Bootstrapper

Bootstrapper, Mardi Jo Link’s new memoir, threw me a bit of a curve.  The book’s subtitle reads this way: From Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm, leading me to believe that its focus was on the difficulty of eking out a living from one of today’s small American farms – a topic that intrigues me, especially as seen from the female point-of-view.  Instead, Bootstrapper is more the story of one woman’s struggle to survive the breakup of her marriage to a Weak Ass from Northern Michigan – a much more common and less intriguing topic.
Link’s husband, when the couple first split up, moved only a few hundred feet away from the mortgaged acreage and family home in which Mardi Jo continued to live with their three sons.  This made it easy for Mardi Jo and her soon-to-be ex-husband to hand the boys off so that they could spend time with each parent.  But Mr. Ex, for the most part, was surprisingly invisible even as just across the road from his new place, it should have been obvious to him that Mardi Jo and her boys were struggling to put food on the table. 
Mardi Jo, though, saw life on the family farm as “living the dream” and refused to give it up even when she and the boys were largely living on peanut butter and the free bakery goods they won in a zucchini-growing contest.  She had one huge problem: she really knew very little about growing her own food, raising the meat that would sustain her family over the long Michigan winter, or keeping the chickens that would supply the family with fresh eggs.  Eventually, she learned these things, but she learned them the hard way.
Mardi Jo Link
The best thing about Bootstrapper is meeting Mardi Jo’s three sons, each of whom seems to have a unique personality and a different set of life-skills that combines perfectly to help their mother keep things together just long enough for the family to survive their near-disastrous first year of single-parenthood.  Mardi Jo, determined to save her farm despite the numerous sacrifices this will require from her and her children, is lucky to have these boys.
Bottom Line: Bootstrapper is an interesting memoir about a woman who, despite the tremendous odds stacked against her, refuses to give up her dream of living on the family farm.  Regardless of its subtitle, however, this is a book about a writer who happens to live on a farm, not a book about making a go of a twenty-first century small-time farm.

Latest Trend in Chain Hotels: In-House Libraries

New York City’s famous Library Hotel

Even when traveling, be they tree-books or e-books, I manage to surround myself with reading material.  While on the road for ten days earlier this month, for instance, I managed to read three books I brought with me from the library and about half of an e-book review copy that was housed on my iPad.  (Not sleeping well in hotel beds really does extend the reading hours in a day.)

That’s why I think the budding trend, detailed in a New York Times article, of some chain hotels adding library settings to their facilities is so cool.  What better way to convince guests to spend a little more time inside the building relaxing – and very likely spending money on food and drink at the same time?  Perfect.

Reading material in many hotel rooms has become about as spare as it can be — open the desk drawer and it might hold a Gideon Bible and a Yellow Pages.
But some hotels are giving the humble book another look, as they search for ways to persuade guests, particularly younger ones, to spend more time in their lobbies and bars. They are increasingly stocking books in a central location, designating book suites or playing host to author readings. While the trend began at boutique hotels like the Library Hotel in New York, the Heathman Hotel in Portland, Ore., and the Study at Yale in New Haven, it is expanding to chain hotels.

 (The entire article can be read here.  It includes a picture of the type of library-setting the hotels are moving toward.)  

