Friday, March 30, 2012

The Criminal

The CriminalThe Criminal by Jim Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A teenage girl is found raped and murdered and a boy who was known to have sex with her is the prime suspect. The newspaper turns the case into a circus and the town turns against the boy? Did he do it? And will it even matter when the dust settles?

This wasn't quite what I expected from old Mr. Happy, Jim Thompson. Yeah, it has the feel of a lot of Jim Thompson books in that all people are bastards but it wasn't quite as bleak as the others. Sure, the Talbert boy went through the wringer and his parents and the lawyers didn't have a picnic but the main characters got off kind of light.

The thing that I really liked about The Criminal was the use of a variety of viewpoint characters. The Criminal is a pretty short book but Thompson used close to ten viewpoint characters and gave each a unique voice.

While it didn't have the usual brutality of a Jim Thompson novel, The Criminal did a great job at showing Thompson's skill as a writer. I wouldn't say it's a top tier Thompson, it's shoulders above some of his weaker efforts. It's an easy three stars.

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They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Serpent's Tail Classics)They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robert and Gloria enter a marathon dance contest with $1000 as the top prize. Too bad Gloria thinks about death more than winning...

Horace McCoy is bleak enough to be one of Jim Thompson's drinking buddies. This tale is really slim but also kind of exhausting. McCoy's depiction of a dance contest that lasts over a month is hellish and he paints a depressing picture of life during the Great Depression. See what I did there?

It's a pretty powerful story. You know how it ends in the first few pages but getting there is still an ordeal. I felt for Gloria at times but others times I was waiting for her to get to it. She wasn't a likeable character but I did feel sorry for her when she wasn't being a bitch.

That's pretty much all I have to say. If Jim Thompson wrote a book about a marathon dance contest with a suicidal contestant, it would look a lot like this.

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Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human CadaversStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Mary Roach writes about what happens when you donate your body to science. Hilarity ensues. Well, maybe not hilarity but it is a good dose of edutainment.

Way back around the time the earth's crust cooled and life spread across the planet, late 1994 or early 1995, I should think, I visited a chiropractic college with the rest of my Advanced Biology class. This trip was memorable to me for three reasons:
1) It was the first time I experienced an excruciating caffeine withdrawal headache
2) It was the first time I saw a human cadaver
3) I smoked five of my classmates playing pool in the student lounge at lunch.

Obviously, #2 is the one pertinent to this review, although I am still quite proud of #3. The cadaver I saw had its face covered and its skin looked shriveled, somewhat like beef jerky. My 17 year old mind briefly wondered where the man had come from before my hormone-fueled brain returned my attention to the nubile young ladies in the room. Anyway, let's get down to review business.

Mary Roach manages to take a subject that give many people the heebie-jeebies, donating one's remains to science, and makes it humorous at times. She covers such topics as learning surgical techniques via practicing on cadavers, human decomposition, ingesting human remains for medicinal purpose, using corpses in car crash tests, using cadavers for ballistics tests, crucifixion experiments, and even head transplants.

While it's not ideal meal-time reading, I didn't find it as stomach churning as some reviewers did. The talk of decomposition and quack remedies of the Middle ages were fascinating and I was really interested in the head and brain transplant experiments. Frankenstein's monster doesn't seem as unrealistic as it did yesterday.

Apparently, necrophilia is only illegal in 16 states. Imagine if that was one of your criteria when choosing a place to live. "Honey, I'd love to live in Florida but then we couldn't have our sexy parties..."

Actually, the funeral bits were also pretty enlightening. Did you know they have to suture the anus shut to keep nastiness from leaking out during a funeral? Or that dead people can fart from gas trapped in their intestines? Or that they insert special caps underneath the eyelids to keep them from suddenly opening? Fascinating stuff.

Stiff is a very interesting read for those interested in what happens when you donate your body to science, softened somewhat by Roach's sense of humor. Three easy stars.

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Monday, March 26, 2012

A Short Stay in Hell

A Short Stay in HellA Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mormon Soren Johansson dies and wakes up in the afterlife, only to find that Zoroastrianism was the one true faith. He's then banished to a hell suitable for his rehabilitation needs: a library of near infinite size, containing every possible book ever written, one of which is his life story. Can Soren find that elusive book?

