Novels

Fiction

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

Terminal Freeze

Terminal FreezeRecently, I finished Terminal Freeze by Lincoln Child. It was published in 2009 and I think has been on the to-be-read shelves forever. Among the slight changes in my reading habits this year (reading (reading crime, reading small publishers, reading things other than science fiction) is the effort to clear the shelves! Be advised, I say that is a goal every year. I read Deep Storm by Lincoln Child in 2017 and I did not give it high marks. Terminal Freeze seemed both better and worse than that previous read.

As I started reading this, I was sure it was going to be a quick, but annoying read. For the first quarter of the book I was so unenthused and unimpressed. Everything seemed so utterly obvious, heavy-handed, and predictable. Not to mention, there was not anything about the plot that seemed even a bit engaging. All of the characters were vexing, the setting was annoying, the plot seemed very predictable. Halfway through the novel, I admit I was more engaged in the story and I was turning pages without annoyance. So its not high-brow literature, but what happens next? Maybe I’m a bit of a sucker because I just like being entertained by a story?

Since this is pulp-adventure, I do not want to ruin the thing by handing over the plot to those who may wish to read it. Suffice to say, it takes place in an old (Cold War era) US Army ice station in Alaska. There are a team of scientists there who are funded, through a number of channels, by Hollywood.  The scientists discover something, a random native shaman shows up, and then the base is overrun by the production company. The scientists are chafed because the production company takes charge and the “relationship” of the scientists and the movie-makers is clarified.  All hell breaks loose when the discovery, which is the focal point for the documentary, goes missing. Action ensues.

I have a lot of interests, but TV and movies, film and cinematography are not them. I am even confronted on occasion by film theory and I still struggle to participate.  I watch very little TV and film. And all the “classic” and “important” film? Yeah, I probably have not seen it – and you would not really want me to because it would be lost on me. I know everyone thinks I’m kidding when I say I lose track of where the TVs are in my home. I have known some film theory “fans/experts” and when they talk about these things they are very animated and it seems so intense for them. I appreciate that there are people out there with this interest.

I mention this to say that I have a natural (strong?) dislike toward film production. That it plays such a central component to this novel was a surprise for me and an immediate turn off.  There is a particular character who takes his film theory, film production immensely seriously – more important than life itself. (By the way, this is how ALL film theory/producers and directors seem TO ME. They all seem obsessed and eccentric and intense; is this image one that they self-cultivate?) This character is really well written because he does fit a lot of the stereotypes and he provides another challenge point for the storyline. Yes, he can be horribly obsessed and unbelieveable. He’s not a villain, per se, but he plays a character archetype – the weirdly obsessed/driven. Readers immediately will dislike him and as the story progresses, even his most devoted and loyal “co-workers” begin to be disgusted and disillusioned with him. However he is one of the reasons I am giving this novel another star:  thinking about the things he is saying about the filming, the film industry…. he is entirely correct, regardless of the morality of the situation. It is this intense “sacrifice everything for the product” mentality that is both abhorent and yet vitally truthful; unexpected in a pulp adventure novel.

I really enjoyed how no matter the setbacks or failures that occur, this character was pushing the boundaries and re-imagining his film creation. He even was willing, at the last, to do the grunt work himself. Morally misguided, perhaps, but utterly dedicated to his idea of what his work is.

He waved at two bookcases full of DVDs that framed the screen. “You see those? That is my reference library. The greatest films ever made: the most beautiful, the most groundbreaking, the most though provoking.  The Battleship Potemkin, Intolerance, Rashomon, Double Indemnity, L’Avventura, The Seventh Seal – they are all here. I never travel anywhere without them. Yet they are not just my solace, Dr. Marshall – they are my oracle, my Delphic temple. Some turn to the Bible, for guidance; others, the I Ching, I have these. And they never fail me.” – Conti, pg. 153 (chapter 18)

I admit throughout the book I was expecting a certain nefariousness from a character. I did keep waiting for Gonzalez (one of the soldiers) to show “true colors” and be at the heart of the drama. This never happened. But it frequently happens that I will not get the storyline guessed out. Instead, Gonzalez ended up being quite wysiwyg.  The character Logan, though, is utterly pointless. I don’t know what he does except to make it seem like he is a storyline guide, really. I have not read a lot of books where I felt like there was a character inserted in a plot that was a guide for the other characters to stay on plot. Its strange.

