Thursday, November 24, 2011


Happy Thanksgiving to all my southish friends.


Watch out for this guy.

And, whatever you do, don't mention stuffing.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Red Shift - Under the Guest Microscope

Shop Indie Bookstores

A review by Maine Character

Red Shift

I wish everyone could discover this novel the way I did: finding it completely by chance in a used book store and going to it with no expectations other than the quote from Ursula Le Guin on the cover: “A bitter, complex, brilliant book.” But since the purpose of a review is to connect books with their best readers, here’s all you need to know to see if it’s for you.

There’s three interwoven stories, each in the same location. The first and central story is a romance between two teenagers in 1973 England, with one going off to college. The kids are wistful, honest, confused, very intelligent, and trying to hold onto the one thing they know is sure in the world.

They stood in the shelter of the tower, holding each other, rocking with gentleness.

“I love you,” said Jan.

“I’m coming to terms with it.”

“ – love you.”

“But there’s a gap.”


“I know things, and feeling things, but the wrong way round. That’s me: all the right answers at none of the right times. I see and can’t understand. I need to adjust my spectrum, pull myself away from the blue end. I could do with a red shift.”

The second story focuses on a small band of the lost Roman Ninth Legion trying to blend in with the first century tribes of Britain. Religion, subversion, and revelation rise among the brutality of war. One of them, Macey, is prone to berserker-like fits. Anyone who likes military fiction, or gritty fantasy, will appreciate the realistic depictions of their battles, all laced in Vietnam-like delirium.

“You and Magoo stand sentry,” said Logan, “but listen. All of you get this, and get it good. The guards have been taken out, maybe not by Cats. The Mothers have come south. They’ll raid the Cats wherever they find them, and both sides will whip our ass if we let them. Solutions.”

“The usual,” said Face. “Divide and rule. Hit the infrastructure.”

“Correct. All right? We retreat until we’re clear of the Mothers, then we go tribal.”

The third story takes us to St. Bertoline’s church, in Barthomley, 1643, when the Irish are invading the countryside. It’s much like “The Crucible” in terms of a love triangle mixed with religious fervor, and it ties in with the other stories with a stone artifact that appears throughout the novel.

A single bell began to ring over the parish.

“Is it church time already?” said Margery.

“No. My father. He thinks we’ll be up against reasonable men.”

“Have you seen them?”

“Nearly. I rode down through Crewe by Oak Farm. They’d not left any alive. I must go and stop that bell. They’ll find us soon enough.”

There’s profound connections between these characters I won’t reveal here, but the novel weaves questions of identity, time, and the bond between the three couples to the point where the book doesn’t always mark where one scene ends and another begins. And important events might pass between two lines of dialogue. Early editions were marketed young adult, and yet it’s as adult and dense as a Salinger story or Shakespeare.

The novel ends on a heartbreaking note, leaving you in wonder as to what exactly happened, and yet that’s exactly the charm and strength of the work – like rich poetry, you need to read it more than once to get all the meaning, and even then there’s much beyond your reach. It’s a challenging work, and yet completely involving, and at a scant 120 pages, maintains the tension all the way through.

On first reading it, I wished there were footnotes explaining the British slang and history, but the web helped with much of that. For some pointers, a caravan is a military trailer, nesh is being very sensitive to cold weather or simply lacking courage, a folly is a castle built for decoration, cans are headphones, and M6 can be both a highway and a star cluster. “Tom’s a-cold” is a line from “King Lear,” M33 is a spiral galaxy, and the song “Cross Track” must’ve been made up by the author, but it sounds like he’s describing Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic.” (Garner is said to write to Hendrix.)

Image searches of Crewe, Barthlomey, and Mow Cop would give an idea of the setting, but don’t read the history of the church or the meaning of the coded message until you’ve finished the book. Also, the New York Review Books Classics edition, just released, has an introduction in which Garner explains how he came to write it, but don’t read that until afterwards, either, for it gives too much away.

To sum up, captivating and cryptic, with realistic, unique characters and situations, all presented with a masterful use of mystery and suspense. Add to that spell-binding dialogue, rich with layer on layer, and it’s a work that resonates with you long after.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Sjowall and Wahloo - Under the Microscope

Shop Indie Bookstores

Shop Indie Bookstores

A double dose!

Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are not well known, at least over here, but therir influence, I think, is pervasive in the genre of crime fiction. Sjowall and Wahloo were a husband and wife writing team in Sweden; Per was a journalist and novelist, Sjowall a poet. But they came together to write a mystery series that was not quite like other mystery series. They started the series with Roseanna, in the 1960s, followed by The Man Who Went Up in Smoke. They wrote ten novels over a period of a decade, and what's interesting is that they intended the series not just as a series of clever mysteries, but as a decade long attempt to chart and explore their culture. These are realist novels, and yet somehow satire winds through them, somehow capturing both the grimness and humour of the various scenarios they look to chart and explore.

Before Sjowall and Wahloo, crime novels were clever puzzles, or  black and white stories of good and evil. A lone and courageous detective, through force of wit, overcomes the villain. Sjowall and Wahloo, however, saw in the crime novel something else: an opportunity to shine a light on the dark crevices that wind between people.

Gone is the black and white, the lone detective. Their main character, Martin Beck, is certainly a smart and capable detective, but he's a man on the job. And it is just a job, though sometimes an obsessive one. He has kids he has trouble relating to, a crumbling marriage. And the cast around him is rich, and real. He's friends with some, and with others, not so much. And together they have to solve crimes. It's a group effort; these stories are not about the startling genius of a Holmes or a Poirot, but rather about the dogged intelligence of a group of people who are trying simply to do their jobs well, at least when life does not intrude.

The stories mirror real investigations. They are not linear, following a wonderful track of clues. They are happenstantial, jagged; sometimes cases stall; sometimes there are dead ends, and months of waiting, and frustration. And yet, in mirroring this fracturing, these doldrums, these moments of boredom, the novels somehow have pace; these moments almost heighten the drama, delay mechanisms that ratchet up the tension, while also allowing a moment to look closely at the people, the officers at the point of intersection with the world around them.

In Roseanna, the body of a young woman is dredged from Lake Vattern. Unnamed and unknown. Where is she from? A tourist unclaimed. After three months, all Martin Beck knows is that her name was Roseanna and that she could have been strangled by any one of eighty-five people on a cruise boat.

In The Man Who Went Up in Smoke, Martin Beck is sent to Budapest to find a Swedish journalist who has disappeared. How does one conduct an investigation in a city that one does not know, in a place where no one speaks your language? Beck stumbles upon an international racket while following traces of his countryman. But is the man hiding, on the run, or dead? Clearly, something has happened, but what? The key, though, lies not in Budapest, but back home in Sweden.

This is a great series (I've read The Abominable Man and The Locked Room as well). Stark and sharply written. Dark and yet funny. Grim and yet not without whimsy. Clever without really needing the cleverness. You see shadows of these books everywhere. The cop dramas on television, in the movies, on the bookshelves; many of these, perhaps without knowing it, trace their roots back to a husband and wife writing team from Sweden. And yet, for all this grandfatherly influence, what always strikes me about them is how fresh they seem, how current and alive. It's the sharpness of the perception in the words, in how they peel apart the lives of people; it feels current not because its new, but because its true. Or perhaps Sjowall and Wahloo simply do it better than anyone else.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Winter's Bone - Under the Microscope

Shop Indie Bookstores

There are good books, there are great books, and then there are those brilliant books that set your hair on fire. And Winter's Bone is a remarkable achievement in human combustion.

How to describe this book? It's a bit like what would happen if Cormac McCarthy decided to write a modern version of True Grit. Cormac didn't, but (luckily) Daniel Woodrell did.

Woodrell calls this a Country Noir - and I love this. Is it entirely accurate? Who knows. But it's an evocative description for a little niche genre of literature. I think you could fit a fair bit of McCarthy's writing in this genre, as well as writers like Ron Rash and Matthew F. Jones. What happens if you take literary crime out of urban cities and chart its progress across the rural poor of backwater towns and deep country? Country Noir.

And Winter's Bone hits every right button possible. A young, complex, and true heroine in search of her father... so that he can turn himself in to the law, so that their house isn't taken from them? Check. A dark and gritty story of crime and drugs and the odd loyalties of family? Check. And searing prose? Check check check. As a lover of pitchperfect sentences, let me tell you that this novel has more than a few. There's something truly perfect about the writing in this book. A few examples:

1. "Ree Dolly stood at break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat. Meat hung from trees across the creek. The carcasses hung pale of flesh with a fatty gleam from low limbs of saplings in the side yards. Three halt haggard houses formed a kneeling rank on the far creekside and each had two or more skinned torsos dangling by rope from sagged limbs, venison left to the weather for two nights and three days so the early blossoming of decay might round the flavor, sweeten that meat to the bone."

