4 Stars

Knight’s Gambit

Knights GambitIn carrying on the idea of reading things I might not normally read, this past week I read Knight’s Gambit by William Faulkner (1897 – 1962).  I have never read Faulkner before, due to a number of reasons including my not wanting to.  American literary fiction older than the 1960s is really tough for me to force myself to read.  Heck, sometimes even some of it after the 1960s….  In any case, the reason I picked up this collection by Faulkner is actually because it is crime stories, in a sense. Well, the main character is lawyer Gavin Stevens and that could be argued because maybe the main character is actually Yoknapatawha County, Mississippi.  As far as these being crime stories, well, they fit that description about as well as they fit any other. Anyway, Knight’s Gambit was published in 1949 and contains five short stories and a novella.

Here is the truth:  I expected this to be pushing 2 stars; I expected to despise this entire book. Instead, I really enjoyed and appreciated (that is two different sentiments) the first five stories in this collection.  Those five stories make up nearly exactly half of the pages in the book.  Then I read the other half of the book, which is entirely the novella “Knight’s Gambit” for which the book is titled.  That rubbish was so bad that it literally obliterated my memory and interest of all the stories that I had read previously. 

  • Smoke (1932) (Harper’s, April 1932)
  • Monk (1937) (Scribner’s, May 1937)
  • Hand Upon the Waters (1939) (Saturday Evening Post, November 4, 1939)
  • Tomorrow (1940) (Saturday Evening Post, November 23, 1940)
  • An Error in Chemistry (1946) (Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1946)
  • Knight’s Gambit (1949)

After I read Smoke, I was a little skeptical, because it seemed like the hero might be a dishonest – if even for good purposes – chap and I disliked that somewhat. It was a good story, though, because I really bought into it. I was friends with the characters, I could see and smell the courtroom, I was invested in the history of the situation. Since it is the reader’s first meeting with Stevens, the first impression is important. He was windy, he was maybe a bit of a hustler. He seemed also to have an insight into the other characters and their rôles that maybe feels a little unfair. The writing style was no problem for me whatsoever. I think the setting here is extremely well-written; one feels right there in town.

Monk is probably a little less than Smoke.  I like, though, that it portrays Stevens in a somewhat different situation than a room in which he is in the spotlight.  Monk is a story that seems to have been rewritten and re-composed dozens of times in stories and TV episodes since.  Something about it is not uncommon, but the story is still engaging.  Stevens’ questions and the narrative that sifts through the past come in a strong tone and contain a lot of vibrant colors. After reading these two stories, I was on my way to thinking Faulkner is a not a total waste of time.

Hand Upon The Waters is one of my favorites in this collection (the other being Tomorrow).  This story feels the most noir/crime. It has more suspense and upfront violence than the others do, somehow.  If one could consider Faulkner as edge-of-your-seat, this one would be that description. It has wild characters and a prop-item that is key to the story. This story contained, what I feel, is a lot of the truest representation of the other character’s responses to Stevens.  In the other stories it almost seems like Stevens is some prima donna who is adjudicating among people who everyone knows are backwoods, simple folk. In most cases, Stevens seems to be given a deferential respect that he deserves, but is not resented for. In this story, the other characters seem to choose to not be so cowed simply because an educated Harvard man is on the scene. 

You see, Harvard only means something to an already advanced class of people. You already have to have an appreciation or an impression of institutions of education and the differences between them for Harvard to mean something. Its an empty concept, not one of awe, to many in these stories. 

Tomorrow is another top notch story. I think it is my second favorite story – until I run through the storyline in my head, and then it becomes my favorite. I love how the history of the scenario is told – not overtold. I love how the narrators have opinions that color their explanations. I also love the sense of justice and loyalty that is heavy on every single page. Truthfully, the story does take some work from the reader, because having read all the collection, I see Faulkner moving more toward the prose in Knight’s Gambit and away from the slightly more spare and straightforward Smoke. Sometimes the convoluted and colorful manner of writing suits the storyline perfectly – as it does here.  I really liked Mrs. Pruitt and her pea-shelling while she told the story. I was right there on the porch.

An Error in Chemistry is also a good story – mainly for the characterizations and the sense of “it takes a village.”  However, as a crime story it relies on that annoying conceit that crops up here and there in fiction (written and on screen).  So, in 2021, I just could not be as impressed by this one – through no fault of Faulkner, I guess. The story just hinges on a thing that now has become cliché.  It actually suits that it was first printed in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The best parts of the story are the Sherriff and the whiskey and their importance to the story really cannot be overstated. So readers should ignore the silly crime and focus on the way Faulkner wove these other elements into this story. Once again, though, Stevens is a formidable hero.

Then the tragedy and disaster of Knight’s Gambit. Now, I am utterly sure there are American Lit experts out there who will extol the virtues of this story. I am sure there are French fanboys who will not even entertain hearing anything but praise for this novella. I am, however, a straight-shooter – just like many of Faulkner’s dear characters – and I will tell you that this is a heap of dung. At this point, if this is Faulkner’s “signature prose style” then he needed to stop.  This is a mix between trying to emulate James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and writing exactly how Southerners talk.  No one should write whole novellas how Southerners talk. Ever.  Now, there is a zeitgeist in the world that Southerners are “good salt of the earth” people. There is a manufactured belief that they are the lords of hospitality and good manners. Further, there is a sort of feeling that they are good cooks, good farmers, and good people. I sincerely honestly have yet to find the truth in these stereotypes/images that are proclaimed. Its all propaganda if you ask me.  I talk to Southerners a lot and lawd ha mercy, most o’ the time, I want the interaction to stop hurting me. Seriously, who in their right mind would write a story entirely as the stream of consciousness [I almost chose a different word than “consciousness” here…..] of Southerners? 

It is not quaint, insightful, or unique. Its tedious and unnecessary. In Knight’s Gambit the story is written in this “Southern” fashion and at this point Faulkner had placed Stevens on such a high-pedestal that the story is nearly all an homage to Stevens’ greatness and wonder. At the same time, the character in the story is actually pared down and reduced even further, so it is very difficult to even get ahold of what the heck we are all praising. 

