Tag Archives: Book review

“Great Book!” Five-Star Review of The Stand In

25 Apr


Chronicles of the Sanguivorous, Free Today Only

12 Apr

That’s right, this is the last day to download my book, Chronicles of the Sanguivorous for free on Smashwords for your Kindle or iPad or even your computer. At midnight, I”ll raise the price to 99 cents, (so I won’t lose my sales ratings on Amazon). Enjoy! Share with friends, write about it, tweet about it, shout it from your front porch…

Book Review, An Object of Beauty, by Steve Martin

27 Mar

 One approaches novels written by celebrities with almost an air of condescension.  The poor dears, one sighs, trying to find fulfillment – or perhaps respect – in that most difficult of media.  They are usually minor works, like Woody Allen’s, into which he usually pours all his leftover witticisms and spare gags; or they are works of pretentious autobiography, as found in the collective oeuvre of Ethan Hawke.  Invariably the novels are lean, to say the least, more in the nature of an embellished skit than a full-blown work on its own.

That’s why I am particularly surprised and happy to say that Steve Martin has written a real novel, a true novel, one that is, at best, a signal that a major new writer has appeared on the scene – hidden in plain sight all the time!  The book is, in fact, a minor masterpiece.  (And when I say “minor”, I mean only that the subject matter – the highbrow world of the Manhattan Art and Gallery scenes – is a rarified one that only a very few of the one-percenters get to visit in our lifetimes.)  Fortunately for us, Mr. Martin is a well-known collector of modern paintings and well-versed in his subjects.  In short, this is one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.

Martin writes in the first person, but under the name of Daniel Chester French, who is an upwardly mobile art critic for ArtNews.  As Somerset Maugham does in his books, Martin/French is content to remain only a minor character, able to comment on the true center of his work, that “object of beauty” herself, the gallery-owner known as Lacey Yeager.  In Lacey, Martin has created a extremely memorable combination of Holly Golightly fused with Cleopatra.  Seductive, amoral, charming, destructively ambitious (both to herself and others in her sphere) and winsomely devious, Lacey becomes a character so believable that you know you’ve either met her once or twice before at some pretentious party, or, more likely, she was your first wife.  At the end of the book, Martin confesses (in Daniel’s voice) that he didn’t know whether or not to make the book into a non-fiction work using real names or to bury the work in fiction.  My bet is that for those in the know this is a true roman a clef.

The pacing is perfect.  The world the book inhabits is endless fascinating.  And the discourse in modern art is nothing short of wonderful.  Best, it is illustrated in color plates that show the paintings being discussed; one doesn’t have to go back and forth to Wikipedia to find out just what the hell he is talking about.

“An Object of Beauty” does everything a novel is supposed to do; it keeps you reading at a breakneck pace; it both amuses and edifies, and you end up knowing more than when you went in.  My only question for Steve Martin is this: how can so much talent (comic, actor, writer, playwright, musician, art collector) be stuffed into one individual?

It’s not fair, I tell you!  Just not fair.

Question for My Dear Readers Who are Writers…

23 Mar

Much Prejudice, Little Pride, A review of P.D. James’ “Death Comes to Pemberley”

28 Feb

I have to admit, I am officially of two minds about P.D. James’ latest mystery novel, “Death Comes to Pemberley.”  Given James’ prodigiously wonderful way with a phrase, I expected that the book would be many things –  a parody, a tribute to, and an extenuation of the beloved novel written by Jane Austen, which is of course “Pride and Prejudice.”  But it turns out to be something more, and very much less, than that.  Disappointing in almost every way, it was still a book I laid down but reluctantly, and always looked forward to picking up again.

How’s that for fence-sitting?

