3 Stars

The Running Man

The Running Man coverThe Running Man by Stephen King (b. 1947) was originally published in 1982 as by Richard Bachman.  I read the May 2016 Pocket Books edition.  I think this is the earliest King novel that I have read.  The Gunslinger was published as a collected “fix-up” novel in the same year as The Running Man was released.  The contents of The Gunslinger having come from 1978 – 1981, allegedly. So, splitting hairs about the dating here…

I find it difficult to write about such an exceedingly popular author.  I think that this is because I want to be very objective and honest, but that since I have literally been “living through” King’s publishing, the familiarity and yet the unfamiliarity feel at odds.  What I mean is, the market/media sensation of King releasing a book has always been, at least, in the background. I have always spent time in bookstores! Nowadays I feel there is something similar with certain authors; maybe Brandon Sanderson, maybe John Grisham, maybe Neil Gaiman. You walk past (What? Who walks *past*…) a bookstore and see a display or a banner with the latest of these authors. Or maybe you see an ad in a magazine or newspaper. Or, more contemporary, ads and headlines all over the Internet. It feels like one always is aware of a new Stephen King release, even when a reader (like myself) does not consider oneself a reader/fan of Stephen King.  Its a “big deal” because his fans will be excited and, doubtless, the industry will surge with the (even if only momentary) inundation of the market.

I think I could probably read all of King’s work and still not consider myself a Stephen King reader.  I know……..   All of that being said, I would like to gently draw your attention to the fact that it is 2022 and I am talking about how I read a book published by a popular bestselling author released in 1982.

I have, however, seen the movie (several times, I suspect) that was very vaguely-based on this novel. In 1987 the movie with the same title was released starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, other actors of note include:  Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, and Yaphet Kotto.  If your referent for all of this is the film, though, you should probably just jettison that.  This book and that film are really not related and its best to take them as separate entities.  I am given to understand a possible adaptation of this novel is in the works (as of 2021), but who knows what will come of that.

This novel is really straight-forward and heavy-handed.  It is really fast-paced and the structure of it (one or two page chapters) is designed to make the pressure of the storyline accessible to the reader. 412 pages of sparsely spaced text written in dialogue and quick, easy sentences does not require much from a reader.  This is, after all, a dark-tinted thriller novel.

The main character, Benjamin Stuart Richards, is our unfortunate hero. He is not the robust and mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Richards is half-starved, overworked, underslept, unhealthy.  He represents the utterly downtrodden and miserable of the lower class of society.  Unlike the true lowest levels, though, he has some education, is something of a hard-worker, and maintains a sense of morality. He is also the archtype family man who is willing to sacrifice everything for his family.  The main aspect of Richards, though, is his anger. He is enraged all the time – presumably because of and directed at “society,” but maybe even just generally as a personality trait.  Life/society has perhaps treated him unfairly, which has also given him a chip-on-his-shoulder and a dose of indignant hostility.

T.V. or Free-Vee is both a symptom and a cause of the downfall of society. Its entertainment and industry and brainwashing and its just insidious and awful.  Call King up right now and ask if he still holds that opinion – I think several of his fictions (and that of his son) that were adapted are currently running on our “Free-Vees.” Anyway, a desperate family man makes a choice that starts the story and so we enter into the fugitive plotline. Fox and hound, hound and hare, etcThe Fugitive, by the way, is a really good parallel so let me give you some dates on that. The ABC TV series ran 1961 – 1967 and the notable film starring Harrison Ford was released in 1993.  The gimmick here is that Ben Richards is a fugitive on Reality TV.

There is a whole chunk of subplot where we discover corruption and societal distortions regarding air pollution.  Seriously, in 2022 it is sobering and frustrating to read about. As far as the novel goes, though, this subplot does a little filling out of the very linear storyline. It gives some characters motives and helps out the novel. Overall, though, it feels like everything else:  hammer-style storytelling.