Frankly, the native shaman character was also a bit superfluous. I mean, he adds a bit of local interest and supernatural/unnatural flavor to the book. He is there to add a wee bit of Other to the novel, balancing out the science and military. But is he really necessary? Nope, honestly I kept waiting for him to “do something” other than just be native and mysterious. I guess he is the main character’s therapist or doppleganger or something.

Finally, the best parts of the action, I think, were the segments dealing with the ice road trucker. That was some edge-of-my-seat reading. If this is a thriller, it wasn’t because of the kaiju-monster-survival stuff, it was, for me, the nervous-wreck reaction to ice road driving. Maybe because I have had plenty of driving in blizzards and ice storms and I could access those feelings.

Not great literature and superficial and full of obvious plot points. The characters are very wysiwyg. The plot is survival within a difficult setting against a scary supernatural/unnatural monster. I am glad I finally read it and can recommend it as a good, lightweight adventure story to readers who need basic entertainment. Read it for the film aspects and less for the native Alaskan elements.

3 stars

Gumshoe Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

A Matter of Motive

A Matter of MotiveSince I am reading crime lately, I read this novel sometime last week. It is a police procedural crime novel that is self-published/ small-print/ print-on-demand.  No, I had never read the author before and it was a total random pull.  A Matter of Motive by Margot Kinberg was first released in 2020 and is the first in the Patricia Stanley series (of which, this is the only book so far).  My review of this novel needs to apply all of the self-imposed structure that I felt necessary to explain (poorly) in the previous review.  That is to say, this novel is not from a major publishing house and and I want to speak as utterly plainly as I can about it.

The novel is a police procedural. The death occurs within the first five pages or so.  Ron Clemons is driving in his car to work and he is overcome by pain and has to pull over into a lot and he expires.   We meet our detective team as the tow truck is there beside the dark blue Infinity on Lancaster Avenue in Paoli, Pennsylvania. Patricia and Luke are the police on the scene; they are members of the Malvern Police Department.

Really Paoli boasts a population of about 6,000. It is a small location on the western outskirts of Philly.  Its a small skip from Kay-Oh-Pee (King of Prussia) if you have a referent for that. I’m fairly comfortable with this area – from Reading down to Lancaster – though I have actually never been to Valley Forge. (I have zero interest in Americana). Does Malvern actually have a separate police station/department? I sure don’t know. The two police officers assigned to this case are young and young cops.

First problem with the novel – exactitude of the police ranks. So, if it was actually fully stated and I missed it, I guess I will owe the author an apology.  But I really do not recall a clear and defined statement of these two cops. So, we do learn this is their first murder case.  In the first few pages, Luke feels the need to mention the police academy. I have no idea should I call them officers or detectives? Or? Because its not entirely clear from the novel. And then if they are BOTH new hires/promotions, well, most locations of 6,000 residents are not going to be hiring at that level. I mean, the mention of the Academy – who would even mention that except a young cop? And yes, its perfectly fine to be a young cop, but is it fine to be a young cop and a detective?

The inexperience of the cops plays a rôle throughout the novel.  Patricia and Luke make some “small errors” and their boss scolds them, but also tries to guide them to correct procedure.   Definitely, there is a sense that both cops are hard-working and in their eagerness, make errors in judgment. 

Second problem with the novel – inexperienced cops versus juvenile rendering.  So, its reasonable to have inexperienced cops.  Indeed, I like that about this novel. I am somewhat bored of the trope in novels that uses the grizzled, ornery cop on the verge of retirement that bends the rules at times. Enough of every cop being the veteran expert.  Its refreshing to read a novel that has younger cops learning the ropes.  However, the balance between inexperienced and clueless was not achieved in this work.  We have detectives/cops making errors – to be expected, but errors that if they had spent a moment in a police academy or taken a class in criminal justice, they would not make. So, I applaud the idea of using inexperienced cops, but this needed to be more polished in execution.

