Author: nawfalaq

Thinking. Reading. Writing. Punching.

The Last

THe LastThe Last by Hanna Jameson was first published in April of 2019. I read the hardback edition at the end of 2019 into 2020. I have not read anything by the author previously.  Overall, there are two things that drew me to the novel; the first is the appealing cover and the second is the concept of a post-apocalyptic survival story in a Swiss hotel.

Overall, I am not disappointed in this novel.  It was a quick read, honestly, and I felt that the plot was sufficiently written. I think the author attempted to have three layers of storyline in this plot – the overarching nuclear-war/survival situation, the murder-mystery of a found body, and then the personal drama of the main character (who is also the narrator). For the most part, the entire novel takes place at (or nearby) the L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland.

I really wanted more out of the setting.  The setting is such a hook for readers and the entire storyline is running around it. I certainly could have enjoyed a little more of the setting being described. The majority of the novel takes place in a hotel – and I have literally no picture of it; I do not think this is such a good thing.  No doubt the narrator, who is keeping a sort of diary might not be inclined to sit around describing rooms and hallways – but, at the same time, soaking the reader in the physicality of the setting might have balanced out some of the melodrama.

I disliked all of the characters. Not a one of them did I care about, which is fine, I do not need to befriend characters.  The characters all seemed, to me, to be exceedingly dramatic.  By this I mean, they all had personal turmoil that defined and overwhelmed their existence. I got weary, quickly, of all their hangups and issues and psychologies. I think this novel was touted as a bit of a “psychological thriller,” but to my mind, that means that the author has the heavy lift of building atmospheric suspense and intensity. It is not the same as just making the reader feel like the characters need to spend a lot of time with a therapist.

Some of these problems that I have with the novel suggest my sensing that the author is young. There is nothing wrong with being a young author, of course. However, and I know this is a statement that can only come from the old – it shows when the author is just a young cub. There is nothing wrong with this – let me reiterate. However, it has a different tone and style and understanding than if the author was much older. That being said, I do not think that I am the intended target audience. So, when the main character, Jon, engages in ethical ruminations or gets ensnared in discussions about theism,  politics, and/or history – it seems very mundane to me.  Certainly such discussions might occur in such situations, but the novel does not get points for leaving a lot of the discussions as just Cratylus-style “and there is this thought and also that one.”

At one brief point I was “creeped out” by the story. That was the most fun had with the thing. Overall the story did not quite reach the “suspenseful” and “intensity” level that I feel was potentially there.  The book ended up being a decent read about Jon’s wonderings. Some minor adventures take place, but in none of them did the threat seem real enough or intense enough. Somehow though the reader knew the stakes were high, the way it played out was like a conservative NFL running-game oriented offense.

The ending contains some weird, it ties some plot points together. Jameson clearly wanted to keep a drop of the “unknown/esoteric/supernatural/other-worldly” in the story. It works fairly well here, in the sense that I understand what the author did, but it was not a ‘wow.’

All of this being said, I do think the author has some good skill and I would be inclined to read a future work of theirs. This one just felt a little flatline for what it offered, which is a shame, because I am a total sucker for survival stories that include singular locations.

3 stars

Dead Man Walking

DMWDead Man Walking by Simon R. Green is the second novel (2016) in the Ishmael Jones series. I read the first novel (The Dark Side of the Road) early in January 2017 and knew I would continue in the series. I liked the timing of reading the novel because it is a fast-paced, easy-reader sort of thing without much brain-drain whatsoever. The second novel was the same, a little less gory, though, but still with copious amounts of fun. A really good read for lazy winter holiday break between lounging and liquor and languishing.

What is this series? Its sort of a spy organization combined with noir British detective stories and rural country homes with monsters. Needless to say, this is not high-brow stuff. Its fun, though, and if you read so much un-fun literature that you cannot enjoy the fun stuff, you have got this whole reading thing all wrong.

The novel has some repetitive lines, which might exasperate readers who are looking for a different (more literary?) sort of novel. But it works here and I like it. Its a comfortable feeling. There are tropes and obvious items and goofy elements, too, but its all in fun. The writing is speedy and I have grown fonder of Ishmael in this second book.