I got this book for free from the publisher, and normally that would make it feel like a homework assignment assignment from a crabby teacher once the "free book" excitement wore off. Not so with this one. It's a damn good book.

A Short Stay in Hell reminds me of something Philip Jose Farmer would concoct after digging through some of Hermann Hesse's notes, or if Hermann Hesse tried writing Riverworld. Soren wakes up in hell with a perfect 25 year old body, gets free food from kiosks, and is resurrected when killed. Sounds Farmer-ish, right?

The library Soren wakes up in is based in part on Jorge Luis Borges Library of Babel. It's light-years tall, containing every 410 page book that could possibly ever be written. Needless to say, Soren's road to redemption isn't going to be a stroll down to the corner pub for a beer.

Lots of things happen in this slim volume. It explores what immortality would be like while performing a seemingly impossible task. I don't want to give too much away but there's a near-bottomless chasm between the two walls of the library and it gets heavy use.

Like I said, this book was pretty slim. About the only complaint I have would be that the writing was a bit rocky in the early going but it smoothed out after the prologue and really moved the story along. Other than that, I would have liked it to be three or four times this long. It's either a high 3 or a low 4. I'm going to go with the 4.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Worshippers and the Way

The Worshippers And The Way (Chronicles Of An Age Of Darkness Volume 9)The Worshippers And The Way by Hugh Cook

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When the instructor at the Combat College is found dead, it is determined that Asodo Hatch and Lupus Lon Oliver, the two best Startroopers, will battle for the instructor position in three years time. But will they survive that long with revolution brewing and the religion of Nu-chula-nuth gaining a foothold?

Hugh Cook doing science fiction? In the Chronicles of an Age of Darkness? What gives? Well, this book reveals the truth about things long-hinted at in earlier volumes. The world Cook fashioned has lots of remnants of super science lying around and this book reveals where it all came from.

The Worshippers and the Way takes place in the far flung past of the Chronicles. It turns out the planet was once part of a transcosmic empire called The Nexus, but the Chasm Gate connected it to the rest of the Nexus was 20,000 years dead at the point this story begins. The story is only tangently related to the rest of the Chronicles, though Ebrell Island and The Hermit Crab are mentioned, as are the Golden Gulag. I'd say it's most tied to books 6 & 7.

Enough of the background, this is essentially the story of Asodo Hatch and Lupus Lon Oliver, two soldiers doing their duty and butting heads. Hatch is far more like the standard fantasy or sf hero than most of Hugh Cook's leads. He's the best of the best but Cook makes up for it by having his personal life be a damn mess. Lupus doesn't fare much better. By the end of the tale, it's very apparent how this story is related to the others.

Cook's humor is very apparent in this volume, as is how much effort he put into conceiving the world of Age of Darkness. I'd say there's more world building in this volume than any two other Chronicles put together. It's still good but it feels a bit bogged down at times. Also, I found the sf kind of jarring compared to the other chronicles, though it had to be done eventually.

Still, it had it's moments. How many stories have you read where someone is killed and a plastic bag of dog semen is found lodged in their throat? 3 stars, leaning slightly toward 4. It's by far at the tail end of my list of favorite Hugh Cook books.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Bookman

The BookmanThe Bookman by Lavie Tidhar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just minutes before a space cannon launches a probe to Mars, a terrorist called The Bookman kills poet Orphan's love in an explosion. Orphan's quest for the truth takes him below the streets of London, aboard the Nautilus with Jules Verne and Captain Nemo, and to the mysterious island home of Les Lezards, the lizard men who rule the world...

Okay, now this is what all steampunk books should aspire to be! What Lavie Tidhar has done in The Bookman is simply marvelous. Most of the steampunk books I've read had too much going on or the steampunk element seemed tacked on. Not so in The Bookman.

The world Tidhar has created is a curious mix of Victorian London and alternate history. In this case, the jonbar point was the rise of the Les Lezards from an island in what we call the Caribbean. Queen Victoria is a lizard woman, a probable nod to The Steampunk Trilogy. The word is chock-full of steam punk goodness: airships, automatons, etc, and all is integral to the plot and not just window dressing.