Double Double

Having one alcoholic in the family is bad enough, but it seldom stops there.  Sadly enough, alcoholism is a never-ending problem for many families, one that can devastate them for generations.  In Double Double: A Dual Memoir of Alcoholism, popular mystery writer Martha Grimes and her son Ken very frankly share their own struggles to get, and remain, sober.
The pair, in alternate chapters and several “conversations,” look both backward and forward in their lives, revisiting the times and events during which they became addicts, their struggles to survive their addictions, the manner in which they finally got themselves sober, what their lives are like today, and what their hopes are for the future.  Despite living in the same house during the worst of all of this, Martha and Ken managed to hide their problems from each other, or were so caught up in their individual struggles with addiction, that neither was much aware of what the other was experiencing. 
Ken, in particular, appears to have been a master of deception, the rather typical teenager who easily managed to hide his real life from his mother.  Martha, on the other hand, made alcohol such a constant part of her everyday life that the lifestyle seemed perfectly normal to her and her son.  There was no need for Martha to hide her drinking from Ken because it really did not seem to be all that unusual to either of them.
Martha Grimes
Despite the similarities in their stories, what are likely to intrigue readers most are the pair’s different approaches to attaining and maintaining sobriety.  Ken is a true believer in AA’s Twelve-Step approach, while Martha seems to have been so put off by the program’s more overtly religious aspects that she could not tolerate the meetings.  She preferred, instead, the clinical approach but is frank about that approachs limitations and the ease in which some alcoholics manipulate both their therapy and their therapists. 
Double Double, despite Martha’s assertion that its readers are all likely to be wondering whether they themselves are alcoholics, is filled with revealing insights that nondrinkers and social drinkers will find useful.  Certainly, some readers will realize that they are on the brink of similar problems – and others will find that they have already crossed that line.  But even nondrinkers who have only experienced alcoholism second-hand via observation of a distant family member or friend will come away from the book with a better understanding of the problem (Martha only reluctantly calls it a disease) than they had going in. 
Bottom Line: Double Double is a very readable and honest memoir in which its two authors are not afraid to embarrass themselves and each other.  What they have to say about alcoholism is important, and their willingness to expose themselves this way will help others to solve, or even avoid, a similar experience in their own lives.

Book Trailer of the Week: This Is How You Die

If you enjoy “pun-ish,” sometimes bloody, humor, This Is How You Die: Stories of the Inscrutable, Infallible, Inescapable Machine of Death might be just the book for you to enjoy before the summer reading season is over.  (Warning: this video might be a tad rough for smaller children, especially the first couple of minutes.)



(25th Book Trailer of the week in a continuing series of unusual and memorable book trailers spotted by Book Chase over the course of way more than 25 weeks)

Joyland

Despite its cover and Hard Case Crime imprint, Joylandis really a rather sweet coming-of-age novel set in the small town carnival culture of the early 1970s.  This is not meant to say that the story does not involve elements of the supernatural, violence, or a thrilling “hold on tight” ending, however – because, after all, this is a Stephen King novel.
Devin Jones, trying to forget the college sweetheart who has so broken his heart, decides to extend his Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina, summer job into full-time work for the next year rather than to return to school.  Devin has made some good friends among Joyland’s professional carnies and is proud of the delight he brings to small children when it is his turn to wear “the fur suit.”  So, for him, Joyland is the perfect spot to get his head together before returning to the school he so closely associates with the young woman who broke his heart.
But all is not what it seems to be at Joyland.  One of the carnival’s rides appears to be haunted by the ghost of a young woman murdered inside one of its cars, and Devin comes to suspect that others may have suffered a similar fate.  Intrigued by the stories he hears around the carnival, Devin starts to ask questions and to do enough historical research to leave him wondering whether a serial killer is still out there somewhere.  The closer he comes to the truth, the more danger he places himself and those closest to him in. 
Stephen King
Along the way, young Devin will learn much about life and love from the close carny friends he makes and from his relationship with a slightly “older woman” and her young son.  The boy, despite suffering a devastating illness, becomes one of the brightest and most consistently upbeat people in Devin’s life, and Devin’s relationship with the boy’s mother is one he will remember the rest of his life – if he lives long enough to grow old.
Joyland is about growing up, or – for the unlucky ones – not growing up, and the novel certainly has its emotional moments.  What it does not do is break new ground for its author.  Longtime Stephen King fans will feel right at home in the Joyland setting because King is a past master of tales like this one.  Joyland is likely to be a “comfort read” for most of its readers, but it will probably disappoint others who are left with a “been there, done that” feeling.

