Archive for the ‘What’s New’ Category

Review: The Unexpected President

Sunday, December 10th, 2017

I admit an unhealthy affinity for Chester A. Arthur and his presidency.  To me, he is the epitome of a man who rose from corrupt beginnings to grow into decency when thrust into the office.   The Unexpected President is Scott Greenberger’s biography of Arthur.

Greenberger tells the story in a solid, scholarly, readable way.  He describes the man and the times clearly and gives the reader the space to draw their own conclusions.  Or paint one’s own picture, I assume.


Review: Killing Gravity

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

That darn Warren Ellis points me to books.  He pointed me to Corey White’s Killing Gravity with the words “space witch!”

That may not be enough for you.  Killing Gravity is a short, fast paced, space opera thriller.  There are several sparkling bits of prose in there, though it feels a bit like a video game movie.  It is smooth and snappy with its pleasures.  Quite enjoyable.

Recommended.  And the main character is a space witch.

Review: The Ark

Saturday, November 18th, 2017

I do enjoy me the occasional potboilerThe Ark falls squarely in that topic.  It is Boyd Morrison’s tale of a two-fisted engineer and his beautiful archaeologist partner saving the world from a megachurch-founding Bond villain while racing to discover the secret behind Noah’s Ark.  In some sense there’s nothing more to say.

I’ll say a little more.

I found this because I met the author’s sister a few times.  That probably colors my review favorably, but I hope not too much.

It’s a very well written, tightly plotted thriller.  The plot’s intricate and zippy.  This is a fun book to read on a plane or generally while the time away with. A snappy plot is harder to execute than many people think.  There’s got to be enough intricacy to keep the reader interested and belief suspended without getting bogged down in excessive description or exposition.  Morrison roars down that fine line like it’s a wide boulevard.  He’s clearly mastered this and enjoying it; his delight is infectious.

Don’t expect great literature, but it is great fun.


Review: Parable of the Sower

Sunday, November 5th, 2017

When I was reading SF in my younger days, I tended to stick to hard SF and Space Opera. Those have their pleasures, and expand one’s thinking in some interesting ways – though often in what’s missing than what’s there, I’ve been gravitating toward more literary SF of late. The freedom to speculate seems even more powerful to me when meshed with a fresh contemporary point of view.  Dhalgren and and the like (if there is anything like Dhalgren) have been greatly invigorating.

Octavia Butler came to my attention via the brilliant KPCC show Off-Ramp.  After hearing her praises from such a trusted source I had to read something and I picked Parable of the Sower. It lived up to any hype.

Parable is set in a near-future collapsing America well on its way to dystopia.  Butler brings a keen eye for how real communities and people behave to this world. The collapse is not with a bang, but a progression.  Individual neighborhoods and suburbs hold on to different degrees, but they are being slowly consumed by the larger collapse.  One can see the frog boiling, but it’s also clear why the people in the world don’t.  And why we probably wouldn’t. People’s powerful cocktails of  experience, continuity, and hope will leave them in various positions of denial.

Importantly, Butler breathes life into both communities being overrun by mobs and the mobs doing the overrunning.  Every one is believable and to some extent sympathetic.  It is difficult to imagine walking a mile in even the worst mob member and condemn them.  Having seen this, many other fictional societal collapses feel contrived.

At the core of Parable is a young woman who perceives the danger and also takes inspiration from some bits of the collapsing society.  She’s a slowly forming charismatic leader motivated to form a community to carry a form of civilization forward.  Again, one believes who she is, even as the question of who in the world might follow her, and if that’s a good idea remains profoundly open.

The idea of community is central to Parable. Butler depicts the collapsing communities – from nation through neighborhood to family – with compassion and power. It seems to me that she also believes that humans will always form communities, and so she shows us the evolving tribes and the sorts of connections that form them.  It is a virtuoso performance with much to learn from and consider about it.

By the way, her writing is quite brilliant taken sentence-by-sentence and chapter-by-chapter.

Strongly recommended.

Review: Furiously Happy

Saturday, October 28th, 2017

Furiously Happy is Jenny Lawson’s second non-coloring-book. As with her previous work, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, its blog origins are clear in its episodic structure and topical range.  I intend that as a compliment.  Her blog is very popular for many good reasons.

The reasons I find most compelling are Lawson’s charming and effective writing style and bravery in deploying it to share her experiences with mental illness.  Her style is crisp and filled with surprising turns of phrase.  When she is describing a daffy situation or a comical argument, the style carries the reader along as a sprightly passenger – sort of a less repetitive trip through It’s A Small World. When the waters get deeper, her tone keeps readers hopeful and engaged.

And the waters do get deep.  Lawson is bold and unflinching in describing her illness. Mental illness has a stigma.  Even someone who appears to have not only a normal but an extraordinary life, as Lawson does, bears the brunt of that.  She has a powerful capacity to both make the tribulations of her illness clear to those who know the problems in the abstract and to those who have never heard the clinical terms.  Her courage in truth-telling is key to pulling that off.

The work is all personal, and the tone is correspondingly manic.  While I recognize that as an aspect of sharing her illness by sharing her point of view, it does mean I had to step away from the book a few times and cool off.

Overall, strongly recommended.

