4 Stars

The Naked Sun

Naked Sun newerI finished The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov yesterday and I really appreciate a lot about the novel. It was first published in 1957 and is the second in the R. Daneel Olivaw “series.”  I read the Spectra/Bantam edition with cover art by Stephen Youll. I read the first novel, The Caves of Steel, and enjoyed that one. There is a third novel, The Robots of Dawn, but it was published in 1983 – so a long gap between this novel and that.  I do intend to read that one eventually.  Here is the thing with Asimov – for me, he is a guaranteed 4 star read. I know many people take issue with his novel writing (in particular his characterization) and also many readers enjoy debating his sociological/historical concepts.  All of this is perfectly fine with me – debate away because he would have loved that sort of thing. That is the whole point of some science fiction and Asimov “gets it.”

I love being able to pick up an Asimov novel and have my expectations met. The standards for his writing always are high and he delivers every time. No, not all of his novels are the most fun novels ever. Sure, they are not perfect novels. I never, however, finish one of his books and feel like I wasted time or my mind is worse off or that I should have selected something else to read. Well, that being said, I do not know what I can rightly add to the conversation about Asimov generally or about this novel specifically. Having been published in the late 50s and being one of the most significant and popular books/authors, I hardly have any new insights about the novel.

Boeing 777The worst part of the novel is the main character’s attitude. Lord have mercy, there are points when he is so sour, petulant, snarky, and impatient I want to clobber him. I mean, I can understand some of his discomfort and his confusion, but his constant poor attitude is really grating. I would exonerate the other characters if they had, at any point, walloped Elijah Baley a nice good one. I mean, I like Elijah, but I really wanted to punch him in this novel. Anyway, Elijah suffers enough without me beating him up because he is undergoing a massive bout of agoraphobia. Amusingly, I finished reading this novel outdoors on a sunny day in which the sky was so clear and blue, I did have a hint of some of what Baley was experiencing. I looked up and watched a Boeing 777 overhead and felt that the world was so utterly open and expansive……

Anyway, I think anyone who has read this novel prior to the Great Pandemic Of 2020 should re-read it. I promise there are some uncanny, interesting, and relevant thoughts and comments in this novel that could make a reader wonder if Asimov was from the future or some sort of hazy prophet. I am not being super serious here – I just want readers to know that there is a bit of a reader-perspective shift due to current events and world events. Its strange because there are not many novels that actually become less dated and oddly apropos after so many decades.

As far as the storyline, its a locked room mystery on a far-distant planet named Solaria. The characters spend a lot of time on video-chat. Again, in 2023 we tend to take this sort of technology for granted or without much fuss. Its interesting to see Asimov know about this sort of tech and to force his characters into it. If you do not find this facet interesting, I wonder if you really enjoy science fiction? I think the overarching theme of the novel is the contrast between the Solarian world and the Earth world – to include their cultures and technologies. A reader who is disinterested in such a very obvious storyline will probably think this book is dull or too heavy-handed.

Overall, this is fast-reading novel.  It is a worthy read and valuable to science fiction. There is plenty of conversation/imagination sparking ideas in here that intelligent readers might enjoy conversing about. The main character is certainly annoying in this book, I would “like to” do a tally of how many times he says Jehoshaphat! – because it seems like millions. He is annoying, but even with this, the novel remains relevant and fun. The magic of Asimov, I guess. Recommended for all readers including those who read it several decades ago.

4 stars

The Written

The WrittenContinuing to read fun and adventurous novels, I read The Written by Ben Galley.  It was first published in 2010 and is the author’s debut novel. I think he revised it in 2017, but I do not know how I came upon this idea. Anyway, the thing to note is that I suspect Galley was rather young in 2010. I know, I know it sounds like am disparaging toward youth, generally, but my point is only that I am impressed. The novel (and indeed the series, which is called the Emaneska series) is self-published/independently published so this book does not come from the titans of the book publishing world. Many readers and reviewers have all kinds of opinions and feelings on self-published works, so I just wanted to be upfront about that fact.

The first few sections/chapters have a few bobbles. They are a bit weaker in writing skill than the rest of the book. I am saying this in this fashion because readers who “dnf” or quit the novel too soon may feel they have had enough of a taste to warrant that decision  However, the novel does even out and really start to pound out a nice pacing and storyline. Now, one of the bobbles that I mentioned is one of those things that readers who love mysteries will pick up on first. I predicted it, which makes it worse, because I rarely predict anything in a novel.

The main character, Farden, is in his rooms in the tower/castle building. He gets up and locks the door because he does not want any intrusions. Then Farden is inebriated and he falls into a deep stupor/sleep. Right then, right there I said to myself:  just watch someone will still come in the room. So it happens. The maid comes in the room in the morning. No, it does not make any sense to say that she has keys, because she is a nosy maid and would definitely have commented if she had found the door locked. Just a mistake that I think an author does not mean to make, but just happens. Does it affect the story? Absolutely not, because we are not reading about Poirot here.

I really enjoyed the way the book begins. The first several pages do a really good job of setting up a story – the reader will have questions after a wild and shocking opening. The reader is just thrown into a scene in the world and its snowy and bloody and THERE ARE BOOKS.

The story continues for awhile, we meet characters, we go a few places with our main character.  I think these pages are the ones wherein we are supposed to “get the lay of the land” so to speak. We should be developing our interest in the main character, learning how things operate in the world, and enjoying a few action scenes – that sort of give us a little background, but it is not obvious if this background information is really all that relevant. Nothing here is poorly written, but to the expert readers of fantasy novels, I suspect it seems a little meandering, as if the story has not really gotten its footing.

