1990s

The Last Wish

The Last WishThe Last Wish by Andrej Sapkowski is the first The Witcher item I have read. No, I have never played the game and no, I have never seen any video or show. So, this is basically my introduction to The Witcher. However, I also live in wild times with y’all and therefore I cannot say I was utterly blank when it came to this series and this character. How do I know about The Witcher? I could not say, except to suggest some sort of ambient knowledge that I absorbed unawares. This is a collection of stories that was first published in Polish in 1993.  In English, the first release was 2007.  I have had it on my TBR list since 2018.

I have reviewed about thirty novels on this blog this year, so far, and I think there are only a couple that I could call fun.  Lots of other adjectives could be used to describe all the other novels, including “entertaining,” “interesting,” and “engaging.” Some novels would get words on the other end of the spectrum. However, The Last Wish and maybe East of Desolation would get the word “fun” pinned to them.

I expected something along the lines of the usual sword and sorcery fantasy that we have all come to know and love.  I was not super excited to read the book, but I felt I could settle in with it being the third book of the week in the Appalachians.  Well, it was far better than I expected.

None of that farmboy becomes hero and everyone roots for the unlikely shining hero over the darkness that overfell the land stuff. This is grimdark-medieval themed and maybe just ever so slightly has hints of Eastern European influence, which makes sense and is a welcome change. It does not feel like so-called “appropriated” Slavic mythology (Cp. certain YA books) and these influences are only that – not burdensome heavy anvils to drag around. The writing is fresh and ribald and witty.  Read superficially, there is a lot of action and fun.  A little closer look shows there are some interesting concepts that the author is toying with. Concepts in ethics and religion, especially.

Many readers felt that the dialogue was not very good. I have no idea what they mean. Seriously, after reading some comments from other readers I was ready for some very stilted and awful writing.  Yet as I read along the one thought I kept having about the characters was that they are all very realistic.  They are neither, none of ’em, good or evil.  Their conversation and phrasing is true to how I hear people talk. Oh, I know most people think they are speaking in Old English at Buckingham Palace. I know most people feel like they are in the Ivory Tower and they are eloquently pontificating on the finer linguistic details of their chosen reading material.  But guess what – no, they are not.  The seeming inconsistencies in character show through in this novel not as inconsistent characters, but realistic personalities.  Characters are rarely good or evil.  Some of them are blatant with their status and some are more subtle. Mostly, everyone is in a mix of some good, some bad, trying to get through the day in a dog-eat-dog world. With the occasional monster.

Frankly, I found the stories in this book fresh, fun, interesting, and a good variety of creatures and characters. I loved several scenes in the book wherein characters strongly choose to be pragmatic, honest, exasperated, or stubborn. In one story when Geralt is talking with Nenneke, he starts having sharing things that in other books would be “personality insights” and “character development.”  But here, Nenneke shuts him down abruptly:

“Stop it,” she said sharply.  “Don’t cry on my shoulder. I’m not your mother, and I won’t be your confidante either. I don’t give a shit how she treated you and I care even less how you treated her. And I don’t intend to be a go-between or give these stupid jewels to her.” — pg. 270

In another story, a queen named Calanthe jousts with Geralt over supper. Their back and forth is witty, sarcastic, intelligent, but more than anything, it is realistic. It is not some weird stilted conversation had in some other books. This meandering, but sharp-edged conversation is fun to read. Particularly at a wild dinner party that is getting increasingly out of hand. Calanthe and Nenneke are just two of the female characters that seem to have no problem putting The Witcher in his place, so to speak. I would not call them weak or stereotypical female characters, either.  Among the comments at the table, Calanthe remarks:

“I’ve been told that witchers are an interesting caste, but I didn’t really believe it. Now I do. When hit, you give a note which shows you’re fashioned of pure steel, unlike these men molded from bird shit……” – pg. 166

Its realistic writing that is refreshing to read. I barked a laugh at the lines here and told myself I would have to include them in my review. Many times in the book, characters state something outlandish and another character just refuses to “follow them down the bunny trail” of ridiculous.  To use an example, no, it is not always special food demons that come from unfaithful kitchens – sometimes its just indigestion or overeating. That sort of thing.  It keeps a fantasy novel that is full of monsters and swordplay from viewing everything through the “its magical” lens.

