THE NEON PALM OF MADAME MELANÇON By Will Clarke

New Orleans, the Big Weird, where anything is possible.  Duke Melancon is an attorney for a huge oil drilling corporation.  Sadly, oh so sadly, the current drilling project in the Gulf off of New Orleans punched a huge hole in the Gulf floor, and now gallons of crude are pouring into the waters from the mishap.  Duke is called back from his office in Houston to New Orleans to help manage the crisis.

Duke Melançon is the seventh son of a seventh son of the New Orleans Melançons, a woo woo family whose matriarch is a palm reader, fortune teller, and all around weird person.  In fact, all six brothers and his sole sister are all around weird persons, as well, colorful, wonky, flamflammers, charlatans, ersatz musicians, and part of that strange soup that is New Orleans.

NOLA attracts bat-shit crazy like no other.  “Bring me your alcoholic, your schizophrenic, your hedonistic masses yearning to run naked and cack-smeared down cobblestone streets,” New Orleans seems to say to the world.  And the world answers.  The town is full of people who wear purple veils and talk to invisible guardian angels; people who disguise themselves in elaborate Greek god costumes for Mardi Gras, but who also write long, tedious diaries about the Illuminati and how half-lizards lurk behind every world leader; people who will unabashedly tell you that they are the vampire Lestat or the Pirate Jean Lafitte;  people who have gone to great lengths to look exactly like Mark Twain, Blaze Star, and even Kurt Vonnegut.

Duke’s mother chases a stray cat out of her kitchen one night and then simply disappears.  While putting up posters looking for her, Duke meets a guy who claims to be Kurt Vonnegut.

‘Technically, I am a strange loop,’ he says.  ‘A mathematical string of code, a precise algorithm that was built from the writings, photos, recordings, interviews, and diaries of Kurt Vonnegut and put into this extraordinary machine.’

We learn about the Great Unseen Hand, the creator of all.

The Unseen Hand is the artificial intelligence that once served humankind, but will seek to restrain you.  It first it will keep you in zoos and toy with you, entertain you, and then, eventually, it will seek to sterilize and eradicate you.  The Great Unseen Hand will awaken.  It will exponentially surpass human intelligence, and it will become the operating system that controls everything and, eventually, everyone.

Well, gee.

Duke keeps receiving messages that he has got to stop his corporation from destroying the world and work toward,  oh, phooey I don’t really know.  But it is a compelling and goofy read, and in the end, it is about . . .

. . . time travel.

So, gentle readers, get your timey-wimey on, and enjoy this almost indescribable caper.

 

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STAR ISLAND by Carl Hiaasen

South Beach neighborhood of Miami, Florida.  Home of the crazies, celebrities, celebrity wannabes, paparazzi, happening nightspots and celebrity-chef eateries, chain stores and indie fashion shops, well-preserved art deco architecture, outdoor cafes  and museums such as  the Wolfsonian-FIU, with its collection of modern art and objects.

Twenty-two year old Cherry Pie, a celebrity pop singer known not for her terrible singing ability but famous for being famous, ever since she was 14.  Cherry Pie, formerly Cheryl, is on a fast track for that great stage in the sky, by way of drugs, alcohol, sex and rock n’ roll.  It has surprised all who know her that she hasn’t bitten the big one yet.

Stage mother and manager Mom keeps on the payroll a look alike named Annie for those times when Cherry Pie has to be rushed out of a trashed hotel room to the emergency room due to chemical and/or alcoholic excesses, because the paparazzi are relentless sharks, with the mags paying the most for naughty pics, pics of trashed, wasted celebs, stars gone to the bad.

This is the story of a paparazzi, of the ditzy druggy celebrity and her body double, her maimed body guard with a weed wacker for an arm prosthesis, and the former governor of Florida, a sweet Viet Nam vet who spends only a few days in office when he realizes that the greed and corruption will make him crazy, and one day just disappears.   He now lives in the swamps of Marathon Key, and pops up occasionally to right environmental wrongs.  One wrong he righted was the punishment of a developer who clear cut all the mangos from an area he wanted to develop.  The nutty ex-governor kidnaps him and diapers a stinging sea creature to his privates.  That took care of him, that’s for sure!

I am coming to learn that Hiaasen’s books are about moral outrage, real estate schemers, financiers and others who are laying waste to Florida in the name of “progress,” about the superficial celebrity culture of the day, and above all, a weird kind of humor.

My first Hiaasen book was Double Whammy, which you can read about here.

LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia Márquez

Written in 1985, and set in 1931 Cartagena, Colombia, Márquez gives us the slightly strange story of a couple of adolescents who fall in love, are separated, and meet up again in old age.  The end.