Now, I don’t know how the war changed or affected Faulkner, but suddenly he seems to have developed the need to preach at the reader about his opinions, which on occasion blurrily become Stevens’ as well. And the storyline is utterly lost constantly in this mess. But there is also a Hispanic man and horses.  This is garbage. Avoid it. There ain’t nothin’ to be found in this mud, this dawg won’ hunt, y’all.

Anyway, I utterly recommend whole-heartedly for good readers to enjoy the five other stories in this book I think every good reader would enjoy them, or at least profit from having read them. Stevens – in those stories – is an excellent character to meet and know about.  Do not believe the hype about Knight’s Gambit. Seriously, its one of those “literary circles” pieces that demonstrates the “Emperor Has No Clothes” anecdote.

4 stars – for everything but Knight’s Gambit, which I refuse to recognize.

Gun, With Occasional Music

Gun With Occasional MusicI picked up my copy of Gun, With Occasional Music back in July of 2016.  It was originally published in 1994 and I just finished it today in September of 2021.  As I am having a shelf-clearing kind of year, I did not hesitate to yank this paperback off of the shelf; it has been hanging around for far too long.  Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem is also the author’s first novel.  Frequently, I see readers saying that it is a sort of mash-up between classic Raymond Chandler and stylish Philip K. Dick.  Such comparisons are really spot-on and it is not really difficult to see where/why readers say this:  Lethem (b. 1964) has also been an editor/compiler for some of Dick’s writing. 

I think this is a good novel. It was near five stars, but most of the futuristic elements needed to be explained a bit. Or, certain elements given a more substantial reason of being there other than to be quirky and unusual.  Here is a very tricky thing, though.  Any reader familiar with PKD (and at this point, I have read a dozen of PKD’s novels, so I am not a rookie) knows that he never gets bogged down in explanations.  Most of PKD’s novels are in media res and they have a lot of action and the pacing is very fast.  They also usually portray a future society that has gone awry in some way – but PKD never gives the history and detailed timeline for all of this.  So if an author wants to emulate or imitate that style, drilling into the history and causes of things that are widespread and common in the future society would be the opposite of how PKD would write the thing.  Part of the not-knowing how or why things got to be that way is part of the fun of PKD.   It is one of his main tools for shaking up the reader and making them feel dizzy and surprised.  Still, I think it is a valid statement to suggest that Lethem could have given us just a bit more on some of the aspects of his story without damaging that PKD methodology.  Put in a straightforward way, I agree that PKD’s style is to leave a lot of the historical explanations out – but then, talking, gun-toting kangaroos might need a little more than what the reader was here given.

This is tasty futuristic/dystopian noir. Noir is really built on tropes.  Many readers complained that the novel had all the usual tropes.   Yes, it did, I suppose, and that is why noir fans liked it so much.  Such tropes tend to be part of that noir subgenre.  This novel contains several of those revolting aspects that make noir darker and seedier than just any crime story. There are things that the story hints at that make astute readers want to pump the brakes. Such points are real risks that the author took, and I can appreciate that. (Example, what are these evolved animals and how corrupt are the physical interactions these future humans have with them? Taboos and immorality and…and. Are they still brutes if they talk and think and such? Maybe it’s a good thing the author left some of this open-ended and vague.)

Drugs are the norm; they are how society lives – everywhere and used by everyone. Except, no, not everyone. But the non-users are utterly rare and maybe the military forbids the powders? But these drugs are constant and on every page. Its not a pretty world. But the author slides in a cynical line or two about how these drugs ARE the dystopian control, not the Office (the bureaucracy of state police), which might be the face of that control.

The detective story:  a private investigator who is a real louse anyway, gets a case that ends up terribly. Like a good noir story, nobody is saved. It’s a bad day for everyone. This guy has a wry sense of humor, must have broken his knuckles a lot in his lifetime, and uses metaphors with skill and ease.  The metaphor thing is quite ingeniuously done here – this may be Lethem’s first novel, but he is not a novice writer. He was/is a very good writer.  There is dark humor here, but I think even using the word “humor” is overstating it.  Nothing here is laugh aloud, but there are moments where the grizzled noir reader might smirk and nod.

The writing is utterly engaging and the world-building, with its strangeness, is so curious….  The main character, Conrad Metcalf, is likeable and the reader definitely wants to know more about him and what has happened to him.  However, this not-knowing is, like the readers of noir fiction know, really quite false.  Readers actually DO know what happened, even if they do not know the specifics. They know because:  insert all the usual tropes or pick any you like best.  So, do not act like you do not know, reader. You very well do know; maybe you are just being a lazy reader. That being said, PKD and noir are not every reader’s cup of tea.  So, I can imagine a lot of readers who like a sort of  completely linear A-to-B procedural crime fiction being frustrated by this one. Part of the crime fiction genre is the reasoning and detection and fair-play methods that the reader follows along.  It might seem unpleasant to readers who expect detective work and instead are thrust into a PKD-style noir novel.

There are a lot of “cool” things in here. I mentioned the metaphors, but even the drugs have a neat twist to them (the personal blends).  ID cards and licenses and neat little things that developed the story plenty. Especially a P.I.s office that is shared with a dentist!  The “occasional music” is sharp, too! There are cool little things to enjoy in this story, but they tend to also be a little unsavory, yet their coolness factor is not diminished.

With more payoffs on a few of the elements, this is easily a five star read. Instead, some of the elements just seem too pointless. And this is certainly NOT a novel for *every* reader. It’s a bit repulsive at points. There are some crude moments, but at the same time, they belong.  None of it seems unnecessary – instead, it seems like shocking the reader for a moment and making them cringe. Then, not dwelling in the filth or dragging it out, but moving onward. The crudeness can be too much for certain readers, which I understand.  Unfortunately, noir that is sanitized is not noir at all. This one is all noir (the streets flow with powder and gin).

4 stars

One Way

One WayI just finished reading One Way by Jeff Lane. It is a self-published work that I think was first released in 2011 or 2012, I am not entirely certain. I was led to the novel by a YouTube creator SteveTalksBooksandStuff.  I have been, lately, making the effort to read things that I, honestly, would not normally select.  So, honestly, a self-published work recommended by a YouTube “booktuber” chap is one that in the past I would have not read.  That being said, now that I have read the novel, I think that the plot and content is actually not too far off of the path I normally find my reading on; it was not that strange a selection.

