"Fractured Legacy" by Charles B. Neff

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The ambitions of a jealous, maniacal entrepreneur join tender romance and political trench warfare to give Fractured Legacy its powerful emotional punch. Labeled a thriller and set in the beautiful Pacific Northwest, Legacy doesn’t boast the heart-pumping suspenseful denouement of many thrillers, but instead concludes in equal parts romance and realism. Its thrills derive from the drama of underfunded and less-powerful forces taking on the high and mighty. Its touching and hopeful nature flows from an unexpected chance at love between two very unlikely people. These characteristics take nothing away from this book’s thrilling nature; in fact, they definitely enhance it.

In one thread, Jeff and Sara Winter’s marriage appears doomed: since injuring his hip, Jeff isn’t able to help run their outdoor adventure business, and sharp, decisive Sara has lost patience. She meets powerful businessman Grant Tomson, with whom she begins to hatch a plan for a new venture, and doesn’t worry about its possible effect on Jeff. However, this all occurs after the apparently accidental death of Grant’s twin Will, and the halting, unproductive police investigation that follows. The most intriguing character here, and the one with the most intimate and sympathetic story is Bebe Sorensen, curator of a museum in town, who helps the police investigation, and discovers a world of romantic possibility in the process. Some citizens suspect Grant of subterfuge and much worse, and resolve to halt his development ambitions for an idyllic wilderness lake, and his reaction to this threat is a main driver in the story.

I try never to speculate on other work that an author may undertake, or what he or she intends, but Fractured Legacy has the definite feel of something to be followed up with a sequel. The first-blush realization of the nature of the businessman/developer has not resulted in anything but dark suspicion.
No building has proceeded in the wilderness, no land-grab has occurred, and romantic realization for one couple and possible rapprochement for another are still to come.  If there is a follow-up volume, I definitely want it, because I definitely want a chance to see these characters through.

This book has outstanding pace, exceptionally realistic political infighting, and a highly appealing budding romance. Of all things in a thriller, I expected only the pacing; I did not bargain for the other pleasures. Indeed, this book has a great deal to offer the discerning reader, and I for one am not ashamed or embarrassed to hope for a sequel. Rewarding, crisply done, top flight. Highly recommended.  

"When Mystical Creatures Attack!" by Kathleen Founds

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

When Mystical Creatures Attack! won this year’s John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa, and it’s damn easy to see why. The writing is a splendid and arresting combination of irreverence, counterculture rebellion, and gallows humor. It portrays a Catholic upbringing – complete with nuns – in the heart of Texas, which as I always suspected, is another country altogether.  It also deals with juvenile delinquency, unwanted pregnancy, drug addiction, mental illness, and suicide. In case you were thinking its humor makes it light reading.

These short pieces are linked very closely together, moreso than usual in a short fiction collection, although they can certainly be read independently. The experience would be very different in that case, although not as deep or affecting. I have to honor and thank the Simmons award committee for singling out this multifarious work, because it clearly, clearly deserves the recognition. Besides all the adjectives above, in main it’s a moving, disturbing, topical collection.

The narrative threads follow Laura, an inexperienced high school English teacher in her early 20s, and her student Janice, whom Laura calls “a feral raccoon devoid of impulse control,” in honor of her excessive eye shadow. The two are not enemies, however, or even adversaries, for very long. They unfortunately share too many toxic and alienating influences in their lives: distant and/or suicidal mothers, deep and dangerous problems with men, drug use – in Laura’s case, coerced, in Janice’s, not so much. These two vivid creations come packaged up in a raucous, rebellious, frightening, hysterically funny set of stories.

And the stories are worth every bit of their award.  Consider the fanciful: a giant squid that hugs you until your unwanted pregnancy goes away, a wood nymph who could save the environment, a wax figure battle at a museum that pits George Washington against Moses. Or the plain bizarre: Laura is confined to a psychiatric treatment program in which she must try to earn negotiable “Wellness Points™” which purport to measure her progress, but are really punitive and counterproductive. Consider the all-too-real: young women trying to navigate through a universe that might be indifferent if it weren’t so treacherous. Through all the wisecracks and comic effects, Mystical Creatures has a serious, compassionate soul, and I am quite impressed. Do take it up, you won’t regret it for a minute.

