Novels

Fiction

Concrete Island

Concrete IslandConcrete Island by J. G. Ballard (1930 – 2009) is the third Ballard novel I have read. It was published in 1974, I read the Picador 2018 edition with the Introduction by Neil Gaiman.  I did not read the introduction in this novel, because I dislike Neil Gaiman’s writing/perspectives a lot.  I understand he is a strong, prolific, and well-liked author, but I found it just so “expected” that yes he would write the introduction to a Ballard novel.

And from what I have already said, it is probably strongly noticeable that I am not Ballard’s greatest fan. I actually enjoy Ballard’s wordsmithing. I like his writing style, although I struggle a bit at how to describe it.  Here I am not talking about the tools of literary art, but more the actual “penmanship.” What I mean is, Ballard writes in a sturdy, heavy tone. Its exceedingly erudite, but not long-winded. It can be descriptive and use metaphors, but somehow it is also sparing or clipped. So, while he utilizes metaphors and overall satirical themes, I think the whole edifice of his novels are held by that same very sturdy and solid tone.

I have read three Ballard novels and definitely do not claim to be any sort of expert reader of his.  I do know that I feel like the three main characters I met are all the same person. Perhaps they are:  Donald Maitland, Robert Laing, Robert Maitland are their names.   All three of these characters are very independent personalities; outwardly cold and distant, projecting a sense of strength and power. I would not call them the stereotypical masculine archetype, though.  I feel that their projection of strength and power comes directly from their detachment and disassociation from society.   They are calculating, antisocial types.

In Concrete Island, Robert Maitland is a successful architect. He is thirty-five years old and driving his Jaguar home; he has exceeded a safe speed and has crashed it on page one of the novel. On page three the question is already asked, “Why had he driven so fast?” In the next paragraph:

Today, speeding along the motorway when he was already tired after a three-day conference, preoccupied by the slight duplicity involved in seeing his wife so soon after a week spent with Helen Fairfax, he had almost willfully devised the crash, perhaps as some bizarre kind of rationalization. – pg. 3

The readers have just gotten to the bottom of page three and we already know so much about Maitland. And, frankly, none of what is learned is entirely admirable or virtuous.  From this point on, all the critics and readers and experts can spend a lot of time dissecting this novel. For example, as a representation of a white-collar, amoral class of society, does Maitland speed because he is recklessly thinking “nothing bad happens to me or my kind”? Or, as suggested, does he willfully (almost subconsciously) cause the crash -as a sign that he is aware of his “white-collar, amoral class” and somehow this crash represents that class crashing?  Or does he crash because of some warped judgment that selects masochism over a fake façade of domestic sufficiency? Or is there an understated, but fierce desire to reject contemporary society and return to some primative and base survival-mode?

Is this 1970s “new wave” novel just 156 pages of revolt?

I think much is made of Ballard’s dystopian and tragic stories. I also think the symbolism and satire within these stories is at once very good and yet very heavy-handed. I think what a lot of readers love about Ballard is that he has provided so much fodder for them to make even more fodder. After all, there is an industry about this.  I am not always a huge fan of satire because though it can be exciting and counter-culture, I find that most of the time it turns bitter and caustic and feels like instead of subverting the society it aims at, it ends up devouring itself in its own venom.

As I read it, I did think it was a rewrite of a Jules Verne novel.  It is not and I have not read the Verne novel recently enough to even consider making any sort of comparisons. However, I feel a strong enough connection between these two novels that I wanted to mention it here.  Surely, all the readers of this blog are utterly familiar with Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1875)? LOL

The simple conception of this novel, the character’s situtation, the setting for the story – all as “island” is really significant, as well. Dozens of papers and opinions could be written on this matter. Naturally, one considers an island both as something isolated and surrounded by something else, as-well-as a pseudo-magical place – a getaway or a reserve. Sometimes Ballard plays with the standard definition, sometimes he uses it metaphorically here. Maitland thinks himself the island.  Of course, eventually, as the memory and significance of Maitland’s normal life starts to pale and fade, the reader is also supposed to consider that whatever happens here on this Island is actually the “really-real,” and the other outside world is the fake insubstantial stuff.

