books

The Rubber Band

THe Rubber BandI finished The Rubber Band by Rex Stout (1886 – 1975), which was first published in 1936 and is the third novel in the famous Nero Wolfe series.  I last read a Nero Wofle novel (the second) in 2014, so reading the third has been due for quite some time. I really enjoy these novels and this January has not been given over to science fiction, but rather mysteries.  There is a lot to love about the classic vintage detectives Lord Peter, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, et al. However, I think Wolfe has the least amount of reader-sympathizers.  He does come across, most of the time, as petulent and stubborn.  His girth and his seemingly-upper class status would be enough to do in most of those people who get past his personality.

One of the necessary things that readers of Wolfe mysteries must be able to do, is to understand that the majority of the commentary is sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek.  Most of the wit and banter is part of the jovial and unsinkable personality of the narrator, Archie Goodwin.  The humor moves around from deadpan drops to facetious comments to outright snark.  It is going to take a witty and discerning reader to enjoy the ruckus. Now, I am not going to say that at times it can get a little tedious. However, it seems there exists readers who take certain lines very seriously, instead of realizing they should be taken quite opposite.  My own household is full of witty retort and often ridiculous conversation.  That is not to say that deep, academic argument is not undertaken.  If this very average household witnesses these things, I can only imagine the same would hold true for Wolfe’s very unique household.

“You’ve already upset enough.  Go upstairs and behave yourself.  Wolfe has three wives and nineteen children in Turkey.”

“I don’t believe it. He has always hated women until he saw how nicely they pack in osmundine.”

Chapter 12

This is a very funny exchange – between harried characters who are both witty folk.  Strangely, I think there are readers out there who could not see this sarcasm….

There is a very surprising and amusing event that happens in the Wolfe household when the city police come through with a search warrant. I was really worried for the group – how were they going to hide their client? And then when it happened, I did laugh aloud. It is funny as heck, particularly if you really spend time imagining the scene properly!

She had been in the plant rooms with Wolfe for an hour before six o’clock, and during dinner he went on with a conversation which they had apparently started then, about folk dances and that sort of junk.  He even hummed a couple of tunes for her, after the guinea chicken had been disposed of, which caused me to take a firm hold on myself so as not to laugh the salad out of my mouth. – Chapter 15

Because at the end of the day, truly, Wolfe, like all good heroes, is a romantic and a connoisseur.  Archie, of course, has no immense cultural learning so his perspective on such moments is priceless. Such is the comedic situation that Stout adroitly manages.  Now, there has been effort by some so-called literary folk to make Wolfe and Goodwin’s lifestyle into some facet of homosexual scenario.  I think, and I did not think very much on it, that such literary folk are reading way too much of their own personal agendas into these novels – simply because there are plenty of lines in each novel that nearly state how untrue that could be. I think one could, if they entertained such imaginings, make a slight case for Fritz (the cook/butler), but otherwise it seems to me such an assessment is hogwash.

So, I have complained about readers who have no sense of humor and ones who seek to agenda-interpret.  The reason for both, though, is the same:  these books are not for the dour and sour.  I do not know much at all about Stout, but I do know – based on these novels – that he was not dour. And his audience is probably primarily the readers of that golden era detective fiction that literature historians have delineated.  However, I do think his actual audience was anyone who enjoyed wit and humor.  The pretty neat thing about Stout’s work is that he was able to combine comedy with detective-plot skill.  I am at the point, now, where I rarely read vintage detection/mystery novels for their plots.  I often find their storylines to be a bit convoluted or tangled.  I am usually reading these novels for the characters and the wit. In short, I enjoy intelligent, witty people and have no use for the miserable and perpetually over-serious.

This novel is full of characters and for a short novel, it is really stuffed with them. Archie, by the way, feels similarly as he is running around the house opening doors and shuttling people to and fro.  I think the plot is okay overall, but that Stout did let it get away from him a bit.  The beginning is a bit slow – and my word, the story that the character Clara Fox tells is really long-winded.  By the end, though, the whole thing is sewn up nicely and satisfactorily.  I think there ends up being three dead bodies in total, which seems like a lot for a two-day time span of the novel.  Unfortunately, the majority of the detection and investigation occurs off-screen and even beyond the scope of the narrator.  This is weird. I mean, even for off-screen detection this one is further on down that line.  For that reason, I am sure many readers would not rate this novel as highly as some other Nero Wolfe reads.  Its strange to have such a great narrator and main character and just keep the reader so completely in the dark about all of the detection.  I suppose that is exactly how Nero gets to have such bombshell-dropping reveals at the end while all of the characters sit calmly in his office. However, it is not a technique I think an author ought to use very much.

