3 Stars

The Literary Conference

The Literary ConferenceI had “just” finished a César Aira (b. 1949) novel in late January, but here I am having read another. I finished The Literary Conference last night.  I cannot help it; I find these strange little novels utterly enticing and, I guess, addictive. They are unique and fill this odd niche sort of space. I have no idea regarding the dates of publishing for this book. According to the front matter of the book in front of me, the novella was originally published in 2006 as El congreso de literatura.  I am not going to lie – on Wikipedia [the Source of Truth and Wisdom] this is listed as being published in 1997. It does feel like an earlier work by Aira (I say as if I am an Aira-expert).  My edition is the New Directions paperback with cover art by Rodrigo Corral, translated by Katherine Silver.

The main thing that I love about the Aira novels, and his writing style, is his ability to very subtly mix reality and fiction. I have read somewhere that he has a particular writing process involving cafés in the morning. He does not seem to agonize over his writing, either. In other words, once written he does not revise and edit endlessly. I do not think he even communicates with publishers or translators unless truly necessary. Now, I want to say here that this is definitely a privilege because most publishers and translators do not “allow” writers this kind of treatment. Overall, Aira does have a touch of elitistm about him; this does not bother me. Anyway, short-form novellas work for him. He seems slightly annoyed when having to put his writing into a category. Is it poetry? Fairy tales? Allegory? Autobiographical? It is what it is, I think, and our desperate obsession with pigeon-holing things makes readers uncomfortable when thinking about an Aira “novel.”

Until now, I have been drawing a portrait of a character who represents me in more or less fair and realistic – even if partial – terms. Until now, he could have been taken for a cold, clear-headed scientist writing a well-reasoned memoir in which even emotions take on an icy edge. . . To complete the portrait, though, we would need to paint in a background of passion, so alive and excessive that it makes the rest tremble.

It would be counterproductive to go into too many details, so I won’t. I know myself and I know that the triumph of my false modesty when I sit down to write would translate into such absurd fairy tales that I don’t know where it would end up. — pg 43

Is Aira being tongue-in-cheek? Because factually, this book’s “storyline” is a dizzying absurd tale that no, I do not think even the most seasoned reader would predict.  When Aira uses the pronoun I, which I is he speaking of? The character César? The writer César? Or yet another, developing, César?  Decide however you like – when I am reading Aira and have these sorts of pauses and questions, when I feel the story has moved beyond what I find clear, I just think of Aira having a coffee at a table in a café in the early morning and just letting his pen tell the story while he pays a small amount of attention to the activity on the downtown streets around him. Writing like that, an author does not really agonize over the problems of Identity and Self. So what if the plot is veering around?

Hence the subtle shift from reality to fiction – hanging around on the line of each, which apparently, runs right through the café our author is sipping beverages at.  Speaking of “lines” – this is precisely the apropos moment to insert the wild side-story of the Macuto Line – a old pirate “cable” that runs around the lagoon by the Caribbean Sea that leads to treasure. No, this is not real – its part of Aira’s deadpan storytelling that makes the reader unsure what is real and historical and what is just some dip into some absurd idea he had at the café table.

Lines and translations. Those are, I think, Aira’s starting points in this little work. Maybe he is following these lines and translations through the character, César, whom the author has made into a mad scientist. What do the lines and translations symbolize or what is the author trying to show us? I feel like he is just having a fun time writing and seeing where things go.

Now, the actual storyline is a bit odd (no kidding, right?). I mean we have this mad scientist who is ALSO a literary author. He is going to a literary conference in Venezuela where they are staging one of his plays. His viewing of his own play, by the way, has a very unique feel to it and probably someone should be writing an essay just on that segment. Anyway, the mad scientist is cloning Carlos Fuentes – and his great attempt becomes a huge disaster. When this happens in this little novel, it is one of the most outrageous, but deadpan, moments I have ever read. The little novella is getting too introspective and esoteric and then suddenly – a catastrophe that you could never have guessed! Its awesome. And then when the explanation for what is happening is given, it is laugh aloud, slap your thigh, giggle for awhile legit funny.

The most quoted lines of this whole story are these; and I would never not join the crowd in once again quoting them:

Only through minimalism is it possible to achieve the asymmetry that for me is the flower of art; complications inevitably form heavy symmetries, which are vulgar and overwrought.

But my mania – to be constantly adding things, episodes, characters, paragraphs, to be constantly veering off course, branching out – is fatal. It must be due to insecurity, fear that the basics are not enough, so I have to keep adding more and more adornment until I achieve a kind of surrealist rococo, which exasperates me more than it does anybody else. – pg. 59

Yes, I am sure this aggravating to the author Aira. It is also, probably, why he does not revise much and just sends his writing away as fast as reasonably possible without wanting to linger over it and return to it. However, this sort of “mania” as he calls it, mixed with that minimalism, is the very thing that brings so much delight and enjoyment to us his readers.

This is not an easy novel to read. On the other hand, the prose is straightforward and uncomplicated. Aira does not sound obnoxious. He has this matter-of-fact delivery that is so engaging when contrasted with the absurd chaos his tales run to. Recommended for strong readers.

4 stars


RoadmarksRoadmarks by Roger Zelazny (1937 – 1995) was first published in 1979.  I had heard it can be a difficult read due to its structure and style.  I would agree with that, but that sort of stuff works out at least midway through the novel.  The problem is that, at best, I can describe this novel as “interesting” when there is so much about it that should have developed into awesome and tremendous.

This is the second Zelazny novel that I have read, I do own several more to get through, but my interest in them is waning quite a bit. As with the previous novel that I read, This Immortal (1966), I get this feeling that Zelazny thinks he is the only chap to ever crack open a history book and he must be some kinda special because he has read some literature.  To me he comes across as supercilious and obnoxious, which makes me grumpy. Do not get me wrong – I like erudite, intelligent, and clever authors. I like to read books that have some meat to them and the authors have big brain activity. I just do not want a cocky, snarky chap waving his ancient Greek quotes around at me. Nor do I need the lengthy French poems to prove he can read French poems.

