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book reviews

Black Wings Has My Angel – Book Review

Black Wings Has My Angel

20326065What a title and what a book. If you’ve never heard of Elliott Chaze you are not alone. But if you have a soft spot for noir a la James M. Cain then Black Wings Has My Angel is for you. And then some. Because this novel positively sings with elegant prose on top of being a classic hardboiled crime story. As evidenced by BWHMA Elliott Chaze could write, reaching literary highs while simultaneously providing the cheap thrills that anchor the book firmly in the crime genre. Published in 1953, this tale of two scummy characters who truly deserve each other, as they plot to rob an armored car and live the easy life while simultaneously betraying one other, takes the reader deep into a psychological suspense where the prospect of jumping down a mine shaft makes sense.

“The ultimate in horror is, for some unworldly reason, attractive. Hypnotic.”

The protagonist, an escaped convict who goes by different names, remains unbelievably sympathetic even as he murders and plots his way to an ill-gotten wealth he soon detests, while at the same time toying with pushing his sweetheart and partner in crime down that mine shaft. The reader identifies because, in his heart, Tim, or Kenneth—or whoever he is—ultimately speaks the truth about himself and the world at large.

“Most of living is waiting to live. And you spend a great deal of time worrying about things that don’t matter and about people that don’t matter and all this is clear to you when you know the very day you’re going to die.”

Virginia, the fallen angel he teams up with, is his fated equal. The dialog between them crackles with originality, giving us characters who stretch far beyond their genre ‘types’ and become human beings we care about, even though they care about no one else—except, perhaps, each other. Tim isn’t just a psychopathic criminal but an ad hoc philosopher who knows a fake when he sees it. Virginia is not simply the femme fatale from central casting, but a woman with a mind and will of her own—and a sense of humor to go with it.

“A gentleman is a door mat with all the scratch gone from it,” Virginia snapped. “Look ’em over sometimes. They even wear the kind of clothes that fit being a door mat: fuzzy.”

Not bad for 1953. The descent this pair makes has the reader envying their passionate ride as much as he or she fears having anything to do with anything like it. A must read.


Dracula – Book Review

DraculaThe definitive book for vampire fiction is well written but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy read. By today’s standards Dracula is slow to unfold, with long, often tedious sections, including dialogue that doesn’t up the conflict or push the story forward much. The use of diary entries, letters, ships logs etc. to tell the story may give the book an authentic feel and does a good job of keeping the evil ones mysterious but it doesn’t always engage the reader as much as a conventional novel might. But the sinister stuff is exactly that, well drawn and eerie, and stands the test of time.  Numerous descriptions of female vampires lovingly detailed as voluptuous creatures of death put to rest any doubt that vampirism was (and is) a metaphor for forbidden sexuality.

“There lay Lucy, seemingly just as we had seen her the night before her funeral. She was, if possible, more radiantly beautiful than ever; and I could not believe that she was dead. The lips were red, nay redder than before; and on the cheeks was a delicate bloom.”

I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read Dracula in 1897.

Bram Stoker was far ahead of his time with this novel.

The Plot to Kill King #BookReview

The Plot to Kill King by William F. Pepper, Esq – a powerful and disturbing look at one of our country’s darkest events.

The Plot to Kill King: The Truth Behind the Assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. by [Pepper Esq, William F]

I began The Plot to Kill King with a certain amount of skepticism but heard the author interviewed on the radio and thought it worth reading. By the midpoint of the book the depth of research and investigative reporting swayed me to think otherwise and by the end of TPTKK, although I was not utterly convinced as to every aspect of the conspiracy (the St. Joseph’s Hospital section was not as well supported IMO) there was no doubt in my mind that MLK’s murder was not the effort of the hapless James Earl Ray, but a plotted assassination by multiple levels of government, the military, organized crime, and various law enforcement agencies. I shudder to think of how many people were involved that we don’t know about. Also disturbing are the implications of Jesse Jackson in the MLK murder, and connections of the one of the characters to Jack Ruby.

Next time you take comfort in the fact that you don’t live in some third world country where threats to the powers that be are dealt with by death squads, read this book. Why the MLK assassination has not been reinvestigated is mystifying and shameful to a country that claims to be a leader in democracy and free speech. Every American should read this book.


The Ghosts of Belfast – #BookReview

The Ghosts of Belfast by Stuart Neville


A reader might be forgiven for thinking that an ex-IRA assassin with twelve kills to his name would not make a sympathetic protagonist but that’s not the case with Gerry Fagen. Out of The Maze prison after a long stretch as a terrorist, the novel opens with Gerry attempting to drink his demons away. Literally. Gerry is haunted by the ghosts of his victims who now follow him everywhere, until he realizes what they require in order to leave him in peace: an eye for an eye. Gerry has to even the score by killing his old comrades.

