Beers and Fears: The Haunted Brewery

hauntedAmong all the other books I am currently reading, I managed to read through this one.  I was looking forward to this book because its a collaborative, small-press/self-published work that at 159 pages, I knew would be a easy reader.  I have previously read an item by Armand Rosamilia, but I have not read any of the other authors.  One of the things that I found appealing about the work was that it was just supposed to be a good fun read – these authors allegedly get together and drink beer and write out some horror stories and have fun with the genre.  The book has a second volume, but I do not own that one.  Beers and Fears: The Haunted Brewery was first released in 2019.

I like the concept for the structure of the book a lot. In fact, it was one of my main reasons for getting the book. One author writes a present-time framework story and then the other authors contribute backstories or sidestories to that frame.  The frame story in this one is called “The Last Taproom on the Edge of the World” and it was written by Tim Meyer. The first story is “No Fortunate Son” by Chuck Buda, the second “Have a Drink on Me” by Frank Edler, and the last story is “Alternative” by Armand Rosamilia.

I have run across the names of Buda and Meyer before, I kinda feel Meyer does not write what I would like to read, generally, and though I have not yet read any other Chuck Buda items, I would be open to doing so. Anyway, the frame story starts off really well. It does a good job of setting the scene and making the reader settled in for a rough and rowdy horror funhouse.  The characters are introduced and the purpose of the frame and the included backstories is sufficiently set up. Nothing at all wrong with this segment. But the first story… its got a lot going on in it.  The Vietnam backstory (which comes with intense flashbacks), the Mafia, the drugs, the porn, the brewery, etc. The story is completed, fairly polished, and there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. But I did not like it. I feel like the drugs and the Vietnam and the porn and the mafia took away from what could have been. I can imagine a story with the miserable veteran who is on hardcore drugs. I can imagine him making bad choices. I can imagine his choices affecting the brewery. However, this story, as it was written, seemed to go on too long, the porn chunk made the story lose a lot of the build-up of the psychedelic confusions, and at the end of the day, I hated every character. The horror was lost to the parts.

I was trying to imagine readers after having read this story.  Is the story relevant and readable? Yes. It is also gritty, dark, violent as hell, and gory. But after, I think, a day or two, I do not think the story sticks around. Its just easy in and easy out consumable junk food.  There is a surprising amount of sex in the book, though it just feels like another avenue of violence. So, you have violence between humans, violence through alcohol, violence via sex, violence from demons…. So, the first story tends to lean more towards just violence than horror or macabre or anything like that.

Frank Edler’s story “Have a Drink on Me” is much opposite of Buda’s story.  This story was more like what I expected from the book.  Over-the-top outrageous insanely creative, but still horrific and amusing as hell.  This was the fun and wild and utterly ridiculous story that captured what this book could be.  Unlike Buda’s story, which was really just violence upon violence, this one was the pinnacle of ridiculous.  I do not know if calling it humorous is valid, because this is not quite humor. The level of ridiculous that plays into this one encapsulates that B-movie, but oh-so-fun wildness that horror movies often contain.  So, Buda’s story is just gory and violent, I did not like it and I will shortly forget it.  Edler’s story is the ridiculous horror that is so outrageous I know I will not forget. I mean, its still a bit gory and savage, if you know what I mean.  However, I had fun reading it and I imagine Edler had fun writing it.  This is the story that author dudes with beers in October are supposed to be writing! I am still chortling over the “bad guy” in the story.  I want to have drank about three beers and nod with a lopsided grin at the author and say things like, “makes sense, bro! totally!”

Now the frame story segments that came before and after Edler’s work started to go downhill. For one thing, leaving a setting and going to another is hazardous because the author just built up a scene and now all that work is swept away. So, there needs to be a real purpose. Frankly, there was not a purpose.  These segments should have been exciting little interludes and really scary moments. Instead, they just read as pointless.

The last story is Rosamilia’s. It is probably the most realistic, if one can say that, of the stories in the book. By that I mean that the characters and setting seem natural and real as opposed to seeming cardboard or created cartoons. The main characters Trevor and Jackson are engaging and the storyline moves around them without hiccup.  I think the horror is really most developed in this story. Of all the stories, this is the only one that could claim “spine-tingling” or “creepy.”  There is still a bit too much of the sex/violence in this one, which is probably just there because this story somewhat circles back to the first story and its contents.  I did not really find the interconnectedness very crucial to the stories, though. They all take place at the particular location – at some point. Sadly, on the last page of the story is a nasty typo – the wrong character is named, “Trevor nodded” when it should be “Jackson nodded.”  Yeah, it was clunker of an error. Overall, it was a good story, a little more work and this would have been very creepy.

The structure of the book is difficult to separate stories out to rate. I think the frame story needs a lot more purpose and function. I am only going to give it 1 star.  “No Fortunate Son” is also a 1 for me. I really did not like it. No beers, no fears for that; just revulsion. The Edler story is 4 stars without a second to think. I will remember that one for a long, long time! Armand’s “Alternative” is a solid three. Overall, I think the concept is an awesome one. I think the execution was not so great. Some overwriting (Buda), some lack of direction (Meyer), but the other stories are good enough for a fun October splatter horror mess.

And after all of this, the concept is so good that I think I will read volume 2.

2.25 stars

Nightmare

NightmareNightmare by Chad Nicholas was first released in 2020, it is Nicholas’ first novel. I saw it on a bunch of recent internet postings by a number of fellow readers that I follow.  Everyone seemed to have very positive reactions, so I added it to my plan of October.  Honestly, since I am not a very frequent reader of horror, I am not really sure what to expect in a lot of these books this month.  Obviously, I expect gore and darkness, but I don’t know about all of the styles and nuances this genre utilizes. That being said, I do think it is really key for this genre that readers not “spoil” the books for other readers.  That’s sometimes true with other fiction, of course, but I feel like its even more important not to do that with this genre. So, that is an added challenge in reviewing such a book – I am going to try to weave a careful path, then.

Overall, I can see why a lot of readers thought this book was well-written and they were captivated.  I read the novel over two days and I can agree that it is a very fast read and one that the writing style and storyline are built to be read in one larger space as opposed to being broken up over a longer duration.  I did not find any typos or any spots where editing was needed. Also, as a quick remark, I think that for a debut novel, the author chose to write a difficult storyline, but managed it fairly well. 

So, this particular horror novel is one that I would put in the pyschological horror subgenre.  After having read not very much horror at all, I am going to share that I do not think this is my preferred segment of horror.  I paused after typing that in order to give myself a moment:  could I develop a reasonable taxonomy of horror types?  Let me see, there is cosmic horror (which I have heard about, but I still wonder if there is a solid definition), there is devils/possession/religious horror, and there is monster horror (which would include, perhaps, kaiju science fiction themes, as well), psychological as seen in Nightmare, Gothic, and maybe, finally, stuff that is just slasher gore.  So, possibly six different subgenres. I kicked around the idea of “survivor” horror and “haunted space” horror, but ended up arguing with myself. I am unsure about those. Most survivor horror would fall under slasher or monster, I think. And most haunted space, though a frequent setting/locus, would still come to one of the other subgenres, usually religious or maybe monster.

SPOILER ALERT

From here onward, though I will still attempt to not add heavy spoilers, I still intend to talk about this novel, so I will have to include some things that may spoil the read. Such is the way of the review…..

Regarding the overall plot, there were plenty of hints and clues that the author is banking on readers not picking up on. And the author’s strategy is to throw so much “shock” and “awe” that the reader does not notice and the hints and clues slip by because of the fast-paced page turning and the sudden gory shock, perhaps.  Apparently, and this is me going by a number of reviews (YouTube/Goodreads/blogs), this strategy worked very well. Sadly, it did not work on me. I say “sadly” because yeah, maybe I wish it had worked on me? I have been thinking about the reasons why it did not work on me and I do not know how to write about them without sounding awful and arrogant and hideous.  I guess, I’m just going to say:  I’m a philosopher – by education and trade, you think you gonna sneak dat stuff by me? Naw, bro, not gonna happen.

