2 Stars

The Gunslinger

Gunslinger coverThe Gunslinger by Stephen King was first published in 1982, but it was actually separate stories that were previously written that made this into a “fix-up” novel, as they are called. In 2003, King famously revised and updated the novel. I do not know if this is the second or third time reading this novel.  Every time I read it, though, I feel more or less the same way about it – its really good in retrospect after having read the next two books or so in The Dark Tower series. Taken on its own, it is exceedingly weird and disjointed and awkward.

For better or worse, it is a fact that in our lifetime, Stephen King is one of the most famous and well-read authors.  His name and works are included in that batch of fiction that have become cultural references, common knowledge, and household facts.  Even people who do not read at all (yes, horrifically, these are real) are able to have some concept/referent for ‘Stephen King.’  I have not read King like many of his fans. I have read maybe two or three of his non-Dark Tower books. I have no idea if he is a good author or not, because I feel like I cannot assess him accurately without reading far more of his catalogue. 

So, The Gunslinger is an odd fix-up of stories that King wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. There is not a whole lot for me to say about the novel because everyone on the planet has read it and has given their opinions on it. There is nothing new, surely, that I can provide regarding the actual novel and info about it. For example, many fans of the book absolutely adore the first line, which seems to evoke all the best feelings and images of all the best adventures and entertainments. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”  There it is, again. All the readers quote it and now I can be counted as one of them.  I think the critical point about this first line is that it is very deadpan and very simple. Three items and two actions: man in black, desert, gunslinger…. one fled, one followed.  Contained in this little statement is all the makings of the excitement and thrills and hopes and curiousity of all readers; it seems paradoxical that such a bland sentence can do so much.

The spare writing, though, in which each sentence seems to contain so much meaning and significance, is what I consider to be the overall characteristic of this novel.  It is spare like a desert.  The writing is matter-of-fact, but yet at times somewhat poetic.  However, the poetry is not flowery or fancy, it is just honest and matter-of-fact as the rest.  Instead of having “dynamic” characters who are overly complicated and full of layers of delusions, it seems these characters are blunt and direct and very honest. The main character, Roland, is utterly honest with the reader. 

Roland is a big deal.  He is a character that, in his will, his strength, his skill, and his honesty, he appeals to readers.  He is presented as a “simple man,” meaning he is unimaginative and not prone to time-waste.  However, he is also very complex because he is not a farmhand or a grunt or a lackey.  A character that wrestles with “inner demons” and with the fabric of the kosmos is hardly a “simple man.”  However, it is clear straightaway that Roland is also not a “good man.”  This is not a sinless, shining knight of virtue and holiness. So, he causes readers to constantly have to wrestle with his morality.

The novel is a sort of Western, Dark Fantasy, Steampunk mash-up that has a vast history and expanse of setting – but it also feels unclear and confused.  The lack of detail and linear layout makes for some of the dreamy and bewildered feeling in the book.  I doubt King, at the time, had any clear ideas about all of this and purposely left his world-building vague and open. He did a good job because there is definitely an ominous and mysterious kosmology that pervades every scene.  The Western is medieval in tone and that is a very cool spin on the medieval-based fantasy usually found in books. 

Not that all of this can be granted to King. He has always admitted that he was heavily inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1852).   In fact, this whole business is reduced a bit once the originality is denied it and we realize that Browning handed a very creative author a silver platter full of perfect delicacies and delights.  Both that work and King’s work are strange.  Dream-like and wondrous and maybe a bit apocalyptic.

The major thing that bothers me about King’s work is the vulgarness that comes through.  I mean, I rarely read anything so vile and vulgar. Horror, as I have said previously, is often vulgar. I do not care for this kind of writing and it always makes me wary of a soul that creates and writes such stuff.  In a sense, we all write about what we know and because I could never write with such vulgarity, I wonder about the writer who knows such stuff.

The reason I re-read this novel is because lately I have been sensing the cracks in the kosmos. Hold on! Do not click away thinking I am some looney! I have been working on linguistics/logic and the odd statements that defy the good, common, healthy reasoning that we all have come to know and love. Counterfactual, self-referential, contradictory, ambiguous, paradoxical sentences that most people shrug at, other people are amused by, and metaphysicians are deeply disturbed by.  Cracks in the world, my friends. The sentences that the computer programmers just want to ignore. The sentences that the poet knows about, but cannot understand the ramifications.