I do not know what to say about Yennefer. I do not particularly like her, that is for sure. And the last wish…. hah, what a great writing ploy Sapkowski used on us! Bravo, well done. I guess it is all okay with me for Geralt and Yennefer to have crossing fates, because I know that Dandilion is on Geralt’s side and Dandilion is absolutely 100% awesomeness. He is a great character and I am very glad I met him and I am even more glad that he is Geralt’s buddy. Ack, who is not a bit jealous of such friendships?

The characters in this book are realistic because they do not fall into those neat categories that other fantasy novels rely on so very much. They are morally ambiguous or situationally ethical. They sometimes surprise and are also sometimes predictable.

“Stregobor,” said Geralt, “that’s the way of the world. One sees all sorts of things when one travels. Two peasants kill each other over a field which, the following day, will be trampled flat by two counts and their retinues trying to kill each other off.  Men hang from trees at the roadside; brigands slash merchants’ throats. At every step in town you trip over corpses in the gutters.  In palaces they stab each other with daggers, and somebody falls under the table at  banquet every minute, blue from poisoning.  I’m used to it.” — pg. 105

There is a somberness to the book as well. Both with the Yennefer scenario and the origin of Geralt as a child and then witcher. But also in the viewpoints sometimes expressed, which seem weary and worn. Some readers took offense at some of the ribald and wild moments in these stories. I find their comments ridiculous because in a land of monsters wherein everyone is fighting for power, magic, or might – acting shocked by these characters’ actions is silly. Characters are rough and they live in a rough world. As Geralt said above, that’s the way of the world. So, readers should not shun this book because “rough things” happen in it.

Anyway, of course I will read more The Witcher items. I think maybe this particular book will hang around in the collection awhile, as well. It surprised me because it was much better than expected.

4 stars

New York Dead

NewYorkDeadNew York Dead by Stuart Woods (b. 1938) was first published in 1991.  This is the first in the Stone Barrington series. There is really not much I can say about this one that is positive.  Shockingly, there are over sixty in the series. One of the reasons I read it is because I am trying to get through a very large stack of – truly – pulp fiction.  The stack has a lot of real junk fiction on it – schlock and pulp at its finest worst. Part of me is utterly amused by how horrible most of these books are. I do mean in that paradoxical sense of “so bad, its good.”  Not all of them meet that level, though. Most are “so bad, just so bad.”

So interspersed with my usual much better reads there are going to be some of these schlock novels.  I could not possibly read them back-to-back, I would probably expire.   However, I realize it is ludicrous to use the same sort of rating system that I do with general fiction, etc.  The first thing to do is to decide if a thing is in the “Schlock Category” or not.  This book by Woods is without doubt in that category.  So, then to decide how to rate it within that category?  Maybe the novels earn stars through meeting basic elements. Like a coherent plot. Well, let me share that New York Dead is missing that. The plot was so, utterly, unnecessarily, uncomfortably ridiculous that it lost any claim to the concept “plot.”

Maybe we give a star for likeable and enjoyable characters.  Ones that are good to have met because they are interesting, curious people or because they are proficient at their jobs. Characters that maybe a better story and a better author could really develop.  In New York Dead we meet no one even remotely good at their jobs or even in the slightest to be likeable.  (There is a character named Baron Harkness – whom I could not think otherwise than Baron Vladimir Harkonnen from Dune.) These are some idiotic and wretched characters – in particular the main character, Stone Barrington.  The “uniqueness” is that he is allegedly from an upper “WASP” background full of money and education (he has his law degree, just has not passed the bar exam, which, by the way, he does in a skinny minute) and he inherits a massive old home. Except Stone decided he wants to be a cop because of some convoluted backstory that is unrealistic.  The thing is, he isn’t even a good cop, but we are supposed to believe that he is a detective (second rank).  Instead, he is an intemperate, undisciplined sucker who enjoys going to the posh spots in NYC.  Its supposed to come off as unique, but instead its dislikeable and toxic.

All right, but what about good writing? Good pulp writing should be a bit sharp and snappy. Caustic and yes, maybe it does rely on tropes, stereotypes, and well-built standards of junk fiction.  But the writing should be relatively consistent.  New York Dead has several examples of stupid writing:

“I had a couple of good collars that got me a detective’s shield; I had a good rabbi – a senior cop who helped me with promotion; he’s dead now, though, and I seem to have slowed down a bit.” – pg. 77, chapter 10.