By halfway, though, I think the novel is nicely developed and a lot of fun.  On the Great Internet, I read that this series is “Norse inspired” and also that the main character has an addiction. Well, I think if readers come to this book expecting those themes to really take the forefront and standout, they will be disappointed. I am actually really happy that the novel did not bludgeon away at these alleged themes. I was concerned that the addiction subplot would be awful and annoying and I was afraid of the “Norse inspiration” to be stereotypically pasted-on rubbish. Truthfully, the “addiction” is not as expected and it is handled perfectly and is not sledgehammered. As far as inspiration – this novel seemed no more or less Norse than any other novel I have read recently.

So for a young author’s debut, Galley showed a lot of skill in keeping elements of his story corrected weighted. I have read plenty of veteran authors who seem to struggle with this ability and end up presenting readers with lopsided and annoying novels.

Even if I was not entirely sure where the storyline was going, I had a lot of fun. Some readers complained that the main character is overpowered and/or he has anger issues. I really did not see these same things and while I am not joining some Farden fan club, I think he was a solid character who did not annoy me at all. Usually, characters get on my nerves. One of the complaints that one could put forward is how the author uses Farden to tell the reader about the landscape. I mean, there are several paragraphs wherein the story seems to pause just so Farden can “enjoy the view” and tell the reader what he sees. This works once or twice, but it sort of began to feel like he was sightseeing and it was a bit contrived. There is nothing wrong, per se, with these parts, and they do serve the purpose sufficiently. It just sometimes feels like Farden should go be a landscape painter.  This is subtle and I am being nitpicky. I could easily assume that this sort of viewpoint sharing is developed and outgrown in the author’s other works.

Chapter fourteen came out of nowhere and gave me the “oh nos!”  I am such a sucker. Any author can get me, I swear. Anyway, chapter fourteen is when it all turns upside down and inside out and I feel bad for those readers who quit too soon because they missed out on some great stuff. Chapter fourteen is when all the build up and meandering gets focused and for the rest of the novel, the pacing and intensity is upgraded. I will tell you, the sly and subtle way in which the author breaks the reveal to the reader is so very well done – I had to read those paragraphs twice just to enjoy it again. Smooth, Galley, smooth….

The last half of the book is a rip-roaring adventure with magic and dragons and soldiers and fire and I do not want to give anything away. Suffice to say, its everything the best fantasy novels must have and even the enemies are interesting and wild.  Its fun and exciting, which is why most of us readers read fiction, I think. I enjoyed my time with the main character, in this setting, and on these adventures. No, I do not have all the background (shoe size, favorite color, eyebrow length) of every character. I do not really know the ins and outs of the magic system or the details of all the training of all the soldiers, mages, and monsters in the world. I am quite all right with not knowing. The characters live there, I do not. The characters go through the training – I do not have to, thankfully. So, I can happily accept prima facie all the sorts of things mentioned or alluded to without having to feel grumpy at the author for leaving me out of some secret, and boring, background.

All of that being said, there was one aspect that really bugged me several times in the story.  Farden is a Written (special mage type).  He also has obvious weapon mastery and hand-to-hand combat skills. Due to the fact that he may be a wee bit overpowered and he seems to love to be at center-stage, his gear and weapons are often in bad shape. He sometimes has to repair and replace them. The thing that did not sit right with me is that he just wanders the markets and stalls in the trading districts of cities and finds a blacksmith and just selects a weapon from what is available.

Well, a couple of things, I find it illogical that a special mage under the command of the city/government/higher mages is given all kinds of amazing training and knowledge and yet is not provisioned by these same people? He has to rummage in the city like any other soldier, citizen, farmer for a good weapon?  Secondly, well, Farden, if you insist on going to these stalls in the back alleys to buy your weapons on the cheap, this could be why your weapons are always broken, dull, and/or rusting. This is unacceptable. There has to be a better way to find quality gear in this land.

I really enjoyed this novel and am glad that I read it. I do intend to read the next in the series and also the other novels by the author. While there is not a whole lot of super original to this story, mostly everything in the story is done well and with skill. Therefore even if it is, technically, another story about mages with swords and dragons flying, so what? The pacing is nearly perfect, the characterization is solid.  There are some items I wish the reader could have learned more about, but then, there are several other books in the series for such opportunity. Had a great time with Farden and friends.

4 stars

Strong Poison

Strong Poison CoverStrong Poison is the fifth novel by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957).  It was first published in 1930 and I have read the previous in the Lord Peter Wimsey series. After the rather unhappy undercurrent that ran through The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, this novel is something of its opposite. There is a great deal of humor, fun, capers, and silliness. Frankly, it is the most fun of the Lord Peter mysteries so far.

Dorothy L. Sayers is a bit of an odd author for me to come to terms with. By that I mean it always seems that I am unsure where to place her works and/or situate her sphere as an author-audience circle.  I have never met her and I have never met anyone who has. Based on nothing more than her various writings, I feel she would not have struck me as a nice person (yes, that is rather a vague phrase, too). I do not know that I would have liked her. However, I think she was a very intelligent person.  You definitely want her at your supper party. I think she is an excellent writer – but her novels are never as good as they should be. Or as good as we want them to be.  Most of the time, I feel like complaining that she should have written more (and by ‘more’ I mean much more) in the fiction realm than the detective novels. Sayers tended toward a version of agenda fiction, which does not always thrill me, but I can understand its usage.  Further, and more than any other aspect of her writing, I get the overwhelming feeling with all of her novels that she is just doing a writing exercise.  She is experimenting with the novel.  In some atypical way, I want to call her an experimental writer.  It is not overt and obvious like most “experimental fiction.”  It is just a feeling that Sayers is trying something out or testing something.

Hey – she’s good; I think she could outwrite a heckuva lot of authors, vintage and contemporary.

