Imaginary Friend, by Stephen Chbosky***

It was the best of books; it was the worst of books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Grand Central Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Chbosky met fame twenty years ago with The Perks of Becoming a Wallflower. He takes a bold step—and I would still argue, a good one—in switching genres with Imaginary Friend. The whole thing is written in accessible language and mostly short, simple sentences with the overall effect of the world’s creepiest bedtime story. At first I wasn’t sure I was down for 720 pages of simple sentences, but he makes it work. I like the horror of it, and I like the voice too. And so when I saw the mixed reviews, I was preparing my heated defense of this work before I was even halfway in. And halfway, sadly, it where the thing begins to weaken.

The premise is that seven year old Christopher is learning disabled, but his mother urges him to keep trying. Nothing much works until the day he is lost in The Mission Street Woods. He is called by a friendly face in the clouds; once he is there, he is incapacitated and held for six days. When it’s over, The Nice Man leads him out. He goes home; the perpetrator is never identified because Christopher recalls none of the six days nor who took him. But suddenly he is the world’s cleverest kid. His grades rise, and he graduates from the special classroom. Later in the story, he is called again to build the tree house to end all tree houses; he must do it furtively at night, because he is no longer allowed in those woods, and naturally that’s where the project unfolds.

This aspect of it is very cleverly conceived and executed. Christopher does all manner of things that no seven year old child, however advanced intellectually, would be able to do but it is plain to us that this is part of the supernatural effect that is part and parcel of The Nice Man and that face in the clouds. Likewise, there are many areas where he infers adult meanings and feelings, but we know that these are also supernaturally bestowed. Meanwhile, he is in most ways the way one would expect a child his age to be. As his friends—the twins and Special Ed—are drawn into the project, they too become capable students with unusual talents. But as to the tree house, that’s a big damn secret. Parents and the public are not in the loop for a long, long time.

As the story unfolds we have numerous subplots and several characters that have significant roles here. They are largely bound together by the children’s school, although we also have the sheriff and a handful of people from the nursing home where Christopher’s mother, Kate works. I have no difficulty keeping up with this large cast of characters, and Chbosky deserves kudos for creating so many distinct characters that stay consistent throughout the story. We see the ways that people become warped, often by the disappointments that life has meted out, and sometimes by mistaken goals, particularly where the children are concerned. I liked this a good deal too. We see a great deal of kickass figurative language, although I would have preferred to see a lighter hand with regard to the repetition. At first when the song “Blue Moon” is used, it gives me chills, but by the end of the story, whenever music enters a scene I find myself grumbling, “Oh let me guess. I bet I know what song is playing.” (The MAD Magazine of the 1970s would have had a field day with this book.)

A number of other reviewers have suggested that the second half of the story could do with some serious editing down, and I echo their concern. It would be stronger if it were tighter. But there are two other more serious concerns that dropped my rating from four stars to three. They have to do with mixed genre, and with Chbosky’s depiction of women and girls.

It is a brave thing to combine horror and literary fiction, but there is such a thing as trying too hard. The last twenty-five or thirty percent of this story becomes tortuous, confusing and overlong with the heavy use of allegory along religious lines. There are multiple places where the plot just doesn’t make sense at all, but because the author is determined to provide us with a virgin birth, stigmata in multiple characters (what?), sacrifice and redemption and yada yada yada, what has been a good horror story becomes a little ridiculous and a lot pretentious. It’s a crying shame. Had the author let the horror story be a horror story, or had he been satisfied with a more subtle level of allegory rather than the screaming-red-flags variety that is shoehorned in here, this would have been a much better book.

The other aspect , the one that made my feminist heart simmer is the way that women are depicted here. We have several important female characters, and none of them is developed in even the tiniest way beyond their relationship to men and their capacity to be nurturers. Our greatest female hero is Kate, mother of Christopher, and I have not seen as two-dimensional a character in many a year. The only thing that matters is her child. The only. The only. Gag me with a stick, already.  And had the author been content to have a horror story that is just a horror story I would cut him a little slack, because most horror stories do not have brilliantly developed characters. Even so it’s ham-handed, but I might have been tempted to call this a 3.5 star read and round it upward. But this is the most reactionary treatment of women—the girlfriend that feels filthy because she rendered oral sex; the women coming unstuck because of husbandly inattention; the stereotypical mean-old-broad at the nursing home—that I have seen in decades. It’s appalling, and it bothers me that other reviewers haven’t mentioned this at all. What the hell, guys?  And with literary fiction, a responsibility for nuance and character development is conferred in a way that horror novels do not require.

In other words, don’t talk the talk unless you’re gonna walk the walk.

