books

Ice

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice by Anna Kavan; Penguin Classics

Ice was published in 1967 and is the author’s final published work before she died. Anna Kavan (1901 – 1968) lived a fairly eventful life, but struggled with drug addiction and mental illness. Reading about her, I immediately managed to get her and Anais Nin conflated into one person. Totally unfair and awful of me, I suppose, but there you have it.  I started this novel with the feeling that “there is nothing about this book that appeals or interests me in any way. Likely I won’t enjoy it.” I hesitate to call this work a “novel” because it is so far outside of the typical definition that I am not sure that the definition can apply. I also suspect this would not really bother the author. Allegedly in his biography of Kavan, Callard quotes Kavan as knowing fully that her work was on the edges of the fiction-spectrum; she herself says it is not supposed to be a realistic.

I had never before met anyone who owned a telephone and believed in dragons. It amused me, and also contributed to my sense of the unreal. – pg. 35

Reviews/comments of this work frequently reference Kafka. They suggest that this is Kafka-esque. I’m no fan of Kafka whatsoever and, frankly, do not find Kavan to be an imitation of Kafka. After reading this work, I do think Kavan stands on her own and deserves to be treated without some cheap comparison to Kafka. I think, maybe, I see more similarities with Ernst Junger – believe it or not.

Most reviews also begin by stating that there is an unreliable narrator who is surviving in a dystopia. Narrator. The Narrator. As I read this work, throughout I had the nagging feeling, which was stronger at some points than others, that there is no separate narrator. The word that I put on all of this story is schizophrenia. Now I am aware that some readers may gesture at the last chapter as if that proves there are at least two characters. I dispute and firmly hold my position that there is one character. If there are any characters. The majority of the work, to me, seems like a study in atmosphere. I use that word a lot when thinking of Ice and it is because it is, as Christopher Priest calls it, “virtually plotless.” So, instead of storylines, the reader must focus on small scenes, chunks of disjointed settings.

I had a curious feeling that I was living on several planes simultaneously; the overlapping of these planes was confusing. – pg. 56

How disjointed? Very disjointed; here is how I imagine it. There are lakes frozen across solidly. It is still and cold. And then there are rivers on which flow chunks of ice, mini-glaciers that are a lot like white stepping stones loosened by the current. So, on each chunk the setting is just the same ice as on the solid lake. But one is a congruent, solid mass. The other is a broken off fragment. A lot of this novel is full of fragments. They appear to have come from one solid mass, but we cannot see that lake of ice, we can only focus on each individual chunk being tossed around in the river.

The “characters” in the novel have similar focus points. For example, the narrator focuses often on the Indris animals. Why? No outstanding reason, I think. Or, perhaps as a stark and jarring contrast from everything else in the scene. Also, the girl’s wrists – focused on a great deal, repeatedly.  I might suggest, too, that a common symptom of mental illness is fragmentation and disorientation to the point of increased inability to establish a whole picture of reality.

In any case, it is nearly absurd to discuss a novel as a novel that is so disjointed and has such jarring focus points. This is why I think the discussion must always look at atmosphere and tone.

This work contains some excellent prose.  There are turns of phrase, so to speak, that are so lovely to read, one wants to read them aloud. They describe with such ease the confusion and mayhem that the story is running through – it hardly seems fair that any author should be able to have this skill. However, I am not sure that the work as an entire piece has the payoff for the reader. No doubt, the sentences here and there are marvelous, but overall the work is symbolic, difficult, and maybe maybe maybe….. empty. I am unsure.

Much of the writing is repetitive. I find this is typical in any author using symbolism. They want to drive the symbols deep into the reader’s psyche. Also, this repetitious “pseudo-storyline” combines with an overwhelming, but nearly undescribed sense of doom that is coming down like an unstoppable curtain – but only in the corners of the mind – creates a super intense atmosphere. The “ice” of the title is the final doom of the planet, but rarely can it be seen head-on. Usually in this work it is referred to as if caught from the corner of the eye, or some remnant of a nightmarish dream still latent upon awakening.

