Down Don’t Bother Me

By Jason Miller

down_dont_bother_meKinsey set me up on Twitter a few years ago, and I’ve become quite the addict since. I follow a whole bunch of comedians, who then follow each other, so I’m not even sure how I found all of them. Jason Miller posts frequently and is so funny and smart and thoughtful that I may possibly have a little bit of a crush on him.

Miller has been recently posting about a new book he has published, Red Dog, which I looked up and turns out to be a sequel to an earlier book, Down Don’t Bother Me, which was described as a Justified-like noir mystery set in rural Pennsylvania coal mining country.

I’ve been recently watching and loving Justified, so I promptly bought Down Don’t Bother Me, and not only is it very, very good, but it is coincidentally the perfect counterpart to my earlier review of Savage Season. Like, Down Don’t Bother Me has the rural grittiness that first attracted me to Lansdale’s books, but eliminates all the racism and sexism and then also adds surprising nuance to the characters, as well.

Down Don’t Bother Me has a somewhat slow start where Miller introduces us to the characters and general setting, though the writing is very good. He hits the metaphors a bit hard, but they are always very clever and made me laugh. And once the action picks up, though, the story really gets going!

Down Don’t Bother Me is set in poor, rural mining country, and our main protagonist, Slim, is a miner barely makes ends meet in the dying industry. He is also a single father of a precocious twelve-year-old daughter, which is the first sign that this is a step above most other action-mystery novels. The owner of the mine that he works at offers him a secure pension in return for discretely finding his missing son-in-law, considered a person of interest by the police in the murder of a reporter investigating possible negligence in the mine. If that sounds a bit confusing, it is—Miller does not shy away from a convoluted plot.

I’ve been really struggling to write this review, because what do you say about a book that doesn’t really break any new barriers or anything, but just does its genre really, really well? It was just such a satisfying read – all grit and rural noir with some added poignancy and surprising humor for contrast.

Red Dog

red_dogMiller significantly upped his game with this sequel, with a plot that starts with a missing dog, and spirals out into a storm of dog fighting, gun running, and white supremacists.  The characters are where Miller really shines. I had some trouble following all the characters, but that is absolutely my fault as a reader and not Miller’s as the author. I read a lot of “tough guy” books and even though I love them, I still get tired of the tough-guy dialogue, and Miller’s dialogue surprises me over and over, and makes me laugh.

So, the dialogue, like I said, is refreshing, the pacing fast, and the violence described in realistic but brief impressions, not in the blow-by-blow detail that slows down the pacing in other action books. Which I especially appreciate, because the violence is not glamorized in these books (which is also a plus to my mind). Red Dog, though, also requires trigger warnings for animal abuse and sexual violence, for which I’ll put more specifics after the spoiler cut. Continue reading

The City of Mirrors

By Justin Cronin

city_of_mirrorsI wasn’t going to review this book because it is the third in a trilogy in which I’ve already discussed the first two. However, the third book pissed me off so much that I had to rant. I am also about to spoil the hell of this book, starting right now, though I’ll throw a page break in before the more specific spoilers.

The City of Mirrors has a problem, and that problem is Timothy Fanning. The character Fanning is also known as “Zero,” as in Patient Zero, the original vampire. He is the main villain of the whole series, having orchestrated the spread of the vampire virus purposefully, though he has stayed mostly behind the scenes in the first two books.

Unfortunately, in the third book we get a much more in-depth look, via a 100-PAGE MONOLOGUE in which he gives his entire history, starting almost from birth, and it is just the most undiluted example of white male entitlement that I think I have ever read. I really wanted to believe that this was on purpose, to make a commentary on how dangerous this kind of unacknowledged privilege can be, but I had increasing suspicions that Cronin intended it to create a more complex villain with a sympathetic backstory. The monologue itself was insufferable, but the recipient of it, a previously strong woman, appears to receive it with sympathy and understanding.

Here’s where I’m about the spoil the hell of this book, by sharing a breakdown of his backstory.  Continue reading

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

I’ve said before that I sometimes find teenage boys to be an entirely different species, and in books they so often come off sounding like the teenage dirtbags that the late, lamented Toast described so well. So I love it when I find a book that makes me feel like I completely understand its teenage narrator–a book that makes a teenage boy into a real person and not some Holden Caulfield stereotype. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, by Benjamin Alire Saenz, is SUCH as good example of this kind of book, and is a YA book that just made me happy to read.

It’s a basic story in a lot of ways–during a hot summer in the late 1980s Ari, who is sort of a loner, becomes friends with Dante. Ari’s a smart kid with a family that is loving, but has its troubles. Dante has a nice family as well, and is dealing with his own stuff. So, you know, they’re kids trying to live their lives and do the best they can. Various plot things happen over a couple of years, some of them pretty dramatic, but they book never feels like an Afterschool Special, mostly because Ari’s narration is so calm as he tries to just go along with life and figure things out. While you could say that this is a book that deals with identity issues, and trauma, and PTSD, and showing diverse communities in books, you could also say that it’s a sweet story about friendship and family and love. I don’t want to give away too much more, but I just thought it was lovely.