It is because I get the sense of her being a great author that I want great books from her. Now, Strong Poison is an immense amount of fun and is quite interesting.  Strong Poison is not a magnificent classic of literature, though. Without a doubt this is a four-star rating detective novel. The genre allows for it to have moments wherein its unrealistic, silly, and campy.  Sometimes detective fiction authors (and this happens in science fiction as well) do it to themselves. They purposely, knowingly, make their works amusing and for a general readership. Unfortunately, that also immediately seems to make the literary critic feel these genres are somehow “lesser.”  Its a sticky and ugly perspective that has tiny elements of truth on both sides. Is Sayers a hack? Is she just a large measure smarter than most hack writers and therefore able to convince us she’s not a hack?  Personally, I think she is a great writer, but sadly she never wrote us that great book that would prove it indubitably to the galaxy.

Well, Strong Poison really has its genesis in Sayer’s own life, a writer named John Cournos (1881 – 1966) had some form of relationship with Sayers and she utilized this relationship in Strong Poison in the form of the character Philip Boyes. It is not a flattering character that she wrote, but it is, probably, realistic.  This character dies and the main suspect is Harriet Vane.  Lord Peter falls in love with Vane and the book is about Peter’s efforts to prove Vane’s innocence of Boyes’ demise. It is notable that the novel’s hero, Lord Peter, several times has some strong language about Boyes. I think there is more in this novel that is autobiographical than a reader would immediately think. Definitely scenes are pulled from Sayer’s own experiences.

The reader spends time attending the Vane trial and in following Peter around as he struggles to get evidence to clear Vane. A fact that happens, eventually, in all detective novels – the detective cannot do the job alone.  Even with Lord Peter’s vast monetary resources and education he cannot solve this on his own. He has to pay and rely on the legwork and wits of people in his employ. And he does – and these people do come through for him – and it is quite an amusing tale as it plays out. But there is that nagging disappointment in the reader’s mind that realizes that Lord Peter cannot solve the crime.

Here in 2023 it is difficult to read these novels because our forensics technology has advanced so much. Plus, all of the “evidence” gotten in this story is gotten through nefarious and illegitimate means, anyway. None of this would be permissible in a court case. Lord Peter’s irregulars get the job done and these capers are really quite priceless and entertaining, but the realism is utterly lost. A reader in 2023 cannot help but notice this and be disappointed.

In this novel Lord Peter is very Lord Peter. It is like Sayers felt the heaviness and sorrow in the previous novel and gave Wimsey a shot of caffeine in this novel. Boy, his quips and banter are on extra high throughout.

“If anybody ever marries you, it will be for the pleasure of hearing you talk piffle,” said Harriet, severely. – pg. 123, chapter 11.

But we do get to visit the Denver home or whatever it would be referred to as. We meet up with Gerald, Duke of Denver and some friends and family because it is Christmastime and they are gathered together.  Peter navigates the uncomfortable, but oddly familiar scene of “conversation” with the elders in which they feel they can opine on any topic. He escapes to the stables at one point, running into his brother and brother’s friend.

“I wish nobody had ever invented tea. Ruins your nerves and spoils your appetite for dinner.”

“Same here,” said Wimsey, promptly.  “I’m feelin’ rather exhausted with conversation. Let’s wander through the billiard-room and build our constitutions up before we face the barrage.” – pg. 130, chapter 12

Even if one finds Lord Peter annoying, the various scenarios that Sayers writes are always so relatable. Spoiled, annoying Lord Peter still resonates with the reader because he seems to always fit in and interact delightfully with people no matter the time or place or society.

Anyway, the case is broken by efforts of a loveable Miss Murchison who cracks the safe in her employer’s office. Of course, her gaining these locksmithing skills is due to Lord Peter introducing her to his acquaintance, Bill Rumm. Bill is a caricature of those reformed criminals who turn to any form of religion with zest and zeal, but still keep that crooked side available for use as needed. Rumm gives Murchison an instructional in how to open locks. Its a quite funny scene in the novel – one I think most readers would get a kick out of and would be perfectly amusing as a TV/film episode. Proud of his skills, reformed or not, Bill says:

“If?” grunted Bill, with sovereign contempt.  ” ‘ Course I can! Deed-box, that’s nuffin’. That ain’t no field for a man’s skill. Robbin’ the kids’ money-box, that’s what it is with they trumpery little locks.  There ain’t a deed-box in this ‘ere city wot I couldn’t open blindfold in boxing-gloves with a sick of boiled macaroni.” – pg. 145, chapter 13

There is another character that helps the case, Miss Climpson, but I would never dare to spoil those scenes. Absolutely riotous and hysterical scenes that come with a dose of criticism for the “new age spiritualist” shenanigans that Sayers must have come across here and there.

Strong Poison sleeveAnyway, I also want to share that the copy I read is a hardback Harper & Row edition. My copy is ex libris the US Naval Base Library in Charleston, SC. The last date stamped on the card in the back of the book (um, if you’re too young to know about this……. Wikipedia might help?) is 15 FEB 1994.  From other markings, the book was acquired by the Naval Station for $4.95 in October of 1969.

I am very glad that I read this novel, it has some wonderfully amusing scenes in it and it has some unique problems for the detective to overcome about the crime itself. In many ways, it is also somewhat of a character study, a passing study of various subcultures in society, and a bit of trickery and fun. Overall, vintage mystery fans need to read it. Other readers may enjoy it, but it has its flaws and does not really age well in terms of actual crime-solving. Still, those folks who can stand Lord Peter’s piffle will appreciate the time spent with him and his irregulars.

4 stars

The Secret People

The Secret PeopleThe Secret People by John Wyndham (1903 – 1969) is the author’s first novel, although he published it under a pseudonym. It was first published in 1935; I read the Coronet 1977 edition with cover art by Colin Hay. I really like the cover art, but I don’t really think it representative of the novel.  I had not read any Wyndham before, but I like to start, generally, early in an author’s career and work my way forward.