The intensity and tone of this work is very well done. Overall, this is an intense work – an intensity that comes very much outward toward the reader. Continually, it reminded me VERY MUCH of many elements in the video for the song I Follow Rivers (2011) by Lykke Li [The music video, directed by Tarik Saleh and filmed on the Swedish island of Gotland, features Li in a black robe and veil chasing a man (actor Fares Fares) through a snowy landscape.] – I feel that Tarik Saleh would have captured the tone/atmosphere in Ice very, very well.

All that was left was the ceaselessly shrinking fragment of time called “now.” – pg. 177

Overall, what will readers get out of the time invested in this novel? It is unique in some ways that make it valuable to know about. However, it is also jarring and gruesome at times – particularly in its matter-of-fact moments. The avant-garde style of absolutely transitionless slips into daydreams/mirages/memories/hallucinations are worthy of notice. I suspect this is evidence of Kavan’s heroin usage. In other words, the ability to describe blackouts, mental confusion, hallucinations as experienced. There are some neat ideas that come as “scenes” or “brief segments” of writing. But I do not know that overall there is a take-away that is necessary or integral. Its not for all readers, certainly, and maybe most strong readers would have no interest in it. So perhaps the takeaway is the study of a heroin-addicted schizophrenic. It can be a frightful thing in these pages….

I give this two stars. It is not easy to rate this sort of work at all. My somewhat “low” rating is because, at the end of the day, though I will remember pieces of this novel, it will never resonate with me on the same level as a number of other novels will. Further, I cannot think of a single person I would want to recommend this to. Sadly, this makes it seem like I do not appreciate Kavan’s efforts.

2 stars

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Time is the Simplest Thing

Time SimakTime is the Simplest Thing is the fifth book by Clifford D. Simak that I have read. It was published in 1961, I read the Crest 1962 edition with Richard Powers’ artwork on the cover.  I keep working my way through Simak because I agree with the consensus that he is one of the best “vintage science fiction authors.”  Since January is, as everyone knows, Vintage Science Fiction month  Twitter Feed I took advantage and started 2018 off with another Simak. (Cp. origin of Vintage SciFi Month)

Compared with the other four novels of Simak’s that I have read, this one came across as far more aggressive. Simak is a very good writer, which is again demonstrated in this novel.  Simak sometimes touches on social issues in his works – not quite to the extent of Poul Anderson – but one gets used to finding these elements in Simak’s fiction.  This novel, though, seemed like Simak wanted to club readers in the head.  Speculative readers might suggest that Simak was giving social commentary, particularly reflective of the time in which it was written and published. However, I think “commentary” is a bit loose of a word. Simak’s commentary, then, is quite heavy-handed and forceful. More so than I am used to from him.

vintage-sf-badgeAnother facet that I have decided is part of Simak’s style, are the multitude of plotline directions that occur in his novels.  I think this generally works for Simak, but in each of the novels I have read, it did seem like there was a whole lot of different threads and the plot would 180° more sharply than I liked.  And maybe, sometimes, I did not love the new direction the story took.

Telepaths, like the main character, can project their minds beyond the usual barriers of space and time. Shep Blaine is one of the telepathic explorers – he mentally/spiritually – is able to traverse galaxies and time and explore. He is in the employ of a corporation named Fishhook which capitalizes on the findings of telepaths like Blaine. So, immediately, I was comparing some elements of this novel to that of Frederik Pohl’s Gateway (a novel I really despise). The novels are similar with regard to a few elements, particularly the corporation capitalizing on exploration.

Chapter eight gives a brief overview of the “telepathic” ability. Simak blends it with a variety of esoteric history such as shamanism and medicine men, magic makers, etc. He does a very skilled job of juxtaposing the existence of these abilities with that of the history of science. Unlike the exhaustingly common polarization of science vs. religion/magic, Simak insists that these abilities are just as “science” as regular Enlightenment-style science. Anyway, the storyline explains that those who kept researching the “magic” science were dispersed about the globe. But:

Finally, a country with a heart – Mexico – had invited them to come, had provided money, had set up a study and a laboratory, had lent encouragement rather than guffaws of laughter. – pg. 45

So, from this laboratory, Fishhook was born. Allegedly, it starts out with a focus on study and research. But, naturally, it eventually gets corrupted or, let’s just say, its purpose seems to be a little less about knowledge and a little more about control and economics.