I suspected what was going on in this book, but on page 93, that’s when it got a bright pink Post-It note smacked on it. Wham! pink post it 2 Because, you see, what I had read was so incongruous that it could not sneak by me. Most of the clue was based on mundane details.  SPOILERS ARE COMING NOW —->  The main character calls his doctor and the doctor answers: “Hello?”  First of all, it is highly unlikely that you direct call a doctor unless you are part of his golf foursome.  Secondly, for the sake of fiction license, let us say you can reach the doctor directly, he certainly is not going to answer “hello.” Instead, he would say “Dr. Reynolds.”  A small thing? Maybe, but the clues continue.   The main character opens a desk drawer at work and pulls out a lighter.  At no point throughout the story was smoking hinted at or mentioned. Why is there a lighter in his drawer? Does he smoke – he does not seem to be a character that smokes? Next, the character dumps papers in a wastebasket and lights them on fire. At work – on one of the upper floors of the building.  Yeah, this is not going to happen in the real in 2020 (smoke alarms, fire hazard, fireable action, etc.).  So, what is going on here? Is the author truly stupid? No, instead these are hints that we are not in reality. 

There are other clues, but I think the one of the biggest is on page 182 in chapter eleven wherein:

Outside, Dr. Reynolds spoke with them. “You can go home for the night if you wish.  I will make sure that she is well looked after.”

This obviously is not a realistic reaction to how we started this chapter, which was fraught with action and sorrow and drama:

Scott rushed into the hospital, carrying May in his arms.  He ran straight past the desk to Dr. Reynolds, who was in the hallway, speaking to another patient.

“What happened?” Dr. Reynolds asked as they ran down the hallway. 

“She was stabbed,” Scott said, not telling him how.

This one is much more obvious than a lot of the previous clues.  I mean, a doctor cannot recognize stab wounds? And at the end of the chapter, the doctor telling them they can “go home” as if bringing anyone, especially a child, into a hospital covered in stab wounds will not result in any call to the police. 

Finally, the last clue that was much like an bright flashing marquee to readers, was late in the book on page 247.  After having a massive ridiculous-level blowout at his house, Scott drives to the county library. 

The first aisle he walked down was history, the next children’s books, and the one after that thriller.  It struck him as a weird order to have the sections in, but what did he know about libraries? He had never been in one before.

What now? Now, before this, we have learned that Scott is college educated and he also has a library card account.  Again, obviously we are not in reality. 

The title of the whole book is called Nightmare and I feel like that should be a really massive clue to all readers as to what is going on here.  Granted, the plot does involve nightmares, but the reader should have been able to realize what was going on – to some extent, I think. Well, the author chose a tough plot and took a big gamble on strategy.  I want to say it did not work, but after looking at the internet for awhile, I guess I would be wrong.  The author’s strategy worked plenty on a whole slew of readers. They enjoyed the novel and they were kept off-balance and on the edge-of-their-seat.  Unfortunately, the strategy did not work for me. I almost want to apologize to the author for this. At the same time, I am sure the author knew he was not going to hook all the readers; as long as he got a large percentage, I am sure he is pleased.

Unfortunately, the author was never going to wow me because, besides my suspicious Cheka-trained reading, the last sort of novel that I enjoy is the psychological one. It is a bit difficult to define, though.  The blatant heavy-handed psych stuff always bores me and that is what happened here. In this novel, I got bored quickly. I just wanted it over already. Yes, that makes me sad because that is obviously not something an author every wants to hear. But, consider… after I figure out it is not reality, what is left to keep me reading? Such is the gamble with this strategy.  Take D. G. Compton’s Synthajoy as an example – I gave the novel four stars because it was very strong and intellectual, but I knew reading it that I was not able to really connect with it or comprehend a lot of it. In a similar, but not exact, vein look at my rating of VALIS. I gave it two stars, because of the blatant psychological/psychotropic business of it. I just do not do well with this sort of fiction. 

Along with this point, however, if an author is writing a psychological novel – that rather means it is character-based.  We need strong character development or the reader needs to be able to connect with the characters.  Due to the need to keep this novel constantly shocking and fast-paced, there was not much effort at all to build or connect with the characters.  Another risk for the author, one that I do think he could have modified or reworked. As a reader, I am usually not for character-driven plots, but I do like to be able to identify the character. For some readers, characters are all that matters and they practically bond with this fictional identities. In either case, there is not a lot I can tell you about the main character and that keeps me, as a reader, at a distance. I do not care about the character, which usually means I do not care what happens to him. Also, that distance allows me the perspective to see the plotholes or the dull parts. 

Overall, not a book for my tastes and aptitude. However, I recognize a lot of readers really enjoyed this. I think it was a heavy lift for a young author.  Would I read this author again? Yes, but not everything he writes.

2 stars

The Surly Sullen Bell

Russell KirkThis October I decided I would read a bunch of horror novels. I cannot pledge anything, since I do not normally (ever?) read horror and I do not know how far I will get into this enterprise. I did think this was fitting for a year in which I have attempted to “read outside of the box of usual.”  The first completed item this month is Russell Kirk’s (1918 – 1994) collection The Surly Sullen Bell published as a collection in 1962.  Most of the stories in the collection were previously published in magazines/journals.  Kirk is widely known as a Conservative critic and writer, although his supernatural tales used to be more well known than they are today.  For the most part, readers are put off by his politics, especially nowadays, and are unlikely to seek out his fiction.  More or less, this is understandable – one of the complaints I have regarding the collection is that it is unbalanced.  Kirk spent a little too much effort commenting on how big government and immoral government has harmed or maligned the poor, the farmer, et al. unbalancing his stories; ignoring the needs of fiction to develop characters and plot as-well-as theme.

  • Uncle Isaiah • (1951) • London Mystery #11, August/September 1951 – 3 stars
  • Off the Sand Road • (1952) • World Review, March 1952 – 2 stars
  • Ex Tenebris • (1957) • Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 1957 – 2 stars
  • The Surly Sullen Bell • (1950) • London Mystery #7, 1950 – 3 stars
  • The Cellar of Little Egypt – 2 stars
  • Skyberia • (1952) • Queen’s Quarterly Summer 1952 – 1 star
  • Sorworth Place • (1952) • London Mystery #14, February/March 1952 as ‘Old Place of Sorworth’ – 3 stars
  • Behind the Stumps • (1950) • London Mystery #4, 1950 – 2 stars
  • What Shadows We Pursue • (1953) – 4 stars
  • Lost Lake • (1957) • Southwest Review, Autumn 1957 (n/a)

The book itself contains a short foreword essay and a final essay on the topic of “ghostly tales.” There is also the piece, Lost Lake, which is hardly fiction, so I did not rate it. Overall, the collection is uneven. There are good stories and bad ones, there are good elements to the stories and then pieces which do not work. Although the collection has its ups and downs, strangely, I would say the most representative of the bunch is the story Off the Sand Road

Technically, this second story, Off the Sand Road, does not have any supernatural element to it. Or, it is so subtle and covert that it hid from my eye.  Indeed, it is more noir in tone than supernatural. However, it is very much a tone that Kirk returns to in his other stories.  The setting, as in several other stories, is described thus:

… a barren, fringed by silent woods.  Ragged stumps, patches of brown rot contrasting with their naked gray sides, stretched for a mile across rolling country, and then scrub oak and second-growth pine closed the view. – pg. 37

Kirk actually spends a large amount of time in the stories describing the land that appears like this. Always words like scrub, stumps, desolate farm, rutted trails are used to describe the land.  The reader gets the impression that the world is a soggy, gray place filled with rotted tree stumps/roots, and the land is worthless for producing anything. Everything surely smells of mold and decay. Anyway, Off the Sand Road has a little story to it; the Bass boys (nine and fourteen) named Frank and Harry happen to be leading Doctor Cross through the area.  Boys of this age tend to be the best guides for such adventures. They are unfettered by trespassing laws and have a curious eye for ruins and nature. They come upon the Clatry property and in turns tell Cross the common history of the place.  They go inside and explore the upstairs where Cross supplements the boys’ stories with tattered letters he discovers and reads. For all this build up, the history and the sordid stories, the tattered letters and the wasteland property, nothing happens. Cross feels uncomfortable, they leave. Now, I know there is a sense that the reader needs to supply some effort and the atmosphere is the significant horror (as with LeFanu’s stories).  But in this case, it does not really work. This ends up being something of slice-of-life sadness as opposed to anything Gothic.

