2 Stars

Concrete Island

Concrete IslandConcrete Island by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) is the third Ballard novel I have read. It was published in 1974, I read the Picador 2018 edition with the Introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I did not read the introduction in this novel, because I dislike Neil Gaiman’s writing/perspectives a lot.  I understand he is a strong, prolific, and well-liked author, but I found it just so “expected” that yes he would write the introduction to a Ballard novel.

And from what I have already said, it is probably strongly noticeable that I am not Ballard’s greatest fan. I actually enjoy Ballard’s wordsmithing. I like his writing style, although I struggle a bit at how to describe it.  Here I am not talking about the tools of literary art, but more the actual “penmanship.” What I mean is, Ballard writes in a sturdy, heavy tone. Its exceedingly erudite, but not long-winded. It can be descriptive and use metaphors, but somehow it is also sparing or clipped. So, while he utilizes metaphors and overall satirical themes, I think the whole edifice of his novels are held by that same very sturdy and solid tone.

I have read three Ballard novels and definitely do not claim to be any sort of expert reader of his.  I do know that I feel like the three main characters I met are all the same person. Perhaps they are:  Donald Maitland, Robert Laing, Robert Maitland are their names.   All three of these characters are very independent personalities; outwardly cold and distant, projecting a sense of strength and power. I would not call them the stereotypical masculine archetype, though.  I feel that their projection of strength and power comes directly from their detachment and disassociation from society.   They are calculating, antisocial types.

In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland is a successful architect. He is thirty-five years old and driving his Jaguar home; he has exceeded a safe speed and has crashed it on page one of the novel. On page three the question is already asked, “Why had he driven so fast?” In the next paragraph:

Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost willfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalization. – pg. 3

The readers have just gotten to the bottom of page three and we already know so much about Maitland. And, frankly, none of what is learned is entirely admirable or virtuous.  From this point on, all the critics and readers and experts can spend a lot of time dissecting this novel. For example, as a representation of a white-collar, amoral class of society, does Maitland speed because he is recklessly thinking “nothing bad happens to me or my kind”? Or, as suggested, does he willfully (almost subconsciously) cause the crash -as a sign that he is aware of his “white-collar, amoral class” and somehow this crash represents that class crashing?  Or does he crash because of some warped judgment that selects masochism over a fake façade of domestic sufficiency? Or is there an understated, but fierce desire to reject contemporary society and return to some primative and base survival-mode?

Is this 1970s “new wave” novel just 156 pages of revolt?

I think much is made of Ballard’s dystopian and tragic stories. I also think the symbolism and satire within these stories is at once very good and yet very heavy-handed. I think what a lot of readers love about Ballard is that he has provided so much fodder for them to make even more fodder. After all, there is an industry about this.  I am not always a huge fan of satire because though it can be exciting and counter-culture, I find that most of the time it turns bitter and caustic and feels like instead of subverting the society it aims at, it ends up devouring itself in its own venom.

As I read it, I did think it was a rewrite of a Jules Verne novel.  It is not and I have not read the Verne novel recently enough to even consider making any sort of comparisons. However, I feel a strong enough connection between these two novels that I wanted to mention it here.  Surely, all the readers of this blog are utterly familiar with Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1875)? LOL

The simple conception of this novel, the character’s situtation, the setting for the story – all as “island” is really significant, as well. Dozens of papers and opinions could be written on this matter. Naturally, one considers an island both as something isolated and surrounded by something else, as-well-as a pseudo-magical place – a getaway or a reserve. Sometimes Ballard plays with the standard definition, sometimes he uses it metaphorically here. Maitland thinks himself the island.  Of course, eventually, as the memory and significance of Maitland’s normal life starts to pale and fade, the reader is also supposed to consider that whatever happens here on this Island is actually the “really-real,” and the other outside world is the fake insubstantial stuff.

On page fifty two: “In some way, this act of concentration proved that he could dominate the island.” I think this is the first statement of dominance. Merely a page later this is reworked as Maitland thinks:

Nonetheless, his success in building even this shabby shelter had revived him, rekindling his still unbroken determination to survive.  As he was already well aware, it was this will to survive, to dominate the island and harness its limited resources, that now seemed a more important goal than escaping. – pg. 54

The desire to dominate, the notion that might-makes-right, and that this domination is success fills this novel – and maybe the other novels I have read by Ballard, too.  The concept is there throughout the storyline – if Maitland crashed purposively, then he had some “dominance” over Fate and Physics. If Maitland starts viewing his inability to escape as a desire to stay and become dominant, he shows his overcoming the situation/scenario in a different light. Subversive, maybe, revolutionary, maybe.  It gets especially convoluted if we consider that Maitland sometimes views himself as the island and so, does he also dominate himself? Yes, in the segments where Ballard writes about Matiland overcoming his physical ailments.

How much can be read into the idea that those who build are also those who dominate?  Several times in this short novel, Maitland “builds” (or has something built).  Is that the ultimate sign of his dominance?

The speed with which Maitland moves from wealthy architect to primitive is part of Ballard’s worldview, I think.  Obviously, everything about this novel is echoed or parallel to the novel High-Rise.  Honestly, it is kind of the same novel. It takes the same survival-satire-social subversion and instead of taking place in a high rise building, it takes place in the center of the “traffic” of normal society.

