The Big Book of Female Detectives*****

TheBigBookofFemaleDWell now, that was a meal. Penzler does nothing halfway, and this meaty collection of 74 stories took me awhile to move through. I read most, but not all, and I’ll get to that in a minute. First, though, thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

The collection begins with Mrs. Paschal, published in 1864, who must find “the cleverest thieves in Christendom,” and it concludes with a piece by Joyce Carol Oates. The stories are broken down into sections, beginning with The Victorians and Edwardians, followed by Before World War I, The Pulp Era, The Golden Age, Mid-Century, and The Modern Era, and concluded with Bad Girls. Says Penzler in his introduction:

“Seeing the Evolution of the female detective’s style as it gathers strength and credibility through the decades is educational, but that is not the purpose of this book, or not the primary one, anyway. The writers whose work fills these pages are the best of their time, and their stories are among the high points of detective fiction that may be read with no greater agenda than the pure joy that derives from distinguished fiction.”

And so the reader must absorb the hallmarks of the time period, and that means the earliest entries carry a certain number of stereotypes, primarily about the nature of women, but in the end, the detective is successful nevertheless. And it’s fun to see historical details written in present tense long ago, and so we know it’s getting to be late out when the lamplighters come out to start the gas lights in the hallways of the manse, for example. It’s also interesting to read authors that were the runaway sensations of their day, the ones that sold the most and wrote the most and were on the tongues of every mystery reader—and yet now they are completely obscure. We can never tell who will stand the test of time until it happens.

And now a confession. The first time I set out to read this tome, I read the entries in the first two sections and decided I would skip the portion devoted to pulp, which isn’t my personal favorite, and I would skip forward to read an entry by one of my favorite present-day mystery writers, and then go back again to cover the sections that come after the pulp section. That was my plan. I’m telling you this because the mistake I made here could happen to you, too, so here it is.

What I did was I skipped to the last section and began flipping through it, and then I was pissed, because I thought the best female detective writers of today had been left out, and in a huff, I abandoned the rest of the book and picked up something else. It wasn’t until I sat down to write a halfhearted review, in which I would explain what I read and what I skipped and why, that I reread the promotional teaser and realized I must have missed something. I went back to the galley, moved back to the second-to-last section that is clearly labeled “Modern”, and there they all were, and it is the longest, most inclusive section in the collection. That changed everything. So reader, if you go for this book, bear in mind that the sections are not completely linear. The “Bad Girls” section at the end, which didn’t do much for me but you may like it, is made up of stories about women criminals from a variety of different time periods. The most recent time period, the one bearing selections by Marcia Muller, Sara Paretsky, the late and beloved Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr, and a host of others, is second-to-last.

Once I realized my error, of course I returned to read the rest of the book.

The one sorrowful note here is that those of us that love these modern female detectives enough to have bought other anthologies, for example those brought to us by the Paretsky group, “Sisters in Crime,” will run across selections we have already read. I have seen both the Grafton and Paretsky stories already, although the piece by Barr, “Beneath the Lilacs,” is new to me. However, I see authors I haven’t read and will happily watch for now. The end of the mid-century section features “Mom Sings an Aria,” and although it veers a wee bit toward stereotypes, I can’t say I mind too much, because this writer makes me laugh out loud. James Yaffe is on my list now. “Blood Types”, by Julie Smith is likewise pithy, and “Miss Gibson,” by Linda Barnes also cracks me up. And I don’t know why I am still surprised by this. After reading so many anthologies, you’d think I’d realize that the greatest charms are had by finding brand new-to-me authors, but since it’s a good surprise every time, I may allow myself not to absorb the lesson; this way I can still be pleasantly surprised over and over again.

If you buy a holiday gift for a mystery lover, I recommend you get this book. If you try to buy something by your loved one’s favorite author, you may run up against it as I did: they’ve already read it. (And you probably hate returning things as much as I do.) But what are the chances she has this anthology? It’s over a thousand pages of detective fiction, and last I saw, it’s on sale for less than twenty bucks. There, that’s one gift chosen for you, and it’s not even November yet. You’re welcome.