Listen, I admit this is non-rational. Its just the feeling I get reading these novels. Others do feel differently, I am sure.

Problems with this novel:  the novel is too short and too brisk to give the ideas and layout the room it needs to develop and breathe. Like I said above, so many neat ideas in such an unusual format that it is a supremely interesting novel. But capping at 189 pages, it does not give the reader enough of what is really, really good. It does not allow the ideas to play out. And here is the thing:  every one of us has great ideas, I am certain of it. It is in the execution of the ideas that truly tests our ideas and our skill. Move that idea from theory into praxis, my friends.  Half-baked potential is always going to be just that. Frankly, the ideas in this novel are so interesting that they deserve a better execution – and the readers are robbed of that.

Or maybe our author could not get the novel further………. Maybe it was 1979 and after the last segments were written the author felt “good enough” and “oh, aren’t I avant garde!” and that was it.

Dragons. I hated the whole element/theme of dragons in this. I do not want to be crass, but I found it stupid.

From what I have already said, you would think I just hated this novel. I did not. In fact, I really liked it. I loved banging down the Road in a beater truck that is also a Transformer when it gets the aid of Baudelaire’s “Alexa” device. I totally loved the books qua A.I., in other words.  I also think this is one of the better time-manipulation stories because a Road with exits and on-ramps that relate, in some way, to history is fantastic. I mean, Zelazny is also brazen and bold because in chapter 2 (or one, however you like) we meet a character named Adolph looking for the time-place where “he won.” So, Zelazny shows us straight-away that he is not going to play it safe, let’s say, with his times and characters.

There are constant cigars, odd scenes in roadside hotels, and a completely strange robot that has at some point sustained damage and now spends its time as a potter in a cave. All of these elements do a great job of keeping the reader off-guard and making the storyline lively.  However, some of the motives of the characters are absent or vague and underwritten. One guy is looking for his father, for no real reason. One guy is trying to “find himself.”  A couple of characters are just hangers-on, somehow voluntarily tying their fate to the randomness of other characters. So, at the end, the novel has to end abruptly and without resolutions. There never was a point to it anyway. It was an exercise in ideas, not in novel-writing or character development or something.

I would certainly have loved a “sequel” or a spin-off wherein the author let us have more fun with the robots or characters from history. I think the hero-agenda that Zelazny is known for is present here, but it does not spoil anything. We can have a new hero for the sequel without taking anything away from Red Dorakeen (the main character).  This is not really wishful thinking about what the novel might have been or what might have followed it. It is more so a realizing that this novel wanted me to waste my time on the Road as well. However, I am not as special, I guess, as Red Dorakeen and the purposelessness of a long road ahead with no particular destination does not appeal.

I have no idea what to say about Timyin Tin. Its like a caricature of a Shaolin monk. I find this a lot in society; it does not surprise me. But I feel Timyin Tin should have gotten more page-time or less, or another novel or just been omitted altogether. I am at a loss with this character. He needs a whole different novel series or something

Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time (1961) does it better. And Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979) does, too. No, those are not the same as Roadmarks, but I would hands down give those five stars.  For all its interesting quirkiness, Roadmarks is fairly empty. Readers should read this novel so they know what the heck the rest of us are talking about. Yes, its a bit difficult. Yes, it is strange. A very interesting novel is the best I can say.

3 stars

Burglars Can’t Be Choosers

Burglars Cant Be ChoosersBurglars Can’t Be Choosers by Lawrence Block (b. 1938) was first published in 1977. It is the first in his series that stars Bernie Rhodenbarr. As Block tells it, the story was written during a time when he was undergoing a rough time as a writer, etc. I think the story is that he was moving around the country from NYC to various points and finally he finished the thing in Greenville, SC.  At that time, Block did not anticipate writing other Bernie Rhodenbarr stories. (I think there are now thirteen in this series.)

I bought my paperback copy used for $1 years ago. It is probably truer to say decades ago. At least 2004, let’s say. I just never felt like actually reading it before now. It has a ridiculously bright orange cover that just screams for attention, but Block is not for everyone.  I think I own a stack of his novels around here somewhere; maybe having read this one will lead to more. I have read Hit Man, but I need to re-read it because I think I enjoyed it, but I cannot remember it and I would like to read the rest of that series. I am, obviously, going to live to be 450 years old.

The good:  this is a feisty, fast-paced novel that can be read very quickly.  There is some wit, some ribald stuff, and a dash of seriousness. Overall, this is one of Block’s lighthearted comical novels.  I think I even liked how the ending played out and I found the bad guys  consistent.

The bad:  this novel is dated. So much of it just would not and can not take place anymore. So much of this novel becomes impossible/irrelevant with the technology we have today.  I can take this displacement, but readers born 2000+ are probably going to be a wee bit frustrated with this novel.

Bernie Rhodenbarr is, for the most part, a self-made burglar. He taught himself lockpicking and basic skills for the job of burgling people. He has been to jail for his activities, though, so he does not have some magical perfect record.  He does not go in for violence and destruction.  He feels bad when he is outed at his residence, a NYC apartment building. He has an honest respect for the police that rather evens the playing field for Block’s storyline. He is also a Gemini, just so you know.

This novel can make a case for being a type of “locked-room” mystery. Maybe not exactly to definition, but it has elements that would fit in that category.  The main point of the story is that Bernie is discovered by cops while burgling a place – and there is a dead guy in the place.  Bernie is also, clearly, as dashing and handsome a fellow as any woman could want, because both of the female characters in the novel definitely throw themselves at him. Again, this is part of, I think, Block’s writing, the genre, and the expectations for airport novels in the 1970s.

The reader does not get all of Bernie’s thoughts, which is how the story gets to its conclusion. Bernie figures everything out and then lets us all know.  I think the astute reader will put together who did what and when. There are not a lot of red herrings or misdirection in this one. Further, some of the elements have a “too obvious” feel to them when they happen. Nevertheless, this is a fast-paced lighter-side novel, not a dark noir. So, all of Bernie’s wit feels normal and carries along the storyline even when it does seem utterly unlikely.