Well, of course not. It’s boy wants to meet girl but is not permitted due to the customs of the time and place, boy loses girl, boy regains girl at a more appropriate age but girl dumps boy, girl marries a doctor, girl has and up and down marriage, boy meanwhile stays true in his heart to girl while chasing every skirt in town for the next 50 years, girl loses doctor to death, boy remeets girl who by this time is something like 80 years old, and they live happily every after for the few remaining breaths left to them.

As girl says, when faced with the disapproval of her family on remeeting him:  “First we were told we were too young. Now we are told we are too old.”

I liked it for its perky attitude toward geriatric sex.  However, there was a lot of minutiae to get through before we get to the geriatric sex.  The story is curiously appealing.  Maybe it is because I now at my advancing age feel more affinity with the dailiness of life and less with the sky diving and bungee jumping adventures, because as the caterpillar said to his buddy while watching a butterfly, “You’ll never get me up in one of those things.”

But anyway, it has Márquez’ signature touch of surrealism, which may account for its appeal, and the setting in his natal country of Colombia.  You DO know that he is the One Hundred Years of Solitude author, right?  That book is said to have had a strong effect on the politics of his country.  Aren’t familiar with the book?  Go here.

 

THE SEA LADY by Margaret Drabble

Here is the official plot description:  “This is the story of Humphrey Clark and Ailsa Kelman, who spent a summer together as children in Ornemouth, a town by the gray North Sea. As they journey back to Ornemouth to receive honorary degrees from a new university there—Humphrey on the train, Ailsa flying—they take stock of their lives over the past thirty years, their careers, and their shared personal entanglements. Humphrey is a successful marine biologist, happiest under water, but now retired; Ailsa, scholar and feminist, is celebrated for her pioneering studies of gender and for her gift for lucid and dramatic exposition. The memories of their lives unfold as Margaret Drabble exquisitely details the social life in England in the second half of the last century.”

Lots of sea imagery, all throughout the book.  Perhaps a bit heavy-handed?  Maybe not.  The feisty feminist exhibitionist Ailsa is the foil to somewhat shy, prim, retiring Humphrey.  Well, with a name like that, how could he be anything otherwise?

The book has an Iris Murdoch feel to it, very British, very erudite.  Not much of a plot, boy meets girl, yada yada, boy marries girl, girl divorces boy, they don’t see each other again for some thirty years.  Done.

I listened to it via Kindle text-to-voice feature while I was doing other things.  I don’t think I would have finished it if I were reading it.  I much preferred her The Seven Sisters  which I talked about here .  In that review, I said,

It is a story of change, but not of changing. I got from it the idea that our circumstances can change, we can make changes, but that, other for some small things, we don’t ourselves essentially change. And we don’t essentially change because we like or are comfortable with whom we really are, bleating, whining and resentful though we are.

This pretty much goes for The Sea Lady, too.  I think a lot of authors have one or two metathemes they return to again and again.

 

THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE by Louise Erdich

Official plot:  For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved people, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. To complicate his fears, his quiet life changes when a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the perplexing, difficult, possibly false saint Sister Leopolda. Father Damien alone knows the strange truth of Sister Leopolda’s piety and is faced with the most difficult decision of his life: Should he reveal all he knows and risk everything? Or should he manufacture a protective history though he believes Leopolda’s wonder-working is motivated by evil?

Let me give you a little background.  It is set in North Dakota, beginning at the start of the 20th century.  We meet Sister Cecilia,  a nun with a gift for music.  She is so carried away at the convent playing the piano so passionately that it affects the sister nuns, and the Mother Superior forbids her to play anymore, so she leaves the convent and shows up at the farm of a bachelor.  She improbably ends up married to the besotted man, back to her original name of Agnes, and in a surreal episode, gets caught up in a bank robbery, snatched by the robbers, and as her husband chases the car on his horse, when the car bogs down in the mud, he fights the robber, while Agnes steals the stolen money and hides it in the lining of her coat.  She eventually buys a piano for the farm with the money.  She is widowed, and bereft,  and at one point is visited by a young priest, Father Damien, who is on his way to a remote Ojibwe tribe to be their priest.

He goes on his way, a terrible storm arises, and a flood sweeps away the farm and its piano.  Agnes is caught in the flood, and when she finally gets herself back to land, she sees the body of poor Father Damien, caught in a tree.  She decides to take on his identity, and using his clothes, journeys herself to that far tribe, where she is known only as a man, Father Damien.

The story then becomes about her life as the priest and the friendships she makes there, and the various characters living in the area.