By every rule of decency, parakinetics belonged to Man himself, not to a band of men, not to a corporation, not even to its discoverers nor the inheritors of its discoverers – for the discovery of it, or the realization of it, no matter by what term one might choose to call it, could not in any case be the work of one man or one group of men alone.  It was something that must lay within the public domain.  It was a truly natural phenomena – more peculiarly a natural phenomenon than wind or wood or water. – pg. 140

Shep Blaine is an employee of Fishhook and we meet him as he is on one of his space explorations. He has encountered an alien lifeform:

It was pink; an exciting pink, not a disgusting pink as pink so often can be, not a washed-out pink, not an anatomical pink, but a very pretty pink, the kind of pink the little girl next door might wear at her seventh birthday party.

It was looking at him – maybe not with eyes – but it was looking at him. It was aware of him.  And it was not afraid of him. – pg. 6

I am at a loss for words about that pinky paragraph – I have not read anything like that in awhile and thought any good review of this novel should include that segment. Anyway, here is the essence of difference between a pulp novel and a literary novel – painted in very broad strokes. A pulp novel, from here on out, totally focuses on the alien and Blaine and they have adventures or horrors or action. There is a mystery or a challenge and there is a great deal of rushing around resolving it. In a literary novel, its all well and good to meet up with unheard of lifeforms and interact with them. But those engagements seem to be something of a context rather than a focus.  Simak is not pulp, so early on in the novel, even though there are a few moments of escape/evasion, the majority of the novel is “social commentary.”  Utilizing the elements of space exploration and alien lifeforms and whatever is seen as “science fiction” to drive satire or comment on or even as an allegory for present-day scenarios.

I have said before I do not love agenda fiction. I would not classify Simak as such, though, because even in his social commentary he serves up a tasty and intriguing story. However, I wonder what two versions of the novel would be like. One version is this one, complete with social commentary and thoughtful allusions. Another version being the one that follows the fun and pulpy storyline exclusively. I want both, but if I have to pick just one, I do think this is the better choice. I cannot help but admit I miss the action adventure novel, though.

Another fact:  time travel – no matter how defined – is quicksand to science fiction writers. The concept draws them in and then they just sink in a muddied mire. I am not saying that this novel is about time travel. Not at all do I say that. I do say, however, that Simak does enjoy playing with time in his novels. Particularly in Time and Again.  But in the middle of this one, there is an explanation that Simak gives that impressed me a lot. I loved the way the situation was described and I appreciated Simak’s explanation.

This was the past and it was the dead past; there were only corpses in it – and perhaps not even corpses, but the shadows of those corpses.  For the dead trees and the fence posts and the bridges and the buildings on the hill all would classify as shadows.  There was no life here; the life was up ahead.  Life must occupy but a single point in time, and as time moved forward, life moved with it.  And so was gone, thought Blaine, any dream that Man might have ever held of visiting the past and living in the action and the thought and the viewpoint of men who’d long been dust.  For the living past did not exist, nor did the human past except in the records of the past.  The present was the only valid point for life – life kept moving on, keeping pace with the present, and once it had passed, all traces of it or its existences were carefully erased. pg. 65

This paragraph contains a sharp-minded and well-written concept of time. And I really wish all those authors who think they have a great idea about time/time-travel would read it. I like how this paragraph is haunting and shadowy – with a touch of sorrow. But also how it looks forward with an active and lively feel. I really liked this paragraph when I read it; I worked to imagine what Blaine was seeing.

Simak uses technology in his novel to round out the “future feel” to it. For example, dimensinos exist, which are something like virtual reality/hologram systems, even commonly in personal homes.  And then Trading Posts sponsored by Fishhook possess something like pseudo-Star Trek “transporters” that allow them to offer merchandise without having it in physical stock and opening the trade globally.  Believe the hype when they say science fiction comes up with the gadgets first!

Overall, this is a good novel. Readers expecting any pulpy alien-adventure will be disappointed. This one looks at humanity’s fear of the Other, the use and misuse of technology, the fear that ignorance breeds, the juxtaposition of persecutor and persecuted, and the control-factor of corporations/capital. The main character is fairly likeable, if a bit robotic. Readers who love vintage science fiction and who would like to read good 1960s offerings will enjoy this one.

