Fahrenbruary Repost: Know Me from Smoke by Matt Phillips: A heart-wrenching noir love story.

Know Me from SmokeKnow Me from Smoke

by Matt Phillips

Kindle Edition, 193 pg.
Fahrenheit 13, 2018
Read: November 15 – 16, 2018

If you’re looking for an example of noir — in the classic sense — look no farther than Matt Phillips’ Know Me from Smoke. You can tell that’s going to be the case from the opening paragraphs. The first chapter builds on those first three or four paragraphs and sets the atmosphere, the mood, the tone for the rest of the book — and pretty much casts a spell on the reader, too. The second chapter — where we meet our second protagonist firms that up, and from there Phillips builds on this foundation to deliver a book that will stay with you long after you’re done with it.

But let’s step back from that for a minute — we begin by meeting Stella Radney. She’s in her mid-40’s, a lounge singer, and a widow still grieving her murdered husband twenty years after his death. During the robbery that left Virgil dead, Stella was shot as well and the bullet’s still in her hip — a constant reminder that her loss and pain are physical as well as emotional. Both pains seem a bit fresher in the beginning of the book because Stella’s been informed that new DNA technology (unavailable 20 years ago), has led the DA’s office to reopen the case and they hope to have an arrest soon. Stella’s feeling a little raw, hanging on only by more alcohol than is probably good for her and losing her self regularly in the music she performs.

Royal Atkins is a free man, a man with a second chance — a convicted killer released on a technicality and determined to make the best of his second chance. Sadly, a couple of men at his halfway house decide that the best thing for Royal would be to join them and pull a few stickups — and a few other forms of robbery as well. Royal resists — but it’s as clear to him as it is to the reader that this won’t last.

Stella and Royal meet and the chemistry is instantaneous. The chapter where they meet for the first time is possibly the best chapter I’ve read this year — just magic. For obvious reasons, Royal edits the personal history he tells Stella, and his associates from the halfway house use this to blackmail him into going along with them. He’s trying to build a new life, she’s trying to rebuild her life, and neither of them want to be alone in the process.

So we get to watch the growing love story of Stella and Royal, Royal’s history being used against him, the crime spree, and the certainty that this is going to all going to come to a messy end. A little before the halfway point, I put in my notes, “if I stop, some broken people get to live a decent life. If I read another chapter or two, everything will fall apart and lives will be ruined. So tempted to walk away from it.” I really was — I liked these two so much, I wanted to let them have this chance.

But there was no way I was going to stop, Phillips’ prose was too good to abandoned, and I had to see what actually happened to these characters (no matter how inevitable the end seemed). Seriously, I’d have kept reading just so Stella could think about her relationship to music and songs some more — those sections of the book are practically poetry.

There’s conversation between a couple of characters about Pulp Fiction — and Tarantino’s work feels appropriate to this book. But not that movie. Jackie Brown is the movie that this feels like. Maybe the novel, too, but I haven’t read Rum Punch. They’re both from the same species of sweet, second-chance at love story in the middle of a story of crime, criminals and ex-cons.

This is going to go for my entry for “Read a book you chose based on the cover” in the While You Were Reading challenge — it’s not entirely true, but the cover is fantastic and got me to read the blurb a few times, so it’s close enough.

I love that title, too.

There’s just so many things that are right about this book, and so little that’s wrong. This is a winner — it’ll grab you by the heartstrings, will pull you along through the highs and lows of this story, and only let you go some time after you finish (I’m not sure how long that effect will last, but it’s been almost a week and it really hasn’t let go yet).

—–

4 Stars

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Ross Poldark by Winston Graham: A decent read, but it’s not for me.

Ross PoldarkRoss Poldark

by Winston Graham
Series: The Poldark Saga, #1


Paperback, 379 pg.
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015 (originally published 1945)

Read: December 27 – 28, 2018

Ross Poldark, the scandalous son of a minor land-owner, comes back from serving the Crown in the War for American Independence to find his father dead, his estate in disrepair, and the woman who he’d hoped to wed engaged to someone else (a formerly close friend, actually). Understandably, he’s about to throw in the towel on life, but instead he starts putting things together.

He bullies his fathers’ (and now his) servants into getting to work restoring the house and lands, and hires some new help and even rescues a poor little girl being picked on by some nearby children and brings her into his house as a kitchen maid. He has to fight and then pay off her abusive father for the privilege, but does so. He takes care of his tenants, and is soon seen as half-one of them half-landowner. He starts a new mine with some other people in the area, doing a lot to help the local economy.

