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

Death At The President’s Lodging

Death At the President LodgingDeath at the President’s Lodging by Michael Innes (John Innes Mackintosh Stewart 1906 – 1994) was first published in 1936 and is the author’s first novel in the Inspector John Appleby series.  Innes was an academic; professor of English Language and Letters. This novel was published when he was only thirty years old and while I think it is nearly excellent, there are some minor issues that I think keep it from being a five-star novel.  First and foremost the most important point to emphasize is that this is not an entirely coldly serious novel, it is a bit self-referential and it does seek to amuse via subtle wit at the expense of detective novels in general.  Not just mystery novels, but also academic life (specifically high-brow British).

Throughout the novel the wit and humor is very subtle and very tongue-in-cheek.  Readers who can pick up on subtle nuances and hints are going to have a better time of this one than readers who just like straightforward “whodunits.”  In his very first detective novel, Innes includes a character who is a don of a university that also, under a pseudonym, writes detective novels.  Including such a character is a mark of confidence and also demonstrates the author’s ability to find amusement in such reflective items.

“To be as clear as I can, sir, I would speak a trifle technically and say that your question had a latent content.  The feeling-tone evoked was decidedly peculiar.” And with this triumph of academic statement Slotwiner gave one more ghost of a bow to Appleby and glided – levitated almost, to speak technically – out of the room. – pg. 33, chapter 2, part 3.

This segment, where Inspector Appleby is quickly asking a few questions of the butler, was the first piece of the book in which I laughed aloud.  Its the “technically” part. It is even funnier as you read it in context. Like I said, the humor is subtle and tight.

There are sometimes passages like the below that can be used as a litmus test for readers. You will either snort because you find it amusing or you will find it tedious, stupid, and obnoxious:

The ability to smell a rat is an important part of the detective’s equipment.  Appleby had smelt a rat – in the wrong place.  But he was too wary to take it that a rat in the wrong place is necessarily a red herring:  it may be a rat with a deceptive fish-like smell – and still a rat. — pg. 166, chapter 11, part 1

Subtle humor like this, a little wordplay, will either make readers giggle a bit or they will find it impenetrable and wonder why the author is writing “like this.”  In any case, in this novel there are plenty of suspects, and as the detective often complains, a lot of “light” on the matter. In other words, there seems to be too many clues and too much evidence.  This is kind of a fun twist, again surprising for a first novel, on the detective novel trope – usually, it seems, detectives are missing key clues or are constantly looking for more evidence to prove their theories. The fact that there is an abundance of evidence is a neat element for this genre.

The overall theme of this novel, though, is its academic setting.  As I have said many times, most writers write what they know and Innes was definitely an academic.  We can know this through his biographical reports, but also because of the very accurate and realistic manner in which he portrays the setting and characters in this novel.

Most of the suspects or persons of interest in this novel are dons/fellows/professors.  The ones who are not, are long-time residents and employees of the school. The core group of individuals that are involved are scholars:  to be seen as experts in their field and in academia generally. These are men who have dedicated their lives to their profession, in whatever specific field of study that was, and have been granted the titles and prestige to go along with achieving a high level of success.

Immediately upon beginning his investigation, and at several points throughout, Appleby is struck by the fact that this case is not the “average crime” involving hasty, ham-fisted criminals.  In this case, the suspects and witnesses are all exceedingly comfortable with being interrogated about details, they are experts in explanations, and they are adept at ratiocination. These are calculating, efficient, and sharp intellects that generally do not make errors and cannot be bullied by a gruff interrogation.

Innes does not give us a weakling for an inspector, though. Turns out, Appleby is a graduate of the school himself.  The case allows for a bit of a homecoming, if you will.  This little detail gives the reasonability of Appleby to “keep up with” the dons intellectually and also for his moving around campus with the facility that is afforded a member, so to speak.

I enjoyed considering this situation. It is a daunting and interesting scenario to put your detective up against.  I imagined some of the minds that I know and knew from all of my schooling and I promise I would not want to have to sift through their witness statements or to have to discover which of them was misleading or something. To have to match wits in such circumstances would be intense – but what a fun theme for a novel!

