Friday, April 4, 2014

After I'm Gone by Laura Lippman

After I'm Gone
by Laura Lippman

The holes in our lives require energy. Everything after must be arranged around that absence, and that effort often continues the devastation. In After I'm Gone, Laura Lippman takes the disappearance of one shady businessman, Felix Brewer, and follows the repercussions on his wife, daughters, and mistress.

Facing a decade of jail time, Felix had his mistress, Julie Saxony, sneak him out of town on July 4, 1976. Ten years later, almost to the day, Julie disappears and later turns up dead. Felix's wife, Bambi, is periodically questioned for both cases, but decades later, both are unsolved. His three daughters — Linda, Rachel, and Michelle — have dealt with losing their father in varying ways, but only Linda and Rachel remember what it was like to have Felix around.

[E]ven as Linda was abandoning herself in the moment, she was also giving in to the pragmatic person she was meant to be. She would have to take care of both of them, she thought, circling her legs around his waist. She had to take care of everyone. That was okay; she was used to it. She remembered walking up the front walk, after the fireworks at the club. Her mother knew before they crossed the threshold How had she known? […] “Will we ever see him again?” Rachel had asked. Linda knew they would not.

We are also introduced to Sandy Sanchez, a Cuban-American former police officer now doing cold case consulting for the department. His own life is built up around absences, and after being reminded of the Felix Brewer and Julie Saxony cases, he feels compelled to work on them again. It's 2012, and memories are fuzzy — sometimes willfully — but he senses that something is the file that will finally solve these disappearances.

The books jumps around time periods and points-of-view, with large sections titled after lyrics to “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me,” Felix and Bambi also meet at a dance where The Orioles play, a real life R&B group based out of Baltimore, where After I'm Gone is set. In 1952, they had a hit called “Baby Please Don't Go.”

I'm not well-versed in modern crime fiction, but the book is different enough from that “one last case before retirement” trope to keep it interesting. However, I'm still not sure After I'm Gone was the book for me.

It's a bit of a slow-burn, this novel. Not until the last third of the book did it pick up the pace and have me trying to anticipate the ending. Prior to that, it's not as though I didn't care, but I wasn't very invested either. Some of this, I suspect, was having to juggle the different characters and time settings. Because of some health issues, I have trouble with that type of writing sometimes, and while this comprehension problem annoys me to no end, I want to emphasize that this will not likely be the case with most readers. My concentration-fogging issues are irritating for me, in no small part because they alter my perspective so.

And isn't that its own kind of absence? I remember what it was like to read in-depth and to read challenging work without much strain — and to recall details easily! And while I use review writing to exercise that part of my brain, I don't yet know if I'll feel any closure on the matter. For now, I must work around the brain fog, and maybe one day, I'll accept it.

Of course, having trouble with certain novels is not the same as mysteriously losing a father or a partner. After I'm Gone does well with sifting through all that simmering anger, jealousy, sadness and other damages. Every person is fighting to live well and never quite gets there. Perhaps the length of the book and its initially slow pace speak to that struggle. After decades, resolution seems like it might never come.

The more honest you were with yourself, the less you had to worry about the world's opinion. […] Tell the truth whenever possible, and start with yourself.

So while this wasn't one of my favorites that I've read lately, After I'm Gone is still enjoyable. Take stock in what you need in a story, and perhaps you will feel differently. The sum of our experiences influences all.

Full Disclosure: William Morrow provided an advanced review copy, so my pull quotes may differ slightly from the finished edition. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.

This review is part of Cannonball Read (now in its 6th year!), a challenge in which participants read and review books in the name of raising money for cancer charities. Do click through for more information.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Giveaway! Win the new paperback version of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma very nearly made it into my Top 5 Books from 2013, but its Honorable Mention status makes it no less significant. To celebrate the book's paperback release today (and that lovely new cover), Penguin Books has very kindly offered me 1 copy of the book for a giveaway.

If you didn't catch my review the first time, here's an excerpt:

"The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards exists within the lies we tell ourselves and the lies others choose to believe. In this stunning first novel, Kristopher Jansma has accomplished a narrative feat by making the reader embrace bewilderment and questions of identity.

To properly summarize Leopards is to run the risk of spoiling its magic, but our young male narrator has yearned for notoriety ever since his flight attendant mother would leave him waiting in the concourse while she worked, depending upon other airport employees to watch him. The boy would write and write, desiring great words that would impress those around him. By impressing them, he wishes to earn their love.

We think we know his name, and then we are not sure. The process continues, and the boy ages — "growing up" is not entirely the correct term, for he still has not quite figured out who he is, or if the love he feels for a special woman is a love for her or just love for love's sake."

Read the rest here.

If you would like to be entered to win The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, leave a comment telling me: What's one "grown-up" thing you have yet to master? Make sure I have some way to contact you (email, Twitter), too.

Mine is definitely cleaning the bathroom. The mister does it because I think it's icky and I don't wanna. So there. Etc.

One entry per person. Winner will be chosen via random number generator on the evening of February 27th.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Story Time: "Carbon" by Dan Rhodes

Happy Valentine's Day, everyone. The fine folks at Europa Editions have passed along a story from Dan Rhodes' new collection of short fiction, Marry Me, and I like it a lot. So while I'm continuing to be slow about book reviews and updates and other writing, how about I just leave this here:

"Carbon" by Dan Rhodes

I asked my girlfriend to marry me, and she said yes. I couldn’t afford a diamond, so instead I handed her a lump of charcoal. ‘It’s pure carbon,’ I explained. ‘Now, if we can just find a way to rearrange the atoms . . .'
She stared at the black lump in her palm, and I began to worry that ours was going to be the shortest engagement in history. She smiled. ‘We’ll put it under the mattress,’ she said.  ‘Maybe we’ll squash it into a diamond over time.’
It’s been there ever since. We check up on it every once and a while, and it never looks any different. I think we would be a bit disappointed if it ever did.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Books I Read in 2013: Part 2

(Read Part One here. Includes Top 5 favorites published in 2013, lots of Doctor Who audio dramas, cats, and more.)