For the most part the story is conversation – either between characters or the thoughts in Bernie’s head.  There is not a whole lot of prose used on description or background. This keeps the 289 pages flipping quickly and the reader does not have time to forget any detail or get sidetracked. Zipping to the end there is not much substance to the novel; and there is too much, I guess, of that 70s swagger to it.

There is nothing here to hand out awards for since it is just a speedy NYC tale. Its not something, maybe, you give to your friend who only reads the purist, cleanest fiction, but everyone else should be able to handle it. Crime-light, if you will.

3 stars

Dirty Deeds 2

dirty deeds 2I am very happily plowing through the stacks and shelves around my home lately.  I have been reading, of course, heavy and tiring things like Foucault’s lectures (biopower) and a book on Mongolian warfare (invasions). Oh, also a really good book on growing and using hostas. Lately, I have been trying to read for quantity and mainly just very light, easy-breezy reads. I have not felt too much like some intricate tome of grand seriousness.

So I read the second book in Armand Rosamilia’s Dirty Deeds series. It is self-published/independently published crime fiction. I read the first book in the series in 2021 and enjoyed it. It ends on a “cliffhanger” (please read this as:  a cheat to get the readers to buy the next book in the series.)  Book two has been hanging around since then, so I decided to knock out this read without wasting any more time.

These books, which are just very short novels, are like reading 3 Musketeers bars. They are fun and easy to eat and absolutely nothing that one consumes all of the time.  The brute fact is that these stories are easy readers, fun, and amusing.  It is easy to follow the characters around, easy to suspend disbelief over the storyline or plot elements.  The stories require nothing of the reader except a willingness to chuckle at stupid, but clean, humor.

I feel a bit odd trying to “review” these books because they do not lend themselves to reviews. Okay, since they are self-published/independently published there are a few typos/errors (particularly around chapter 11 where even character names are typos).  Overall, this was not pervasive through the entire book. I am sure a quick edit would fix this – do people bother to have draft readers at all anymore? It does not matter. Any reader that is critiquing this book with any kind of vigor needs to stop because this is just not that sort of reading.

This is two hundred pages of easy font reading.  Marisa has been kidnapped.  A handful of characters converge during the main character’s efforts to find and rescue Marisa. Every element is superficial and maybe a touch stereotyped. Remember, this is to be read on hazy springtime days when the pollen has fallen two-inches thick and the chalky stuff is coating your eyebrows. No one is reading this to compare it to Graham Greene. As a reader, I do not want to plod through descriptions and backgrounds and esoteric theories. Just get in the car, stop at Taco Bell, and answer the phone when it rings.  Stake out the hotel, have another coffee, argue with the FBI agent.  See? Nothing needs to be overwrought or wrung out. No problem.

I honestly do not know why I like these stories. I think I like the main character and the setting. I like how the stories are amusing and almost made for lightweight TV series:  like Monk or Psych or something. Its like reading popcorn.  I cannot read these books consecutively, but they fit the bill when all my other reading and activities is heavy and  exhausting.  I’ve been nursing a bone bruise on my thumb from a punch that landed incorrectly. I have been trying to do some stuff outdoors daily to bring things up to speed for spring. I do not want to spend my time reading solely on the dispositif  and its effects.  I actually like Rosamilia’s writing because I feel like he knows what he wants to write and writes it. He seems comfortable not trying to be some other writer.

Anyway, I am enjoying clearing the to-be-read piles and reading adventurous fun things. Having a blast in 2023!

3 stars

Sweet Silver Blues

Sweet Silver Blues 2

At the end of February I finished Sweet Silver Blues by Glen Cook. It was first published in 1987 with cover art by Tim Hildebrandt. The novel is the first in the Garrett, P.I. series. I have read Cook before and enjoyed the read. This novel is everything one would expect in 1987, which was surprisingly comfortable and familiar to me as I read. I kept thinking to myself, “well, we will never see novels like this again” and “boy, this feels like the 80s.”  I am not saying this is good or bad, I am just sharing that this is very much of its time. 

True to his writing style in other novels, Cook is spare in the details. He keeps the whole story flying along by use of bantering conversation. He does not write out every step of the way for the reader – he does expect the reader to fill in the gaps and surmise what has happened in the interval.  I do not feel this is really done nowadays in current fantasy.  I feel like now everyone details every step, every moment, lest the reader get lost or separated from the characters as, say, they march from a pier to a tavern. On occasion, the spare writing and the action-stylings makes it difficult to follow what specifically is happening – but it does not really matter what the specifics are. 

The expected 80s fantasy tropes are present and fun. Taverns and bars and a variety of fantasy species. There is a super fun thread between two characters related to health/diet and food. Its totally amusing and runs the length of the book; a subtle way to get the reader to engage with the characters without forcing them upon us. 

I went to see my major right after I breakfasted, three eggs gently fried in the grease of a half pound of bacon slowly cooked to a crisp, a mountain of griddle cakes on the side, heavily buttered and buried in strawberry jam.  Morley was despondent. He began holding a wake for my health. – pg. 128, chapter 27

The main character, Garrett, is a private investigator of sorts, probably a pre-cursor to the Harry Dresdens, Ishmael Jones, and Alex Verus of the now-world.  Garrett is ex-military (he is no fan of the military or the never-ending war that he had to attend) and he now runs a shop in TunFaire.  He drinks a lot, does odd jobs, and knows a lot of strange characters. We do not get much of Garrett’s background whatsoever, which is fine. I have gotten very weary of the long stories of a tormented background that somehow are the reason for whatever the character is currently. Garrett is awoken one morning by the Tate family, a family of gnomes.  The Tates have run into a sort of legal issue with one of their members being recently deceased and having a fortune in precious metal.

Its true:  an inheritance case among gnomes does not sound all that interesting.  The interesting part comes from the travel-adventure and the other, criminal, parties that are interested in the fortune in question. 

