Planet Grim by Alex Behr

Planet GrimPlanet Grim

by Alex Behr

eARC, 222 pg.
7.13 Books, 2017

I’ve been dreading the day when I had to write about this book for a month or so now — I just don’t know that I’m up to it. While I can’t say that I enjoyed every story, there was something in each of them that impressed me. I’d do better discussing this book over a beverage with someone who’s read the stories rather than in the abstract.

In a few sentences — at most a couple of paragraphs — Behr gets you into a world with fully realized characters, completely different situations — many of which you’ve never even thought about before. You will be disturbed, moved, saddened, surprised, fascinated, and occasionally, struck by a darkly comic moment.

I want to stress the “dark,” — Planet Grim is probably underselling it. There’s not a lot o flight to be found in these pages. I’m not suggesting that you’ll end up depressed at the end of every story, but you won’t be chuckling or uplifted. These are real people going through some pretty real problems and situations. It’s hard to slap a genre tag on these — there’s the barest hint of SF (but not really, you’ll see); these would all nicely fit in with a noir novel (without the knight errant); technically a lot would fit in “Women’s Fiction” (but . . . no); so I guess you stick it in the “General Fiction” section, but hopefully that doesn’t mean you overlook it.

A piece of advice: do not read more than two or three of these stories in one sitting. Actually, I think the volume of stories in this collection is the biggest problem with it. If there were seven of these stories in one volume, I’d probably be raving about it and demanding more. As it is, I was a little overwhelmed — there’s just too much to deal with (which is why it took me 5 weeks to get through it).

I’ve said it before here, and I’ll probably say it again, I”m not a huge short story guy. A few more collections like this could change me. There’s not a dud in the batch — there are a couple that I think I didn’t fully appreciate (or even “get”) for one reason or another — but there’s not one that’s not worth a second or third read. Alex Behr can write, period. If you give her a chance, she’ll convince you of that. I can’t say that I enjoyed this book, I don’t know if I liked it, but man, I was impressed with it, I’m glad that I got to read it, and I know it’s some of the best writing I’ve come across this year.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

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BOOK GIVEAWAY: Appointment with Yesterday by Christopher Stratakis

Book Giveaway:
Prize: One winner will receive a print copy of Appointment with Yesterday and a $25 Amazon gift card (Open to USA only)

Ends Oct 28

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BOOK SPOTLIGHT: Appointment with Yesterday by Christopher Stratakis

Book Details:

Book Title: Appointment with Yesterday: A Novel in Four Parts with a Prologue and an Epilogue
Author: Christopher Stratakis
Category: Adult Fiction, 334 pages
Genre: coming-of-age / WWII / immigrant experience
Publisher: IndieReader
Release date: January 2017
Tour dates: Oct 2 to 20, 2017
Content Rating: PG-13 + M (There is no bad language or violence, but there are references to sex and sexual situations (including between a pre-teen and teen)

Book Description:

A poignant and compelling first novel, Appointment with Yesterday tells the story of Yanni, a cheeky and delightful Greek boy growing up in a small town on an island in the eastern Aegean.

Left in the care of his loving grandparents, Yanni endures the deprivation and terror of the German occupation during World War II and finally leaves his beloved homeland and family to rejoin the parents who had left him behind to make a better life for themselves in America.

Filled with heartbreaking and heartwarming stories of love, devotion, disenchantment, and dashed dreams, Appointment with Yesterday is, ultimately, the story of hardships overcome and a determined boy’s journey toward finding his destiny.

Buy the Book:

 

 

 

 

 

Meet the Author:

 

Christopher Stratakis was born and raised in Greece. After moving to America, he graduated from Drexel University in 1951 and New York University School of Law in 1955. Shortly after joining the law firm of Poles, Tublin & Patestides in 1960, he became a partner, specializing in admiralty and corporate law.

He has written and published several articles, lectured on professional and historical subjects, served as Legal Advisor to several non-profits (pro bono), and was an arbitrator in maritime disputes. He is the author of Mnimes “Memories” (2010), a book of essays, short stories, and poems that he wrote as a teenager. In 2015, he co-edited Chains on Parallel Roads, a book published by Panchiaki “Korais” Society of New York. In recognition of his extensive community involvement, he has been the recipient of several awards from religious, governmental, and educational institutions.

Mr. Stratakis lives with his wife in New York City. He is the proud father of three and grandfather of three. This is his first novel.

