Monday, July 6, 2020

The Lost Girls: Love and Literature in Wartime London, by D.J. Taylor. Pegasus Books, 2020

From about 1939 to 1950, a literary magazine called “The Horizon” ran. It employed many of the best talents of the day, as well as a loose group of young women for doing the everyday donkey work. During this time, many relationships formed and broke in a sort of incestuous web (Lucien Freud, the painter, was involved with three of the girls). In the center of this web sat Cyril Connolly, the owner of “The Horizon”. He had relationships with most of the girls, whether it be romantic, sexual, or simply business. These girls were bright, good looking, and chafing at the restrictions placed being placed back on women now that the war was over. They hadn’t had an easy time during the war, and most counted on men to provide them with dinners and gifts, going between their falling-down flats and the most expensive restaurants in town. They stood somewhere between the flappers of the 20s and the hippies of the 60s. Lys Lubbock, Barbara Skelton, Sonia Brownell, Janetta Parlade, and others,  stood to make the most of their lives in the perilous time of the war and right after. They tended to be tall, skinny, and broke. Some modeled, some typed, some painted; one was the mistress of the King Farouk, and one married George Orwell. 

The book brings to light the intellectual parties, the world of the magazine office, the artistic milieu. The author researched the lives of the women and tells us what he learned, but the book is as much a biography of Cyril Connolly as it is of the young women. More than either, it’s a work of literary gossip, delicious if you like the writers of the era; boring at times if you don’t. Four stars.

Monday, June 8, 2020

The Scene That Became Cities: What Burning Man Philosophy can Teach Us About Building Better Communities, by Caveat Magister (Benjamin Wachs). North Atlantic Books, 2019

Burning Man has gone from two families on a beach to a huge annual gathering of artists, spiritual seekers, partiers, sex-positive groups, volunteers, and much, much more. I don’t think you could possibly call it any one thing; it contains multitudes. I wanted to know more about it, so when this book was offered, I grabbed at it.

Sadly, I was disappointed. I figured that anything about an event that sounds as fascinating as Burning Man does would be extremely interesting, but I didn’t find this book to be interesting at all. It was not totally uninteresting; I did learn some things, but I suspect that it’s one of those things that is hard to describe.

The philosophy of Burning Man could help us build better communities, where everyone can follow their passion- but they also have to help pick up the trash. It requires some really heavy volunteerism and participation. Which is really how I wish the world was run. But I suspect that the event has to be experienced, not described.  I had to force myself to finish the book.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Tall Tales and Wee Stories, by Billy Connolly. Two Roads, 2019

There is no plot to this book, but that’s okay. Connolly is one of the funniest people I know of, and his style of funny is not jokes or terse anecdotes; he starts talking about one subject, veers off in a Grandpa Simpson way (except the detour actually has a point), goes back to the main thread, veers again, finally gets to the end, in the process saying “f***” about 500 times and bringing sex into the story at least once. By the time I get to the end of the story, I’m lying on my side, tears running down, gasping and wheezing and trying not to wake my husband, because I stayed up  a good deal of the night reading, unable to quit. So, yeah, I liked the book. I wish I could have seen Connolly perform live, but at least I’ve seen him on TV enough that, as I read the book, I heard it being told in his voice.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Virginia Woolf and the Women Who Shaped Her Life, by Gillian Gill. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019

I’ve read two or three biographies of Virginia Woolf, but this one went at telling her story from a very different angle than usual. Gill goes back in time, and tells us about Woolf’s female predecessors. The women aren’t just her foremothers; Gill includes Anne Thackeray Ritchie, who while not well known now showed Woolf that a woman could be a successful writer, her siblings including half –sister Laura, who got called an ‘idiot’ and was put away in an asylum when she was in her 20s. Of course, her family also included men. Most were good, but her two half-brothers were nasty characters who sexually abused both Virginia and her sister Vanessa- and possibly Laura and Stella. It’s odd that Gill stresses that it was the women who shaped Woolf’s life, when she and her siblings (and her mother, Julia) were shaped very strongly by the male-dominated times in general and their family in particular. Later, Woolf became part of the influential (in intellectual terms) Bloomsbury group. This group was composed of mainly gay and bi men who had little use for women, but changed their minds when it came to Virginia, and her sister Vanessa, who both married into the group. Woolf and her sister transformed the group; the group transformed the women. It was here that Woolf found her literary voice. 