 Third problem with the novel – this is a police procedural.  In essence, this has come to refer to any fiction work that focuses on the procedure and steps that the police take in order to solve crimes.  Certainly, in such a novel, the reader expects to be a passive “ride-along” with the cops and follow the case as the cops discover information.  However, the procedure these cops use is a bit underdeveloped. It goes like this:  interview people, go back to cop shop and tell boss. Boss tells cops to go interview more people. Repeat. And repeat again. And with one particular character (the wife of the deceased) they practically torture this woman; not a day goes by that they aren’t on her doorstep.  What’s worse is that they go there, ask two or three questions, and then leave. I mean, this is partially tied into that “inexperienced cop” situation. However, even the dullest blades in the drawer would make better use of their detecting.

Here are some things that this novel does really well:  the thoughts and feelings of the deceased’s wife, Rachel Clemons.  The author really wrote this character well and by “well” I mean very authentically. I feel like this character is utterly realistic and believeable.  Similarly, the tension between some of the characters at the business where the main character worked is done really well.  In fact, for the most part, characters are authentic and understood. It does not surprise me that the whole of this novel is based on “motive.”  The author is skilled at people.  There is even a subplot of Patricia’s relationship drama – I do not give a rip about that storyline, but that is not to say that others might not like this sort of thing. I just do not care about romance/relationship subplots and drama, so I am not going to assess whether its well written or not.

After the halfway point, the reader is lured into really disliking a couple of characters.  This is more of the skill the author has with working with “people-ization.”  Just because a character might be very dislikeable, does not necessarily mean they are the murderer.  And sometimes intentions, some good and some bad, cannot be forced to match a crime. 

I enjoyed the book, though I did get tired of going round and round re-interviewing the same people with these cops.  I really liked the feeling that Patricia and Luke make errors, but are super keen to grow from them and not repeat them. Self-corrective and productive.  A lot of the time, I feel like authors make very stubborn characters that even though they know better or are capable of improvement, just repeatedly do the same dumb things. 

Overall, a light-read, nothing that is deeply intellectual or that will require strenuous effort.  The author has a lot of skill with characters and people. But the author needs more of the knowledge of the profession/roles of the law enforcement profession.  Since I finished this one, I am 50/50 on whether I would read another in the series or not. 

2 stars

Primary Target

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, here goes an attempt.

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

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

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

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

4 stars

The Falling Torch

The Falling TorchThe last novel I will review for the famous Vintage Science Fiction month of 2021 is The Falling Torch by Algis Budrys (1931 – 2008).  It is a fix-up novel published as a whole in 1959.  Originally, segments were published in science fiction magazines in 1957-1959.  This is the second Budrys novel I have read.  As with the previous review, I have owned this novel a long time, but the motivation of Vintage Science Fiction month got me to read it. I read the 1978 Jove edition with cover art by Eric Ladd. 

Budrys and I would probably have understood each other very well and yet really disliked each other.  This becomes particularly clear to me after having read this novel.  The Falling Torch, while having a wide-vision “space empires” sort of setting, is actually very personal.  Did Budrys purposely write so self-revealingly? Well, only Budrys would know the true answer to that. I feel that even if a lot of this is autobiographical, the novel likely draws from Budrys’ knowing others who ran in his circles and felt as he did about political matters. I am going to be absolutely blunt here – take it or leave it as you will:  many readers focus on the obviously political-tone of this work; parallels are drawn and history can be traced.  However, many readers in America in 2021 are going to be less able to understand the layered ruminations here that underlie a lot of this novel. Not because they are idiotic, but because the sentiments and experience that Budrys is probably writing about are also unavailable to many readers.  Indeed, maybe due to that fact, Budrys’ novel(s) can be very frustrating.

Specifically, Budrys felt genuinely countryless.  For most of my adult life I feel similarly – and I know I am not alone because when I look at my cousins and so forth, I see signs and symptoms of that same feeling. Recognizing is not the same as empathy or sympathy, though, and most of the time, via Budrys’ writing, I find him to be agonizingly stubborn and dismal. So, yes, with him and his characters I also say, as I look around, “these aren’t my people, this isn’t my home.”  And it may be the generation gap between he and I that changes his dismality into my generation’s restlessness.

vintage-sf-badgeAnyway, the first part of the book is from Thomas Harmon’s point of view, really. Who is this character? We only get bits and pieces and frankly, maybe a little more about him would have been okay in order to smooth the transitions between the segments of this novel. Harmon is the major character in the beginning and then only reappears in the last pages. It would have been nice for him to get another chunk of paragraphs so the reader could discover what he has been about.  Harmon is part of the Government in Exile – humans from Earth, living on Cheiron.  Opportunity arrives for a new action in pursing liberation to occur. The president’s son is to be sent back to Earth to make efforts to restore the homeland.