Before it gets any further into 2013, I want to continuing documenting the pile of books I read last year. Let us get to the "Not Among the Favorites, But Still Very (or Very, Very) Good."


Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling: Continuing on with my "I am probably the last person of my age to read these," this was the first Harry Potter book where I became really distracted by things like, "said Ron grimacingly" or other stylistic choices that just aren't my writing cup of tea. Of course, it's still a great story, and I'm going to keep reading, but please forgive me for any snobbishness that my criticism implies.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell: The first David Mitchell novel I didn't want to eat (for being so good), but that doesn't mean it's not worth reading. With its realistic young protagonist, it somewhat reminded me of Ciarán West's Boys of Summer, but with less murderin'.

Losing Clementine by Ashley Ream: I was pleasantly surprised by this one. Review here.

The Unseen by Katherine Webb: Also quite captivating, especially for a long book. Review here.

Fobbit by David Abrams: An outstanding novel about the various absurdities surrounding and contained within the Iraq War. I meant to review this awhile back, and never did. Abrams is from Montana, so I gotta let out that obligatory-but-deserved Woo! (We get really excited when people realize that writers do exist in Montana, and no, we don't all write about cowboys and "the range.")

It's Fine By Me by Per Petterson: Petterson does melancholy and lonely so well. Review here.

Father Gaetano's Puppet Catechism: A Novella by Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden: A recommendation from a friend I ended up enjoying very much, despite not being all that well-versed in Catholic symbolism. Review here.

A Winter's Night by Valerio Massimo Manfredi: A big, satisfying family saga that extends through both World Wars. Review here.

NW by Zadie Smith: My first Zadie Smith book. I know, I know, late to the literary party again. This was a library book, and I loved the characters and their unapologetic flaws and the various London settings. Right up my alley.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro: I'm a sucker for heist stories and some portions of art history, so I'm glad that this was not at all disappointing. Review here.

The Ocean at The End of The Lane by Neil Gaiman: This is where I was triumphantly fist-pumping over my review copy contacts. Gaiman, of course, writes beautifully, in that full-on heart-swelling way that identifies tricky emotions that one could not previously name. The nightmares of children exist in a language that is often impenetrable to adults, but he writes with such a direct insight to those dreams that we begin to remember what it was like to have them. Review here.

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.: It's an unusual book, in its way. Review here.

The Golem and The Jinni by Helen Wecker: I guess you would call this a fantasy novel, or maybe in some ways, a magical realism novel, but however you want to classify a story about two mythic beings from two different cultures meeting in Ellis Island-era NYC, it's worth the read.

Manuscript Found in Accra by Paulo Coelho: I would almost call this a book of philosophy, but if Coelho and his publisher, Knopf, want to call it a novel, then okay. Still quite good though. Review here.

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende: Although the book is nearly 400 pages, it never feels like it goes on too long, and the diary premise never seems forced. Review here.

Grey Cats by Adam Biles: My first-ever Kindle-read novel, which I guess counts for something. Still, I did enjoy this surreal story set in Paris, made even more surreal by reading it in a very warm Florida house.

The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy: Not quite as "I WILL HUG THIS BOOK'S FACE OFF" as Everything Beautiful Began After, but still really good.

Girl Afraid by Ciarán West: In the same way readers moved past their shock to read Alissa Nutting's similarly-themed Tampa, I do hope people give this a look. Review here.

Short Stories!

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin: Another one of those "meant to review/got behind/ declared Review Bankruptcy instead." That shouldn't deter you. This is an odd, wonderful collection of little "apocalypses" with a really great cut-out hardcover.

Half as Happy: Stories by Gregory Spatz: You know a book is good if you only stop reading so that you can tell the author, at 1 AM via Facebook, how much you are enjoying it. Review here.

The Girlfriend Game by Nick Antosca: These aren't happy tales, but the confusion, loneliness, and yearning for change feels so authentic to each individual world. Review here.

A Simplified Map of the Real World by Stevan Allred: I wanted to review this for Word Riot because it is a short story collection from a small press, so it would be a good fit, but alas, I didn't write anything. Let this be my recommendation now: Allred writes wonderfully of loneliness, despair, and desire. The history and characters contained within the town of Renata, Oregon make this one of the most connected collection of short stories I've ever read.

NANO Fiction (Vol. 7 No. 1) edited by Kirby Johnson: Their collections of flash fiction are usually good, though this was the best one from them I read last year.


All-American Poem by Matthew Dickman: I first became aware of Matthew Dickman through a New Yorker profile of him and his twin brother, Michael, who is also a writer. In Powells, I purchased this while looking for poetry books in which my husband might be interested. It's very, very good, and he should read it. (She said, staring pointedly.)

Looking For The Gulf Motel by Richard Blanco: 2013 kind of became my year of reading poetry, probably helped tremendously by my well-documented love for Richard Blanco. His work and dem arms. I reviewed this collection of poetry over at The Rumpus. (I also want to read his memoir.)

100 Love Sonnets / Cien Sonetos de Amor by Pablo Neruda: Twas almost entirely full-on love. Review here.

Proxy by R Erica Doyle: Prose poems that are unafraid of the body, of queerness, and the messiness into which one can willingly dive. Review here.

Equivalents by Jessica Baran: I will have a review of this up at The Rumpus soon, so stay tuned, other than to say, y'know, I liked it.


Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell: I also meant to review this one, but I also read it around the same time I met Johnny Marr, and that was quite... distracting. (And wonderful. And I'm not going to stop mentioning it.) While I didn't always agree with Bissell's points, his essays were always interesting and gave me something to think about regarding creativity.

