Author: nawfalaq

Thinking. Reading. Writing. Punching.

The Running Man

The Running Man coverThe Running Man by Stephen King (b. 1947) was originally published in 1982 as by Richard Bachman.  I read the May 2016 Pocket Books edition.  I think this is the earliest King novel that I have read.  The Gunslinger was published as a collected “fix-up” novel in the same year as The Running Man was released.  The contents of The Gunslinger having come from 1978 – 1981, allegedly. So, splitting hairs about the dating here…

I find it difficult to write about such an exceedingly popular author.  I think that this is because I want to be very objective and honest, but that since I have literally been “living through” King’s publishing, the familiarity and yet the unfamiliarity feel at odds.  What I mean is, the market/media sensation of King releasing a book has always been, at least, in the background. I have always spent time in bookstores! Nowadays I feel there is something similar with certain authors; maybe Brandon Sanderson, maybe John Grisham, maybe Neil Gaiman. You walk past (What? Who walks *past*…) a bookstore and see a display or a banner with the latest of these authors. Or maybe you see an ad in a magazine or newspaper. Or, more contemporary, ads and headlines all over the Internet. It feels like one always is aware of a new Stephen King release, even when a reader (like myself) does not consider oneself a reader/fan of Stephen King.  Its a “big deal” because his fans will be excited and, doubtless, the industry will surge with the (even if only momentary) inundation of the market.

I think I could probably read all of King’s work and still not consider myself a Stephen King reader.  I know……..   All of that being said, I would like to gently draw your attention to the fact that it is 2022 and I am talking about how I read a book published by a popular bestselling author released in 1982.

I have, however, seen the movie (several times, I suspect) that was very vaguely-based on this novel. In 1987 the movie with the same title was released starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, other actors of note include:  Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, and Yaphet Kotto.  If your referent for all of this is the film, though, you should probably just jettison that.  This book and that film are really not related and its best to take them as separate entities.  I am given to understand a possible adaptation of this novel is in the works (as of 2021), but who knows what will come of that.

This novel is really straight-forward and heavy-handed.  It is really fast-paced and the structure of it (one or two page chapters) is designed to make the pressure of the storyline accessible to the reader. 412 pages of sparsely spaced text written in dialogue and quick, easy sentences does not require much from a reader.  This is, after all, a dark-tinted thriller novel.

The main character, Benjamin Stuart Richards, is our unfortunate hero. He is not the robust and mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Richards is half-starved, overworked, underslept, unhealthy.  He represents the utterly downtrodden and miserable of the lower class of society.  Unlike the true lowest levels, though, he has some education, is something of a hard-worker, and maintains a sense of morality. He is also the archtype family man who is willing to sacrifice everything for his family.  The main aspect of Richards, though, is his anger. He is enraged all the time – presumably because of and directed at “society,” but maybe even just generally as a personality trait.  Life/society has perhaps treated him unfairly, which has also given him a chip-on-his-shoulder and a dose of indignant hostility.

T.V. or Free-Vee is both a symptom and a cause of the downfall of society. Its entertainment and industry and brainwashing and its just insidious and awful.  Call King up right now and ask if he still holds that opinion – I think several of his fictions (and that of his son) that were adapted are currently running on our “Free-Vees.” Anyway, a desperate family man makes a choice that starts the story and so we enter into the fugitive plotline. Fox and hound, hound and hare, etcThe Fugitive, by the way, is a really good parallel so let me give you some dates on that. The ABC TV series ran 1961 – 1967 and the notable film starring Harrison Ford was released in 1993.  The gimmick here is that Ben Richards is a fugitive on Reality TV.

There is a whole chunk of subplot where we discover corruption and societal distortions regarding air pollution.  Seriously, in 2022 it is sobering and frustrating to read about. As far as the novel goes, though, this subplot does a little filling out of the very linear storyline. It gives some characters motives and helps out the novel. Overall, though, it feels like everything else:  hammer-style storytelling.

I do not want to ruin the story – every action thriller has some similar elements and those are here, too.  These sorts of novels are easy to spoil because of it.  Nevertheless, we can ask some basic questions like these:   did the main character who tends to hate society accomplish much because of that very society he claims to hate?  In other words, how much did he rely on others for his successes? How much was luck? How much was his own skillful strategy?  And also, was he, like many action heroes, too invincible, too amazing, too adept? Or just right? Should he have wiped out by chapter four and done or is it plausible that the book is over 400 pages?

I am giving this three stars because I like some of the parts of the book because they did not go the way I thought they might – King did not shy away from having to do the likely result.  He did not sell-out, as they say.  However, there is a rage and anger to the book that seems too forced.  Almost as if King wanted to make us really hate Richards and his attitude rather than have us root for the underdog. I would rather have met the character and made up my own mind.

Also, and this is a frequent thought when I read King, his writing can be so vulgar and crass that it can stomp on the storyline.  I can hear the argumentation that when reading a post-apocalyptic-ish story like The Gunslinger or reading a dystopia in which societal struggles on every level show up one expects the very worst of humanity. And I do, but somehow King makes it amplified and sometimes that amplification can be very inauthentic and pasted on.

