3 Stars

Green Tea and Other Ghost Stories

Green TeaGreen Tea and Other Ghost Stories is a Dover Thrift Edition by Dover Publications.  It contains four stories by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu (1814 – 1873).  I have the 1993 edition of this collection; Dover released an e-book edition with a different cover.  On the back of my edition the price is $1.50, but I have a used book sticker, too. I probably paid next to nothing for this.  I mention this because a reader wanting to read just a few good stories will have definitely gotten their money’s worth with this edition.  I am given to understand LeFanu was a somewhat prolific writer, but of the four stories in this book, only one is one of LeFanu’s famous works. The other three stories are much lesser known.

  • “Green Tea” – from In a Glass Darkly (1886)
  • “Squire Toby’s Will”  – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” – from Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales (1923)
  • “The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” – from Dublin University Magazine (1838)

The stories are written in the style that I assume is typical of their times.  Sometimes this feels like it really suits the stories, sometimes it feels ridiculous. Most of the stories are told via a narrator or through someone who heard someone’s story.  In “Green Tea,” for example, the narrator is actually reiterating info from letters by a Dr. Martin Hesselius to a Professor Van Loo of Leyden. 

These are not fast reads and part of that is due to the typical Victorian lack of word economy making it stilted, too (this is the official description of it).  Part of the slowness, though, is because these stories all rely heavily on atmosphere.  In “Green Tea” the relating of the events by a doctor to a professor is an attempt to make the very frightening and oppressive angst seem even more elevated by describing it from a pseudo-scientific and clinical perspective.  Obviously, the reader is left to do a lot of the work here – do they believe, as the doctor clearly does, that this is all just just just explainable and diagnosable OR do they believe that this is a rare and supernatural occurence that cannot be explained away by the rationalist?  Its one of those situations where OF COURSE there is a reasonable explanation for all of this mania.  Right? 

“Green Tea” might be the closest to what readers consider to be horror.  It really derives its horror from the juxtaposition of the clinical with the unnatural.  When I read through it, I was somewhat unimpressed.  However, the element of the red-eyed ape is really disturbing and creepy. It is probably as terrifying as any violent, gory, scare-fest found in the horror genre because it is unexplained.  Being watched is often an element of a scary story.  The reader who can put themselves in the character’s place will get a lot of creepy thrills here. Imagine being in the room while the red-eyes glare…….

“Squire Toby’s Will” is probably my favorite of the bunch. I think that I liked it most because it is the grittiest and most noir of the bunch. Sibling rivalry, a wild and unruly rich father, and a loyal manservant named Cooper fill these pages with angst and struggle.  I liked the inclusion of the dog as the pivot point for the whole story. This story also has the most satisfactory ending, as well. Poor Gylingdon Hall with its creepy King Herod’s Chamber.  

“The Fortunes of Sir Robert Ardagh” is on par with the others, but it is definitely a bit long-winded, which is exacerbated by the Victorian manner of speech. So, one of the characters, Lady D– says:

“I still must believe that some latent fever has affected his mind, as that owing to the state of nervous depression into which he has been sinking, some trivial occurrence has been converted, in his disordered imagination, into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution.” – pg. 78

The words and meaning are easy enough, but heavens! that is a windy way to put that. Especially when all parties involved are sleep-deprived and in a state of great anxiety.  Do you think he is making a mountain out of a molehill? Or do we really want to go with: into an augury foreboding his immediate dissolution?  Still, look how charming this way of writing was! 

Anyway, I feel bad for all the servants and butlers in these stories. They are all included, named and described, in order to provide a witness to the events that occur.  I feel bad for them because they seem to have all been loyal and honest folk. Jones in “Green Tea” probably should have his side of the story told. But then Cooper in “Squire Toby’s Will” seems the most robust of the lot and he made out the best, in the end, as well. 

All of these stories rely on what remains unexplained, what the servants saw and heard, and how the key causes and outcomes are left undefined.  I know a lot of readers might really dislike this sort of writing. I enjoyed it – it has its place. I would not want every story to be like these.  The fun and value is that a reader has to really get involved in the atmosphere and maybe that means not speed reading through descriptions of the forests and valleys.  The reader has to do work in their imagination, wondering at all the possible causes/outcomes and turning over the events in their mind, knowing that a definitive author’s decision is not available.  It is fun and interesting to ponder the rôle of the dog, the purpose and intent of the red-eyed ape, the mysterious Jacque character, et al. With some time on a quiet evening, a thoughtful reader could develop a hundred different re-tellings, subplots, and resolutions to these stories.

