1980s

Gallows View

Gallows ViewI finished Gallows View by Peter Robinson (b. 1950) this morning and I do not have good things to say about it.  It was published in 1987 and is the first in his Inspector Alan Banks series of novels. This summer, for whatever reason I have been up to my elbows in crime, mystery, and suspense novels. Truth be told, there are only two that I found to be good reading. Only a couple were decent reads and then the majority, I think, were quite bad.  Since I have finished this novel, I am debating with myself about whether this is the worst of the bunch or second-worst.

After reading the thing, I let the covers gently ease shut and I was frowning at it. In all honesty, if the author were in the room I would be giving him a narrowed-eyed look of deep suspicion.  I mean, I do try to separate author from book, but sometimes you read a thing and cannot help but feel uncomfortable and distrusting. The entire novel is about sex and the creepiest and weirdest aspects thereof. I do not solely mean the main crime of the book (the peeping Tom) which starts on page one in a graphic way. I also mean in the utterly toxic, obnoxious, idiotic drivel of “psychology” that the characters engage in pretending to be scientific, but realistically, just playing barroom banter.

The character of Dr. Jenny Fuller – psychology professor at York University – is quite possibly the worst-written, most farcical, cringe-worthy, embarrassment of a fictional character to ever have been written.  I do not know if I can truly explain how horrendous this character is, but allow me to just paint broadly and say:  the character is a gruesomely heavy-handed ploy to make the novel seem edgy and balanced and feminist (to a point) and yet seem objective and modern.  All of this is an absolute fail.  So, that is the theory, here is the evidence:  in chapter three, she is at a bar with the main character – this is how they have serious work meetings – and she is overcome in a giggling fit that includes a bout of the hiccups. The whole time, though, she has a weird “you had better take me (and my field of study) seriously” vibe. It is truly one of the most awful scenes I have ever read. I could write quite a bit about the awfulness of this whole thing, but I think my disgust is apparent.

The writing is inconsistent and stupid. For example, we are at a crime scene that is the home of an elderly lady.  Her place is stuffed with cubbyholes and mantles and little shelves that are full of bric-a-brac, knick-knacks, mementos, trinkets, etc.  It is busy and flowery.

The house was oppressive. . . . The walls seemed unusually honeycombed with little alcoves, nooks and crannies where painted Easter eggs and silver teaspoons from Rhyll or Morecambe nestled alongside old snuff boxes, delicate china figurines, a ship in a bottle, yellowed birthday cards and miniatures.  The mantlepiece was littered with sepia photographs. . . . and the remaining space seemed taken up by the framed samplers, and watercolors of wildflowers, birds and butterflies.  Jenny shuddered.  Her own house though structurally old, was sparse and modern inside. It would drive her crazy to live in a mausoleum like this. – pg 54, chapter 3

I found this writing to be intolerable. Absolutely awful. The author spent a lot of time describing the home and I developed an image of the place as per his guidance.  And then his idiot character, Fuller, is made to say blatant illogical stupidity. I almost threw the book after I guffawed and complained to my household. I understand what the author was attempting to say, but he stupidly chose the incorrect word. Unfortunately, he literally chose the word that would lend to the opposite imagery. Have you ever been inside a mausoleum? Its brutally “sparse and modern” in most cases. It is cruelly “empty” of human touch. Sure there are sometimes small hangers with fake flowers or perhaps a small flag, but the overall scene is cold and empty and yeah, mausoleums tend to smell a bit off. I suspect Robinson meant a reliquary or menagerie – or, worse, that he meant MUSEUM and typed mausoleum.

Every character in the book is constantly drinking.  The majority of their time is spent in a pub or drinking bottles of liquor. Immense amounts of alcohol are consumed in this novel. Literally constantly, by everyone:  morning, noon and night. There is a gross imbalance in this sort of writing. Its too much by a lot. The characters drink whenever anything happens, they are always in the pub, half of them are always drunk, they drink before they drive – and whenever they get to their destination. Its just overboard.

Far too much of the novel is also taken up with Banks’ amazing struggle to remain faithful to his wife, Sandra. I mean, Banks is madly overwhelmed with desire from the moment he meets Dr. Fuller in the cop shop. That evening he begins their professional, working relationship at the bar across the street. And then, has her drive him to a crime scene in her car.  Further on in the novel, Banks ends up at Fuller’s house and “resists” the urge to cheat on his wife. Fuller knows he is married and allegedly was just testing him. Or was testing her own assessment of him. Either way, its utterly toxic and hideous.  Of course, throughout the novel, Banks avoids mentioning his collaboration with Fuller to his wife. Others (including the superintendent who requested Fuller’s presence on the case from the university) in the police force make it obvious that they suspect him of cheating on his wife.  I would really like to Banks to read Matthew 5:28 if he can stay out of the pub long enough to do so……

Two young thug teenagers have begun a life of crime. They escalate their crimes from theft, to breaking and entering, to awful behavior.  In one of their heists, they urinate/defecate all over the living room of the house they broke into. Things escalate further when, in the middle of a break-in, the owner comes home and finds them. The one teenager, who has never been with a woman, decides now is the time – and he rapes her.  Ridiculously enough, that is how the cops catch him – he gets VD from the woman and he seeks treatment at a clinic.  Seriously, the constant all-angles obsession with sex in this novel makes me uncomfortable about this author.