That was the main character talking to another key character over dinner. Stone was asked for his life story and he just spewed it out over the dinner. Not very wary, is he? Anyway, he told her what a “rabbi” in that context was. But then on page 128 we have this interchange:

“Stone laughed and shook his head. “To get that badge, you’d have to sign up for the Police Academy, walk a beat for a few years, spend a few more in a patrol car, then get luck on a bust or two, and have a very fine rabbi.”

“Rabbi?”

“A senior cop who takes an interest in your career?”

“Do you have a rabbi?”

“I did. His name was Ron Rosenfeld.”

“And he helped you?” – pg 128, chapter 17

I mean, holy crap. If it had been a conversation between two different characters, maybe? But its like Groundhog Day at dinnertime with these idiots.

Setting and pacing might be my last two vital elements for these silly novels.  I can be a sucker for certain settings and I can appreciate well-written settings. I want to see those in all the books. I want the place to come alive. And if there is no setting whatsoever (Cp. PKD’s novels) then there has to be a legitimate reason for it (in PKD’s case, a setting would keep the plot too grounded and PKD likes when the reader is floundering a bit). As far as pacing goes, well, even a bad story can have action or edge-of-your-seat interest. Surprises, maybe? Tension and suspense?

Well, New York Dead was a bad read. I am not saying that because it is junk fiction. I am saying it because as I might rate schlock, it still does not attain a good rating.  I mean, there are some things in here that are just so awful I cannot write about them. Trust me, do not read this one – its very bad on the crap scale. The best thing that comes of my having read this (and my expectations on it were very low, by the way, when I began it) is that now I have some benchmark for how the junk fiction pile should be assessed. It gets 1 star for the fact that the idea of the main character is vaguely unique; too bad it was mauled. So, pure junk and bad even for it being pure junk!

1 star

** I made a grievous error in writing this review.  There is a character, Elaine, who is, for all intents and purposes, Elaine Kaufman (1929 – 2010). My error in saying there were no likeable characters obviously does not include Elaine – real or simulacrum.

Gun, With Occasional Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

Relic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars 

The Black Ice

The Black IceUtterly selected, from the uncomfortably vast to-be-read-pile, at random, imagine my amusement when this book has bullfighting scenes in it. Heh. Two books in a row with bullfighting. The Black Ice by Michael Connelly is the second novel in the famous Harry Bosch series. It was first published in 1993, I read the first book in the series in 2009. (I gave The Black Echo 3 stars).  I have been trying, for the last year or more, to get through hangers-on and “book twos” that have piled up on the everywhere in the house. I do try to read more science fiction than crime or literary fiction or whatever else, but I have also been making an effort to read more thrillers and crime lately. I do not want to become a one-trick pony. Well, and 2020 just seems to be science fiction enough…………….

So, the other reason I mentioned that I do not read much crime is because I do not feel I am an expert reader-judge of crime novels. There are readers who exclusively read crime and police procedurals and so their judgment is probably more fine-tuned than mine. Nevertheless, I feel I can add to the commentary on this novel.

The pacing was very slow. I know that it takes time to unravel a multi-layered storyline with a lot of players. I know that this is a crime/police-procedural novel and not an action thriller. However, I was well past halfway into the novel before the pace was even moving. I do not always think the pace of a novel needs to be fast in order to be good. In fact, many times, I enjoy lush worldbuilding and intricate plots. However, in this particular novel, I felt Harry drank a lot of coffee, but yet was still in slow-motion.

The plot is multi-layered and the reader gets more clues, slowly, right alongside Harry. The storyline is just not very interesting. I mean, its not a gripping read whatsoever. So, within the first three chapters, the reader should realize that the introductory crime is not a suicide.  One would expect that a suspicious death of a policeman would ignite a real jet rocket in the LAPD and with our star detective.  Okay, so, there may be a departmental desire to wrap up the investigation neatly and quietly – but who expects it to be so dull? I get what Connelly was doing with the plot, I think there are some interesting facets to this story (I’m not going to mention them here and spoil the read for others), but overall, it reads very dull.  So, because of the not-all-that exciting plot and the slow pacing, I gave the book two stars.