Anyway, there is a lot to wonder about in this novel, though none of it is necessarily positive or engaging. Most of it is dark and uncomfortable.  Ballard’s prose (being somewhat spare and cool) takes some of the sharpness off of these ruminations, however, at its core, this story nothing gentle and warming. Also, since I have read other Ballard, this novel is also nothing new and exciting.  I feel like Ballard wrote the same story and while I appreciate this, believe it or not, I am not very impressed, either.

The concepts are worthwhile to explore, but at the end of this, I feel it was an intellectual exercise of an expression of discontent with society. I am sorry that Ballard is discontented. It was not horrible to spend a few minutes reading his satire, but I am not going to remain there, on these isolations, with him.

2 stars

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainThe Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was first published in Japan as a book in 1954.  I am not an expert in anything, but I try my best to keep on learning and thinking! So, when I say that I think that this novel is one of Kawabata’s middle years works, take it with a grain of salt. I have read two of Kawabata’s previous novels and I enjoyed them.  This one felt, to me, like it was a turning point or a change for Kawabata.  I have no idea if that is true or not.

The novel takes place mostly in Kamakura, which is a city southwest of Tokyo. Kamakura is a very old city with tons of significant history, but in this novel it sounds mainly like a seaside rural town.  Everyday a couple characters take the train to Tokyo.   I looked at Google Maps and in theory you could drive or take a train to Tokyo (city center) in about an hour.  This works with the novel, it just seems farther away when I look at the map.  The author himself moved from Tokyo to Kamakura in 1934.

I once read this passage by Professor Van C. Gessel that stuck with me as a sort of rudimentary aid in understanding Japanese modern literature and I think it applies to The Sound of the Mountain. Gessel wrote:

Such a luxury is not afforded the reader of Japanese literature.  I realize this flies in the face of contemporary Western literary critical thinking, which insists that a text be surgically removed like a tumor from the author’s being for discrete dissection.  Works which cannot survive the operation are declared D.O.A.  Any mention of the author’s life brings cries that Oedipus’ mother is being blamed for his sins.  Nonetheless, I stand by my contention that Japanese fiction is written with the presumption that it will not be entirely severed from the life of the writer, and that readers will know something of the relationship between creator and creation. This is all part and parcel of the fundamentally autobiographical approach to literature that has been an integral part of the Japanese tradition since its inception.  – pg. 8, Preface, Three Modern Novelists, Kodansha International (1993)

Definitely, I think I have seen this approach in what little Japanese modern fiction I have already read and I think it is probably true, to an extent, in this novel.  The location in Kamakura is an obvious example, but at this point the author was fifty-five years old and probably some of the main character’s thoughts and feelings are autobiographical. The main character is Shingo Ogata who is sixty-two years old in the novel. 

The story is mainly told from Shingo’s perspective, in a sense. It focuses on his daily routines and his dreams and his thoughts about his family and the goings on in the neighborhood. Kawabata’s spare haiku-like prose is always praised for its style and beauty.  In this novel, however, I am not sure if it is Kawabata’s prose or just the mannerism of Shingo. Shingo is feeling old and his having difficulty with his memory.  He seems to have frequent waves of nostalgia and sentimentality.  He, in his age, is remembering and longing for times past – and he even questions the accuracy of those memories.  He purposely allows his mind to conflate those past times and people and events with current events. His thoughts are somber, confused, frustrated, and sometimes morose.  Shingo’s very thoughts are unsettled and peppered with mundane facts or tautologies. Very much like the spare matter-of-fact prose with which Kawabata writes, generally.

We all live, now, in a furious time.  Everything, literally everything, is a manic, wild flurry of information and action.  If, in 1954, Kawabata’s prose was subtle and haiku-like, reading it now has made those times seem even more distant and even rather impossible.  Shingo often just looks at things or has time to just….. think vague thoughts.  He thinks about a fallen chestnut, a plum blossom, a locust, etc.  These singular items blend into the more pertinent life relationships he has with his family and co-workers. And throughout my reading of this novel, I was frequently envious of how characters would “go and look at things.”  Nowadays nobody goes and sees the trees for the express purpose of seeing trees blossom. Literally, going to a place to see some natural and mundane thing is unheard of today. I cannot even imagine anyone saying, “oh, after supper, let’s all walk out to the wherever to watch the sun set from there” or “let’s walk past the empty field down the block because the weeds are flowering.”  Do not get me wrong, please – I truly, deeply, enjoy this. I am the one who wants to go look at “a tree” or “a nothing much at all.”  I just wish I had more time to do this. Frankly, in this novel, I think the days of the characters must be 30-40 hours long. How do they have time for newspapers, train travel, meals, tea time all the time, arguments, and then nature-gazing?!

I have written this review, thus far, as if I really “got into” and enjoyed and understood this novel. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. This is probably a very good book for some readers. But this is absolutely not a book “for me.” It did not work for me, it was nearly incomprehensible to me, and I cannot call it a good book from my perspective. I mention all of this to let everyone know that I know that my opinions are not dogma. I fully expect that there are readers who very much enjoyed this book and can easily explain/defend their admiration.