One would assume this is all that could be done in this little novel. Alas, I am sorry to report that there is more. One of the red herring characters is a creepy librarian with a penchant for porn magazines – a fact all the police officers seem to mention very knowingly.  Further, and worse, the father of one of the teenage thugs is currently having an affair with a woman in the neighboring apartment because her husband is often out of town.

This is a nasty little town of perverts. It is not a well-written novel! I have yet read much praise for this novel and for the main character, Banks.  Frankly, all the weird adultery aside, he is the most boring and dull detective that I have met in books. I am really floored and confused by all the praise it has been given. Once again it occurs to me that readers rate and review the novel that they THINK that they read or the novel that they WANTED to read and not the one they have in their paws. It is a strange disassociated delusion I think happens more than readers admit. There is nothing good I can say about this one, unfortunately, but I own book two of the Banks series and am unsure if I will read it.

1 star

Black Knight In Red Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

The Running Man

The Running Man coverThe Running Man by Stephen King (b. 1947) was originally published in 1982 as by Richard Bachman.  I read the May 2016 Pocket Books edition.  I think this is the earliest King novel that I have read.  The Gunslinger was published as a collected “fix-up” novel in the same year as The Running Man was released.  The contents of The Gunslinger having come from 1978 – 1981, allegedly. So, splitting hairs about the dating here…

I find it difficult to write about such an exceedingly popular author.  I think that this is because I want to be very objective and honest, but that since I have literally been “living through” King’s publishing, the familiarity and yet the unfamiliarity feel at odds.  What I mean is, the market/media sensation of King releasing a book has always been, at least, in the background. I have always spent time in bookstores! Nowadays I feel there is something similar with certain authors; maybe Brandon Sanderson, maybe John Grisham, maybe Neil Gaiman. You walk past (What? Who walks *past*…) a bookstore and see a display or a banner with the latest of these authors. Or maybe you see an ad in a magazine or newspaper. Or, more contemporary, ads and headlines all over the Internet. It feels like one always is aware of a new Stephen King release, even when a reader (like myself) does not consider oneself a reader/fan of Stephen King.  Its a “big deal” because his fans will be excited and, doubtless, the industry will surge with the (even if only momentary) inundation of the market.

I think I could probably read all of King’s work and still not consider myself a Stephen King reader.  I know……..   All of that being said, I would like to gently draw your attention to the fact that it is 2022 and I am talking about how I read a book published by a popular bestselling author released in 1982.

I have, however, seen the movie (several times, I suspect) that was very vaguely-based on this novel. In 1987 the movie with the same title was released starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. However, other actors of note include:  Jim Brown, Jesse Ventura, and Yaphet Kotto.  If your referent for all of this is the film, though, you should probably just jettison that.  This book and that film are really not related and its best to take them as separate entities.  I am given to understand a possible adaptation of this novel is in the works (as of 2021), but who knows what will come of that.

This novel is really straight-forward and heavy-handed.  It is really fast-paced and the structure of it (one or two page chapters) is designed to make the pressure of the storyline accessible to the reader. 412 pages of sparsely spaced text written in dialogue and quick, easy sentences does not require much from a reader.  This is, after all, a dark-tinted thriller novel.

The main character, Benjamin Stuart Richards, is our unfortunate hero. He is not the robust and mighty Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Richards is half-starved, overworked, underslept, unhealthy.  He represents the utterly downtrodden and miserable of the lower class of society.  Unlike the true lowest levels, though, he has some education, is something of a hard-worker, and maintains a sense of morality. He is also the archtype family man who is willing to sacrifice everything for his family.  The main aspect of Richards, though, is his anger. He is enraged all the time – presumably because of and directed at “society,” but maybe even just generally as a personality trait.  Life/society has perhaps treated him unfairly, which has also given him a chip-on-his-shoulder and a dose of indignant hostility.

T.V. or Free-Vee is both a symptom and a cause of the downfall of society. Its entertainment and industry and brainwashing and its just insidious and awful.  Call King up right now and ask if he still holds that opinion – I think several of his fictions (and that of his son) that were adapted are currently running on our “Free-Vees.” Anyway, a desperate family man makes a choice that starts the story and so we enter into the fugitive plotline. Fox and hound, hound and hare, etcThe Fugitive, by the way, is a really good parallel so let me give you some dates on that. The ABC TV series ran 1961 – 1967 and the notable film starring Harrison Ford was released in 1993.  The gimmick here is that Ben Richards is a fugitive on Reality TV.

