2 Stars

A Share in Death

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

The Room of White Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

Memory Man

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

Future Imperfect

Future Imperfect - James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect – James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect by James Gunn is a collection of short stories first published in 1964. I read a copy of the January 1964 edition by Bantam. I’m sad to report that this particular copy has come to its end. It was not in any good condition when I purchased it from an old mill’s basement a decade ago. After my reading it, there just is not much to salvage. I do not know what to make of the cover art, which is allegedly by Paul Lehr. I have read Gunn’s work before and found it generally hit or miss according to my liking. I really enjoyed Station in Space. The Joy Makers, though, left me underwhelmed.

The book contains ten pieces, however, the first and second are related and ought to be read together, even though originally published over ten years apart. For the most part the stories were quick reads. Unfortunately, there was nothing here that I felt was outstanding or excellent. These are good, serviceable reads for afternoons, though. If you can only read one story from these, select the sixth: “Every Day is Christmas.”

  • The Misogynist – (1952) – 2 stars
  • The Last Word – (1964) – 2 stars
  • Little Orphan Android – (1955) – 3 stars
  • The Stilled Patter – (1956) – 2 stars
  • Skin Game – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Every Day Is Christmas – (1957) – 4 stars
  • The Girls Who Were Really Built – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Survival Policy – (1952) – 3 stars
  • Tsylana – (1956) – 3 stars
  • Feeding Time – (1955) – 3 stars

So, the first story, The Misogynist, and the second story, The Last Word, should probably be read together. Even so, they have not aged well and are a little uncomfortable to read. Honestly, it is probably meant to be witty based on perspectives, but in 2019 it does not come across well. Of note, Gunn had The Misogynist published in November’s issue of Galaxy. Over ten years later The Last Word was written – for this collection.

Little Orphan Android is a better showing than the first two stories. Originally published in 1955 in September’s Galaxy, it feels somewhat like a piggybacking on Asimov’s I, Robot (1950).  This story contains one of the themes that is present in this collection: a future society that is trapped in consumerism and uselessness. I liked this story fairly well, I do think it would make a great made-for-TV release movie. Its interesting and I am sure it could be spiced up by an adept screenwriter. Nearly cyberpunk in its tone.

I did not like The Stilled Patter. However, it does fit in with the theme of a maligned future society.

Skin Game is unique-ish, but Gunn doesn’t pull it off. As with all of the stories in this collection, I feel the setup is there, the execution is okay, but the finish just does not have the snap and pizzazz that it should. So, the same theme Gunn has been toying with in other stories is here, too, but taken off-planet. A future society with consumerism/ownership ideals shuffled around a bit. This time, the point of view is from a crook who is stranded on a planet and their ideas regarding ownership are entirely opposite of what he is accustomed to. Again, the setup is interesting and there is potential. But its only maybe a double. No home run.

Every Day Is Christmas is the story I liked best. It is the theme of consumerism and ownership taken to an utter extreme. I like when writers go bold on ideas like this. One of the thoughts I had while reading this one was a sardonic thought: “Geez, supposed to be futuristic, but maybe its just around the corner; 2025 or something….”  This one is the best of the bunch, in my opinion. It has the most complete feel to it and it works the theme better than the rest of the collection.

The Girls Who Were Really Built is not very good. It paints people in Neosho, Kansas in rather a bad light – both the men and women, that is.  Here are some menfolk, representing a future society, that are being undermined very subtly by being provided what they wish for in wives. They were really built – refers to their seemingly awesome wives who enable the men to better themselves and the world around them, but at the price of a key, valuable item:  new live man.  I see what Gunn was doing here, I just did not care much for it in general.

Survival Policy has a potentially strong story, that gets really difficult at the end. It is a sort of pastiche of the Agatha Christie Poirot and Hastings characters. But what an odd setting and storyline for such characters. They are overdone and very obvious. The motives and the actual plot kind of fail, or, let me just say it is not smoothly worked out. There are some very fun/interesting moments in the story though, just too much going on or something. Its sketchy; I like the pastiche, I like the idea, execution not so good.