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Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Two years ago, I read Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, loved it, and spent 5 months trying to figure out how to talk about it. Last year, I listened to the audiobook, loved it, and spent 6 months trying to figure out how to write about it. I failed both times — and I’m not sure that I figured out how to talk about this book, but at least I got something posted. Short version: if you see a book by Robin Sloan somewhere, read it.

SourdoughSourdough

by Robin Sloan
Hardcover, 259 pg.
MCD Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017

Read: September 27 – 28, 2017

There’s a version of this where all I do is talk about how this is similar to/different from Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore — but I don’t want to do that. Let me just say up front that if you liked Mr. Penumbra’s, you’ll dig this. If you didn’t like it, you will dig this — and you probably were having a bad day or weren’t paying attention when you read Mr. Penumbra’s (or you were created by the Tyrell Corporation). So let me sum up: you will dig this book.

This is the story of Lois Clary, a computer programmer working on ways to help robots redefine the concept of work for the future. It sounds like a dreadful place to work — intellectually rewarding, maybe; challenging, yes; but between the hours, the pay and the culture? No thanks. The work is demanding enough that they don’t have time to eat/prepare food, many using Slurry, “a liquid meal replacement,” for several meals each week.

Slurry was a nutritive gel manufactured by an eponymous company even newer than [the company Lois works for]. Dispensed in waxy green Tetra Packs, it had the consistency of a thick milkshake. It was nutritionally complete and rich with probiotics. It was fully dystopian.

Into her overworked and nutritive gel-sustained existence comes a menu for a small cafe that delivers. Their specialty is a spicy soup and a spicy sandwich. The sandwich is made on sourdough bread, and you get an extra slab with the spicy soup. This sourdough is a special thing (you may have guessed that based on the title). This becomes her new favorite food, and what she eats when she’s not consuming the gel.

She develops a semi-relationship with the brothers behind the soup/sandwich, and when they have to leave the country, they give her a part of their sourdoughs starter and a lesson on bread preparation (Lois doesn’t cook, and doesn’t come from a family that did). The starter has specific instructions that reminded me of what’s given when someone buys a mogwai — and just as important. Before she knows it, Lois is baking for herself, to give to others, and even to sell. She’s building a brick oven and really branching out socially (and keeping up with her work, too) — in this, Lois starts to enjoy life and work. I’m pretty sure this is the first time since school (if not ever) that this is true for her.

As she gets more involved with bread making, Lois makes friends, she travels a bit, meets new people — discovering three strange little subcultures along the. She also carries out an email correspondence with one of the brothers as he pursues his dream. That’s all I’m going to say about the plot — there is more to it than I said, but not much.

There’s something like magical realism at work throughout this, but I wouldn’t call it that. Mostly because, it’s weird science, not magic. But it’s probably not real science, just science the way we’d like it to work. Not so much so that this is Fantasy or Science Fiction, just… I don’t know what to call it. Whimsical science? 

It’s the way that Sloan tells the story that makes it worth it — there’s a spark to his writing that makes you want to read it. Lois’ world is our world, only better (and maybe a little worse), filled with interesting people doing interesting things. There’s a humanity in the narration, in the action that I can’t get enough of (ditto for his other work). There’s a humor throughout, but it’s not a funny book. But man, it’ll make you happy just to read it. I loved being in this world — it almost didn’t matter what happened to Lois and her starter (not that I didn’t enjoy it), just reading Robin Sloan’s prose is good enough for me. I’ve got a list of 10 quotations I wanted to use here that I couldn’t come up with a way to force into this post, and I think I could’ve easily let the size of that list double.

A book that will make you think, that may inspire, that will make you smile — that will make you want carbs (no joke — it required Herculean effort on my part each time I read a chapter or two not to call my son to tell him to bring home a fresh loaf from the bakery he works at), Sourdough is a gem.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

2017 Library Love Challenge

Travels and Travails of Small Minds by Daniel Falatko

Travels and Travails of Small MindsTravels and Travails of Small Minds

by Daniel Falatko

eARC, 252 pg.
The Ardent Writer Press, 2017

Read: September 20 – 21, 2017

“I feel like I’m stuck in a mystery novel written by an unhinged individual, Amy.”

There’s a lot of truth to that lament Nathan makes to his girlfriend, Amy. In the same conversation, she had a different take on it:

“Mystery Englishmen? Ever-evolving eccentric casts of characters? Intricate layers of plot involving absolutely nothing? Two unaware and wayward employees leading the story? Nathan, you are living in a Wes Anderson film. And I’m not sure if I like it. You’re definitely more Life Aquatic than Rushmore at this point.”