There is a whole chunk of subplot where we discover corruption and societal distortions regarding air pollution.  Seriously, in 2022 it is sobering and frustrating to read about. As far as the novel goes, though, this subplot does a little filling out of the very linear storyline. It gives some characters motives and helps out the novel. Overall, though, it feels like everything else:  hammer-style storytelling.

I do not want to ruin the story – every action thriller has some similar elements and those are here, too.  These sorts of novels are easy to spoil because of it.  Nevertheless, we can ask some basic questions like these:   did the main character who tends to hate society accomplish much because of that very society he claims to hate?  In other words, how much did he rely on others for his successes? How much was luck? How much was his own skillful strategy?  And also, was he, like many action heroes, too invincible, too amazing, too adept? Or just right? Should he have wiped out by chapter four and done or is it plausible that the book is over 400 pages?

I am giving this three stars because I like some of the parts of the book because they did not go the way I thought they might – King did not shy away from having to do the likely result.  He did not sell-out, as they say.  However, there is a rage and anger to the book that seems too forced.  Almost as if King wanted to make us really hate Richards and his attitude rather than have us root for the underdog. I would rather have met the character and made up my own mind.

Also, and this is a frequent thought when I read King, his writing can be so vulgar and crass that it can stomp on the storyline.  I can hear the argumentation that when reading a post-apocalyptic-ish story like The Gunslinger or reading a dystopia in which societal struggles on every level show up one expects the very worst of humanity. And I do, but somehow King makes it amplified and sometimes that amplification can be very inauthentic and pasted on.

So, here is a book about a fugitive.  Its largely a criticism of “entertainment TV” that is based on economic disparity. King does not, whatsoever, hide from divisions and struggles between gender, race, geographic differences.  He takes direct aim at air pollution and its effects on different groups in society. All of this is done with a whole lot of rage. I give it three stars as thriller novel qua thriller novel. Plus, there are a few small elements that were nearly prophetic. Unfortunately, dystopias always feel so angry and their resolution is always a disappointment.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

Mrs Presumed Dead brett coverMrs, Presumed Dead by Simon Brett (b. 1945) is the second in the Melita Pargeter series of novels. This one was first published in 1988.  I read the first novel in the series years ago in 2015.  I think these novels (or most of them) are out of print, so until they are reprinted (or not) I am keeping these on the shelf for other readers who need a copy (my specific copy is February 1990 printing).

I cannot honestly call the Pargeter series a cozy mystery series, since there are elements in the books that are not so cozy at all. Cozy/innocent – whatever it is that makes the lightest mystery novels so warm and sweet.  There are elements of Pargeter novels that sometimes come across as critical of society, shuffling morality in a sort of very-English Mill/Bentham way at times, and some sordid moments.  Nevertheless, this was an easy-reading novel that was good for a light off-day.  Just something to occupy the mugs of tea and the chilly temperatures outdoors.  This is a no-stress read.

The main character, amateur sleuth Melita Pargeter has relocated to a very small cul-de-sac style upper class semi-rural development.  I enjoyed Brett’s addition of explaining the detail of how/why the development had the name it had. She has purchased a large house in this rather Yuppie community and has moved into the home and found the social structure of the close a bit challenging.  I wanted to hear more about Pargeter’s designing and decorating and setting up her new house. It would have given a bit more insight into Melita herself – how one organizes one’s living space is very telling about that person’s psychology and activities.

I think the first novel was a bit better in a few respects. My main complaint is that the author was not as smooth and engaging with his main character’s conversations this time. Mrs. Pargeter in this novel was nearly KGB-interrogator at times. I know she is a shrewd and witty old bird, but I think she would also be a bit more subtle than a sledgehammer.  I mean, she just moved into the neighborhood and she really is laser-pointer-focused on the murder investigation. I would think that even the most uppity, yuppie, self-centered people of that neighborhood would notice that Pargeter was so dogged in her conversation.

“I’m not so sure,” said Mrs. Pargeter. “You don’t know what people are like in Smithy’s Loam.” – pg. 222

The other complaint I had was that we are very repeatedly told that Pargeter’s deceased husband had left her a lot of resources.  I mean, once or twice is reasonable – but we are reminded quite a lot. And after awhile, I felt the need to grab the author by his ear and ask if he really felt me so stupid that in a 240 page novel he needed to remind me of this constantly.