Also, I read the paper book rather than listening to the audio book, but apparently the audio version is narrated by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which just seems perfect. I actually pictured him saying some of Ari’s lines as I was reading and it really worked. So if you’re an audiobook person, this books gets a little extra recommendation.

Kinsey’s Three(ish) Word Review: Sweet coming-of-age tale

You might also like:
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, The Beginning of Everything, Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist, and Maggie Stiefvater’s Raven Boys cycle are other teen boy-narrated books that I have enjoyed quite a bit.

Savage Season

By Joe R. Lansdale

Savage_SeasonA few weeks ago, everyone on my twitter feed was mocking Jonathan Franzen for saying he wouldn’t dare write a book about race because he doesn’t have very many black friends. Now, I find Franzen as annoying as the next woman, but I figure, thank God for small favors, because I would bet good money that his thoughts on race would be almost unbearably outdated and condescending.

It is possible that author Joe R. Lansdale should have also put some additional thought into his cross-cultural relationships as well. I had high hopes for the crime-committing and –solving pair of friends, Hap, a white ex-hippy, and Leonard, a gay, black Vietnam veteran.

Unfortunately, it only takes the first novel, Savage Season, nine pages before the white guy, Hap, ‘teasingly’ calls his black friend, Leonard, the n-word, and it is just so awkward. It almost felt like the author had written an entire novel just to somehow get himself an “n-word pass” as a white person.

Racism aside, there’s plenty of sexism, too. Hap has an ex-wife who keeps coming into his life making trouble, and he is just helpless against her wiles! She is, of course, the one who starts the trouble in this novel, too. She is so weirdly portrayed that she come across as psychotic sometimes, though Hap and Leonard are unusually forgiving toward her.

Of course, with all my bitching, I read the book in two days straight – Lansdale keeps the plot hopping, and I started the sequel almost immediately, figuring that debut novels are often kind of shaky while the author is still finding his stride.

Mucho Mojo

Mucho_MojoUnfortunately the sequel takes all the things I didn’t like so much in the first novel and hits them even harder. Lansdale takes some astoundingly racist rhetoric, about systematically oppressed people just victimize themselves with their own defeatism, and puts it in the mouth of Leonard while Hap just sort of goes, “well, I don’t know about all that…”

Rebecca was giving me crap for quitting the second book a third of the way through, so I read her passages from it, until she agreed it was the right decision:

Black children with blacker eyes wearing dirty clothes sat in yards of sun-bleached sand and struggling grass burrs and looked at us without enthusiasm as we drove past.

It was near midday and grown men of working ages went wandering the streets like dogs looking for bones, and some congregated at storefronts and looked lonesome and hopeless and watched with the same lack of enthusiasm as children as we drove past. [Comment: gritty noir always likes everyone and everything to be miserable, but this sounds a bit too close to poverty porn, which is also just a super gross phrase.)

“Man, I hate seeing that,” Leonard said. “You’d think some of these sonofabitches would want to work.”

“You got to have jobs to work,” I said.

“You got to want jobs, too,” Leonard said.

“You saying they don’t?”

“I’m saying too many of them don’t. Whitey still has them on his farm, only they ain’t doing nothing there and they’re getting tidbits tossed to them like dogs, and they take it and keep on keeping on and wanting Whitey to do more.”

As Rebecca pointed out, when a white author puts this kind of rhetoric in the mouth of a fictional black character, it is basically literary blackface, and it is gross. On a more positive note, I read a really thoughtful article online titled “There is No Secret to Writing About People Who Do Not Look Like You,” which discusses how important diverse representation is in literature, and how anyone, no matter their background, can help contribute to that representation. So I encourage everyone, writer or not, to read that article, and to skip Lansdale’s series.


WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

wakeWWW: Wake
by Robert J. Sawyer

This was a really interesting book that gave me lots of thoughts. I was impressed with how well thought out the scenario was as the author presents the hows and whys of this artificial intelligence coming into being and develops from there. That was really cool.

There was also a diverse and interesting cast of characters in this interesting scenario.

All the positive features of this book just made it all the more disappointing that the writing felt really flat. I should have liked this book a lot more than I did.

I was half-way to blaming it on being a YA novel and me aging out of the genre… but it’s not that kind of problem. There are plenty of YA books that manage to be extremely lively and engaging and, frankly, there are also plenty of adult books that suffer from the same flat sort of presentation as this one.  There was just something about the writing that kept me from getting into it. This is particularly disappointing because this is the first book in a series of three: WWW: Wake, WWW: Watch, and WWW: Wonder.

The scenario is interesting enough that I wish I liked the book and I might still get myself to read WWW: Watch and WWW: Wonder just to see what else the author thinks would or could happen with an AI in existence. I am startled to find myself in the extremely rare situation of wishing that those thoughts were written as a nonfiction essay rather embedded in a story.