Knowing that it was the author’s first novel and that it was published in 1935 had me a bit trepidatious because one never knows what such things could include or what their tone might be.  Overall, I was really impressed with this novel. Ultimately, its a well-thought out storyline with a very nice science fiction grounding. I think the characters are believable and interesting. Usually, when readers talk about characters from this time (1930s) some comments are made regarding the styling of the female characters – but, frankly, the female character may be the strongest character in the book. Maybe that is not our first impression of her – when, yes, the other main character spends some lines objectifying her at a resort. However, Margaret ends up as the superhero of the novel.

Frankly, the main character, Mark, starts off like he might be larger than life, but he really rapidly just becomes an everyman. He takes a secondary role to all of the other characters, becoming more or less the narrator of the story.  The other characters that we meet are diverse and interesting. As we meet them, we notice their natural inclinations and frictions as we would with any group of people forced to interact and exist together in confinement. The novel has a lot of anthropology in it. Now, I do not think that Wyndham himself was an anthropologist – and I think we all remember what the milieu of anthropology was in the 1920s/1930s. So, I mean, some of it is that old 1800s WASP-centric stuff – but there is actually a surprising amount of decent argument and thought included for a debut science fiction novel. The main “thinker” is Gordon, but awesomely, Wyndham also gives a lot of room for the “opposite” side to speak in the form of one of the pygmy leaders named Garm. Gordon can be so very tedious when he goes on for pages about his theories. I think the thing that Wyndham does do very well is the presentation – all of these “conversations” that the characters have about anthropology are presented as theories and the interlocutors are not just sponges who agree with “the smart guy in the room.” Largely, they hear each other out, accept what they think is reasonable, but yet maintain their own perspectives and ideas. I do not mean to point out the negative – but this situation is immensely better than I see currently when people discuss literally anything. Usually, I just see screaming mania.

There is an African guy in the novel, Zickle.  He is referred to as the Negro and the black. Truthfully, the characters who are around Zickle are not nice gentlemen. I mean, Americans who were in the Foreign Legion are not our brightest, most graceful of men. Overall, as a reader I felt Zickle was treated positively, but condescendingly. I was rooting for him, I wanted to have more side story about him. He had a good ending.

And then there is Bast………. at first I wanted to say it was too obvious and droll when Margaret named Bast. But then, I felt it was a correct touch for the novel.  Now, I was really happy for the most part to have Bast in the novel – and then at the end, there is something that happens that is horrifyingly sad – but then there is a good thing. And finally, at the end of the novel the reader gets zero confirmation about the disposition of Bast. For me, this was a lot to handle. I do not want to give spoilers, but I do want to knock a half star off of the novel for Wyndham not giving the reader that direct confirmation.

vintage-sf-badgeSo, this novel has a really good juxtaposition of anthropology and sociological elements with fugitive/action novel storyline. I was really impressed with this structure. I still cannot believe this is Wyndham’s first novel. Again, comparing this novel – its structure and plotting – to a lot of the novels of the last twenty years I have to say that this one is really superior. In terms of novel qua novel, this one is really good. As I consider a list of things about this novel, I do not have many complaints. Characters? solid. Plot? solid. Science fiction stuff? solid. Novel structure? solid. Action and suspense? solid. There are not a lot of weak points here whatsoever. Any complaints would be nitpicking, I think, and overall it was a very imaginative, immersive story that entertained me quite nicely. It was also a bit different than anything I have read (underground people, caves, the New Sea) and I really enjoyed that it was imaginative and unique.

One thing, I was unable to keep track of where the story takes place geographically. It may have been mentioned/explained and I stupidly just missed it. I wanted to say we started in Algeria and moved to, maybe, Egypt? Definitely North Africa, but I am not sure it was ever actually defined. I think. Its a small thing, but I have been wondering since I finished the novel. Lastly, though I think the descriptions and setting are executed very well, I did feel that a lack of claustrophobia was an odd thing. I would have expected to feel a bit more entombed than I did while marching around with Smith, Mark, Gordon, and Margaret. Anyway, four stars for a polished, completed novel.

4 stars

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The White Mountains

The White MountainsThe White Mountains by John Christopher (1922 – 2012) was first published in 1967 and is the first in the Tripods series written by Christopher. There are four small books in the series, which was written as juvenile fiction or young adult fiction.  My copy has 195 pages and they are fast-turning pages.

The story takes place in a sort of pseudo-post-apocalyptic timeline.  The reader is kept in the dark regarding the past history, just like the main character, Will Parker. Humanity is under the guardianship/control of the Tripods. In one sense they are distant masters because they do not seem to play an active role in the daily life of humans, but in another sense, via the “caps” that humans are forced to wear, they are in absolute direct contact with humanity. Based on Will Parker’s narrative, the reader learns that various artefacts remain from a previous time that show humanity has backslid from technological advances. Will’s father possesses a wristwatch that particularly fascinates Will.

Chance brings a falsely-capped man through Will’s town of Wherton. Wherton is basically a rural community that keeps itself fairly isolated. This falsely-capped man shares a number of insights with Will that leads Will to understand “capping” as no more than enslavement. Luckily, the man also tells Will about the White Mountains – a land far away in which men live free and independent without the control of the Tripods.  Will realizes that knowing what he knows (though, at this point, its just the belief in what the man has told him) he can no longer remain in Wherton.  Will’s adventure begins as he departs the only life he has ever known in search of the White Mountains.

Overall, this is quite an interesting novel. A variety of challenges and adventures for the characters to overcome. I enjoyed it and I think that if I had read it as a youth, I would have enjoyed it a great deal more. I particularly liked how the young characters in the novel were intrepid and resourceful.  They were not perfect and they made choices that might seem reckless or foolish under the light of a mature wisdom, but for teenagers, the choices seem legit. It is important to remember that these characters are teenagers – I think the main character can become infuriatingly annoying and toxic at times, but especially so when the reader forgets that Will is but a teenager from a rural community. So, sometimes he can seem impulsive, stubborn, and petty.