I did not guess who did it. I never do, though. I am utterly horrible at mystery novels/television. Its always a surprise for me. Now, I know more astute readers might scoff and tease me about this, but I would remind them that I get full enjoyment out of the books, whereas they are too busy reading stories they have already figured out. Anyway, it makes sense who the criminal was – which is very key in a mystery novel. I want a solid and satisfying resolution not one that feels forced or that it could have just as easily been answered differently. As Pargeter says in that late chapter:

“No, I’ve worked it out now. I should have realised before.” – pg. 238

So, the ending worked out all right, which I like. There were, of course, several points in which Brett could have spiralled this story some other way. Lots of plausible guilty parties with plenty of motive. But I like that Brett has Pargeter tell us:

For a start, she had a strong prejudice against murders committed by people who were mad.  She had always disliked them in crime fiction and didn’t care for them much in real life.  Madness was so vague, so woolly.  Any motivation and logic could be ascribed to someone who was mad.  At the end of a crime book in which a madman dunnit, Mrs. Pargeter always felt cheated and annoyed. – pg. 211

Well, don’t worry, Melita in this one there is no such cheap and flimsy ending.

Recommended for readers needing an easy-read, day-read.  Enjoyable to a point without any major complaints.  Pargeter is a thoughtful woman in many ways. I will likely, eventually, read the next in the series.

3 stars

The Gunslinger

Gunslinger coverThe Gunslinger by Stephen King was first published in 1982, but it was actually separate stories that were previously written that made this into a “fix-up” novel, as they are called. In 2003, King famously revised and updated the novel. I do not know if this is the second or third time reading this novel.  Every time I read it, though, I feel more or less the same way about it – its really good in retrospect after having read the next two books or so in The Dark Tower series. Taken on its own, it is exceedingly weird and disjointed and awkward.

For better or worse, it is a fact that in our lifetime, Stephen King is one of the most famous and well-read authors.  His name and works are included in that batch of fiction that have become cultural references, common knowledge, and household facts.  Even people who do not read at all (yes, horrifically, these are real) are able to have some concept/referent for ‘Stephen King.’  I have not read King like many of his fans. I have read maybe two or three of his non-Dark Tower books. I have no idea if he is a good author or not, because I feel like I cannot assess him accurately without reading far more of his catalogue. 

So, The Gunslinger is an odd fix-up of stories that King wrote in the late 70s and early 80s. There is not a whole lot for me to say about the novel because everyone on the planet has read it and has given their opinions on it. There is nothing new, surely, that I can provide regarding the actual novel and info about it. For example, many fans of the book absolutely adore the first line, which seems to evoke all the best feelings and images of all the best adventures and entertainments. “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”  There it is, again. All the readers quote it and now I can be counted as one of them.  I think the critical point about this first line is that it is very deadpan and very simple. Three items and two actions: man in black, desert, gunslinger…. one fled, one followed.  Contained in this little statement is all the makings of the excitement and thrills and hopes and curiousity of all readers; it seems paradoxical that such a bland sentence can do so much.

The spare writing, though, in which each sentence seems to contain so much meaning and significance, is what I consider to be the overall characteristic of this novel.  It is spare like a desert.  The writing is matter-of-fact, but yet at times somewhat poetic.  However, the poetry is not flowery or fancy, it is just honest and matter-of-fact as the rest.  Instead of having “dynamic” characters who are overly complicated and full of layers of delusions, it seems these characters are blunt and direct and very honest. The main character, Roland, is utterly honest with the reader. 

Roland is a big deal.  He is a character that, in his will, his strength, his skill, and his honesty, he appeals to readers.  He is presented as a “simple man,” meaning he is unimaginative and not prone to time-waste.  However, he is also very complex because he is not a farmhand or a grunt or a lackey.  A character that wrestles with “inner demons” and with the fabric of the kosmos is hardly a “simple man.”  However, it is clear straightaway that Roland is also not a “good man.”  This is not a sinless, shining knight of virtue and holiness. So, he causes readers to constantly have to wrestle with his morality.

The novel is a sort of Western, Dark Fantasy, Steampunk mash-up that has a vast history and expanse of setting – but it also feels unclear and confused.  The lack of detail and linear layout makes for some of the dreamy and bewildered feeling in the book.  I doubt King, at the time, had any clear ideas about all of this and purposely left his world-building vague and open. He did a good job because there is definitely an ominous and mysterious kosmology that pervades every scene.  The Western is medieval in tone and that is a very cool spin on the medieval-based fantasy usually found in books. 

Not that all of this can be granted to King. He has always admitted that he was heavily inspired by Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” (1852).   In fact, this whole business is reduced a bit once the originality is denied it and we realize that Browning handed a very creative author a silver platter full of perfect delicacies and delights.  Both that work and King’s work are strange.  Dream-like and wondrous and maybe a bit apocalyptic.