Plus, I have been reading Plotinus and Porphyry and Proclus. WE, the systematic Aristotelian science-men, have long since turned up our noses at such esoteric hogwash – all that Hermetica and astrology and alchemy and Kabbalism stuff that none of us take seriously. However, every great immense once-in-awhile there is a line or a comment in the Enneads or something that sends a bit of a chill, like a draft through a crack in a cellar wall. Mysticism and magis and its all very hocus-pocus, so we do not look at those parts directly; we dismiss them as silly esoteric junk that was ridiculously overlayed on the substantial and meaty ontology. I guess.

When Roland says: “The world has moved on,” it also feels like a cold draft. I feel like in 2021, with the strange things going on in the real world, yeah, it is easier to fall in step with Roland as he crosses the desert.  The best thing about Roland is that he takes it in stride. The world is dying, everything is wrecked, there are abominations and absurdities everywhere, the remnants of the future (somehow) – but yet Roland just accepts it as it is. Zen master level.  Pretty cool character, this Roland.

Overall, its hard to separate the vulgarity and the derivative context from the book.  So, sure this one is only two stars. But when I read further into the series and then look back, I want to give this maybe four stars.  Readers who have not read this (are there any?) will likely be shocked, confused and not know what to make of this craziness. Helps to think of the world moving on and there being cracks in the kosmos, I think.

2 stars

Beers and Fears: The Haunted Brewery

hauntedAmong all the other books I am currently reading, I managed to read through this one.  I was looking forward to this book because its a collaborative, small-press/self-published work that at 159 pages, I knew would be a easy reader.  I have previously read an item by Armand Rosamilia, but I have not read any of the other authors.  One of the things that I found appealing about the work was that it was just supposed to be a good fun read – these authors allegedly get together and drink beer and write out some horror stories and have fun with the genre.  The book has a second volume, but I do not own that one.  Beers and Fears: The Haunted Brewery was first released in 2019.

I like the concept for the structure of the book a lot. In fact, it was one of my main reasons for getting the book. One author writes a present-time framework story and then the other authors contribute backstories or sidestories to that frame.  The frame story in this one is called “The Last Taproom on the Edge of the World” and it was written by Tim Meyer. The first story is “No Fortunate Son” by Chuck Buda, the second “Have a Drink on Me” by Frank Edler, and the last story is “Alternative” by Armand Rosamilia.

I have run across the names of Buda and Meyer before, I kinda feel Meyer does not write what I would like to read, generally, and though I have not yet read any other Chuck Buda items, I would be open to doing so. Anyway, the frame story starts off really well. It does a good job of setting the scene and making the reader settled in for a rough and rowdy horror funhouse.  The characters are introduced and the purpose of the frame and the included backstories is sufficiently set up. Nothing at all wrong with this segment. But the first story… its got a lot going on in it.  The Vietnam backstory (which comes with intense flashbacks), the Mafia, the drugs, the porn, the brewery, etc. The story is completed, fairly polished, and there is nothing wrong with it, I guess. But I did not like it. I feel like the drugs and the Vietnam and the porn and the mafia took away from what could have been. I can imagine a story with the miserable veteran who is on hardcore drugs. I can imagine him making bad choices. I can imagine his choices affecting the brewery. However, this story, as it was written, seemed to go on too long, the porn chunk made the story lose a lot of the build-up of the psychedelic confusions, and at the end of the day, I hated every character. The horror was lost to the parts.

I was trying to imagine readers after having read this story.  Is the story relevant and readable? Yes. It is also gritty, dark, violent as hell, and gory. But after, I think, a day or two, I do not think the story sticks around. Its just easy in and easy out consumable junk food.  There is a surprising amount of sex in the book, though it just feels like another avenue of violence. So, you have violence between humans, violence through alcohol, violence via sex, violence from demons…. So, the first story tends to lean more towards just violence than horror or macabre or anything like that.

