Charlie's Books

Charlie's Books
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Leave the (political) party. Take the cannoli.

"It always seems impossible until it's done." Nelson Mandela

Right now 6 Stella crime novels are available on Kindle for just $.99 ... Eddie's World has been reprinted and is also available from Stark House Press (Gat Books).

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Book Reviews: The Last Woman in the Forest ... In the House of Wilderness ... Ten-Seven ...

The Last Woman in the Forest, Diane Les Becquets … I probably learned more about the wilderness and endangered wildlife, the rescue dogs used to work the territories, and several other science-based tidbits of life in the wild from this one novel than I’ve known over my collective 62 years, all of it fascinating, but it is the story that turns the pages.

Marian Engström, a woman already familiar and in love with wildlife, works with rescue dogs in the upper reaches of Alberta. She’s there to help preserve and save wildlife, taking samples of droppings for analysis. It’s no walk in the park. Between the weather, the snow, the treacherous terrain, it can be as dangerous as mountain climbing with toothpicks to both the dogs and the people doing the work. She’s paired up with a guy who knows his business and is a solid teacher. Marian is attracted to his knowledge and demeanor, and eventually winds up in a relationship with him. Tate is his name, and he’s a man with a somewhat mysterious past. Marian loves Tate before long, but then they are separated by their jobs, each getting a different assignment. It’s during their time apart when she learns of his sudden death from a bear attack.

She’s overwhelmed by the news, but she soon learns about a few unsolved murders of women that may or may not have been committed by the man she loved. When she begins to do her own research, Marian learns that much of what Tate had told her about his past requires further investigation.

The more she pokes and prods into Tate’s background, in her attempt to clear his name and free her mind of what or who she might’ve been in love with, the darker things become. Consumed by the thoughts she’s having about what Tate might have been, she approaches a retired forensic profiler who is already familiar with the missing women.

Nick Shepard is the retired profiler, a man suffering from cancer. He knows the profiles of people, especially women, vulnerable to the kinds of manipulation serial sociopaths prey on. They are often trusting and eager for love, to give and be loved. Marian fits the profile, but there’s the chance Tate isn’t a killer, and she goes from wanting to know to having to know.

We’re also provided with the individual stories of the missing women and what happened to them. A composite profile is there, but can Nick survive long enough to inform Marian? Can Marian survive? Was Tate the killer?

Her pursuit of the truth is a compelling read, as is the back and forth frames of reference. Marian’s story is told in varying time references, including the stories of the missing women, from before she first met Tate to her present-day struggles with what happened and who he might’ve been. It’s clever writing that keeps one engaged throughout.

Les Becquets’s last novel, Breaking Wild, was a wonderful book, one of my favorites the year it was published. This one is a terrific chaser. You’ll turn the pages and investigate side-by-side with both Marian and Nick.

I suspect women especially will appreciate the strength and determination of Marian’s struggle to find the truth, but make no mistake, this man enjoyed every page of this thriller.
In the House of Wilderness, Charles Dodd Wright … One of the very best books I’ve read this or any other year. Charles Dodd Wright is a brilliant author, and although the terrain he offers his readers couldn’t be more foreign to a city boy like myself, the cadence and rhythm of his writing kept me mesmerized.

His novel here involves three drifters constantly on the move. Their home is wherever they can find refuge. Their possessions are what they can carry. Rain is the woman we follow. She is caught in a triangulation of survival within the closed family. She was once mesmerized by the survivalist, Wolf. Rain isn’t her real name. It is her chosen name. Rain is one wife, the “Little Bit,” but there’s another wife, an older woman named Winter, a woman who’d been with Wolf before Rain. The family of three struggle to survive off the grid, except when desperation requires a quick hit back onto the grid. Whether seeking shelter, coin, or a victim who might help them sustain their chosen way of life, desperation exists around every corner. Their life on the move is an extra raw deal for both Rain and Winter, because Wolf will put them on the street to secure coin for food and/or temporary lodging.