4 stars

The Woman in the Dunes

The Woman in the DunesThe Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1924 – 1993) was first published in 1962.  I read the Vintage International edition from 1991. The novel won the Yomiuri Prize. In 1964, a Japanese film by the famous Hiroshi Teshigahara was released – author Kobo Abe wrote the screenplay. The film was nominated for an Academy Award, but lost to the Italian film Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow by Vittorio De Sica.

This is probably Kobo Abe’s most famous novel. I have not read any of his other works, but I do own The Ark Sakura. I am open to reading other works by this author, but he does not interest me at the same level as some of the other super-famous authors of mid-20th Century Japanese authors. Sometimes his works are classified as absurdist/surreal literature, which is a genre I can sometimes devour and at other times am disinterested in.

The man intended to collect insects that lived in the dunes. – pg. 10

I enjoyed this book, and I really do appreciate what the author has shown us via sand. However, I cannot help but subtract a few points from my estimation of its rating due to a few sections of the novel.

There are dozens of ways to interpret this novel, but the erosion of the main character’s opinions via the Sisyphus-lifestyle is the overwhelming concept. The sand claims all – eventually. Survival alongside the eroding powers of the sand drives the story. The way the sand affects everything is really well done. The author very gradually traps the main character within the pit in the dunes. This is, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of the writing; the character being trapped is done so subtly and simply.

I really enjoyed the early chapters because the early interactions between the man and the woman are so very well written. In translation, the woman’s sentences are often open-ended, with ellipses or simple statements that only seem innocent:

“But somebody just said ‘for the other one.'”

“Hmm. Well, they’re referring to you.”

“To me? Why mention me in connection with a shovel . . . ?”

“Never mind. Don’t pay any attention. Really they’re so nosy!” – pg. 30

One of my favorite aspects of the novel is how the woman clearly knows what is going on and yet, is able to seem innocent. Though she knows what is happening to the man, she may or may not be powerless to stop/change it. Like the man, the reader will probably consider, in turns, the woman to be mentally challenged, an entrapping vixen, or a resigned, but dedicated villager.

The author really puts the main character through some suffering, but he also inflicts some on the reader. Readers will constantly want “justice” or “to know the reason” or “someone to accuse” through the novel. And Kobo Abe just doesn’t provide a clear and direct target for all of that. Frustrating? Maybe. Engaging? Definitely. (Probably the reason for Kafka comparisons.)

Stop looking so stupid! He was angry; he wanted to make her admit her guilt even if he had to force it out of her. – pg. 90

The subtle horror of being trapped/imprisoned for, seemingly, no reason is the key that makes this novel so vibrantly emotional. Even if I disliked parts of the novel, I have to credit the author with the ability of being able to tap into that fundamental chord in my being that I assume every human possesses, which rebels against such a circumstance. It seems it is easier to accept a prison sentence if there is a reason. But without reason or cause, without an authority or a captor to blame, without a purpose or goal – such an imprisonment is a magnitude of horror well beyond a reasonable incarceration.

For some time he concentrated on digging.  The sand was exceedingly tractable, and his work appeared to be progressing.  The sound of the shovel as it bit into the sand, and his own breathing, ticked away the time. However, at last his arms began to grow weary. He thought he had worked for a considerable time, but his digging had apparently had no results at all. Only a little bit of sand had fallen from right above where he was digging. – pg. 68

The man’s psychological state is what one might expect. He is outraged, indignant, and frustrated. He calms himself by convincing himself a rational and thoughtful method will rescue him. He dips into the violent and the desperate. He only very gradually comes to realize an outcome, which, perhaps, the woman knew from the start. The woman’s reaction to the man’s arrival, when you think about it in retrospect, contains all of the pensive understanding of what she knows he and, by connection, herself will have to undergo. Her early timidity is probably because she knows what emotional turmoil will occur – and she has to resign herself to going through the turbulence as well.  In a way, this also means that nothing the man does truly surprises her.

And what of the man’s mental state? At points he forces himself to be relatively rational. Bargaining and reasoning with his supposed captors. He also attempts “scientific” escapes and schemes. But he is also clearly disturbed because he has mental conversations with himself – or the Mobius man.  Kobo Abe even suggests, subtly, that there is an element of schizophrenia at play. Late in the novel, the man has a mental conversation with an imagined judge:

-Your Honor, I request to be told the substance of the prosecution. I request to be told the reason for my sentence.

