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Fiction Review – The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Tuesday, October 3rd, 2017

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

“I remember my own childhood vividly – I knew terrible things. But I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew. It would scare them.” ~ Maurice Sendak, in conversation with Art Spiegelman. 

This quote opens Neil Gaiman’s novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and beautifully sets the tone for this compact cross between a fairy tale and a horror story. Let me say this right up front: if you do not enjoy magic in your fiction, stop right here. Gaiman presents the very real magic of childhood, where things are generally black or white, good or evil; where magical things can and do happen without too much disbelief on a child’s part. 

The book opens with a middle-aged man traveling back home to Sussex, England, for a funeral. He takes a seemingly aimless drive through the countryside, only to realize that he has been heading to the site of his childhood home, and the home of a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock. This visit takes him down memory lane to the events that occurred when he was only seven years old, and Lettie was eleven. As the narrator reminisces, his memory becomes sharper, more true — and we see the reality of a very dangerous time that, for some reason, he does not remember as an adult – not until he comes back to this place. It’s almost a glimpse into an alternate universe, except we, as readers, know it’s the real universe. 

I loved this book. I loved how Gaiman captured my childhood philosophy: Don’t Tell the Adults. They won’t believe you, or worse — they’ll ruin it. Magical things can happen, and you just need to deal with it, for with height and age comes disbelief and impatience. The world we live in as children must not be betrayed, even if we get scared sometimes. 

The Specsavers National Book Award is a British literary award which honors the best UK writers and their works, as selected by an academy of members from the British book publishing industry. There is the best in fiction, in non-fiction, in autobiography, and so on. From this list of winners, readers vote to select the Book of the Year. It is the only literary award chosen by the reading public. And the winner for 2013 was The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s a lovely honor, and well-deserved. 

Give it a try; after all, can so many voters be wrong?  Oh, and don’t tell the adults what you’re reading… 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Black Orchids

Monday, September 25th, 2017

Black Orchids by Rex Stout 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

(AKA  The Case of the Black Orchids and Death Wears an Orchid)

 

This novella opens with Archie Goodwin complaining about being dispatched to the Grand Central Flower show for four days running. His boss, the famous if eccentric PI Nero Wolfe, wants him to gather intelligence on three newly-developed black orchid plants hybridized by Lewis Hewitt, an arch-rival in flower fancying who “churns his beer.” 

While at the exhibition, Archie is smitten by a model in a unique exhibit. A beautiful blonde picnics in a sylvan (now there’s a 1940s word) scene with her boyfriend, near a stream, with mossy rock walls nearby. Crowds gather when she bathes her slim ankles and comely dogs in a nearby pool. Archie is unsettled, to the point where he doesn’t mind looking at thousands of flowers.

On fourth day, she follows the script as usual. That is, she tries to awaken her BF who has been feigning a nap with a newspaper over his face. But she runs into Archie who’s jumped over the rope to examine the supine figure. He’d noticed the male model’s foot at an awkward angle and thought it merited investigation. He probes the top of the man’s head with a finger that went “right into a hole in his skull, a way in, and it was like sticking your finger into a warm blueberry pie.”

Yuck. Not for nothing did blurb writers back in the day describe Stout as “gruesome, gory, but gay.” “Gay” as in the 1940s “carefree” sense, you understand.

The method of murder is diabolically clever, as we would expect in a classic mystery from that bygone era. So complicated, in fact, that we readers doubt it would work in the real world.  Still, this, the first novella Stout wrote, is quite a strong entry in the Wolfe canon. Wise-guy Archie’s narration has its usual brash, snappy, likable tone. The dialog between Archie and Wolfe is simultaneously acerbic and affectionate. The overall tone is light-hearted. As a whodunit that plays fair, there are red herrings and plausible deductions. As any good series book does, it delivers the inevitable touchstones we fans look forward to: the irascible Lt. Cramer; the red chair; the city girl with moxie; the glasses of milk; the bottles of beer; Wolfe barking “Archie!” 

It was published in the August 1941 issue of The American Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Top of the Heap

Monday, September 18th, 2017

Top of the Heap by Erle Stanley Gardner (aka A.A. Fair)

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Published in 1952, this is the thirteenth of 29 novels starring the PI partnership of Bertha Cool and Donald Lam that were written by Erle Stanley Gardner under the pen name of A.A. Fair. After reading about half-dozen of this series (a misnomer since they needn’t be read in any order), I think that Fair’s Cool and Lam novels are smarter, sexier, wittier and just more entertaining than Gardner’s Perry Mason novels. 