I do not want to ruin the story – every action thriller has some similar elements and those are here, too.  These sorts of novels are easy to spoil because of it.  Nevertheless, we can ask some basic questions like these:   did the main character who tends to hate society accomplish much because of that very society he claims to hate?  In other words, how much did he rely on others for his successes? How much was luck? How much was his own skillful strategy?  And also, was he, like many action heroes, too invincible, too amazing, too adept? Or just right? Should he have wiped out by chapter four and done or is it plausible that the book is over 400 pages?

I am giving this three stars because I like some of the parts of the book because they did not go the way I thought they might – King did not shy away from having to do the likely result.  He did not sell-out, as they say.  However, there is a rage and anger to the book that seems too forced.  Almost as if King wanted to make us really hate Richards and his attitude rather than have us root for the underdog. I would rather have met the character and made up my own mind.

Also, and this is a frequent thought when I read King, his writing can be so vulgar and crass that it can stomp on the storyline.  I can hear the argumentation that when reading a post-apocalyptic-ish story like The Gunslinger or reading a dystopia in which societal struggles on every level show up one expects the very worst of humanity. And I do, but somehow King makes it amplified and sometimes that amplification can be very inauthentic and pasted on.

So, here is a book about a fugitive.  Its largely a criticism of “entertainment TV” that is based on economic disparity. King does not, whatsoever, hide from divisions and struggles between gender, race, geographic differences.  He takes direct aim at air pollution and its effects on different groups in society. All of this is done with a whole lot of rage. I give it three stars as thriller novel qua thriller novel. Plus, there are a few small elements that were nearly prophetic. Unfortunately, dystopias always feel so angry and their resolution is always a disappointment.

3 stars

The Atlantic Abomination

The Atlantic Abomination

ACE, 1960 cover art: Ed Emshwiller

The temperatures crept up over 100° this week and so that limited some of my activities.  To pass the time during the worst parts of the day, I found myself reading The Atlantic Abomination by John Brunner. It was on a stack of books that I had forgotten about. The novel was first published in 1960, but I read the pocket-sized ACE edition from 1969.  It is a slender novel, I think; only 128 pages, but printed in that miniscule font on yellowed paper.  Overall, this is not a perfect novel.  However, the “wow-factor” of the parts that were well done overshadows the not-so-good parts of the novel.

The first chapter is amazingly well written.  Not only that, but the cover artist, Ed Emshwiller, drew the cover based on that first chapter and his vision matches the absolute horror and awesomeness of Brunner’s story.  I do not know all the details of the publishers’ history, but there exists an edition of the novel from 1977 that is by ACE and/or Grosset & Dunlap.  The cover art on that edition is uncredited and, in my opinion, not as amazing as Emshwiller’s original artwork.  I do not usually talk a whole lot about cover art, but the strikingly horrifying nature of Emshwiller’s cover/Brunner’s concept is really worth it to a reader to take a few moments to admire and consider.

Feeling roasted and listless it would take a great chapter to get me really interested in a book. Frankly, if the second chapter and the first chapter had been switched, I likely would have tossed this book aside.  In fact, I would believe that this first chapter was a piece that Brunner just belted out all at once and did not have a storyline for, but had a great idea and got it down and then did not quite know what to do with it.  Publishing being what it was, I suspect he built it into a somewhat more “commonplace” storyline and it became a novel not unlikely to be found in the 1960s.  The first chapter, though, is five stars. Masterfully [pun!] horrific and utterly merciless.

The remainder of the novel has its ups and downs.  Generally, its pacing is a little off and at points it does feel like the writer is not sure where he wants to go with his storyline and is stalling for time. So, current day, oceanography exploration with really high-end technology.  A slightly awkward, but not untoward hint of human drama/romance.  Vague feelings about the Russians and a vague societal competitiveness.  Predictably, the little submariner pod goes very, very deep into the ocean and something goes “wrong.”  Predictably, humans taking major actions based on assumptions or pressed at deadlines causes bad decisions. Mayhem is unleashed.