Should you buy this book? Probably not, unless your pockets are deep and you have a good deal of free time. For the curious, I recommend getting it cheap or free. But if you are going to read it, read it critically, and don’t hand it off to your middle-schooler until you have read it yourself.

Night Boat to Tangier, by Kevin Barry*

I have never in my life dropped a galley so quickly. Thanks still go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy, but I couldn’t finish this thing. Actually, I couldn’t even hold to my own reviewing rules.  This book is horrible.

The promotional description mentions several qualities that appeal to me.  I like literary fiction; dark humor; Irish fiction; and the Booker Prize nomination sealed the deal.  I was also aware that there would be violence and and that the characters would include terrible men, but I read grit lit—in small frequent bites when I can’t deal with longer stretches than that—and have reviewed many titles that include these things. But this is something else.

The distinctive writing style doesn’t appeal to me; I like a good paragraph, and having vast yawning spaces in between single brief entries seems wasteful to me. But that isn’t the deal breaker. The deal breaker is the hostility toward women.

Now of course one could say that twisted misogyny is not the author’s perspective but that of the characters, and blah-de-blah-blah, but let’s extend this a step further, for the sake of those that buy that kind of bilge as an excuse. Let’s write the whole thing, the whole book, as repeated child rape, with graphic descriptions and maybe a quick comeuppance or two at the end to make the reader feel better.

Would you buy that? Would you read that?  Then maybe you should give this a miss as well.  After all, this is fiction; its two purposes are to entertain and to convey ideas through the art of literature. How do either of these jibe with ugliness such as this?

My usual practice for a galley I don’t favor is this:  I read up to about 30% in order to give the author a chance, and then if I am still not engaged I skip to the last 25% to make sure there isn’t something wonderful about the climax and the conclusion that might make me reconsider. Fair is fair. But this book feels like a form of violence against women all by itself. I had trouble sleeping after having read five percent; I gave it a couple of days and came back, read another four or five percent, and queasily realized that this novel is the exception to my policy. I am not reading more of it for anyone or anything.

Usually when I don’t recommend a book, I consider whether there’s a niche audience that might still like it. Sometimes a lukewarm book gets a recommendation to read the book free or at a deep discount. But for this thing I confess that I would rather not be around anyone that wants it any time for any reason.

Texas Sicario, by Harry Hunsicker**

I enjoyed the first book in the Arlo Baines Series, The Devil’s Country, and so when I saw that this, the second in the series was available to read and review, I dove in gladly. Thanks go to Net Galley as well as Thomas and Mercer. This book is for sale today, but it’s disappointing, and you shouldn’t buy it.

The back story is that Baines was once a Texas Ranger, but after the murder of his family, he quit and now is a drifter that works on his own terms. When we join him, he has taken on the care of an orphan named Miguel in a platonic partnership with Javier, a friend whose life Arlo once saved. And right off the bat my antennae are flickering. How does anyone share custody, legal or otherwise, of a child if that person is a drifter? We learn at the outset that Arlo doesn’t want to stay anyplace more than a month or two, so how…? To be fair, later in the book he acknowledges that something must be worked out if he is to continue taking care of Miguel, but right from the get-go it’s obvious that more than one thing is off.

There is more than a faint whiff of the White Knight here, the “gringo”—a tired word I never want to see used in fiction again now that Hunsicker has used it a gazillion times here—who uses his training and superior judgment to help Latino people (referred to in the narrative as ‘Hispanic’) that somehow can never save themselves. We have Latino—uh, Hispanic—criminals, a woman-in-distress, an orphan, a good buddy, a murder victim, gangsters, and a villain—but what we don’t have is a Latino that’s a good person who can express himself or herself articulately in English.

But wait, I am not done. The women! Not that there are many of them here, but once again when they are present, they are here either as victims to be saved, or as a fem fatale. No women here are the competent sort that can save their own butts, let alone anybody else’s. For that, we need a man I guess. A gringo.

The sad thing is that Hunsicker seems to be making a genuine effort at working a social justice, immigrants’ rights angle, and for this reason I continued reading longer than I otherwise might have to see if he could pull it out of the water; this, of course, in addition to having enjoyed his work previously, (and this is my reason for providing the second star in my rating). I suspect he doesn’t realize that this novel comes across as patronizing toward women and people of color, rather than as a work that expresses solidarity and progressive values.

To top it off, toward the end of the novel he hits not one but two of my most-hated, overused devices in mystery and detective fiction.

What the heck happened?

No.