The tone of the novel is very introspective. Characters get a lot of screen time to examine their thoughts and feelings. Some of it seems honest, some of it seems utterly obnoxious.  It is challenging to be patient while characters start musing on their intentions, purpose, destiny, and morals  – especially when these moments are pasted against an action movie scenery.

He had thought better of himself than that. All his life, he had known better than to expect or desire continual selflessness from others.  He had conceived of himself as one of the few in each generation who must rise above the flesh inorder that the great majority would not be called upon to do so. He had made the choice early, knowing that by doing so he was giving up his heritage as a man enjoying humanity. – pg. 32

The largest part of the novel deals with the president’s son, Michael Wireman, who is HALO dropped onto Earth – in the middle of the mountains to meet the supposed leader of the resistance forces. This is tough reading. It is really accurate and reasonable and also completely stilted and idiotic and annoying. Its just not smooth and engaging reading. Its jarring and, at points, cartoonish. But I am not saying, though, that it is bad. Its really difficult to explain. In any case, once Michael begins to evaluate the situation and the players of the liberation/resistance, he also starts re-evaluating his personhood and his rôle in the universe. At these points, I found the character to be really distasteful and wretched. He seemed self-absorbed, two-faced, and naïve.  Its harsh because reasonably, Michael is undergoing this re-evaluation because the things he knew and was taught are contrary to what his current experiences are.  

Who are the bad guys? Who are the good guys? What effect does the passage of time have on these positions? Is everyone locked into their worldview?  These are mighty questions to ask in a short little novel with an unlikeable main character. But at the same time, such questions do not seem completely out of place.

Again, there are brief scenes in this part of the novel that literally I have seen written in my own family’s letters. Phrases that run like: “…we were in the shadows of the woods, along the treeline……” etc.  I really dislike being so personal in this review, but I am happy to blame Budrys for it. My point in bringing this up is that, while for many readers this segment of the novel was something like an action plot that Budrys wrote, I can attest to it being realistic and not so “fictional” as readers might think.  Yes, loyalties are shifting and manipulated when you are the oppressed. But I do not think Budrys experienced such in person – he obviously knew people who did, though. 

Wireman is allowed the luxury to change sides. Surrender is often a luxury.  Once he does so, the novel changes again into an escape-evasion storyline.  Wireman has again become disillusioned and disenchanted with society.  More annoying, yet necessary rumminations occur. At times Wireman is insufferably whiney and vexing. He knows it, too, because several times during his self-reflection he questions his “right” to judge or complain or feel a certain way.  Altogether, though, its way too navel-gazing to make it fitting for a science fiction novel. 

But what of it, one way or the other?  If he was right, had he made her what she was?  And if he was wrong, was it worse to act in accordance with his judgment than to decide he might be wrong and not act at all? He had been making mistakes all his life, and now if he was going to live much longer he had to do something. Could it hurt to make a few more mistakes? And – and – for the first time in his life, this thought came to him – perhaps he was right. – pg. 132

The circling introspection gets very heavy-handed at points. A lot of reviews about this novel suggest to the reader that the novel is, at heart, an investigation into the idea of a Great Man.  I guess that is vaguely part of what is going on, but to be honest, the novel is about two characters who are homeland-less and exiled and trying to find out exactly what their position should be. The thing is most of these meditations come across as obnoxiously arrogant. At the same time, no way can I suggest that they are unrealistic. 

So, I wanted to give this novel one star at the start.  I hate how Budrys is so dismal.  I hate it because its so heavy to read his work that it makes the novels seem four times their size and weight. The edition I read must weigh fifty pounds. During the middle of the book, I gave it another star because it was so ridiculous. But realistically ridiculous. Finally, I am giving the book three stars because though the characters are all repellant, there are some thoughts in here – mixed up in the endless speculation on destiny and one’s part in the whole – that are so very honest that there should be readers who read them. Just please do not ask me which ones.

