Friday, August 18, 2017

WHO FEARS DEATH, a post-apocalyptic shapeshifter's survival tale

Nnedi Okorafor

DAW Books
$24.95 hardcover, available now

4* of five

The Publisher Says: An award-winning literary author presents her first foray into supernatural fantasy with a novel of post- apocalyptic Africa. 

In a far future, post-nuclear-holocaust Africa, genocide plagues one region. The aggressors, the Nuru, have decided to follow the Great Book and exterminate the Okeke. But when the only surviving member of a slain Okeke village is brutally raped, she manages to escape, wandering farther into the desert. She gives birth to a baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand and instinctively knows that her daughter is different. She names her daughter Onyesonwu, which means "Who Fears Death?" in an ancient African tongue.

Reared under the tutelage of a mysterious and traditional shaman, Onyesonwu discovers her magical destiny-to end the genocide of her people. The journey to fulfill her destiny will force her to grapple with nature, tradition, history, true love, the spiritual mysteries of her culture-and eventually death itself.


My Review: Who fears Death? I suppose most living things fear death. Onyesonwu, our title character, is the product of a genesis no one should have to carry with them: She is a child of rape, a product of brutality that should have made her mother hate her. Instead, her mother names her “who fears death” and never from that moment on, despite the both of them being outcast and made into The Other, never fears anything again.

I had a very hard time with this book, wanting to Pearl Rule it on average three times per reading session. I did in fact abandon it when a major major major anti-man hot button issue occurred near the end. But this is what earns the book four stars from me: I could not not read the rest. I had to know why what happened, happened.

Am I happy I read it? Not really. It was harrowing for me. I don't like man-bad-woman-good books. There are two unforgivable things in my moral universe: Abusing animals and rape. I'm no fan of supernatural/magjicqkal stuff (Onye's a shapeshifter). What on the surface of the earth persuaded me to read this thing?! I mean, it's even praised by Luis Alberto Urrea forevermore! I shoulda stood home, as the saying goes.

But Dr. Okorafor is a sorceress. She cast a spell on me. She reached out from inside this book and she made sure my brain needed to know this, and needed it so much I'd overcome my prejudices and make it part of my mental furniture.

I will step on her foot if I ever meet the Doctor in person.

She set the book in a post-nuclear-holocaust Africa! I love postapocalyptic fiction! How am I gonna resist that? And she made explicit a disdain for the rotten, evil-souled uses of religion in oppressing and abusing people of all types. I think I purred. I know I smiled.

It's also a joy and a pleasure to me to see women, and women of color, and women of immigrant parentage, enter the lists of American English-language speculative fiction. It makes me feel that this world has a shot at survival after all. Writers are not ignored because of their bodily plumbing or skin color or weird names. (Sorry, but I'm still an old white man, and this lady's name is really seriously weird to me.) This is the world I grew up wanting to live in, and now I get to...for a while anyway...and that, more than any other factor, made me stick with the book long past my usual stop.

Should you read it? Should you turn page after page of non-European-named characters, landscapes bursting with heat and searing miseries of spirit, heroes whose lives are blighted by origins beyond their control?


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

DAWN, first volume of Octavia E. Butler's amazing Xenogenesis trilogy

(Xenogenesis #1)
Open Road Media
$6.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Lilith Iyapo has just lost her husband and son when atomic fire consumes Earth—the last stage of the planet’s final war. Hundreds of years later Lilith awakes, deep in the hold of a massive alien spacecraft piloted by the Oankali—who arrived just in time to save humanity from extinction. They have kept Lilith and other survivors asleep for centuries, as they learned whatever they could about Earth. Now it is time for Lilith to lead them back to her home world, but life among the Oankali on the newly resettled planet will be nothing like it was before.

The Oankali survive by genetically merging with primitive civilizations—whether their new hosts like it or not. For the first time since the nuclear holocaust, Earth will be inhabited. Grass will grow, animals will run, and people will learn to survive the planet’s untamed wilderness. But their children will not be human. Not exactly.

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Octavia E. Butler including rare images from the author’s estate.

Don't forget that, in this troubled passage in US and world history, the present Golden Age of Sci Fi on Screen will gift us with the first-ever adaptation of a Butler novel, this one, by no less a new voice than Ava DuVernay. She is the talent behind the good-buzzed adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time!

My Review: I left publicly viewable notes from my Kindle reading on Goodreads. I think those are enough of a review of the specifics of the writing in this book. They're tied to passages I found important and so will, I hope, make the aesthetic points as to why I think you should read this book.

What I comment on now is the why of reading SF, fiction by women, fiction by people of color (a phrase I'm no more comfortable with than the "colored people" of my vanished youth), SF by women of color...reading and absorbing and thinking about the ideas given to you, amazingly freely and trustingly, by people you aren't like and maybe even people you don't like.

I think you should read these astounding gifts of personal creativity because they offer a close look into the ideas that someone unlike you finds important. If you don't learn what people unlike you find important, you run the risk of being caught in a labyrinth of dark sameness, a place where you don't need light because you know the contents of your environment so well already that there's no read need to take a good look at them.

And that is how we got to the point where we are as a country, here in the US as well as in the UK, and a culture, both in the West and the East. No one listens. We wait for our turn to talk without engaging our brains to process what our ears are hearing. And that's only if we're polite.

Open up a little by reading Butler's tale of the Oankali changing earthlings' genetics to improve their health and well-being. In the wake of a species-ending nuclear war, the earthlings aren't grateful to the Oankali for rescue, they're angry that they had no choice, no say, no chance to refuse being saved if it meant being used and manipulated for and by the Oankali.

Butler put her finger squarely on the conflict: The earthlings were given no choice. They were unquestionably manipulated before they were given any chance to comment on these things. They had also just blown their entire planet into an extinction event. Did they deserve a say? Butler gives Lilith the words to complain about the earthlings' treatment and the Oankali to explain but not apologize the whys of it.

In my never-humble opinion, a species that blew its home into an extinction event over stupid crap doesn't need any consultation to be offered, still less consent to be sought. Be damned good and grateful these interstellar gene machines arrived in time to do squat for you, which they didn't have to do at all. Given their culture's immense experience with and commodification of gene manipulation, they could simply have paused, grabbed some material (aka survivors of the holocaust) and used them before disposing of them.

The Oankali's ethics are superior to the earthlings', and they didn't do that. They set about repairing the damaged earth and improving the damned earthlings who caused the problem in the first place, while making every effort to understand and support them along the way.

A lot like animal researchers are doing today among cetaceans and great apes.

Oh my.

Don't like having done to us what we so blithely do to others, do we? And yet it's perfectly justified...the changes are being made for the earthlings' future benefit, after all.

After the weekend of 10 August when neo-Nazi and "alt-right" hate machines burst their closet doors of simply screaming at normal, decent people at last and began the hot war portion of their Civil War against goodness, kindness, and decency, reading a book like Dawn is an excellent primer in how this horror got started: A decent and perfectly reasonable human gets all bent out of shape and even decides she'd prefer to die rather than have her tiny little patch of personal control violated despite the certainty that she is and will continue to be better off for it.

I was never sanguine about human nature. I'm not turning any corners in that regard now. But I can see a tiny thread visible in the labyrinth: Read. Read the stuff that isn't just like you like the world to be. At least try that much, because it's no exaggeration to say your way of life is on the line. Try to hear what the Other is saying underneath the screams. We have to find the thread and follow it to our common source or we're headed the way of Butler's earthlings.

And I do not think there are any Oankali on the way to help us.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

IRREPARABLE HARM, in which a corporate attorney rediscovers her soul

(Sasha McCandless Thrillers #1)
Brown Street Books
Free on Kindle!

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: There's an app for everything. Even evil.

Attorney Sasha McCandless is closing in on the prize after eight long years: she's months away from being made partner at a prestigious law firm. All she has to do is keep her head down and her billable hours up.

Then a plane operated by her client slams into the side of a mountain, killing everyone aboard. Sasha gears up to prepare a defense to the inevitable civil lawsuits.

She quickly realizes the crash was no accident: a developer has created an application that can control a commercial plane's onboard computer from a smartphone. Now it's for sale to the highest bidder.

Sasha joins forces with a federal air marshal who's investigating the crash. As they race to prevent another airline disaster, people close to the matter start turning up dead. Sasha must rely on both her legal skills and her Krav Maga training to stop the madman before he kills her.

Sasha will need to rely on her legal training and her Krav Maga training in equal measure to find and stop a madman before he strikes again.

My Review: If you'd like to see how far Amazon has to go with its integration of Kindle highlighting into it title quotations, go look at this. Yikes.