There’s a lot truth to that, too. At the same time, neither of them is quite right (and please, don’t go looking for a Wes Anderson/unhinged mystery writer kind of book, you won’t get it. But you may get something that appeals to someone who’d like that kind of book). Just these commentaries on Nathan’s life during this novel shows you just how strange this is.

I don’t want to say there isn’t a plot — there is one; nor do I want to say that it’s not important, or nonsensical — there is a good amount of sense and it is a pretty good story; but compared to the experience of spending time with Nathan, his friends and colleagues, as well as those he meets over the course of the novel outweighs the story.

You’ve got Nathan; his girlfriend, Amy; his boss Dr. Behr, an elderly gentleman who just might be the living incarnation of “eccentric”; his coworker, Edward, who has spent far too many years working for Dr. Behr; and Nathan’s neighbor, who seems to do little other than use recreational pharmaceuticals. Throw in the study of a beatnik novelist of dubious quality, the attempted illegal eviction of a young woman, and some strange British citizens, and then step back and watch the lunacy begin. There’s a real estate deal at the core of this — which allows Falatko to indulge his fixation on NYC rental properties (and seals my conviction that I’ll never move there) — the sheer number of things that are wrong with the deal and that can go wrong with it. And here we are, proof that I can’t talk about this book in a way that makes a whole lot of sense.

This is a funny book, but not a comedy. It’s absurd in the best sense. It’s a wild ride, with a very human — and relatable center. Relatable might not be the best word, because I can’t imagine that any reader will have an experience like it. But even at the strangest moments, you’ll find yourself nodding with Nathan’s actions and reactions, saying to yourself, “yeah, I can see why he’d do that.” Even the conclusion that the plot careens to — for most of the book you’d say that wouldn’t work at all, but by the time it happens, it seems pretty perfect.

The illustrations are a nice touch — I don’t know that I needed them, and I don’t know that they really added all that much. At the same time, I enjoyed them. At what point was it decided that only kids could use a picture every now and then in their books?

I wasn’t a fan of Falatko’s previous novel, Condominium, but I thought it did display an element of talent. Travels and Travails put a lot more on display, and kept me entertained and engaged (and frequently smiling) throughout the novel. Although, I should note that I also spent a good deal of time wondering what I’d just read and why — but I was having such a good time that I really didn’t care about the answers to those questions. You won’t read many books like this one, but you’ll wish you could.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest opinion and participation in this book tour. I just wish I had something more coherent to say about it.

—–

3.5 Stars

Book Spotlight: Travels and Travails of Small Minds by Daniel Falatko


Welcome to our Book Tour stop for Travels and Travails of Small Minds. Along with this blurb about the book, my take on the book will be posted in a little bit.

Book Details:

Book Title:  Travels and Travails of Small Minds
Author: Daniel Falatko
Details: 252 pages with 10 interior illustrations
Publisher: The Ardent Writer Press
Release date: October 1, 2017

About the Book:

Nathan is not ambitious, and he is perfectly happy doing nothing at the dusty and cluttered properties office of his boss, Dr. Behr, a quirky ex-literature professor pushing 80.

But things are about to get tossed in the air as Nathan uncovers a mysterious plan of Behr’s to oust one of his
renters for what appears to be a substantial but ill-gotten profit. Behr recruits his slacker employee to help in the plot, but as Nathan questions motives and discovers secrets, it is clear that Nathan might be in for surprises of his own.

About the Author:


Daniel Falatko is the author of a previous novel, Condominium. He is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in New York City.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Sometime in the reading of this novel, it occurred to me that I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel about life on the frontier (American or, now, Australian) written with a male as the central character — Laura Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn, a few others I can’t think of the names of, all female. Clearly, that’s not that important, and even more clearly, I’ve not read deeply in this area — I just found it odd.

Salt CreekSalt Lake

by Lucy Treloar

Kindle Edition, 464 pg.
Aardvark Bureau, 2015

Read: August 29 – 31, 2017

Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.

It’s the mid-1850’s and Hester Finch and her family are settling in the Coorong region, after her father’s finances fall apart in Adelaide (which follows them falling apart elsewhere before). This is clearly their last chance, but with some luck and determination, they should be able to survive — even if they can’t rebuild their fortunes enough to return to town. It’s too much of a step down for their mother, who seems ill-equipped for Australia at this time, much less the Coorong, and Hester has to step up and shoulder more responsibilities for the running of the household and the raising/educating of her younger siblings.