3 stars

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Beyond This Horizon

115409I finished another book for Vintage Science Fiction Month. Beyond This Horizon by Robert Heinlein (1948). I read the Signet/New American 1979 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  I have read some science fiction since I started this blog, but never have I read any Heinlein.  I run into conversations, lists, topics related to Heinlein a lot on the internet; he seems nearly as talked about as Asimov.  However, I have never really felt drawn to read his novels.  So, it has taken quite awhile to work up to reading one – and I have “Vintage Science Fiction Month” to thank as a motivation.

As expected from various snippets read here and there, this one was good and bad. The good was okay and workable. The bad was really quite awful. It was rather a slog to read, but I’ve read worse. I will not be recommending this to anyone, really, except maybe the true hardcore science fiction addict. I rate it two of five stars, but I am glad I read it. I mean, there are few books that I actually (honestly) regret reading.  All of that being said, a much better review from 2013 can be found here:  Beyond This Horizon review.  For the most part, I agree with it and bless the man for having spent that much time typing out his thoughts on this clunker.

I’m no expert on Heinlein’s writing/thoughts and sure do not want to be. The author is frustrating and at points ridiculous.  However, he does earn (based solely on this novel, mind you) a begrudging respect because he did not write a fluffy turd of a novel.  Sadly, at times it is somewhat unclear if this actually qualifies as a novel.  Facts: this was first published in magazine-serial format and this was early in his career.  If you asked me what this novel is about, you know – in that general bookstore conversation sort of way – I would probably not be able to give you an answer. It really does not have a decent plot. So, either the thing is plotless, overly forced in its plot, or unfortunately and ill-advisedly mashed together. 

This is an author who obviously values science in his science fiction.  He does work hard at making his ideas “scientific.”  Unfortunately, at this point in his career, he was not an engaging writer. So those hefty segments of science are really tedious and dull.  No, as a reader, we should be open and care a bit about what the author is saying, even if it is a bit of an “info-dump.”  Except by the tenth page when you are starting to skip past paragraphs “accidentally…..”

I say segments of science and let me be clear, Heinlein was drilling us in some theories in statistics, physics, genetics, and economics. It gets really dry in parts. I followed as best I could (I admit my heart was not fully into it) and, sure, some of it is interesting to a point – particularly when you consider this is from 1942.
vintage-sf-badge

The best parts of the novel involve the underground society that actually seeks to indoctrinate and train up members in a secret society in order to actively pursue armed revolution. The actual revolution is so outrageously ridiculous it is tough to read through. Heinlein, for some bizarre reason, wrote the actual scenes in the most deadpan non-thrilling way possible. I mean, it was the dullest and most robotic revolution I have come across. Ridiculous.

Worst part of the novel? Any time the characters interact with or discuss women. It is cringe-worthy and awkward. And I am certain that criticisms focusing on these points are available all over the internet, so I do not care to examine them any further here. 

The rest of the book is peppered with ideas and elements that go nowhere, are there for no reason, do not have a real explanation, or just seem like whims that Heinlein felt like mentioning. The society of this far future novel is mainly genetically engineered. The people do not experience illnesses. They all seem to have conquered economics in some mysterious way, yet remain consumers and still work and actually have finanacial management. 

Society is armed and dangerous – and they act with an outdated pseudo-chivalrous manner. Duels are normal but Heinlein did not develop the duelling/mores protocols properly. (My favorite scene is, as it is everyone’s, the famous scene in the restaurant early on in the novel where a main character manages to flip his seafood over a railing to a table on the first floor and a bizarre interaction of exaggerated politeness occurs.)  There is a fascinating segment in chapter twelve regarding football. Considering reading it in 1948 and then considering the milieu of football now, this segment is probably most worth reading. Its cynical and amusing.

My biggest complaint with this messy novel is the characters’ names. It is so difficult for me to read books in which major characters all have names that start with the same letters. I literally lose track instantly. In this one there is a Mordan and a Monroe and they are different people and I could never keep the names straight. 

Well, the thing probably should have been forcibly stopped after chapter thirteen, if it had to be published at all. I am glad I read it. I am glad I will not re-read it! Recommended for no one.  Historians and science fiction maniacs may find some value in reading it. 