So, if you are a fan of vintage “Golden Era” mysteries AND you have a strong sense of humor, I can recommend this novel (and other Wolfe novels).  If you are utterly humorless, well, do not even bother, you will hate them. Now, I am not kidding:  it is literally time for my supper and beer and I absolutely despise when those times are disrupted.

3 stars

Mrs, Presumed Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club

UnpleasantnessThe Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957) is the fourth novel in the Lord Peter Wimsey “series.”   It was originally published in 1928. I read the 1988 printing of the New English Library edition of the novel.  It was quite hard to separate from the book itself because the bright pink cover made it very difficult to ignore!

For the first few chapters, there is some witty sarcasm about the word “unpleasantness” and Sayers was a very intelligent woman so I think this sardonic and ironic bantering has a lot of meaning. It is not just a superficial humor – although, on some level, it is that, too.  The Bellona Club is a British “club” – something contemporary Americans do not really have a concept for. I guess maybe a country club or private drinking club is some sort of vague approximation.  This particular club is for war veterans. The thing is, most Americans do not really have a solid, true experience of British life before-during-after the first World War, either, and that context is very significant in reading Sayer’s Lord Peter novels.  Simply put, the horror and magnitude and shock of experiencing the first World War is not really something that is accessible. We can read about it, but that probably does not come close to the experience. Ineffable and incommunicable lifetime event, I think, best describes that generation/society’s moment. At one point there is a small segment about Armistice Day and wearing a flower and all of this seems so distant and removed from current day that the gravity and significance that those characters would experience is nearly lost on readers today.

So, while the book has this layer of humor and wit, it is also a coping mechanism and a ironic sarcasm for the utter horrors and psychological struggles of the first World War.  That is not to say that you should not chuckle at the wit. The best readers should laugh heartily and then also shed a tear for the unspeakable horrors of that society.

Needless to say, there is a particular character, Wetheridge, that depicts the PTSD-sufferings of veterans perhaps better than the major character George Fentiman, who represents the very demonstrative examples of PTSD. At first, Wetheridge is annoying, but on the last page of the novel, Wimsey points out Wetheridge is all right and has his place among “us.”

I really enjoy reading Lord Peter, as many readers through the decades have said, I’m sure. So, spending time with him as he goes around and harasses and cajoles and banters with other characters is always time well-spent. Lord Peter, himself, as you readers who know also deals with PTSD from his time in the war.

“Exactly. He is the Most Unlikely Person, and that is why Sherlock Holmes would suspect him at once.” – pg. 148 (chapter 15)

However, this story qua story was a bit of a mess. I mean, I think Sayers really wrote a complicated plot, but it was so complicated over nothing, I think. Or, over-complicated. Or it just went on way too long. The storyline really is entangled and it becomes a bit boring to try and sort it out – especially when the red herrings are not exactly red herrings.

There are some enjoyable moments – Peter at the Bellona Club, the scenes with the Munns, any time spent with Marjorie Phelps, and of course, Peter ordering from any menu anywhere.

The end of the story had interesting resolutions to the plot threads and I cannot say that it ended unfairly or untidily. I definitely will read more Sayers, no surprise there, and I recommend this for most vintage mystery readers. However, there is something to be exasperated with here in the slightly over-worked plot.

Overall, the most subtle, and yet key, element is that nearly all of the major characters are war veterans. The doctor, the deceased, the detective, the supporting characters, etc. So, the resolution has a very bittersweet pang to it – because money is the issue. But the issue is not money….

3 stars

The Voice and Other Stories

The VoiceThe Voice by Seicho Matsumoto (1909 – 1992) is a collection of six short crime stories.  This is the first I have read by him, but I absolutely would read everything by him based on how much I enjoyed this collection. I think the height of popularity for him was in the 1960s/1970s.  In 1952 he was the winner of the Akutagawa Prize.

This collection was just the sort of fiction that I enjoy.  One of the characteristics is that the writing is perfectly balanced – like a nice gravy. Yeah, that is an odd thing to use, I know, but hear me out.  Most gravies/sauces are too salty, too fatty, too pungent, too potent, too sweet! Every once in a while, though, you get the joy of a perfectly balanced sauce that is blended, vibrant, and balanced.  There is no one flavor or seasoning that is overpowering. The whole thing is complementary of whatever else is being eaten. In the case of these stories, I felt Matsumoto’s writing was utterly balanced:  he absolutely had the correct scaling between giving us a robust and well-formed story and not over-writing every aspect.  The writing was excellent for short stories.