Frank Edler’s story “Have a Drink on Me” is much opposite of Buda’s story.  This story was more like what I expected from the book.  Over-the-top outrageous insanely creative, but still horrific and amusing as hell.  This was the fun and wild and utterly ridiculous story that captured what this book could be.  Unlike Buda’s story, which was really just violence upon violence, this one was the pinnacle of ridiculous.  I do not know if calling it humorous is valid, because this is not quite humor. The level of ridiculous that plays into this one encapsulates that B-movie, but oh-so-fun wildness that horror movies often contain.  So, Buda’s story is just gory and violent, I did not like it and I will shortly forget it.  Edler’s story is the ridiculous horror that is so outrageous I know I will not forget. I mean, its still a bit gory and savage, if you know what I mean.  However, I had fun reading it and I imagine Edler had fun writing it.  This is the story that author dudes with beers in October are supposed to be writing! I am still chortling over the “bad guy” in the story.  I want to have drank about three beers and nod with a lopsided grin at the author and say things like, “makes sense, bro! totally!”

Now the frame story segments that came before and after Edler’s work started to go downhill. For one thing, leaving a setting and going to another is hazardous because the author just built up a scene and now all that work is swept away. So, there needs to be a real purpose. Frankly, there was not a purpose.  These segments should have been exciting little interludes and really scary moments. Instead, they just read as pointless.

The last story is Rosamilia’s. It is probably the most realistic, if one can say that, of the stories in the book. By that I mean that the characters and setting seem natural and real as opposed to seeming cardboard or created cartoons. The main characters Trevor and Jackson are engaging and the storyline moves around them without hiccup.  I think the horror is really most developed in this story. Of all the stories, this is the only one that could claim “spine-tingling” or “creepy.”  There is still a bit too much of the sex/violence in this one, which is probably just there because this story somewhat circles back to the first story and its contents.  I did not really find the interconnectedness very crucial to the stories, though. They all take place at the particular location – at some point. Sadly, on the last page of the story is a nasty typo – the wrong character is named, “Trevor nodded” when it should be “Jackson nodded.”  Yeah, it was clunker of an error. Overall, it was a good story, a little more work and this would have been very creepy.

The structure of the book is difficult to separate stories out to rate. I think the frame story needs a lot more purpose and function. I am only going to give it 1 star.  “No Fortunate Son” is also a 1 for me. I really did not like it. No beers, no fears for that; just revulsion. The Edler story is 4 stars without a second to think. I will remember that one for a long, long time! Armand’s “Alternative” is a solid three. Overall, I think the concept is an awesome one. I think the execution was not so great. Some overwriting (Buda), some lack of direction (Meyer), but the other stories are good enough for a fun October splatter horror mess.

And after all of this, the concept is so good that I think I will read volume 2.

2.25 stars

Nightmare

NightmareNightmare by Chad Nicholas was first released in 2020, it is Nicholas’ first novel. I saw it on a bunch of recent internet postings by a number of fellow readers that I follow.  Everyone seemed to have very positive reactions, so I added it to my plan of October.  Honestly, since I am not a very frequent reader of horror, I am not really sure what to expect in a lot of these books this month.  Obviously, I expect gore and darkness, but I don’t know about all of the styles and nuances this genre utilizes. That being said, I do think it is really key for this genre that readers not “spoil” the books for other readers.  That’s sometimes true with other fiction, of course, but I feel like its even more important not to do that with this genre. So, that is an added challenge in reviewing such a book – I am going to try to weave a careful path, then.

Overall, I can see why a lot of readers thought this book was well-written and they were captivated.  I read the novel over two days and I can agree that it is a very fast read and one that the writing style and storyline are built to be read in one larger space as opposed to being broken up over a longer duration.  I did not find any typos or any spots where editing was needed. Also, as a quick remark, I think that for a debut novel, the author chose to write a difficult storyline, but managed it fairly well. 

So, this particular horror novel is one that I would put in the pyschological horror subgenre.  After having read not very much horror at all, I am going to share that I do not think this is my preferred segment of horror.  I paused after typing that in order to give myself a moment:  could I develop a reasonable taxonomy of horror types?  Let me see, there is cosmic horror (which I have heard about, but I still wonder if there is a solid definition), there is devils/possession/religious horror, and there is monster horror (which would include, perhaps, kaiju science fiction themes, as well), psychological as seen in Nightmare, Gothic, and maybe, finally, stuff that is just slasher gore.  So, possibly six different subgenres. I kicked around the idea of “survivor” horror and “haunted space” horror, but ended up arguing with myself. I am unsure about those. Most survivor horror would fall under slasher or monster, I think. And most haunted space, though a frequent setting/locus, would still come to one of the other subgenres, usually religious or maybe monster.

