Tuesday, December 20, 2011


The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars
By Sylvia Longmire
St. Martin's Press 246 pgs
Submitted by St. Martin's Press
Rating: Yeah....Okay + 1/2

As an introduction to the subject of Mexico's drug wars, Cartel does a good job. It tells you who they are, what they do, and how they do it. The book reads like a textbook and the data is impeccable. It comes alive at times with anecdotes but otherwise is pretty dry. The author, Sylvia Longmire, was an analyst for drug trafficking and border violence for the state of California, which is why Cartel sounds as if it was written by an analyst. I don't recommend it for someone who has been following the news and National Geographic or lives in a border state (I live in Texas and know a few people who have relatives in Mexico) because you won't learn anything you don't already know. But for beginners it is ideal.

The book begins with a short history of cartels in Mexico from their beginnings to the present day, names such as El Chapo, Arellano, Fuentes, Sinaloa and Los Zetas. Once upon a time a man named Gallardo was the king of the cartel. Then he broke up his own monopoly and created Baby Bell cartels with his people in charge. Seems to me that someone should have foreseen that the result would be competition, and that competition would lead to fights over smuggling corridors in the future. There was a time when the Mexican cartels followed the same creed as the Mafia in this country (not that the Mafia is a good thing.) They negotiated, family members were strictly off limits, violence against law enforcement was to be avoided and necessary violence was kept in-house. Sort of an honor among thieves thing. No more. The cartels in Mexico have flipped their lids. They kidnap, torture, kill and extort. Their victims are everybody. To make matters even worse, law enforcement in Mexico, from the local beat cop to the attorney general, are notoriously corrupt, paid off by the cartels to at best look the other way, and at worst perform an execution or two themselves.

And now these atrocities happen here. Phoenix has had such an increase in kidnappings that they have formed a special task force. Arms trafficking is a growing problem especially in Arizona and Texas which have the most lenient state laws. Straw buyers visit gun shops and shows and purchase several firearms that they then deliver to the guy who will take the guns across the border. This is important because, believe it or not, guns are not easy to buy in Mexico. Serial number searches have proven the link between US firearms and deaths in Mexico and in this country.

The cartels are a business like any other, and as such look for efficiencies. One of these is using US public lands such as national parks to grow marijuana. This way they don't have to try and run the product across the border and risk detection. Two or three employees of the cartel will scout a location; set up camp, which can include generators, irrigation pipes, trip-wires, etc. They are armed and will live with and protect the crop from planting through harvest and processing. Our park rangers and law enforcement are up against much more dangerous criminals than have historically been encountered in our parks. So this is another way that the drug war is spreading north from our border.

Presidents of Mexico and their administrations have failed miserably in the past to crack down on the cartels. But in 2006 Felipe Calderon was elected president and he immediately announced a new policy. He would bring the fight to the cartels with the Mexican Army. He deployed thousands of soldiers, then he fired large numbers of state and local law enforcement for corruption. New officers are hired only after they pass a lie detector test. Judicial reforms have been implemented to make the process transparent to encourage in the public more faith in the system. President Calderon has also floated novel legislation to ease up on criminal penalties for users in the hopes that the drug prices would drop and become less lucrative for the cartels. The jury is still out.

The author puts forward a few strategies and tactics to lessen the flow of drugs into the United States and lessen the danger of the fallout of Mexico's drug wars. She says we need to learn to manage a war that we can't win. We should send more money to the right places, increase use of the National Guard, change some of our own drug and gun laws, etc. Those last two will realistically never be done.

President Calderon has about a billion strikes against him and those strikes are dollar bills. Consider what he's up against. Cartel chiefs have been listed in Forbes magazine's list of the world's top billionaires and Forbes world's most powerful people. Check out El Chapo Which brings up an interesting point. The truth is that the cartels incomes are larger than Mexico's defense budget. Larger. More money than the government. There's an event coming up in 2012 in Mexico which I cannot stress enough the significance. Mexico elects a new president next year. I'll be watching with great interest because cartel influence will make or break the next presidency.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Informationist

A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel
By Taylor Stevens
Random House 324 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: Read This Book!+ (this is a 4.5 of 5 for readers insisting on a rational rating system)

The Informationist is stunning. It roars like a freight train and sneaks like a cat through 3 continents and some half-dozen countries. There are mercenaries and missionaries, diplomats and gangsters in uniform, Texas oil tycoons and presidents, sacrifice and avarice, revenge and justice.

Meet Vanessa Michael Munroe. We very seldom get to meet a female character in any genre who breaks the rules, all of them. Her past is shady, her future precarious. She reminds me of Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon on estrogen and without the ethical ruminating. She is a brilliant chameleon and physically fearless. She's got skills. Munroe is fierce.   

Munroe's specialty is information. Governments and corporations need information and hire her to get it and they pay handsomely. Information on elections, coupes, espionage both national and business, trade secrets, you name it. Everyone wants the inside skinny for a leg up on the competition. Mainly this boils down to money. Information = money.

The information Munroe is hired to find is the whereabouts of the daughter of a Texas oil tycoon, Richard Burbank of Titan Oil. His daughter Emily went missing in Africa 4 years ago. Munroe grew up in Africa and understands that returning to the scene of her past could be problematic. Add Miles Bradford to the mix. He is a former (?) mercenary Burbank sends along to keep an eye on Munroe. Add to the mix Francisco Beyard, a gunrunner (among other things) from her African past who loves her and is a little angry that she disappeared 9 years ago. Hint: Munroe had to get "out of Africa." Ha ha. Sorry. I find very little to quibble about in The Informationist. In fact only one thing: Miles Bradford seemed to be superfluous a good deal of the time. However this doesn't weigh down the plot in any way.

The Informationist is Taylor Stevens first book and I am so excited to be able to read more. Her next Vanessa Michael Munroe novel, The Innocent, will hit stores this month. Even better, she is currently working on the third story. I confidently and strongly recommend this one. Ms. Stevens has created something special here and I, for one, am grateful. You will be too.

(FYI Taylor Stevens is a Texas author. Yay!)

For more on the author: http://www.taylorstevensbooks.com/author.php

For the publisher: http://www.randomhouse.com/

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


By Tom Franklin
Harper Collins, 192 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: Read This Book!

Poachers is a collection of 11 short stories. I have gone back to my roots with this one. I "discovered" American regional short fiction 20 years ago and my favorite region is the south. It's all so very Gothic. Spanish moss and kudzu, Appalachia and Gulf coast, alligator and Thoroughbred, Pentecostal and voodoo priestess, plantation and slave quarter. One gets the idea that the primeval is alive and lurking in Mississippi. The juxtapositions of the South are mind-boggling and Tom Franklin captures them superbly. Mr. Franklin is a talent on the same plane with the late Larry Brown, and both are heirs to Faulkner.