One day Rain is sent on a sustenance errand to town for groceries and beer. She is looking to hitch a ride back to the family campsite and winds up taking a ride from a man named Stratton Bryant. Although she’s initially suspicious, Rain finds his offer to drive her a measure of kindness. It is a kindness foreign to the world Wolf has created for her; a kindness he’s purposely shielded her from. Unfortunately, the desperation of surviving the wilderness leads the family of three to the house where Stratton lives while he is away. Wolf and his wives take what they can, but Rain doesn’t partake in any of the excessive damage Wolf seems to enjoy. Rain does take a photo Stratton’s wife had taken and keeps it close.

Stratton is a recent widower and a professor. His wife was a photographer of significance and he’s been asked to give her works away. He’s a man with the same insecurities and desires as most men, and when Rain returns to the scene of the crime, apologizes, and then offers to help him around the house as reparation, Stratton takes her in and offers her what she’s never had, a semblance of stability.

Stratton’s world involves other people, the connections necessary to life. They are connections Rain has yet to experience, and those Wolf has avoided at all costs. Rain sees Wolf’s tiny world for what it is, for what it has been, and when the timing is right, she escapes.

The eloquence of the author’s narrative is a marvel. It is a pleasure to read his words, the cadence and poetic fluidity keep one’s eyes moving forward. Within a few paragraphs of the book’s opening, I felt I was there, in Appalachia, in East Tennessee, in a world I’m completely unfamiliar with, yet drawn to word by word, sentence by sentence.

There’s more to the novel as Rain’s life takes a turn for the better, meeting friends of Stratton’s, a girlfriend at the school she’s enrolled in, and a young man she has a relationship with, a young man ultimately too young to handle her past, but it is a turn outside of the world Wolf can accept. Their stories run a parallel line that eventually meet yet again.

No spoilers here, but this writer has the chops guys like me can only wish we were born with. He easily vaults to a category of author I consider top of the line. He joins a group of new favorites and old: Chris Offutt, Joseph Haske, Cormac McCarthy, Lynn Kostoff, etc., writers I wish I could be. I’ve ordered a collection of White’s stories and intend to read everything he’s penned.

In the House of Wilderness is an excellent read by a brilliant author. Under no circumstances should you pass this one up.

And thanks to Gonzalo Baeza for reading recommendations that never fail.
Ten-Seven, Dana King.

With an opening chapter that sets the hook deep, Dana King maintains the streak of Penns River successes with Ten-Seven. The old gang is back: Ben “Doc” Dougherty; his boss, Stush Napierkowski; and the kid he helped saved a few books back, Wilver Faison. So is perennial pain the ass bureaucrat, Deputy Chief Jack Harriger, and a slew of references that make knowing the prior books all the more pleasurable, although not necessary to enjoy this one.

That opening chapter (the hook) is set with a sudden and brutal murder. There were witnesses, two women friends of the victim who were sitting in his car, when Doug Stirnweiss bought it in the parking lot of the casino they’d just left as a group. Both recall an incident at the blackjack table where Doug was sitting with another man and breaking his balls. Could the guy at the table have been the murderer? Could a police case come together that easily?

Good old police grunt work, questioning those inside the casino and out, provide leads that quickly go nowhere. An incident involving drugs changes their direction and maybe puts Doc and his fellow law enforcement on the right track, but overzealousness can lead to tragedy and does.

And then there’s Mike Mannarino, the local made guy with connections to New York. His crew is down to two wiseguys and a few spinoff associates, but there’s trouble Mr. Mannarino didn’t account for, and he becomes the intended victim of an attempted hit.

Or was he the intended victim? Was it from New York? Someplace else? Should he flee the area or try and dupe the big boys back East, and maybe flee to Chicago?

In the midst of a rough week, Doc has to deal with a bridge jumper, an experience that can only go one of two ways, leaving an attempted rescuer euphoric for saving a life or dejected for losing one.

Consistently one of the best in the business. As good as any I’ve ever read. Dana King, to quote Don Kirkendall of the blog Men Reading Books, is “top shelf entertainment.” Ten-Seven keeps that ball rolling.

- Charlie Stella

Anna Federova …

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Book Reviews—Books by Jennifer Egan, Katherine Faw (2), Willy Vlautin, and William Boyle—and the Holocaust Card.