The genre of crime fiction and noir stories really matches Matsumoto’s writing skills here. At the heart of each story is not some complicated situation with many actors and many victims and misdirects and red herrings. The stories here are from situations in everyday life.  Although there are a few points that rely on coincidence, most of these stories are so ordinary as to be rather boring – were it not for the skill in telling them.

  • Kyohansha – 1965 – The Accomplice5 stars
  • Kao – 1959 – The Face5 stars
  • Chiho-shi o kau Onna – 1959 – The Serial5 stars
  • Sosa Kengai no Joken – 1959 – Beyond All Suspicion5 stars
  • Koe – 1959 – The Voice4 stars
  • Kanto-ku no Onna – 1960 – The Woman Who Wrote Haiku4 stars

The first story, The Accomplice, was stressing me out as I read it. I am a silly, basic reader and I kept shaking my head as I read because the main character’s choices were digging him deeper into the scenario and it was all because of a choice he had made a long time ago that was haunting him and tormenting him.  Now, I am quite sure, many readers would scoff at my tension caused by this character.  But there is no defense, Matsumoto knew how to get his story to resonate with my reading style, I guess. Character Hikosuke was a man who created his own demise, but he made me worry about him and his errors. Without a doubt, I gave this story five stars because unlike so many stories I read, it engaged me quite a bit – and without using exaggerated writing tricks.

The Face has some similar elements to the first story – the main character is, again, the cause of his own struggles. The perspectives of characters and the skewed decisions based on such perspective drive both of these rather mundane storylines. In this story, there are some detectives that really bring the plot to life.  I like Matsumoto’s detectives, because they are not the superhuman Poirots and they are not the pompous Nero Wolfs.  There is a fantastic scene that takes place in a restaurant in Kyoto – an imobo (kind of a yam based dish…) restaurant – that caused my heart to palpitate.  It was so subtly written and yet so immersive.

The Serial started off with such an everyday and mundane beginning that I was sure that it was not going to meet the level of the previous stories. But I was wrong! First of all, I really enjoyed the brief thoughts about newspapers that used to print serial fiction. (Maybe, in a few years, I will simply be reminiscing about a thing called newspapers!) I enjoyed this one a lot because it also played on the characters’ assumptions and perspectives. I really liked the inclusion of some of the details and the way the plot built. The main character is trapped in a situation, so, of course, I pity the character.

Beyond All Suspicion was one of the longer stories, but it kept my interest the full length. Again, a character finds himself in an unfortunate situation and does not make the best choices. He chooses revenge and thinks he can outwit everyone. Poor, miserable character. As a revenge tale it works really well because it demonstrates a revenge that is long-in-coming and not some hot-headed slash-up.  It also contains a bunch of noir elements like nighttime bars, banks, taxi-cabs, and a silly song that becomes an integral part of the story.

The last two stories are the ones I gave only four stars.  I felt that The Voice started off very interesting and super noir.  However, the second part (there are two parts to this one) got a bit too convoluted, though the detective team involved really do keep the reader informed throughout the investigation. I just felt the resolution was a bit too complicated. Or, maybe “complicated” is not the most accurate word here. Perhaps I just did not like the way it all worked out. I think that is accurate.  I felt badly for the victim; she had a lot of nonsense in her life that it does not seem she deserved – plus, she was one of us:  a fellow reader!  Similarly with The Woman Who Wrote Haiku – wow, this was quite a sad story.  The crime was entirely imaginable, though. It was difficult to not feel sad for the poor woman we readers never actually met.  I supposed we ought to be somewhat glad that there were these interested parties (members of a Haiku magazine) who solved the crime.

Easily some of the best stories I have read in this year. The style of writing is exactly what I enjoy and the crime/noir was neither gross nor over-done.  Nothing was exaggerated, nothing was unnecessary. I do not re-read a lot of fiction, but I do think that I could re-read these stories.  I wish I could get my hands on all of the author’s fiction, because he has a lot of skill that makes reading his stuff an enjoyable experience.

5 stars

Between Light and Shadow

Beyond Light and ShadowBetween Light and Shadow by Sarah Jane Huntington is a collection of self-published short stories, first released in 2021. The thirteen stories are structured to be an homage to/a pastiche of the old Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) and Outer Limits (1963) television episodes.

I took a chance on this book since I am having a year of reading small press, self-published, independently published items. I am glad to say, most of my choices have been very successful. Between Light and Shadow is another mark in the win column, if you will. The formatting/editing is a tiny bit rough, but nothing that left me aghast. Once again, the rating I give it feels slightly skewed; I am starting to really hate rating any books that are not mass market from the Big Publishers. 4 stars feels too high for this blog, 3 stars feels way too low for the effort and fun. 3.5 just feels like a cop-out. Hey – maybe do not pay much attention to that rating, deal?