These are my favorite stories:

The Ballad of Duane Juarez is about the dissolution of an older brother who has to rely on (or mooch off of) his younger brother's life. These are some of the things Duane accepts and/or takes from his brother Ned: food, drink, rent, Playboy, girls, jobs, electricity. According to Duane he married for love and Ned married for money. Duane's wife divorced him and so the love went away and their was still no money. Ned is still married and still has money so he tries to "help" his big brother Duane. I get the idea Ned sort of likes this arrangement. He doesn't seem to be intentionally belittling, but his off-hand remarks could be seen as casually cruel, as he tosses crumbs to Duane in the form of day-labor assignments. Some of the things that Ned has Duane do for him include: mowing grass, raking leaves, washing his car, cleaning houses, killing cats. Yep, killing cats. Ned's wife Nina feeds a bunch of stray cats and they won't go away. Ned hates the cats and pays Duane to capture them, take them off and shoot them. We find out how Duane feels about the people in his life when he takes the cats off to be summarily executed and starts naming them. This story is not a story with a plot, but is a character study. We get to peer around inside Duane's head, and he needs a good therapist.

Poachers is the story of the 3 Gates brothers living in the backwoods of Alabama, who make their living as poachers. There's apparently nothing they won't kill and sell. This includes: fish, deer, dogs, rabbits, possums, turtle, fox. The brothers sell and barter (sometimes for moonshine, white lightnin, bad idea) the fruits of their hunt to regular customers in a netherworld that you have to see to believe, some of these places are so isolated they are accessible only by river; no electricity, no phone, no plumbing. The boys have been on their own since their father shot himself when the youngest brother was 12. He was despairing his wife's death in childbirth and the stillborn baby. So he buried them in the backyard. There is no law here.

The boys live in a ragged cabin deep in the woods; have never gone to school; can't read or write; don't bathe; eat with their hands; have no social skills; never go to town. What they understand is the instinctual. This is Deliverance, second generation. This is the sort of thing that makes the hair on my neck stand at attention. You know what creeps me out? These people have to introduce new blood every so often and so what woman do they kidnap for their nefarious purposes? Eew.

OK, anyway, the Gateses seem to be successfully skirting the edge of the cliff until the day they murder a game warden who caught them with a telephone rig in the bottom of their boat and tried to arrest them. Then they fell off the cliff. A few days later the body of the game warden is found. The sheriff calls the state wildlife commission to report the death and talks to a legendary warden by the name of Frank David, who is ascribed supernatural powers, happens to have been the dead warden's teacher and mentor. When the Gates brothers start showing up dead one by one, the sheriff knows Warden David's handiwork but cannot build a case, prove anything or even find him. 

An old shopkeeper named Kirxy had known their father and has spent years trying to help the brothers. He tried to house them, feed them, send them to school, to no avail. He had to finally return them to their cabin because his wife was as freaked out as I am, see? So when Kent, the oldest brother, and Neil, the middle brother, are murdered Kirxy tries to protect Dan, the youngest. We are given a few hints in the story that it may yet be possible to save Dan. Maybe.

So please read this book. It will not appeal to everyone but I'd like to encourage you to venture out of your comfort zone. I love the short story form but I didn't know that until I ventured.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Men In the Making

By Bruce Machart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 190 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: Yeah.....okay

Someone or something dies in every one of these stories; more often than not it's a person, sometimes a opossum.

Men In the Making is a slim volume of 10 short stories by Bruce Machart. Each story considers a defining event in the life of a blue collar man. These men pull the second shift at the oil refineries south of Houston; shoot logs through the mills in the Piney Woods; and drive delivery trucks full of bio-waste from a hospital, in one memorable case. These men are trying to figure out how to be blue collar men in a world that finds them lacking. It is no longer enough to be the men their fathers were. Now they have to be that man plus a man that shares his feelings and shops for groceries and takes his daughter to gymnastics. Most of the men in these stories are trying but I don't have much patience for this sort of thing. You know what? Boo hoo, suck it up.

I enjoyed some of these stories but the collection in sum is disappointing. There's nothing new here.  Mr. Machart is talented but has a way to go still. I will follow his work. He has potential. That said, there were a couple of stories I liked very much. "The Only Good Thing I've Heard" is about a husband trying to find a path out of the fear, anger and soul-sadness of a late-term miscarriage for himself and his wife. This story is delicate and hesitant and warm and reminds me of honey. The next story I like is "Among the Living Amidst the Trees." This story recalls a horrific crime that took place in East Texas when actual evil showed up and tied a black man to the bumper of it's pickup and dragged him behind it until all that was left of that man was grease. This story explores how a man in the making who calls this town home would face such a horror, especially when the national media arrives and holds a mirror up for him to see.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Empire of the Summer Moon

Congratulations to the author, Empire is a Pulitzer Prize Finalist!

Empire of the Summer Moon
Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History
By S.C. Gwynne
Scribner, 371 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: You Should Really Read This Book!

The Comanches were elemental; earth, air, fire and water. They had no use for a sophisticated civil society, no use for a pantheon of deities, no use for towns or villages. The Comanches were nomads but they did have a home. They inhabited the awesome buffalo plains of a vast land that was not yet a country. I choose "inhabit" deliberately. One of its definitions is "to fill," and that is what the Comanches did. They filled that place and time, not in numbers for the Comanches were never more than 20,000 or so, but in perfect partnership with them.

Empire is S.C. Gwynne's third book, his first book of American history, and I am very impressed. He has impeccable credentials: bureau chief, national correspondent and senior editor for Time from 1988-2000 and executive editor at Texas Monthly. Accordingly, Empire is carefully researched and strictly noted, which we appreciate of course, but just as important for me is his wit and clarity. He does not allow any of the characters, Indian, Anglo, Mexican or otherwise, to pull any punches in his book. He calls "shenanigans."

In 1836 Comancheria stretched from Northern Mexico into what would become Colorado and Kansas. The Comanches had turned back the Spanish, Mexicans, Apaches and many others, from their homelands. In this year General Santa Ana turned Texas into a country and it did not take long for whites to come pouring in after promises of cheap land. The Parker clan settled near the present town of Mexia, just east of Waco, and built an elaborate homestead known as Parker's Fort. On May 19 at 10 in the morning a band of Comanches rode up to the gate. The fight lasted about 30 minutes, by the end 5 men were dead, 2 women wounded, and 2 women and 3 children kidnapped. One of these children was a little blond-haired, blue-eyed girl of 9 years, Cynthia Ann Parker. Her name has gone down in history as the most famous Indian captive of all. More about her later.

The white settlers were in the throes of Manifest Destiny, believing that all of the land even unto the Pacific belonged to them. God was invoked with predictable results. The Comanches were defending their lives and homes against a foregone conclusion. I do not want to romanticize them and turn them into pets. The Comanches were thieves, most notably of horses. They were terrifying warriors. Many historians believe that the Comanches on horseback were the most lethal light-cavalry ever seen. They shot, stabbed, lanced, mutilated, kidnapped, raped and scalped. The whites did their own murdering and mutilating. They were also thieves, entering into bad-faith "treaties,"stealing land, time and time again. But I believe the most vicious, cynical strategy in this war was the whites' unconscionable, cynical, deliberate whole-sale massacre of the buffalo. The Comanches' lives were based on the buffalo, without them they would not survive. The war waged between the Comanches and whites lasted from approximately 1836 until the last band of Comanches rode onto reservation land in 1875, the few remaining warriors led by Chief Quanah Parker.