And so it goes. Every time Gerry disposes of one of his old cronies, a ghost slips away, bringing momentary relief. But only momentary. In order to find true release, Gerry needs twelve. (The British title for this book is The Twelve.)

The plotting in Ghosts of Belfast is masterful. The way the author puts the reader on Gerry’s side is to make him not only a victim of circumstance, recruited into the IRA as a boy by men who manipulate teenagers hungry for identity and purpose, but the fact that the people he is assassinating in order to appease his ghosts are such reprehensible scum that we have no qualms whatsoever in seeing them dispensed with. No soft-focus romantic portrayals of the IRA here. These are sadistic men who have found an outlet they quite enjoy.

Add to the story a woman and child who fall afoul of the old guard, and whom Gerry must protect, and it’s clear who the reader is rooting for.

This was quite a novel, one of the best and grittiest crime thrillers I think I’ve ever read. A true literary thriller, delivering on both counts.

The violence in The Ghosts of Belfast will not be for everyone. But, like the characters, it’s not glamorized, not your typical action-packed mayhem found in many thrillers; it’s grim and awful. And it feels very real.

If any flaw exists with The Ghosts of Belfast, it might be the very end, which leans just a bit too much toward the paranormal, after the author has done such a good job to avoid that trope. But it fits the story well, and lives up to the title.


Silent Scream – Angela Marsons #BookReview

This is a thoroughly engaging, well-crafted police procedural set in the UK that will appeal to fans of Prime Suspect and the like. Kim Stone, the protagonist DI, is sort of a young jaded Jane Tennison with issues, and a gruff person as a result but, as one might expect, her heart is in the right place. She gets the job done, brandishing her acerbic wit (and temper).
silent scream
When an employee connected to a state run institution is found drowned in her bathtub, DI Stone begins to investigate the murders of three unfortunate girls who are found buried in a shallow grave outside a former orphanage from hell. More bodies pile up. And maybe one or two more. The story itself might stretch the reader’s belief system a bit but it’s a well-told one, with excellent investigation details, nuanced supporting characters (I love Bryant, especially when he – [mini spoiler] – adopts the dogs), terrific descriptions of the Black Country locale and a genuine commentary on institutional systems that create monsters and misfits out of their inhabitants and administrators.

I would easily have given this book five stars if not for…


Multiple murderers. Come on! For those of us who enjoy trying to piece the clues together and ‘solve the crime’, this is such a disappointment. The author is in good company here (Gillian Flynn, anyone?) but it’s not playing fair with the reader. A writer who works this hard can surely tell a compelling mystery without obfuscating the story with over-complicated plot lines and pulling the wool over our eyes the easy way.

Having said that, I would recommend Silent Scream to fans of crime fiction, and personally look forward to more in this series.


Spenser Version 2.0: Wonderland by Ace Atkins #BookReview

Back in the dark ages before Kindle, one of my favorite authors was Robert B. Parker. His Spenser PI books were enormously readable: entertaining, witty, with literary allusions for the college grads who read pulp, not to mention some pretty decent plots. Spenser was the updated wise-cracking detective, tough and tender, the lone gunman who could jump through windows or whip up a gourmet meal with one hand while drinking an imported beer with the other. Spenser’s sidekick Hawk introduced the American reading public to perhaps their first minority mystery character, and Spenser’s main squeeze, Susan Silverman (Spenser is monogamous, despite the efforts of many persistent females), added some pop psychology and sophisticated banter. I remember reading my first ‘F’ word in a mystery novel ever in a Spenser book back in the 70s—what a shock. In close to forty books Parker took a tired format and punched it up to become one of the most popular PI series ever. There was even a television show: Spenser for Hire.

0-ABC-SpenserWhen Robert Parker passed away in 2010 I assumed that was the end of Spenser as well, who was perhaps getting to be a little old to be jumping through any more windows (even though Spenser, the man with no first name, never ages). Times were moving on and we had a new cast of grittier, darker, more urban detectives to read.

So when Ace Atkins (author of the acclaimed Quinn Colson ‘Ranger’ series) took on the Spenser books in 2011, I held off. I have never found a book continuation that ever truly worked under a different author (not even Parker’s Chandler). The smudges on the copy were always too evident for my liking.

Well, I was wrong.

I started with Wonderland, simply because it had the highest Amazon ratings, and was more than pleasantly surprised. Spenser is back, version 2.0, with upgraded smart-aleck remarks and current themes. Spenser’s signature humor is even punchier than I remembered. The settings and PI tone are just about perfect to the original. There’s a new sidekick, a Cree Indian named Z, who is kind of a junior Hawk in training, but one with personal issues he must deal with. And the usual cast of good and bad guys. A cross-country airplane flight whizzed right by.

