2010s

Artforum

Artforum coverI finished Artforum by César Aira (b. 1949) today and I am giving it five stars.  I also want to let the reader know that my rating is merely for form’s sake. (There’s a bit of wordplay here, if you read Artforum.) In other words, this is not a novel qua novel and it is not the sort of thing that one really ought to rate by “stars.”  I enjoyed reading this; it was good and good for me. It might even be good for you to read, but it is not good for everyone. The general reader might not care for whatever this is.  The most significant thing that I can tell you about this work is that I really cannot tell you what it is.

There are difficulties in writing a review about this book.  Professional reviews from the journals/magazines feel like they are “writing around it.”  That is to say, their reviews feel to me like they are writing from a distance and using a lot of vocabulary to seem like they are saying something about something. This is not a criticism from me – I totally understand why this sort of vague-speak happens.  I already said that I cannot really tell you what this book is – and neither can the professional reviewers.  There is nothing mysterious or esoteric about this.  This is a spare 80 or so pages that may contain a memoir or a novel or a meditation.  Probably all three. However, if either myself or the professionals start to tell readers what this book is, the book is then ruined for readers.

Artforum, if you are not aware, is an actual magazine founded in the 1960s and currently (as recently as December 2022) owned by the Penske Media Corporation (yes, Penske family of automobile racing and logistics groups).  In the most loose sense I say that Artforum is an art magazine.  That is not untrue – but I feel it says nothing. Anytime one brings up “Art” there seems to be an immediate definitional and categorical warzone that opens up and swallows unsuspecting innocents. One could call it a fine art, design art, culture-focused, trade magazine, if one likes. I have no desire to attempt to describe, prescribe, proscribe, or any other scribe how to refer to this magazine and its decades of publishing. The individual in the book by Aira, however, collects the magazine whenever/however he can.  Most of Aira’s book is at least peripherally about this process. Hey, but listen, the process is not entirely external.

Aira’s book opens with a very relatable anecdote that is vibrant and real and the scene is immersive.  A copy of Artforum has soaked up rain – the one with the Robert Mangold art on the cover.  I have seen Mangold’s work a couple of times – his artwork was often displayed at several of the local museums and galleries where I lived because he was born there.  I suspect there is some significance between Aira’s thoughts and Mangold’s work – I can at least point to the sort of gentle Dadaist and minimalist experimentalism that I feel resonating in Aira’s work. All that means is that I tend to believe that even those who work on the fringe and frontier of the boundaries of art are still standing on the shoulders and ideas of those before them, those around them, and those they never knew. The segment in Artforum (book) titled Conjectures more or less hints at a similar thought from Aira:

There are no restrictions, there are no forbidden subjects, the entire universe in its innumerable manifestations is at our disposal. – pg. 59

I am sure at this point readers of this review are likely utterly perplexed and have decided that I have read some esoteric artsy-fartsy book that is incomprehensible to normal people and that it has loosened some dam of pontificating babble from my disturbed mind. Rest assured, readers, I am not unaware of your complaints.

Artforum is several snapshots of writing in which the narrator shares some of his introspection while he uses a somewhat unreliable, but attempting to be truthful, eye toward his own actions (including the collecting of Artforum magazine). However, if you think that is what this book is about, and you read about peso-value, bread, and clothespins, you will think I am loony.  Be that as it may, the book works best as you, the other reader, come up with the answer to what this book is about.

And when it rained, it became the present:  everything was tied together in a great web of interconnectedness. – pg. 15

If I had to put my finger on some central topic or theme for this book, I guess “interconnectedness” is as good as any.  Aira may even be asking “what is the form of interconnectedness?” and is it from within or from without? Gee whiz, doesn’t that sound all abstruse!  Well, and maybe that is why Aira approaches his meditations in little vignettes and anecdotes as opposed to asking uncomfortable sounding inquiries?  I still think this is what he is thinking about – I submit the segment on his feelings toward the Postal Service as evidence.