1917, by Boris Dralnyuk**

1917I received my DRC for this collection courtesy of Net Galley and Pushkin Press. I thank them for the opportunity to read and review; this compilation of poetry and prose will be for sale on December 1, 2016. What a crying shame it’s so negative.

There are a few of us left out here—dinosaurs, to be sure—that regard the initial two or three years of the Russian Revolution as an inspirational time, a time when the working class and the Russian peasantry cast off their shackles, ran the brutal, entitled royal family and their minions out of power and eventually to a richly deserved death, and took control of their lives and their nation. When I saw this collection, I believed that this perspective would be represented here somewhere.

Instead, we read poetry about the Tsar’s wine. Oh, no! They destroyed all that expensive wine! Give me a break. Millions of peasants freed from bondage, and all we hear about is the wine casks, and some sorrowful reflections that lament the defeat of the Mensheviks—the party that tried to halt the progress of the revolution and create a bourgeois democratic state. All those sorrowful White Russians weeping into their vodka.

Do I have a bias? Of course I do, but unlike our editor here, I admit mine. The introduction to this thing, which is overlong and somewhat duplicitous, tells us that rather than relate the various political positions that were held during this cataclysmic time, we should instead look at feelings, at experiences. But everyone’s feelings during this tremendous upheaval, a time when the news footage at the time of the revolution shows throngs of joyful Russian workers screaming with enthusiasm, is apparently either sorrowful—aw geez, the poor royals—or conflicted. Not one person is glad it happened.

Poetry and prose are, at their root, political, and in rewriting history, Dralyuk demonstrates this. This collection is revisionist dross.

One other comment I’d make is that when editors decide to republish historic writing, they are often deluded as to how much of their own prose readers are looking for. For every piece, for every author, there is way too much introductory narrative. I really just want to read the work itself, not so much Dralyuk’s discussion of them. Had I enjoyed most of the poetry and prose, I would have upgraded this review to three stars and stated that it is hard to find the original work amidst the rambling discussion. Generally, the poem is short, the introduction is long; lather, rinse, repeat. The same is true of the prose.

So to those lonely Marxists out there hoping for literature, for poetry that’s in English and available readily in the US, I have to say, put that plastic away, because this isn’t that.

The Future Never Lasts, by Phillip Gardner****

ThefutureneverlastsI do enjoy a good short story collection, and make no mistake, this collection is a good one. The marketing blurb says that these tales are “the finger on the pulse of collective secrecy”, but they could just as easily be tagged as stories of alienation. Almost all of them feature protagonists in dysfunctional marriages; some could easily land in an anthology of horror stories, or of crime fiction. But when all is said and done, if you like good writing, you should buy this book when it goes up for sale January 4, 2016. Thank you to Net Galley, Biting Duck Press, and Boson Books for the DRC, which I was given in exchange for an honest review.

Usually a collection like this one features its best work first and last, but this time I don’t see it that way. The first one is decent, but there are occasional moments when the dialogue goes awry, becoming at times either awkward and pretentious, or like a mouthful of mashed potatoes. The story itself wasn’t bad, it was specifically the dialogue that didn’t sit quite right.

The second story made the entire collection worth having. “This Time Comes From That Time” is a story of a Vietnam veteran who’s gone to pieces and commenced digging his own tunneled command center beneath his grandmother’s home. The jumbled trauma of that time—the murders of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Junior; the war; demonstrations and riots that burned in cities across the nation—combine with the protagonist’s combat experience to leave him disoriented and seriously off kilter. Toss in some strangely comforting TV shows of the 1960’s, and the stew that Gardner makes of it is fascinating indeed. The prose is lean, the words well chosen. The man knows how to use figurative language like a champion; in particular, the use of repetition to drive the plot forward, to create a sense of urgency that is both visceral and memorable, is hard not to notice. At times it creates a take-me-to-church cadence that leaves the reader helplessly enthralled.

The titled selection was my second favorite, a story in which stone cold murder and every day irritations are juxtaposed in such a way as to leave a trail of shivers down even the most hardened reader’s spine. Yet there is also a place—I don’t want to give anything away, so I will refrain from being specific—in which a particularly obnoxious character’s comeuppance made me laugh out loud. This was made all the more amusing by the rapid way the author led us from the chamber of horrors to this brief, comedic moment, entirely unanticipated. And from there, things gradually chilled—even froze—not unlike the corpse in the story.