Innes balances out these formidable intellects with a brilliant and lovely segment in chapter eleven that is, no doubt, quite famous among those who have read it.  It is worth, probably, reading the entire book just to come upon this fantastic section.  Appleby has gone about to trace the movements of a couple of the dons on the night the murder took place.  This involves his going to the suburbs where one is likely to find “scholars of enormous age” who live in quiet retreats. The entire segment is worth reading every single word for because it is absolutely beautifully depicted, but the ultimate point is that Appleby has called on a small villa in which lives Sir Theodore Peek.

Appleby found him in a small and gloomy room, piled round with an indescribable confusion of books and manuscripts – and asleep.  Or sometimes asleep and sometimes awake – for every now and then the eyes of this well-nigh ante-mundane man would open – and every now and then they would close.  But when they opened, they opened to decipher a fragment of papyrus on his desk – and then, the deciphering done, a frail hand would make a note before the eyes closed once more.  It was like being in the presence of some animated symbol of learning. — pg. 169, chapter 11, part 2

Every bit of Appleby’s interview with Peek is outstanding for its witty, realism, erudition, and fun. A perfect chunk of writing – including the end of the segment with its utterly truthful response from Appleby. Anyway, this scene is absolutely perfect and I feel like I have seen it, lived it, and see it coming in the future. The description is totally balanced with the necessary realism and the intrinsic characteristic of humor found in brute reality.

From what I have I have written so far, it should be amply clear that I enjoyed the novel and that it contains several uncommon elements to make it interesting and engaging even among mystery readers. However, I am very sad that I have to refrain from giving it the full five-star rating.  The first reason is that it became clear that Innes could not (or would not?) write the character of Dr. Barocho.  This character was removed from the “likely suspects” early on (he lacked means and motive, I suppose), however, if we are to believe Appleby is as thorough and diligent as he is meant to be, then we were deprived of an interview with Barocho – although we did have interactions with him. Unfortunately, the interactions made Barocho seem like an awkward character simply because of the fact that he is a “foreign” item in the setting. It is not that he was written rudely, but that he was not given a fair chance at being either a hero or a villain. So why include him at all except to include a foreigner?

Secondly, the ending is paced a little too suddenly.  One should have expected the denouement to be a bit of a gather round and explain.  However, it seems like Appleby was just a moment ago by the river watching the rowing team and pondering clues. Then, suddenly, denouement. The end. It is not inaccurate or strange, but it is paced too suddenly.  This could be a product of it, indeed, being Innes’ first novel and maybe in the following books this is tamed and tempered.

Lastly, the strongest reason for withholding the fifth star, is the motive-cause of the murderer.   Pargeter would be dismayed. Its not enough. Its not good enough. Its not worth all of the foregoing. It could be valid, naturally, but it was not proven. It was hung upon like shirt is hung on a hanger. It is not sufficiently nuanced.

So, overall, I am thrilled I read this one.  It was a great read and I enjoyed so much of it.  I loved spending time at St. Anthony’s with all of these gentlemen and I did not find Appleby to be some retread of any other inspector.  I liked the setting and the writing and the crime, but yes, I admit, the denouement needed a bit more work. I would happily read Appleby stories again.  Recommended for bright readers, vintage mystery fans, and for readers who do not get frustrated at subtle humor. The reader is not going to be spoonfed – to speak technically.

4 stars

Black Knight In Red Square

Black Knight in Red SquareI finally got around to reading the second book in Stuart M. Kaminsky’s (1934 – 2009) Inspector Rostnikov series Black Knight In Red Square (1983). I had read book one in the series way back in 2013.  I gave that novel a four star rating and I am going to give this novel the same. I knew even before opening the book that it would be four stars, so I am likely very prejudiced by enjoyment and not being very objective.