Amici: Reviews, not necessarily in the order I read them, and certainly not in any other order. I enjoyed them all, except for one, and even that featured some excellent writing.

The Lonely Witness, William Boyle … A fun trip in and around Brooklyn that brought back many memories, including a “go shit in your hat” by an elderly lady (that was Momma Stella’s favorite retort to pretty much anything I teased her about). The lonely witness is Amy Falconetti, a woman lost between the two lives she’s lived since her breakup with her partner, an actress from the same Brooklyn neighborhood now living in L.A. Amy witnessed one murder when she was younger, and when the stars align shortly after the start of this story, she witnesses another murder. She’s been doing good deeds as a Eucharistic Minister for the elderly in her neighborhood, a 180 on her old life as a party-loving bartender. She hasn’t given him up. In fact, she did worse after the witnessed murder—she took the knife and was with the victim, a guy she’s had an issue with earlier over his possible stealing from one of the elderly ladies Amy spends time with. Amy winds up stalking the killer until he recognizes her and a new dilemma presents itself. Two bolts from her past increase the drama: her long lost father shows up, a guy who abandoned her and her mother, and her old girlfriend, the L.A. actress. No spoilers here. Boyle is an excellent writer, and his knowledge of Brooklyn and a street life is obvious. Real good stuff from the author of Gravesend, his debut masterpiece.

Young God by Katherine Faw … I enjoyed this one even more than her second novel, which I read first (see below). Her style is staccato, narrative and dialogue, and the story moves quickly, yet is revealed with just enough spacing not to confuse. It compels instead, and you won’t want to put this one down. Nikki is 13 years old when we meet her, a point at which her mother commits suicide. She flees social services and finds her father, fresh out of the joint. Their relationship is raw, especially when Nikki learns her father has switched careers. He was once a fairly big cocaine dealer. Now he’s a pimp, with a sidetrack of dealing drugs and financing the buys by ripping off other dealers and pimps. When a new recruit to the world of pimping becomes a rape and murder victim of Coy (Nikki’s father), Nikki decides the black tar heroin business Coy has dipped his toes in is a business she needs to incorporate on her own. It’s a dark read, but if you’re into dark, this one is brilliant.

Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan … A wonderful start to what I wanted to remain a wonderful novel. The historical aspect and information was brilliant. The mixture of two forms of corruption—political and organized crime, when neither had to fear social media—was also brilliant. The characters were terrific … and then something happened that killed it for me. I won’t provide spoilers, but I was not a happy camper by an author’s decision that made me question it for several days. Why ______? Why?

Bottom line: It didn’t work (for me). Others might disagree, but national book award finalist? Please. Award nominations are more a testament to the politics of the publishing industry than anything else.

Ultraluminous, Katherine Faw … Reviews of this book comprised of vignettes, some as short as a sentence or two, intrigued me. I was upset when I started reading, but found myself drawn in little by little. The protagonist is a heroin addict and expensive prostitute with a cache of big money clients as arrogant as one might think. One likes to smack her around. She takes it. Another wants to own her for a year. She considers it. Another wants to hang on but might be losing his extracurricular cash. Her non-customer is a former veteran of Afghanistan who keeps a real cache of weapons in a locker in his shitty room. Our protagonist goes with him for free. This one has a mind-blowing ending that enhanced the investment tenfold. Very worth the coin you’ll spend … and it proves there’s more than one way to write a book. Great stuff.

The Motel Life, Willy Vlautin … A moving piece of fiction that inspired this writer in many ways. Straight writing, a story within a series of stories. Vluatin takes us on this journey through Frank and his hard luck brother, Jerry Lee. Frank works when he can and drinks more often. He’s blood loyal to his brother, a general fuck-up but a good artist. When Jerry Lee kills a kid while driving drunk, he’s devastated and terrified of winding up in the joint. He’s lost a leg jumping from a train, an injury that gets worse with the constant on-the-run life they lead. Frank takes them out of town and on a motel life journey that includes babysitting Jerry Lee with stories with happy endings, no matter how absurd. Brilliant start to finish. Need anything more to read this book?

If Manhattan Beach was an award nominee, The Motel Life should’ve won.

