Author: nawfalaq

Thinking. Reading. Writing. Punching.

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 

Dirty Deeds

Dirty DeedsThis blazing hot and overcast afternoon I finished Dirty Deeds by Armand Rosamilia.  It is another book that is different from my usual go-tos.  Another small press publisher / self-published effort that I have enjoyed.  I did not know what to expect, honestly, but the author photo was of him with a beard and described him as enjoying metal [music] and baseball and being from New Jersey. So, I knew this guy was probably pretty cool. Seriously. Do not mock the 45+ year olds who love baseball and metal; we are cooler than you kids will ever be.  I saw 40 awhile ago, have scruff on my chin and I love metal and baseball, and I am from New York. Even if Rosamilia’s book was trash, we would still be pals. 

Do not worry! Dirty Deeds was not trash! It was one of the more enjoyable and fun reads I have read in awhile. The evening I started reading this, I read the first forty-seven pages and was pretty amused and interested in the storyline. I mean, I had the book in the house since February [its nearly August], but I have so many books to get to! Its really nice when you can finish a book and then the next one is precisely the sort of thing your mood-level wants to be reading.  This one started off in media res and moved really quickly!  Five pages in, the main character was in the back of a police car.

Most of the other reviews that I glanced at had some minor comments about how the overarching plotline is kind of unrealistic. Well, sure it is; if you want realistic – read non-fiction.  I admit a small measure of suspension of disbelief is needed for this, but again, I would not expect that to be any issue at all for a reader. The concept of this novel (and series) is that the main character is rather one-of-a-kind and the work is unbelieveable. I am so very thankful to have read a novel where there was something unique and new and interesting instead of the usual plots and settings.

I really like the main character, too. Although, yeah, there are times I want to deck him.  I wish he would take better care of what he eats – he’s a stress eater – and would maybe think about fitness a little (or at all).  I like his honesty and his confusion and his skewed morality and his confidence.  Instead of being the Hero Skilled at Everything, he is a bit of an Everyman who just happens to have a very unusual life.  Now, in the early parts of the novel, I felt the main character was a bit too smooth, too perfect an operator. By mid-book, we see this guy knows what he is doing, but maybe does not handle so many changes and abrupt shocks all at once. I like that he is honest about it – his hands shake, he buys baskets-full of junkfood from gas stations. He copes. 

If I had any direct complaint about the novel it is that maybe here and there are a few awkward constructions or elements that do not work as well in my eyes as they did coming from the author’s fingertips onto the keyboard. No big deal.  These did not have any ultimate effect on the story whatsoever, but they did sometimes speed-bump the reading a bit.  Just sentences that did not flow correctly. 

Besides the relatively unique concept for the series, I really like all the other constructions. I love that the main character has a side-business that he would rather be his main business, which is selling/trading Baseball Cards.  Its such a fantastic idea for a story – and it fits so absolutely perfectly with the main character and the concept of this book.  This is a really great idea and I wanted to high-five the author about it.  Yeah, yeah, I know not everyone has a concept of baseball card collecting/selling. I also know that not everyone truly, really understands baseball. But for those of us who do, who remember those 70s, 80s, 90s baseball cards…. man, this book is a real treat.  Lots of nostalgic moments here – those outrageous 1990 Donruss cards with the RED border! Or those 1982 Topps cards that looked so 80s! Or, my favorite, those amazingly ugly 1975 Topps Rookie Cards – by position, with the four pictures on the front! 

I will stop now. 

Anyway, toward the end of the novel, I felt the storyline was getting a little wonky. I mean, it seemed the main character was spending a lot of time in the backseat of cars being driven here and there after flying to all these cities – but nothing was really happening. Also, some of these cities were in different time zones and some of the timeline just seemed too condensed. I know the author was really trying to press his character – put the squeeze on from a variety of angles and never letting the reader know who the real bad guys were. However, maybe it needed to decompress here and there. 

