book review

Viewpoint: Go Set A Watchman

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Go Set A Watchman
Go Set A Watchman US Book cover.

On July 14, 2015, one of the most anticipated fiction novels was released both in the United States and the United Kingdom. Go Set A Watchman, the second book by author Harper Lee made it’s debut almost fifty five years to the day after the first release of To Kill A Mockingbird. The storyline of Watchman centers on Jean Louise Finch, “Scout” returning home to Maycomb County to discover, everything has changed since she and her brother Jem were the object of attention from neighbor Arthur ‘Boo’ Radley.

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch
Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch

In the weeks leading up to the release, reviews began to emerge that the father of Jean Louise, Attica Finch, had become a racist. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus defends a man falsely accused of rape, and later during the film of the same name, Gregory Peck delivers one of the revered performances ever, which won him an Academy Award.

Writers and the blogosphere cried out in dismay at the fall from grace.

“Say it isn’t so?”

“Falls from grace – first Cliff Huxtable, now Atticus Finch.”

With a simultaneous release in both the United Kingdom and the United States, fellow writers “across the pond” got their hands on the book and were putting their thoughts into newspapers, before I even woke up. After reading their reviews, I wondered if it was worth preordering and prepaying for my copy on the first day release.

On the third day, and after avoiding the “mass hysteria” about Mister Finch’s tainted view, I picked up my copy and isolated myself for the read. Cover to cover, one sitting. As I read the book, I could not help but be drawn back to the circumstances that brought Lee’s first book to me.

Growing up in Australia, there was not a lot of detail paid to the civil issues of the South. The book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is required reading in junior High School English, along with Romeo and Juliet by Shakespeare, and Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. My first viewing of the film was in 1982 – not a lot of television in Australia. However, as my daughters grew up, they too also experienced Mockingbird as required reading in both Australia and the USA. Like myself, they also were not exposed to the civil issues of the south before the book, but had more exposure to Hollywood’s interpretation of the issues.

Go Set A Watchman draws on the premise that every person has a Watchman, a conscience. Jean Louise, on a humid Sunday afternoon finds herself sitting in the same balcony of the courthouse where she watched her father so many years ago. This time, Atticus is leading a Citizen’s Council. Jean Louise is horrified and then goes on tirade against almost everyone. Almost.

The book has flashback scenes interspersed explaining where her childhood friends ended up.  Dill lives in Italy and her older brother, Jem, passed away with a heart attack. About the only person in Maycomb that hasn’t changed is Calpurnia, who is still the housekeeper for Mister Finch.

Go Set A Watchman reads like a “first draft”, including a reference to Atticus defending Tom Robinson, and having him acquitted of rape twenty years earlier – the storyline that would eventually became Mockingbird. Watchman does not have the same hold as Mockingbird, and it’s hard to imagine that Lee would “allow” this to be released, after a lifetime of rejecting pleas for a sequel. Lee, aged 89 and still living in Alabama, had her manuscript of Watchman “found” during an audit of assets by her lawyer.

Widower Atticus Finch
Widower Atticus Finch

The commotion about Atticus appears to be, unjustified. After getting into a heated discussion with Jean Louise, Mister Finch delivers the same lines from Mockingbird that his daughter has always heard from him. As her father, Atticus has never “forced” her daughter to do anything, and this time is no exception. The hysteria about Atticus being a racist old Southern lawyer, is unfounded. The town of Maycomb may have had a change of viewpoint towards civil rights, but Atticus, is still the same reserved man fighting the same internal demons that he did in Mockingbird.

I wouldn’t expect anything else from a single father bringing up his children in a evolving world.