Anyway, lookee here at me writing a review! And of a book I read on the Kindle, where if I'm lucky I get around half of what's going on! And follow that link to see just one of my mechanical issues with the Kindle as a note-taking device...I left three notes myownself, all carefully done, and they're only visible to people who bother to read them. Mine make sense, I promise, and I didn't leave dangly bits of sentences or anything. Why aren't they in the quotes? I could not tell you.

But back to why I'm reviewing a Kindle thriller: I think you should read it. I was engaged all the way through, even the parts where Author Miller walks me through the steps of a krav maga attack/defense, which she did several times when once would've been enough. Better yet, most of the time I was excited. Me! The cynical old "and how many times have I read *that* trope?" pursey-lipped nay-sayer! Excited! As in "can't you go up to the dining room for dinner, I'm reading" excited!

Why, you ask...and I'm glad you did because I was fixin' to tell y'all anyway...because Author Miller is a lawyer, and it shows, who *gets* that a legal case is a story with multiple main characters, a built-in motive for a crime, a cast of necessary characters already in place, and a plethora of available outcomes from one established set of facts.

Which is my attempt at tweaking her lawyerly nose with a dryly legalish presentation of the compliment that she followed the winding maze of legal hoo-hah without being predictable or, as I prefer to think of it, lazy. Writers who set the pattern for themselves and then just follow it write well-plotted but often...uninspiring...stories. It feels to me as though Melissa Miller tried to do that but was foiled in her attempt by the stroppiness of both Sasha and Naya, and the exasperated admiration of Judge Cook for Sasha was also (I suspect) a little bit of a surprise to Author Miller. I got the feeling Leo needed to catch up with Sasha a time or two when he was led by the outline to expect her *here* but she was *there*. These are good things. They show me the story was alive when it was published.

The parts of the story that left me the most contented were the usual suspects in a series mystery: ma'at is served, the bad are punished in a manner both swift and condign, and the events of the story leave the landscape intact but altered. This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first book published by Author Miller. It is the first in her series of ten thrillers starring Sasha.

And I suggest you think before you buy: The other titles are $4.99 each. You'll want them. I do, and am choosing which pennies to pinch so as to procure them next month.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

THE BALLAD OF BLACK TOM, a Cthulhu mythos delight

$3.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.

Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.

A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?

My Review: If I make a criticism of this wonderful story, it's the author's choice of the novella form to tell it.

My critique (meant to be a helpful form of criticism, the latter of which leaves no room for action or explanation) is (spoiler: that Charles Thomas turned into Black Tom offstage and in a convenient hurry, which is also:/spoiler) about the issues that in part arise from that choice of form.

Author La Valle's tasty new twist on the Cthulhu mythos is an example of later creators using the source material better than the original creator did. This story even nods to the man from Providence himself! I've left a wide swath of ten notes on highlights and they should all be read as part of this review.

I particularly admire Author La Valle's depth of characterization in the limited space of a novella. Otis, Thomas's father, in particular comes to more vivid life in his short time on the age than he would have in the weaker, less passionate grip of a lesser writer. The evocation of Red Hook's louche miasmic atmosphere was shivery good; the notion of Flatbush as countryside where cottages and even a run-down mansion could exist, and mentions of "rural Brooklyn," left me verschmeckeled but in that time were plain old facts.

And now for the truly, unspeakably, beyond-Lovecraftian terror contained in this work: AMC is making a TV series out of it in 2018.

Be very, very afraid.

Monday, August 7, 2017

THE ISLAND OF BOOKS, romantic historical escapism

(translated by Rhonda Mullins)
Coach House Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: The library at Mont Saint=Michel was once known as the city of books. It is there, within the grey walls of its monastery, that a portrait painter grieving the sudden death of the woman he loved finds refuge. And it's there, between the sea and the sky, five centuries later, that a novelist tries to find her words again. They meet in the pages of a notebook left out in the rain.

Like the manuscripts out bereaved—and illiterate—painter is asked to copy over earlier texts, The Island of Books reveals traces of a time before Gutenberg beneath its present. With all the passion and intellect we've come to expect from her, Dominique Fortier offers us a moving homage to books and to those who write them.


My Review:

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

MISSIONARY is my six-star read of 2017, deserves your paltry money and your eyeblinks


$3.99 electronic edition, available now

Rating: 6* of five

The Publisher Says: The Prophet provides everything for the Flock, demanding absolute devotion in return. Before allowing men to wed, they must serve Him, which they do willingly to get their brides. There’s only one little problem. When each man has multiple wives, there’s simply far too many boys.

Knowledge isn’t always power, but ignorance isn’t always bliss…

Jacob Wright’s questioning nature has always gotten him into trouble. The only book he has access to is The Word, but he thinks too deeply about the contents, far more than a devout boy should. When he’s called by the Prophet to serve a mission, Jacob believes his quest for answers has begun, only to discover the more he knows the less he believes.

Kerioth Marshal is an authoritarian, keeper of all knowledge past and present. His duty is to oversee the missionary center library, holding close the secrets of the Prophet. He’s accepted loneliness as part of his job, but then Jacob comes, offering him an escape from isolation. At first, Jacob’s inquisitive nature amuses and enchants him, but how long will it be before Jacob realizes Kerioth has saved him from one horrible fate only to subject him to another?

My Review: Where do I begin...first, this book was a complete surprise to me. Its existence was a surprise. Its subject matter was a surprise. Its imaginative universe was a gobsmacking surprise. So yeah, I was surprised.

Second, I would never have found the book had it not been for a Goodreads group called Gay Science Fiction. I'm coming out of a nasty reading slump and that makes me, to be frank, unwilling to translate from the heterosexual into my native tongue. I'm tired of reading about women who don't like their husbands, are abused by their fathers, etc etc etc. And the unbearable white heteronormative genre that SF has always been gets dreary too. I needed a resource to guide me past yet more gynergy or, worse still, misogyny. I found the group, I found the bookshelf and, best of all, I found one of the mods had posted about this title finally being available.

I read the synopsis above. Mmm...high stakes! Daddy/son relationship! A religious dystopia! Check, check, and check on my readerly desiderata list. A $3.99 gift card later, I settled in for a long summer's afternoon of getting safely riled up about fiction instead of world events that upset me.

Fucking hell.

This North Korea-run-by-Mormons tale smacked my teeth in, kicked my kneecaps, and made the Kindle pages blink past as fast as my thumb could tap the screen. In the Flock's territory, the Prophet is the autocratic leader of the church and the state. The Prophet's many, many wives have given him many, many children. The other church leaders have equally cushy tushy supply. The average man has three wives, the more status he has the more wives he adds.

How, you might wonder, does that work. The women are property, barely educated since their purpose in the world is to bear children (one woman is revealed to have died giving birth to the eighteetnth child). They have no semblance of rights, and are married off as early as twelve years old. The average man has no semblance of meaningful rights. He's led by the Prophet's local guy, he's required to make his children perform physical labor for the Prophet starting as young as five years of age, and the Prophet has set up a system to "call into missionary service" prepubescent boys who are...misfits...some too aggressive, some too full of questions, some physically unfit...and from there springs our story.

Jacob Wright is bursting with questions about everything. His father, his first, second, and third mothers, his teachers can't keep up. In an information-poor society they aren't equipped to answer the questions anyway. But no amount of disapproval can keep Jacob from asking and wondering and pondering. Thus it is that he is called to the missionary training center, where he expects to be trained and sent out among the Heathens outside the Gate to convert them. Jacob's bus ride to the missionary center is excitingly interrupted by a military attack from the heathens, whom Jacob sees for the first time. He sees desperate, dirty soldiers who will attack a busload of children, and cracks form in his idea of why he's off to become a missionary.

Things do not go as expected by Jacob. Nor do they go as planned by the theocratic machinery. Kerioth, the missionary center's authoritarian (head dude in charge of being in charge), interviews Jacob and senses something within the boy that makes him special and valuable. Kerioth singles Jacob out for special education, pays him personal attention, and generally makes life in the rigidly compartmentalized and hierarchical center endurable.

As time passes, Jacob learns more and more about Kerioth and more and more about the Flock's society. He is, after his eighteenth birthday, finally admitted into Kerioth's extremely difficult work world as well as his bed. The child has become a young man; the questing intelligence has matured into a worthy and beloved intellectual companion to the lonely and isolated Kerioth.

The job of be the Flock's memory of dead times and forbidden one that Kerioth shares to a limited degree with Jacob. The years that flow past the men are full of silences both beautiful and tense. The slow unfolding of Jacob's understanding of the Prophet, his family, and the very terrifyingly evil way the Flock keeps its promise of three wives for every average man, more for men of higher status, is a titanic blow to Jacob's sense of the rightness of the world he grew up in.