2 stars

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Now Wait For Last Year

Now Wait for Last YearI challenge you to tell me a better novel to read in order to start the year after the infamous 2020 besides a PKD novel…  I just finished reading Philip K. Dick’s Now Wait For Last Year (1966). I read the Mariner Books edition (sometimes I vaguely wish all my PKD novels were by the same publisher). Anyway, I will share upfront that I unashamedly give this novel four stars and I am glad to have read it – I have missed PKD pandemonium in my reading life.

The thing with PKD novels is that they tend to linger in your mind after you finish them. I do not know if it is an unsettled, unresolved feeling or a chewing on certain ideas or scenes or something. I have noticed it several times reading his works; you do not simply just close the book and move on. Or, if you do, you probably are not an honest reader. (Honest with yourself, that is, and certainly not with the books you are reading.) Some readers really do not like PKD books and carry on a frowning distaste for the book they just finished. Others just keep seeing little symbols and signifiers from the book in the world around them. Its really interesting to look at how readers process PKD novels.

vintage-sf-badgeThis is another PKD novel containing all of his usual writing style elements that we know and love. This one was quite a bit more difficult for me to get into. I resisted enjoying this one for the first quarter of the book, I think. The central theme and focus was distasteful and uninteresting and so very miserable that I really did not want to continue reading. But, it is a mark of PKD’s skill that I kept on reading and am giving this thing four stars. Literally, I think this plot runs around in circles for 260 pages. Within that, reality collapses and the drug-induced mania is intense. I mean, any time hallucinatory drugs are a major storyline, I am sure there will be some chaos – but PKD takes this stuff to a whole different level. It is difficult to know if his writing is brilliant or one hundred percent insanity. Readers will probably have their heads swimming – are they sure PKD didn’t slip them a capsule?

About two thirds of the way through, I decided this is the “real-ist” novel of PKDs. Its so very realistic and sobering and grounded. And this thought made me chuckle because I promise, most readers are not going to agree with that. But I do not mean it is most real in a superficial sense. I feel it is most real in a human sense – wherein personal drama and turmoil often overwhelms people – even destroying other aspects of their lives (professional, political, etc.) And the agony PKD was writing about had to have been real – TO HIM, at least. (Whether or not the agonies that he suffered were ones he caused or not is another, separate question.)

I really like Eric (the main character) because he is such an interesting miserable thing. His complete confidence in his career, his questioning of his morals, his agony regarding his marriage – these are all very human characteristics, if not “idealistic” traits. And PKD shows them off with a constant barrage of throwing messy scenarios at Eric. Loyalty, war, professionalism, temptation to do evil, etc. Eric is a character that I think will stick in my head for a long time. He originally read like a bland salaryman and then I started to see him as a sort of PKD-Everyman. His status as hero rose and fell and rose and fell throughout the storyline and PKD is such a cruel Creator for doing these things to this man. See how much sympathy Eric ended up finding in me?

As with all PKD novels, there is a lot going on. His works can be approached from so many points, but this one, perhaps, has the strongest grappling with morality. All of PKD’s books have this morality-wrestling and I do see readers get incensed at his perspectives or feelings and then miss out on this horrific existentialist turmoil that he describes.  The science fiction aspects are here, but not in some goofy space opera manner. They are just woven seamlessly into this whirlwind. I love how this novel is utterly science fiction, but I really felt all the science fiction was natural and reasonable. Yeah, there are bunch of sections that aren’t “pretty” reading. It seems some reviewers only want to read sanitized things as if because they don’t “like” a thing, it should not exist……. PKD’s whole oeuvre is to shatter reality, destroy reader’s comfort zones, and make characters and readers transcend themselves. Also, just like EVERY OTHER PKD novel I have read – the ending chapter sucks. He cannot end a novel for nothin’ …. and that, in itself, speaks a lot about what goes on with PKD’s psychology.

4 stars

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Very Important Corpses

I have read one of Simon R. Green’s Ishamael Jones series novels the last two Decembers. I continued with that this year – even though it has not been a “reading” year. For many, they utilized the lockdowns and quarantines for reading; unfortunately, I just did not get a chance to read. I am fortunate in that my household has stayed healthy. Anyway, I finished Very Important Corpses (2017) before Christmas Day, but I have not been able to write a review. I did want to get this one in, such as it is, before the New Year.