I admit, in the first book I did not know what to expect. I was a little surprised, but I found it gripping and intriguing and a quite a bit creepy in parts. There was a lot of gore – but it was fitting with the storyline. Now that I am more familiar with the characters and the style, it feels like spending the holiday break with some friends.

Penny (the supporting character) is a riot. Even when you know the author is trying to be funny and amuse us very heavy-handedly, it works. I laughed aloud a couple of times – earning some quizzical looks from my household. Isn’t the book I’m reading some sort of noir horror novel? Why am I laughing?

Well, I took a dislike to the culprit early on. I am not sure his motive was anything other than very “typical.” And as far as doing any detecting or investigating, the characters just got shoved around the country house here and there, running around always after-the-fact and too-late. None of this would be good writing for those expert detective club grandmasters. So, why is it so engaging? I think because it does not take itself overly-seriously and there is always going to be a fun/exciting appeal to creepy country homes with murder and spies.

Yes, I intend to read the next book in the series. Yes, its as goofy as you would expect. Yes, I recommend it to, more or less, all readers.

3 stars

A Share in Death

A Share in Death coverA Share in Death by Deborah Crombie was first published in 1993 and it is the first novel in the Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series of British police procedural/mystery novels.  I picked up this copy discounted sometime late in 2017.  This year I have been attempting to read a lot of the hangers-on on the bookshelves. Things that should have been read already, things that have been lingering for me to read, things that are book twos in series, etc.  By October each year I am usually whupped and can barely manage holding a book open, much less reading it. I am exaggerating.  Usually in October and November I read things that are puffy, fluffy, pulpy, and easy-readers.  This year there has been a lot more books incoming than outgoing, so hangers-on must be read and sent on their way!

As I mentioned this is the first book in the Kincaid/James series. It takes place in a country home, Followdale House, in non-urban England. My scope of things United Kingdom is forever sketchy. Locations rarely have meaning to me, so usually I need authors to spell it out for me if a scene or a locale has significance. In this novel, there was nothing overly relevant about the setting – except that I really like that it was set in a country house. There is this rite of passage sort of feeling with British mysteries; detectives/investigators must solve a murder that occurs in a country house. That the author starts her series with such a mystery is a smart move and one that should engage readers straightaway.

The murder takes place and the local cops get involved. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a miserable and territorial creature. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a helpful and resourceful chap. However, the build-up friction between the Scotland Yard man and the locals seemed to fizzle and be pointless. In fact, the local police sort of disappear from the novel altogether. But of course, all the suspects are there in the house – and all that is done is that their “statements” are taken. So, another murder is bound to occur.

I enjoyed meeting the characters and the murders were fairly threatening and suspenseful for this sort of book.  Since I doubt we shall ever meet the characters again, I am a little disappointed we did not spend just a few more pages with a couple of the more intriguing characters.  One of the most interesting ended up dead and I felt ripped off that I did not get to know them a little bit more. The main character, Duncan Kincaid, is somewhat creepy with the way he seems to appraise/be interested in every female character – elderly and/or married included. I hope that gets toned down a bit in book two, because it is too much here. I like Gemma James fairly well, but there was not enough of her in the novel. That’s OK, since there is hope for book two, then.

Overall, a perfectly easy reader with basic plots and characters. The cover looks darker than the contents are. I enjoyed the pacing and felt it was sufficient as a weekend read. Has lots of potential for the series. I will read book 2.

2 stars

The Room of White Fire

RWFI finished The Room of White Fire by T. Jefferson Parker (2017).  I have not read anything by this author. I expected a private investigator kind of novel, but got something closer in type to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher stuff.

I wasn’t expecting great literature. However, I know this book won the Shamus Award and so I was thinking it would be above average.

The first quarter of the novel is very choppy; it also feels like a skeleton of a story, a draft. I didn’t like that at all. I can enjoy spare writing, but not unfinished writing. Eventually, I came to feel, because I had spent so much time with setting and characters, that maybe it was not quite so skeletal anymore.

The concept for the book is an attempt to make a story out of a PTSD-situation resulting from a black site involving torture and interrogation. There is a vague, but superficial, psychological tie-in, as well. This is where most of the novel’s development is located. The author puts most of his effort into the background of this; really working on the notions of patriotism, im/morality of torture, and wartime methods of interrogation.

