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Monthly Archives: August 2014

Wild Horses (1994): Childhood Living Is Easy to Do

Dick Francis, Wild Horses (Jove, 1994)

[originally posted 19Feb2002]


A racehorse, impaled by a sword as if on a carousel, decorates the book's cover.

Too close to call.
photo credit: Fantastic Fiction

Wild Horses is Dick Francis on top of his game. It stands as one of the highlights of the long and somewhat distinguished career of one of Britain’s best-known mystery novelists.

The tale is that of Thomas Lyon, ex-jumps jockey and presently filmmaker. He’s been signed on to make a movie based on a novel based on a twenty-six-year-old police case regarding the alleged suicide of a trainer’s wife. In the small British racing world, Lyon and the trainer are connected through various channels, and Lyon, along with the film’s reluctant producer O’Hara, idly speculate that maybe, in the making of the film, they might actually solve the case. As all this is going on, an old friend of Lyon’s dies, leaving Lyon all of his racing-related books and ephemera. A number of others want to get their hands on this material, and will stop at nothing to do so, including viciously beating the man’s elderly sister. Lyon realizes that everything’s tied in a lot closer than it seems, and the chase is on.

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As Above, So Below (2014): So Rote It Be

As Above, So Below (John Erick Dowdle, 2014)


The Eiffel Tower, upside down, rests on a sea of skulls on the movie poster.

(inter)National Treasure.
photo credit:

The first John Erick Dowdle movie I saw was 2008’s Quarantine, one of the few American remakes of foreign horror films that’s actually worth your time. I then went back and hunted down his previous film, The Poughkeepsie Tapes, and between the two of them, I came to the conclusion that the seeds of celluloid greatness lie dormant somewhere within John Erick Dowdle. Every movie he has released since has been increasingly frustrating for me; they are never disappointing—I have never failed to be at least entertained by a movie he’s directed—but he never actually gets there. With As Above, So Below, I think those seeds are starting to germinate. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a Ti West-like metamorphosis from genre hack to wunderkind in the space of six months, but it is a step in the right direction.

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Master Visual C++ 2 (1994): A Visit to the Old Folks’ Home

Nathan and Ori Gurewich, Master Visual C++ 2 (Sams, 1994)

[originally posted 19Feb2002]

A bunch of flying puzzle pieces hover over a CD on the book's cover.

Never underestimate the power of a puzzling cover.
photo credit:

Given the dominance of Microsoft in the programming market and the plethora of supposedly platform-specific C++ books on the market, it would seem a difficult task to come up with one definitive beginner’s text. Such is not the case, and Master Visual C++ 2 is without a doubt the definitive book for the VC++2 platform. The authors spend little time covering the basics of C++ (but enough to get someone who’s never read any general material on the subject up to speed) and devote most of the book’s thousand-plus pages to the Visual C++ platform itself. While the book does have its drawbacks, it does what it’s supposed to do, and it does it better than any other book I’ve encountered.

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Swallowing the Scroll (1991): What We’ve Done to This World with Words

Lew Daly, Swallowing the Scroll: Late in a Prophetic Tradition with Susan Howe and John Taggart (M Press, 1991)

photo credit:

We can’t show it to you because the Internet fails us (and it’s packed away somewhere I can’t easily get to it).

Before Lew Daly was a famous, big-time policy wonk, he was a literary critic. (Full disclosure: I didn’t realize Lew Daly was a famous, big-time policy wonk until I was looking up information on Swallowing the Scroll last week. There days, Daly is far more known for books like God and the Welfare State and Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back.) I am going to make the assumption, given the accolades on his biography page at the New Economics Institute, that one of the major changes he made while getting from point A to point B was learning how to take “critic-speak”—that often-unintelligible jargon that makes the public shy away from books of lit-crit—and transform it into something that the public will actually buy and read. Here’s a representative passage, chosen at random, from Swallowing the Scroll:

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Moth to the Flame (1991): Squeakers

Kathleen Dougherty, Moth to the Flame (Diamond, 1991)

[originally posted 26Feb2002]

A lapel pin in the shape of a moth sominates the cover of the book.

Flutter by, butterfly…
photo credit:

A little more attention to detail and a slightly better editor and Kathleen Dougherty might have been the next Tom Clancy, pushing out high-tech suspense thrillers that sold millions of copies. Moth to the Flame is better than your average spy thriller. You know that expression you see overused in reviews, “grabs hold and never lets go!”? This book fits the bill.

