WAKE UP, JAMES.

CoverArtwork_Final_FRONT2Alex Pilalis in The Awakening of James Island hands us over to a chaotic future universe charged with mystery and danger. James is a young man with almost no memory or known history. He works in a fairly menial job at a construction site, but does not know where he came from or what his purpose in life might be. The city where he works is a crossroads of a variety of interplanetary creatures and vehicles that keep him both trepidatious and confused. Soon after we enter the story, an alien named Evan comes into his life in a dramatic fashion I won’t spoil for readers by describing here. Evan claims to know and be responsible for James destiny, but won’t reveal details, and James mistrusts his claim. Multiple harrowing adventures ensue.

Pilalis has a wonderful talent for creating excruciating situations for his many-talented characters and for devising astonishing escapes. Excitement, suspense and surprises await on nearly every page. I wasn’t, however, surprised to find on reading Pilalis’ bio after I’d finished the book that he’s spent considerable time in the video game industry. I could really picture some of those situations he invented coming right out of the small screen, zooming and leaping through and over obstacles  as if someone had a thumb on a controller.

Alex-Pilalis
ALEX PILALIS

One caveat for me was that James himself seemed seldom able to analyze situations or devise his own escapes. I’d have liked him to be a bit more self-sufficient, stronger of mind and body and able to extricate himself from dilemmas instead of having to nearly always depend on others. However, this is the first of a series, and I anticipate he’ll grow as the tale goes on. With that small reservation, I highly recommend this novel and await the sequels.

 

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SCOOTER NATION

51+mi7lfvnL._AA160_I usually try to come up with a title for these reviews that references, but does not include verbatim the title of the book. This time, I can’t improve on the title, so I say to and about A.B.Funkhauser, great title for an equally great book.

“Scooter” Nation is a nice double-entendre. “Scooter” on the one hand hooks us into Scooter Creighton, one of the main characters in Funkhauser’s debut tale, Heuer, Lost and FoundOn the other hand, another of the novel’s most significant elements involves a fleet of motorized scooters ridden by aggrieved disabled people who zip around protesting both handicapped access and other community political issues.

Gonzo Funkauser
A.B. FUNKHAUSER

Heuer involves the shenanigans of the owners and operators of a family-held mortuary with a tangled web of relationships, both fiscal and personal. Scooter opens with that same mortuary in the hands of the unfortunately-named Jocasta Binns, the main surviving member of the conflicts in Heuer. (Tantalizing glimpse: You find out how Jocasta came by the name of a legendarily incestuous Greek queen.)

Binns is a deeply angry and unhappy Martinet who alienates her staff and family and inspires a rebellion. The tactics of the rebellion could have been carried out only in a funeral home, which makes for great reading. So, as in all of Funkhauser, you see common human interactions carried out in a most uncommon environment.

In my review of Heuer I complimented Funkhauser on her “zesty prose” as well as her characters. Here’s a two-in-one quote that illustrates both.

Enid. . . should have puked all over her shoes. She should have spewed all over Carla too, but she didn’t. . . her guts steadied steadied to a workable calm just like they always did in the face of a threat. 

You’ve got both a reaction on the part of a major character as well as a mirror into her internal life. Furthermore, her emotional responses manifest in real action later in the novel. Thus, the lives of Charley Forsythe and Scooter Creighton and the rest involve us not only in entertaining capers but in deep and meaningful emotions as well. A terrific read with, I understand, a sequel on the way. Keep ’em coming, A.B. And to the rest of you, join the audience.

sitting up clapping

 

THAT FATHER-SON-FAMILY THING

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A North Carolina friend to whom I recommended Deep South wanted me to look at Larry Brown’s Father and Son. She said it gave her insight into how some of the families in her area of the semi-rural south, where she had a long career as an educator, came to be who they are. If so, There are some grim realities down there. However, local as the dysfunction might be for the purposes of this single novel, it’s also I’m sure an unfortunate universal reality beyond the borders of the Southern U.S.

Glen’s just out of prison after serving three years for the drunk-driving killing of a young boy. He’s full of more anger and resentment than a penful of Timothy McVeigh’s. He’s a natural expert at laying off the blame, so he’s got a number of scores to settle in the small community he’s come home to. Brown gives us a younger brother to whom we can compare Glen. They are close enough in age to share parenting and backgrounds. Unlike his brother, “Puppy” is not particularly mad at anyone, though he’s anything but that of a model citizen. He’s pretty fond of cards and beer, to the detriment of his kids and wife.

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LARRY BROWN

Glen has a kid as well, and the mother wants him back in the house. She’s wary, but she wants to make it work. Glen can charm when he wants to, so we see that softer, cheery side of him as well. Still, he’s not ready for anything like responsibility. What he’s ready for is some good old fashioned binge drinking and vengeance.  And off he goes.

I don’t like to describe story lines much beyond this point because it kind of takes oxygen out of a tale to know everything beforehand on first reading. Suffice it to say that the relationships in Glen’s and his father’s family are complex, bordering on incestuous, and make for quite a cast on which Glen can work his criminal instincts. And it’s perhaps the insight into the criminal instinct which is the most significant thematic element of Brown’s novel. What would make a person do something like that? We ask that all time, don’t we? Sometimes you can suggest an answer, more often not. But Father and Son will give you a shot at a response and a rousing story beside.