There are a number of parties interested, too. Most of them with criminal, malicious intent. There is also a sidestory that creeps about with Morley and his business intentions. Most of these threads, to be honest, get tangled and lost. I am not sure that the plot makes sense to the degree that it should or was written capably enough to produce the plot. At the end of the day, though, the story is a fantasy adventure and it seems like it all works out in the end.

Interestingly, there are a number of species of creatures that we do not see much in fantasy any more. For example, I do not know the last time I read a book with a centaur in it. There is also a Loghyr, which is a very strange character that in this novel is playing the rôle exactly of Nero Wolfe.  Garrett might borrow a bit from Archie Goodwin whenever he meets the Loghyr for a consultation.  I probably added a star to my rating just because this element of the story amuses me.

The best thing about the story, maybe, is that the vampires in it are bad. Not just bad vampires, but bad creatures. There is nothing romantic, sparkly, or intriguing about them whatsoever. Thank you, 80s.

There are enough fun things to make this series something I would continue reading. Especially since, currently, I am reading adventure, action, pulpy things. Garrett is interesting enough to read onward and the world populated by unicorns, vampires, and gnomes is different enough from the typical farm-boy progressions with elves and dwarves. I also like how the entire book is sloshed in beer, food, and mayhem. Truthfully, the banter does display a very, let us say, male perspective, so the book is probably geared toward a male audience. This sort of writing does not go over too well in 2023, I think. But the 80s were a blast and people should ingest this novel as the junk food that it is.

3 stars

The Engines of God

The Engines of GodOver the weekend I finished The Engines of God by Jack McDevitt (1935).  The novel was first published in 1994 and is the first in the Academy series. There is a long gap between this novel and the next in the series, so I am not fully convinced this book was supposed to be a series. The second novel, Deepsix, was published in 2001 and the last few pages of The Engines of God really seem like they are finalizing and there is no further except in the imagination of readers. I read the ACE edition with cover art by Bob Eggleton.

The first few chapters were, for me, very slow-going. I had been concerned that this would be like one of those Alastair Reynolds, Greg Bear, Peter Hamilton novels. I was unsure that I currently had the stamina to read a slog. A few further chapters in, though, the book does settle into a nice mellow pacing. In fact, this novel is actually exactly what I think of when I hear the words “space opera.” There is nothing I have read that more fits that category than this novel.  I think the book has suffered criticism through the years because readers have approached it wanting it to be something akin to one of those authors I mentioned above, but it just is not. That is not to say that it is pulpy or goofy.

The basic plot of the novel involves alien structures that a team of space-archeologists/anthropologists is working on placing in a historical timeline and/or researching to perhaps locate such aliens (extinct or not). At times, some of the threads of this plot were difficult for me to follow – not because, I think, that it is hard science or that it is too big a concept – honestly, I think the writing just does not sharpen the resolution enough on what is going on. Perhaps, there is not really all that much there, too. So, the concept is made to seem bigger than it is and is kept somewhat just out of focus. At least, this is how it felt to me.

In my opinion, this is not a hard-science fiction novel. This is a space opera that tries to be realistic. I remember 1994 and it is 2023 now and The Engines of God mainly takes place in the years around 2202:  and I do not think McDevitt got far enough into the future with his story. That is to say, I think the dying earth concept is pretty legit (will we make it to 2202?) but I feel his cultural and sociological concepts are right back in the 1990s. Sure, some of the technology seems sufficiently advanced, I suppose. I feel those things, too, would be further along. When I am feeling rueful and cynical, I might think I am being too optimistic. I think the author just tried to write his story with a realism so that his reader would feel the characters could be taken seriously as the main focus is on the “big idea” of the alien monuments etc. and not really on the technology of the times. The failpoint is that the author made the novel realistic to 1994… not 2200. And of course, only in science fiction can readers make such epistemological complaints, I suppose.

I think the main complaint of readers who did not like this novel is they felt they could not “engage” with the characters, and that the plot and characters were not immersive. It seems to me like that is a sentiment about the readers. I, personally, had no problem whatsoever liking the characters – they are all likeable and have their plusses and minutes, just like real people. I enjoyed the characters quite a bit. I felt they were interesting folk, if a bit scattered. Also, their conversation/dialogue was on par with the expectations I have for a 1990s space opera. Some of the “immersion” factor that readers talk about escapes me. However, I think I can make some guesses about it. The Engines of God is a super chill read. It is a space opera like daytime soap operas on television with a couple of shuttles, anti-gravity discussions, and some galactic star references. Even the two or three “action scenes” in the novel are just easy reading. I feel bad, in some way; the characters are having life or death moments and I am utterly mellow. Hey, characters do die! Characters do experience stress and drama and all of the key ups and downs of novels, but its all written so relaxed that its not a big deal, somehow. Hence some readers feeling it is not immersive.  However, for me, this is part of space opera:  no matter what happens, the show goes on.

The nitpicking:  what is the author’s fixation with Chablis? I was appalled and it was probably my biggest emotional reaction to the book, when the main character has a steak with a glass of Chablis. I just chalked it up to a weird moment. But then! Later on several characters are on the surface of a planet doing their archeological work (or whatever they think they are doing) and after hours they break out a few bottles of Chablis. The future is bleak, my friends………

Another thing, well, because this is a space opera and the plot moves on, there is an oddness to how the characters experience trauma, both physical and psychological, and then can suddenly refocus back into their work. Its jarring and strange. But at the same time, well, as a reader I certainly do not want to be dragged through some lengthy convalescing and rehabilitation scenes!

The main problem with the novel is that everything has soft edges. The overarching problematic (the aliens and their monuments) has blurry edges. The science has soft edges. The roles of the characters and their areas of expertise are all over the place and sketchy and random. In fact, its difficult to know if these members of “The Academy” are anthropologists or archeologists or engineers (and that too has so many very important subdivisions!). Its just like everyone – including all the pilots – is a generic scientist. Blurry and soft and all the inexactitude and vagueness that is kept in soap operas so that those forms of media can perpetually self-replicate as needed in any direction.  However, this should not be a criticism – because if a reader is looking for a general science fiction space opera: here it is. A lot of readers who tend to write critical reviews think every reader is looking for what they are. There is always something to be remeasured with regard to expectations of novels.