And, at the end of the book, the natural and inevitable and inescapable conclusion to the story... completely upended and shook around and pounded on the storytelling rocks Author Renner has gathered, placed, balanced, and mortared into place, like an octopus being tenderized for dinner. Tentacles of tale meat flail in every direction. Eyes and brains pop against the solid foundation rocks with the force of the change in direction.

But for once this sudden shift isn't cause for puma-screaming killing rage. It is a far, far, far more important story that, in the last lines, Author Renner promises us.

Six stars for that alone.

Also boosting the six-of-five case is Kerioth's intense and respectful passion, love, and need for Jacob. In a society that spends huge effort on controlling all females, males are untrammeled in any meaningful psychosexual ways. Kerioth could have started sexing up Jacob the second he saw the boy had he wanted to. Not one peep would've been uttered by anyone. Kerioth is so appalled by the idea of sexual abuse of children that he simply refuses to countenance it.

This resonates with me, as the child of a sexually abusive pedophile mother. It made me feel Kerioth, for all his fears and quirks, was at heart a decent man with a bedrock of honor from which he operates.

Jacob's growth into a partner for Kerioth is satisfying as well. Jacob never stops learning. Jacob also has a sneaky streak in his pragmatic nature. He "manages upward," so to speak, leading Kerioth to the conclusions that Jacob wants him to arrive at. The more information Jacob acquires, the more he leads his true love Kerioth into rebellious and seditious thought-patterns.

But the secret that the missionary center conceals...its true purpose to the so extremely NOT what Jacob or I was expecting that it rockets this theocratic dystopia to the very top of my reading list for 2017. It is stunning. I can't even hint at it. I want everyone I know to read the book RIGHT NOW so we can all discuss this, this, I can't even be coherent, this abomination, this darker, more horrifying, more unspeakable cousin of the Final Solution.

Yes. I went there. Author Renner has, in these 300-ish pages, created a nightmare theocracy that is built on something worse than the Final Solution.

Fear him. Words have power. Read his $3.99 vision of a hell so awful you will not be able to look away or to fully process its scope.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Return to service announcement

Hello blog readers! I've been absent for quite a while, and I'm sure y'all have noticed how very behind I am in writing my reviews. I'd like to explain my absence and my seeming negligence. Well, real negligence, just not deliberate or malicious towards the authors and publishers I've promised reviews to.

Many of you know that I suffered a nervous collapse in 2014. For the first time in my then-55 years, the cumulative effect of childhood woes coupled with several years of psychological warfare waged against me by some people I lived with coupled with an unexpected betrayal led me to get very close to suicide.

A chance phone call from a mental health worker named Julie prevented me from going through with the plan. She talked me down off the emotional ledge. I even put away the knife I had planned to use to sever my jugular vein because she jauntily assured me it was unnecessary, help would be there soon.

It was.

I spent 4-1/2 months in the locked psych ward at Nassau University Medical Center. The psychiatrists and social workers figured out the biochemical problem underlying my extreme and disproportionate emotional response to my situation. They *could* have discharged me after 6 weeks, I was stable emotionally, but I had no place to go. The social workers finally found this assisted living facility willing to accept me despite my suicide attempt and here I am today.

Regrettably I am still physically disabled by 36 years of cumulative effects from a severe case of tophaceous gout. The pain of the ginormous deposits of uric acid and calcium crystals on my joints and along my tendons is pretty damned awful. I find sitting for any length of time excruciating. I stand up and lie down's the transitions that slay me. In today's opioid-fearing climate I am undermedicated by the pain management doctor because he's afraid he'll be investigated for giving out such a large prescription. Medicare doesn't pay for cannabinoids, which would do a better job at lower doses and I can't come close to paying the $350 a month the prescriptions cost.

So sometimes the hopelessness of a chronic and incurable condition plus the deep uncertainty that faces every person on Medicare as to whether our care will continue to be funded plus the absurdly deep cuts in Medicaid that pay for the facility I live April I cratered. I couldn't read, let alone write reviews. I am still wobbly in the following-complex-arguments area. Getting a lot better! Adjustments to the thyroid medication made a **HUGE** difference, and upping my use of the facility's on-call psychologist has made things that much more manageable.

So to all of y'all miffed all the way up to ticked that I haven't reviewed your book(s): I most humbly apologize, and promise that I will make good on those reviews this year. I will be back on Twitter, I'm going to learn Instagram use now that I have a smartphone (thanks, Stephanie! *smooch*), and am generally announcing that #ReadingIsResistance is back up and running at 1/4 speed.

Feel free to contact me in all the ways you have if there is something you'd like to know or like for me to know. Remember that responding here on the blog requires that you be a member of the blog, an easy thing to accomplish provided you have a Google account. I hate spam so I never blast BS to my blog followers, just the posts I write.

And to the around 500 daily readers I garner from all my publicity-hounding, I love each and every one of y'all. I am so grateful that my ideas and opinions are that interesting to that many folks.

Friday, July 28, 2017



Harper Voyager
$15.99 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: In South Africa, the future looks promising. Personal robots are making life easier for the working class. The government is harnessing renewable energy to provide infrastructure for the poor. And in the bustling coastal town of Port Elizabeth, the economy is booming thanks to the genetic engineering industry which has found a welcome home there. Yes—the days to come are looking very good for South Africans. That is, if they can survive the present challenges:

A new hallucinogenic drug sweeping the country . . .
An emerging AI uprising . . .
And an ancient demigoddess hellbent on regaining her former status by preying on the blood and sweat (but mostly blood) of every human she encounters.

It’s up to a young Zulu girl powerful enough to destroy her entire township, a queer teen plagued with the ability to control minds, a pop diva with serious daddy issues, and a politician with even more serious mommy issues to band together to ensure there’s a future left to worry about.


My Review:

Friday, June 9, 2017

THIS MARLOWE, an historical novel of espionage, treason, suborned honor, and gay love


Goose Lane Editions
$19.95 Kindle/ePub edition, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: 1593. Queen Elizabeth reigns from the throne while two rival spymasters Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex plot from the shadows. Their goal? To control succession upon the aged queen's death. The man on which their schemes depend? Christopher Marlowe, a cobbler's son from Canterbury who has defied expectations and become an accomplished poet and playwright. Now that the plague has closed theatres, Marlowe must resume the work for which he was originally recruited: intelligence and espionage.

Fighting to stay one step ahead in a dizzying game that threatens the lives of those he holds most dear, Marlowe comes to question his allegiances and nearly everything he once believed. As tensions mount, he is tossed into an impossible bind. He must choose between paths that lead either to wretched guilt and miserable death or to love and honour.

An historical novel with a contemporary edge, This Marlowe measures the weight of the body politic, the torment of the flesh, and the state of the soul.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

THE SECRET KNOWLEDGE OF WATER, outdoors life at its most contradictory


Back Bay Books
$16 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: Like the highest mountain peaks, deserts are environments that can be inhospitable to even the most seasoned explorers. Craig Childs, who has spent years in the deserts of the American West—as an adventurer, a river guide, and a field instructor in natural history—has developed a keen appreciation for these forbidding landscapes: their beauty, their wonder, and especially their paradoxes. His extraordinary treks through arid lands in search of water are an astonishing revelation of the natural world at its most extreme.

My Review:

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

THE PHOENIX YEAR, novel that feels more like an intelligence dossier


Wattle Publishing
$21.99 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: “… from out of the fire, would rise a new order, like the legend of the phoenix. There would emerge a new world, a new super economy…”

So starts a sequence of events destined to rock world economies to their very core. On the 50th anniversary of their induction into the Society of the Phoenix, a group of billionaires is about to change the world dramatically, with devastating effect.

Overseen by the reclusive Heinrich Von Kleise, the Society has hatched an audacious plan to subvert world economies, by using and abusing some of the world’s wealthiest businessmen and their families; in some cases, holding them literally to ransom, or worse.

Michael Ross, an economic advisor to the US President, Ben Masters, a disgraced property tycoon, Natalya Avramowitz, a Russian economist and spy, and “Kim” a CIA Agent, find themselves at the center of this plot, involving inside trading, sex slavery, and political corruption.

As the world careens towards financial Armageddon, can Michael, Natalya and Kim prevent global disintegration, or are the world’s financial institutions fated to implode?

The Phoenix Year by David L. Blond is a gripping novel, encompassing many of the financial crises that have hit the headlines in the past decade. The author has skillfully woven these together to create an action-packed conspiracy thriller.

My Review:

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

THE COURAGE CONSORT, novellas in spare and lyrical prose


Harvest Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: With his elegant prose, distinctive imagination, and deep empathy, the bestselling author of The Crimson Petal and the White once again dazzles us in three novellas. "The Courage Consort" tells of an a capella vocal ensemble sequestered in a Belgian chateau to rehearse a monstrously complicated new piece. But competing artistic temperaments and sexual needs create as much discordance as the avant garde music. In "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," a lonely woman joins an archaeological dig at Whitby Abbey and unearths a mystery involving a long-hidden murder. In "The Fahrenheit Twins," strange children, identical in all but gender and left alone at the icy zenith of the world by their anthropologist parents, create their own ritual civilization.

