CHEROKEE SPLEEN by David Elliott

When this book started off cherokee spleenin a topless bar, I sighed.  Rats.  Another slacker story.  I hate slacker stories.  I have no compassion for drunks, druggies or the slacker culture.  Boy, what a prissy thing I am.

But I persevered, and was so glad I did, because it is not really about slacker-ness, it is about finding out what we … and this life … are all about.   And it is a typical quest tale.  I love a good quest tale.

Andy Penny has almost died four times.   So what does that mean?  He is not meant to die?  He is still alive for some purpose?   He is 40 years old and lives alone in a trailer park in Florida., with a nothing job  And then one late night, sees one of those reality cop shows where the police are called to the home of an abuser, and the abused woman staring into the camera is the teen love of Andy’s life, now beaten, and empty of hope.  He hasn’t seen her in twelve years.  What has happened to her?

The quest.  The Hero’s journey.   According to Joseph Campbell, there are 10 parts to the monomyth of the hero’s journey:

  1. the call to adventure
  2. refusal of the quest
  3. accepting the call
  4. entering the unknown
  5. supernatural aid
  6. talisman – a special and often magical item to assit the hero
  7. allies/helpers
  8. tests and the supreme ordeal
  9. reward and the journey home
  10. master of two worlds/restoring the world

The Quest archetypes are:

  1. heroes
  2. shadows – villains, enemies
  3. mentors – a guide, or guiding principles
  4. herald – the one who brings the call to adventure.  Could be a person or event
  5. threshold guardians – forces that stand in the way at important turning points, including jealous enemies, professional gatekeepers, or even the hero’s own doubts and fears
  6. tricksters – clowns and mischief makers
  7. allies – characters who help the hero throughout the quest
  8. woman as temptress – sometimes a female character offers danger to the hero.

This story has all these fine elements.  I wonder if it was written with a copy of Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces at hand?  As soon as it dawned on me that it followed the classic quest structure, I had fun picking out the ten steps, and the archetypes.

The Call to Adventure is the cop TV show where Andy sees his old girlfriend, and decides to make sense of his still being alive, he must go to Des Moines, Iowa, to rescue her.  He has an ally, his best buddy, he meets up with some paranormal characters, and there are plenty of obstacles in his way.  His talisman are fortune cookies, which always seem to have something spookily relevant to say, one being

Do not throw away pennies, as they will one day make dollars.

and

There is yet time enough for you to take a different path.

Told in first person, present tense,  with new chapters or sections starting right in, in the middle of a sentence, it makes for interesting and creative reading.  It is not always clear whether he is dreaming, or in a coma, or we are the ones in the coma, or the author is the one dreaming.   It is really a rather surreal experience, this read.  I hope you read it.   And I hope you look for the Quest structure.

Reading fiction is not just for getting lost in the story.  Use it to learn something, to exercise your mind.  You know.  Use it or lose it.

quest

 

THE DEAD OF AUGUST by Panayotis Cacoyannis

dead of augustThe Dead of August was the first novel by Cacoyannis,  his second being Bowl of  Fruit (1907),  which I read first.  Are you with me?  I’m just checking to see if you are awake.

In Bowl of Fruit (1907), the protagonist paints artwork exactly like Picasso.  Not Picasso-like, but as if he were Picasso, channeling him, as it were.  He then writes a book exactly as if Kafka had written it.

In The Dead of August, I feel like Cacoyannis is channeling Iris Murdoch.   It is an Irish Murdoch book, not Iris Murdoch-like, but as if Iris Murdoch had written it.  If you have read much of Murdoch, and then read The Dead of August, you will see what I mean.

It is basically the story of a marriage, as only the British can write them,  all mixed in with characters that only appear in British lit, never in American novels, everything just the slightest bit off center, just the mere hint of surreal.

Told in the first person voice of the husband, we learn of this cultured, educated couple (with their scarily intelligent son, who may actually be much brighter than either of the parents), who each have a literary career.  The wife writes quasi-porno books, under the guise of radical feminism, collections of stories, the first book being about 12 couples, in each of which the female is named Susan and kills her lover.