Mountainfit by Meera Lee Sethi: A cross between journalism, memoir, and poetry. Review (and a guest post) here.

Sexy Business!

Suite Encounters: Hotel Sex Stories edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel: Probably one of the better erotica collections I've read. Review here.

Sexy Sailors: Gay Erotic Stories edited by Neil Plakcy: Thankfully, it's not only about Navy members. I think maybe this and Suite Encounters might set someone up for false expectations about the general quality of most erotic fiction compilations because this was mostly pretty good, whereas most others are variations on "just okay, with a couple highlights." Review here.

The Ultimate Guide to Prostate Pleasure: Erotic Exploration for Men and Their Partners by Charlie Glickman and Aislinn Emirzian: Definitely interesting in a "Huh. So that's how that works," scientific sort of way, but also interesting in a fun way. Review here.


Boo: The Life of The World's Cutest Dog by J.H. Lee and Gretchen LeMaistre: AKA... The e-book went on sale for 99 cents, and how could I (or my kids) resist that? Look at him. He is pretty cute.

The Believer: Issues 99-103: If you like smart, arty magazines that somewhat read like a book, then you should just go subscribe already.


John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion by John Varvatos: Sometimes the fashion-speak is not entirely my thing, but this is a great rock n roll book. I love the Paul Weller inclusions, and seeing Neil Casal's photos of Ryan Adams and Liam and Noel Gallagher (whom I've also met, Obligatory Mention #14353). It's a fun book to look at. More importantly though, SO MUCH BOWIE.

Reporter (Vol. 1, No. 1) by Dylan Williams: Pulled this out of my husband's old comic collection and even bothered to make a Goodreads entry for it, so it's worth a look. Might be a bit of a rarity? I'm not sure.

And that's all for now. In the final installment, I'll go over the good to "meh" to the one book that made me (probably irrationally) angry, and a few I didn't finish. Until then...

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene by Mark Gatiss

Doctor Who: Last of the Gaderene by Mark Gatiss
Doctor Who: Last of The Gaderene
by Mark Gatiss

Last of The Gaderene was first published in 2000, five years before the modern era of Doctor Who and ten years before Mark Gatiss increased his workload to include Sherlock. What I'm saying is: Mark Gatiss is a better writer now, but Last of The Gaderene is still a decent Doctor Who story.

Let's get the bad bits out of the way first — In 2000, there wasn't an adjective or adverb that Gatiss wasn't keen to overuse, and the ensuing descriptions and dialogue tags suffer from that bloat. Now, I'm not an “all adverbs are evil” sort of writer/editor, but there are only so many “seemingly” and “nodded confidently” type things I can look past without rolling my eyes. Also, if he could quit emphasizing at every turn that the female villain is fat, that would be great. Cheers.

There are too many characters crammed into the story as well. I know the Doctor is all about everyone being important, but I don't need to hear the personal story and interior monologue of (what seemingly seems like) a dozen villagers in order to care about the village. Some of these characters are important, yes, but not all of them need soliloquy time. We can still have them be useful to the plot through the eyes of someone else.

Still, Mark Gatiss' sense of fun and great love for the Doctor is what makes Last of The Gaderene so enjoyable, despite its flaws (and is also why Gatiss is one of my favorite writers for the TV episodes). Placing us firmly in the 1970s world of the Third Doctor, we catch the Time Lord after his exile on Earth is no longer in effect, but he's still very involved in UNIT. Jo Grant and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart are there too, and I'm quite fond of them both.

'My dear Brigadier,' said the Doctor, stretching back in his chair and folding his hands behind his head. 'Running errands is not my forte. If you want someone to pop round to see your old friends, I suggest you try the Women's Institute.' He put his feet up on the Brigadier's desk, the corners of his mouth turning up until a small smile. 'I believe they make excellent jam.' 
The Brigadier raised an eyebrow and shot a venomous look at the Doctor who had now closed his eyes, completing the look of indifference. 
He was glad the Doctor had returned, of course, and he was certainly looking back to his usual dapper self in an emerald-green smoking jacket, narrow black trousers, and bow tie. However, he was displaying his familiar contempt for the Brigadier's methods and seemed damedly disinclined to get back to work. Or, at least what the Brigadier regarded as work. 
'Perhaps if you could explain a bit more, sir,” said Jo helpfully. 
'Oh very well,' sighed Lethbridge-Stewart. He sat down and leant forward over the desk, crossing his hands in front of him. 'Alec Whistler is an old friend. He was a pilot during the war — ' 
'Which war?” said the Doctor, still with eyes closed. 
'Well, the last one, of course,' cried the Brigadier in exasperation. 
'Oh, yes. I lost track. You have so many.' The Doctor settled himself further into the chair.

The Doctor enjoys winding up the Brig, of course. Eventually though, he and Jo agree to visit the village of Culverton, where some very strange things have been happening. A decommissioned air base is now swarming with workers — foot soldiers, really — clad in identical black uniforms, operating trucks and other equipment at all hours, and all are smiling in a very unsettling way. People have been disappearing, and though no one know what to make of it, something is definitely wrong to any of the residents paying attention, including the aforementioned WWII vet, Whistler.

The Third Doctor is his usual bombastic self, ready to roll up his sleeves and dive into the mystery with his trademark curiosity. Though I'm only semi-familiar with Jon Pertwee's portrayal, it seemed like Gatiss got his (sometimes very patronizing) voice right, as well as the Brigadier and Jo. Jo is feeling like less of a subordinate and like more of a colleague to the Doctor, and the Brig is not as disbelieving as he once was (though he does still favor armed resolution over conversation).