So, then there is a bit about idea and formulation. This is very self-referential of Aira – because it is almost as if the thing has come full circle to the actual question involving how are these little writings about an individual thinking about Artforum (magazine) part of the writer’s art? Oh, that sounds convoluted. Let me try again:  the narrator wonders about the gap between his ideas and the formulation of his idea in the real, instantiated by his writings.  The narrator could create his own art-forum through the act of writing. Writing became a vicarious artwork – a way of marking time. I think that Aira has done a number of interviews and the interviewers often ask Aira to comment on his writing “style.” I feel like he should always be using the word:  vicarious when he responds.

Like I said, it is not an easy thing to say what this book is about and further, if someone attempts to explain it – it harms the experience and encounter of the reader. It, in a sense, modifies that vicarious undercurrent.  Now, to talk about a different matter:  what is it that made me enjoy this experience so much that I gave the book five ersatz stars?  I felt happy reading it because I enjoyed the lack of violence in these vicarious meditations.  I enjoyed the way Aira is able to discuss these matters without using a cudgel. I liked the way I could sometimes empathize with the narrator. It does not put any regrets on display; it feels more hopeful. More and more I am liking Aira’s concept of a writer/writing. I like how he explores it and how he demonstrates it. Its nice to find things one likes.

5 stars

Damned

damnedIts October so I have decided to read “horror” novels. Well, it is not as simple as that, but that is close enough. I do not read a lot of horror, so I halfway dedicated October to reading horror genre items – or things that are close-enough to horror, I suppose. It is, again, an effort to clear books from shelves and to make myself read things other than I normally read. I wanted to start off the month kind of “light” (i.e. no absolutely terrorizing horrific fiction) and so I pulled Damned by Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) off of the shelf.  Damned was published in 2011 and is Palahniuk’s eleventh novel (I think, maybe twelfth). I think most people on the planet recognize him as the author of Fight Club (1996).

Damned is a strange read. According to Wikipedia, its structure is based upon Judy Blume’s novels for young women. I have no referent for Judy Blume other than you see books compared to her books once in awhile. So I will have to take Wikipedia’s word for these facts. I suspect it is because the main character/narrator of Damned is a 13 year old girl.

The best thing about the narrator is her deadpan (seriously, no pun intended) delivery of her story. I mean, even in the most heinous scenes, the most excitement the book can offer, she remains fairly deadpan, practical, and level-headed. I mean, as she relates the story of her (short) life on earth, she maintains a healthy honesty and skepticism that makes her seem a reliable narrator. The fact that she “wakes up” in a cell in hell and is able to quickly assess her situation and be mindful of keeping her attire clean is a remarkable achievement for a thirteen year old, I think.

I am unsure to whom she is narrating. The novel has little headings at the start of the chapter in which the girl addresses Satan – but yet, she has not met this creature so it seems like a placeholder. Many times during her narrative she directly addresses the reader – as the living, of course, and counsels or goads them regarding their continuing to live while she is, of course, deceased. Madison, which is her name, is not even sure how she came to be dead. Her memory of the event is rather unclear and when this is explained later, it is reasonable to see how she can be so confused. However, she very naturally assumes that there is a logic of some sort to all of this and that she ought to be glad she died wearing solid, relatively durable footwear.

For the most part it is a coming of age novel – a super strange fact considering, well, the main character is dead and the setting is hell. Through Madison’s retrospective narration, the reader joins the character as she considers her life, short as it was. So, we learn about her parents (extremely rich, popular individuals), and her schooling (a boarding school in Switzerland), and her opinions regarding clothing, friends, boyfriends, and religion. I think it is a key fact for prospective readers to know:  Madison is quite intelligent and she knows it, but she is really not at all an arrogant character. Somehow Palahniuk was able to pull off designing a character that is full of  wit and erudition, but who remains matter-of-fact and not annoyingly arrogant.   I am not sure many readers can necessarily “bond” with Madison or find similarities, but I think it should be fairly easy to sympathize for the girl.