Another component to these stories is their setting.  Usually we have large manor homes and estate in Ireland.  Huge stone castles surrounded by forests and stone walls that enclose family crypts.  The stables are out back; occasionally we need the stableman to ready one of the horses.  The servants have always lived in these homes, waiting on these families. In the abandoned mansions, vines and rot have taken over and so it requires imagination to see them in their finest moments.  Sweeping staircases, portraits on the walls, candles being ported here and there by characters.  Do not forget the huge wooden and iron doors that are supposed to keep out whatever should not be inside.

Now, the last story in the book “Sir Dominick’s Bargain” is not one that I thought much of. It contained a lot of the elements of the other stories to make it just similar enough.  Here we have a gentleman traveling on horseback and he passes by the ruins of a castle, which he finds intriguing. After moving on to the next town and getting a meal at the inn, he returns to wander and peruse the ruins. 

Suddenly, a voice speaks to him – its an elderly hunchback with a lisp.  The hunchback proceeds to tell him the history of the ruins (because the creepy guy was raised there and his grandfather was also a manservant there long ago).  In fact, he begins his tale by pointing with his cane to a spot on the wall that he alleges is the skull and brain matter of the former owner, Sir Dominick Sarsfield.

I could not help thinking, as I read, about how this story plays out in contemporary times.  So, driving through small-town country roads, you pass by a crumpled building in ruins. Now, you might be intrigued for some reason. I know abandoned buildings and similar things have always had a niche following. Maybe when you stop for gas in the only gas station in town (that is charging a dollar more per gallon than reasonable), you ask the cashier about the place. I guess you drive back to get a better look – with your phone camera?  And maybe you find a place to park and are thinking of your Instagram/Facebook post and you go try to get some good shots. 

All the wood inside is pretty rotted and you are definitely sure you saw a few roaches. There are spiderwebs here and there. But no way are you just gonna sit a spell on the bottom of the staircase. You are probably more inclined to make a Google Assistant reminder to get a tetanus shot.  Anyway, as you are taking a pic of the vines mildewing around the wall, a voice next to you quotes some creepy verse. 

LeFanu thinks you are going to then hang around and hear the history tale of the place from the creepy hunchback with a lisp. 

Instead, its just more likely you are wondering:  wait, why is there a creepy dude here?  and instead of the “hallooo! don’t mean to scare you…. Hallooo?” calls that would alert someone to your presence, this little old guy quotes some verse? So, what really happens, is you pull your CWP firearm and drop your phone, trip over a piece of fallen debris, and wonder if you left the car unlocked.

3 stars

The Deep Blue Good-by

176166I read The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. It was first published in 1964 – by the request of the publishing house Fawcett.  In other words, it was a commissioned work. I am not entirely sure how that worked – but this story is not one of those where the author went from house to house to try and find anyone that would publish it in return for pennies.  

This is a novel for mature readers – and not because of the language or scenes alone, but also because there is a deeper sentiment to be found in this one, hiding under the ribald and loose 1960s Florida attitude. That is to say, it’s a lot more noir than it is expected to be.  It is very important for readers to know going into this that these are not good characters.  There is not the good guy chasing the bad guy.  To a greater or lesser extent, of course, the characters range out from the stupid and unlucky to the violent and cruel.  Readers, particularly recent readers, seem to really dislike this book for what would be termed sexism and misogyny.  No doubt there is some of that spewed nearly on every page and for a good-minded individual in 2021, it seems rotten and crude. 

I leaned against the center island and drank it, feeling unreal. I walked on a fabric of reality but it had an uncomforatble give to it. You could sink in a little way.  If you walked too much and came to a weak spot, you could fall through. I think it would be pretty bleak down there. – pg. 136, Chapter Ocho 

However, and I am not making any excuse or ratio for such mentality, I would not expect people of poor morality to have glistening views of humanity.  The main character is a misanthrope; I did not think he would say pretty things.  I neither like nor dislike the main character, Travis McGee.  Yet, he is quite unique from what I have read… not too many sulky, principled, off-the-grid chaps that are so good at reading people and keeping their sour bitterness under a Miami tan.  Travis McGee is not a nice guy.   He is very bitter and he survives in his lifestyle by the very fact that his misanthropy is validated by the crime and grift and corruption in society.  He takes advantage of miserable situations brought on by immoral and miserable people.  There is a lot here for a reader to dislike.