-I am telling you that in Japan schizophrenia occurs at the rate of one out of every hundred persons. – pg. 217

And this fascinating little segment with the man conversing with himself continues to an amusing conclusion:

-Well, listen to me calmly.  Acrophobes, heroin addicts, hysterics, homicidal maniacs, syphilitics, morons – suppose there were one per cent of each of these, the total would be twenty per cent. If you could enumerate eighty more abnormalities at this rate – and of course you could – there would be statistical proof that humanity is a hundred per cent abnormal. – pg. 218

I disliked, though, the chunk at the end where the main character is told the “deal” how the villagers will let him see beyond the pit. This was weird/vulgar and destroyed a lot of good faith I had in the author. This part was the “too far” point in the writing.

Excellent in concept and writing, although the 1960s-Freudian-focus is a bit too prominent in the whole thing. Definitely for an adult readership. I appreciate the “horror” of the novel, but dislike some of the episodes. In any case, this is an excellent novel for book clubs, I think, because there is a lot to discuss about all of the various interpretations available.

3 stars

Ten Nights Dreaming and The Cat’s Grave

ten niths dreamingThis is the second work by Natsume Soseki that I have read.  I read the Dover Publications edition, which collects both Ten Nights of Dreams and the small piece The Cat’s Grave together even though they are unrelated. The Ten Nights of Dreams were serialized in July and August of 1908.  They are titled “First Night,” and “Second Night” and so on. It would be incorrect to call these pieces short stories since most of them are just barely two pages. There is not a lot room for development or background – just a few paragraphs that glimpse some aspect of human experience that Soseki found of interest.

The group of writings is called Ten Nights Dreaming (or similar translation) so, one expects the contents to be dream-like. However, if the book was titled anything else, maybe “Ten Musings” or “Ten Moments” it would work just as well.  Readers accept these pieces as “dreams” because that is what they are titled. Most of the dreams are melancholic or disturbing. But as dreams/dreamlike, one naturally finds the surrealism disturbing. In some of the pieces the surrealism is subtle and quiet (e.g. The Ninth Night) and in others it is brutal (e.g. The Tenth Night).

In all of the stories, I think the key element within them is their twist on the passage of time. Time, and how we experience it, plays a rôle in each of the works. In fact, as I began reading through these, I noticed this reference to time right away and was looking for it in each story.

Readers and commentators have frequently interpreted these pieces in a metaphorical sense.  There are plenty of discussions that suggest certain dreams are metaphors for Soseki’s childhood, for Japan as a nation, for Soseki’s comments on Zen or Taoism, etc.  I think some can be read in this way, certainly, but to take a strict hardline position on these interpretations would be foolish.

My favorites were nights Five, Six, and Seven.  My least favorite was Ten. Now, the Eighth Night left me really not sure what to think. I wanted to love this story – in other words, I wanted it to knock the ball out of the park. This one had the potential to tie all of the pieces together and be ridiculously profound and haunting. The fact that it failed to live up to my (totally uncalled for) expectations really annoyed me. But that error should lie mainly with me; shame on me for putting undue expectations on a foreign language story written over a hundred years ago.

Nevertheless, I’m unsatisfied. I want to turn the Eighth Night into what I wanted it to be. So, do I even attempt a rewrite of it? What would it look like/sound like? Should an imitation/response be attempted or would that undo the whole Ten Nights?  I cannot help but keep thinking, long after I read this book, how this one story could have been so great.

Because the stories are so short, it is harmful to readers who have never read them for me to discuss any structure or details whatsoever of them.  However, I can explain that the reasons I liked the three stories mentioned above is because they contained a strong wit. In the Fifth Night, there is a heart-crushing wit. In the Sixth Night, we find a wry and agile wit.  In the Seventh Night, the wit changes more into wisdom and advice. All of these stories have application to contemporary readers. They are very accessible, unlike, perhaps, Tenth Night.  It is this keen intelligence hidden in these spare stories that really demonstrates Soseki as a sharp-minded writer.