 Chief Quanah Parker was the son of Cynthia Ann Parker and Chief Peta Nocona. Cynthia Ann assimilated into the Comanche world, married a chief and gave birth to Quanah and his sister Prairie Flower. She lived with her Comanche family for 24 years until she was captured and kidnapped yet again, this time by Texas Rangers. She did not want to go back to the white world, family or no, trying to escape on a regular basis. Cynthia and her baby daughter were taken from Quanah when he was just 12. They would never see each other again and each mourned the loss for the remainder of their days.  

Quanah is legendary. We Texans learn about him in school. He was physically imposing, taller and heavier than the average Comanche. He was a warrior remarked upon and respected by his people, other tribes, the Texas Rangers and the U.S. Army. Quanah was fearless in battle and a brilliant strategist. In 1874 the federal government reached the end of its rope with the Comanche raids on Texas settlers. Colonel Ranald McKenzie was brought in by the U.S. Army to bring them in or kill them trying. Colonel McKenzie was a bold, disciplined and talented officer. He and Quanah Parker were well matched. The battle between the two lasted for a year.

Quanah was not only a military leader, he was also a political leader. He understood by the summer of 1875 that the remaining band of Comanches, his band, must surrender to McKenzie because not to do so would have been a betrayal of the welfare of his people. Quanah proved to be every bit as capable a leader on the reservation. He fought for land, leasing rights, hunting rights, annuities, religious rights. He built a 10 room house on the reservation where he welcomed President Teddy Roosevelt. In the last years of his life he searched for members of his white family. They allowed him to bring his mother's remains to the reservation where he buried her in the Comanche cemetery. Not long after Quanah was buried beside her.

Visit the author: http://www.scgwynne.com/

Visit the publisher: http://authors.simonandschuster.com/S-C-Gwynne/47568884

Thursday, November 17, 2011


By Greg Olear
HarperCollins 312 pgs
Submitted by HarperCollins
Rating: Sublime....

"Fathermucker" sounds rather suspect. I feel a touch profane when I say it. Harmless. I am a little confused but nevermind.

"Fathermucker" is the perfect title for this gem. This book is about a father mucking around, trying to hold it together. Josh Lansky is a husband, erst-while screenwriter, and stay-at-home father to Roland, a four-year-old boy with Asperger's, and Maude, a two-year-old girl with a dictatorial bent. His wife Stacy brings home the bacon and travels frequently for her job.

The story begins with Josh and Maude at a play-date with the usual suspects, a group of some half-dozen women and children. One of the play-daters has just told Josh that she thinks his wife is having an affair. Fathermucker takes place in a single day, as we follow Josh through this Friday, the morning before the accusation, and everything that comes after.

Josh struggles as we all do with the most mundane facts of life: breakfast, power struggles with toddlers, pest extermination, petrified french fries in the minivan, lunch, gossipy play-date mothers, snarky play-date mothers, bored play-date mothers, sexually extravagant play-date mothers, nap techniques, politically correct preschool, dinner, bathing, and the all-important if we park a kid in front of Barney for a half hour of peace will they grow up to become serial killers? These things are trying in uneventful circumstances but can you imagine trying to function while wondering if your wife of 13 years is stepping out?

I loved this book dearly, from page one. It is a spot-on observation of life in progress and how we cope, or not, when a wrench is thrown into the works, how our balance is precarious on our best days. Josh wants so badly to be a father worthy of the love and trust of his children. I believe he succeeds masterfully.

Please read this book. Priceless. Truly.

Visit the author: http://www.healygates.com/

Visit the publisher: http://www.harpercollins.com/

PS - The portrayal of Roland's Asperger's was authentic and loving. They were my favorite parts.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

November is National Novel Writing Month So Get Busy!


Monday, October 31, 2011

The Great Typo Hunt Author Interview

Hi everybody! This is the transcript of an interview I did with the authors of The Great Typo Hunt, Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson. Enjoy and please leave me a comment!

1. Do you have a typo "pet peeve" and if so what is it?

Jeff: Unnecessary apostrophes in plural words are the scourge of humanity-- the scourge!  They drive me banana's. [sic ha!]

Benjamin: I’d have to roll out the classics: you’re/your, their/there/they’re, and its/it’s.  In my own writing, I’ll occasionally go back to make little changes during an edit but fail to properly reconnect everything, introducing a new error.  Few things are worse than having to say, “Yeah, I must have made that error when editing,” which Jeff heard me say a few times.

2. What projects are you currently working on?

Jeff and Benjamin: Well, November is National Novel Writing Month, and both of us have done participated every year since 2003.  NaNoWriMo fits nicely with our mission because they urge people to feel free to write away, reminding them that they can always edit later, which is where we come in.  Recognizing the power of the edit, by the way, is the cure to writers’ block. So we’ll be spending November working on fiction.  We can’t promise that either of those projects will ever see the light of day, but we can definitely say that come December 1st, we’ll each have 50,000 words we’d never dare to show to anyone without some serious editing.

3. What is the first book you remember reading?

Jeff:  I have early memories of reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, which inspired some preadolescent binge eating in hopes of growing my very own pair of beautiful wings.  But the first book to get me excited about words and language must have been The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.

BenjaminJames and The Giant Peach by Roald Dahl kicked off every summer vacation.  I know we had a library book club, thirty books over the summer, and for multiple summers that would be book number one.

4. When did you know that you wanted the hunt to become a book? How did it feel to turn Typo over to an editor?

Jeff and Benjamin: As we told people about our mission during the original typo hunt, many of them asked, “Are you writing a book?”  Our reply started as “Huh?  No,” which soon became “No?” and then evolved to “Maybe, but we’re just concentrating on enjoying the trip,” or “Why?  Would you like to read a book like that?”  Eventually an agent hunted us down and made the process so easy that it was hard to refuse.  Eventually we stopped laughing about people asking us if there’d be a book and starting saying to each other, “Gee, maybe we should write a book.”
By the time our editor and then our official copy editor saw the book, it had been worked over many times by both of us, and we’d gotten feedback from mothers, girlfriends, and our agent.  They still managed to find things to correct, though.  Also, we collectively felt we’d entered meta-joke territory when Crown's editors edited the book on adventures in editing.  Our wonderful copy editor remarked that it was his “apotheosis as a copyeditor.”