The most unsatisfying part of this novel is that Christopher shies away from giving the reader much information. There is a sparsity of information in the novel that is somewhat off-putting. It is perfectly fine to limit the perspective of the world to the perceptions of three young boys on an adventure, but at the same time, the novel lacks any answers or definitiveness that embeds the reader into the storyline or setting.  The ending is particularly weak; it is a bit of hand-waving vagueness and the reader just sort of accepts that things were manageable for the boys from that point on. Somehow. No details, of course. Just the understanding that their adventure had rather ended.

I will read the rest of the series eventually, they are very short books so this should not be an issue. I am glad I read this one, the writing is smooth and suits the story. I think a lot of readers today will be impatient with this sort of writing/novel.

4 stars

Things Fall Apart

China Achebe Things Fall Apart coverContinuing the shelf-clearing efforts, I came upon Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013).  It was first published in 1958.  I think a lot of people in this generation now read this in their school years.  I had never even heard of this novel until, maybe the 2010s. This particular novel can be read in many ways – with different purposes in mind.  The most important and obvious way would be as novel qua novel. Before it is anything else, this is a fiction novel of 209 pages that has a main character and a setting.  I am sure there are other ways of reading this book wherein the focus might be anti-colonialism, pro-tribalism, anthropological, human geographical, comparative religion, historical, or modernization.

I think most readers read this novel and probably feel upsettedness at either colonialization or westernization. As if this novel is a protest novel clamoring about injustice. I can see readers wanting this to be the case, but I do not draw that from this novel. In other words, I do not think this is a “blame” novel.  Readers should not, I think, be finishing it and then pointing at things and asserting its this or that’s fault. I do not think this is an apology for any specific culture.

Anyway, I really like the main character. Okonkwo is a fantastic character to write a story about.  Achebe manages to bring this character vibrantly to life through tight, spare vignettes that give us good highlight reels of Okonkwo’s personhood. There is a lot of commentary in the world about Okonkwo’s rôle in his clan, his relationship with his ancestors (particularly his father and his mother), and also his relationships with his wives and offspring.  Repeatedly, the term/concept “masculine” or “patriarchal” came up in reference to Okonkwo when I looked around the internet. I know its awfully subversive and non-conformist of me, but I think the application of those terms to the character tells us far more about those who apply it than the character himself. It is a projection of their psychological categorization that seems to be foisted upon a fictional character in a short novel. I mention this because I would caution the best readers to be wary of all of these assignations that seem to have been heaped upon Okonkwo. The super ironic thing about it is that is that if he were a real person he would not find this burden surprising, but he would definitely be angry about it happening.

As far as the novel plotline goes, Achebe does seem to write closer to what would be folk tales – or just community storytelling. This means that there is not some hugely convoluted and yet intricately strung-together plot akin to something George R. R. Martin would write.  The little moments we are shown about Okonkwo’s comings and goings, his meetings with friends, his interactions with his family, are not enough to round out an entire picture of the character. I say this because it seems like, well, I, too, can tell you stories of a person that only highlight one or two of their attributes and not tell you any stories that would paint them in a different light. So, and this is as novel qua novel reading, it can feel suspect – like the author is purposefully only presenting one dimension of a character. 

The end of the book, of the character, really surprised me. To this very moment I am still thinking about it – trying to decide if this is a legitimate scenario. I keep trying to reconcile events with the character and his personality. I keep flipping through scenes of context and so forth trying out different lighting, backgrounds, and soundscapes, if you will pardon this way of speaking. So, I do not know if I think the ending is in line with Okonkwo’s personality and history. Is this legit? or did the author just throw something sensational at his readers? And, there is a major feeling that it was all a sham. I mean, I have to share that as I read the event that ends the novel, I strongly felt that things happening off-screen, as it were, made it very much feel like something is being hidden. Some cover-up has occurred, maybe “for the sake of” the clan. Or “for the sake of” peace. Or any other “for the sake of” that people use…  So, maybe Achebe wrote this enigmatic ending and stayed silent about all the possible readings. Maybe it is as straightforward as the rest of the novel and there is no hidden nuance – it is exactly as it is presented. Yet, as a reader, I am still uncomfortable meeting Okonkwo, empathizing with him, admiring him, worrying about him, and then having to come upon this ending.

One of the things in the book that perplexed me were the guns. Okonkwo has one early on in the novel – he brandishes it at one of his wives. Yet, it feels like guns are somewhat common in the clan – Okonkwo is not the only one with one. And, of course, it leads to a major life upheaval for him for not being totally safe with it, let us say. However, where did the guns come from? 

I know a lot of the world believes that it is ideologies that cause the clashes of cultures and violence in humanity. Ideologies definitely participate in the cause. However, to my mind, the “thing” that is the ultimate cause and force is technology. Industry, science, technology… whatever you want to call it that provides the tools and weapons and machinery to the ideologies. The advancements in science and tools that allow all of the techne to be ever-stronger, ever-faster, ever-more-dominant. No, I do not support any anti-technological views or some sort of pseudo-Luddite counter-culture. Technology, and its effect on humans driven by their instinctual curiosity, is something like a gigantic voracious monster, gobbling ever-onward. The Leviathan, the Charybdis, the swallower and gobbler: unstoppable.

4 stars


UzumakiI read Uzumaki as my next October “Scary.” Uzumaki is a manga by Junji Ito (b. 1963) – I read the 3-in-1 hardback collection. I happily paid full price for it and took my time reading through it starting the day I bought it. It is a large book, well over 620 pages of artwork and story. I do own Junji Ito’s Remina, but I have not read it yet. Reading something classified as horror manga was a new one for me and, overall, I enjoyed the experience. I think horror does work as a genre for manga format. I think Junji Ito has a decent understanding of horror/horrific. So, I am glad I read Uzumaki since it is probably his most famous work.  In any case, now I have a referent for all of the spiral-talk regarding this work.