But for me this was a struggle. It even came with a very chilling electric-shock at the end (pg. 270), which was very relevant (again) *to me.*

Things I am horrible at (and “horrible” is a kind and light way of phrasing it): family. People. People in my family. Peopleing. Familying. This book, however, is 100% about family and people and relationships. Frankly, I disliked almost all of the characters in this novel. The only character that I might have liked a bit is the old woman, Shingo’s wife, Yasuko.  The thing is, I cannot even explain why I liked her best, perhaps it is because she is the most wry and grounded of all of the characters. She often struck me as smarter and sharper than any of the characters think. She deserves her own novel.

I really… I really just feel like I needed the floor plan to the house – to Shingo’s house, okay? Because, to me, the story feels claustrophobic and tedious and cramped. It feels like everyone is constantly in each other’s faces and places. And I need space, I want to breathe; back the heck up, characters!

I guess Kawabata is a really good storyteller. Because even in this translated edition, in this storyline that I utterly cannot comprehend or engage with, I was still immersed enough to actually now be complaining about the closeness of the family home and the struggles of time and the tedious human weather.

There is only one segment that I would give high rating to.  It is this art appreciation moment in the chapter “The Scar” in which Kawabata has Shingo thinking about an ink wash by artist Watanabe Kazan (1793 – 1841). Shingo sees this artwork at a friend’s house and is still thinking about the ink painting and the corresponding verse. The five or six paragraphs in this segment are utterly beautiful, insightful, and skillfully composed.  They contain layers of meaning and show a brilliance that is absent, I think, in the rest of the novel. 

Shingo knew of Kazan only that he had been impoverished and that he had committed suicide, but he could see that this “Crow in the Stormy Dawn” gave expression to Kazan’s feelings at a certain point in his life.

No doubt the friend had put the painting up to match the season.

Shingo ventured an opinion:  “A very strong-minded bird. Not at all likeable.”

“Oh? I used to look at it during the war.  Damned crow, I used to think. Damned crow it is. But it has a quietness about it. If Kazan had to kill himself for no better reasons than he had, then you and I probably ought to kill ourselves time after time.  It’s a question of the age you live in.”

“We waited for the dawn, too.” – pg. 209

This, and associated paragraphs, thrill me. I love how the Japanese of old had a connection between the décor of their house, let us say, and the natural seasons.  I love how, in this example, the friend has a painting of a crow – and does not seem to actually like it – the painting is displayed maybe because it is poignant, not because it is preferred. How unlike Western aesthetic, then and now!  I also like how Kawabata was able to utilize this painting in his narrative of Shingo’s ruminations on death and age. 

However, other than these brief moments, the novel is a loss for me. I think I am supposed to have opinions and feelings and ideas about the characters and their situations, but I do not. I do not even know what Kawabata is getting it – though I would guess maybe its about how Shingo is unable to manage the roles of the people in his family. Or something.  I mostly got the impression that the characters are pitiful and helpless.  The novel is nearly incomprehensible to me. A book about nothing and its annoying humans. It made me sad and frustrated.

2 stars

Signs and Portents

Signs and PortentsI grabbed a paperback of Signs and Portents by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, among a bunch of other books, the last time I was in Atlanta.  I think the copy of Signs and Portents was maybe .50¢.  It is a collection of ten stories by Yarbro that are somewhat difficult to classify in a precise genre.  Maybe they lean toward horror or science fiction/fantasy, but I think identifying them like that would mislead potential readers.   So, normally I would not have picked up this book.  However, I had to remind myself that I am supposed to be reading from a more expanded panorama and I saw it was cheap and threw it on the stack of books I had already collected.  Why would I normally not read this book? Well, the scary graveyard 80s cover art, for one thing.  I do not normally read books with those covers.  Yes, very superficial.  Secondly, Yarbro is around in science fiction/fantasy and I do not have any interest in her stories and she seems a little “far out,” maybe? I am not sure. In any case, this just is not a book I would gravitate to.

Sadly, after having read the stories, a fiesty part of me wants to exclaim that this proves my point and that my instincts were correct!  Honestly, the ten stories averaged out to a two-star rating, but there were plenty of single star and two star stories and maybe I was being somewhat generous with a three-star here and there.  So, it actually took a lot out of me to read through this, because it was just not very good.  

  • Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Depth of Focus – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Space/Time Arabesque – (1978) – 1 star
  • Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – (1981) – 3 stars
  • Best Interest – (1978) – 3 stars
  • The Ghosts at Iron River – (1973) – 1 star
  • Fugitive Colors – (1979) – 1 star
  • Coasting – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The Arrows – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The End of the Carnival – (1984) – 3 stars

This collection was first published in 1987.  It contains a variety of stories that have a diverse range of settings.  It is my belief that the two best stories in the collection are Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival.  In fact, I feel any interested reader would do well to just skip everything in the collection but those two stories.  However, I want to also say I am not just picking these two stories “because they are the best of the bunch.”  They are, actually, quite decent reads irrespective of the surrounding stories. 

Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ is predictable, but its a decent story to start the collection.  Its really not a terrible story, but it is very predictable and a little tedious.  Even if something is predictable, it can be suspenseful, but somehow that suspense was absent.  Still, its a good one to settle the reader in to the book. A modern, mundane setting in which an unseen entropy is at work.