So, here is a book about a fugitive.  Its largely a criticism of “entertainment TV” that is based on economic disparity. King does not, whatsoever, hide from divisions and struggles between gender, race, geographic differences.  He takes direct aim at air pollution and its effects on different groups in society. All of this is done with a whole lot of rage. I give it three stars as thriller novel qua thriller novel. Plus, there are a few small elements that were nearly prophetic. Unfortunately, dystopias always feel so angry and their resolution is always a disappointment.

3 stars

This Immortal

This Immortal ACEOnce again enjoying some vintage science fiction, I finished up This Immortal by Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995). It is the first Zelazny that I have read, I think (unless I’ve come upon some short fiction that I have forgotten about). This is such an odd novel I actually feel bad for anyone reading this review because I feel like my review will be scattered and swirly. Sorry about that in advance.

The first thing to mention is the publishing history of the work.  Originally, This Immortal was …And Call Me Conrad and was published in two parts in issues (October and November) of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  I think the first collected, novel-edition of the work was released by ACE in July 1966 under the title This Immortal.  I read the 1981 ACE edition with the Rowena Morrill cover. If you look at the cover of the edition I read, you see in the upper right the words: THE HUGO WINNING NOVEL……

….because this novel won the 1966 Hugo Award for Best Novel, which was presented in Cleveland in September of 1966. Some readers just read that line and felt no significance whatsoever and briefly wondered why I am giving them a boring history lesson. Some other readers thought something like, “Wait, what? 1966… Are you sure?” and the most precise of readers said, “Oh! I know where you are going with this! Hahaha!”

….because, actually, this novel tied for first in the Hugo Award for Best Novel.  The novel that it shared the win with is none other than Dune by Frank Herbert (1920 – 1986).

Dune is not an easy read.  It is subversive and complex and at its heart, it is a space opera. It has layers and agendas and ideas. Readers could complain about how slow it reads or how involved it is. Or even its often derivative elements making it seem very borrowed-ish. And then there is This Immortal, which is so obviously different in many ways.  Frankly, I cannot lie, I do not see how Zelazny’s novel competes.  I am not saying that it does not have merit, but sheesh, even if you hate Dune, how is This Immortal a tie with it? Now, one thing I do not want this review to turn into is a comparison-contrast piece pitting the two against one another again.

Zelazny wrote a novel with some deep, heavy ideas in such a breezy and pulpy manner that it, I think, does somewhat of a disservice to itself.  At the same time, I really do not know if Zelazny could have written it differently, say, in order to not be so utterly flippant and almost wispy with the weighty things.  The problem with being breezy and wispy is that I am willing to bet that the majority of readers are unable to pick up on all of the neat connections and “Easter eggs” and such. One of the biggest demands is that the reader be familiar with Greek mythology and culture – and the familiarity is not one from a glossary or a handbook on ancient Greece.  The familiarity has to come from study, schooling, and honestly, years of letting that stuff ferment and simmer in one’s mental slow-cooker. Here’s the first line:

“You are a kallikanzaros,” she announced suddenly.

Of course this was sudden, I doubt there is any other way of stating such a thing to someone. Anyway, the novel is off and running at this point. For a good quarter of the novel, the dialogue keeps a breezy, choppy flow to it. It is the style that one would find in noir crime novels and/or pulp fiction novels.  Another example of this writing would be John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee stuff. Snappy and sarcastic and never taking anything seriously. Everything said with a shot glass in hand and tongue-in-cheek, because the state of the world is so bad that we certainly cannot take it seriously.

The main character is the Commissioner of the Earthoffice Department of Arts, Monuments, and Archives.  Its after the “Three Days,” which is presumably when the massive bad event occurred (one suspects it involved nuclear destruction).  The Earth’s main continent lands are destroyed and the population, such as it is, lives on islands.  There are Hot Spots (likely radiation-filled zones) and a whole lot of mutated and deranged creatures that roam Earth.  There are aliens, too, the Vegans, and a Sprung-Samser medical treatment, and a Vite-Stats Register.  No details on any of these things whatsoever. Accept them at face value and build them however you, as a science fiction reader, would like.

The main character is recalled to Port-au-Prince, Haiti to join a social event and be assigned as a tour guide to a visiting alien. All very farcical and strange.  So, a motley crew of whomever gets assembled to tour around with the alien – the alien wanting to go to various places to research a book or something that he is creating.  The world has gone to rot and those of us left are having theatre productions and drunken social mixers and we are all going to pop out on the skimmers with the Commissioner and the alien to see how ravaged our world is. Also, someone invited the super famous assassin to the social party.

They set off to visit a voodoo ritual – like, a pre-cursor event before they start the actual tour. It is as weird as it sounds.  I have no idea why this scene is in a novel. Bored rich folk visit voodoo shrine before they tour radiated Cairo; probably alien’s fault.