Wonderland opens with some thugs pushing Spenser’s boxing pal Henry Cimoli and his neighbors around, trying to muscle them out of their condo building. Spenser and Z get involved, thinking they’ll shoo off the bad guys and be back to drinking beer and trading one-liners in no time. But the toughs don’t scare easily. Then Spenser finds a disused, broken-down dog track by the name of Wonderland near Henry’s condo complex to be the center of interest for some Vegas hoods and a local Boston politician. When a moneyed real estate developer a la Donald Trump loses his head—literally—Spenser realizes he’s onto something big. Then come the fisticuffs, gunfights and a beautiful unclothed female, along with the usual Spenser fare. But most of all there is Spenser’s classic wit, extremely well-handled by Atkins. Maybe even better than Parker’s. I read an interview with Robert B. Parker (way back before there were Kindles) and recall him saying he essentially wrote one draft of each Spenser book. That was it. Well, towards the end of Spenser version 1.0, it showed. Not so with Atkins, however, who has polished Spenser’s dialog to a shine that dazzles. I found myself rereading much of it for sheer pleasure.

The plot in Wonderland gets a little elaborate past the half-way mark, with an ever-growing cast of bad guys and some questionable motives by the lead suspects, but it doesn’t really matter by then. When the last page came, I was ready for more Spenser version 2.0.

Two Faces of January – Dead Bodies and Love Triangles – Book Review

Patricia Highsmith’s wonderfully deviant, amoral characters set her books apart in a genre where sociopaths are the norm and just about essential for any psychological thriller worth its salt. No other suspense author drills down into the inner workings of their players quite like Highsmith did. Much of the reason is that she took her time to build her characters, letting small details work their tension, blending the mundane with the immoral so that we as readers identify with some fairly reprehensible people before we can be repelled by them. A saved letter about an unattended funeral speaks volumes about a young man’s feelings towards his father, allowing us to comprehend his later actions. A man’s love for his young wife makes us overlook a good deal of his criminal behavior. In Highsmith’s novels it’s not easy to discern the hero from the villain and often, as in her popular Ripley books, it’s the criminal (usually murderer) we end up rooting for. The same forces are at work in The Two Faces of January but to a subtler degree. You won’t find a truly good person in these pages but it doesn’t matter. In this story of three expat Americans who cross paths in early 1960s Athens, you’ll want at least one of them to get away with breaking the law.

Dead bodies and love triangles tend not to go together well. (Photo from the motion picture adaptation of Two Faces of January.)

Rydel is a wandering Peter Pan living off his grandmother’s money, putting off the inevitable trip back to the US to face responsibility and tedium, when he encounters Chester, a crooked stockbroker on the run, who accidentally kills a Greek policeman who is onto him. For no other reason than Chester reminds Rydel of his father, Rydel helps Chester hide the body and acquires forged passports for him and his comely wife, Colette. Chester then invites Rydel to accompany him and Colette to Crete to help the couple navigate their way out of Greece, beyond the reach of the authorities (Rydel speaks Greek and has shady connections). But Colette’s infatuation for Rydel upsets the applecart, and Chester sees red. No one seems to think twice about the death of a policeman, let alone marital vows. It may even feel like love–for two of the three anyway–but it doesn’t end well.

Rydel is one of Highsmith’s better creations, quite affable as he keeps veering away from doing the right thing. He just can’t seem to. The reader understands. Chester is a perfect villain, because he knows who he is. Colette is a well-nuanced temptress, made of real flesh and blood, with a heart and soul. The secondary characters in this novel are all Highsmith quality as well.

I’m not sure why this book is trending towards three stars in the ratings—it’s one of Highsmith’s better ones, with its simple tale of three people who think they can do no wrong but end up doing an awful lot of it.

My only minor disappointment came in the final few pages, where I was hoping for one final twist that didn’t come. The ending I envisioned seemed glaringly obvious to me but Patricia Highsmith clearly wasn’t thinking what I was thinking when she penned this book—or maybe she didn’t want to be predictable. But it works, and redeems one of the characters.

Regardless, by the time Two Faces is rolling, the plot feels inevitable. And that’s the mark of a master.

Ten books that made me want to be a writer

Who doesn’t read ‘top ten’ lists? There’s one going round at the moment where people rate their ten favorite books, and I was inspired to list the ones that influenced me as a writer. Here are ten by authors at the top of their game, whose stories reverberated, whose voices made me want to find one of my own. Books that made me say ‘I want to do that.’

10. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Hunter S. Thompson) – Many a true word written in jest. Wins the opening line award: ‘We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.’


the_postman_always_rings_twice-cover9 The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain) – Cain was master of the breakneck-paced novel with scummy characters you love to root for.

8. The Stranger (Albert Camus) – Another terrific opener: ‘Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday.’ Who says you can’t tell vs. show? Fun Fact: Camus was influenced by James M. Cain.

7. The Dancer Upstairs (Nicholas Shakespeare) – The story of a South American detective trying to do the right thing in a country beset by corruption and civil war. And then he falls in love.