Depth of Focus is quite unique.  It, again, is a modern setting, but quite noir and maybe that is what earned it two stars instead of just one.  I liked the pacing and the way the time in the story was depicted.  I also liked disliking the main character. Unfortunately, the ending just fell down and maybe it could have had a little moral adage or a provoking assertion, but instead it was flat. The end. I did mention it has a noir feel to it – and I did like a certain turn of phrase:  “…there was no conviction in his words and his eyes were like chips of stone.” (page 24).  The ‘chips of stone’ to describe eyes really caught me. I liked this wordworking.

Space/Time Arabesque is not really a story. Its got a few alternative history lines/paragraphs. It feels too weak; like an idea that could have been so much better, even if we kept its choppy stylings.  I liked only one “snippet” in the thing, which involved an alternate “Sherlock Holmes.”

Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme is definitely the best piece in the collection.  It is well-written and feels like a finished work from start to finish.  It is both shocking and horrific and yet, weirdly, endearing and sympathy-drawing.  It is a rural setting wherein the main character is a teenage girl.  The girl, Amy, evenutally is the pivot of the story when she turns from lovesick, to stubborn, to empowered, to vengeful.  Its a story that has elements of the shift from traditional to modern and from patriarchical to otherwise. There is actually a lot one can unpack from this story. The ending is somewhat shocking – you can see it coming, but its got the twist and victory anyway.  Recommended for readers who like revenge stories, coming-of-age stories, witches (herb women), and nighttime forest adventures. 

Best Interest is a good story to a point. I hestitated on giving it three-stars – that feels like a gift.  It is smutty and the characters are snarly and vile.  It is easily the most obviously science fiction in the collection because of the main gimmick, which is a household “computer” that has residents’ best interests at heart.  And in 1987 it was probably more interesting than now – “now” when Google, Siri, Alexa, Cortana, et al. are a chorus in our world. No, it does deserve the three-stars.  The ending is rueful, black humor, which offsets the somewhat unpleasant reality of ill-tempered future humans.

The Ghosts at Iron River and Fugitive Colors are bad. Really bad. The one is a total mess – as if it wanted to be a noir rural crime story and then turns into a tribal dispute, which degenerates into bickering and then just gets worse until the ending happens and its pointless.  Fugitive Colors is maybe an attempt to write very meta…. esoteric… science fiction from deep, deep space. But it just feels painful and tedious as heck. I am surprised I survived reading these, my word!

Coasting is a story I would likely enjoy. The probability of me enjoying a story that takes place “at sea” is high. I really liked the setting and the problems that the main character faces and the descriptions are vivid and, honestly, quite frightening. However, the horror is ruined by awful introspective drivel about the character’s relationships with his ex-wife and his son and it kills the suspense and all the work of the wordsmithing. Still, it probably is worth reading for the setting. 

The Arrows is also fairly predictable and unsurprising, and yet seems like it is so plausible.  It feels realistic and maybe has a perspective of artist-painters that just seems to stereotype them. The unique thing amidst all the predictability was the subject of the main character’s painting.  It works well with the story, but it still feels like an unique and interesting selection by the author.  Literally, this one is a “graphic horror.” 

The End of the Carnival is a heckuva way to end the collection.  Once again the unique and unusual setting for this one really does a lot of the work for the story.  It is also one of the more “completed and polished” in the collection.  It is a revenge tale, but the revenge is also bittersweet.  Sorrows all over the place here, some little twist per page to make the story interesting and unpredictable. The main character is strong-willed and stubborn and her rôle is dynamic.  She takes ownership and she stands up to injustice.  It is another story worth reading for the unusual perspective and storyline that deals with an accident at a power company and the victims/sufferers that are left in that accident’s wake. Not a story full of joy, though.

Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival are worth reading because they are unique perspectives with lots of unusual elements.  And they are the ones that feel the most put-together and established. I do not know if I would suggest readers go out of their way to get these two stories read.  However, these stories will probably be enjoyed by readers who are looking for a little more than the usual, dull and predictable storylines.

2 stars

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

A Matter of Motive

A Matter of MotiveSince I am reading crime lately, I read this novel sometime last week. It is a police procedural crime novel that is self-published/ small-print/ print-on-demand.  No, I had never read the author before and it was a total random pull.  A Matter of Motive by Margot Kinberg was first released in 2020 and is the first in the Patricia Stanley series (of which, this is the only book so far).  My review of this novel needs to apply all of the self-imposed structure that I felt necessary to explain (poorly) in the previous review.  That is to say, this novel is not from a major publishing house and and I want to speak as utterly plainly as I can about it.

The novel is a police procedural. The death occurs within the first five pages or so.  Ron Clemons is driving in his car to work and he is overcome by pain and has to pull over into a lot and he expires.   We meet our detective team as the tow truck is there beside the dark blue Infinity on Lancaster Avenue in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Patricia and Luke are the police on the scene; they are members of the Malvern Police Department.

Really Paoli boasts a population of about 6,000. It is a small location on the western outskirts of Philly.  Its a small skip from Kay-Oh-Pee (King of Prussia) if you have a referent for that. I’m fairly comfortable with this area – from Reading down to Lancaster – though I have actually never been to Valley Forge. (I have zero interest in Americana). Does Malvern actually have a separate police station/department? I sure don’t know. The two police officers assigned to this case are young and young cops.