There are two female characters in the book, both are scientists. One, Eloise, is very marginal.  The second, Mary, is a main character. She is often present in scenes and she is engaged in matters and not superficial, but at the same time, she still remains irrelevant.  I am not the most sensitive to reading characters, but even I noticed that there was this effort to include Mary all the time – but for no real reason at all.

Anyway, the storyline rather runs to the humans-all-band-together deal and readers know that monsters and aliens are apt to underestimate human ingenuity.  So, the storyline grinds along with humans working together to stumble upon solutions, which they, basically, do because they all work together and science never fails. The President of the USA admits to as much in the last page or two of the novel. Go team human! Go science!

The ending is lame. I have to say that I do not know what I expected, but I did want something more spectacular and thrilling than what was delivered. I guess the author was done writing it at that point and enough was enough. I just feel like it is unbalanced compared with how we started this novel – I want the ending that the beginning promised me.

A good read because, as they say, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.  Very good first chapter, as I have said, and general easy reading the rest of the way.  Nothing standout, but nothing utterly atrocious. Definitely something “fun” to consider for those that like catastrophic science fiction or scary alien science fiction.

3 stars

All Systems Red

"All Systems Red" - Martha Wells (2017) Tor - cover: Jaime Jones

“All Systems Red” – Martha Wells (2017) Tor – cover: Jaime Jones

All Systems Red by Martha Wells is the first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series by the author.  This first book was published in 2017.  The series currently (May 2022) has six books in print. I think that each book in the series is also of “novella” size.  Novella is a term I do not really use – because I am old and grouchy and generally prefer easy to parse categories like short story or novel or poem.  But books the length of this work (149 pages) force me to use the word ‘novella’ and it makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable like the narrating character in the story, Murderbot.

This is a short work, so I do not want to give anything away. I read the book throughout the day, finishing it just before sleep – turned out the bedside light and goodnight.  The story is the intersection of corporate work, scientific planetary research, and A.I./bots.  Since the story is told from the perspective of the bot, SecUnit (short for Security Unit), the writing is sparse and very matter-of-fact.  A security bot that really does not have the utterly human need to explain, ponder, and relationship everything keeps the storytelling breezy and straightforward.

Readers who have ever taken a contemporary philosophy class are going to feel some kind of way about how Murderbot does/does not have feelings, opinions, and humor.  A lot of times it uses words that probably would not be strictly logico-mechanical.  So, its language processing is high-level – as would be expected for a machine that was programmed in order to frequently interact with humans.  So, is it using language in the same way? Does the language it uses have the same meaning?

Well, in a sense, this is lightweight story that never drills into these questions or investigates these matters.  Like I said, this is an extremely matter-of-fact telling. The SecUnit does not “care” and well, maybe neither should the reader. Except, well, but, the lingering part of the story that is layered under all of the rest of the words is literally the quesiton of what the status of this “bot” might be.

And what if the bot is not entirely machine, but has organic components?

Anyway, the story starts in media res, there are some action scenes, but from the standpoint of the SecUnit, the events are related in a rather even – almost dull – manner. The technology is pretty cool – though none of it is at all explained, but the reader gets used to the brute fact of there being whatever technology; be it communication tech or medical tech.  The Murderbot has some quite amusing lines throughout that most readers will find relatable and amusing.

Overall, though, the story is somewhat predictable.  Even though it is enjoyable, I did not find anything here that would make me re-read the book, nor anything that would make me ponder anything in it longer than this review.  I do intend to read on in the series and I do recommend this for most science fiction fans – if only because it is short and easy breezy.

3 stars

Enter a Murderer

EaMEnter A Murderer by Ngaio Marsh (1895 – 1982) is the second book in the Roderick Alleyn police detective series.  It was first published in 1935, but I read the St. Martins Paperback 1998 edition.  Readers cannot help but be told, if they even glance at Marsh’s career and her opus that this novel is significant because it represents one of her novels in which the plot involves the theatre.  The theatre was Marsh’s primary career interest and she was very successful in that line.