On page fifty two: “In some way, this act of concentration proved that he could dominate the island.” I think this is the first statement of dominance. Merely a page later this is reworked as Maitland thinks:

Nonetheless, his success in building even this shabby shelter had revived him, rekindling his still unbroken determination to survive.  As he was already well aware, it was this will to survive, to dominate the island and harness its limited resources, that now seemed a more important goal than escaping. – pg. 54

The desire to dominate, the notion that might-makes-right, and that this domination is success fills this novel – and maybe the other novels I have read by Ballard, too.  The concept is there throughout the storyline – if Maitland crashed purposively, then he had some “dominance” over Fate and Physics. If Maitland starts viewing his inability to escape as a desire to stay and become dominant, he shows his overcoming the situation/scenario in a different light. Subversive, maybe, revolutionary, maybe.  It gets especially convoluted if we consider that Maitland sometimes views himself as the island and so, does he also dominate himself? Yes, in the segments where Ballard writes about Matiland overcoming his physical ailments.

How much can be read into the idea that those who build are also those who dominate?  Several times in this short novel, Maitland “builds” (or has something built).  Is that the ultimate sign of his dominance?

The speed with which Maitland moves from wealthy architect to primitive is part of Ballard’s worldview, I think.  Obviously, everything about this novel is echoed or parallel to the novel High-Rise.  Honestly, it is kind of the same novel. It takes the same survival-satire-social subversion and instead of taking place in a high rise building, it takes place in the center of the “traffic” of normal society.

Anyway, there is a lot to wonder about in this novel, though none of it is necessarily positive or engaging. Most of it is dark and uncomfortable.  Ballard’s prose (being somewhat spare and cool) takes some of the sharpness off of these ruminations, however, at its core, this story nothing gentle and warming. Also, since I have read other Ballard, this novel is also nothing new and exciting.  I feel like Ballard wrote the same story and while I appreciate this, believe it or not, I am not very impressed, either.

The concepts are worthwhile to explore, but at the end of this, I feel it was an intellectual exercise of an expression of discontent with society. I am sorry that Ballard is discontented. It was not horrible to spend a few minutes reading his satire, but I am not going to remain there, on these isolations, with him.

2 stars

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainThe Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was first published in Japan as a book in 1954.  I am not an expert in anything, but I try my best to keep on learning and thinking! So, when I say that I think that this novel is one of Kawabata’s middle years works, take it with a grain of salt. I have read two of Kawabata’s previous novels and I enjoyed them.  This one felt, to me, like it was a turning point or a change for Kawabata.  I have no idea if that is true or not.

The novel takes place mostly in Kamakura, which is a city southwest of Tokyo. Kamakura is a very old city with tons of significant history, but in this novel it sounds mainly like a seaside rural town.  Everyday a couple characters take the train to Tokyo.   I looked at Google Maps and in theory you could drive or take a train to Tokyo (city center) in about an hour.  This works with the novel, it just seems farther away when I look at the map.  The author himself moved from Tokyo to Kamakura in 1934.

I once read this passage by Professor Van C. Gessel that stuck with me as a sort of rudimentary aid in understanding Japanese modern literature and I think it applies to The Sound of the Mountain. Gessel wrote:

Such a luxury is not afforded the reader of Japanese literature.  I realize this flies in the face of contemporary Western literary critical thinking, which insists that a text be surgically removed like a tumor from the author’s being for discrete dissection.  Works which cannot survive the operation are declared D.O.A.  Any mention of the author’s life brings cries that Oedipus’ mother is being blamed for his sins.  Nonetheless, I stand by my contention that Japanese fiction is written with the presumption that it will not be entirely severed from the life of the writer, and that readers will know something of the relationship between creator and creation. This is all part and parcel of the fundamentally autobiographical approach to literature that has been an integral part of the Japanese tradition since its inception.  – pg. 8, Preface, Three Modern Novelists, Kodansha International (1993)

Definitely, I think I have seen this approach in what little Japanese modern fiction I have already read and I think it is probably true, to an extent, in this novel.  The location in Kamakura is an obvious example, but at this point the author was fifty-five years old and probably some of the main character’s thoughts and feelings are autobiographical. The main character is Shingo Ogata who is sixty-two years old in the novel. 