First problem with the novel – exactitude of the police ranks. So, if it was actually fully stated and I missed it, I guess I will owe the author an apology.  But I really do not recall a clear and defined statement of these two cops. So, we do learn this is their first murder case.  In the first few pages, Luke feels the need to mention the police academy. I have no idea should I call them officers or detectives? Or? Because its not entirely clear from the novel. And then if they are BOTH new hires/promotions, well, most locations of 6,000 residents are not going to be hiring at that level. I mean, the mention of the Academy – who would even mention that except a young cop? And yes, its perfectly fine to be a young cop, but is it fine to be a young cop and a detective?

The inexperience of the cops plays a rôle throughout the novel.  Patricia and Luke make some “small errors” and their boss scolds them, but also tries to guide them to correct procedure.   Definitely, there is a sense that both cops are hard-working and in their eagerness, make errors in judgment. 

Second problem with the novel – inexperienced cops versus juvenile rendering.  So, its reasonable to have inexperienced cops.  Indeed, I like that about this novel. I am somewhat bored of the trope in novels that uses the grizzled, ornery cop on the verge of retirement that bends the rules at times. Enough of every cop being the veteran expert.  Its refreshing to read a novel that has younger cops learning the ropes.  However, the balance between inexperienced and clueless was not achieved in this work.  We have detectives/cops making errors – to be expected, but errors that if they had spent a moment in a police academy or taken a class in criminal justice, they would not make. So, I applaud the idea of using inexperienced cops, but this needed to be more polished in execution.

 Third problem with the novel – this is a police procedural.  In essence, this has come to refer to any fiction work that focuses on the procedure and steps that the police take in order to solve crimes.  Certainly, in such a novel, the reader expects to be a passive “ride-along” with the cops and follow the case as the cops discover information.  However, the procedure these cops use is a bit underdeveloped. It goes like this:  interview people, go back to cop shop and tell boss. Boss tells cops to go interview more people. Repeat. And repeat again. And with one particular character (the wife of the deceased) they practically torture this woman; not a day goes by that they aren’t on her doorstep.  What’s worse is that they go there, ask two or three questions, and then leave. I mean, this is partially tied into that “inexperienced cop” situation. However, even the dullest blades in the drawer would make better use of their detecting.

Here are some things that this novel does really well:  the thoughts and feelings of the deceased’s wife, Rachel Clemons.  The author really wrote this character well and by “well” I mean very authentically. I feel like this character is utterly realistic and believeable.  Similarly, the tension between some of the characters at the business where the main character worked is done really well.  In fact, for the most part, characters are authentic and understood. It does not surprise me that the whole of this novel is based on “motive.”  The author is skilled at people.  There is even a subplot of Patricia’s relationship drama – I do not give a rip about that storyline, but that is not to say that others might not like this sort of thing. I just do not care about romance/relationship subplots and drama, so I am not going to assess whether its well written or not.

After the halfway point, the reader is lured into really disliking a couple of characters.  This is more of the skill the author has with working with “people-ization.”  Just because a character might be very dislikeable, does not necessarily mean they are the murderer.  And sometimes intentions, some good and some bad, cannot be forced to match a crime. 

I enjoyed the book, though I did get tired of going round and round re-interviewing the same people with these cops.  I really liked the feeling that Patricia and Luke make errors, but are super keen to grow from them and not repeat them. Self-corrective and productive.  A lot of the time, I feel like authors make very stubborn characters that even though they know better or are capable of improvement, just repeatedly do the same dumb things. 

Overall, a light-read, nothing that is deeply intellectual or that will require strenuous effort.  The author has a lot of skill with characters and people. But the author needs more of the knowledge of the profession/roles of the law enforcement profession.  Since I finished this one, I am 50/50 on whether I would read another in the series or not. 

2 stars

Beyond This Horizon

115409I finished another book for Vintage Science Fiction Month. Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein (1948). I read the Signet/New American 1979 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  I have read some science fiction since I started this blog, but never have I read any Heinlein.  I run into conversations, lists, topics related to Heinlein a lot on the internet; he seems nearly as talked about as Asimov.  However, I have never really felt drawn to read his novels.  So, it has taken quite awhile to work up to reading one – and I have “Vintage Science Fiction Month” to thank as a motivation.

As expected from various snippets read here and there, this one was good and bad. The good was okay and workable. The bad was really quite awful. It was rather a slog to read, but I’ve read worse. I will not be recommending this to anyone, really, except maybe the true hardcore science fiction addict. I rate it two of five stars, but I am glad I read it. I mean, there are few books that I actually (honestly) regret reading.  All of that being said, a much better review from 2013 can be found here:  Beyond This Horizon review.  For the most part, I agree with it and bless the man for having spent that much time typing out his thoughts on this clunker.

I’m no expert on Heinlein’s writing/thoughts and sure do not want to be. The author is frustrating and at points ridiculous.  However, he does earn (based solely on this novel, mind you) a begrudging respect because he did not write a fluffy turd of a novel.  Sadly, at times it is somewhat unclear if this actually qualifies as a novel.  Facts: this was first published in magazine-serial format and this was early in his career.  If you asked me what this novel is about, you know – in that general bookstore conversation sort of way – I would probably not be able to give you an answer. It really does not have a decent plot. So, either the thing is plotless, overly forced in its plot, or unfortunately and ill-advisedly mashed together. 