2. "He ran his eyes into her like a serpent down a hole, made her feel his slither in her heart and guts, made her tremble."

3. "Coyotes howled past dawn, howled from far crags and ridges and down the valley to the end of the rut road where the school bus stopped. Ree, Sonny, and Harold stood next to the county blacktop that led everywhere, beside white levees the plows had built with scraped-aside snow. The morning was clear but bone-cracking cold, and maybe the weather had kept those coyotes from doing what had to be done in the night so they carried on into the day. Wild crooning yips and moans beneath a sun that warmed nothing."

There are books you read and love, and there are books that haunt you, that seep into your head and won't leave you alone. Winter's Bone is one of these.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Judges of the Secret Court - Under the Microscope

Shop Indie Bookstores

The Judges of the Secret Court, one of those interesting rediscovered books published by the New York Review of Books, is a book about the assassination of President Lincoln. It's a strange, polyphonic sort of novel. It centers on John Wilkes Booth himself, but it spends almost as much time following Edwin Booth, JWB's brother and one of the nation's finest actors. Yet, at the same time, it whirls like a kaleidoscope through the stories and minds of numerous other characters, creating a strange babble of voices that pull the reader first to the death of Lincoln (though only after we have seen some of Lincoln's own personal meditations, as he rides toward the theatre) and then spreading out after the assassination, tracking the ripples of this event and what it means.

This is a slightly odd book. The technique, I think, has some costs, as it can occasionally be difficult to stay engaged with the central characters and the main events of the assassination, the hunt, and the trial that follows. Yet the scattered whirl of voices and images somehow sculpts the event out of the silence of history. The scope widens, the themes multiply, and there is a greater sense of the event and what it means, not just to the Booth brothers, but to the entire country - and to history itself.

It's worth a read if you're interested in American history at all (and I am, oddly enough, a Canadian who was the son of a professor of American history, so sometimes I simply can't resist), or if you're interested in different narrative techniques.

Plus, you know, that's a really kickass cover. Just sayin'. NYRB really know how to put a book together. It even smells good.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Hemingway and Herbert - Under the Guest Microscope

Guest post by DG Hudson

DG Hudson - Rainforest Writing

DG Hudson - 21st Century Women

From the Islands in the Stream of the Caribbean to the spice deserts of DUNE, these two books will take you to another world.

Islands in the Stream, by Ernest Hemingway, first published in 1970; trade paperback edition published 2004, by Simon and Schuster (Scribner trademark). Compiled after the author’s death by Charles Scribner, Jr. and Mary Hemingway using original manuscript. Literary fiction

This story is about Thomas Hudson, an artist and a man who seems uncannily similar to the author, Hemingway. The book starts with Thomas and his visiting sons living on Bimini, an island in the Gulf Stream, as part of a temporary arrangement with the estranged mothers. As the father tries to connect with his sons, they fish, swim, and talk about a Mr. Joyce, a Mr. Ford and a Mr. Pound -- all members of the lost generation in Paris.

At the beginning of part two, we understand the loss that’s driving Thomas to his exploits in Cuba. He thinks he has nothing to lose. In part three, it’s WWII and he’s tracking enemy submarines hiding between the Gulf Stream islands and the Cuban coast. It’s a story about a father coping with extreme loss, and how that loss affects his choices afterward. As the dialogue is current with the times in which the story is set (the 1930s and ‘40s), be aware that some may find offense at certain words. The original manuscript was written by Hemingway at a time when social mores were different and the American government still had a presence in Cuba.

I liked the first part of the book better, and that kept me reading through the second and third parts of the book, although I had a hard time not ‘imagining’ Ernest in this character. Thomas Hudson is a man who learns how fleeting the good things in life can be.

The other book is epic science fiction, set in Frank Herbert’s DUNE universe and sequel to DUNE: the Butlerian Jihad. It seems some robots can’t help going from bad to worse. . .

DUNE: The Machine Crusade, by Brian Herbert (son of Frank) and Kevin J. Anderson; published in 2003 by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, a TOR book. Science fiction

Set two decades after the events of the Butlerian Jihad, this story prequels the events in the Frank Herbert DUNE stories. Names like Erasmus, Omnius, Harkonnen, Atreides and Serena Butler will be familiar to DUNE enthusiasts. The human worlds are tiring of war against the Cymeks, while the Army of the Jihad battles the Thinking machines. It’s an ongoing battle, from which the machines recover faster than the humans. On old Arrakis, the Fremen warriors are starting to emerge, and the Ginaz fighters begin to build their reputation as independent soldiers.