Top of the Heap is worth reading. As usual, the murder is a relatively small part of an intricate scheme, plot, or scam. As the running joke, Bertha Cool plays the comic miser like Mr. Krabs. Her hard-charging ways contrast with ex-lawyer Donald Lam’s subtle questioning of persons of interest and holding off cops bent on putting him in the hoosegow.  Another constant is that because gentlemanly Lam is such a considerate listener, all the female characters fall for him in spite of his short stature and reticence.

We don’t expect asides of any sort from Gardner, who drove plots like big sister Lucy runs little brother Linus. Unusual, then, are the social science tangents, especially involving female characters. Gardner puts on his sociologist’s hat to have a young working woman describe Sex in the City in LA circa the early 1950s: “You’re not independent. You’re a cog in the economic and social machine. You can get just so high and no higher. If you want to play you can get acquainted with a lot of playboys. If you want anything you’re stymied.”  Through an ex-strip tease artist, we get the anthropological view from a participant-observer.  The self-possessed fan dancer describes her sense of power over the audience and her teasing of it as the core spectacle of old-time burlesque shows: “I had the most supreme contempt for the individuals in the audience, but the group of the contemptible individuals became an entity, an audience. I loved to hear the roars of applause….” Short unexpected digressions like this distinguish the Cool and Lam novels from the Mason ones.

A publisher called Hard Case Crime got this novel back into print in 2004, its first publication in 30 years. It was an excellent choice. 

 

 

 

Civil War Fiction Review – Killer Angels

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara

Review by Bon S. (bons)

I have chosen this title THE KILLER ANGELS by Michael Shaara to review for several reasons. First, it is available to order by anyone reading this article in PaperBackSwap.

It has been printed in hardcover, paperback/trade, mass market and audio cassette.
The book itself is a sure winner, being an account of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1863 and for any American historian of the Civil War, (also known as the War Between the States), it is the story, in novel form, of probably one the most  famous battles fought in that war.

Another important reason for this book review is it is a Pulitzer Prize winner, plus his book was selected as number one in the book  The Leader’s Bookshelf, of which over 200 current and retired military people selected as the most important 50 books they selected to read, which was written and compiled by (Ret.) Admiral Stavridis, USN, and R. Manning Ancell.

On the same site, President Lincoln stood before hundreds of citizens on a cold winter day on November 19, 1863. only five months after that battle, to deliver his Gettysburg Address.

That speech took only 20 minutes and it was said that the people stood in awe, no clapping of hands, no applause of any kind or like recognition… just silence from listening to those 96 words. Lincoln thought he had failed. Yet in reality that speech will live forever as one of the greatest of all.

Michael Shaara’s book captures the essence of those few days of battle and death. He found and retrieved journals and letters of the original words of soldiers. Those who fought their brothers and cousins and died with over 20,000 other soldiers, from both North and South.

He relied on personal letters from non published accounts in journals or printed newspapers. He did not use already researched or published academic studies, or historians points of view. You will find no index, suggested reading list or bibliography in this book.

Shaara’s book is a novel, presented to the readers as the voices of the Confederate side. Loud and clear General Robert E. Lee and his band of generals spoke. In the back of this novel, you will find a afterword and list of the principle Southern military personnel who served the South. Reviewers of this book have stated it is a re-capture of the emotional experiences of the thoughts and actions this battle presented. It is pain revealed, danger and death experienced, and how the men of Lee’s brigades and companies of thousands of men worshiped the man Robert E. Lee.

No one can accurately pin point what the American Civil War was about.  Many theories, many studies, with thousands of books written on its behalf, and yet in the 21st century we have an author who seems to know how to write of the personal feelings and present his theories, leaving a final conclusion to test America’s viewing of this conflict.

He somehow has explained the impossible and it is believed the words he has spoken have come from the heart.  He seems to get inside the heads of the Confederate Army and speaks for the dead soldiers and that lost cause.

Other famous authors of today read this book and cried, others are studying it still, many keep thinking about it and often we have, from a novel, a recreation of a few days in Gettysburg, PA 154 years ago.

Their testimonies are recorded on the dust jacket flaps of this book.

So on those hot July days the battle raged on and history was made. Our minds are transformed from his novel to what this battle and war was all about or what we think it was all about.

Killer Angels helped us to entertain new opinions, different ideas, and even books written 100 years apart from each other of the actual scenes and style of when that event took place.

Michael Shaara’s book reveals the daily and hourly details of those few days of this famous battle and the reason why that battle was fought.

Remember something about this author…he is not a first time writer. He has been around for awhile with his story For the Love of the Game, his great baseball novel, which later was made into a movie.That novel stirred our hearts for America’s pastime. He now has claim to four novels. The others are The Herald and The Soldier Boy, so check him out in PaperBackSwap.