Her father sees himself as a businessman, an entrepreneur, but it doesn’t seem that his abilities match his ambitions/self-estimation. He’s a strong and pious Quaker, with some fairly (for his time) progressive ideas about the status and nature of the natives. Yes, he wants to help them via Western Civilization and Christianity (whether they want it or not), but he doesn’t see them in the same way that many others (including some of this sons) do. At least not in the beginning of the novel — things continue to not go well for him (I’m being purposefully vague here), and as that happens the broken man inside him is revealed or his ideals and hopes are shattered and something else emerges. He becomes the villain of the piece, or one of the many victims of the environment — I quite enjoy the fact that I could argue either way on that.

Space and patience (yours and mine) prevent me from talking about all of Hester’s siblings (there are several) and the others they come into contact with, so I’ll sum up by saying within and without the family display a wide swath of humanity, the good and the bad (and the worst) we have to offer. There is a native (Hester’s word), Tull, who lives around the Finch home that is befriended by the family, who comes to occasionally live with them, work alongside them, is educated with them — and becomes part of the family. Much of the plot revolves around or comes from his presence, his interactions with the Finches and others. Treloar handles the character well — Tull’s not perfect, not all-wise, or a paragon, or anything. He’s just as flawed as the rest of the people in this book (well, maybe a little less flawed than some).

This will be seen primarily as a story about love, or about the clash of native cultures and Western colonization in the harshness of pioneer life, or something along those lines. To me, the recurring theme was pride (I’m not sure the word was used all that much, but man, it was all over the place). People broken by pride, motivated by pride, people corrupted by pride, people blocked by pride — I could probably go on. I don’t think of one thing in this book that was motivated by pride that went well — it was only when pride was ignored or set aside — for love, for the sake of another — does anything actually go well (this applies to Hester post-Coorong, too). It was subtle, but it was profound.

There are enough references to Jane Eyre that the reader is forced to draw lines of comparison/contrast between Jane and Hester (and maybe some of the others, as well). This is a nervy thing for an author to do (not just to Jane Eyre, but any classic of that stature), and it rarely works out well for the newbie. I’m not saying the comparisons are invalid, I just am not sure that Treloar should’ve pushed it. One mention of the book — maybe two (her receiving a new copy and reading it in secret) would’ve been enough just to see that Hester draws some inspiration from the literature she’s exposed to.

There are passages from this book that rank right up there with some of the best I’ve read this year — one scene where Hester is overcome with grief and a sense of futility that’ll just wreck your heart. There’s another involving an injury on the farm and Hester’s tending to the wound (including some stitches), that just curled my toes — really, give me Thomas Harris describing one of Lecter’s snacks rather than make me read that again.* When it comes to pain and hardship, Treloar can write with the best of them.

But I’m not totally taken with her as an author. Early on, Treloar jumps around chronologically between the early months in The Coorang and to various periods of Hester’s time in England as an adult. I didn’t see the point to this move, unless she was going to continue that as a way to develop the story. But she stops that for several chapters, abandoning the future until the last three chapters — when it fits easily. I didn’t see the point to it, it muddied the waters a little and made it hard for me to get invested in what was happening in the 1850s.

And that ties in with my biggest problem with the book — I couldn’t get interested until slightly after the 50% mark. I really wasn’t even that curious about anyone at that point, it was just a matter of me pushing on, wondering if I’d ever get invested. Thankfully, I did. Somewhat, anyway. But that it took so long for me to care about the things that were happening — much less the people they were happening to/because of, says something about the book. There’s a lot to be said for an author taking time to establish the world she’s writing in, to develop the characters slowly, patiently — I’m all for that when it’s done well. But it’s so much easier to appreciate when I’m given a reason to keep reading beyond wanting to finish a book.

Once I did make that connection — my enjoyment of and appreciation for the book ratcheted up. I don’t think the pacing changed at this point (maybe it picked up a little bit), but everything she’d spent 52% or so of the book setting up was set up, so with all the causes in place, the effects started and that was much more engaging.

Regardless, there were some killer sentences (even in the first half) in this book, demonstrating that Treloar has the right stuff. I think she could do more with it than she has, and would like to see more from her in the future. On the whole, this is a good read — and I can easily see where some will enjoy it more than me (I can almost bet those who do are engaged more than I was during the first half), a gritty, stark examination of pioneer living in the mid-19th century with just a hint of hope. Recommended.


* I will always take blood and guts and gore that are clearly fantastic over those that really happened or are close enough to reality to have probably happened several times.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for this post and my honest opinion.

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3.5 Stars