Month: August 2021

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

The Deep Blue Good-by

176166I read The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. It was first published in 1964 – by the request of the publishing house Fawcett.  In other words, it was a commissioned work. I am not entirely sure how that worked – but this story is not one of those where the author went from house to house to try and find anyone that would publish it in return for pennies.  

This is a novel for mature readers – and not because of the language or scenes alone, but also because there is a deeper sentiment to be found in this one, hiding under the ribald and loose 1960s Florida attitude. That is to say, it’s a lot more noir than it is expected to be.  It is very important for readers to know going into this that these are not good characters.  There is not the good guy chasing the bad guy.  To a greater or lesser extent, of course, the characters range out from the stupid and unlucky to the violent and cruel.  Readers, particularly recent readers, seem to really dislike this book for what would be termed sexism and misogyny.  No doubt there is some of that spewed nearly on every page and for a good-minded individual in 2021, it seems rotten and crude. 

I leaned against the center island and drank it, feeling unreal. I walked on a fabric of reality but it had an uncomforatble give to it. You could sink in a little way.  If you walked too much and came to a weak spot, you could fall through. I think it would be pretty bleak down there. – pg. 136, Chapter Ocho 

However, and I am not making any excuse or ratio for such mentality, I would not expect people of poor morality to have glistening views of humanity.  The main character is a misanthrope; I did not think he would say pretty things.  I neither like nor dislike the main character, Travis McGee.  Yet, he is quite unique from what I have read… not too many sulky, principled, off-the-grid chaps that are so good at reading people and keeping their sour bitterness under a Miami tan.  Travis McGee is not a nice guy.   He is very bitter and he survives in his lifestyle by the very fact that his misanthropy is validated by the crime and grift and corruption in society.  He takes advantage of miserable situations brought on by immoral and miserable people.  There is a lot here for a reader to dislike.

However, there is a adeptness with which this novel is written that shows MacDonald knew how to write and knew how to write people. The form of the story, the muscular, organic speech-patterns, the sudden switches from “pseudo-psychology” to bar-room slang – all make up a very strong read. This is one of the many things missing from contemporary fiction.  This book has a tone and voice, whether or not the reader agrees with it or likes it, it is potent and vibrant.  This writing is not dull or bland.

I began checking the marinas.  All this great ever-increasing flood of bronze, brass, chrome, Fiberglas, lapstreak, teak, auto pilots, burgees, Power Squadron hats, nylon line, all this chugging winking blundering glitter of props, bilge pumps and self-importance needs dockside space. The optimum image is the teak cockpit loaded soft with brown dazed girls while the eagle-eyed skipper on his fly bridge chugs Baby Dear under a lift bridge to keep a hundred cars stalled waiting in the sun, their drivers staring malignantly at the slow passage of the lazy-day sex float and the jaunty brown muscles of the man at the helm.  But the more frequent reality is a bust gasket, Baby Dear drifting in a horrid chop, girls sunpoisoned and whoopsing, hero skipper clenching the wrong size wrench in barked hands and raising a greasy scream to the salty demons who are flattening his purse and canceling his marine insurance. – pg. 163, chapter Diez

Yes, indeed, McGee is very much a cynical misanthrope. But reading that description – its very clear MacDonald has some open eyes as well.  No one can write a misantrhrope without a dose of misanthropy themselves, I believe.  Taking that passage, and ones similar, MacDonald is nearly telling the reader:  you want a cozy read where the good guy rights the wrongs and the bad guy gets what is coming to him. You want a novel that does not offend that does not push too many limits and does not make you cringe in disgust at times. But that’s the image of a summery novel, not the reality of a good noir yarn.  Because let’s face it, MacDonald wrote a bleak, dark story with all sorts of unsavory elements – and placed it in the touristy, ever-sunny South Florida.  I am a bit impressed.  

McGee is a tough character because though he is incredibly bitter, he still has some odd way of keeping to principles of his own making.  Its too early in the series to tell if he is consistent with this. Another facet of McGee is his self-loathing, it shows up here and there – particularly in little snarls that the character lets slip.  I think this self-loathing really adds another layer to the noir elements of the character and sets the character apart from all the other glib, easy-going, private investigator/amateur detective/part-time crooks that show up in novels. 

So here is book one in the Travis McGee series.  Its full of miserable people that run, more or less, in the same circles as the main character – no hero, but at least aware of his rôle.  It is a rough read for content, the sex and the 60s zeitgeist is layed on quite heavily. Recommended for mature readers. Recommended for all noir/crime readers.

Fast read, good trim on the words. I own book two and when ready, I’ll read it.