Amazingly, and this is the main reason that this gets just two stars, the main character, Roland Ford, does not actually do any investigating. I mean, it seems like he does sometimes and it seems like he is thinking about the situation… but he does not actually do a blessed thing. Really. He re-traces his steps, mopes around, and generally just does nothing more than anyone would do. For someone who is ex-USMC, ex-police, and says “I’m good at finding things” – well, I would think he would be more competent than just to sit around and wait for clues to show up. His big investigative move was when he checked the laptop of the person he was looking for to find clues. Pure genius.

The only lead that he has for most of the book literally is one that walked over to him and engaged with him! (Sequoia).

The best thing that the author did was include the “Irregulars” – he keeps their backstory from us, but they are curious and interesting characters that make up for the dull main character.

I may read the next in the series. Readers who need a “throw-away” for a trip or a waiting room may find value here.

2 stars

Memory Man

Memory ManMemory Man by David Baldacci is the first novel in the Amos Decker series. It was first published in 2015 and this is the first novel I have read by Baldacci. I really like the main character, Amos Decker. I think his backstory is fascinating and the author handles it consistently and entertainingly. I was pretty much onboard with this story through half of the book. But then the criminal element got too bizarre and wonky, which I don’t like. I am already suspending disbelief to accept the fantastic abilities and story of the main character. But when the author starts expecting me to believe all sorts of outlandish and really demented things, it feels like maybe he is taking my suspension of disbelief for granted. Most novels have some concept or segment that demands a lot of patience or willing to believe, but was too far.

A couple of muders and a school shooting were enough. This is one reason I dislike many crime novels…. the crimes all turn into massive extremes (which seems silly to say). I guess what I mean is, when the body count keeps going up, and there’s already been the massacre of a family and a school shooting, well, now I feel like the author is just piling on outrageously. The body count was just jumping up nearly in every chapter for awhile and I got annoyed with this. It always feels, when I read contemporary crime novels, that the authors feel the more murders the better and when they do not know how to shore up a plot point or make an interesting clue – they just set up a murder scene. It feels a bit cheap.

Nothing about the not-good-guys was redeemable or even, really, believable. Beyond that, certain details were even more annoying – the character Sebastian Leopold, for one. So much stereotyping and eye-rolling details about this character. Literally, when Decker explains (while duct taped and under threat) the history of Leopold and he lets us all in on Leopold’s ethnicity and previous whereabouts, it was difficult not to chuck the book – but I was almost finished with the thing, anyway. But of course. Of course he spent time in that country.  Shoddy, cheap writing.

Now, Amos Decker’s “thing” is that he has a great memory. Hyperthymesia. This is probably a pretty decent condition particularly for detectives and cops (Cp. the TV show Monk (2002-2009)) A lot of the novel the reader, very much like Decker’s partners and fellow law enforcement officials, is just sitting there staring at Decker, waiting for him to remember/spot something. Now, I read crime novels, but I do not want to actually join the FBI. However, I do not want to hear elevator music while the star of the show is having a long reverie about clues. Somehow, though Baldacci was really consistent in his treatment of the character, he needs to also keep the reader involved during Decker’s many moments of mental effort.

The last chapter of the novel, after all the resolution, was interesting because I did not see that coming – I guess many readers probably did. I want to know what happens next to Amos Decker, because like I said, he is an interesting character. So I will probably read the next in the series. I am just disappointed in the outrageousness of this storyline in particular.

2 stars

One Rough Man

12092971I really do not like the title of this novel because it just seems, in 2019, to be something one would find in the romance novel section, full of cliches.  Instead, One Rough Man by Brad Taylor is totally an action-thriller pseudo-pulp novel full of gunfire and operators. There are terrorists and government officials and Navy SEALs all over the place. Its also the first novel by the author; published 2011. I read the mass market paperback that I think I picked up used somewhere.

I do not read a lot of modern genre fiction like this. This year I have tried to clean off some of my tbr-list and I have found a number of novels like this one in the stacks. These novels are tasty treats; good for down-time and relaxed afternoons.  This one actually surprised me a little because it was a little lengthy. I feel like maybe it should have ended 50-100 pages sooner. Not that the story is bad, but one can only have just so many firefights in one novel. 104 chapters are inside with about two to four pages per chapter.