6. Strangers on a Train (Patricia Highsmith) – Anything Highsmith wrote is steeped in psychological turmoil. This was her first. Hitchcock was compelled to make it into an equally excellent film.

"My imagination functions much better when I don't have to speak to people." - Patricia Highsmith

“My imagination functions much better when I don’t have to speak to people.” – Patricia Highsmith

5. God’s Pocket (Peter Dexter) – An orgy of wonderfully low rent characters, including one who drives around with a body in the back of a refrigeration truck and you just hope he gets away with it.

4 Killshot (Elmore Leonard) – Leonard pioneered the modern crime novel. This is his darkest and most powerful.Unknown

3. Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham) – 50,000 words too long but what words. Daring stuff for its time about a lost soul who falls for a woman of questionable morals. There’s a reason Maugham was one of the most popular writers of his era.

2. The Road (Cormac McCarthy) – I dare you not to be moved by this haunting tale of love between father and son during the apocalypse.

1. The Ginger Man (JP Donleavy) – One man’s battle against sobriety, decency and sanity. Hysterically funny and tragic at the same time. A masterpiece.


Those are my ten. Did I miss a must-read gem? Feel free to let me know.

Viven los escritores!

Red Badge of Courage – the ultimate anti-war novel? (#BookReview)


I finally read this classic and was immediately swept away by the tale of young Henry Fleming (often referred to as ‘the youth’ in Red Badge of Courage), who itches to go to war, despite his mother’s wishes.

Stephen Crane’s writing has aged gracefully since the novel was first published in 1893. The forbidding atmosphere of war is ideally suited to a style that might be considered florid by today’s standards. The potent tone fits the story but the writing still feels current, authentic and devoid of sentimentality.

Henry’s character is laid bare as he experiences both cowardice and bravery in battle. Both emotions are seen as almost uncontrollable responses in times of war and the author doesn’t pass judgment, letting subtle ironies prevail instead. Red Badge of Courage is as much a psychological novel as a war story. And faced with what Henry and many of his comrades confronted, the reader might well have turned and headed for the trees as well.

Images of war are lightly rendered in comparison to modern novels but just as jarring. In one scene the wounded trudge to their impending deaths (as anyone injured in battle during the Civil War frequently had mere hours to live), and young Henry describes a soldier he encounters who has two wounds, ‘one in the head, bound with a blood-soaked rag, and the other in the arm, making that member dangle like a broken bough.’

Hemingway said that Red Badge of Courage was ‘one of the finest books of American literature.’ Reading Crane’s prose, it’s easy to see precursors of Hemingway’s own style:

‘It rained. The procession of weary soldiers became a bedraggled train, despondent and muttering, marching with churning effort in a trough of liquid brown mud under a low, wretched sky.’

Stephen Crane modestly stated that he wanted to write a war story reminiscent of the books he read as a boy, and ended up penning an adventure story that doubles as fine literature and perhaps the ultimate anti-war novel.

The Glass Cell – Move Over Ripley (Book Review)

If you read suspense and have not read Patricia Highsmith, first of all, shame on you and second, you have some weird and wonderful (and terrifying) books ahead. No one wrote like Highsmith. Her novels deliver in the classic thriller/mystery/suspense department for those simply looking for an edgy ride but they’re also literate and truly unique. Her characters are odd, not in the quirky sense, but disturbed and wretched. And real.


Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith wasn’t afraid to take time to get a story rolling, as many authors are (especially nowadays) and although that may fail her from time to time, the reader has time to soak in the world she creates with those deviant but everyday characters. She’s written a dog or two (IMHO) but every great author has. It’s part of reaching for the kind of stories that, more often than not, leave a mark.

About a third of the way through The Glass Cell, I thought I was reading one of Highsmith’s dogs. I’ve already read all her well-known work (Strangers on a Train is a must-read. If you don’t believe me, believe Hitchcock who made Highsmith’s first novel into an excellent movie) and thought I was scraping the bottom of the Highsmith barrel.

There are real flaws with the first third of Glass Cell, the story of a man who goes to prison for six years on a fraudulent charge. Key events happen off camera, important characters are not physically described, and Highsmith’s slow-burn prose feels like it’s meandering.

But then Philip Carter, our ill-fated anti-hero, gets out of prison, physically and mentally damaged, craving morphine, and learns that his beautiful wife has most likely been having a six-year-long affair with his lawyer. Then the people who set Carter up come back into the picture. It seems inevitable that Carter does some of the things he does.

And the reader ends up rooting for a milquetoast turned drug-addled psychopath. I was never a huge fan of Ripley, one of Highsmith’s more fantastic characters, but Carter had my complete sympathy no matter what he did to those who treated him so poorly. Highsmith is famous for her Ripley books (and the first one should be on everyone’s to-read list) but whereas Ripley is prickly and frightening, Carter is your unstable friend who just can’t catch a break.