Gill has a great enthusiasm for her subject. She sometimes writes in a breathless manner, as if she were a teenager writing about her heartthrob. It’s a somewhat odd choice of style, given how much scholarly research she put into the book, but it works. At times it’s like listening in on gossip; the Bloomsbury group seems to have put as much energy into their sex lives as they did into their art; a discussion of the grooming and marriage of Woolf’s niece to the former lover of the girl’s father is had. The only thing I found annoying was the author’s habit of jumping around in time- it made it even more difficult to sort out the large cast of characters. Four stars.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen. Bantam Books, 2007

The Waverly family has always been a bit… odd. They have gifts, and this makes them outsiders. Even the apple tree has a reputation- and a temper. Generations of Waverlys have lived and gardened at the family home. Now, Claire is a caterer. Her dishes are not just delicious, but magical. Made with plants from her garden, they can protect, promote love, and more. Her cousin Evanelle has a talent for giving the gifts you don’t need- yet. Now Claire’s sister Sydney is suddenly back, after years with no contact, along with her young daughter. The sisters need to heal from their pasts, but can they? 

The bones of this story are pretty close to those of “Practical Magic”. Allen doesn’t write with the ability to grab your heart and shake it like Hoffman does, though. It’s a pleasant enough book and I enjoyed reading it; I doubt I’ll read more of the series, however, even though I tend to love magical realism and magical plants.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell. Little, Brown & Company, 2005

I never thought I’d have any interest in this book or movie, but one day it was on TV and I watched it and really liked it. So when I found the book, I figured, well, the book is always better than the movie, I grabbed it. Sadly, my presumption turned out to be wrong. I did not like the book better. I liked it considerably less.

In the movie, I much preferred the sections on Julia Child, who was considerably more interesting that I would have ever thought from just watching her TV show a few times. A lot of time was given to her story. In the book, Julie, quite naturally, gives more time to her own story- that she would undertake making every single recipe in Julia’s foundational cookbook in the space of one year. She starts a blog to tell the world about this project, and it becomes a huge hit. A book deal appears, and it’s optioned for a movie. This book isn’t just a collection of her blog entries; she’s looking back from the end of the project and going through the memories.

I should have liked it. She can be witty, with the kind of self-deprecating humor that grabs me. She swears almost as much as I do. I get obsessed with food at times. But I disliked her continual complaining about the same things over and over again (note to self: stop doing that! I’m sure NO one likes that!), given that she was living a fairly privileged life. The things she says and thinks about her perfectly good, supportive husband are nasty. Her story telling is not linear in the least. I just got tired of her, and wanted the book to end.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

The Angina Monologues: Surgery for Broken Hearts, by Samer Nashef. Scribe Publications, 2019

 Nashef’s memoir starts with some truly awful cardiac situations. An older man needing two different operations, in which everything must be done in a certain order; a pregnant woman with cardiac artery ready to explode, so that the babies must be delivered by Caesarian Section before the lifesaving heart operation can commence. Those stories have happy endings, but not all do. The author is open about the risks of heart surgery, as well as the benefits. He describes a number of types of heart surgeries, in terms anyone can understand. He’s funny at times and heart breaking at times. He lives and works in England, but has gone to the West Bank to perform surgeries more than once. His most memorable story is about going to pick up a heart for transplant- and everything goes wrong (the heart makes it on time). It’s engrossing and easy to read. Five stars.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Arroyo, by Chip Jacobs. Rare Bird Books, 2019

You’ve got to figure that a book that starts out with an ostrich race is going to be kind of strange. But ostrich races really *do* take place, so this in itself doesn’t knock the book into complete fantasy land. It’s the psychic, highly intelligent dog that does that, and later, the reincarnation thing. The rest is detailed history- the main characters are fictional, but there are many historical figures and the setting has been researched so well that it totally comes alive- it’s practically a character, itself.