5. The TEAL kit is brilliant. Whose idea was it to send the TEAL kit to reviewers? Have reviewers been inspired?

Benjamin: The original kit was all Jeff.  In the lead-up to the book’s release, we were fortunate to have a really engaged publicity team at Crown, and the idea to send out kits to reviewers came from one of the conference calls with that team. Just like with editing, publicity efforts can be improved greatly by suggestions from other folks.
As for whether reviewers have been inspired, you’re more exception than rule in taking kit and camera in hand and joining the effort.  For that, we salute you!

6. How did it feel to see your book in a store for the first time?

Jeff:  I'd already bullied everyone I knew into preordering the book in the months before the release date, and ogled its listings on all the major retailers' websites, so by the time the book physically appeared in a store, seeing it on a table or shelf was a bit anticlimactic.  Still, we were doing a reading in a Borders in Manhattan (now dearly departed) for our debut, and it was pretty cool to have something I'd written for sale in a store in the self-professed center of the universe.
Benjamin: It’s definitely a rush, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  I used to go to bookstores all the time (I’m a bit of a book monster), and I’d always stop by the science fiction section to push some books aside, making a little space for where my book would go, someday.  (There’s always room in H in sci-fi; I’d be right next to Herbert’s Dune series.)  It’s funny to discover that when it really happened, I appeared in a non-fiction section, and also that I’m shelved under Deck.

7. How has Typo changed your lives?

Jeff:  Ever since The Great Typo Hunt came out, I've had a greater sense of just how many other people are out there who care about promoting good spelling and grammar.  I'm heartened to think about all the other typo hunters scouring the country's text, knowing now that this can be a broader mission beyond us.  Never again will it feel like a lonely effort.  Oh, and we got to meet Al Roker.  I haven't washed my hand since!

8. What will you talk about at your next class reunion?

Jeff: We had our nine-year reunion at Dartmouth this summer (it was combined with other classes' ten- and eleven-year reunions to save money-- hello, brave new economy!)  Benjamin came along this time and kept reminding me to keep an ear out in case someone said something that might inspire a whole new book.  So far as I can tell, nothing's come of it yet.  On the other hand, we did have our book to "talk about" (i.e., mercilessly promote to our hapless classmates).

9. Did you eat more often at chain restaurants or local eateries? Did you have a favorite regional meal and if so what was it?

JeffWe ate at both chain places and local restaurants during the typo hunt.  When stopping mid-drive, it’s hard to find something other than a chain restaurant along the highway.  In the cities themselves, we’d usually make an effort to explore the regional cuisine. My companion for the West Coast leg, Josh, especially took a keen interest in finding new places to eat.  It also helped when we stayed with friends who knew the area; in Atlanta, Austin, and Seattle (to name a few), great restaurants had been pre-scouted for us.  I still dream about the delicious mussels and fries at a place on Valencia in San Francisco, and fresh cheese curds in Wisconsin were awesome.

Benjamin: The fajitas at this little spot on the town square in Santa Fe were amazing--flavors coming at you from every direction.  We couldn’t help but mention it in the book.

10. I have to ask this because I am a native Texan. Was Texas different from other states and if so how?

Jeff and Benjamin: My, that’s a mighty big state.  A strange Easter visit to Fort Stockton was the break between two of our longest driving days.  As far as typos go, we didn’t find evidence of regionally based typo variation; no one state or pocket of the country was more error-prone than the others.  So no, while everything else may be bigger in Texas, its errors are not.  Texas did offer us our first walking typo in Billy, the Subway “restaraunt” manager.

Muchas Gracias to Jeff and Benjamin for this interview. My first! I hope everyone enjoyed the interview and please leave me a comment. Thanks again, Michelle

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Shock Wave

A Virgil Flowers Novel
By John Sandford
Putnam 388 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: Read This Book!

Virgil Flowers is back, our favorite shitkicker detective. This is the OK Corral: not only is he after the bad guys but he's cleaning up the town while he's at it.

Our story begins when a bomb explodes in a Michigan high rise housing the corporate headquarters of PyeMart, a builder of some sort of upscale Walmart things. Three weeks later another bomb explodes in Butternut Falls, Minnesota, at a PyeMart construction site. So the ATF shows up and requests assistance from the state of Minnesota and Lucas Davenport (of the Prey series fame) dispatches "that fuckin' Flowers" to investigate. Lest anyone object, this is a term of endearment and a running joke in Mr. Sandford's Prey and Virgil Flowers novels.

Our hero arrives and finds that everyone in town has an opinion on PyeMart, and almost everyone in town has a stake in the new store. The new store would provide jobs for the people of Butternut Falls. The store would put Butternut Falls merchants out of business from price competition. Some people need the new store for it's new utilities and city services west of town. Some people south of town, where the City originally planned to build, are going to lose big real estate money. When PyeMart came up for a vote in the city council, three members voted yay, three voted nay, and the mayor broke the tie with her yay. Now it seems a few of the people's representatives are skulking around town with a little extra money to spend. 

Shock Wave is again a great John Sandford book, a pleasure to read. Just when you become complacent, appreciative but complacent, he serves up a different tale. The bad guy here is building bombs, not stabbing anyone to death or something, so there's a more technical investigation this time. Not as much "guns'a'blazin."  I thought this book slowed in the middle but that may be because the author's books are usually more of a macho physical effort. Which I like. Very much. Anywho, Virgil breaks new BCA ground with cyber-sleuthing, and rest assured there are plenty of high explosives to go around. Another way Shock Wave diverges from the formula is that there is no romantic claptrap going on. Why do so many authors insist that the male cop has to fall in love with the female criminal who is beautiful but vulnerable, blah blah blah? Thank the Lord we don't have to do that again. The end is well-and deftly crafted, even elegant. So again I can confidently recommend a new John Sandford novel, Shock Wave. Enjoy!

If you're interested in John Sandford's other books this is the place to look: http://www.johnsandford.org/books.html

Fun extra and he's got this about 80% right: http://www.johnsandford.org/listofsongs.html

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Night Strangers

By Chris Bohjalian
Crown Publishers 378 pgs
From my personal library
Rating - It'll Do and a Half

This is a weird little book. If you are familiar with Chris Bohjalian's work then this will not surprise you. He is a master at New England village life. You understand that his books could not be set anywhere else. There are hamlets in these mainly rural states that remain fairly isolated. This allows all manner of belief and behavior to take hold and hold on. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I rather like his villages. After reading Mr. Bohjalian you will know what "mud season" is. The author has written about midwifery in the hinterlands, which is not at all like midwifery in, say, Boston. There is water dousing going on (Water Witches), transsexuals learning to stretch certain parts (yes, I know), healers and so on.

In Night Strangers we have "herbalists."

Remember Sully Sullenberger who landed his plane in the Hudson River? Geese got themselves strung in and around the engines and down went the plane. Mr. Sullenberger accomplished a truly impressive feat. Unfortunately the pilot in Strangers is not so lucky. I say "lucky" because Chip Linton did successfully land his plane in Lake Champlain, but the wash from a boat created a wave that flipped the plane and 39 passengers drowned. Because Chip has been suffering from PTSD, he is taking a few meds and has been unable to work. His wife Emily has decided that what the family needs is a change of scenery and some peace and quiet. So they buy a big old Victorian in a small village in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire, and move in with their twin daughters Hallie and Garnet.

