books

The Black Ice

The Black IceUtterly selected, from the uncomfortably vast to-be-read-pile, nearly 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

Men Without Women

Men Without WomenMen Without Women is a short story collection by Ernest Hemingway (1899 – 1961). It contains fourteen stories, first published in 1927, and is Hemingway’s second such collection. It is, I think, the first of Hemingway that I have ever read. I know, I know, I know Hemingway is some sort of big deal; important author or major writer or whatever. To me, there was never any appeal to his writing and, frankly, anytime I learned a tidbit about his life and lifestyle, I was less than enthused.

Truthfully, I wanted to read the short story Fifty Grand. And then, I told myself, I could feel better about reading Haruki Murakami’s work of this same title (Men Without Women, 2017). I’m endlessly about proper method. Finally, though I have no strong desire to read Hemingway, if I was going to ever read Hemingway, starting with a small well-received story collection is likely the best entrance.

  • The Undefeated – 3 stars
  • In Another Country – 3 stars
  • Hills Like White Elephants – 1 star
  • The Killers – 4 stars
  • Che Ti Dice La Patria? – 2 stars
  • Fifty Grand – 4 stars
  • A Simple Enquiry – 1 star
  • Ten Indians – 3 stars
  • Canary for One – 2 stars
  • An Alpine Idyll – 3 stars
  • A Pursuit Race – 1 star
  • Today is Friday – 2 stars
  • Banal Story – 0 stars
  • Now I Lay Me – 2 stars

Well, the final rating for this collection is 2 stars. This kind of fell exactly in the place I thought it would. I do not care for (most) American literature, I have a distaste for Hemingway, and I do not have a strong tolerance for certain topics. I did come to the collection with an even temperment; I went into this thing open-minded. 

So three of the stories are, to my mind, utter trash. “A Pursuit Race,” “Banal Story,” “A Simple Enquiry.”  Rubbish. Now, I am sure there are plenty of other people out there who disagree with my assessment. I encourage them to start their own blogs and pontificate at length about the stupid philosopher who called some of Hemingway’s stories “trash.” However, I am not one to budge easily from my opinions, so its probably not worth arguing with me about these stories. I disliked them for different reasons, but mainly because at the end of them I have no idea what the point of reading – or having written them in the first place – could be. Why? Stream of consciousness junk for “Banal Story.”  “A Pursuit Race” is sad in topic, but what was the point of the story? “A Simple Enquiry” is also something that I finished and wondered briefly what the point of writing that would be. Why bother. Kind of felt that way about “Hills Like White Elephants” – but in that story the writing is a bit better. I mean, the actual wordsmithing. 

Instead of wasting time talking about things I do not like, let me expand on those stories that I felt were very good reads. I was impressed with “The Killers.”  I could recommend this to a lot of folks for a good, quick read. Also, I think if I am going to continue reading noir/crime fiction, this was a good one to include right in the start of my journey. I liked locating the story in Henry’s cafe/diner. I wanted to belly up to the lunch bar for a club sandwich. Or eggs and bacon. I liked the cook who wants nothing to do with any of it, but has curiosity anyway. I like the realism in the snippets of choppy conversation. I like the way the storyline went with Ole Anderson. This is a good solid short story. And I think, though I could be way off here, its fairly representative of Hemingway’s alleged patent style.

“Fifty Grand” more or less met my expectations. I wanted a gritty story about boxing that was realistic. Not shiny current-day boxing with social media and glitter. But old-time boxing with all the underlying crime and troubles. You know, the kind that our grandparents and great-grandparents knew about. I know this is a good story because I am going to remember it for awhile. Its not going to fade away and be lost in all the many things I have read. Frankly, I think Hemingway should have written exclusively about boxing and bullfighting. His war stuff annoys me and makes me feel sour. 

“An Alpine Idyll” has an unexpectedness to it. Maybe this is something of what all the Hemingway fans are on about. The story starts off with two skiers, returning to their hotel after being tired out from skiing. They are exasperated and cranky from “doing the thing too long.” Sun all day and poor snow conditions made them weary. Hemingway does a really good job of wordsmithing here – letting us see the scenery and the exasperated over-skied fellows heading back to the hotel. If you try, its quite easy to conjure the scene in your imagination. 