Gardner’s use of foreshadowing is sometimes predictable or mechanical, but at other times, it is used in the best way possible, building tension and suspense to the point where the reader has no option when the phone rings or a family member beckons, but to ignore them and keep on reading. “A Crime of Opportunity” is particularly strong in this respect, and was another favorite of mine.

Every single story in this anthology is hip-deep in booze. If you’re on the wagon right now and struggling, get yourself a different book.

The Peace Process, by Bruce Jay Friedman ****

thepeaceprocessThe Peace Process is actually a collection of short stories plus one novella at the end. The writing is edgy all the way through and in a number of places it’s very, very funny. Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media for providing me with a DRC to read in advance. This collection will be available to the public October 13.

If any work of fiction you have read in the past five years or so has offended you in any way, the first selection in this collection is guaranteed to do so. It did me. Frankly, I am such a consistently fast, thorough reviewer that I could blow one off right now if I was disturbed enough by it, and I came pretty close. I don’t like to spoil things, but at the same time you ought to be warned. Is incest—even imagined incest, and with details—offensive to you? Is there a way to make a boy’s graphically imagined incest with an older sister acceptable, even funny? If so, then this is your collection. As for me, I almost wrote to the publishers to tell them that I wasn’t reading or reviewing one more story in this nasty little book; fortunately for me, I looked at the table of contents, figured out how much more of the book there was left to read, and decided to stick with it for one more story. And the next story, “The Storyteller”, was funny enough that I forgot—well, almost forgot–how mad I’d been a few minutes before.

But I seriously question the editor’s choice to put that one dreadful story right up front. It’s almost like begging the reader to throw the book out the window.

Moving on, the writing in all the other stories, from the second on through the last, is really strong. My imaginary red teacher’s pen sometimes comes out when I’m reading a galley, and I’ll think how much better the work would be if we could just nip this part here and take a meat-axe to another section. Not so for Friedman. Every word is well chosen, and the pacing is taut and brisk. Besides “The Storyteller”, my other favorites were “The Choice” and “The Strainer”. The endings always surprised me, and a couple of times, had I not had someone sleeping beside me as I read, I would have moaned aloud when I reached the denouement.

If I were to advise someone with tastes like my own as to whether to read the collection or leave it go, I would say get the book; skip the first story; read the rest of it. But then, you have to decide these things for yourself. I’ve done what I can, and the rest is up to you.

For fans of edgy, dark fiction, recommended with the caveat mentioned.

I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories: The Complete Short Fiction of Clifford D. Simak*****

iamcryingallinsideClifford D. Simak is a science fiction legend. Before his 55-year career was done, he earned 3 Hugo Awards, the Nebula Award, and was named Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. I scored big when Open Road Media and Net Galley invited me to read and review this wonderful collection. It is available for purchase digitally now, and will be released October 20.
The fact is, I miss old-school science fiction writing, the fun stuff that is the product of a fertile imagination but requires no knowledge of programming code or other technological wizardry. What’s more, the quality offered in this collection is not only excellent, but evenly so. Common themes tend toward robots with complex feelings, sentient plants, and time travel, but there is no sense of sameness otherwise. Sometimes we are on a far-flung planet; sometimes we are back on planet Earth after it’s been wrecked to where anyone with any gumption has up and left, with only sorry-ass losers remaining. The common factor among all of these stories, in fact, is Simak’s ability to engage the reader.
Given the strangeness of the worlds science fiction and fantasy writers create, one would expect to feel intellectually curious about what the writer has cooked up, but what astonishes me every time I read really strong science fiction is the way the writer manages to work our emotions, causing a lump to form in one’s throat over something that could not possibly happen. By creating an alien setting in which a human, or human-like thought and emotion is present, a sneaking affection is created, and before you know it, there you are practically weeping over the poignant scenario that’s before you. The hook isn’t sentimental or maudlin, and that is why it is so successful. The subtlety is powerful, and we are connected to characters that not only don’t exist, but could never exist in the way the author has laid it out. And so, if Stephen King is drawn to things that go bump in the dark and binds our emotions to oddities in that genre, so has Simak laid our feelings bare using distant, fictional moons in solar systems that don’t exist. It’s a hell of a gift.
Every time I read a short story and decided that I had a new favorite, I looked back over the earlier ones—they were all so strong!—and then read on, and found myself uncharacteristically unable to choose one over the others. There isn’t a weak one in the batch; all are outstanding.
At one point I was ready to knock half a star off over the one-time use of the “N” word in one short story written in the first half of the twentieth century, but then there were all sorts of references to racial purity within the context of the story (alien races) that convinced me that he had an agenda when he did so, and not necessarily a bad one. If it were up to me, I’d leave the word out, but given its purpose here, one could argue for its inclusion.
But it’s worth being warned that it’s there. Nobody likes that kind of surprise.
The only other bad news here is that Simak is dead.
The good news is that over his prodigious career, he wrote enough material to fill 13 more collections beside this one, and if permitted, I will read and review every single one of them.
Highly recommended to anyone that loves old school sci fi.