Yes, the ending is a helluva cliffhanger. Obviously, the author did this on purpose to set up the direction for the next book, which he hopes you will buy. Some readers took issue with this.  I guess they felt it too obvious. I am fine with the way this ended – it is very much open ended, no closure, but so what? Continuation in a series is a tactic and it beats all the fake “tied-up-in-a-neat-package” endings that sometimes we readers suffer through. Besides, I have read a lot of PKD novels – those are some choppy ended novels.

So, I had a lot of fun with this one. I enjoyed nostalgia. I like the main character. The story is very fast-paced and easy-going. I recommend this to readers who want to enjoy what they read and can be content with popcorn, a Coca-Cola, and an engaging crime novel.  I do own the second in the series and intend to read it and I am interested in maybe trying out some of the author’s other work.

4 stars

Of Dogs and Walls

Of Dogs and WallsDue to the temperature being 109° F, I have been indoors this past week more than I normally would be. I am outdoors a lot, but even I know better than to make myself so miserable in this heat. This has given me opportunity to read a lot more during the daytime than usual and I have a tbr mountain that makes me feel ashamed. Today I was able to read the tiny book in the Penguin Modern series Of Dogs and Walls, which contains two stories by Yuko Tsushima. The little book is only 65 pages and is the 43rd in the set of 50 similar books by Penguin. It was published in 2018, the whole set was finished being released by 2019, I think, and could be purchased in a box set. I am not exactly sure what the editors were going with for this particular set – blurbs on the Penguin site speak of “pioneering” modern writers, etc.

Yuko Tsushima is the penname of Satoko Tsushima (1947 – 2016).  She is the second daugher of the famous author Osamu Dazai (1909 – 1948). Dazai and his extra-marital interest committed drowning suicide in the Tamagawa Aqueduct.  

The first story in this book, The Watery Realm, was originally published in 1982.  It very much so is an exploration and coming-to-terms with her father’s death. The wildly creepy and unnerving fact that most readers might not be aware of is that in 1985, Tsushima’s young son drowned in a bathtub accidentally. This is the last paragraph of The Watery Realm:

Ah, that reminds me. I have to tell my five-year-old about the Dragon Palace – to tell him that, somewhere in the deep, the original of that underwater castle he’s so proud of surely exists.  There, as colorful fish tickle the tips of their noses, the folk we long to see again sleep the sleep in which a hundred days are a hundred years. – pg.30

I do not know exactly what to say about this paragraph and the future unhappy drowning. At best I can describe my face as having a suspicious and incredulous look on it, maybe with shades of “yikes!”   I really love this paragraph at the end of the story, though. I like the off-hand manner in which the narrator is thinking of the deep [pun intended] topic. 

Overall, I liked this first piece better of the two. But, since I have a strong connection to water, that makes sense. In both stories the author writes fluidly [heh!] and the edges blend. What edges? The clearly defined borders of characters, of time, of space. In some points it feels like a stream of consciousness. And that hazy fuzziness really works for this particular story in which family members seem sickeningly close and yet completely estranged.

I loved the last paragraph of the first story and I loved the usage of the umbrella. This is subtle and mysterious and skillful writing.

If it’s still raining when she starts for home again, she will take her umbrella. Sometimes it will have stopped and she’ll leave the umbrella with her daughter. That umbrella disturbs and frightens her daughter, while she herself is disturbed and frightened at having forgotten it. When it’s nothing, really. When it really doesn’t mean a thing. – pg. 12

I really also like this paragraph. Its in the middle of the story and its yet another voice, besides the mother or the daughter and it just resonated with me because things can be so aggravating and disturbing and yet meaningless. 

The second piece in this small text is the title entry, Of Dogs and Walls.  It was one of Tsushima’s later works, published in 2014 in the magazine Shincho. There are a lot of similarities between both of the stories, so I can definitely see how a Penguin Editor might have known they go together, though they were written so many decades apart.  The main one being the relationship and viewpoints of the female characters; mothers and daughters to be specific. The mothers in both stories seem incomprehensible, but also utterly transparent.  These are hardened women, not ones you would cross. They are left behind and “on their own.”  They are also maybe slightly mad because of this.  