In the second half of the novel, some characters are researching/exploring a planet and of course things go sideways because people do not stick to their orders, make ridiculously stupid errors, and fail to use any kind of common sense. Do not attack the characters please, because I see these errors every day from real humans. Anyway, the scenes in this segment are very action-thriller (but chill…) and actually rather amusing. Native life forms with maybe hive-mind attack the “away team” and I think any good horror/SF flick director could make a movie just out of the team on this planet and their evasion and escape. It is sad when characters do not make it, but its worth it (maybe?) when the threat bringers are so savage in their comic book styling.

Overall, a good 3.47 stars. I do not know what that means. I am giving it three stars. I will likely read more in the Academy series because if I need some chill space opera, I like knowing where to find it. Plus, I think readers are too harsh on the 1990s. Recommended for readers who want beach-read science fiction and for readers who can separate textbook from fiction.

3 stars

The Bormann Testament

The Bormann TestamentI read this novel during these days because of silly reasons:  I wanted to challenge myself to get one more book read in January. So I purposely selected a shorter, speedy novel. Suffice it to say, I did not have any high expectations of the novel and perhaps that is the best way to read all novels. The Bormann Testament by Jack Higgins (1929 – 2022) was originally published in 1962 as The Testament of Caspar Schultz.  The Bormann Testament is the retitled version republished in 2006.  Higgins has a brief note at the start of the book that explains this. Allegedly, in the early 60s, it was not a legally/politically smart thing to allude to Martin Bormann (1900 – 1945), but this 2006 version reasserted the desired title and “a bit more” content.  This is also one of Higgins’ earlier novels, maybe his sixth overall, I think.

As I confessed, I grabbed this book from my to-be-read abyss solely because I wanted a fast reading shorter novel to make myself feel impressed with myself for reading six fiction novels this January. The plot has a hint of literary/publishing to it that I enjoyed. Overall, it is a simple plot, not something from the hands of Brandon Sanderson or George R. R. Martin.  Information of a document has surfaced, it has incriminating information in it, and the seller is trying to find a buyer – obviously without attracting the attentions of those it incriminates. Insert our main character, Paul Chevasse, and the book leaps into action.

Happily turning the pages at the pace I was hoping for, I was relieved that I was reading a very spare, maybe too much so, story. After having finished Reliquary, I have been considering how many novels there are that just are too bulky for their own good.  Not every story needs the grueling amount of detail or backstory that some authors insist on having. As I say that, though, I think from readers nowadays there is a large amount noise about “immersive” stories.  Many readers seem to really enjoy the detail and piece-by-piece builds of every element in the story. Do not get me wrong, sometimes this sort of book is wonderful to read, as well. However, I do strongly believe that there is plenty of room for a very spare writing without very much description. It works particularly well in the spy/thriller drama, I think.

I know there are readers who will complain that the characters and plotting in this novel are incomplete, paper-thin, or silly. They will complain about tropes and ridiculous scenes. Overall, I think most readers will say this novel has a somewhat superficial style to it. It does, they are correct, but that is not a bad thing. In fact it is because some of the scenes are so “expected” that the novel is delightful. For example, there is an amusing scene in chapter eight with Gisele that is light-hearted and contrived, but maybe do not take it so seriously and enjoy the fun of it!

There is gunplay and trains and cigars and Dobermanns and manuscripts and none of it has to have a 200-page backstory. It is what it is – stop getting so morose over not knowing the main character’s shoe size, his childhood pet, or all his motives and feelings about everything. I did not take an immediate shine to Paul Chevasse.  I did not dislike him, but I wanted to see how it was all going to go. After all, this novel was just going to be a tally mark for me. Lo and behold, by the end of the novel, I actually like the chap well enough and without having to have all the unnecessary backstory.  Now, that being said, there is one point that I want to complain about.  So, allegedly, Chevasse was originally a professor of languages – was approached by the Agency and became Special Agent. My only nitpick with this is that professors do not often turn easily into physically-capable weapon-masters. The story makes it seem like this progression from teacher to spy-agent is just such a natural and simple thing. Maybe we will get more info about this in the other books in the series (I think there are six total).

Lest readers think that Higgins is a daft pulp author, let me share that there is a neat little element that he includes in this story that provides a rather quite melancholic sort of feeling to it that lingered with me after I finished the book.  There is a character that quotes Christopher Marlowe (1564 – 1593).  The line comes from The Jew of Malta – and boy, Higgins plays this line nicely in that last third of the book. There are other small nuances in the book that somehow keep this novel just slightly more than some shoot ’em up pulp. Do not get me wrong, this is not great literature, but I am really glad I read it – and not just because of the speediness of reading it. I’m halfway to swearing off of all books except fast-paced, pulpy, action-adventure novels for the rest of the year because I am having more fun reading them than I expect.

It surprises me that I enjoyed this so much and was so affected by it. I really enjoyed the Anna storyline. I actually came to like the characters more than I would have thought possible in such a spare and “tropey” novel. It was a nice spot of interesting fun for a speedy read.  This is good for readers who need a fast novel without a lot of word count.

3 stars


ReliquaryThe fifth book I have finished this January is Reliquary by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child. It was published in 1997 and is the direct sequel to Relic, which I wrote the review for in 2021.  I wanted to get this book over and done with because I truly did not love the first and so the fact that this is a direct sequel to Relic made me not want to read it at all.  However, I admit that I like reading adventure thriller novels and I cannot justify reading any further in the series if I skipped this one.