This is an author who obviously values science in his science fiction.  He does work hard at making his ideas “scientific.”  Unfortunately, at this point in his career, he was not an engaging writer. So those hefty segments of science are really tedious and dull.  No, as a reader, we should be open and care a bit about what the author is saying, even if it is a bit of an “info-dump.”  Except by the tenth page when you are starting to skip past paragraphs “accidentally…..”

I say segments of science and let me be clear, Heinlein was drilling us in some theories in statistics, physics, genetics, and economics. It gets really dry in parts. I followed as best I could (I admit my heart was not fully into it) and, sure, some of it is interesting to a point – particularly when you consider this is from 1942.
vintage-sf-badge

The best parts of the novel involve the underground society that actually seeks to indoctrinate and train up members in a secret society in order to actively pursue armed revolution. The actual revolution is so outrageously ridiculous it is tough to read through. Heinlein, for some bizarre reason, wrote the actual scenes in the most deadpan non-thrilling way possible. I mean, it was the dullest and most robotic revolution I have come across. Ridiculous.

Worst part of the novel? Any time the characters interact with or discuss women. It is cringe-worthy and awkward. And I am certain that criticisms focusing on these points are available all over the internet, so I do not care to examine them any further here. 

The rest of the book is peppered with ideas and elements that go nowhere, are there for no reason, do not have a real explanation, or just seem like whims that Heinlein felt like mentioning. The society of this far future novel is mainly genetically engineered. The people do not experience illnesses. They all seem to have conquered economics in some mysterious way, yet remain consumers and still work and actually have finanacial management. 

Society is armed and dangerous – and they act with an outdated pseudo-chivalrous manner. Duels are normal but Heinlein did not develop the duelling/mores protocols properly. (My favorite scene is, as it is everyone’s, the famous scene in the restaurant early on in the novel where a main character manages to flip his seafood over a railing to a table on the first floor and a bizarre interaction of exaggerated politeness occurs.)  There is a fascinating segment in chapter twelve regarding football. Considering reading it in 1948 and then considering the milieu of football now, this segment is probably most worth reading. Its cynical and amusing.

My biggest complaint with this messy novel is the characters’ names. It is so difficult for me to read books in which major characters all have names that start with the same letters. I literally lose track instantly. In this one there is a Mordan and a Monroe and they are different people and I could never keep the names straight. 

Well, the thing probably should have been forcibly stopped after chapter thirteen, if it had to be published at all. I am glad I read it. I am glad I will not re-read it! Recommended for no one.  Historians and science fiction maniacs may find some value in reading it. 

2 stars

Vintage Science Fiction Month:

https://littleredreviewer.wordpress.com/vintage-scifi-not-a-challenge/

Vintage Science Fiction Month (Twitter feed): https://twitter.com/VintageSciFi_

Very Important Corpses

I have read one of Simon R. Green’s Ishamael Jones series novels the last two Decembers. I continued with that this year – even though it has not been a “reading” year. For many, they utilized the lockdowns and quarantines for reading; unfortunately, I just did not get a chance to read. I am fortunate in that my household has stayed healthy. Anyway, I finished Very Important Corpses (2017) before Christmas Day, but I have not been able to write a review. I did want to get this one in, such as it is, before the New Year.

I like this series, although this novel was admittedly not as good as the previous. Maybe the novelty is wearing off? Difficult to say, but I think this one just was not very good. I found Penny to be a little less likeable. But I like the settings, the locked-rooms, the supernatural/spy mash-up. I enjoy the whop ’em, chop ’em storyline. So, while I will never say that these are highbrow literature, they work for Decembers.

The interesting character in this one is the Major Domo. She is a well-developed character (this can be taken in several senses). Readers will enjoy meeting her, being frustrated by her, and being amused by her antics and responses. The other characters are rather what-you-see-is-what-you-get folk. Nothing altogether interesting or original.

In this novel it seems that we learn quite a bit more about the Organisation – and Ishamael’s past work. I say “it seems,” because at the end of the novel, it does seem sketchy and like we were told a lot of nothing that was wrapped in a bow. Again, that’s the nature of this goofy-series. Its not something any reader is going to really puzzle over and needs to come to terms with. Besides, telling us nothing lets the author have a lot of freedom to keep all these books coming right along! I think there are nine total in the series as of my writing this.

I am not going to lie. I did not write many reviews because WordPress changes to the editor have really turned me off. I agree WordPress is the top internet blog site. However, I just really don’t have the time or inclination to re-learn how to do every little thing every time some kanban-infected I.T. junkie kiddo decides THIS is the WAY. I know I sound grumpy; I write in beautiful cursive and my elementary school was a fallout shelter. However, the desire to find the way to, say, align text next to the book cover image is absent. It used to be ‘click’ right there. Now? Who knows. Who cares? In other news, my 2020 Ford truck has an APP for MY PHONE…. the dealership called and nagged me to activate it. I realized it was pointless to explain to the young chap: I really have no interest in such things.

So, amidst this sort of world, a little Ishamel Jones can be a nice diversion. I am glad I read this one even if it is not as good as the rest. Definitely, next December, I will be reading the next.