The main element swaying me to get this book was the very strong feeling of honesty that I got from the author when I read the intro. I like supporting authors (et al.) who are genuine and authentic and honest. I love the Twilight Zone, too… so I can appreciate any attempts to work in that specific mold.

Of the thirteen stories, two stories really did not work for me. I disliked “Such a Perfect Day” and I think “Tourists Guide to the Galaxy” probably maybe should not have been included, if the author will forgive my saying so. This latter was so very heavy-handed, negative, and abrasive…. Plus, I feel it has been overdone by so many already. It just is the thud of the book, I think.

However, all of the other stories contain the wonder, twists, entertainment, and escapism that I like to have when reading fiction. These are short stories that are easily digestible, engaging, and all over the spectrum of “speculative fiction.” In particular, “Written On a Subway Wall” and “Trapped” were really good. If a reader is into horror, the gruesome and twisted “Mirror Darkly” works well, even if it is not completely surprising.  Also, I enjoyed “Exploration for Humanity” – even though it felt a wee bit too obvious.

This is a fun collection and I am glad that the author shared them with us. She was not aiming for “Greatest Stories Ever Written” – and she’s honest about that. Instead, she aimed for “strong effort, fun genre, and comfortable writing.” Huntington nailed it! Readers who need some easy-reading with some similarity to the sentiments of those old television shows will be mostly satisfied with this collection.  And I am encouraged to try more of her writing. (I think I saw that she has a new horror-genre novel out.)

3 stars

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainThe Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972) was first published in Japan as a book in 1954.  I am not an expert in anything, but I try my best to keep on learning and thinking! So, when I say that I think that this novel is one of Kawabata’s middle years works, take it with a grain of salt. I have read two of Kawabata’s previous novels and I enjoyed them.  This one felt, to me, like it was a turning point or a change for Kawabata.  I have no idea if that is true or not.

The novel takes place mostly in Kamakura, which is a city southwest of Tokyo. Kamakura is a very old city with tons of significant history, but in this novel it sounds mainly like a seaside rural town.  Everyday a couple characters take the train to Tokyo.   I looked at Google Maps and in theory you could drive or take a train to Tokyo (city center) in about an hour.  This works with the novel, it just seems farther away when I look at the map.  The author himself moved from Tokyo to Kamakura in 1934.

I once read this passage by Professor Van C. Gessel that stuck with me as a sort of rudimentary aid in understanding Japanese modern literature and I think it applies to The Sound of the Mountain. Gessel wrote:

Such a luxury is not afforded the reader of Japanese literature.  I realize this flies in the face of contemporary Western literary critical thinking, which insists that a text be surgically removed like a tumor from the author’s being for discrete dissection.  Works which cannot survive the operation are declared D.O.A.  Any mention of the author’s life brings cries that Oedipus’ mother is being blamed for his sins.  Nonetheless, I stand by my contention that Japanese fiction is written with the presumption that it will not be entirely severed from the life of the writer, and that readers will know something of the relationship between creator and creation. This is all part and parcel of the fundamentally autobiographical approach to literature that has been an integral part of the Japanese tradition since its inception.  – pg. 8, Preface, Three Modern Novelists, Kodansha International (1993)

Definitely, I think I have seen this approach in what little Japanese modern fiction I have already read and I think it is probably true, to an extent, in this novel.  The location in Kamakura is an obvious example, but at this point the author was fifty-five years old and probably some of the main character’s thoughts and feelings are autobiographical. The main character is Shingo Ogata who is sixty-two years old in the novel. 

The story is mainly told from Shingo’s perspective, in a sense. It focuses on his daily routines and his dreams and his thoughts about his family and the goings on in the neighborhood. Kawabata’s spare haiku-like prose is always praised for its style and beauty.  In this novel, however, I am not sure if it is Kawabata’s prose or just the mannerism of Shingo. Shingo is feeling old and his having difficulty with his memory.  He seems to have frequent waves of nostalgia and sentimentality.  He, in his age, is remembering and longing for times past – and he even questions the accuracy of those memories.  He purposely allows his mind to conflate those past times and people and events with current events. His thoughts are somber, confused, frustrated, and sometimes morose.  Shingo’s very thoughts are unsettled and peppered with mundane facts or tautologies. Very much like the spare matter-of-fact prose with which Kawabata writes, generally.