In It for the Money, by David Burnsworth***

InItfortheMoneyHere’s the thing that makes this title so difficult to review. It has tremendous strengths–strong concept, engaging protagonist, fearless prose. I like his animal sidekicks, Dink and Doofus. Crome is one of the finest sidekick characters I’ve seen in a mystery.

Thanks go to Henery Press and Net Galley for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

On the other hand, there are some serious issues with pacing, which is clearly uneven, and also some of the worst grammar disasters I have ever come across in prose written by an adult. “Had brang” comes to mind, but they are legion. I wanted to ignore this aspect, given that it’s a galley, but I’ve seen hundreds of them, and yet nothing that isn’t self-published has grammar this awful. The result is a deeply frustrating read.

What I suspect is that this could be a terrific series given the services of a high profile editor.

Grant, by Ron Chernow**

grantI’m tempted to add this title to my Southern fiction shelf. For a Pulitzer winner to be so careless with his facts is egregious. I got 200 pages or so in, and I found a glaring error. To be honest, I thought maybe it was me. I haven’t taught the American Civil War in 8 years now; am I slipping? Because I could swear that the famous tidbit about a single battle killing more soldiers than the American Revolution, War of 1812, and war with Mexico all added together was about the battle of Antietam, yet here is Chernow, saying it’s Shiloh.

This is when it’s nice to have a physical library nearby. I rummaged on my Civil War shelves and plucked Battle Cry of Freedom, which he (rightly) appears to cite more often than anything except perhaps Grant’s Memoirs, and I also grabbed McPherson’s book on Antietam, and I double-checked. Yup. The reference is to to Antietam, not Shiloh.

At this point I wondered what else might be amiss. There’s a Sherman quote that’s supposed to be in a section in BCF, but the page number Chernow cites is actually in a section about the nurses of the ACW. Well, of course there are different editions, so page numbers may shift a bit, especially in a lengthy source. But I chose–randomly, from the citations at the back–3 other quotes from BCF, and read 8 or 10 pages before and after the page where the quote or fact is supposed to be located, and didn’t find them. A more meticulous reader might have different results, but I am not running a courtroom prosecution; I am trying to decide if I now trust this author enough to believe him regarding other information. And I am not all that sure I do.

I have a lovely hardcover copy of this biography given me by one of my sons at Christmas, and I would hate to abandon it entirely at the 200 pp. mark; but I’ll tell you one thing. I’m rereading Battle Cry of Freedom again before I turn another page of this biography. Because at the very least, this is a work to be read critically, rather than with innocent faith in its author. I like some of the analysis Chernow offers, but I would hate to see a newbie miseducated by using this title as an introduction to Grant or to the Civil War. As for me, I am going to strengthen my own foundation before I approach this tome, which must be read cautiously.

The Big Get Even, by Paul Di Filippo*

TheBigGetEvenDon’t do it, don’t do it. Put your wallet away.

I received a galley of this story free and in advance from Net Galley and Blackstone Publishing in exchange for this honest review. That said, if I’d been given a free copy plus a million dollars, I wouldn’t be able to write this thing a favorable pitch. An indifferent product rates 2 stars, sometimes 3 if there are redeeming aspects; when I give 1 star, it means I’m pissed.

Part of my indignation, to be sure, comes purely from disappointment. The book jacket looks for all the world like an entertaining read is in the offing. I was so certain this would be a rousing good time that I held it away from myself as an incentive to make myself plow through what I thought would be a couple of less promising projects. And the story’s hook, the voice that arrests us at the outset, also promises us big fun. My first reading note to myself says, “Oh hell yes.”

As we move into the story, a tale of a combination of grift and revenge on the part of two ex-convicts, cracks start to form. For starters, Glen, our protagonist, who tells us he is lazy, free of all ambition, and has enough gold buried in the backyard to keep him happy for a good long while, is attacked by a man that has been watching him. Our protagonist is offered two options: to go in with his attacker on a plan to buy land on speculation and fraudulently sell it to a man the attacker hates, or else be robbed. This is the basis for a partnership. Glen agrees to let all of the gold be placed in a bank account bearing the name of the attacker’s girlfriend, a large, fierce woman that doesn’t do much in this story except make out with Stan and at one point, Glen. And at no point does Glen hatch a plan to get his money back and escape; instead, an instant friendship forms. The hell?

So the story doesn’t hang together very well from the start, but a strong writer can get us to believe almost anything, and I am ready to buy this premise in order to move forward.

There are a number of nasty little remarks about “queers” that frankly don’t set well with me, and they have nothing to do with the plot, apart from establishing Glen and Stan as real live he-men. But at this point I am still prepared to breeze past the offending references, make brief mention of them, and look toward a 4-star rating. If the rest of the book had been well-written and as engaging as the first chapter, I could even have seen a 4.5 rating rounded up. I had seen the bad reviews others had written, and I wanted to be the blogger that steps forward to tell the world that those folks are wrong, and that this is a terrific novel. I was primed and ready.