3 stars

A Trouble of Fools

A Trouble of FoolsHere is a quick paperback by an author I have never read before.  To be honest, this is another one of those books that I would “typically” not be drawn to.  However, this is the Great Effort of reading things outside of the usual selections – and clearing out the tremendous bookshelves. A Trouble of Fools by Linda Barnes is the first in the Carlotta Carlyle series, first published in 1987.  I read the St. Martin’s Paperbacks 2006 edition, but I did want to glance at the internet to see if I could see what the original cover looked like.

The start of the book gave me a little trouble.  I felt that I could not really get my footing, which is somewhat silly in a little pulpy detective thing. It also took a few chapters for me to acclimate to the main character’s “voice.”  But the main character grows on you. She seems to be a really good balance between messy and disorganized and functional and efficient. If she was too one way or the other, I think she would have been a lot less likeable. She really carries the book start to finish – and so it is very necessary that the reader get comfortable with Carlotta’s perspective and voice. One of secondary elements that I want to briefly praise is that Carlotta is supposed to be a kind of tough ex-cop who can be sharp and abrasive if need be, but she does not come with overwhelming toxic amounts of snark and sarcasm.  Her wit is measured and not overdone. I appreciate that quite a bit.

The main character owns a cat. And a bird. These are always story enhancements.

The story takes place in Boston in the 1980s. Naturally, oh so naturally, I enjoyed this. I miss the northeast. And I miss the northeast in the 80s. A lot.

In Boston, which has ample parking for, say, one in ten of its residents – not to mention commuters – not owning a car makes sense.  You save – not only on parking tickets, but on medical expenses for mental-health-related ailments. — pg. 41 (chapter 6)

Some of the most amusing elements are when the characters have to use phones! Hey – landlines, PAY PHONES. Remember all that stuff? Heh!

The storyline was sufficient – the author actually surprised me with her skill in tying the threads into one cogent and reasonable plot. I am also going to give an extra star of appreciation to the climactic scene wherein a surprise “player” is actually the one to deal with the bad guy. I am impressed because I did not see that coming and it is both fitting and interesting.  I say interesting, because honestly, it is a wee bit of a gutsy move for the author.

Just like Sherlock and his “many helpers,” it seems that the standard “private investigator rules”  are somewhat in place.  The private investigator must always have a batch of very willing helpers, odd as they may be, that help facilitate the work needed.  I am on the lookout for novels with a p.i. that does not have any reliance on a team of “helpers.” This is not a negative at all, just an observation of the genre. This is short novel, very comfortable length; I am glad that the author knew when to wrap this story up.

By the way, one of these supporting characters, Gloria, is an absolute treasure and a large part of the reason I own book two.

Good for those who are looking for a female detective/cop character. Good for those who remember and understand the 80s. A quick read, a quick-TARDIS ride back to the 80s. I will probably read book two in the Carlotta Carlyle series.

4 stars

Stillwell

StillwellI just finished Stillwell by Michael Phillips Cash (2014).  This is another self-published, small publisher category book that I took a chance on.  I started reading it in November of 2020 and finished it in August of 2021 and I know exactly why there was a long hiatus in my finishing this work, though it is only a mere 172 pages in my edition.  This probably will not come across as the most favorable review, but I can promise it is completely honest and also that I actually, still, do not regret reading it!

The author has a degree in English and lives on Long Island. I do place a little expectation on him to be a good writer. This particular work is allegedly his second novel.

The good – there are a lot of threads that the author manages to intertwine throughout the plot and within the setting. The characters are fairly developed – for a short 172 page story, of course. I have to admit, these are more nuanced characters than some 400+ paged novels I have read through. Also, I liked the setting – its rainy, creepy, big haunted old mansion stuff. I liked that the author did the work to connect this story to a bit of realistic history (American Revolution – and the epilogue detailing some similiar historical items).

The bad – I utterly and completely understand that the main thrust of the book and all its foundation is built on the main character suffering after the death of his wife. At the end of the day, this book is a love-story, not really a horror novel. That is a-OK; I can read either or a mix of both.  Many times throughout the story, the main character is asking himself if he is insane or if he needs professional psychological help. Yes, yes he does – but NOT because of experiencing supernatural/unnatural things. It took me awhile to figure out what annoyed the heck out of me about the first half of the novel – but I did it! The first fifty pages of the book are unrelenting pining and sorrowing over the deceased wife. The reason the guy needs a professional is that he seems to not have come to terms with anything that was happening – even prior to his wife’s dying moment.  This endless complaining and misery is what caused me to set the book aside for a good long while.  

Understand: I am not questioning the grief. I am saying that I think this grief doesn’t match the illness and demise of the wife. We are told, repeatedly-a lot-endlessly, that the wife’s illness was a long duration, that it utterly halted and re-arranged that household’s existence. We are told how exhaustively every option and scenario was attempted and presented. We are told how agonizing the woman’s death was – slowly, detailed, everyone very aware of the situation. It seems, though, that the main character’s (Paul) grief is of someone who is experiencing a very shocking and sudden loss.