This story gives the background on the machine jihad, and tells how the Harkonnen and the Atreides families served the governing regime before the feud between them. Robots and all their derivatives interest me, so I read this quickly. If you’re a fan of the DUNE universe, you’ll like this intensive look at how politics and war become entangled when a huge threat (the thinking machines) is posed. Understanding what occurred before the time when the Atreides landed on Arrakis (aka Dune), gives a deeper world view of the complex causes that engender clashes between factions or civilizations. It’s Them against Us. Sound familiar?

Thanks, Bryan, for the opportunity to guest post.

Has anyone else read these two books? Are you a fan of either of these authors?

Monday, November 14, 2011

Open Wounds - Under the Microscope

Shop Indie Bookstores

Open Wounds is a YA novel. Yes, I know, I read a YA novel. Miracles never cease.

This one, though, is a little different than most of the ones I see on the bookstore shelves. This is a gritty historical novel set in WWII-era New York, about a boy, Cid Wyman, scrapping for life in a harsh neighbourhood of Queens. His mother is dead, his father abandons him, and he's left with his grandmother - his only release is the occasional chance to watch a movie on the silver screen, the sort of swashbuckling adventure that pulls him into a life utterly unlike his own. When his grandmother dies, he lives in an orphanage until, years later, a distant relative takes him in. This is Lefty, a crippled veteran of WWI who had once loved Cid's mother. Lefty teaches Cid how to fence, and how to teach fencing for the stage. Cid feels he has found a place for himself doing just this, but even a boy can have dangerous enemies.

This is a story of growing up, of old parents lost and new ones found. It's beautifully written, gritty, and not fo the YA-faint-of-heart. From childhood battles on the streets to fencing duels as a young man, this story has action and beautiful pacing - but what makes it great is its unsentimental poignancy, the truth of Cid's struggles, and his complex relationship with Lefty - savior, of a sort, though a difficult one (and a wonderfully realized character). This story is also about class and the clash of worlds, about how the stories of the grand world beyond have an impact on even the most distant lives.

I think great historical novels have this wonderful nested quality. It's not that they're simply about a historical event, but rather they are about lives that have been carefully nested within a series of historical events. These events are simply a part of the world the characters live in, like the weather or the daily traffic. The story reveals, and is revealed by, these events, and always, beyond that, there is the value of a life truly lived.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Attack of the Killer Microscope! Review Week Arrives...

Hey all, I'm going to be having a Review Week! Possibly a Review Two Weeks! Exciting!

So I'm going to be shoving a lot of the great books I've read under the microscope. Lots of fun! Because I love talking about good books. And so! I was thinking some of my fellow sophisticates may also like talking about good books! Yes? Yes! If you, perchance, are one of these fellow sophisticates, and if you would like to do a guest post review of some book you think deserves attention (any kind of book! Even your own, if it's out in the wide world!), let me know! Drop me a line, and you can have a spot in the wonderful Review Week/Two-weeks/Month Extravaganza! Picture of microscope optional.

Friday, November 11, 2011

String Bridge Chart Rush

Today is THE day to help Jessica Bell's debut, STRING BRIDGE, hit
the bestseller list on Amazon, and receive the all-original soundtrack
Melody Hill: On the Other Sidewritten and performed by the author herself, for free!

All you have to do is
purchase the
book today (paperback, or eBook), November 11th, and then email the receipt to:


She will
then email you a link to download the album at no extra cost!

To purchase the paperback:

To purchase the eBook:

To listen to samples of the soundtrack, visit iTunes.