Review: Bitch Doctrine

Saturday, October 21st, 2017

Bitch Doctrine is Laurie Penny’s follow-up to Unspeakable Things, and it has all of the praiseworthy features of that work.  For all of those reasons, it is worth reading.  If nothing else, her comments on the 2016 election are a draw, though she did not include her reluctant and powerful endorsement of Clinton:

Any government leader must be considered an enemy to those who believe in radical change. Hillary Clinton is not yet that enemy but by damn. I hope she gets to be. Hillary Clinton is the sort of enemy I’ve been dreaming of over ten years of political work. She’s the kind of enemy you can respect. I look forward to fighting her on her commitment to climate protection, on workers’ rights, on welfare, on foreign policy. Bring that shit on.

Doctrine has significant structures and bones from Penny’s regular writing gig on the New Statesman (from which I took the quote above) and other places.  Because I follow her writing and social media presence, I’ve seen many of those essays.  My familiarity with them does not dilute their persuasiveness, but does rob some of the more impressive turns of phrase of their surprise.

Her work remains brilliantly composed and thought provoking.  She persuades with remarkable compassion, passion, and eloquence.  And recognizes that people will always disagree.

I found Unspeakable Things to be extremely powerful, but I think a reader can start with Doctrine as well.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: All the Dirty Parts

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Hey, it’s a Daniel Handler book.  This time Handler has metaphorically thumbed through one of his young adult romances and printed all the pages that my horny 17-year-old-self would have memorized the page numbers of.  The trick is that he’s printed only those parts.

His protagonist is a young man (Cole) in the waning years of his high school career who – to be purple about it – is often consumed by passion.  He sleeps around a lot and finds many people willing to do so with him.  Handler inflicts the usual punishment on him: he falls in love. Arguably twice, but not in a Sweet Valley High kind of way.

Handler evokes the witches brew of feelings that love and sex inflame in people in ways that hammer your chest and mist your eyes with a few words.  Cole is real because he’s foolish, wise, callous, and slowly changed.  Watching Handler put him through his paces is intellectually a writing master class and emotionally a fantastic trip.

The trick of doing this by only “turning on the camera” for the dirty parts kept me engaged throughout.  There’s no question about Cole’s unreliability, but trying to piece together missing facts, his deliberate self-deception and his youthful mistakes is a huge chunk of the fun.  That the reader only sees Cole when he’s foaming at the mouth only improves it.

Strongly Recommended.

Review: Enemies

Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Tim Weiner’s Enemies scratched my itch for a well-researched and clear history of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  An unbiased history of such an inflammatory institution is unrealistic, but Weiner does a solid job maintaining a scholarly demeanor as he chronicles the evolution of the institution.

Depending on the context and the audience, the FBI may be a political spy agency, an elite law-enforcement and anti-terrorism unit, a bumbling group of copy trying to learn intelligence work, key federal support in important criminal cases, and a few more things.  Weiner wisely does not lock himself to a perspective or summation of the agency but has clearly dug into the time line of an institution that protects its secrets.  His scholarship includes interviews, documents and the usual broad bases that journalists use in prying these institutions open.

His even handed reportage does not mean he hides embarrassing information or that he makes excuses for the Bureau.  The illegal wiretaps and black bag jobs are all clearly on display and so are the remarkable successes at infiltration and enforcement. While one can guess at Weiner’s sympathies, this reader always had the impression that he was sticking to the facts as much as possible.  The effect is a bit like Jack Webb without the camp factor.

Overall, a remarkably well-executed and comprehensive history.  Strongly Recommended.

Review: The Mark of Zorro

Saturday, September 16th, 2017

Given my love of serial fiction – especially comics – it may be surprising that I’ve never sat down and read the original Zorro story.  This is the 1924 The Mark of Zorro, a version of the serialized Curse of Capistrano story from Johnston McCulley, and it is a ripsnorter.  McCulley is a pseudonym who created many such mystery men.  It is easy to see why Zorro is the most famous.

Like the Sharpe‘s Rifles books, there is not too much to say about Zorro, except that it is a brilliantly written page turner.  Check it out sometime.


Review: Rootabaga Stories

Friday, September 15th, 2017

I heard of Rootabaga Stories from Robert Charles Wilson’s strong story “Fireborn” in Mashup, which is based on a line from one. Carl Sandburg wrote the collection for his children and subsequently published them.  The stories are Sandburg’s conception of what American fairy tales should be.  One of the first salient points Sandburg addresses is to underline the class mobility and fairness that are part of the American mythos by removing references to royalty.  It is pretty telling that these are hardly recognizable as fairy tales without kings and princesses.

Sandburg builds a world of echoes from his beloved American midwest that holds wide open expanses, robust cities, and mighty trains that connect them.  Typing that, it strikes me how well that reflects the structure of Grimm’s milieu with respect to Europe’s idealized past.  America’s idealized past is one of great plains compared to Europe’s dark forests.  Democratic cities form instead of serf-built castles.  Names are foggy echoes of what Americans imagine First Nations names to sound like, cross bred with Midwestern slang rather than Olde-Time-y European sounds.  Again, this shows the structure of Sandburg’s project.

Story to story Sandburg keeps enough consistency to solidify the world without being a slave to it. The result is a grounded Oz, if that makes any sense.  It is a remarkable and quirky example of world-building.  It’s easy to see why Wilson was inspired by it.

As befits an icon of American poetry, the language of these stories is unique and powerful.  The phrasing of his descriptions are singular without being self-consciously poetic. They stand alone without being obviously from Sandburg while on reflection they clearly bear his stamp.  Even if one finds the contents of the stories contrived or twee – which I don’t, but understand – Sandburg’s language rings.