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Kirkus Indie Books of the Month - January 2016

An engrossing portrait of an emblematic Victorian.

The Double Life of Laurence Oliphant

VICTORIAN PILGRIM AND PROPHET

A rollicking biography of a classic 19th-century figure, featuring imperial adventure, high diplomacy, literary fame, and an eccentric cult focused on bizarrely sublimated sexuality.

Casey recounts the impossibly full life of Oliphant, a Scottish aristocrat born in 1829 during an era when his privileged caste ran the world. The son of the chief justice of Britain’s Ceylon colony, Oliphant gained fame with bestselling travelogues of Nepal, Russia, and Canada and worked as a foreign correspondent and British diplomat (sometimes both) in global hot spots: he stormed Chinese cities during the Opium Wars, parried sword attacks by anti-Western samurai in Tokyo, toured the corpse-strewn battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War, and witnessed the bloody destruction of the Paris Commune. Eventually, jaded by his life as a member of Parliament, satirical novelist, and London rake, he sought redemption with American spiritualist Thomas Lake Harris and his Brethren of the New Life group, which ran utopian communes in New York and California. Much of Casey’s book offers an entertaining account of Harris’ strange doctrines. Converts did manual labor cleaning stables and scrubbing laundry; the faithful “de-magnetized” each other of “lust currents” by counterintuitively having communal nude scrub-downs. They also practiced deep-breathing exercises that induced mystical visions; during these, disciples would join in orgasmic union with their opposite-sex “other half” in the celestial realm. (Earthly sex, however, was frowned upon: Harris separated families and forbade Oliphant and his wife, Alice, to have sex, explaining that they were not each other’s true celestial soulmates.) Breaking with Harris, but not all his teachings, after Harris announced the second coming and proclaimed himself king of the world, Oliphant went on to help establish Zionist colonies in Palestine. Casey relates this colorful saga with well-paced narrative aplomb, setting it against the cultural ferment of the 19th century. His version of Oliphant is as an appealing character, part dashing man of the world and part idealistic seeker, possessed of both ardent religiosity and droll humor. He and his associates emerge as embodiments of a time of boundless horizons and breathtaking ambitions, of spiritual yearning that chafed against expectations of mundane happiness and fulfillment, and of a hunger for charismatic figures who lent a cosmic glamour to technological and political upheavals of the era. The result is an energetic page-turner, a shrewd character study, and a rich social history.

An engrossing portrait of an emblematic Victorian.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-61-868796-8

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Post Hill Press

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

A slew of gloriously disturbing, well-told tales to unnerve readers.

Nightmares Unhinged

TWENTY TALES OF TERROR

Viola (Luna One, 2014, etc.) amasses a series of blistering horror stories, including a few of his own, from authors who tell of vampires, demons, killers, and things better left hidden in the dark.

Steve Rasnic Tem opens this collection with “The Brollachan,” a Lovecraft-ian narrative in which a creature’s evil may live on through its lineage. The stories here are largely traditional with contemporary touches. Some take familiar setups in unexpected directions. In the post-apocalyptic world of Stephen Graham Jones’ “The Man Who Killed Texas,” for example, a guy makes a harrowing decision to protect the Lone Star State from a plague; and humankind survives an alien invasion in Mario Acevedo’s “Zôu Gôu” only to discover that the horror may not be over. Others play with the relative safety of modern settings: a golfing buddy disappears from a golf course in Sean Eads’ “Lost Balls,” while the office Christmas party in J.V. Kyle’s (a pseudonym for Viola and Keith Ferrell) “Bathroom Break” takes a ghastly turn. The prose is consistently outstanding, and there isn’t a single dud here. A few stories, however, do stand above the rest. Ferrell’s Poe-esque “Be Seated” turns a simple chair into a macabre entity; Jason Heller’s “The Projectionist” features a beast that’ll make readers quiver or queasy or a little of both; and in Viola’s “The Librarian,” a man who checks out and returns the same six library books every week isn’t even the eeriest part of the tale. A couple of stories are predominantly tongue-in-cheek: there’s a vampire curious about a batch of especially delicious victims (Kyle’s “Fangs”), and guess what stoners do with a magic lamp in Acevedo’s “Gurgle. Gurgle.”? All 20 stories, disconcerting in their own ways, leave impressions individually as well as collectively. Illustrations from artist Lovett[b1] —searing images that look as if they’ve been etched in stone and spattered with blood—precede each story.