Further, even though the reader must utterly understand how tragic and miserable the main character is, I do not know that the reader needs to slog through every ounce of that sorrow. It isn’t “downplaying” or not being “sympathetic” to say this. I feel it is moreso an awareness that this is a novel, and the concept does rely on a grieving widower, but piling on the sorrows exchanges the sympathy for annoyance. Particuarly, as I mentioned, when the grief seems…. odd.

Peppered into the story are a few very brief moments of lewdness that I felt were a bit strange. And sometimes the writing was not 100% on point. “He ran…” when I sincerely doubt that – the character, at most, hustled. Am I being picayune… oh sure.

Finally, I’m going to complain a bit about the supernatural/unnatural aspect.  First there is a monster, ape-like. Then there are apparitions, like ghosts or misty figures.  Finally, there are these odd balls of light/energy.  It seems to me like the author needed to pick a way to scare us readers and stick with it. I think I rolled my eyes at the dancing balls of light over the well. Sheesh.

Overall, not great at all. I kind of want to read more by the author because as I said, there are some good elements here. But I think maybe I will not read more by him because I just cannot suffer the extreme melodrama. Fact: there are readers out there that can and will enjoy this; I am not one of them.

2 stars

Relic

relicI finished Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child this week.  I am aware that basically every other reader on the planet has already read it at least once.  It was first published in 1995, which was a few years back. In the 2000s, I remember my household reading through all of the Preston & Child books that had been published; I think there were seven or eight books at that point.  I know that I started to read this book a number of times, but never finished it. I honestly do not remember why.  However this attempt to finish the book took about a year. I re-started it in July of 2020. 

Let us be honest, we’re all friends here, right?  If a novel takes two or three times to get through, aside from extraordinary life situations, maybe the book just is not as good as we want it to be.  Or, perhaps, we just really do not enjoy reading some specific element of the novel – be it setting, plot, genre, etc.  I am glad I read through it finally. I am going to say that it is probably a 3.5 star read. I will end up giving it 4 stars, but no matter how many things I praise about the novel, there is the glaring “well, it only took me a year to read through it….. this time….” problem.

I think one of my attempts to read the novel ended before I even got to meet the special star, Agent Pendergast.  He only first appears on page 78.  That being said, he has a very favorable entrance into the story and he is definitely an intriguing and likeable character.  He is also kept a bit of an enigma throughout the book – a bit of a mysterious personality to add to the overall mystery.  Honestly, this character is the main reason I will, at some point, read further in this series.  I do wonder how much mileage Pendergast will have – do readers get tired and aggravated with him?

Anyway, the rest of the characters are very obviously good guys or bad guys.  Character development is not strong here.  The supporting rôle characters, D’Agosta and Margo, are major characters in the story, but they are so obvious about everything.  D’Agosta is the police officer who originally is called to the Museum for the situation and who originally is working alongside Pendergast.  Eventually, D’Agosta has a rather heroic rôle and he gets a happy ending.  He is the stereotype of the grouchy, tough, veteran NYC cop. Margo is one of two female characters (the other is really a hideous thing) in the novel. Margo Green starts the novel off – she is the more mundane character we are to feel sympathy for and who seems swept up in the chaos.  Try as you like, Margo just isn’t very engaging. Her rôle here is to give a perspective in order to balance Pendergast and D’Agosta.  Though I think we ought to like her, she is just too cardboard and inconsequential.

The setting is the real star.  The New York Museum of Natural History as a setting would delight any reader, I think, in any genre. The setting is a super great choice because it contains the whole plot to a limited zone, but yet, it is a huge zone with many exterior connections.  It is also a location many people are familiar with and it contains great contrast of the ancient and the cutting edge.  As far as the pacing, there is a lot of backstory and, honestly, at points it really does drag on slowly.  If I had to guess, the pacing would have been the main reason I failed to get through this novel previously. There is a lot of backstory and not all of it is very interesting.  In fact some of it is tedious.  There is a scientific theory used here that Child used in Terminal Freeze, viz the Callisto effect. The first time I read it (in that book) it was interesting, now I am desensitized to it. I guess, like everyone else, I should have read Relic first?

So, while I have some complaints, I do not think this is a bad novel. I remember 1995, this was surely an excellent bestseller then. Now that we have the internet and we are all experts in absolutely everything, maybe it seems a little less amazing.  However, this is a pretty good summertime read.  I do not know if it is an adventure novel or a mystery novel…. I think it gets placed in that strange and unclear “thriller” genre.  

It took me a year to get through this:  I cannot exactly say that this book was edge of the seat reading. There are rewards if the reader pushes through all of the talking, the backstory, and the ill-tempered characters.  I can recommend it to fans of monsters, fans of evolutionary biology, and general readers.

4 stars