SPOILER ALERT

From here onward, though I will still attempt to not add heavy spoilers, I still intend to talk about this novel, so I will have to include some things that may spoil the read. Such is the way of the review…..

Regarding the overall plot, there were plenty of hints and clues that the author is banking on readers not picking up on. And the author’s strategy is to throw so much “shock” and “awe” that the reader does not notice and the hints and clues slip by because of the fast-paced page turning and the sudden gory shock, perhaps.  Apparently, and this is me going by a number of reviews (YouTube/Goodreads/blogs), this strategy worked very well. Sadly, it did not work on me. I say “sadly” because yeah, maybe I wish it had worked on me? I have been thinking about the reasons why it did not work on me and I do not know how to write about them without sounding awful and arrogant and hideous.  I guess, I’m just going to say:  I’m a philosopher – by education and trade, you think you gonna sneak dat stuff by me? Naw, bro, not gonna happen.

I suspected what was going on in this book, but on page 93, that’s when it got a bright pink Post-It note smacked on it. Wham! pink post it 2 Because, you see, what I had read was so incongruous that it could not sneak by me. Most of the clue was based on mundane details.  SPOILERS ARE COMING NOW —->  The main character calls his doctor and the doctor answers: “Hello?”  First of all, it is highly unlikely that you direct call a doctor unless you are part of his golf foursome.  Secondly, for the sake of fiction license, let us say you can reach the doctor directly, he certainly is not going to answer “hello.” Instead, he would say “Dr. Reynolds.”  A small thing? Maybe, but the clues continue.   The main character opens a desk drawer at work and pulls out a lighter.  At no point throughout the story was smoking hinted at or mentioned. Why is there a lighter in his drawer? Does he smoke – he does not seem to be a character that smokes? Next, the character dumps papers in a wastebasket and lights them on fire. At work – on one of the upper floors of the building.  Yeah, this is not going to happen in the real in 2020 (smoke alarms, fire hazard, fireable action, etc.).  So, what is going on here? Is the author truly stupid? No, instead these are hints that we are not in reality. 

There are other clues, but I think the one of the biggest is on page 182 in chapter eleven wherein:

Outside, Dr. Reynolds spoke with them. “You can go home for the night if you wish.  I will make sure that she is well looked after.”

This obviously is not a realistic reaction to how we started this chapter, which was fraught with action and sorrow and drama:

Scott rushed into the hospital, carrying May in his arms.  He ran straight past the desk to Dr. Reynolds, who was in the hallway, speaking to another patient.

“What happened?” Dr. Reynolds asked as they ran down the hallway. 

“She was stabbed,” Scott said, not telling him how.

This one is much more obvious than a lot of the previous clues.  I mean, a doctor cannot recognize stab wounds? And at the end of the chapter, the doctor telling them they can “go home” as if bringing anyone, especially a child, into a hospital covered in stab wounds will not result in any call to the police. 

Finally, the last clue that was much like a bright flashing marquee to readers, was late in the book on page 247.  After having a massive ridiculous-level blowout at his house, Scott drives to the county library. 

The first aisle he walked down was history, the next children’s books, and the one after that thriller.  It struck him as a weird order to have the sections in, but what did he know about libraries? He had never been in one before.

What now? Now, before this, we have learned that Scott is college educated and he also has a library card account.  Again, obviously we are not in reality. 

The title of the whole book is called Nightmare and I feel like that should be a really massive clue to all readers as to what is going on here.  Granted, the plot does involve nightmares, but the reader should have been able to realize what was going on – to some extent, I think. Well, the author chose a tough plot and took a big gamble on strategy.  I want to say it did not work, but after looking at the internet for awhile, I guess I would be wrong.  The author’s strategy worked plenty on a whole slew of readers. They enjoyed the novel and they were kept off-balance and on the edge-of-their-seat.  Unfortunately, the strategy did not work for me. I almost want to apologize to the author for this. At the same time, I am sure the author knew he was not going to hook all the readers; as long as he got a large percentage, I am sure he is pleased.