Book Review & Giveaway: The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers

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I love to read and I love beer, so naturally I was really excited for the chance to review Adem Tepedelen’s latest book, The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits.  (Lyons Press, 978-0-7627-9152-1; $19.95, Paperback).  Tepedelen, known for his column “Brewtal Truth” in Decibel magazine, defines what makes certain craft beers “extremely extreme” and features descriptions and ratings of more than 100 insane beers from around the world.  These beers are broken down into specific categories: Ingredients from Hell, Over-the-Top ABV, Tolerance-Testing IBUs, Blasphemous Brews, Drinking the Decrepit, and Under the Influence.  In addition to hardcore beers, this book also profiles craft-beer loving metal musicians like Jean-Paul from Clutch, Brann Dailor from Mastodon and Richard Christy from Charred Walls of the Damned.  The book also features Q&A with extreme craft brewers like Greg Koch from Stone, Sam Calagione from Dogfish Head and Adam Avery from Avery.

Brewtal Truth cover2Tepedelen includes an explanation of extreme styles and what defines them.  Each beer profiled in the book receives an “extreme” rating, tasting notes, information about the beer and what makes it extreme.  As an added bonus, each beer comes with a musical pairing selected by Tepedelen himself.  Packed within the pages are informational and entertaining sidebars detailing everything from how these beers are made to emerging trends in extreme brewing.

The two things I loved most about Tepedelen’s book were.  One that he only picked beers that were widely available.  “Some of the most incredible and extreme beers made in the world are, unfortunately, brewed in very small quantities or are one-offs that don’t get widespread distribution (or any distribution, if they’re being made in a brewpub).  There was no sense in trying to include those beers.  This book was meant to illuminate the ones that are made at least once a year (if not year-round) so you at least stand a chance of being able to purchase and try them for yourself.”  There is nothing more frustrating than hearing about an amazing, new, weird beer only to find out that is costs the price of a plane ticket and is only available on the third blue moon of the year when the stars and planets align and only if you happen to be an O-negative blood type.

twisted pine ghost face killah
Twisted Pine’s Ghost Face Killah – definitely an extreme beer | photo: Twisted Pine’s facebook page

Second, that while Tepedelen focuses mostly on the extreme brewing process to get high IBUs and ABVs (something I’m not too personally invested in – I don’t have a good pucker face) he does spend some time talking about extreme ingredients, something I do fancy.  I love when breweries play around with natural, local ingredients, “defying the German Beer Purity Law of 1516 with impunity.”  Added to my tasting wish list thanks to Tepedelen is:

  • Mikkeller’s Beer Geek Brunch Weasel
  • Short’s Bloody Beer
  • Epic’s Brainless on Peaches
  • Unita’s Dubhe
  • Twisted Pine’s Ghost Face Killah
  • Jester King’s Gotlandsdricka
  • Cigar City’s Hunahpu’s
  • Ballast Point’s Indra Kunindra
  • Short’s Key Lime Pie
  • Unita/Crooked’s Labyrinth
  • Anchorage’s Love Buzz
  • Birrificio del Ducato’s New Morning
  • Dogfish Head’s Noble Rot
  • HaandBryggeriet’s Norwegian Wood
  • Hitachino Nest’s Red Rice Ale

Lucky for me, I’ve already tried two Portland brews mentioned in this chapter!

A little bit about the author:  Adem Tepedelen won the Michael Jackson Beer Journalism award in late 2008 and then created “Brewtal Truth” beer column for Decibel magazine.  This column has appeared in every issue since early 2009.  He also writes about beer and metal for the magazine’s Deciblog website.  He interviewed Metallica while he was in high school and has been featured in dozens of magazines and websites including RolligStone.com, Revolver, Brave Words & Bloody Knuckles, Mojo, Warp, Alternative Press, Guitar World’s Metal Heroes and The Rocket.  Originally from Eugene, Oregon, Tepedelen now resides in Victoria, BC.

Ninkasi's Sleighr is considered an extreme beer by Adem Tepedelen | photo: Ninkasi facebook page
Ninkasi’s Sleighr is considered an extreme beer by Adem Tepedelen | photo: Ninkasi facebook page

Interested in reading, The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits?  Leave a comment with the most extreme beer you’ve ever had and what made it extreme and be entered to win a free copy of Adem Tepedelen’s The Brewtal Truth Guide to Extreme Beers: An All-Excess Pass to Brewing’s Outer Limits!

