DISCOVERY OF AN EAGLE by Grace Mattioli

Discovery eagleA gently told story about a family damaged by the drinking excesses of the father.   It is told from the first person perspective of the son, now 28 working in IT in a deadish-end job, boring but safe.  This after dropping out of college where he had been studying  astronomy.  He has an older married sister from whom he is estranged, a younger sister who can’t seem to settle down in any locale or in any job, and his newly divorced mother.   His younger sister is currently living with the father in order to save money, since she has none.

In this sequel to Olive Branches Don’t Grow on Trees, Cosmo is approached by his younger sister to travel with her to Portland, Oregon, where her friend is waiting for her and will give her a place to live while the sister finds a job and saves enough money for her own place.   She is hoping that Cosmo will actually decide to quit his job and look for work in Portland, and change his life.

There is a lot of musing and internal ruminations on Cosmo’s part as they travel along, and the free feeling of having no schedule begins to change Cosmo.

It is all about the effects an abusive and erratic alcoholic parent can have on the family members, making some of them permanently afraid and wary, and others rootless and gunshy.  It makes everybody scared, Silvia still running figuratively from her father’s rampages, and Cosmo still trying to make himself invisible  so that Frank wouldn’t notice him.

There was a fair amount of what to me seemed like pretentious juvenile introspection and analysis, and yet it was a soothing book to read.  Almost a YA but not quite, maybe because the YAs were actually now full grown adults, but they seemed like every teenager you have ever known.

You know what I think the problem with this book is?  Me.  I’m the problem with this book.  Now that I have reached my platinum years, I realized I have heard all this before;  none of it was new, the ideas no longer fresh to me, the lessons already learned.   So yes, it is a book for younger (than me) readers,  for those with much less life experience, who are still on Chapter Two of How to Do Life.

Likable characters, an easy, plain writing style, a timeless story of dysfunctional families.   In spite of my jaded and aged outlook, I liked it anyway.

Eagle

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ENORMITY by Nick Milligan

enormityWishful wishing as sci fi.   Say you are an entertainment journalist.  Say you cover film and music.  Say you interview a lot of rock stars.  Say you wish you were a rock star with all that money, all that fame, all those drugs, all those babes.  Say you can’t play a note on any instrument and your singing voice sounds like two cats having an argument in an alley.  How do you get to be a rock star?   In your head, dude, that’s how.  You create one, and plunk him down on another planet, with more or less instant success parlaying songs he is copying from his home planet and claiming as his own.   That’s what being an author can do for you.  YOu can be whoever you want to be.

Jack had dreams of being a famous musician.  But he went into the space program instead and became an astronaut.  But his vehicle exploded way out in the back of beyond somewhere, killing his two crewmates.  Lucky him…. he happened to be in the area of the escape pods and was able to leave the ship, crashing down into the sea of a nearby planet.  And the name of that planet?  Heaven.  Yes.  It’s true.   And when the folks on that planet die, they talk about the bad people going to Earth.

So he destroys his pod, figuring that anyone who finds him will want to be experimenting on his now alien body, so he would like to keep a really low profile, and crawls ashore, where he shortly finds that the people look just like humans, and ….. wonder of wonders …. speak English!!!  Yeah, I know, right?  But I figure this:  if you are going to create the ideal fantasy life for yourself, why make it harder than it has to be.  Being a stranger in a strange land is tough enough without having to learn not just a foreign language, but an alien foreign language.   So anyway, he conveniently finds a guitar, practices a bit and then begins to busk in one of the parks for money for food.  One thing leads to another and he becomes a big hit, a recording company hears of him, and snags him for their label.  He becomes immensely popular, and his band….. get this …. the Big Bang Theory…. are megastars.

He has money, fame, drugs and dames, and everyone thinks his music is divine and that he is a wunderkind.

So, OK, the first part of the book sounds like the life of Keith Richards — drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll.  Actually, most of it sounds like Keith Richards’ life.   Kind of like a twenty-year old young man’s wet dream.   I should think it would appeal greatly to those of a male persuasion under thirty, what with the erotica (that’s a euphemism for sex scenes).  It’s a little like a pornographic Lake Woebegone, where all the men are studs and all the women extremely well built, and everybody totally into drugs and sex.

But slowly, the tenor changes, and we begin to suspect there is more to Jack than stealing copyrighted music from another planet and passing it off as his own.  And as his fame grows, so does the visibility of a sinister cult which apparently thinks Jack is an angel savior come for them.  Damn!  Get the kool-aid ready, cause time’s a-wasting.  There is a kicker ending, not so much a denouement as a climax, (you’ll pardon the expression), a growing body of knowledge that makes us smack our foreheads because we sooooo should have seen it coming, but we were sucked up with everyone else into the Fast Times at Ridgemont High, singing along and snorting up the Lovin’ Spoonful.