I like this series, although this novel was admittedly not as good as the previous. Maybe the novelty is wearing off? Difficult to say, but I think this one just was not very good. I found Penny to be a little less likeable. But I like the settings, the locked-rooms, the supernatural/spy mash-up. I enjoy the whop ’em, chop ’em storyline. So, while I will never say that these are highbrow literature, they work for Decembers.

The interesting character in this one is the Major Domo. She is a well-developed character (this can be taken in several senses). Readers will enjoy meeting her, being frustrated by her, and being amused by her antics and responses. The other characters are rather what-you-see-is-what-you-get folk. Nothing altogether interesting or original.

In this novel it seems that we learn quite a bit more about the Organisation – and Ishamael’s past work. I say “it seems,” because at the end of the novel, it does seem sketchy and like we were told a lot of nothing that was wrapped in a bow. Again, that’s the nature of this goofy-series. Its not something any reader is going to really puzzle over and needs to come to terms with. Besides, telling us nothing lets the author have a lot of freedom to keep all these books coming right along! I think there are nine total in the series as of my writing this.

I am not going to lie. I did not write many reviews because WordPress changes to the editor have really turned me off. I agree WordPress is the top internet blog site. However, I just really don’t have the time or inclination to re-learn how to do every little thing every time some kanban-infected I.T. junkie kiddo decides THIS is the WAY. I know I sound grumpy; I write in beautiful cursive and my elementary school was a fallout shelter. However, the desire to find the way to, say, align text next to the book cover image is absent. It used to be ‘click’ right there. Now? Who knows. Who cares? In other news, my 2020 Ford truck has an APP for MY PHONE…. the dealership called and nagged me to activate it. I realized it was pointless to explain to the young chap: I really have no interest in such things.

So, amidst this sort of world, a little Ishamel Jones can be a nice diversion. I am glad I read this one even if it is not as good as the rest. Definitely, next December, I will be reading the next.

2 stars

An Ace and a Pair

"An Ace and a Pair" by Blake Banner book cover, 2017

I found myself at a lake house for a week and I was not inclined to haul much reading material out here. I grabbed a paperback that was acquired in May, a couple non-fiction books, and my camera. Had I brought my fishing gear, this review would not be being written. Blake Banner’s An Ace and a Pair was written in 2017. I got my copy via Amazon – I believe it is print to order, which means that the last page of the book has the date it was actually printed. [Mine says: 10 May 2020 at local city.] This is the first novel in Banner’s “Dead Cold” series. It is a slender 200 page crime novel; the first I have read by Banner.

I do not know if it was because I was at a lake house in late October or what, but this novel just fit the reading zone nicely. It was the perfect read for these circumstances. So, sure, that colors my review a bit. Overall, the novel has some issues – the plot is a little difficult to follow because there are so many threads of criminals. I am sure the author was attempting to make the “mystery” complex and wanted to mislead the reader a bit. I did not bother to untangle the web of confusion of this part of the plot. There are bad guys, its hard to figure out which bad guys are scheming against which other bad guys. Does it matter? Honestly, no, not really. Still, too many characters that play no significant role.

What I really liked about this novel was that the writing was pared down and even and did not have any unnecessary wordage. Lake house reading is not supposed to be for overly-wordy, thesaurus-imitator tomes. I took a shine to the two main characters, Detectives Stone and Dehan right away. They are quite stereotypical, in places, but truthfully they know it, too. But that is okay, because the police procedural novel always works when certain established tropes are there to comfort the reader who is trying a new author/series.

The storyline has a few leaps in it – gaps that make Detective Stone seem magically intelligent. He does not always clue his partner in on his thoughts, which means the reader is left out, as well. I can see some readers being vexed by this behavior. Especially when it happens more than once. And I used the word “magical” because it seems Stone has some deductive leaps that just are amazingly lucky. For those readers who like to piece the mystery together, there will be frustration and exasperation with this. However, I do not always want to draw every thread to and from every single clue. Sometimes it is okay to just paint broad strokes, give me entertaining colors and shapes, and wrap the case up with a flourish.

Overall, a basic police procedural with engaging detectives. The ending is predictable after awhile, though. And the criminals are often just a list of names. However, for a beach read or a lake house, this novel should be able to fit into all the spaces between lounging on a deck gazing at the water and puffing on a Honduran stick of your choice. I do intend to read the next in this series.

3 stars