In this particular novel, Kaminsky’s work as a professor of film studies comes through very strongly as the setting for the novel is an international film festival in Moscow.  This background really works for the novel and I think that Kaminsky does a great job with it. However, anything involving film theory is lost on me. You may as well be trying to explain deontology to a goat for all the connection you would get between me and film.  I hate TV, to be honest. I think one of the earliest films (in the theatre) I saw was The Song of the South (1946) and since then, I have not seen nearly what most people have. Surest way to make me lose interest is to start talking about the camera qua eye or the formalist valuations or the cut scenes. Oh, and I can be harsh with my criticism:  sitting staring, mouth agape, at some flat screen while fakery dances before your eyes via people who live to deceive must be the stupidest non-activity modern man has developed. What a flabbergasting waste of life.  Usually when I “watch” TV/films I am usually more intent on the people around me – how are they suddenly hypnotized and de-brained so easily? Passive zombies.

It absolutely, to my mind, proves the insanity of humanity when people watch movies/TV “together.” To my mind, film or TV is utterly a singular, personal, non-group non-activity. Its farking madness that people have a sort of “where two or more are gathered in any name, let the TV be on” mentality. The majority of TV/film I have seen has come from times when I was ill, times when the weather was super inclement, or I was alone for long stretches of time.

You can imagine that I have made many many friends and allies with these views. Let us just say that the people I know must have a great deal of tolerance and patience for me.

So, naturally, I was a bit disappointed in this setting because well…. anything, for me, might be more interesting.  But then I must give credit to Kaminsky because he wrote an engaging setting without making me feel like I was suffering through more “film theory” hypnotism. Indeed, he writes a certain character who is very extreme in his film making. He wrote another, a German named Bintz, that he describes in a lively and realistic manner.

“I make no movies with terrorists,” said Bintz, his hands still to his lips, his head shaking a vigorous no. “If they don’t like your movie, they put your head in a bag and shoot off your knees. Werewolves are safe.” – pg. 99, chapter 8

There are Russians who bond with film theory – maybe even invented it. And there are Russians like the character Emil Karpo – who are busy working. I am with Karpo. In fact, Karpo steals the show in this novel.  The main character, Rostnikov is still there and leading the proceedings, but Karpo is the star of the novel. I really liked everything about him in this one and he and I would be excellent friends, were either of us to have such things as “friends.”

Throughout the novel, there are some scenes that are written perfectly. For example, when Karpo interacts with the medical examiner.  That whole segment is beautifully done; the characters, the props, the dialogue is all perfect.  Similarly, the fight scene when the elevator opens and the “stubby washtub” Rostnikov is scowling at everyone is also written so skillfully. And, of course, the humor and surprise and emotion that Kaminsky plays with when he describes Rostnikov’s weightlifting competition (chapter 11)! Finally, any scene with Rostnikov and Comrade Timofeyeva is marvelous.

It is not lost on me that Kaminsky writes his book as if it were almost a movie. Or perhaps he writes the movie in his imagination as if it were transcribed into a novelization.  Kaminsky is very good at this creating these scenes and the elements in them. What would this movie be like as a film? Would it be better or worse?

Film and fiction can (and do) exaggerate.  Is this not based on the physical nature of the ancient theatre works? A stage is always the place for the melodrama and the hyperbole. It is no place for the dull, mundane, or normal. Thinking this way, does Kaminsky exaggerate or play on stereotypes of Soviet society and Russian personality? Yes and no. I think he treads a fine line and goes a little each way, but overall holds the centerline and keeps the whole thing very entertaining – which is, ultimately, what is wanted in a novel.

From time to time foreigners have attributed this quiet atmosphere to the fear of the people in a totalitarian state, but they have only to read accounts of Moscow streets before the current century to know that this is not true.  No, while Muscovites can be given to hearty laughter and heated argument and even madness, they are essentially a private people.  They drive their emotions inward where they build, rather than outward where they dissipate.  And Russians are fatalistic.  If a person is run over by a car, it is terrible, horrible, but no more than one can expect. – pg 171, chapter 12

Terrorists, or maybe just one terrorist, are threatening Moscow.  The MVD and the KGB are working “together” – in the strange and antagonistic way that they do. It is never the teamwork or the group as a whole that find success.  Instead, the focus is on the individual diligence.  Obviously a strange paradox for a communist situation. In any case, Kaminsky also relates the terrorist’s motives to film – or, at least, the stage.  Terrorism is to be seen and known, at least in Kaminsky’s 1980s.