If you are
not familiar with String Bridge,
check out the book trailer:

Rave Reviews for String Bridge:

Jessica Bell’s STRING BRIDGE strummed the fret of my
veins, thrummed my blood into a mad rush, played me taut until the final page,
yet with echoes still reverberating. A rhythmic debut with metrical tones of
heavied dark, fleeting prisms of light, and finally, a burst of joy—just as
with any good song, my hopeful heartbeat kept tempo with Bell’s narrative.
~ Kathryn Magendie, author of Sweetie and Publishing Editor of Rose & Thorn Journal

“Poet and
musician Jessica Bell's debut novel String Bridge
is a rich exploration of desire, guilt, and the
difficult balancing act of the modern woman. The writing is lyrical throughout,
seamlessly integrating setting, character and plot in a musical structure that
allows the reader to identify with Melody's growing insecurity as her world
begins to unravel …
String Bridge is
a powerful debut from a promising writer, full of music, metaphor, and just a
hint of magic.” ~ Magdalena Ball, author of Repulsion
and Sleep Before Evening

Jessica Bell is a brilliant writer
of great skill and depth.
She doesn't pull back from the difficult
scenes, from conflict, pain, intensity. She puts it all out there, no holds
barred, no holding back. She knows how to craft a scene, how to develop
character, how to create suspense. This is an absolutely brilliant debut novel.
I look forward to reading her
next novel, and next and next.” 
~ Karen Jones
Gowen, author of Farm Girl, Uncut Diamonds and House of Diamonds

Please TWEET and/or FACEBOOK this post using #StringBridge!

Thursday, November 10, 2011

How to Write a Person

Literature is a vast and salty plain. And by salty I mean, you know, white. And often very male, too. Can a salty plain be male? Well, it sure as hell is, at least in terms of the hiercharchical access to power and legitimacy.

Part of this, sadly, is conscious. Some writers will simply choose to perpetuate these false (though often culturally reinforced) tropes. Conscious denial, conscious positionings of power, are out there.

Other times it will occur out of ignorance. The surrounding culture inevitably finds its way into the headspace of writers, sometimes with a fanfare of trumpets and sometimes with soft cat-like feet (but clawed, oh yes). And I don't entirely blame people for their ignorance. I mean, it's my ignorance, too. How much of what we know comes in on the backs of assumptions that we forget to question and interrogate? I have a few bucketfuls myself, I'm sure. Eyes wide shut. Sometimes, though, I can blink, and when I open my eyes I realize I'm an idiot and I get a little smarter.

And then there are the people who would like to do something, but are scared. And this fear is normal. They would like to write minority characters, complex female heroines, and the disenfranchised. But what if they do it wrong? I think our culture emits an almost overwhelming vibe that it's better not to try than to try and do it wrong, or do it badly. Especially for topics like this.

It comes down to decency, I think. A lot of writers are simply decent people who don't want to offend. They would like to write a black or brown character, or a complex and real female heroine, but it seems risky: what if they offend black people or brown people or women? The thought of having people consider them a racist or misogyinist is almost unbearable (even though this fear often helps propagate these very things). Deletion, then, becomes easier than risking offense. Forgetfulness is safer and more comfortable than accidental cruelty. "Black people? Oh yeah, there's some black people in this country over here somewhere. But they don't have any dragons."

The task seems too large. How do I write a Black Person?

I think, in a lot of people's minds, it's capitalized just like this. It gets big. How do I encompass Blackness? Or Brownness? Or Being a Woman?

The thing is, of course, that this is impossible. You can't encompass these things in a single character. If you try, the characters will likely feel sort of unformed and hollow, silhouettes ghosting across a stage. They might have a familiar shape, but they'll be empty and unreal.

It helps to take the capitals away. It helps to remember that you're not trying to encapsulate anything, except this particular person.

And that's the key, in my opinion. First, think of them as people, think of all the other things that influence them. Characters will be influenced by their race, and by their ethnic and gender identities, but they'll be influenced by a million other things, too, the same as everyone else, the same as the people you "know" (whether from real life or the familiarity born from cultural consumption) and feel you can write about. Family, loss, work, reality television, cancerous cell phone emissions - they're all in the mix.

It helps to start with the other things. It helps to start with the little things that help make them the people they are, rather than overwhelm yourself with the big capitalized words from the get go. Once you have a person, once you have some sense of a history, of an emotional logic, then you can reintroduce important concepts like race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and otherness.

Now they are no longer abstracts you're trying to encapsulate in the form of a walking symbol. Now you have some sense of a person. Now you can ask how these things will influence the character. How do they change, knowing the facts of their gender identity? Of their ethnic identification? These ideas are now fulcrum points between the characters and the culture around them. How do they exert pressure on each other, seeking or preventing change? accomodation? legitimacy? power?

Better to try, and then try again, than to forget that other people may wish to hold dragons in the palms of their hands.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Beware the Blob

This came out of my daughter's mouth last night...

Blogging temporarily on hold.

It would be great if you could spare a pitchfork. And some napalm.