The gruesome parts are very gruesome. I mean, even in black & white drawing the images and the situations depicted are often just beyond sanity. Really. I mean, if any of this was even remotely real, I do not think there would be anyone writing/drawing/reading anymore. Its kind of precisely what horror is about – pushing boundaries and “confronting” (as per Alan Baxter).

The most gruesome part, in my opinion, is Chapter 11 “The Umbilical Cord.”  There is so much gruesome, gory, horrific, awful in this chapter – honestly, it was a little difficult to read through and I did skim a little bit, because yikes. I cannot honestly say those are images I want to “eye-digest.”

For the first bunch of chapters the book reads as collected, related, but independent stories.  Like any good episodic television.  I really liked how the book started with serene frames/pages of the narrator/main character Kirie. I really like Kirie as a character. She was loyal, brave, but had that deadpan honesty that was a bit strange, too. I think, maybe, we could have been given a few more scenes and storyline regarding her and her boyfriend. We are just told Shuichi is her friend and then a few frames later he is asking her to leave their town – the town they grew up in. It seems sudden and kind of extreme at that time.  It takes a few chapters and I think then for the rest of the book I was lamenting the fact that Shuichi and Kirie did not leave town that very frame. Just pop home to grab a backpack and then leave. I mean it – every dang page afterwards:  aw, why didn’t they follow Shuichi’s suggestion?!

There are some good spiral segments – The Firing Effect, The Black Lighthouse – that show how the “spiral” presents in a variety of ways. It is not all snails and whirlwinds.  When, finally, the episodes start to carry over into other chapters, let’s say, that is when the reader sees the full effect all of these variations of spirals have on the town.

Chapter 6 – Medusa is somewhat light-hearted in a ridiculous high-schooler sort of way. Its probably the most amusing/ridiculous of the chapters. Granted, I mean, calling anything in this work “light-hearted” is very relative and strained.  Medusa touches on storylines about those competitive high-school girls for whom popularity is everything. By the way, Shuichi is the hero!

The problem is, and I am sure Kirie would agree, no matter how super, really, massively bizarre an event is the townspeople seem to be on a totally wrong level of reaction.  Oh look – that old man turned into a long coiled spiral-y thing. Huh. Weird.  Instead of:  what kinda diabolical, twisted, alien, Lovecraft, madness is dis stuff?! While I would expect the townspeople to be running, not walking, to their nearest exit, life just kind of goes on.  The chapter that highlights this the most, for me, is Chapter 8 – The Snail.  So, high school students turn into snails. Really large snails. And I guess everyone just puts them in a cage outside like its a normal snail farm. No, they should not have classes or continue doing homework or slipping notes to each other in class. Are you kidding me? Where is the reaction that is appropriate to the fact that your classmates are now in a fenced in area out back with the mud? Yeah, but did you finish your math homework? C’mon!

So, it is my opinion, that this is the “out” that Junji Ito gives readers. He is allowing us to say its all a dream. Its all just a horrific stupid nightmare. We can say this because just like in the best dreams, everyone just is not reacting in the way we deep down know that they should.

Anyway, from Chapter 16 to the end, the storyline is all connected and it details the final story arc of the whole book.  There are some mighty gross parts here, please do not think that the gruesome level has let up at all. For example, when the “creatures” in the row houses tell Kirie and friends that there is no room inside, but could they please dispose of the dead creatures – yikes. All of the frames in this section are just… mind-hurtingly gruesome. But it is horrific, for sure. Even if some of the gruesome is hidden from view or just given brief glances.

The ending was nothing for me. I did not care for it – I am not even sure it suited all the stories and mania that came before that. Finally, yes, I was still sad for Kirie and Shuichi – they should have left town. It was a sad moment when Kirie found her parents. (Also, whatever happened with her brother? I mean, he went down that mountainside and then, I guess, he’s off doing spiral things?)

I do not know the Japanese word that was used, but there is a line in the story that the town is contaminated with spirals. I like that phrasing in English – contaminated with spirals. Its not the same as overrun or overwhelmed or controlled by or any other word. Its contaminated – and it fits the story perfectly.

This is good for horror fans who enjoy different, varied takes on the genre. Its got some gruesome gory scenes for those persons who like (??) to collect such imagery. I am very glad I read this – it is a different read, sometimes shockingly horrific. I like that it is also a slow burn. I miss Kirie already – 600+ pages and I was content to run around the town and find spirals with her. This is not a book for children or people who are squeamish or non-horror fans.

4 stars

The Last Wish

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrej Sapkowski is the first The Witcher item I have read. No, I have never played the game and no, I have never seen any video or show. So, this is basically my introduction to The Witcher. However, I also live in wild times with y’all and therefore I cannot say I was utterly blank when it came to this series and this character. How do I know about The Witcher? I could not say, except to suggest some sort of ambient knowledge that I absorbed unawares. This is a collection of stories that was first published in Polish in 1993.  In English, the first release was 2007.  I have had it on my TBR list since 2018.

I have reviewed about thirty novels on this blog this year, so far, and I think there are only a couple that I could call fun.  Lots of other adjectives could be used to describe all the other novels, including “entertaining,” “interesting,” and “engaging.” Some novels would get words on the other end of the spectrum. However, The Last Wish and maybe East of Desolation would get the word “fun” pinned to them.

I expected something along the lines of the usual sword and sorcery fantasy that we have all come to know and love.  I was not super excited to read the book, but I felt I could settle in with it being the third book of the week in the Appalachians.  Well, it was far better than I expected.

None of that farmboy becomes hero and everyone roots for the unlikely shining hero over the darkness that overfell the land stuff. This is grimdark-medieval themed and maybe just ever so slightly has hints of Eastern European influence, which makes sense and is a welcome change. It does not feel like so-called “appropriated” Slavic mythology (Cp. certain YA books) and these influences are only that – not burdensome heavy anvils to drag around. The writing is fresh and ribald and witty.  Read superficially, there is a lot of action and fun.  A little closer look shows there are some interesting concepts that the author is toying with. Concepts in ethics and religion, especially.