My favorite story in the collection is What Shadows We Pursue.  I think it is the weirdest of the bunch. It might be a mere matter of taste as to which story a reader would like the most here. I like this one because it is very unique and because it left some of the horror undefined.  The main idea for the story is that Mrs Corr and her daughter have sold the library belonging to Dr Corr to a bookseller named Stoneburner. They have done this because Dr Corr had amassed a huge library, of some moderate value, and he was no longer available to own these books and his wife and daughter required some monies.  From the start the house is described as dilapidated and, in places, seemingly very grungy and nasty. Yet, these two women, who are both quite odd in personality, still live there, apparently keeping to the habits instilled in them by Dr Corr. Stoneburner seems to be good with his purchase, but maybe does not feel he is getting any great bargain.  As he spends his time hauling Corr’s library to his truck, he often pauses to flip through books.  Kirk, of course, selects titles that he feels poignant and significant for Stoneburner to read. Anyway, small strange things take place as Stoneburner is going up and down the stairs of the house.  The events are odd and one feels sympathetic toward Stoneburner. I liked the fact that this one is about books and a personal library and that the horror is based on the odd and uncomfortable.

The title story, The Surly Sullen Bell, is less of a supernatural horror than a Gothic noir story. I gave it three stars because, early on, its quite easy to see what is going on. I suppose the story hints at the Gothic romantic feel, but none of the characters are very likeable at all. Unlike the other stories, this one takes place in St. Louis and Kirk writes a strange St. Louis, indeed. One follows along, but it seems almost too windy in the conversational aspects. The ending is good, but sad.  Maybe I feel that Kirk was using this story to complain about some spiritualism relevant to the 1940s/1950s instead of writing a story qua story.

Three of the stories had, for me, a key moment that I might call a heart-rate-accelerator. You know, actual sparks of horror. A moment of “oh no!”  So, the biggest, for me, was in the story Behind the Stumps when the main character, Cribben, is in this wasteland farmhouse and……..!!!!!!  Another such moment was in The Cellar of Little Egypt – also at the end when they were in the cellar and……!!!!  Now, I did not love this last story because I felt it was way too rambling and the wordsmithing was a bit confusing (Cp. Faulkner) and maybe the whole thing was lacking just that extra something to take this story from a 2 to a 4 star read. Lastly, in the most truly Gothic of the collection, Sorworth Place, there are a couple of moments where the climactic events take place and its Gothic and scary and engaging.  The ending of this one is rather stupid, I think, because it introduced another element/setting that did not suit. Now, I think that Kirk wrote another story related to this one, but not in this collection. At some point, I might track that one down. 

Overall, this was a worthwhile read. I mean, nothing here is standout and amazing.  However, I feel like it was good to get to know these stories. I did not hate them even though some of them (e.g. Skyberia) were quite pointless. I know Kirk wrote about how ghost stories make people uncomfortable. I think, at the end of this collection, it did succeed in making me uncomfortable, but not with his fiction – the places and characters – but rather with the author himself. 

Yes, the stories (and collection) seem unbalanced and uneven.  But for all of that, the unique and the interesting sections are still worthy enough to be given a read. If readers stuck to the four stories I rated 3 stars or better, they should be relatively pleased with the read. Recommended for well-rounded/well-read readers.

2.44 stars (accurately)
2 stars

Knight’s Gambit

Knights GambitIn carrying on the idea of reading things I might not normally read, this past week I read Knight’s Gambit by William Faulkner (1897 – 1962).  I have never read Faulkner before, due to a number of reasons including my not wanting to.  American literary fiction older than the 1960s is really tough for me to force myself to read.  Heck, sometimes even some of it after the 1960s….  In any case, the reason I picked up this collection by Faulkner is actually because it is crime stories, in a sense. Well, the main character is lawyer Gavin Stevens and that could be argued because maybe the main character is actually Yoknapatawha County, Mississippi.  As far as these being crime stories, well, they fit that description about as well as they fit any other. Anyway, Knight’s Gambit was published in 1949 and contains five short stories and a novella.

Here is the truth:  I expected this to be pushing 2 stars; I expected to despise this entire book. Instead, I really enjoyed and appreciated (that is two different sentiments) the first five stories in this collection.  Those five stories make up nearly exactly half of the pages in the book.  Then I read the other half of the book, which is entirely the novella “Knight’s Gambit” for which the book is titled.  That rubbish was so bad that it literally obliterated my memory and interest of all the stories that I had read previously. 

  • Smoke (1932) (Harper’s, April 1932)
  • Monk (1937) (Scribner’s, May 1937)
  • Hand Upon the Waters (1939) (Saturday Evening Post, November 4, 1939)
  • Tomorrow (1940) (Saturday Evening Post, November 23, 1940)
  • An Error in Chemistry (1946) (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1946)
  • Knight’s Gambit (1949)

After I read Smoke, I was a little skeptical, because it seemed like the hero might be a dishonest – if even for good purposes – chap and I disliked that somewhat. It was a good story, though, because I really bought into it. I was friends with the characters, I could see and smell the courtroom, I was invested in the history of the situation. Since it is the reader’s first meeting with Stevens, the first impression is important. He was windy, he was maybe a bit of a hustler. He seemed also to have an insight into the other characters and their rôles that maybe feels a little unfair. The writing style was no problem for me whatsoever. I think the setting here is extremely well-written; one feels right there in town.

Monk is probably a little less than Smoke.  I like, though, that it portrays Stevens in a somewhat different situation than a room in which he is in the spotlight.  Monk is a story that seems to have been rewritten and re-composed dozens of times in stories and TV episodes since.  Something about it is not uncommon, but the story is still engaging.  Stevens’ questions and the narrative that sifts through the past come in a strong tone and contain a lot of vibrant colors. After reading these two stories, I was on my way to thinking Faulkner is a not a total waste of time.

Hand Upon The Waters is one of my favorites in this collection (the other being Tomorrow).  This story feels the most noir/crime. It has more suspense and upfront violence than the others do, somehow.  If one could consider Faulkner as edge-of-your-seat, this one would be that description. It has wild characters and a prop-item that is key to the story. This story contained, what I feel, is a lot of the truest representation of the other character’s responses to Stevens.  In the other stories it almost seems like Stevens is some prima donna who is adjudicating among people who everyone knows are backwoods, simple folk. In most cases, Stevens seems to be given a deferential respect that he deserves, but is not resented for. In this story, the other characters seem to choose to not be so cowed simply because an educated Harvard man is on the scene. 

You see, Harvard only means something to an already advanced class of people. You already have to have an appreciation or an impression of institutions of education and the differences between them for Harvard to mean something. Its an empty concept, not one of awe, to many in these stories. 