The Arroyo in question is Arroyo Seco in Pasadena, CA, and the year is 1913. The bridge is the Colorado Street Bridge, known locally as Suicide Bridge after its completion, and 1913 is the year it is being finished and opened. You’ve all seen Colorado Street; it’s the avenue that the Rose Parade goes down on New Year’s Day. Young Nick Chance is an inventor and a bird caretaker on the local ostrich farm when the book starts, hence the race. He is developing a method of solar lighting, and gets a job working on the bridge lighting it, thus saving them from running an electrical system clear across. But there are a number of mysterious things going on, which seem to center upon the bridge. When Nick’s life is saved by a psychic stray dog, who he adopts and names Royo, he finds himself drawn into these events.

Jacobs, who is normally a journalist, has made old Pasadena come alive. The Busch Gardens, then lived in by Lilly and Adolphus Busch, sound like a fairy land-they were labeled the ‘eighth wonder of the world”. The details of the ostrich feather industry were something I’d never come across before. He describes the local businesses in detail, all of which existed- and some still exist! The characters are likable and rather whimsical, but even though I liked Nick a lot, he (and the others) had no real depth. When the story moved to 1993, I lost a lot of interest in the story. The era itself is less interesting to me, and 1993 Nick isn’t as compelling. The plot seemed to move along in the past, but sort of just… petered out in ’93. Is it worth reading? If you have any interest in Pasadena (or L.A. area) history, yes, absolutely, as long as you’re okay with it being magical realism or historical fantasy. If not, it might not be the first historical fantasy I’d reach for. Will I read another book by Jacobs? Yes, once the shut downs end I’m going to have the library get “Smogtown” for me, and possible another of his books. This one’s a four star for me.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000 Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection, by Tamim Ansary. Hachette Book Group, 2019

Like the butterfly effect, what happened in China affected what happened in Rome; what the Vikings did affected the world. No culture is ‘pure’; every nation has been changed by others. We are all interconnected; progress does not take place in a vacuum.

The average world history book aimed at the English speaking world tends to start with the Fertile Crescent, give a fair bit of time to the Greeks and Romans, and then go straight to Western Europe for the rest of the book, with some time spent on North and South America. Ansary looks beyond those, and focuses mainly on connections. The far flung Roman Empire put many different cultures and religions in touch with each other, as did the Vikings, and then the Crusades. When Columbus discovered the Americas, a whole new world of cultures, foods, animals, and inventions collided and merged. The advent of factory work changed how the world worked, as much or more than the transistor did. Communications and management changed the world as much as armies and navies did.

The book reminded me of “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in the way the author looked at things other than kings and armies as forces that shaped our civilization. Ansary is a bit more casually written, at times drifting into slang, but the thinking and writing is solid. I enjoyed this book a lot, and it taught me things I’d not thought of before.

Monday, March 2, 2020

All My Cats, by Bohumil Hrabal. New Directions, written 1995, translated 2019

In 1965, having published his first books to good sales, Hrabal and his wife purchase a country house an hour away from the city where they live and where his wife works. Like a fair number of rural places, it comes with hot and cold running cats- a feral colony which is really quite tame. When they spend the weekend at the cottage, or when Hrabal retreats there to write, the cats flow into the house like a tide, sleeping on the bed, and eating well. When in Prague, Hrabal worries about their welfare. Meanwhile, the cats do what feral cats do- they breed. And when there, his wife frequently utters the only line of dialogue she is allowed: “What are we going to do with all these cats!?”

Does this sound like a nice, heartwarming story, about a man who loves cats and rescues them? After all, the cover is adorable pencil drawings of cats… but think again. This is no Disney story.

Yes, this is a man who loves cats. But as time goes on, he becomes overcome with pressures. The neighbors complain about the cats because they are killing birds. He is under pressure to produce more writing. He is under pressure because of the cost of feeding the cats. And, of course, there is his wife, worrying about the feline deluge. And this leads him to some shocking, violent acts- the kills some of the cats, very brutally. This is no needle of mercy from the vet; this is being beaten to death. And as he does it, he knows it’s wrong, and he knows he had a choice to be merciful, because he lies to his wife and tells her he went to the vet and got chloroform for them. And then the pressure on him gets worse, because he feels terrible causing such pain to the cats and kittens. I believe it created a psychotic break of sorts.