The final two stories are somewhat similar. They are definitely the most fun reads, particularly if you enjoy a wee bit of wordplay/semantics, mocking psychoanalysts, and puns. In fact, you can see one wordplay right there on the table of contents. Not sure if that is a spoiler or not. Sorry. Its still a decent read. Tsylana has another odd future society in which “everyone has their place” so as to reduce crime, weed out bad dispositions, etc. But like the rest, there is not a solid clincher; Gunn wins on points, he does not win with a stunning KO!  Feeding time is quick and dirty. Relatively fun while it lasts, which is not very long. I will remember it, but only because it is unique, not because it is excellent.

Overall, its worth a look if you really do not know what else to read. It does read quickly, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory in execution.  Gunn fans will want to read it for completeness sake. Vintage science fiction fans will find value here. I wanted this collection to be a lot better.

mean: 2.6

But I think I will drop down to 2 stars

The Wind From Nowhere

The Wind from NowhereThe Wind From Nowhere by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) was first published as a novel in 1962. However, it was published originally in two parts as “Storm-Wind” in 1961 in New Worlds Science Fiction issue #110 edited by John Carnell.  This is the second novel by Ballard that I have read; I read High-Rise in 2016.

I read the 1966 Berkley Medallion edition with Richard Powers cover art.

This novel is both good and bad, but unfortunately, overall it cannot be rated highly. Ballard disliked, disowned, and denigrated this novel as nothing more than a quickly written piece to make some cash to support his new family. It is Ballard’s first novel and it is probably true (I haven’t read enough Ballard to assess properly) that he improved. I do not imagine most authors want their first published novel to be some choppy entertainment written speedily for whatever money they could sell it for.

Yet Ballard does deserve five stars for the awesomeness of a steadily increasing, totally destructive, all-planet windstorm. He even has this windstorm destroy whole cities and countries and does not shy away from the mega-destruction. When reading about the wind, reading the descriptions and about its effects, it is really terrifying and awesome.

Some of the best parts of this windstorm are that it is unexplained. In the beginning, some characters just assume its localized. Some think it is just a particularly awful storm. And then as infrastructure starts breaking down and the wind speeds increase, its too late to get answers to the why and how, instead the characters (humanity, generally) is busy trying to survive. The lack of knowledge makes the windstorm even more terrifying. We follow the events as the wind is around 55 mph and, toward the end of the novel, somewhere around 500 mph. Unbelievable, but yet so enthralling as a science fiction disaster novel.

However, as a novel, leaving so much unexplained also feels unsatisfying and unfinished. The worst part of the this whole novel is that it seems like Ballard did not know who the main character was or what their story was going to be. Throughout, he just flips around between characters who all seem to be thrown in the plot randomly. Instead of following a character’s path, it gets extremely discordant and random. Following the characters is easily the most miserable part of the novel.

Also, the characters randomly go and attempt to do some stupid, useless thing all together in their heavy armored vehicles. This usually does not work and everyone ends up scattered in other temporary bunkers. In other words: the storyline does not progress, everything is mangled again, and the characters are flip-flopped.

When the novel begins, Donald Maitland is leaving his wife. She is a rich playgirl type who has a new boy on her arm every week. She likes parties and the lifestyle. The husband has quit his job to head for a university in Montreal. Oddly, Maitland becomes the action-hero star of the novel (if there is one), though in the early going he hardly seems capable of what he is written into. He seems like a jilted husband who is wrapped up in his own drama. He is, at best, a bookish academic, it seems.

One of the oddest characters is the character Steve Lanyon. Commander Lanyon is a submarine commander in the US Navy. Perhaps the oddest segment of the novel is how he is sent to Italy to run the countryside on a bizarre mission to acquire the corpse of an American dignitary. Naturally, this fails and just turns into an action scene adventure. But how very odd to have a submarine commander anywhere but water.

And then there is RH. The initials of a millionaire character with the surname Hardoon. Hardoon is eccentric (he has henchmen and a pyramid) and bizarre and on the level of the very “best” Bond villains. He gets written into the plot sideways and has connections with characters, so that he seems somewhat like a secret hand moving in the shadows. When we get the displeasure of meeting him, he is ego-centric and ridiculous and any of the build up regarding what he is about dissipates into nothing. The worst part is that there is no real reason for this character and all his associations to have been written into this novel at all.