However, there is a adeptness with which this novel is written that shows MacDonald knew how to write and knew how to write people. The form of the story, the muscular, organic speech-patterns, the sudden switches from “pseudo-psychology” to bar-room slang – all make up a very strong read. This is one of the many things missing from contemporary fiction.  This book has a tone and voice, whether or not the reader agrees with it or likes it, it is potent and vibrant.  This writing is not dull or bland.

I began checking the marinas.  All this great ever-increasing flood of bronze, brass, chrome, Fiberglas, lapstreak, teak, auto pilots, burgees, Power Squadron hats, nylon line, all this chugging winking blundering glitter of props, bilge pumps and self-importance needs dockside space. The optimum image is the teak cockpit loaded soft with brown dazed girls while the eagle-eyed skipper on his fly bridge chugs Baby Dear under a lift bridge to keep a hundred cars stalled waiting in the sun, their drivers staring malignantly at the slow passage of the lazy-day sex float and the jaunty brown muscles of the man at the helm.  But the more frequent reality is a bust gasket, Baby Dear drifting in a horrid chop, girls sunpoisoned and whoopsing, hero skipper clenching the wrong size wrench in barked hands and raising a greasy scream to the salty demons who are flattening his purse and canceling his marine insurance. – pg. 163, chapter Diez

Yes, indeed, McGee is very much a cynical misanthrope. But reading that description – its very clear MacDonald has some open eyes as well.  No one can write a misantrhrope without a dose of misanthropy themselves, I believe.  Taking that passage, and ones similar, MacDonald is nearly telling the reader:  you want a cozy read where the good guy rights the wrongs and the bad guy gets what is coming to him. You want a novel that does not offend that does not push too many limits and does not make you cringe in disgust at times. But that’s the image of a summery novel, not the reality of a good noir yarn.  Because let’s face it, MacDonald wrote a bleak, dark story with all sorts of unsavory elements – and placed it in the touristy, ever-sunny South Florida.  I am a bit impressed.  

McGee is a tough character because though he is incredibly bitter, he still has some odd way of keeping to principles of his own making.  Its too early in the series to tell if he is consistent with this. Another facet of McGee is his self-loathing, it shows up here and there – particularly in little snarls that the character lets slip.  I think this self-loathing really adds another layer to the noir elements of the character and sets the character apart from all the other glib, easy-going, private investigator/amateur detective/part-time crooks that show up in novels. 

So here is book one in the Travis McGee series.  Its full of miserable people that run, more or less, in the same circles as the main character – no hero, but at least aware of his rôle.  It is a rough read for content, the sex and the 60s zeitgeist is layed on quite heavily. Recommended for mature readers. Recommended for all noir/crime readers.

Fast read, good trim on the words. I own book two and when ready, I’ll read it.

3 stars

Of Dogs and Walls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

Terminal Freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

The Falling Torch

The Falling TorchThe last novel I will review for the famous Vintage Science Fiction month of 2021 is The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008).  It is a fix-up novel published as a whole in 1959.  Originally, segments were published in science fiction magazines in 1957-1959.  This is the second Budrys novel I have read.  As with the previous review, I have owned this novel a long time, but the motivation of Vintage Science Fiction month got me to read it. I read the 1978 Jove edition with cover art by Eric Ladd. 

Budrys and I would probably have understood each other very well and yet really disliked each other.  This becomes particularly clear to me after having read this novel.  The Falling Torch, while having a wide-vision “space empires” sort of setting, is actually very personal.  Did Budrys purposely write so self-revealingly? Well, only Budrys would know the true answer to that. I feel that even if a lot of this is autobiographical, the novel likely draws from Budrys’ knowing others who ran in his circles and felt as he did about political matters. I am going to be absolutely blunt here – take it or leave it as you will:  many readers focus on the obviously political-tone of this work; parallels are drawn and history can be traced.  However, many readers in America in 2021 are going to be less able to understand the layered ruminations here that underlie a lot of this novel. Not because they are idiotic, but because the sentiments and experience that Budrys is probably writing about are also unavailable to many readers.  Indeed, maybe due to that fact, Budrys’ novel(s) can be very frustrating.

Specifically, Budrys felt genuinely countryless.  For most of my adult life I feel similarly – and I know I am not alone because when I look at my cousins and so forth, I see signs and symptoms of that same feeling. Recognizing is not the same as empathy or sympathy, though, and most of the time, via Budrys’ writing, I find him to be agonizingly stubborn and dismal. So, yes, with him and his characters I also say, as I look around, “these aren’t my people, this isn’t my home.”  And it may be the generation gap between he and I that changes his dismality into my generation’s restlessness.

vintage-sf-badgeAnyway, the first part of the book is from Thomas Harmon’s point of view, really. Who is this character? We only get bits and pieces and frankly, maybe a little more about him would have been okay in order to smooth the transitions between the segments of this novel. Harmon is the major character in the beginning and then only reappears in the last pages. It would have been nice for him to get another chunk of paragraphs so the reader could discover what he has been about.  Harmon is part of the Government in Exile – humans from Earth, living on Cheiron.  Opportunity arrives for a new action in pursing liberation to occur. The president’s son is to be sent back to Earth to make efforts to restore the homeland.