Enter a comment below or on the Eugene Daily News Facebook page – the winner will be announced Saturday, February 8, 2 pm on Facebook. 

Book Review – Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms

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The cover artwork for Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms, edited by Dr. Alex Scully.
The cover artwork for Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms, edited by Dr. Alex Scully.

Enter at Your Own Risk: Fires and Phantoms is the second installment in editor Dr. Alex Scully’s horror anthology series to be published by local indy press Firbolg Publishing. The common thread running through the tales this time around is homosexuality, which may turn away some potential readers, but it should be noted that Dr. Scully manages to avoid the common editorial pitfall of pounding the reader over the head with her anthology’s thematic linkage at every turn by including a diverse selection of stories ranging from ones in which LGBTQ-ness is central to the plot to others in which it is merely implied.

Along with its main theme, Fires and Phantoms also carries on the theme of its predecessor, Enter at Your Own Risk: Old Masters, New Voices, by mixing in some rather excellent stories by older writers like Edith Wharton and Ralph Adams Cram. One can only hope that the addition of masterworks by authors from previous literary eras will continue to be a hallmark of the series going forward, although their presence does have the unfortunate effect of highlighting the unevenness of the contemporary stories that make up the bulk of the anthology.

Following a short introduction by horror novelist Robert Dunbar extolling the genre’s lack of literary status as a virtue that has granted horror writers the freedom to explore taboo subjects long before it was considered safe to do so in mainstream fiction (and an even shorter foreword by Dr. Scully), Fires and Phantoms starts off with “Alone,” a short poem by Edgar Allan Poe that evokes a certain sense of otherness and isolation that should help readers get themselves into the proper mindset to enjoy the stories to come.

However, the mood set by Poe’s work is spoiled somewhat by the first piece of prose fiction in the collection, “When You Are Right” by Robbie Anderson. The setup of Anderson’s story is interesting enough – a policeman working the night shift waits in the car while his partner patronizes a creepy house of ill repute – but it reads like a rough outline, rushing ahead to its conclusion without pausing to give the reader much in the way of interesting detail or characterization. Thankfully, the next story in the anthology, “Time for One More Show” by local Eugene author B.E. Scully, gets things back on the right track with a much more interesting tale involving a lesbian stripper who becomes enthralled by a seductive mirror-bound apparition, but the difference in quality from one story to the next throughout Fire and Phantoms is stark enough that it may prove an insurmountable annoyance to some readers.

Another peculiarity that detracts somewhat from the collection is the inclusion of three stories – “A Decent Cup of Tea” by Michele Cacano, “In the End, He Dreams” by Michael Meeske, and “Inheritance” by Richard May – that read suspiciously like romance stories that were only submitted for consideration because they happened to have ghosts in them. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re bad stories, but their lovelorn tone would be more at home in a Harlequin Romance novel than a gothic horror anthology.

That said, Fires and Phantoms includes far more good stories than bad, and only one tale in the second category (Chad Stroup’s “Prickle the Ivories”) truly sinks to the level of unreadably awful. Along with B.E. Scully’s salacious tale, other contemporary gems here include T. Fox Dunham’s supernatural Civil War story “Last Dance in the Rain,” Vincent Waters’ macabre tale of a devout, troubled husband “Promises in the Dark, Whispers at Dawn,” and Andrew Wolter’s surprisingly enjoyable re-imagining of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” coyly entitled “A New Heart That Tells a Tale.”

wharton_pic
Edith Wharton

But as good as those modern stories are, the best ones in the entire anthology are the three oldest: Wharton’s compellingly understated “The Eyes,” Richard Hall’s ghostly trip through the history of LGBTQ literature “Country People” (which, fittingly enough, inspired the creation of this anthology), and the one story in the book I found genuinely disquieting on a visceral level, “In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Cram. Dr. Scully merits some applause for that last selection; Cram’s body of work as an architect may still be relatively well known, but his literary output has rather undeservedly fallen into obscurity over the years.

Again, its homosexual themes may put off some people, but the stories Dr. Scully has assembled here are by no means just for LGBTQ readers. It’s far from perfect (what anthology is?), but if you’re a fan of gothic horror, Fire and Phantoms does enough things right to justify picking up a copy on your next visit to the bookstore.

Book Review – Verland: The Transformation by B.E. Scully

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The cover artwork for Verland: The Transformation by B.E. Scully.
The cover artwork for Verland: The Transformation by B.E. Scully.

Verland: The Transformation, the debut novel by Eugene author B.E. Scully, is a welcome return to a time when vampire stories were actually about vampires.  And when I say vampires, I don’t mean brooding sex symbols who might enjoy a snifter of Type O every now and then when they aren’t busy romancing vapid teenage girls, but the vampires of old: superhuman, disquieting predators with an overpowering thirst for human blood.

The nominal protagonist of Scully’s story is Elle Bramasol, a true crime writer who ekes out a living on the mid-lists when she isn’t busy having conversations with her mother’s grave or hanging out with her two cats or policeman boyfriend.  That all changes one day when she gets a call informing her that famed Hollywood producer turned murderer Eliot Kingman has made a personal request for her to write a book about the events that led to his glitzy, high-profile trial and subsequent conviction.

However, Bramasol soon learns that Kingman’s case is the furthest thing from his mind.  During their first interview, he rambles on about the nature of life and grief, then tells her that he has found a loophole to mortality, a way around death itself.  When she inquires further, he directs her to visit his mansion, where his wife and his assistant give her a sheaf of translated pages from a book purporting to be a diary that begins during the Franco-Prussian War in the 1870s.

It’s at this point that the novel really comes into its own as the diary introduces us to Verland, a young Prussian soldier who is turned into a vampire by a mysterious medic after being left to die on the battlefield.  As Scully unfolds the vampire’s story through multiple series of diary entries, Verland soon supplants Bramasol as the de facto protagonist of the story; he is a fully-realized, complexly layered character, and his diary is the most interesting part of the entire novel by far.  In fact, the entries are so compelling that they begin to overshadow the rest of the book, and it won’t take long before readers will find themselves skimming through Bramasol’s investigations so they can get back to reading about Verland’s life story.

Portrait of B.E. Scully from her author page on Amazon.com.
Portrait of B.E. Scully from her author page on Amazon.com.

The passages dealing with Verland’s diary succeed as well as they do by never making the mistake of lingering for too long on any one subject.  By turns Verland is a wretch overridden with existential anguish, a terrifying predator who revels in his powers, a passive observer to important historical events and personages, a detached clinician who performs unsettling J.G. Ballard-style experiments on his own flesh, and an outsider who knows he must remain apart from humanity but can’t quite still his yearnings for the simple pleasure of social contact.  And no matter how far Scully pushes her titular antihero, his thoughts and actions always feel true to the character she has created.

One of the more fascinating themes running throughout the book is the constant juxtaposition of the vampire’s overriding monstrosity – i.e., the need to feed via murder, up close and personal – with the evils of human society in all their depersonalizing, depraved cruelty.  In a way, Verland’s simple animal urge to seek out prey paints him with a purity of purpose that somehow elevates his bloodlust above the far murkier motivations behind the predations of normal humans.

Verland’s passage through history also works to take the vampire mythos created in seminal horror novels like John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819) and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) and carry it intact up to the present day, free of the glitterpires and other misty-eyed romantic trappings that make contemporary vampire fiction so unbearable to read.  The novel’s historical and literary references sometimes devolve into little more than rote name-dropping, and at times the scope of the story outstrips Scully’s ability to fully realize it, but that’s a small complaint.  It’s hard to fault an author for daring to reach for something just beyond their grasp instead of playing it safe and composing a lesser story.

So, while Verland: The Transformation doesn’t avoid the usual smattering of problems that seem to plague all debut novels, B.E. Scully nevertheless succeeds in writing an engaging, satisfying tale.  It may not be high literature, but it doesn’t need to be – it’s a straight-up vampire novel, and a damned good one at that.