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GRINGO PLAYGROUND

51v3Mi3J0tL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_So I’m still on my Charles Portis kick, and it’s a kick to be on it. After The Dog of the South and True Grit, I dived into GringosPortis’ people spent a lot of time in Mexico and Belize in Dog of the South, and we predictably, given the title, return there in Gringos.

This time, we’re on the Yucutan, mainly in the city of Merida. Once again, my penchant for travel paid off. Since I spent a little time there once, I had a feeling for much of the novel’s locale, which added immensely to my reading experience.

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CHARLES PORTIS

Jimmy Burns originally came south to this ancient-Maya-rich area as a plunderer of artifacts. A criminal by in some peoples’ eyes, he considered himself a benefactor because he was rescuing artifacts from the anonymity of museum basements and distributing them (for $$, of course) to people who would show and enjoy them. The enterprise eventually became too risky, and he could have returned to the states, but he stayed on, getting involved in a leather-tanning business that provided fashionable coats to the rich. When that dried up, he turned to hauling, which is where he is when we meet him.

He enjoys the friendship of a mixture of other ex-pats, antiquities scholars, and a variety of locals. Among the gringos passing through his world are a number of pretty devilish types, including a brutal sort in a van containing what look to be underage runaways. His efforts to i.d. and capture said youngsters fails, but in the course of another venture, he becomes involved in a quest. This is my third Portis and my third Portis quest. Nothing wrong with that. A quest makes a fine structure on which to build a story, but just thought I’d mention it.

Anyhow, he pursues what he believes to be the husband of a friend who has become lost in the wilderness along the river on the Guatemala-Mexico border. The quest leads him to a hippie encampment on the site of a temple ruin where the assembled are awaiting some sort of transfiguring new-age experience at what they believe is the Lost City of Dawn. At the center of all this is a Mago, or wizard who has yet to show. Beyond that, I will tell no more. You must read it to find out.

I will tell you that the source of this occult tale and the circumstances which lead Burns and the other gringos to the site are hilarious as well as dangerous. Portis’ comic sense is like no other I’ve encountered. Cynical. Out there. And true as a well-tuned piano. All the things gringos go to Mexico to do will amaze as well as what they end up doing instead of what they came for. Sort of like life.

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ROBERT L’S NAPA DAYS

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ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON

There’s a marker or two in the Napa Valley mentioning Robert Louis Stevenson and a cabin of his (no longer standing), but in my numerous trips around the area, I never felt compelled to explore the background. The idea of Treasure Island, Long John Silver and Northern California just didn’t compute and I didn’t want to disturb the dust. Then along came Dan, a dust disturber of the first order, and I launched into Travels Across the Plains and The Silverado Squatters. 

I knew Stevenson was consumptive (I don’t know how or when I learned that trivia), and the news that he came west looking for improved health seemed logical. I doubt he found what he was looking for because he went from California to the South Seas where he expired not long after. In the meantime, he scribbled away, partly because he’s a writer, and that’s what writers do, and partly no doubt to pull in a few bucks. Travel’s expensive. How he kept writing, sick as he was, I can’t imagine. But that’s why he’s famous and I’m not, I guess.

Travels Across the Plains is an account of his cross-country journey from east coast to west in 1879, just ten years after the Promontory Summit golden spike ceremony in Utah that marked the completion of the first transcontinental railway. Things were still pretty chaotic, with differing rules, procedures, prices, and accommodations on the train depending on where you were. There was virulent racism with Chinese and Indians being forced to separate cars despite the fact that they appeared cleaner to Stevenson than the whites who were calling them dirty. Same old story. But eventually he arrived. As did his wife, Fanny, though there was no mention in my pages of how or when she got there. She certainly wasn’t on the same train.

After a while, they heard about an abandoned silver mine, the Silverado, which they might be able to inhabit for free. The idea of isolation and economy appealed to them, so they secured the help of some local denizens, cleaned the place up, and moved in. Stevenson talks about the place in rather romantic terms, but it’s hard to hide the hardships. Steep hillsides to and from water. Thieves in the neighborhood willing and able to help themselves to the belongings of the naive foreigners. No roof on much of the habitation. Yet, on good days when the temperatures and breezes were mild, and Fanny had set up a neat and serviceable household, it was a sort of like a paradise.

Since it’s familiar territory to me, I was able to appreciate his evocative descriptions of the low ground fog curtain hiding, then suddenly parting to reveal, the vegetation from his vantage point on the hillside. A lively parade of characters swirl in and around the nearby inn where Stevenson and Fanny go for supplies and transportation. All I knew of the word “Silverado” is that there’s a road running down the east side of the valley called The Silverado Trail. Of the mine I knew nothing. I know more now and of how the Stevensons got forced out of their “squat” by encroaching capitalists who never made a dime out of their nefarious activities.

Anyhow, that little Napa Valley plaque and the story of the vanished cabin of the author of Kidnapped and Jekyll and Hyde and so much else means a lot more to me now. The Scotsman and I are California Brothers.

jumping out of chair