The Son

Philipp Meyer’s The Son is one of those books that instantly clicked with me.  It happens sometimes that the perfect-for-you book comes along at just the right moment, a book that intrigues you from the first page right on through the last one (and there are 561 pages in The Son, so that is really saying something).  I am not naïve enough to believe that everyone will have the same reaction to The Son that I had, but at this point it is my favorite novel of the first half of 2013.
This is the story of seven generations of the McCulloughs, a Texas family whose third generation was sired by Eli McCullough who claims to have been the first Anglo male child born in the Republic of Texas (March 1836).  But, unlike so many family sagas, this one is not told in a linear, let’s follow the family tree right down the line, kind of way.  Rather, Meyer lets three generations of the McCullough family carry the brunt of the action: Eli (second generation), Peter (third generation), and Jeanne Anne (fifth generation).  By alternating narrative chapters from his three main narrators, and having each of them fill in the backstories of other family members, Meyer makes it easy for the reader to follow this remarkable family’s entire 200-year saga.
Living in Texas during Eli’s generation was not for sissies, something Eli and the rest of his immediate family learn the hard way when a Comanche raiding party targets the McCullough family farm.  For Eli, however, the raid will turn out to be one of those cases of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”  The years he spends with the tribe, his new family, prepare him for anything that Texas will be able to throw at him for the rest of his life. 
Philipp Meyer
But Peter McCullough, born in 1870, is not the typical Texan of his day, especially for a man fathered by Eli McCullough.  Peter is the “sensitive” type, a man whom his father and two younger brothers see as strangely unwilling to defend the family interest in the long running border war between American and Mexican ranchers.  His empathy for his Mexican counterparts is considered a weakness by even, if not especially, those closest to him.
The formidable Jeanne Anne (Peter’s granddaughter), already an old woman by the end of the twentieth century, brings the family into the modern era.  Partly because she is somewhat of a feminist, but largely because there is no one else of her generation to do it, Jeanne Anne personally oversees the family’s enormous oil fortune at a time when women do not even think of attempting such a thing. 
The Son has become a personal favorite of mine, a novel I am likely to read several times over the years.  I cannot guarantee that it will work as well for you, of course, but this Philipp Meyer novel is certainly worth a look by all fans of good, literary historical fiction.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Bluegrass Road Trip – MACC 2013 – Columbus, Ohio

When I left on my road trip on July 14, I really did plan to check in here several times before returning home – but a combination of a laptop crash, the limitations inherent in using the blogspot software via an iPad, and sheer end-of-the-day exhaustion combined to make that impossible.  So here it is, six travel days and four concert days later, and I’m finally back in touch.

Before moving on to the music I so thoroughly enjoyed, I will mention a bookish thing or two: I read three books in the twelve days I was out (two memoirs and a novel) and even got to visit my favorite bookstore in the world, Square Books on the way home (which is in Oxford, Mississippi).  As a result, I now have six books stacked up for review – that’s a first for me – and catching up will take some hard work.  

Here, though, is a taste of what the Musicians Against Childhood Cancer music festival is all about.  All the performers donate their time and talents for the event and net proceeds are earmarked for St. Jude’s in Memphis.  This is a 1,200-mile drive for me, but I’m hoping to make it a regular July event.

This video marks the very first song ever performed on stage together by Doyle Lawson and Larry Sparks, each of whom now has 50 years in the business, so avid bluegrass fans were thrilled to witness it.




And this video vividly demonstrates the pure musical magnificence and talent of the bluegrass musicians who performed during the four-day event. This is Michael Cleveland and Nathan Livers performing the classic instrumental “Jerusalem Ridge.” Michael is, in my estimation, worth the price of admittance all by himself. I have seen this one performed several times now, and it still blows me away.  (That is also Michael on fiddle in the first video.)