The title of the book is “Susan’s Phallacy”, and all the women, in all the different stories, are all called Susan.  The all get involved with psychopathic men, with whom they all then behave in pretty much the same provocative way — as they have to, and ultimately share the same unpleasant fate, which they also have to, I suppose, or this whole “fallacy” thing wouldn’t work.

James, the husband, writes obituaries for a tabloid newspaper. His obituaries are quite popular, and he has made a name for himself in literary circles.  Now, as a Yank, I don’t quite understand this, because American obits are:

John X.  Doe, 92, of Shreveport LA. died April 30th 2013. “Johnny” Doe, son of Irving and Dorothy Doe, loving husband of Irene Smith DOE, passed away on April 30th at his home in Shreveport, LA after a long illness. He is survived by his wife Irene, and two sons Abraham and Joshua. He is also survived by six grandchildren and three great grandchildren, all living in the Shreveport area.  Services will be held this Tuesday at Jones and Sons Funeral Home.

Apparently, the obits that James writes are for minor celebs and are artfully crafted pieces fictionalizing their lives, making them better and more important than they actually were.

The wife seems to become unenamored of James, the reason for which is never clear to me, and James becomes convinced she is having an affair with his editor. He is requested to visit a reclusive painter and stay for a week or so, after which he is to write a 900 word obit for a ‘happening’ to be held at a London artsy fartsy gallery.

I probably don’t even have to tell you what the happening was, do I.

The couple eventually divorces after separating and reconciling and separating once again.  I never really understood why they divorced.  but then, I never really do understand other people’s relationships and what makes them tick or not tock.  I also don’t care a whole lot about the dynamics of other people’s relationships, so a whole book about the dynamics of people who do not actually exist does not hold a great deal of breath-holding interest for me.   But that’s just me.  Doesn’t make it a bad book;  it makes me an imperfect reader.

Interesting book, cleverly, if not almost brilliantly written, but for me, maybe a third longer than I was interested in this marriage, or this guy’s life and thoughts. You know, there really are only a handful of stories in this world, and it is only the artfulness of how they are told which distinguishes them from each other.

So final analysis:  very British, very Murdoch, very BBC-type drama, with a quirky humor to it.

 

 

CRIME CZAR by Tony Dunbar

crime czarThis is a Tubby Dubonnet mystery.  Ya gotta love a lawyer named Tubby.  This series has been nominated for the Anthony Award and the Edgar Allen Poe Award.

It is billed as a ‘hardboiled crime novel’, but I don’t know.  I looked up “hardboiled” to make sure I understood the term correctly.  Wiki tells me that hardboiled has a

detective  who displays a cynical attitude towards  emotions. The attitude is conveyed through the detective’s inner monologue describing to the reader (or, in film, to the viewer) what he is doing and feeling. The genre’s typical protagonist is a detective, who daily witnesses the violence of organized crime that flourished during Prohibition, while dealing with a legal system that had become as corrupt as the organized crime itself. Rendered cynical by this cycle of violence, the detectives of hardboiled fiction are classic antiheroes.

Set in New Orleans, I guess Tubby has seen his share of violence and corruption, but antihero?  Again, a trudge to Wiki gives me this:

A protagonist who lacks conventional heroic qualities such as idealism, courage, and morality. These individuals often possess dark personality traits such as disagreeableness, dishonesty, and aggressiveness. These characters are usually considered “conspicuously contrary to an archetypal hero”.

OK, I will go for that.  But I must say that Tubby is quite likable and boy is he tenacious.

Crime Czar is the fifth in the series.   In the previous book, (which I have not read), his friend and partner was shot in a situation involving a major robbery.  He lingers for several months before dying.  Tubby is obsessed with revenge for that murder, and gets it into his head that all of the crime in the city is under the auspices of one big Crime Czar, and set off to prove it.  Along the way, he gets roped into being a co-chairman of the reelection committee of a judge, comes up against a truly corrupt and vicious Sheriff (or is it police chief?  I forget), and keeps getting hindered by a prostitute out for revenge for the death of one of her customers-turned-boyfriend.

All in all, a good read, and I loved the ending.

His friend says, “No more talk about the crime czar?”