Unfortunately, the author was never going to wow me because, besides my suspicious Cheka-trained reading, the last sort of novel that I enjoy is the psychological one. It is a bit difficult to define, though.  The blatant heavy-handed psych stuff always bores me and that is what happened here. In this novel, I got bored quickly. I just wanted it over already. Yes, that makes me sad because that is obviously not something an author every wants to hear. But, consider… after I figure out it is not reality, what is left to keep me reading? Such is the gamble with this strategy.  Take D. G. Compton’s Synthajoy as an example – I gave the novel four stars because it was very strong and intellectual, but I knew reading it that I was not able to really connect with it or comprehend a lot of it. In a similar, but not exact, vein look at my rating of VALIS. I gave it two stars, because of the blatant psychological/psychotropic business of it. I just do not do well with this sort of fiction. 

Along with this point, however, if an author is writing a psychological novel – that rather means it is character-based.  We need strong character development or the reader needs to be able to connect with the characters.  Due to the need to keep this novel constantly shocking and fast-paced, there was not much effort at all to build or connect with the characters.  Another risk for the author, one that I do think he could have modified or reworked. As a reader, I am usually not for character-driven plots, but I do like to be able to identify the character. For some readers, characters are all that matters and they practically bond with these fictional identities. In either case, there is not a lot I can tell you about the main character and that keeps me, as a reader, at a distance. I do not care about the character, which usually means I do not care what happens to him. Also, that distance allows me the perspective to see the plotholes or the dull parts. 

Overall, not a book for my tastes and aptitude. However, I recognize a lot of readers really enjoyed this. I think it was a heavy lift for a young author.  Would I read this author again? Yes, but not everything he writes.

2 stars

The Surly Sullen Bell

Russell KirkThis October I decided I would read a bunch of horror novels. I cannot pledge anything, since I do not normally (ever?) read horror and I do not know how far I will get into this enterprise. I did think this was fitting for a year in which I have attempted to “read outside of the box of usual.”  The first completed item this month is Russell Kirk’s (1918 – 1994) collection The Surly Sullen Bell published as a collection in 1962.  Most of the stories in the collection were previously published in magazines/journals.  Kirk is widely known as a Conservative critic and writer, although his supernatural tales used to be more well known than they are today.  For the most part, readers are put off by his politics, especially nowadays, and are unlikely to seek out his fiction.  More or less, this is understandable – one of the complaints I have regarding the collection is that it is unbalanced.  Kirk spent a little too much effort commenting on how big government and immoral government has harmed or maligned the poor, the farmer, et al. unbalancing his stories; ignoring the needs of fiction to develop characters and plot as-well-as theme.

  • Uncle Isaiah • (1951) • London Mystery #11, August/September 1951 – 3 stars
  • Off the Sand Road • (1952) • World Review, March 1952 – 2 stars
  • Ex Tenebris • (1957) • Queen’s Quarterly, Summer 1957 – 2 stars
  • The Surly Sullen Bell • (1950) • London Mystery #7, 1950 – 3 stars
  • The Cellar of Little Egypt – 2 stars
  • Skyberia • (1952) • Queen’s Quarterly Summer 1952 – 1 star
  • Sorworth Place • (1952) • London Mystery #14, February/March 1952 as ‘Old Place of Sorworth’ – 3 stars
  • Behind the Stumps • (1950) • London Mystery #4, 1950 – 2 stars
  • What Shadows We Pursue • (1953) – 4 stars
  • Lost Lake • (1957) • Southwest Review, Autumn 1957 (n/a)

The book itself contains a short foreword essay and a final essay on the topic of “ghostly tales.” There is also the piece, Lost Lake, which is hardly fiction, so I did not rate it. Overall, the collection is uneven. There are good stories and bad ones, there are good elements to the stories and then pieces which do not work. Although the collection has its ups and downs, strangely, I would say the most representative of the bunch is the story Off the Sand Road

Technically, this second story, Off the Sand Road, does not have any supernatural element to it. Or, it is so subtle and covert that it hid from my eye.  Indeed, it is more noir in tone than supernatural. However, it is very much a tone that Kirk returns to in his other stories.  The setting, as in several other stories, is described thus:

… a barren, fringed by silent woods.  Ragged stumps, patches of brown rot contrasting with their naked gray sides, stretched for a mile across rolling country, and then scrub oak and second-growth pine closed the view. – pg. 37