Orphan, the protagonist, is a poet and certainly no superhero. He takes quite a beating throughout the book, going from the frying pan to the fire on many occasions. His quest to find The Bookman, a terrorist who uses exploding books as weapons, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Fictional characters mingle with real ones. Karl Marx and Henry Irving exist in the same world as Harry Flashman and Moriarty, who is the Prime Minister. Jules Verne rubs shoulders with Captain Nemo, and Irene Adler is an Inspector while Watson is working in a hospital.

I really want to gush about all the plot twists but rather than be a tremendous spoiler, I'm going to go into the huge number of Easter Eggs in this thing. At one point, Orphan goes into a bookstore and there are books written by William Ashbless, Cosmo Cowperthwait, Jubal Harshaw, and Gordon Lachance. Quite a mix. In fact, Ashbless is mentioned multiple times..

I could go on and on but you'd be better served to just read the book yourself. For what it is, a steampunk adventure story, it's a solid five.

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Edge of Dark Water

Edge of Dark WaterEdge of Dark Water by Joe R. Lansdale

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A girl with Hollywood aspirations's body is pulled out of the Sabine River. Her friends Sue Ellen, Jinx, Terry set out to spread her ashes in Hollywood. Unfortunately, some money the deceased girl's brother stole wind's up in their possession and people are on their trail. And a murderer named Skunk is also following them. Will Sue Ellen and her friends survive their river odyssey?

Joe Lansdale weaves a coming of age tale set in east Texas. It's a little like Huckleberry Finn, if Huckleberry Finn involved stolen money, a killer that severs hands, and an opium-addicted mother. It's a pretty gripping tale. Sue Ellen comes to grips with her parents, Terry deals with his sexuality, and Jinx deals with being black. Skunk is a pretty chilling villain and the rest of the people following the protagonists are cut from the usual Lansdale cloth of redneck scumbags. I didn't see the identity of May Lynn's killer coming. Overall, I was pretty pleased with it.

However, I only gave it a three because I felt like Lansdale has told the story at least twice before, both in The Bottoms and A Fine Dark Line. It was good but it felt like he was mining familiar territory.

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Friday, March 16, 2012

Faceless Killers

Faceless Killers (Wallander, #1)Faceless Killers by Henning Mankell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An elderly couple is robbed and brutally murdered and it's up to police inspector Kurt Wallander to find the killer or killers. Can Kurt act on the meager information he has available and solve the case as his private life disintegrates around him?

On the heels of reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire, I decided to branch out and try a couple more Swedish crime authors. Faceless Killers is the first such book to fall into my hands.

Faceless Killers isn't a happy book, much as its title indicates. It's bleaker than a visit to an insurance office, mostly due to poor Kurt Wallander and his life.

The mystery is an intriguing one and delves into the secret life of one of the victims. The mystery is not of the solveable variety but that's ultimately not that important. My main attractions to Faceless Killers were the glimpse into Swedish society and Kurt Wallander himself.

The fact that one of Wallander's clues is that the killer is a foreigner thrusts the reader into a world of refugees, racism, and red tape. There are false leads and I have to admit I wasn't sure what was going on in the investigation part of the time.

And that brings us to Kurt Wallander himself. He's no super-hero unless lonliness and not having anything go right in his personal life is a super power. He's getting older and fatter, his wife left him, his daughter is a stranger, and all he has is his job. Instead of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, what I was primarily reminded of when I read this was John Lutz's Alo Nudger series starring a similarly sad character.

Faceless Killers is a good police procedural story. It's pretty bleak and moves a little slowly for my tastes but is still a good read. I'll give it a 3, possibly upgrading to a 4 somewhere down the line.

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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Down in the Zero

Down in the Zero (Burke, #7)Down in the Zero by Andrew Vachss

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Devasted over the death of an innocent on his last case, Burke takes a job that sees him in the Connecticut suburbs investigating a string of teen suicides. Burke's investigations take him into a web of S&M and blackmail that he may never escape...