The major thing that bothers me about King’s work is the vulgarness that comes through.  I mean, I rarely read anything so vile and vulgar. Horror, as I have said previously, is often vulgar. I do not care for this kind of writing and it always makes me wary of a soul that creates and writes such stuff.  In a sense, we all write about what we know and because I could never write with such vulgarity, I wonder about the writer who knows such stuff.

The reason I re-read this novel is because lately I have been sensing the cracks in the kosmos. Hold on! Do not click away thinking I am some looney! I have been working on linguistics/logic and the odd statements that defy the good, common, healthy reasoning that we all have come to know and love. Counterfactual, self-referential, contradictory, ambiguous, paradoxical sentences that most people shrug at, other people are amused by, and metaphysicians are deeply disturbed by.  Cracks in the world, my friends. The sentences that the computer programmers just want to ignore. The sentences that the poet knows about, but cannot understand the ramifications.

Plus, I have been reading Plotinus and Porphyry and Proclus. WE, the systematic Aristotelian science-men, have long since turned up our noses at such esoteric hogwash – all that Hermetica and astrology and alchemy and Kabbalism stuff that none of us take seriously. However, every great immense once-in-awhile there is a line or a comment in the Enneads or something that sends a bit of a chill, like a draft through a crack in a cellar wall. Mysticism and magis and its all very hocus-pocus, so we do not look at those parts directly; we dismiss them as silly esoteric junk that was ridiculously overlayed on the substantial and meaty ontology. I guess.

When Roland says: “The world has moved on,” it also feels like a cold draft. I feel like in 2021, with the strange things going on in the real world, yeah, it is easier to fall in step with Roland as he crosses the desert.  The best thing about Roland is that he takes it in stride. The world is dying, everything is wrecked, there are abominations and absurdities everywhere, the remnants of the future (somehow) – but yet Roland just accepts it as it is. Zen master level.  Pretty cool character, this Roland.

Overall, its hard to separate the vulgarity and the derivative context from the book.  So, sure this one is only two stars. But when I read further into the series and then look back, I want to give this maybe four stars.  Readers who have not read this (are there any?) will likely be shocked, confused and not know what to make of this craziness. Helps to think of the world moving on and there being cracks in the kosmos, I think.

2 stars

Signs and Portents

Signs and PortentsI grabbed a paperback of Signs and Portents by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, among a bunch of other books, the last time I was in Atlanta.  I think the copy of Signs and Portents was maybe .50¢.  It is a collection of ten stories by Yarbro that are somewhat difficult to classify in a precise genre.  Maybe they lean toward horror or science fiction/fantasy, but I think identifying them like that would mislead potential readers.   So, normally I would not have picked up this book.  However, I had to remind myself that I am supposed to be reading from a more expanded panorama and I saw it was cheap and threw it on the stack of books I had already collected.  Why would I normally not read this book? Well, the scary graveyard 80s cover art, for one thing.  I do not normally read books with those covers.  Yes, very superficial.  Secondly, Yarbro is around in science fiction/fantasy and I do not have any interest in her stories and she seems a little “far out,” maybe? I am not sure. In any case, this just is not a book I would gravitate to.

Sadly, after having read the stories, a fiesty part of me wants to exclaim that this proves my point and that my instincts were correct!  Honestly, the ten stories averaged out to a two-star rating, but there were plenty of single star and two star stories and maybe I was being somewhat generous with a three-star here and there.  So, it actually took a lot out of me to read through this, because it was just not very good.  

  • Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Depth of Focus – (1984) – 2 stars
  • Space/Time Arabesque – (1978) – 1 star
  • Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme – (1981) – 3 stars
  • Best Interest – (1978) – 3 stars
  • The Ghosts at Iron River – (1973) – 1 star
  • Fugitive Colors – (1979) – 1 star
  • Coasting – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The Arrows – (1983) – 2 stars
  • The End of the Carnival – (1984) – 3 stars

This collection was first published in 1987.  It contains a variety of stories that have a diverse range of settings.  It is my belief that the two best stories in the collection are Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival.  In fact, I feel any interested reader would do well to just skip everything in the collection but those two stories.  However, I want to also say I am not just picking these two stories “because they are the best of the bunch.”  They are, actually, quite decent reads irrespective of the surrounding stories. 

Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’ is predictable, but its a decent story to start the collection.  Its really not a terrible story, but it is very predictable and a little tedious.  Even if something is predictable, it can be suspenseful, but somehow that suspense was absent.  Still, its a good one to settle the reader in to the book. A modern, mundane setting in which an unseen entropy is at work.

