The Book of Ash by Mary Gentle (Book Review)

Ash: A Secret History (Book of Ash, #1-4)Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I just finished my umpteenth reread of this series and realized I have never reviewed it. Perhaps because it’s simply too much awesome to review. I would give it 37 stars if I could.

This book has it all.

Magic, cleverly disguised as prayer, cleverly disguised as quantum physics.

Fantasy.

Medieval history.

Priests and prophets, saints and miracle-workers, slaves and mercenaries. Historians and archaeologists and physicists. Genetics. Movable realities.

The ruins of a Visigoth Carthage appearing off the North African coast, where countless previous surveys showed nothing. Ancient scholarly manuscripts magically recataloguing themselves in university libraries. A man missing for sixty years mysteriously turning up where he should have been the whole time.

Golem. How freaking cool are GOLEM?

Kickass female characters. Not kickass like being the most beautiful and pulling off the most politically advantageous marriage while having the best sex and wearing the most sumptuous gowns kind of kickass, but the command a mercenary army and wear custom-made Milanese plate armor and have your own warhorse and know how to take somebody’s head off with a poleax kind of kickass.

(Warning: The reality of war is gritty. Ash is a something of a politician but she is no lady, and says “fuck” a lot.)

The ending shatters me every time.

(For those intimidated by 1120-page books that can be used as doorstops, or who have bursitis and don’t want to lug around something big and heavy, my copy of this book is four normal-sized paperbacks: A Secret History, Carthage Ascendant, The Wild Machines, and Lost Burgundy. I love the cover artwork on my copies. All paper-and-glue editions are out of print, but they can be found used online. It’s also available for Kindle.)

Bookshelves: comfort-favorites, sci-fi, fantasy, mysticism, medieval-history, heroine-kicking-ass, action-with-a-body-count, grittiest-reality, this-is-the-stuff-right-here, war, women

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Address Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor (Reading Challenge Book Review)

Address UnknownAddress Unknown by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow.

I am very picky about short stories, not easily pleased. Every short story I read gets measured against the likes of “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Monkey’s Paw” and “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and they all fail to cut it.

Address Unknown cuts it.

When I included this in my 2017 Reading Challenge (#3, a book of letters) I thought this was an actual book, and that’s how it came to me, a small hard-bound volume not much larger than my phone. I read the whole thing in about thirty minutes.

This is a quick and devastating story, told in the letters exchanged by two friends, business partners in an art dealership, one remaining in America and the other returning to their German homeland in 1932. In their letters back and forth we see the rise of Hitler and the fall of human decency. The betrayal is bone-chilling (“That is why we have pogroms,” said oh-so-matter-of-factly) and the revenge is brutal.

Just read it. And Trumplings, take note.

(I was slightly annoyed by the foreword written by Whit Burnett, editor of Story magazine in which this piece first appeared in 1938, wherein he waxes amazed that such a powerful story was written by a woman. Stuff it, Whit.)

Bookshelves: short-story, world-war-ii, nazi-hate, classic, historical-fiction, schadenfreude, epistolary, plot-twists-and-irony

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The Most Interesting Man in the World–Nanjo Castille (Flash Fiction)

Sit carefully in my tooled leather chair, studs and verdigris, pour my snifter of brandy. Reflect on how much I look like the pimp Esteban from Kill Bill and wonder which one of us the joke is on. Adjust my cravat.

Scroll around the Internet for designer names; perfume bottles with stitching and sewing, handbags by the likes of Choco Caramel and Channel and Coochi, which sounds almost as bad as a dongle, no matter if it’s a real word.

I don’t always enter flash fiction rodeos, but when I do, you can’t tell if I was serious or not.

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Michael Parks as Esteban Vihaio in Kill Bill
The-Most-Interesting-Man-In-The-World
Or, we can just have a Dos Equis.

This silliness is doubly inspired. It’s partly in response to Charli’s flash fiction prompt for this week: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about The Real Nanjo Castille, who was the signee of something that may have been a spam  email or may have been an incredibly tongue-in-cheek entry in one of October’s Flash Fiction Rodeo events–read more at the link. It was also inspired by Nyquil, because I have what is evidently the plague on top of insomnia.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Book Review)

American PsychoAmerican Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Pretty sure I’ve stumbled across another book that was written to impress other writers. This entry in my 2017 reading challenge (#28, a book with an unreliable narrator) proves once again what a lowbrow I am.

I’ve read six chapters of nothing but detailed descriptions of everybody’s designer clothing, and the ridiculously expensive booze they drink and the upscale food they eat, a comparison of high-end business cards that reads disturbingly like a dick-measuring contest, and constant anxiety about not getting a good table at whatever pretentious and overpriced yuppie bistro is the latest cool place to be. That’s it. Four pages of the parade of top-end products that makes up his morning grooming routine and another two pages of all the crap from Hammacher Sclemmer in his kitchen. There seems to be a fixation with videotapes; I’m guessing porn will play a large part later on. Every woman is either a “hardbody” or is not, and they are all interchangeable. He can’t remember one person from the next, always mixing up names and faces, and I can see that as a symptom of the pathology at play here, but he does it with music too and it really really annoyed me when one of the best rock and roll songs of all time, “Be My Baby,” was not properly attributed to the Ronettes. That should have been one of the ones he got right.