As they unpack they find odd things hidden around the house, most notably a few weapons and a square-shaped door in the basement practically welded shut by 39 6-inch carriage bolts. 39 drowned passengers and 39 bolts, hmmm...... Anyway, a few of the women in town befriend Emily. They all have these elaborate greenhouses, lots and lots of greenhouses, and call themselves "herbalists." These women seem to have some sort of gardening club going on and they use the plants to cook and for herbal remedies and stuff. So far so good. Until the Lintons notice that these women feed them a lot; they bring food to the house and invite them to dinner parties; they have the twin girls learning gardening and recipes after school. Begins with "C" and rhymes with "oven."

Meanwhile Chip is decompensating at an alarming rate. We don't know quite whether the ghosts are figments of his imagination, a result of his drug cocktail or if he is having delusions from the PTSD. I don't think it matters where the ghosts came from because perception is reality, yes? The problem with the ghosts is what they want Chip to do for them. Hard to say whether Hallie and Garnet are in more danger from their dad or the herbalists. Begins with "w" and rhymes with "hitch."

The end of Strangers is an eye-popping surprise. Maybe not a very satisfying end and by that I don't mean that it should have been a typically happy ending. Neither do I mean that there really wasn't a finale. I just mean that if you are an herbalist you will get to enjoy the story for a long, long time.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Great Typo Hunt

Two Friends Changing the World, One Correction At a Time
By Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson
Random House, Inc. 269 pgs
Submitted by Random House
Rating: Read This Book!

orthography    1.  The art or study of correct spelling according to established usage. 2. The aspect of language study concerned with letters and their sequences in words. 3. A method of representing a language or the sounds of language by written symbols; spelling.

I am nervous. I am about to review a book about typos and I will edit this thing within an inch of its life.

In 2008 Jeff Deck and Benjamin Herson formed the Typo Eradication Advancement League (TEAL) and set out to right a great wrong. A great many wrongs. They took off on a road trip, a mission to rescue the English language from dire abuse and neglect, and educate whoever happened to be standing around. They looked for typos, otherwise known as “the black hordes of error,” at each stop and always found what they were looking for. There were countless misspellings, apostrophe confusion, possessive problems, homophones and many more. But finding the typos was only the first step. Mr. Deck carried with him  a TEAL Kit, a plastic bag containing the tricks of his trade: markers, Sharpies, chalk, stick-on letters and Wite-Out.  He did not pack glass tubing for neon signs but who knew? The thing is, Jeff and Benjamin not only looked for typos, they also corrected them.

I have been supplied with my very own TEAL kit. Here is an example of my efforts.

 First off, everyone please agree to ignore the part about Texas dirt. OK. This is one of my t-shirts. I call your attention to the 4th line. “Lets” should be “let’s.” It’s missing an apostrophe. As a contraction of the words “let” and “us” it needs an apostrophe to stand in for the missing “u.” See?

And here is the corrected shirt. I have added an apostrophe as best I could with the black Sharpie in my TEAL kit. In this photograph it looks a little like a fly.

 The authors made necessary corrections, both overt and covert, throughout the country. As you can imagine not everyone was receptive of our heroes and their mission.  Apathy ran amuck but some shopkeepers, restaurant managers, park rangers, store clerks, museum curators, etc., were friendly, if puzzled.  Some were mostly concerned about where the blame for the typo would be placed, certainly not on them. Others were openly hostile. And then there were the criminal charges.

Here let me again offer an example of my efforts. I submit to you the following sign. “Alinement” is misspelled. It should read “Alignment.” I’ve seen this sign every day for years. It rankles. So I’m standing on the opposite side of the street with my camera when a man drove by. Then he backed up in the middle of the street and into the lot next to the building with the offending sign. He came loping across the street and demanded to know why I was taking pictures of his shop. Yep, the owner.  Good grief. So I had to explain what I was doing, about the typos and Jeff and Benjamin and my review, etc. So the guy finally says OK he was just wondering what I wanted with his shop. Then he said he had heard of the typo hunt. Kid you not.

The authors did wrestle with larger questions regarding their calling, lest you think this mere fun and games. How strictly do we enforce the rules? Should they be rules or more like guidelines? What about education? The authors visited elementary classrooms for inspiration. Should art be exempt from the rules? What part do idioms play? Should written language be stricter than spoken language? Should quarter be given?

I enjoyed this book so much. It encompassed two of my favorite things, language and road trips. Typos are my pet peeve and have been torturing me for years. I have raised three children whom I harassed about language all the time. I now  have two readers and one turncoat. This book has something for everyone: language, anthropology, sociology, geography, friendships, the open road and dark nights of the soul. I laughed out loud and learned some things too.

Our heroes are planning another road trip but have distilled their mission. Next time out they will EDIT. Which is what I’m going to do now.

Also I didn’t know “smoothen” was a word.

Please check out the authors and the famous blog: www.GreatTypoHunt.com
Facebook: Typo Eradication Advancement League
Twitter: www.twitter.com/TEALJeffDeck

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Feast Day of Fools

By James Lee Burke
Simon and Schuster 463 pgs
From my personal library
Rating - Read This!

James Lee Burke is one of my top five authors. By my best accounting he has written 31 books. He is probably best known for the Dave Robicheaux novels that follow the life and times of a deputy sheriff in New Iberia, Louisiana. One of these novels, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Mr. Burke has a gift for description that defies description so I won’t try. I’ll just say that you can feel the humidity of the Louisiana Gulf coast on your skin, smell the drowsy summer bougainvillea and taste the craw fish jambalaya. Please everybody try this guy and if you don’t like him I’ll send you a dollar.

Feast Day of Fools is a Hackberry Holland novel. Mr. Holland is the sheriff in a rural southwest Texas county situated in the Chihuahuan desert, somewhere in the Big Bend region. As it happens, I live in West Texas and will vouch for the stark beauty of this land, dramatic vistas in every direction, 6,000-foot mountain peaks, deep canyons revealing a geological story of eons, fuchsia prickly pear blossoms, the lazy Rio Grande known as the Rio Bravo south of the border. Mexico is a pervasive presence, impossible to separate the people or the land here. Mr. Burke takes that raw material and spins a poem.

Back to the story. It begins with the grisly murder of an escaped kidnap victim from Mexico by a scary psychopath known as Krill. This murder is witnessed by an alcoholic Indian by the name of Danny Boy Lorca who believes he has ecstatic visions of his ancestors. And we are off! Sheriff Holland and his deputy Pam Tibbs begin an investigation that will, before it’s over, involve a Russian terrorist, a Chinese woman with a reputation for miracles, a sociopath called Preacher who if I tried to describe you wouldn’t believe me, a guy with a head for physics harboring a secret that very likely could get him killed, and a mobster looking for the guy with the secret. The theme here is absolution and aren't we all searching for that?