This theme of a mobile social gala continues throughout the entire book – even in the most pulpy and action-scene segments.  Very much the story felt, to me, like those British novels wherein the upper-middle class packs their bags and their Baedekers and travelled to Florence and Athens and the “coast.”  Instead of sedate tourism, though, there are several incidents of savage violence and mayhem in a post-apolocalyptic setting.  Literally, at one point, the alien sets up an easel and is painting a river scene and then everyone gets attacked by a mutant crocodile. Drama and intrigue and pulpy action all in one scene.

The weirdest scenes include one that is along the road to Volos in which a fifty-meter clearing is nearby and things get super bizarre because they see a satyr and the biologist wants to shoot it, but instead the main character (kallikanzaros, remember?) starts playing a shepherd’s pipe and more goat things appear. A strange 1960s interlude of weirdness.

Another dip into the insane is the whole segment wherein the group gets captured and there is a obese albino and Procrustes shows up and fighting and what in the ever-living-heck is this crap about? One wonders if Zelazny just felt like writing while inebriated or if he wrote scenes just to weave some weird ancient Greek mythology into them or if some editor demanded pulp action scenes. Whatever the case may be, these are basically absurdist and once overlayed on the frustrated, apathetic social gathering that is filled with ennui and motives – it just deflates the whole effort.

Constantly the novel is filled with allusions and hints and name-dropping and metaphors that display Zelazny’s interest and knowledge of ancient Greek (and other) mythologies. However, instead of peppering and simmering, he just dumps the whole spicy bottle into the stew and we get heavy-handed writing with no plot and stupid characters. For example, Cassandra – if you can believe it – is here. Why? I honestly do not know. A lot of the book actually involves her in some way, but why? At the end of the thing, I have no idea why this character is even here except maybe to fill the final scene with that happy all-wrapped-up easy peasy action novel ending. (Cassandra with a high-powered rifle is a painting I want on my walls, though.)

Overall, the novel wants you to like it and as a reader I really wanted to, as well. So engaging and breezy, but ultimately ridiculous and stupid. It is really quite like taking the well-worn concept of “humans do not treat their planet well” and then turning it into some Edwardian/ancient Greek farce. What did Zelazny want to do with this? He did not know, either, I think. Its mid-1960s sentiment with some leftover 1940s pulp. Good luck, readers.

2 stars

The Escape Orbit

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

ACE 1983 edition; cover art Wayne Barlowe

The Escape Orbit by James White (1928 – 1999) was first published in 1964 as Open Prison. The next year the variant The Escape Orbit was released with the fancy Jack Gaughan cover art.  I read the 1983 edition with Wayne Barlowe’s cover art.  This is the fifth book by James White that I have read. Two of the five have been part of White’s Sector General series.  White’s works have run the gamut as far as my ratings.  This novel was nominated in 1965 for a Nebula Award….. and so was Clifford D. Simak’s All Flesh is Grass, PKD’s Dr. Bloodmoney, and Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Obviously, White’s work did not win. But it seems that those 1964-1966 years were really something for science fiction and some great things were written/published.

I decided after reading this novel that it is a five star novel.  At the end of the day, ratings are mostly subjective.  Those novels that I think are five stars, others may hotly contest that they even deserve three stars! It is what it is. I think that it being my blog, the rating should reflect my readings/opinions.  I do try to make the case for five star novels being rated so – I do not just say ‘oh, I liked it a lot’ and leave it at that.  And then, perhaps, my tastes or criteria have adjusted in the years since I read a work; not making my rating of a book invalid, but heavily locating it in a definite time/place.  Further, I think it is important to remind readers that a five star rating does not mean that I think the novel is perfect.  I actually do not think there are “perfect” novels.

The Escape Orbit is not a book that I expected was going to be given high marks when I started reading it. I knew it had some good potential and that White is a decent author.  The one element that I think continually convinced me of the five star rating was the unanticipated amount of effort that the author put into this novel.  My copy is 184 pages and I feel like it contains more of the author’s blood, sweat, and tears (so to speak) than many of the 364 page novels published nowadays.  I mean it – several times during my reading I was caught like this, ‘Oh wow, yeah, I hadn’t thought of that’ or ‘yeah, that makes sense, great workaround!’

White knew he was writing a novel in which he might also be accused of helping the characters a bit too much with the problems they faced. White did respond to this:

“It was a simple, daring plan which at practically every stage was packed with things that could go wrong…. it would be workable with just the average amount of good luck instead of a multiple chain of miracles.” – pg. 39, chapter five

The book is fiction and while it attempts to be quite realistic, let us say, we all know we are going to allow a lot of leeway for the characters to get what they need in service of the plot.  So, sure, at points White knew readers might think he handed the characters some easy fixes.  However, it was not done utterly unknowingly and there were plenty of struggles so that the characters did not get handed chains of miracles (a phrasing that is tickling me).