The story is mainly told from Shingo’s perspective, in a sense. It focuses on his daily routines and his dreams and his thoughts about his family and the goings on in the neighborhood. Kawabata’s spare haiku-like prose is always praised for its style and beauty.  In this novel, however, I am not sure if it is Kawabata’s prose or just the mannerism of Shingo. Shingo is feeling old and his having difficulty with his memory.  He seems to have frequent waves of nostalgia and sentimentality.  He, in his age, is remembering and longing for times past – and he even questions the accuracy of those memories.  He purposely allows his mind to conflate those past times and people and events with current events. His thoughts are somber, confused, frustrated, and sometimes morose.  Shingo’s very thoughts are unsettled and peppered with mundane facts or tautologies. Very much like the spare matter-of-fact prose with which Kawabata writes, generally.

We all live, now, in a furious time.  Everything, literally everything, is a manic, wild flurry of information and action.  If, in 1954, Kawabata’s prose was subtle and haiku-like, reading it now has made those times seem even more distant and even rather impossible.  Shingo often just looks at things or has time to just….. think vague thoughts.  He thinks about a fallen chestnut, a plum blossom, a locust, etc.  These singular items blend into the more pertinent life relationships he has with his family and co-workers. And throughout my reading of this novel, I was frequently envious of how characters would “go and look at things.”  Nowadays nobody goes and sees the trees for the express purpose of seeing trees blossom. Literally, going to a place to see some natural and mundane thing is unheard of today. I cannot even imagine anyone saying, “oh, after supper, let’s all walk out to the wherever to watch the sun set from there” or “let’s walk past the empty field down the block because the weeds are flowering.”  Do not get me wrong, please – I truly, deeply, enjoy this. I am the one who wants to go look at “a tree” or “a nothing much at all.”  I just wish I had more time to do this. Frankly, in this novel, I think the days of the characters must be 30-40 hours long. How do they have time for newspapers, train travel, meals, tea time all the time, arguments, and then nature-gazing?!

I have written this review, thus far, as if I really “got into” and enjoyed and understood this novel. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. This is probably a very good book for some readers. But this is absolutely not a book “for me.” It did not work for me, it was nearly incomprehensible to me, and I cannot call it a good book from my perspective. I mention all of this to let everyone know that I know that my opinions are not dogma. I fully expect that there are readers who very much enjoyed this book and can easily explain/defend their admiration.

But for me this was a struggle. It even came with a very chilling electric-shock at the end (pg. 270), which was very relevant (again) *to me.*

Things I am horrible at (and “horrible” is a kind and light way of phrasing it): family. People. People in my family. Peopleing. Familying. This book, however, is 100% about family and people and relationships. Frankly, I disliked almost all of the characters in this novel. The only character that I might have liked a bit is the old woman, Shingo’s wife, Yasuko.  The thing is, I cannot even explain why I liked her best, perhaps it is because she is the most wry and grounded of all of the characters. She often struck me as smarter and sharper than any of the characters think. She deserves her own novel.

I really… I really just feel like I needed the floor plan to the house – to Shingo’s house, okay? Because, to me, the story feels claustrophobic and tedious and cramped. It feels like everyone is constantly in each other’s faces and places. And I need space, I want to breathe; back the heck up, characters!

I guess Kawabata is a really good storyteller. Because even in this translated edition, in this storyline that I utterly cannot comprehend or engage with, I was still immersed enough to actually now be complaining about the closeness of the family home and the struggles of time and the tedious human weather.

There is only one segment that I would give high rating to.  It is this art appreciation moment in the chapter “The Scar” in which Kawabata has Shingo thinking about an ink wash by artist Watanabe Kazan (1793 – 1841). Shingo sees this artwork at a friend’s house and is still thinking about the ink painting and the corresponding verse. The five or six paragraphs in this segment are utterly beautiful, insightful, and skillfully composed.  They contain layers of meaning and show a brilliance that is absent, I think, in the rest of the novel. 

Shingo knew of Kazan only that he had been impoverished and that he had committed suicide, but he could see that this “Crow in the Stormy Dawn” gave expression to Kazan’s feelings at a certain point in his life.

No doubt the friend had put the painting up to match the season.

Shingo ventured an opinion:  “A very strong-minded bird. Not at all likeable.”

“Oh? I used to look at it during the war.  Damned crow, I used to think. Damned crow it is. But it has a quietness about it. If Kazan had to kill himself for no better reasons than he had, then you and I probably ought to kill ourselves time after time.  It’s a question of the age you live in.”