I have mentioned a couple of times that it is a self-published work.  I have often avoided self-published works because I really dislike reading unpolished/draft-level things.  I have a particular self-published work on a bookshelf that I could not read past the first two pages what with the errors and uglyness.  Here’s the facts:  there were a couple of typos. I think about five. That is not terrible and I can see these are ones that “spell check” would not have caught. But still, a careful reading would fix this manuscript and perfect it. I do not want to seem nitpicky; I want to excuse the author for these things.  I also want the author to not be bogged down by this stuff.  Yes, it is his name on the cover, but I would bet he had review-readers. They should have helped find these errors, they let him down. And this is a novel that should not suffer these mistakes – because it is a really good novel.

This is a unique and suspenseful story with a great concept behind it. I do not want to give away ANY plot points whatsoever. Let me say that usually authors are unable to consistently carry “suspense” over a duration.  Further, I have found that there is a specific science fiction element that many, many authors attempt to utilize, but it becomes their pitfall.  In this book, the element is actually a big success; the author handled it with adept skill and I was very impressed.  Both of these factors are huge reasons why I hope this author continues writing and gets whatever measure of commercial/artistic success that he is aiming for. (I recognize there are some folk that just want to write a good store and share it.)

Lane wrote a well-paced, consistent, suspenseful, harrowing story with just the right amounts of tension, background, and setting. Seriously, this is really well-written and because of that, I would move this author to the “must read” list.  I would not want to rush him or his work…. but I want to read more great stories because I am a selfish gluttonous reader!

There were a couple lines that stood out more than the rest as far as interesting and resonant.  In chapter 21 the main character Barry has a realization: “Apparently, his Rockport loafters were not optimal for this snowy trek.” pg. 131.   This line really worked well right there in the story. The brand-name, the semi-sarcastic tone, the shock to reader that one’s footwear choice can be nearly life or death…. all worked to make this one line come across so lively and potent.

In chapter 15 we find: “Jenny felt uncomfortable, fidgety, like she had suddenly forgotten how to sit still.” pg. 91  This line hinging on that “forgotten” word choice really stuck with me.  So often authors might write “she couldn’t sit still,” but that is not the same sense as “suddenly forgotten” – and if you have ever been very nervous or uncomfortable – it very much so is like forgetting how to be still as opposed to just “cannot” sit still. It is like knowing you used to be able to and not, for the life of you, currently remembering just how to do that.  It is a very intuitive and careful writer that picked up on this.

I did not love the main character, Jenny, in the way that maybe I should have. And maybe one can sort of admire her or her choices, perhaps. However, she often comes across very snappish and mean. If the author had been able to make me, as a reader, like the character a bit more – I think I would give this five stars.  I took an immediate distaste to the woman and, though I was rooting for her, I never really liked her much.  I suspect that the impact of this novel would have been massive if the character was able to worm her way into the reader’s heart just a bit.  Not that she does not have an impact whatsoever.  Indeed, she is a gut punch and a resilient character and because of that it feels wrong to call her mean.

I also want to praise the author’s story for being the “correct” length.  Not too long, not too condensed, well paced, and with a really good Epilogue that has so much usefulness.  Usually, readers complain about endings a lot. This one ended very well.

Recommended for fans of thrillers/suspense. Really intense reading with just the right balance of pages and pacing.  If I ever did a top five books of the year – I think this one would make that list.

4 stars

A Trouble of Fools

A Trouble of FoolsHere is a quick paperback by an author I have never read before.  To be honest, this is another one of those books that I would “typically” not be drawn to.  However, this is the Great Effort of reading things outside of the usual selections – and clearing out the tremendous bookshelves. A Trouble of Fools by Linda Barnes is the first in the Carlotta Carlyle series, first published in 1987.  I read the St. Martin’s Paperbacks 2006 edition, but I did want to glance at the internet to see if I could see what the original cover looked like.

The start of the book gave me a little trouble.  I felt that I could not really get my footing, which is somewhat silly in a little pulpy detective thing. It also took a few chapters for me to acclimate to the main character’s “voice.”  But the main character grows on you. She seems to be a really good balance between messy and disorganized and functional and efficient. If she was too one way or the other, I think she would have been a lot less likeable. She really carries the book start to finish – and so it is very necessary that the reader get comfortable with Carlotta’s perspective and voice. One of secondary elements that I want to briefly praise is that Carlotta is supposed to be a kind of tough ex-cop who can be sharp and abrasive if need be, but she does not come with overwhelming toxic amounts of snark and sarcasm.  Her wit is measured and not overdone. I appreciate that quite a bit.

The main character owns a cat. And a bird. These are always story enhancements.

The story takes place in Boston in the 1980s. Naturally, oh so naturally, I enjoyed this. I miss the northeast. And I miss the northeast in the 80s. A lot.

In Boston, which has ample parking for, say, one in ten of its residents – not to mention commuters – not owning a car makes sense.  You save – not only on parking tickets, but on medical expenses for mental-health-related ailments. — pg. 41 (chapter 6)

Some of the most amusing elements are when the characters have to use phones! Hey – landlines, PAY PHONES. Remember all that stuff? Heh!

The storyline was sufficient – the author actually surprised me with her skill in tying the threads into one cogent and reasonable plot. I am also going to give an extra star of appreciation to the climactic scene wherein a surprise “player” is actually the one to deal with the bad guy. I am impressed because I did not see that coming and it is both fitting and interesting.  I say interesting, because honestly, it is a wee bit of a gutsy move for the author.

Just like Sherlock and his “many helpers,” it seems that the standard “private investigator rules”  are somewhat in place.  The private investigator must always have a batch of very willing helpers, odd as they may be, that help facilitate the work needed.  I am on the lookout for novels with a p.i. that does not have any reliance on a team of “helpers.” This is not a negative at all, just an observation of the genre. This is short novel, very comfortable length; I am glad that the author knew when to wrap this story up.