On the Road Again – Finally

Tired as I am right now, I will still go to sleep a happy man tonight because, for the first time in several months, I am on a music festival road trip.  For several years, I met some good friends up in Owensboro, Kentucky, for an annual bluegrass festival held there every June, but that event (for us) seems to have died a natural death.  The atmosphere of the ROMP festival took a real hit in 2011 when the decision was made to both appeal to a younger, rowdier element and – bad mistake – to ignore their obnoxious behavior.  So, so much for ROMP.

Since then, I’ve attended several festivals within 200 miles of Houston but nothing farther away.  Until now.  I’m on my way to Columbus, Ohio, a distance of almost 1200 miles from home to attend the annual MACC (Musicians Against Childhood Cancer) festival held there.  I left home this morning about six a.m. and, almost thirteen hours later, I sit here within a stone’s throw of Memphis, a distance (the way I did it) of about 650 miles.  So tonight I am officially a little over halfway there.

Because I have all the time in the world these days, I always set a goal of making the entire trip without spending any more time than is absolutely necessary on an interstate highway.  So far, so good.  I did the first ten miles on Interstate 45 because I live only three miles from that one, but that is it.  I have actually driven more miles on gravel roads today (12) than on freeways.  To say the least, my navigation system continues to surprise me by routing me on some very obscure backroads.  

Of course, a trip takes a lot longer this way, but I see places and lifestyles I would never have otherwise seen.  Which made me wonder…does Dollar General dominate all the small towns of America or only those in the South?  Those ugly little stores are everywhere, even in tiny towns that don’t have much else around.  (I’m going to have to look into buying some stock in those guys, I think.)

She Left Me the Gun

For most, it is difficult to imagine the lives our parents lived before we were born.  We (with a bit of luck) bonded with our parents when we were children, and no matter how old they live to be, to us they largely remain the people they were when we were growing up.  We are forever their children, they our parents.
Although her mother sometimes hinted at some rather dark secrets in her past, She Left Me the Gun author Emma Brockes was never curious enough to press her for details.  Paula, her mother, only offered the occasional hint, immediately shutting down the conversation if Emma asked even the most innocent question – and Emma never pushed her hard enough to learn anything new.  She did know that her mother had immigrated to England from South Africa in 1960 and maintained only limited contact with her South African family and friends from her new home.
Then, when Emma was 27 years old, her mother died and she was surprised to learn that her father did not know a whole lot more about her mother’s past than she did.  Determined to learn the truth about her mother’s first thirty years, and regretting that she had not insisted that her mother tell her more before it was too late, Emma decided it was time to visit South Africa.  What she would learn there turned out to be more tragic than anything she ever imagined.
Emma Brockes
She Left Me the Gun (subtitled My Mother’s Life Before Me) is the story of a dysfunctional South African family whose family-dynamic seems to have crippled the emotional lives of at least two generations.  Old grudges seem to die hard in this family, and Emmas relatives were generally eager to share the worst tales of the family’s past with their British visitor.  Unbeknownst to Emma, her mother was still somewhat of a hero to the rest of the family, someone who, after displaying the courage to fight the pure evilness that was such a part of her daily life, had the equal courage to begin a new life for herself thousands of miles away from everything, and everyone, she knew.
Bottom Line: one gets the impression that, despite learning that her mother had lived two very different lives, Emma still has a hard time emotionally connecting that first life to her mother.  To Emma, Paula will always be the British mother with whom she grew up.  To her, it is almost as if her mothers first thirty years happened to someone else.  Fans of frank, unusual memoirs will want to take a look at this one.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

Immediate Reaction to Philipp Meyer’s The Son

Despite being well into my seventh year here at Book Chase, I believe this is the first time that a book has moved me to write something about it almost as soon as I turned its final page.  That book is the new novel (only his second) by Philipp Meyer called The Son.

I will, of course, be writing a formal review of The Son in a few days but I don’t want to wait that long to help get out the word about this one.  I won’t pretend that it is for everyone, because I can’t imagine that any book is, but for those who enjoy multi-generational family sagas, I can confidently predict that you will love The Son.  