The resolution is interesting. I mean, I think some savvy readers probably guessed what was going on. I am utterly horrible at that sort of thing, so it was a fairly interesting reveal for my reading experience. Other expert crime readers were probably all over it! Still, it kind of really just falls flat. No big crescendo whatsoever. The denouement was tedious and caused suffering. Basically at the final event, Bosch has to explain everything to his superior about the case (obviously, for the sake of the reader).

Now this next comment is me really nitpicking, but there are several points in this novel that I found myself wondering about the time of the story, is it day or night? Because it does seem like Bosch has not slept in several nights. Now, I know very well how it feels to subsist on 4-hour night sleeps for nights on end – or even going without sleep for nights. The fact that Harry (no matter how much coffee he guzzles) is as functional as he is, is rather implausible. And his “insomnia” throws off the pacing of the novel because its unclear how many days have passed.

I plan to read more Bosch novels. I am sure this is one of the lesser Bosch reads and I have great confidence that many in the series are excellent novels. Besides, the main character is interesting to a point. I like his jazz business. In this novel, we get backstory regarding his parents and youth – which is valuable to serious readers/fans of this series – so it probably is a necessary read for Bosch enthusiasts (are there such people?) I recommend this for LAPD crime fans and fans of Mexico-California border storyline readers.

2 stars

A Share in Death

A Share in Death coverA Share in Death by Deborah Crombie was first published in 1993 and it is the first novel in the Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series of British police procedural/mystery novels.  I picked up this copy discounted sometime late in 2017.  This year I have been attempting to read a lot of the hangers-on on the bookshelves. Things that should have been read already, things that have been lingering for me to read, things that are book twos in series, etc.  By October each year I am usually whupped and can barely manage holding a book open, much less reading it. I am exaggerating.  Usually in October and November I read things that are puffy, fluffy, pulpy, and easy-readers.  This year there has been a lot more books incoming than outgoing, so hangers-on must be read and sent on their way!

As I mentioned this is the first book in the Kincaid/James series. It takes place in a country home, Followdale House, in non-urban England. My scope of things United Kingdom is forever sketchy. Locations rarely have meaning to me, so usually I need authors to spell it out for me if a scene or a locale has significance. In this novel, there was nothing overly relevant about the setting – except that I really like that it was set in a country house. There is this rite of passage sort of feeling with British mysteries; detectives/investigators must solve a murder that occurs in a country house. That the author starts her series with such a mystery is a smart move and one that should engage readers straightaway.

The murder takes place and the local cops get involved. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a miserable and territorial creature. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a helpful and resourceful chap. However, the build-up friction between the Scotland Yard man and the locals seemed to fizzle and be pointless. In fact, the local police sort of disappear from the novel altogether. But of course, all the suspects are there in the house – and all that is done is that their “statements” are taken. So, another murder is bound to occur.

I enjoyed meeting the characters and the murders were fairly threatening and suspenseful for this sort of book.  Since I doubt we shall ever meet the characters again, I am a little disappointed we did not spend just a few more pages with a couple of the more intriguing characters.  One of the most interesting ended up dead and I felt ripped off that I did not get to know them a little bit more. The main character, Duncan Kincaid, is somewhat creepy with the way he seems to appraise/be interested in every female character – elderly and/or married included. I hope that gets toned down a bit in book two, because it is too much here. I like Gemma James fairly well, but there was not enough of her in the novel. That’s OK, since there is hope for book two, then.

Overall, a perfectly easy reader with basic plots and characters. The cover looks darker than the contents are. I enjoyed the pacing and felt it was sufficient as a weekend read. Has lots of potential for the series. I will read book 2.

2 stars

Time’s Arrow

Times ArrowTime’s Arrow by Martin Amis was first published in 1991. It has been sitting on my to-be-read mountain since the 2002, I believe. It came up in a discussion back in 2001 with a particular Professor for Ancient Philosophy from K. U. Leuven.  Its seventeen years later and I certainly don’t remember what the conversation was.  I’m participating in a Keyword Challenge this year – I’m using it to read a lot of books that have been getting fat, old, and lazy on the stacks for a long time. In February the word was “Arrow” (likely for St. Valentine’s Day) but I thought of this lurker-of-shelves.