Anyway, the characters are awful. However, the actual disaster is exciting and terrifying. So, while this is not a good novel, it is also unique and awesome in its own manner. I cannot really recommend it to readers who love a good, completed story. But for fans of Ballard and/or disaster fiction, this one is worthwhile. Probably those who enjoyed Level 7 by Roshwald or October the First is Too Late by Hoyle would get something out of this one. I wish Ballard had not been so angry with it – it really deserved to be re-written and republished. For fans of disaster and over-the-top scenarios.

2 stars

Star Surgeon

Star Surgeon Dean Ellis

Cover art by Dean Ellis

Star Surgeon by James White was first published in 1963.  It is the second book in the Sector General series. I read the first book, Hospital Station, which is an episodic collection of short pieces about the events that go on at a space-station hospital. I have read a couple of White’s books. This Sector General series is all right so far. I feel like it has a very narrow sort of audience.  Basically, the stories are very similar to what would happen if you mixed Babylon 5 with any of the prime time TV hospital shows like (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med, etc.).  So, if the reader is a fan of medical/hospital drama, then they will probably be more inclined to like this series.

This novel was a novel. What I am saying is that it is not engrossing or complicated or outrageous. And it is not abysmal or horrific or wretched. It is frankly… just a novel. I cannot even say that it is entertaining because I do not feel that really describes this storyline. At best I can say this novel was interesting. The trials and tribulations of a doctor in a space-station-hospital who has to deal with an immense variety of lifeforms who seek medical attention is either going to interest readers or it is not. I found it very laid-back and mellow reading. In this story, the hospital actually falls under attack by the “Empire” – a galactic collection not a member of the “Federation”  (who operate the hospital), but White’s writing just made the battles/threats seem very distant and non-engaging.

Well, the reader spends most of his time with Dr. Conway as he is working through the logistics that a space-hospital in pandemonium would undergo.  As in the first book, Conway can be annoying and tedious. He is definitely not a larger-than-life superhero type of character. The book is written one-hundred percent from his view, so the reader gets to spend a lot of time with him.  Unfortunately, there are points when he can be utterly wearisome. The classification of the lifeforms gets a little tedious, too. So, lifeforms are categorized into four-letter designations, largely based on their environmental needs. Throughout the whole book the reader is continually assaulted with these designations.  I really wonder if White was able to keep them consistent and accurate. It would take a truly boredom-loving individual to go through and check each mention.

All of this may seem like I disliked the novel. I did not. To be honest, if you read the first book in the series, you know precisely what you are getting into if you start the second. I expect the third to be similar. While I will not be giving this five stars, this story is nothing more or less than I expected; sometimes that is sufficient.

The subplot with the female nurse, Murchison, is hideous. Conway has the hots for her and she is playing hard to get and then a war gets in the middle of their ridiculous relationship. It just drags on and on. Murchison is also written as if she is a competent nurse, but at the end of the day, she is rather daft and to be hunted and hounded like a rare albino deer rather than as an individual with personhood.

The war basically started from misinformation and it ends with the same. The two sides basically realize that war is bad. (Remember, from book one, Conway is an adamant pacifist.) The soldiers on both sides come to form a ragged peace after they come to experience that what they were told about the enemy is not true. The end.

2 stars

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea

Sailor Fell Grace MishimaThe Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea by Yukio Mishima (a pen-name) was first published in 1963, but published in English in 1965. The translation of the title has been the cause of much debate.  Allegedly, the Japanese title is something like “Tugging in the Afternoon” or “Afternoon Shiptowing,” referring to a tugboat, perhaps. The translator confesses in a memoir that he consulted his publisher and also with Mishima. Mishima suggested the English title be a lengthy mess. His personality would indeed have preferred such an elaborate title, but it does not mean it was the accurate choice. I have said this previously, I really think Mishima’s works need new translations. It is not that I can bring any scholarly criticism to the current ones, but I am sure I would love to see what another translator could provide. Anyway, this is the fifth piece by Mishima that I have read. I confess that I did not and still do not have much interest in reading the other works by him. I probably will, but it will not be anything I look forward to.