This is the “Pendergast series” named for the enigmatic character Agent A. X. L. Pendergast of the FBI.  However, as in the first novel, Pendergast is really not the main character. He is also a heavily relied on “tool” for the writers to always have a help at hand.  That does not mean that the character is not interesting and fun. Perhaps it is because he is “overpowered” that he is so exciting to read. After two novels with this character, the reader still does not know a whole lot about the gentleman except that he is intelligent and skilled. In the first novel, Pendergast makes a remarkable and striking entrance.  The same is true in this novel – his entrance is exciting and remarkable; so I guess that is how the authors enjoy bringing him into stories. Its fun, I guess. Keeps the reader a little surprised. However, I have to share that Pendergast does not make this interesting entrance until page 107. So, readers who enjoyed the character in the first novel may have been wondering if he is even going to show up to the second.

The first book, Relic, is necessary to read prior to this book. The reader cannot skip that one and fully understand this story. Ultimately, they are one large novel, but who on earth would read that?!  My problem with each novel is that they seem to go on too long. Now, some readers suggested that these novels are about 100 pages “too long.” Having read it, I want to agree. However, I am not quite sure where to trim the fat.  I mean, I cannot truly figure out exactly where all the length comes from.  Frankly, truthfully, I think the whole Bill Smithback sidestory is uninteresting and tedious. I dislike the character and his interactions and meetings with the character Mrs Wisher do not truly bring anything I want to read about to the story.  Those segments do succeed in building a very well-rounded backstory with more facets to the setting and events.  The value is also in giving perspectives that are not from a police standpoint or a museum scientist view.  That being true, though, does not mean that I want to read it or that I should care about it.  It makes the plot fatter, not better, I think.

I do not understand how this book does not have any map or chart for the reader. Literally, all of the other characters seem to have maps and drawings and schematics, but the reader has nothing. We are also treated to “named places” – waypoints, types of places, but we are not given any point of reference to orient ourselves. This is very frustrating and after awhile it really grinds on the reader – at least it did me.  I got very sick of hearing the characters talk about this particular point, this specific tunnel, that connection to pipes, trains, tracks, ports…. Context does not help much at all, all the tunnels are same, the setting is all murky, soggy, smelly, sludgy. So, while the characters seem to know about the various tunnels and ingress/egress, the reader just feels left in the dark in a puddle of sewage.

All of those complaints being mentioned, the book is a solid, averagely plotted thriller with a heavy dose of evolutionary science fiction.  Its an crime-science fiction-thriller and for the most part, that hits a large audience of readers. Its diversion from long days, its interesting to a point, it has some tropes and stereotypes, it also has some flaws. It basically chugs along on its over-long path without huge ups or huge downs. Most readers will be satisfied by this novel because while there is nothing to cheer for or be exhilarated about, it has no ruinous flaws that tank the novel. At the end, the reader will have had a decent read, but will likely be worn out from caring about the characters and tired of the endless plot.

My favorite moment comes in chapter 27 during an exchange between the homicide Lieutenant D’Agosta and a rather counter-culture artist named Kirtsema:

D’Agosta looked at the strings in disbelief. “So this is art? Who looks at it?”
“It’s conceptual art,” Kirtsema explained impatiently.  “Nobody looks at it. It’s not meant to be seen.  It is sufficient that it exists. . . . . As Derrida said, ‘Art is that which is not art,’ which means–“

“Did you know if his first name was Gregory?”

“Jacques. Jacques Derrida. Not Gregory.”

“I mean the man who lived next door.” — pg. 188, chapter 27

I laughed. I laughed again as I typed this segment.

Anyway, one other very nitpicky sort of detail:  we meet a police chief named Waxie – he is not a charming, helpful character. He really has a lot of the worst characteristics. A yes-man to the higher-ups, a mind that is rather dull, and a pervasive laziness are some of his main attributes. He is a rotund fellow who complains and whines a great deal. So, in my mind I was kind of surprised on page 341 when he is described as having a basso profundo voice. I just did not associate this with that character. This was such a surprising (and admittedly irrelevant) detail, I did wonder if the authors did this on purpose, just as a sort of “got-cha!”

Overall, a reasonable read that is a bit overlong. I was entertained, for the most part. I did not love the first novel, so I was never going to love its sequel. However, now I can read onward in the series, which I intend to do at some point – hopefully we can step the heck away from the underground world of the museum for awhile.

3 stars

Star Science Fiction 2

Star 2In the 1950s, Frederik Pohl (1919 – 2013) edited collections of new science fiction stories.  Pohl, an established author and familiar to the writing circles, managed to get the VIPs and MVPs of the science fiction world to include in these anthologies. I read the first anthology and enjoyed it immensely. That edition has a story by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that still hammers at my soul from time to time. My favorite story in this second anthology is probably the one by Algis Budrys.  I really ought to have read this anthology much sooner after reading the first because these are such high quality collections. Both the first and this second anthology were published in 1953. I read the Ballantine Books editions for both.

Something needs to be said about the overall quality of these anthologies. Usually, it seems, anthologies can be hit or miss. More likely, the reader will find one, maybe two, excellent stories and the rest are just filler. The difficulty with short stories is that the writer himself does not have a whole lot of freedom. The story has to work with so many fewer pages than any full-length novel. By “work” I mean that the story has to feel relatively completed and polished after having engaged the reader nearly immediately.

In this particular anthology every story feels polished. The reader feels intellectually stirred and/or stimulated even if only momentarily. The stories are engaging, unique, and have that ever-necessary spark of wonder or awe that is frequently talked about in science fiction, and less often demonstrated. In a word, these are good polished stories by strong, polished authors.  These Star Science Fiction anthologies that Pohl edited really are somewhat of a standard and I am afraid a lot of anthologies cannot compete on this level.

All of this being said, that does not mean that a reader’s personal preferences do not matter. So, my rating for each story is probably more about my personal enjoyment of the story than about any critical rating. To a point, anyway. Its murky to be objective and subjective about fiction all the time; feels messy as heck.  In this collection, I will say that, for me, the high watermark is easily the Budrys story and the low watermark is the del Rey. Maybe the others are aligned and assembled on my rating scale in accordance with those two stories.