The tone of the novel is very introspective. Characters get a lot of screen time to examine their thoughts and feelings. Some of it seems honest, some of it seems utterly obnoxious.  It is challenging to be patient while characters start musing on their intentions, purpose, destiny, and morals  – especially when these moments are pasted against an action movie scenery.

He had thought better of himself than that. All his life, he had known better than to expect or desire continual selflessness from others.  He had conceived of himself as one of the few in each generation who must rise above the flesh inorder that the great majority would not be called upon to do so. He had made the choice early, knowing that by doing so he was giving up his heritage as a man enjoying humanity. – pg. 32

The largest part of the novel deals with the president’s son, Michael Wireman, who is HALO dropped onto Earth – in the middle of the mountains to meet the supposed leader of the resistance forces. This is tough reading. It is really accurate and reasonable and also completely stilted and idiotic and annoying. Its just not smooth and engaging reading. Its jarring and, at points, cartoonish. But I am not saying, though, that it is bad. Its really difficult to explain. In any case, once Michael begins to evaluate the situation and the players of the liberation/resistance, he also starts re-evaluating his personhood and his rôle in the universe. At these points, I found the character to be really distasteful and wretched. He seemed self-absorbed, two-faced, and naïve.  Its harsh because reasonably, Michael is undergoing this re-evaluation because the things he knew and was taught are contrary to what his current experiences are.  

Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What effect does the passage of time have on these positions? Is everyone locked into their worldview?  These are mighty questions to ask in a short little novel with an unlikeable main character. But at the same time, such questions do not seem completely out of place.

Again, there are brief scenes in this part of the novel that literally I have seen written in my own family’s letters. Phrases that run like: “…we were in the shadows of the woods, along the treeline……” etc.  I really dislike being so personal in this review, but I am happy to blame Budrys for it. My point in bringing this up is that, while for many readers this segment of the novel was something like an action plot that Budrys wrote, I can attest to it being realistic and not so “fictional” as readers might think.  Yes, loyalties are shifting and manipulated when you are the oppressed. But I do not think Budrys experienced such in person – he obviously knew people who did, though. 

Wireman is allowed the luxury to change sides. Surrender is often a luxury.  Once he does so, the novel changes again into an escape-evasion storyline.  Wireman has again become disillusioned and disenchanted with society.  More annoying, yet necessary rumminations occur. At times Wireman is insufferably whiney and vexing. He knows it, too, because several times during his self-reflection he questions his “right” to judge or complain or feel a certain way.  Altogether, though, its way too navel-gazing to make it fitting for a science fiction novel. 

But what of it, one way or the other?  If he was right, had he made her what she was?  And if he was wrong, was it worse to act in accordance with his judgment than to decide he might be wrong and not act at all? He had been making mistakes all his life, and now if he was going to live much longer he had to do something. Could it hurt to make a few more mistakes? And – and – for the first time in his life, this thought came to him – perhaps he was right. – pg. 132

The circling introspection gets very heavy-handed at points. A lot of reviews about this novel suggest to the reader that the novel is, at heart, an investigation into the idea of a Great Man.  I guess that is vaguely part of what is going on, but to be honest, the novel is about two characters who are homeland-less and exiled and trying to find out exactly what their position should be. The thing is most of these meditations come across as obnoxiously arrogant. At the same time, no way can I suggest that they are unrealistic. 

So, I wanted to give this novel one star at the start.  I hate how Budrys is so dismal.  I hate it because its so heavy to read his work that it makes the novels seem four times their size and weight. The edition I read must weigh fifty pounds. During the middle of the book, I gave it another star because it was so ridiculous. But realistically ridiculous. Finally, I am giving the book three stars because though the characters are all repellant, there are some thoughts in here – mixed up in the endless speculation on destiny and one’s part in the whole – that are so very honest that there should be readers who read them. Just please do not ask me which ones.