 I’ve so far only glanced at the various sequels that the original book has engendered.  One of them began with a coach ride featuring an uncomfortable Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett), sore from having submitted to Darcy’s obviously gargantuan caresses on their wedding night.  Hastily I put that aside, thinking that Jane Austen quite rightly ended all her books at the altar, leaving the reader to only imagine what came next.  Then a friend loaned me a copy of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, which proved such an unresisting imbecility that I could stomach only the first two chapters before I hurled it against the wall; all the good parts had been lifted bodily from the original, and all the bad were merely relentless accounts of zombie attacks on the village of Meryton and elsewhere.  Talk about one joke being run into the ground!

But with P.D. James, I hoped that a writer of wit and culture was going to give me something to care about.  Alas, no.  Though Ms. James makes a very good attempt to duplicate the arch sophistication of Austen’s prose, and comes up with some wonderful Regency witticisms of her own, this type of writing is largely abandoned after the first chapter.  However, it is more than fascinating to see how James comes up with a few trenchant alternate explanations about Elizabeth’s real motives in snaring Darcy and how her so-called friends (I speak now of the duplicitous Ms. Charlotte Lucas) cynically reacted to their wedding.  Come chapter two, however, and the novel becomes a dry, British procedural, with only flashes of Austen’s brilliance surfacing from time to time.

When I think of “Pride and Prejudice), I am instantly in a world of sunlight and clarity.  But James’ novel is much more like the dark, turbid world of the Brontes, wherein even the landscape is bleak and moody (not to say muddy.)  Pemberley, it seems, is not the graceful baronial estate as described in the first book; instead it borders a hostile woodland in which even ghosts walk and where, we learn, Darcy’s great grandfather committed suicide with his dog.  (Yes, you’ve read that right – with his dog.)  Perhaps James is correct in creating this mood and setting for what is, after all, a murder mystery.  But it is a mystery that concerns only the most peripheral of Austen’s original characters, and we are left to struggle as to why she would bother to write it at all.

In the original, the inevitability of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s eventual union heats every page; here they barely have a scene together.   If you go in expecting to be reunited with one of the most famous pair of literary lovers in history, you will be greatly disappointed.  Though they have had two children since the last book ended, you may well ask yourself – how?  There is absolutely nothing between them.  Oh, they yearn and pine for one another, to be sure, but only in their fervid inner monologues.  One begins to furtively wish for Elizabeth to ache in her nether regions again, but this is obviously an area which P.D. James spurns.

And yet, and yet…I could never quite put it down.  Perhaps the novel will improve when I reread it.  James prose is always elegant, and she ties up all lose ends (resulting in a literary Gordion knot, if you want the truth); suffice to say my interest never flagged.  Next time, though, I will have shed all my hopes and assumptions and will be able to read “Death Comes to Pemberley” as just another excellent mystery from the estimable P.D. James.  But I will have also shed any hope of seeing my beloved Elizabeth and Darcy in this odd but oddly compelling book.

Have you read The Stand In? Available on Kindle, Nook, eBook, and iPad. Downloading the book is a great way to support this indie-author. 

Have You Read, The Stand In?

27 Feb
Couldn’t resist sharing my latest review on Amazon! Have you read it? You can download it on Kindle, Nook and iTunes for iPad.
New! B. Maxwell reviewed The Stand In
 Grabs You From Page One February 24, 2012
Given to me by a friend, I couldn’t put this book down! On its surface it’s about a 50’s Hollywood movie idol who uses his celebrity to seduce and kill young women until his studio mogul boss begins to suspect him. Instead of going to the police and risking his #1 asset, the mogul decides to secretly replace him with an innocent young actor with an uncanny resemblance. But will his true role be replacement or fall-guy? Along the way the plot twists and turns, drawing you in with characters that, true to life, are both seduced by their dreams of success and love, and battered by the reality of what this town does to you. So what author Geagley ends up unspooling is a seductive thriller with wry insider’s view of Hollywood. Oh, and you’ll never guess the ending.