Depth of Focus is quite unique.  It, again, is a modern setting, but quite noir and maybe that is what earned it two stars instead of just one.  I liked the pacing and the way the time in the story was depicted.  I also liked disliking the main character. Unfortunately, the ending just fell down and maybe it could have had a little moral adage or a provoking assertion, but instead it was flat. The end. I did mention it has a noir feel to it – and I did like a certain turn of phrase:  “…there was no conviction in his words and his eyes were like chips of stone.” (page 24).  The ‘chips of stone’ to describe eyes really caught me. I liked this wordworking.

Space/Time Arabesque is not really a story. Its got a few alternative history lines/paragraphs. It feels too weak; like an idea that could have been so much better, even if we kept its choppy stylings.  I liked only one “snippet” in the thing, which involved an alternate “Sherlock Holmes.”

Savory, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme is definitely the best piece in the collection.  It is well-written and feels like a finished work from start to finish.  It is both shocking and horrific and yet, weirdly, endearing and sympathy-drawing.  It is a rural setting wherein the main character is a teenage girl.  The girl, Amy, evenutally is the pivot of the story when she turns from lovesick, to stubborn, to empowered, to vengeful.  Its a story that has elements of the shift from traditional to modern and from patriarchical to otherwise. There is actually a lot one can unpack from this story. The ending is somewhat shocking – you can see it coming, but its got the twist and victory anyway.  Recommended for readers who like revenge stories, coming-of-age stories, witches (herb women), and nighttime forest adventures. 

Best Interest is a good story to a point. I hestitated on giving it three-stars – that feels like a gift.  It is smutty and the characters are snarly and vile.  It is easily the most obviously science fiction in the collection because of the main gimmick, which is a household “computer” that has residents’ best interests at heart.  And in 1987 it was probably more interesting than now – “now” when Google, Siri, Alexa, Cortana, et al. are a chorus in our world. No, it does deserve the three-stars.  The ending is rueful, black humor, which offsets the somewhat unpleasant reality of ill-tempered future humans.

The Ghosts at Iron River and Fugitive Colors are bad. Really bad. The one is a total mess – as if it wanted to be a noir rural crime story and then turns into a tribal dispute, which degenerates into bickering and then just gets worse until the ending happens and its pointless.  Fugitive Colors is maybe an attempt to write very meta…. esoteric… science fiction from deep, deep space. But it just feels painful and tedious as heck. I am surprised I survived reading these, my word!

Coasting is a story I would likely enjoy. The probability of me enjoying a story that takes place “at sea” is high. I really liked the setting and the problems that the main character faces and the descriptions are vivid and, honestly, quite frightening. However, the horror is ruined by awful introspective drivel about the character’s relationships with his ex-wife and his son and it kills the suspense and all the work of the wordsmithing. Still, it probably is worth reading for the setting. 

The Arrows is also fairly predictable and unsurprising, and yet seems like it is so plausible.  It feels realistic and maybe has a perspective of artist-painters that just seems to stereotype them. The unique thing amidst all the predictability was the subject of the main character’s painting.  It works well with the story, but it still feels like an unique and interesting selection by the author.  Literally, this one is a “graphic horror.” 

The End of the Carnival is a heckuva way to end the collection.  Once again the unique and unusual setting for this one really does a lot of the work for the story.  It is also one of the more “completed and polished” in the collection.  It is a revenge tale, but the revenge is also bittersweet.  Sorrows all over the place here, some little twist per page to make the story interesting and unpredictable. The main character is strong-willed and stubborn and her rôle is dynamic.  She takes ownership and she stands up to injustice.  It is another story worth reading for the unusual perspective and storyline that deals with an accident at a power company and the victims/sufferers that are left in that accident’s wake. Not a story full of joy, though.

Savory, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme and The End of the Carnival are worth reading because they are unique perspectives with lots of unusual elements.  And they are the ones that feel the most put-together and established. I do not know if I would suggest readers go out of their way to get these two stories read.  However, these stories will probably be enjoyed by readers who are looking for a little more than the usual, dull and predictable storylines.

2 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

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon

Beyond the Blue Event HorizonBeyond the Blue Event Horizon by Frederik Pohl was first published in 1980. This novel is the second in the Heechee series that begins with the well-known novel Gateway (1977). I read Gateway in 2012 and I really did not like it. I loved the cover that John Picacio did for Gateway, but as for the novel itself I was disappointed because the novel went places I did not appreciate. It does not take too long into the novel to realize Pohl is writing rather euphemistically and this earned him an unflattering nickname in my household that I will not share here. Needless to say, I was in no hurry to read the next in the series. In fact, at that time I did not actually think I ever would. Lately, I’ve been trying to get through some of the old “hanging on” novels, particularly “book twos.”