The Doctor enlists some of the villagers to help him gather information, and there's a bit of a domesticity we don't often see with him — playing house guest.

The Doctor was halfway through a plate of scrambled eggs which he'd rustled up when Ted Bishop came downstairs, looking refreshed and better than he had in a long while, except for his hair which was sticking up at the back in a cowlick.

One doesn't see the Doctor eating, much less cooking, very often. He's around people eating plenty, but someone would have to refresh my memory as to how often we actually see him putting anything in his mouth (that he doesn't spit out again).

The level of tolerance one has for the Doctor's occasionally dismissive attitude and “Not now” comments depends on the fondness one has for the Third Doctor himself, and how one feels about semi-campy '70s television. It's not Shatner-levels of Staggered. Dramatic. Dialogue. but it's different from other Doctors' eras. And that's all right, in my viewing/reading.

After the Second Doctor's forced regeneration via the Time Lords, it would make sense that his character would be resistant to any authority other than his own (for he believes his interference throughout the universe to be in the right), and that restless fighting spirit would be amplified after his previous incarnation's silliness. (The silliness, of course, being a reaction to dying of old age on the first go. The current regeneration is always borne from the circumstances of its predecessor.)

One is unlikely to read Last of The Gaderene without already being a fan of Doctor Who, but I'm unsure of how it compares to other DW-novels, except in the case of the Eighth and Ninth Doctors' novels re-released for the 50th Anniversary, which I'll review soon. However, this Third Doctor story, despite its problems, feels very much in the spirit of Jon Pertwee's time on the show. It's interesting to see Mark Gatiss at an earlier writing stage, and it's to our viewing benefit that he's progressed so well. I still recommend Last of The Gaderene to fans of the show, and I'm hoping to further expand my knowledge of the Doctor's literary universe.

This review is part of Cannonball Read (now in its 6th year!), a challenge in which participants read and review books in the name of raising money for cancer charities. Do click through for more information.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Books I Read 2013: Part One (incl. Top 5 Favorites)

It's a little late into 2014 to be doing one of these posts, but I spent nearly the first two weeks of January in Disney World with a bunch of family, so here we are. In past years, I've run the stats of how I acquired the books, the gender of the author(s), and other matters, but this year I'm just going to list them somewhat in terms of how I enjoyed them. If you're really curious about how I acquired a book, just ask. And you can run the gender stats yourself this time. I read 100 books, so it should be pretty easy, though perhaps tedious.

Because 100 books is a shit-ton of books, I'll break my list in to a few posts. This is Part One.

(Read Part 2 here.)

Top 5 Favorite Books Published in 2013:

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg (I only did a short review of this one because I got way behind on reviews this year, but this was covered far and wide. You don't need me to go on about it, I suppose. Just read it.)

My Education by Susan Choi (I still plan on reviewing this one because this book has received a bit of hate, and I was somewhat baffled by it because I loved the book.) Edited to add: Further thoughts about this book now appear on Persephone Magazine.

Unknown Pleasures: Inside Joy Division by Peter Hook (Catch my review here.)

Still Writing by Dani Shapiro (I also intend to talk about this one more too, but in the meantime, here's what David Abrams has to say about it.) Edited to addFurther thoughts about this book now appear on Persephone Magazine.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen (The book I loved but never finished the last 30 pages because it had to go back to the library and I was going out of town. Will rectify that soon, I promise. Go read all of it now, please; it's outstanding.) Edited to addFurther thoughts about this book now appear on Persephone Magazine.

Two Favorite Stories that were not technically “books:”

Doctor Who: The Light at The End by Nicholas Briggs (Released for the show's 50th Anniversary, this Big Finish audio drama features Doctors Four through Eight, as well as snippets from One through Three. Past companions are involved. On headphones, it is beautiful, and it's a fantastic story.)

Doctor Who: Embrace The Darkness by Nicholas Briggs (Briggs is not the only Doctor Who Big Finish writer, but I think it's telling that my two favorite audio dramas I listened to this year were written by him. This one features Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor and the audio format really works here to make it an unsettling, spooky story.)

Other Excellent Books Read This Year:

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer's [Philosopher's] Stone by J.K. Rowling (I'm joining the rest of the world, finally.)
Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling

Sandman Vol.2: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman (Again, joining the rest of the world, finally.)
Sandman Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

The Body's Question: Poems by Tracy K. Smith (Review here)

The Cows by Lydia Davis (Already sort of talked about this when I reviewed Electric Literature #2, but I bought the separate chapbook and enjoyed it all over again — this time with photos!)

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel (My first foray into her work. I really want to read her other graphic novels now.)

Papercraft 2: Design and Art With Paper edited by Gestalten Verlag and Birga Meyer (Review here)

Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life by Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed (Sugar is magic. Review here.)

Divergent by Veronica Roth (Perfect vacation reading, but I haven't read the following 2 books yet.)

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon (I really meant to review this one, and never got to it. Just take my word for it, and go read it. Spooky, ambiguous, yet very real. And I'll further embarrass J. Robert Lennon by saying he's a fox. *cough* What? Let's move on.)

More Baths, Less Talking (Stuff I've Been Reading #4) by Nick Hornby (I own all of these collections now, and this was one of the first volumes that I'd read a lot more of — or at least was familiar with —  the books he had.)

Stories For Boys: A Memoir by Gregory Martin (Involves Spokane, which made it extra-familiar for me. Review here.)

This Close: Stories by Jessica Francis Kane (Review here)

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma (Honorable Mention for Favorite Books Published in 2013. Review here.)

Dora: A Headcase by Lidia Yuknavitch (I wanted to hug this book's face off. Review here.)

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh (Oh my god, the stories of Simple Dog and Helper Dog. This whole book is hilarious, and she expands many of the original posts from her site.)

Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova (Really interesting stuff. Review here.)