In each of these novellas, Michel Faber creates a unique, self-contained world, where the perennial human drama plays out in all its passion and ambiguity.

My Review: Inspired by my recent remembering of reading Faber's stonking novel THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS, which has been adapted into an Amazon Prime episodic series, I fished this collection of novellas from my boxes to give it an overdue review. Actually, I suspect my 2005-2006 review is on the hard drive of my boxed-up PC but I can't be arsed to get it out, hook it up, etc etc. I quite like Faber's unlabored elegance of prose. I'm a little shakier on some of his storytelling choices. I get more wobbly when we get into the nuts and bolts of an individual story's constituent bits, as there seem to me to be, unfailingly, expectations raised that are never satisfied, threads that are left to dangle like the annoying loose tag at the back of your neck rubbing you when you put on your expensive new shirt. Still looks good, yet there's that damned itchy thing....

The Courage Consort brings us the disintegration of people, relationships, and institutions over the course of a heavy, humid summer trip made by the five members of the titular consort to a country château in Belgium. They are there to prepare for the world premiere of an avant-garde composition by an enfant terrible composer. The piece is terrible, they all know it, but they are "serious" musicians and they sing a capella, so it's either whatever the vulture drops in front of them no matter how malodious or endless iterations of melodious but, well, shop-worn stuff like Sumer is icumen in. A person could go bonkers doing that one for a living.

Catherine Courage, our PoV character, is battling her way out of the gray, annihilating purposelessness of a serious depression, one senses not her first. She is married to the founder of the consort, she is one of the women whose experience of life is being controlled by men, and she is pretty well done with everything. We're given to understand that even her attempts at suicide are half-hearted. She's a gorgeous soprano, though, and an a capella group sans soprano is dire listening. As the Courage Consort is an avant-garde a capella group, I suspect I (and thousands like me) would find them dire listening at any time. Catherine is getting to that point herself:
Other people might think it was terribly exciting when two females singing in thirds made the airwaves buzz weirdly, but Catherine was finding that her nerves were no longer up to it. Even the way a sustained A-flat tended to make an auditorium's air-conditioning hum gave her the creeps lately. It was as if her face was being rubbed in the fact that music was all sound-waves and atoms when you stripped the Baroque wrapping paper off it.
But dig we must in this vale of tears, Catherine being an obedient consort hauls herself to Belgium for the rare luxury of two weeks' paid rehearsal time smack in the middle of nowhere much. No distractions. No shops, either. But oodles of nothingness is wonderful when rehearsing complicated music.

The thing about nothingness, as defined by city people, is that it's not nothingness but the absence of city. The country's a noisy place, usually; Catherine herself is unnerved by the silence of the country birds, where in London she's accustomed to birds shouting their fool heads off in the occasional city tree. More trees, fewer birds per tree; fewer roads, fewer pedestrians, fewer cars:
Nature meant the absence of people. It was a system set up to run without human beings, concentrating instead on the insensate and the eternal. Which was very relaxing now and then. But dangerous in the long run: darkness would fall, and there would be no door to close,
no roof over one's head, no blankets to pull up. One wasn't an animal, after all.
One is an animal, in point of fact, one is simply very bad at being a country animal. Like dogs and cats brought to the country are wildly curious and dash about sniffing before coming home for supper from the old familiar dish, Catherine begins to explore the Belgian forest. She's scared witless by a weird cry that she believes could be human; like a city cat, she's not equipped to figure out what it is in all likelihood. She and the city cat are having a lark. They're not gonna make it left to themselves, or at least most won't. Catherine wouldn't be among the survivalists starting civilization from scratch post-apocalyptically any more than Fluffy or Mittens would be in the barn hunting the rats.

But the rats can come indoors when it's human rats we're talking about. The can drive Porsches, wear tacky ostentatious clothes, and write terrible a capella music after stabbing their wife with a stiletto heel in the Milan airport. Their musical patron coming to the château to hear their rendition of his deathless opus leaves the entire consort enveloped in the choking fog of falseness. One of them, responding to the literal stink of the figurative stinker, takes action:
[He] was padding around the house like a bear, going from window to window, opening them all wide. It wasn't until he was opening the biggest, nearest window that his fellow Consort members noticed the whole château stank of the sort of perfume probably derived from scraping the scrotums of extremely rare vermin.
And that's Faber at his most Faberly. That kind of surface wit rumpled by barely concealed metaphor riding on a deeper structure of meaning is easy to read and pass by; but wait: The lumbering bear of a character, trapped inside the château to be forcibly trained to perform against his natural inclination attempts to make the miasma left by a pretentious macaque-faced poseur stop bothering him are obvious enough. Then look again. The big, fat bear-man quiet. He sings bass. His part in the composition being sung is compared often to the throaty chanting of Tibetan monks. He never does anything for himself, not cooking nor cleaning nor walking; yet he is always ready to work, always prepared in his admittedly uncomplicated part of the performance, always the one least riled by foolishness and most focused on the job. The quote above, in two sentences, is his purpose in the story's world wrapped in the Baroque paper referenced above. Faber likes doing that, giving his reader play-pretties that some will dismiss as brummagem, others will judge heavy handed, and some will see as pointers to the action to come and significators of the reason the story came to be in the first place.

The consort's process of atomizing in the wake of the scrotal scent-marking of the château accelerates; Catherine processes her depression more and more by living for her time feeding the bear-man and moving about in the woods that she still doesn't understand or trust but can't resist. She leaves her husband to his accustomed role of fixer, explainer, creator of images and maestro of the consort's musical identity. It's a desperate job of papering over cracks and slapping paint on plasterless brick walls. His contralto, previously Catherine's cicerone in the mysteries of flat paved roads leading through featureless obscure woods, focuses more and more on the primal job of feeding and tending her infant. His tenor, a raging horndog, furtles about the place seeking any distraction from his sexless state:
This morning, although she couldn't hear any identifiable television sounds filtering down into the kitchen, Catherine had a feeling it was probably still chattering away to Julian in his room, because the purity seemed to have been taken out of the silence somehow.
There was an inaudible fuzz, like the sonic equivalent of the haze from burning toast, obscuring Catherine's access to the acoustic immensity of the forest.
Julian's tenor is transmuted into the cosmic microwave background, both inescapable and inaudible, omnipresent and irrelevant to the foreground action...until he makes a discovery among the books there that is a major source of my mild disgruntlement with most of the Faber books I've read: A book of Massenet songs, pages uncut, that he finds and suggests they'd do better to sing from than the terrible piece they've been hired to premiere, is glancingly mentioned as probably containing forgotten works and never heard from again. The macaque-faced composeur (oo, I like that one), confronted at last by a technical flaw in his composition, makes what is apparently a token defense of himself and then the consort is allowed to do "whatever [they] like" for no apparent reason and without significant fireworks despite his brief appearance being a perfect set-up for a hissy-fit-throwing set piece...a few other let-downs, herrings painted reddish then allowed to swim back to the school, and we arrive at the tragedy inevitable from the moment our bear-man bass aired the place out. It's a nice piece of writing, a good story modest in scale and told with economy that would have benefited from just a bit more, or a minor bonsai shaping. Solid and attractive, like all good furniture.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

The Fahrenheit Twins

Monday, May 8, 2017

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN A MAN FALLS FROM THE SKY, stories from a new Nigerian voice


Riverhead Books
$26 hardcover, available now


The Publisher Says: A dazzlingly accomplished debut collection explores the ties that bind parents and children, husbands and wives, lovers and friends to one another and to the places they call home.

In "Who Will Greet You at Home", a National Magazine Award finalist for The New Yorker, a woman desperate for a child weaves one out of hair, with unsettling results. In "Wild", a disastrous night out shifts a teenager and her Nigerian cousin onto uneasy common ground. In "The Future Looks Good," three generations of women are haunted by the ghosts of war, while in "Light," a father struggles to protect and empower the daughter he loves. And in the title story, in a world ravaged by flood and riven by class, experts have discovered how to "fix the equation of a person" - with rippling, unforeseen repercussions.

Evocative, playful, subversive, and incredibly human, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky heralds the arrival of a prodigious talent with a remarkable career ahead of her.


My Review:

The Future Looks Good

War Stories



Second Chances


Who Will Greet You at Home

Buchi's Girls

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is the first of these stories I read, back when it was a finalist for the 2016 Caine Prize. My review is here.


What is a Volcano?


Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Winner winner barfed-up dinner

I believe we have a winner in the migraine mystery solution sweeps: Cleaning products. Housekeeping just came through spraying some toxic horror and the eyegraine has begun. The hurts-to-blink stage approaches fast. This sucks sweaty sweaty socks but if it's showing me how to stop triggering these hellish things, it's going down as a net plus.

SO MUCH FOR THAT WINTER, Danish author Nors's English-language debut

(tr. Misha Hoekstra)
Graywolf Press
$15 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: Dorthe Nors follows up her acclaimed story collection Karate Chop with a pair of novellas that playfully chart the aftermath of two very twenty-first century romances. In “Days,” a woman in her late thirties records her life in a series of lists, giving shape to the tumult of her days—one moment she is eating an apple, the next she is on the floor, howling like a dog. As the details accumulate, we experience with her the full range of emotions: anger, loneliness, regret, pain, and also joy, as the lists become a way to understand, connect to, and rebuild her life.

In “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space,” a novella told in headlines, an avant-garde musician is dumped via text message. Fleeing the indignity of the breakup, and friends who flaunt their achievements in life, career, and family, Minna unfriends people on Facebook, listens to Bach and reads Ingmar Bergman then decamps to an island near Sweden “well suited to mental catharsis.” A cheeky nod to the listicles and bulletins we scroll through on a daily basis, So Much for That Winter explores how we shape and understand experience, and the disconnection and dislocation that define our twenty-first-century lives, with Nors’s unique wit and humor.


My Review:

Minna Needs Rehearsal Space


Monday, May 1, 2017

THE BABYSITTER AT REST, Jen George's wowee-toledo! debut collection


Dorothy, a publishing project
$16 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.75* of five

The Publisher Says: Five stories—several as long as novellas—introduce the world to Jen George, a writer whose furiously imaginative new voice calls to mind Donald Barthelme and Leonora Carrington no less than Kathy Acker and Chris Kraus. In “Guidance/The Party,” an ethereal alcoholic “Guide” in robes and flowing hair appears to help a thirty-three-year-old woman prepare a party for her belated adulthood; “Take Care of Me Forever” tragically lambasts the medical profession as a ship of fools afloat in loneliness and narcissism; “Instruction” chronicles a season in an unconventional art school called The Warehouse, where students divide their time between orgies, art critiques, and burying dead racehorses. Combining slapstick, surrealism, erotica, and social criticism, Jen George’s sprawling creative energy belies the secret precision and unexpected tenderness of everything she writes.

My Review:

Guidance/The Party

The Babysitter at Rest

Take Care of Me Forever

Futures in Child Rearing


Sunday, April 30, 2017

NINETY PERCENT OF EVERYTHING, Rose George's tales from the world of shipping

NINETY PERCENT OF EVERYTHING: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate

$17 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: On ship-tracking Web sites, the waters are black with dots. Each dot is a ship; each ship is laden with boxes; each box is laden with goods. In postindustrial economies, we no longer produce but buy, and so we must ship. Without shipping there would be no clothes, food, paper, or fuel. Without all those dots, the world would not work. Yet freight shipping is all but invisible. Away from public scrutiny, it revels in suspect practices, dubious operators, and a shady system of "flags of convenience." And then there are the pirates.

Rose George, acclaimed chronicler of what we would rather ignore, sails from Rotterdam to Suez to Singapore on ships the length of football fields and the height of Niagara Falls; she patrols the Indian Ocean with an anti-piracy task force; she joins seafaring chaplains, and investigates the harm that ships inflict on endangered whales. Sharply informative and entertaining, Ninety Percent of Everything reveals the workings and perils of an unseen world that holds the key to our economy, our environment, and our very civilization.

My Review: Rose George is Mary Roach said with an English accent. I love lines like this:
I like that Maersk is a first name. It's like a massive global corporation named Derek.
Who can resist reading stuff by someone with this gamine grin in her prose?

Trade has always traveled and the world has always traded. Ours, though, is the era of extreme interdependence. Hardly any nation is now self-sufficient. In 2011, the United Kingdom shipped in half of its gas. The United States relies on ships to bring in two-thirds of its oil supplies. Every day, thirty-eight million tons of crude oil sets off by sea somewhere, although you may not notice it. As in Los Angeles, New York, and other port cities, London has moved its working docks out of the city, away from residents. Ships are bigger now and need deeper harbors, so they call at Newark or Tilbury or Felixstowe, not Liverpool or South Street.

In 2009, Lloyd's List reported that Maersk had sent a memo headed "Zero Recruitment in Europe." The columnist was scathing. "Famously, there are already more blue whales than there are British seafarers on British ships. The difference is that people are taking conservation measures to save the whale."

All workforces have waves and changing of guards. There were lascars and now there are Filipinos. But the diminishment of British and American merchant navies is unprecedented. There is regular fretting about recruitment in the pages of the shipping press. Some British seafarers plan to retire early or move into shore jobs. The captain [of her ship]...can be cold about his job—it is moving giant boxes, and that is that—but the force of his anger about his changed industry conveys something other than coldness. Before the oil crisis in 1973, there were British crews, British labor laws. After that they took the companies offshore. They offered us contracts with thirty percent lower wages, take it or leave it."
Same as it ever was in labor-versus-capital relations, isn't it.

THE BOX, demystifying the invisible world-changing role of shipping

THE BOX: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Princeton University Press
$19.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: In April 1956, a refitted oil tanker carried fifty-eight shipping containers from Newark to Houston. From that modest beginning, container shipping developed into a huge industry that made the boom in global trade possible. "The Box" tells the dramatic story of the container's creation, the decade of struggle before it was widely adopted, and the sweeping economic consequences of the sharp fall in transportation costs that containerization brought about.

Published on the fiftieth anniversary of the first container voyage, this is the first comprehensive history of the shipping container. It recounts how the drive and imagination of an iconoclastic entrepreneur, Malcom McLean, turned containerization from an impractical idea into a massive industry that slashed the cost of transporting goods around the world and made the boom in global trade possible.

But the container didn't just happen. Its adoption required huge sums of money, both from private investors and from ports that aspired to be on the leading edge of a new technology. It required years of high-stakes bargaining with two of the titans of organized labor, Harry Bridges and Teddy Gleason, as well as delicate negotiations on standards that made it possible for almost any container to travel on any truck or train or ship. Ultimately, it took McLean's success in supplying U.S. forces in Vietnam to persuade the world of the container's potential.
Drawing on previously neglected sources, economist Marc Levinson shows how the container transformed economic geography, devastating traditional ports such as New York and London and fueling the growth of previously obscure ones, such as Oakland. By making shipping so cheap that industry could locate factories far from its customers, the container paved the way for Asia to become the world's workshop and brought consumers a previously unimaginable variety of low-cost products from around the globe.

My Review:

THE MOST PERFECT THING, how life begins in fragile containers


Bloomsbury USA
$27 hardcover, available now


The Publisher Says: Renowned ornithologist Tim Birkhead opens this gripping story as a female guillemot chick hatches, already carrying her full quota of tiny eggs within her undeveloped ovary. As she grows into adulthood, only a few of her eggs mature, are released into the oviduct, and are fertilized by sperm stored from copulation that took place days or weeks earlier. Within a matter of hours, the fragile yolk is surrounded by albumen and the whole is gradually encased within a turquoise jewel of a shell. Soon afterward the fully formed egg is expelled onto a bare rocky ledge, where it will be incubated for four weeks before another chick emerges and the life cycle begins again.

The Most Perfect Thing is about how eggs in general are made, fertilized, developed, and hatched. The eggs of most birds spend just 24 hours in the oviduct; however, that journey takes 48 hours in cuckoos, which surreptitiously lay their eggs in the nests of other birds. From the earliest times, the study of birds' ovaries and ova (eggs) played a vital role in the quest to unravel the mysteries of fertilization and embryo development in humans. Birkhead uses birds' eggs as wondrous portals into natural history, enlivened by the stories of naturalists and scientists, including Birkhead and his students, whose discoveries have advanced current scientific knowledge of reproduction.

My Review:

THE OPTIMISTIC ENVIRONMENTALIST, a welcome positive message in a world of depressing facts

THE OPTIMISTIC ENVIRONMENTALIST: Progressing Towards a Greener Future

ECW Press
$17.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: Yes, the world faces substantial environmental challenges — climate change, pollution, and extinction. But the surprisingly good news is that we have solutions to these problems. In the past 50 years, a remarkable number of environmental problems have been solved, while substantial progress is ongoing on others.

The Optimistic Environmentalist chronicles these remarkable success stories. Endangered species — from bald eagles to gray whales — pulled back from the precipice of extinction. Thousands of new parks, protecting billions of hectares of land and water. The salvation of the ozone layer, vital to life on Earth. The exponential growth of renewable energy powered by wind, water, and sun. The race to be the greenest city in the world. Remarkable strides in cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink. The banning of dozens of the world’s most toxic chemicals. A circular economy where waste is a thing of the past. Past successes pave the way for even greater achievements in the future.