Disappearing Act • Alfred Bester – (4 stars)
The Clinic • Theodore Sturgeon – (2 stars)
The Congruent People • Algis Budrys – (4 stars)
Critical Factor • Hal Clement – (3 stars)
It’s a Good Life • Jerome Bixby – (4 stars)
A Pound of Cure • Lester del Rey – (2 stars)
The Purple Fields • Robert Crane – (2 stars)
F Y I • James Blish – (2 stars)
Conquest • Anthony Boucher – (3 stars)
Hormones • Fletcher Pratt – (2 stars)
The Odor of Thought • Robert Sheckley – (3 stars)
The Happiest Creature • Jack Williamson – (3 stars)
The Remorseful • C. M. Kornbluth – (2 stars)
Friend of the Family • Richard Wilson – (2 stars)

Well, fourteen stories is a good number and if I ramble on about each, this will be a never-ending review. So, let me just speak briefly about the ones I found a bit lesser. The Robert Crane entry was given two stars because I felt it was not very original, although the emotion and impact it carried was very good. The Blish entry was probably just a bit too far out there for me to enjoy. Hormones by Pratt was kind of a throw-away in that it was not super unique, but still well-written. Like the Crane story, the presentation was top-notch writing. The Clinic is a story that if anyone cared, they would fight with me about. I can see other readers giving it four stars. It just is not for me and I took it out on the story. Finally, A Pound of Cure just annoyed me a lot, but I might see other readers rating it higher. Like I mentioned, a lot of these ratings are very personal preference.

In my opinion, the best story of the lot is The Congruent People by Algis Budrys.  I find, generally, Budrys to be a difficult author. Please do not ask me to expand on that, but when I think Budrys, I also think “difficult.” I say this so you know that I am somewhat inclined to not love his work. This story, however, had everything I want in a science fiction story:  tension, surprise, the unexplained, rational considerations, etc. It is one of those stories that shifts reality and is so interesting and fun for the reader. At least, for me as a reader. Others can and will roll their eyes at it, I guess. The story does not give you answers and plod along through a full explanation. Like reality, the reader is left to puzzle and wonder and engage with the story intellectually instead of being handed a platter-full of obviousness.  So, yes, after I read it and still to this moment, I am enjoying thinking about the story. Other readers, I think, might be frustrated by the lack of answers/closure or something. Its quite open-ended and yet, maybe that is the greatness of it – it was not overwritten nor underwritten. Dexter Bergenholm is the main character in a great short story. He tells us:

All days begin like other days.  Colored by half-remembered dreams and half-visualized anticipations though it may be, a day is a day are days like the rest of them, until the first thing happens to mark this off as (a) the Day the Shoelace Finally Broke, or, (b) the Day the Rent is Due, or, (c) etcetera. – (pg. 38)

As a reader, you’re probably asking, subconsciously even, “OK, so what is the thing about today that is going to make it a Day?!”  So, Budrys nabbed you by the third paragraph. And the story has a bunch of surprises and fun moments that are going to, hopefully, be an engaging existence-shifting story of perception and reality. No answers, though, OK?

Bester’s story opens this anthology and he is sarcastic and sardonic and witty. Disappearing Act is four stars because it has, unlike a lot of science fiction, a snarky sharp jab at society and its values – while maintaining just enough lightness to not seem sour and caustic. Though Bester is not the first (nor the last) to sarcastically criticize society, I think his presentation is absolutely top-notch. There is a war going on, of course there is. A particular American General is point for the zeitgeist of the culture. Propaganda and “brainwashing.” To some extent.. you know, whatever needs to be said to get whatever you want to keep the overarching Machine rolling. The General gets whatever he needs “for the war effort.” He gets, and needs, Dr. Bradley Scrim, who is released from prison at the request of the General. Scrim is either a philosopher or a historian – though I would bet on the former. Obviously, without a doubt, this philosopher sees through the nonsense and can see the solution to the General’s/society’s problem, but he also sees that society has lost the ability to get the solution. This is a really good commentary on society. I also think its quite accurate that the philosopher will not solve your problem, but he will tell you what it is. There is so much I could unpack from this little story. I do not love satire or sarcasm, but this story plays well and its presentation is excellent.

FatocrThe Hal Clement story, Critical Factor, is quite good, however some readers might struggle through it. Its hard science and Clement makes the reader think. There is something esoteric and intangible about how Clement anthropomorphizes and develops characters that you always would know if its his story or not. His characters are always so thoughtful and almost always seem to have tendencies to be better and move toward the good. Anyway, it is not an easy read because Clement’s science meets up with his imagination and honestly, it is so beyond the human experience that its tough to figure out what the heck the characters are or are trying to do. I dropped a star in my rating because Clement did not fully immerse the reader because he had to make the characters use nouns/language that would be a referent for the reader, but at the same time, the characters would have zero referent for those words and therefore would not really use them. I certainly do not have a way around this, but it feels awkward. After you finish this story, a reader might not fully understand it, but I think they know they read a helluva story. Clement’s imagination was extreme, this is mighty.

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1923 – 1998) is the “famous” story in this anthology.  I had never read Bixby before, so I was glad to read such a famous story.  Its worth, I think, all of the hype and discussion.  The reason for the story being famous is that it vintage-sf-badgeis the story for the eighth episode of the third season of The Twilight Zone (1961). I do not know if I have seen that or not. The story did not feel familiar when I read it, so I want to say I probably have not seen the episode. Anyway, this is probably a must-read story for science fiction, horror, fiction fans. Its not super long, there is really no reason why readers cannot pick this up and get through it. The things that make it so good are that the frustration, fear, and immensity of the situation are palpable. These sensations are presented with an economy of words, an undercurrent of sympathy, and a subtle huge concept lurking throughout. Peaksville… population 46. A young boy with some major impact named Anthony is a massive creation by Bixby and even though the story might seem vaguely unsurprising, it is still disconcerting and disturbing. In other words, this story, like so many in this book, is good for the reader’s brain. Readers enjoy, as much as that makes sense, this harrowing tale.