Generally, I am disinterested and unamused by stories that take place in and around a theatre. I am oddly above-averagely educated on Shakespeare, the Classic Greek items, and some select modern works. I also have seen a bunch of plays, dramas, and theatre performances of note. I am woefully uneducated regarding Noh work.  However, I usually dislike the whole sphere because there is something unpalatable – to me – about a profession designed to deceive.  Well, to deceive and to be excessively demonstrative.  In my worst moods, if I dislike a person or how they are behaving, I will snarl “Thespian” in a tone that leaves no misunderstanding for how I feel about it all.

Something about the simulacra and simulation. Or maybe the society of the spectacle. Souring and sneering and disdainful….

I mean, in my very worst moods, I admit, I classify those involved with the theatre (stage and film, as it were) as something lower than the criminal class – usually because, well, the criminal seems nearly more honest about his lifestyle. Trust me, a number of people who know this about me usually want to bludgeon me because of this disdain.  I cannot apologize, though, I am wholeheartedly me.

I mention this information, which does not put me in the best light [see what I did there?!], because I knew this novel was theatre-centric and I dreaded reading it.  I knew I would be bored and I would find the characters insufferable.   It was not as bad as all of that, I was definitely being dramatic [heh, heh].  However, it did not engage me, say, like a novel might in a different setting.

Alleyn and Bathgate, which is another of those happy duos we find endemic to detective fiction, are at times annoying both each other and themselves.  Alleyn is so very pompous at times – even his facetious self-effacing is too obvious and arrogant.  But yet – he has some quoteable segments that really make the reader suspect that Alleyn does deserve all of the praise and postering that goes on.  The quotes are just brilliant lines of wit and insight that outshine all of the flaws.

“There’s a murder charge hovering round waiting for somebody, Mr. Saint, and shall we say a drama is being produced which you do not control and in which you play a part that may or may not be significant?  To carry my flight of fancy a bit farther, I may add that the flat-footed old Law is stage manager, producer, and critic.  And I, Mr. Saint, in the words of an old box-office success, ‘I, my Lords, embody the law.’  Sit down if you want to and please keep quiet.” – pg. 53, Chapter 5

Miss Susan Max, though, is my favorite character in the book, and it is easy to see why.  She is “old-school” and seems to be the most honest and fair of the lot.  I know that this is an early work by Marsh because I was able to suspect and then correctly assign the crime to the culprit very early in the work.  I think I was able to do this for two reasons, both are probably due to Marsh just overwriting a bit for both reasons.  The one reason being that I took an instant and immense dislike to the character – and there are a bunch of dislikeable (especially from my perspective) characters! The other reason that Marsh overwrote would be a spoiler if I mentioned it, suffice to say its very Shakespearian [Hamlet] as well.

Marsh is clearly a theatre-expert.  She knows her way around a stage like a boss.  She also knows the temperments, tendencies, and traditions of the theatre.  There is nothing that is lacking in her detail of the setting and background for this story.  I am almost curious to do a more deep critical reading and examine how well her novel does or does not structure like a theatre piece – literally did she move the characters round the storyline as if they were on a somewhat larger stage?  And this is but her second novel, I am sure that Marsh improves as she writes this series, so I am looking forward to watching this idea of mine develop a bit. Or fall flat.

Normally the frequent quoting of famous lines or references to plays/dramas would irritate me a lot because it always feels so…. well… dramatic. Contrived and artificial, I guess. In this novel, there is a fair bit of such “quoting,” but it works contextually, obviously, so it did not annoy me as it would have in a different setting.