Kirk actually spends a large amount of time in the stories describing the land that appears like this. Always words like scrub, stumps, desolate farm, rutted trails are used to describe the land.  The reader gets the impression that the world is a soggy, gray place filled with rotted tree stumps/roots, and the land is worthless for producing anything. Everything surely smells of mold and decay. Anyway, Off the Sand Road has a little story to it; the Bass boys (nine and fourteen) named Frank and Harry happen to be leading Doctor Cross through the area.  Boys of this age tend to be the best guides for such adventures. They are unfettered by trespassing laws and have a curious eye for ruins and nature. They come upon the Clatry property and in turns tell Cross the common history of the place.  They go inside and explore the upstairs where Cross supplements the boys’ stories with tattered letters he discovers and reads. For all this build up, the history and the sordid stories, the tattered letters and the wasteland property, nothing happens. Cross feels uncomfortable, they leave. Now, I know there is a sense that the reader needs to supply some effort and the atmosphere is the significant horror (as with LeFanu’s stories).  But in this case, it does not really work. This ends up being something of slice-of-life sadness as opposed to anything Gothic.

My favorite story in the collection is What Shadows We Pursue.  I think it is the weirdest of the bunch. It might be a mere matter of taste as to which story a reader would like the most here. I like this one because it is very unique and because it left some of the horror undefined.  The main idea for the story is that Mrs Corr and her daughter have sold the library belonging to Dr Corr to a bookseller named Stoneburner. They have done this because Dr Corr had amassed a huge library, of some moderate value, and he was no longer available to own these books and his wife and daughter required some monies.  From the start the house is described as dilapidated and, in places, seemingly very grungy and nasty. Yet, these two women, who are both quite odd in personality, still live there, apparently keeping to the habits instilled in them by Dr Corr. Stoneburner seems to be good with his purchase, but maybe does not feel he is getting any great bargain.  As he spends his time hauling Corr’s library to his truck, he often pauses to flip through books.  Kirk, of course, selects titles that he feels poignant and significant for Stoneburner to read. Anyway, small strange things take place as Stoneburner is going up and down the stairs of the house.  The events are odd and one feels sympathetic toward Stoneburner. I liked the fact that this one is about books and a personal library and that the horror is based on the odd and uncomfortable.

The title story, The Surly Sullen Bell, is less of a supernatural horror than a Gothic noir story. I gave it three stars because, early on, its quite easy to see what is going on. I suppose the story hints at the Gothic romantic feel, but none of the characters are very likeable at all. Unlike the other stories, this one takes place in St. Louis and Kirk writes a strange St. Louis, indeed. One follows along, but it seems almost too windy in the conversational aspects. The ending is good, but sad.  Maybe I feel that Kirk was using this story to complain about some spiritualism relevant to the 1940s/1950s instead of writing a story qua story.

Three of the stories had, for me, a key moment that I might call a heart-rate-accelerator. You know, actual sparks of horror. A moment of “oh no!”  So, the biggest, for me, was in the story Behind the Stumps when the main character, Cribben, is in this wasteland farmhouse and……..!!!!!!  Another such moment was in The Cellar of Little Egypt – also at the end when they were in the cellar and……!!!!  Now, I did not love this last story because I felt it was way too rambling and the wordsmithing was a bit confusing (Cp. Faulkner) and maybe the whole thing was lacking just that extra something to take this story from a 2 to a 4 star read. Lastly, in the most truly Gothic of the collection, Sorworth Place, there are a couple of moments where the climactic events take place and its Gothic and scary and engaging.  The ending of this one is rather stupid, I think, because it introduced another element/setting that did not suit. Now, I think that Kirk wrote another story related to this one, but not in this collection. At some point, I might track that one down. 

Overall, this was a worthwhile read. I mean, nothing here is standout and amazing.  However, I feel like it was good to get to know these stories. I did not hate them even though some of them (e.g. Skyberia) were quite pointless. I know Kirk wrote about how ghost stories make people uncomfortable. I think, at the end of this collection, it did succeed in making me uncomfortable, but not with his fiction – the places and characters – but rather with the author himself. 

Yes, the stories (and collection) seem unbalanced and uneven.  But for all of that, the unique and the interesting sections are still worthy enough to be given a read. If readers stuck to the four stories I rated 3 stars or better, they should be relatively pleased with the read. Recommended for well-rounded/well-read readers.

2.44 stars (accurately)
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.
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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

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