This is a short read, though there is no need to race through it. The dreams are an excellent concept, which Soseki more or less succeeds in presenting. I had a hard time considering the work as a whole and found it much easier to look at the parts separately. Readers who enjoy the a light-touch of the surreal would probably enjoy this. After all, its such a small book, it would not be a heavy lift for anyone.

4 stars

Carved in Bone

Carved in BoneI have been reading a lot of….. pulp novels lately. Or trying to, I guess. I have just been feeling like reading that sort of book; gritty, basic, fast-reading. However, I still do try to be somewhat selective. I mean, I try to choose novels that there is a chance I might enjoy on some level. Well, I kind of suspected from the start that I would not like this one, but it had just enough about it for me to give it a chance.

I do not have a lot of good to say about this novel. I probably should say nothing, then, right?  And maybe what I will say will be more telling about myself as a reader than about the book. Other readers surely enjoyed this book and probably disagree with my sentiments, which is fine, because I do hope people read books that entertain them.

This is the first in the Body Farm series of novels, it is the only one I have read.  It was published in 2006. “Jefferson Bass” is the penname for co-writers Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson.

To start, the first sentence of this review I wrote the word “pulp,” but I wanted to write “low-brow.”  I did not, however, because I thought that might be off-putting to readers of this entry. Well, the truth is, this is low-brow stuff. And if that offends a reader, I guess maybe they can come and holler at me about it. To continue…. it is pretty basic writing level. A long time ago, I used software called Word Perfect; a word-processing software.  You could have it scan your writing and it would judge it (what criteria?) and categorize it on a writing level. 8th Grade, High School, Undergraduate, Doctoral, etc. Something like that. I do not remember all of the details, I think it would give it a numeric score and that gave a range of levels. I certainly do not remember what the numerical breakdowns were, but this novel would get a rather low number. The sentences are structurally and grammatically correct.  They are just not complex or far above basic reader level. Of course, this is what makes the book a speedy read.

The main character is both pathetic and yet vaguely interesting. He is just this side of bumbling oaf. His “witty” remarks are often bad puns or seem like forced retorts. He does not think fast on his feet.  And he has got all sorts of family and personal life drama. If this character, Dr. Bill Brockton, were someone I knew in real life, I would find him intolerable and insufferable. The only good thing I can say about him is that he does know his science-stuff.

The plot is heavily related to the setting.  This novel takes place in East Tennessee Appalachian Mountains, and hammers each and every stereotype and trope that ever fell off of those highlands. Personally, I have never found anything charming about backwoods, mountaintop, Appalachia. I have no interest in things categorized as “Redneck,” “hick,” or “country.”  I was raised on water and I love water. Mountains make me unhappy, generally. Any weird backwoods Southern activities that go on in mountains usually make me disgusted. Put it this way:  if you are no fan of The South, this novel will do nothing to change your opinion.  If you love The South, this novel will make you cringe because it grinds on all the worst aspects of all of the stereotypes.

Finally, the crimes and the forensics.  Well, the Body Farm concept is cool and awesome and a little underused, actually in this novel.  I think the science and the factual data is authentic and honest; I’m not someone who has studied these things, though.  However, though the main character is a forensics guy on this case, I feel like he does more actual detective work on the case than anyone else. And, as mentioned above, this is not the guy you want running a case.  There are subplot storylines that are kind of gruesome and grubby – they do work effectively to flesh out (pun!) other characters and the setting, but its too much gore and gross.  Sure, crime is awful and hideous, but there seemed to be so much of the same crime heaped and heaped on.  Even the main crime is so….stereotyped.

As a comparison, fair or not, I preferred the Kathy Reichs’ novels.  Many of those take place in Montreal (a place I love), so perhaps I am overly-biased. Now, I actually found book two of this Body Farm series in my stacks of TBR novels. I realized I did not have book one, so I bought this novel. I think I will probably read book two, but I cannot think I will read beyond that.

In fairness to readers:  this novel has scenes of rooster fighting, tobacco consumption, and shotgun usage. So, a normal day in The South……

2 stars

Alive

AliveAlive by Scott Sigler is the first book I have read by this author. It was published in 2015 as the first book in The Generations trilogy. It is marketed towards a “young adult” audience.  However, there is a lot of gore in it. I might be totally off-base, though. I mean, I have no clue what young adults read or are capable of reading. It just seemed to me to be a little heavy on the “blood & guts” part. At least that is how I usually refer to those elements. So, take heed all of you with sensitive imaginations!