“All amateurs are tiresome.  You want to be in on this, but you shy off anything that is at all unpleasant.  We had this out before in the Wilde case.  You’d much better keep out of it, Bathgate.  I should have said so at the beginning.” – pg. 135, Chapter 13

Well, a number of readers have mentioned that “romantic” element that swirls around the major character Stephanie Vaughan and ….. I was going to say Alleyn, but really, I ought to simply say “all the other male characters.”  I read this described as cringey and awkward, etc.  I actually did not find it that way – Marsh sets up the intrigue very nicely:  she describes-without-describing-too-much Vaughan and her appeal and Alleyn’s unique handsomeness.  I do think it concerning that Marsh seems to have perfectly written these scenes and yet let some of the other, more pertinent, scenes go less cared for.

The problem with the novel, overall, is setting up a duo of Bathgate and Alleyn and then having Alleyn nearly constantly play a weird game of push-and-pull with Bathgate.  Supposedly a polished and expert detective, he should know better than to use and abuse Bathgate as he does. I mean, I do not particularly like Bathgate, but I felt sympathy for him because Alleyn treats him like a yo-yo. Once is enough, but it happens repeatedly in the novel – telling me Marsh had not quite worked out, perhaps, how this team was going to operate.

Anyway, I suspect we should hand out copies of this book to all the detectives and interested parties involved in Alec Baldwin’s “shooting accident” on the set of the suspended movie Rust (2021).  And wouldn’t you LOVE to know what Ngaio Marsh’s take on it would be?

Recommended to general readership and vintage mystery fans. I intend to read more in the Alleyn series, of course.

But I’ll be true to the song I sing,

And live and die a Pirate King.

For I am a Pirate King! And it is, it is a glorious thing

To be a Pirate King! For I am a Pirate King!

3 stars

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

Mrs Presumed Dead brett coverMrs, Presumed Dead by Simon Brett (b. 1945) is the second in the Melita Pargeter series of novels. This one was first published in 1988.  I read the first novel in the series years ago in 2015.  I think these novels (or most of them) are out of print, so until they are reprinted (or not) I am keeping these on the shelf for other readers who need a copy (my specific copy is February 1990 printing).

I cannot honestly call the Pargeter series a cozy mystery series, since there are elements in the books that are not so cozy at all. Cozy/innocent – whatever it is that makes the lightest mystery novels so warm and sweet.  There are elements of Pargeter novels that sometimes come across as critical of society, shuffling morality in a sort of very-English Mill/Bentham way at times, and some sordid moments.  Nevertheless, this was an easy-reading novel that was good for a light off-day.  Just something to occupy the mugs of tea and the chilly temperatures outdoors.  This is a no-stress read.

The main character, amateur sleuth Melita Pargeter has relocated to a very small cul-de-sac style upper class semi-rural development.  I enjoyed Brett’s addition of explaining the detail of how/why the development had the name it had. She has purchased a large house in this rather Yuppie community and has moved into the home and found the social structure of the close a bit challenging.  I wanted to hear more about Pargeter’s designing and decorating and setting up her new house. It would have given a bit more insight into Melita herself – how one organizes one’s living space is very telling about that person’s psychology and activities.

I think the first novel was a bit better in a few respects. My main complaint is that the author was not as smooth and engaging with his main character’s conversations this time. Mrs. Pargeter in this novel was nearly KGB-interrogator at times. I know she is a shrewd and witty old bird, but I think she would also be a bit more subtle than a sledgehammer.  I mean, she just moved into the neighborhood and she really is laser-pointer-focused on the murder investigation. I would think that even the most uppity, yuppie, self-centered people of that neighborhood would notice that Pargeter was so dogged in her conversation.

“I’m not so sure,” said Mrs. Pargeter. “You don’t know what people are like in Smithy’s Loam.” – pg. 222

The other complaint I had was that we are very repeatedly told that Pargeter’s deceased husband had left her a lot of resources.  I mean, once or twice is reasonable – but we are reminded quite a lot. And after awhile, I felt the need to grab the author by his ear and ask if he really felt me so stupid that in a 240 page novel he needed to remind me of this constantly.