Good things first:  the author’s realism on most points. A lot of novels like this can get over-the-top quickly with unbelieveable situations and heroics. However, if readers are being honest, these books are not read for their perfect reasonability. Part of their charm is their ability to present a hero that really does exceed expectations and maybe is a little better at everything that he ought to be. Sure, some elements here are a little exaggerated, but I was actually surprised at how realistic the author played it.  Do not get me wrong, the main character/hero is Pike Logan and bullets just miss him. He is ridiculously good at what he does, but he does seem to have a helluva lot of luck on his side. But, good for the author on this one, the character recognizes it and marvels over it. He knows when his luck is unbelieveably good.

I liked the lack of sex in the novel. Usually the thing with action novels is that they tend to this tedious stereotyping of characters and their demeanors. I would not have been surprised to read about the hero rescuing a young lass from a building that was exploding, surviving a firefight with a country’s entire infantry forces, and then having sex in a rundown, hotel outside of town. This is what action movies have shown us happens! Its absurd and idiotic. In this novel, however, the fight scenes are relatively realistic – and I like how the author presents the main character’s decision making when entering these fights and making in-operation choices. I like how the author makes the operators in this novel realistic in their actions and opinions – for the most part. That is, the soldiers are not all flamboyant donkeys and the bad guys are not outlandish and comical.  The reactions of the characters are realistic, particularly when they make a mistake or when they are uncomfortable.

The thing that the author excels at is letting the reader see how situations develop, how events are monitored and evaluated, and how small groups plan and enact their battles. Time and again I was under the impression that the author had a lot of first-hand knowledge of directing these operations. His expertise really added to the quality of the story. Without it, the story surely would have been just another action splatter.

The supporting cast were all well written. I mean, sure, there is a lot of “coincidence” and luck. Some of that is tough to believe. However, this is a novel and its to be read for entertainment. Things that are mundane and typical are really rarely entertaining. So, okay, deal with the fact that the female main character, Jennifer, has the physical abilities of a parkour/circus expert. How handy for this sort of storyline!

Jennifer is also pleasantly snarky, too. I say pleasantly because I mean that she was realistic and her sarcasm did not seem “scripted” and stilted.

“What do we do now? Are we still going to D.C., or are we headed to Mexico to find a cheap house to spead the rest of our lives?” – pg. 321, chapter 63

Overall the dialogue was very good. I am finding, as I read more contemporary books, that the dialogue often seems unnatural or stilted or just plain stupid. Dialogue has to be convincing for the whole book to work. A character can be described and I can get a play-by-play, but if their conversation seems like an overlay put on the skeleton, it ruins the whole book and I’m an unconvinced, disappointed reader.

As I met the bad guys and the opportunists in the book I did feel angry and fretted over the well-being of our heroes. I guess this is to say that I was invested reading the story and I really do dislike the devious, evil bad guys.

My concern for this series is that I wonder if the main character gets tedious? He is likeable and definitely highly-skilled. But does the reader tire of hearing his thoughts and reading about his emotional struggles? Will readers get bored with seeing just how awesome Pike Logan is? What is the mileage on characters like this?

Anyway, more or less, I can recommend this to all readers. It is kind of a long read, but I think it is a solid entertainment, particularly for fans of action-thrillers and gear-geeks. In reality, this is somewhere between three and four stars.

3 stars

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

DNDRDSDRMF2010Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was first published in 1968. It is arguably one of PKD’s most celebrated works.  This is partially due to the fact that it was the fiction work that was the basis for the famous Blade Runner film (1982). This is also the eleventh novel by PKD that I have read and it is probably among my favorites of his works.

The movie uses a lot of concepts from the novel. But is not a strict presentation of the novel’s storyline.  In fact, both movie and film seem very different and yet very similiar.  I like both – and I should add that I also really enjoy Blade Runner 2049.  If I have to point out the largest gap between the movie (or should I say movies?) and the novel, I would say that the novel really drives home the point of ecological collapse. The demise of the animal world is really a major part of the plot of the novel, and the novel does look at the concepts of “living beings” and “pets” relative to the situation of ecological failure. As the movie portrays, the setting is post-industrial, post-apocalyptic, and cyberpunk.  So, while the focus of the loss of animals is absent in the film, the film presents the setting very well.