“We better have some more beer,” John said.

Though Hemingway does not actually describe the beer, I could almost taste it. The bottles of cold beer after a long day that became draining and tedious. I love the way John deadpans “we better have some more beer.” Yes, we better. Because. Beer. John. The story takes an odd turn to talking about “peasants” who live in these snowy mountains. Olz just buried his wife and he is the subject of the conversation.  It is an odd “slice of life” sort of story, but just the sort of story one would hear in a hotel at the bottom of a skiing mountain with bored men and a couple of beers. We are left with not being really certain if there is a tall tale being told, or if there is a sinister side to the story, or if its just something being made out of nothing. This is why my buddy John says: “Say, how about eating?”  The story of the peasant and his wife was fine, but after a tiring day and a couple of beers, no one really cares about it anyway.  If the food is as good as those beers, I am sure John and Nick had a great hearty meal.

“Ten Indians” is not a nice story. It is a bit raw and ugly. Its rural and Americana and not things that appeal to me a whole lot. However, the last two paragraphs make up for the ugly of the rest of the story. My rating, really, is based on those last two paragraphs. Anyway, here we have Hemingway’s star character, Nick, riding home with some neighbor friends from a holiday event. In a horse cart. I am going to admit, as soon as I put any of that together it was difficult to keep reading. I have a strong dislike for rural horsecart Fourth of July things. Now, the randomness of the indians all over place is absurd. I do not know if this is racist or bizarre or some hidden symbolism by a weird writer. The rating I gave to this story comes from Nick’s broken heart and the last few paragraphs. 

I do not read a lot of bullfighting stories. Nowadays, I feel, bullfighting is looked down upon, so even if there are stories about bullfighting, well, they are surely different. Sometimes I do think I was born in the wrong time period. Anyway, my experience with bullfighting is through my father’s stories of him having to go to Mexico to retrieve G.I.s who would get rowdy and arrested at Mexican bullfighting arenas. When I was in my very low single digits, the only book I would read or have read to me was The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. (1936) I have not watched the recent (2017) film they made. Just to be clear about this childhood obsession, the library had TWO COPIES of this book. When mother would return the book at the counter (remember they stamped the cards?), I would go to the shelves and get “the other copy.”  So, mother had literally a revolving borrowing of the two copies. This. Was. All. That. I Read. Ever. For. Years.  I have also read Yasushi Inoue’s “Bullfight” and I thought quite highly of that – however that story is not quite the same as Spanish bullfighting, I believe. 

Needless to say, I have a tendency to enjoy bullfighting stories. Hemingway’s “The Undefeated” is excellent.  The characters are rustic and rough.  The reader attends the fight right there on the shoulder of the matador, eye level, dust blowing up at us. The writing is spare, but honest. This is a good story. 

So, at the completion of this collection, I have to say it is about what I expected.  I dislike Hemingway, but I still found some things to enjoy and praise. The stories I did not enjoy, I was actually surprised by how much I did not enjoy them. Still, I am glad I read this collection – it is never a bad thing to read new things. I do not know how soon (if ever) I will return to Hemingway, but I will not forget too quickly some of the stories here. I can recommend this collection to readers who like spare writing and who are tired of shiny characters and blazing success stories. 

After reading all of this, the good and the bad, I’m with John: “Say, what about eating?”

2 stars

Ring Around The Sun

Ring Around the Sun

ACE 1959

Ring Around the Sun is the seventh novel by Clifford D. Simak (1904 – 1988) that I have read. I read the ACE 1959 edition, but the novel was originally a serial publication in 1952-1953. The cover art to the ACE edition was done by Robert E. Schultz, but ACE utilized this artwork on other books, to include the 1955 ACE Double The Big Jump by L. Brackett.