“Oh hell yes” becomes “Oh hell no” when the partners settle into their newly purchased resort and our middle-aged protagonist wakes up to find the barely-legal desk clerk giving him a blow job. Because, you know, she couldn’t stay away from him.

There is one other female character here. Vee also wants revenge against the mark targeted by Stan, and so she is brought aboard. But like Sandy (Stan’s girlfriend) and Nellie (the blow-job clerk), she has to have a roll in the hay with Glen, and as with Sandy and Nellie, Vee’s greatest role in the story is sexual. At this point I feel as if the author cannot decide whether he wants to write a tale of bold adventure and high stakes crime, or soft porn for middle-aged men; my eyes rolled so high they nearly lodged themselves in my hairline. However, there is foreshadowing that lets us know that the women in Glen’s life are “not through with me” and are going to surprise him, so I read to the end, hoping against hope that there will be a second shoe dropping, a colossal punchline in which the three women turn out to have pulled one over on him and his testosterone-laden (but not queer, oh please!) buddy. Maybe this whole absurd fuckathon is actually leading up to the revenge of the women.

No.

As if the whole thing wasn’t a big fat mess already, Di Filippo puts one last, ruinous flourish on this pitiful tale by adding a host of additional information right at the end that makes it impossible for readers to guess the outcome. This hunk of junk is so badly crafted that not only do I not recommend it, I won’t read this author again.

Bluff, Bluster, Lies and Spies, by David Perry*

bluffblusterliesThe American Civil War is part of the curriculum I used to teach, and in retirement I still enjoy reading about it. When I saw that Open Road Media had listed this title on Net Galley to be republished digitally this summer, I swooped in and grabbed a copy for myself. I was so eager to read it that I bumped it ahead of some other DRCs I already had, and I really wanted to like it.  Unfortunately, this is a shallow effort and it shows.  Don’t buy it for yourself, and for heaven’s sake don’t advise your students to read it.

It begins gamely enough with a discussion of events in Europe and how the changing contours of that part of the world affected the attitudes of England, France, Russia, Prussia, and Spain. At this point my curiosity was piqued, because I had never read anything about which side of the Civil War the last three of these countries favored.  But if the rest of the text can be believed—and parts of it cannot—the reason we never hear about Russia, Spain, and Prussia with regard to this rebellion is that they decided they had no stake in its outcome. This part of the text could have been dealt with in one sentence rather than owning a share of the introduction and being dragged in again later, but this is not the only bit of obvious filler that burdens this misbegotten book.

I am tantalized initially when Perry brings in a controversy that does interest academics: would Britain have recognized the Confederacy in order to get cotton, or was it busy with other considerations and willing to obtain cotton from colonial holdings in Egypt, India and elsewhere for the duration? This question is discussed, leaves the narrative and is broached again several times, because although the book has chapters, it isn’t organized. The same topics of discussion, and the same quotations that serve as its meager, questionable documentation are dropped into the text again and again. It’s as if Perry doesn’t expect anyone to read it all the way through and is hoping we will drop into the middle of the book somewhere to look up a fact and then leave again without seeing whether he actually knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t.

For example, after citing the same obscure document for pages on end—since I read it digitally, I highlighted “Dispatch 206” seven times before noting that this section, at least, is garbage—he brings up Poland. He talks about Poland and Russia’s attachment to same as a buffer state, but never shows any relationship between Poland and the American Civil War other than that Russia had other greater priorities at this time, which had already been established in an earlier section.  And he misuses the term “Manifest Destiny”. Perry apparently believes this term has equal use to multiple governments in reference to themselves around the world.

He tells us that privateers are outlawed during the Civil War and infers that this, therefore, will surely mean that all the sad pirates will dock their ships and get honest jobs. No more privateers out there now, matey!

He says that Lincoln was a slow thinker, and he refers to American diplomats as ditherers.  He documents none of it.

I read the citation section to see if more joy would be had if I pursued this book past the halfway mark. I read his author bio, which indicates no expertise regarding this conflict, which by now doesn’t surprise me.  Frankly, I don’t understand why this book ever saw the light of day, or why Open Road would republish it.

I would love to say that those with deep pockets should go ahead and order it if they can afford all the books they want, but I can’t even say that. The book is unreliable, disorganized, and badly documented. It contains falsehoods and insults the reader’s intelligence.

Put your plastic away. This is dross.