“We waited for the dawn, too.” – pg. 209

This, and associated paragraphs, thrill me. I love how the Japanese of old had a connection between the décor of their house, let us say, and the natural seasons.  I love how, in this example, the friend has a painting of a crow – and does not seem to actually like it – the painting is displayed maybe because it is poignant, not because it is preferred. How unlike Western aesthetic, then and now!  I also like how Kawabata was able to utilize this painting in his narrative of Shingo’s ruminations on death and age. 

However, other than these brief moments, the novel is a loss for me. I think I am supposed to have opinions and feelings and ideas about the characters and their situations, but I do not. I do not even know what Kawabata is getting it – though I would guess maybe its about how Shingo is unable to manage the roles of the people in his family. Or something.  I mostly got the impression that the characters are pitiful and helpless.  The novel is nearly incomprehensible to me. A book about nothing and its annoying humans. It made me sad and frustrated.

2 stars

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

The Deep Blue Good-by

176166I read The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. It was first published in 1964 – by the request of the publishing house Fawcett.  In other words, it was a commissioned work. I am not entirely sure how that worked – but this story is not one of those where the author went from house to house to try and find anyone that would publish it in return for pennies.  

This is a novel for mature readers – and not because of the language or scenes alone, but also because there is a deeper sentiment to be found in this one, hiding under the ribald and loose 1960s Florida attitude. That is to say, it’s a lot more noir than it is expected to be.  It is very important for readers to know going into this that these are not good characters.  There is not the good guy chasing the bad guy.  To a greater or lesser extent, of course, the characters range out from the stupid and unlucky to the violent and cruel.  Readers, particularly recent readers, seem to really dislike this book for what would be termed sexism and misogyny.  No doubt there is some of that spewed nearly on every page and for a good-minded individual in 2021, it seems rotten and crude. 

I leaned against the center island and drank it, feeling unreal. I walked on a fabric of reality but it had an uncomforatble give to it. You could sink in a little way.  If you walked too much and came to a weak spot, you could fall through. I think it would be pretty bleak down there. – pg. 136, Chapter Ocho 

However, and I am not making any excuse or ratio for such mentality, I would not expect people of poor morality to have glistening views of humanity.  The main character is a misanthrope; I did not think he would say pretty things.  I neither like nor dislike the main character, Travis McGee.  Yet, he is quite unique from what I have read… not too many sulky, principled, off-the-grid chaps that are so good at reading people and keeping their sour bitterness under a Miami tan.  Travis McGee is not a nice guy.   He is very bitter and he survives in his lifestyle by the very fact that his misanthropy is validated by the crime and grift and corruption in society.  He takes advantage of miserable situations brought on by immoral and miserable people.  There is a lot here for a reader to dislike.

However, there is a adeptness with which this novel is written that shows MacDonald knew how to write and knew how to write people. The form of the story, the muscular, organic speech-patterns, the sudden switches from “pseudo-psychology” to bar-room slang – all make up a very strong read. This is one of the many things missing from contemporary fiction.  This book has a tone and voice, whether or not the reader agrees with it or likes it, it is potent and vibrant.  This writing is not dull or bland.

I began checking the marinas.  All this great ever-increasing flood of bronze, brass, chrome, Fiberglas, lapstreak, teak, auto pilots, burgees, Power Squadron hats, nylon line, all this chugging winking blundering glitter of props, bilge pumps and self-importance needs dockside space. The optimum image is the teak cockpit loaded soft with brown dazed girls while the eagle-eyed skipper on his fly bridge chugs Baby Dear under a lift bridge to keep a hundred cars stalled waiting in the sun, their drivers staring malignantly at the slow passage of the lazy-day sex float and the jaunty brown muscles of the man at the helm.  But the more frequent reality is a bust gasket, Baby Dear drifting in a horrid chop, girls sunpoisoned and whoopsing, hero skipper clenching the wrong size wrench in barked hands and raising a greasy scream to the salty demons who are flattening his purse and canceling his marine insurance. – pg. 163, chapter Diez

Yes, indeed, McGee is very much a cynical misanthrope. But reading that description – its very clear MacDonald has some open eyes as well.  No one can write a misantrhrope without a dose of misanthropy themselves, I believe.  Taking that passage, and ones similar, MacDonald is nearly telling the reader:  you want a cozy read where the good guy rights the wrongs and the bad guy gets what is coming to him. You want a novel that does not offend that does not push too many limits and does not make you cringe in disgust at times. But that’s the image of a summery novel, not the reality of a good noir yarn.  Because let’s face it, MacDonald wrote a bleak, dark story with all sorts of unsavory elements – and placed it in the touristy, ever-sunny South Florida.  I am a bit impressed.  