Having read none of the secondary literature regarding Gateway and just judging on my reading of the two books, I do not think Pohl intended (in 1977) to write a sequel or series.  However, this book (Beyond the Blue Event Horizon) is not that book (Gateway).  By this I mean that I suspect some readers who truly enjoyed Gateway will find that this second book is lacking in most of the elements that Gateway exhibited.  Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is written with a different tone – one of the most notable aspects of Gateway is its eerie and dismal atmosphere. It approaches a sort of horror mood.  The main character, Robinette Broadhead is detestable. Often there is depiction of a helpless/hopelessness in the characters. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon is far more accessible. Its readability is much higher. The characters are all, relatively, likeable, and the plot makes sense. There are more explanations and the story is good, nearly space opera-esque, science fiction.

But it does not read at all like Gateway.

The main character, Robin Broadhead, is not the Robin Broadhead of Gateway. This one is more like Tony Stark (aka Iron Man) than the riddled-with-issues character of the previous novel.  Does Stark have issues – yes, of course. However, his writers frequently give him characteristics (and a persona as Iron Man) that allow him to overcome his personality (Tony Stark) and his psychological difficulties. In Gateway, Broadhead is just wretched.

Gateway was daring. Pohl did a lot with that novel. The unknown, the horror, the helplessness, the ugliness is well-written, I guess. Pohl’s usage of Freudian psychoanalysis also adds a snarled and uncomfortable feel to the novel. Finally, the homoerotic threads in the novel also make Gateway quite a bit different than standard science fiction fare.

Beyond the Blue Event Horizon really does not contain any of the eerie-unknown that was so strong in Gateway. Instead, this really feels like space opera. So, it also feels like a sell-out. Perhaps it was.

All of that being said, these evaluations are because we are comparing the two novels. On its own, this sequel is actually a good read. It stays above the level of pulp and basic space opera. The characters are all interesting and face different challenges, which keeps them from being cardboard tools. I was rooting for them all, I guess. Pohl makes a strong effort to include what is referred to as “hard scifi” elements, which basically just means he tries to keep the science and mathematics realistic and heavy as opposed to hand-waving and just ignoring it for the sake of the plot. This novel is an engaging read with a lot of good things to be said for it. The varying points-of-view keeps this galactic-wide storyline manageable.

I believe that this novel can be read without having first read Gateway. Perhaps it is better to separate the two, anyway. I appreciate some of the elements of the former, but I really dislike it as a whole. This novel is good but is in no way as daring or provocative as the first. It comes down to what style the reader prefers when consuming their science fiction.

I enjoyed it because it had so much less of the sordid and unpleasantness of the first novel. However, I know that just because something is more accessible, it does not make it a better novel, per se. I did, in some sense, miss the eerie emptiness and psychologically-disturbed style of Gateway, so I can sympathize with readers who found this second novel to be too mundane/accessible. Lastly, the sex-stuff and Pohl… I would find it easy to believe if I learned he wrote soft-porn under some house-name.

4 stars

Ender’s Game

Enders GameEnder’s Game is a very famous science fiction novel from the 1980s.  I could have read it in any number of decades – the 80s, the 90s, the 00s, and yet I only just read it this month in 2017.  Please do not think that I was avoiding it for any reason. I was not. I, quite simply, never had the opportunity or occasion to read the novel.  There are a lot of novels that fall into this category with me (yeah, Lord of the Flies is still unread), but Ender’s Game was a standout omission because it always seemed like *everyone* had read it multiple times.

And now that I have read this novel, I feel it is vaguely moot to bother writing a review of it. I mean, what can I really add or mention that has not been already said, alluded to, or complained about? It seems everyone, except maybe infants in underdeveloped countries, has already formed their opinion of this novel.  And what hubris to think anyone has interest in my opinion….

Keeping that in mind, I did not love this book, nor did I hate it. I feel like a heavy majority of readers either love it or hate it, but most do not fall into the category of simply enjoying it as a decent science fiction novel.  The Introduction (written by the author in 1991) is a bit that I found very obnoxious. However, I read it after I read the novel, so that did not sway any of my sentiment.

I believe that this novel will return to the reader what he brings to it. By this I mean that however the reader feels about the world – his own experiences, judgments, ethics, feelings – will be cemented or enforced by this novel.  In other words, this is not one that will change people’s opinions; you know, opening hearts and minds, or whatever. So, if a reader feels strongly pro/anti-military, his reading will reassert those positions. And what a reader prioritizes in their worldview, is what the reader will highlight and evaluate most in their reading of this novel. Not to say that that this is the most philosophical or intellectual novel ever written. At heart, it is the story of Earth military versus Alien military.