Andrew Vachss' Burke stories are so bleak that they make the apocalypse look inviting by comparison and this one is no exception. Like the previous tales, Burke's case takes him up against uncomfortable subjects like child abuse. This time, Vachss also throws S&M and blackmail into the mix for good measure.

As I journey farther down Burke's dark path, I notice he continues to grow as a character, something that doesn't happen very much in a series of this kind. Burke shows a remarkable amount (for him) of patience with Randy and is actually nicer to some of the other players than he normally is. While I missed most of the usual supporting cast, Mama and The Prof were in fine form.

The characters of Randy and Fancy were among the most interesting in the series so far, both in their backgrounds and the way they interacted with Burke. It's not very often you see a borderline sociopathic detective befriend a teenage boy or have a dominatrix as a sidekick but Vachss really makes it work.

While I liked Down in the Zero, I didn't love it. The mystery seemed forgotten at times and was in no way solveable, and the side plot about the computer disk and the gems felt tacked on. Other than that, it was a pretty enjoyable read. I now know more about S&M than I ever wanted to.

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

City of the Lost

City of the LostCity of the Lost by Stephen Blackmoore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A job to steal a precious stone goes wrong and a thug named Joe Sunday is murdered. Now Joe's a zombie with a craving for human flesh and everyone in town is after the stone. Is there anyone Joe can trust and can he find the stone before a centuries-old madman uses it to become immortal?

Right out of the box, I have to say that this book is pure fun. While I'm giving it the same rating as Winter's Bone, it in no way is as well written or powerful. That being said, here we go!

City of the Lost is an entertaining noir tale that just happens to star a zombie. The dialogue is hard boiled and in the present tense. It has moments of hilarity and not the lame attempts at humor other urban fantasy noir tales that shall remain nameless use. It also has a lot less misogyny than the tales about a certain unfunny wizard from Chicago normally display.

Joe Sunday wasn't a nice guy before being made a zombie and dying didn't help his manners. He kills and bludgeons his way through this tale, all in pursuit of a stone that may or may not be able to turn him back into a human and Giavetti, the man who covets it. The supporting cast are an interesting bunch: a Nazi sorcerer named Neumann, and his henchmen Archie and Jughead. Jughead's a little person with the teeth and demeanor of a pitbull. There's Samantha, the woman with a connection to the villain, the Bruja, an urban witch, and Frank Tanaka, a detective who's also investigating Giavetti.

There's a lot of dark humor in this book and I caught myself snickering a few times, from Joe using a dog to bludgeon someone, speculating on the ethics of eating hookers to keep from rotting, to Joe sneering and saying "I didn't want any part of that guy in my mouth." Funny stuff.

Any complaints? Not really. There were a lot of twists and only about half of them were predictable. I have a feeling it's meant to be the first book in the series but it was quite a satisfying read on it's own. For a fun zombie book, it's an easy four.

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Winter's Bone

Winter's BoneWinter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ree Dolly's father has jumped bail, leaving their home forfeit unless Ree can find him before his court date. Will she be able to find her father before she ends up homeless with her two brothers and insane mother?

First off, I have a confession to make. I live in rural Missouri and, therefore, some of the locations depicted in the story seem a lot like places I've driven through at a high rate of speed. Also, I've eaten squirrel on at least two occasions. Now, on to the meat of the review.

Winter's Bone is a lot more than I was expecting when I picked this book up. The terms "country noir" and "hick lit" have been thrown around to describe it so I had a picture in my mind of some kind of rural mystery. Winter's Bone is so much more than that. Daniel Woodrell's prose is something to behold, so much better than I was picturing when I picked up the book.

While the mysterious whereabouts of Ree's father are the central mystery of the book, the way of life of hillbilly crank dealers in the Ozarks is the real star of the show. Ree's quest for her father is an odyssey into a world of cooking meth, living in shacks or trailers, and eating whatever you can shoot. The backwoods life isn't pretty and Woodrell shows it warts and all.

Ree's a tough girl, confronting the worst the back country has to offer and never waivering in her search for her father. She goes through a lot of hell, taking care of her mother and brothers the entire time. She's not as tough as Lisbeth Salander but she more than holds her own.