In current events …

The End of the Holocaust Card … There were no rockets. No tunnels. No weapons outside of rocks, Molotov cocktails, and kites soaked in gasoline. What they faced were walls of razor wire and sniper rifles perched all along the wall and in towers, as well as drones dropping tear gas. The excuse that videos were “edited” and/or “spliced” no longer carried credibility. Neither did the never-ending excuse to maim and slaughter, the U.S. and Israeli word for the justification of war crimes, Hamas. These were Palestinian people protesting the insult of an embassy move by the United States, the longtime ally and accomplice of Israeli war crimes.

No, this time Israeli’s IDF was exposed for the murderous army they are. They killed an infant with tear gas, young teenagers with bullets, a legless man in a wheelchair (his legs below the knees lost from the last intifada). They shot a doctor aiding the wounded once in each leg. Some of the wounded and dead were shot in their backs.

No, there’s no excuse anymore. The holocaust Jews suffered during WWII, when the world watched too long before acting, is now being perpetrated in Gaza by Jews against the Palestinian people. There are no ovens, but there are firing squads and gas attacks, and an open air ghetto/prison where 97% of the water is poisoned.

What Norman Finklestein has been preaching forever has now been confirmed for all to see.

Here Finklestein, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, refused to play the Holocaust card.

So “let the word go forth,” to quote an American president from the 1960s. Israel is engaging in crimes against humanity and no longer gets to use the holocaust as an excuse to commit genocide against the Palestinian people. It is committing genocide against the Palestinian people, and the United States is supporting that same genocide.

The holocaust card is now dead, unless you’re going to use it in defense of the people being exterminated today. As Finklestein says: “If you had any heart in you, you would be crying for the Palestinians …”

Further, calling critics of genocide and war crimes anti-Semitic holds the same credibility as calling the slaughter in Gaza last week “IDF restraint.”

- Knucks

Speaking of National Book awards and politics … Tom Waits … Step Right Up.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Book Reviews … Bad Samaritan (Dana King), Jack Waters (Scott Adlerberg), Nothing Ever Dies (Viet Thanh Nguyen).

Amici: A set of long overdue reviews ...

Bad Samaritan, Dana King … Right in time for the #MeToo movement, this brilliant Nick Forte novel starts with the protagonist providing a much needed lesson for a Rob Porter-like clown who slaps a woman. Then a successful female author writing under a pseudonym for the purpose of having a quiet, private life, shows up in need of an investigation into a series of letters she’s received that portend her being exposed as the novelist she actual is (Desiree d’Arnaud). The investigation into the potential blackmail letters introduces the wild and whack-job world of men’s rights activists, a collection of Neanderthals who believe they’re the ones getting the short end of the equality stick. Needless to say, it’s not the kind of activism with which Nick can relate.

Another investigation features a former hooker being blackmailed with a video from her prior life. Nick feels guilty for the death of the former hooker’s mom, and thus takes on Lily O’Donoghue’s case. After handling what appears to be the blackmailing scheme, Nick finds himself tangled with a Chicago gangster. Although Nick and the boss of the local syndicate have a past, it may not be enough to save himself from the mess he’s stepped into. There’s more to Lily, her past and present, than meets the eye.

Nick’s practice has become a bit more successful than we’re used to seeing in previous novels. The usual cast of characters (Sharon, Goose, Delbert, Sonny, Jan, and daughter Caroline) are back and as entertaining as ever.

In the midst of his investigations, Nick seeks to expand the office space. A stodgy tenant he shares the floor with is a bit of an ass and wants a favor for a bargaining chip.

The dialogue is sharp as a razor, and the action is what we’ve come to expect from one of the best in the business, Dana King. Bad Samaritan comes highly recommended. As Don Kirkendall of Men Reading Books told me the night we went to dinner in Perth Amboy a few months back, “That Dana King is just great.”

Listen to me: Don knows what he’s talking about. Go get this book.

Jack Waters, Scott Adlerberg … A professional gambler with a determined sense of honor. If you cheat Jack, you may wind up with a knife in your chest. Adlerberg’s history novel takes place almost forty years after the Civil War. It begins in Jack’s home state of Louisiana, where Waters is known as a respectable gambler who keeps to himself, but after catching a young man cheating at poker in Waters’s home, a fight erupts and ends when Jack kills the young man with his knife.