Stay inside The Glass Cell and you won’t be disappointed.

Walk in a Rifleman’s boots … Riflemen (Book Review)


‘Riflemen: On the Cutting Edge of World War II’ by Earl A. Reitan with a forward by Russell F. Weigley.

This fascinating account of one man’s service as a US Army infantryman (a ‘Rifleman’) in WW II Europe is a memoir that reads like a novel. The author, a retired history professor, documents his experiences meticulously with footnotes, communication transcripts and photographs but it’s the story of ordinary men slogging their way into Nazi Germany to defeat Hitler that truly captures the reader.

In RIFLEMEN the banal and bureaucratic rub shoulders with the horrors of war: fresh socks and showers delivered by truck once a week to troops in the field contrast trench foot and comrades suddenly vanishing with the blast of a mortar shell. Minesweeper tanks do a less thorough job when they aren’t supporting their own units, and men pay with their legs and lives. In one street battle, French armored units arrive, the soldiers half drunk, only to quickly leave when things turn ominous. The dual chain of command prevents anyone from telling them otherwise.

There are also tender moments: Riflemen deliberately saving scraps from their meals to give to hungry Italian children waiting on the edge of camp, a French-trained cook who whips up a gourmet meal using K-Rations for weary US infantrymen standing guard at a token roadblock where villagers not wishing to be stopped take the next street over. These details make RIFLEMEN as real as spending the night in a freezing foxhole while not far away US Army mail clerks read paperbacks in their cots by electric light. The author’s final brush with death is as ironic as fine fiction and, in his modest, factual recounting of the day-to-day service of an unsung hero, makes RIFLEMEN an excellent book for the casual reader and history buff alike.

¡viven los escritores!

Winter’s Bone – Love and Meth – Book Review

Rae Dolly struggles to keep her family together after her father disappears, in the film adaptation of Winter's Bone.

Sixteen-year-old Rae Dolly is in a serious bind: her meth-dealing father has disappeared and missed an important court date. If Jessup Dolly isn’t located soon, then the family that Rae holds together through sheer will-power will lose their humble Ozark cabin. Although a mountain code binds the Dolly clan in some ways, a brutal undercurrent of reprisal makes it near impossible for Rae to learn the whereabouts of her father. There are some things people just don’t talk about in a community where speed has replaced moonshine as the economic engine and drug of choice. Rae’s father is one of them.

After sustaining a ferocious beating, Rae finally sways her criminal uncle Teardrop over to her side and the novel takes an even darker turn as we head into the mountains in the middle of winter to learn the truth about Rae’s father.

The plot of Winter’s Bone is straightforward and economic, with all the tension of a thriller, as Rae goes from one grim haunt to another asking questions no one wants to answer. In less than two hundred pages Daniel Woodrell’s rich yet gritty prose builds a momentum that is part suspense, part parable. The writing is stripped down and minimalist in places but also functions on a literary level, leaving powerful images rippling in the reader’s mind without getting in the way of Woodrell’s noir narrative. This is no run-of-the-mill page turner. The characters are tough but tender, sympathetic without being sentimental. Rae’s two little brothers and emotionally damaged mother are only two examples of people confined to a world who aren’t stereotypes.

If there’s any criticism of this book, it’s that the storyline is possibly too direct in places, almost predictable, like a mystery where the protagonist is taken through required confrontations and scenes, and readers of the genre might see this as somewhat underdeveloped. But the originality of the writing, authenticity of setting, and the story questions raised more than make up for that. In Winter’s Bone, less is more. Life is unforgiving in Rae’s world but love for family is just as strong, if not stronger.

Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron – with an emphasis on ‘Real’

Evita: The Real Life of Eva Perón – Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro

Eva Peron

If you have any interest whatsoever in one of the most famous Argentines – make that women – who ever lived, then this book is highly recommended. In less than 200 pages authors Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro sum up the life of a complex person driven to greatness despite her humble birth. At the same time they provide a succinct history of twentieth century Argentina.

But beware, myths are dispelled.

The young starlet

The young starlet

If, like millions, you held flawless visions of Eva Perón (née Duarte), the illegitimate daughter of a rancher left high and dry with her mother and siblings in a dusty rural cattle town, who went on to champion the rights of her fellow underprivileged and downtrodden Argentines, then you might just be disillusioned at the corruption and egotism that also marked much of her life.

And if, like many others, you believe that Evita was little more than a stylish fascist, a shill for her husband, the infamous General Perón, pioneer of the Argentine police state of later years, and was obsessed only with bars of gold, French gowns and adulation, then you will probably be disappointed as well.