Meyer tells the story of seven generations of a Texas family, beginning in 1836 and ending in the present day, but he concentrates on only three main characters and lets them tell their individual stories in alternating chapters.  Male readers will probably be most taken by Eli McCullough, born in 1836, who calls himself “the first male child of the Republic of Texas.”  Female readers might be more drawn to Jeanne Anne, born three generations later in 1926, who despite her sex kept the family fortune together until her death.

I will be very pleasantly surprised if The Son does not top my 2013 Fiction Top Ten list at the end of the year – because that means I will have discovered another great book.  It will take something very special to move The Son from my top slot.

The King’s Deception

The King’s Deception is author Steve Berry’s eighth book in the popular Cotton Malone series – but, even if you are still unfamiliar with the series, don’t let that number keep you from jumping right into it with this title.  As I have discovered, only having read books seven and eight myself, Berry includes enough of the essentials of Cotton’s backstory in each novel that new readers are soon up-to-speed on the central character’s personal history.  Then, it’s only a matter of holding on tight for the wild ride ahead.
This time around, Cotton and Gary (his fifteen year-old son by a recently broken marriage) are headed to Cotton’s Danish home to spend a little healing time together.  But, as a special favor to his former Justice Department boss, Cotton agrees to deliver a teenage runaway to authorities in London before continuing on to Denmark with his son.  The man should know better, however, because nothing in his life is ever that simple – and it never has been.
In a matter of hours, Cotton, Gary, and the British fugitive are all on the run for their lives because Cotton has stumbled into a major diplomatic clash between the secret services of the United States and Great Britain.  More than hurt feelings between the two countries are at stake; people are dying on both sides – and Cotton has to figure it all out quickly if the Malones and the British boy are not to join the list of the dearly departed.  But whom can he trust?  Nothing is as it seems, and even some of the “good guys” are willing to change teams when one least expects them to do so.
Steve Berry
The King’s Deception is a very good political thriller but what gives it its special edge is the real-life historical rumor about the reign of Queen Elizabeth I that is central to the book’s plot.  That said, I am not going to reveal what that rumor is because the novel’s official description (as it appears on the book jacket) does not go that far even though details became an open secret among avid readers even before the book was published.  What I’m going to do, instead, is add a link to a Steve Berry appearance on an MSNBC talk show in which the author reveals all.  After I viewed the interview, I knew I had to read The King’s Deception– and knowing the “secret” before beginning the book did nothing to lessen my enjoyment of Berry’s story.  But you can decide for yourself.
Bottom Line:  The King’s Deception is a first rate thriller that will be particularly enjoyed by history buffs – especially those at least somewhat familiar with the long reign of Queen Elizabeth I.  

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)

No Fear Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing)

The Much Ado About Nothing volume of the series is my first experience with the No Fear Shakespeare books.  For those unfamiliar with the concept, the “No Fear” books are aimed at students and readers who sometimes find reading Shakespeare to be a bit of a challenge.  In my own case, after reading one of Shakespeare’s plays, no matter how well I felt I understood it, I still wondered what I had missed.  These little books make sure that I do not miss a thing.
The concept is a simple one.  The play is presented in Shakespeare’s words on the book’s odd-numbered pages, and the even-numbered pages present the same material “translated” into everyday English.  I chose to read Shakespeare’s words first, and then read the translated version of the same section of the play before I moved on to the next odd-numbered page.  Within just a few pages, I found myself falling into Shakespeare’s rhythms and I needed the modern version less and less to understand the various comings and goings of all the characters. 
But even at that point, the No Fear Shakespeare book remains a useful tool to readers because it explains all the relatively obscure references that Shakespeare makes throughout his work to Greek and Roman mythology.  These little asides, almost throwaway references though they may seem, often add depth to characters that otherwise likely would have gone right over the heads of most readers.  Too, the book explains the slang terms used in the many risqué conversational back-and-forth jabs between characters that may have remained meaningless to those unfamiliar with the language of the day (language that would likely earn Much Ado About Nothing at least a PG rating if it were a modern movie).  The No Fear books also include a helpful listing of all the play’s main characters, complete with a description of each character’s background and how they all relate to each other.
Best of all, the books are a confidence-builders for readers who want to read Shakespeare but have often been disappointed with the results of their efforts.  They are training-wheels that can be discarded as soon as a reader feels comfortable doing so, or those who want to wring every little detail and nuance from their reading can continue to use them.  It is all up to the individual reader.