Considering that I believe the above, viz. that the reader will focus on things in the book that are focused on in his own life, I am not sure how to write this review without at least some personal revelatory comment.  Is Ender a tragic character? Yes, he is and, perhaps what is worse for him, he knows that he is. As are, more or less, the other selected student-soldiers.  I would not have been opposed to the techniques in Battle School. Nor was I shocked at the mentalities and realities of Ender’s early schooling. The pressure that Ender and his mates are put under did not bother me. However, the part that made me feel empathy for Ender was during Battle School and Command School they (from Ender’s perspective) kept changing the rules on him. I hated this on Ender’s behalf. I did not hate the extreme pressure, nor the fierce competition, the intense training. But I did feel badly for Ender when it seemed all his work was for naught because the rules suddenly would change, seemingly spoiling his efforts.

Granted, as you read, you learn that even these harsh “rule changes” are part of the process of training Ender.  But even knowing this, it is the one thing that really made me feel any empathy.

The brother/sister dynamic was weird – much weirder and odder than I expected. In fact, that is the segment of the book that is disturbing, not anything with Ender. I cringed any time the story turned to those two. It is interesting to a point, I guess, but I cannot say that I cared much about that part of the storyline. I know it shows this overarching schema in which the author juxtaposes Ender and with his siblings (all of them genetically enhanced). Card even throws in there a nice metaphor about a coin. It works, but I did not care.

Finally, the ending was too odd for me to enjoy and it made me consider giving the novel three stars and not four. The weird Bugger-mind-ansible-cocoon thing. All of it. All of it after the Earth Civil Wars was just throw away, in my opinion. I do see how it neatly wraps up some questions about the computer game Ender plays and I do see how it might generate sympathy from readers.  The Buggers are a misunderstood situation, condemned because of their mode of communication, and Ender is maybe also their beginner. For me, though, the book ends when the “final exam” ends.

So do I read on in the series? I think Ender’s Game is perfectly standalone. But Card knew he had a golden franchise. And, I cannot say I am uninterested in the storyline. I will probably read book two, at least. Officially, between you and me this is a 3.75 star rating.

4 stars

A Nice Class of Corpse

A Nice Class of Corpse - Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

A Nice Class of Corpse – Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

This past week I finished the first novel in the Mrs. Pargeter mystery series by Simon Brett.  A Nice Class of Corpse was published in 1986.  There are, currently, six novels in the series – the most recent having been released in 1999.  A year later, Brett became the president of the famous Detection Club.

Overall, this is probably a 3.5 star rated novel.  It is not a 4, so for this blog it is a 3.  It is a very speedy 221 pages of relatively cozy-mystery.  I say relatively because there are some elements that probably go beyond what mystery readers consider “cozy.” (For the record, some of these subgenre distinctions are a bit ambiguous, anyway.)  You should know that the majority of this story takes place within the Devereux Hotel – which strives to be an upscale retirement community for the rich and/or titled elderly.  Therefore, almost all of the characters are quite old.  Old people get killed off in this novel. Some readers might not find that so “cozy.”

There is also a helping of melancholy in this story.  There are some sad and uncomfortable moments throughout the novel.  This adds just a drop of depth to the novel and makes the story heavier than a simple mystery. Whether that is good or bad is for each reader to decide for himself, I think.  There are also some ridiculous and witty moments – most of them due to the star character:  Melita Pargeter.

We are introduced to this spunky elderly lady as she is moving into her new residence at the Devereux Hotel in seaside Littlehampton.  Her arrival causes some commotion because she does not follow the expected behaviors typified by solemn, droll, and sedate “upper class” worthies.  Immediately, Pargeter banters and shows her independence and spunk.  The other characters react in a variety of ways to this.  Brett does a very good job of describing the social sphere and the interactions of the characters.  He is an “observant” writer, even if he leans just slightly on the ridiculous.

Brett lets us meet the characters, though I am not sure we have access to every one of the clues.  He does provide a number of red herrings and false clues that should throw the reader once or twice. I never guessed correctly, so the ending got me!

Soon after Mrs. Pargeter’s arrival – a death occurs.  Mrs. Pargeter, while surfing the variety of entanglements in this closed community, also decides to do a little investigation on her own.  She is incredibly unobtrusive and does not always completely share her “deductions” with the reader.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch her patiently bide her time as she fits clues together.  Maybe she is a little too patient, though?

Through the course of these efforts, we also learn that Mrs. Pargeter and her late husband have lived quite unusual atypical lives.  Without my spoiling anything here, let me just say that we are not actually told a lot of detail about these things; Brett develops this subplot slowly and with some “mystery.” Nevertheless, this subplot might be more interesting than the actual plotline of the novel?  This Pargeter couple is definitely unique and interesting and may be the sole reason I really want to read book two in the series.

Due to this being rather unique and my preference for mysteries that take place in one building, I felt this could be four stars. Still, this is only a quick mystery novel and I am not convinced readers were given all the clues.  The ending to this story was very well done – a bit somber, a bit surprising. I think most general readers and mystery readers will enjoy this one.

3 stars