The novel is famous for being a narrative told in reverse. Time goes backwards from our normal way of perceiving it. Therefore, the novel begins at the end of the main character’s life.  The story is narrated by…. a narrator. The Narrator speaks as if he is separate and distinct from the physical character whose story he tells.

Is it a war we are fighting, a war against health, against life and love? My condition is a torn condition. Every day, the dispensing of existence. I see the face of suffering. Its face is fierce and distant and ancient.

There’s probably a straightforward explanation for the impossible weariness I feel. A perfectly straightforward explanation. It is a mortal weariness. Maybe I’m tired of being human, if human is what I am. I’m tired of being human. – pg. 93

So, the story is about a German doctor who participates in the Holocaust activities in Auschwitz. He escapes to Western Europe after the war ends and he then continues to America. He continues working in his profession but with new identities. In the style of this novel, though, all of this is told in reverse. We meet Tod Friendly at the end of his life and follow along as he gets younger, moves to NYC, moves to Western Europe, enters the war, partakes in atrocities, goes to med school, etc.

Telling a story in reverse is really not completely unique. I think a lot of reader-reviewers of this novel bring up works by Philip K. Dick (Counter-Clock World – 1967) and Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse-Five – 1969).  I have not read either work, but I am told these are earlier examples, or have samples in them, of reverse chronology.  Amis, in this novel’s afterword, tells us that he came up with the idea and it was given more motivation after reading a book given him by a friend.

I think one is supposed to not so much “enjoy” this novel as be impressed with the temporal reversal. And then the juxtaposition throughout of love vs. heinous crime surely has some literary value. Throughout the novel, the Narrator puzzles over the main character’s love affairs and relationships. The relationships are never very successful and seem to be fraught with unhappiness or recklessness. As much as segments of the main character’s life are referenced via names and places, the Narrator and reader compartmentalize these segments based on the love interest(s). Irene, Rosa, Herta, et al.

The psychological ramifications of the main character’s wartime actions are mused over by the Narrator, but confusedly. Since we are going backward in time, the Narrator does not know why there exist these ramifications at all. And the main character goes to lengths to keep a part of himself/his past hidden from other characters. There are scenes and hints that there has been something of a realization of the horrors committed, but nothing more definite can be said. Obviously, the main character is a damaged character, but the reader does not feel any sympathy for him. A forlorn sorrow, maybe.

The interesting parts come into play with the little things. For example, since it all occurs in reverse, a bowel movement changes direction in this story.  Instead of paying people for goods and services, we take money from them. Walking and driving is done in reverse – without looking – no wonder the Narrator is amazed by this. Especially, the medical profession seems bizarre – they shove bullets in people, pull stitches out, break bones – all the healing and curative actions in reverse.

The dualism of the Narrator and the main character is problematic. Is this a soul that has been added to whatever is the main character? Is the Narrator a conscience? Is the Narrator the psychological split caused by the main character’s mental traumas? Is the Narrator just a vague storytelling device? It is not worked out thoroughly and none of these answers fit perfectly, which only exacerbates my annoyance with this novel.

Even if appreciative of the effort, I struggled to get through this. Maybe I’m too stuck in my timelines. I was bored, annoyed, I honestly wanted to hit fast-forward (rewind??!) a lot. And Freud….everything in the bedroom, the womb, the oven. Sometimes I wonder how we ever did a blessed thing before Freud told us why we did it. Germans. There is a heavy-hand of Freud in here, I am not even sure it is all intentional by the author.

This isn’t a good review. I feel only a little bad about that because it’s not a great book. It is a decent piece of literary effort designed to be read for experiment and exercise. And the shocking brutality in parts of it just feels superimposed on an already tedious conceit.

Recommended with reservations. For strong readers, for those who are looking for a sort of edgy quirky read. For readers who need a book to fill a category re: Holocaust or German doctors. Niche reading at best.