Hall Monitors of the Internet

29 Jan

I remember a girl from grade school whose name was Vickie, and she came to class every day looking as though she were going to church – her hair was perfectly curled, she wore scuff-free Buster Browns, and her skirts stuck straight out from her sides, held stiff by several rustling petticoats (it was the 50s, after all).  She didn’t own a lunch box, as most of us did, but carried her lunch in a neat little satchel purse that matched her perfectly-polished shoes.  In other words, her mother had literally dressed Vickie as a living doll.  The trouble was that Vickie towered over all the boys and possessed the general build of a linebacker.

Perhaps this dichotomy of style and physique is what turned her vicious, for Vickie was a depressingly enthusiastic tattler and blamer.  The moment one of us in the classroom committed an infraction – passing a note, whispering to our “neighbor”, reading a smuggled-in magazine instead of our text – Vickie’s hand shot up to inform the teacher of our trespasses.  Instead of minding her own business, Vickie was constantly monitoring ours – and woe betide any child found lacking in her own strict code of moral behavior.  Every one of us in that classroom knew, resentfully and with absolutely certainty, that Vickie’s eye was on the sparrow.

I remember the sheer glee that lighted her face when she caught me peeking at my neighbor’s paper during a math test.  (Math was like Urdu to me and I was more to be pitied than censored.)  I silently pleaded with her to ignore it, the blood draining from my head as I saw a demonic light come into her eyes.  She had me in her sights and wasn’t about to let me go.  As though moving in slow motion Vickie turned in her seat and the dreaded hand reached upward.  Vickie was responsible for sending me to the Principal’s Office that day, where I had to inhale stale cigarette smoke and endure a lecture on honesty.  Because she was a girl, I couldn’t take her out by the baseball diamond and beat the shit out of her, as she deserved, and I’ve nursed a burning, bitter enmity toward her ever since.  (I’m 61 now and subscribe to Robert Kennedy’s dictum – if you’ve got to hate, hate BIG.)

Inevitably she was elected Hall Monitor by the class, if only to get her out of the classroom for an hour or so and off the playground.  I think even our teacher was relieved to see her go, for she had taken to answering Vickie’s omnipresent raised hand with a resigned and somewhat dolorous, “What is it this time, Vickie…?”

To this day, I cannot understand Vickie’s wretched zeal to correct the transgressions of her fellows.  Mine is a much more laissez-faire attitude; if someone is sinning, it just isn’t interesting enough for me to do anything about it  unless that sin directly affects my own well-being.  The wagging forefinger is about the most nauseating gesture there is, as far as I’m concerned, much worse than the third finger held aloft.  I simply am left amazed that anyone would presume – or have the time –  to sit in judgment over other people, much less glory in it.  What do you get?  What do you win?  Isn’t there something better to do with your time?  I’m pretty certain that the same impulse to correct and amend other’s behavior gave birth to the Third Reich – scratch a hall monitor and you’ll find a fascist, I say, anxious to blame and punish.

I’m sure you’ve met Vickie sometime in your life.  After all, she was in all our classes and, later, our offices.  The toady, the prig, Little Mr. or Miss Perfect – s/he goes by many names.  Over the years I’ve often wondered whatever happened to Vickie.   And then, just the other day, I found out:

She’s on the Internet.

As most of you reading this blog are aware, I’ve written a new novel called The Stand In and have chosen to go the self-publishing route.  Most of the effort at this point goes into making others aware that my book exists.  To that end, I went to a Kindle fan site, since Kindle is where most of my sales are generated, and posted a small blurb about my book.  (No more than two lines, really.  Maybe three.  Okay, four.)  Well, it turns out that the Kindle site I had happened upon was not about books, per se, but about how to operate the Kindle.  (Incidentally – just a random observation here – the people who had posted on it seemed to all possess “Harry Potter” nicknames – not that there’s anything wrong with that).  But they had no wish to talk about books at all, but merely the Muggle apparatus that displayed them.

Well, in about an hour I checked back and only then discovered my mistake.  Instantly I took the comment down and posted it in its proper venue.  But it was too late.