I guess the highest compliment I can pay this book is that I'll be reading more Daniel Woodrell somewhere down the line. I'd give Winter's Bone a 4+.

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Friday, March 9, 2012

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire (Millennium, #2)The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Three people are dead and Lisbeth Salander's finger prints are on the murder weapon. Can Mikael Blomkvist clear her name before the police find her? And what does Lisbeth's situation have to do with an expose of the Swedish sex trade two of the murder victims were working on?

I was afraid The Girl Who Played With Fire would suffer from the sophomore jinx. I'm pleased to say it did not.

Larsson must have figured out he had a good thing in Lisbeth Salander while working on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo because she's the primary focus of this, the sequel. Actually, it's not all that much like its predecessor. TGWTDT was a mystery and TGWPWF is a faster paced thriller.

The structure of the two books is fairly similar: a slow build up to a lightning storm. Honestly, I can't figure out why these books work so well for me. They both begin slow and have a lot of extraneous details I think might have been pruned had Larsson been alive when they were accepted by a publisher, notably the oddly specific minutae of the characters' everyday life and the prominence of brand names. Still, once I started reading them, they kind of took over my life for a few days.

The Girl Who Played With Fire is, in a way, an exploration of Lisbeth Salander's past. Where The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo barely scratched the surface, this book did some strip-mining. Since the villains were players in the sex trade, they were not sympathetic and quite vile. The action was even more brutal than in the previous book and there was a lot more of it. Without giving too much away, Lisbeth Salander is so tough there should be an internet meme dedicated to how much of a bad ass she is. "If Chuck Norris had a sex change and acquired 50% more damage inflicting skills, he would be Lisbeth Salander" or something to that effect.

I felt that the parts of the story about Lisbeth eclipsed the other parts of the story by a wide margin, a good thing in my book. I wasn't that interested in the everyday business of running Millennium or who was falling for Mikael "The Ladies Man" Blomkvist anyway.

I guess I should bring this review to a thrilling conclusion before I start giving away plot points. I enjoyed The Girl Who Played With Fire even more than I did the previous volume. Five easy stars.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2012

15 Questions with Benjamin Whitmer

Today's guest is Benjamin Whitmer, author of Pike.

What was the inspiration behind Pike?
It was an image. I don’t know how or why, but I got this picture stuck in my head of a little girl walking in the snow with this big, hulking figure beside her. I’ve no idea where it came from or why, but it started the whole ball rolling on the book. Trying to figure out who the people in the image were, and where they were going. It was a lot of fun getting there.

Any rejection horror stories with Pike?
Man, more than I can count. It got rejected by everybody. Every major publisher I can think of turned it down, and most of the small ones – even those who pride themselves on publishing hardboiled books that others won’t touch. Always almost the exact same feedback: too dark, too racist. I was incredibly lucky to have an agent like Gary Heidt who stuck with me even when it looked completely hopeless, and to finally find PM Press. The folks there have been just incredible.

If there was a Pike movie, who would you cast as Pike, Rory, and Derrick?
I was actually asked to write this up once for a movie director who was interested. (Nothing ever came of it, of course.) My answer was easy for Pike and Derrick. For Derrick, Waylon Jennings, circa the great Honky Tonk Heroes album. For Pike, a bearded Mel Gibson, stuffed full of cocaine and bourbon with strict instructions to tap into his inner self-hatred. Rory’s tougher. In fact, for me, impossible, in that I don’t think I watch any movies featuring his age group.

Will we be seeing more of Pike and Wendy in the future?
No, probably not. I think I’d just screw things up if I meddled with them too much at this point. I love them dearly, and I’d hate to mess around and make myself like them less by pushing them into books in which they don’t organically belong, if you know what I mean.

I first heard about Pike at BoucherCon.  Have you done a lot of conventions since Pike was published?
No, not at all. I mean, I’ve done BoucherCon twice, but that’s pretty much it. Conventions are a lot of fun, of course, but it’s tough to find the time and money.

