The Heritage of Smoke by Josip Novakovich

In The Heritage of Smoke (Dzanc, 240 pages), a collection of short stories set mainly in 20th century war-wrecked Croatia or Ex-Yugoslavia, Josip Novakovich makes American-born writers, whose plots inevitably turn on sexuality and identity, seem merely whiny and self-obsessed. This masterful storyteller follows ordinary lives in the relatively small, recently-renamed Eastern European country, of which Americans are only vaguely aware, whose diverse cultures and old animosities persist through regime change. Caught between the whims and wars of super power nations and petty dictators, the characters revealed here endure, curse, and try to have fun. Novakovich’s characters tend to be listless, jaded, and stubborn, but they also have a kind of a dignified persistence, like old trees growing in the cracks of mountaintop stone . Continue reading

The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew: One Man’s Journey into the Land of the Dead by U.R. Bowie

I like a book that’s unafraid of big themes, and this one has a beauty: mortality itself, the reality waiting behind our illusions of security. It’s a mythic idea, Orpheus’ descent into the underworld, and Bowie clearly intends us to understand it in terms of the universal as well as the particular.

The Tale of the Bastard Feverfew
(Ogee Zakamora, 342 pages) begins rather slowly and at too much length, but pacing is less of an issue once the Palm Sunday riot at the Southwest Ohio Correctional Facility is fully underway and the initial explosion of violence settles into unmitigated tension. Length works then, mimicking the ongoing, endless strain. Personalities emerge, and we begin to hold our breath. Continue reading

New of the World by Paulette Jiles

newoftheworldI will avoid the absurdity of defending a National Book Award finalist; we can agree that the western can be literature. We have Larry McMurtry and Charles Portis to underline the point. The clean prose of News of the World (William Morrow, 224 pages) similarly explores universal themes of honor, purpose, age, and culture within a detailed period piece, allowing the conventions of bar fights and gunfights, natives and lawless towns, blacksmiths, willing ladies, and Mexican aristocracy to tell a fresh and compelling tale. Continue reading

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis

betrayersThe Betrayers (Little, Brown & Co, 267 pages) begins with a Russian expression on a young woman’s face. A pretty blonde woman working as hotel clerk in Yalta is berated by a young woman from Israel, who insists she be given a room. The clerk “endured the assault with a stiff, mulish expression. A particularly Russian sort of expression, Kotler thought. The morose, disdainful expression with which the Russians had greeted their various invaders. An expression that denoted an irrational, mortal refusal to capitulate—the pride and bane of the Russian people.”

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Wanderer Springs by Robert Flynn

wandererUp in that part of state just east of the Cap Rock, south of the Red River and west and north of Wichita Falls is a region of the country the residents continue to call “East Texas,” although, even at 70 mph it is hours from Amarillo, Lubbock or Spur, a half-day from San Angelo and Odessa, and a long, hard, hot day from Ozona or El Paso.

It is a part of the country that rhetorician Jim Cordon once called “terra incognito,” forgotten by most of Texas, ignored by everyone else. It is a hard land, filled with rattlesnakes, mesquite, winters that freeze livestock and people, summers that dry the ground so hard it cracks. Continue reading

The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor by Kurt Brindley

seatrialsBefore I begin this review, let me first recommend to anyone whom it persuades to read The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor (Amazon,198 pages), that after doing so they further benefit themselves by looking again at their copy of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Sailor that I shall, however, quote from extensively. Kurt Brindley’s accomplishment should come into even greater focus when looked at through the lens of the nineteenth-century classic novel. Continue reading

The Land Across by Gene Wolfe

landacrossLately I don’t read much science fiction, though it was once a passion. I received this book as a gift, though, and found the cover information intriguing. “Wolfe is our Melville,” proclaims Ursula Le Guin on the inside jacket. She’s an author I admire, so started in, not looking for Moby Dick, exactly, but maybe Billy Budd.

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