2 stars

Green Rider

Green Rider - Kristen Britain; cover:  Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider – Kristen Britain; cover: Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider by Kristen Britain really does not seem like it would appeal to me, but I read it and I do not have a whole lot of bad things to say about it.  It was definitely surprisingly good; I suppose I must have had low expectations?  I only have two complaints about this novel, which was first published in 1998.  It is the first novel by the author and the first novel in its series. One of my complaints is that the novel is too long. The paperback runs to 471 pages, but I feel the story could have been ended closer to the “standard” 430 pages. The cover, by Keith Parkinson, made me really want to hate the main character because the girl looks like that mouth-breathing actress from the Twilight movie series…

I have read two of three of Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows” trilogy. I did not have very many nice things to say about those two books. Shame on me, but I allowed those novels to color my notions of other fantasy novels by a female author and with a female main character. Bad, bad chauvinist jerk!  However, there are some correlations here – both have strong female leads, both females have strong relationships with their horses, both of these are “epic fantasy” settings (swords and arrows, a king’s road, etc.)  Here is the crux of the matter:  if we compare the two stories, Britain’s is more balanced, honest, and “realistic” than that rubbish Lackey wrote, by a large margin.

I’ve given two reasons, so far, why I should not like this novel. The cover resemblance to the Twilight series and the similarities with the Lackey series. What possessed me to attempt reading this?! Finally, there is another reason.  I am not a wild maniac for things Irish. I have no issue with the Irish. But what else can I say – my heritage is much farther East. Celtic stuff and green stuff and difficult Gaelic words and Yeats and Joyce’s mythologies…. I mean, I don’t even like Guiness! So, with all this green and pseudo-Gaelic feel, I really had no business reading this novel.  Granted, the similarities to things-Irish is only with brief hints.

This is not grimdark, so fans of that subgenre should not expect the grim darkness found in those novels. Further, this novel should not be judged by comparing it to grimdark. I bring this up because this is an “older” novel – and since it was published, fantasy seems to have gotten a whole lot heavier and grittier.  I enjoyed this novel because it was really well-balanced.  There is an evil villain and some grisly monsters, but there are also light-hearted moments and a touch of silliness.

Karigan is at private school, she gets sent home and en route she gets waylaid by a dying Green Rider.  The Rider presses her into service to deliver the message he was carrying to the King.  Karigan does so and meets with assorted adventures. She, naturally, gets help when she needs it and often rethinks what incidents brought her to the path she is on.  She sometimes loses heart, but overall she “does the right thing” because she was raised rightly and is strong-willed.

I actually liked all of the characters. Maybe they are stereotypical and maybe this is perfectly “standard fantasy” fare, but I am very okay with that. The storyline was really quite obvious and almost on the “folk tale” level wherein everyone already knows the story and we are just here to see the presentation. It is like that joy small children get with having a story read to them that they already know by heart.

Around 310 there is a “big reveal” that all other readers will expect, but which, of course, surprised me. This comes late in the novel, and helps re-boost interest in a storyline that is dragging a bit. Another moment occurs on page 343; a villain is revealed! This moment is interesting because should flip the opinions of the reader who fell hook, line, and sinker for a particular fantasy trope. I am purposely being vague to not give away spoilers.

The magic system [using contemporary geek-terminology] is a bit wonky and specious. I do not think it is Britain’s area of expertise. Maybe in future novels she works this out better?  In this one, she doesn’t solidify what magic is, how it works, or where it comes from. Its everything it needs to be to whomever needs it.  Overall, the word I keep coming to with this novel is “balanced.”  It is not great literature, but it is interesting and engaging. I did not hate the characters and even though the plot was familiar, it did not feel labored. I was entertained.

4 stars

Hygiene and the Assassin

Hygiene and the Assassin

Hygiene and the Assassin – Amelie Nothomb; Europa; 2010

Amélie Nothomb’s first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin was first published in 1992.  The English edition was published by Europa Editions in 2010.  I read this novel in February of 2013.  At 167 pages, I was not entirely sure what to expect.  Anything I read of the author always highlights her multicultural personal life.

I do not have a lot to say about this novel.  I did not really like it.  First of all, a lot of the novel is vulgar.  It harkens back to Louis-Ferdinand Céline and his writings – off-color, politically-incorrect, and vibrant.   Nevertheless, it is not easy to emulate really good authors and, in many cases, it is not always a good idea.  Oddly, I found this novel even more vulgar than one would find Céline’s.   Yes, the language is vulgar, but so are the topics.  I am an adult, I am not a Puritan – so my concept of “vulgar” is a bit more critical.  When I say vulgar I mean to suggest a work that is vulgar and also does not have to be.  So, language and topic is, at times, vulgar – but when I look at the whole concept of the novel, I do not think this was necessary for the story.  Does it work with the story? Yes. Is it the only way for the story to work? No.  And there you have it.