3 stars

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An Ace and a Pair

"An Ace and a Pair" by Blake Banner book cover, 2017

I found myself at a lake house for a week and I was not inclined to haul much reading material out here. I grabbed a paperback that was acquired in May, a couple non-fiction books, and my camera. Had I brought my fishing gear, this review would not be being written. Blake Banner’s An Ace and a Pair was written in 2017. I got my copy via Amazon – I believe it is print to order, which means that the last page of the book has the date it was actually printed. [Mine says: 10 May 2020 at local city.] This is the first novel in Banner’s “Dead Cold” series. It is a slender 200 page crime novel; the first I have read by Banner.

I do not know if it was because I was at a lake house in late October or what, but this novel just fit the reading zone nicely. It was the perfect read for these circumstances. So, sure, that colors my review a bit. Overall, the novel has some issues – the plot is a little difficult to follow because there are so many threads of criminals. I am sure the author was attempting to make the “mystery” complex and wanted to mislead the reader a bit. I did not bother to untangle the web of confusion of this part of the plot. There are bad guys, its hard to figure out which bad guys are scheming against which other bad guys. Does it matter? Honestly, no, not really. Still, too many characters that play no significant role.

What I really liked about this novel was that the writing was pared down and even and did not have any unnecessary wordage. Lake house reading is not supposed to be for overly-wordy, thesaurus-imitator tomes. I took a shine to the two main characters, Detectives Stone and Dehan right away. They are quite stereotypical, in places, but truthfully they know it, too. But that is okay, because the police procedural novel always works when certain established tropes are there to comfort the reader who is trying a new author/series.

The storyline has a few leaps in it – gaps that make Detective Stone seem magically intelligent. He does not always clue his partner in on his thoughts, which means the reader is left out, as well. I can see some readers being vexed by this behavior. Especially when it happens more than once. And I used the word “magical” because it seems Stone has some deductive leaps that just are amazingly lucky. For those readers who like to piece the mystery together, there will be frustration and exasperation with this. However, I do not always want to draw every thread to and from every single clue. Sometimes it is okay to just paint broad strokes, give me entertaining colors and shapes, and wrap the case up with a flourish.

Overall, a basic police procedural with engaging detectives. The ending is predictable after awhile, though. And the criminals are often just a list of names. However, for a beach read or a lake house, this novel should be able to fit into all the spaces between lounging on a deck gazing at the water and puffing on a Honduran stick of your choice. I do intend to read the next in this series.

3 stars

Japanese Gothic Tales

"Japanese Gothic Tales" - Izumi Kyoka; University of Hawai'i Press, 1996

“Japanese Gothic Tales” – Izumi Kyoka; University of Hawai’i Press, 1996

I read this collection of four stories by Izumi Kyoka (1873 – 1939) in April 2020. I decided to read this because, honestly, I was avoiding the next (chronological) novel by Yukio Mishima. This book caught my eye and I decided to read it. The author is considered a major writer of modern Japan; there is even a prize for literature that is in his name given by his home city:  Izumi Kyoka Prize for Literature (Izumi Kyouka Bungaku Shou).  He was a contemporary of Junichiro Tanizaki, Nagai Kafu, and Natsume Soseki.

This particular collection, with its title “Japanese Gothic Tales” is edited by Charles Shiro Inouye.  Inouye wrote his dissertation on Kyoka at Harvard and his deep knowledge of Kyoka shows in his extensive introduction as-well-as the end notes that serve as a brief textual analysis at the end of the book.  This book was first published in 1996 by the University of Hawai’i Press and Inouye also provides the dates for each of the four stories contained in the book.  However, I do not recall Inouye sharing why these four stories were specifically selected for this collection. Inouye also does not provide a bibliography of the author’s works. Inouye might have included one in his 1998 work The Similitude of Blossoms: A Critical Biography of Izumi Kyoka (1873–1939), Japanese Novelist and Playwright, which I do not own.

Inouye starts his introduction to this book by bringing up a comparison of Kyoka and Edgar Allan Poe (1809 – 1849). Inouye builds his discussion upon the notion of “Gothic.” Personally, I think Inouye must be very brave to make this his point of departure because, I think, in literary studies “gothic” has so many interpretations, some narrow and some wide-open, that anyone bringing the term up must also be ready to defend their usage. Its overused and often ill-used as a term/genre, in my not-so-humble opinion. However, Inouye was brave enough to use the term even in the title of the collection, so he must feel it brings some value to the collection.  As this is really my first foray into Kyoka’s writings, and because I am a novice in Japanese literary theory (if even that!), I know better than to make any further assertions on whether Inouye is making strong arguments or not. This is my way of saying, in this review I use all the terminology very loosely and tentatively.