Many readers felt that the dialogue was not very good. I have no idea what they mean. Seriously, after reading some comments from other readers I was ready for some very stilted and awful writing.  Yet as I read along the one thought I kept having about the characters was that they are all very realistic.  They are neither, none of ’em, good or evil.  Their conversation and phrasing is true to how I hear people talk. Oh, I know most people think they are speaking in Old English at Buckingham Palace. I know most people feel like they are in the Ivory Tower and they are eloquently pontificating on the finer linguistic details of their chosen reading material.  But guess what – no, they are not.  The seeming inconsistencies in character show through in this novel not as inconsistent characters, but realistic personalities.  Characters are rarely good or evil.  Some of them are blatant with their status and some are more subtle. Mostly, everyone is in a mix of some good, some bad, trying to get through the day in a dog-eat-dog world. With the occasional monster.

Frankly, I found the stories in this book fresh, fun, interesting, and a good variety of creatures and characters. I loved several scenes in the book wherein characters strongly choose to be pragmatic, honest, exasperated, or stubborn. In one story when Geralt is talking with Nenneke, he starts having sharing things that in other books would be “personality insights” and “character development.”  But here, Nenneke shuts him down abruptly:

“Stop it,” she said sharply.  “Don’t cry on my shoulder. I’m not your mother, and I won’t be your confidante either. I don’t give a shit how she treated you and I care even less how you treated her. And I don’t intend to be a go-between or give these stupid jewels to her.” — pg. 270

In another story, a queen named Calanthe jousts with Geralt over supper. Their back and forth is witty, sarcastic, intelligent, but more than anything, it is realistic. It is not some weird stilted conversation had in some other books. This meandering, but sharp-edged conversation is fun to read. Particularly at a wild dinner party that is getting increasingly out of hand. Calanthe and Nenneke are just two of the female characters that seem to have no problem putting The Witcher in his place, so to speak. I would not call them weak or stereotypical female characters, either.  Among the comments at the table, Calanthe remarks:

“I’ve been told that witchers are an interesting caste, but I didn’t really believe it. Now I do. When hit, you give a note which shows you’re fashioned of pure steel, unlike these men molded from bird shit……” – pg. 166

Its realistic writing that is refreshing to read. I barked a laugh at the lines here and told myself I would have to include them in my review. Many times in the book, characters state something outlandish and another character just refuses to “follow them down the bunny trail” of ridiculous.  To use an example, no, it is not always special food demons that come from unfaithful kitchens – sometimes its just indigestion or overeating. That sort of thing.  It keeps a fantasy novel that is full of monsters and swordplay from viewing everything through the “its magical” lens.

I do not know what to say about Yennefer. I do not particularly like her, that is for sure. And the last wish…. hah, what a great writing ploy Sapkowski used on us! Bravo, well done. I guess it is all okay with me for Geralt and Yennefer to have crossing fates, because I know that Dandilion is on Geralt’s side and Dandilion is absolutely 100% awesomeness. He is a great character and I am very glad I met him and I am even more glad that he is Geralt’s buddy. Ack, who is not a bit jealous of such friendships?

The characters in this book are realistic because they do not fall into those neat categories that other fantasy novels rely on so very much. They are morally ambiguous or situationally ethical. They sometimes surprise and are also sometimes predictable.

“Stregobor,” said Geralt, “that’s the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off.  Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters.  In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at  banquet every minute, blue from poisoning.  I’m used to it.” — pg. 105

There is a somberness to the book as well. Both with the Yennefer scenario and the origin of Geralt as a child and then witcher. But also in the viewpoints sometimes expressed, which seem weary and worn. Some readers took offense at some of the ribald and wild moments in these stories. I find their comments ridiculous because in a land of monsters wherein everyone is fighting for power, magic, or might – acting shocked by these characters’ actions is silly. Characters are rough and they live in a rough world. As Geralt said above, that’s the way of the world. So, readers should not shun this book because “rough things” happen in it.

Anyway, of course I will read more The Witcher items. I think maybe this particular book will hang around in the collection awhile, as well. It surprised me because it was much better than expected.

4 stars

Count Zero

Count Zero coverCount Zero by William Gibson was published in 1986. It is the pseudo-sequel to 1984’s Neuromancer novel. I read Neuromancer in 2012 and it has taken me ten years to get the motivation to read Count Zero. Sure, in the years I have picked the book up and read a page or two and every time I just did not feel like this was the novel I wanted to read. Well, I had enough of this behavior and I brought it with me to the middle of Appalachia. There is nothing much around besides kudzu and deer. I read Count Zero in about a day and a half.

After having finished two Gibson novels, I am no expert. However, I can confirm some of the things said online about his work.  Its said that he writes dense novels. I have been debating today about this particular word choice. I am not certain “dense” is the best word, though it is not utterly incorrect, either.  So, I feel “dense” has a connotation of being especially difficult to penetrate and examples of “dense” writing might include Finnegans Wake or The Name of the Rose. I think Gibson novels are very compressed. I am aware that this seems very picayune. The reason I prefer “compressed” is that when I read Gibson, I realize I have to read each and every word absolutely. There is no speed-reading these novels and there is no skipping. No skimming and no skipping – absolutely none, not one word. Not ever.

Reading Gibson novels is a bit tiring because he does have his own architecture and lingo that he does not explain to the reader and the context is not a huge assist, either.  Having to read every single word carefully is also tedious because it makes this 246 page novel seem much longer. It also shows that readers get lazy in their reading – maybe not intentionally skimming, but certainly not giving novels their full focus. The reader definitely loses out on a lot if they skim. So I also have to praise Gibson for his very precise writing. The demand on himself is even more, since if the reader dare not skim, the writer must have also very precisely selected each and every word. Gibson’s novels are a lot of work. The sort of plotting and conversation that other authors spread out over chapters and chapters is compressed into a few paragraphs. Readers better respect that or the book will quickly turn to total confusion for them.