Second problem:  Jean-Paul Sartre.  I am not a fan of existentialism and I am an even bigger not-fan of Sartre.  I really, really dislike him.  And his “philosophy.”  If I knew him personally – he is not someone I would trust.  Also, I find his “philosophy” to be pathetic.  In general, I find existentialism to be what people who want to pretend to be philosophers talk about. You know, dilettantes and such.  So, you can find people in Starbucks discussing authenticity while a copy of Being and Nothingness sits on the table.  All of this scene is repugnant to me.  Kierkegaard was alright. . . . I will have no truck with Sartre. I mean it:  I am so not sharing my truck with him.

In Nothomb’s novel she is really heavy-handed with the Sartrean concept of bad faith.  If you do not know what is meant by the terminology “bad faith,” you will probably miss a lot of the “depth” of this novel.  However, if you do not, in general, know about this terminology or concept, it’s okay because you are not really missing anything profound.  (Oh I know my dislike of existentialism is dripping here… sorry.) “Bad faith,” like many concepts developed in existentialism, seems to me to just be a pile of empty verbiage.  Yeah, sure, okay, sounds cool….. and then what?!

The main character is an author.  His name is Prétextat Tach.  He has been diagnosed with cancer and has only a couple of months to live.  In the meantime, this Nobel Prize winner is being interviewed by journalists eager to get the scoop on this reclusive and misanthropic writer.  The entire novel takes place in Tach’s “apartment” and almost all of the novel is in dialogue form.  This is all a big conversation/interview.  Again, some readers find this sort of storytelling to be tedious.  I, personally, do not mind it, and I find that it reads quickly.  However, in some places it just seems too obnoxious and fake.  Ultimately, this is the same sense that I got from the usage of existentialism and Sartre in this novel:  seems too fake and forced.  And well, yeah, isn’t that really the overarching scenario; i.e. authenticity.

I read the novel quickly, was repulsed in some parts, was vaguely entertained in parts.  When the ending came along I kind of saw where it was going and felt it was a bit drawn out.   Nevertheless, you can mostly guess what will happen.  Well, it happened, I went: “Huh.” …. and moved on to the next book.  There just is not anything really and truly awesome and deep in this one.  It’s not a wretched concept, but I think there are some pieces that did not come together perfectly.  However, I will be merciful and reiterate that this is the author’s first novel.

There are only two pages that I was able to draw anything worthwhile from.  I want to share what the main character says here about people who read:

There are a great many people who push sophistication to the point of reading without reading.  They’re like frogmen, they go through books without absorbing a single drop of water.  Those are the frog-readers.  They make up the vast majority of human readers, and yet I only discovered their existence quite late in life.  I am so terribly naive.  I thought that everyone read the way I do.  For I read the way I eat:  that means not only do I need to read, but also, and above all, that reading becomes one of my components and modifies them all.  You are not the same person depending on whether you have eaten blood pudding or caviar; nor are you the same person depending on whether you have just read Kant (God help us) or Queneau.  Well, when I say “you,” I should say “I myself and a few others,” because the majority of people emerge from reading Proust or Simenon in an identical state:  they have neither lost a fraction of what they were nor gained a single additional fraction.  They have read, that’s all:  in the best-case scenario, they know “what it’s about.”  And I’m not exaggerating.  How often have I asked intelligent people, “Did this book change you?” And they look at me, their eyes wide, as if to say, “Why should a book to change me?”  . . . . . .  Most people do not read.  In this regard, there is an excellent quotation by an intellectual whose name I have forgotten:  “Basically, people do not read; or, if they do read, they don’t understand; or, if they do understand, they forget.”

The character who says all of this is convinced he is never read – and certainly never read by the readers who actually are changed by reading his works.  The character is really a complete psycho who utilizes sophistry and who snarls and insults everyone.  But finally, at the end of his life, he is met by someone who has truly “read” his works and who sits across from him representing the things that he despises, doubts, and denies.  Bad faith. etc. the end.