Ultimately, of the seven novels I have read by Simak, this is the most complete and well-formed novel, in my opinion. Unlike most of the others, this novel has a solid start, middle, and ending, which is a bit of a pedestrian manner of speaking. The truth is, I have previously written that I feel Simak’s novels have dissatisfying endings and that this detracts from a measure of completeness of his novels. In Ring Around the Sun, the ending is sufficient – the resolution to the novel is downright cool!

So, seven novels of Simak and I feel like I am reading the same story at this point. Well, not in the details, of course, but the themes are still the same. Simak has big ideas that get demonstrated in the relationships between three “character types.”  There is usually the Everyman that is well-represented, the alien or non-human, and then there is a human of an evolved nature or who possesses some paranormal quality.  In this novel, the big idea is that there are multiple, but not entirely “parallel,” earths in which advanced humans are trying to “save” humanity from humanity.

Just like in other Simak novels, the first quarter of the novel has that creepy intensity wherein the reader could be convinced this is not quite science fiction, but maybe also some crime/thriller read. Just like in other Simak novels the pastoral, rural setting comes into play. Old country homes, farms, sole proprietor hardware stores, wooden fences, crabapple trees – all the stuff of rural middle America serve to anchor the novel’s character.  Just like in other Simak novels, the main character is a middle-aged chap who is likeable, but aloof. Jay Vickers lives alone, but sufficiently, in Cliffwood. (Get it? CLIFFwood? Har, har har…) The opening of the novel introduces us to Jay in a gentle way, but yet giving us huge clues and valuable plot pieces for the rest of the novel. Unlike so many novels where we find plot elements descending on us like ACME Anvils, these are subtly written and gently placed so that the development of the novel is not heavy-handed.

There is a major goings-on that is the deciding factor for humanity as a whole – and not in a long-distant future. The tipping point is now, with Jay Vickers! Another trademark of Simak is how he focuses on individuals, but yet writes events that affect the whole planet. Jay Vickers is not simply human and as he discovers more about this fact, the novel progresses to show that while Vickers might be abnormal, that specialness is in the process of becoming the norm.

Present in this novel, are also the long moments of philosophical thought wherein the main character questions and wrestles with a variety of existential questions. In this novel, these segments did seem longer than in the other novels, but they also were written with more acuity, I think. Chapter 36 is a big philosophical think for Vickers. In this novel, Simak really ties in a lot of the novel’s subplots, mechanical elements, and incidentals better than in the other novels. I think his work with a child’s top (remember those spinning devices?) is exceptionally well-done. Simak also understands that for the depth that his big idea needs, he has to look at things from a variety of spheres – so he does consider man-as-laborer, man-as-social, economics, culture, and oddly, love. His consideration is also not limited to the here and now; Simak’s big idea always takes a big timeframe. He does a strong examination of humanity in this novel, but I will say, his results are somewhat negative. As in other novels, I feel that Simak is a bit dismal, but that its not as direct or overwhelming as some very miserable dystopia authors.

Although almost all of the elements that make up this novel are found in Simak’s other novels that I have read, I feel they are just done better in this one. From the plot, to the pieces of the storyline, including the characters and their motivations, the props and incidentals, this big idea is both satisfying and complete. It contains all of the key Simak trademarks and has a consistency I don’t find in some of his works. Therefore, if I was to select one Simak work that (out of those I have read) best exemplifies what Simak is about, I would choose this novel.  Further, this novel also serves as an excellent example contra those readers who are under the mistaken belief that science fiction is goofy and inane. This is a serious novel written by an author that is deeply concerned with the state of the world and humanity.

The odd thing, to me, is why, after writing this one, did Simak then attempt the same basic plot so many other times? If it was to sell novels and make money, okay, I accept that. However, an author of this much obvious skill could have written more diverse stories with equal gravity and insight. Instead, this novel seems to be something of a template that Simak then returned to, at least a few more times, in other novels. It is because Simak is a skilled writer that the other novels remain valuable and are well-liked. But, I admit, after reading this one, I think the other novels seem less original and more like template-fill-ins. I guess Simak just really wanted to hammer these concepts down and they were what was vital to his thinking and writing.