Was Cincinnati Lou (from Send My Love and a Molotov Cocktail!) written before or after Pike?
It was written long after. And, man, it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. My brain’s not geared towards short stories as it is, and it turns out that revisiting a character I already had fixed in my mind made things that much more difficult. If it hadn’t been for the editorial advice of Andrea Gibbons and Gary Phillips that thing would be a disaster. Or more so of one, I mean, in that I’m not real comfortable with the way it turned out.

How did you get involved with Satan is Real: The Ballad of the Louvin Brothers?
It was Neil Strauss who came up with the idea. He’d interviewed Charlie for the New York Times, and really wanted to get his story for his Igniter Books. So he was looking for a writer, and somehow that ended up in the lap of my agent, Gary Heidt. I didn’t really think I had a shot, but we sent them an excerpt of Pike, and they liked it well enough that by the end of a week’s time we were at work.

Do you have any other biographies in the works?
Emphatically, no. This was a one shot deal, unless something else was to come along just as amazing. I’m a lifelong fan of country music, especially of that time period, and there was no way I could pass up hearing those stories. Particularly, given the thematic fit with my on interests I saw – whether or not it was really there – in Ira’s heavily flawed and complicated character. But it was a lot of work, and it meant taking a year and a half of working on my own novels. It’d have to be with someone equally as interesting for me to do it again. Billy Joe Shaver. Or Mel Gibson, maybe.  

Was there a book that made you realize you wanted to be a writer?
For better or worse, that book is most definitely Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream. Other stuff of his, too. But that’s the one I remember reading and going, shit, this is what I want to do. As a teenager it seemed like the only the worth doing. It still does, of course.

Who would you say your biggest influences are?
That’s a tough one, in that it changes book to book. I get obsessed with shit, and my reading runs in that direction for awhile. If I’m obsessed enough, it tends to start being a book. For Pike it was definitely Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, combined with William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up and Rising Down. For Satan Is Real it was a lot of country music books and Harry Crews’ A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, because it was the finest memoir I could think of. For the book I’m working on now, it’s hobo books from the turn of the last century written by folks like Jack Black and Jim Tully.

Who's your favorite author?
Melville. He’s been my favorite forever. It’s the flaws and complications of his characters, I think. And his sense of wonder at the world, sometimes playful sometimes incredibly heavy.  And the adventure, both in his books and his writing style, the linguistic explosions and constant referencing of other works, until you get the sense that pretty much every book in the world is contained in his. And his absolute inability not to present life as he saw it, even when he knew it’d destroy his career. Which it did.

Lawrence Block or Donald Westlake?
Westlake, I guess. This is sacrilege, I know, but I’ve read a couple by each of ‘em, but not much, and what I read didn’t move me a whole lot.

What's the best book you've read in the last six months?
I can’t even begin to answer that. I read all the time, and pretty much every book I finish I’m ready to call the best book of the last six months – else I probably just don’t finish it. Fictionwise, lately it’s been Stephen Graham Jones’ The Ones that got Away, Scott Phillips’ The Adjustment, and Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. I’m also working my way through James Lee Burke’s early stuff, and, yeah, love it.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Probably that they’d be better off seeking advice from Jonathan Franzen or Stephen King than me.

What's next for Benjamin Whitmer?
Well, I’ve got a novel that my agent’s shopping around, and another I’m about half done with. Then there’s two more I’ve got ideas for. Not sure which I’ll move on first, as I’m pretty excited about ‘em both. I’m always trudging along, y'know?

Monday, March 5, 2012

Code of the Woosters

The Code of the WoostersThe Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Aunt Dahlia dispatches Bertie to Totleigh Towers to purlorn a silver cow creamer coveted by his uncle Tom from Sir Watkyn Basset. Unfortunately, Bertie has his work cut out for him in the form of Stiffy Byng and Madeline Basset. Can Bertie escape with the cow creamer without winding up married to either woman?

This is my second reading of Code of the Woosters and I can definitely say there is a reason I've been recommending it to people for the better part of a decade. P.G. Wodehouse was in mid-season form when he chiseled this masterpiece out of a block of stone. The Code of the Woosters should be handed out in writing classes as a prime example of how to orchestrate a plot. The twists are perfectly timed so the jaw-droppingest moments happen at the end of chapters.