I read everything Mr. Burke writes. I would read a book by this author that was just description. His dialogue is spare and true to his characters. My only quibbles with this book are that it was a tad long, I think it could have been edited down some. There’s one character, another preacher, that I don’t entirely understand his function in the story. My other beef is that the plot is so circuitous that I got confused trying to keep all the characters straight in my poor brain and how they were related. Other than that I am a very big fan. Read it!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Snakewoman of Little Egypt

By: Robert Hellenga
Bloomsbury 346 pgs
Submitted by Bloomsbury
Rating: 4

This book makes me want to go back to school.

Jackson Carter is an anthropology professor at Thomas Ford University in Illinois. He has returned from Africa and written a book about his experiences with the Mbuti. Jackson has drawn the disapproval of the anthropological community by "going native," most spectacularly by taking a girlfriend and fathering a daughter.

Sunny (fka Willa Fern Cochrane) has just emerged from a six-year stint in prison for shooting her husband, Earl, the preacher of the Church of the Burning Bush With Signs Following (henceforth known as CBBWSF), a bunch of Pentecostal snake-handling, strychnine-drinking lunatics who are busily excommunicating themselves from the world. Earl had forced Sunny to put her arm in a box of rattlesnakes at gunpoint, and she was bitten. So she shot Earl with his gun, and I say, good for her. Sunny is determined to change her life and does a 180 when she leaves prison and enrolls at Thomas Ford University, where she meets Jackson Carter.

They soon embark on a relationship that is transformative for all involved, including friends, other professors, and dead uncles. Earl meets Jackson when he shows up to take Sunny "home." Jackson's anthropologi-ness (which can also kill cats) gets the better of him, and he decides to make the followers of the CBBWSF his next research subject. We already know Jackson's propensity for going native so guess what happens next.

Snakewoman is a good book. Mr. Hellenga has done about three tons of research, and it's a good thing. We learn a great deal about groundhog hunting, timpani drums, catching snakes, recipes, pygmies, and France, just to scratch the surface. However, I confess that by page 346 I wearied of the instruction manuals. Such exotic material is deftly handled by Mr. Hellenga, never falling into stereotype, which would have been easy to do. I enjoyed this book very much and confidently recommend it to you.

If you enjoy Snakewoman you may want to take a look at Mr. Hellenga's other works: http://www.roberthellenga.com/

Snakewoman is published by Bloomsbury USA: http://www.bloomsburyusa.com/

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Home Truths

A Deep East Texas Memory
By: Gerald Duff
TCU Press 149 pgs
Submitted by TCU Press
Rating: 4.5

Home Truths is Gerald Duff's memoir of a boyhood spent on the Gulf Coast and deep in the piney woods of East Texas. I am a native Texan and I understand volumes by the mere mention of East Texas. I don't even like to drive through East Texas. Although a short trip in terms of geography between the gulf and the woods, the cultures and circumstances are worlds apart. Mr. Duff's father Willie was from East Texas but had moved from that physical world and worked at a good job in the petro-chemical plants of the Texas Gulf Coast. These were dependable well-paying jobs in the years following World War II. He married Dorothy Irwin, the daughter of an oil company manager from Nebraska. Night and day.

The author was born in a hospital which was something to remark upon in that day and age and place. Subsequently he acquired two sisters. Then Willie Duff was fired from his job, what I consider to be a real disaster because in an apparent fit of pettiness and self-wounding pride, he packed up his family and sentenced them to years in an East Texas prison. Not a prison with physical walls but a prison nonetheless, a prison of poverty, bigotry, religion, and ignorance.

This memoir is about how book-loving Gerald Duff survived and escaped with sensitivity and intellectual curiosity and ambition in tact. It is the author's contention that people in these circumstances must believe the lies they tell about themselves and each other in order to survive the psychic wounds inflicted by this culture. Desperation is a ruinous thing. This book is honest and courageous and I recommend it to you all.



Friday, September 16, 2011

Beast Saves the Brothers and Sisters of the Cosmic I Am

By G.W. Davies
Smashwords July 31, 2011
Submitted by the author
Rating: 3.5

Paging Tom Robbins!

Beast is a hippie drifter searching for the meaning of life. He finds that meaning in cult leaders Bo and Peep and follows them to a commune in the wilds of Montana where they and their followers, known as the Brothers and Sisters of the Cosmic I Am, are waiting for the imminent arrival of their space alien brethren. What could possibly go wrong?

Plenty. Beast shows up at the commune with a small collection of people in tow, many of whom turn out to be certifiable. If they weren't nuts when they arrived they will be in very short order. These include a girl who has recently been de-programed from the last cult; a jazz trumpeter with a raging heroin addiction; and a former Hollywood producer, a raging perv, whose own commune was recently bankrupted by the IRS.

In the beginning the brothers and sisters are all getting along famously, but it doesn't take long for trouble to arrive. The commune is splitting into two factions: one supporting Bo and Peep and the other worshipping Chad, the jazz trumpeter, who keeps losing limbs. Then someone begins stalking and attacking the brothers and sisters and peace and love take a backseat. It is up to Beast to save the day!

I enjoyed this book. It's different, a blend of genres, blurring all the lines. Their is a myriad of sex romping through this book and some of you will find it objectionable. Otherwise, if you're a Tom Robbins fan, you will like this one too.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Old One

A Pacific Northwest Horror Story
By Todd Brabander
Smashwords Edition
Submitted by the author
Rating: 3

A stranger passing through town on his way to somewhere else is waylaid by mud slides blocking the roads. With nowhere to go and nothing better to do, he hangs out and collects stories at the local watering hole and all of these stories seem to contain a note of menace, of poorly concealed fear. So, of course, just as in the movies where the teenage girl walks through the unexpectedly open door of her home, when there's a storm outside and all the electricity is out and the phone line has been cut and her boyfriend has mysteriously disappeared, when obviously there is a psychotic serial killer lying in wait, the stranger decides to investigate. He recruits a few of the locals and they get a little ambitious: "...that was what they planned to do; save the world. It sounded simple enough."

This tale is spun with promise by Todd Brabander. It is clearly in the tradition of Stephen King. In my opinion, Mr. Brabander should keep at his writing, especially of the horror genre.

Please visit the author at :  http://www.todd13.com/

And Smashwords at: http://www.smashwords.com/

P.S. He did a marvelous job with the ending, just the right tone.

The Redemption of George Baxter Henry

By Conor Bowman
The Permanent Press 140 pgs
ISBN: 978-1-57962-220-6
Submitted by The Permanent Press
Rating: 3.5

re-demp-tion [re demp shuh`n] noun 
1. an act of redeeming or the state of being redeemed.
2. deliverance; rescue.
3. Theology . deliverance from sin; salvation.
4. atonement for guilt.
5. repurchase, as of something sold.