A slew of gloriously disturbing, well-told tales to unnerve readers.

Pub Date: Oct. 11, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-9855590-9-0

Page Count: 280

Publisher: Hex Publishers

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

A sympathetic but unflinchingly honest testament of indoctrination and embattled faith.

Faith, Doubt, Mystery

A CATHOLIC JOURNEY

An affecting account of one man’s experiences with the Catholic faith.

Near the beginning of Tracy’s heartfelt debut work of nonfiction, he describes a scene when he was a theologian in a Jesuit seminary and not yet an ordained priest. He was approached on the street by a young man seeking a blessing. It was an awkward moment, and there was a language barrier. Tracy mimicked the gesture of a blessing, telling himself it did the man no harm. “It was the best honest blessing I could give a young man who has no doubts about his faith,” Tracy reflects. “I’m an imposter.” The warning note in his head even so early on sets the tone for the remainder of his narrative, which follows him as a young man working his way through the long, elaborate stages of Jesuit life, from novitiate to juniorate to theologate and so on, always inquisitive and constantly challenging himself intellectually. He met an extraordinary gallery of Jesuit instructors and fellow hopefuls and realized on one level that his primary task was “building a spiritual life.” But under the surface, he also realized he was running on automatic pilot, less and less sure about the spiritual and intellectual certainties that are the hallmarks of the Jesuit order. When at one point an older instructor told him, “We never know when we will be taken off guard, because we can’t predict events in our lives,” he spoke with accidental prophecy: throughout the turbulent years of the 1960s, as Tracy taught and progressed in the order, he grew more disillusioned with the life he chose for himself (although the journey isn’t without humor, as when he attended a lakeside getaway with a few colleagues and discovered that “modern contemplatives could consume moderate amounts of McNaughton’s blended whiskey while doing God’s work”). In an account of remarkably unsentimental honesty, Tracy charts his falling away from the Jesuits and his eventual adoption of another life altogether. His memoir has no villains, no convenient turning points, and no cheap theatrics; instead, he limns the entirely more believable and sympathetic changing of a person’s heart over time. The result is a quietly powerful revelation of personal—and, despite everything, spiritual—reinvention.

A sympathetic but unflinchingly honest testament of indoctrination and embattled faith.

Pub Date: Sept. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-51-485753-3

Page Count: 264

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

Zany fun in an exciting adventure.

Escape from Dorkville

It falls upon 14-year-old Wilkin Delgado and his partner in crime, tug of war champion Alice Jane Zelinski, to save the universe again in the latest installment of Ammerman’s (Waiting for the Voo, 2014, etc.) adventures.

Fifteen-year-old Alice Jane knows she’s not cut out for the provincial life in “Dorkville,” aka Warrensberg, Minnesota. She misses Kansas City: “Here in Central Nowhere you can’t get real barbecue or honest-to-god hot sauce, all they play is polka music and they put corn in their gasoline.” Worse, since Alice Jane lives with her mom in Wilkin’s house, she also has to put up with the clueless 14-year-old. She has found a way to hang in there, managing her anger by getting in touch with her inner chi. But relief soon appears in the form of old friend Cardamon Webb, who recruits Wilkin and Alice Jane on yet another adventure to save the universe. Soon, Wilkin and Alice Jane are off on a quest, escaping Dorkville. Their task is almost an impossible mission: the universe is drying up, and Cardamon suspects it’s a problem with fresh water at the Source. To get at the crux of the matter, the team must “travel from the Outside through the Inside to the Other Side” and “pay a visit to the All and Everything.” On the odyssey, they have to make pilgrimage stops at Carthrobrite Cave, the City of the Dead, and the Oracle of the Swamp, not to mention battle evil forces such as Maldavis Chum. The story is a little too glib when it glosses over Maldavis Chum’s “cleansing” activities, which involve killing hundreds of thousands of people, but it’s probably beyond the scope of this wild roller coaster ride. The familiar trope of heroes on a quest gets an enjoyable makeover with endearing Wilkin and spunky Alice Jane, who, along with their sidekicks, make for a lovable pair. As they narrate the adventure in alternating chapters, their distinctive personalities make for memorable storytelling. And how can any middle grader resist a story that begins: “I now have a greater appreciation of toilets.”

Zany fun in an exciting adventure.

Pub Date: Aug. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-98-468224-9

Page Count: 202

Publisher: Kabloona

Review Posted Online: Oct. 26, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2015

A useful, attractive travel guide and memoir recommended for anyone curious about Southeast Asia.