Kyoka’s stories here collected are:

  • The Surgery Room (Gekashitsu, 1895)
  • The Holy Man of Mount Koya (Koya hijiri, 1900)
  • One Day in Spring (Shunshu / Shunshu gokoku, 1906)
  • Osen and Sokichi (Baishoku kamonanban, 1920)

All four of these stories feature elements that a reader might classify as Gothic.  For example, the usage and reiteration of specific colors (especially red), beings that are not what they seem, scenes in hospitals, clergy/religious individuals, forlorn romance, and fantastic components. If, as suggested by Inouye, there is any valid comparison between Poe and Kyoka on their place in Gothic literature, it seems to me that Inouye is more pastoral and poetic than Poe. That really does not have a whole lot of meaning, other than my stating my reader reaction to this collection. It is basically my saying that in these four stories I did not find the outright horror that is sometimes associated with Poe’s work.

The damp and sweaty plum blossoms nearby, a flame ready to flutter away into the crimson sunset, swayed brilliantly with the chatter of small birds. – pg 73 (One Day in Spring)

I see why Inouye put the first and last stories as bookends, so to speak, in this collection. They actually balance each other and work well in this collection even though they were written twenty-five years apart. It is interesting because the core of each of these stories, a sort of failed and forlorn romance, culminates in a hospital room with surgeons. And I know it seems that I am leaving something out, or as if I did not finish my thought, but that is precisely how Kyoka wrote these stories. The endings are unfinished, that is to say, they are as far as they need to go and Kyoka has the strength and bravery to let the reader come to whatever conclusion they very well like. It is not quite the same as saying that the stories are incomplete, although one might accuse me of playing semantic games here. I just mean, the stories are as complete as they need to be, whether there is a traditional “…and this is what happened. The End.” stamped on them or not.

Obviously I do not know how these stories sound and feel in their original language. However, in English, they have an extremely fragmentary feel, but not as jarring as they might be because the near-poetic wordsmithing seems to smooth out fragmented pieces. All of the stories are written as if it was a sleeper awoken who might be retelling their dreams and the linear cause and effect of reality, utterly absent in dreams, causes them to just move from scene to scene without worrying about all the pesky academic details. The reader who only enjoys very clear-cut and straightforward writing will not like these stories; I daresay they would be frustrated and find the stories to be incoherent.

The four stories involve mysterious, inscrutable women, clergymen or surgeons, and odd moments of nature in the scenes. In the first story there is a segment where Kyoka must tell us the azaleas are in bloom. The second story is magnificent for its descriptions of nature; in particular a frightful, deep forest in the mountains.  The third story has a kigo (seasonal word) right in its title (Spring) and devotes long sections to describing rapeseed fields/blossoms. The fourth story has intense imagery describing rains, mud, and the moon.

“…the woman wore thick, lacquered clogs, fastened with wisteria-colored thongs and splashed with mud.” – pg. 141 (Osen and Sokichi)

At the end of the day, I really won’t care much about the stories for the plots. I do not actually feel like the characters were all that important either. I give the shortest of the four stories the highest marks, because it is so abrupt and disturbing and poignant. The second story is remarkable not for any character or plot, but I want to sit down with J. R. R. Tolkien and also Terry Brooks (author of The Sword of Shannara, 1977) and I want to talk about, really talk about, those forest scenes and those descriptions. I will remember this story for its images of nature. The third story is the weakest of the bunch. I really feel that Kyoka wanted the reader to get something from this, maybe a sense of third-party witnessing unrequited love? or something? but the story gets really meandering – just like its main character. The descriptions of water, though, are well done. Finally, the last story, with its weird focus on eyebrows is the strangest of the four. However, I feel it probably best explains a lot of Kyoka as a person and as a writer and the topics that were significant to him and his work.

Do I know what these stories were all about? Honestly, no, not really. But that does not mean that they are crap or I am stupid. “One Day in Spring” is a story retold in ‘onion layers’ – a previous traveler told segments to a temple priest, who is telling segments currently to a traveler, who somehow can be discussed by a narrator, as well. Its not easy to follow.  Still, I really feel like the value in this collection is in the unique manner of storytelling and sudden vivid descriptions. This is not, however, some pretty collection of nature poems; there is plenty of “Gothic” material here:  death, fear, misery, and deformity.  Therefore, this collection is for very strong readers.

3 stars

The Last

THe LastThe Last by Hanna Jameson was first published in April of 2019. I read the hardback edition at the end of 2019 into 2020. I have not read anything by the author previously.  Overall, there are two things that drew me to the novel; the first is the appealing cover and the second is the concept of a post-apocalyptic survival story in a Swiss hotel.