“It’s a committee.  How can you fight a committee?  A group of nameless individuals not one of whom has the guts to be the baddest guy in town?  They’re not worth my time.”

 

 

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

GuernseyWhat a beautiful book.

January 1946: London is emerging from the shadow of the Second World War, and writer Juliet Ashton is looking for her next book subject. Who could imagine that she would find it in a letter from a man she’s never met, a native of the island of Guernsey, who has come across her name written inside a book by Charles Lamb.  And so begins a correspondence which leads to the acquaintance of the lady author with the members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Told in epistolary style, (you know — letters?), the book is really about the German occupation of the Channel island Guernsey during World War II, detailing the hardships and friendships formed during that extremely difficult period.  The Germans had set stringent curfew rules, and by this time, food was scarce.  One woman had hidden a pig, and invited some friends and neighbors over on the QT to eat the forbidden pig.  On their way home, after curfew, some of the members were stopped by German soldiers, and one woman quickly and creatively came up with the tale that they had been attending a literary society meeting. The solders let them go without reprisal, asking if they might attend the meetings from time to time.  The people then had to go buy a bunch of books for veracity, and thus was born their society.  Food was so scarce that one of the members came up with a pie made of potato peelings.

The lady author eventually goes to Guernsey to meet her new friends, and the story revolves around her involvement with the people there.

It is a beautiful book, beautifully written.  It has two authors listed because the original author became very ill, and when her publisher required some extensive changes, she was unable to do them, and she asked the daughter of her sister, who by that time was a well-established author of children’s literature, (Annie Barrows) to finish the editing and rewriting.

A movie of the book is scheduled to be made, but has been put off pending decisions for the location of shooting.  Looks like the chick from Downton Abbey, Michelle Dockery, will be in the starring role.

Want a little info on Guernsey?  Of course you do, and I did a bit of research so that you didn’t have to, because that is the way I roll.  Guernsey is one of the Channel Islands, which are located in the (where else?) channel between England and France.  They are considered as the remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, and are not part of the United Kingdom. They are comprised of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, Herm, Jethou and Brecqhou.  Each has its own independent laws, elections, and representative bodies.

The UK Parliament has power to legislate for the Islands but Acts of Parliament do not extend to the Islands automatically. Usually, the Act gives power to extend the application of the Act to the Islands by an Order in Council, after consultation. For the most part the Islands legislate for themselves.  However, islanders are full British citizens

The name “Guernsey”, as well as that of neighboring “Jersey”, is of Old Norse origin. The second element of each word, “-ey”, is the Old Norse for “island.”

Guernsey has an area of about 25 sq. miles (approximently 5 x 7 miles), the islands were the only part of the British Commonwealth to be occupied by the German Army during World War II.

See how much you can learn just by reading fiction?

THE SHOULDERS OF GIANTS by Jim Cliff

shoulders of giantsIf I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. – Isaac Newton”    Not really sure what this quote has to do with the plot of the book, but it was a good read nonetheless.

It is a P. I. detective mystery,  a thriller, not too dark, or maybe I have become so inured  to blood, guts, mayhem, and terrorism in Real Life, that reading about it doesn’t have the impact it once did.   Jake Abraham is a child of the 80s, brought up by Jim Rockford, Thomas Magnum and three beautiful girls who worked for a man named Charlie. He’s loving his new job as a Private Investigator and already has his first client – a disgraced former police captain whose daughter has disappeared.

OK, so by the plot description we can see he is a rookie, and this is actually his very first case.

The call came on Sunday.  I picked it up on the third ring and said, for the first time, “Abraham and Associates, Jake Abraham speaking.”  I’d never actually spoken to a client before.  I wondered if there was anything special I should say next.

Well, the police captain’s daughter turns up dead, and off we go in search of the killer.  There upon continues a series of murders, each one containing a dead person with a distinctive cut on the bottom of the foot,  but nothing else to connect the random assortment of victims.

Good plotting, good ending, nice pacing.  Everything you want in a thriller-type mystery.  I liked it.

The author is British, and the book is set in the USA, and only a few Britishisms escaped the proofreader, giving it away.  But I am easy-going.  I am more into Is It Spelled Correctly and Have You Used The Wrong Word,  so I found it enjoyable.