Great Books Having to Do With Cats Because I Have Cat-Deficit Problems

Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton (I already loved Wendy MacNaughton's illustrations, so to pair it with a cat subject? Sign me up. Touching, funny stuff.)

Simon's Cat vs. The World by Simon Tofield (Might have been the last cat-person on Earth to have never seen the YouTube videos until after I read this book. Review here.)

I Am Pusheen The Cat by Claire Belton (Loses a little something not being in .GIF form, but my son and I have read this together probably 10 times already.)

Did I Mention I Also Have Doctor Who Obsession Problems, particularly when it comes to Paul McGann? (...AKA Shut up, I don't have a problem, you have a problem.)

Doctor Who: Invaders From Mars by Mark Gatiss (I quite like War of the Worlds, so combining it into this story was fun)

Doctor Who: Storm Warning by Alan Barnes (My very first audio drama. It takes some acclimating to do that sort of active listening, but I've got the hang of it now.)

Doctor Who: Minuet in Hell by Gary Russell (This one includes Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart! Worth the price of admission, right there.)

Doctor Who: The Chimes of Midnight by Robert Sherman (One of the stronger Eighth Doctor adventures. Goes back to the ongoing Doctor theme of “I've never met anybody who wasn't important.”)

Doctor Who: Seasons of Fear by Paul Cornell (This one was funny, and ended on a cliffhanger.)

Doctor Who: The Stones of Venice by Paul Magrs (The first half was much more interesting than the second. The second more or less spelled out the ending, but there were still 15-20 minutes to get through. Good story, but not outstanding.)

Doctor Who: The Time of The Daleks by Justin Richards (It was good, but not great. Relevant in terms of the ongoing story arc with Charley, but certainly not my favorite out of those I've heard.)

Doctor Who: The Sword of Orion by Nicholas Briggs (Okay, a Nicholas Briggs one I was less crazy about. I think it's the Cybermen. I rarely get super-enthralled with Cybermen stories.)

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia by Jason Loboreik, Annabel Gibson, and Morey Laing (Kind of aimed more towards a younger reader, but still quite enjoyable and includes a good mix of classic and current Who characters, up until “The Snowmen.”)

Star Trek: The Next Generation / Doctor Who: Assimilation 2, Vol. 1 by Scott Tipton (Strikes me that the writer is a bigger fan of Star Trek than Doctor Who, and until I read the second volume, I'm unsure of this story just yet, but this is an amusing crossover graphic novel. Involves the Borg and those bloody Cybermen.)

Doctor Who: The Star Beast Saga #1 by Pat Mills and John Wagner (My 6-year-old son and I enjoyed reading this before bedtime several nights in a row. 1984's printing + a lot of text made some speech bubbles a strain to read, but this was still enjoyable, and I'm glad I stumbled across it in my local comic shop.)


Part 2 of my Books Read in 2013 will deal with other very good things I read that were not cat- or Doctor-related. Promise.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Girl Afraid by Ciarán West

Girl Afraid 
by Ciarán West

What makes Ciarán West's books interesting is how they confirm that “page-turner” is not just a cover blurb cliché. Even when one might have other things they should be doing, they can be done after “one more chapter.”

Girl Afraid centers around the kidnapping of Poppy Riley, daughter of a well-known actor, Tom, who is away filming. Poppy had been left in the care of Alice, her father's trusted assistant, and Magda, the girl's recently hired nanny. Alice wakes up to a phone call from a man who claims to know what happened, but first she must get out of the house and follow his directions — and off we go into a fast-paced story with multiple points of view, bit by bit discovering what has and what will happen.

The multiple points of view are from a whole host of characters — everyone from Alice, to Alice's ex-boyfriend Dylan, to Poppy herself, to several different men who want to do normally unspeakable things to the girl. (We'll get to that in a moment.) And several others. The only complaint I have for Girl Afraid is that sometimes the head-hopping could be hard to follow, especially with how the Kindle formatted the paragraph breaks, if the point-of-view change happened after a page-swipe. Perhaps an asterisk was in order to delineate the change.

Now, my brain is sometimes more foggy than your average attentive reader, so this might not be an issue for everyone. It's not exactly a case of too many characters — though Dylan's storyline added the least to the overall plot — but without another read through, I can't say what besides an asterisk would have made the POV shifts more clear to me.

Perhaps I needed to quit blowing through page-swipes and to slow down, but with the OMG-Factor set so high, I doubt most readers are taking a leisurely stroll through the book.

Now back to that phrase “normally unspeakable:” Often when it comes to the sexual abuse of children and pedophilia (pedophilia differentiated here as someone who enjoys the thought of underage sexual content, but has not necessarily committed the act), we hear about it secondhand. It's often from the person trying to stop it (Alice), or the investigating officer (don't trust the police in this story), or through the dramatic irony of the clueless character who hasn't yet realized what's going on (in this case, a man-for-hire called Bob).

Bob lit up a cigarette. There wasn't an ashtray; he had been flicking them into an old peanut packet he found in his coat. It wasn't the sort of place you could put ash on the floor, he thought. It was a beautiful house, and immaculately clean. He hadn't seen the outside. He had been working for their outfit for almost a year, but he knew little about who they were. He had never met the boss, or heard a name mentioned.  

A van had picked him up at eleven from outside The Crown. The text had said to get in the back when it came. He hadn't talked to the driver. No windows either, so he had no idea where they’d taken him. He was sure that that had been a deliberate thing. They were professional and discreet. He hadn't made many friends, but the money had been good. 

He had spoken to a Polish woman when he arrived. She had told him what to do. He was to sit outside the room at the table and watch the blue light. They’d given him a tray with some food and drink on it. When the blue light came on, he was supposed to unlock the door and bring it into the room. He wasn't to let the child see or hear him, and he shouldn't engage her in any way. He was in and out in quickly, when the time came. He heard her singing to herself in the toilet. Baa, Baa, Black Sheep, or something with a similar tune. He felt a pang of guilt as he let himself out. He was fond of kids, and always had been.