Both stories are of a close radius. But I do not think I was able to get the resounding significance of the dog and the wall like I was able to internalize and comprehend the water and the umbrella. 

I think that Penguin liked selecting these stories – not solely because they are quite interesting works, but also because a female Japanese author was an excellent “diverse” pick for their collection. They are not wrong.  However, I think a lot of readers will zero in on the fact that Tsushima is largely writing about marginalized or forgotten women and then slap a “feminist” label on her and her works.  I am absolutely no expert in these matters, but I think to do so would be to really build a barrier (a wall?) around Tsushima and also her characters.  I would not want her stories to drown in the ogreish designs of insensitive readership.

One question I am very curious about is how deeply, frequently, and extensively Tsushima read or studied her father’s works. Did she have nothing much to do with them? Or were they often pawed through and wrestled with? Or maybe she was utterly indifferent to them? I think she has one daughter and that is who we would have to ask. Yes, it would probably be apropos to have to ask Tsushima’s daughter about Tsushima’s relationship with her father’s literary works.

Recommend for quite advanced readers and for those who enjoy dream-like streams of slice-of-life. I would like to give the first story 4 stars and the second 2 stars; so here we end at 3 stars.

3 stars

In Plain Sight

1-In-Plain-SightThis book was recommended to me while visiting an out of town friend. My friend apologized for having lost the second book in the series, but said that they had the first and I would probably enjoy it. So, I took their copy and started reading it when I got home a few days later.  In Plain Sight by Dan Willis is the first in his Arcane Casebook series. It was first released in 2018 as a self-published work, I believe.  As I have said, I am making a strong effort to read things other than my “usual” bookshelf fare.  I am making a bit of an effort to read independent and small-press publishers, self-published works, genres I do not normal look into, and so forth.  I think there are eight books (so far) in the Arcane Casebook series and my friend had about five of them stacked on a shelf; and I have to tell you – they looked so pretty and appealing. (It is only fair to also say they were surrounded by media that had C+ and Python and similiar written all over them.)

So, I was kind of not sure what this novel would entail. I have read the first Harry Dresden (by Jim Butcher) novel and both enjoyed it and still disliked the main character.  I read that when the first couple novels in Butcher’s series The Dresden Files were released, let’s see, way back in 2000.  Twenty-something years ago, the subgenre urban fantasy was new and edgy and Butcher’s books were just another science fiction paperback. I think there are seventeen novels in that series now! Anyway, I cannot remember everything about my reading experience of Storm Front, but I know that I found it interesting and unique, but also a bit unpolished and maybe I did not love the main character – because he was supposed to be so eccentric and quirky that it felt like it was very forced. It was not a bad start, but it was not great. I never got around to reading the second book – though, currently, I believe the first five books sit on a bookshelf here at home.

I mention the Dresden Files because there are definitely some similarities with this Arcane Casebook novel.  They are, indeed, different in many respects, but there must be comparisons between the two as well, since readers will be familiar with the Dresden Files before coming to this series. My general impression after reading In Plain Sight is that is better than Storm Front. Which, honestly, is just saying that I liked it better. Neither novel is five stars and there are some improvements to be made in each, but if I had to recommend a modern magic/wizard novel to a reader, I would likely suggest Willis’ book.

The main character is Alex Lockerby who is a private detective in New York City 1933.  Now, I admit that I am drawn to Golden Age pulps, gritty city private detectives, noir crime stories, and black & white TV shows. So, the setting and the background tipped the scales in favor of this novel.  Lockerby, like all true isolated and loner heroes, is surrounded by the uniquely-skilled, providential crew of friends and helpers.  He was raised by a priest, taken into the home of and trained as a detective by a rich British doctor, and he managed to hire a savvy and sharp – and also good-looking – secretary for his office. So, the novel seems to want to tell us that Alex struggles on the sidewalks of NYC with the daily grind of running a loser business, but the fact of the matter is, he actually has a lot of safety-nets and helpers.