What to say about the tagline at the top of the book cover? “A novel of the homicidal hysteria that lies latent in the Japanese character….”  Wow. This reflects that Western fear-hate of things Far East in such a hideous way. Can you imagine seeing that in 2019? Well, and the terrible part of it is that I think Mishima would have delighted in the ugliness of the tagline.

Mishima is trying to shock readers again. His issues with his father are present, his issues with women are present, his issues with society are present….. Mishima had lots of troubles and they are all on display in this novel.  If you read any synopsis or review of this novel, it seems that it is all “figured out.” By this I mean, readers have decided on all the themes, symbolism, and meanings in the novel.  I am not saying they are right or wrong – but I dislike when a novel is dissected in the same cavalier and disinterested way that the characters in this novel dissect a kitten.  It feels like it is a dissection done just to prove the already expected outcome as opposed to an open-minded, possibility-filled discovering.

The thirteen-year old, Noboru, lives with his widowed mother. He is intelligent and most of the time disgusted with life around him. This draws him nearer to the group of kids who have all developed the same revulsion for the inauthentic and deluded practices that they see around them.  Obviously, some of this is Mishima’s disgust toward the Westernization of Japan post-WW2. However, this is not, as I see it, the only source for this.  Mishima fancies himself a philosophical writer – digging at the “really real.”  Much of his life was spent among fiction, actors, film, theatre, etc. At the end of the day, Mishima is not a philosopher or a scientist – he is a writer. As such, demonstrated in all of his writings, he is also the most unreliable narrator/storyteller I have ever read.

Mishima blathers and struts around and makes outrageous statements until suddenly some of the most beautiful and insightful paragraphs appear.

He never cried, not even in his dreams, for hard-heartedness was a point of pride.  A large iron anchor withstanding the corrosion of the sea and scornful of the barnacles and oysters that harass the hulls of ships, sinking polished and indifferent through heaps of broken glass, toothless combs, bottle caps, and prophylactics into the mud at harbor bottom – that was how he liked to imagine his heart. Someday he would have an anchor tattooed on his chest. – pg 13

Mishima is soon back to proving how tough he is, how “woke” he is, how frivolous and un-Nietszche everyone else is. Whenever I read Mishima I have only one comment:  ‘you are the most inauthentic of them all, aren’t you?’ He pushes the limits with raw and ugly scenes. He makes everything awkward and chafed.

So, it’s easy to see him as an approval-seeking, self-deluded punk who loved to make the image of himself seem so very really real. His writing sometimes has the opposite effect of what it seems he expected it to have. Until every once in awhile, something so heartfelt, intense, and beautiful shows up that the reader cannot help but think Mishima must be anything but a troubled punk.

Noboru is a difficult character to even read about because he is at once so insightful and yet so self-centered. He is very merciless and while he deludes himself into thinking that he is genuine, he is often found speaking/acting contrary to his true state because he wants to manipulate others. So, he is as condescending and inauthentic as the people he is so infuriated with. However, every time he thinks or speaks of the sea a wondrous change comes over him and it is almost the joy and expansiveness that one wishes he would have built his personality upon. Is that a trait of Noboru? I think, rather, it is a power of the sea itself.

The Chief (the leader of the pack of youngsters) is nearly the same character as Kashiwagi who features in The Temple of the Golden Pavilion. He comes from a wealthy family, is notably intelligent, and he speaks with sneering and smirking. He likes to seem mysterious or noir and is often derisive to his fellow mates.  Indeed, while other readers may be fascinated by the characters Ryuji or Noboru, its really The Chief that is most telling about Mishima qua Mishima.  Maybe a biographer would enjoy ferreting out possible suspects and presenting likely candidates for someone in the author’s life who is represented by this character.

He hadn’t been able to explain his ideas of glory and death, or the longing and the melancholy pent up in his chest, or the other dark passions choking in the ocean’s swell. Whenever he tried to talk about these things, he failed.  -pg 34

This novel, not for the faint or even most readers, to be honest, contains both ‘styles’ of writing that make up a Mishima novel. The profane and repugnant as well as the beautiful and the substantial. Uniquely Mishima.

2 stars