Vickie had caught me.

The next morning my email box was flooded with emails from her and her minions (who are legion, it turns out) chastising me for my grievous mistake.  Some merely were content to point out my error – “No self -promotion on this site!” – while others descended into old-fashioned abuse – “Can’t you read, idiot?”  The rest of the Vickies assured me in the sternest of possible voices that they would never – never! – read my novel, no matter how entertaining it was!

I was a bit shaken.   It wasn’t so much the loss of dividend I mourned (I figured that with Amazon’s cut factored in, I was out about $2.50), but I was trying to think – why are they so upset?  Then it came to me, with flashes of Vickie’s hand going up, reawakening what I thought were long-dead memories:   I had been BAD.

Somehow I had utterly shaken their universe, just as I had Vickie’s so many years ago, and I was to be roundly excoriated for it.

Always one to take on any guilt, I decided that perhaps I really had done wrong to them, that somehow I had inadvertently infringed on their need to express something profound with my cheap shot at promoting my novel.  So I went to their own websites and Facebook pages and Comment Threads to see what grand thoughts they were thinking.  There I found posts such as “OMG – like I am so totally on board (sic) with that!” and “LOL!  I hear you!” and “Awesome, dude!”…well, you get the picture.  (My alternate title to this blog was “Making the World Safe for OMG”.)

Don’t you just love these people?  Can’t you just picture them sitting at their computer, absolutely poised to pounce on every imperfect act, every sin, every flouted Internet law?  (And, silly me, I thought the Internet’s power lay in the fact that it had no laws!)  Yet thank God that those people are there – but for them, I’d never know what a truly horrible person I am.  Or so quickly.

So, after much rumination, I’ve decided to respond with this blogging equivalent of an upraised middle finger (the same one I raised to Vickie all those years ago – after school).  To Sherry, Fred, Gillian, and all the other Vickies out there – I can absolutely assure you that if you didn’t like what I did before, you’re really not going to like what I’m doing next.

Finally, my question is this – and I’m throwing this out to my readers – am I the only one to have noticed and suffered the wrath of these self-appointed Internet gatekeepers?

Write to me and let me know.  Perhaps we can foment a small revolution of our own.

More Books I Adore! Shirley Jackson’s, The Sundial

7 Jan

It is my policy to comment only on those books that I can enthuse about.  I dislike those who snipe at and savage a literary work; I’ve found that many times it is my own transitory mood or temperament that affects my reaction.  As Andre Gide wrote in “The Counterfeiters”, “My evening’s self would not recognize my morning’s self” and I distrust first impressions.  If I like a book, I must read it many times in order to evaluate it properly and discover just exactly why I liked it in the first place.  If I dislike it, it has already taken up too much of my time –why bother, then, to take up more time to review it?  What I strive to do with my reviews is to introduce works to other readers that have both changed the way I write, and have given me some true enjoyment.  Such a work is Shirley Jackson’s, “The Sundial”.

Like many of her works, one of the main characters in the novel is the House wherein the action takes place.  In “The Sundial” it is the Halloran mansion, a massively ornate house of perfect symmetry.  The only blot on its mad balance is the sundial itself – disjointedly out of place, an eyesore, engraved with a quote from Chaucer, “What is this world…?”

The characters, all of whom are distinctly nasty and small-minded, are the world in miniature.  And it is not pretty.  Soon after the beginning of the book, one of the characters – a neurotic spinster named Aunt Fanny, daughter of the man who built the house – suffers a dubious visitation from the ghost of her father.  He tells her that the world will be ending soon and that all who stay in the house will be safe.  The idea is as crazy as Aunt Fanny.  Imagine telling the story of Noah’s Ark and dwelling not on salvation, but upon the petty fights for predominance in the world to come among Noah’s sons and their wives.  “The Sundial” has an extremely nasty view of humanity, but it is also screamingly funny, with some of the best dialog ever created for a novel.

