LIE DOWN WITH LIONS reviewed by Chris
Ken Follett- Lie down with Lions- a brilliant novel about the handover by Russian bullies in Afghanistan to US ones.
Great insights into tribal culture and the plight of women.
It is marred by long and boring back-story about the pregnancy, child birth and childcare regarding the female protagonist and some unnessarily squishy sex.
Follett uses a 'factory production' system on his best sellers. In this case, the female researchers/ghost writers utterly failed to engender my interest. More to the point, they are unlikely to make the book palatable to most women.
The good news is that by skipping the worst of this, you can still follow the plot.
ANARCHY- Stewart Binns
Deadly Intent- Lynda La Plante- Reviewed by Aaron Aalborg
A brilliantly crafted police thriller.Laplante is a craftswoman of British murder mystery writing, with many successful TV series and best sellers to her name. The heroine of a series of books is Police detective Anna Travis. Deadly Intent is a great example. What I love about her writing is the incredible portrayal of how people and especially women react to the dramatic situations and other characters in the story. As a male I wish I had her depth of understanding and descriptive powers of female feelings, how people appear and how they act, in relation to males and each other. She has good grasp of how men think and behave too. A complex twisting plot, masterly delivered. Her unserstanding of the criminal mind, forensics etc adds credibility.
Reading is a great way to improve your writing. I can learn much from her.
Elephants on Acid and other bizarre experiments
Elephants on Acid and other bizarre experiments- Alex Boese.
This nicely written and factual account is about strange/deranged experiments by various unscrupulous, delusional and weird scientists.
It is a treasure trove. It describes: the race between the Soviets and US scientists to make the first successful head transplants; how easily people can be duped, manipulated and twisted to be monsters or continue to believe in the irrational despite all evidence to the contrary and much else.
It proves the pointlessness of trying to persuade most people to change their beliefs with facts and rational argument. Yet Facebook is full of those still trying.
Some of the experiments were extremely gruesome. But is is worth dipping into. Crimes against humanity by the CIA and others feature large.
The Charm School- Nelson Demille
A page Turner reviewed by Aaron Aalborg
The story offers an explanation of what happened to the missing US pilots from the Vietnam war, during the last days of the Soviet era. It is a well crafted thriller with twists and turns.
For those who remember the Rossiya Hotel and the difficulties faced by visitors to Russia, it is a trip down memory lane. The CIA and the US seem to be the goodies up to the thrilling climax. One wonders whether the author served in the clandestine services, despite the bio offered. If not, it is a tribute to his craft.
The picture of Russia is totally one sided and typically American. However, the book is compelling and a good read.
'The Black House’ Peter May
The Black House, (A traditional croft in the Scottish Isles)
This is the first in a series of murder mysteries. To make an impact in such a widely read and written genre, you need to be innovative and write exceedingly well. Peter May achieves both, in the best novel I have read this year. How does he do it?
Location- Lewis is the most North Easterly of Scotland’s Hebredian Islands. The Ocean is cold and stormy. A place few visit, the island is a windswept and bleak place. His descriptions put you there among a hardy and toughened people, steeped in strange traditions and unforgiving religion.
It is also a place where everyone knows everyone else and murder is almost unheard of. He weaves a compelling plot in this unlikely and exotic venue.
Psychology- Ask a psychologist about causes of angst and psychosis and there is a quite a list: a boy’s relationship with a father; bullying; rape; bereavement; fear of sexual rejection; trauma; broken relationship; guilt and many more. It is almost as though Peter May wrote out the list and decided to include all items in his tale.
He relates the feelings of the characters as they sublimate and confront these issues in themselves and others. You empathize, weep and feel as though you too are suffering. You are there.
There is an intense and troubled love story to appeal to females and sensitive males,if there are any not faking it.
Action and Drama- He has characters in peril of their lives hanging from sea cliffs collecting gannet chicks for food, whilst adults dive in to attack. Others fight, make love and scream with inner turmoil.
The twists and turns in the plot and the final unexpected ending are all masterfully crafted.