Palahniuk is a sharp writer in that while he makes his character intelligent and witty, he also knows when to have her make small “errors” or slip-ups, as it were. As bizarre as it sounds, he makes a thirteen year old girl who exists in hell seem quite genuine and realistic.

For the first four chapters, I think Madison’s wit is very much on display and there are definitely some amusing phrases and statements. Also, here is where the setup is for the entire novel. It is in chapter six that the rest of the storyline changes – she is released from her cell. During the first four chapters I admit that I was a little worried that the novel was going to continue in that same fashion – moving from witty and interesting into the range of tedious and repetitive. There is a lot of repetition in this novel that, for the most part works itself out, but not all readers are patient.

Palahniuk’s hell in this novel is very gross. The geography of the place is very repugnant. There are lakes of not-great-things, rivers of not-pleasant-things, and mountains of wow-that-is-disgusting. But it is hell. Still, even knowing this is a fantastical-humorous coming-of-age novel, there are some horrific sights in hell that I think maybe would prevent me from wanting to read a true horror novel by Palahniuk. Because this is definitely horrific – by a number of definitions, surely… but maybe not exactly a horror novel. Depends on perspective. Madison will share her opinion on these matters – you know, getting a manicure with her mother or some of her birthday “parties” might compete with most folks’ concept of hell. I read this for October, but some might say it certainly is not a horror novel. Well, chapter ten has some obscene, graphic, truly outrageous moments in it. Scenes that I am really sure the majority of readers would cringe or pause or something at. (If you’ve read it, this is the Jonathan Swift allusion with the Psezpolnica creature. Yikes.)

Even if the Bible is correct, and it’s easier to push caramels through the eye of a needle than get to Heaven, well, Hell doesn’t totally suck. Sure, you’re menaced by demons and the landscape is rather appalling, but she’ll meet new people. I can tell from her 410 area code that she lives in Baltimore, so even if she dies and goes straight to Hell and gets immediately dismembered and gobbled by Psezpolniza or Yum Cimil, it won’t be a huge culture shock.  She might not even notice the difference. Not at first. – pg. 110, chapter 14

Throughout the book, Madison references things like Jane Austen, the movie The Breakfast Club, and a few other items that remind us that Madison is not actually an adult and her worldview remains that of a child. Its strange to say, but I have never been even vaguely interested in such a worldview, so I suspect Palahniuk is a good writer to present such a view so entertainingly.

Still somewhere beyond halfway in the novel, Madison’s narrative becomes more focused on her introspective – efforts to make sense of her life and her death. Her insights and remembrances are sometimes serious, sometimes confused.  While Palahniuk can be called transgressive and nihilistic, I did not get that feeling whatsoever from Damned. This is a book full of honesty and hope, especially the latter. Again, I recognize the weirdness of calling a novel narrated by a dead thirteen year old in hell hope-centric, but there it is.

Pity the poor demon with but its single strategy to win.  In the same handicapped way Jane Eyre must remain meek and stoic, this demonic Baal knows only one way to exist:  by being fearsome.  While I exist plastic to change and adapt, tailoring my battle plan to each new moment, Baal can never dissolve an enemy into helpless laughter, nor charm a foe by using extraordinary beauty.  Therefore, when we neglect to fear such a brittle monstrosity, we render it powerless. – pg. 203, chapter 30

This is probably my favorite line from the book. This is because it is also one of the few takeaways from the novel. My main issue with the book, though it has some repetition and some unnecessary obscenity, is that there is not really a takeaway – not for the reader and not for Madison. Nothing. The ending is abrupt and nearly stupid. There is nothing after all of these pages of ruminating and assessing and considering. No takeaway at all. Now, I am not looking for some grand moral of the story or some incredible epiphany, but any novel should have something more than the nothing the reader gets here. Even if it is a resounding nihilism being asserted. The book ends with a “to be continued…” and that is all. Imagine a sort of coming-of-age novel without any coming-of-age. Well, what can be expected in the permanent status of hell? Thirteen forever, I suppose.