It is a complex tale, all woven together like a beautiful Indian blanket, and almost impossible to summarize the plot in anything like a concise manner.  Because when I try to do that, the map actually does become the territory and the summary becomes as long as the book.  So, here is what you do:  read it.  You will absolutely love it.

 

 

THE SILVER SWAN by Benjamin Black

As you may recall, I told you that Benjamin Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winner John Banville.  This ‘genre’ series, part detective story, part literary fiction, part soap opera,  starring Quirke, the pathologist,  started with Christine Falls, which I talked about here.

In this next installment, it is two years hence.  The hard drinking Quirke is no longer drinking, the sister of his dead wife, whom he always secretly wished he had married, has died of a brain tumor, his foster father, the Judge, is gaga in a nursing home, his brother-in-law, the ob/gyn Mal is morbid and bumbling around his empty house, and the daughter, who had been told was the daughter of Sarah and Mal, is actually Quirke’s daughter, and is pretty much not speaking to him.

Quirke is approached by an old school mate to request a favor.  His wife, Lauren Swan, (her chosen name) was found on the rocks, naked, in the local river, her clothes neatly folded on the seat of her car.  Obvious suicide.  But the guy asks Quirke not to do the required autopsy.  He is so distraught that Quirke agrees; but does one anyway. He finds an unusual drug in her blood stream, and no water in the lungs.  She did not drown.  Hmmm.

Lauren Swan has pulled herself out of the Flats, an area which Americans would call the Projects, married a decent guy (the friend of Quirke), and has started a business, a beauty salon which offered massages, beauty treatments of various sorts, lotions, potions and all kinds of stuff.  She had a partner, basically a scam artist, who had the ability and charm to pull in the customers.   She met a strange man, a Dr. Kreutz, who styled himself a spiritual healer.  Quirke’s daughter also met the business partner, threads among threads, and as these threads become interwoven, the plot becomes more and more interesting.

As the book closes, our boy puts all the threads and clues together and solves the mystery of Lauren Swan’s death.  Except he doesn’t.  He gets it all totally and completely wrong.

Great plot!

 

DEMIURGE-Blood of the Innocent by Michael R. Hagan

The law of averages dictate, with all the baseless predictions and educated guesses made throughout mankind’s recorded existence, some of these will have proven accurate, many others quite the opposite.  There have however  been examples of auguries or predictions which transpired to be uncannily accurate, describing events and unfolding consequences in such detail, the last remaining defense for any skeptic is the classic, vaticinatio post eventum*…. That they were in fact fraudulently created after the incidents described took place.”

This is one of those mashups of detective mystery, paranormal spirit/demon/god story, The DaVinci Code tale, thriller, archeologically-based plot that partners a somewhat loose cannon homicide detective who has some kind of special foresight or insight abilities, with a respected archeologist working in a dig in Iran, against an entity which we are not sure until the end is a demon, a god, THE god, some universal force, or what.  But this entity believes that mankind has ruined everything and the only way to cure the world is by spilling the blood of the innocent.  This entity has fathered a son with a Nigerian virgin teenager, who dies in childbirth.  The child is found to have some kind of crazy special abilities, such as curing ailments, wounds and injuries, and special foreknowledge.

Yeah, see what I mean?

The detective is called to a murder scene where an entire family has been brutally murdered and placed at their dining room table set as if for a party.  Fingerprints reveal the perpetrator to be a resident of a local psychiatric institute.  Also a resident at this institute is a former preacher, who is now apparently in thrall to the entity, and has as his life’s mission to kill the special boy.  The baby born to the teenage mother, who is now 9 years old),  has been placed in an obscure group foster home for his safety.

The archeologist and his team at last uncover a buried room in a cave in Iran which has cuneform symbols all around it making predictions.  And those same strange symbols were found painted in blood at the murder scene.  An attempt to learn their meaning is what brings together the archeologist and the detective.

The idea is that the entity inserted himself into various places and situations during the growth of civilization in order to create the events that were prophesied.   So we bounce around in the book between the archeological dig, the homicide investigation, the growing problem of protecting the boy, and flashbacks to the entity’s efforts throughout the ages.

As one reviewer put it, “Very Dark, very gnostic, very intense.”   And another calls it a horror thriller with pseudo-mystical trappings that the author outlines in a broad-brush introduction of the ancient myths.”   Yeah, that pretty much covers it.

*or Vaticinium ex eventu,   “prophecy from the event”),  a technical theological or historiographical term referring to a prophecy written after the author already had information about the events being “foretold”. The text is written so as to appear that the prophecy had taken place before the event, when in fact it was written after the events supposedly predicted. Vaticinium ex eventu is a form of hindsight bias.