By the way, one of these supporting characters, Gloria, is an absolute treasure and a large part of the reason I own book two.

Good for those who are looking for a female detective/cop character. Good for those who remember and understand the 80s. A quick read, a quick-TARDIS ride back to the 80s. I will probably read book two in the Carlotta Carlyle series.

4 stars

Relic

relicI finished Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child this week.  I am aware that basically every other reader on the planet has already read it at least once.  It was first published in 1995, which was a few years back. In the 2000s, I remember my household reading through all of the Preston & Child books that had been published; I think there were seven or eight books at that point.  I know that I started to read this book a number of times, but never finished it. I honestly do not remember why.  However this attempt to finish the book took about a year. I re-started it in July of 2020. 

Let us be honest, we’re all friends here, right?  If a novel takes two or three times to get through, aside from extraordinary life situations, maybe the book just is not as good as we want it to be.  Or, perhaps, we just really do not enjoy reading some specific element of the novel – be it setting, plot, genre, etc.  I am glad I read through it finally. I am going to say that it is probably a 3.5 star read. I will end up giving it 4 stars, but no matter how many things I praise about the novel, there is the glaring “well, it only took me a year to read through it….. this time….” problem.

I think one of my attempts to read the novel ended before I even got to meet the special star, Agent Pendergast.  He only first appears on page 78.  That being said, he has a very favorable entrance into the story and he is definitely an intriguing and likeable character.  He is also kept a bit of an enigma throughout the book – a bit of a mysterious personality to add to the overall mystery.  Honestly, this character is the main reason I will, at some point, read further in this series.  I do wonder how much mileage Pendergast will have – do readers get tired and aggravated with him?

Anyway, the rest of the characters are very obviously good guys or bad guys.  Character development is not strong here.  The supporting rôle characters, D’Agosta and Margo, are major characters in the story, but they are so obvious about everything.  D’Agosta is the police officer who originally is called to the Museum for the situation and who originally is working alongside Pendergast.  Eventually, D’Agosta has a rather heroic rôle and he gets a happy ending.  He is the stereotype of the grouchy, tough, veteran NYC cop. Margo is one of two female characters (the other is really a hideous thing) in the novel. Margo Green starts the novel off – she is the more mundane character we are to feel sympathy for and who seems swept up in the chaos.  Try as you like, Margo just isn’t very engaging. Her rôle here is to give a perspective in order to balance Pendergast and D’Agosta.  Though I think we ought to like her, she is just too cardboard and inconsequential.

The setting is the real star.  The New York Museum of Natural History as a setting would delight any reader, I think, in any genre. The setting is a super great choice because it contains the whole plot to a limited zone, but yet, it is a huge zone with many exterior connections.  It is also a location many people are familiar with and it contains great contrast of the ancient and the cutting edge.  As far as the pacing, there is a lot of backstory and, honestly, at points it really does drag on slowly.  If I had to guess, the pacing would have been the main reason I failed to get through this novel previously. There is a lot of backstory and not all of it is very interesting.  In fact some of it is tedious.  There is a scientific theory used here that Child used in Terminal Freeze, viz the Callisto effect. The first time I read it (in that book) it was interesting, now I am desensitized to it. I guess, like everyone else, I should have read Relic first?

So, while I have some complaints, I do not think this is a bad novel. I remember 1995, this was surely an excellent bestseller then. Now that we have the internet and we are all experts in absolutely everything, maybe it seems a little less amazing.  However, this is a pretty good summertime read.  I do not know if it is an adventure novel or a mystery novel…. I think it gets placed in that strange and unclear “thriller” genre.  

It took me a year to get through this:  I cannot exactly say that this book was edge of the seat reading. There are rewards if the reader pushes through all of the talking, the backstory, and the ill-tempered characters.  I can recommend it to fans of monsters, fans of evolutionary biology, and general readers.

4 stars 

Dirty Deeds

Dirty DeedsThis blazing hot and overcast afternoon I finished Dirty Deeds by Armand Rosamilia.  It is another book that is different from my usual go-tos.  Another small press publisher / self-published effort that I have enjoyed.  I did not know what to expect, honestly, but the author photo was of him with a beard and described him as enjoying metal [music] and baseball and being from New Jersey. So, I knew this guy was probably pretty cool. Seriously. Do not mock the 45+ year olds who love baseball and metal; we are cooler than you kids will ever be.  I saw 40 awhile ago, have scruff on my chin and I love metal and baseball, and I am from New York. Even if Rosamilia’s book was trash, we would still be pals. 

Do not worry! Dirty Deeds was not trash! It was one of the more enjoyable and fun reads I have read in awhile. The evening I started reading this, I read the first forty-seven pages and was pretty amused and interested in the storyline. I mean, I had the book in the house since February [its nearly August], but I have so many books to get to! Its really nice when you can finish a book and then the next one is precisely the sort of thing your mood-level wants to be reading.  This one started off in media res and moved really quickly!  Five pages in, the main character was in the back of a police car.

Most of the other reviews that I glanced at had some minor comments about how the overarching plotline is kind of unrealistic. Well, sure it is; if you want realistic – read non-fiction.  I admit a small measure of suspension of disbelief is needed for this, but again, I would not expect that to be any issue at all for a reader. The concept of this novel (and series) is that the main character is rather one-of-a-kind and the work is unbelieveable. I am so very thankful to have read a novel where there was something unique and new and interesting instead of the usual plots and settings.

I really like the main character, too. Although, yeah, there are times I want to deck him.  I wish he would take better care of what he eats – he’s a stress eater – and would maybe think about fitness a little (or at all).  I like his honesty and his confusion and his skewed morality and his confidence.  Instead of being the Hero Skilled at Everything, he is a bit of an Everyman who just happens to have a very unusual life.  Now, in the early parts of the novel, I felt the main character was a bit too smooth, too perfect an operator. By mid-book, we see this guy knows what he is doing, but maybe does not handle so many changes and abrupt shocks all at once. I like that he is honest about it – his hands shake, he buys baskets-full of junkfood from gas stations. He copes. 