Fatal Seductions- Lou Kilzer and Mark Boyden 2015
'All the Dead Lie Down' by Mary Willis Walker
Reviewed by Aaron Aalborg 4 stars
Walker has won various prizes for her thrillers and you can see why. She can describe the feelings and capture the inner turmoil of her female characters with laser like precision.
The book opens with the best insight into the mental confusion, and pain of an alcoholic bag lady one could imagine. You feel as she feels. Her other heroine is a columnist obsessed with finding the truth about her long dead father's death. She does not believe it was suicide.
Mix this with the pro gun lobby planning terrorist acts in Texas and you have entwined plots with unexpected outcomes.
A couple of things irritated me. Why do heroes in so many crime thrillers, do the stupid things and not call for back up or let anyone know where they are going. It seems to be a universal plot line. In times when the younger generation texts each time they take a breath, it stretches credibility.
There was an overreliance on quotations from the nursery story 'Mother Goose', which I skipped after the first two.
Also, the tale of the columnists dysfunctional relationship with her father went on far too long for me. Perhaps being a man was my problem. But it seemed the point was laboured.
All in all a good read and it should especially appeal to women who like their gender to be in the lead.
By Rosie Millard Reviewed by Mike Crump and Aaron Aalborg
5 stars from Aaron and 4 from Mike
Mike- I’m a compulsive collector of words writers write about writing. Aaron and I often disagree over our evaluations and in our verbal jousts over this book, I retreated to my collection for support of my initial take on The Square, by Rosie Millard. The first one I came to stopped me cold: “Now, read Fitzgerald — that's it. That is the truth of the times. Somebody has to be committed to the idea of truth.” Thomas McGuane, an American novelist I appreciate, said that. But Fitzgerald? I thought. If McGuane thinks Fitzgerald is an exemplar of truth, what would he think of Millard? It’s a witty, at times truthful series of images of a middle-class (they still have one) London neighborhood. Your two intrepid reviewers will skirmish for their answer. Here’s mine.
As you may intuit from the opening paragraph, I began this book with a load of prejudice. But by the time I was at “location” 1500 on my Kindle, something changed. Good dialogue, I found myself writing in my notebook. Not all of her dialogue is good; some of it is downright wooden, designed to move the story along rather than create interest. But when she presents two characters that are in tension, each with the other, her dialogue sharpens to snappy. Real, and fun to read. Shortly after I allowed myself to see the dialogue, I also discovered that her narrative flow is largely built on the internal thoughts of her characters. And it is well crafted. Each character has a way of seeing her (mostly, her) situation from exactly the perspective and language you expect. Nice. Suddenly, I’m no longer dissing the plot (so much).
What plot? That’s a little snide but his story is definitely lacking a spine. It is really a collection of little plots revolving largely around the issue of who is (or will be) having sex with whom and how’s the talent show gonna go. So why am I not dissing it more? Because her portraits of Jane, Roberta, Tracey, Anya and George are so well drawn that they stand in as a competent rationale for book.
Jane is a hypocritical and needy bitch. Nothing new about that except she is so well exposed by the author that one cannot help but empathize with her. And while one will not like her exactly, who has not had similar thoughts, needs and behavior? I suppose it is impolite to ask how autobiographical this story might be, but the author’s quality of character development is good enough the raise the thought.
Aaron- I hesitated before suggesting the Square for a joint review to Mike. My wife myself and various British friends loved it. It seemed a quintessentially British book. Brute American readers might not understand the subtleties of our humor and the sometimes gentle poking fun at the London middle class.
It is a comedy of manners without much of a plot, lack of which Mike immediately pounced on. It reminds me of Alexander McCall Smith's "44 Scotland Street", the first of a splendid series of books. It has the similar sometimes vacuous, sometimes interesting characters that likely exist in the square where Rosie Millard lives. She even has a lovably amusing and confused young boy, exposing and misinterpreting his mothers adultery.
Millard brilliantly captures the charisma and prancing self belief of the BBC anchorman; the aging sex man artist who has become rich making model golf courses and his crazy, but benevolent partner. There is much social commentary tending to high farce. The arrival of the lower orders at the Square's middle class garden party is hilarious.