West takes us into the mind of not one, but several pedophile characters, each with a very different profession and history behind their interest in Poppy Riley. Yes, it's disturbing, and yes, we're not meant to like these characters, but that doesn't necessarily mean we shouldn't hear from them. We are all the more invested in Poppy's rescue this way, and certain aspects of the plot are most efficiently revealed when told through the voices of these awful characters.

But no, that doesn't mean that this book is for everyone. It is both physically and psychologically violent at times, and it's up to the reader to say if their discomfort outweighs their interest.

The box was full of clothes, and other things which were unfamiliar to Poppy: a small wooden paddle with three holes in it; a long silver object which she thought resembled a bullet, and the toothpaste tube which didn't say ‘toothpaste’ anywhere on it. Poppy held the silver thing in her fingers; it was big for a bullet. She thought it might be a tank bullet. She twisted the cap to see if she could look inside, but instead of coming off, it made a buzzing sound and began to shake. She dropped it in the box and it rolled around in there, making a noise against the wood like her father’s phone did when he got a call. She picked it up and twisted it again to turn it off. This time the lid came away, and inside she saw some batteries; one on top of the other, like in a flashlight. She put the lid back on carefully and put the thing away. 
It was mostly clothes in the box. Bras, knickers, tights; and a few things she recognised, but didn't know the names for. They looked like adult clothes to her, but they were so small, a child might have fit them. She held one of the bras up against her and giggled. She wondered would it be okay to try them on. She liked costumes and dressing up. And having something to do might take away her frightened feelings, the same way it took away bored ones. She sorted through the silky pants and stockings, choosing what to try on first. They felt nice to touch, so they’d probably feel even nicer when you had them on, she thought. 

Though the craft of the writing itself takes a few chapters to hit its stride, West keeps all his plot pieces moving together effortlessly. From the beginning, we're invested in Alice and Poppy's safety, and the story avoids Lifetime Movie over-dramatics. Perhaps what is most disturbing about Girl Afraid is how very real it all is. No one is a caricature, and the people who are interested in Poppy all appear “normal” to the public. That any person you see, no matter how put-together and successful they might seem, could be capable of terrible things is where some readers might find it too much to bear.

And it is scary. What Ciarán West has written is not exactly a thriller — it's a horror story. The monsters are here, and they're on TV, on sports teams, around the corner, and on the police force. Anywhere. No wonder some reviewers have been shocked.

In the same way readers moved past that shock to read Alissa Nutting's similarly-themed Tampa, I do hope people give Girl Afraid a look. In those uncomfortable places, we learn about our own character, and we learn how to process the shadows that we're normally all too keen to ignore.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova + Giveaway!

Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova (cover)
I confess a weakness for the most brilliant person in the room. People who are great at what they do, whatever their “thing” may be, are my favorites. Excellence is dead sexy, especially when it comes to intelligence and the desire to improve. For this reason, I'm interested in the character of Sherlock Holmes.

Oh, sure, he's maddening to deal with — abrupt, insensitive, and distant at times — but the skill with which he gathers and assesses information is why his character has endured since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created him in 1887. In Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, Maria Konnikova examines what goes into Holmes' process, the way he can block out all other distractions in order to solve his cases, and how ordinary people can use these skills in their everyday life.

Besides being interested in Sherlock Holmes, I wanted to read Mastermind for another reason — to push through my own brain fog. I suffer from both chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, two illnesses with concentration and memory problems as symptoms. The severity of the brain fog varies from day-to-day, dependent on a few factors I've managed to identify so far (amount of sleep, activity level, etc.), but I wanted to know if there were ways I could retrain my brain to regain some of its previous ability.

And besides all that, increasing my powers of observation will make me a better writer. Being able to effectively take in my surroundings is just putting the work in, and Mastermind appears that it can help with such matters. Writers are not exactly known for being logical and reasoned, and we must remember that the tales of Sherlock Holmes are indeed supposed to be written by one Dr. John Watson.

Most psychologists now agree that our minds operate on a so-called two-system basis. One system is fast, intuitive, reactionary — a kind of constant fight-or-flight vigilance of the mind. It doesn't require much conscious thought or effort and functions as a sort of status quo autopilot. The other is slower, more deliberative, more thorough, more logical — but also much more cognitively costly. It likes to sit things out as long as it can and doesn't step in unless it thinks it absolutely necessary. 
 I'm going to give the systems monikers of my own: the Watson system and the Holmes system. You can guess which is which. Think of the Watson system as our naïve selves, operating by the lazy thought habits — the ones we've spent our whole lives acquiring. And think of the Holmes system as our aspirational selves, the selves that we'll be once we're done learning how to apply his method of thinking to our everyday lives — and in doing so break the habits of our Watson system once and for all.

Konnikova points out that most people cannot be operating as system Holmes all the time. Sherlock Holmes has spent his whole life practicing his way of thinking and is already unusually gifted, especially considering that psychology was still a very new study when the original stories appeared. He's made his way of thinking his job, not a mere mental exercise. Older Holmes has acquired more skill through practice over his younger self, and by witnessing this practice, Watson also manages to become more circumspect. Is he always successful? No. Holmes certainly loves pointing out all the ways his friend has erred. However, Watson has learned how he might start to change his initial thinking, and that is progress.

Most references are to the actual Arthur Conan Doyle texts themselves, though Konnikova does mention the popular BBC show a couple of times. (Sorry, Elementary fans. No love for you in this volume, I'm afraid.) Though I haven't read many of the stories, I've seen several of the films (old and new), and in reading Mastermind, I see how much the BBC show gets right and how much from the original stories, down to exact dialogue, that the writers include. That those details and conversations hold up over a century later is amazing and so much fun. Despite all the advanced technology now available to a modern Sherlock, it all comes back to his mind. His “brain attic” is where all that information is cataloged.

