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Monday, October 2, 2017

What I'm reading (#34)

I first stumbled across essayist John McPhee's work because of my interest in rocks.

I was living in Washington State at the time, and took a class that gave me a rather eye-opening look at how complex the geology of the Pacific Coast is.  A friend asked if I'd read McPhee's quartet of books about the geology of the United States -- Rising from the Plains, Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Assembling California.  I hadn't, but I did, and I was hooked.

I continued to read his work, and found that the man has a way of making damn near any subject interesting.  I mean, for pete's sake, he wrote a book called Oranges, on the citrus industry in Florida and California.  He also wrote an entire book (The Founding Fish) on people who fish for American shad.  Both are fascinating, despite my being neither an orange grower nor a fisherman.

So I proceeded to get every book I could find by McPhee.

That was how I came to read last week his book Uncommon Carriers, about people who haul freight by truck, boat, air, and train.  As with all of McPhee's books, he focuses not only on the facts of the topic, but the people -- and, in fact, spends weeks traveling all over the United States, in a tanker truck, a coal train, and a Illinois River barge.


What it brought home to me is how much goes on behind the scenes to give us the lifestyle that we middle-class folks in the United States enjoy.  Few of us, when we pick up the can of WD-40 to oil a door hinge, think of the fact that the ubiquitous and helpful spray was (1) manufactured somewhere, and (2) carried across the country in a tanker truck.  Likewise for all the other commodities we have; unless you make a deliberate and concerted effort to buy local, everything you purchase, use, or consume took a ride on some sort of freight hauler.  It was brought to you by people who spend their entire lives moving things in large quantities from one place to another.

So once again, McPhee has taken a topic that few of us give a thought to, and shown us not only the details but the human side.  If you haven't read McPhee, you should.  His insight, wry sense of humor, and interest in the human condition make anything he writes a fascinating read.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#33)

Another of my summer reads was a book given to me by a friend, who said, "This seems right in your wheelhouse."

The book was Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.  And she was right.  It's a mind-blowing ride through alternate universes, with assorted kidnappings, assaults, hair's breadth escapes, all with an underlying thread of quantum physics to hold it all together.

Here's the gist, or as much as I can give you and still avoid spoilers.

Jason Dessen is a relatively unknown professor of physics at a small college, but he gave up a promising career as a researcher for his girlfriend (eventually wife) and child.  His friends chided him for his decision; Jason is brilliant, they said, and with his creative mind and knowledge of science, he could make incredible contributions to the field.

Jason, however, is content with the lot he's chosen, and his life is placid and pleasant -- until the moment he's abducted by a masked assailant who refuses to give him any information about why he's been captured, where he's being taken, or who his captors are.

Forced at knifepoint to go to an abandoned warehouse, Jason is knocked over the head and injected with... something.  When he wakes up, he's surrounded by people who know him -- but to his astonishment, they treat him as if he was the genius research physicist he almost became.


This is just the beginning, and believe me, it's only the beginning of Jason's troubles.  It's an exciting whirlwind of a book, although I have to deduct some Style Points because of Crouch's love for paragraphs made up of single sentences, often sentence fragments.  A lot of the book reads like this:
He turned. 
There they were. 
Chasing him. 
All of them. 
He ran. 
Faster and faster. 
But he could hear them. 
Catching up.
Okay, I exaggerate (slightly).  But it did begin to seem like a vocal tic after a while.  As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to avoid certain turns of phrase; my publisher still gives me grief for my love of the word "desiccated," which showed up in my book Sephirot several times (in my own defense, the book had two major scenes set in a desert).

But this seems like something an editor should have caught.

It's a little annoying.

After a while.

But that's really a small criticism, and his book is well worth reading, especially for the Gordian Knot ending, which was masterful.  So if you want a mind-bender of a read, pick up a copy of Dark Matter.

And watch out for masked assailants.

They're everywhere.

Friday, August 25, 2017

What I'm reading (#32)

Last year, while doing some research for a post on mystic (and presumed hoaxer) Carlos Castaneda for my other blog, Skeptophilia, I ran across a reference to a book I'd never heard of before -- Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.  The writer of the article I was reading as background for my Castaneda post said, in essence, "If you're looking for a real exploration of the mystical beliefs of the Southwest, don't bother with Castaneda's made-up nonsense.  Read Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, which (even though it is fiction) will give you a much more authentic picture of the beliefs and culture."  (I can't give you the exact quote, because I was unable to find the reference again, but that's the gist.)

I kind of forgot about the comment for some time, but then quite by accident stumbled upon a copy of it in Autumn Leaves, a wonderful used book store in Ithaca, New York.  So I bought it.