This book has a famous last page wherein the author begs readers (particularly those who use social media) not to put any spoilers out and about. Because everyone deserves a fair shake at the novel’s surprises and plot twists. I think its a noble request and a good idea and I will agree to it.  Although, I believe there is an ulterior motive to it. That being said, please understand if this review seems a bit vague.

For the most part, I like all of the characters – in the sense that qua characters they drive a good storyline. I do think that the plot is confusing – even after some of the reveals. There are some questions and difficulties that, even though I think we should have gotten them resolved, don’t seem satisfying. But, it is only book 1 of 3; maybe more answers are forthcoming.

The overall sense of the book is suspenseful, dark, and tense. The author does a good job with the tone of the thing. However, when it comes to descriptions where explanations are being made – its sketchy. The explanations are confused or just seem jumbled a bit. Not to the point that they become unreadable, but that it requires more patience than I think it should to get through some of these sections.  Descriptions and explanations should help, not make things more confused.

I gave this four stars because I felt that it was unique enough in presentation (if not in actual plot) to merit that. To be honest, the novel deserves a 3.5 star rating.  However, I do not use half-stars, so I bumped it up to four.  The main reason I was tempted to keep it at three stars was because there is a very…awkward obsession with breasts. Yeah, I know that sounds super odd. And if it sounds odd – trust me, it is because it is odd. However, this recurring factor is at least not constant and can be overlooked when it occurs.

That being said, I appreciated the inner monologue of the main character, I appreciated the suspenseful tone of the story, and I enjoyed the process through which the author made the big reveals.  So, presentation gets the glory here.

I wonder about the gore-level; it is slightly heavier than a lot of novels that I have read, so the fact that this is a young adult novel makes it surprising.  On the other hand, the gore, is relevant to the storyline.  Most of it (not all, mind you) seems relatively reasonable to the plot of the novel.  Ultimately, this novel focuses on how the characters must survive.  I do not think that is a spoiler. Survival is not uncommon a theme. Survival is also, generally, messy. But not all young adults – or adults, for that matter – want to read such tense and messy entertainments.

There are a couple elements that I dislike about the novel. However, per the author’s request, I will not share them. I feel his request, while sensible, also reduces negative comments as-well-as general spoilers. Thankfully, the elements I disliked are not large enough to ruin the novel. However, let it be stated now that a lot is on the line with book two. The bar is set high for the second novel in the series and if the author fails to carry through, it really will make this first novel seem much worse.

4 stars

The Gray Man

The Gray ManThe Gray Man by Mark Greaney is the ninth novel that I have read that was originally published in 2009.  Its not purposeful. It is, however, the first in the Gray Man series of novels and the first I have read by Mark Greaney.  Greaney has been the collaborator/writer for the Tom Clancy (1947 – 2013) franchise of novels. I have read none of those.

Let it be said from the start that this novel is not great literature. This is pure entertainment.  In a different era, such a novel would be referred to as pulp. Now, “pulp” originally meant the low-quality paper that was used to print magazines and novels in the first chunk of the twentieth century. This cheap paper was used to print entertainment fiction for the masses.  Increased literacy, cheap entertainment, increasingly efficient methods to print all contributed to the proliferation of what is now known as “pulp fiction.”  None of it was ever intended to be wholesome, scholarly pondersome literature.

Nowadays, we have changed the quality of paper and the multitude of media entertainment is humongous. However, I still refer to certain “genres” of novels as pulp. Because much of the pulp fiction found in that long ago era was science fiction, detective stories, action/adventure stories, boys’ fiction, and smut.  While the paper is a bit crisper now, some novels are still pulp.

The thing is, just because it is pulp does not mean that readers should snub it, act righteously indignant around it, or treat it as sub-par.  Novels, all novels, are meant for entertainment. If, in any novel, there is a secondary by-product of moralizing, or sharing a plight, or drawing attention to some social/moral issue – that is still secondary. Otherwise, well, it would be a thesis, an article, a commentary, a letter. (Of course, this is not a complete universal, but try not to be extremist.)

