particularly good running gag involving collective nouns), and generally clips along at a good pace. However, it's hard to be enthusiastic about a story that has such a gormless protagonist and is so intent on removing narrative tension by foreshadowing. In the end, I found myself pondering if it might work better as an indie film.


Hideout
Hideout
by Kathleen George
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars Solid Police Procedural with Strong Female Characters, 11 May 2014
This review is from: Hideout (Paperback)
This second of a police procedural series featuring Pittsburgh Homicide Detective Colleen Greer revolves around two homeless brothers who kill a woman in a hit-and-run while driving whacked out of their skulls on drugs. They drive on and lay low at a summer cabin a few hours away, however, the older and more wilder of the two has a dim view of what it means to hide out, and soon digs him and his brother a much deeper hole as he gets drunk, courts trouble, and the owner of the cabin shows up.

There's actually not too much to the plot, as Det. Greer takes the lead and others join in, as they race to find the boys based on only the slimmest of leads. The fraught fraternal relationship gives the book a little depth as the "good" younger one struggles to escape the psychological hold his bullying older brother has on him. As in the previous book (The Odds), the police process is clearly laid out, and the dots connect satisfyingly. Since most of the story takes place at a lake two hours from Pittsburgh, there's some interesting cross-jurisdictional details involved.

One of the main subplots involves another lakeside resident, a spirited and sharp 83-year-old woman living on her own. Between her and Greer, the book is definitely recommended for those that like police procedurals with strong non-cartoonish female leads and psychological insights that aren't too heavy-handed.


The Adjacent
The Adjacent
by Christopher Priest
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

3.0 out of 5 stars An Oddly Compelling, Yet Unsatisfying Love Story, 11 May 2014
This review is from: The Adjacent (Paperback)
If you're like me and like your narratives to be mostly resolved by the end of the movie/book/story, then you might want to skip this otherwise excellent and intriguing book. I don't mind some ambiguity, but this was a case where I was definitely expecting some kind of "aha!" reveal moment that never came. Which is not to say that I regret reading the 3/4 of it I loved, but over the last 100 pages the book took it from a best of the year contender to an interesting item I'm happy to donate to the library book sale.

The story opens in a vividly rendered near-future Great Britain, or rather, Islamic Republic of Great Britain, circa 2040 or thereabouts. Global climate change subjects the island to major hurricanes, and an unspecified insurgency subjects the island (and much of the world) to political instability. None of this is spelled out in any detailed way, which I loved. Other authors would have gotten sidetracked for 50 pages establishing the details and background of this setting. Instead, we meet a photojournalist just returned from Turkey, where his wife was killed in a mysterious bomb attack. As he's shuttled around the IRGB to a series of safe sites for debriefing, things get more askew.

Suddenly, in the next section we're with a stage magician traveling to the front in World War I, where he's been asked to try and help camouflage airplanes while they're flying. Along the way, he meets and has extensive interactions with H.G. Wells. Cut to the next section, where we're in WWII, meeting an English bomber mechanic and a refugee female Polish aviator. These characters, places, times, and relationships are all clearly related, but just how is left murky. There's some kind of weapon or something that may or may not act like a mini Bermuda Triangle, removing people to alternate realities or parallel quantum worlds. The themes of what is real and what is illusion and what the nature of either is, runs deep and strong through the story.

In the final quarter of the book, we find ourselves on an island that's apparently part of a chain of islands detailed in some of Priest's other books, such as The Islands and Dream Archipelago (neither of which I've read), where characters and plotlines start to collide more directly. I read eagerly along, waiting for Priest to pull everything together with a twist of the wrist, like one of his beloved magicians conjuring the beautiful woman from thin air. And in a sense he does do this in a literal sense, but one is left scratching one's head at the end -- rather like the characters in the book -- wondering what we just experienced.


On Leave
On Leave
by Daniel Anselme
Edition: Hardcover

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Timeless Antiwar Themes Propel This Ragged 1950s French Book, 11 May 2014
This review is from: On Leave (Hardcover)
Written in 1956, this novel about three French conscripts on leave from the "police action" in Algeria, sank without much of a trace following its original publication in 1957. Its appearance in the early years of what was to be an extremely bloody and costly war for control of Algeria was an unwelcome poke in the eye of French citizens, who only shortly after being routed from Vietnam, probably weren't too keen to hear voices dissenting from the fight to retain their largest and most important overseas territory. The translator's introduction does an excellent job of providing this necessary context for the reader.

The book itself lurches around in despair as the three men vacillate between trying to have a good time in Paris and the fury and frustration of being conscripts in a war that no one seems to notice back home. American readers will, no doubt, find striking parallels, not only to our Vietnam experience, but also the present day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the former was a conscript situation, and the latter ostensibly with volunteer forces, it's hard not to see an element of economic conscription in the modern US forces. In any event, the cries of the three soldiers of this book -- that their youth is being squandered, and that they don't know what their fighting for, and no one can understand what they are going through, and there's no end in sight -- all resonate as just as clearly some 55 years later.

As fiction with an urgent message, it works, however the style is ragged and staccato. There are some great set scenes here and there (most notably, a very uncomfortable family meal), but its too fragmentary for my taste. There's a blend of some aspects of existentialist themes with the jazzy looseness of the New Wave cinema that was bubbling up just at the time the novel was published. Probably mainly of interest to readers of French literature and those with an interest in fiction with a political stance.