There has been a long, long running interstellar war between humans and the “Bugs.”  Both sides are worn thin from the war effort and the war was never total war, so to speak.  White details some of this at the start of chapter two so that the reader can get a grasp of something near a century of warfare between the species.  The keeping of prisoners, on both sides, has become an issue.  There is no need to slaughter prisoners, but at the same time, supporting the number of prisoners in a “humane” fashion is also untenable. So, the Bugs, at least, have found envirnomentally human-friendly planets and they drop humans prisoners (military) off on this planet to fend for themselves. Thus, a prison planet.

We join the story with the survivors of the warship Victorious being dropped off on the planet.  Among them is our main character, Sector Marshal Warren, who turns out to be the highest-ranking prisoner on the planet.  It is somewhat impressive that James White, himself, was not (as far as I know) in the military because from the books of his that I have read, he does display a decent working knowledge of aspects of the military.  That is to say, he writes very convincingly and his characters are reasonably created.

Overall, the story is one of survival, escape, and leadership.  In one sense, this can be a rather dull story – it is completely full of nothing more than problem-solving and maybe that gives it the somewhat slower-feeling pacing.  However, actually considered, there are plenty of character-tensions, action scenes, and plot twists.  Its good writing, believe it or not, and maybe I did not even realize that until late in the novel. It feels slow-moving at times, but there is a lot going on, I think. And its only 184 pages! I am still surprised by how much happened in the book compared to its length.

Warren had wondered briefly how it was possible to both like and dislike what he was doing, and the people who were helping him do it, intensely at one and the same time. – pg 121, chapter fourteen

This book, after all, is all from Warren’s point of view, although it is not exactly fair-play in the sense that Warren plays his cards close, if you will, and never fully reveals all of his decisions to the other characters or to us readers.  However, it does not feel deceitful or contrived because Warren himself lets us all know that he is playing it close and he knows it has to be that way and it may frustrate others.

Right up until the very last page readers are, I would think, torn between whether each character is a good guy or a bad guy.  Because, truly, most novels have good and bad.  This novel is realistic because the characters are dynamic and their motivations and insights are reasonable – and typically human. Right up until the last page, readers may still be wondering about Warren’s motives and morality. Keeping readers off-balance so they are not sure what side they are on is a tough feat.  It resembles some of those other excellent novels of the time period that were nominated for awards. That’s some very strong writing skill.

The amount of strategy and planning and devising in the book is quite impressive. I do not want to simply say it is a study of leadership and strategy, because this makes it seem like the book is something it is not.  This is still a novel, which at times is nearly pastoral and ruminative.  It is not The Art of War or something from Tacitus. Readers wanting a pulpy adventure story of a prison planet will be very disappointed. Similarly, readers wanting hard science fiction in which the characters are just barely names and ranks will also be frustrated.  Instead, White wrote a very human novel about humans in a difficult situation being constantly confronted with problems to solve – including the main one:  the rôle of goals in human activity/psychology.

There are a lot of ethics/pyschology concepts for an intelligent reader to wrangle with here. At the heart of it, this is not fluffy.  If a reader does not come away questioning or wondering as they read through the chapters, they are doing it wrong.

This is not a difficult read, but it is not something to blaze through on the beach.  I am impressed with it and I do recognize it is not a perfect novel (whatever that could be). I am really glad I read it – it was not what I expected and I can say afterwards that it was definitely worth reading.  This is for thoughtful readers and fans of vintage science fiction. If a reader is going to read about the prison planet setting, this one is necessary.

5 stars

The Atlantic Abomination

The Atlantic Abomination

ACE, 1960 cover art: Ed Emshwiller

The temperatures crept up over 100° this week and so that limited some of my activities.  To pass the time during the worst parts of the day, I found myself reading The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner. It was on a stack of books that I had forgotten about. The novel was first published in 1960, but I read the pocket-sized ACE edition from 1969.  It is a slender novel, I think; only 128 pages, but printed in that miniscule font on yellowed paper.  Overall, this is not a perfect novel.  However, the “wow-factor” of the parts that were well done overshadows the not-so-good parts of the novel.

The first chapter is amazingly well written.  Not only that, but the cover artist, Ed Emshwiller, drew the cover based on that first chapter and his vision matches the absolute horror and awesomeness of Brunner’s story.  I do not know all the details of the publishers’ history, but there exists an edition of the novel from 1977 that is by ACE and/or Grosset & Dunlap.  The cover art on that edition is uncredited and, in my opinion, not as amazing as Emshwiller’s original artwork.  I do not usually talk a whole lot about cover art, but the strikingly horrifying nature of Emshwiller’s cover/Brunner’s concept is really worth it to a reader to take a few moments to admire and consider.

Feeling roasted and listless it would take a great chapter to get me really interested in a book. Frankly, if the second chapter and the first chapter had been switched, I likely would have tossed this book aside.  In fact, I would believe that this first chapter was a piece that Brunner just belted out all at once and did not have a storyline for, but had a great idea and got it down and then did not quite know what to do with it.  Publishing being what it was, I suspect he built it into a somewhat more “commonplace” storyline and it became a novel not unlikely to be found in the 1960s.  The first chapter, though, is five stars. Masterfully [pun!] horrific and utterly merciless.