Providing a powerful antidote to environmental despair, this book inspires optimism, leading readers to take action and exemplifying how change can happen.

My Review:

WHAT THERE IS TO SAY WE HAVE SAID, a long, lively friendship in letters

WHAT THERE IS TO SAY WE HAVE SAID: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell
Suzanne Marrs, ed.

Mariner Books
$16.95 trade paper, available now


The Publisher Says: For over fifty years, Eudora Welty and William Maxwell, two of our most admired writers, penned letters to each other. They shared their worries about work and family, literary opinions and scuttlebutt, moments of despair and hilarity. Living half a continent apart, their friendship was nourished and maintained by their correspondence.

What There Is to Say We Have Said bears witness to Welty and Maxwell’s editorial relationships—both in his capacity as New Yorker editor and in their collegial back-andforth on their work. It’s also a chronicle of the literary world of the time; read talk of James Thurber, William Shawn, Katherine Anne Porter, J. D. Salinger, Isak Dinesen, William Faulkner, John Updike, Virginia Woolf, Walker Percy, Ford Madox Ford, John Cheever, and many more. It is a treasure trove of reading recommendations.

Here, Suzanne Marrs—Welty’s biographer and friend—offers an unprecedented window into two intertwined lives. Through careful collection of more than 300 letters as well as her own insightful introductions, she has created a record of a remarkable friendship and a lyrical homage to the forgotten art of letter writing.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

New glasses ordered! Next the goofy meds might need adjusting

Yeup, I needed a new Rx for glasses alright. I'm also now taking Ocuvite twice a day up from once. Will now discuss adjusting the anxiety meds upward as well. These bloody migraines have got to stop.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Well, April has pretty much rotted on ice for me

I've been having migraines for the past few weeks. This is the first time since 2012 I've had the pain part...mostly I just get eyegraines, with the trippy Egyptian/Art Deco/Paisley hallucinations. I kinda sorta enjoy those, at least they keep me entertained.

These suckers, while mild by migraine standards (I know people whose suffering with the migraine events in their lives make me weep in sympathy), are stinkin' miserable and make me want to do socially unacceptable things to my TV-watching neighbors and roommate. With headphones on, eyes behind sleep mask, and endless rain sounds at a precisely tuned volume, I get through the 2-3 hours they last. Then sleep.

All of this is bad for reading and worse for reviewing. To the writers and publishers to whom I've promised reviews, they will happen, though timing is going to be off. I apologize all over myself, I regret any miffed feelings my brain's treason is causing (if any), but regularly scheduled curmudgeonliness will resume the instant I can get a handle on what brought this wretched plague back.

My next visit to the eye guy for a prescription check-up, eliminating the possibility that it's just horrific eyestrain (it's not, but I'm thorough), was moved to April 28th. Glaucoma? Some other eye disease? Elimination round begins then.

Think kind, soft, TV-less thoughts at me, please.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Taking a short hiatus

Hello my friends! I've been suffering from eyestrain. I need a new prescription and glasses, so until that happens I'm not able to read without headaches. I will be back in service ASAP.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

THE QUEST, fourth Ancient Egyptian novel, goes over the top

(Ancient Egyptian #4)
St Martin's Press
$9.99 mass market, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Wilbur Smith has earned international acclaim for his bestselling River God, The Seventh Scroll, and Warlock. Now, the unrivaled master of adventure returns with the eagerly awaited sequel to his thrilling Egyptian series with his most fantastic story yet. The Quest continues the story of the Warlock, Taita, wise in the lore of the gods and a master of magic and the supernatural.

Egypt has been struck by a series of terrible plagues, killing its crops and crippling its people. Then the ultimate disaster befalls the kingdom. The Nile fails. The waters that nourish and sustain the land dry up.
Something catastrophic is taking place in the distant and totally unexplored depths of Africa, from where the mighty river springs. In desperation the Pharaoh sends Taita, the only man who might be able to find his way through the hazardous territory to the source of the Nile and discover the cause of all their woes. But not even Taita can have any idea of what a terrible enemy waits in ambush in those dark lands at the end of their world.

No other author can conjure up the violence and mystery of Ancient Egypt like Wilbur Smith. The Quest marks his stirring return to the acclaimed series and proves once again why fans such as Stephen King praise him as the world's "best historical novelist."

My Review: Okay. I started the series with an historical novel, shifted into overdrive as a fantasy element came to the fore in Warlock, and now we're in full-blown fantasy mode. The story isn't remotely believable as history, but it's s a good deal of fun.

What's disturbing to me is the squicky sexual politics. A eunuch is de-eunuched supernaturally to make the beast with two backs with a (young) reincarnated version of his long-dead love. I'm not sure that makes me all warm and fuzzy about love spanning the ages or really, really uncomfortable with old men sexing up little girls. Well, okay, she's not an actual little girl. But something just doesn't sit right with me. I don't know exactly what it is, in that the author isn't in any way making this prurient and sexual but is presenting it as lovers separated by death being reunited. I am not, however, comfortable with it, and it significantly clouded my enjoyment of the exciting, adventurous, and action-packed Wilbur Smith novel surrounding it.

The goddess battle was, I'm sorry to say, not a worthy end to the build-up we got. It was almost an afterthought, and it should have been a centerpiece. On balance, the Smith novel aspects are redeeming only to a middling extent. The pages turned, they will for all Smith readers, but the essential backing of history's known Egypt wasn't quite enough on this outing.

SO LONG, SEE YOU TOMORROW: one of the most poignant novella titles I've ever read


$14.00 trade paper, available now

The Publisher Says: In this magically evocative novel, William Maxwell explores the enigmatic gravity of the past, which compels us to keep explaining it even as it makes liars out of us every time we try. On a winter morning in the 1920s, a shot rings out on a farm in rural Illinois. A man named Lloyd Wilson has been killed. And the tenuous friendship between two lonely teenagers—one privileged yet neglected, the other a troubled farm boy—has been shattered.

Fifty years later, one of those boys—now a grown man—tries to reconstruct the events that led up to the murder. In doing so, he is inevitably drawn back to his lost friend Cletus, who had the misfortune of being the son of Wilson's killer and who in the months before witnessed things that Maxwell's narrator can only guess at. Out of memory and imagination, the surmises of children and the destructive passions of their parents, Maxwell creates a luminous American classic of youth and loss.

My Review: What a beautiful but sad book.
What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory--meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion--is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.
So speaks out narrator as he sets out to recreate the end of his childhood. The last gasping breath of an unhappy lad's, I think innocence is too light-hearted a term for it, ignorance of the full measure of unhappiness that others can bear in addition to himself, even if he waits a half-century to get to the meat of the pain:
Whether they are part of a home or home is a part of them is not a question children are prepared to answer. Having taken away the dog, take away the kitchen–the smell of something good in the oven for dinner. Also the smell of washing day, of wool drying in the wooden rack. Of ashes. Of soup simmering on the stove. Take away the patient old horse waiting by the pasture fence. Take away the chores that kept him busy from the time he got home from school until they sat down to supper. Take away the early-morning mist, the sound of crows quarreling in the treetops.

His work clothes are still hanging on a nail beside the door of his room, but nobody puts them on or takes them off. Nobody sleeps in his bed. Or reads the broken-back copy of Tom Swift and His Flying Machine. Take that away too, while you are at it.

Take away the pitcher and bowl, both of them dry and dusty. Take away the cow barn where the cats, sitting all in a row, wait with their mouths wide open for somebody to squirt milk down their throats. Take away the horse barn too–the smell of hay and dust and horse piss and old sweat-stained leather, and the rain beating down on the plowed field beyond the door. Take all this away and what have you done to him? In the face of a deprivation so great, what is the use of asking him to go on being the boy he was. He might as well start life over again as some other boy instead.
"Cletus" brought to life as an Einsteinian thought experiment, a boy whose remembered existence is defined by a murder committed or a suicide perpetrated or both. Or neither?

But let me say this. My confusion about this issue is paralleled by the narrator's confusion about his own place, his very existence in the world of this little prairie farming town. His father isn't much for feelings, and he's a "sissy" and an artistic child...except for music, the art form his father loves and he knowingly resists learning as his only somewhat outward act of rebellion.
As he turned away I had the feeling he had washed his hands of me. Was I not the kind of little boy he wanted to have?
What strikes me as hilarious, in a not-funny-at-all way, is:
We were both creatures of the period. I doubt if the heavy-businessman-father-and-the-oversensitive-artistic-son syndrome exists anymore. Fathers have grown sensitive and kiss their grown sones when they feel like it, and who knows what oversensitive is, considering all there is to be sensitive to.
Well now, this novella having a publication date of 1980, all I can think is that Maxwell intended this as sly humor. Or else he was deaf and blind.