If I had any direct complaint about the novel it is that maybe here and there are a few awkward constructions or elements that do not work as well in my eyes as they did coming from the author’s fingertips onto the keyboard. No big deal.  These did not have any ultimate effect on the story whatsoever, but they did sometimes speed-bump the reading a bit.  Just sentences that did not flow correctly. 

Besides the relatively unique concept for the series, I really like all the other constructions. I love that the main character has a side-business that he would rather be his main business, which is selling/trading Baseball Cards.  Its such a fantastic idea for a story – and it fits so absolutely perfectly with the main character and the concept of this book.  This is a really great idea and I wanted to high-five the author about it.  Yeah, yeah, I know not everyone has a concept of baseball card collecting/selling. I also know that not everyone truly, really understands baseball. But for those of us who do, who remember those 70s, 80s, 90s baseball cards…. man, this book is a real treat.  Lots of nostalgic moments here – those outrageous 1990 Donruss cards with the RED border! Or those 1982 Topps cards that looked so 80s! Or, my favorite, those amazingly ugly 1975 Topps Rookie Cards – by position, with the four pictures on the front! 

I will stop now. 

Anyway, toward the end of the novel, I felt the storyline was getting a little wonky. I mean, it seemed the main character was spending a lot of time in the backseat of cars being driven here and there after flying to all these cities – but nothing was really happening. Also, some of these cities were in different time zones and some of the timeline just seemed too condensed. I know the author was really trying to press his character – put the squeeze on from a variety of angles and never letting the reader know who the real bad guys were. However, maybe it needed to decompress here and there. 

Yes, the ending is a helluva cliffhanger. Obviously, the author did this on purpose to set up the direction for the next book, which he hopes you will buy. Some readers took issue with this.  I guess they felt it too obvious. I am fine with the way this ended – it is very much open ended, no closure, but so what? Continuation in a series is a tactic and it beats all the fake “tied-up-in-a-neat-package” endings that sometimes we readers suffer through. Besides, I have read a lot of PKD novels – those are some choppy ended novels.

So, I had a lot of fun with this one. I enjoyed nostalgia. I like the main character. The story is very fast-paced and easy-going. I recommend this to readers who want to enjoy what they read and can be content with popcorn, a Coca-Cola, and an engaging crime novel.  I do own the second in the series and intend to read it and I am interested in maybe trying out some of the author’s other work.

4 stars

In Plain Sight

1-In-Plain-SightThis book was recommended to me while visiting an out of town friend. My friend apologized for having lost the second book in the series, but said that they had the first and I would probably enjoy it. So, I took their copy and started reading it when I got home a few days later.  In Plain Sight by Dan Willis is the first in his Arcane Casebook series. It was first released in 2018 as a self-published work, I believe.  As I have said, I am making a strong effort to read things other than my “usual” bookshelf fare.  I am making a bit of an effort to read independent and small-press publishers, self-published works, genres I do not normal look into, and so forth.  I think there are eight books (so far) in the Arcane Casebook series and my friend had about five of them stacked on a shelf; and I have to tell you – they looked so pretty and appealing. (It is only fair to also say they were surrounded by media that had C+ and Python and similiar written all over them.)

So, I was kind of not sure what this novel would entail. I have read the first Harry Dresden (by Jim Butcher) novel and both enjoyed it and still disliked the main character.  I read that when the first couple novels in Butcher’s series The Dresden Files were released, let’s see, way back in 2000.  Twenty-something years ago, the subgenre urban fantasy was new and edgy and Butcher’s books were just another science fiction paperback. I think there are seventeen novels in that series now! Anyway, I cannot remember everything about my reading experience of Storm Front, but I know that I found it interesting and unique, but also a bit unpolished and maybe I did not love the main character – because he was supposed to be so eccentric and quirky that it felt like it was very forced. It was not a bad start, but it was not great. I never got around to reading the second book – though, currently, I believe the first five books sit on a bookshelf here at home.

I mention the Dresden Files because there are definitely some similarities with this Arcane Casebook novel.  They are, indeed, different in many respects, but there must be comparisons between the two as well, since readers will be familiar with the Dresden Files before coming to this series. My general impression after reading In Plain Sight is that is better than Storm Front. Which, honestly, is just saying that I liked it better. Neither novel is five stars and there are some improvements to be made in each, but if I had to recommend a modern magic/wizard novel to a reader, I would likely suggest Willis’ book.

The main character is Alex Lockerby who is a private detective in New York City 1933.  Now, I admit that I am drawn to Golden Age pulps, gritty city private detectives, noir crime stories, and black & white TV shows. So, the setting and the background tipped the scales in favor of this novel.  Lockerby, like all true isolated and loner heroes, is surrounded by the uniquely-skilled, providential crew of friends and helpers.  He was raised by a priest, taken into the home of and trained as a detective by a rich British doctor, and he managed to hire a savvy and sharp – and also good-looking – secretary for his office. So, the novel seems to want to tell us that Alex struggles on the sidewalks of NYC with the daily grind of running a loser business, but the fact of the matter is, he actually has a lot of safety-nets and helpers.

Lockerby is also a runewright, which is a type of magician, I suppose. The novel explains runewrights as sort of the mechanics and engineers of the magical world, contrasted with the fancy, high-level marvels of sorcerers. The concept of runewrights was one that I approached positively. I have no use for the Harry Potter business, but a runewright sounded like something with a lot of story potential that was just unique enough to set it aside from wand-wavers. Basically, runewrights are like draughtsmen who create a variety of runes using different configurations of symbols made with different inks and substances – many of which are expensive/rare to utilize.  Many of the runes can be somewhat physically taxing and can take hours to “draw.”  Some, of course, are minor and much faster to whip off using merely a pencil and a notepaper.

Alex was raised by Father Harrison Arthur Clementine at a local church/mission. And Father Harry is responsible for raising Alex into the diligent and moral character he is. However, Alex lives with his runewright mentor, Dr. Ignatius Bell, who served in the Royal Navy. Bell owns a brownstone in the City and spent at least two years training Alex in runewright skills as-well-as Sherlock Holmes-style detective work. He also feeds and cultures Alex. A mentor and a patron and a landlord. I can see how some of this chafes readers – Lockerby is supposedly a struggling private detective, but he has such a support system and had such assists through his “formative years” that he really ought to be doing a whole lot better than he is!