Tomorrow is another top notch story. I think it is my second favorite story – until I run through the storyline in my head, and then it becomes my favorite. I love how the history of the scenario is told – not overtold. I love how the narrators have opinions that color their explanations. I also love the sense of justice and loyalty that is heavy on every single page. Truthfully, the story does take some work from the reader, because having read all the collection, I see Faulkner moving more toward the prose in Knight’s Gambit and away from the slightly more spare and straightforward Smoke. Sometimes the convoluted and colorful manner of writing suits the storyline perfectly – as it does here.  I really liked Mrs. Pruitt and her pea-shelling while she told the story. I was right there on the porch.

An Error in Chemistry is also a good story – mainly for the characterizations and the sense of “it takes a village.”  However, as a crime story it relies on that annoying conceit that crops up here and there in fiction (written and on screen).  So, in 2021, I just could not be as impressed by this one – through no fault of Faulkner, I guess. The story just hinges on a thing that now has become cliché.  It actually suits that it was first printed in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The best parts of the story are the Sherriff and the whiskey and their importance to the story really cannot be overstated. So readers should ignore the silly crime and focus on the way Faulkner wove these other elements into this story. Once again, though, Stevens is a formidable hero.

Then the tragedy and disaster of Knight’s Gambit. Now, I am utterly sure there are American Lit experts out there who will extol the virtues of this story. I am sure there are French fanboys who will not even entertain hearing anything but praise for this novella. I am, however, a straight-shooter – just like many of Faulkner’s dear characters – and I will tell you that this is a heap of dung. At this point, if this is Faulkner’s “signature prose style” then he needed to stop.  This is a mix between trying to emulate James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and writing exactly how Southerners talk.  No one should write whole novellas how Southerners talk. Ever.  Now, there is a zeitgeist in the world that Southerners are “good salt of the earth” people. There is a manufactured belief that they are the lords of hospitality and good manners. Further, there is a sort of feeling that they are good cooks, good farmers, and good people. I sincerely honestly have yet to find the truth in these stereotypes/images that are proclaimed. Its all propaganda if you ask me.  I talk to Southerners a lot and lawd ha mercy, most o’ the time, I want the interaction to stop hurting me. Seriously, who in their right mind would write a story entirely as the stream of consciousness [I almost chose a different word than “consciousness” here…..] of Southerners? 

It is not quaint, insightful, or unique. Its tedious and unnecessary. In Knight’s Gambit the story is written in this “Southern” fashion and at this point Faulkner had placed Stevens on such a high-pedestal that the story is nearly all an homage to Stevens’ greatness and wonder. At the same time, the character in the story is actually pared down and reduced even further, so it is very difficult to even get ahold of what the heck we are all praising. 

Now, I don’t know how the war changed or affected Faulkner, but suddenly he seems to have developed the need to preach at the reader about his opinions, which on occasion blurrily become Stevens’ as well. And the storyline is utterly lost constantly in this mess. But there is also a Hispanic man and horses.  This is garbage. Avoid it. There ain’t nothin’ to be found in this mud, this dawg won’ hunt, y’all.

Anyway, I utterly recommend whole-heartedly for good readers to enjoy the five other stories in this book I think every good reader would enjoy them, or at least profit from having read them. Stevens – in those stories – is an excellent character to meet and know about.  Do not believe the hype about Knight’s Gambit. Seriously, its one of those “literary circles” pieces that demonstrates the “Emperor Has No Clothes” anecdote.

4 stars – for everything but Knight’s Gambit, which I refuse to recognize.

Concrete Island

Concrete IslandConcrete Island by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) is the third Ballard novel I have read. It was published in 1974, I read the Picador 2018 edition with the Introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I did not read the introduction in this novel, because I dislike Neil Gaiman’s writing/perspectives a lot.  I understand he is a strong, prolific, and well-liked author, but I found it just so “expected” that yes he would write the introduction to a Ballard novel.

And from what I have already said, it is probably strongly noticeable that I am not Ballard’s greatest fan. I actually enjoy Ballard’s wordsmithing. I like his writing style, although I struggle a bit at how to describe it.  Here I am not talking about the tools of literary art, but more the actual “penmanship.” What I mean is, Ballard writes in a sturdy, heavy tone. Its exceedingly erudite, but not long-winded. It can be descriptive and use metaphors, but somehow it is also sparing or clipped. So, while he utilizes metaphors and overall satirical themes, I think the whole edifice of his novels are held by that same very sturdy and solid tone.

I have read three Ballard novels and definitely do not claim to be any sort of expert reader of his.  I do know that I feel like the three main characters I met are all the same person. Perhaps they are:  Donald Maitland, Robert Laing, Robert Maitland are their names.   All three of these characters are very independent personalities; outwardly cold and distant, projecting a sense of strength and power. I would not call them the stereotypical masculine archetype, though.  I feel that their projection of strength and power comes directly from their detachment and disassociation from society.   They are calculating, antisocial types.

In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland is a successful architect. He is thirty-five years old and driving his Jaguar home; he has exceeded a safe speed and has crashed it on page one of the novel. On page three the question is already asked, “Why had he driven so fast?” In the next paragraph:

Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost willfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalization. – pg. 3

The readers have just gotten to the bottom of page three and we already know so much about Maitland. And, frankly, none of what is learned is entirely admirable or virtuous.  From this point on, all the critics and readers and experts can spend a lot of time dissecting this novel. For example, as a representation of a white-collar, amoral class of society, does Maitland speed because he is recklessly thinking “nothing bad happens to me or my kind”? Or, as suggested, does he willfully (almost subconsciously) cause the crash -as a sign that he is aware of his “white-collar, amoral class” and somehow this crash represents that class crashing?  Or does he crash because of some warped judgment that selects masochism over a fake façade of domestic sufficiency? Or is there an understated, but fierce desire to reject contemporary society and return to some primative and base survival-mode?

Is this 1970s “new wave” novel just 156 pages of revolt?

I think much is made of Ballard’s dystopian and tragic stories. I also think the symbolism and satire within these stories is at once very good and yet very heavy-handed. I think what a lot of readers love about Ballard is that he has provided so much fodder for them to make even more fodder. After all, there is an industry about this.  I am not always a huge fan of satire because though it can be exciting and counter-culture, I find that most of the time it turns bitter and caustic and feels like instead of subverting the society it aims at, it ends up devouring itself in its own venom.

As I read it, I did think it was a rewrite of a Jules Verne novel.  It is not and I have not read the Verne novel recently enough to even consider making any sort of comparisons. However, I feel a strong enough connection between these two novels that I wanted to mention it here.  Surely, all the readers of this blog are utterly familiar with Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1875)? LOL

The simple conception of this novel, the character’s situtation, the setting for the story – all as “island” is really significant, as well. Dozens of papers and opinions could be written on this matter. Naturally, one considers an island both as something isolated and surrounded by something else, as-well-as a pseudo-magical place – a getaway or a reserve. Sometimes Ballard plays with the standard definition, sometimes he uses it metaphorically here. Maitland thinks himself the island.  Of course, eventually, as the memory and significance of Maitland’s normal life starts to pale and fade, the reader is also supposed to consider that whatever happens here on this Island is actually the “really-real,” and the other outside world is the fake insubstantial stuff.

On page fifty two: “In some way, this act of concentration proved that he could dominate the island.” I think this is the first statement of dominance. Merely a page later this is reworked as Maitland thinks:

Nonetheless, his success in building even this shabby shelter had revived him, rekindling his still unbroken determination to survive.  As he was already well aware, it was this will to survive, to dominate the island and harness its limited resources, that now seemed a more important goal than escaping. – pg. 54

The desire to dominate, the notion that might-makes-right, and that this domination is success fills this novel – and maybe the other novels I have read by Ballard, too.  The concept is there throughout the storyline – if Maitland crashed purposively, then he had some “dominance” over Fate and Physics. If Maitland starts viewing his inability to escape as a desire to stay and become dominant, he shows his overcoming the situation/scenario in a different light. Subversive, maybe, revolutionary, maybe.  It gets especially convoluted if we consider that Maitland sometimes views himself as the island and so, does he also dominate himself? Yes, in the segments where Ballard writes about Matiland overcoming his physical ailments.