The remainder of the novel has its ups and downs.  Generally, its pacing is a little off and at points it does feel like the writer is not sure where he wants to go with his storyline and is stalling for time. So, current day, oceanography exploration with really high-end technology.  A slightly awkward, but not untoward hint of human drama/romance.  Vague feelings about the Russians and a vague societal competitiveness.  Predictably, the little submariner pod goes very, very deep into the ocean and something goes “wrong.”  Predictably, humans taking major actions based on assumptions or pressed at deadlines causes bad decisions. Mayhem is unleashed.

There are two female characters in the book, both are scientists. One, Eloise, is very marginal.  The second, Mary, is a main character. She is often present in scenes and she is engaged in matters and not superficial, but at the same time, she still remains irrelevant.  I am not the most sensitive to reading characters, but even I noticed that there was this effort to include Mary all the time – but for no real reason at all.

Anyway, the storyline rather runs to the humans-all-band-together deal and readers know that monsters and aliens are apt to underestimate human ingenuity.  So, the storyline grinds along with humans working together to stumble upon solutions, which they, basically, do because they all work together and science never fails. The President of the USA admits to as much in the last page or two of the novel. Go team human! Go science!

The ending is lame. I have to say that I do not know what I expected, but I did want something more spectacular and thrilling than what was delivered. I guess the author was done writing it at that point and enough was enough. I just feel like it is unbalanced compared with how we started this novel – I want the ending that the beginning promised me.

A good read because, as they say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.  Very good first chapter, as I have said, and general easy reading the rest of the way.  Nothing standout, but nothing utterly atrocious. Definitely something “fun” to consider for those that like catastrophic science fiction or scary alien science fiction.

3 stars

All Systems Red

"All Systems Red" - Martha Wells (2017) Tor - cover: Jaime Jones

“All Systems Red” – Martha Wells (2017) Tor – cover: Jaime Jones

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series by the author.  This first book was published in 2017.  The series currently (May 2022) has six books in print. I think that each book in the series is also of “novella” size.  Novella is a term I do not really use – because I am old and grouchy and generally prefer easy to parse categories like short story or novel or poem.  But books the length of this work (149 pages) force me to use the word ‘novella’ and it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable like the narrating character in the story, Murderbot.

This is a short work, so I do not want to give anything away. I read the book throughout the day, finishing it just before sleep – turned out the bedside light and goodnight.  The story is the intersection of corporate work, scientific planetary research, and A.I./bots.  Since the story is told from the perspective of the bot, SecUnit (short for Security Unit), the writing is sparse and very matter-of-fact.  A security bot that really does not have the utterly human need to explain, ponder, and relationship everything keeps the storytelling breezy and straightforward.

Readers who have ever taken a contemporary philosophy class are going to feel some kind of way about how Murderbot does/does not have feelings, opinions, and humor.  A lot of times it uses words that probably would not be strictly logico-mechanical.  So, its language processing is high-level – as would be expected for a machine that was programmed in order to frequently interact with humans.  So, is it using language in the same way? Does the language it uses have the same meaning?

Well, in a sense, this is lightweight story that never drills into these questions or investigates these matters.  Like I said, this is an extremely matter-of-fact telling. The SecUnit does not “care” and well, maybe neither should the reader. Except, well, but, the lingering part of the story that is layered under all of the rest of the words is literally the quesiton of what the status of this “bot” might be.

And what if the bot is not entirely machine, but has organic components?

Anyway, the story starts in media res, there are some action scenes, but from the standpoint of the SecUnit, the events are related in a rather even – almost dull – manner. The technology is pretty cool – though none of it is at all explained, but the reader gets used to the brute fact of there being whatever technology; be it communication tech or medical tech.  The Murderbot has some quite amusing lines throughout that most readers will find relatable and amusing.

Overall, though, the story is somewhat predictable.  Even though it is enjoyable, I did not find anything here that would make me re-read the book, nor anything that would make me ponder anything in it longer than this review.  I do intend to read on in the series and I do recommend this for most science fiction fans – if only because it is short and easy breezy.

3 stars

Elantris

ElantrisI am finding this novel a very difficult novel to review.  I managed to type the title on this entry and then a lot of time passed; the fan clicking overhead, the birds outside chirping, and me:  utterly lost in my own head trying to sort out some thoughts that maybe are not specifically about Elantris, but Elantris was the catalyst.  Elantris by Brandon Sanderson was published in 2005.  It is Sanderson’s first published novel and I distinctly remember reading somewhere that he finished the first draft, at least, prior to 2000.

[Seriously, I cannot emphasize enough how many times the screen-saver on this laptop has auto-popped while I have sat here after typing a sentence on this post.]