Inception posterRecommended for good readers, vintage science fiction readers, readers who like philosophical speculation, and Simak maniacs! (Also, I don’t know that I will ever look at/think about/use a toy top in the same way!)

Lastly, the “originality” of the film Inception (2010) fades after reading this. But fans of Inception should surely love this novel as well.

4 stars

 

Dead Man Walking

DMWDead Man Walking by Simon R. Green is the second novel (2016) in the Ishmael Jones series. I read the first novel (The Dark Side of the Road) early in January 2017 and knew I would continue in the series. I liked the timing of reading the novel because it is a fast-paced, easy-reader sort of thing without much brain-drain whatsoever. The second novel was the same, a little less gory, though, but still with copious amounts of fun. A really good read for lazy winter holiday break between lounging and liquor and languishing.

What is this series? Its sort of a spy organization combined with noir British detective stories and rural country homes with monsters. Needless to say, this is not high-brow stuff. Its fun, though, and if you read so much un-fun literature that you cannot enjoy the fun stuff, you have got this whole reading thing all wrong.

The novel has some repetitive lines, which might exasperate readers who are looking for a different (more literary?) sort of novel. But it works here and I like it. Its a comfortable feeling. There are tropes and obvious items and goofy elements, too, but its all in fun. The writing is speedy and I have grown fonder of Ishmael in this second book.

I admit, in the first book I did not know what to expect. I was a little surprised, but I found it gripping and intriguing and a quite a bit creepy in parts. There was a lot of gore – but it was fitting with the storyline. Now that I am more familiar with the characters and the style, it feels like spending the holiday break with some friends.

Penny (the supporting character) is a riot. Even when you know the author is trying to be funny and amuse us very heavy-handedly, it works. I laughed aloud a couple of times – earning some quizzical looks from my household. Isn’t the book I’m reading some sort of noir horror novel? Why am I laughing?

Well, I took a dislike to the culprit early on. I am not sure his motive was anything other than very “typical.” And as far as doing any detecting or investigating, the characters just got shoved around the country house here and there, running around always after-the-fact and too-late. None of this would be good writing for those expert detective club grandmasters. So, why is it so engaging? I think because it does not take itself overly-seriously and there is always going to be a fun/exciting appeal to creepy country homes with murder and spies.

Yes, I intend to read the next book in the series. Yes, its as goofy as you would expect. Yes, I recommend it to, more or less, all readers.

3 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

One Rough Man

12092971I really do not like the title of this novel because it just seems, in 2019, to be something one would find in the romance novel section, full of cliches.  Instead, One Rough Man by Brad Taylor is totally an action-thriller pseudo-pulp novel full of gunfire and operators. There are terrorists and government officials and Navy SEALs all over the place. Its also the first novel by the author; published 2011. I read the mass market paperback that I think I picked up used somewhere.

I do not read a lot of modern genre fiction like this. This year I have tried to clean off some of my tbr-list and I have found a number of novels like this one in the stacks. These novels are tasty treats; good for down-time and relaxed afternoons.  This one actually surprised me a little because it was a little lengthy. I feel like maybe it should have ended 50-100 pages sooner. Not that the story is bad, but one can only have just so many firefights in one novel. 104 chapters are inside with about two to four pages per chapter.

Good things first:  the author’s realism on most points. A lot of novels like this can get over-the-top quickly with unbelieveable situations and heroics. However, if readers are being honest, these books are not read for their perfect reasonability. Part of their charm is their ability to present a hero that really does exceed expectations and maybe is a little better at everything that he ought to be. Sure, some elements here are a little exaggerated, but I was actually surprised at how realistic the author played it.  Do not get me wrong, the main character/hero is Pike Logan and bullets just miss him. He is ridiculously good at what he does, but he does seem to have a helluva lot of luck on his side. But, good for the author on this one, the character recognizes it and marvels over it. He knows when his luck is unbelieveably good.