Lockerby is also a runewright, which is a type of magician, I suppose. The novel explains runewrights as sort of the mechanics and engineers of the magical world, contrasted with the fancy, high-level marvels of sorcerers. The concept of runewrights was one that I approached positively. I have no use for the Harry Potter business, but a runewright sounded like something with a lot of story potential that was just unique enough to set it aside from wand-wavers. Basically, runewrights are like draughtsmen who create a variety of runes using different configurations of symbols made with different inks and substances – many of which are expensive/rare to utilize.  Many of the runes can be somewhat physically taxing and can take hours to “draw.”  Some, of course, are minor and much faster to whip off using merely a pencil and a notepaper.

Alex was raised by Father Harrison Arthur Clementine at a local church/mission. And Father Harry is responsible for raising Alex into the diligent and moral character he is. However, Alex lives with his runewright mentor, Dr. Ignatius Bell, who served in the Royal Navy. Bell owns a brownstone in the City and spent at least two years training Alex in runewright skills as-well-as Sherlock Holmes-style detective work. He also feeds and cultures Alex. A mentor and a patron and a landlord. I can see how some of this chafes readers – Lockerby is supposedly a struggling private detective, but he has such a support system and had such assists through his “formative years” that he really ought to be doing a whole lot better than he is!

Alex also seems to have really bought into the stereotype that private detectives in the 1930s drink and smoke constantly. I do not mind, really, a heavy drinker/smoker in my novels – but I was trying to timeline out how much he drinks and it really is quite a large amount. This is to say, some of the cigarette lighting and two finger splashes pouring actually interupts the flow of the story instead of smoothly building its elements.

The storyline, honestly, is not super interesting. I enjoyed it, but mainly I did not pay much attention to it. I did not seem to care who the adversaries and culprits were or what their motives were, I was more interested in learning more about this magic 1933 NYC and going around with Alex lighting cigarettes and taking crawlers (magic-driven transportation).

I can understand some demanding readers being frustrated with the plot because it does seem very stereotypical and trope-filled. But I liked it – and I would use the words “Golden Era” and “classic.”  I know a lot of readers want each novel to push the boundaries of fiction and have ever-new storylines, but I was really content with hanging out with Lockerby and traipsing around to different crime scenes looking for clues. I enjoyed the storyline – it was engaging and interesting and kept right on moving. We met different characters along the way and there was not a lot of explanation and description – we learned on the job with Alex.

There are some minor twists at the end of the novel that might aggravate readers – Alex does not share with the reader everything he discovers. I mean, most of it is apparent, but there are a few items near the end of the book that it is revealed that Alex is aware of that the reader has to get surprised by. Some readers will be aggravated, I was amused and enjoyed it. Authors do not always have to play totally fair with readers – especially if its for our own entertainment.

4 stars

The Gulp

Alan BaxterThe Gulp by Alan Baxter is a collection of five novellas that take place in the same setting, which is Gulpepper, Australia (fictional). The author shares with us (in the Afterword) that it is more of a concept than a place. I was turned on to this work by some of my favorite fellow readers. Col’s Criminal Library and Books, Bones, and Buffy who each wrote 4+ star reviews of this work. Also, this reader (aka Well Read Beard) made a YouTube video-review of the book, and I enjoy his reviews, as well. Heck, since I am posting URLs, here is the author’s website:  Alan Baxter.  Anyway, I have made a bit of a small effort to sort of read some things outside my “usual” selections. So, instead of vintage science fiction, I have read a few small publishers’ prints, some crime, some horror, some non-mainstream and The Gulp is one that normally I would never have considered reading.