The Age of Miracles
The Age of Miracles
by Karen Thompson Walker
Edition: Paperback
Price: 3.85

3.0 out of 5 stars Well Written but Familiar Teen Themes, 11 May 2014
This review is from: The Age of Miracles (Paperback)
I read this in two sittings when it first came out, enjoying it while reading, and then promptly forgetting it. I decided to listen to the audiobook version to try and recall both why it had held my attention and why it didn't linger. The answer to the former is a combination of the story's simple but strong premise, and Walker's writing. The answer to the latter is probably the overall tone or genre that it seems to fall into by the end.

The book is narrated by Julia, an adolescent girl living an unremarkable life in a cookie-cutter Southern California suburb. However, when the Earth's rotation slows down and creates days of variable length, her world is tossed into turmoil. It's a very simple tweak to our world, but one with severe consequences to health, food supply, electricity, and most importantly, relationships.

While the practical consequences of this are certainly interesting to think about, it's when tackling the relationships that the book really shines. Julia's parents don't have the strongest marriage, and the schism between "real time" and "clock time" people threatens to destroy all sense of community. While the social implications of this can get a touch heavy-handed (it can feel a little too much like an old Twilight Zone parable at times), when it comes to observing the one-to-one interactions between people, the book is spot on.

However, behind the bells and whistles of social upheaval, this is ultimately a fairly straightforward teen or tween book about the pains of being an adolescent. I never read Judy Blume, but it's what I image Judy Blume to be like. There are the popular girls at school who ignore Julia, there is the childhood best friend who suddenly drops her, her parents disappoint her in certain ways, and, of course, a love interest with a nice boy -- there's even a scene involving an awkward bra purchase. No matter how good a touch a writer has with this material, it's too familiar, and without the backdrop of this environmental disaster, it just wouldn't be very compelling.


A Confederacy of Dunces (Penguin Modern Classics)
A Confederacy of Dunces (Penguin Modern Classics)
by John Kennedy Toole
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Bludgeoned, 20 April 2014
This is one of those great American novels I've known the title of for 20+ years, but never known anything about other than it won the Pulitzer, and some people love it, and it's supposed to be funny. I had no idea of the whole strange backstory of its author and route to publication (which is apparently well detailed in Butterfly in the Typewriter). When looking for a new audiobook to listen to, I thought I'd give it a whirl to see what the fuss is about.

About the best thing I can say about it is that there is some striking language. Beyond that, well, it's just not my cup of tea. Written in the mid-1960s, the book sets out to be a kind of larger-than-life social satire. It's set in New Orleans and features as protagonist, Ignatius Riley, an obese, unemployed 30-year-old with zero social skills, who still lives at home with his mother. I guess he's meant as a parody of a certain type of overeducated layabout who masks their selfishness with a kind of aggressively strident victimhood. Riley's in the vein of Falstaff or Quixote, acting as a chaotic catalyst on those who come into his orbit -- but painted in very broad and loud tones, lacking any subtlety or nuance. In other words, a little bit goes a long way.

And I suppose that's the main flaw in the book for me -- Riley's misadventures are certainly very colorful, but his approach to them gets old quick. Similarly, each and every character is equally over the top and cartoonish, so there's not really any room for contrast. It's kind of the same reaction I had to Marx Brothers films -- I can appreciate individual moments in isolation, but seeing them all together for an extended period makes me feel bludgeoned. I did end up listening to the entire thing to see if the series of episodes ever led to anything (the book ends appropriately, but inconclusively)


Deadwood
Deadwood
by Pete Dexter
Edition: Paperback

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Down and Out in North Dakota, 20 April 2014
This review is from: Deadwood (Paperback)
Like, I presume, a lot of people -- I came to this book decades after it was written, as a fan of the HBO TV series of the same name. I'm also a casual fan of well-written westerns with original voices (my two favorite being True Grit and Butcher's Crossing), and I knew Dexter's reputation for creating memorable characters. Yes, I know Jonathan Franzen says we should not regard the book as a "Western," but it's a work of historical fiction about the American West, so I'm inclined to ignore Franzen's words as the protestations of an anti-genre snob who needs to justify enjoying so-called "low" literature to himself.

Anyway -- set mainly in 1876, the book comes in four parts, starting with 150 pages titled "Bill", followed by 80 titled "China Doll", 70 titled "Agnes", 55 titled "Jane", with a brief coda in 1912. Although the celebrity hook is the tale of the final months of "Will Bill" Hickcock, that's more or less just an entry point for an elliptical exploration of characters and themes of the frontier life, mostly narrated via Bill's boon companion, Charley Utter. Charley is an observer of life who manages to combine both deep insight and empathy with measures of total incomprehension and separateness.

The book is less about plot and action that it is about the relationships that propel action, and there are plenty of interesting pairings. The "China Doll" section spends time visiting the Chinese part of town, and exploring the placid Solomon's desire for a beautiful Chinese prostitute, the consequences of which only fully resonate near the very end of the book. Calamity Jane is a figure of chaos and disgust until a smallpox epidemic visits town and she recasts herself as healer.

There's thread after thread, character after character, to draw the reader into this foreign land, and Dexter's language is sometimes deadpan, sometimes bleak, sometimes violent, sometimes darkly funny, as he moves between the people. By the end, one is somewhat exhausted by the richness and ripeness of the writing, and you are left less with the feeling of having read a story than the imprint of having looked long and hard upon a painting of an exotic landscape.


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