Wednesday, June 29, 2016

WALTZING COWBOYS – Sarah Collins Honenberger

I always make it a point to buy at least one book at book signings where I'm also pushing product. My motives are mixed. I joke that it's like priming a pump. I buy one of yours and you reciprocate. I did this at my first signing, with three other authors, and ended up spending more than I made even though the reciprocal theory bore some return. But it was in December and the books I bought were gifts--signed gifts, at that--which took care of the bulk of my Christmas shopping.

My most recent signing featured seven authors, too many to engage the reciprocal ploy without depleting my bank account even if my purchases generated any sales of mine. I bought one book, figuring it might start a rush to my table. It didn't, although I managed to sell one to a walk-in customer.
Deciding which book to buy was the rub. Cramped for space in the small store, I was positioned on the second-floor landing between two "Jessica Fletchers" who'd already each published several dozen of the kind of mysteries known as "cozies," which are distinguished from "hard boiled" mysteries at first sight by their titles and cover art suggesting a dearth of on-page violence. I wasn't in the market for a cozy. A third author, one of the four on the ground floor, was also peddling cozies.
I should note that had any of the three cozy authors bought one or both of my books I'd have reciprocated. It's the way I roll. But they didn't so I rolled on by. Two of the others had books I'd bought the previous year. This left Sarah Collins Honenberger. I almost rolled by her, too, as her books looked literary and I rarely buy literary without a proper introduction.
Yet, here we were, standing near one another in a small bookstore with her three novels arranged unpretentiously on a small table. She seemed relaxed and friendly. I politely asked her about her books and she talked about them enthusiastically but without any huckster's hype. Her sales savvy nonetheless zeroed in on the book she sensed most interested me--Waltzing Cowboys. I thought at first it might be a Brokeback Mountain-type story, but I didn't say this. She told me it was about an old cowboy who goes to New York to find the son he'd abandoned decades earlier.
Possibly without realizing it, although I suspect she sensed this somehow, too, she mentioned she saw the story as perfect for a movie starring my favorite actor.
"A friend of mine in L.A. knows Robert socially. I'm hoping she'll show it to him." She tried to restrain the excitement in her voice, but I picked up on it. It blossomed full blown when she saw she'd struck pay dirt with me.
Sarah Collins Honenberger
I finished the book last night. A good read. Literary, oh yes, but a fascinating story and well-crafted, leaving me hungry for what takes place after the book ends. I'd buy the sequel in a New York minute. And, yes, Honenberger was right, Waltzing Cowboys is perfect for Robert Duvall.
So who does the waltzing? Would this be a movie Donald Trump might find excuses to avoid--or attend wearing an elaborate disguise, were that even possible? Perhaps the latter should the Orange One's, um, curiosity be aroused by the thought of the delicate dance cowboys and untamed horses do before they feel comfortable with each other. This occurs in beautifully intimate detail in the first chapter, which Honenberger had entered in a short story contest several years earlier, winning first place.
"Rhue's prairie dance with Delilah stood on its own as a story until [the cowboy's] past in New York City rose up like a ghostly mourner from Vince's funeral and begged me to explore Ford's life without a father," she writes in the book's acknowledgments. Waltzing Cowboys was the thoughtful, literary and deeply entertaining result.

[find more Friday's Forgotten Books reviewed at Todd Mason's amazingly eclectic blog:

Monday, June 27, 2016

True LuooOOuve

All you need is love, sing the idealists, their beatific smiles aimed skyward. The flip side gives us love stinks, presumably calling out lust gone south. My dad the cynic loved to sneer at young love. “Oh, of course, they're in luff,” his exaggerated elevation of eyebrows and ugly oral rictus conveying sarcasm whenever romance was given as the excuse for misfortune. Male suitors were “Airedales.” He didn't have a slur for horny women, other than “easy.” I resented his attitude then, but know now he was probably mostly right. This is probably why most movies and songs that portray, even clumsily, expressions meant to represent true love invariably turn my eyes into salty potted plant sprinklers.
Cynics are said to be disappointed romantics, and I can't disagree. Conditioned by my dad, who spoke with unwitting self-description, and by my mother, whose romantic nature survived the battering of her husband's bitterness, I've evolved with qualities of both extremes. This means I can still recognize and believe in true love, and when I do it leaves me agape. I weep when the ideal is portrayed by singers and actors—even cartoon characters--but they're tension tears because I know I'm suspending my sadly conditioned disbelief for a fantasy ride. I weep for what I wish with my heart to be real, knowing most often, too too often, it is not. But when I see it for real, the jaw drops, the heart slows and a warm glow fills my being. I may weep then, as well, but the tears come more slowly and from somewhere deep. I weep for real when I read stories documenting parents' unconditional love for their children. Even my dad would have recognized this as the real thing. I haven't wept yet for the Olivers, but I suspect those tears are coming.
I think the reason I didn't flee NPR the other day when Edgar Oliver's performance at The Moth of his piece Apron Strings of Savannah started playing was that I sensed something more profound than the grostesquely Poe-ish recounting of the Addams Family childhood of Oliver, his sister Helen and their spooky childlike mother, whom he called only “Mother.” Oliver's delivery was in a voice and speaking manner that's an offspring of Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff. “Mothhhhher would place a folding chair under the front dooOOoorknob and...hahaha...drape a leather belt with camel beEEells over the chair, thinking, I suppose that the beEEells would alarrum us if buUOorglars would try to break in...hahahaha...”
I was in my pickup truck running chores when this came on. My first reaction was disbelief, which quickly segued into skeptical amazement and before long, with jaw hanging helplessly, I was transfixed. When the performance ended, the Moth's artistic director, Catherine Burns, interviewed Oliver about his voice and his speaking manner, which were identical to the performance. His older sister, Helen, taught him to speak this way, he said, noting that she speaks the same way. His mother, he said, spoke like “a little girl.”
As he concludes his performance, Oliver describes how he and Helen sneak out of the house at night and escape to Paris. Their mother comes off as a formidable villain in all of this. Yet, Oliver, while delighting in pointing out her nuttiness, does so with a certain unshakable affection. There is no sarcasm, no bitterness that he and his sister were raised in such a weird and isolating fashion by a woman who clearly was daft as a loon. Oliver does not mention that she joined them eventually in Paris, but a photo on The Moth's website shows the three of them sitting in a Paris cafe on a rainy day. Their mother and Oliver are gazing at each other in a manner that bespeaks a deep, unsullied devotion. She is beautiful and appears young enough to be his sister. The three of them exude health and merriment and, what the hell, love.

Helen, Mother, Edgar -- in Paris

Promotion for Helen & Edgar biop –

Thursday, June 23, 2016

SHOT IN DETROIT – Patricia Abbott

I rarely abandon a novel once I've started it. There have been some—Moby Dick and Gravity's Rainbow come to mind—I've needed several false starts before getting up enough traction or momentum to finally read to the end. Most recently I gave up on a debut novel by a brilliant writer I won't name whose narrator is a serial killer sexually aroused by his murders. Creeped me out, and I doubt I will ever come back to it. Squeamish, some might say, but I prefer “humanely sensitive.” I can't help identifying with compelling characters in novels, and there are some I just cannot abide.
Violet Hart, the narrator in Patricia Abbott's new novel, Shot in Detroit,
seemed at first to be one of these. Hart is an artist obsessed with taking photographs of dead young black men in their coffins. Knowing this I might never have started the book had the author been someone other than Abbott. Even then I hesitated a tad, even still savoring her debut novel, Concrete Angel, which has lit up the crime-fiction community to rave reviews and awards. I've lived long enough to have come to terms with death—of family and friends, natural and violent--and have reached an albeit edgy peace with the inevitability of my own demise, not unreasonably distant down that road we're told we all eventually must walk alone. At the same time morbidity continues to put me off. Grateful Dead to me is the name of a band. It might mean more to some, but not me--I hear the rippling intro to Truckin'. I feel obliged to focus my attention on the potential for growth the statistically brief time left to me has in store. Better busy being born than busy dying, as Bob Dylan sagely advised.
So wouldn't you know, several chapters in, Shot in Detroit started giving me the same creepy feeling I got from the other novel, the one with the sexual fetish serial killer narrator I abandoned. And I wasn't much liking Violet Hart, who seemed a calloused young woman who put her art above all else. She has a mirror on the ceiling above her bed for added dimension to her trysts, which to her seem to have little more significance than carnal quality. But more than not liking her, I wasn't liking what she was doing, taking photos of dead bodies in coffins. It didn't help that she was taking great pains, artistic pains, to preserve these young men in images that greatly interested the owner of a gallery who wanted to feature them in a showing. I found this disturbing, and so did Hart's boyfriend, the mortician who had unintentionally sparked her obsession and, although allowing her to shoot the photos at his funeral home, was growing uneasy about her project.
Patricia Abbott
Something kept me on track, though. Abbott's skill with characters, bringing them alive with yearnings and fears, weaknesses, and strengths, has a way of winning you over, infiltrating your defenses. You start feeling friendly, no matter what they're up to. You sort of want to have their back, help them when they're in a jam. It was Father's Day when I read Shot in Detroit. My own daughter is in Los Angeles, a struggling actress. I'm in Virginia. I worry about her out there. As I read Violet Hart's unsettling narrative I began to wonder why Sarah hadn't called me yet. My paternal instincts were kicking in. They bled unto the pages I was reading.
Soon I was Violet's dad. Her own father had abandoned the family shortly after she was born. Her story was drawing me in as his surrogate. “Stop with this thing about dead bodies,” I more than once almost hollered. “Keep your mouth shut,” I snapped silently while police detectives interrogated her as a suspect in the violent deaths of a couple of young men she knew. I offered unspoken sympathy and gentle advice during her interior monologues when she worried about her decisions and the course her life was taking. “No!!” I'm afraid I might have shouted out loud when it seemed the unthinkable had just happened.
So did I finish Shot in Detroit? Would I have written this review if I hadn't? (I don't review books I've abandoned, even to pan what I've read of them.) Did I like Shot in Detroit? Yes. Speak up, I can't hear you. YES, DAMMIT, I LOVED IT!! Thanks. Oh, did my daughter call? C'mon, you want me to spoil the ending?