I do not read much horror at all, if any. I think I can count on one hand the amount of horror I have read – and most of it counts only as “classic/vintage” horror. I am referring to stuff like W. W. Jacobs and H. P. Lovecraft.  I read Needful Things by Stephen King when it first came out and I liked it. Liked it so much I watched the movie, which I also enjoyed. Honestly – I cannot think of much else that I have read that might be in this genre. The truth is, there is a lot of horror and terror in the world, and I usually like to use my reading for learning or entertainment. I can understand the argument that others might use reading as catharsis or that not everyone shares the same entertainment opinions. But for me, I get enough horror already without seeking it out.  Also, well, sometimes “horror” means “gross.”  There are a lot of examples of media in which these two are jumbled and I do not enjoy the gross too much.

So, before I ordered the book, I did read some reviews from trusted reviewers. I also went to the author’s website. Or Facebook. Or something. Something of his online. I skimmed what was there. To be completely honest, I do not know that he and I would get along. Or, maybe we would be chums. I do not know, but there is something about him that I find aggravating and/or abrasive. There are things we would agree on and then there are other things I think would end in a front yard fisticuffs.  So what? I do not have to like an author to read their stuff.

There is a reason I am mentioning both of these points:  I am the tough sell. I am the outlier and the reader that yeah, if I am praising the work, it does mean something stronger. And yes, like my book blogger friends listed above, I am going to give this work 4 stars.

The Gulp consists of five novellas that take place in a country/coastal town in Australia. I have never been to Australia, nor is it on my list of places I would like to go. And this is after one of the most significant people in my life having been from Sydney. That being said, The Gulp could really be anywhere, so shuffle the lingo a bit and yeah – its the creepy coastal town in Your Country. This is really cool because the universality of the setting is important to this particular type of writing, I think.  Drawing the readers in and immersing them in this town is really key to these stories.

All five stories are very original. I mean, the storylines themselves have an originality that was striking.  I feel after all that has been written in the horror/crime/science fiction genre, coming up with something original is quite challenging. It seems like it was not difficult at all for this author. As I consider this, I think that perhaps the trick is these stories are all somewhat “slice-of-life” stories. Meaning, the mundane is one of the most powerful elements in the stories. That is kind of odd to say considering some of the events that take place. But Baxter makes the reader believe that those events take place because of the setting in which they take place. Nicely done.

The first novella, Out On A Rim, was the one that most interested me when I read the other reviews. Something about this idea was interesting to me and I figured if it was good enough, it would be worth it even if the rest of the book was not great.  I think that it was the most suspenseful and scary of the group. It is strategically placed at the start of the collection – because one of the characters actually takes a walk around The Gulp – and introduces the reader to the setting. Again, smoothly done. However, the story gets quite gory and shocking really quickly and ends with a kind of flashbang.  Pay attention:  this is horror, crime, and it is very violent and gory.

I had to take a break for awhile after reading that story, honestly. Not because it was bad. But because I knew whatever came next was going to be intense. And wow, it sure was. The second story in the batch is, I think, the best written. However, it COULD come with valid content warnings all over it. There is a lot of gore and its not just splatter – it is emotional gore. This is the story I would be most concerned about when recommending this collection to other readers, to be honest. I am not a particularly sensitive reader, generally, but I could not help but worry about certain readers being just too open and gentle for this one.  As key reading material, the author has a solid blog entry on this sort of thing. The entry is entitled: “Content Warnings Are Not Censorship” and it was posted June 12, 2021.  It is very worth reading – get over there and read it. Here is a statement from that entry: “Horror is meant to be confronting. That doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors.”  Horror is meant to be confronting – this is an phrase/idea that I am going to ponder and turn around in my brain for awhile.

Anyway, Mother in Bloom was great. Unfortunately there are not as many readers that can confront this one as I wish. But the writing is so skillful, I really appreciated it. I like how genuine the characters seemed and their slice-of-life felt realistic.