2 stars

The Golden Compass

THe Golden CompassThe Golden Compass by Philip Pullman was published in 1995.  In the UK the novel is titled Northern Lights, but The Golden Compass is the USA title. It is the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy.  In 2007, a major film was released starring Nicole Kidman, Dakota Blue Richards, Daniel Craig, et al.   The edition of the novel that I read is the Del Rey 1997 edition.

In my edition, the famous author Terry Brooks (Cp. The Shannara series) wrote a short one-page introduction.  I was rather unenthused about reading the novel, but after Brooks’ introduction, I was drawn into reading it.  I do not always read introductions, but I have to say that Brooks’ intro was so encouraging that I plowed right into the book.

I have said this so often during the past year that I am beginning to sound like the oft-mentioned broken record, but here it is again.  You are going to love The Golden Compass.  It is a claim you have heard about other books, and it hasn’t always turned out to be true.  So why should you believe it this time? What makes this such a great book? Let me give you some reasons.

The novel is divided into three main parts with a total of 23 chapters.  The parts are locations wherein the story mainly takes place.

  • Oxford
  • Bolvangar
  • Svalbard

The novel is written with a mellow tone and style that definitely makes it seem like it is fit for young adult audiences.  However, I really do not think this is a book for children or for young adults. I do feel it is a book for adults. My big worry that I was reading some lame children’s book was set aside.  However, the main character of the book is a young girl.  Lyra Belacqua is a twelve-year old orphan of sorts living at Jordan College as something of a ward, but more like a pest.  Her whole life changes because of her penchant for mischief and curiosity; she sneaks into the Retiring Room at the College wherein the masters and scholars are about to receive an important guest:  Lord Asriel.

The story takes place in a parallel universe to ours, in which exists the Magisterium, a body of the Church in that world which guards against heresy.  The neat gimmick of the novel is that human souls exist externally in the form of a “dæmon,” an animal which constantly accompanies his master.  Due to some of these considerations and some other elements, the Church and many Christian organizations decried this novel (and film) calling it atheistic or subversive.  For example, the name of Lord Asriel is probably a reference to Azrael, a name of the Angel of Death in mythology.  However Asriel is also an anagram for “Israel.”  In this manner one can interpret the novel as a criticism against the Church and/or the Magisterium.  After having read the novel, I feel to do this is a bit absurd.  This novel is pure fiction – a fantasy novel.  It does not purport to be anything else.  While some of the terminology or concepts might seem to be allusions to real world organizations and beliefs, ultimately, it is our own perspectives seeing tilting at windmills.  The associations between the items in the book and the supposedly connected items in the real are tenuous and vague.  I sincerely doubt this book was supposed to represent a great treatise against any religion and I doubt it will affect anyone’s faith in any way whatsoever.

I was really surprised to see many of the steampunk elements in the novel. At first, I expected some sort of Hogwarts/Roke Island sort of story.  And, of course, I expected the main character to be entirely too headstrong and foolish.  Also, I was unsure what to make of the dæmons.  In chapter 4, Lyra is enticed by Mrs. Coulter to go to London.  Mrs. Coulter is one of those immediately dislikeable characters that somehow we all know in real life.  She’s conniving and manipulative, but shines in her role as socialite and gadfly.  Of course, as a reader I was drawn into the story at this point, really not liking what Mrs. Coulter was trying to turn Lyra into.  After this section of the book, I realized that Lyra was not going to be the bratty, dim-witted child that I thought I would have to suffer.  Instead, Lyra develops into a really well-balanced, courageous, and reasonable creature.  And maybe that’s actually the biggest fantasy in the book – it is probably impossible for any twelve-year old to be so reasonable.

As the story progresses, more elements of steampunk occur.  There are a number of noble-souled individuals who help Lyra along, but she is often left to her own devices relying on her own wits to problem solve.  I really like the characters of the bears and the witches. (I did mention this is fantasy, right?)  Bears who talk, run kingdoms, build armor, and who have a deep code of honor are really neat things to read about.  And I admit, I got attached to the character Iorek Byrnison, an exiled bear.  I think the book had a great balance of steampunk, fantasy, realism, and science in it.  Around halfway, I was thinking I might be giving the book four stars.  However, after finishing it, I realize I would be withholding a star for no real good reason.  Compared to the other books I have read and rated, I think this deserves the five stars – even if it is not a story that would interest every reader.

5 stars