Monday, June 27, 2016

The Glorious Heresies: A Book Review

There's prose and then there's the dense thicket of words that pricks like James Joyce. THE GLORIOUS HERESIES is more of the latter. But don't let the opening paragraphs put you off. Go on, read it again and again until the words make sense and you realize that Lisa McInerney can't help herself as she's an Irish storyteller and that's just how the sentences fall out of her head.

The novel is a tangle of narratives that are interconnected with cleverness that makes the reading an adventure. From Maureen who kills a shiftless intruder with a Holy Stone, to her son Jimmy the gangster who cleans up the mess, we next meet Tony Cusack the widowed drunk with six kids to feed, and soon thereafter it's Tony's son Ryan the drug dealer and the partner of the dead man, a prostitute who buys her drugs from Ryan. These disparate characters inhabit the poorest section of Cork where the death of the Celtic Tiger is keenly felt. Picture a novel set in the slums of an average American city like Cleveland, that is the sort of place that Ms. McInerney has chosen to present a group with nothing going for them and nothing to look forward to but more difficulty and hardship.

There is murder and a cover-up on one hand, and like ripples in a pond that cover-up touches on the entire cast of characters. Tony gets involved because he's the widowed father of six and desperate for any work that brings in a little money. Ryan is struggling to find his way, madly in love with his girlfriend but unable to build a solid relationship after surviving his dysfunctional father's regime. The cover-up leads to questions that threaten Jimmy, and if it sounds rather "In Bruges", this is a black comedy in that same vein.

The prose is light-hearted in its darkness, the situations devolving into near comedy with a hard edge. The horrors of the old Magdalene Laundries is touched upon by Maureen, who found herself pregnant as the system of incarceration was breaking down, but the resentment she harbours towards the Catholic Church is not unknown to those who have spoken to the women whose lives were destroyed. To understand Maureen's antipathy, you might want to read THE LEAVEN OF THE PHARISEES to gain some insight into how the Church shaped modern Ireland, and women like Maureen.

To enter THE GLORIOUS HERESIES is to enter the world of those who typically end up dead or incarcerated, the denizens of the bottom of the social ladder. The author provides touches of humanity that make for fully realized people, rather than uni-dimensional images of the downtrodden, hopeless masses. As a reader, you may come to care about what happens to them, and so you keep on reading to a conclusion on a high note.

Lisa McInerney has long written a blog that focuses on the very sort of people she has used to populate her first novel. Her experiences writing from Cork show up in her first novel, a book populated by the very sort of characters she portrays in the blog. The note of hope on which the story closes might be a bit of wishful thinking, artistic license, or something that's been seen in the dismal estate housing that Americans would recognize as housing projects, with the same sets of social problems. After all the misery, however, it's a satisfying ending.

My great-grandmother's adage, about being grateful we weren't from Cork because that's where all the poor people are, could be some kind of warning about what you'll encounter as you read THE BLORIOUS HERESIES.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, more so after I got deeper into it than the opening pages. That dense thicket of words was off-putting at first, but the voice is unique and worth the struggle.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Leaving Lucy Pear: A Book Review

A young Jewish women gives birth out of wedlock and chooses to leave her newborn under a pear tree, where she knows the hardscrabble Irish-Catholic pear stealers will find it. That infant is Lucy Pear, the one who gets left.

The novel is an intimate portrayal of human interactions, with narratives intertwined. After leaving the baby, Bea is expected to go back to her former life as if nothing happened, but nine years after abandoning the infant she is back to call on her elderly uncle who took her in when she was up the stick. The woman who found Lucy ends up as the uncle's nurse, brushing the edges of Bea's life, but each knows the secret of Lucy Pear and that secret hovers over the story.

Anna Solomon does a fine job of creating intersections that ramp up the tension as the reader wonders when Lucy Pear will realize that Bea is her birth mother. At the same time, she weaves a backdrop suited to the setting, with Emma looking at moonshining as a way to make a few dollars during Prohibition. There is tragedy that results from unintended consequences, pitting rich against poor at the same time as Sacco and Vanzetti stand trial at the height of the labor movement, plenty of little subplots to keep a reader's interest.

The ending falls off into literary fiction prettiness, filled with scenes of the future that the omniscient narrator assures us our characters don't yet know will happen, and finally the last chapter jumps into the present tense because, well, you know. Literary fiction.

There is no plumbing the depths of these characters. They float on the surface of the novel, somewhat shallow but entertaining in their diversity. In these modern times, you come to expect a stock gay character (Bea's husband) and an evil industrialist oppressing his workers and trying to bust the stonecutter union. Even Lucy is given the cross-dressing treatment, but it feels more like a girl disguising herself as a boy to live a more full life at a time when girls faced far more restrictions on their activities.

All in all, this was a pleasant read, the sort of book you get lost in and don't regret the time spent in the reading.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Good Agents Don't Spam Publishers

The submission requirements for Newcastlewest Books are quite simple and straightforward. We don't want nobody nobody sent. Manuscripts are considered by referral only. So it's clear that Faye Swetky of the Swetky Agency didn't bother to read the page on how to submit.