The third story, The Band Plays On, was good, though it was somewhat predictable. I mean, it was not difficult to see where this was headed. That does not mean its a bad story. And again, it subtly gave us background info and developed the setting even more.  I felt sympathy for the main character and I am glad it ended the way it did – Baxter was not cruel to the reader in this one, wherein he could have been. Also, I did appreciate the music details throughout.

The fourth story, 48 To Go, starts circling the collection back to the start ever so gently. Finally, a story that is taking place not on the coast – but on the water. Again, a slice-of-life of one of The Gulp’s residents. Things suddenly go wrong for the main character. I did not feel a whole lot of compassion for him at this point, though. And then things just go sideways, downhill, and inside-out. I think this is the story that is the most bizarre of the collection. Its original, its gory, its full of what-in-the-ever-living-______!!!!!  But, because it is so chock full of bizarre and gore, it somewhat takes the edge off of the pandemonium. As events get to a fever pitch of outrageous, yeah, I started to feel a little compassion for the main character who somehow maintains some level of functionality while the world turned inside out.  This is a good story, but it is also the most wild.

Rock Fisher is the last story and I think the shortest. A lot of tie-ins to the rest of the collection occur. The Gulp is very claustrophobic. Anyway, here we have another basic main character with his slice-of-life struggles. Like every main character in these stories, it seems there is a real and honest characterization in which family, peace, contentment are strong goals. These are not necessarily bad people is what I suspect Baxter is telling us. However, fate, luck, and the monsters of The Gulp coerce and instigate and maul these people into doing outrageously horrific and unthinkable things. Troy is twenty-five years old, lives on his own, owns an aquarium, goes to work at a manufacturing plant, and enjoys fishing.  The story starts and he is upset about his girlfriend, whom he knows is not exactly a class act, ditching him for another fella.  Troy takes his troubles to the shore and brings his fishing rod. After a long day, he hauls in a very strange and somewhat disgusting catch; and it ain’t a bream or a sea bass!  Eventually, as Troy becomes more obsessed with his catch, he also becomes sicker – until he is transforming into………..?  The writing here is really good because Baxter shows (not so much bludgeons) the reader with how this magnetism-obsession is overtaking Troy.  Troy loses time, whole hours and then days go by where he is in a trance-like state near the thing he hauled in from the sea. Its creepy and the loss of will is truly the horror here – not just the “creature.”  It is a good story, especially rounding out this set.

And here is the thing:  I was planning from the end of the first story, to read this collection and send it onward. I have mentioned I am downsizing some of the bookshelves in this house. (I say that all the time, don’t be fooled.) Anyway, I had every intention straight up through halfway of the fifth story of finishing this book and plopping it on the stool that currently has about a dozen books on it to be shared elsewhere. After finishing Rock Fisher, I asked myself, should I get rid of this? Who can read it – it does “need” content warnings?  Maybe I should keep it, it isn’t like they have copies at all the bookstores in town. And then I laughed and laughed and laughed – because I felt just like Troy…. maybe I should just keep it. Gollum moments, right?  If y’all don’t hear from me for a good long while, maybe I’m in a fugue state staring at the book on a bookshelf.

Yeah, I’m definitely all in for a second helping if Baxter writes one!

4 stars

Terminal Freeze

Terminal FreezeRecently, I finished Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child. It was published in 2009 and I think has been on the to-be-read shelves forever. Among the slight changes in my reading habits this year (reading (reading crime, reading small publishers, reading things other than science fiction) is the effort to clear the shelves! Be advised, I say that is a goal every year. I read Deep Storm by Lincoln Child in 2017 and I did not give it high marks. Terminal Freeze seemed both better and worse than that previous read.