The thing is, I think I get it. I’ve heard enough to know it’s about a brilliant young financial wizard on Wall Street in the late eighties who is also a serial killer. This endless blahblahblah of conspicuous consumerism is a clever device, really, the soulless clutter of day-to-day life playing up the soulless rage that comprises the mind and heart of our torturer murderer. But it’s a veritable slog to try to read. …and she’s wearing a wool-crepe skirt and a wool and cashmere velour jacket and draped over her arm is a wool and cashmere velour coat, all by Louis Dell’Olio. High-heeled shoes by Susan Bennis Warren Edwards. Sunglasses by Alain Mikli. Pressed-leather bag from Hermès. This for every single person who enters the narrator’s line of sight, including doormen and cocktail waitresses, this endless haute couture word vomit. It does echo what I imagine to be the greed and shallowness of senseless killing, the young hotshot moving through the world of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts and coke in the men’s room, twenty-six years old and pulling down two hundred grand a year, so why not reach out and take all the Wurlitzer jukeboxes and $850 gazelleskin wallets and deathsack prostitutes you want? I’m picking up desensitization as a gimmick here. Our impeccably dressed killer is a shark in more ways than one, and don’t try to tell me that anyone who aspires to Wall Street isn’t a predator of sorts.

But…it’s boring. This might have worked brilliantly for me as a short story or a novella, but as a full-length novel it is simply tedious. I’m already skimming at page 57; no way am I slogging through 400 pages. Dnf-ing. This might also be one of those times where the movie really is better.

Bookshelves: well-i-tried, writing-with-a-capital-w, pomo, unreliable-narrator, bloody-awful, misogyny-rules, abandoned, gore, horror, satire, dark-humour, literary-fiction, literature-with-a-capital-l, artsy-fartsy, dnf, ugh, reading-challenge

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Chair on the Porch (Flash Fiction)

Lora steps out of the SUV and inhales deeply, the scent of dead leaves and humus and apples, oddly enough. She doesn’t remember apple trees around here.

She picks through brambles to the overgrown cabin. How many years since anyone has been here, this jewel in the woods, where they used to hide from civilization?

She eases into the cobwebbed chair on the tiny porch. She has just settled her gaze on the autumn-brilliant tree line when a splintering crash lands her on the plank boards.

Maybe you can go home again, but you have to fix it first.

cgdphoto
Photo: cgdphoto

The Flash Fiction Rodeo at Carrot Ranch Literary Community is over, and we’re back to the regular weekly flash fiction challenges. This week’s prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about a chair on a porch. Fun flashes from other writers are at the link.

Accept No Substitutes (Jane Doe Flash Fiction)

“How did your soup turn out?”

“The soup is nonexistent,” Torrey snaps, “because who on earth has bone broth sitting around the house?”

“We’ll find you a list of substitutes you can use when cooking,” Lesley smiles.

“The websites I found say if you don’t have bone broth, you can substitute gelatin, and if you don’t have gelatin, you can substitute agar agar, whatever that is,” Torrey replies. “What’s the point of a substitute list, when I’m even less likely to have the substitute than the real ingredient?”

poppicnic
Photo: poppicnic

Every week, Ivy at Uncharted hosts the Six Sentence Stories flash fiction linkup and blog hop. This week’s cue was “substitute.” Fun sixes from other authors are at the link. Join us!

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (Book Review)

Glass Houses (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #13)Glass Houses by Louise Penny

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This isn’t doing it for me, and that’s too bad. Really.

The pacing is one problem; it’s awful. The book opens with Gamache on the witness stand, testifying against the accused in a murder trial, and flips back and forth in time as events unfold–partly, I think, to play up Gamache’s helplessness as momentum gathered into murder and his perceived ineffectiveness against an enormous opiate trafficking problem. This can be a very effective way to build suspense–it is stock-in-trade for author Laura Lippmann and she makes it look easy–but here it feels contrived and tedious. We slog halfway into the book before we finally have our dead body, and I see from other reviews that it’ll be another quarter of the book before find out who is sitting in the accused box in the opening pages. I’ve read what must be thousands of whodunits that didn’t reveal the accused until the very end, but it’s just not working here. I feel played.

Another irritant is the writing style, overflowing with incomplete sentences and chopped-up paragraphs:

They all knew that look. They’d seen it before. More times than you’d think possible.

There was no censure there. No suggestion they shouldn’t ask. He’d be surprised if they didn’t. And they’d be surprised if he answered.

More than anything, there was resolve in those eyes.

But this time there was also anger. And shock. Though he tried to hide both.

Like that, constantly. There are very few normal paragraphs in the book. I am not fond of Writing With a Capital W that is meant to create a dramatic atmosphere but only serves to trip me up. Lee Child used a similar incomplete-sentence trick to lose me as a reader forever in less than two chapters.

Still. I grabbed this from the library display on a whim, being new to Louise Penny. I see it’s number 12 or 13 in a series and that this entry was a departure in style that was less popular with series devotees. I scoped out a couple of earlier entries on Google Books; the choppiness and contrived tension seem unique to this book. I’m always looking for my next favorite cozy series, so maybe I’ll try an earlier installment. This one has to be back at the library in two days, no renewals allowed, so I’m going to toss it back without investing myself further.

I particularly like the creative use of the cobrador del frac, used in Spain not to harass those who cannot pay a debt, but to shame those who have the means but will not pay a debt, beefed up into the Conscience with a capital C that collects on a moral debt by silently staring down a wrongdoer into madness. That was beautiful and eerie and felt perfect, at this almost-Halloween part of the year. I wish it had been done well enough to keep me going.

Bookshelves: abandoned, cozy-mystery, mystery, whodunit, detective, canada, creepy-horror-stuff

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