How much can be read into the idea that those who build are also those who dominate?  Several times in this short novel, Maitland “builds” (or has something built).  Is that the ultimate sign of his dominance?

The speed with which Maitland moves from wealthy architect to primitive is part of Ballard’s worldview, I think.  Obviously, everything about this novel is echoed or parallel to the novel High-Rise.  Honestly, it is kind of the same novel. It takes the same survival-satire-social subversion and instead of taking place in a high rise building, it takes place in the center of the “traffic” of normal society.

Anyway, there is a lot to wonder about in this novel, though none of it is necessarily positive or engaging. Most of it is dark and uncomfortable.  Ballard’s prose (being somewhat spare and cool) takes some of the sharpness off of these ruminations, however, at its core, this story nothing gentle and warming. Also, since I have read other Ballard, this novel is also nothing new and exciting.  I feel like Ballard wrote the same story and while I appreciate this, believe it or not, I am not very impressed, either.

The concepts are worthwhile to explore, but at the end of this, I feel it was an intellectual exercise of an expression of discontent with society. I am sorry that Ballard is discontented. It was not horrible to spend a few minutes reading his satire, but I am not going to remain there, on these isolations, with him.

2 stars

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainThe Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was first published in Japan as a book in 1954.  I am not an expert in anything, but I try my best to keep on learning and thinking! So, when I say that I think that this novel is one of Kawabata’s middle years works, take it with a grain of salt. I have read two of Kawabata’s previous novels and I enjoyed them.  This one felt, to me, like it was a turning point or a change for Kawabata.  I have no idea if that is true or not.

The novel takes place mostly in Kamakura, which is a city southwest of Tokyo. Kamakura is a very old city with tons of significant history, but in this novel it sounds mainly like a seaside rural town.  Everyday a couple characters take the train to Tokyo.   I looked at Google Maps and in theory you could drive or take a train to Tokyo (city center) in about an hour.  This works with the novel, it just seems farther away when I look at the map.  The author himself moved from Tokyo to Kamakura in 1934.

I once read this passage by Professor Van C. Gessel that stuck with me as a sort of rudimentary aid in understanding Japanese modern literature and I think it applies to The Sound of the Mountain. Gessel wrote:

Such a luxury is not afforded the reader of Japanese literature.  I realize this flies in the face of contemporary Western literary critical thinking, which insists that a text be surgically removed like a tumor from the author’s being for discrete dissection.  Works which cannot survive the operation are declared D.O.A.  Any mention of the author’s life brings cries that Oedipus’ mother is being blamed for his sins.  Nonetheless, I stand by my contention that Japanese fiction is written with the presumption that it will not be entirely severed from the life of the writer, and that readers will know something of the relationship between creator and creation. This is all part and parcel of the fundamentally autobiographical approach to literature that has been an integral part of the Japanese tradition since its inception.  – pg. 8, Preface, Three Modern Novelists, Kodansha International (1993)

Definitely, I think I have seen this approach in what little Japanese modern fiction I have already read and I think it is probably true, to an extent, in this novel.  The location in Kamakura is an obvious example, but at this point the author was fifty-five years old and probably some of the main character’s thoughts and feelings are autobiographical. The main character is Shingo Ogata who is sixty-two years old in the novel. 

The story is mainly told from Shingo’s perspective, in a sense. It focuses on his daily routines and his dreams and his thoughts about his family and the goings on in the neighborhood. Kawabata’s spare haiku-like prose is always praised for its style and beauty.  In this novel, however, I am not sure if it is Kawabata’s prose or just the mannerism of Shingo. Shingo is feeling old and his having difficulty with his memory.  He seems to have frequent waves of nostalgia and sentimentality.  He, in his age, is remembering and longing for times past – and he even questions the accuracy of those memories.  He purposely allows his mind to conflate those past times and people and events with current events. His thoughts are somber, confused, frustrated, and sometimes morose.  Shingo’s very thoughts are unsettled and peppered with mundane facts or tautologies. Very much like the spare matter-of-fact prose with which Kawabata writes, generally.

We all live, now, in a furious time.  Everything, literally everything, is a manic, wild flurry of information and action.  If, in 1954, Kawabata’s prose was subtle and haiku-like, reading it now has made those times seem even more distant and even rather impossible.  Shingo often just looks at things or has time to just….. think vague thoughts.  He thinks about a fallen chestnut, a plum blossom, a locust, etc.  These singular items blend into the more pertinent life relationships he has with his family and co-workers. And throughout my reading of this novel, I was frequently envious of how characters would “go and look at things.”  Nowadays nobody goes and sees the trees for the express purpose of seeing trees blossom. Literally, going to a place to see some natural and mundane thing is unheard of today. I cannot even imagine anyone saying, “oh, after supper, let’s all walk out to the wherever to watch the sun set from there” or “let’s walk past the empty field down the block because the weeds are flowering.”  Do not get me wrong, please – I truly, deeply, enjoy this. I am the one who wants to go look at “a tree” or “a nothing much at all.”  I just wish I had more time to do this. Frankly, in this novel, I think the days of the characters must be 30-40 hours long. How do they have time for newspapers, train travel, meals, tea time all the time, arguments, and then nature-gazing?!

I have written this review, thus far, as if I really “got into” and enjoyed and understood this novel. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. This is probably a very good book for some readers. But this is absolutely not a book “for me.” It did not work for me, it was nearly incomprehensible to me, and I cannot call it a good book from my perspective. I mention all of this to let everyone know that I know that my opinions are not dogma. I fully expect that there are readers who very much enjoyed this book and can easily explain/defend their admiration.

But for me this was a struggle. It even came with a very chilling electric-shock at the end (pg. 270), which was very relevant (again) *to me.*

Things I am horrible at (and “horrible” is a kind and light way of phrasing it): family. People. People in my family. Peopleing. Familying. This book, however, is 100% about family and people and relationships. Frankly, I disliked almost all of the characters in this novel. The only character that I might have liked a bit is the old woman, Shingo’s wife, Yasuko.  The thing is, I cannot even explain why I liked her best, perhaps it is because she is the most wry and grounded of all of the characters. She often struck me as smarter and sharper than any of the characters think. She deserves her own novel.

I really… I really just feel like I needed the floor plan to the house – to Shingo’s house, okay? Because, to me, the story feels claustrophobic and tedious and cramped. It feels like everyone is constantly in each other’s faces and places. And I need space, I want to breathe; back the heck up, characters!

I guess Kawabata is a really good storyteller. Because even in this translated edition, in this storyline that I utterly cannot comprehend or engage with, I was still immersed enough to actually now be complaining about the closeness of the family home and the struggles of time and the tedious human weather.

There is only one segment that I would give high rating to.  It is this art appreciation moment in the chapter “The Scar” in which Kawabata has Shingo thinking about an ink wash by artist Watanabe Kazan (1793 – 1841). Shingo sees this artwork at a friend’s house and is still thinking about the ink painting and the corresponding verse. The five or six paragraphs in this segment are utterly beautiful, insightful, and skillfully composed.  They contain layers of meaning and show a brilliance that is absent, I think, in the rest of the novel. 

Shingo knew of Kazan only that he had been impoverished and that he had committed suicide, but he could see that this “Crow in the Stormy Dawn” gave expression to Kazan’s feelings at a certain point in his life.