Yes, it's a “brain attic” originally, not a “mind palace.” Not nearly as funny, but the concept remains the same:

Whatever it looks like, it is a space in your head, specifically fashioned for storing the most disparate of objects. And yes, there is certainly a cord that you can pull to turn the light on or off at will. As Holmes explains to Watson, “A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain attic.” 
The attic can be broken down, roughly speaking, into two components: structure and contents. The attic's structure is how our mind works: how it takes in information. How it processes that information. How it sorts it and stores it for the future. How it may choose to integrate it or not with the contents that are already in the attic space. […] 
The attic's contents, on the other hand, are those things that we've taken in from the world and that we've experienced in our lives. Our memories. Our past. The base of our knowledge, the information we start with every time we face a challenge. And just like a physical attic's contents can change over time, so too does our mind attic continue to take in and discard items until the very end.

Konnikova uses both Sherlock's methods paired with scientific studies to show how our minds work — how they jump to conclusions — and how to parse out what is relevant information, the facts, and what is conjecture. How many times have we been put off a person because they reminded us of someone annoying in our past? How many times have we been more likely to unconsciously indulge a person because we think they are pretty? And if we're the sort to love it when people are very, very good at what they do, do we put up with or completely ignore their frustrating personality quirks?

System Holmes asks that we pause and ask, What's really going on here?

Inspectors Lestrade and Gregson also get their time in Mastermind. Konnikova points out the times when the police see the “facts” as they want to see them, all for the benefit of having a speedy, open-and-shut case. What we want to believe is not necessarily true. And also, “When we try to recall something, we won't be able to do so if there is too much piled up in the way. Instead, competing memories will vie for our attention.” Long hours, similar cases, evidence that fits well enough — all these factors can make Lestrade think he has captured the right man.

We may insist that we are not biased to think one way or another, but upon further examination, that will not be true. A “bias” is merely the direction we have programmed our brains to take, to the point that we have programmed our brains to interpret the word “bias” as a negative, undesired concept.

Rather than be biased towards, for example, a person's appearance, Konnikova references “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder,” where Watson remarks that, “Surely his appearance would go far with any jury?”

“That is a dangerous argument, my dear Watson. You remember that terrible murderer, Bert Stevens, who wanted us to get him off in '87? Was there ever a more mild-mannered, Sunday school young man?”

What it comes down to is engagement. Why Sherlock Holmes is good at what he does is because he is fully engaged with the observation at hand and nothing else. He is taking in everything presented before he goes on to decide what that means compared to the information he has gathered previously. He is not allowing himself to be distracted in the moment, and he does not let his thoughts wander, and because he has trained himself to be mindful in all that he does, he does not often slip up in his cases. (Mastermind points out where Holmes does slip up as well.)

The takeaway for my own brain after reading this book is twofold: One, I need to reread the book because the trouble with reading a book on mindfulness before bed is that one's mind tends to drift off and lose the thread even more so than usual. Two, I need to quit trying to multitask.

When we multitask, we are not actually being more productive — we're just doing two or more things at the same time, badly. We are not fully engaged and focused, and it is near-impossible to do anything well when we are not concentrating one thing alone. In terms of my illnesses, for example, I've found that if I'm trying to cook something, it can be more difficult to follow a conversation. Measured ingredients are hard to keep track of, and all for, what, getting three-quarters of what is being said to me? No, no, let me get all these things into the pot, and then you can tell me what you need to tell me.

Mastermind references and re-references different case studies, Sherlockian and scientific, and does so in a simple, straightforward way. In order to relearn how to think, we need to have the new ideas presented again and again for them to really sink in. I suspect that anyone who finds the book repetitive might want to check their bias that they are already perfectly smart and know plenty just fine, thanks.

Are you sure?

Well, maybe there are a few real Sherlocks walking among us, but I'm guessing that they might be using lived experience and the specific case studies themselves, and not necessarily Mastermind to know if their powers of observation are up to snuff.

While I'll definitely reread Mastermind at some point, Konnikova's enthusiasm for the original stories (plus wanting to notice more of the details on the show) make me want to delve into that source material. My brain may never get back to what I think it “should” be, but I can certainly try to improve.

Penguin Books provided me with this book for review purposes (and I thank them), and they have also generously provided one more copy to give away to one of you fine readers.

To be entered into the giveaway, leave a comment answering the following:

Have you read any of the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Or are you more of a film/TV-version connoisseur?

Please also provide a way to contact you in the comment. (Email, Twitter handle, etc.)

One winner will be selected via random number generator and will be announced the evening of January 1, 2014.


Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Internal News: Book Release, Record Machines, Word Rioting, Rumpusing + Quirkilicious

Iraqi Headaches: Poems by Saif Alsaegh (Nouveau Nostalgia, 2013)

(Today's Internal News Post is sponsored by Grammarly, the site that checks your work for better spelling and grammar usage, helps you cite sources correctly, and will also allow teacher-types to say things like, "I use Grammarly's plagiarism checker for students because laziness is never endearing.")

And now the news:

If you didn't already know, I'm the publisher/editor for Nouveau Nostalgia, a micro-press that specializes in book with handmade elements. We've just released our third title, Iraqi Headaches: Poems by Saif Alsaegh. It's available directly from NN or through Amazon, presently.

Let's catch up on things I've written that haven't been here. Despite the lack of updates here (what with bringing a book into the world), I have kept busy.

The Rumpus has my review of Proxy by R Erica Doyle. It's a great book of poetry.