We've received a second submission from her this month. It's apparent that she throws submissions out there to see if any stick. Not exactly the mark of an agent who is working for her client, targeting those publishers most likely to want what she is offering.

Her client Dawn Turzio has written a book about New York fire fighter wives, apparently, and the query came to our office where we specialize in books with an Irish influence. Historical fiction in particular, although our CITY THAT WORKS imprint was set up to publish works set in the Chicago area where the Irish have historically supported the auld sod. So clearly there's no link between a modern work of fiction set in New York City, but Faye Swetky didn't let that small detail stop her.

And I am sure that  author Dawn Turzio, with all her credentials, has faith in her agent and expects Ms. Swetky to find her a publisher.

I hope that Ms. Turzio is not paying for the service. If she had done some research and used Google to its full potential, she would have found a thread on the discussion forum at in which things are pretty much laid out about how this agent is an agent in name only.If she knew in advance, you would hope that she would have avoided what is sure to be disappointment when nothing comes of the blanket submissions.

Did Ms. Turzio go the traditional route of finding an agent, writing up a query and utilizing beta readers to vet that query? Did she search the internet to find out how to query, for that matter?

There is so much information out there for budding authors that it's almost staggering, but querying is a definite process with its own set of rules and formats. It's work, yes, and frustrating beyond measure, but there are no shortcuts to getting published. Literary agents can't take shortcuts either, and send out queries at random in the hope they get lucky, like the blind squirrel finding a nut.

And speaking of squirrels, you know that if you feed one it will just keep coming around. With that in mind, I won't be replying to Ms. Swetky's missive. It only encourages her to send more, and our submission requirements are simple but stringent. If you aren't recommended to us, we won't consider the manuscript. We are a niche publisher with very particular needs, a very narrow focus.

No matter how brilliant F.D.N Wives might be, it doesn't meet any of our requirements.

Sorry, Ms. Turzio. But you really should find yourself a good agent who can get your book into the hands of a publisher who is looking for mainstream, contemporary women's fiction.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

This Is Why There Is An Obesity Epidemic

You don't have to hunt down your meal anymore. You don't have to expend calories to acquire more. Watch one of those survivalist TV shows and you'll notice that every contestant loses weight when there isn't a 24-hour McDonald's nearby. Getting something to eat was not all that easy when man first appeared on the planet. Now, it's too easy.

And it isn't as if McDonald's puny burgers are the biggest offenders. Ray Kroc may have started things off, but the burger has ballooned into a trendy venue for culinary expression. The calories just follow right along with the chef's creativity.

After a day of desk-jockeying, you head out for dinner and there's no hunting or gathering involved, short of walking the aisles of the grocery store to scrounge up some grub. No chasing after animals with your spear in these modern times. The protein you crave is right there in a tidy styrofoam tray, shrink wrapped and chilled for freshness.

What if you don't have time to cook, or you want to enjoy a meal that someone else has prepared?

Again, you don't have to hunt down anything. Maybe you walk a block or two from the parking spot, but you aren't exactly burning up the calories you took in at lunch. You grow weary as you traverse the concrete plains of Chicago, but there up ahead is the beacon, the sign that tells you a burger is just up ahead. Unlike the prey of the hunter, this one isn't going to run away when you get close to it. The restaurant just sits there, inviting you in.

If your feet take you to M Burger, you won't be thinking about calories but about taste and flavor and juicy beef between two slices of, between two other sandwiches!

This is why there is an obesity epidemic. When people think it's a good idea to serve a sandwich made with other sandwiches, there's no hope for coronary arteries or shrinking waistlines.

Who had the idea to take a fried meat patty and combine it with a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches? Someone who didn't like the way the cheese merged with the beef on their cheeseburger?

Was it the same person who felt that the beef wasn't enough, but a nice crispy-fried chicken cutlet would really set things off?

The secret, off-menu creation that has enough calories to fuel a family of five for a week consists of a burger with chicken and of course you have to throw on a couple of slices of bacon, not to forget the slice of cheese that goes on because everyone loves a cheeseburger unless you're keeping kosher (see also 'hold the bacon'). Take all that, and put it between two grilled cheese sandwiches, and you have the Barnyard Burger, Roman style.

It isn't all bad, of course. There's lettuce on the pile of protein and fat. That's a vegetable, if you're more of a carnivore than you realized.

And it is delicious.

That's why we're getting fat. We have access to food that tastes really, really, really good, but we don't have to make any effort to get it. What's the solution? Food that's bland, unpalatable and unattractive, perhaps with some foul odors thrown in.

It's that, or run a few miles and pretend you're hunting buffalo on the open prairie before sitting down to a Barnyard Burger. Just don't make it a habit. Your heart will thank you. Your taste buds? Not so happy with the deprivation..

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Wicked Boy: A Book Review

True crime and well-researched historical detail
In the Victorian era, children were considered adults in miniature, the teenager unknown as we look on them today. But attitudes were changing, and when a thirteen-year-old boy murdered his mother in a run-down district of London, citizens debated the reason why. Not unlike today, when teens commit murder and it's the violent video game taking the blame. In 1895, it was the penny dreadful, the cheap literature filled with violence and gore that was seen as the terrible influence on malleable young minds.