No doubt the friend had put the painting up to match the season.

Shingo ventured an opinion:  “A very strong-minded bird. Not at all likeable.”

“Oh? I used to look at it during the war.  Damned crow, I used to think. Damned crow it is. But it has a quietness about it. If Kazan had to kill himself for no better reasons than he had, then you and I probably ought to kill ourselves time after time.  It’s a question of the age you live in.”

“We waited for the dawn, too.” – pg. 209

This, and associated paragraphs, thrill me. I love how the Japanese of old had a connection between the décor of their house, let us say, and the natural seasons.  I love how, in this example, the friend has a painting of a crow – and does not seem to actually like it – the painting is displayed maybe because it is poignant, not because it is preferred. How unlike Western aesthetic, then and now!  I also like how Kawabata was able to utilize this painting in his narrative of Shingo’s ruminations on death and age. 

However, other than these brief moments, the novel is a loss for me. I think I am supposed to have opinions and feelings and ideas about the characters and their situations, but I do not. I do not even know what Kawabata is getting it – though I would guess maybe its about how Shingo is unable to manage the roles of the people in his family. Or something.  I mostly got the impression that the characters are pitiful and helpless.  The novel is nearly incomprehensible to me. A book about nothing and its annoying humans. It made me sad and frustrated.

2 stars

Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories

Green TeaGreen Tea and Other Ghost Stories is a Dover Thrift Edition by Dover Publications.  It contains four stories by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814 – 1873).  I have the 1993 edition of this collection; Dover released an e-book edition with a different cover.  On the back of my edition the price is $1.50, but I have a used book sticker, too. I probably paid next to nothing for this.  I mention this because a reader wanting to read just a few good stories will have definitely gotten their money’s worth with this edition.  I am given to understand LeFanu was a somewhat prolific writer, but of the four stories in this book, only one is one of LeFanu’s famous works. The other three stories are much lesser known.

  • “Green Tea” – from In a Glass Darkly (1886)
  • “Squire Toby’s Will”  – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” – from Dublin University Magazine (1838)

The stories are written in the style that I assume is typical of their times.  Sometimes this feels like it really suits the stories, sometimes it feels ridiculous. Most of the stories are told via a narrator or through someone who heard someone’s story.  In “Green Tea,” for example, the narrator is actually reiterating info from letters by a Dr. Martin Hesselius to a Professor Van Loo of Leyden. 

These are not fast reads and part of that is due to the typical Victorian lack of word economy making it stilted, too (this is the official description of it).  Part of the slowness, though, is because these stories all rely heavily on atmosphere.  In “Green Tea” the relating of the events by a doctor to a professor is an attempt to make the very frightening and oppressive angst seem even more elevated by describing it from a pseudo-scientific and clinical perspective.  Obviously, the reader is left to do a lot of the work here – do they believe, as the doctor clearly does, that this is all just just just explainable and diagnosable OR do they believe that this is a rare and supernatural occurence that cannot be explained away by the rationalist?  Its one of those situations where OF COURSE there is a reasonable explanation for all of this mania.  Right? 

“Green Tea” might be the closest to what readers consider to be horror.  It really derives its horror from the juxtaposition of the clinical with the unnatural.  When I read through it, I was somewhat unimpressed.  However, the element of the red-eyed ape is really disturbing and creepy. It is probably as terrifying as any violent, gory, scare-fest found in the horror genre because it is unexplained.  Being watched is often an element of a scary story.  The reader who can put themselves in the character’s place will get a lot of creepy thrills here. Imagine being in the room while the red-eyes glare…….

“Squire Toby’s Will” is probably my favorite of the bunch. I think that I liked it most because it is the grittiest and most noir of the bunch. Sibling rivalry, a wild and unruly rich father, and a loyal manservant named Cooper fill these pages with angst and struggle.  I liked the inclusion of the dog as the pivot point for the whole story. This story also has the most satisfactory ending, as well. Poor Gylingdon Hall with its creepy King Herod’s Chamber.  

“The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” is on par with the others, but it is definitely a bit long-winded, which is exacerbated by the Victorian manner of speech. So, one of the characters, Lady D– says:

“I still must believe that some latent fever has affected his mind, as that owing to the state of nervous depression into which he has been sinking, some trivial occurrence has been converted, in his disordered imagination, into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution.” – pg. 78

The words and meaning are easy enough, but heavens! that is a windy way to put that. Especially when all parties involved are sleep-deprived and in a state of great anxiety.  Do you think he is making a mountain out of a molehill? Or do we really want to go with: into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution?  Still, look how charming this way of writing was! 

Anyway, I feel bad for all the servants and butlers in these stories. They are all included, named and described, in order to provide a witness to the events that occur.  I feel bad for them because they seem to have all been loyal and honest folk. Jones in “Green Tea” probably should have his side of the story told. But then Cooper in “Squire Toby’s Will” seems the most robust of the lot and he made out the best, in the end, as well. 

All of these stories rely on what remains unexplained, what the servants saw and heard, and how the key causes and outcomes are left undefined.  I know a lot of readers might really dislike this sort of writing. I enjoyed it – it has its place. I would not want every story to be like these.  The fun and value is that a reader has to really get involved in the atmosphere and maybe that means not speed reading through descriptions of the forests and valleys.  The reader has to do work in their imagination, wondering at all the possible causes/outcomes and turning over the events in their mind, knowing that a definitive author’s decision is not available.  It is fun and interesting to ponder the rôle of the dog, the purpose and intent of the red-eyed ape, the mysterious Jacque character, et al. With some time on a quiet evening, a thoughtful reader could develop a hundred different re-tellings, subplots, and resolutions to these stories.

Another component to these stories is their setting.  Usually we have large manor homes and estate in Ireland.  Huge stone castles surrounded by forests and stone walls that enclose family crypts.  The stables are out back; occasionally we need the stableman to ready one of the horses.  The servants have always lived in these homes, waiting on these families. In the abandoned mansions, vines and rot have taken over and so it requires imagination to see them in their finest moments.  Sweeping staircases, portraits on the walls, candles being ported here and there by characters.  Do not forget the huge wooden and iron doors that are supposed to keep out whatever should not be inside.

Now, the last story in the book “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” is not one that I thought much of. It contained a lot of the elements of the other stories to make it just similar enough.  Here we have a gentleman traveling on horseback and he passes by the ruins of a castle, which he finds intriguing. After moving on to the next town and getting a meal at the inn, he returns to wander and peruse the ruins. 

Suddenly, a voice speaks to him – its an elderly hunchback with a lisp.  The hunchback proceeds to tell him the history of the ruins (because the creepy guy was raised there and his grandfather was also a manservant there long ago).  In fact, he begins his tale by pointing with his cane to a spot on the wall that he alleges is the skull and brain matter of the former owner, Sir Dominick Sarsfield.

I could not help thinking, as I read, about how this story plays out in contemporary times.  So, driving through small-town country roads, you pass by a crumpled building in ruins. Now, you might be intrigued for some reason. I know abandoned buildings and similar things have always had a niche following. Maybe when you stop for gas in the only gas station in town (that is charging a dollar more per gallon than reasonable), you ask the cashier about the place. I guess you drive back to get a better look – with your phone camera?  And maybe you find a place to park and are thinking of your Instagram/Facebook post and you go try to get some good shots. 

All the wood inside is pretty rotted and you are definitely sure you saw a few roaches. There are spiderwebs here and there. But no way are you just gonna sit a spell on the bottom of the staircase. You are probably more inclined to make a Google Assistant reminder to get a tetanus shot.  Anyway, as you are taking a pic of the vines mildewing around the wall, a voice next to you quotes some creepy verse. 

LeFanu thinks you are going to then hang around and hear the history tale of the place from the creepy hunchback with a lisp. 