I liked the lack of sex in the novel. Usually the thing with action novels is that they tend to this tedious stereotyping of characters and their demeanors. I would not have been surprised to read about the hero rescuing a young lass from a building that was exploding, surviving a firefight with a country’s entire infantry forces, and then having sex in a rundown, hotel outside of town. This is what action movies have shown us happens! Its absurd and idiotic. In this novel, however, the fight scenes are relatively realistic – and I like how the author presents the main character’s decision making when entering these fights and making in-operation choices. I like how the author makes the operators in this novel realistic in their actions and opinions – for the most part. That is, the soldiers are not all flamboyant donkeys and the bad guys are not outlandish and comical.  The reactions of the characters are realistic, particularly when they make a mistake or when they are uncomfortable.

The thing that the author excels at is letting the reader see how situations develop, how events are monitored and evaluated, and how small groups plan and enact their battles. Time and again I was under the impression that the author had a lot of first-hand knowledge of directing these operations. His expertise really added to the quality of the story. Without it, the story surely would have been just another action splatter.

The supporting cast were all well written. I mean, sure, there is a lot of “coincidence” and luck. Some of that is tough to believe. However, this is a novel and its to be read for entertainment. Things that are mundane and typical are really rarely entertaining. So, okay, deal with the fact that the female main character, Jennifer, has the physical abilities of a parkour/circus expert. How handy for this sort of storyline!

Jennifer is also pleasantly snarky, too. I say pleasantly because I mean that she was realistic and her sarcasm did not seem “scripted” and stilted.

“What do we do now? Are we still going to D.C., or are we headed to Mexico to find a cheap house to spend the rest of our lives?” – pg. 321, chapter 63

Overall the dialogue was very good. I am finding, as I read more contemporary books, that the dialogue often seems unnatural or stilted or just plain stupid. Dialogue has to be convincing for the whole book to work. A character can be described and I can get a play-by-play, but if their conversation seems like an overlay put on the skeleton, it ruins the whole book and I’m an unconvinced, disappointed reader.

As I met the bad guys and the opportunists in the book I did feel angry and fretted over the well-being of our heroes. I guess this is to say that I was invested reading the story and I really do dislike the devious, evil bad guys.

My concern for this series is that I wonder if the main character gets tedious? He is likeable and definitely highly-skilled. But does the reader tire of hearing his thoughts and reading about his emotional struggles? Will readers get bored with seeing just how awesome Pike Logan is? What is the mileage on characters like this?

Anyway, more or less, I can recommend this to all readers. It is kind of a long read, but I think it is a solid entertainment, particularly for fans of action-thrillers and gear-geeks. In reality, this is somewhere between three and four stars.

3 stars

Pale Fire

Pale FirePale Fire was first published in 1962. This is the fifth novel by Vladimir Nabokov (1899 – 1977) that I have read.  I know that most literary experts (take this term however you will) believe that Pale Fire is a special work that needs to be endlessly dissected and/or venerated. Anyone disagreeing with that will definitely be told that such disagreement proves their idoicy. (Cp. my thoughts and experiences reading Kafka). I share this upfront because I want the reader to be aware that I think Nabokov is a great writer, but that I think his best novels are not the ones usually spoken of in hushed-tones by tweed-wearing, eyeglass shuffling, affected personalities haunting insular literary meetings. Nabokov is undoubtedly and indisputably one of the greatest writers.  Nabokov was a great wordsmith, artist, poet, and writer. He wrote literature with skill, wit, and a unique style. Unrivaled, really.

But sometimes I suspect his awesome skill was wasted on the most uninteresting and tedious plots/stories. As with Despair, I feel this novel has wordplay par excellence and style and the tone is incredibly effective – but all in service to a plot/storyline that, were it not Nabokov, I would not have even bothered whatsoever.

Sure, at the end of this novel, the reader is left to (that is, if they care about reflecting on what they consume) wrestle with the psychology and existence of the main characters. Even, really, suggesting surprising psychological ideas like multiple-personality disorder and calling the story magical-realism, since the line between reality and fantasy is blurry as heck. All over the internet and (before there was a ‘net’) literary criticism texts one will find reference to the unreliable narrator as if this gimmick explains everything. And it very well might! But do we really feel comfortable thinking that the genius Nabokov is gimmicky?

