Saturday, December 28, 2013

Up Yours! A vaudeville of a mystery, featuring Ted and Liv, the anti-Nick and Nora

Up Yours! by Howard Rosenberg introduces Ted and Liv, the anti-Nick and Nora

This book is a hoot, a vaudeville of a mystery featuring Ted and Liv, the anti-Nick and Nora.  They live in Friendly Lakes, a refuge away from the mayhem of Los Angeles, and the LA Times, where Ted was the bard of obituary writers, until one day the floss king, his Uncle Robert, died leaving him his fortune. At 55, Ted decided to put his cell phone in a filing cabinet for the slow life.  Yet there he is, at his proctologist, his Calvins' at his ankles, asked yet once more about his retirement plan, when Private Eye pops out.  His doctor, Brownie, immediately asks him to look into the matter of Sam Fine, a pharmacist, who may have a touch of Alzheimer’s and be writing bad prescriptions.  

When Fine, a non-swimmer, is found drowned in Friendly Lake, for not the first time in this novel, Ted realizes he’s an amateur out of his depth. Yet he goes forward, sharing strategy, pop-tarts and frozen burritos, with Liv, his downscale cook and “tomato.” There is also their cat George, who reduced an allergic suspect to a comatose state without even trying. 

By trial and error, self-correcting with thoughts of Chandler, Ted and Liv find their way and it’s not pretty. Their picture postcard community Friendly Lake is full of ambiguous characters. There’s the widow, Twinkle, a babe, thirty years younger than her husband, who seems almost too broken up. There’s Fine’s assistant, Betty, who knows some dirty business and tied with that revelation are the secrets of Curly the local newspaper dilettante, Vann the hot macho actor, and even the beautiful and reform-minded Mayor Molly. With their requisite and hapless cop, Tiles, they exceed everyone’s expectations, including those of the murderer. And when they unravel the mystery, justice is not served up by the law, but the great goddess Nemesis.

Especially fun in this madcap mystery, are Ted’s old obits, which appear before chapters and set the tone:

 “Her acclaimed memoir, ‘The B-Word and Me,’ recounted the 14 years she studied and interacted with brown bears in the northwestern United States. ‘“ It can be dangerous work,’ she wrote, “but I’ve never had a close call, not one bite, not one scratch. I have respect for these large and awesome creatures; I have no fear.’ She meant it. “Yet her allergy to another B-word— a less than large, less than awesome creature— proved fatal to famed naturalist Sarah Schnuster-Schnitsky at age 60. “On Friday, while caring for honeysuckle in her garden, she was fatally stung by a bee...”

I look forward to the next mystery in this series by Howard Rosenberg, Pulitzer Prize winner and, in fact, retiree from the LA Times.

SW




Friday, December 27, 2013

FINGERLESS is about a surprisingly normal transgender protagonist

FINGERLESS, a novel by Ian Donnell Arbuckle (Pelekinesis Press, January 12). is unlike many stories about transgender protagonists in that Lita’s life, in the small town in which she grew up, is surprisingly normal. Some distance from Spokane, where family values do count, along with civic virtues, Lita has a steady job transcribing medical reports. In fact, when she takes vacation time to officially come out as a female, her boss and co-workers are mostly supportive. At the worst, there's raised eyebrows that first week she’s back but people don’t want to be obvious. Lita’s highschool sweetheart, Shasta, comes to lunch with their 3-year old daughter, Jilly, and she could not be more supportive. Still, Lita’s introduced as Aunt Lita, as per their agreement to give her a normal life. Most amazing is that Lita’s father, who’s missing some fingers, obviously loves and respects her no matter what her gender! 

Lita’s world is in tumult over this normalcy, which is in contrast to the reality she’s facing as a transgender person—the emotional swings of the drugs, guilt and pain over letting down Shasta and Lita’s religious mother. But Lita is an admirable character. Like her father, whose job is to deal with emergencies, Lita steps up to crisis and there a few in this book. When Jilly goes missing in a snow storm, she looks funtil the girl is found, and takes Shasta’s anger at Lita’s acting like a father but not being one. Shasta and Lita had been a couple and though she knows she’s always been female in her identity, Jilly changes everything.