Instead, its just more likely you are wondering:  wait, why is there a creepy dude here?  and instead of the “hallooo! don’t mean to scare you…. Hallooo?” calls that would alert someone to your presence, this little old guy quotes some verse? So, what really happens, is you pull your CWP firearm and drop your phone, trip over a piece of fallen debris, and wonder if you left the car unlocked.

3 stars

Gun, With Occasional Music

Gun With Occasional MusicI picked up my copy of Gun, With Occasional Music back in July of 2016.  It was originally published in 1994 and I just finished it today in September of 2021.  As I am having a shelf-clearing kind of year, I did not hesitate to yank this paperback off of the shelf; it has been hanging around for far too long.  Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem is also the author’s first novel.  Frequently, I see readers saying that it is a sort of mash-up between classic Raymond Chandler and stylish Philip K. Dick.  Such comparisons are really spot-on and it is not really difficult to see where/why readers say this:  Lethem (b. 1964) has also been an editor/compiler for some of Dick’s writing. 

I think this is a good novel. It was near five stars, but most of the futuristic elements needed to be explained a bit. Or, certain elements given a more substantial reason of being there other than to be quirky and unusual.  Here is a very tricky thing, though.  Any reader familiar with PKD (and at this point, I have read a dozen of PKD’s novels, so I am not a rookie) knows that he never gets bogged down in explanations.  Most of PKD’s novels are in media res and they have a lot of action and the pacing is very fast.  They also usually portray a future society that has gone awry in some way – but PKD never gives the history and detailed timeline for all of this.  So if an author wants to emulate or imitate that style, drilling into the history and causes of things that are widespread and common in the future society would be the opposite of how PKD would write the thing.  Part of the not-knowing how or why things got to be that way is part of the fun of PKD.   It is one of his main tools for shaking up the reader and making them feel dizzy and surprised.  Still, I think it is a valid statement to suggest that Lethem could have given us just a bit more on some of the aspects of his story without damaging that PKD methodology.  Put in a straightforward way, I agree that PKD’s style is to leave a lot of the historical explanations out – but then, talking, gun-toting kangaroos might need a little more than what the reader was here given.

This is tasty futuristic/dystopian noir. Noir is really built on tropes.  Many readers complained that the novel had all the usual tropes.   Yes, it did, I suppose, and that is why noir fans liked it so much.  Such tropes tend to be part of that noir subgenre.  This novel contains several of those revolting aspects that make noir darker and seedier than just any crime story. There are things that the story hints at that make astute readers want to pump the brakes. Such points are real risks that the author took, and I can appreciate that. (Example, what are these evolved animals and how corrupt are the physical interactions these future humans have with them? Taboos and immorality and…and. Are they still brutes if they talk and think and such? Maybe it’s a good thing the author left some of this open-ended and vague.)

Drugs are the norm; they are how society lives – everywhere and used by everyone. Except, no, not everyone. But the non-users are utterly rare and maybe the military forbids the powders? But these drugs are constant and on every page. Its not a pretty world. But the author slides in a cynical line or two about how these drugs ARE the dystopian control, not the Office (the bureaucracy of state police), which might be the face of that control.

The detective story:  a private investigator who is a real louse anyway, gets a case that ends up terribly. Like a good noir story, nobody is saved. It’s a bad day for everyone. This guy has a wry sense of humor, must have broken his knuckles a lot in his lifetime, and uses metaphors with skill and ease.  The metaphor thing is quite ingeniuously done here – this may be Lethem’s first novel, but he is not a novice writer. He was/is a very good writer.  There is dark humor here, but I think even using the word “humor” is overstating it.  Nothing here is laugh aloud, but there are moments where the grizzled noir reader might smirk and nod.

The writing is utterly engaging and the world-building, with its strangeness, is so curious….  The main character, Conrad Metcalf, is likeable and the reader definitely wants to know more about him and what has happened to him.  However, this not-knowing is, like the readers of noir fiction know, really quite false.  Readers actually DO know what happened, even if they do not know the specifics. They know because:  insert all the usual tropes or pick any you like best.  So, do not act like you do not know, reader. You very well do know; maybe you are just being a lazy reader. That being said, PKD and noir are not every reader’s cup of tea.  So, I can imagine a lot of readers who like a sort of  completely linear A-to-B procedural crime fiction being frustrated by this one. Part of the crime fiction genre is the reasoning and detection and fair-play methods that the reader follows along.  It might seem unpleasant to readers who expect detective work and instead are thrust into a PKD-style noir novel.

There are a lot of “cool” things in here. I mentioned the metaphors, but even the drugs have a neat twist to them (the personal blends).  ID cards and licenses and neat little things that developed the story plenty. Especially a P.I.s office that is shared with a dentist!  The “occasional music” is sharp, too! There are cool little things to enjoy in this story, but they tend to also be a little unsavory, yet their coolness factor is not diminished.

With more payoffs on a few of the elements, this is easily a five star read. Instead, some of the elements just seem too pointless. And this is certainly NOT a novel for *every* reader. It’s a bit repulsive at points. There are some crude moments, but at the same time, they belong.  None of it seems unnecessary – instead, it seems like shocking the reader for a moment and making them cringe. Then, not dwelling in the filth or dragging it out, but moving onward. The crudeness can be too much for certain readers, which I understand.  Unfortunately, noir that is sanitized is not noir at all. This one is all noir (the streets flow with powder and gin).

4 stars

Signs and Portents

Signs and PortentsI grabbed a paperback of Signs and Portents by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, among a bunch of other books, the last time I was in Atlanta.  I think the copy of Signs and Portents was maybe .50¢.  It is a collection of ten stories by Yarbro that are somewhat difficult to classify in a precise genre.  Maybe they lean toward horror or science fiction/fantasy, but I think identifying them like that would mislead potential readers.   So, normally I would not have picked up this book.  However, I had to remind myself that I am supposed to be reading from a more expanded panorama and I saw it was cheap and threw it on the stack of books I had already collected.  Why would I normally not read this book? Well, the scary graveyard 80s cover art, for one thing.  I do not normally read books with those covers.  Yes, very superficial.  Secondly, Yarbro is around in science fiction/fantasy and I do not have any interest in her stories and she seems a little “far out,” maybe? I am not sure. In any case, this just is not a book I would gravitate to.

Sadly, after having read the stories, a fiesty part of me wants to exclaim that this proves my point and that my instincts were correct!  Honestly, the ten stories averaged out to a two-star rating, but there were plenty of single star and two star stories and maybe I was being somewhat generous with a three-star here and there.  So, it actually took a lot out of me to read through this, because it was just not very good.  

  • Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Depth of Focus – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Space/Time Arabesque – (1978) – 1 star
  • Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – (1981) – 3 stars
  • Best Interest – (1978) – 3 stars
  • The Ghosts at Iron River – (1973) – 1 star
  • Fugitive Colors – (1979) – 1 star
  • Coasting – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The Arrows – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The End of the Carnival – (1984) – 3 stars

This collection was first published in 1987.  It contains a variety of stories that have a diverse range of settings.  It is my belief that the two best stories in the collection are Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival.  In fact, I feel any interested reader would do well to just skip everything in the collection but those two stories.  However, I want to also say I am not just picking these two stories “because they are the best of the bunch.”  They are, actually, quite decent reads irrespective of the surrounding stories. 

Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ is predictable, but its a decent story to start the collection.  Its really not a terrible story, but it is very predictable and a little tedious.  Even if something is predictable, it can be suspenseful, but somehow that suspense was absent.  Still, its a good one to settle the reader in to the book. A modern, mundane setting in which an unseen entropy is at work.