The best part of the novel is the character’s voice. There is some wit, some creativity. However, after finishing this one I felt like it was a reasonably entertaining diversion, but pointless read. Nothing much to takeaway, a novelty. I am glad I read it – because it has sections of really skilled writing. The last third seemed to be rushed and random. I do not think Palahniuk knew what to do with this? Overall, its fine, but nothing to hand awards to.

2 stars

Fated

Fated coverFated by Benedict Jacka is the first in the Alexander Verus series.  It was released in 2012. The entire series is finished, now, and is twelve novels. I happen to think that the USA book cover editions are very colorful and well-designed. Someone in my household read a bunch of these and left them shelved. I have been meaning to read them in a very non-prioritized way for awhile. Since this is a shelf-clearing year (do not listen to my nonsense – I say this every year), I decided to grab the first novel and take it along to the mountains this week.

Unlike my previous read, Fated is a fast-moving novel that falls into the category, officially, of urban fantasy, but really is just a little action thriller that has magical elements. It is usually compared, reasonably so, to the Harry Dresden series of novels by Jim Butcher. I read the first novel (Storm Front) in that series a long time ago – it was first released in 2000 and I do not remember much. I probably gave it either two or three stars. That being said, I have no idea if these are similar except in that they are kind of in the same category – mage/wizard in modern urban setting has to deal with magical situation resulting in action plot.

Reading Fated after Count Zero is a kind of funny experience.  Fated‘s pages just flew past; I mean, I think it even has thirty more pages in it, but I read it much faster.  That just goes to show that it is not a book with great depth and intensity.  There is nothing wrong with that, per se, but I think this is something akin to how a number of readers felt this was more of a “YA” (i.e. young adult) novel.  I disagree that it is YA, I do not really even like that sort of faux-genre.  It does, though, feel like Jacka was not taking any risks and staying somewhat superficial with the storyline.

Except for the uncomfortable master mage and apprentice-slave scenario that runs through the entire novel. Clearly, the main character has some form of PTSD after having been involved in such a scenario. Alex Verus mentions it in the sort of way people mention things when they do not want to seem like they want to talk about a thing, but they really, really do.  So, again, is Jacka making the background mysterious? Is he writing “safely?”  Or, is this just a way to engage the reader that does not work 100% of the time?  For myself, I can say that I do not mind characters with shadowy and dark pasts. I do not have to know all of their details. However, in this one, it feels like Jacka needed to commit a bit better to telling the reader or not. Instead, Verus’ history is a mess.  Also, by not really being totally open about whatever is in Verus’ past, it makes the relationship between himself and the master-Dark mage take on aspects that are perhaps uncomfortably taboo or untoward.

Rather than have the clear good versus evil scenario of mages, Jacka bolsters his explanation of Dark mages as something other than just evil-driven. Maybe. It works to a point, and then it stops working. So, what I mean is, Jacka tells us that Dark mages do not buy into strict concepts of good and evil. Instead they think about morality totally from their self-indulgent egoism.  They recognize others only if and when the Other is something to have control over and to operate as one operates a tool. Thinking about this a bit deeper, though, readers might wonder if that sort of egoism is not, actually, the definition of evil. So, back again to perspectives of good and evil. Hey, I’m a metaphysician… an ontologist, I get really disinterested and bored with ethics. But it feels like Jacka really took to those ethics classes in school.

Anyway, I like a lot of the magical constructs that Jacka made for us.  Beings like Starbreeze, Helikaon, and Arachne are fun and interesting. I mean, I did get tired of Starbreeze by the end of the novel and Arachne is not exactly an original creation, but they were good inclusions in this novel.  The villains were villainous – which is good. I hate novels wherein the villains are rather pathetic and cannot hang onto their rôle as villains. The character Rachel is another who needed to have some good time with a psychologist – again because of whatever the heck happened in Verus’ past.