There’s some legal drama, a touch of medial as well, a malicious criminal presence, too — but it’s hard to take any of these seriously, and they are all dispatched quickly. In fact, that’s pretty much par for the course for everything — a problem arises and is resolved soon. There’s no real book-length plot to this novel — there’s no central or driving conflict. You might be able to make the case that it’s a story of Ross finding contentment and/or happiness after the way his homeland welcomes him. But I’m not sure I can buy that.

There is just so much wrong with the love story involving Ross that I’m not going to touch it. I get that it’s a different time, different standards, and everything, but he’d be locked up today for what happens — and rightly so. Frankly, all of the romances are a bit . . . off. Nothing that Austen would touch, for sure. One of the Brontë sisters might have, though.

This book feels like someone was convinced the only proper kind of book for a British person to write is one that Austen, a Brontë, or Dickens could have written — so he combined the three influences into one. But Graham isn’t one of those. He’s a passable writer of limited imagination. Every so often he’ll write a passage — a small paragraph to a page or so in length — that strikes me like he’s realized he hasn’t done anything “writerly” for a bit and dashes something off that fits the bill. Then he gets back to his usual story telling for 5-10 pages until he repeats the process. This isn’t to suggest he’s a bad writer, it’s just usually decent prose with odd splashes of flair.

It’s hard to describe any of the characters except in reference to Ross — and would end up spoiling a lot of the book to do so. I found them all relatively two-dimensional and without a lot of growth or development. What change there is in most of them is hard to believe, or at least happens off-screen and without explanation. The maid that Ross brings in is the easiest to see grow and develop, and we almost get a real sense of who she is — but I’m not sure I can say that.

Ross Poldark isn’t a bad book — but there’s nothing about it that grabbed me. I did grow to be a bit interested in two of the characters, and was pleased to see things go well for them. I’m not driven to pursue things to the next book much less eleven more, however. I can see the appeal — I think — that this book and/or this saga would have for some, but it’s not for me. But for people who like semi-romantic historical epics, you’d be well served by trying this. I probably sound more negative than I really am — I’m more indifferent than anything else.

—–

3 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

✔ Read a book recommended by one of your parents (in-laws count).

2018 While I Was Reading Challenge

I finished this challenge last night (the other reading challenges I participated in this year were just “how many of X can you read?, so there’s no real end point). When I signed up for this last year, I thought it’d be no trouble whatsoever (except the poetry thing), and I’d just finish this by reading what I’d normally read. I was almost right. But not really.

I had to go hunt down about half the titles here — and even that didn’t go right. I tracked down one book (that I ended up enjoying) for “Read a book with a child narrator” that turned out to have a child protagonist and a third-person narrator. Thankfully, I had read a book that qualified about 5 months earlier, and didn’t think of using it for the list. Similarly, I re-read/listened to Robin Sloane’s Sourdough because I couldn’t think of anything else to work for “favorite food in the title,” and sourdough’s close enough to a favorite that I could live with it. Then a month later than I got a book tour review request for Mr. Pizza (which was incredibly accurate). So with patience, I might have been able to handle it all without much effort (except the poetry).

I’m doing this challenge again next year, because I did it, but I’m planning it better — I have things in mind for about half of the items already, and am pretty sure I can fill the rest of it out with little effort. But I’m not waiting until the Fall before I get serious about it.

✔ Read a book that takes place in one day: The United Smiths of America by Jon Voss
✔ Read a memoir or biography of a musician you like: So Let It Be Written by Mark Eglinton
✔ Read a collection of poetry: Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne
✔ Read an audio book with multiple narrators: Ways to die in Glasgow by Heather Wilds, Napoleon Ryan
✔ Read a self published book: Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord by Dennis Malley
✔ Read a book you received as a gift: The Crescent and the Cross by Kurt Scheffler
✔ Read a book about a historical event you’re interested in (fiction or non): The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham, 1860-1865 by Janet Elizabeth Croon, ed.
✔ Read a book written by an author from the state where you grew up: Arsenal by Jeffery H. Haskelll/Twisted Magics by J. C. Jackson
✔ Read a book recommended by one of your parents (in-laws count): Ross Poldark by Winston Graham (link forthcoming)
✔ Read a book with your favorite food in the title: Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi
✔ Read a book with a child narrator: Picket Town by Chris von Halle
✔ Read a book you chose based on the cover: Know Me from Smoke by Matt Phillips