My thoughts on this novel are nearly the same as on Despair:  I did not care at all about any character. Some parts of the text were really tedious and I struggled to not skip over them (e.g. lengthy sections that allowed Kinbote to ramble endlessly – long after the reader gets the gist of it all). I did not mind not knowing which storyline was the real one… I also did not mind the format (poem, notes, commentary, etc.).

But somehow, though sections of the wordsmithing are utterly brilliant and the novel as a whole is mighty – I’m not going to save this one in the proverbial fire, nor am I taking it to the hypothetical island. It is definitely worth reading and knowing about. What an amazing method to share a very robust fictional biography of a character I could not care any less about!

(By the way, Bend Sinister) IS indeed coming to the island and I am toasting my fingers to snatch it from a fire.)

Pale Fire can be read on all sorts of experimental and meta— levels. Nabokov was an academic, so he knew exactly how the literary world would approach his novel. I also think he enjoyed mocking such institutions when he could, if only because he could. Some of that is part of, I think, the value of his wit on display in the “commentary” to Line 949:  and all the time.  This lengthy section is really a culminatory segment to what has been a slowly developing and meandering monlogue by an unreliable narrator. And it is one of the best shows of comic relief I have seen in literature. I could not help but roar [see all epitaphs to Shade, John] with laughter as I read this part. If I had more time alloted me in life, I would scour the endless literary criticism available, because I am certain somewhere, some bright mind has decided to interpret the “symbolism” of Gradus’ distress.

The narrator of the work is installed as an academic at university – so he is surrounded by academics, scholars, and students. Not unlike Nabokov’s career. The narrator introduces us to John Shade with high praise:

Here he is, I would say to myself, that is his head, containing a brain of a different brand than that of the synthetic jellies perserved in the skulls around him. – pg. 27 (Forward)

Tell me honestly that you do not think Nabokov would poke fun at academia.  At the same time, I really appreciated the cantankerous discussion found in Line 172:  books and people:

“That’s where the broom should begin to sweep.  A child should have thirty specialists to teach him thirty subjects, and not one harassed schoolmarm to show him a picture of a rice field and tell him this is China because she knows nothing about China, or anything else, and cannot tell the difference between logitude and latitude.” Kinbote: “Yes. I agree.” – pg. 156 (Commentary)

Those of us old enough to do so – honestly look back on your education and wonder how many times you were subjected to, or knew of this situation, in which inadequate education was given to students that then resulted in students cheated of knowledge unbeknowst to themselves? Nabokov at the heart of it all was an educated man and valued education.

Part of being educated and faculty and an academic means dinner parties with tedious people. And I laughed quite a bit at the little rant by Kinbote in Line 579: the other

Every time I had but one additional guest to entertain Mrs. Shade (Who, if you please — thinning my voice to a feminine pitch — was allergic to artichokes, avocado pears, African acorns — in fact to everything beginning with an “a”).  I find nothing more conducive to the blunting of one’s appetite than to have none by elderly persons sitting around one at table, fouling their napkins with the disintegration of their make-up, and surrpetitiously trying, behind noncommittal smiles, to dislodge the red-hot torture point of a raspbery seed from between false gum and dead gum. – pg. 230 (Commentary)

The whole novel is not wit and frivolity. Indeed, one of the main threads in this novel is the concern and study of religion/afterlife/morality.

The more lucid and overwhelming one’s belief in Providence, the greater the temptation to get it over with, this business of life, but the greater too one’s fear of the terribe sin implicit in self-destruction. – pg. 219 (Commentary)

Indeed, this paradoxical sentiment is a sobering moment for the reader. Especially after realizing that the entire 999-line poem “by John Shade” is a musing on life and death. This includes the massively famous section depicting a “near death experience” in Canto three of the poem, which has been utilized so magnificently in Blade Runner. Cells. Interlinked. Dreadfully distinct. (If you know, you know…..)