Mystery Monday – Casino Royale

Monday, September 11th, 2017

 

Casino Royaleby Ian Fleming

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

This is the first James Bond novel, first published in 1953. A true Bond fan should read it with the caution that in some ways the main character is the Bond we know and like but in others he is not. 

We like the JB that is believable because he feels fatigue and panic. He makes mistakes. Due to cockiness, he lets down his guard and Vesper, the romantic interest, gets kidnapped. However, in this premier, he’s cold, merciless, and callous. His opinion on women spies is summed up as “Women were for recreation. On a job, they got in the way and fogged things up with sex and hurt feelings and all the emotional baggage they carried around.” 

Besides the stereotypes we hold in disapprobation nowadays, the violence in this one is about the hardest of the entire series. The torture scene is almost as cringe-inducing as Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer putting an icepick through a perp’s – well, never mind.

Like I said, a Bond fan should read it because Fleming’s action rocks. The bombing, car chase, and gambling scenes pack punch.  Fleming gives the impression he knows a lot about specialized technologies and the work of spies (he was in Naval Intelligence during WWII). Though Fleming runs low on synonyms by the end and the story drags a bit after the climax with Le Chiffre, read it. You know you want to. It’ll take a whole afternoon. 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Dancers in Mourning

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Dancers in Mourning by Margery Allingham 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

Dancers in Mourning, released in 1937, is the 8th mystery to feature her series hero, Albert Campion. Born in 1900, he served in only the last six months of the Great War. The experience may have aged him beyond his years, because though only in his thirties, he slips out of his bland inoffensive manner to reveal the inborn authority and poise of the natural aristocrat that impresses even the police.  Allingham is ever aware of the double-edged use of snobbery, so she sometimes coyly hints at his title while Campion doesn’t much think about it at all.

Like the later novel The Fashion in Shrouds, Dancers in Mourning takes us into a seemingly romantic, stylish world, that of the boards of musical comedy. Star of the fantastic toe, Jimmy Sutane, has made a massive hit out of the unintentionally silly memoir by Campion’s old buddy, “Uncle” William Faraday whom we met in Police at the Funeral (1931).

Uncle William calls Campion for a consultation because somebody is playing nasty practical jokes on Jimmy Sutane. The sheer number of the jibes and their creepy malice have rattled the dancers, who, like some loosely-educated creative types, are as superstitious as medieval peasants. Back at Sutane’s country house, Sutane’s wife Linda is also agitated because strangers have been gamboling in their garden in the middle of the night. 

Allingham, for a little snob appeal, takes us out to the country house, of course. But, she assures us who don’t have the snob gene, it’s hardly an idyllic place. It’s a treadmill where the master rehearses new acts, cajoles money guys, oversees auditions, and soothes temperaments. Jimmy Sutane feels pressure to succeed because so many people depend on his coming up with another hit show. Consequently, his life is nothing but work and a parade of ambitious stressed people. Allingham makes a serious point about the hazards of allowing work and the demands of other people to consume all of one’s life.

Dancer and singer Chloe, slightly past her prime, squeezes an invitation out of Linda. But Chloe’s sudden death makes a chaotic household more or less unbearable. Was it suicide or a natural death? During the investigation, Campion finds himself falling in love with Linda. Campion exasperates himself by doing so, making him a very likable guy. Allingham handles this romance plausibly, and it fits right into the story. 

 

 

Spy Novel Review – Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

The British spy service is in shambles. It collects no product. Long-time bosses have been given their walking papers. The resulting reshuffle of duties has demoralized the remaining old timers. However, a minister and his minion bring a low-level agent to the attention of terminated spy master George Smiley. The agent’s story sends Smiley on a hunt for a possible mole who is passing secrets to the Russians.

The novel seems like a mystery since it has multiple interviews with a variety of characters, five suspects, startling twists and an exciting reveal. But it treats themes such as disillusionment, the end of the British Empire, marital dissolution, and the workaday life in a large bureaucracy. LeCarre also uses devices – such as the weather, remote places, and the focus on hands – for more literary effect than we expect in a mystery or spy novel.

In a BBC Radio “Front Row” interview in 2009, John LeCarre said that John Bingham’s crime novels such as My Name is Michael Sibley, published in the 1950s when the two men worked together in British intelligence, inspired LeCarre to write his first two books, Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality. Some critics go so far as to call Bingham the inspiration for George Smiley, but Bingham disliked le Carré’s portrayal of world-weary, cynical spies.