The Crescent and the Cross by Kurt Scheffler: An Uneven But Ultimately Satisfying Historical Fiction

The Crescent and the CrossThe Crescent and the Cross

by Kurt Scheffler


ebook
2014

Read: December 20 – 24, 2018


I normally reserve disclaimers for the end of a post — but I’m going to start this post with one. I’ve met Kurt Scheffler, he seems like a good guy. He has taught every one of my children, is currently teaching two of them, and will be teaching one for the next three years. He’s beloved in my house and the impact that he’s had on my kids is almost incalculable. Also, one of my kids bought this for me — not in a “hey, here’s an easy way to get brownie points” kind of move; but a “I know someone who wrote a book, my dad likes books, I should combine those things” kind of way. So basically, I’m trying to say that I have every reason to airbrush what I’m about to say, but I’m going to try to not do that. Also, no parent wants to see one of their kid’s teachers use the word “whoring” that much.

This is the story of The Battle of Tours (in 732) and events leading up to it, told through the lives of people close to Charles Martel and Charles on the one hand and a couple of the leaders of the Muslim forces involved in the Arab invasion of France. Specifically, that’s Charles, his longtime friend, his sons, his mistress, and some children who are adopted by a close associate and are practically part of his household; and then the son of the Caliph and Abderrahman.

It’s your typical historical fiction, blending historical events and fictionalized events into one narrative. I really liked some of the characters a lot, and the ones I had no patience for were the one’s the book doesn’t want you to enjoy. I’m not convinced that I didn’t like them for the same reasons I wasn’t supposed to like them — it wasn’t their less-than-savory characteristics, but their portrayal. But still, that’s better than many novels are able to pull off.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot more thoroughly than that, or talk about any of the particular characters — this post would quickly become too long to bother with. The story takes awhile to coalesce — it almost feels like the novel couldn’t decide what it was going to be about for the first half — it started trying to be X, then it became Y, then Z and quickly A, B, and finally settling on being C (I might have exaggerated a bit there, the book might have settled on B). That’s how it felt, I should say. In retrospect, I don’t think that was the case, it was simply taking it’s time (arguably too much) setting the stage and establishing the characters before launching into the major story.

That said, I found myself enjoying each version of the story the novel gave us along the way, and when it seemed to shift into a different story, I was disappointed to leave X, Y or Z — at least until I got into the new version. Scheffler can tell a story, that’s clear. He’s skilled at sucking you in and feeling what he wants you to.

I do have a few quibbles with the book — I’ll only talk about a few. My notes are full of question marks when we got a historical particular, I just wasn’t sure if he got the timing on some things correct. There’s a lot of anachronisms — for example, Pascal’s wager a few centuries early (sure, someone could’ve said it before Pascal — but it seemed a bit off); some statements about equality that sounded like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rough drafts; and people holding opinions/values that I just can’t accept given the time (mostly benign things, I should add, like a noblewoman baking as a hobby). The villains might as well be wearing black hats and twirling mustaches, while the “heroic” characters are subtly drawn and live in the gray — I just wish the villains got the same treatment. Practically every character is very aware of the historical significance of the struggle they’re part of — particularly when it comes to the ultimate (and impending) battle between Charles Martel’s and Abderrahman’s armies. I don’t doubt that sometimes individuals understand how vital a role they play in the grand scheme of things, but this seemed a bit overkill (or this is a case of one of the greatest conglomerations of narcissists ever).

There’s redemption, personal reformation, romance, action against a sweeping historical backdrop — there’s something for almost everyone here. Could this book have been better? Yes. Given the themes, the scope, the characters, the setting — there’s a lot more that Scheffler could’ve done here. Also, it would’ve been very easy to make this incredibly dull and/or hack-y. Scheffler avoided that — and I’m very happy about that. In the end, we’re left with something in the middle — an entertaining work with a few problems. You’ll keep turning the pages to see what he does with the characters, but you’ll wonder a little about the background and details. At worst (or best?) this’ll spur you to further reading on the history of the period after reading Scheffler’s fictional take. Really can’t complain about that, right? I’m glad I read it.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a book you received as a gift.

The United Smiths of America by Jon Voss: I read it so you don’t have to.

The United Smiths of AmericaThe United Smiths of America

by Jon Voss

ePub, 371 pg.
2018
Read: December 12 – 14, 2018

This is going to be rough, but I promised to write this, so here goes . . .