Alex also seems to have really bought into the stereotype that private detectives in the 1930s drink and smoke constantly. I do not mind, really, a heavy drinker/smoker in my novels – but I was trying to timeline out how much he drinks and it really is quite a large amount. This is to say, some of the cigarette lighting and two finger splashes pouring actually interupts the flow of the story instead of smoothly building its elements.

The storyline, honestly, is not super interesting. I enjoyed it, but mainly I did not pay much attention to it. I did not seem to care who the adversaries and culprits were or what their motives were, I was more interested in learning more about this magic 1933 NYC and going around with Alex lighting cigarettes and taking crawlers (magic-driven transportation).

I can understand some demanding readers being frustrated with the plot because it does seem very stereotypical and trope-filled. But I liked it – and I would use the words “Golden Era” and “classic.”  I know a lot of readers want each novel to push the boundaries of fiction and have ever-new storylines, but I was really content with hanging out with Lockerby and traipsing around to different crime scenes looking for clues. I enjoyed the storyline – it was engaging and interesting and kept right on moving. We met different characters along the way and there was not a lot of explanation and description – we learned on the job with Alex.

There are some minor twists at the end of the novel that might aggravate readers – Alex does not share with the reader everything he discovers. I mean, most of it is apparent, but there are a few items near the end of the book that it is revealed that Alex is aware of that the reader has to get surprised by. Some readers will be aggravated, I was amused and enjoyed it. Authors do not always have to play totally fair with readers – especially if its for our own entertainment.

4 stars

The Gulp

Alan BaxterThe Gulp by Alan Baxter is a collection of five novellas that take place in the same setting, which is Gulpepper, Australia (fictional). The author shares with us (in the Afterword) that it is more of a concept than a place. I was turned on to this work by some of my favorite fellow readers. Col’s Criminal Library and Books, Bones, and Buffy who each wrote 4+ star reviews of this work. Also, this reader (aka Well Read Beard) made a YouTube video-review of the book, and I enjoy his reviews, as well. Heck, since I am posting URLs, here is the author’s website:  Alan Baxter.  Anyway, I have made a bit of a small effort to sort of read some things outside my “usual” selections. So, instead of vintage science fiction, I have read a few small publishers’ prints, some crime, some horror, some non-mainstream and The Gulp is one that normally I would never have considered reading.

I do not read much horror at all, if any. I think I can count on one hand the amount of horror I have read – and most of it counts only as “classic/vintage” horror. I am referring to stuff like W. W. Jacobs and H. P. Lovecraft.  I read Needful Things by Stephen King when it first came out and I liked it. Liked it so much I watched the movie, which I also enjoyed. Honestly – I cannot think of much else that I have read that might be in this genre. The truth is, there is a lot of horror and terror in the world, and I usually like to use my reading for learning or entertainment. I can understand the argument that others might use reading as catharsis or that not everyone shares the same entertainment opinions. But for me, I get enough horror already without seeking it out.  Also, well, sometimes “horror” means “gross.”  There are a lot of examples of media in which these two are jumbled and I do not enjoy the gross too much.

So, before I ordered the book, I did read some reviews from trusted reviewers. I also went to the author’s website. Or Facebook. Or something. Something of his online. I skimmed what was there. To be completely honest, I do not know that he and I would get along. Or, maybe we would be chums. I do not know, but there is something about him that I find aggravating and/or abrasive. There are things we would agree on and then there are other things I think would end in a front yard fisticuffs.  So what? I do not have to like an author to read their stuff.

There is a reason I am mentioning both of these points:  I am the tough sell. I am the outlier and the reader that yeah, if I am praising the work, it does mean something stronger. And yes, like my book blogger friends listed above, I am going to give this work 4 stars.

The Gulp consists of five novellas that take place in a country/coastal town in Australia. I have never been to Australia, nor is it on my list of places I would like to go. And this is after one of the most significant people in my life having been from Sydney. That being said, The Gulp could really be anywhere, so shuffle the lingo a bit and yeah – its the creepy coastal town in Your Country. This is really cool because the universality of the setting is important to this particular type of writing, I think.  Drawing the readers in and immersing them in this town is really key to these stories.

All five stories are very original. I mean, the storylines themselves have an originality that was striking.  I feel after all that has been written in the horror/crime/science fiction genre, coming up with something original is quite challenging. It seems like it was not difficult at all for this author. As I consider this, I think that perhaps the trick is these stories are all somewhat “slice-of-life” stories. Meaning, the mundane is one of the most powerful elements in the stories. That is kind of odd to say considering some of the events that take place. But Baxter makes the reader believe that those events take place because of the setting in which they take place. Nicely done.

The first novella, Out On A Rim, was the one that most interested me when I read the other reviews. Something about this idea was interesting to me and I figured if it was good enough, it would be worth it even if the rest of the book was not great.  I think that it was the most suspenseful and scary of the group. It is strategically placed at the start of the collection – because one of the characters actually takes a walk around The Gulp – and introduces the reader to the setting. Again, smoothly done. However, the story gets quite gory and shocking really quickly and ends with a kind of flashbang.  Pay attention:  this is horror, crime, and it is very violent and gory.

I had to take a break for awhile after reading that story, honestly. Not because it was bad. But because I knew whatever came next was going to be intense. And wow, it sure was. The second story in the batch is, I think, the best written. However, it COULD come with valid content warnings all over it. There is a lot of gore and its not just splatter – it is emotional gore. This is the story I would be most concerned about when recommending this collection to other readers, to be honest. I am not a particularly sensitive reader, generally, but I could not help but worry about certain readers being just too open and gentle for this one.  As key reading material, the author has a solid blog entry on this sort of thing. The entry is entitled: “Content Warnings Are Not Censorship” and it was posted June 12, 2021.  It is very worth reading – get over there and read it. Here is a statement from that entry: “Horror is meant to be confronting. That doesn’t mean it should be traumatic, or that people avoiding trauma are somehow wrong, weak, or censors.”  Horror is meant to be confronting – this is an phrase/idea that I am going to ponder and turn around in my brain for awhile.