The writing is superb and Wodehouse moves his characters through the scenery like a master puppeteer. Gussie Fink-Nottle, that "ghastly gob of gorgonzola," makes his return, still bethrothed(ish) to Madeline Basset and is just as quirky. Who else would think to put newts in the bathtub after breaking an aquariam? La Basset is the same as she was in the previous volume. I'm not sure if Stiffy Byng or Stinker Pinker make appearances in other volumes but they are quite memorable here. Roderick Spode is by far the best supporting character of the book, though, a facist who cowers whenever someone mentions "Eulalie," the meaning of which is not clear until the end. As always, the narrative is a minefield of hilarious similes.

The plot meanders all over Totleigh Towers. Like most Jeeves stories, Bertie gets himself deeper and deeper into the soup, the plot encircling such props as the aforementioned cow creamer, a notebook, and a policeman's helmet. As I mentioned before, the reversals of fortune are impecably timed.

I could go on and on about this book. Suffice to say, it's an easy five and my go-to recommendation for people who want to give P.G. Wodehouse a shot. They didn't make an episode of the phenomenal BBC Jeeves and Woosters series starring Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie out of it for nothing!

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and SurvivalThe Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A tiger goes man-eater and terrorizes a remote Siberian village. Can Yuri Trush and his men end the tiger's bloody reign of terror or join its long list of victims?

It sounds like the teaser for a trashy thriller but this story really happened. The Tiger is the story of a rogue tiger and it's man-eating ways.

My description of The Tiger makes it sound like the book is one long tiger hunt but it's so much more than that. The tiger hunt piece is almost an adventure yarn but for me, the best parts of the book were the tangents about tiger hunting and life in Siberia in general. Trush only made 400 bucks a month and it was considered good wages?

I've concluded that life in Siberia resembles a polar post-apocalypse, like if Mad Max ever traveled to Alaska. The denizens of the Siberian taiga have the among the hardest of lives. Imagine using a spear for a backup weapon when hunting in this day and age? Throw a man-eating tiger into the mix and it seems like hell on earth to me.

The final fight with the tiger is pretty tense, especially considering it probably took less than a few minutes. I liked the epilogue, most notably the fact that many of the people in Trush's region think he has the taint of the tiger on him now and won't sleep under the same roof.

The tiger in this book was much less mellow than this tiger I saw at the Saint Louis Zoo, pain-maddened by an encounter with a human poacher.

Vaillant's writing style made me forget I was reading non-fiction most of the time. It's very engaging. The only observation I want to make about it is that he jumps around quite a bit. I like that he devoted a lot of time to some of the tiger's victims but it may have been too much. Other than that, I have no complaints.

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Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Comedy is Finished

The Comedy Is FinishedThe Comedy Is Finished by Donald E. Westlake

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aging comedian Koo Davis is kidnapped and held for ransom by the People's Revolution Army. But will the PRA let Koo live even if their demands are met?

Donald E. Westlake wrote The Comedy is Finished sometime during the 1970's but decided not to publish it for a couple reasons. I'll be completely honest. From the first half of the book, I wasn't completely sold on The Comedy is Finished and was planning on giving it a 2. Then Westlake worked his magic.

My reasons for not loving The Comedy is Finished at the beginning are two: the first is that the story is very dated and full of references to the 1960's and Watergate. Westlake's Parker books have an almost timeless quality while this one is very, very much a product of the time it was written. The second reason I wasn't in love with this book is that I found Koo Davis to be more obnoxious than funny.

The story really started clicking for me when the complications began arising and the wheels fell off the kidnappers' plans. Without spoiling too much, there were three plot twists I didn't see coming until it was too late. I actually caught myself getting behind Koo even though I wasn't a big fan of most of his jokes.

The writing is vintage Westlake and does a lot toward earning back the book some points. There were a lot of good similes, some even Chandler-esque. There's a decent amount of violence and a fair amount of smut as well.

For once, there's a posthumously published book I fully approve of. The Comedy is Finished is ultimately an enjoyable read and a worth addition to the Hard Case Crime Series.

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