Overall, though, this novel is a decent read. Its not above average because it feels like a lot of the elements needed to be solidified and tidied up.  The Council, for example:  we are left with all sorts of impressions of it. After finishing the book, I cannot tell if they are a weak administrative sort of group or a snarling back-biting political thing, or a true over-seeing authority. Further, there seems to be so much magic – there is a lot and when Jacka needed a plot point, it seems like he just introduced another form of it. This needed to be shored up to a more manageable kosmology.

Finally, though it was a speedier read than Count Zero, there seemed to be some pacing issues. The time spent at “the ball” was overdone and tedious after awhile. Some of the “we are being chased” moments were a bit repetitive and therefore annoying. In spite of all of these smaller challenges, though, the world of Alex Verus is just interesting enough that I would read the next book in the series. I can also grant that maybe since this was the first novel, it was a little off-kilter and the next one rights the ship.

2 stars

The Third Gate

The Third Gate lincoln child book coverThe Third Gate by Lincoln Child is the third book in his Jeremy Logan series.  I have read the previous two novels.  The Third Gate was published in 2012 and is the first in the series that has Logan on every page of the book, so to speak. In the previous novels, Logan was not a major character; here he takes control of the narrative.

This book is a bit of a mess and is a definite step-down from the previous novel Terminal Freeze. The setup is somewhat the same – in all three novels there is a wealthy, eccentric individual who is at the heart of whatever adventure is going on.  This time Logan is pulled in right from the beginning – he is introduced as an enigmalogist. Logan meets the “eccentric” individual in the depths of the Cairo museum and agrees to join the adventure.  The mission, this time, is to locate Narmer’s tomb.  In the author’s note Child admits that he liberally manipulated and adjusted all facets of Egyptology and related sciences in service of his novel.  In other words, there is historical fiction and then there is adventure fiction and The Third Gate is most certainly in the latter category.

Once again, as with the first Logan novel, I want to accuse Child of lazy writing. There are a couple of things here and there that could have been done better and, yes, I do mean even in the context of a little adventure pulp novel.  For example, the coffee that someone is sipping in the dark deep basements of the Cairo museum – its probably cold. And where did it come from? Somehow I doubt there is a stove deep in the museum among the papyrus stacks – at least, when I was there, I did not see one. Another example is where Child unnecessarily refers to the technicians (i.e. the digital and technological crew) as “tech weenies.”  It feels jarringly crude in a setting wherein we are frequently told the adventure has gathered highly-vetted, highly-trained, highly-established experts in so many fields of study. “Tech weenies”…..?

Anyway, Logan shows up to the site with his duffel bag of items. A variety of items, kind of similar to a doctor’s bag crossed with a magician’s bag. When asked about it, Logan shares some of the items, but also plays it a bit vague.  At the same time, throughout, readers get the sense that the characters are suspicious or at least skeptical of Logan’s field of study and of his need to join the mission.  To counter that, several times readers are given Logan’s resume and stories of his expert field work and research, to include a sidebar regarding his dissertation. All of this being said, several times during the novel, Logan utilizes a device that tests air ionization. Every time except once is the air “normal.”  The one time it reads “not normal,” or increased ionization, he says he does not know what it means.  This just seems incongruous and stupid.

I disliked every character and for that reason I really was not rooting for any of them.  Makes me feel a little bad, I guess. I like adventure stories that keep me on the edge of my seat and I can cheer for a hero or something. The character that is supposed to “balance” the Logan character is one of the world’s top Egyptologists, Christina Romero.  I am not sure what to make of her – most of the time she comes across as impulsively rude, which I very much find toxic.  I guess we are supposed to think that because she is an elite expert, she is also given to temperamental behavior? I dislike that sort of stereotyping, too.