Ten citizens of the U. S. wake up in a shipping container. They’re wearing something akin to prison jumpsuits, and a collar. They have no idea where they are, they have no idea how they got there, or who anyone with them is. They are told that they have 10 hours to defeat 9 other teams, made up of people from 9 other regions (some single-nation, others geographic groups) to win $1 billion. There are a couple of vehicles provided for them, and a lot of weapons (that they have to figure out how to use). Oh, and those collars are equipped with C-4 in order to assure they’ll comply.

Hunger Games meets the Amazing Race (or something). The Americans are all named Smith — a sign that they’re random nobodies — and each team is full of equivalents — Garcias, Suzukis, Ivanovs, etc. (these are not necessarily the names, I refuse to open the book again to check and see). Each chapter covers ten minutes or so of the ten hours they have to fight or die.

I did not enjoy a single moment of this experience. When I wasn’t bored, I was offended. When I wasn’t offended, I was discouraged by the writing. I walked away from each session disappointed and dreading returning to it. I’m not saying it ruined my life for a couple of days, but it sure made things unpleasant.

The “humor” (I think there were bits that were supposed to be humorous) was juvenile, puerile, and not funny. To say that the characters from various nations were walking stereotypes would be generous, more than one were also racist — oh, and someone (a fairly educated character) described (presumably white) Australians as a “race.” Which was news to me. One, I stress one of the Smiths came close to being more than two-dimensional and worth reading about — no other characters (no matter their nationality) came close. The story as a whole makes 80’s action films like Iron Eagle look subtle and nuanced. The author uses italics and all-caps to show emotion in dialogue, which should have been the first sign that I need to bail on the book.

The sex scene gives new meaning to gratuitous. I mean . . . ugh.

The fight scenes — and there were many, just not as many as you might expect — were decent, though.

I pushed on to the end because 1. I’d told the publicist I’d read this piece of garbage; 2. I was curious about the point of it all (and yes, you have to get near the end to find it); and 3. I wanted to see if there was anything redeeming to be found in the book. The results were, not surprisingly, disheartening. 1. I can’t imagine that group will want to work with me again; 2. The point is . . . maddening, convoluted, and uninspired; and 3. Nope.

Don’t. Just don’t. If any of you have a time machine and would like to use it to stop me, leave a note in the comments and I’ll give you a time, date and address.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel in exchange for this post from a publicist who will probably not appreciate this post at all. Sorry about that.

—–

1 Star

✔ Read a book that takes place in one day.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne: A combination of one of my favorite topics and least favorite form

Dog SongsDog Songs

by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne (Illustrator)

Paperback, 121 pg.
Penguin Press, 2013
Read: December 6 – 11, 2018

Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and noble friend. A dog
is also a hedonist.

I don’t know if I’ve posted about poetry here before. Probably not. Despite many attempts (when I was younger) — including a few classes, I’m just not a poetry guy. I can appreciate the occasional poem — and there are a few poets I can really get into, but on the whole? Not my thing.

But part of the 2018 While You Were Reading Challenge, was to read a collection of poetry — and I came close to grabbing an Ogden Nash book off my shelves, but my wife had been given a collection a year or so ago of poems about dogs. And it’s been at least a month since I posted something about dogs, so it’s about time.

So yeah, there are 35 poems about dogs — most of them (all of them?) seem to be based on Oliver’s own dogs — a couple of dogs get a handful of poems about them. Those, obviously, you get a pretty good idea about. Otherwise, it’s just one-shots about some great-sounding dogs.

Oliver does a great job conveying a strong impression about a dog in just a few lines — or even a few words. “He was a mixture of gravity and waggity” is one of the best lines I’ve read in 2018. I do think she goes over the top in terms of the wisdom or deep knowledge, etc. of dogs. But when she focuses on behavior, or personalities of specific animals, I find her pretty entertaining — and even moving.

I’m not saying that I’m going out to grab every Oliver collection in print or anything, but I liked most of these poems — several of them I liked a lot.

There’s also one essay in this slim volume. Skip it. Oliver is a poet, not an essayist.

Does this book need Burgoyne’s illustrations? Nope. But they’re nice to look at, so I’m not complaining. I’d be more than happy to hang some of these around the house.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a collection of poetry.