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The Road (2009): I Used to Be an Adventurer Like You…

The Road (John Hillcoat, 2009)

Man and Boy trudge along the road on the movie poster.

I will not send you into the darkness alone.
photo credit: IMDB

It has been a long time since I’ve read The Road—I got an ARC of it from a pal of mine at CNN before its release and read it immediately—so when I finally sat down to watch the movie, my memories of the book were hazy at best. I know relying on my memory of a book I read eight years ago is probably not the best thing in the world to do when comparing a film adaptation to it, but I remember, for what that’s worth, the book not being anywhere near as unfocused and episodic as the movie.

Then Robert Duvall gave that brilliant monologue*, and I no longer cared.

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Titus Groan (1946): You Love Me! I’m Ugly and I’m Disgusting and You Love Me!

Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan (Tusk/Overlook, 1946)

[originally posted 26Feb2002]

Birds fly up from a thicket on the book cover.

I can’t dream forever…
photo credit: Goodreads

Few fantasy epics are as revered as Mervin Peake’s Gormenghast novels, and for good reason. Gormenghast’s first novel, Titus Groan, is four hundred pages of such sterling descriptive language, such deliciously surreal diction, that it’s easy to forget that fifty pages have passed since the last event occurred. Peake gives himself away a little over halfway through with one singularly important sentence: “It was not certain what significance the ceremony held, for unfortunately the records were lost, but the formality was no less sacred for being unintelligible.” Indeed.

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A Year on Planet Alzheimer (and Slightly Longer in Canada) (2004): Take Off to the Great White North

Carolyn Steele, A Year on Planet Alzheimer (and a Little Longer in Canada) (AuthorHouse, 2004)

Two stick figures stand in front of a photo of the Kitchener, Ontario snow dump on the cover of the book.

Watch out where those huskies go.
photo credit: goodreads

I am, as a rule, not a fan of memoirs. They’ve gotta do two things to make me sit up and take notice. First, you have to have done something that’s actually worthy of writing a memoir about. (That running joke in Tove Jansson’s books about Moominpappa writing his memoirs? That really WAS a joke in the fifites. Now, it’s business as usual.) Second, your life can’t be the sole purpose of the book’s existence; you have to spend at least as much time talking about that bit in Part One as you do about what you ate for lunch every Tuesday. This is on top of all of the other strictures about what makes a book good—character development, pacing, etc. (Oh, you thought those were only worth paying attention to in fiction? Try reading 100 Strokes of the Brush Before Bed to find out just how bad a nonfiction book with no pacing or character development can be. Yes, it’s a memoir.) A Year on Planet Alzheimer fits both bills. It’s not a perfect book by any means, and both the jacket copy and the book itself play something of a part in that (more on this later), but as far as memoirs go, it’s one of the better ones I’ve read in recent memory; the last one I remember liking this much was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which (I just checked) I read back in 2006.

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The Outskirts (1988): There Is No Right Side of the Tracks

Stephen Stark, The Outskirts (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1988)

[originally posted 26Feb2002]

An aerial view of a forest adorns the book's cover.

“Sometimes folks get lost in those woods, and…don’t never come out.”
photo credit: Amazon

Stephen Stark’s debut novel is a confusing, exhilarating run through the spring of a high school senior’s life. Albie Santamoravia is eighteen, almost completely disaffected, close to failing out of school, and has a penchant for long distance running and a photographic memory for classical music. When he runs, he hears the music in his head (various Mahler pieces during most of the book’s scope). It’s something to cling to, Albie’s island of sanity in a world he doesn’t quite get.

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A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (2014): We Can Hitch a Ride to Rockaway Beach

Mary Biddinger, A Sunny Place with Adequate Water (Black Lawrence Press, 2014)

The full moon shines over a typical suburban house on the cover of the book.

kimi to no mirai wo sagashiteta
kono hikari no naka ni…
photo credit:

I’m not entirely sure what more I can say about Mary Biddinger that I haven’t said in my reviews of her previous two full-length books, Prairie Fever and O Holy Insurgency, and her chapbook Saint Monica. This is a good thing, in part, because it should telegraph to you as clearly (and with much less verbiage) that her new book, A Sunny Place with Adequate Water, lives up to the nearly impossible standard she set for herself with that earlier work.

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