At those times when a situation seems perplexing, I can rely on my Aristotelian traditions and look at things per se; cutting out the inessential appearances for just the actual reality.  Did I like this novel – yes or no? Yes. My answer comes without hesitation because it would be untrue to say that I did not like it.  All right, what is the thing that I liked best about the novel? I liked that its a “soap opera.”  What did I dislike the most about the novel? Pacing.  Who was my favorite character?  Probably Roial.  Would I recommend this novel to others?  Yes, its a long novel so I would not recommend it to folks that I know who…….. do not have the attention span that would be needed.

The novel is a glorified soap opera.  I think most of the novels in the fantasy genre are this way.  And I recognize I have introduced the term “soap opera” as if the meaning is utterly clear. Well, when I say that term I refer to melodramatic scenes and characters within the sweeping “operatic” manner in which the timeline unfolds.  Take any fantasy novel and write the main events as non-adjectival, no qualifier points. Tell the “story” of the novel as if you are an historian writing as impartially as you can a hundred years after the fact.  In this story, we could perhaps bullet point:

  • marriage between prince and foreign princess
  • religious leader arrives for mission in city
  • unexpected medical event occurs

Far less of us readers would read that novel – because then, it is not entertaining at all. Its research, knowledge, etc.  If readers are interested in history, they want history – and usually with a depth of research and analysis folded into excellent presentation.  Readers drawn to fantasy recognize the soap opera styling and want to read about hugely melodramatic magical events and characters.

However:  and this is a stern statement to my fellow readers – do not pick up this fantasy [soap opera] and complain about it being a fantasy [soap opera].

The skeleton of this novel is that it is a zombie story placed in the context of typical nation-state wrangling for control.  Drive a thick beam of religion through the whole thing and that’s Elantris.  So, at its very base, this is a rather simple novel.  We should expect, and we do indeed get, a lot of political machinations, religious fervor and positioning, and a generally “mysterious” situation that is both key and not at all vital to the story.

One of my good friends wrote a blog review (from 2017) wherein they describe the novel as underwhelming.  They felt the author took no risks and the book ended up rather monotonous and mediocre. They gave it a 5 of 10 marks.  That’s not a spectacular rating, indeed.   However, I do have one very picky point to make:  my friend did not actually read the novel… it was an audiobook.  I strongly assert that entirely changes the novel. Nevertheless, I am going to say that some of the criticisms are valid.

Because the whole book is based on the political maneuvering of the city-states, there is a lot of potential for the author to really grab these concepts and wrangle them into exciting, intricate, and maybe even controversial postures. Instead, there seems to be a lot of hand-waving at political problems, making it read less like Plato/Socrates and more like Cratylus.  Our one political expert in the novel, Sarene, does have brief moments of fiery political opinion – but its incredibly short lived and rather more emotional than substantive. Like my friend said, no risks were taken.  So tell us, Sanderson, which political schema is the strongest, which is the best, which do you prefer, which are we going to experiment with in this book, which one of these is any different from the others?   Instead, we are somewhat led to believe the state Fjordell is run by brutal leaders, but that may or may not be truly bad. We never learn much detail about that place, anyway.

Similarly with the religious aspects – and there is a heavy amount of those in this book.  Now, Sanderson admits that his personal religious lifestyle does allow him to consider working various religious situations into his fiction.  I do not think he said anywhere that he is peppering his novels with his own religious viewpoints – you know, such as I call agenda fiction.  However, I do think that if an author is going to heavily rely on religion as a storytelling prop – and make it such a large portion of a novel – then they also need to make the religions come alive, be vibrant, be distinctive.  Frankly, as with the politics, he took no risks. More or less, the three religions in the novel are all the same, maybe differing in practice just enough to provide one with more motive than the others for being a “bad guy.”  But even that is not convincing, its just plausible. Sanderson wrote a couple of places online, at least, wherein he lets readers have a little insight into his religious storyline:

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/10977#117424)

(https://www.librarything.com/topic/11200#126503)

However, if you are going to run into this sort of territory and you want to really make your characters’ thoughts and actions meaningful, get into the religion and hammer it out, drive it home, color it up. Taking no risks with it causes the whole novel to feel a lot less impactful than its potential obviously showed.

Do not get me wrong – I absolutely do not want chapters and chapters of info-dumping and vague pontificating on the topics of religion and politics. Yuck.

None of this is bad writing, though.  It just is not very lively writing. It tends to be somewhat dull and measured. And being very measured makes the pacing seem very, very, very (600 pages very) slow. That being said, I am comfortable with the fantasy qua soap opera scenario and so I was quite content, though not enthralled, to follow the three main characters.  The novel is told in chapter points-of-view of Raoden, Hrathen, and Sarene.  I discovered (according to the All Wise Internet) that most readers disliked Sarene. She was my second favorite character.  A lot of readers just did not like this or that about her.  I liked her because she is too good to be true.  She’s really impressive – and she always, really, lands on her feet – like a cat!  Readers found her ridiculous because she seems to have endless amounts of willing helpers for no real reason. I liked this character, though, and while she is not entirely excusable, she is likeable.