Author Kate Summerscale examines one such crime in her newest work of history THE WICKED BOY. She uses the case of Robert Coombes, who freely confessed to killing his mother while his father was away at sea, and presents the sort of evidence that made up the prosecution and, more interesting, the defense.

Quoting freely from court records, Ms. Summerscale crafts an intriguing piece of narrative non-fiction, putting the reader into the middle of the case. Bit by bit, she peels away the layers of testimony that described the actual crime. The fact that Robert made no effort to hide his mother's body suggests a lack of real understanding of the gravity of the crime, at least to our modern eyes. The Victorians, however, were just then drawing that sort of conclusion, although Ms. Summerscale demonstrates the lack of consensus through newspaper reports of the day. She also reveals the prejudices of the time that painted a Coombes family friend as a harmless imbecile, the sort of person who today would be labelled as mentally challenged, rather than a cunning aid to murder. The reporting that described Robert and his younger brother, also implicated, is a window to another age, when overblown prose was typical and court artists took great liberties to portray the criminal as an animal.

The reader is able to draw conclusions without being beat over the head with the author's opinion, and like a jury member can read between the lines of evidence that danced around the possibility of extreme child abuse. We have come a long, long way from Queen Victoria's day, when a parent was allowed to do just about anything they pleased to their offspring.

Without giving away the ending, the conclusion of Robert Coombes' life proves to be uplifting and reinforces the theory that he was an abused child, his mother possibly mentally unstable. His experiences did indeed scar him, but he carried on with the sort of resignation one would expect from a boy raised in poverty and struggling to cope with the stress of a hardscrabble life.

This is a book worth reading for anyone interested in criminal justice in the Victorian period, and how the concept of a child as a wanton criminal was starting to give way under the influence of the newfangled theories of  psychoanalysis, with mental illness as the driving force behind crimes considered unthinkable. Thanks to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read this five out of five stars book.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Most Extraordinary Pursuit: A Book Review

Author Julianan Gray lost me when she had her character Rose Truelove speak to the dead Queen Victoria.

Rose chats with her dead father as well, besides the Queen, and if you compare the actual novel to the advertising copy from Penguin Random House, you'd be thinking a mistake was made somewhere. A MOST EXTRAORDINARY PURSUIT is not an historical mystery but a very silly book.

I'm at a disadvantage with this one, being a university graduate and burdened with an education that makes this sort of reading impossible. I think there was a story in there, plodding along, but the writing was so over the top in an attempt at levity that I felt as if I was sitting in a music hall watching talentless actors mug across the stage. Rose is supposed to be on the hunt for the heir of her late employer (to whom she does not speak, more's the pity) but I really did not care if she ever found him or not.

The mystery lies in the heir's location, as he has disappeared from some archaeological dig somewhere that requires Rose to take a steamship to reach. There was a rather long stretch about seassickness in there that I skimmed over because it was boring and did not move the narrative. That was about all I could take, despite my best efforts to finish so I could write a proper review.

Perhaps the recently past-teenage female set would find this one amusing, but not being one of those I can't say for certain. If you hunger for a good historical mystery, this novel will leave you famished. It's all empty prose calories that I gave up on after 116 pages.

Thanks, I think, to Penguin Random House for the free copy in exchange for a review. Thanks for saving me the expense of buying a book I'd regret wasting the money on.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Radio Girls: A Book Review

Fans of Downton Abbey were made aware of the sweeping changes that washed over England after the First World War, ushering in an era of modern flappers and somewhat liberated women. RADIO GIRLS is a natural offshoot of that theme.

Maisie is the plucky heroine of the novel, making her way in the world after a difficult childhood filled with bullying and parental disinterest. She lands at the BBC as the radio service is just starting to grow, and over the course of the narrative she grows in wisdom and comes out of her shell.

But wait, there's more!

Maisie and her boss, the indomitable Hilda (based on the actual Hilda Matheson), tackle misogyny and general discrimination with steely resolve, making their marks on BBC programming in a way unheard of for women of the day. The author lays the mysogyny on a bit thick and it gets tiresome, but let the heavy application of sexism roll past your eyes and concentrate on a well-crafted bit of prose.

While fighting for the opportunity to rise up the ranks, Maisie blunders into a remarkable scoop and is soon involved in a shadowy bit of espionage thanks to HIlda, who may or may not be involved in MI5. Fascism was indeed on the rise in the 1920s and Maisie discovers evidence of upper-class involvement in a plot to take over the newspapers and the BBC so that all media could become a venue for spreading fascist propaganda.

The author tries a little too hard to equate our modern conservative politicians to the budding fascists in a way that pulls a reader out of the story, like hitting a speed bump when the ride is otherwise smooth. Other than that minor flaw, the story uses real-life characters and imagines the story behind the early years of the BBC, where women could find employment on an almost equal footing as men.

Readers looking for well-told historical fiction will enjoy this one.

Thansks once again to Penguin Random House for the opportunity to read an advanced review copy.