Beth Alston: It’s time to get back to reviewing

Published 10:50 am Saturday, September 12, 2015

I’ve been asked to write more book review columns. I thank every person who has made this suggestion. I am reaching back into my files now for this column. There isn’t a problem with reading the books; I am just a little behind on the reviewing part. I hestitated to write about older books four years ago when I began this column, but gaging from the response  from readers, I’ve kept with it.
Here’s some of what I’ve been up to over the past few months.
• “Babbicam” — Rod Madocks — Holland House — 2015
The same independent book group that offered the previous title also offered this one and it really struck a chord with me.
This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and one of the most irresistible. Madocks is a genius, not only in the story he relates but the way he presents this bizarre account. It’s not surprising that Madocks has a history of working in maximum security psychiatric institutions. According to information on the book’s back cover, the Crime Writers’ Association calls Madock’s fiction “chilling and authentic.” Quite so.
Told by a young American poet, it weaves the curious and frightening tale the poet unravels after buying an obselete wire recording machine and a box of spools at some junk shop or yard sale. The poet gets the machine working again and starts listening. What he learns will haunt his days and nights forever.
The recordings are of a long dead doctor speaking with one of his patients, John Henry Lee, also known as “Babbicam,” named from the part of England he was from, Devonshire Beach, which the locals call Babbacombe.
Madocks brings Lee to life and it is unsettling.
Lee’s voice, for instance. “I’d never heard anyone speak like Lee. It sure was a weird accent. Real hard to understand his creepy way of speaking. There was another voice on the recordings. A flat Midwestern voice that cut in now and then. It had a sort of indistinguishable accent, a bit like Walter Cronkite’s. I guessed that voice must have been Doctor Kaiser’s.”
Babbicam’s twisted story begins in England in 1878, and the descriptions of place will also give you chills. It’s pure drear; it’s mostly poor; it’s a hard life for most.
The poet complements his review of the spools of recordings with a lot of Internet research and travel to England and other places,  and the story begins to consume him.
But he can’t stop, not until he gets to the bottom of it. It is in his quest for answers to the Babbicam conundrum that the poet learns much about himself and his own family. He begins to see parallels.
I love the way Madocks has crafted this story. It is complex, multi-faceted and disturbing, and I could simply not stop reading it.
The book’s cover itself will stay with you for awhile after you read the last page. Those eyes, those penetrating yet empty, soul-lacking eyes.
This is one of the absolute best books I’ve consummed this year. I highly recommend it. I plan to let it ruminate for a few months and read it again, maybe during the long, cold nights of January. I also plan to read more of Madocks, whose background is also tantalizing. He was born in Rhodesia, has lived in France and Texas, but mostly England.
• “Mailbox: A Scattershot Novel of Racing, Dares and Danger, Occasional Nakedness, and Faith” — Nancy Freund — Gobreau Press — 2015
I received an email about this book and quickly responded that I would love to read it for review. How could I resist with a title like that?
This is a charming collection of 76 little stories  written by a young girl, Sandy, beginning in the second grade. The stories are about the normal concerns of young girls: boys, school, clothes, but in this case, the girl is also concerned about expanding her vocabulary and shows the symptoms of being a real language lover.
In the second story, titled Avant-garde, she writes, “Mom says I shouldn’t use the word weird. The word to use is ‘avant-garde.’ Apparently in my adult life, I am going to learn how cool it is to be avant-garde.”
In chapter 6, Hair, she writes about going to New York City with her mother to see the rock musical “Hair” during spring break. “I think it’s good the tickets were half-price because in my opinion it was terrible. That was my opinion even before the whole cast came out at the end stark naked, which seemed really unnecessary … I think it’s kind of funny that ‘bare’ and ‘assed’ are part of the word embarrassed. But we don’t use the word ‘ass’ in our family except for a donkey, and then, we mostly just say donkey.”
Out of the mouths of babes.
Chapter 17 takes on Fireflies and the Sprinkler. Sandy writes about visiting her friend Lizzie and her parents and a friend of the father’s called Uncle Ned. There is apparently some pot smoking going on (or some other type of mood-altering behavior) among the adults because the three grown-ups do a lot of giggling and Uncle Ned is freaked out about the sound of the cicadas in the trees. Sandy finds it weird — not avant-garde — when Uncle Ned wants to brush all the girls’ hair. When the girls and the adults go outside to play under the sprinkler (which southern kids without swimming pools continue to do sometimes), things get beyond weird. Uncle Ned talks the girls (except for Sandy, who follows her instincts) into shedding their swimsuits and he begins filming them and asks them to strike calisthenic poses.
Sandy feels uncomfortable and explains, “You have three choices when you’re uncomfortable: 1.) you can tell yourself to get over it, there’s probably nothing wrong with it, or 2.) you can do something assertive to stop the problem, which usually means saying something very firmly like a reprimand, which is definitely hard to do when the problem is coming mostly from a grown-up like a teacher of your friend’s mother, or 3.) you can set aside the question of whether it’s actually a problem for you, and you can leave.”
Which she does. That little girl is smart.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It recalled so much from my own childhood experiences with school, social mores, etc. This book will bring tears and laughter. Some very serious issues are discussed by Sandy and her family but because there is love, they work things out. There’s a trust between the parents and the daughter and son. It harkens back to a kinder, gentler time. It’s a good read.
• “41: A Portrait of My Father” — George W. Bush — Crown Publishers — 2014
I found this book at and it is beautiful. It is an unabashedly sentimental, personal and affectionate tribute from son to father, both having served as Presidents of the United States of America (41st and 43rd).
I thought I already knew much about George H.W. Bush, but I learned much more in reading this excellent book. For instance, the elder Bush enlisted into military service on his 18th birthday, becoming the youngest pilot in the U.S. Navy. He met the legendary Babe Ruth during his senior year at Yale. His daughter Robin died of leukemia at a very young age. He and former first lady Barbara Bush spent Thanksgiving 1990 in Saudi Arabia with the military men and women deployed there.
There are many passages that will bring tears to your eyes and others that will make you laugh aloud. I thoroughly enjoyed the book from start to finish and it is filled with interesting photographs.
I must say that George W. Bush has written a fine tribute to a fine man, his father.
• “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” — Stieg Larsson —  Alfred A. Knopf — 2008
• “The Girl Who Played with Fire” — Stieg Larsson ��  Alfred A. Knopf — 2009
• “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” — Stieg Larsson —  Alfred A. Knopf — 2010
This sprawling trilogy, international bestsellers, landed on my bookshelf courtesy of my Book Fairy Godmother, June Shumake of Americus. All three are AWESOME and wicked good reading!
The Swedish Larsson, a liberal journalist, died of a heart attack in 2004, at the age of 50. He never knew what an international success his books would become.
The major characters of the three novels are a journalist, Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, a slightly-built, Goth-type, bi-sexual, computer nerd of the highest order, who is the “girl” in all three titles, the one who has a dragon tatoo, plays with fire and kicks the hornet’s nest. And Salander certainly gets around, in and out of trouble, serious, serious trouble. She even seems to ascend from the dead in the third book.
Larsson packs these novels with political intrigue, international espionage, sex, intricate descriptions of name-brand items, organized crime including the sex trade, guns and various other weapons and Violence (that’s with a capital V).
But I literally could not put the books down once I started reading. Larsson’s plots carry the reader along at a rate 1,000 times faster than that snowplow driver in “The Shining.” It’s literally break-neck speed. No offense to Stephen King, of course.
I recently found the Swedish version of the movie (2009) based on the first book, but was so distracted I couldn’t watch it; besides, I don’t speak Swedish. Since then, I have learned there’s an English version (2011) but haven’t watched it yet.
Sometimes I like to keep the characters as I imagined them when first discovering them in reading. I often am disappointed in the casting of some of my favorite books’ characters in the translation into film.
These books are dark yet stark in the real brutality of humans against humans. I never thought there were so many ways to kill or maim someone. Larsson knew.
I highly recommend the trilogy. If you have a strong stomach and a hunger for action, these fit the bill.
A fourth novel, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” will be released Aug. 27. A partial manuscript was left at the time of Larsson’s death, and  Swedish author David Lagercrantz finished it, according to The National Post which also reports that friends and family of Larsson are very unhappy about it. I’ve preordered it from and can’t wait! Will share my thoughts after I read it.

Beth Alston is executive editor of the Americus Times-Recorder. Contact her at 229-924-2751, ext. 1529 or