I don’t think the writing is necessarily bad, it just really doesn’t reach me. Hopefully there are other readers out there who appreciate this book and series more.

Gods’ Man by Lynd Ward

Lynd_Ward_(1929)_Gods'_Man_coverGods’ Man: A Novel in Woodcuts
by Lynd Ward

I ran across a reference recently to the wordless novel as a genre that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. Somehow, I had never run across this before (although I have a couple of picture books that are completely wordless and are awesome) so I decided I needed to check it out. According to Wikipedia, Gods’ Man is one of the preeminent examples of the genre, and I can absolutely see why.

The illustrations really are gorgeous. Some examples are:

Gods_Man_sun_image and Lynd_Ward_(1929)_Gods'_Man_-_surrounded_by_wineglasses

lw_gm025 and lyndwardwife

Just really gorgeous.

The story line is… very 1920s-1930s. A young man, an artist, comes from over the seas to the big city. He’s a kind soul who the fat cats of the city toast and celebrate. He falls in love, but she loves only money! He is distraught and sinks into despair, and is finally chased out of the city, barely making his escape. In the countryside he finds a wonderful woman who nurses him back to health and is all that is wonderful. They are very happy together, except there is no escaping the evil of the big city and all things must end (in a very melodramatic way).

I highly recommend it.

I also think it’s particularly funny that the only words in the entire book (aside from the various title pages), is the name of the inn where our protagonist stays when he first arrives in the city. The sign is legible and reads: “Slink Inn Eat” (Hahahaha!)

I think I like the genre overall. The other wordless books I have are Zoom by Istvan Banyai, which is bright and modern and surreal, and Christmas! and Rain, both by Peter Spier, which are sweet and adorable and heartwarming. I love them all.

Very specific murder mysteries

I haven’t felt like reading anything new lately, so I’ve been dipping back into the well of old loved British murder mysteries. Seriously, there is not much that is more comforting than genteel aristocracy studiously talking around brutal murders.

'Coriolanus' play after party, London, Britain - 17 Dec 2013A few weeks ago, I ran across a discussion online of fantasy casting for a hypothetical Peter Wimsey movie, and the comments were pretty divided on whether Tom Hiddleston would make a good Wimsey. The “pro” side was, of course, he’s just so charming! The “con” side was, but isn’t he a little too handsome? And, I’m here to say that I don’t think so! After seeing him blonde in The Night Manager, he looks kind of like a silly doofus, which is pretty much perfect for Wimsey.

Tidus for

His love interest Harriet Vane is a trickier casting, since she’s first introduced as she is being charged with the murder of her lover. She is clearly as clever and witty as Wimsey, but is also understandably melancholy and a bit hostile initially. But then I had an epiphany that it couldn’t be anyone but Eva Green, and wouldn’t she be a phenomenal Harriet Vane! Also, doesn’t Green deserve a nice mannered storyline where she isn’t brutalized at any point?

Gaudy Night Strong Poison
Clouds of Witness

By Dorothy Sayers

So, after having settled the casting to my satisfaction, I decided to reread Gaudy Night Strong Poison, the novel in which Wimsey sets out to prove Vane’s innocence, having fallen in love with her at first sight on the witness stand. It is very silly but also truly romantic. However, there is another romance that happens very much in the background that I just love more: Peter’s sister, the Lady Mary, is in love with a middle-class policeman who doesn’t feel that he has the social status to propose.

I then went back and read Clouds of Witness, the book before Gaudy Night Strong Poison, in which Mary and Inspector Parker first meet, upon the suspicious death of Mary’s fiancée. Even in this novel, the romance is kept coyly in the background, with the reader discovering it through Lord Peter’s discussions with his sister Mary and Parker, a personal friend. So, I was frustrated in my search for class-crossed lovers after all.

The Cater Street Hangman

By Anne Perry

Then, I remembered that Anne Perry has a whole series set in the Victorian Era in which a woman of leisure falls in love with a policeman. In the first book, The Cater Street Hangman, central protagonist Charlotte lives with her well-off family in an upper-crust neighborhood. A series of stranglings, first of a couple of servant girls and then of the daughter of a neighbor, shock the entire neighborhood and bring the police to investigate. The lead investigator, Thomas Pitt, is well educated but still clearly working class, but he inspires Charlotte to challenge her assumptions about class and society as a whole. And of course, they fall in love, solve the crime, etc.

Upon my second reading, the focus on the constraints laid on the strict class system and the extremely complex set of manners that reinforces it reminds me quite a bit of Jane Austen. Charlotte and her sisters especially reminded me of Pride & Prejudice, though Perry does not have Austen’s wit and the book is very much not a comedy. It is still a very good book, of course, but more intense than I was looking for at this particular time, so my search of witty cross-class romance-mysteries continues.