I like pulp novels, since I like all novels – more or less. There is something very much like brain-candy in these fluffy, superficial, fast-reading, over-the-top, wild, outrageous novels. I think the word is “fun.”  So, I do own a large collection of Doc Savage, The Executioner, Fu Manchu, The Saint, and Nick Carter novels.  Not all pulp novels are also good novels. Some are horribly written and even their novelty as pulp is thin.

Luckily, The Gray Man is a very good pulp novel. Its a whole lot of fun in 465 really fast-turning pages. Why? Because even though this novel should be slushy and aggravating – it just is not. I do not know how, exactly, Greaney is able to withhold from crossing into the whole “takes it too far” – but he does. And we are left with a quite polished novel that – oddly enough – respects the reader enough not to stereotype them.

Because there exists the stereotype that all readers of action/adventure thrillers are over-testosteroned, barely literate, ultra-patriotic, simple-minded buffoons. Scarily, some of the readers are comfortable accepting this as their type…in stereo. It is easy to see which books follow that stereotype – the writing talks down to the reader. There is nothing complex at all, yet everything is repetitive. The sentences become clipped phrases. The amount of gore, sex, foul language is amped up. And, finally, the plot is weak but at the end of the day the flag waves around a pile of spent rifle shells and the hero goes home with at least two buxom blondes on his arms.

If at gunpoint, I would tell you the truth, and that is:  I was highly entertained by this novel. It is such a fast read! Hey – there is not. one. typo. This is exceedingly rare these days. Also, I think the author knows he is not competing with Calvino or Nabokov – and he is okay with it, but that does not mean he does not write this genre novel to the best of his ability. It’s action, but somehow not slushy as one might expect.

Totally a non-stop action thriller. It has some cussing, a bunch of gore, but no sex. So, its definitely rated-R.  The main character sustains an injury during a fight that made me cringe in my seat and I instinctively was holding my hand over my side for awhile. This is good:  it shows the author writes convincingly.  Now, the fact that the character continues onward and does anything he does after that?  Well, let us say that in pulp novels, like in movies, you have to suspend disbelief.  The Gray Man is nearly indestructible, I guess. But you knew he would be. We like to grind our heroes up – a lot – in these sorts of stories. Why is this? Heroes are also, apparently, gluttons for punishment and can endure damn near anything. (Cp. Batman, Wolverine, et al.)

The author balances a lot of characters fairly well.  They are not multi-faceted and heavily nuanced, but they do play their rôle consistently.  The main character is oddly likeable… even if he seems indestructible. And the plot of the novel, well, it feels familiar. I mean, there are a LOT of plot points that we have already seen in a variety of movies, novels, and newspaper headlines. Yes, one would expect this to make this novel an eye-roll inducing mess of tropes and tired stories.  Somehow, though, Greaney does enough balancing to make it fun and interesting – if not new. New, I reckon, really is not always better.

Lastly, Greaney’s lines on page 400 ratify him as someone who knows something about these topics.

Justine had seen fistfights on television action shows.  This was nothing of that.  The movements were faster, more brutal, crueler.  There was no ballet or poetry in the relationship between the adversaries, no choreography. No, it was unyielding surface on unyielding surface, the jerking reactions and the grunts and cries of wild beasts, labored breathing from exertion and panic. The sounds of cracking impacts and the frenzy of a combat so pitiless, she was sure all the men would tear to pieces in the street in front of her.

Lots of people take martial arts as a hobby. Many have learned CQB and H2H in the military. But I think Hollywood and MMA/UFC have really changed how people view combat. Have you ever – truly – been in combat where your life was actually on the line? Not point-sparring, not sport fighting, not cage matches. Not for pay. Because yes, real hand-to-hand combat is ugly and gross. Real kung fu is not acrobatic or flowery. The fact that Mark describes a fight thusly verifies to me that he does know a little something about it. I gave Mark a star for this paragraph alone.

Overall, readers can burn through these pages! Fast reading full of action and double-crossing and excitement. Fans of Batman, Transporter, Wolverine, The Executioner should enjoy this one. But, I think, many folks not normally into reading this “genre” would find some entertainment here, too.

4 stars