Eva and the general

Eva and the general

Because Eva Perón’s short life, before she died at thirty-three after a lengthy battle with ovarian cancer (ironically the same illness that would strike down Juan Perón’s first wife), was one of contradictions, demonstrated by grand gestures in the Latin style (she proposed a monument the size of a building to her beloved decamisados – the ‘shirtless’ workers who brought the Peróns to power), as well as tireless efforts to reach out to the poor, whom she never lost touch with. The Eva Perón Foundation, a massive charity not without its share of fraud and politicking, handed out countless fifty peso notes to anyone who lined up outside Eva’s office, and built state-of-the-art clinics and hospitals still in use today.

She organized the Female Peronist Party and raised political awareness for Argentine women. She was instrumental in getting them the right to vote – an effort that would help her husband win a crucial election, despite his many enemies.

Female Peronists

Winning over Female Peronists

Not bad for a woman who escaped a windblown cow town with a cardboard suitcase and embarked on an acting career as a fifteen year old in 1930s Buenos Aires. Falling prey to more than one man willing to exploit her, in one instance Eva was publicly humiliated by an industry insider outside his office after she slept with him in the hopes of getting a part in a play. She didn’t get the part. And rumors of her more sordid activities to get by abound. But she kept acting. And she got better, becoming the highest paid radio actress at a time when radio was king in Argentina, and meeting the influential Juan Perón at a charity function. Even as a young starlet bent on fame she showed fervent support for charities.

Foundation Eva

Foundation Eva

Becoming his mistress, the strong-willed Evita became Sra. Perón, when the public demanded respectability. And she was arguably his better half, bringing a new look to the outdated uniforms and stiff-armed style of the classic Latin American dictator and crafting an image that would serve him well. Juan Perón soon donned Italian suits and a softer bearing as Eva became his front ‘man’, winning over a postwar world no longer enamored with fascists. After WWII, when Juan Perón became persona non grata, it was Evita who travelled to Spain, Italy and the rest of the Europe (but shunning the UK when the Queen would not personally meet with her), spreading the kind of PR reserved for American movie stars and paving the way for Argentina to secure badly needed loans. All the while handing out coins and bills to the poor. She was called the ‘South American Eleanor Roosevelt’ only Eleanor Roosevelt didn’t travel with a separate DC3 for her luggage. Or have 25,000 well-wishers standing outside her hospital for close to a year, or a million and a half citizens trooping in from every part of the country to show their respect as death approached.

The letters back and forth from Eva to her husband during the European trip were the stuff of romance. She clearly loved the man who arrested and imprisoned his enemies and who allegedly had a predilection for young girls—warts and all.

Dior Eva

Dior Eva

She delivered the ‘shirtless ones’, the workers who were the backbone of the Peronist Party, with huge, dramatically-staged gatherings that preceded the 1946 elections and saved her husband from defeat. And again in 1951, now bringing along half a million female votes as well, in the new age of women’s suffrage, despite being unable to stand (and often unable to speak), afflicted with the cancer that would take her life in 1952.

They couldn't take their eyes off of her

They couldn’t take their eyes off of her

Contradictions: the woman who hosted Argentina’s politicos and her husband’s powerful associates at their home in her pajamas when she couldn’t be bothered to put on one of her many ‘scandalous’ gowns, who would offer to ‘open a few tins’ if they suggested dinner, was the same woman who worked tirelessly at her foundation all day, every day, until she was confined to a hospital bed.

And once Eva was gone, in spite of being embalmed in a glass-topped coffin that millions of followers would file by and reverently touch, Juan Perón’s magic too vanished. By 1955 he was exiled in a military coup after his country fell into financial ruin. Coincidence perhaps, but Perón’s enemies understood the power of Eva’s ghoulishly preserved eighty pound corpse, and went to great lengths to conceal it after her husband’s fall. That’s another story, of how Eva’s body was rediscovered many years later in a grave in Milan under the name ‘Maria Maggi’. Her enemies needed to get rid of her image but were afraid of destroying her body. She held that much power — even in death.

Embalming Eva

Embalming Eva

Had she lived, Eva Perón would have eventually been elected President of Argentina. She had already been put forward for vice president at a time when women went to the beauty parlor.

Lining up to pay their respects

Lining up to pay their respects

Eva was brought back from Italy to Argentina to lie in state in the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires (called the most exclusive neighborhood in Latin America). Anyone visiting today will continue to see a line of people at her crypt.

The cult of Eva? Without a doubt. But an Argentine associate of mine tells me of his parents, who read Eva’s inspirational quotes in their school textbooks as children, and still feel a sense of pride in the woman who put their country on the twentieth century world map.

How many women who once lived in a single room with their mother and four siblings, who worked as a child in the kitchens of the estancias, helping their family scrape by, end up being played by Madonna in films named after them?

The woman every Argentine knows

The woman every Argentine knows

[Are you a fan of mysteries and thrillers set in South America ? Check out SENDERO, WHO SINGS TO THE DEAD and LETHAL DISPATCH.]

Hunger Games (Book Review)

What more can be said about a book that has close to 100,000 reviews on Goodreads?

The book that spawned a genre?