McGee is a tough character because though he is incredibly bitter, he still has some odd way of keeping to principles of his own making.  Its too early in the series to tell if he is consistent with this. Another facet of McGee is his self-loathing, it shows up here and there – particularly in little snarls that the character lets slip.  I think this self-loathing really adds another layer to the noir elements of the character and sets the character apart from all the other glib, easy-going, private investigator/amateur detective/part-time crooks that show up in novels. 

So here is book one in the Travis McGee series.  Its full of miserable people that run, more or less, in the same circles as the main character – no hero, but at least aware of his rôle.  It is a rough read for content, the sex and the 60s zeitgeist is layed on quite heavily. Recommended for mature readers. Recommended for all noir/crime readers.

Fast read, good trim on the words. I own book two and when ready, I’ll read it.

3 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

Stillwell

StillwellI just finished Stillwell by Michael Phillips Cash (2014).  This is another self-published, small publisher category book that I took a chance on.  I started reading it in November of 2020 and finished it in August of 2021 and I know exactly why there was a long hiatus in my finishing this work, though it is only a mere 172 pages in my edition.  This probably will not come across as the most favorable review, but I can promise it is completely honest and also that I actually, still, do not regret reading it!

The author has a degree in English and lives on Long Island. I do place a little expectation on him to be a good writer. This particular work is allegedly his second novel.

The good – there are a lot of threads that the author manages to intertwine throughout the plot and within the setting. The characters are fairly developed – for a short 172 page story, of course. I have to admit, these are more nuanced characters than some 400+ paged novels I have read through. Also, I liked the setting – its rainy, creepy, big haunted old mansion stuff. I liked that the author did the work to connect this story to a bit of realistic history (American Revolution – and the epilogue detailing some similiar historical items).

The bad – I utterly and completely understand that the main thrust of the book and all its foundation is built on the main character suffering after the death of his wife. At the end of the day, this book is a love-story, not really a horror novel. That is a-OK; I can read either or a mix of both.  Many times throughout the story, the main character is asking himself if he is insane or if he needs professional psychological help. Yes, yes he does – but NOT because of experiencing supernatural/unnatural things. It took me awhile to figure out what annoyed the heck out of me about the first half of the novel – but I did it! The first fifty pages of the book are unrelenting pining and sorrowing over the deceased wife. The reason the guy needs a professional is that he seems to not have come to terms with anything that was happening – even prior to his wife’s dying moment.  This endless complaining and misery is what caused me to set the book aside for a good long while.  

Understand: I am not questioning the grief. I am saying that I think this grief doesn’t match the illness and demise of the wife. We are told, repeatedly-a lot-endlessly, that the wife’s illness was a long duration, that it utterly halted and re-arranged that household’s existence. We are told how exhaustively every option and scenario was attempted and presented. We are told how agonizing the woman’s death was – slowly, detailed, everyone very aware of the situation. It seems, though, that the main character’s (Paul) grief is of someone who is experiencing a very shocking and sudden loss.

Further, even though the reader must utterly understand how tragic and miserable the main character is, I do not know that the reader needs to slog through every ounce of that sorrow. It isn’t “downplaying” or not being “sympathetic” to say this. I feel it is moreso an awareness that this is a novel, and the concept does rely on a grieving widower, but piling on the sorrows exchanges the sympathy for annoyance. Particuarly, as I mentioned, when the grief seems…. odd.

Peppered into the story are a few very brief moments of lewdness that I felt were a bit strange. And sometimes the writing was not 100% on point. “He ran…” when I sincerely doubt that – the character, at most, hustled. Am I being picayune… oh sure.

Finally, I’m going to complain a bit about the supernatural/unnatural aspect.  First there is a monster, ape-like. Then there are apparitions, like ghosts or misty figures.  Finally, there are these odd balls of light/energy.  It seems to me like the author needed to pick a way to scare us readers and stick with it. I think I rolled my eyes at the dancing balls of light over the well. Sheesh.

Overall, not great at all. I kind of want to read more by the author because as I said, there are some good elements here. But I think maybe I will not read more by him because I just cannot suffer the extreme melodrama. Fact: there are readers out there that can and will enjoy this; I am not one of them.

2 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