Lost in the City, by Edward P. Jones *****

lostinthecityEdward P. Jones needs my review like Shakespeare needs my review. He is one of those literary luminaries whose work is timeless. Nobody can teach anyone to write like this. Either you have it, or you don’t. We are fortunate that he does.

This wasn’t a digital galley; it was a Christmas gift. That’s how much I like his writing. So I guess my purpose in reviewing someone this renowned is perhaps to draw attention to him for those that haven’t read his work yet.

I read this over the course of almost a month, short as it is, and I did it that way because it’s so painful. In this respect he is similar to Russell Banks: peerless, brilliant work that is also so sad that you just about have to sit down and cry when you finish. And because of this, I was glad to have a short story collection, because I could read a whole short story, put in the bookmark, then pick something else up for a little while to cheer myself up. Then when I was over it, I could pick it up and read another one a different day.

All the stories are set in Washington, DC, and all have to do with alienation and a sense of loss. I think the story I admire most is “His Mother’s House”, but all of them are strong.

The first book I read by this author was The Known World, which won the Pulitzer. Now I need to get a copy of All Aunt Hager’s Children.

The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries, by Otto Penzler *****


I received this wonderful collection last year as an ARC from the “first read” program via the giveaways. At the time, I didn’t have a blog; I reviewed it on Goodreads and because I liked it so well, I also reviewed it on amazon. Then, while I was on the site, I bought two copies to give as gifts. I have never done that with an ARC before or since (so far), but it is so wonderful that I wanted others to have it, and I wasn’t willing to share mine.

Now the season is upon us. This blog will be punctuated by worthwhile Christmas books of a secular variety. I guess it is a typical retired-teacher behavior to decorate my home with brightly jacketed Christmas books when others are getting out their craft supplies and hot glue guns. At any rate, if you buy just one Christmas book for yourself or someone else, and if the reader enjoys mysteries, this is the best you will find.

The stories are organized according to category in a format and layout that is congenial all by itself. There are ten sections, starting with “A Traditional Christmas”, with the first entry being one by Agatha Christie; it is a story that has aged well, and I don’t remember having read it even though I thought I’d read everything by that writer. There are a few more, and range from just a few pages, double columns on each page, to 25 or 30 pp. Then we move on to “A Funny Little Christmas”. The first there is a story by the late great Donald Westlake, and I gobbled it up and then felt bad that I hadn’t saved that story for last, because I adore his work and he’s gone and can’t write anything more. But I perked up when I noted that yet another section, “A Modern Little Christmas”, has an unread (by me) story by Ed McBain. There are many others. The final section, “A Classic Little Christmas”, bookends the anthology neatly by finishing with Dame Agatha. All told there must be about sixty stories, maybe more.

The anthology, edited by the brilliant and acclaimed Otto Penzler, is billed as having a number of rare or never-published short stories, and I think it’s a true claim. There are many mystery writers I’ve read and enjoyed here, and others I had never even heard of, but found immensely entertaining. I haven’t skipped any yet, but even if I find something I don’t care to read, the book is worth owning. I know that already. It is also billed as an anthology to warm the heart of any grinch, and indeed, there has been at least one story with a satisfyingly creepy ending.