Quirk DIY has my post on Adventures in Book Arts: Three Places to Buy Beautiful Handmade Notebooks. It includes a TARDIS notebook. I'm hoping to have similar book arts-type posts over there in the future.

RECORD MACHINE at Persephone Magazine:

FRIDAY NEWS BITES at Persephone Magazine:

  • 12-13-13: Tributes to Nelson Mandela and Paul Walker, gun death statistics, LGBT issues and more.
  • 12-6-13: Frosty weather, Nigella court news, stranded whales, and more.
  • 11-22-13: Equality updates, typhoon damage... annnnd John Hurt wearing a baggy velvet suit, drinking champagne, and leaning against a Dalek.
  • 11-15-13: In which I flail about because the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, was featured in a Doctor Who 50th Anniversary prequel video. Oh, right, and some other news. 
  • 11-8-13: The corgis in danger? And Mexican Coke? IS NOTHING SACRED?! Also, the Whig party still exists. Huh.
  • 11-1-13: Marriage equality news, and an 80-year-old Russian Man vs. a Russian Bear: Involves falling off a cliff. Guess who wins?
  • 10-25-13: Rogue cows, racial bias and more. ROGUE. COWS.

Other posts at P-Mag:

Look at him, though.
Ready my swooning couch. 

Notes From Elsewhere at Word Riot:

  • 11-9-13: Lou Reed tributes, self-promo tips, Montana writers and more.
  • 11-22-13: Calls For Writers, Recent English History, National Book Award Excerpts + More
  • And hopefully another one this Friday because I need to quit slacking (again) in this department.

I'm hoping to get a bit more caught up on book reviews before the end of the year, so do stay tuned.

In the meantime, go add Iraqi Headaches to your Goodreads shelves, and then head on over to Nouveau Nostalgia to buy a copy. Only 100 of those special editions will be made, ever, and many of them are already spoken for.

Until next time!

Monday, November 18, 2013

For Your Reading Pleasure: 3 Books on Vulnerability and Bad Decisions

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.

I read Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles right after Kristopher Jansma's The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, and they complimented each other to the point of Miracles almost reading like a sequel to Leopards. Both deal with unreliable male protagonists speaking to the reader, men who need some enlightening on matters of women and healthy relationships.

I preferred Jansma's book, but Miracles is still quite good. Currie's self-named character somewhat accidentally fakes his own death in the Caribbean, and as a result, his novel becomes a bestseller. He misses the woman with whom he'd lived “pre-death,” and eventually coming “back to life” makes the public unhappy with upending their Lost Genius fiction they'd constructed in his absence. We all have stories we tell ourselves, and facing their inaccuracies is startling.

The earliest known mention of a person enhanced with a prosthesis, believe it or not, comes from the Vedas. We're talking 1500 B.C., or thereabouts. A female warrior loses her leg, and is given a replacement. We've had 3,500 years to get used to the idea, yet when I talk about the Singularity, people still get an indulgent look on their faces, like they're humoring me and my absurd notions of human beings with brain/computer interfaces and titanium exoskeletons. I mean, they're polite about it, usually, which I appreciate. But, you know, 1500 B.C. The first time a person was joined with a machine, however primitive. Consider that, I tell them, then ask yourself: Who's being naïve, do you think?

Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende

Also dealing with questions of identity and existing in hiding is Maya's Notebook by Isabel Allende, released this past May. In it, Maya Vidal alternates between writing about living in Chile with a friend of her grandmother's, and also the self-destructive path that brought her there. The scenery shifts between Berkeley, the Pacific Northwest, Las Vegas, and Chiloé.

Although the book is nearly 400 pages, it never feels like it goes on too long, and the diary premise never seems forced. Maya's story hurtles along, and Allende, no matter the location, immerses you in a way where you can nearly taste the weather. And there's a fair dose of humor too:

The cousin showed up an hour later than he said he would in a van crammed to the roof with stuff, accompanied by his wife with a baby at her breast. I thanked my benefactors, who had also lent me the cell phone to get in touch with Manual Arias, and said good-bye to the dog, but he had other plans: he sat at my feet and swept the ground with his tail, smiling like a hyena; he had done me the favor of honoring me with his attention, and now I was his lucky human. I changed tactics. “Shoo! Shoo! Fucking dog,” I shouted at him in English. He didn't move, while the cousin observed the scene with pity. “Don't worry, señorita, we can bring your Fahkeen,” he said at last. And in this way that ashen creature acquired his new name[.]

Both present and past storylines are riveting, and I can see this book also becoming a good movie. It wouldn't surprise me if the rights have already been sold.

Harley Loco: A Memoir of Hard Living, Hair, and Post-Punk, From The Middle East to The Lower East Side by Rayya Elias

Yes, that title is a mouthful, but this New York memoir from Rayya Elias is an interesting portrait of redemption. At this point in my reading life, I admit to tiring of the addict memoir, but that doesn't mean that these stories aren't worth telling. It comes down to the surrounding environment, when I decide on giving the book my attention. It was the post-punk angle that sucked me into this one.

Elias and her family left Syria when she was young, and the rebellious teenager took to drugs in order to impress her tougher classmates:

For the first time I had earned street credibility — not because of my cool cousin, but because of what I had done. I was christened into the club of the psychos[.]

She joins a lot of bands, learns how to cut and style hair, and eventually moves to New York during the 1980s. She rises and falls multiple times, including a stint in prison. Although Elias isn't the strongest writer, I appreciate that Harley Loco isn't one of those “hit rock bottom/ climbed out/ everything is fine now” stories. Rayya Elias, though many years sober, shows the reality of her struggle, and how art can transcend addiction.

Full Disclosure: Viking provided me with review copies of both Harley Loco and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles. Harper provided the review copy of Maya's Notebook. I thank them for the gesture, and I will continue to be fair with my reviews.