I did not guess who did it. I never do, though. I am utterly horrible at mystery novels/television. Its always a surprise for me. Now, I know more astute readers might scoff and tease me about this, but I would remind them that I get full enjoyment out of the books, whereas they are too busy reading stories they have already figured out. Anyway, it makes sense who the criminal was – which is very key in a mystery novel. I want a solid and satisfying resolution not one that feels forced or that it could have just as easily been answered differently. As Pargeter says in that late chapter:

“No, I’ve worked it out now. I should have realised before.” – pg. 238

So, the ending worked out all right, which I like. There were, of course, several points in which Brett could have spiralled this story some other way. Lots of plausible guilty parties with plenty of motive. But I like that Brett has Pargeter tell us:

For a start, she had a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.  She had always disliked them in crime fiction and didn’t care for them much in real life.  Madness was so vague, so woolly.  Any motivation and logic could be ascribed to someone who was mad.  At the end of a crime book in which a madman dunnit, Mrs. Pargeter always felt cheated and annoyed. – pg. 211

Well, don’t worry, Melita in this one there is no such cheap and flimsy ending.

Recommended for readers needing an easy-read, day-read.  Enjoyable to a point without any major complaints.  Pargeter is a thoughtful woman in many ways. I will likely, eventually, read the next in the series.

3 stars

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

UnpleasantnessThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) is the fourth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey “series.”   It was originally published in 1928. I read the 1988 printing of the New English Library edition of the novel.  It was quite hard to separate from the book itself because the bright pink cover made it very difficult to ignore!

For the first few chapters, there is some witty sarcasm about the word “unpleasantness” and Sayers was a very intelligent woman so I think this sardonic and ironic bantering has a lot of meaning. It is not just a superficial humor – although, on some level, it is that, too.  The Bellona Club is a British “club” – something contemporary Americans do not really have a concept for. I guess maybe a country club or private drinking club is some sort of vague approximation.  This particular club is for war veterans. The thing is, most Americans do not really have a solid, true experience of British life before-during-after the first World War, either, and that context is very significant in reading Sayer’s Lord Peter novels.  Simply put, the horror and magnitude and shock of experiencing the first World War is not really something that is accessible. We can read about it, but that probably does not come close to the experience. Ineffable and incommunicable lifetime event, I think, best describes that generation/society’s moment. At one point there is a small segment about Armistice Day and wearing a flower and all of this seems so distant and removed from current day that the gravity and significance that those characters would experience is nearly lost on readers today.

So, while the book has this layer of humor and wit, it is also a coping mechanism and a ironic sarcasm for the utter horrors and psychological struggles of the first World War.  That is not to say that you should not chuckle at the wit. The best readers should laugh heartily and then also shed a tear for the unspeakable horrors of that society.

Needless to say, there is a particular character, Wetheridge, that depicts the PTSD-sufferings of veterans perhaps better than the major character George Fentiman, who represents the very demonstrative examples of PTSD. At first, Wetheridge is annoying, but on the last page of the novel, Wimsey points out Wetheridge is all right and has his place among “us.”

I really enjoy reading Lord Peter, as many readers through the decades have said, I’m sure. So, spending time with him as he goes around and harasses and cajoles and banters with other characters is always time well-spent. Lord Peter, himself, as you readers who know also deals with PTSD from his time in the war.

“Exactly. He is the Most Unlikely Person, and that is why Sherlock Holmes would suspect him at once.” – pg. 148 (chapter 15)

However, this story qua story was a bit of a mess. I mean, I think Sayers really wrote a complicated plot, but it was so complicated over nothing, I think. Or, over-complicated. Or it just went on way too long. The storyline really is entangled and it becomes a bit boring to try and sort it out – especially when the red herrings are not exactly red herrings.

There are some enjoyable moments – Peter at the Bellona Club, the scenes with the Munns, any time spent with Marjorie Phelps, and of course, Peter ordering from any menu anywhere.