One of the charming things about anthologies is that one can read a single story in a sitting and not feel too bad when it’s time to put the bookmark in and go get something done. Then it waits there to greet us as we return from executing less pleasurable tasks, a reward that invites us to sit down, curl up with good cup of coffee or the dog or both and have a cozy read. It also makes the book a lovely thing to keep where guests can access it, because they can enjoy it even if they haven’t time to read more than a story or two in between other activities.

…but I’m keeping you. You could be reaching for your car keys, your bus pass, or even better, going to another window to find this book online and order it. Once you see it, you will most likely feel as I do…unwilling to part with your own copy, yet yearning to get at least one more for somebody else! Get the plastic out and do it right away.

Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor *****

collectedstoriesWhat an unpretentious little book, and who would have dreamed it would be so full of first-rate short stories? Mr. O’Connor wrote from the 1930’s to the 1960’s, and may be one of the finest writers Ireland has produced, which is saying a great deal. Thank you and thank you again to Open Road Media and Net Galley for the ARC. It’s been a real joy to read!

O’Connor’s early life was marked by alcoholism and domestic violence, and he tosses these into the stewpot of his stories that is so congenial, so resonant, that we little know the pain he went through before he wrote them. The quality of the writing is consistent throughout, which is even more remarkable given its length, which clocks in at over 700 pages! At times poignant and wrenching, and at other times witty and a little naughty, though never breaching the bounds of good taste, Mr. O’Connor delivers.

His protagonists are ordinary people, all of them in Ireland. They live in small villages for the most part; some are wives and mothers, some are brave young lads; there are noble priests and those who are not as noble, but all of them are believable and create an instant bond with the reader. His overarching theme is to remind us, in his folksy, understated way, that all of us are human. He lets us know that whether we believe in God or whether we don’t, for the moment we are all each other has.

O’Connor lived through revolutionary times, and was no stranger to the Irish struggle, which is near and dear to my own heart. His famous opening story, Guest of the Nation, focuses on a card game that takes place between Republican soldiers and their prisoners. Its blend of the ordinary with the wrenching emotion that ran high at such a time makes it immortal. The soldiers’ ambivalence and humanity lends it much of its authenticity.

One of my own favorite quotes appears early in the collection in a story titled “The Luceys”, in which Charlie visits his uncle, a priest. Charlie thinks his uncle is eccentric and cannot fathom how the man thinks:

“One conversation in particular haunted him for years as showing the dangerous state of lunacy to which a man could be reduced by reading old books.”

May we all suffer similarly!

I loved the references he made to “a gang of women” outside of Mrs. Roche’s house in “The Drunkard”. I also laughed at his reference to “…the mood of disillusionment that follows Christmas”. And in “Darcy in the Land of Youth”, I liked how Mick traveled to work in England and “He found the English very queer as they were supposed to be, people with a great welcome for themselves and very little for anyone else.” Here I would hasten to add that I am descended of both Irish and English, though I tend to lay claim more to the former than the latter; Mr. O’Connor’s gift is in wryly touching upon the cultural nuances that sometimes lead to misunderstandings, and others to genuine disagreement, culture or no.

I could continue quoting marvelous passages, but I think it is better for you to ferret out some of your own, and let’s face it, if I haven’t sold you on this book right now, I never will.

Except for this one last bit, which is really a commentary on all strong short story collections: this time of year, many of us will have guests in our homes. If yours is a family that reads, you may choose to set something out in your guest room, and short stories are especially lovely for them to have, because whereas one may not finish a great thick book during a visit over the holidays, one can pick up a short story at bedtime and finish that story before turning out the light.

And the glorious thing is, guests don’t expect a book that is left for their perusal to be brand new; they can enjoy a well-thumbed book without worrying if they inadvertently crease a corner. Right now, you have the chance to get the book for yourself, finish it, and then leave it for company.

That’s a good thing to do, because in the end, all we have really is one another.