Cycling the Mekong

A 10-WEEK BICYCLE RIDE THROUGH VIETNAM, CAMBODIA, THAILAND AND LAOS

From the Cycling Adventures series , Vol. 1

In this photo-rich debut memoir, an urban planner recalls bicycling through Southeast Asia, his camera in tow.

Daly had been to Vietnam before, way back in the 1960s as a diver directing “explosive ordnance disposal work” for the U.S. military. But the journey he chronicles here is a much different, far happier one. From November 2013 to January 2014, Daly cycled from Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) north through Cambodia, east through Thailand and Laos, then south to Ho Chi Minh City again, hewing to the long Vietnamese coastline. Though he saw many of the same places he saw in different circumstances 40 years ago, little was familiar. Vietnam “embraced consumerism and market capitalism,” women on the street wore skirts instead of black pajamas, cheap consumer goods were hawked at every corner, and in a city like Danang, “nothing was recognizable apart from misty, foggy views of Marble Mountain, the harbor and the Han River.” Eschewing the daily journal format, Daly organizes his book like a long, in-depth, and personalized travel encyclopedia. Separate sections walk readers through guesthouses where he stayed and the state of their facilities, how to avoid dishonest touts and fixers “smooth and slippery as an overripe mango,” and what to eat and what not to eat—“Cook it or peel it; if in doubt, boil it,” a friend wisely cautioned. Color photographs accompany the text, mostly Daly’s own colorful snaps but also maps and a handful of professional landscape shots. The photos are generally excellent, not professionally framed but, perhaps because of their casual quality, convincingly true to life. Readers are offered glimpses of riverboat vendors, idle boys killing time between jobs, the furious colors of a Hanoi street scene, the stillness of a large white Buddha. Daly is a competent, often eloquent writer, as when he describes an evening walk through Ho Chi Minh City, smelling the “huge array of orchid varieties; the fresh-cut aroma of tropical hardwoods; smoky haze wafting through the streets and alleys as charcoal fires were lit at dusk.” A few readers might be inspired to retrace his path. 

A useful, attractive travel guide and memoir recommended for anyone curious about Southeast Asia. 

Pub Date: Sept. 30, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-5143-5753-8

Page Count: 118

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

A short, insightful reflection on the expatriate experience.

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Carroll’s debut novel, a character study of two Americans teaching English in rural China, gracefully contrasts idealism and cynicism.

Epigraphs from W. Somerset Maugham and Paul Bowles evoke two precedents for this contemplative work on being a purposeless outsider. But the greatest debt is to Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Carroll’s plot follows the uneasy relationship between two men, one older and jaded, the other young and idealistic. Thomas Guillard, a Minnesotan in his 60s, arrives in Ningyuan to work at an English language school. He has neither the passion nor affinity for teaching but persists halfheartedly—between bouts of drunkenness. Twenty-something Daniel, conversely, speaks Mandarin fluently and is popular with his students, especially enthusiastic Bella. “Daniel’s motive for moving abroad had been to reach out and learn something from the world,” which accounts for his embrace of new experiences, whether patronizing a brothel or sampling dog paw as the guest of honor at a holiday feast. There are no quotation marks, and the close third-person narration moves easily between Daniel’s and Guillard’s perspectives. The latter’s bad-tempered xenophobia emerges as he notices “the Chinese squatting…and eyeing him like children” in a bus station like “some cattle fair” and observes “the moon had risen—what a fat and ugly bitch.” Yet sympathy goes solely to Daniel, perhaps partially for autobiographical reasons—Carroll, too, taught English in China. No inner doubt or vulnerability humanizes Guillard, and the narrative unsubtly cements Daniel’s judgment: Guillard “had proven to be arrogant, lewd, and racist.” Guillard’s Scrooge-like persona doesn’t even lift for Christmas Day, when—in the novel’s standout sequence—Bella cooks him a duck. Never a romantic prospect for either man, Bella is enough of a desirable object to allow trumped-up sexual harassment charges to drive one of them away in a slightly forced plot twist. Set over one academic year, the novel has a clear mission it fulfills admirably while recalling W.G. Sebald and Ben Lerner with its picture of befuddled foreignness. A pleasingly inconclusive ending paints home and new destinations as equally appealing.

 A short, insightful reflection on the expatriate experience.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-941758-45-8

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Inkshares

Review Posted Online: Nov. 10, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2015

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