Sly humor it is.

And it's of a piece with the Maxwellian phrases that abound in this book. It's always so tempting to rush to the Goodreads quotes page and add...almost every line he writes. Retyping the entire book being, then, a real temptation, I add no quotes to the ones already found there. I rely on the mathematical certainty that all of us together are smarter than any one of us individually. Let the hive mind decide which of these sentences are crucial, which best illuminate Maxwell's writerly chops as well as his storyteller's acumen.

But the title of this review gives me away. I want to add something to the quotes page. I can't, though, because even I the "oh-so-what-about-spoilers" King-Emperor feel the last two pages of the story can't be excerpted without making the point of reading the book evaporate.

It is damned near heartbreaking, what those pages say and what it means. I was perfectly glad to read this book, and rate it close to four stars. Then the ending hit me with Negan's baseball bat.

Maxwell wrote a good little story and a perfect ending. That deserves recognition. Read it, please, it won't take long and it will give you something beautiful in return.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

BP BLOWOUT, a thorough analysis of the most expensive corporate-caused disaster in history

BP BLOWOUT: Inside the Gulf Oil Disaster

Brookings Institution Press
$23.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: BP Blowout is the first comprehensive account of the legal, economic, and environmental consequences of the disaster that resulted from the April 2010 blowout at a BP well in the Gulf of Mexico. The accident, which destroyed the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, killed 11 people. The ensuing oil discharge—the largest ever in U.S. waters—polluted much of the Gulf for months, wreaking havoc on its inhabitants and the environment.

A management professor and former award-winning Justice Department lawyer responsible for enforcing environmental laws, Daniel Jacobs tells the story that neither BP nor the federal government wants heard: how the company and the government fell short, both in terms of preventing and responding to the disaster.

Critical details about the cause and aftermath of the disaster have emerged through court proceedings and with time. The key finding of the federal judge who presided over the civil litigation was that the blowout resulted from BP’s gross negligence.

BP has paid tens of billions of dollars to settle claims and lawsuits. The company also has pled guilty to manslaughter in a separate criminal case, but no one responsible for the tragedy is going to prison.

BP Blowout provides new and disturbing details in a definitive narrative that takes the reader inside BP, the White House, Congress and the courthouse. This is an important book for readers interested in the environment, sustainability, public policy, leadership, and risk management.


My Review: At the very beginning of this infuriating book, the author makes this statement:
The federal government brought criminal charges against BP and four of its employees. The company pled guilty to manslaughter and other charges to resolve the criminal case, agreeing to pay a record $4 billion in fines and penalties. Two BP employees were acquitted, and two pled guilty to misdemeanors. No one will go to prison for the accident. In stark contrast, the federal government prosecuted hundreds of individuals for filing false claims against BP. Seventy-five were incarcerated.
And this was under the late, lamented Obama administration. Can you even imagine what would happen if this were to happen under the current kakistocracy? The peons would be out polishing BP's tankers, chanting how sorry they were for the trouble their childrens' deaths were causing the corporation, the US Army guarding them with live ammunition in their guns.

The book is a good case study, at a high level, for what lies at the root of the epic disaster that has spawned a CGI-fest of a film, though few other tangible results outside the Gulf Coast. The disaster is, in hindsight, apparent from the get-go. BP filed the paperwork to gain drilling rights to this piece of the Gulf of Mexico that was, shall we say, slipshod:
On March 19, 2008, BP purchased from the federal government for $34 million the lease rights to a nine-square-mile area off the coast of Louisiana anomalously named the Mississippi Canyon. After making the purchase, BP went through the process of submitting to federal regulators the necessary plans to obtain permission to drill a well in the area.

BP's lengthy Initial Exploration Plan (EP) for the Macondo well was submitted in February 2009. In the section entitled "Blowout Scenario," BP wrote that "a scenario for a potential blowout of the well from which BP would expect to have the highest volume of liquid hydrocarbons is not required for the operations proposed in this EP." In other words, the worst case scenario question was not applicable.

BP also submitted an Oil Spill Response Plan. It described the various species of wildlife that supposedly could be affected by an accident in the Gulf. In an indication that the Macondo plan was a cookie-cutter extract from another plan, some of the species identified in it (such as sea lions, sea otters, and walruses) exist not in the Gulf's warm waters but in frigid Alaskan waters. ... William Reilly, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident and later co-chair of the Presidential Commission investigating the BP disaster, said that he was "shocked" that BP was not better prepared than Exxon had been more than two decades earlier.
Sea lions in the Gulf. Man, I must have worse vision than I thought, living down there and going to the beach all those years and never so much as catching sight of one. So clearly we're not talking about a regulatory agency with much interest in the paperwork that's submitted to it. Not even the most cursory glance could possibly have been given to this farrago and had it pass muster.

And yet it did pass, like intestinal gas, and it's symptomatic of a far nastier problem that was fixing to blow. BP has a long history of taking the easiest way to get to its profits. It has been fined many times for careless operations resulting in human and environmental problems. Nothing, however, has yet been seen to equal the explosion and subsequent sinking of the Deepwater Horizon. The event itself is largely offstage for most of the book, forming the backdrop for the author's primary focus: and then what happened? The answer is, for all that it's contained in under 200 pages, admirably complete. Author Jacobs is in his element when relating the details of the disaster to the people and places they describe:
The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, is conducting the GuLF Study, the largest ever study of the potential health effects associated with exposure to oil. The study plans to follow more than 30,000 members of the affected communities (cleanup workers and local residents) for ten years.
Preliminary results, reported in 2014, revealed that cleanup workers were 30 percent more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety. Results reported in 2015 showed that the incidence of wheezing and coughing in cleanup workers was 20-30 percent higher than normal.
After noting the clarity of Author Jacobs' presentation of the facts, I'll note their worrisome content and fret over the likelihood of the current administration's having cut or eliminated the funding for this study and its eventual report. The data would, I have little doubt, be very useful to the anti-oil lobby and will most likely be sent to live with the three-eyed, five-finned fishes around Macondo.

An issue that arises in almost every debate I've ever had with right-wing radicals is the stupidity of charging corporations with other-than-civil-law crimes. A corporation isn't a person, I've trapped a few into saying; if that's so, I counter, why does the law treat the corporation as a person? And after a horrible event like the Macondo well blowout that was primarily caused by the careless actions and reckless inactions of BP, can the fact of criminal culpability really not be considered and assigned?
What purpose is served by pursuing a corporation criminally instead of civilly when the primary sanction to be imposed in either case is a monetary penalty? The company itself cannot be sent to prison, and its directors, officers, and employees cannot be punished for the company's own ctiminal acrs. ... Reasonable minds differ on the question, with some legal scholars taking the view that the criminal justice process is wasted on corporations when civil sanctions are available. Although the concept of double jeopardy does not bar the government from seeking both criminal and civil penalties for the same transgression, arguably there is some overkill in its doing so.

In BP's case, however, there was very little overlap between the criminal offenses and the civil violations. Of the criminal charges brought against BP, the only negligent discharge count also constitutes a civil violation under the Clean Water Act. Moreover, when a company is responsible for such a huge calamity as the BP disaster, arguably it should be subject to both civil and criminal enforcement actions.
The nightmare that millions of people will continue to endure, in the form of a radically degraded environment that most likely will continue to suffer consequences of BP's bad business practices, seems to me to call for assignment of criminal culpability. Luckily, the courts agreed; also luckily, BP itself realized it was in new territory here and pled guilty to and/or settled almost all the suits brought against it.

This was not cheap, and it will continue to be not cheap for quite some years to come:
The nation's worst offshore oil discharge has resulted in what appears to be the world's most expensive manmade corporate disaster. At $61.1 billion, BP's estimate of its total costs broke all known records.

Significantly, the taxpayer bears all the risks of any unknown natural resource damage costs that exceed [a court mandated] $700 million cap. Depending on those potential costs—as well as how other societal costs are valued—all told the cost of the disaster might wind up growing substantially.

No matter how one values the costs of the BP disaster, they were enormous. Enormous for the company, its shareholders, the American taxpayer, and society as a whole. BP may have all but closed its books on the disaster, but the taxpayer and society may be left holding the bag.
BP's share price took a big hit after the Macondo disaster. The company used accounting chicanery to disguise the fact that, as a whole, it has yet to break a sweat paying the bills from their collective wrongdoing. They're profitable in spite of a lower market valuation. They're still drilling in US waters, in fact. Earning money from robbing the same nest they've already epically fouled. So their shareholders, from state pension funds down to index-fund shareholders, aren't in danger of losing real as opposed to fantasy money. That hasn't stopped a plethora of shareholder lawsuits from being filed. Some well-intentioned, suing to prevent the corporation from abusing the value of their shares by taking stupid risks, down to stupid stuff meant to be just annoying enough to get the suing parties a go-away payoff.