And I'm glad I did.  Bless Me, Ultima is a combination of a mythic account of a shaman and her apprentice, and a coming-of-age story.  It is by turns poignant, funny, and heart-poundingly thrilling.  The main character, Antonio M├írez y Luna, tells the story of his relationship with the old curandera Ultima (whom Antonio's mother always refers to by the honorific "La Grande"), and how she took him under her wing and taught him what she knew about healing, nature, and life.

When things take a darker turn -- when Ultima angers a vicious and evil man named Tenorio Trementina, who vows to take revenge on her -- Antonio turns from pupil to protector, and is determined to stop Tenorio from harming the aged healer who has become his mentor and friend.  To tell you more about how this all plays out would be unfair; so I'll simply tell you to get the book.  It's that good.

So I'm glad that a chance reference, and then happening upon a used copy of the book, led me to Anaya's writing.  And the comment was right: besides being a good story, and an inspiring tale of coming-of-age, Bless Me, Ultima is a wonderful lens into the culture of the Southwest.  I recommend it without reservation.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

New release... Sights, Signs, & Shadows!

Hi y'all... if you've enjoyed my tales of the paranormal, which have featured specters that abduct children (Signal to Noise), mechanical devices that focus psychic energy (Gears), and a man trapped in an interlocking set of alternative worlds where one misstep could mean death (Sephirot), you'll want a look at my new collection of short stories that spin more webs of magic, terror and the macabre!

Take a guided tour through the paranormal with sixteen tales of horror, humor, and the supernatural...


You’ll meet a man who’ll tell you your future if you give him a gift; pay a life-altering visit to a haunted ruin in the Central American jungle; have your photograph taken by a camera that steals time; peer into the cell of a prisoner in solitary confinement who may not be as alone as he thinks; and share the growing fear of a group of people trapped in an apartment complex during a category-5 hurricane as they realize that the storm itself might be the least of their worries.  In each story, you’ll get to know characters who are about to have their worldview turned upside down, and who are forced to navigate a landscape different than anything they ever imagined.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

What I'm reading (#31)

In spring of 1995, five members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult planted plastic bags full of sarin (a powerful and deadly nerve agent) at different spots in the Tokyo subway system.  Twelve people died, fifty were seriously injured, and an estimated 5,000 had temporary injury (predominantly vision problems).  The perpetrators -- all of whom survived -- were arrested, and all but one sentenced to death, along with several other leaders of the cult.  (The one that was not sentenced to death is now serving life imprisonment.)

Haruki Murakami, the author of over a dozen amazing and surreal books, took a break from his fiction writing to look at how the attack happened, and (insofar as it is possible to discern) why it happened.  The result was Underground, a gripping, intense, and sometimes difficult to read series of interviews with the survivors, and an unflinching look at the personalities and motivations of the perpetrators.

Underground is written with the sterling clarity of Murakami's other works.  It leaves you a little breathless -- both at how such random, thoughtless evil can exist in the world, and also at the selflessness and courage of the people who risked their own lives to save subway passengers stricken by the poison.  He doesn't sugar coat the facts; if you read it, prepare yourself for horrifying details of what it was like to experience being hit with nerve gas.  It's not pretty, it's not reassuring, but it is some of the best-written non-fiction I've ever read.


Crime reporting is, in a lot of ways, a paradox.  On the one hand, it gives the reader a lens into the minds of criminals, allows you some measure of understanding of how they tick.  On the other, it shows you just how far these people are from normalcy, and how unreachable and incomprehensible true sociopathy is.  It is telling that not a single one of the Aum Shinrikyo murderers has shown any remorse, and several still consider the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara, as having the key to all wisdom.

It's not a comfortable read, but it is brilliantly done.  I will, however, urge you not to make the mistake I made.  I read this while on a trip to visit my publisher in Arkansas.  And I can tell you from my experience, this is not a book you want to read while stuck on public mass transportation with a bunch of strangers.

Just for what it's worth.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

What I'm reading (#30)

Hi all...

It's been a long while since I've posted here -- life intruded (as it is wont to do), I was out of state for ten days after being out of the country for 11, and I've just generally been running about frantically.  I have, however, been reading, and over the next couple of weeks I'll post reviews for some of my spring and summer reads.

Also... my short story collection, Sights, Signs, and Shadows, is now available for pre-order!  It's a collection of some of my best short stories, and one novella, "Convection."  The release date is August 17, and I hope you'll get it.  There's something in it for everyone -- scary, funny, thought-provoking, and a couple that (I'm told) will make you go through an entire box of Kleenex.