Raoden is the character I liked least. I mean, maybe even more than the bad guy.  I found Raoden quite toxic and annoying and tedious.  Of the three chapters, I dreaded reading his the most.

Hrathen is actually the character that seems the most legit.  He is at once arrogant and yet insecure. He struggles with obedience and faith and job duties. He has failures in his past as-well-as successes that now he feels are failures.  He is a dynamic character and how he ends and whom he falls in love with – yes, other readers found this eye-rolling and obnoxious, but I really enjoyed it.  Again, its a soap opera, and I loved this element. It made me a happy reader. Go away you bitter, sour reader-grouches; y’all know this was utterly suitable for soaps!

Now, chapter 38 came out of nowhere for me. I was thoroughly surprised. I did not see that coming. So, when I got to chapter 38, I put the book down and commented on how surprised I was. I suspect it is because Sanderson’s measured writing in this one lulled me a bit and then surprise! I guess other readers might have suspected. But you know, and then this whole thing went sideways – yet again, so it really seemed inauthentic of Sanderson to have done that to me. But of course, it is TOTALLY what I would expect in a soap opera.

Poor author.  His first published book sold well, got a massive amount of readers, but it also opened him to a wealth of criticism.  Its over 600 pages so it gives critical readers lots of fodder for their expert (and non-expert) complaints.  At the end of the day, its easy to pull out the rapier and critique like we are all writing for The New Yorker.  We are not. We are just readers that lounge in our chairs and kibitz about books. And that is precisely what the writers and publishers want. Its an industry, is it not?

Elantris is not, absolutely not, a bad read. If you want a bad read, I am sure I can provide some awful stinkers for you to give yourself papercuts over.  Is it a great book? No. For the most part it is above-average, never taking risks, and very measured. I mean, but for a first published novel an author could do worse than be told his writing is “too measured.”  There is lots of potential here where it could have been beyond great, even.  The readers see that potential, though, and maybe that is why Sanderson has such a fanclub.  There seem to be some high expectations put on this author for some reason.  Hrathen could have been one of the greatest ever:  whispered in the list of Raistlin, Drizzt, and Allanon. I am glad I met him and hung out with him every few chapters for awhile, but I feel we were robbed of a very epic character.

I recommend it to all fantasy readers. Its an above-average novel with plenty of soap opera moments and the pacing is slow enough to make you regret your choice in books by page 250.  However, in for a penny-in for a pound, there are rewards to be had here and most soaps feel interminable, right?!

3 stars

The Unfinished Clue

The Unfinished ClueThe Unfinished Clue by Georgette Heyer is the second Heyer novel that I have read.  This one was published in 1934.  Let me state from the get-go, this is a five-star novel.  The reason why this is a five-star novel, which is not something I am frivolous in awarding, is because I cannot find anything “wrong” with it.  I am able to recognize, though, that many readers may have little interest in country house murders or historical fictions.  That is a personal preference, though, and if I am being impartial and honest, this is a really good novel.

It has certainly been said many, many times that Heyer excels at character creation and involvement.  In this novel she has a fairly large cast and yet not a single character is cardboard or wooden.  Heyer is the anti-Asimov in this regard.  She introduces us to a variety of characters that are realistic, consistent, and engaging.  Not all of these characters are likeable – in fact, many are not. But all of them are interesting and remarkable.  In particular, in this novel, the character Lola de Silva is so remarkable that her name/characterization ought to be a meme or an archtype.  Readers of all generations need to know about Lola.

I am a reader that enjoys country house mystery/murders. I do enjoy the old fashioned, upper class, non-urban settings.  I do not mind their (sometimes) slow pace nor their fixation on teas, butlers, and cocktail hours.  However, not all country house murder mysteries are done with skill.  Often, it seems forced or obnoxious.  Not Heyer’s whatsoever.  I read a manor house mysery once and complained about how dumb the characters were for all gathering ’round the fancy dagger – and then whoops! someone turns up dead! How contrived.  Heyer’s novel here is very fun and well-plotted.  The motives for the murder are all viable ones and nuild tension within the setting.  Each character, already suffering uncomfortable interactions, has to deal with the awkwardness of remaining in the manor among a bunch of “likely suspects.”

So, the characterizations are top notch and the plot is solid and well-written. The pacing seemed reasonable and there were no grammatical or ugly artistic errors, let’s say.  How could I not give this five stars?  I found it entertaining, interesting, and time well spent.  I am not sure I can say similar things about many books that I have read that were, supposedly, in my favorite genres. (Cp. science fiction, fantasy)  It is a lighter novel in that it does not tax the reader and make their brains churn.  I am OK with that and had no problem relaxing with a decent storyline.

My two favorite characters were Dinah Fawcett and Captain Francis Billington-Smith. I think most readers probably fall in love with Dinah, so saying she was one of my favorites does not mean so much.  The best part of Heyer’s novel is the fact that she gathered all of these characters into one country home and let them stew and boil over together.  Here is one of Dinah’s observations:

He went into the house, and Dinah thought, with an inward grin:  Getting too much for poor old Stephen; really, it’s more like a home for mental cases than a house party. – pg. 88, chapter five.