 

MODERN SORCERY by Gary Jonas

modern sorcerySword and sorcery, in a high tech society.  Yeah, well, it COULD happen.  I am not too much into wizards, et al,  but since I have found that wizards don’t have to be living in some faux medieval time and place, I like them a lot more.  (But I have noticed that they still are not particularly practical — no cures for the common cold or for the strange collection of Republican candidates running for President in 2016.  You’d think with all that magic at their disposal, they could come up with something.)

A husband armed with a sword hacks apart his wife in a Denver grocery store. There are dozens of witnesses, and the crime is captured on the security cameras. To the police, it’s an open-and-shut case.  Yeah, sure.  Your everyday event at the Shop N Save.  Maybe he didn’t like her choice of steak for dinner.

To Naomi, the daughter of the couple, it’s evidence of dark magic. She hires her ex-lover, a private investigator named Jonathan Shade specializing in the paranormal, to prove her father, the hacker,  is innocent.

I would call this a noir-ly fun book and here’s why.  First of all,  ever since Jonathan died and came back to life, (hey, I don’t write this stuff, I just report it), he can see ghosts.  Jonathan’s receptionist is dead.  She (or her spirit or whatever) is attached somehow to her 30’s style typewriter.  She can’t go more than 15 feet from it, so if Jonathan wants her to accompany him, he has to take along the typewriter.   It turns out that if someone without his skills puts their hand on the typewriter, they, too, can see and talk with Esther, the ghost.  Esther is stuck in the twenties, so her speech is full of twenties slang and is quite delightful.

Then the core of the plot is your standard Evil Essence Accidentally Or Deliberately Released From The Magical Something/Place/Box/Jewell which contained it and is now wreaking havoc on the world.  So of course, it seems like our Jonny is the only one who can find/battle/contain/prevail/stop that Evil Essence, in this case a wizard from like forever ago who has been sucking all the magic power from the magic power lines.  Yeah, I really did write that.  You try describing magic power lines without actually writing ‘magic power lines’.  See how far you get.

One of the problems with reading this kind of fantasy work is that even though I might enjoy it as I read it, in describing the plot I find it hard to keep a straight face.  But really, the noir-y parts are pretty gorey, although the ghost parts are fun and clever.  The noir-y parts are maybe not so original or clever, but entertaining nevertheless.

So call it a paranormal thriller with humorous interludes.  And seriously, what are sorcerers doing running around in this day and age with swords, for Merlin’s sake?  Haven’t they heard there’s an app for that?

A FATAL THAW by Dana Stabenow

fatal thawOne of my favorite authors, not the least of which reasons is that she writes some darn good hard sci fi starring a female cosmonaut.   But this is not sci fi, this book is one of her Kate Shugak mystery series, set in an unnamed national Park in Alaska.  Kate is a former investigator for the Fairbanks police department who was nearly killed during a drug bust. The near fatal injury has left her with a raspy voice and a very noticeable scar on her neck. After this incident she “retired” to her homestead in the wilderness of Alaska.

She is called on to investigate when a nutjob gunned down nine of her neighbors in a shooting spree.  But it turns out that one, the village hoochie koochie girl, the one who never saw a man she didn’t like or didn’t bed, single or not, was actually killed by a different bullet.  Since the spree killer was apprehended alive, it is Kate’s job to find out who killed that one woman.

That turned out to be a pretty good mystery, although in spite of my usual poor showing in guessing who dunnit, this time I actually was not ‘clueless’.

Nice character development, and a lot of interesting stuff about the local …. oh, what is the politically correct word …. Indigenous People?  Inuit?  Aleut?  Native Americans?  First People?  …. who make up the bulk of the population there, and their traditions and customs.  There is also some beautiful descriptions of the scenery.   When I was much younger, (um, that would be last year), I used to blitz through descriptive passages, eager to get on with the story.  But now, in my twilight hours, I find I am enjoying those kinds of passages more and more, as it becomes more evident I probably won’t be seeing that scenery for myself.

This world we live in is huge — even fiction can be a lovely way to see some of it.