Finally, the plot itself is stupid and difficult and has this adjacent co-plot that I really hated. I really disliked the entire psychological, NDE, “crossing-over” story thread. I hated the characters and how it overtook the plot and I did not enjoy it.  Accepting Logan as an enigmalogist and as a scientist is possible. But this type of plot overextends my suspension of disbelief.

White NileThe good thing:  listen, I love setting and the setting of this novel is really good. I mean it. I was surprised to find such a strong, interesting, and intense setting in an adventure pulp.  Child liberally utilizes the concept of the Sudd (Cp. The White Nile by Alan Moorehead – 1960) and expands and develops it as needed. Seriously, this stuff captured my imagination and I wanted to spend more time in this setting having it weigh on us, confuse us, frighten us.  In other words, Child’s idea to use it is a great idea and he did a decent job.  I just want him to have done an even better job. I did pull my old, crusty copy off of my bookshelves and think I will skim through it, just because I can.

They crawled forward into an ever-thicker tangle of logs and bracken.  The noises from the riverbanks – if indeed there were still any banks to be found in this morass – had all but ceased.  It was as if they were now surrounded by an infinite riot of flora, dead and dying, all wedged into one colossal tangle.  They waited in the bow, barely speaking, as the boat followed the line of flashing beacons. Now and then the path seemed to Logan to lead to a dead end; but each time, after making a blind turn, the fetid tangle of vegetation widened once again. Frequently, the boat had to use its own superstructure to push aside the oozing warp and weft. – pg. 67, chapter 7

At the end of the day, Ancient Egypt adventure stories and swamps and scary things are always going to draw readers in, I think. However, this novel had too much lazy writing. Again, I am not expecting high-brow literature here, but I think a lot of tidying and a little thought would have really worked.  Instead, this novel is a mess, its a bit flat, and I did not really enjoy anything at all other than the setting.  That is not a basis for a great recommendation.

I am a bit concerned about the “development” of the Jeremy Logan character. I like him as an enigmalogist. I dislike the esoteric, pseudo-ghost hunter stuff. I am glad that he got to be a main character in a novel, for once, which is amusing to consider.  Strangely, even as a main character, I feel he was extraneous. Still, I am nervous that in the next novel in the series he might actually have a magic wand or something.

2 stars

Stillwell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars

In Plain Sight

1-In-Plain-SightThis book was recommended to me while visiting an out of town friend. My friend apologized for having lost the second book in the series, but said that they had the first and I would probably enjoy it. So, I took their copy and started reading it when I got home a few days later.  In Plain Sight by Dan Willis is the first in his Arcane Casebook series. It was first released in 2018 as a self-published work, I believe.  As I have said, I am making a strong effort to read things other than my “usual” bookshelf fare.  I am making a bit of an effort to read independent and small-press publishers, self-published works, genres I do not normal look into, and so forth.  I think there are eight books (so far) in the Arcane Casebook series and my friend had about five of them stacked on a shelf; and I have to tell you – they looked so pretty and appealing. (It is only fair to also say they were surrounded by media that had C+ and Python and similiar written all over them.)

So, I was kind of not sure what this novel would entail. I have read the first Harry Dresden (by Jim Butcher) novel and both enjoyed it and still disliked the main character.  I read that when the first couple novels in Butcher’s series The Dresden Files were released, let’s see, way back in 2000.  Twenty-something years ago, the subgenre urban fantasy was new and edgy and Butcher’s books were just another science fiction paperback. I think there are seventeen novels in that series now! Anyway, I cannot remember everything about my reading experience of Storm Front, but I know that I found it interesting and unique, but also a bit unpolished and maybe I did not love the main character – because he was supposed to be so eccentric and quirky that it felt like it was very forced. It was not a bad start, but it was not great. I never got around to reading the second book – though, currently, I believe the first five books sit on a bookshelf here at home.