Overall, I am not disappointed in this novel.  It was a quick read, honestly, and I felt that the plot was sufficiently written. I think the author attempted to have three layers of storyline in this plot – the overarching nuclear-war/survival situation, the murder-mystery of a found body, and then the personal drama of the main character (who is also the narrator). For the most part, the entire novel takes place at (or nearby) the L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland.

I really wanted more out of the setting.  The setting is such a hook for readers and the entire storyline is running around it. I certainly could have enjoyed a little more of the setting being described. The majority of the novel takes place in a hotel – and I have literally no picture of it; I do not think this is such a good thing.  No doubt the narrator, who is keeping a sort of diary might not be inclined to sit around describing rooms and hallways – but, at the same time, soaking the reader in the physicality of the setting might have balanced out some of the melodrama.

I disliked all of the characters. Not a one of them did I care about, which is fine, I do not need to befriend characters.  The characters all seemed, to me, to be exceedingly dramatic.  By this I mean, they all had personal turmoil that defined and overwhelmed their existence. I got weary, quickly, of all their hangups and issues and psychologies. I think this novel was touted as a bit of a “psychological thriller,” but to my mind, that means that the author has the heavy lift of building atmospheric suspense and intensity. It is not the same as just making the reader feel like the characters need to spend a lot of time with a therapist.

Some of these problems that I have with the novel suggest my sensing that the author is young. There is nothing wrong with being a young author, of course. However, and I know this is a statement that can only come from the old – it shows when the author is just a young cub. There is nothing wrong with this – let me reiterate. However, it has a different tone and style and understanding than if the author was much older. That being said, I do not think that I am the intended target audience. So, when the main character, Jon, engages in ethical ruminations or gets ensnared in discussions about theism,  politics, and/or history – it seems very mundane to me.  Certainly such discussions might occur in such situations, but the novel does not get points for leaving a lot of the discussions as just Cratylus-style “and there is this thought and also that one.”

At one brief point I was “creeped out” by the story. That was the most fun had with the thing. Overall the story did not quite reach the “suspenseful” and “intensity” level that I feel was potentially there.  The book ended up being a decent read about Jon’s wonderings. Some minor adventures take place, but in none of them did the threat seem real enough or intense enough. Somehow though the reader knew the stakes were high, the way it played out was like a conservative NFL running-game oriented offense.

The ending contains some weird, it ties some plot points together. Jameson clearly wanted to keep a drop of the “unknown/esoteric/supernatural/other-worldly” in the story. It works fairly well here, in the sense that I understand what the author did, but it was not a ‘wow.’

All of this being said, I do think the author has some good skill and I would be inclined to read a future work of theirs. This one just felt a little flatline for what it offered, which is a shame, because I am a total sucker for survival stories that include singular locations.

3 stars

Dead Man Walking

DMWDead Man Walking by Simon R. Green is the second novel (2016) in the Ishmael Jones series. I read the first novel (The Dark Side of the Road) early in January 2017 and knew I would continue in the series. I liked the timing of reading the novel because it is a fast-paced, easy-reader sort of thing without much brain-drain whatsoever. The second novel was the same, a little less gory, though, but still with copious amounts of fun. A really good read for lazy winter holiday break between lounging and liquor and languishing.

What is this series? Its sort of a spy organization combined with noir British detective stories and rural country homes with monsters. Needless to say, this is not high-brow stuff. Its fun, though, and if you read so much un-fun literature that you cannot enjoy the fun stuff, you have got this whole reading thing all wrong.

The novel has some repetitive lines, which might exasperate readers who are looking for a different (more literary?) sort of novel. But it works here and I like it. Its a comfortable feeling. There are tropes and obvious items and goofy elements, too, but its all in fun. The writing is speedy and I have grown fonder of Ishmael in this second book.

I admit, in the first book I did not know what to expect. I was a little surprised, but I found it gripping and intriguing and a quite a bit creepy in parts. There was a lot of gore – but it was fitting with the storyline. Now that I am more familiar with the characters and the style, it feels like spending the holiday break with some friends.

Penny (the supporting character) is a riot. Even when you know the author is trying to be funny and amuse us very heavy-handedly, it works. I laughed aloud a couple of times – earning some quizzical looks from my household. Isn’t the book I’m reading some sort of noir horror novel? Why am I laughing?