Click on any of the links below to buy Shot in Detroit:

Thursday, June 16, 2016

SEVEN ANGELS (short story bundle) -- Jane Lebak

Next time you feel a pang of conscience when you do something you know is wrong, imagine how your guardian angel must feel. Don't think you can? Not to worry. Jane Lebak has imagined it for us.
In Seven Angels, an e-book bundle of short stories about these celestial spirits, we get to see how angels feel about things, including, for those assigned to guard the souls of humans, how they suffer when those souls get into trouble or even are lost.

In one story, Winter Branches, we share the grieving memory of Reflection, the angel who guarded a man named William from the moment of his birth to the judgment of his soul after death. Despite heroic efforts by Reflection to protect her charge from demons and to encourage him to make the right decisions in his life, poor William ends up literally going to Hell. Winter Branches, told in Reflection's voice, describes her struggle to come to terms with what she considers her failure to save William's soul.
Don't let Lebak's light, humor-sprinkled style mislead you to think these tales are merely imaginative fantasy. She reveals her serious side in the story that appears right before Winter Branches, about an angel assigned to guard a malformed baby, not yet born, that's not expected to live long after birth. The story is called Damage, and the knowledge Lebak bases it on comes straight from personal experience.
Introducing the story, she writes: "Six years earlier, I’d lost a baby to anencephaly. This was the first time I’d ever been able to put any part of that experience into fiction. And yes, that’s my daughter’s face on the ultrasound photo on the cover."

Winter Branches sprang from that same devastating experience, she writes, noting that Reflection's grief over losing William reflects her own over losing her infant child.
Lest one wonder if all of Lebak's stories in Seven Angels have similar dark themes, rest assured these are the only ones. I laughed almost continually while reading The Gold Star Saints, a spoof of institutional "morale building" in which recognition is bestowed by means of attaboy or attagirl stickers. Heaven's "Self-Esteem Initiative" would have angels bestowing such stickers on every living human. The campaign gets out of hand when the angels themselves start whining about not getting stickers, and, yes, even God gets into the act.
In the hope of getting my own heavenly sticker I shall withhold telling you how this one ends. You'll have to download the bundle and read it yourself. For Heaven's sake, it's only four bucks!

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Thursday, June 9, 2016

BLACKBEARD: America's Most Notorious Pirate – Angus Konstam

I might have wept from the disabuse BLACKBEARD: America's Most Notorious Pirate heaped on me were it not that pirates didn't weep, and I usually find myself unconsciously emulating characters in books I'm reading. Although they did not weep, which is not counter intuitive, pirates were not cutthroats, which is, as suggested by their fictional counterparts. Nor did they say “Arrrr” or “Shiver me timbers,” iconic piratical exhortations introduced by actor Robert Newton in his title role of the 1952 Hollywood film Blackbeard the Pirate.