Then, in October, the first of my Snowe Agency Mysteries, Poison the Well, will be released.  The detectives at Snowe Agency are a unique bunch.  Competent, forthright Bethany Hale has precognitive dreams; suave Seth Augustine is a psychometer (he can pick up psychic traces from touching objects others have handled); shy, awkward Jeff Kolnikoff has a telekinetic ability that is off the charts; home-body and family man Troy Seligman can do astral projection; and brilliant, eccentric Callista Lee is telepathic.  They're all led by the silver-haired, elegant Parsifal Snowe, who brings all of these differing personalities and skills to bear on solving a particularly bizarre murder -- the poisoning death of an unknown man at a wedding reception, in front of two hundred witnesses.  See if you can figure out the murderer before they do!

In any case, look for some book reviews soon.  I'll start with a pair of books that I read in May -- the sequels to Ransom Riggs's wonderful Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, Hollow City and The Library of Souls.



Both books held to the high standards for storytelling, evocative settings, and wonderful characters that the first one did.  The trio makes for a nice arc surrounding the reluctant Peculiar Jacob Portman, and his girlfriend, Emma Bloom.  They continue their adventures around England, trying to stop the evil Wights and Hollowgasts, and rescue the beloved Miss Peregrine and her friends from their clutches.  Along the way, we meet more Peculiars, and like the first book, the next two are replete with pictures of vintage postcards, each showing a child doing something very... peculiar.


If there is one flaw in the series, however, it doesn't show up until the very end.  All along, the Peculiars have been in danger from "aging out" -- since they spend most of their time in Loops, places where the same day repeats over and over, most of them are in actuality very, very old, although they still look like children.  If they enter the real world, all the backlog of years catches up with them, and they age rapidly and die unless they can jump to another Loop.

So Jacob, who is a teenager of the 21st century, and his girlfriend Emma, who is from the 1920s, face what seems like an impossible hurdle -- if they're together, they run the risk of Emma aging in a few days to an elderly woman, and dying.

Which wouldn't be a very pleasant end to the story.

I won't give details -- what I've already said might be a bad enough spoiler -- but I thought the way Riggs handled this was too easy.  He takes the "Everything Is Fine Because Magic" route, which I thought was a cheap way to end the series.  But even that wasn't enough to spoil my enjoyment of the books, which are fun, entertaining, occasionally funny, often scary, and endlessly inventive.

In short: if you're a fan of fantasy books, read these three.  You won't be sorry.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

What I'm reading (#29)

I'm a huge fan of Christopher Moore.  His loopy, ribald plots and brilliantly funny use of language combine to create books that keep you saying "One more chapter..." until finally, sadly, you realize that you just turned the last page.  I think Coyote Blue, The Stupidest Angel, and (especially) A Dirty Job and its sequel Secondhand Souls, rank up there amongst the funniest books I've ever read -- but combine the humor with lovable characters that you really, really want to win in the end.

I read his novel Fool a couple of years ago -- it's a retelling of the tale of Shakespeare's King Lear from the point of view of the character of Lear's Fool, Pocket.  It has the usual Moore brilliance, and although it wouldn't show up in a list of my favorites, it's certainly a great story.

So it was with great anticipation that I picked up the sequel to Fool, The Serpent of Venice.

And this one, for me, did a total face plant.


It's a mashup of a bunch of stories -- The Merchant of Venice, Othello, and Poe's The Cask of Amontillado amongst them -- and once again centers on Lear's Fool as the main character.  But the plot is such a chaotic jumble that it's hard even to give a clear description of what happens.  Pocket and his sidekicks, the giant Drool and his pet monkey Jeff, get into all sorts of hijinks and meet up with a whole host of characters both real and literary, but there's no coherent storyline to give it any kind of overarching sense.

It has its moments:
Shylock repointed his twitching, accusatory digit at his daughter.  "You do not say such things in my house.  You -- you-- you-- you-- you--" 
"Run along, love," Jessica said.  "It appears that Papa's been stricken with an apoplexy of the second person."
And this exchange between the villainous Iago and his wife, Emilia:
"Thou mendacious fuckweasel," said Emilia, almost spitting it, disgusted now rather than hysterical. 
"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," said Iago. 
"Methinks the lady protests just the right amount," said Emilia.  "Methinks the lady is just getting fucking started protesting." 
So Moore's gift for belly-laugh-inducing dialogue is intact; it's more that that the story really doesn't ever come together.  Compared to tours de force of humorous speculative fiction like A Dirty Job and Secondhand Souls, The Serpent of Venice just kind of falls flat.

It's a shame.  It won't, of course, stop me from reading subsequent books of Christopher Moore's -- it's just that I know how much more he's capable of.  I was hoping for another twisty trip through Moore's labyrinthine mind, with hefty doses of shenanigans and heinous fuckery most foul -- and this one really didn't do it for me.