Notable Nonfiction: 2nd Quarter 2013

I haven’t read many new nonfiction titles yet this year, but I’ve been lucky enough to find and enjoy a few truly exceptional books that deserve special mention:

1.  The Spark – Kristine Barnett (story of an autistic little boy whose IQ is higher than Einstein’s)

2.  Mr. Lincoln’s Battle with God – Stephen Mansfield (definitely not your father’s Abe Lincoln)

3.  Butterfly in the Typewriter – Cory MacLauchlin (intriguing biography of reclusive author John Kennedy Toole)

4.  Celebrating Pride and Prejudice – Susannah Fullerton (everything you ever wanted to know about the best loved novel ever written)

5.  A Chance to Win – Jonathan Schuppe  (a paralyzed drug dealer tries to turn his life around by helping the neighborhood kids form a baseball team)

6.  She Left Me the Gun – Emma  Brockes (a British woman learns the truth about her mother’s first 30 years)

7.  Good Prose – Tracy Kidder, Richard Tood (part memoir, part writing manual – co-authored by Kidder and his longtime editor)

 8.  After Visiting Friends – Michael Hainey (a newspaper man uncovers the truth about his father’s death on a Chicago street)

This is turning into a year during which I read even more fiction than normal, but I expect to have a nice Top Ten list by year-end.

Jazz

Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz is a book that I really enjoyed at times.  But, at the same time, there were portions of the novel I could barely force myself to endure.  It is that uneven.

Jazz, mostly set in 1926 New York City, is the story of Joe Trace, a 50-something-year-old man whose marriage is not what it used to be.  There is a general sense of optimism now in the city’s black community.  The Armistice ending World War I is already seven years old, and the future appears bright for everyone brave enough to have traded life in the rural South for what the City has to offer.  Joe, though, is not content. 
When his job as a door-to-door beauty product salesman for the Cleopatra company brings him into contact with Dorcas, an18-year-old neighborhood beauty, Joe makes his move.  But only three months later, when Dorcas unceremoniously dumps Joe for a younger man, he cannot accept it and shoots her dead in a crowded room.  Joe’s wife Violet, cheated of her chance for vengeance, brings a knife to the open-casket funeral where she does her best to disfigure the corpse.  But life goes on, and Violet will find herself almost inadvertently helping her husband through his grief.
Toni Morrison

Morrison’s mysterious narrator reveals most of this in the book’s first six pages (the book jacket reveals the rest), and uses the remainder of the book to fill in the details.  Through a series of flashbacks, the author tells the individual and joint stories of the central characters, going back one or two generations in some cases to remind the reader just how closely linked to the days of slavery the residents of 1920s Harlem still were.  But, as Morrison points out in the following passage, the City gave its residents hope for a better future:

         “The wave of black people running from want and violence created in the 1870s; the ‘80s’ the ‘90s but was a steady stream in 1906 when Joe and Violet joined it.  Like the others, they were country people, but how soon country people forget.  When they fall in love with a city, it is forever, and it is like forever.  As though there never was a time when they didn’t love it.”
Bottom Line:  Jazz is a highly atmospheric novel filled with many truths about the human condition – a novel that vividly brings 1920s Harlem to life.  Some of the generational flashbacks, however, poignant as they may be, are overwritten and heavy-handed enough to obscure, rather than reinforce, Morrison’s overall theme.  Jazzis still worth a look, but it is not one of Toni Morrison’s best efforts.  