Count Zero is a bit of a sequel to the previous novel – one would definitely want to read Neuromancer first. However, it is not much of a direct continuation of the storyline; it is more of a continuation of the environment and setting. I liked Count Zero more because the novel just seemed a bit easier to follow. Neuromancer was quite mysterious… I could not find my footing easily, and not in the good PKD sort of way. Perhaps this is because the first novel gave me necessary familiarization.  I just think this sequel has a better flow to it – even if it has all the cyberpunk/futuristic elements. Count Zero is not about getting readers to bond with characters. I think many readers find this off-putting; many readers seem to want to develop relationships with characters.  Gibson’s characters are significant and distinct, but they remain aloof and out of reach of the reader. I like that, other readers might be more critical of this. 

Some things, though, readers need to know. For example, Joseph Cornell (1903 – 1972) plays a vague rôle in this novel due to his artwork. It gets really jumbled in the cybertechnology. However, if a reader is at least somewhat familiar with his work, it will make their reading of this novel quite a bit easier. Other things, like the voodoo stuff would be really tough to draw strictly from the novel. Reading these segments feels really bizarre and nutty. So, somehow, lucky readers might find out what all of this is about, but without reading spoilers (somehow) that would ruin their overall enjoyment of the plot.

The receptionist in the cool gray anteroom of the Galerie Duperey might well have grown there, a lovely and likely poisonous plant, rooted behind a slab of polished marble inlaid with an enameled keyboard. – pg. 11, chapter 2

The plot in this novel has three threads that are distinct, but converge at the end. The ending is a little bit of a mess, but maybe it was just my weariness talking. Overall, there is a lot of fodder here (back in the mid-80s) for the future cyberpunks. This is an action novel, believe it or not, it just has some slow parts that make you think of those really dull moments in certain movies – those segments that you wonder (during your first watch) why they are there, but then afterwards you see how they got everything all connected together. Remember, you cannot skip slow parts in this book. Every word has been selected and trimmed for the sake of the novel. 

This is a really strong novel for strong readers. Its definitely for fans of a certain style of cyberpunk/cybertechnology. It is demanding and it has its own landscape, language, culture, and tech that on occasion might look like ours (i.e. what we have going on in 2000+). At its heart it is an action novel, though. It is just a different style of action than the usual mass market paperback style of thriller novels.  Once you read Gibson, you cannot undo what you pick up from them, unless you are some kind of wilson. And yeah, when things go sideways, you might blurt to your pals that it got witchy.  I hope to finish off this “trilogy” – and I really hope it does not take me another ten years to read the last book in the set.

4 stars

A Red Herring Without Mustard

A Red Herring Without MustardA Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley is the third in the Flavia de Luce novel series. It was published in 2011. I read the first two in the series and enjoyed them and I think I will be giving this novel the same rating, four stars.

My only criticism of this novel is that it may have just a few too many red herrings and bunny trails. It can seem a bit repetitive. But, and this is key, Bradley writes such an engaging character the repetitiveness does not seem to matter. This series reminds me a lot of the Simon Green Ishmael Jones series. Basically, readers rather know what they are going to get – and if they like it, they like it. If they do not, then they don’t.  No great boundaries were pushed around here, nothing innovative or extraordinary was done.  This novel is not wholly unlike the previous two – however, if you liked those two, you will enjoy this one.  Maybe some readers will feel that the character and stories are stagnant or not going anywhere. I agree with that while at the same time I am satisfied with the novels as they are. I like spending time in Bishop’s Lacey; that’s enough for me.

… I had learned to start campfires, but I’d vowed that never again would I be caught dead trying to make a fire-bow from a stick and a shoestring, or rubbing two dry sticks together like a demented squirrel. – pg. 35, chapter 2

The thing that Bradley does very well is to confuse the reader with “reality.”  There are murders/crimes – but the unreliable narrator element makes the novel a bit more layered than it would be otherwise. The fact that the narrator is not willfully deceiving the reader is important – the narrator is an incredibly likeable eleven-year old. Obviously the perspective and understanding of such an individual is not as holistic and nuanced as an adult’s vision. So, when Flavia applies her efforts to mysterious and suspicious events, the reader really does not have much to go on.

“Good afternoon, Miss Flavia.”

“Good afternoon, Dogger.”

“Lovely rain.”

“Quite lovely.”

Dogger glanced up at the golden sky, then went on with his weeding.

The very best people are like that. They don’t entangle you like flypaper. — pg. 129, chapter 10

The novels are, generally, lightweight and breezy.  The pages turn quickly and some of the horrors are glossed over, of course. Interestingly, though, readers can pick up subtle hints and flavors of how wartime struggles affect matters.  There are also poignant moments filled with potential emotion. I say “potential” because Flavia is discovering she is caught in the middle of changing worlds, changing classes of society, changing viewpoints, etc.  She wrestles with the manners of the gentry, religion of a separate group, economic concerns of those dealing with wars, and the maturation of her own personality.  Bradley skirts some of these issues, but he does give glimpses of these struggles.

Under any other circumstances, I’d have said something rude and stalked out of the room, but I thought better of it.  The investigation of murder, I was beginning to learn, can demand great personal sacrifice. — pg. 216, chapter 17

I usually read these with half-attention. These novels do not require my full attention, which is good because sometimes I do not have much attention left to give. Sometimes it feels weird – like I am not really reading the novel and the pages are turning anyway. Yet I do always notice the awesome quotes or quips or whatever.

The main movement in this novel as regards the series is that Buckshaw is under continued financial stress and even the eleven-year old is beginning to feel it. Secondly, the subplot with Flavia’s mother continues. This is an enjoyable read.  It is witty and eventful and engaging. Its not intense literature, but it is fun enough to read in the summertime.

4 stars