I was horrified by the book. I was not expecting this sort of deliberate violence; it literally made me nauseous. I found it more awful than any work of fictional horror could be. Now, I realize this was a different time and place from my own life; there was no trap/neuter/release programs going on then and there, and spay and neuterings were probably too expensive, especially in bulk. But he did, as I say, have a choice in how he dealt with the matter and that is what repels me. Now, the prose is intriguing; the man had writing talent. I kept reading, and finished the book. But I cannot recommend it to anyone who loves cats.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Demon Knight, by Sharon M. White., 2019

For years, Blake Rossi was the chief exorcist for the Catholic Church. Then a 6 year old died during an exorcism, and he found himself excommunicated and out in the cold. He drowns his misery and guilt in alcohol, drifting from one meaningless job to the next, unable to pay the rent and demon haunted. So when old friend Gregor Balfor comes calling to try and convince Rossi he needs to take up his old profession again, he’s against it. But events wear him down- an old woman needs help because her father captured a demon many years before and now the demon is on the loose- and he finds himself joining Balfor and Balfor’s allies fighting a high level demon- a demon knight.

I liked the characters, and hope White develops them more as the series goes on- yes, it’s the first of a series. I want to know about Balfor’s group, and especially more about Lilith. The story was slow to get started, but I suspect (and hope) that, without having to create backstory, the 2nd will take right off. Four stars.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Grimm, Grit, and Gasoline: Dieselpunk & Decopunk Fairy Tales, Anthology edited by Rhonda Parrish. World Weaver Press, 2019

The time of “Dieselpunk’ and “Decopunk” runs from the start of WW 1 to the end of WW 2. Like Steampunk, they refer to an alternate world history, one in which the mechanics of the world are futuristic- ray guns, robots (sometimes sentient ones), rockets, and, sometimes, magic. Some of the tales I think I’d call noir punk. This collection takes fairy tales and sets them in this D-punk world, mostly with good effect. Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio. Rapunzel, the Little Mermaid, and more. I was happy to see many female heroes, and pretty good queer representation. All the authors were new to me, but there were NO duds in this anthology- which I find unusual; most times, I don’t like half the stories in an anthology. Five stars!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Elizabeth of Bohemia: The Winter Queen, by David Elias.

In 1596, Elizabeth Stuart was born to James IV of Scotland (soon to be James I of England when Queen Elizabeth I died) and Anne of Denmark. In 1616 she was married to Frederic V, the Elector Palatine of the Rhine (part of the Holy Roman Empire). On his part, it was a love marriage (and they married on Valentine’s Day); she was far less enthusiastic but found him tolerable. She is ambitious; he is not.

They lived happily in Heidelberg for a while; Elizabeth had 13 children. When the Bohemians overthrew their king, Ferdinand, Frederic was elected to that post. But his rule only lasted a few months before Ferdinand regained his throne and Frederic and Elizabeth had to flee. The Princes of Orange at the Hague took them in and supported hem. But they were not supported in the style to which they were accustomed, and this grated Elizabeth to no end. She conducted an incessant letter writing campaign, seeking aid from Parliament, her brother Charles (who was now King of England), and the English ambassadors.

It’s an interesting story, and we get to see it from the POV of a largely ignored character in history. But the story drags at times; there is just not enough of Elizabeth’s life that is interesting for a book of this size. I found myself really wishing at times that the author hadn’t made it so detailed, although I did enjoy the parts about Elizabeth and Walter Raleigh, and Descartes.

Elias does a good job of recreating the language of the era. Elizabeth is an important figure in that her descendants went on to become kings and queens of England. Elizabeth just does not come off as a compelling character; her scheming and complaining get very tiring after a while. The death of her beloved brother Henry left her shattered, and perhaps unable to love again. It’s the only explanation for her disregard for her children and husband.