I do not want to compare the two mediums endlessly. However, I wanted to bring up these two points because I thought they were the easiest entry points when discussing this novel. I think the setting is absolutely crucial because a lot of the other concepts in the novel do not work as well without the heavy, post-nuclear war landscape.  The radiation fallout, the fog/dust, makes the questions PKD looks at a little more realistic. I am quite sure that humanity would be asking themselves a lot of introspective questions of a different tone than before such calamity.

Regarding these questions, well, one of things readers need to keep in mind is that PKD is not a philosopher. What is the nature of man? What is humanity? What is a robot/clone/android? It is unfair to compare the novels of Asimov and PKD and conclude that PKD’s novels are not well-thought-out. Asimov possessed a scientific-mind that was cultivated through some excellent academic studies. PKD was a writer in California. This is not to say that PKD was not, at times, brilliant, but the expectation that he would have the ability to attain the rigor for conceptual analysis that Asimov did is unfair. However, many times, the manner in which PKD approaches these so-called philosophical questions is more engaging and delightful than some of Asimov’s efforts.

PKD’s writing in this novel contains a driving insistence that makes all the questions about humanity seem poignant and pressing. PKD’s writing is always messy – he rarely (if ever) gives the reader the background detail and he never ever gets muddied by explanations. PKD is not Gregory Benford or Greg Egan – he is not writing “hard” science fiction and attempting to make plausible high-end mathematical or metaphysical concepts. He is literally forcing the reader into a storyline without any explanations and right into the middle of things, and he immediately will give them a test of their knowledge. Seems quite unfair to the reader – if the reader is expecting to be led along step-by-step with a syllabus.  Add in to this PKD’s fondness of writing stories wherein everything falls apart and breaks down, and you have a story that has urgency and immediacy and can seem very mad to the general unsuspecting reader.

This novel really is built on the idea of being able to (or not able to, as the question presents itself) determine humanity based on a test. Sometimes this test is response-related like a pseudo-psychology exam as with the story’s Voigt-Kampff test (Cp. a stanza of Nabokov’s Pale Fire poem), and some are more physiological related like the Boneli Relfex-Arc Test.

In this novel, PKD has a sort of dark science fiction tone coupled with an intense investigation into questioning what makes a human human? Some of the entry points for PKD’s wondering include: the quality of empathy, love of music, care of pets, relationship with animal realm, off-world colonization, reliance on slave-labor, relationship with suffering as presented by religion, consumption of media/broadcasting, manipulation of emotional states by artificial means, and “crime” as committed by and against non-humans. The copy I read is just over 200 pages, so a lot of the effort is placed on the reader, but PKD just keeps the questions coming so the reader does not get lazy.

One of the effects that works so marvelously in this novel is how deadpan Rick Deckard is. I think in both Blade Runner movies, this was portrayed fairly well, too. I find it absolutely chilling and perfectly aligned with the setting and storyline. Chapter eight is a mighty thing, from a literature standpoint – I think PKD wrote this one so perfectly so it can ensnare the reader, draw them in, toy with their ideas, etc. Of course, this only works if the reader is really, truly, invested in the novel, in which case it is edge-of-your-seat. If the reader is distracted or not fully-invested, I think this section will seem abrupt. I like chapter eight because I thought it was thrilling and intense. Also, it is the first real point at which PKD is showing how much he can shake things up and twist around reality for his characters and maybe even for his readers! Super cool PKD.

The props like Sidney’s catalog work really well for PKD – it jogs old memories from my childhood… black and white paper listings of pigeon racing, sales, etc… you could roll them up and crumple them up just like Deckard does – and they were just margin to margin listings of sales and races and other related things. Whenever Deckard encounters an animal in the story, I felt it quite natural to reach in my back pocket and pull out my tattered, rolled up copy of Sidney’s as well.

This review would, indeed, be very remiss if it did not touch on the fun word/concept of kipple. I am surprised it is not as well known by today’s readers. But there you have the eventual end of all the consumerism and manufacturing. Entropy for all things – garbage mountains of endless kipple. The meaningful and sentimental objects humans keep close slowly deteriorating into landfills and mountains of waste. So, what is truly important to a human? Endless fun can be had pondering kipple.

The storyline has some bizarre segments in it, but this is PKD, so that should be expected. The entire Wilbur Mercer thread is messy and crazy. But maybe that’s just because this story is in the future and you are in the past so, of course, you don’t understand what everyone there in the future understands.

4 stars