Mr. Pizza by J. F. Pandolfi: A Winsome Tale of a Rookie Teacher

(WordPress is doing that thing again where it messes up the html in my post header. I think I’ve fixed it, but if the beginning of the post looks ugly, sorry, I’m doing my best)

Mr. Pizza
Mr. Pizza

by J. F. Pandolfi


ePUB, 298 pg.
L&A Publications, 2018

Read: December 4 – 5, 2018

On the verge of graduating from college, Tony Piza (long “I”, and yes, he’s heard all the jokes), decides he’s not ready to head to law school and would like to take a year off. Inspired by a suggestion from his roommate, he applies to teach at a Roman Catholic school near his home. He figures that it’ll be pretty easy — spout some facts and figures from the text-book, assign some homework, do a little grading, catch up on his reading. All while living rent-free with his parents and sister. Despite never having taken an education class, nor showing any previous interest in education, and some iffy interview questions, he’s hired.

Early on, he performs his duties just as he planned — and it’s as successful as you imagine. But before long, he starts to see his students as individuals, not some faceless mass. It’s just a few steps from there to caring about their education and trying to do something about it. Tony also makes some friends with fellow teachers — two other lay teachers (including the other male staff member), and one nun. They start to rub off on him — and even inspire him.

But that doesn’t mean he turns into Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr or George Feeny, he’s more like a version of Gabe Kotter or Charlie Moore. Unconventional, off-kilter, and comical — yet challenging. Both his lectures and his assignments bring out the strengths and weaknesses his students (and their parents) were unaware they possessed. They also get Tony in trouble with parents, school administrators and school board members.

Essentially, the novel is a bildungsroman, watching Tony’s development from someone who sees teaching as a vacation from his real life to someone truly invested in it. I don’t want to say that it’s a smooth transition or that he flips the switch and becomes the World’s Greatest 6th Grade Teacher ™. That would make for a very dull novel.

Pandolfi writes in a very smooth, assured style. There’s not a lot of artistic flourishes — that’s not a critique, just an observation. It is charming, frequently amusing, and pretty earnest. I was a little afraid after reading the description that this would be a satire that tried too hard, one of those books where you can see the writer trying to be funny (which almost never works) — but I’m pleased to say that it wasn’t. Tony seemed to try too hard, but not Pandolfi — a character doing that is annoying, but it’s a character trait; a writer doing that is frequently a a deal breaker.

Tony’s antics and judgement are a mixed bag, as I mentioned. Early on, some of his jokes/behavior didn’t seem like fun, they seemed capricious and even mean — but so did M*A*S*H‘s Hawkeye and Duke Forrest (the book and movie versions, anyway). From the get-go the 1973 setting and sensibility put me in that frame of mind, so that’s where my mind went. And sure, part of the book is to show his growth from that, but it’s pretty off-putting. Similarly, I had trouble swallowing how tone-deaf he was when it came to jokes about Roman Catholics (even after being warned), yet he was reflexively sensitive to other people/problems (frequently in a way that seemed at least somewhat anachronistic).

Ultimately, I was able to get past that — and it’s possible that without me putting something about that in my notes, I’d have forgotten to mention it. Because of his growth, by that last third or so of the book, you see almost no signs of this (except when his past comes back to haunt him). So, I guess I’m saying, if you’re put off by some of his early behavior, give him a chance.

His sister, Patty, has Down’s Syndrome. I really appreciated the way that Pandolfi treated her. She’s simply a character — there’s no After-School Special moment with her, she’s not an object of pity — she’s simply Tony’s little sister. There are funny moments with her, some sweet moments with her — just like there are with Tony’s mother and father.

Tony’s students, fittingly, come close to stealing the novel from Tony. As is the case with the Bad News Bears, the Sweathogs, Fillmore High’s IHP class, etc., you have to want to see the kids do well to care about their teacher. They’re a diverse group, each having some distinctive characteristics and/or problems. They come to believe in their “Mr. Pizza” long before the staff, or even Tony — and stay his biggest supporters through the ups and downs that ensue. If you don’t like at least most of the students, there’s something wrong with you and you should seek professional help. Or just re-read the book, because you probably missed something.

The rest of the cast of characters are well-drawn and believable. There are a few that I’m glad we didn’t get much time with (Tony’s extended family, for example). His friends, fellow teachers and principal are strong characters, a couple of them are better developed. But that’s simply due to time spent with them. Pandolfi has a gift for good characters, which is half the battle in a novel.

Mr. Pizza is a charming tale of a young man maturing at a turning point in his life. There’s some good laughs, some uncomfortable moments, and some earnest emotional beats. The book is a pleasure to read and it — and it’s protagonist — will win you over and get you rooting for them both.

Disclaimer: I received this book from RABT Book Tours in exchange for this post and my participation in the book tour.

—–

3.5 Stars

✔ Read a book with your favorite food in the title.

RABT Book Tours & PR