This is a book that asks the question:  where does hedonism end and evil begin?  On Heaven? Or on Earth?   What happens when there is no evil?  Does that vacuum need to be filled?

enormity

noun

  1. outrageous or heinous character; atrociousness; an outrageous or heinous act; evil:  the enormity of war crimes.
  2. greatness of size, scope, extent, or influence; immensity:  the enormity of the situation dawned on them.

 

CHANCE IN HELL by Michael Seaver

chance in hellThis is the first volume of what is now a two-volume series.  Noah Chance lost his son, his wife and his career as a cop ten years ago.  He is now an alky working as a P.I. in L.A.   Business-wise, things are looking dire and we meet him packing up his office due to lack of business, with his receptionist offering him a loan to stay open.

He is in the midst of turning her down when the phone rings, and it’s a case!  More than just a case, the call is from Lt. Owen Walsh, LAPD, standing in the yard of his former home, as his estranged wife lies dead on the kitchen floor.   He wants Chance to verify that he is clean.  All Chance promises is to find the truth.

Interesting cast of characters, and I almost sort of solved it before the Big Reveal, but not quite.  So I’m feeling good.

The quote in the front of the books is

I believe I am in Hell, therefore I am.   –  Arthur Rimbaud

Yeah, I know.  I had to look him up, too.  Arthur Rimbaud was a French poet who  influenced modern literature and arts, and prefigured  surrealism.  He lived in the last half of the 19th century.

 

A PARTIAL HISTORY OF LOST CAUSES by Jennifer Dubois

Partial HIstoryAn interesting story about a young woman whose father dies of Huntington’s Disease, and who is herself carrying the markers.  Her doctors tell her that the average age for onset for Huntingtons passed down through the paternal line is about 32, so at age 20, when she has the tests done, she figures she has about another ten years of disease-free life.

She has a minor interest in chess, having learned how to play from her father, and the point when she first beat him, at age 12, was the point when his own symptoms began to kick in strongly.  Her father had always had an interest in the Soviet Union, especially the world chess champion, Aleksandr Bezetov, a prodigy in his teens in the ’80s.   Dad has followed his career, keeping clippings and news articles about him.

After he dies, his daughter finds all of this while cleaning out his things, and among them was a copy of a letter he had written to Bezetov asking him how he continued on when faced with certain loss.  How does one proceed in the face of doom.  He received back a brief reply from what appeared to be a secretary, saying that Bezetov was not able to answer the letter due to time constraints.

Thirty years old, facing her own end game, Irina, now a professor at a Boston university, ends the relationship with her boyfriend, cuts all ties, quits her job, sells everything and embarks on a quest to find Bezetov and get his answer.

The story is told in alternate parts, in first person for Irina, and third person for Bezetov.  Bezetov’s story is wonderful, full of the details of Soviet life in Leningrad in the ’80s — the corruption, the violence, the Big Brother police state. After a short stint as a reactionary, distributing an illegal dissident broadside, he is offered a good life by the government if he will stop that nonsense, get on with his chess, and work at making Mother Russia proud as a chess champion.  After one of his friends is killed in an ‘accidental’ bus accident that leaves another friend maimed, he sees that prudence is the better part of valor, and takes up the offer, and eventually finds himself rich and known world wide.

At some point, he decides to become a dissident once again, in the time of Putin in 2007.  He is amassing a coalition of dissenters, and is planning to run for president against the handpicked successor Putin.

This is where the paths of the two principles intersect,  and form the crux of the story.

The title of the book comes from the title of the newspaper the four friends put out, “The Partial History of Lost Causes”, because it contains, among poetry and other articles, a long section listing arrests, detentions, searchesa around Leningrad in the past month.   It becomes a metaphor for the overarching theme of the book,  because as Bezetov says himself, he has no hope of winning, and not much hope of not being assasinated. His movement has little hope of changing much of anything,  and his marriage has no hope of continuing, and Irina has no hope for a long and disease-free life.

Irina telegraphs to the reader early on this main theme when she tells us she has no interest in making any investments in lost causes.

Want some quotes?  OK.

About her father:  He was a mind, first and foremost, and a mind is an elaborate system of pulleys and levers and delicate balances.  And when one piece is missing, the whole system has lost its integrity.

Elizabeta laughed then, a complicated, multidimensional laugh filled with genuine appreciation for a bad joke, as well as mild derision toward its badness and a faint undertone of self-reproach for laughing.  It was the kind of laugh you could write a university thesis about.