As I started reading this, I was sure it was going to be a quick, but annoying read. For the first quarter of the book I was so unenthused and unimpressed. Everything seemed so utterly obvious, heavy-handed, and predictable. Not to mention, there was not anything about the plot that seemed even a bit engaging. All of the characters were vexing, the setting was annoying, the plot seemed very predictable. Halfway through the novel, I admit I was more engaged in the story and I was turning pages without annoyance. So its not high-brow literature, but what happens next? Maybe I’m a bit of a sucker because I just like being entertained by a story?

Since this is pulp-adventure, I do not want to ruin the thing by handing over the plot to those who may wish to read it. Suffice to say, it takes place in an old (Cold War era) US Army ice station in Alaska. There are a team of scientists there who are funded, through a number of channels, by Hollywood.  The scientists discover something, a random native shaman shows up, and then the base is overrun by the production company. The scientists are chafed because the production company takes charge and the “relationship” of the scientists and the movie-makers is clarified.  All hell breaks loose when the discovery, which is the focal point for the documentary, goes missing. Action ensues.

I have a lot of interests, but TV and movies, film and cinematography are not them. I am even confronted on occasion by film theory and I still struggle to participate.  I watch very little TV and film. And all the “classic” and “important” film? Yeah, I probably have not seen it – and you would not really want me to because it would be lost on me. I know everyone thinks I’m kidding when I say I lose track of where the TVs are in my home. I have known some film theory “fans/experts” and when they talk about these things they are very animated and it seems so intense for them. I appreciate that there are people out there with this interest.

I mention this to say that I have a natural (strong?) dislike toward film production. That it plays such a central component to this novel was a surprise for me and an immediate turn off.  There is a particular character who takes his film theory, film production immensely seriously – more important than life itself. (By the way, this is how ALL film theory/producers and directors seem TO ME. They all seem obsessed and eccentric and intense; is this image one that they self-cultivate?) This character is really well written because he does fit a lot of the stereotypes and he provides another challenge point for the storyline. Yes, he can be horribly obsessed and unbelieveable. He’s not a villain, per se, but he plays a character archetype – the weirdly obsessed/driven. Readers immediately will dislike him and as the story progresses, even his most devoted and loyal “co-workers” begin to be disgusted and disillusioned with him. However he is one of the reasons I am giving this novel another star:  thinking about the things he is saying about the filming, the film industry…. he is entirely correct, regardless of the morality of the situation. It is this intense “sacrifice everything for the product” mentality that is both abhorent and yet vitally truthful; unexpected in a pulp adventure novel.

I really enjoyed how no matter the setbacks or failures that occur, this character was pushing the boundaries and re-imagining his film creation. He even was willing, at the last, to do the grunt work himself. Morally misguided, perhaps, but utterly dedicated to his idea of what his work is.

He waved at two bookcases full of DVDs that framed the screen. “You see those? That is my reference library. The greatest films ever made: the most beautiful, the most groundbreaking, the most though provoking.  The Battleship Potemkin, Intolerance, Rashomon, Double Indemnity, L’Avventura, The Seventh Seal – they are all here. I never travel anywhere without them. Yet they are not just my solace, Dr. Marshall – they are my oracle, my Delphic temple. Some turn to the Bible, for guidance; others, the I Ching, I have these. And they never fail me.” – Conti, pg. 153 (chapter 18)

I admit throughout the book I was expecting a certain nefariousness from a character. I did keep waiting for Gonzalez (one of the soldiers) to show “true colors” and be at the heart of the drama. This never happened. But it frequently happens that I will not get the storyline guessed out. Instead, Gonzalez ended up being quite wysiwyg.  The character Logan, though, is utterly pointless. I don’t know what he does except to make it seem like he is a storyline guide, really. I have not read a lot of books where I felt like there was a character inserted in a plot that was a guide for the other characters to stay on plot. Its strange.

Frankly, the native shaman character was also a bit superfluous. I mean, he adds a bit of local interest and supernatural/unnatural flavor to the book. He is there to add a wee bit of Other to the novel, balancing out the science and military. But is he really necessary? Nope, honestly I kept waiting for him to “do something” other than just be native and mysterious. I guess he is the main character’s therapist or doppleganger or something.