Dinah is observant, witty, and direct, but not rude. She often knows the correct thing to do and chooses wisely. An insightful and likeable character that we all wish to befriend.  She is often helpful in providing the comic relief for the storyline so that the story is not miserably heavy and sluggish.  I like that Heyer does not take her stories/novels overly serious. I like that Heyer herself sees the opportunity for wit and humor in these stories.  Dinah picks up the humor nicely and I do wonder if Heyer doesn’t write herself as Dinah:

“I think perhaps I had better,’ said Mrs Twining in her calm way. “I understood from Fay that I was to hold myself in readiness to answer questions the detective may want to put to me. I am really not very well versed in the etiquette of these affairs.  Does a detective come to me, or do I go to him?”

“I don’t know,” said Dinah.  “But I wish you would come. We – we rather badly want a normal person here.” – pg. 133, chapter 8.

I have a couple other Heyer novels to read; I think they are the detective mystery novels, too. I know she wrote a large number of romances and historical items, but I am really enjoying her mysteries.  They have been popular since they were published and I think that is a great thing. I can confidently recommend this book to any reader and any aspiring author.

5 stars

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

Mrs Presumed Dead brett coverMrs, Presumed Dead by Simon Brett (b. 1945) is the second in the Melita Pargeter series of novels. This one was first published in 1988.  I read the first novel in the series years ago in 2015.  I think these novels (or most of them) are out of print, so until they are reprinted (or not) I am keeping these on the shelf for other readers who need a copy (my specific copy is February 1990 printing).

I cannot honestly call the Pargeter series a cozy mystery series, since there are elements in the books that are not so cozy at all. Cozy/innocent – whatever it is that makes the lightest mystery novels so warm and sweet.  There are elements of Pargeter novels that sometimes come across as critical of society, shuffling morality in a sort of very-English Mill/Bentham way at times, and some sordid moments.  Nevertheless, this was an easy-reading novel that was good for a light off-day.  Just something to occupy the mugs of tea and the chilly temperatures outdoors.  This is a no-stress read.

The main character, amateur sleuth Melita Pargeter has relocated to a very small cul-de-sac style upper class semi-rural development.  I enjoyed Brett’s addition of explaining the detail of how/why the development had the name it had. She has purchased a large house in this rather Yuppie community and has moved into the home and found the social structure of the close a bit challenging.  I wanted to hear more about Pargeter’s designing and decorating and setting up her new house. It would have given a bit more insight into Melita herself – how one organizes one’s living space is very telling about that person’s psychology and activities.

I think the first novel was a bit better in a few respects. My main complaint is that the author was not as smooth and engaging with his main character’s conversations this time. Mrs. Pargeter in this novel was nearly KGB-interrogator at times. I know she is a shrewd and witty old bird, but I think she would also be a bit more subtle than a sledgehammer.  I mean, she just moved into the neighborhood and she really is laser-pointer-focused on the murder investigation. I would think that even the most uppity, yuppie, self-centered people of that neighborhood would notice that Pargeter was so dogged in her conversation.

“I’m not so sure,” said Mrs. Pargeter. “You don’t know what people are like in Smithy’s Loam.” – pg. 222

The other complaint I had was that we are very repeatedly told that Pargeter’s deceased husband had left her a lot of resources.  I mean, once or twice is reasonable – but we are reminded quite a lot. And after awhile, I felt the need to grab the author by his ear and ask if he really felt me so stupid that in a 240 page novel he needed to remind me of this constantly.

I did not guess who did it. I never do, though. I am utterly horrible at mystery novels/television. Its always a surprise for me. Now, I know more astute readers might scoff and tease me about this, but I would remind them that I get full enjoyment out of the books, whereas they are too busy reading stories they have already figured out. Anyway, it makes sense who the criminal was – which is very key in a mystery novel. I want a solid and satisfying resolution not one that feels forced or that it could have just as easily been answered differently. As Pargeter says in that late chapter:

“No, I’ve worked it out now. I should have realised before.” – pg. 238

So, the ending worked out all right, which I like. There were, of course, several points in which Brett could have spiralled this story some other way. Lots of plausible guilty parties with plenty of motive. But I like that Brett has Pargeter tell us:

For a start, she had a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.  She had always disliked them in crime fiction and didn’t care for them much in real life.  Madness was so vague, so woolly.  Any motivation and logic could be ascribed to someone who was mad.  At the end of a crime book in which a madman dunnit, Mrs. Pargeter always felt cheated and annoyed. – pg. 211

Well, don’t worry, Melita in this one there is no such cheap and flimsy ending.

Recommended for readers needing an easy-read, day-read.  Enjoyable to a point without any major complaints.  Pargeter is a thoughtful woman in many ways. I will likely, eventually, read the next in the series.

3 stars