She was in the doorway, and her eyes were looking somewhere beyond Aleksandr’s. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”  But she spent another moment not leaving.

But it’s easy to judge, we’re born to judge; we live for it, really.  It’s the way we decide that we are the self we are instead of all the other selves we might have been.  And I judged enthusiastically.

Chess was a metaphor for war, but sex wasn’t a metaphor for anything.

What you imagine is what you remember, and what you remember is what you’re left with.

The writing, while excellent, is full of self-conscious metaphors, stocked with numerous descriptions of odors that smelled like something tangible and something emotional, : “it smelled like sweat and regret”.   There is a great deal of  internal musing and self-reflection,  and thank goodness for the basic storyline, because much as I adore reading the internal ruminations of the characters, I am All About The Story.   The book is relentlessly earnest and dour, and smacks of writing workshop.  And lo! and behold!, there in the acknowledgments is the shout out to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop which ‘made this book possible’.  Of course it did.

This is not to say I did not like the book;  I did.  Very much.  But when a book aspires to be high litrachoor,  it leaves itself open to a more critical analysis than one with lesser ambitions.  That’s why the literary prizes are given to the wonderfully superlative books, and not to the merely excellent.

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TAKE TWO AND CALL ME IN THE MORGUE by D. W. Ulsterman

take twoOne of the things I like about mysteries/detective stories are the clever titles and how they relate to the themes of the books.  For instance, this one is about experimental cancer cures.   What can I say – I am easily amused by the small pleasures in life.

This is a Bennington, P.I. book, the second in a four-book series.  Set in D.C., it features an overweight, over-age former political operative who is no longer operating politically, and has been working on being a P.I.  He has begun working for some organization that exists to ummm — you know, I really must start paying closer attention to these kinds of details.  The problem is, anything having to do with Washington, politics, conspiracies and plots involving Big Pharama, politicians and billionaires makes the hum in my ho hum drone so  much louder that it puts me to sleep.

But it is a good guy kind of secretish organization headed or created by a nifty grandmotherly senator with a soul of titanium.  You don’t mess with Grandmother Nature.  Nosireebob.   His new assignment involves a priest who is a doctor who is working on experimental cancer cures.  And the gun.  I don’t think I mentioned that the priest carries a gun.  Not like the Father Flannagan of Boys Town that comes to mind, is he.

Bennington’s immediate superior in the organization has cancer, and has been receiving the new experimental treatments which are very effective.  However, suddenly, the priest/doctor is thrown out of the hospital and not permitted to continue the treatments.  Bennington makes contact with one of the old politicos he knows from days of yore, in an attempt to find out who is behind this whole cancer treatment industry.   Not surprisingly, this guy turns out to be a real nasty piece of work.

So like I hinted, Big Pharma is involved, money — lots of money, and another really fun character, a strange person who used to work alongside of the priest/doctor and who mysteriously disappears and reappears, in the nick of time, whew, and all in all, a pretty good mystery and read.

OK, not so much a mystery as a political crime thriller kind of deal. You know, blood, gore, dead bodies, guns, all the things that make life worthwhile.

 

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys

Wide-Sargasso-Sea-Jean-RhysI KNOW I read this book a long time ago.  It came out in 1966, which was the year I had my first child, so maybe I read it then or in the following couple of years.  But I have so little recollection of anything about this book.   My mind is like Ozymandias:

“Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
So, this seemed like a good time to take a break from all the mysteries and crime fiction I have been reading and try to erect some substance around the colossal wreck of my mind, and revisit Wide Sargasso Sea.
This is one of those books they teach in lit courses, so of course I was totally intimidated and nervous to start it, thinking that with my smarta$$ attitude, I would probably miss all the good stuff and the nuances and  would just embarrass myself if I tried to talk about it to anyone with a third of a brain and any education at all.  But surprise!  It wasn’t really like that at all. Whew.
You will never guess what.  This is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.  I kid you not.  It’s FANFIC!   But the timeline is pushed up about 30 years so she can use the historical events in the West Indies as part of the driving forces of the story.  It is set in the West Indies, mostly in Jamaica, in the late 1830’s.   This was after slavery was abolished, so there is a lot of tension between the former slaves and their relatives and the former slave owner families, the creoles.  The main character is Antoinette, the young daughter of a French creole woman and a former slave owning father.  His entire family were slaveholders, and their fortune was built on this.   When we meet her, however, her father is dead, and her mother now has no money and they are very poor, looked down on by the former slave population for being white creole, and being terribly poor.  Her younger brother has something developmentally wrong with him, not specified, and they have a couple of servants.
Mounting antipathy from the native community culminates in the mother’s horse being poisoned. The mother is dropping further and further into despair, but finally gets herself together enough to attract a wealthy planter, and they marry.  He loves the rundown house and property where she lives, but eventually things come to a head when the house is set on fire by the natives, and they have to move into town.  The younger brother dies from the fire, and the mother goes insane.
Antoinette comes of marriageable age, and her step father arranges for a marriage with a young man from England, a second son, with no prospects because the estate of course will go in its entirety to his older brother.  The stepfather arranges a substantial settlement on the young man as an inducement for the marriage, and  off the young couple go to another windward island, remote and spooky, where there is a ramshackle house and property belonging to the mother, and where they plan to live.
Antoinette’s father was quite the womanizer, and the region is littered with his mixed race progeny, most of whom he declines to acknowledge.  And into the idyllic honeymoon comes the snake in the form of a half brother, poisoned with hate for his involvement in the family.  He sends a letter to the young husband telling all and insinuating that Antoinette was as mad as her mother, and promiscuous to boot.  This turns the young husband against his wife, and he begins to what we nowadays would call ‘gaslight’ her, until she does in fact become nutty as the proverbial.
He learns his family has died, first his father and then his brother, and he has come into a great inheritance, so he goes back to England taking his now totally mad wife with him, where he installs her……. are you sitting down?  in an attic in his great estate under the care of ……. Grace Poole.  And that’s where the two tales mesh.
So, now a few notes.   First, the Sargasso Sea.  Knowing zipity do dah about the Sargasso Sea, this is what I learned:  The Sargasso Sea is a region in the gyre in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean. It is the only sea on Earth which has no coastline.  It is bounded on the west by the Gulf Stream; on the north, by the North Atlantic Current; on the east, by the Canary Current; and on the south, by the North Atlantic Equatorial Current. This system of ocean currents forms the North Atlantic Gyre. All the currents deposit the marine plants and plastic garbage they carry into this sea.  It is about 2,000 miles long.  Its name is from the seaweed that has tended to collect there from long before there was plastic garbage.  It has a mystical reputation, thought to be a ship graveyard, and to be a dark and mysterious place.
Second, a brief history of the West Indies.   The history of the West Indies was not taught in school back in the days of antiquity when I went to school.  And I now know why.  It is a history of slavery. That’s it.  The end.   Before European settlement on the islands of the West Indies, they were inhabited by three different peoples: the Arawaks, the Caribs, and the Ciboney. These indigenous tribes each in their turn pushed the preceding peoples up and out, using them for slaves.   They were effectively wiped out by European colonists, because of the diseases they brought, and because they were captured and used as slaves under harsh treatment. Christopher Columbus was the first European to visit several of the islands (in 1492). In 1496 the first permanent European settlement was made by the Spanish on Hispaniola.   When they ran out of indigenous slaves, they began importing slaves from the African continent.  Yeah, as I keep saying, we really suck as a species.
Finally, Jane Eyre.  That’s the one where the orphan Jane Eyre ends up as a governess for Mr. Rochester who is hiding the crazy wife in the attic.
You don’t have to have read Jane Eyre first to enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea, but probably if you haven’t read it, a quick glance at the Spark Notes plot summary will improve your reading experience.  I, personally, am not fond of the Bronte sisters, considering them dour and gloomy.  I preferred Villette to Jane Eyre, but not by much.  But then, that’s me.

A FOREVER DEATH by Michael W. Sherer

forever deathA freelance writer, middle age, is attending a hot shot party when his long time friend, but one whom he has not seen in a couple of years, tracks him down at the party, and asks to see him.  He has an emergency he needs help with.

This is the fourth in a six volume series featuring Emerson Ward, writer and amateur sleuth.  I was so afraid that the amateur sleuth died out back with Lord Peter Wimsey, that I wiped my sweating brown in relief to see that the slightly superior meddling non-professional is still a ‘thing’, and that everybody who sleuths doesn’t have a badge, or a license, and a gun.

Ward’s friend, Puppy, (who is married to Kitty.  How do you like them apples?) is a well-known photographer.  He was doing a shoot for a big client, involving diamonds, when one of his assistants dropped one and it broke.  Now diamonds can break, if hit just the right way, but more likely these were fakes.  Puppy had them appraised and discovered that the entire set had been replaced by fakes.

He needs Ward’s help to find out who replaced them.  On their way back to Puppy’s house, he was shot and crically injured.  OK.  Somebody wants him dead.  Is this all because of those replaced diamonds?

Clever plotting, clever sleuthing, and as in all detective stories, not all is as it seems.

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