The book that spawned a genre?

Over 900,000 readers have rated The Hunger Games an average of 4.5 stars. They say that 5 star reviews are from the author’s friends and family in which case Suzanne Collins must have a lot of friends or a very large family. But the ratings are high for good reason: the story of an apocalyptic future in which teenagers are selected through a national lottery to battle others to the death is believable and compelling.

The first act of the book is the strongest, with characters who have depth and are very well nuanced as they navigate their daily lives to forage, hunt and trade for food in a police state that is the America of the future. It’s here that we are introduced to Katniss Everdeen of District 12 (‘The Seam’), the coal producing region. The irony of her being ‘chosen’ to play in the Hunger Games is a good twist in a book full of twists. Peeta, her male counterpart who works in his father’s bakery, is a nice kid when you get right down to it and has always had a soft spot for Katniss. Or does he? Remember—only one can survive the Hunger Games.

The theme of how one communicates and carries oneself in a world where no one can really trust another and love is manufactured is very well done and possibly one of the reasons this book appeals as it does to young adults. I found the relationship between Katniss and Peeta dynamic, full of tension and tenderness.

The book is not without its faults however. The second act, dealing with the games themselves—the heart of the story—is often told through long narrative passages in which the pace tends to sag. Many key events are taken off camera and the reader has to work at remembering the many contestants who were briefly introduced. At times the action writing tends toward the generic and lacks the wonderful detail seen in the first act. This is a surprise when you consider that this is primarily an action story. But wait, there is another twist. Just as we think we know how it’s going to end we are turned around.

All in all, this is a very satisfying book that sets the standard in a crowded genre. The Hunger Games won’t disappoint readers of any age.

may the odds be forever in your favor

Viven los escritores!

Did you like Hunger Games? You might like my YA Thriller: LETHAL DISPATCH.

Of Human Bondage – Looking for love in all the wrong places (Book Review)

Looking for love in all the wrong places – in Edwardian England

Leslie Howard, Bette Davis - Of Human Bondage (1934 Film Adaptation)

Leslie Howard, Bette Davis – Of Human Bondage (1934 Film Adaptation)

W. Somerset Maugham’s saga of one young man’s search for love in Edwardian England is considered by many to be his masterpiece and one of the 100 best English language novels of the 20th Century. Of Human Bondage takes the reader from Philip Carey’s youth under the cold supervision of an emotionally stunted uncle, a vicar in a small English town that is wonderfully rendered, to his travels throughout the Europe of pre-World War 1 and ultimately Carey’s adulthood. Carey embarks on a series of failed and often disastrous relationships. Maugham’s restrained, precise style may seem slow to deliver at times but throughout the novel he drills down mercilessly to a core of human emotion often left unexamined in novels of this period. We see Carey at his worst much of the time: petty, weak, despairing in his obsessive longing for one particular woman, to a point where he becomes servile and pathetic (he willingly funds the tryst between her and a ‘friend’— entirely by his own design). At another low point Carey longs for the death of a relative so that he can inherit enough money to continue his studies. (The relative does take an excruciatingly long time to die though!) But even so, the reader ends up siding with Carey, even though his choices often make one want to scream. We keep turning the many pages because Philip Carey, with his club foot symbolizing our frailties made humiliatingly public, is an awful lot like us. To keep the reader this engaged is the sign of a great writer.

Despite the page count, Maugham covers a lot of ground in Of Human Bondage, much of it through territory one might have considered taboo for 1915: premarital sex, venereal disease, abortion, homosexuality (yes, it’s there, albeit well-veiled). The side-trips into the working class health care system of England at that time (Maugham trained as a doctor prior to becoming a writer) are simply fascinating. The characters, in particular Carey’s lovers and would-be lovers, are expertly depicted and completely devoid of sentimentality that might have reduced this novel to melodrama otherwise.  And throughout, the prose is controlled yet powerful as it deftly delivers the odd detail that make even the most contemptible character poignant: the garish out-of-place dress of a woman desperately trying to mask her age, the dirty brown hem of another woman’s skirt, the deplorable eating habits of one potential paramour as she wipes a plate with a scrap of bread, Mildred’s skeletal frame as she strives to keep attracting the opposite sex despite her ominous condition.

Ultimately it’s Philip Carey who is the most well drawn.  Far from heroic in the conventional sense, our opinion of him continues to reach new lows, yet Maugham subtly shows us a man trying to conceal his limp as he steadfastly searches for any kind of work while sleeping on the streets.

This book is not without its shortcomings: as said before, it’s simply too long—by a good fifty thousand words. There are diversions that could have easily been cut. Discussions on art between Carey and his friends in Paris read like essays; Carey’s time in Germany and Paris feel like detours that would have benefitted from major edits. And there are simply too many women in Carey’s life until he gets to Mildred, his femme fatale, the core of Carey’s emotional struggle as he reaches adulthood. Do we really need such a large cast of others, no matter how well portrayed? All of this tends to give the book an episodic feel in places.