Curiously, when a guy who always had a crush on Lita, declares he came out, she rebuffs him that she’s a “lesbian” into women.  Yet being a transgender woman dooms her relationship with Shasta. And, as much as Lita identifies with women, she deals with a melt-down with Jilly on a car trip, as a man would, taking soiled clothes off, hosing her down, diapering and putting her back in her seat. It is a very funny trip, as he reverts to male mode, dealing with his wild toddler. At the same time, he’s traveling to Spokane, where his brother had been badly burned in a gang incident. Later, when a black-out caused by snowstorms imperils her town, she again steps up to help. Though upset her drugs won’t make it because of the interrupted mail, she lives without heat and light in her own place, but works with his father.

Despite emergencies and the pull of family, Lita is compelled to continue her painful course of changing her body to fit her sexual identity. And in that conundrum, lies the novel’s emotional core. Her mother has a hard time accepting that Lita cannot be a father and husband. And this reality is painful to Lita, who loves Shasta and Jilly. His pain is also because he’s in process, the change in gender is not a reality. In the surprising resolution of Lita’s conflict, initiated by her mother, you believe Lita will finally have an identity she can live with, inside and out. And, I wanted that for this person. A satisfying read.

SW

Sunday, December 15, 2013

ANVIL OF GOD is a desperately intense tale of the Dark Ages, where people lived by the law of the sword

J.Boyce Gleason’s ANVIL OF GOD, Book One of the Carolingian Chronicles, is a desperately intense tale of the Dark Ages, where people lived by the law of the sword

I grew up on Elizabeth Captive Princess but the genre of historical fiction, with the exception of Wolf Hall, has often seemed stilted to me in terms of emotional logic. ANVIL OF GOD is a happy discovery. J.Boyce Gleason creates a world of warring Christians and Pagans with great emotional sense. The motivations of the characters and the beliefs that shape their actions, are completely convincing and emotionally very intense. Boyce’s pagan world derives from Norse mythology and the rituals described are visceral, more about the aesthetics of sensual human interaction than supernatural, but he leaves that question open.  

The story is based on the history of Charles “the Hammer” Martel, Mayor of the Palace to the Merovingian kings. The scant facts leave a lot of room for invention.  Martel was a warlord, who saved Christianity by fighting the Saracens, who had spread from North Africa to France. He used his sword, and an alliance with the Church, to fight his way through France and Germany, which he unified. Charles married a Bavarian princess, whose uncle was a pagan Bavaria. He unified Europe under his authority, but died before he could take the throne. With his death, the three sons warred over territory and succession. The two eldest fought pagan rebels in the East, including their sister, who defied her father to marry a rebel lord.  The person held responsible for this was Sunnichild, Martel’s wife.   

Boyce fills-in the blanks. ANVIL OF GOD begins in 741 with Sunnichild, the closet pagan, waiting for the return of her lord. Sunni loves Charles but is shrewd enough to eavesdrop on his conversation with his Church advisor, Boniface, and Carloman, his eldest son. It’s a matter of insurance. Though Sunni managed affairs of state while her husband was away and could predict his stance on issues, she needs to know what was on the table. At stake is the future of her son Gripho, an arrogant impulsive boy of 14.  Sunni’s concern is practical. Carloman, unlike his father who used the Church, is so devout he’s controlled by Boniface.

When Sunni learns Charles is dying, she prepares herself for what must come. When Charles announces his succession plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, with the choice middle territory for Gripho, neither Carloman and Pippin, the adult sons, nor the lords Charles asks for loyalty, are happy. After the funeral, Sunni leaves for the safety of Laon in France.  Though Charles didn’t persecute pagans, she fears Carloman will not be so lenient. Her secret weapon is Charles’ 18 year old daughter, Hiltrude.  Trained as a warrior and equal to men, Trudi, seeks out Sunni in despair over her father’s intention to marry her off for political advantage. Sunni helps her by teaching her lore to prepare for a ritual of female sexual power. Later, Trudi flees the palace to avoid a forced marriage.

The women in ANVIL OF GOD are strong behind the scenes forces, with chapters alternating between Trudi’s journey and the frenzied fighting, as Carloman lays siege to the castle, where Sunni found refuge, Pippin seeks escape for her and Gripho and a cessation of Carloman’s slaughter, and Gripho sabotages himself, piling up ill-considered deeds. The pace is intense and desperate and the outcome uncertain. In this epic tale, the characters of each brother, and how their beliefs influence them, have huge consequences for themselves and the people of their father’s empire.  And, in the end, Trudi, grows larger than life. Like a Norse Goddess, she fights a horrendous battle worthy of the legendary Charles, The Hammer.  I cannot wait to pick up this epic in Volume Two of the Carolingian Chronicles. Sample chapters at: 
AnvilofGod.com 



SW