George Baxter Henry is a middle-aged attorney from Boston. He is married to Pearl. Their college-age son Billy is in a band being wooed by record companies. Iska is their 14-year-old daughter. Muriel is Pearl's mother. The entire family is on vacation in a small village in France.

OK, now try this. George is having an affair. Pearl is mostly clueless. Billy is a cocaine addict. Iska is obsessed with apples. Muriel, who discovered George's paramour, hates him. The entire family is on vacation in a small village in France for some bonding in an attempt to save themselves from themselves and each other.

It was refreshing to see an author treat this material as a farce. After all, with this material, Mr. Bowman could have chosen to write just another teleplay for Lifetime. George is not a sympathetic character but he is the center of attention, so you have to put up with him. In fact he's fairly appalling but he is an original voice, often hilarious, and offers no apologies. He is who he is. This book tells the story of how his family learns to put up with him. In the spirit of farce all issues are resolved by the conclusion of this novel, one way or another, and tied up in a neat package.   

This book puts me in mind of second chances. Because that's what redemption gives you, right? A second chance.

Check out The Permanent Press for other offerings: http://www.thepermanentpress.com/

P.S. I loved Iska and the apples

Friday, August 26, 2011

Super Freakonomics

Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance
By Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Harper Perennial 320 pgs
From my library
Rating 2

I read Freakonomics, the predecessor of this book, 5 years ago and loved it. It was totally original, never seen anything like it. It was a run-away hit and sold 2 billion copies on 6 planets. Who would've guessed that a book could turn so many people onto economics? So when I saw Super Freakonomics I was excited. I cleared my calendar, rounded up a Dr. Pepper and my smokes, and prepared to be impressed.

It's not that I didn't like this book. There are plenty of interesting and funny anecdotes and head-scratching asides. Unfortunately this book is just more of the same and I probably should have expected that. I would have liked a new spin of some sort, a new dimension, something fresh. It took longer to read this than it should have. It was frequently slow, plodding along. But there were parts I liked.

Such as Chapter 2 "Why Should Suicide Bombers Buy Life Insurance?" It's my favorite. The answer to that question is fascinating. I suggest that you read chapter 2 first, or maybe only chapter 2. This is also the chapter with lots of good points regarding medicine, birth, death, etc. All the biggies.

Chapter 1 is a rehash of statistics and anecdotes about the costs of being a woman: hookers, witches,
Title IX, Realtors, etc. Don't read Chapter 3 "Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism." It's depressing. I don't remember what Chapters 4 and 5 were about. You might want to pay some attention to the epilogue. There are some disturbing monkeys in there.

I think this book suffers from sky-high expectations. So my final comment on Super Freakonomics is that the authors tried too hard to duplicate the success of the first book. This book could have been as big a success with a different spin. But it's not. So if you're looking for something to read check out the reviews below. There are plenty to choose from.

You can read about the authors at: http://freakonomicsbook.com/

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


By Keith Richards
Back Bay Books 576 pgs
From my library
Rating: 5 - Sheer Perfection

 Full disclosure: I am hopelessly in love with Keith Richards

OK, now that you know that I'd like to talk about rock and roll for a minute. Rock and roll is a force of nature. It can and does work radical change on every culture it touches. Remember back in the day when parents were horrified by it and teachers warned of a break down in discipline and preachers were calling rock and roll the devil's music? Everyone was running around hyperventilating and claiming that this music was all about sex and the ruination of western civilization was at hand. I always thought that claim about sex was utterly ridiculous. But you know what? It is about sex. It's sexy, exciting, feverish, sweaty and little dirty (come on you know it.) Hedonism personified. So is Keith Richards.

Mr. Richards is living quite a life and shows no signs of slacking off after some 50 years as a guitarist, vocalist,  songwriter and co-founder of the Rolling Stones. He spent his childhood in Dartford, England as an only child. He joined a boys' choir and sang in Westminster Abbey for the queen. Then his voice began to change with puberty and that was all she wrote for that choir. They kicked him out. Keith was devastated. It was a betrayal. And so he turned into a delinquent, sort of, and to this day carries with him a deeply felt contempt for anyone or anything claiming authority. His grandfather Gus gave him a guitar.

Keith discovered rock and roll while listening to the radio late at night in his room under the covers because he was supposed to be asleep. "Heartbreak Hotel." Then he began to hunt down rock and roll and it's predecessor, American blues. Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf. He taught himself to play these songs. Then one day he happened into a man on a train platform with a couple of these records under his arm. Mick Jagger. They began to get together to play and Mick knew a couple of other guys and pretty soon they had a band. They played covers of rhythm and blues songs. The Stones played the club circuit where they were very successful. The band had accomplished what Keith and Mick had envisioned: they were a highly successful London rhythm and blues band. Then along came Andrew Oldham. Turns out that old story about his locking Keith and Mick in a kitchen until they came out with a song is true. "As Tears Go By."

And then Toad's Wild Ride.

Keith's personal relationships have been tumultuous, let's say. A decade long relationship with Anita Pallenberg gave him two children, Marlon and Angela. Another baby died as an infant of CIDS. Keith doesn't say much about that and I wouldn't either. His relationship with Anita finally fell apart due to a devastating heroin addiction. Keith finally got clean and Anita couldn't. A few years later he met and fell in love with Patti Hansen, a model in New York. They have been married for almost 30 years and have two daughters, Theodora and Alexandra.

This book is also deeply satisfying. It is candid, the good and the bad, the ugly and the sublime, and as a reader you are grateful for that. Keith is not a tease. My conclusions in the end are that this is a moral man. He knows right and wrong in a cosmic sense. He gives and demands loyalty most of all. And he is a loyal father, son, husband, band mate and friend. In the end the best thing about this book is the style in which it is told. There's a riff behind the words. Life is written as if you were sitting at the kitchen table having a drink, a smoke or two, and telling stories.
Please visit the author: http://www.keithrichards.com/
And http://www.rollingstones.com/

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Shadow Tag

By Louise Erdrich
Harper Perennial 272 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: 4

This book is excruciating. Also spellbinding. You will be appalled by the mind games being played but you will also come to understand them. At first you won't believe that you would ever play these games. But then you will begin to reflect and wonder if you haven't played some of these games yourself. I enjoyed this book greatly. It is a pleasure to read. Just be forewarned.

Irene and Gil are married and have 3 children. Gil is a successful artist and Irene is supposed to be working on her thesis. Irene has been keeping a journal since their first child was born. There are many of these red bound journals. She has recently discovered that Gil is reading her journal so she has bought another journal, a blue one, and it is the real journal. She has gone so far as to rent a safe deposit box for this blue journal. So far so good but Irene keeps writing in the red journal. She is writing for Gil.

Gil is an almost completely unsympathetic character. He never exhibits any kindness that is not corrupted by self. He so desperately needs to keep this family of his together that he is moved to ever more inspired heights of cruelty. The majority of Gil's work are portraits of Irene in many poses, all graphic images of different stages of body and life. His portraits are an attempt to maintain control over Irene. Almost as if the old Native American belief that a picture takes some of your soul is true. Gil takes pieces of Irene's soul.