She writes with a sharp and wry observation of characters that she has likely met: as a columnist for the Independent Newspaper; a BBC presenter and in her work with the arts.
I do not study what others consider as literature as Mike does. So whether this book fits what various critics like or any formula or style seems irrelevant. I would recommend this to Brits and to Americans who seek understanding of our idiosyncratic ways.
 Thomas McGuane’s fiction projects a volatile, highly personalized mixture of power, vulnerability, and humor. His first three novels—The Sporting Club (1969),The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—while never achieving mass-market appeal, earned McGuane considerable critical attention. The Paris Review, The Art of Fiction No.89.
Retrospective Book Review by Aaron Aalborg
‘Thank You Jeeves’ by P.G.Wodehouse
First published in the UK in 1934
The characters of Jeeves, the unflappable and wise butler and his employer, Bertie Wooster, the silly upper class twit and member of the aptly named Drones Club have been the subjects of excellent British TV series.
Jeeves was brilliantly portrayed sequentially by Dennis Price and later by Stephen Fry, whilst Ian Carmichael’s Wooster seemed unsurpassable until the splendid portrayal by Hugh Laurie.
It was a fun idea to see how this, the first Jeeves and Wooster book, had withstood the changes in language and attitudes over time. Thus this retrospective review was born.
It is a surprisingly short book, 192 pages in my edition. I still loved every page of it, having conveniently forgotten all about it, since I first read it 40 years ago. This is one of the joys of age.
Wodehouse can still transport us effortlessly back to the pre war period. Wooster is a loveable buffoon, who seems to live well without employment, presumably with a private income. The strange language and mannerisms of wastrel old Etonians is easy to comprehend. When they meet they say “What ho” instead of hello. One can see that the modern, wastrel old Etonians currently running the UK have changed little from those times.
The plot is high farce, with blundering policemen, a fierce American millionaire and two star struck lovers getting into all kinds of crazy mix-ups, before the required happy ending.
In short, it still works extremely well. To some extent this might be due to the text conjuring Laurie and Fry or Carmichael and Price in the starring roles.
Two minor elements of the plot jar against modern politically correct conventions. Wooster’s passing obsession with the Banjolele leads him into a fix, he refers to ‘nigger minstrels’ and later he and his nemesis both black up to escape police detention.
Neither of these events would be permissible in a book published today. I guess we have to accept that such shenanigans were acceptable at the time the book was written. We need to understand that today’s cultural conventions cannot be imposed retrospectively on works written in the past.
All in all, this is still a brilliantly, well written and highly amusing book. It would receive a 5 in most reviews.
Tag Team review
4.0 (This review) 3.8 (All reviews)
We decided to introduce the tag team book review, because we had differing views on the merits of this book.
Mike Crump and Aaron Aalborg
Aaron- Hilary Mantel writes about subjects and people we all think we know something about, like Thomas Cromwell in 'Wolf Hall'. We all think we know about the French Revolution of 1789. After all our history teachers covered that and we all read a ‘Tale of Two Cities’. Those of us interested in fomenting the overthrow of the state, read more widely. Mantel helps us to discover that we have more to learn.
Her head must be bursting with her knowledge of history. She cleverly uses this to make us reassess what we thought we knew. Her challenge is to keep our attention when we know how the story ends. The problem is that our attention can become lost in her labyrinths of detail.
She uses large numbers of less well known historical characters. They add multiple different reflections and new insights into the famous characters, central to her novels. The trap she falls into is that dealing with too many characters over taxes most memories. Too many voices become a babble.
Mike- My esteemed colleague has a point, unless you think that 151 named characters (I counted them…but be my guest), is normal for even “idiosyncratic fictional history,” as one reviewer put it. It is certainly excessive for those of us who can’t keep our own grandchildren straight. But the author deserves a defense. Suppose one were to attempt a history of America’s very own Committee of Public Safety, the Tea Party. Wouldn’t one want to know early influencers such as Joe McCarthy, Ralph Reed, the Reverend Pat Roberts, Karl Rove and those countless mega-church pastors who saw through the courting a clear route to political power? Wouldn’t one want to be a fly on the wall of the Republican National Committee meeting after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate? Or for that matter, in the boardrooms of Archer Daniels Midland, Halliburton and the Southern Baptist Convention. And who would not want to know who was sleeping with whom and how those assignations might have left the key actors fully confirmed in their political convictions and future treacheries? I think the answer is clear, a lot of us.