Ain't greed grand.

Author Jacobs advocates for a retreat from that kind of shareholding, described as shareholder-value management. The central presumption of this system is that managers have an affirmative legal duty to place the maintenance of shareholder value above any and all other concerns insofar as no laws are broken. There's a wink in there. No *important* laws, meanong ones that anyone can enforce expensively to the company's detriment. He cites a distinguished Cornell law professor, Lynn Stout, who claims that's a self-serving myth, "[c]hasing shareholder value is a managerial choice, not a legal requirement." Author Jacobs continues:
[Stout] maintains that BP shareholders do not necessarily want to raise share value to the exclusion of any other interest. "Real human beings own BP's shares, either directly or indirectly through pension and mutual funds, and real human beings care about much more than jusr whether BP stock rises."

A more enlightened current view of a corporation's purpose is known as the stakeholder theory. It teaches that a corporation owes a duty not just to its shareholders but to all of its stakeholders. These stakeholders include its business partners, customers, employees, and communities, among others. ...[M]any of BP's stakeholders were adversely affected by the BP blowout. They included BP's shareholders, whose stock plummeted. [The CEO]'s focus on being [primarily] an "operating company" backfired from any perspective.
The operating company that was supposed to save value for the shareholders by cutting corners has, with this disaster, received its death blow in my opinion. The current U-turn in social thinking will, I am confident, be short-lived. Too many people understand what it means and oppose its efforts.

Chapter 12, "Have We Learned or Only Failed?", is probably the most iportant part of the book. The question as phrased contains a big clue to the author's apparent purpose in writing this careful, complete overview of the Deepwater Horizon's death while drilling the Macondo well: Is past prologue, as it almost always is? "It depends," says Author Jacobs. It always depends. This book came out mere weeks before the 2016 election. The somewhat dubious tone of chapter 12 might have turned apocalyptic had it been published even a month later. The quoted paperwork above, filed by BP in pursuit of profits from the Macondo well, might be appalling but the agencies now in charge of licensing and inspecting oil drilling are not going to get larger or better funded now. The past is prologue. This time even the preface hasn't changed. It will most likely get worse before it gets better.

Sleep well.

Friday, March 31, 2017

FINDING DOROTHY SCOTT, belated light on a valorous unsung woman hero


Texas Tech University Press
$24.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: More than eleven hundred women pilots flew military aircraft for the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. These pioneering female aviators were known first as WAFS (Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron) and eventually as WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Thirty-eight of them died while serving their country.

Dorothy Scott was one of the thirty-eight. She died in a mid-air crash at the age of twenty-three.

Born in 1920, Scott was a member of the first group of women selected to fly as ferry pilots for the Army Air Forces. Her story would have been lost had her twin brother not donated her wartime letters home to the WASP Archives. Dorothy's extraordinary voice, as heard through her lively letters, tells of her initial decision to serve, and then of her training and service, first as a part of the WAFS and then the WASP. The letters offer a window into the mind of a young, patriotic, funny, and ambitious young woman who was determined to use her piloting skills to help the US war effort. The letters also offer archival records of the day-to-day barracks life for the first women to fly military aircraft. The WASP received some long overdue recognition in 2010 when they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal-the highest honor that Congress can bestow on civilians.


My Review: It's amazing the depth and breadth of my ignorance about women's roles in military history. As World War II cranked up, the need for planes to get from where they were built to the place they were needed grew critical. Men had been ferrying the planes for the Army Air Force before open hostilities broke out. Naturally enough, these men were needed as combat pilots after Pearl Harbor was attacked, since they had the proper gentialia to be fighters. That left a vacuum for women to fill, much like wartime exigencies made in so many industries and walks of life.

That much I'd sort of assumed. I had no notion of the roots or the branches of the womens' role in this vital area of military endeavor. We've probably all heard of Amelia Earhart because she died on that round-the-world flight. But the world she came out of, the raw, rough early flying days, had plenty of women piloting these primitive fabric-and-wood crates in air circuses and barnstorming shows and everywhere there was flying to be done. Unsurprisingly, these were the women who filled the ranks of experienced flyers training raw recruits as the Army Air Force lunged to the limits of physics getting planes built, trained in, flown, and all around the town to coin a phrase.

I, to my surprise, was surprised. Logically the use of the women whose aerobatics were skilled from surviving the flying entertainment industry is no leap, but I just didn't know such a thing had existed. So score one for Author Rickman, a dedicated scholar of the WASP and WAFS, in the educate a man column. Score another one for making a couple thousand words bringing the whole readership up to speed so efficiently without missing a chance to entertain us with anecdotes from the era. I was sure, then, from the earliest pages of this book, that I was going to enjoy learning about Dorothy Scott and her world.

She was brought into the world by weird parents; her mother was well past thirty when she married her father, a man slightly her junior who was what we would now call a serial entrepreneur. For the early, World War I, days of their marriage, the Scotts lived on a fishing boat sailing between Alaska and Seattle. G.M. Scott bought the boat to make his fortune. Then sold it because he made his wife pregnant a second time, and the mere idea of two adults, a baby, and a three-year-old on a working boat made me claustrophobic 100 years later. It turned out to be an extra-good idea because the baby was twins, Dorothy and her brother Ed.

The boat morphed into a Ford dealership in rural Washington State. (I'm still chuckling over a man known as "G.M." to all and sundry selling Fords.) The three Scott siblings were shown the value of turning your hand to anything that needs doing; their family survived the Depression well enough for all three to discover a shared love of flying that led all of them to enter the Army Air Force or its equivalent, the WAFS, as soon as WWII started. What failed was the parental Scotts' marriage, as Mrs. Scott left rural Washington to settle in Los Angeles to be near a sister, apparently preferring this to being near a husband who "had a well-recognized temper."

Dorothy Scott was a lovely young woman, as the ample illustrations in the book demonstrate. She was as conventional as her parents: until she was accepted for WAFS training she was a flight instructor after not-quite graduating from college. Her father, concerned for the future of his clearly unusual daughter, had wanted her to enter the business world. That was out when her one, and I get the feeling from what's not said half-hearted, stab at it failed to pan out. Reading this passage from one of Dorothy's letters home to him, I think G.M. probably realized that the best solution to a problem is, sometimes, the least ordinary one:
Then we climbed in BTs [Basic Training planes]...To do it up right, we made a formation take off between smudge pots lining the runways. Remember, it was night! Oh pop, I'll never in all my life forget that ride! There we were nearly touching the next plane and guided only by small lights [on each plane] and the flare of the exhaust.

I was so busy watching the next plane that for a moment I forgot to look around, but soon I did, and the rapidly fading field looked like a million small fires.

We cruised in close formation for quite a ways, then we separated some. All of a sudden—swish, and we were in a snap-roll! I'd tightened my belt but did it even more, and from there to Memphis I had trouble telling when we were right side up and when we weren't. Loops, slow rolls, Immelmans, and everything else kept me plenty on the jump. I've never had such a ride. It was a very clear night but dark so the stars above looked a lot like the small clearing fires below and I had to check the instruments to believe anything.
The young woman penning those lines was never, ever going to be a stewardess or a housewife or a secretary. She was not built for those things, she was built to fly airplanes and be in the sky away from ordinary life.

And so it is, perhaps, for the best that a transition from the exciting and important flying life that Dorothy led until 3 December 1943 was unnecessary. Dorothy died in a terrible, pointless training accident as she was beginning a new flying skill: Pursuit aircraft, the powerful fighter planes that feature so heavily in war movies! How she would have loved that phase of her career. How incredibly poignant that, while she was taking her first steps on that path, an error in a control tower where she knew no one yet cost her, her trainer, and another pilot their lives.

Not to mention three mothers. Three fathers. Unknown numbers of siblings, spouses, cousins, aunts...death doesn't stop taking. It is so very unfair.

Now, listen carefully: Author Rickman made me care enough about this long-gone lady, that enthusiastic and engaged and excited young woman on her way up in her career and her life, that I sniffled a little when reading about her death. In a biographer, that level of nice and accurate rendering of the subject is a gift. Since this is not the first WASP biography from her, I suppose the author's skills in reanimating this long-gone world and its already collected stakes are in fine fettle from use and experience. But still, this was more than I expected when I saw this title while researching possible Women's History Month review subjects.

I've read other books published by Texas Tech University Press, and have liked each of them. A collection of short fiction largely set in the part of South Texas I'm from; a novel of the Plains Indians; a story of the settling of the part of Central Texas I grew up in. Each one was an excellent reading experience, and I'm very pleased to add FINDING DOROTHY SCOTT to their ranks.