I took a course in undergrad school called World Terrorism and it was taught by some very significant professors/experts in the field.  At that time, this was hardly a field and it was bunched into the political science curriculum.  I remember, though, the constant emphasis on “what does it show? who was the audience?”  Terrorism as film and vice versa? Heavens! no wonder I dislike film.

Overall, I really like the Russian characters, Karpo especially, but also Rostnikov and Timofeyeva. I feel like I can sympathize and understand them. I do not understand many characters in books, so this novel was a pleasant change for me. The pacing in the novel was spot-on and the writing is very well done.  The novel, which on the surface is just a little mystery thriller, is actually a bit more significant when read as a film theory.  The fact that I enjoyed this and picked up on a lot of this speaks to how skillfully this was all done! I definitely recommend this to readers and I do intend to read more in Kaminsky’s series. Also, there is a pet cat in the novel.

4 stars

East of Desolation

East of DesolationFinally, after eighteen other ratings this year, I am giving a novel a four-star rating! East of Desolation by Jack Higgins aka Henry Patterson (1929 – 2022) is my first four-star novel of the year.  East of Desolation was first published in 1968 and I think is one of the author’s first novels – if not the first – to be released under his pen name “Jack Higgins.”  Incidentally, after reading this novel, I have read a novel with this year with the words Abomination and Desolation in the titles.

East of Desolation is hands-down a four-star read.  It is a very good example of what I look for when I read thriller/adventure pulp fiction.  It is only 244 pages in the paperback that I read through, but it is so much better than the 400+ page thriller/adventure novels.  I really like the spare writing without immense amounts of background for everything.  I liked the unique, seldom-used setting.  The story is set in Greenland and features the usage of small aircraft to travel around.  I liked the way the characters were written, each of them felt lively and significant in their rôle. I liked that they were all daring and interesting and perfectly written for this sort of novel. They all had motives and some were rogues and most had shadowy pasts.

Frankly, this is the key point, it is a thriller novel with the correct tone, pacing, and tension. So, it definitely feels satisfying to pick up a thriller novel and to get to read a thriller novel.  In other words, it was not sneaky agenda fiction, did not fall into some vague romance fiction, turn into a discourse on some obscurity, did not become a boring slog, and kept my interest for the full 244 pages. Further, and get this, the ending was very good. Imagine that – reading a good story from start to finish.

Of course this is not high-brow literature. However, it is quite a few levels up from some of the other novels that I have read this year. Somehow you can tell that the author knows what he is doing with pen and paper and is a little more intelligent than maybe some other authors.  Its nothing I could point to with precision – but its an overall feeling; maybe stemming from word choice or method of description or something. I cannot give you an example, but it felt like a fresh, crisp breath of Greenland air instead of the smoggy mush I have read lately.

The novel dares the film industry to make it into a movie – maybe that is why it has not been so adapted, yet. I cannot imagine why, though. I mean, when I consider what the people I know watch on their screens, the comparison begs for this to be a summer flick. Which actor plays the main character, Joe Martin? Well, Joe is a pilot. He is a very independent fellow, but he has a lot of skeletons in his closet.  He is a team player until he is not and he does not give warning when his loyalties shift.  He is brave and prudent, for the most part, making friends easily.  He has a surly temper on occasion, maybe saying harsh things that a softer person might not have said. The other characters tend to look past these moments as if they can see that he is a better person than he allows himself to be.

The plot is perfect for a thriller story. Excellent for a July summer read. The novel is filled out with liquor, crashed planes, gemstones, gunplay, bar fights, skiing and hunting, and sexy ladies. 1960s thriller fiction at its best. I recommend this for most readers, particularly those who are sick of over-written and overly-gruesome “thrillers” of the last few years.

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