"The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons" by Heather A. Slomski

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Congratulations to Heather A. Slomski for winning the Iowa Short Fiction Award this year for The Lovers Set Down Their Spoons. This collection amply shows Ms. Slomski’s talent in her craft, and her deep expertise around the human heart. She renders a series of tableaux in a melancholy palette, but always combines subtly new hues from one story to the next. While it’s a careful balancing act, there’s also a highly assured quality to all the entries, and a ranging ambition: to illuminate subtle tells between lovers, to aspire to fairy tale, and to plumb the depths of serious delusion.

There are fascinating entries here: the woman whose lover returns to her in the form of a cricket – or that’s her belief, anyway; the retail clerk who converses with, and offers to run off with, a store mannequin. Some snippets capture the seemingly inevitable strife between two strangers, particularly the brief “Octaves,” while others deal with the issue in a lengthier form, especially “The Neighbors.” The finest entry in the collection, “Corrections,” a highly satisfying and beautiful story, captures a couple’s halting, ineffective attempts at intimacy, using the stunning symbolism of Douglas Miller’s drawings. 

This is a series of stories written in the key of the blues, but without music’s cathartic release. They show unerringly the clumsy and short-sighted self-interest that thwarts love’s connecting impulse. What’s left is simply loneliness. Sensitive, observant, and thought-provoking in the extreme, this collection adds Heather A. Slomski’s very able stories to all the other prize winning short fiction emerging from the University of Iowa.

"Mary Olivier: A Life" by May Sinclair

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

So often with a memoir, or a seeming memoir, you will hear that it is “intensely personal,” as when a strong emotion affects one’s thoughts and behavior. Such does not apply to Mary Olivier: A Life. The novel evokes restrained Victorian mores, and deals with religious doubt, and propounds a variety of philosophical and scientific thought. Its treatment of these themes gives one a brush with some fairly recondite concepts, but when the potentially true shining insight finally cracks through (in the book’s last handful of paragraphs), I was worn out waiting for it.

Mary Olivier the character displays cleverness and a certain stubborn rebelliousness in matters of conscience and religion. She worries her mother when, just starting her teen years, she reads Spinoza and Kant, and annoys her by concluding that the Christian God is only a small example, and not a very good one, of the divine. Mary follows her own compass through her life, but does not behave in any outrageous way, when it comes right down to it. She stays home to care for her mother, living with her into her forties. The events of Mary’s life are relayed in fits and starts, always with the backdrop of the philosophical strands of her thought. Mary is certainly a spirited creature, and ultimately I admire her courage in facing so many people and societal strictures that worked so assiduously to shut her up.

As a reading experience I found Mary unrewarding. The philosophic milieu into which Mary thrusts herself and the reader held promise, but in the end there was precious little of it discussed. If it had been more prominent, the book would have difficulty qualifying as fiction, I guess. Mary’s ultimate insights are what set her apart as a fictional heroine: if there is happiness to be had, you will find it within yourself, not in people or objects that are outside of you. I suggest you pass.

"The Harlot's Tale" by Sam Thomas

Sunday, July 20, 2014

New author Sam Thomas has introduced Lady Bridget Hodgson, a devout and determine midwife of 17th century York, to the roster of medieval and early modern sleuths in The Midwife’s Tale and The Harlot’s Tale. More entries are sure to follow these two, and that’s a very good thing.

Mr. Thomas uses his academic background to evoke the York milieu of the middle of the 17th century. He covers: the squalor cheek-by-jowl with the posh neighborhoods, the multitude of parish churches in a city of relatively modest population, and the importance of religious observances in everyday life. In The Harlot’s Tale especially, Mr. Thomas presents the high tension between the Puritan impulse and the more traditional Protestant sects. 

This is, in fact, one quibble I have with the narrative of Harlot’s Tale: it focuses too much on peoples’ preoccupation with how to fear and cajole their God. Yes, the theme of righteousness and hypocrisy figures very large here, but there is also such things as relief, contrast, and nuance to give a book depth and variability. And I want also to address those special features of a mystery – clues, subtle indicators of guilt or innocence, the sleuth’s deductive powers – Mr. Thomas’s handling of these needs refinement.  Lady Hodgson solves crime with her small posse, her maidservant Martha (easily the series’ most appealing character) and her nephew Will. They work cooperatively toward answers and next steps, but Lady Bridget needs to take control more and start to outthink her think tank.

For my money, there can never be too many medieval mystery series.
There is a lot of potential here for Sam Thomas’s midwife. He needs, however, to tighten up his mystery processes, and make Lady Bridget smarter than your average crimebuster.

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