We all live, now, in a furious time.  Everything, literally everything, is a manic, wild flurry of information and action.  If, in 1954, Kawabata’s prose was subtle and haiku-like, reading it now has made those times seem even more distant and even rather impossible.  Shingo often just looks at things or has time to just….. think vague thoughts.  He thinks about a fallen chestnut, a plum blossom, a locust, etc.  These singular items blend into the more pertinent life relationships he has with his family and co-workers. And throughout my reading of this novel, I was frequently envious of how characters would “go and look at things.”  Nowadays nobody goes and sees the trees for the express purpose of seeing trees blossom. Literally, going to a place to see some natural and mundane thing is unheard of today. I cannot even imagine anyone saying, “oh, after supper, let’s all walk out to the wherever to watch the sun set from there” or “let’s walk past the empty field down the block because the weeds are flowering.”  Do not get me wrong, please – I truly, deeply, enjoy this. I am the one who wants to go look at “a tree” or “a nothing much at all.”  I just wish I had more time to do this. Frankly, in this novel, I think the days of the characters must be 30-40 hours long. How do they have time for newspapers, train travel, meals, tea time all the time, arguments, and then nature-gazing?!

I have written this review, thus far, as if I really “got into” and enjoyed and understood this novel. Unfortunately, that is not quite true. This is probably a very good book for some readers. But this is absolutely not a book “for me.” It did not work for me, it was nearly incomprehensible to me, and I cannot call it a good book from my perspective. I mention all of this to let everyone know that I know that my opinions are not dogma. I fully expect that there are readers who very much enjoyed this book and can easily explain/defend their admiration.

But for me this was a struggle. It even came with a very chilling electric-shock at the end (pg. 270), which was very relevant (again) *to me.*

Things I am horrible at (and “horrible” is a kind and light way of phrasing it): family. People. People in my family. Peopleing. Familying. This book, however, is 100% about family and people and relationships. Frankly, I disliked almost all of the characters in this novel. The only character that I might have liked a bit is the old woman, Shingo’s wife, Yasuko.  The thing is, I cannot even explain why I liked her best, perhaps it is because she is the most wry and grounded of all of the characters. She often struck me as smarter and sharper than any of the characters think. She deserves her own novel.

I really… I really just feel like I needed the floor plan to the house – to Shingo’s house, okay? Because, to me, the story feels claustrophobic and tedious and cramped. It feels like everyone is constantly in each other’s faces and places. And I need space, I want to breathe; back the heck up, characters!

I guess Kawabata is a really good storyteller. Because even in this translated edition, in this storyline that I utterly cannot comprehend or engage with, I was still immersed enough to actually now be complaining about the closeness of the family home and the struggles of time and the tedious human weather.

There is only one segment that I would give high rating to.  It is this art appreciation moment in the chapter “The Scar” in which Kawabata has Shingo thinking about an ink wash by artist Watanabe Kazan (1793 – 1841). Shingo sees this artwork at a friend’s house and is still thinking about the ink painting and the corresponding verse. The five or six paragraphs in this segment are utterly beautiful, insightful, and skillfully composed.  They contain layers of meaning and show a brilliance that is absent, I think, in the rest of the novel. 

Shingo knew of Kazan only that he had been impoverished and that he had committed suicide, but he could see that this “Crow in the Stormy Dawn” gave expression to Kazan’s feelings at a certain point in his life.

No doubt the friend had put the painting up to match the season.

Shingo ventured an opinion:  “A very strong-minded bird. Not at all likeable.”

“Oh? I used to look at it during the war.  Damned crow, I used to think. Damned crow it is. But it has a quietness about it. If Kazan had to kill himself for no better reasons than he had, then you and I probably ought to kill ourselves time after time.  It’s a question of the age you live in.”

“We waited for the dawn, too.” – pg. 209

This, and associated paragraphs, thrill me. I love how the Japanese of old had a connection between the décor of their house, let us say, and the natural seasons.  I love how, in this example, the friend has a painting of a crow – and does not seem to actually like it – the painting is displayed maybe because it is poignant, not because it is preferred. How unlike Western aesthetic, then and now!  I also like how Kawabata was able to utilize this painting in his narrative of Shingo’s ruminations on death and age. 

However, other than these brief moments, the novel is a loss for me. I think I am supposed to have opinions and feelings and ideas about the characters and their situations, but I do not. I do not even know what Kawabata is getting it – though I would guess maybe its about how Shingo is unable to manage the roles of the people in his family. Or something.  I mostly got the impression that the characters are pitiful and helpless.  The novel is nearly incomprehensible to me. A book about nothing and its annoying humans. It made me sad and frustrated.

2 stars

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

In Plain Sight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars

Terminal Freeze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

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