Anyway, Mother in Bloom was great. Unfortunately there are not as many readers that can confront this one as I wish. But the writing is so skillful, I really appreciated it. I like how genuine the characters seemed and their slice-of-life felt realistic.

The third story, The Band Plays On, was good, though it was somewhat predictable. I mean, it was not difficult to see where this was headed. That does not mean its a bad story. And again, it subtly gave us background info and developed the setting even more.  I felt sympathy for the main character and I am glad it ended the way it did – Baxter was not cruel to the reader in this one, wherein he could have been. Also, I did appreciate the music details throughout.

The fourth story, 48 To Go, starts circling the collection back to the start ever so gently. Finally, a story that is taking place not on the coast – but on the water. Again, a slice-of-life of one of The Gulp’s residents. Things suddenly go wrong for the main character. I did not feel a whole lot of compassion for him at this point, though. And then things just go sideways, downhill, and inside-out. I think this is the story that is the most bizarre of the collection. Its original, its gory, its full of what-in-the-ever-living-______!!!!!  But, because it is so chock full of bizarre and gore, it somewhat takes the edge off of the pandemonium. As events get to a fever pitch of outrageous, yeah, I started to feel a little compassion for the main character who somehow maintains some level of functionality while the world turned inside out.  This is a good story, but it is also the most wild.

Rock Fisher is the last story and I think the shortest. A lot of tie-ins to the rest of the collection occur. The Gulp is very claustrophobic. Anyway, here we have another basic main character with his slice-of-life struggles. Like every main character in these stories, it seems there is a real and honest characterization in which family, peace, contentment are strong goals. These are not necessarily bad people is what I suspect Baxter is telling us. However, fate, luck, and the monsters of The Gulp coerce and instigate and maul these people into doing outrageously horrific and unthinkable things. Troy is twenty-five years old, lives on his own, owns an aquarium, goes to work at a manufacturing plant, and enjoys fishing.  The story starts and he is upset about his girlfriend, whom he knows is not exactly a class act, ditching him for another fella.  Troy takes his troubles to the shore and brings his fishing rod. After a long day, he hauls in a very strange and somewhat disgusting catch; and it ain’t a bream or a sea bass!  Eventually, as Troy becomes more obsessed with his catch, he also becomes sicker – until he is transforming into………..?  The writing here is really good because Baxter shows (not so much bludgeons) the reader with how this magnetism-obsession is overtaking Troy.  Troy loses time, whole hours and then days go by where he is in a trance-like state near the thing he hauled in from the sea. Its creepy and the loss of will is truly the horror here – not just the “creature.”  It is a good story, especially rounding out this set.

And here is the thing:  I was planning from the end of the first story, to read this collection and send it onward. I have mentioned I am downsizing some of the bookshelves in this house. (I say that all the time, don’t be fooled.) Anyway, I had every intention straight up through halfway of the fifth story of finishing this book and plopping it on the stool that currently has about a dozen books on it to be shared elsewhere. After finishing Rock Fisher, I asked myself, should I get rid of this? Who can read it – it does “need” content warnings?  Maybe I should keep it, it isn’t like they have copies at all the bookstores in town. And then I laughed and laughed and laughed – because I felt just like Troy…. maybe I should just keep it. Gollum moments, right?  If y’all don’t hear from me for a good long while, maybe I’m in a fugue state staring at the book on a bookshelf.

Yeah, I’m definitely all in for a second helping if Baxter writes one!

4 stars

Gumshoe Blues

Gumshoe BluesGumshoe Blues by Paul D. Brazill is a short story/short collection of really fast-paced snapshots of a self-described private investigator named Peter Ord.  For the readers who are very fastidious about their categorizations, this would be considered modern noir – “Brit Grit.”  Under one hundred pages, this little copy is via Close to the Bone Publishing, which is  U.K. publishing house specializing in crime fiction and modern noir.  Their edition of Gumshoe Blues is from 2019.  I think Brazill had published some amount of this work in some other manner at some point previously, but I am not a biblio-historian.

Paul D. Brazill seems to be, and I say seems because I am hardly an expert in anything anymore, something of a good benchmarking standard in this genre. After reading Gumshoe Blues, its easy to see why. He has a really good style that matches the genre.  His mind’s-eye for scene and setting is sharp, as well.

I do not read a lot of this genre, but I am reading a bit more of it. Its become very challenging to get through any dense tomes with complicated plotlines and extreme character development. I do not have the time to invest in these works, at least, not currently. You may politely ask why not and I will mention that I have really upped my physical training for hung gar (I have 18 years of this training) and I have been spending a lot more time fishing. I have utterly lost track of where the TVs are in my home.  Anyway, reading fiction has kind of taken a backseat (BUT NEVER NON-FICTION).

Certainly, this genre is not for everyone. I am really enjoying the small print/publishers focusing on crime fiction. Long ago I became unimpressed with what “suspense/mystery” meant in the mass market LoBs. It seemed overrun by the same authors who, to an extent, seemed to be publishing the same novels? And yes, some of that is expected. Tropes and formulaic writing is the backbone of pulp media.  I still have a whole mess of such novels I want to read, do not get me wrong – I like reading! However, there is something refreshing and edgy and curious about what the small print/publishers are able to do for authors who do not want to compete with James Patterson.  This particular publisher and writer are working in a genre that is gritty and dark and definitely comes with warnings for readers.

One of the things I liked about Brazill’s writing is that his turn of phrase seems utterly seamless and smooth – nothing forced or awkward. I worry that many authors can really write “gritty crime” without making what should be noir and street-worthy somehow goofy and ridiculous. Brazill does really well with that and even injects a little wry humor. What’s more, though there has to be a lot of coarse language, it absolutely did not have that egregious display of gratuitous filth that some writers are unable to balance.

Gumshoe Blues is a short page-turner of snapshots of Peter Ord’s current life in Seatown.  It rains a lot, there are way too many seedy locations, and everyone seems to know everyone. Without describing every single aspect, Brazill has the reader follow along with Ord as Ord hangs out in pubs and clubs – and as a reader I found it quite convincing. I felt that feeling of not wanting to lean on the furniture, get too close to the walls, and cringing at the sticky floor. Its dark and smells like stale everything.