Most disheartening for me in this illusion-puncturing, meticulously researched account by Scottish historian Angus Konstam was that real pirates did not bury treasure! I selected the book to help with research for a mystery novel I'm writing inspired by a local legend that Blackbeard buried a chest of valuables on a small island in a creek about ten minutes by foot from a house I once owned. Not whining here, but clearly the debunking of my plot idea was, if not a weep-worthy setback, one that might have merited reading no further, chucking the book and administering a brutal tweak to the raison d'ĂȘtre of my novel.

The first and second steps I did not take. Konstam's Blackbeard was much too interesting to abandon, and so, rapt, I read it through to the thicket of end notes, bibliography and index entries. As to my novel, its plot is still under construction, but be assured Blackbeard will figure into it somehow. His is truly a fascinating legend even a remote proximity of which would contribute a layer of exotic intrigue to any story.

Edward Teach--or Thatch or Thach or Thatche or Tatch, depending on which of the early 18th century spelling variations available in documents at the time one prefers—likely was not the murderous monster of mayhem fictional accounts have made him out to be. Konstam was unable to find any evidence Blackbeard (the moniker suggested in a deposition of a merchant marine captain the pirate captured early in his frightening career) ever personally killed or ordered anyone slain. But he certainly scared the hell out of people and indeed earned unequivocally Konstam's description “America's most notorious pirate.” Dec. 5, 1717, the moment of Edward Teach/Thatch/Thach/Thatche/Tatch's metamorphosis from simple pirate captain to one of the greatest villains the human imagination has conjured:
Angus Konstam

Henry Bostock wasn’t having the best of mornings. His sloop the Margaret wallowed in the swell, while a cable length (200 yards) away a large, menacing pirate ship lay waiting for him, her gunports open. Wisps of smoke told him the gunners were ready, lengths of burning slow match held in their fists. Jeering cutthroats lined the rail of the larger vessel, and the taunting continued as he clambered down into his sloop’s tender and gave orders to be rowed toward his tormentors. By way of diversion he would have cast his experienced eye over the pirate ship as she loomed over him. She was clearly French-built, with fast lines and a sleek appearance, a little like a naval frigate. She had already been pierced for two dozen guns, but her hull showed evidence of more recent alterations: extra gunports were cut into her gunwale and beneath her forecastle and quarterdeck, both of which had been cut down slightly, creating a flush deck fore and aft.

Grinning faces looked down on him as he clambered up the frigate’s side, and rough hands hauled him up the last few feet onto the pirate deck. It was then that he saw him. Standing before him was one of the most frightening men he had ever clapped eyes on, a devilish-looking figure with wild eyes surrounded by even wilder black hair. The pirate’s beard was long and unkempt, plaited and hanging down over his chest. The same unkempt hair seemed to surround his face, and more plaits stuck out on either side of his face. Surprisingly, the ends of these rat-tailed black plaits were tied with twists of ribbon, which only seemed to make his appearance all the more disconcerting. The man was dressed in a long sea captain’s coat, crossed by two belts— a sword belt and a bandolier— while three brace of pistols hung from improvised holsters over his chest, making him look like a walking armory. Despite the winter sun of the Caribbean, the man wore a small brown fur cap, of the kind commonly worn by seamen in cold weather, and beneath it, as if to complete the whole devilish image, two small lengths of slow match poked out and hung down behind each ear, the tips of the impregnated rope glowing red and smoldering, with wisps of smoke framing the pirate’s head. As if all this wasn’t alarming enough, there were the eyes— the manic, staring eyes that glared at him from behind the hair. Henry Bostock had just met Blackbeard.

The pirates held Bostock and his crew prisoner for eight hours, eventually setting them free. This took place off Crab Island near Anguilla. Bostock's subsequent statement to the governor of Barbados provided the first known description of the pirate captain, and gave him the name that would sail with its Jolly Roger myths into the ages: “The Captain by the [name] of Capt. Tach … was a tall Spare Man with a very black beard which he wore very long.”