At the end, we are left wondering – for as the last day approaches, clouds and high winds indeed grip the house and unnatural darkness reigns.  Are we supposed to think that this is really a novel of the Apocalypse, or merely a case of mass hysteria produced by a handful of weak and self-centered misfits?  Shirley Jackson never answers.

It is interesting to know that Ms. Jackson herself suffered from a form of agoraphobia during the time she was writing this novel.  Some critics have seen it as an explanation about why she retreated from humanity – that she saw her neighbors as petty place seekers and bigots and simply wanted to be away from them.  Perhaps.  It might also portray the mind of the agoraphobic herself – that the more self-centered and narcissistic one becomes by retreating from the world, the more mean and petty are the slights and hurts that one imagines.  Who knows?

I’m probably making “The Sundial” sound like a chore to read.  Please believe me when I say that it’s not; it’s pure delight.  Just know that there are no conventional heroes in this book, and that it ends – as in Eliot’s poem – not with a bang, but with a whimper.  If you can get past this, there are riches galore to discover in it.  Just don’t expect to have a higher faith in humanity after you are done.

One of Shirley Jackson’s final stories (she died in her sleep at 48 years of age), is called “The Possibility of Evil.”  An elderly lady in a small town terrorizes the residents into submission by sending small anonymous notes to various people she considers guilty of adultery or dishonesty or secret alcoholism.  That is how I like to think of Shirley Jackson – sending out her novels and short stories, alerting us to the possibility of evil inherent in all of humanity, including ourselves.

For more of my reviews, friend me on Goodreads and Facebook (easy links are to your right) and be sure to download my new book, The Stand In. I cannot wait to hear your review.

Have You Read…?

6 Jan

It’s a sunny 75 degrees in Palm Springs today and if we were sitting by the pool, we’d be talking about books and writing. No doubt that the subject would turn to one of my favorites. And if you haven’t read it, I would send you home with a copy… But since we can’t do that, read my review below. And why don’t you become my friend on Goodreads and we’ll share books. (The link is on the list to your right.) And don’t forget to add my newest mystery novel, The Stand In to your “To Read” list. I can’t wait to hear what you think.

DECEMBER 6:  A Novel by Martin Cruz Smith

In his various “Gorky Park” novels, Mr. Smith is an expert in writing about = odd-men-out, and his Harry Niles in prewar Japan is perhaps his greatest protagonist.  The son of missionaries, Harry is raised by a Japanese nanny and goes to Japanese schools.  His favorite haunt is the theatrical and geisha district, Asakusa, where he mingles effortlessly with Japan’s raffish bohemians.  But however close he gets to them, he is always “gaijin” to the Japanese, forever picked to be the target in gym class because of his white skin and round eyes, and treated almost like a trained monkey by the geishas and show girls whom he worships.  At home, he actively despises his clueless parents and considers Japanese culture to be superior in every way to the crass, blundering America.  In short, he is the ultimate outsider while living an insider’s privileged life.  Like Rick in “Casablanca”, whose world weary cynicism hides a tender romantic, Harry’s inamorata is Japan herself.  And, having lived in America as well as Japan, having seen America’s prodigious natural resources compared to the barren rocks the Japanese live on, he desperately attempts to save Japan from committing suicide by attacking Pearl Harbor.  Harry is a grifter and a gambler, and the stakes grow ever higher as the hours march inevitably to December 7.  It is Harry’s terrible fate to be understood exclusively by a mad Samurai whose only aim is to separate Harry’s head from his shoulders.  Effortlessly shifting between his youth and present day (December, 1941), Mr. Smith has created nothing less than a fragile portrait of an entire culture as seen through the eyes of the last romantic in a militaristic age, leaving us lost in awe at the creative powers that conceived and wrote it.   The best measure of a successful novel, to me, is that I want to know what happened to Harry after Japan collapses on him.  I wish Mr. Smith would write a sequel because I know that Harry, with all his guile and resourcefulness, would survive even that.

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