fiction

Primary Target

It feels like every time (yes, it is not all that often of late) I log in to this blog editor, the editor is different and/or more challenging to use. I feel like I may have seen other bloggers making similar statements. I am going to try to do my best to figure out what I have to do here in this editor to make this post look like my standard posts – above all making it readable.

PrimaryTarget-Full Primary Target is the first novel in the Six Assassins series co-authored by Jim Heskett and Nick Thacker. It is my first read by either of these authors and is among one of my first non-science fiction, but still fiction reads this year. I am reading some different things from the bookshelves. This and the next review are of books that are kind of self-published/small print press books. I have enjoyed reading books lately, not studying them or becoming drunkenly scholarly over them. What does that mean? Well, I have enjoyed turning pages without using a whole lot of brain to do so.  I have been reading my usual diet of non fiction that has left little for complex, mighty fiction reads. 

There is a need for clear and honest assertions to be made regarding what I called above “self-published, small print press, print-to-order” novels. Amazon and a few other booksellers are utilizing this method and providing a platform for authors to get their works released without having to undergo the strains that major publishing houses may enforce. In honest truth, a lot of the stuff that is taking this route of escaping the big publishing house trials, is probably not worthy of being printed. Because of that, it is probably not difficult to see that a lot of junk publishing tends to spoil and taint the whole category.  I think the commonest way to test the calibre of these novels is to look at the typos. Usually, the grammar and formatting is just simply not on par with what a completed, published work ought to be. 

Here is a key point, though. I think the big publishing houses are able to hire high quality editors and have a more rigorous process for drafts.  (FEAR NOT – I still find typos and errors in these “polished” books, too.)  So, let us say for example that a novel published by Harper Collins or Hachette has less typos and errors in it than many “print-to-order” level books.  That is a good thing and readers need to demand good language editing.  However, to me, a lot of the books coming out of the big houses also have something of a “sameness” to them. It is difficult, maybe impossible, to describe this feeling – but though the story changes and the author changes and the characters are all radically different… there is still some ghostly sameness haunting these books.  In my mind, it seems like it could be because the editors (and the edit process) from these houses are streamlined to handle the huge volume of work by precise deadlines.  Self-published and print-to-order books do not rely on such a mechanical process. 

That being said, this stuff is not fine literature. And it is not a dig against any author or publishing house to say so.  It is a fact. An entertaining story with some fun characters is never going to be held up as the almighty shining relic over the great literary works of our time.  It is possible to write very engaging and exciting stories, but without nearing that special and sometimes divisive category of “literature.”  Further, though I doubt it needs to actually really be said, not every author is intending to write magnificent literature, anyway. 

So, after that long and poorly-written musing, I want to present the Problematic.  How do honest reviewers rate or grade these different sorts of books?  I feel, generally, like I am treading all over people when I “guess” at their intentions for their books.  I do not want to use the heavy hammer on a writer who just wants to entertain and tell a story.  But at the same time, why should I lower the standards and put on a false mercy just because, well, someone said “entertainment” and someone else said “literature”?  Anyway, I decided that in order to deal with this Problematic, the most important element in a review must be honesty.  It must be Zen-level, standing-before-God level, completely open honesty. Does this mean other reviews are DISHONEST? No, I think, though, the difference lies in the simplicity of the discussion.  There must be less musing and less supposition, therefore utterly less ambiguity or interpretation, in reviewing a small-print release.

So, here goes an attempt.

I read Primary Target because I saw it a couple of times and there was something about the storyline that I could not deny was interesting me.  Because at the end of the day, action thrillers with assassins are interesting. There is an Assassins Club.  Imagine that. Now, as someone who does read a fair amount of science fiction, I will tell you – no matter how hokey and goofy and silly the spaceship and the alien is, no matter how adult and sophisticated we want to seem, no matter how scientific we think we are:  an exciting chase across the galaxy with a ray gun of some sort and some awesomely creative lifeforms to meet along the way, is always going to draw us in for some fun.  So, assassins club.