In any case, the reader who opens the cover of this book needs to know this is a rewarding experience, but he should modulate his expectations. It helps to be familiar with Pope and Johnson and Shakespeare – but its not necessary at all. It is a study of literary tomfoolery, satire, gimmicks, wordplay, and also sorrow, loss, and exile. Just getting through the Foreward and the Poem will sift out any reader who is unprepared ability-wise for this novel. Readers should not shy from this one, but I think they should also not believe the hype that this is inarguably Nabokov’s greatest work.

I hardly know if I should read PKD or Albert Camus next…..

3 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

Future Imperfect

Future Imperfect - James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect – James Gunn; 1964, Bantam.

Future Imperfect by James Gunn is a collection of short stories first published in 1964. I read a copy of the January 1964 edition by Bantam. I’m sad to report that this particular copy has come to its end. It was not in any good condition when I purchased it from an old mill’s basement a decade ago. After my reading it, there just is not much to salvage. I do not know what to make of the cover art, which is allegedly by Paul Lehr. I have read Gunn’s work before and found it generally hit or miss according to my liking. I really enjoyed Station in Space. The Joy Makers, though, left me underwhelmed.

The book contains ten pieces, however, the first and second are related and ought to be read together, even though originally published over ten years apart. For the most part the stories were quick reads. Unfortunately, there was nothing here that I felt was outstanding or excellent. These are good, serviceable reads for afternoons, though. If you can only read one story from these, select the sixth: “Every Day is Christmas.”

  • The Misogynist – (1952) – 2 stars
  • The Last Word – (1964) – 2 stars
  • Little Orphan Android – (1955) – 3 stars
  • The Stilled Patter – (1956) – 2 stars
  • Skin Game – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Every Day Is Christmas – (1957) – 4 stars
  • The Girls Who Were Really Built – (1958) – 2 stars
  • Survival Policy – (1952) – 3 stars
  • Tsylana – (1956) – 3 stars
  • Feeding Time – (1955) – 3 stars

So, the first story, The Misogynist, and the second story, The Last Word, should probably be read together. Even so, they have not aged well and are a little uncomfortable to read. Honestly, it is probably meant to be witty based on perspectives, but in 2019 it does not come across well. Of note, Gunn had The Misogynist published in November’s issue of Galaxy. Over ten years later The Last Word was written – for this collection.

Little Orphan Android is a better showing than the first two stories. Originally published in 1955 in September’s Galaxy, it feels somewhat like a piggybacking on Asimov’s I, Robot (1950).  This story contains one of the themes that is present in this collection: a future society that is trapped in consumerism and uselessness. I liked this story fairly well, I do think it would make a great made-for-TV release movie. Its interesting and I am sure it could be spiced up by an adept screenwriter. Nearly cyberpunk in its tone.

I did not like The Stilled Patter. However, it does fit in with the theme of a maligned future society.

Skin Game is unique-ish, but Gunn doesn’t pull it off. As with all of the stories in this collection, I feel the setup is there, the execution is okay, but the finish just does not have the snap and pizzazz that it should. So, the same theme Gunn has been toying with in other stories is here, too, but taken off-planet. A future society with consumerism/ownership ideals shuffled around a bit. This time, the point of view is from a crook who is stranded on a planet and their ideas regarding ownership are entirely opposite of what he is accustomed to. Again, the setup is interesting and there is potential. But its only maybe a double. No home run.

Every Day Is Christmas is the story I liked best. It is the theme of consumerism and ownership taken to an utter extreme. I like when writers go bold on ideas like this. One of the thoughts I had while reading this one was a sardonic thought: “Geez, supposed to be futuristic, but maybe its just around the corner; 2025 or something….”  This one is the best of the bunch, in my opinion. It has the most complete feel to it and it works the theme better than the rest of the collection.

The Girls Who Were Really Built is not very good. It paints people in Neosho, Kansas in rather a bad light – both the men and women, that is.  Here are some menfolk, representing a future society, that are being undermined very subtly by being provided what they wish for in wives. They were really built – refers to their seemingly awesome wives who enable the men to better themselves and the world around them, but at the price of a key, valuable item:  new live man.  I see what Gunn was doing here, I just did not care much for it in general.