Blackbeard's career as a pirate lasted about eighteen months, probably less time than it took his beard to grow so distinctively long. Despite its widespread, enduring notoriety, his career as a buccaneer was hardly the most successful of those who preyed on merchant ships throughout the century's first two decades, known as the Golden Age of Piracy. Most pirates, including Blackbeard, had segued into the black-flag vocation from doing the same thing legally as privateers, seizing enemy vessels during times of war under authority of their country. Their seagoing lives without this authority was preferable to that on the merchant ships they seized, and they often recruited new pirates from crews of those same ships.

Records exist indicating that pirates governed themselves democratically, electing their officers and deciding common issues by vote. They won their plunder largely by intimidating bluff. Most of their plunder was the marketable cargo carried by the ships they seized and, occasionally, the ships themselves. They sold, traded or drank (if rum or wine) the stolen cargo, and rarely found any of the jewels and doubloons fiction has them burying in “a dead man's chest,” with pet parrots on villainous shoulders squawking “pieces of eight!” Their chief danger lay in getting caught, and many who did were summarily hung after token trials. Their chief threat was economic, but Colonial authorities, with little protection from the British Navy, regarded piracy more as an irritant than dire—until Blackbeard upped the stakes by blockading for a week the major port of what is now Charleston, S.C., choking off all trade.

His actions paralyzed the port, bringing maritime trade to a halt. While this caused a crisis in the colony of South Carolina, Blackbeard’s blockade had an equally dramatic impact further up the coast. At the time Blackbeard commanded several ships and several hundred men. With a force like that at his disposal he could repeat his success off Charleston anywhere else along North America’s Atlantic seaboard. For a brief period he became America’s bogeyman, and nobody knew where he would strike next.

Enter Alexander Spotswood, Virginia's colonial governor, who took this danger to task, and, despite the legal risk of “invading” the colony of North Carolina, where he knew Blackbeard was living apparently with a royal pardon from the governor there, sent a task force to put the pirate out of business for good. The task force did just that, and returned to Virginia with Blackbeard's nightmarish head dangling from the bowsprit of one of the two commercial sloops rented for the mission. Sixteen men captured from Blackbeard's sloop were brought back, as well, alive. They were imprisoned for three months in Williamsburg before all but one, who had been Blackbeard's prisoner, were tried, convicted and sentenced “to hang by the neck until dead, dead, dead.”

Spotswood granted clemency to another of the prisoners before the execution, which took place three days after the trial. Konstam suggests the lucky pirate, Israel Hands, might have escaped the others' fate by acting as a credible informant to the Virginia governor with legal problems that grew out of his North Carolina “invasion.” The fourteen others, including four African slaves who'd joined the pirates, were hung from trees or makeshift gibbets every half mile along a stretch of road from Williamsburg to the James River. Legend has Blackbeard's head rotting on a pole for several years at the James River port where the returning task force docked, with the skull eventually used as a drinking cup before ending up in a museum. The author says he viewed what was purported to be Blackbeard's skull as part of a traveling exhibit displayed at The Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Va.

Konstam suggests Blackbeard's grisly fate was more a result of his carefully crafted image than for anything he actually did. In reality, he was believed to be a literate man socially at ease in polite company and capable of persuasive charm when it suited him. In modern fictional portrayals, Konstam says, the character Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, “was closer to the real Blackbeard than most fictional attempts to capture behind the myth.”

Arrrr, I say to that, and shiver me timbers, and what the hell.

[for more Friday's Forgotten Books see the listing on Patti Abbott's unforgettable blog]

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Snatch XIV

In charge. What an idea. More control than I've ever realized. Well, the illusion of control. Whatever hand is on the plug no doubt can pull it without warning, on a whim or by some preordained schedule, no way for me to know. No way to know if there even is a hand or a plug. And would I want a warning? That's something to chew on, and for all I know I have plenty of time for the chewing. All the same there are plenty more things on which to chew, so many that merely prioritizing them could take forever.

If not, though, if the plug comes out before I finish this thought, is this the thought I wish to be my last? Well, it must be, or I'd be thinking another one. So there goes the illusion of control and the pressing weight of its responsibility. A luxury, this sense of free-fall, for the moment anyway, riding a whimsy that steers away from the darker concerns. Plug? What plug? Pain? Sanity-robbing pain? Yes, yes, of course. I've mentioned it, it's uncomfortably near, in memory but congealing to theory the longer absent. My faith's in the whimsy now. She's in charge. Why deny her?