The author conveniently provided a table of characters. It is worth the effort to check every time one picks up the book just to set one’s mind straight.
Aaron- I’ll pass on calling the T party ‘revolutionary’. They seem more like Nazi Brown-shirts to me. To revolutionary socialists, The French Revolution holds special interest. Histories of such past Revolutions were concocted by the victorious and reinstated European Monarchies of the time. They demonize the leaders of the Revolution and present a largely negative score card on all their efforts. Mantel's book adds much needed balance.
Despite my interest in the subject, several times I had to force myself to continue reading. It took several weeks to finish the book. Novels that require so much effort cannot be seen as good novels. Additionally, this one is far too long, at 872 pages in my edition. As Mike said, she does present a long list of the many characters and sketches of their relevance to the story at the beginning. Despite this assistance, there are so many of points of view as to confuse. They require frequent reference back and to the Internet, to see who these minor players are. Furthermore, jumping from one character to another in the same chapter without indicating a break in scene adds to the difficulties.
Mike- Spot on, Aaron. The very humanity of the perps-in-training raises issues for current consideration. That includes prospective revolutionaries and members of the oligarchies who grow increasingly desperate in trying to convince the voting wings of their parties to protect their special interests. My sense is that one reason we don’t learn from the historians is that they draw historical characters with whom one cannot personally identify. In histories, the villains are vilified. If modern villains can’t identify with the villainies of the past, they are in effect, licensed to deny and therefore, repeat history. The implication is that we cannot see them as flawed people quite like ourselves (scary thought). By the time Danton and Desmoulins enter the tumbrel for their ride to the guillotine, we have known them as Hilary Mantel knows them, warts and all and somewhat affectionately. We understand why they may not live longer. We also know the man, Robespierre, who put them in that wagon.
Aaron- Building on Mike’s thought, one of the best insights that Mantel shares is that her three main characters, Danton, Robespierre and Desmoulins do not suddenly arise as fully formed revolutionaries, regicides and instigators of the Terror. Just as in the American Revolution, the protagonists had some radical ideas in the beginning, but were relatively moderate and in many cases confused. I was amazed to learn that Robespierre tried to introduce a law to abolish the death penalty, which was voted down. How different things might have been if it had passed, assuming that the murderous mob would have taken any notice of it.
With the exception of Robespierre, nearly all the revolutionaries were partly motivated by self aggrandizement and wealth. She makes this point well, especially with respect to Danton and Desmoulins.
As the Revolution progressed, each character developed to a point where everything in the established order had to be overthrown. In this case, the anticlericalism and bloody tendencies of the protagonists are fed by events, interactions with others and the ungovernable and violent sans coulottes.
Mike- This point is one of the most fascinating aspects of Mantel’s story. Both Desmoulin and especially Danton become increasingly radical. And the radicalization appears authentic, not simply a device to stay in power with its access to bribes. Marat’s drumbeat never ceases (until he dies), and with the exception of Robespierre, he is the cagiest politician in Paris. Always willing to befriend the radical-radical of the day as long as that person is able to stay strong. His strategy is to keep a consistent story and stay married to whoever holds the reins. Even the Catholic Church could not maintain that intensity of focus.
At some point however, Desmoulin gets sick of constant killing. He produces five pamphlets criticizing the radical-radicals. Danton’s self-confidence is that he can retain power because his own sense is that the great majority of the French agree with Desmoulin. It appears that he is right about popular sentiment but the emergent power structure nurtured by Marat and Robespierre is not to be removed.
Aaron- In a couple of senses Mantel's novel is an unbalanced view of history. She says as much in her Author's note. She only tangentially includes Marat and primarily towards the end of his life. Most History books were written under the lasting influence of the victorious allies and the restored monarchy. They demonize him above all the rest. No true understanding of the Revolution is possible without Marat as a more central character. Like most writers she fails to capture his electrifying influence on events.