2 stars

The Black Ice

The Black IceUtterly selected, from the uncomfortably vast to-be-read-pile, at random, imagine my amusement when this book has bullfighting scenes in it. Heh. Two books in a row with bullfighting. The Black Ice by Michael Connelly is the second novel in the famous Harry Bosch series. It was first published in 1993, I read the first book in the series in 2009. (I gave The Black Echo 3 stars).  I have been trying, for the last year or more, to get through hangers-on and “book twos” that have piled up on the everywhere in the house. I do try to read more science fiction than crime or literary fiction or whatever else, but I have also been making an effort to read more thrillers and crime lately. I do not want to become a one-trick pony. Well, and 2020 just seems to be science fiction enough…………….

So, the other reason I mentioned that I do not read much crime is because I do not feel I am an expert reader-judge of crime novels. There are readers who exclusively read crime and police procedurals and so their judgment is probably more fine-tuned than mine. Nevertheless, I feel I can add to the commentary on this novel.

The pacing was very slow. I know that it takes time to unravel a multi-layered storyline with a lot of players. I know that this is a crime/police-procedural novel and not an action thriller. However, I was well past halfway into the novel before the pace was even moving. I do not always think the pace of a novel needs to be fast in order to be good. In fact, many times, I enjoy lush worldbuilding and intricate plots. However, in this particular novel, I felt Harry drank a lot of coffee, but yet was still in slow-motion.

The plot is multi-layered and the reader gets more clues, slowly, right alongside Harry. The storyline is just not very interesting. I mean, its not a gripping read whatsoever. So, within the first three chapters, the reader should realize that the introductory crime is not a suicide.  One would expect that a suspicious death of a policeman would ignite a real jet rocket in the LAPD and with our star detective.  Okay, so, there may be a departmental desire to wrap up the investigation neatly and quietly – but who expects it to be so dull? I get what Connelly was doing with the plot, I think there are some interesting facets to this story (I’m not going to mention them here and spoil the read for others), but overall, it reads very dull.  So, because of the not-all-that exciting plot and the slow pacing, I gave the book two stars.

The resolution is interesting. I mean, I think some savvy readers probably guessed what was going on. I am utterly horrible at that sort of thing, so it was a fairly interesting reveal for my reading experience. Other expert crime readers were probably all over it! Still, it kind of really just falls flat. No big crescendo whatsoever. The denouement was tedious and caused suffering. Basically at the final event, Bosch has to explain everything to his superior about the case (obviously, for the sake of the reader).

Now this next comment is me really nitpicking, but there are several points in this novel that I found myself wondering about the time of the story, is it day or night? Because it does seem like Bosch has not slept in several nights. Now, I know very well how it feels to subsist on 4-hour night sleeps for nights on end – or even going without sleep for nights. The fact that Harry (no matter how much coffee he guzzles) is as functional as he is, is rather implausible. And his “insomnia” throws off the pacing of the novel because its unclear how many days have passed.

I plan to read more Bosch novels. I am sure this is one of the lesser Bosch reads and I have great confidence that many in the series are excellent novels. Besides, the main character is interesting to a point. I like his jazz business. In this novel, we get backstory regarding his parents and youth – which is valuable to serious readers/fans of this series – so it probably is a necessary read for Bosch enthusiasts (are there such people?) I recommend this for LAPD crime fans and fans of Mexico-California border storyline readers.

2 stars

Men Without Women

Men Without WomenMen Without Women is a short story collection by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961). It contains fourteen stories, first published in 1927, and is Hemingway’s second such collection. It is, I think, the first of Hemingway that I have ever read. I know, I know, I know Hemingway is some sort of big deal; important author or major writer or whatever. To me, there was never any appeal to his writing and, frankly, anytime I learned a tidbit about his life and lifestyle, I was less than enthused.

Truthfully, I wanted to read the short story Fifty Grand. And then, I told myself, I could feel better about reading Haruki Murakami’s work of this same title (Men Without Women, 2017). I’m endlessly about proper method. Finally, though I have no strong desire to read Hemingway, if I was going to ever read Hemingway, starting with a small well-received story collection is likely the best entrance.

  • The Undefeated – 3 stars
  • In Another Country – 3 stars
  • Hills Like White Elephants – 1 star
  • The Killers – 4 stars
  • Che Ti Dice La Patria? – 2 stars
  • Fifty Grand – 4 stars
  • A Simple Enquiry – 1 star
  • Ten Indians – 3 stars
  • Canary for One – 2 stars
  • An Alpine Idyll – 3 stars
  • A Pursuit Race – 1 star
  • Today is Friday – 2 stars
  • Banal Story – 0 stars
  • Now I Lay Me – 2 stars

Well, the final rating for this collection is 2 stars. This kind of fell exactly in the place I thought it would. I do not care for (most) American literature, I have a distaste for Hemingway, and I do not have a strong tolerance for certain topics. I did come to the collection with an even temperment; I went into this thing open-minded. 

So three of the stories are, to my mind, utter trash. “A Pursuit Race,” “Banal Story,” “A Simple Enquiry.”  Rubbish. Now, I am sure there are plenty of other people out there who disagree with my assessment. I encourage them to start their own blogs and pontificate at length about the stupid philosopher who called some of Hemingway’s stories “trash.” However, I am not one to budge easily from my opinions, so its probably not worth arguing with me about these stories. I disliked them for different reasons, but mainly because at the end of them I have no idea what the point of reading – or having written them in the first place – could be. Why? Stream of consciousness junk for “Banal Story.”  “A Pursuit Race” is sad in topic, but what was the point of the story? “A Simple Enquiry” is also something that I finished and wondered briefly what the point of writing that would be. Why bother. Kind of felt that way about “Hills Like White Elephants” – but in that story the writing is a bit better. I mean, the actual wordsmithing. 