The main character, Ember Clarke, is a cool character. I think the authors wrote her very well. I feel like she is genuine, honest, and seems to make fairly reasonable judgments. Is she a perfectly-written character? No. The other characters in the book are described as different individuals and play different roles. But – since we are being honest – they are not written distinctively enough. They are superficially different: this one is older, this one is younger, this one is taller, this one is smaller. But as I read it, most (not all) of the supporting characters do not bring their own separate and potent personalities to the story.

Storyline was good – in fact, maybe even a bit better than I expected it to be. What do I mean by “good”? Well, I was entertained and it seemed like a reasonable enough storyline that I could believe in it.  Except for one thing:  there seem to be TOO MANY assassins.  I mean, in the world of this book.  Because if there were THIS MANY assassins, and they were all doing jobs and being gainfully employed at their work, well, I feel like there would be a significantly higher number of dead bodies everywhere.   The story was decent, though, and over the halfway point there is a plot twist that involves the main character (of course) that adds another dimension to this storyline.  So the authors are not just putting out a “contest” story.  There are several lesser threads to follow. Intrigue among the Assassins Club members and such.  This is good – it means there will be more books and we are not just watching a cat and mouse game. 

It is a lighter content novel – and that is the way the authors chose to write it. A fine choice, perfect for entertainment.  The novel reads very quickly and nothing here requires a second of deeper thought.  But the reader senses that lack of depth and while that should not equate to a lower rating, we cannot offer five-star ratings to every book that entertains. Therefore, I honestly state that for the category of book that it is, for the entertainment I got from it, I will give this book four stars.  I have already acquired book two in the series.  It would be a lie if I said that I found it to be an “average-level” read. Recommended for fans of assassins, female main characters, action novels.

4 stars

An Ace and a Pair

"An Ace and a Pair" by Blake Banner book cover, 2017

I found myself at a lake house for a week and I was not inclined to haul much reading material out here. I grabbed a paperback that was acquired in May, a couple non-fiction books, and my camera. Had I brought my fishing gear, this review would not be being written. Blake Banner’s An Ace and a Pair was written in 2017. I got my copy via Amazon – I believe it is print to order, which means that the last page of the book has the date it was actually printed. [Mine says: 10 May 2020 at local city.] This is the first novel in Banner’s “Dead Cold” series. It is a slender 200 page crime novel; the first I have read by Banner.

I do not know if it was because I was at a lake house in late October or what, but this novel just fit the reading zone nicely. It was the perfect read for these circumstances. So, sure, that colors my review a bit. Overall, the novel has some issues – the plot is a little difficult to follow because there are so many threads of criminals. I am sure the author was attempting to make the “mystery” complex and wanted to mislead the reader a bit. I did not bother to untangle the web of confusion of this part of the plot. There are bad guys, its hard to figure out which bad guys are scheming against which other bad guys. Does it matter? Honestly, no, not really. Still, too many characters that play no significant role.

What I really liked about this novel was that the writing was pared down and even and did not have any unnecessary wordage. Lake house reading is not supposed to be for overly-wordy, thesaurus-imitator tomes. I took a shine to the two main characters, Detectives Stone and Dehan right away. They are quite stereotypical, in places, but truthfully they know it, too. But that is okay, because the police procedural novel always works when certain established tropes are there to comfort the reader who is trying a new author/series.

The storyline has a few leaps in it – gaps that make Detective Stone seem magically intelligent. He does not always clue his partner in on his thoughts, which means the reader is left out, as well. I can see some readers being vexed by this behavior. Especially when it happens more than once. And I used the word “magical” because it seems Stone has some deductive leaps that just are amazingly lucky. For those readers who like to piece the mystery together, there will be frustration and exasperation with this. However, I do not always want to draw every thread to and from every single clue. Sometimes it is okay to just paint broad strokes, give me entertaining colors and shapes, and wrap the case up with a flourish.

Overall, a basic police procedural with engaging detectives. The ending is predictable after awhile, though. And the criminals are often just a list of names. However, for a beach read or a lake house, this novel should be able to fit into all the spaces between lounging on a deck gazing at the water and puffing on a Honduran stick of your choice. I do intend to read the next in this series.

3 stars

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 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