But Of Human Bondage is a masterpiece nonetheless. Not only is the tension palpable and gripping as Philip Carey makes one disastrous decision after another, but the reader is taken to a place lost in the willing fog of our own painful memory.

Book Review: DATING MY VIBRATOR (and other true fiction) – Suzanne Tyrpak


DATING MY VIBRATOR (and other true fiction) – Suzanne Tyrpak

These nine short stories document one woman’s woeful re-entrance into the dating world after a failed marriage. ‘Other true fiction’ couldn’t be more accurate. We just know that the emotional misfits the author meets are out there in real life, lurking in the shadows. And we see what the author is thinking when a date pays for an expensive meal (dig in!) or when a new acquaintance starts calling her ‘babe’ after two introductory phone calls. And don’t you dare use her towel.

I am not in this book’s target audience. I am not female, up to speed with Chick Lit, and I tend to veer away from books with words like ‘vibrator’ in the title. But I still found Dating My Vibrator very engaging. The author showcases her short-story writing skills with quick, succinct observations and a range of styles. From the literary Phantom Love, with its well-executed mood of distant longing, to the hilarious Dharma Dan, which chronicles an encounter with a pretentious buffoon, we are led through the twilight zone dating world of women of a certain age. The stories lean towards humor which Tyrpak is very good at as she introduces us to her would-be beaus. Men aiming to impress an older woman might even learn a thing or two from this book. Don’t go home thinking you’ve necessarily wowed her—especially if you espouse daily workouts but eat potato salad by the bowl. That vibrator in her handbag doesn’t have a paunch and doesn’t BS.

Not all of the stories work. Rock Bottom, for example, a pre divorce meeting with the author’s ex, feels unfinished and would benefit from some nuance in the husband’s character. But Tyrpak takes risks and that’s a good thing. Not everything is going to work. Most of these stories do work and are a treat. There are enough sharp insights and plenty of bite to make Dating My Vibrator satisfy. The cover alone is enough to justify a further look.

Book Review: The Mill River Recluse

Warning–spoilers ahead!

Darcie Chan is the poster child for struggling indie writers. Her debut novel, The Mill River Recluse, has logged a staggering half million downloads and maintains a four plus star rating on Amazon with close to nine hundred reviews.

So it was with eagerness that I began The Mill River Recluse.

The first part of the novel reads well. The writing doesn’t take many chances but that’s fine—a good story well told is a great thing. The characters are introduced in a revolving manner that keeps the reader turning pages and the narrative moves back and forth from past to present without that jarring clumsiness that frequently trips up many promising novels. Story questions grow around Mary, the damaged protagonist. I was hooked. I even gifted a copy of the novel to a friend of mine at this point.

Then, somewhere around the second act, it all starts to sag. The writing grows deliberate and uninspired —or perhaps it had always been that way but the pacing and story questions up until now compensated. The dialog is painfully direct and frequently mundane. A date at Pizza Hut reads like a teenager’s diary: no irony, no witty repartee, no real danger for a woman trying desperately to watch her weight—just pizza between two adults who act like they’ve never been out to dinner before. Is this what a leading man who wants to snare an attractive woman does on a first date—take her to Pizza Hut?

The biggest problem of the novel by this point is structural: Mary has had her main threat removed and is now continually rescued by a series of benefactors. People build her houses, leave her piles of money, and tend to her ongoing seclusion that borders on mental illness. We want to see Mary overcome her past—or at least fail valiantly. But the Mary we see doesn’t have much to do except withdraw from life and give away wealth to her supposedly beloved town members in a clandestine manner. We don’t see the inner workings of her pathological reclusiveness, just the symptoms, and not enough of them at that. She reads like a secondary character.

In the third act, the story is hijacked by a subplot where one citizen of Mill River tries to attract the attention of the woman who loves Pizza Hut by setting houses on fire. Meanwhile Mary dies. It’s supposed to be heart-wrenching but it’s a relief for a character who has done little but suffer amidst secluded wealth while the rest of Mill River toils. They say that every novel can get away with one coincidence but the one between Mary and the local crazy person smacks so much of author intervention it’s simply not believable. And the local priest’s little foible—meant to be endearing and quirky—comes across as silly and contrived. Are we really expected to believe he had the sleeves of his garments altered so he could steal spoons?

On a technical note I also have to say that the Kindle formatting of this book is atrocious. There are many sections that are indented incorrectly. Throughout the book the reader is treated to paragraph after paragraph of offset, misaligned text. As an indie author I know how trying the process can be but one afternoon with a word editor could fix this. Or hire someone to do it. Half a million readers might appreciate it.

But they seem to love this book anyway. So Darcie Chan must be doing something right.

I’m sure my friend I gifted the copy to must be wondering about me.