Instead of wasting time talking about things I do not like, let me expand on those stories that I felt were very good reads. I was impressed with “The Killers.”  I could recommend this to a lot of folks for a good, quick read. Also, I think if I am going to continue reading noir/crime fiction, this was a good one to include right in the start of my journey. I liked locating the story in Henry’s cafe/diner. I wanted to belly up to the lunch bar for a club sandwich. Or eggs and bacon. I liked the cook who wants nothing to do with any of it, but has curiosity anyway. I like the realism in the snippets of choppy conversation. I like the way the storyline went with Ole Anderson. This is a good solid short story. And I think, though I could be way off here, its fairly representative of Hemingway’s alleged patent style.

“Fifty Grand” more or less met my expectations. I wanted a gritty story about boxing that was realistic. Not shiny current-day boxing with social media and glitter. But old-time boxing with all the underlying crime and troubles. You know, the kind that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew about. I know this is a good story because I am going to remember it for awhile. Its not going to fade away and be lost in all the many things I have read. Frankly, I think Hemingway should have written exclusively about boxing and bullfighting. His war stuff annoys me and makes me feel sour. 

“An Alpine Idyll” has an unexpectedness to it. Maybe this is something of what all the Hemingway fans are on about. The story starts off with two skiers, returning to their hotel after being tired out from skiing. They are exasperated and cranky from “doing the thing too long.” Sun all day and poor snow conditions made them weary. Hemingway does a really good job of wordsmithing here – letting us see the scenery and the exasperated over-skied fellows heading back to the hotel. If you try, its quite easy to conjure the scene in your imagination. 

“We better have some more beer,” John said.

Though Hemingway does not actually describe the beer, I could almost taste it. The bottles of cold beer after a long day that became draining and tedious. I love the way John deadpans “we better have some more beer.” Yes, we better. Because. Beer. John. The story takes an odd turn to talking about “peasants” who live in these snowy mountains. Olz just buried his wife and he is the subject of the conversation.  It is an odd “slice of life” sort of story, but just the sort of story one would hear in a hotel at the bottom of a skiing mountain with bored men and a couple of beers. We are left with not being really certain if there is a tall tale being told, or if there is a sinister side to the story, or if its just something being made out of nothing. This is why my buddy John says: “Say, how about eating?”  The story of the peasant and his wife was fine, but after a tiring day and a couple of beers, no one really cares about it anyway.  If the food is as good as those beers, I am sure John and Nick had a great hearty meal.

“Ten Indians” is not a nice story. It is a bit raw and ugly. Its rural and Americana and not things that appeal to me a whole lot. However, the last two paragraphs make up for the ugly of the rest of the story. My rating, really, is based on those last two paragraphs. Anyway, here we have Hemingway’s star character, Nick, riding home with some neighbor friends from a holiday event. In a horse cart. I am going to admit, as soon as I put any of that together it was difficult to keep reading. I have a strong dislike for rural horsecart Fourth of July things. Now, the randomness of the indians all over place is absurd. I do not know if this is racist or bizarre or some hidden symbolism by a weird writer. The rating I gave to this story comes from Nick’s broken heart and the last few paragraphs. 

I do not read a lot of bullfighting stories. Nowadays, I feel, bullfighting is looked down upon, so even if there are stories about bullfighting, well, they are surely different. Sometimes I do think I was born in the wrong time period. Anyway, my experience with bullfighting is through my father’s stories of him having to go to Mexico to retrieve G.I.s who would get rowdy and arrested at Mexican bullfighting arenas. When I was in my very low single digits, the only book I would read or have read to me was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. (1936) I have not watched the recent (2017) film they made. Just to be clear about this childhood obsession, the library had TWO COPIES of this book. When mother would return the book at the counter (remember they stamped the cards?), I would go to the shelves and get “the other copy.”  So, mother had literally a revolving borrowing of the two copies. This. Was. All. That. I Read. Ever. For. Years.  I have also read Yasushi Inoue’s “Bullfight” and I thought quite highly of that – however that story is not quite the same as Spanish bullfighting, I believe. 

Needless to say, I have a tendency to enjoy bullfighting stories. Hemingway’s “The Undefeated” is excellent.  The characters are rustic and rough.  The reader attends the fight right there on the shoulder of the matador, eye level, dust blowing up at us. The writing is spare, but honest. This is a good story. 

So, at the completion of this collection, I have to say it is about what I expected.  I dislike Hemingway, but I still found some things to enjoy and praise. The stories I did not enjoy, I was actually surprised by how much I did not enjoy them. Still, I am glad I read this collection – it is never a bad thing to read new things. I do not know how soon (if ever) I will return to Hemingway, but I will not forget too quickly some of the stories here. I can recommend this collection to readers who like spare writing and who are tired of shiny characters and blazing success stories. 

After reading all of this, the good and the bad, I’m with John: “Say, what about eating?”

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