Forced to flee the states, Waters hops a boat that leaves him in a fictional Caribbean Island run by a sleazebag of a president, a military man, General Hernandez Garcia Napoles. Napoles is also a gambler, but he doesn’t like to lose, not ever, and especially not ever to a Gringo. Jack is mixed race, but not enough for some on the island to accept as one of their own. Warned not to play cards with the general, Jack gets too comfortable and makes the mistake of playing anyway. He wins big, but the general finds a way of not paying his debt, accusing Jack of supporting the rebels in the mountains.

Napoles finds his other pleasures with virgin women on the island, some as young as thirteen.

There’s a U.S. diplomat on the island, a drunk with a beautiful wife who finds her carnal pleasures outside her own home. When she finds one of the girls Napoles has disgraced, because the girl couldn’t stop bleeding, she takes issue with the general as well.

In the meantime, after first refusing to help the rebel guerillas because he’d rather play cards, Waters seeks their leader, Raoul, and joins their army.

He’s no Che, that’s for sure, but Waters does have a strong sense of right and wrong. What happens is some exciting stuff told in some smooth narrative and dialogue. A pleasure to read, start to finish.

Here’s a line I circled from page 205 because I really liked it a lot. “History was the word people used when they hoped to lend meaning to the arbitrary workings of chance…”

Also highly recommended. Go get this book, too.
Nothing Ever Dies, Viet Thanh Nguyen. Just finished (Chapter 6) listening to this audiobook … I suspect those interested in this book will feel somewhat in tune with where Nguyen moves the discussion about war and the military industrial complex and how people perceive “their” side—as those in the right, the human, the victims or saviors. Perhaps this is best exemplified by how America (and every other nation state) insists on calling its police and military “heroes”: those who sacrifice their lives for the greater good (although I’m sure the nationalist brand would prefer “the rest of us” rather than something as socialist as “the greater good.”)

In any event, I felt it was restating the obvious regarding how we as Americans, those who are Vietnamese, Korean, etc., perceive our roles in wars. The suggestion that those of us on the left here (i.e., Americans who didn’t see glory in the American intervention in Vietnam) do a better job of realizing the humanity of our soldiers alongside whatever inhumanity we may have perceived or assumed or were confronted with as fact; again, not all of us on the left blame American soldiers. While there’s no excuse for what happened at My Lai, and is believed to have happened in several more Vietnamese villages, and although it is difficult to see any humanity in those involved in the mass slaughter of 500 Vietnamese (men, women, children, and infants), I suspect most can understand how such nightmares occur during war without removing any accountability from the crimes.

Check that, my bad. I do know of people (Americans) who defended Lt. Cally and his men from the crimes they committed, which confirms the author’s point. But, let’s face it, those blind faith “America right or wrongers” are NEVER going to read this book … and if forced to at gunpoint, would likely say “Liberal subterfuge.”

Anyway, it’s a fine study loaded with philosophical name dropping and quotes, and it does a terrific job of delving into American cinema (and the propaganda it reinforces), which has been mirrored by South Korea as they have become more Americanized.

More to come down the road.
Politics … What’s left to say about it anymore? We’re a country that has gone from Vietnam War protests that eventually brought the war to an end, to a society that completely ignores war. Meanwhile, the disparity in incomes in America has turned us into a true banana republic. The government is owned by corporate interests. Lobbyists get to vote in one party’s presidential nomination process, and when we learned Congress has a fund for the defense of sexual assault charges against them (paid for with taxpayer money), it was a two or three day flash in the pan bit of news, and then voters quickly returned to their sides of the two party duopoly and the congressional scam that should have anyone involved put in chains was forgotten. Unions have been crushed, pensions eliminated, and the bulk of the population scurries to make ends meet in a race they can never win.

How this population doesn’t vote for a third party, whichever one fits its political profile, is as baffling as the fact a despicable human being won the presidency and may well win it again.

So it goes.


Yesterday my granddaughter sang God Bless America for us. I figure it’s a good time for her to learn another song.