Finally, the best parts of the action, I think, were the segments dealing with the ice road trucker. That was some edge-of-my-seat reading. If this is a thriller, it wasn’t because of the kaiju-monster-survival stuff, it was, for me, the nervous-wreck reaction to ice road driving. Maybe because I have had plenty of driving in blizzards and ice storms and I could access those feelings.

Not great literature and superficial and full of obvious plot points. The characters are very wysiwyg. The plot is survival within a difficult setting against a scary supernatural/unnatural monster. I am glad I finally read it and can recommend it as a good, lightweight adventure story to readers who need basic entertainment. Read it for the film aspects and less for the native Alaskan elements.

3 stars

Gumshoe Blues

Gumshoe BluesGumshoe Blues by Paul D. Brazill is a short story/short collection of really fast-paced snapshots of a self-described private investigator named Peter Ord.  For the readers who are very fastidious about their categorizations, this would be considered modern noir – “Brit Grit.”  Under one hundred pages, this little copy is via Close to the Bone Publishing, which is  U.K. publishing house specializing in crime fiction and modern noir.  Their edition of Gumshoe Blues is from 2019.  I think Brazill had published some amount of this work in some other manner at some point previously, but I am not a biblio-historian.

Paul D. Brazill seems to be, and I say seems because I am hardly an expert in anything anymore, something of a good benchmarking standard in this genre. After reading Gumshoe Blues, its easy to see why. He has a really good style that matches the genre.  His mind’s-eye for scene and setting is sharp, as well.

I do not read a lot of this genre, but I am reading a bit more of it. Its become very challenging to get through any dense tomes with complicated plotlines and extreme character development. I do not have the time to invest in these works, at least, not currently. You may politely ask why not and I will mention that I have really upped my physical training for hung gar (I have 18 years of this training) and I have been spending a lot more time fishing. I have utterly lost track of where the TVs are in my home.  Anyway, reading fiction has kind of taken a backseat (BUT NEVER NON-FICTION).

Certainly, this genre is not for everyone. I am really enjoying the small print/publishers focusing on crime fiction. Long ago I became unimpressed with what “suspense/mystery” meant in the mass market LoBs. It seemed overrun by the same authors who, to an extent, seemed to be publishing the same novels? And yes, some of that is expected. Tropes and formulaic writing is the backbone of pulp media.  I still have a whole mess of such novels I want to read, do not get me wrong – I like reading! However, there is something refreshing and edgy and curious about what the small print/publishers are able to do for authors who do not want to compete with James Patterson.  This particular publisher and writer are working in a genre that is gritty and dark and definitely comes with warnings for readers.

One of the things I liked about Brazill’s writing is that his turn of phrase seems utterly seamless and smooth – nothing forced or awkward. I worry that many authors can really write “gritty crime” without making what should be noir and street-worthy somehow goofy and ridiculous. Brazill does really well with that and even injects a little wry humor. What’s more, though there has to be a lot of coarse language, it absolutely did not have that egregious display of gratuitous filth that some writers are unable to balance.

Gumshoe Blues is a short page-turner of snapshots of Peter Ord’s current life in Seatown.  It rains a lot, there are way too many seedy locations, and everyone seems to know everyone. Without describing every single aspect, Brazill has the reader follow along with Ord as Ord hangs out in pubs and clubs – and as a reader I found it quite convincing. I felt that feeling of not wanting to lean on the furniture, get too close to the walls, and cringing at the sticky floor. Its dark and smells like stale everything.

The writing is less about characters and more about snapshots of this genre. I enjoyed my time in Seatown, I guess, and hanging out with Peter was a unqiue experience. I am glad I read this – and I will probably try to read more by Brazill. Recommended for toughened readers, readers who don’t read for character relationships, and readers who laugh at tragi-comedy.

4 stars