Irene seems a much more sympathetic character. But then you realize that you may have made a mistake. There are deep, very dark currents at work in this marriage. Irene begins to resent the portraits Gil has painted of her over the years. She begins to feel those pieces of her soul as they go missing. In big ragged chunks. So since Irene has discovered Gil's disrespect and invasion of her privacy she begins writing fiction for Gil to read.

This is how the plot spins out of control for everyone. As Gil and Irene each struggle for control of the other they take no prisoners. Shadow Tag is sort of a thriller and the tension builds and builds. The twist at the end shocks. And then again it doesn't. You saw this coming even if you didn't. And it tells you all you needed to know about Gil and Irene.

Please visit Louise Erdrich's book store: http://birchbarkbooks.com

*Note that many people believe this book has autobiographical elements. You can take a look at this short bio of Ms. Erdrich's former husband Michael Dorris and make up your own mind: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Dorris

Monday, August 22, 2011

A Visit From the Goon Squad

Jennifer Egan
Anchor 352 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: 5 - Sheer Perfection

 Goon = Time

And in the immortal lyrics of Don McLean's American Pie: Can music save your mortal soul?

A Visit From the Goon Squad says yes it can. Visiting the present and the past and back again, this infuriating and lovely novel is about the ravages of  time and how it affects a cast of characters whose lives swoop and dart and intersect each other at the most unlikely points along the way. Just as importantly this book is about music, rock and roll and how it transports and transcends and heals.

Let's see if I can get this straight. As a teenager Sasha is a drug user and kleptomaniac who is a passionate devotee of music and of Bennie and his high school band. Years later Sasha is an assistant to Bennie who has become a music executive famous for discovering a band called The Conduits and starting his own record label. He was in a high school band with Scotty who has been down and out and possibly a little mental. Years later Scotty becomes a successful musician with Bennie's management. Stephanie is Bennie's ex-wife. She works as a publicist for Dolly who has a daughter named Lulu. Years later Lulu is an assistant to Bennie and hires Alex, who had a one night stand with Sasha, to promote Scotty's first concert in 30 years. Sasha eventually reconnects with Drew, her college boyfriend. They marry and have a daughter who confounds Sasha by keeping a diary using Powerpoint.And any number of various characters.

The question is what happens between A and B? How do you get from back there to right here? How can you tell if the journey was successful? This set of criteria is put forth for your consideration by Jules,  Stephanie's journalist brother, while he was in prison:

How to evaluate the relative success or failure of a life: "Marriage or lack thereof, children or lack thereof, professional success or lack thereof, healthy bank account or lack thereof, contact with childhood friends or lack thereof, ability to sleep peacefully at night or lack thereof, fulfillment of sprawling, loopy youthful ambitions or lack thereof, ability to fight off bouts of terror and despair or lack thereof..."

Now these are all good questions. But can any of us come out in the black on all of them? At any given time? I don't think so. And neither do these characters. But they do get from A to B and they are moving along to C D E.....

If you'd like to visit the author: http://jenniferegan.com

Sunday, July 24, 2011

In the Land of Believers

An Outsider's Extraordinary Journey Into the Heart of the Evangelical Church
By Gina Welch
Picador 333 pgs
From my personal library
Rating: 3.5

Gina Welch writes "...And you're never more like Christ than when you're forgiving the unforgivable."

She also writes "...You can see anything you want if you've already decided what you're looking at."

These are my favorite lines from Gina Welch's cultural experiment. Ms. Welch was raised a secular Jew by a single mother in Berkeley, California. She is a Yale graduate. She teaches English at George Washington University. She is a practicing atheist. I just wrote that last sentence and I'm not sure what it means.  All of which I point out simply to say that she is not a typical attendee at church. And certainly not an evangelical Christian church. And never a member of Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church (TRBC.) But she was. She went undercover in the temple of the Moral Majority in Lynchburg, Virginia in the guise of a seeker.

Ms. Welch successfully pitched the book idea for her to go incognito into the land of Evangelical Christians and return to tell the tale. Which I find a little weird because after all they aren't vegetable cult worshippers or something. Nevertheless, Believers is the story of her experiences at TRBC. Ms. Welch spent years at this endeavor. She was baptized; learned to appreciate Christian rock; studied her bible; joined the singles ministry; made friends; even went on a mission trip to Alaska.

Gina Welch surprised me. This book is not the book I thought it would be. Ms. Welch expected to dislike the people she met. She expected to dislike the teachings. She expected to dislike the theology and doctrine. She expected to disagree with the politics. Ms. Welch also surprised herself. Her beliefs did not change fundamentally. But she made friends. She came to enjoy the sense of belonging. She felt the concern of people who genuinely practiced what they preached. She came to appreciate the teachings of a historical Jesus; a man whose values already meshed with hers.

And then she had to confess to her pastor and her new friends that she was an impostor. This is the story of Ms. Welch's exploration; her answers; and the questions yet satisfied.

This is a good book that could have been better. Ms. Welch is good at description: of people, places and sensations. I got bogged down now and then. The pace picked up during the Alaska mission trip. I found some of the claims of guilt feelings over her dishonesty to be unmoving. But some of these people were a pleasure to spend time with and know that they exist and are doing good in the world.

I'll include this again because I like it. "...And you're never more like Christ than when you're forgiving the unforgivable."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Steplings a novel

Coming September 2011 from Texas Christian University Press
By C.W. Smith
TCU Press 268 pg
Submitted by Taylor Made Press
Rating: 4

You know when some horrible accident occurs and you can't look away? Something that commands your reluctant horrified attention? Like a train wreck, plane crash, volcanic eruption? Meet Jason Sanborn. He is that train.

But it's not as if he doesn't have his reasons: his mother died of cancer; his father fell off the wagon after 15 sober years and married a woman he met in AA; he now has an eleven-year-old stepsister; he has a court appearance coming up on an assault charge; he dropped out of high school and his beloved Lisa is going off to college in Austin.

Critical mass is achieved when Jason gets a Dear John letter from Lisa. He throws a few things in his pack grabs his guitar and takes off to hitch to Austin. As he is walking out the door his know-it-all stepsister Emily shows up with her own pack. She is painfully unhappy with her mother for moving her to Mesquite and away from the father she adores in Austin. Jason and Emily begin their adventures together hitching their way across Texas. Meanwhile all hell breaks loose at home involving Amber Alerts and TV news vans parked across the street as Jason's stepmother accuses him of kidnapping. So now the police are looking for them.

This novel takes off during the second half. The characters take on vivid personality and the relationships deepen in a delightfully believable way. We follow Jason as he desperately tries to contact Lisa and Emily discovers that her father is not the saint she had believed. The two make page-turning strides toward responsibility and maturity as they learn what an awesome task it is to take responsibility for each other.

For more information please take a look at the following: