The Figure in the Shadows

The Figure n the Shadows – John Bellairs; Dell Publishing; 1977

The Figure in the Shadows by John Bellairs is the second in the Lewis Barnavelt series of novels.  It was first published in 1975.  It has thirteen chapters and totals 155 pages.  The artwork in this novel is by Mercer Mayer.  This is the second Barnavelt novel I’ve read, and the fifth novel by John Bellairs.

I just do not like Lewis Barnavelt like I love Johnny Dixon.  Nevertheless, all of John Bellairs’ novels are to be savored and enjoyed.  I do not whip through these, although they are all around 160 pages each.  I like to read them when the house is quiet and I am about to fall asleep and I can remember being a small person.  One of the best things about Bellairs is his ability to write an atmosphere and environment.  His settings in these novels are perfect.  He writes so that a young reader or an older one can be drawn into the setting and can feel the sinister environment.  One feels the chill in the air, the sound of a creaky old house, the dim lighting of an empty town street at night, etc.  Sure, all authors are supposed to be able to do this – but I find that only some are actually able to do this.

Still, Lewis Barnavelt.  He’s this chubby wimp….  He’s relatively smart and conscientious, but he is overweight and unable to defend himself.  He has a friend in this book – Rose Rita.  Rose Rita is a tough little girl who is smart, sassy, and for whatever reason is fond of Lewis.  She’s really the better character.  I almost feel guilty for liking her more than the main character.

So, the atmosphere is great.  Rose Rita is very cool.  However, the key points of the story – particularly the resolution – let me down.  I’m sorry to say that I just don’t think the resolution is the best we could have been given.  It does not really match so well with the story.  A ghost story? A ghost in a well? How does this equate with the figure in the shadows?  And for heaven’s sake, why all the discussion of the history of the amulet? Basically, this was not the neatest tied-up resolution ever.  It bugs me a bit.  But then, in reality, I do not really read John Bellairs for the actual mystery.

Lewis is really self-aware and he actually seems to understand personal interactions/relationships better than one would expect of someone his age.  In chapter three he actually is crying and cussing:  “God-dam dirty rotten no-good god-dam dirty….”   I was surprised at the language? And also really thrilled and rueful at it.   In chapter one, I want to pound Woody Mingo into the sidewalk for Lewis.   Like I said:  Bellairs is good at atmosphere and characters, but not so much the mystery qua mystery.  I like this book. You may love it.  I just think Johnny Dixon is a lot cooler.

3 stars

Solar: Man of the Atom #1

Solar: Man of the Atom #1, Dynamite Comics; 2014

Doctor Solar has a new series.  Dynamite Comics just released the first issue in a series.  Here is a character that has had a long history – but without much fame and glory.  I believe he was created by Paul S. Newman and Matt Murphy in the 1960s for a comic series with the publisher Gold Key Comics.  I have no idea how I know of this pulp/vintage character.  It is a case of one of those things that I know without knowing exactly how I know.

I know that in 2010 Dark Horse Comics released a small series entitled Doctor Solar.  I think they only made it 8 issues – through design or low sales, I do not know why it ended.  This is not as bad as it seems – Solar’s original run with Gold Key Comics in the 1960s only ran about 30 issues.  But here we are in 2014 and now it seems the property has gone to Dynamite Comics (founded 2005).  If you glance at Dynamite’s title list, you will notice that the majority are franchises from TV or film. Or even books.  Nevertheless, I read nothing of the Dark Horse comics series – so when I saw Solar #1 sitting on a shelf at my local comic book store I grabbed it.

I read it first – out of the large stack of comics that came home with me.

This issue displays the efforts of writer Frank H. Barbiere, artist Joe Bennett, colorist Lauren Affe, with cover artist Juan Doe (probably an alias, but why would you not take credit for this cover?).  I am a terrible sucker for (well, obviously, comic books) (1.) science fiction-esque covers/comics; (2.) vintage/pulp.  I really liked the cover Doe gave us for this issue and seeing Doctor Solar in his own title again definitely was the root cause of my spending $3.99.  Cover art does matter – it is not just something to glance at and cruise on past.

Solar #1, first page; Dynamite Comics

The first page is a keeper, as well, if you are science fiction addict. How can you see the cover, and then the first page, and then not be hooked?  One of the things that I like, generally, about this whole issue is the artwork and coloring.  It is really eye-catching and pleasing.  It works very well with the story.

Now, since I hardly recall any origin story for Doctor Solar, I cannot speak on this issue’s heritage or loyalty to the character.  I can say that the storyline here is worth reading, even if it does not seem incredibly unique.  I mean, a story in which there are estranged family members, ambitious, genius scientists, and rather dull bank robbers does not rank very highly in the annals of originality.  Nevertheless, I do not always need a first issue to be original – I do need it to have elements which will draw me back for issue #2.  That is definitely to be found here.  And so, I think the money was well spent.  It is rather difficult to say much else regarding the storyline – but if the art keeps up and the story progresses, I can see this being a safe monthly purchase.

4 stars

This Fortress World

This Fortress World - James E. Gunn; 1979

This Fortress World – James E. Gunn; 1979

James Gunn’s first novel, This Fortress World, was published in 1955.  I read the Berkley 1979 edition of the paperback – which, of all the publications, I think is the best cover art.  I have not been able to ascertain who the cover artist was – but I do really like this cover art.  And it is not necessarily just this particular piece.  Any comic book cover that resembles the basic structure of this cover is something that will also draw my attention.  Another example:  Glen Cook’s The Black Company cover.

When trying out a new author, I like to start with their first work.  Generally, this has either become their magnum opus – or they have nowhere to go but up, so to speak.  Also, it soothes all of my pseudo-OCD feelings on the matter.  So, naturally, thinking highly of the cover and knowing this is Gunn’s first novel, it was the obvious choice for my next read.

Surprisingly, this is not the most well-read novel.  I figured that I would find heaps of reviews of this.  I, of course, found some, however not as many as I expected.  Interestingly, the ones I found seemed to be very opposing in their overall rating.  At first this looked odd, but after reading the novel I can completely understand this disparity.

It is a difficult novel.  I enjoyed the first few chapters.  The story and characters were engaging, interesting, and this novel seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. However, I had the feeling that a certain viewpoint/ideology was being espoused – one that I am not too sympathetic toward.  This disappointed me, but I read onward.  Just because I disagree with something does not mean I will not read it. But then, around the middle of the book, everything seemed to get bizarre and I felt that the author really had no clear-cut direction of where he was taking this novel.  Threads of the story seemed to get lost or change.  And there are a few scenes that are a bit strange – unless you have some psychoanalysis in your academic background. I mean, why do authors love to torture characters?  But not, as PKD does, in an offbeat and kosmological way.  Instead it is always:  in a dank cell, naked, with torture devices. I could live without a whole lot of this particular trope. . . .

Anyway, much of the story itself involves escape/evasion/chase.  The novel is written in the first-person.  We meet William Dane immediately, looking much like the cover art here.  William is an acolyte at the monastery/cathedral.  Because he is an acolyte, I assumed he is between 15 and 25 years old.  I cannot recall the novel sharing his age with the reader – if it did, I missed it.  This is one problem that I have with the novel:  sometimes William seems too capable for someone so young. Maybe his innocence and youth are what help him succeed? However, does his name mean anything to you? It was familiar to me in a dusty way. It finally came to me after reading the book: Cp. Silas Marner.

So what is this novel about?  Telepathy.  It is also a really hopeful, futuristic conception of humanity.  It is also a love story.  And it is also a “chase/escape” plot.  It is about fortresses – personal, architectural, moral, etc. But – most important – I believe this is an entire novel about READING!  (Chapter 6 contains some of this!)

The writing is not so good.  The ideas are good – whenever there is also a consistency and continuance.  When events happen at random, or there are obvious “changes” that don’t mesh so well, the ideas seem forced.  Two things must be said:  the viewpoint that I thought was being demonstrated (the viewpoint that I disliked) actually was not being put forth.  Or, it was, but not in the expected way – in a way that is actually positive and redeeming.  Color me surprised.  In some ways, it is the opposite of the viewpoint that I suspected I was going to be dealing with!  Very tricksy, Gunn!  Also, while the middle chunk of the novel is not great, the last several chapters are quite good; matched with the first few – this would be a 4.5 – 5 star read.  The resolution is interesting and impressive – especially after the middle section.  And I enjoyed it quite a bit.

From late in the novel:

And so we have the fortress psychology which pervades everything.  It means isolation, fear of attack, hatred of the alien.  It means strong, centralized governments. It means concentrations of power, wealthy, and authority.  It means oppressed populations, looking ignorantly, hopefully, fearfully to superiors for defense and order.  It means stagnation, decay, and slow rot which will eventually destroy all semblance of human civilization as technical skill and knowledge are destroyed or forgotten and the links between worlds are broken.   (pg. 193)

Honestly, many readers will hate this novel.  The writing is not good.  The subject matter is not contained enough and seems to try to include too much in such a short novel.  Nevertheless, even if it is not perfect, many readers will also like this novel for presenting the positive, hopeful, and revolutionary feelings for humankind in the far future.  Also:  telepathy.

4 stars

Divergent

Divergent – Veronica Roth

My household read Divergent by Veronica Roth.  It is her first published novel and is also the first in the Divergent trilogy.   It was released in 2011.  The movie that is based on the book was released today (March 21st), which is why my household tried to gobble this book down in rapid gulps.

Well, I do not read a whole lot of (what is called) “young adult” fiction.  I do not really like this new and really over-produced “genre” that I find more adults reading than actual “young adults.”  Overall, after having read a handful of novels in this category, I have to say that these are really not good literary works.  I mean, there is no “challenge” to reading them, no deeper meanings, no literary qualities, no substance, etc.  I did not expect any, of course.  Now, none of that is to say that these books are not entertaining and/or interesting.  Many of the ones I have read were fast-paced, clever, and dripping with emotional moments!  However, I also happen to see a lot more adults reading these books than youth…. and that concerns me a bit.  I do not really find youth reading these books.  All of this is just my personal opinion/experience, and I want to say that I do not mind reading puff or pulp.  I just do not think it should be the majority of what one reads.

The thing is:  this is another novel about a young girl who is the main character.  She is the heroine. The book is told in the first-person perspective.  The “takeaway” for the novel is that the girl is strong, independent, and can save the day.  But this seems like most of the books that are in the young adult category.  And while that is fine and dandy, I do not see that it is going to appeal to a male young adult audience. I mean not necessarily this book series – but this plethora of young adult novels with heroines. And if you notice that most of the readership seems to be adults (not youth) who is actually reading these?  Or, is this sudden explosion of young adult media because it may lower the bar for creators? Something to ponder.

Anyway, this is a fast-paced read.  Less words per page, lots of pages, quick chapters.  The sentences are short and clip.  The vocabulary is nothing difficult.  But what we get is an interesting main character who is “conflicted” about where she belongs in her world.  She has to look within herself to find strengths.  And she has to learn to be a good judge of whom she would like to be her role models and leaders.  Maybe she can take aspects of her teachers/parents/friends and learn from them all?

And, of course, the book is riddled with cliches. You must know that the Aloof Teenage Male plays a huge role here, for example.  There are also a lot of typical scenes and moments that emulate the normal development of teenagers.  They get embarrassed.  They feel the pressure of tests and being successful.  They experience challenges from their peers.  After all, the author was only born in 1988, so she is probably able to remember a lot of these poignant moments better than some old folk do.  I am not being obnoxious here:  the connection, I think, a lot of young adult readers will make with this novel is that it does understand them.  It does present these scenes that they should be able to identify with.  Teenage angst is a real thing, I suppose, and I do think some novels patronize it or falsify it.  I suspect Divergent rather gets it right.

I enjoyed this novel.  It does not claim to be anything more than an exciting teenage adventure story.  It was entertaining.  I will probably see the movie this weekend and then promptly forget both.  But I do hope the author keeps writing – beyond this series.

3 stars

Wool

Wool – Hugh Howey; 2012

The Wool omnibus, which is what I read, is a little tricky to refer to because of its publishing history.  I think the majority of readers also read the omnibus edition.  The omnibus is a collection of five novelettes (which is a word I dislike, by the way) and was published in 2012.  Four of the included smaller “books” were first published in 2011.  Anyway, Wool by Hugh Howey is what is being reviewed here, as collected in the omnibus edition.

The reason some of the above publishing history is significant is because the original “book” forms the first 39 pages of the omnibus.  Overall, after reading this whole omnibus (a word I am already sick of typing), it feels like Howey really went somewhere different (and better) than wherever he may have been going in that first “book.”  Maybe not somewhere entirely different, but I feel like what was written in the second “book” is actually the starting point of the entire storyline.  In other words, the first “book” feels so much like background material, that perhaps I would not have entitled it “Wool,” but rather Prelude.

The second “book” is entitled Proper Gauge and for the most part it moves slowly as anything.  Many readers might abandon the book at this point – and I totally understand why.  It was a slight struggle for me, as well.  There’s one sentence where Howey describes one of the character’s walking stick getting stuck in the ridges of the stairs as they go down over 130 “stories” of stairs.  At points, the journey seems interminable and the reader does feel like they are actually on a Stairmaster or something.  The good thing about this – the reader does get a scope of the size of the environment that really drives home distances and effort.  Nevertheless, I think a few pages of this could have been whittled down without harm.

The novel is not written with the intellectual flair and ability of, say, Calvino or Nabokov.  This is not really high literature.  At it’s base, this is a survival-story told using good, solid writing.  The writing is quite good.  It just is not anything spectacular.  One of the things I did appreciate, repeatedly, was that the author does not utilize many cuss words. I think there are probably ten or twelve instances in the entire omnibus of “bad” words – and they are not all that “bad.”  It is refreshing and comforting to read an adult novel that does not feel the need to bludgeon the reader with foul language.  For that reason, sure, this novel can (more or less) be read by anyone of any age group.  Both of these points means that this novel has a wide audience.

I do not read many books in which the main character is a female.  So, for me, this was a somewhat unique read.  I liked the character; she is smart, strong, independent, and honest.  I feel like there were points where the author could have “overwritten” Juliette – and he refrained from doing so, avoided doing so, and therefore made a really decent character.

The ending is a bit abrupt. On one hand, after 500 pages, I did not think I wanted to read anymore. Not that the work is bad, but one cannot read a story infinitely.  On the other hand, the ending just kind of happens within four brief chapters and done.  And there is a lot left open for possibility – future novels/storylines and for imaginings of the reader.  I am a big proponent of not drawing out endings unnecessarily, but this makes this omnibus seem unbalanced – weighted heavily for the first two sections.

Now, many places categorize this novel as science fiction.  Frankly, I do not think this is science fiction. Again, this could start an endless dispute regarding the definition of genres and science fiction in particular.  Let’s just take some widely accepted view of the genre – aliens, robots, futuristic, lots of advanced science, space travel, etc. are all common ingredients in such a pie.  I don’t think Wool contains any of those.  This is just a survival story – a post-apocalyptic (although not perfectly detailed on what sort of apocalypse) story of human survival.  No aliens. No time travel.  No robots.  So, again, the readership on this one should be quite broad.

There is a basic “scenario” hinted at here.  The author does cause the reader to think about morality several times throughout this work.  The author does present to the reader two views of the situation that the humans survivors find themselves in.  There is a question of the “control of information” (which, by the way, is why I suspect many people think this is a dystopian novel).  However, nowhere does Howey bludgeon us, grind on us, or proselytize at us about these matters.  He tells us an entertaining story in which these are some of the elements of the story.

I have ordered the second omnibus in the Silo Series… I’m given to understand that it is not a direct storyline sequel.  That’s fine.  On the cover of my book (paperback) the author Justin Cronin writes a blurb saying “You will live in this world.”  I think that’s rather accurate.  For the majority of the book, I did feel connected to and entrenched in this world.  I did not have to struggle to imagine anything and I did not have to work to relate to the characters or scenery.

4 stars

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu

The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu – Sax Rohmer; Pyramid

I finished reading The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu today – just over 100 years since it was published in 1913.  I have been trying (for no reason other than pure whim) to bulk out my collection of detective/science fiction pulp novels.  This includes focusing on 1900 -1940 paperbacks and such.  Naturally, some items are of higher quality than others.  However, among the most famous are the Fu Manchu novels of Sax Rohmer (the penname of Arthur Henry Ward 1883 – 1959).

The first thing to discuss is the overwhelming xenophobia present in the novel.  There is no ignoring it.  I do not care to dwell on it too much.  I mean, this is hardly an isolated incident in history.  Yellow Peril / Yellow Terror is a pretty common fear theme in the early 1900s especially.  Historians can connect this sort of mindset with the events of the world wars and with the sociological milieu of Europe.  However, this is a novel review – not a discussion on history and racism.

I read the 1965 Pyramid edition of the novel.  I have the first three in the Fu Manchu series in these Pyramid printings. Fu Manchu – or some concept thereof – is rather pervasive in our contemporary society.  However, I’d wager most people have neither read the novels or seen the movies.  In fact, I am not so sure they know such things exist.  After all, I suspect many people think it is just a cool name for facial hair. Or, perhaps, a slightly off-color nickname for a Chinese person.  In any case, I doubt people connect the term “Fu Manchu” with this novel.

I have to say that I am not giving the novel a high rating – but not because it contains xenophobia.  And not because it seems dated or whatever else.  Frankly, the two star rating I am giving it is because it is not very likeable.  Simply put.

The two main characters are hideous.  I mean, they are just ridiculous and hideous.  Nayland Smith and Dr. Petrie are obvious imitations of Sherlock and Watson. But not good imitations.  I mean, these two suck.  Sherlock and Watson are swift, agile, witty, sharp, clever… whereas Smith and Petrie are pathetic and fail constantly.  Rohmer gives Smith some “idiosyncrasies” like tugging on his earlobe and pacing whenever he is stressed.  Smith also smokes a pipe (albeit rather unsuccessfully).  Petrie is also the one who is narrating the story; but he tells us a repetitive story, reiterating constantly some main points.  For example, Fu Manchu is uncanny, the girl-slave is beyond meta supra-beautiful, etc.

The first few chapters are actually kind of difficult to figure out.  I was somewhat lost in them – mainly because I felt they were just not well written.  Eventually, though, the storyline evens out a bit and makes more sense.  Then the reader just follows along as again and again our Smith and Dr. Petrie fail at everything.  They are pathetic.

Good things:  Rohmer’s descriptions of the opium dens are creepy and intense.  I think Rohmer probably went to some such places for “research.”  This is important to note because whenever else in reading (Cp. Metropolis, etc.) I come across depictions of opium dens, it is Rohmer’s description that I imagine.  If you are interested in this underworld of drugs, you may be interested in these sections.  Also:  Rohmer does a good job of making sure the reader is scared and disgusted by the villain.  He gives us enough to let us know Fu Manchu is a very intelligent, scary villain – but without developing a familiarity that would take the mystery away.

Overall, there is no sense in reading this for a great detective/mystery.  This is truly a piece of its time and it shows.  I’m glad I read it – I can now discourse on Fu Manchu and find Fu Manchu spin-offs and copycat derivatives in all sorts of media.

2 stars

The Ministry of Fear

The Ministry of Fear – Graham Green; Penguin Classics

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene was published in 1943.  It is the first of Greene’s novels that I have read.  Also, of note, this novel was made into a movie by Fritz Lang in 1944; the same Fritz Lang who made the film Metropolis.  I feel it was the perfect novel to read after Jünger and von Harbou.  All three novels have this wartime presence to them that made reading them back-to-back really “immersive.”  (The cover illustration is by Geoff Grandfield and I like it!)

The feeling I got throughout reading this novel was that the author disliked having to write it.  At times, it feels like a “practice novel,” not because the writing skill is not exemplary, but rather because I felt Greene added more trajectories to the plotline than were necessary.  The book is sectioned into four unequal sections that present the reader with various stages of the main character, Arthur Rowe, and his traumas.

Each chapter begins with a little quote from The Little Duke, which is of significance to the main character (and to Greene).  It really does pay to not skim these quotes, because they are apropos of the coming chapter.  The Little Duke is a novel written by Charlotte Mary Yonge and published in 1859.  It is about Richard the Fearless, a young man who becomes a duke while still in his single digits.  It’s obvious Greene found it a poignant read.

In many descriptions of this novel, you will read that it is a spy novel and perhaps you will conceive images of James Bond and Mission Impossible.  However, this probably will frustrate you because it is not an action thriller; it is far more esoteric and psychological.  And perhaps you will read somewhere that this novel is another “classic dystopia” wherein some form of Big Brother is after the main character.  Well, not so much that either.  There is a measure of suspense and hidden-ness within the novel which is slightly noir.  But it’s true noir element comes from the constant grappling that the main character does with his memory.  Arthur Rowe had murdered his wife.  I do not want to give any more of the few details away.  This fact, though, challenges and colors everything about the main character.

In a lot of ways, like The Glass Bees and Metropolis, there is a redemptive quality to this novel.  The main character seeks some sort of redemption – particularly in regard to their beloved.  None of these are clear-cut love stories, mind you, however, the angst and self-awareness that comes along in relation to the Other qua beloved.  This is not Lord Byron or Barbara Cartland.  This is wartime love in the time which was dubbed The Age of Anxiety.  Therefore, the lessons learned here do not involve Prince Charming and “happily ever after.”

On dining at a restaurant in wartime:

Even in a crumbling world the conventions held; to order again after payment was unorthodox, but to ask for notepaper was continental.  She could give him a leaf from her order pad, that was all.  Conventions were far more rooted than morality; he had himself found that it was easier to allow oneself to be murdered than to break up a social gathering. pg. 59 (chapter 6)

However, throughout this novel the main feeling of helplessness regarding the air raids occupies the characters and the reader.  Some characters treat it as matter-of-fact, others are discombobulated.  Greene writes a really good treatment of shell-shock and the feeling these civilians have which is like mice running from cats.  Again, the Age of Anxiety.  A lot can be said about these parts of the novel, because really, these are the most “intellectual” parts, let’s say.  PTSD and shell-shock and amnesia all roll through the scenes and characters like bombs from enemy planes.

Describing this wartime psyche:

“This isn’t real life any more,” he said. “Tea on the lawn, evensong, croquet, the old ladies calling, the gentle unmalicious gossip, the gardener trundling the wheelbarrow full of leaves and grass.  People write about it as if it still went on; lady novelists describe it over and over again in books of the month, but it’s not there any more.” pg. 54 (chapter 5)

Overall, this is truly a four star novel.  That would be the correct and proper rating.  But I cannot help but feel like the author hated this work a little too much – even if he wrote it like a grandmaster.  You can do a thing well and still dislike that thing.  And, really, although there really is a whole lot that can be said about all of the elements of this novel, the main thing I am taking away from it, truly, is a fear of cake.

3 stars

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