Depth of Focus is quite unique.  It, again, is a modern setting, but quite noir and maybe that is what earned it two stars instead of just one.  I liked the pacing and the way the time in the story was depicted.  I also liked disliking the main character. Unfortunately, the ending just fell down and maybe it could have had a little moral adage or a provoking assertion, but instead it was flat. The end. I did mention it has a noir feel to it – and I did like a certain turn of phrase:  “…there was no conviction in his words and his eyes were like chips of stone.” (page 24).  The ‘chips of stone’ to describe eyes really caught me. I liked this wordworking.

Space/Time Arabesque is not really a story. Its got a few alternative history lines/paragraphs. It feels too weak; like an idea that could have been so much better, even if we kept its choppy stylings.  I liked only one “snippet” in the thing, which involved an alternate “Sherlock Holmes.”

Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme is definitely the best piece in the collection.  It is well-written and feels like a finished work from start to finish.  It is both shocking and horrific and yet, weirdly, endearing and sympathy-drawing.  It is a rural setting wherein the main character is a teenage girl.  The girl, Amy, evenutally is the pivot of the story when she turns from lovesick, to stubborn, to empowered, to vengeful.  Its a story that has elements of the shift from traditional to modern and from patriarchical to otherwise. There is actually a lot one can unpack from this story. The ending is somewhat shocking – you can see it coming, but its got the twist and victory anyway.  Recommended for readers who like revenge stories, coming-of-age stories, witches (herb women), and nighttime forest adventures. 

Best Interest is a good story to a point. I hestitated on giving it three-stars – that feels like a gift.  It is smutty and the characters are snarly and vile.  It is easily the most obviously science fiction in the collection because of the main gimmick, which is a household “computer” that has residents’ best interests at heart.  And in 1987 it was probably more interesting than now – “now” when Google, Siri, Alexa, Cortana, et al. are a chorus in our world. No, it does deserve the three-stars.  The ending is rueful, black humor, which offsets the somewhat unpleasant reality of ill-tempered future humans.

The Ghosts at Iron River and Fugitive Colors are bad. Really bad. The one is a total mess – as if it wanted to be a noir rural crime story and then turns into a tribal dispute, which degenerates into bickering and then just gets worse until the ending happens and its pointless.  Fugitive Colors is maybe an attempt to write very meta…. esoteric… science fiction from deep, deep space. But it just feels painful and tedious as heck. I am surprised I survived reading these, my word!

Coasting is a story I would likely enjoy. The probability of me enjoying a story that takes place “at sea” is high. I really liked the setting and the problems that the main character faces and the descriptions are vivid and, honestly, quite frightening. However, the horror is ruined by awful introspective drivel about the character’s relationships with his ex-wife and his son and it kills the suspense and all the work of the wordsmithing. Still, it probably is worth reading for the setting. 

The Arrows is also fairly predictable and unsurprising, and yet seems like it is so plausible.  It feels realistic and maybe has a perspective of artist-painters that just seems to stereotype them. The unique thing amidst all the predictability was the subject of the main character’s painting.  It works well with the story, but it still feels like an unique and interesting selection by the author.  Literally, this one is a “graphic horror.” 

The End of the Carnival is a heckuva way to end the collection.  Once again the unique and unusual setting for this one really does a lot of the work for the story.  It is also one of the more “completed and polished” in the collection.  It is a revenge tale, but the revenge is also bittersweet.  Sorrows all over the place here, some little twist per page to make the story interesting and unpredictable. The main character is strong-willed and stubborn and her rôle is dynamic.  She takes ownership and she stands up to injustice.  It is another story worth reading for the unusual perspective and storyline that deals with an accident at a power company and the victims/sufferers that are left in that accident’s wake. Not a story full of joy, though.

Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival are worth reading because they are unique perspectives with lots of unusual elements.  And they are the ones that feel the most put-together and established. I do not know if I would suggest readers go out of their way to get these two stories read.  However, these stories will probably be enjoyed by readers who are looking for a little more than the usual, dull and predictable storylines.

2 stars

One Way

One WayI just finished reading One Way by Jeff Lane. It is a self-published work that I think was first released in 2011 or 2012, I am not entirely certain. I was led to the novel by a YouTube creator SteveTalksBooksandStuff.  I have been, lately, making the effort to read things that I, honestly, would not normally select.  So, honestly, a self-published work recommended by a YouTube “booktuber” chap is one that in the past I would have not read.  That being said, now that I have read the novel, I think that the plot and content is actually not too far off of the path I normally find my reading on; it was not that strange a selection.

I have mentioned a couple of times that it is a self-published work.  I have often avoided self-published works because I really dislike reading unpolished/draft-level things.  I have a particular self-published work on a bookshelf that I could not read past the first two pages what with the errors and uglyness.  Here’s the facts:  there were a couple of typos. I think about five. That is not terrible and I can see these are ones that “spell check” would not have caught. But still, a careful reading would fix this manuscript and perfect it. I do not want to seem nitpicky; I want to excuse the author for these things.  I also want the author to not be bogged down by this stuff.  Yes, it is his name on the cover, but I would bet he had review-readers. They should have helped find these errors, they let him down. And this is a novel that should not suffer these mistakes – because it is a really good novel.

This is a unique and suspenseful story with a great concept behind it. I do not want to give away ANY plot points whatsoever. Let me say that usually authors are unable to consistently carry “suspense” over a duration.  Further, I have found that there is a specific science fiction element that many, many authors attempt to utilize, but it becomes their pitfall.  In this book, the element is actually a big success; the author handled it with adept skill and I was very impressed.  Both of these factors are huge reasons why I hope this author continues writing and gets whatever measure of commercial/artistic success that he is aiming for. (I recognize there are some folk that just want to write a good store and share it.)

Lane wrote a well-paced, consistent, suspenseful, harrowing story with just the right amounts of tension, background, and setting. Seriously, this is really well-written and because of that, I would move this author to the “must read” list.  I would not want to rush him or his work…. but I want to read more great stories because I am a selfish gluttonous reader!

There were a couple lines that stood out more than the rest as far as interesting and resonant.  In chapter 21 the main character Barry has a realization: “Apparently, his Rockport loafters were not optimal for this snowy trek.” pg. 131.   This line really worked well right there in the story. The brand-name, the semi-sarcastic tone, the shock to reader that one’s footwear choice can be nearly life or death…. all worked to make this one line come across so lively and potent.

In chapter 15 we find: “Jenny felt uncomfortable, fidgety, like she had suddenly forgotten how to sit still.” pg. 91  This line hinging on that “forgotten” word choice really stuck with me.  So often authors might write “she couldn’t sit still,” but that is not the same sense as “suddenly forgotten” – and if you have ever been very nervous or uncomfortable – it very much so is like forgetting how to be still as opposed to just “cannot” sit still. It is like knowing you used to be able to and not, for the life of you, currently remembering just how to do that.  It is a very intuitive and careful writer that picked up on this.

I did not love the main character, Jenny, in the way that maybe I should have. And maybe one can sort of admire her or her choices, perhaps. However, she often comes across very snappish and mean. If the author had been able to make me, as a reader, like the character a bit more – I think I would give this five stars.  I took an immediate distaste to the woman and, though I was rooting for her, I never really liked her much.  I suspect that the impact of this novel would have been massive if the character was able to worm her way into the reader’s heart just a bit.  Not that she does not have an impact whatsoever.  Indeed, she is a gut punch and a resilient character and because of that it feels wrong to call her mean.

I also want to praise the author’s story for being the “correct” length.  Not too long, not too condensed, well paced, and with a really good Epilogue that has so much usefulness.  Usually, readers complain about endings a lot. This one ended very well.

Recommended for fans of thrillers/suspense. Really intense reading with just the right balance of pages and pacing.  If I ever did a top five books of the year – I think this one would make that list.

4 stars