Overall, my rating for the book is three stars. I think this is probably because there are some stories in here that are not to my personal preference and taken separately, the stories, while excellent, do not seem to equal to the whole book – oddly able to be greater than its parts. Unlike so many anthologies and collections – the stories in this are not really forgettable. I find that that most anthologies contain stories that occupy one’s attention only briefly and then are forgotten almost immediately. These stories are impactful, mighty, sometimes shocking, and definitely engaging. Saying the book is three stars makes it seem oh-so-average. But this is misleading and readers are really doing themselves a disservice to not read this book. Excellent reading for science fiction fans.

3 stars

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Meeting At Infinity

Meeting At InfinityI am pleased to have started 2023 with reading a vintage science fiction novel. I read Meeting at Infinity by John Brunner (1934 – 1995).  This novel was first published in 1961. I read the ACE edition with cover art by John Schoenherr.  The book begins with a short prologue and has twenty-one chapters.

After reading the prologue I was rather discouraged because I really do not care for that sort of writing. To describe it – it just feels like its trying really hard to be lofty and profound and it just annoys me. Anyway, it is not an easy novel to read even beyond the prologue. Frankly, the first six chapters are a lot of work in which the reader really is not given much to work with.  Characters are mentioned and they seem to be acting with purpose, but its all very closed to the reader at this point.  Threads of a plot are everywhere, but they are not very accessible.  In other words, it feels a bit frustrating because not only is the setting an unfamiliar future world, but the characters roles and relationships are difficult to consider.

This is one of those novels where as a reader, you have to continue on because you have faith and trust in the author.

Obviously, the author has an overall plot – he has a story he is going to tell us. For whatever reason, he felt that starting in media res and not really bothering with any exposition at all was the way to start this novel. In my opinion, the book takes too much work to start. It is not engaging and at my age, maybe I do not fancy authors trying to tell stories in such a sink-or-swim fashion. The sentences on their own make sense, it is just tedious to keep reading them. Now, this clears up somewhat around halfway into the novel. I am not sure if it clears up per se, but the reader becomes much more familiar with the setting and the characters. The motives seem a little sketchy, nevertheless. The novel is, more or less, an action novel, believe it or not.  It is difficult to accept that in the beginning, but ultimately that is the baseline for this work.

The author has said that he has high regard for Anthony Burgess (1917 – 1993) and I feel like Brunner had an advance reader copy of A Clockwork Orange.  Not that this novel is similar, but there are aspects that feel a little too coincidental. If I must give an example, I will suggest the counter-culture youth in Burgess’ novel being similar to the yonder boys with their alpha dog leader, Jockey. Meeting at Infinity predates Burgess’ book by a year. Brunner’s lower caste of society has their own lingo and their own gang-like structure of toughs and petty crimes. Syndicates running in their own circles – so far beneath the top of the society that they are almost two separate universes already. The lingo Brunner creates is actually kind of fun – I like it. For familiarization, it would remind contemporary readers of something like the lingo used in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) among Immortan Joe’s army.

As I mentioned, the novel is, more or less, an action novel. However, the overarching structure is a sort of economic/sociological future that we are not really told enough about.  No, novels about economics are rarely the most fascinating. So it is a bit of a blessing, perhaps, that readers are not given too much detail about this society. However, it is a frustrating thing to not have the thing fleshed out a bit more. I mean, basic supply & demand and consumption is utterly absent. Its clear that there is a top-echelon of “owners of the means of acquiring.”  But what, for whom, why, seems a bit sketchy. You have to have a market – and there is a Market – which is not entirely explained, either. Just a sort of corporate boardroom which seems to maintain some balance among the vying controlling interests.

There is some explanation, I guess. This future society is the result, one assumes, of a fellow named Tacket turning everything upside down on account of a discovery and usage of portals? Matter transmission portals, I guess? Or Stargates, perhaps? Again, this is one of those concepts that is constant in the novel, but not easily accessible. Or maybe I am just a horrific reader? I kind of do not think this is the case, though.

vintage-sf-badgeThere are also these rho-function elements. Apparently, they are part of imported technology from one of the portals? The main sidestory involving a woman named Allyn Vage is utterly about these rho-function things. Now, toward the end of the novel, there is some attempt to explain what all of this is about, but honestly, its very much left up to the reader. Its very difficult for an author to successfully utilize hard science and yet not fully work them out. Brunner takes the somewhat slack avenue of frequently saying that the characters themselves do not really understand how the technology works. Its okay to say so, but then do not make the technology such a pivotal element of the novel.

Further, there is an element of “luck” introduced. This was reminiscent, to me, of something out of Asimov’s Foundation. In fact, I would say that this novel feels a lot like Foundation + A Clockwork Orange. I enjoyed the element of luck and the characters involved in it – but it seems like a stolen concept. Or too obvious:  of course the alpha leader in the subculture is the one that has this ability.

The many separate interests cause battles to be fought on multiple fronts throughout the novel. There is even a police force in this society – but there does not seem to be a governmental structure? So, the novel feels like there are multiple sides at odds sitting on very shifting and unknown sands. It is difficult for the individual characters to sort it all out, so it certainly is not easy for the reader.

If the reader gets through the whole novel, a lot of the threads come together and make sense. There are resolutions and answers, to a point. However, the answers and connections seem irrelevant or paper-thin. As if a lot of work was put in to make an action novel that has all the correct elements, but none of the depth.  It is a skeleton in some senses and one that takes a lot of work on the reader’s part. I think, generally, the ideas and breadth of the novel could make it a four-star novel, easily.  However, it falls short in a lot of ways that hamper the great ideas and threads in the story. I think the way most reviewers put this is to say that the ideas are there, but the execution is not on point.  A little exposition and history to flesh out the society would have been helpful.  The character Kingsley Athlone is an absolute mess and needed to be rewritten or something. But there were characters I enjoyed and I wish they had their own continuing adventure novels for me to read.

This was a strange novel to read – difficult as heck to start, stubborn in the middle, and somewhat rewarding at the end. I feel like though I did not love it, there is something about it that lingers in my imagination after I finished it.

3 stars