Well, I took a dislike to the culprit early on. I am not sure his motive was anything other than very “typical.” And as far as doing any detecting or investigating, the characters just got shoved around the country house here and there, running around always after-the-fact and too-late. None of this would be good writing for those expert detective club grandmasters. So, why is it so engaging? I think because it does not take itself overly-seriously and there is always going to be a fun/exciting appeal to creepy country homes with murder and spies.

Yes, I intend to read the next book in the series. Yes, its as goofy as you would expect. Yes, I recommend it to, more or less, all readers.

3 stars

One Rough Man

12092971I really do not like the title of this novel because it just seems, in 2019, to be something one would find in the romance novel section, full of cliches.  Instead, One Rough Man by Brad Taylor is totally an action-thriller pseudo-pulp novel full of gunfire and operators. There are terrorists and government officials and Navy SEALs all over the place. Its also the first novel by the author; published 2011. I read the mass market paperback that I think I picked up used somewhere.

I do not read a lot of modern genre fiction like this. This year I have tried to clean off some of my tbr-list and I have found a number of novels like this one in the stacks. These novels are tasty treats; good for down-time and relaxed afternoons.  This one actually surprised me a little because it was a little lengthy. I feel like maybe it should have ended 50-100 pages sooner. Not that the story is bad, but one can only have just so many firefights in one novel. 104 chapters are inside with about two to four pages per chapter.

Good things first:  the author’s realism on most points. A lot of novels like this can get over-the-top quickly with unbelieveable situations and heroics. However, if readers are being honest, these books are not read for their perfect reasonability. Part of their charm is their ability to present a hero that really does exceed expectations and maybe is a little better at everything that he ought to be. Sure, some elements here are a little exaggerated, but I was actually surprised at how realistic the author played it.  Do not get me wrong, the main character/hero is Pike Logan and bullets just miss him. He is ridiculously good at what he does, but he does seem to have a helluva lot of luck on his side. But, good for the author on this one, the character recognizes it and marvels over it. He knows when his luck is unbelieveably good.

I liked the lack of sex in the novel. Usually the thing with action novels is that they tend to this tedious stereotyping of characters and their demeanors. I would not have been surprised to read about the hero rescuing a young lass from a building that was exploding, surviving a firefight with a country’s entire infantry forces, and then having sex in a rundown, hotel outside of town. This is what action movies have shown us happens! Its absurd and idiotic. In this novel, however, the fight scenes are relatively realistic – and I like how the author presents the main character’s decision making when entering these fights and making in-operation choices. I like how the author makes the operators in this novel realistic in their actions and opinions – for the most part. That is, the soldiers are not all flamboyant donkeys and the bad guys are not outlandish and comical.  The reactions of the characters are realistic, particularly when they make a mistake or when they are uncomfortable.

The thing that the author excels at is letting the reader see how situations develop, how events are monitored and evaluated, and how small groups plan and enact their battles. Time and again I was under the impression that the author had a lot of first-hand knowledge of directing these operations. His expertise really added to the quality of the story. Without it, the story surely would have been just another action splatter.

The supporting cast were all well written. I mean, sure, there is a lot of “coincidence” and luck. Some of that is tough to believe. However, this is a novel and its to be read for entertainment. Things that are mundane and typical are really rarely entertaining. So, okay, deal with the fact that the female main character, Jennifer, has the physical abilities of a parkour/circus expert. How handy for this sort of storyline!

Jennifer is also pleasantly snarky, too. I say pleasantly because I mean that she was realistic and her sarcasm did not seem “scripted” and stilted.

“What do we do now? Are we still going to D.C., or are we headed to Mexico to find a cheap house to spend the rest of our lives?” – pg. 321, chapter 63

Overall the dialogue was very good. I am finding, as I read more contemporary books, that the dialogue often seems unnatural or stilted or just plain stupid. Dialogue has to be convincing for the whole book to work. A character can be described and I can get a play-by-play, but if their conversation seems like an overlay put on the skeleton, it ruins the whole book and I’m an unconvinced, disappointed reader.

As I met the bad guys and the opportunists in the book I did feel angry and fretted over the well-being of our heroes. I guess this is to say that I was invested reading the story and I really do dislike the devious, evil bad guys.

My concern for this series is that I wonder if the main character gets tedious? He is likeable and definitely highly-skilled. But does the reader tire of hearing his thoughts and reading about his emotional struggles? Will readers get bored with seeing just how awesome Pike Logan is? What is the mileage on characters like this?

Anyway, more or less, I can recommend this to all readers. It is kind of a long read, but I think it is a solid entertainment, particularly for fans of action-thrillers and gear-geeks. In reality, this is somewhere between three and four stars.

3 stars