Almost nothing is said about Tom Pain. His part in the Revolution was primarily as an influential theoretician before the event. More about him as an elected deputy of the French Assembly and condemned prisoner could have provided crossover insights to American and British readers. She excludes quite important and colorful revolutionaries, like Couthon, in favor of less important players, or simply those related to her three chosen leaders.
Mike- It’s true, we get only snapshots of Marat, but those give us his strategy for staying alive (remaining on the move and nurturing those with power in the Revolution), and for keeping the most radical impulses of the Revolution alive. And we do see his perspective through his surrogate Robespierre. Unlike Marat, Robespierre was much more of a colleague to the radicals-cum-moderates, Desmoulins and Danton. We understand the radical-radicals through their eyes. And theirs’—Desmoulin and Danton—is the real, personal tragedy of the Revolution. While some of us may know how the story ends, Danton and Desmoulins do not. Mantel’s number of characters, many of them point-of-view, as Aaron points out, plus her narration style does not tolerate any distraction.
Aaron-She captures well the seemingly glacial pace of a revolution that lasted almost 5 years. She makes the reader aware of aspects known only to scholars. The continuance of the bourgeois lives of her protagonists and their spouses is well portrayed, especially the persistence of private carriages and servants; salons; seductions and dinner parties with fine wines and food. The attempts to bring revolutionary emblems and colors to fashionable corsage seem particularly innocuous to modern eyes. A glance at the portraits of Vergniaud, Saint-Just and Robespierre on the Internet, with their elaborate wigs and clothing, confirms the veracity of her insights.
There are confusing and frequent changes of scene, without marking them in the text. Other poor writing habits include: interruptions with bursts of long quotations from various people and great chunks of pure history text, in an attempt to explain the wider picture and retrieve readers stuck in the mire of the confusion she creates.
Mike- As I’ve said, her narration style does not brook inattention. But there are two aspects of her writing that flourish in a Petrie dish of massive intelligence and memory. The first is her writing is drop-dead-gorgeous. The scenes, gestures and thoughts of the actors (not just the main ones), give a truly rare sense of immediacy and reality. The second is that her treatment of the sheer expanse of historical events gives her an opportunity to build character slowly and deeply over the course of the time covered. I get the feeling that she wrote the story, foreshadowing character development with nary a revision. Unlikely, I admit. But that’s good writing exemplified.
Aaron- Mantel captures the brute, blunt instrument of the mob and how each 'patriot' sought to influence it. She gives insights into how random and quick death could be. Friends and those paying bribes could be spared one minute but not the next. The way in which the three main characters, played off one another, alternately supporting or opposing erstwhile 'friends' is well portrayed. She demonstrates why in Vergniand's words, "The revolution devoured its own children."
Mike-We see this book differently—Aaron and I. I took copious notes for reference in my own writing and am using them in rewriting two of my own novels in progress. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
Aaron- Over all I felt I needed to read the book for more detailed knowledge of the Revolution, as opposed to enjoying it. It inspired me to write my short story 'Red Rory's Nightmares' as part of my anthology 'Doom Gloom and Despair'.
The Long Night of White Chickens
Grove Press. 2007
5.0 (This reviewer) 4.0 (All reviews)
A plot based on the investigation of an already committed crime has a lot of backstory. This book has so much that I could (and did) treat
it as a reference of the times in Guatemala. This might feel like a criticism if the book fell into a genre. But I like this book, in no small part exactly because of the back-stories embedded in it. The Long Night of White Chickens won the Sue Kaufman Award
for First Fiction and it is definitely not genre. But let's start at the beginning.
At the instigation of his Guatemalan childhood friend Moya, young American man, Roger Graetz, goes to Guatemala to discover why Flor de Mayo Puac, his family's former maid and his beloved surrogate sister, was murdered. There, during the height of the civil war, Moya and Roger team up to pursue the quest. The stakes are high. In those years, the pursuit of those who savaged their victims with impunity would have threatened their personal safety in the most unambiguous ways. The premise, and perhaps the book-jacket promise, suggests at least a mystery if not a thrilling mystery.