Fiction Top Ten – Mid-Year 2013

Here we are at mid-year and fully half of of the titles on my Fiction Top Ten from just three months ago have dropped off this updated list.  I take that as a good omen, one reminding me that there are always more great books on the horizon.  Say what you will about avid readers, we are seldom bored for long.

Fiction Top Ten
Second Quarter Update

1.   Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald – by Therese Anne Fowler (a fictional look at the Fitzgerald marriage that leaves the reader wondering which of the partners was the most reckless)

2.   Light of the World – by James Lee Burke (book number twenty in the Dave Robicheaux series, it proves the author is still at the peak of his writing skills)

3.   The Dinner – by Herman Koch (Dutch novel proving that boys will be boys – and so will their parents)

4.   The Heat of the Sun – by David Rain (Madam Butterfly: The Rest of the Story)

 5.   Tenth of December – by George Saunders (The New York Times called this the “best book you will read in 2013” almost before the year started.  Agree?)

6.   Dear Life – by Alice Munro (Munro officially announced her retirement last week, so unless she has something still in the vault, this will be her last new short story collection) 

7.   Blood Drama – by Christopher Meeks – (the author hits a home run on his first venture into the crime thriller genre)

8.   Havana Lost – by Libby Fischer Hellmann (wonderfully atmospheric novel about Castro, the mob, and generations of family greed)

9.   The Broken Places – by Ace Atkins (third in the author’s Quinn Collins series, this is Southern noir at its finest)

10.  Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore – by Robin Sloan (a mysterious bookstore with no customers hires a curious new manager) 

Manila Noir

Manila Noir is my fourth experience with the intriguing noir short story series published by Akashic Books (following Boston Noir, Mexico City Noir, and Long Island Noir), a series now numbering something like fifty-six titles.  Much like the first three collections I read, Manila Noir is a bit of a mixed bag.  When it is good it is very, very good.  The good news is that when it is “bad,” the stories only sink to the level of mediocrity, not to awfulness.
The fourteen stories in the collection were written (in English) by writers, several of which now live in the United States, who were born in the Philippines.  It also includes an excellent introduction to set the mood for what is to follow, one that clearly defines the elements of Manila-style noir that give the Filipino version of the genre a special edge.  Also from the introduction, I particularly like editor Jessica Hagedorn’s list of what she calls the noir essentials:”   
alienated and desperate characters, terse dialogue, sudden violence, betrayals left and right.  And of course, there’s plenty of mordant humor.  And of course, there are no happy endings.”
Editor Jessica Hagedorn
Three of the short stories particularly stand out in my memory.  The first of these, by Rosario Cruz-Lucero, is an atmospheric gem entitled “A Human Right” that involves Manila death squads, childhood friends, and family loyalty that will stay with me for a long time because it considers so many questions in only seventeen pages.  This is the stuff of the best coming-of-age novels.    
“Comforter of the Afflicted,” by F.H. Batacan (a woman who worked for  Philippine intelligence for several years) is the tragic story of a woman who died, almost anonymously, in the service of others.  I am particularly taken with the story’s central character, an elderly priest who lends his investigative skills to an overburdened police department that depends greatly on Father Saenz’s help.  I believe that this priest is one of two Jesuits featured in the author’s 2002 novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, a book I am now looking to add to my To-Be-Read stack. 
The third story I want to mention is Sabina Murry’s (yes, if you are wondering, the collection does include stories by male authors) “Broken Glass.”  This is the story of a little girl who, while visiting her rich aunt, makes a grisly discovery in the walled home’s lush garden.  It is a highly atmospheric story that explores the relationship between Manila’s rich and those who depend on them for their own survival.  It is also a coming-of-age story of sorts in which a bright little girl learns a lot about the world she lives in.
Bottom Line:  This is a worthy addition to a thriving series that seems to have no end (the publisher already has announced an additional fifteen titles in the works).  I will, I hope, be reading more of them.  If noir-styled fiction is to your liking, this just might be the series you were hoping to find.

(Review Copy provided by Publisher)