Monday, February 17, 2020

The Palmer Entity: Asylum Series Book 2, by David Longhorn. Scare Street, 2019

This is the second book in the Asylum Series, and it picks up a year after the first one ends. Paul and Mike are drawn back into goings on at the asylum. The young girl who was involved in the first book is still being tormented by the spirits, and her mother asks for help. A “true hauntings” TV shown sends their team into the asylum (note: I screwed up; in my review of the first book in this series I had this TV team in it; I had read both books some time before I wrote the reviews and got them mixed up), stirring up trouble. And a new entity besides Palmer and the inmates of the asylum has risen, one far older than the asylum itself.

Paul and Mike seek out advice from one of Mike’s old professors, a specialist in myth and folklore. They find out the history of the site the asylum was built on, and realize there may be more than Palmer to deal with; the old entity doesn’t like to be disturbed and Palmer has disrupted his land.

I really enjoyed the old professor; he seemed rather Tolkien-esque. Paul and Mike get their characters filled out more. The TV team was enjoyable- as I said in my review of Rookwood Asylum, the psychic was amusing. The rest of the crew were likable people, and reacted to the mayhem as one would expect people to do. The story is suspenseful- is anything ever going to stop this thing?!?! And is anyone safe from it?!?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Rookwood Asylum: Asylum Series Book 1, by David Longhorn. Scare Street, 2019

When Paul Mahan’s marriage ends, he moves into a unit in the old mental asylum that’s being developed into flats. He doesn’t pay much attention to the fact that the place is considered haunted; his career as a history professor has his attention now. But there is no peace and quiet to be found; no sooner has he moved in than supernatural events start taking place, most of which center on the one wing that hasn’t been finished yet; the wing where Dr. Palmer conducted his tortuous experiments on the asylum residents. He was trying to bring psychic talents to life in them; in one, he succeeded far better than he ever intended. That section of the asylum was destroyed, and everyone was killed.

When deaths occur and messages are scrawled on the walls, the tenants hire a TV psychic to investigate, things get dramatically worse.

I liked the main characters of Paul and his friend Mike, as well as the site supervisor Declan. There isn’t a whole lot of character development, but they are good enough. The premise was pretty good; the backstory was a little different from most haunted asylum stories. The TV psychic was amusing (I couldn’t help but picture him as William Shatner, in Denny Crane mode) in a way. The human used in the story was something I really liked and found rather unusual for a bloody horror story. The story is a page turner; four stars.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Madame Koska & the Imperial Brooch, by Ilil Arbel. Open Window, 2015

This is a mystery set in the years after the first World War; it is the first in a series. Madame Koska, supposedly Russian royalty who has fled from the revolution, is opening a couture house. She seems to have money, or money behind her. In the middle of opening the shop and creating a whole new line to display, she gets involved in solving the theft of a brooch that belonged to the Romanovs. No one seems to be who they claim to be, so who is telling the truth, and who has the jewels?

It wasn’t bad for a first in a series; it was short and fluffy but the plot seemed sound. Being a fashion/beading/sewing/vintage nut, I loved the descriptions of the clothing and the work the seamstresses and beaders were doing. There were a lot of characters, though, and they were very lightly touched on and I found myself getting confused as to who was who. I assume that Koska and her crew will get some character development as the series goes on. Most ‘origin stories’ are rather clumsy, being short of depth and an interesting plot, and this book does better than average.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Disasterama! By Alvin Orloff. Three Rooms Press, 2019

Orloff’s memoir takes us through the late 70s, 80s and 90s club scene in San Francisco. In 1977 he took a bus to Polk Street, and his adventure began. While much of the first part of the story is about relentlessly cruising for sex, whether it be in bars, parks, or bathrooms, there is more to it. There is endless dancing (it was, after all, the disco era), a lot of humor, parties, fashion (both high and vintage), a deep knowledge of old movies, Broardway, and Art Deco, and, above all, irony. While he was a very shy person, he performed with the Popstitutes and Klubstitute before becoming a deejay. He is open about his time spent as a sex worker and as a stripper. He comes across as a genuinely kind person. Then AIDS hit. No one knew where it came from, or what it would do. People were dying, right and left. Friends and lovers were lost. A way of life came to a close as the landscape became grim. This part of the story is difficult to read, but the author is so easy to read that I was engaged just as much as in the times that were more fun. The book is absorbing and humorous; I stayed up nights reading it. There are some marvelous photos and posters from the club years, too.