The writing is less about characters and more about snapshots of this genre. I enjoyed my time in Seatown, I guess, and hanging out with Peter was a unqiue experience. I am glad I read this – and I will probably try to read more by Brazill. Recommended for toughened readers, readers who don’t read for character relationships, and readers who laugh at tragi-comedy.

4 stars

Primary Target

It feels like every time (yes, it is not all that often of late) I log in to this blog editor, the editor is different and/or more challenging to use. I feel like I may have seen other bloggers making similar statements. I am going to try to do my best to figure out what I have to do here in this editor to make this post look like my standard posts – above all making it readable.

PrimaryTarget-Full Primary Target is the first novel in the Six Assassins series co-authored by Jim Heskett and Nick Thacker. It is my first read by either of these authors and is among one of my first non-science fiction, but still fiction reads this year. I am reading some different things from the bookshelves. This and the next review are of books that are kind of self-published/small print press books. I have enjoyed reading books lately, not studying them or becoming drunkenly scholarly over them. What does that mean? Well, I have enjoyed turning pages without using a whole lot of brain to do so.  I have been reading my usual diet of non fiction that has left little for complex, mighty fiction reads. 

There is a need for clear and honest assertions to be made regarding what I called above “self-published, small print press, print-to-order” novels. Amazon and a few other booksellers are utilizing this method and providing a platform for authors to get their works released without having to undergo the strains that major publishing houses may enforce. In honest truth, a lot of the stuff that is taking this route of escaping the big publishing house trials, is probably not worthy of being printed. Because of that, it is probably not difficult to see that a lot of junk publishing tends to spoil and taint the whole category.  I think the commonest way to test the calibre of these novels is to look at the typos. Usually, the grammar and formatting is just simply not on par with what a completed, published work ought to be. 

Here is a key point, though. I think the big publishing houses are able to hire high quality editors and have a more rigorous process for drafts.  (FEAR NOT – I still find typos and errors in these “polished” books, too.)  So, let us say for example that a novel published by Harper Collins or Hachette has less typos and errors in it than many “print-to-order” level books.  That is a good thing and readers need to demand good language editing.  However, to me, a lot of the books coming out of the big houses also have something of a “sameness” to them. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to describe this feeling – but though the story changes and the author changes and the characters are all radically different… there is still some ghostly sameness haunting these books.  In my mind, it seems like it could be because the editors (and the edit process) from these houses are streamlined to handle the huge volume of work by precise deadlines.  Self-published and print-to-order books do not rely on such a mechanical process. 

That being said, this stuff is not fine literature. And it is not a dig against any author or publishing house to say so.  It is a fact. An entertaining story with some fun characters is never going to be held up as the almighty shining relic over the great literary works of our time.  It is possible to write very engaging and exciting stories, but without nearing that special and sometimes divisive category of “literature.”  Further, though I doubt it needs to actually really be said, not every author is intending to write magnificent literature, anyway. 

So, after that long and poorly-written musing, I want to present the Problematic.  How do honest reviewers rate or grade these different sorts of books?  I feel, generally, like I am treading all over people when I “guess” at their intentions for their books.  I do not want to use the heavy hammer on a writer who just wants to entertain and tell a story.  But at the same time, why should I lower the standards and put on a false mercy just because, well, someone said “entertainment” and someone else said “literature”?  Anyway, I decided that in order to deal with this Problematic, the most important element in a review must be honesty.  It must be Zen-level, standing-before-God level, completely open honesty. Does this mean other reviews are DISHONEST? No, I think, though, the difference lies in the simplicity of the discussion.  There must be less musing and less supposition, therefore utterly less ambiguity or interpretation, in reviewing a small-print release.

So, here goes an attempt.

I read Primary Target because I saw it a couple of times and there was something about the storyline that I could not deny was interesting me.  Because at the end of the day, action thrillers with assassins are interesting. There is an Assassins Club.  Imagine that. Now, as someone who does read a fair amount of science fiction, I will tell you – no matter how hokey and goofy and silly the spaceship and the alien is, no matter how adult and sophisticated we want to seem, no matter how scientific we think we are:  an exciting chase across the galaxy with a ray gun of some sort and some awesomely creative lifeforms to meet along the way, is always going to draw us in for some fun.  So, assassins club.

The main character, Ember Clarke, is a cool character. I think the authors wrote her very well. I feel like she is genuine, honest, and seems to make fairly reasonable judgments. Is she a perfectly-written character? No. The other characters in the book are described as different individuals and play different roles. But – since we are being honest – they are not written distinctively enough. They are superficially different: this one is older, this one is younger, this one is taller, this one is smaller. But as I read it, most (not all) of the supporting characters do not bring their own separate and potent personalities to the story.

Storyline was good – in fact, maybe even a bit better than I expected it to be. What do I mean by “good”? Well, I was entertained and it seemed like a reasonable enough storyline that I could believe in it.  Except for one thing:  there seem to be TOO MANY assassins.  I mean, in the world of this book.  Because if there were THIS MANY assassins, and they were all doing jobs and being gainfully employed at their work, well, I feel like there would be a significantly higher number of dead bodies everywhere.   The story was decent, though, and over the halfway point there is a plot twist that involves the main character (of course) that adds another dimension to this storyline.  So the authors are not just putting out a “contest” story.  There are several lesser threads to follow. Intrigue among the Assassins Club members and such.  This is good – it means there will be more books and we are not just watching a cat and mouse game. 

It is a lighter content novel – and that is the way the authors chose to write it. A fine choice, perfect for entertainment.  The novel reads very quickly and nothing here requires a second of deeper thought.  But the reader senses that lack of depth and while that should not equate to a lower rating, we cannot offer five-star ratings to every book that entertains. Therefore, I honestly state that for the category of book that it is, for the entertainment I got from it, I will give this book four stars.  I have already acquired book two in the series.  It would be a lie if I said that I found it to be an “average-level” read. Recommended for fans of assassins, female main characters, action novels.

4 stars