Survival Policy has a potentially strong story, that gets really difficult at the end. It is a sort of pastiche of the Agatha Christie Poirot and Hastings characters. But what an odd setting and storyline for such characters. They are overdone and very obvious. The motives and the actual plot kind of fail, or, let me just say it is not smoothly worked out. There are some very fun/interesting moments in the story though, just too much going on or something. Its sketchy; I like the pastiche, I like the idea, execution not so good.

The final two stories are somewhat similar. They are definitely the most fun reads, particularly if you enjoy a wee bit of wordplay/semantics, mocking psychoanalysts, and puns. In fact, you can see one wordplay right there on the table of contents. Not sure if that is a spoiler or not. Sorry. Its still a decent read. Tsylana has another odd future society in which “everyone has their place” so as to reduce crime, weed out bad dispositions, etc. But like the rest, there is not a solid clincher; Gunn wins on points, he does not win with a stunning KO!  Feeding time is quick and dirty. Relatively fun while it lasts, which is not very long. I will remember it, but only because it is unique, not because it is excellent.

Overall, its worth a look if you really do not know what else to read. It does read quickly, but it is somewhat unsatisfactory in execution.  Gunn fans will want to read it for completeness sake. Vintage science fiction fans will find value here. I wanted this collection to be a lot better.

mean: 2.6

But I think I will drop down to 2 stars

Star Surgeon

Star Surgeon Dean Ellis

Cover art by Dean Ellis

Star Surgeon by James White was first published in 1963.  It is the second book in the Sector General series. I read the first book, Hospital Station, which is an episodic collection of short pieces about the events that go on at a space-station hospital. I have read a couple of White’s books. This Sector General series is all right so far. I feel like it has a very narrow sort of audience.  Basically, the stories are very similar to what would happen if you mixed Babylon 5 with any of the prime time TV hospital shows like (ER, Grey’s Anatomy, Chicago Med, etc.).  So, if the reader is a fan of medical/hospital drama, then they will probably be more inclined to like this series.

This novel was a novel. What I am saying is that it is not engrossing or complicated or outrageous. And it is not abysmal or horrific or wretched. It is frankly… just a novel. I cannot even say that it is entertaining because I do not feel that really describes this storyline. At best I can say this novel was interesting. The trials and tribulations of a doctor in a space-station-hospital who has to deal with an immense variety of lifeforms who seek medical attention is either going to interest readers or it is not. I found it very laid-back and mellow reading. In this story, the hospital actually falls under attack by the “Empire” – a galactic collection not a member of the “Federation”  (who operate the hospital), but White’s writing just made the battles/threats seem very distant and non-engaging.

Well, the reader spends most of his time with Dr. Conway as he is working through the logistics that a space-hospital in pandemonium would undergo.  As in the first book, Conway can be annoying and tedious. He is definitely not a larger-than-life superhero type of character. The book is written one-hundred percent from his view, so the reader gets to spend a lot of time with him.  Unfortunately, there are points when he can be utterly wearisome. The classification of the lifeforms gets a little tedious, too. So, lifeforms are categorized into four-letter designations, largely based on their environmental needs. Throughout the whole book the reader is continually assaulted with these designations.  I really wonder if White was able to keep them consistent and accurate. It would take a truly boredom-loving individual to go through and check each mention.

All of this may seem like I disliked the novel. I did not. To be honest, if you read the first book in the series, you know precisely what you are getting into if you start the second. I expect the third to be similar. While I will not be giving this five stars, this story is nothing more or less than I expected; sometimes that is sufficient.

The subplot with the female nurse, Murchison, is hideous. Conway has the hots for her and she is playing hard to get and then a war gets in the middle of their ridiculous relationship. It just drags on and on. Murchison is also written as if she is a competent nurse, but at the end of the day, she is rather daft and to be hunted and hounded like a rare albino deer rather than as an individual with personhood.

The war basically started from misinformation and it ends with the same. The two sides basically realize that war is bad. (Remember, from book one, Conway is an adamant pacifist.) The soldiers on both sides come to form a ragged peace after they come to experience that what they were told about the enemy is not true. The end.

2 stars