The end of the story had interesting resolutions to the plot threads and I cannot say that it ended unfairly or untidily. I definitely will read more Sayers, no surprise there, and I recommend this for most vintage mystery readers. However, there is something to be exasperated with here in the slightly over-worked plot.

Overall, the most subtle, and yet key, element is that nearly all of the major characters are war veterans. The doctor, the deceased, the detective, the supporting characters, etc. So, the resolution has a very bittersweet pang to it – because money is the issue. But the issue is not money….

3 stars

Death Shall Come

Death Shall ComeDeath Shall Come is the fourth novel in Simon R. Green’s Ishmael Jones series of books.  I have read the first three in December for three years so far and saw no reason to abandon this habit this year.  I think the first book was the best of all of them, by far.  However, the silliness and outlandishness of the stories entertains me and I look forward to my December reading.   Death Shall Come was first published in 2017.  

The thing that the end of the year (particularly these last two years) needs, is some entertaining, outlandish fun to be had. Something silly and preposterous that does not feel oppressive or dismal.  These Ishmael Jones books are utterly the best fit for my end of year reading. Every novel is basically setup the same way – a country house murder-mystery, which usually is quite gory and involves something un/supernatural.  Ishmael and his vivacious partner, Penny, end up wandering around locked rooms, long corridors, and the bodies pile up.  That’s it – that’s the story.

In this particular novel, we are given just a glimpse more into the character of the Colonel.  However, not much more – and I think nearly every page we are re-told how “military” he is.  Its tedious and I am sure impatient readers will hate the whole thing.  But it doesn’t bother me; I was weaned on Homer, do you know how many times we are reminded of the stock epithets for Achilles and Agamemnon? 

This story’s theme involves a family of collectors of ancient Egyptian artefacts.  The family’s name in the book is the Cardavans.  We are told that for generations the Cardavans have used their enormous wealth to acquire treasures and circumvent legal/monetary obstacles regarding possessing these treasures.  Readers with an ounce of history will know that the famous Howard Carter (“discoverer” of the Tut tomb) was financed by George Herbert, Lord Carnarvon.  A name similar to the characters’ in this novel.  The Cardavans have acquired a freshly-unearthed mummy and are currently relishing in their acquisition.  The mummy is allegedly one of the older Cleopatras (not the most famous Greek one). 

The “twist” in this book, I guess, is that the Colonel assigns Ishmael this mission – not for the mysterious Organization, but as a “favor” to him.  And the Colonel stays with us the entire story, not just appearing in the first and final chapters.  Overall, in this particular story, he was rather flat and one-dimensional. I think I preferred him at a distance.  In any case, he asks for this favor from Ishmael because the Cardavans are his in-laws.  Meaning, we get to meet the Colonel’s wife, Chloe.  

‘What are you so nervous about?’ said Penny.  ‘At best it’s a mummy, at worst it’s a serial killer.  We can handle either of those without breaking into sweat.’ – pg 139

So, Chapter Seven actually had a moment of pulse-pounding for me. I guess I am a silly, simple reader.  Nevertheless, when the suspense was building I was really on the edge of my seat.  Its not a long segment, maybe three pages, tops, but it was fun and I liked listening to the terrifying footsteps on the other side of the door. Listening to them listening to it listening to us. 

A personal anecdote of relevance…. one of my favorite books as a single-digit monster was The Secret of Terror Castle (1964). I read the ever-living hell out of that thing. I loved it. I read and re-read that one many times.  So, I do wonder if the impact of having read that story so many times developed a strong inclination toward country-home/Gothic castle murder-mysteries.  In any case, if the story contains any elements whatsoever of The Secret of Terror Castle, chances are I will be thrilled.  And this has borne out with the fact that I rated John Dickson Carr’s Castle Skull (1931) so highly.  Anyway, it should come as no surprise that I will likely try to read the rest of Green’s Ishmael Jones series.

3 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

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