Not. The first clue came from Roger on page one. I was delighted to run into a narrator with a first person Holden Caulfield-ish voice with an American Jewish father and a Guatemalteca mother and who speaks in such impossibly long run-on sentences with often not a hint of punctuation that I was hooked by the end of page two. His childhood naiveté raises questions for the reader and the protagonist. The answers to them come slowly, as in life, over the course of the story. But one has to be more interested in these "who (am I?, was she?)" questions than in why she died in order to squeeze the juice from Goldman's tale.
Solving the murder is intriguing to both men, but Roger and Moya have a more important agenda. The true quest may be revealed by Moya's statement to Roger in one of their swirling-time-disorienting, come-to-Jesus conversations about each other and Flor:
"But the true question, Rogerio (Roger), is the same as always. Who was Flor? Truly, who was she?"
Moya, who loved Flor as a man, brims with curiosity fueled by his own intense and unfinished feelings. His unique role as an intellectual and non-fafero reporter (one who is not bribable), added an insider's dimension to the faux quest.
Moya's point-of-view ruminations and dialogue with Roger offer insights into the wartime repression of the period that only an insider author could provide. For a researcher (like this reviewer) these insights come packed with well-grounded fact and emotional wallop.
Like Roger, Goldman is Guatemalan from his mother's side and American from his father. He spent the years 1979 to the mid 1980s in Guatemala.
Associating as he did with journalists and human right's activists is its own credential. He wrote "The Art of Political Murder," an award-winning, non-fiction account of the end of the civil war. He is fluent, having spoken Spanish before English and more
than willing to explain the Spanish language. (If you are curious about the subtleties of "sí pues," and "pues sí," this is your book). It so happens, I am curious.
The parallel possibility for why the frail plotline eventually fades away is the personal quest of the still somewhat youthful Roger. Moya, as we saw, wants to requite his curiosity about Flor and about himself in relation to her. So does Roger. But retaining his Holdenesque persona, he is interested more generally in who he is as well. He explores his identity through telling us first hand what he, the boy, saw, then what the young man saw, and then what the girl-then-woman saw as told to him. These are intriguing stories that move the plot along glacially. But the key word is "intriguing." They also illustrate the growth of Roger from puerile to mature. It makes you wonder how autobiographical it might be.
In the search for answers, both Moya and Roger encounter secondary characters. Most, including Flor's family as well as Moya's and Roger's, are fully fleshed adding both tension, drama and explanation. Less prominent personalities like Flor's secret lover, servants, friends, even a visiting professor are drawn as emotional factors either shaping the lives of the two POV characters or illuminating the contours of those lives. These portraits are nothing short of delicious, combining both fact and significance to the complicated setting. Indeed, I think that a few of his paragraphs fuse language and description into poetry. The author's own heart is readily available to his characters.
Still, this book is a tough row to hoe for ancianos. True to his first person, say-what's-top-of-mind style, Roger's trips in time leave the reader working too hard to know where -or when--he is. Setting matters. You have to like the book for its endless sub-stories revealing the characters from the current day experience of immigrants to the U.S. to that of citizens in places, Like Guatemala, where one may not safely oppose the government. Goldman's penetration into these lives creates empathy without begging for understanding.
If as a teenager you thought Holden Caulfield was awesome, these characters may remind you of your children...or yourself.
Buy Here The Long Night of White Chickens
“The Shadow God”
This review comes to us from Dave Reuss at LitReactor.
by Aaron Rayburn (1.7 stars)
Book Cover Pictured above
The Plot: Craig Johnson walks into his closet and meets the Shadow God—who wants to kill him. Since Craig doesn't want to die, conflict ensues and drama follows. Or not.
The Problem: It's hard to nail down exactly what's wrong with this one. Other than boring action and a clunky plot, a major sticking point is the dialogue:
"Of all the things to think, he never thought he'd think that,"
"Already, he knew he wouldn't be able to do it. In fact, he KNEW he wouldn't."
The Lesson: If you're going to spend 454 pages creating a metaphor for Cain and Abel, don't let the plot hinge on something called "The Satanist Group Association." That's just a bad idea.