I mention the Dresden Files because there are definitely some similarities with this Arcane Casebook novel.  They are, indeed, different in many respects, but there must be comparisons between the two as well, since readers will be familiar with the Dresden Files before coming to this series. My general impression after reading In Plain Sight is that is better than Storm Front. Which, honestly, is just saying that I liked it better. Neither novel is five stars and there are some improvements to be made in each, but if I had to recommend a modern magic/wizard novel to a reader, I would likely suggest Willis’ book.

The main character is Alex Lockerby who is a private detective in New York City 1933.  Now, I admit that I am drawn to Golden Age pulps, gritty city private detectives, noir crime stories, and black & white TV shows. So, the setting and the background tipped the scales in favor of this novel.  Lockerby, like all true isolated and loner heroes, is surrounded by the uniquely-skilled, providential crew of friends and helpers.  He was raised by a priest, taken into the home of and trained as a detective by a rich British doctor, and he managed to hire a savvy and sharp – and also good-looking – secretary for his office. So, the novel seems to want to tell us that Alex struggles on the sidewalks of NYC with the daily grind of running a loser business, but the fact of the matter is, he actually has a lot of safety-nets and helpers.

Lockerby is also a runewright, which is a type of magician, I suppose. The novel explains runewrights as sort of the mechanics and engineers of the magical world, contrasted with the fancy, high-level marvels of sorcerers. The concept of runewrights was one that I approached positively. I have no use for the Harry Potter business, but a runewright sounded like something with a lot of story potential that was just unique enough to set it aside from wand-wavers. Basically, runewrights are like draughtsmen who create a variety of runes using different configurations of symbols made with different inks and substances – many of which are expensive/rare to utilize.  Many of the runes can be somewhat physically taxing and can take hours to “draw.”  Some, of course, are minor and much faster to whip off using merely a pencil and a notepaper.

Alex was raised by Father Harrison Arthur Clementine at a local church/mission. And Father Harry is responsible for raising Alex into the diligent and moral character he is. However, Alex lives with his runewright mentor, Dr. Ignatius Bell, who served in the Royal Navy. Bell owns a brownstone in the City and spent at least two years training Alex in runewright skills as-well-as Sherlock Holmes-style detective work. He also feeds and cultures Alex. A mentor and a patron and a landlord. I can see how some of this chafes readers – Lockerby is supposedly a struggling private detective, but he has such a support system and had such assists through his “formative years” that he really ought to be doing a whole lot better than he is!

Alex also seems to have really bought into the stereotype that private detectives in the 1930s drink and smoke constantly. I do not mind, really, a heavy drinker/smoker in my novels – but I was trying to timeline out how much he drinks and it really is quite a large amount. This is to say, some of the cigarette lighting and two finger splashes pouring actually interupts the flow of the story instead of smoothly building its elements.

The storyline, honestly, is not super interesting. I enjoyed it, but mainly I did not pay much attention to it. I did not seem to care who the adversaries and culprits were or what their motives were, I was more interested in learning more about this magic 1933 NYC and going around with Alex lighting cigarettes and taking crawlers (magic-driven transportation).

I can understand some demanding readers being frustrated with the plot because it does seem very stereotypical and trope-filled. But I liked it – and I would use the words “Golden Era” and “classic.”  I know a lot of readers want each novel to push the boundaries of fiction and have ever-new storylines, but I was really content with hanging out with Lockerby and traipsing around to different crime scenes looking for clues. I enjoyed the storyline – it was engaging and interesting and kept right on moving. We met different characters along the way and there was not a lot of explanation and description – we learned on the job with Alex.

There are some minor twists at the end of the novel that might aggravate readers – Alex does not share with the reader everything he discovers. I mean, most of it is apparent, but there are a few items near the end of the book that it is revealed that Alex is aware of that the reader has to get surprised by. Some readers will be aggravated, I was amused and enjoyed it. Authors do not always have to play totally fair with readers – especially if its for our own entertainment.

4 stars