novels

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

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 Last

THe LastThe Last by Hanna Jameson was first published in April of 2019. I read the hardback edition at the end of 2019 into 2020. I have not read anything by the author previously.  Overall, there are two things that drew me to the novel; the first is the appealing cover and the second is the concept of a post-apocalyptic survival story in a Swiss hotel.

Overall, I am not disappointed in this novel.  It was a quick read, honestly, and I felt that the plot was sufficiently written. I think the author attempted to have three layers of storyline in this plot – the overarching nuclear-war/survival situation, the murder-mystery of a found body, and then the personal drama of the main character (who is also the narrator). For the most part, the entire novel takes place at (or nearby) the L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland.

I really wanted more out of the setting.  The setting is such a hook for readers and the entire storyline is running around it. I certainly could have enjoyed a little more of the setting being described. The majority of the novel takes place in a hotel – and I have literally no picture of it; I do not think this is such a good thing.  No doubt the narrator, who is keeping a sort of diary might not be inclined to sit around describing rooms and hallways – but, at the same time, soaking the reader in the physicality of the setting might have balanced out some of the melodrama.

I disliked all of the characters. Not a one of them did I care about, which is fine, I do not need to befriend characters.  The characters all seemed, to me, to be exceedingly dramatic.  By this I mean, they all had personal turmoil that defined and overwhelmed their existence. I got weary, quickly, of all their hangups and issues and psychologies. I think this novel was touted as a bit of a “psychological thriller,” but to my mind, that means that the author has the heavy lift of building atmospheric suspense and intensity. It is not the same as just making the reader feel like the characters need to spend a lot of time with a therapist.

Some of these problems that I have with the novel suggest my sensing that the author is young. There is nothing wrong with being a young author, of course. However, and I know this is a statement that can only come from the old – it shows when the author is just a young cub. There is nothing wrong with this – let me reiterate. However, it has a different tone and style and understanding than if the author was much older. That being said, I do not think that I am the intended target audience. So, when the main character, Jon, engages in ethical ruminations or gets ensnared in discussions about theism,  politics, and/or history – it seems very mundane to me.  Certainly such discussions might occur in such situations, but the novel does not get points for leaving a lot of the discussions as just Cratylus-style “and there is this thought and also that one.”

At one brief point I was “creeped out” by the story. That was the most fun had with the thing. Overall the story did not quite reach the “suspenseful” and “intensity” level that I feel was potentially there.  The book ended up being a decent read about Jon’s wonderings. Some minor adventures take place, but in none of them did the threat seem real enough or intense enough. Somehow though the reader knew the stakes were high, the way it played out was like a conservative NFL running-game oriented offense.

The ending contains some weird, it ties some plot points together. Jameson clearly wanted to keep a drop of the “unknown/esoteric/supernatural/other-worldly” in the story. It works fairly well here, in the sense that I understand what the author did, but it was not a ‘wow.’

All of this being said, I do think the author has some good skill and I would be inclined to read a future work of theirs. This one just felt a little flatline for what it offered, which is a shame, because I am a total sucker for survival stories that include singular locations.

3 stars

Dead Man Walking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 stars

A Share in Death

A Share in Death coverA Share in Death by Deborah Crombie was first published in 1993 and it is the first novel in the Duncan Kincaid & Gemma James series of British police procedural/mystery novels.  I picked up this copy discounted sometime late in 2017.  This year I have been attempting to read a lot of the hangers-on on the bookshelves. Things that should have been read already, things that have been lingering for me to read, things that are book twos in series, etc.  By October each year I am usually whupped and can barely manage holding a book open, much less reading it. I am exaggerating.  Usually in October and November I read things that are puffy, fluffy, pulpy, and easy-readers.  This year there has been a lot more books incoming than outgoing, so hangers-on must be read and sent on their way!

As I mentioned this is the first book in the Kincaid/James series. It takes place in a country home, Followdale House, in non-urban England. My scope of things United Kingdom is forever sketchy. Locations rarely have meaning to me, so usually I need authors to spell it out for me if a scene or a locale has significance. In this novel, there was nothing overly relevant about the setting – except that I really like that it was set in a country house. There is this rite of passage sort of feeling with British mysteries; detectives/investigators must solve a murder that occurs in a country house. That the author starts her series with such a mystery is a smart move and one that should engage readers straightaway.

The murder takes place and the local cops get involved. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a miserable and territorial creature. Naturally, one of the local policemen is a helpful and resourceful chap. However, the build-up friction between the Scotland Yard man and the locals seemed to fizzle and be pointless. In fact, the local police sort of disappear from the novel altogether. But of course, all the suspects are there in the house – and all that is done is that their “statements” are taken. So, another murder is bound to occur.

I enjoyed meeting the characters and the murders were fairly threatening and suspenseful for this sort of book.  Since I doubt we shall ever meet the characters again, I am a little disappointed we did not spend just a few more pages with a couple of the more intriguing characters.  One of the most interesting ended up dead and I felt ripped off that I did not get to know them a little bit more. The main character, Duncan Kincaid, is somewhat creepy with the way he seems to appraise/be interested in every female character – elderly and/or married included. I hope that gets toned down a bit in book two, because it is too much here. I like Gemma James fairly well, but there was not enough of her in the novel. That’s OK, since there is hope for book two, then.

Overall, a perfectly easy reader with basic plots and characters. The cover looks darker than the contents are. I enjoyed the pacing and felt it was sufficient as a weekend read. Has lots of potential for the series. I will read book 2.

2 stars

Echo Round His Bones

Echo round his bonesEcho Round His Bones by Thomas Disch is the second novel I have read by this author. Previously, I read Camp Concentration.  Disch is definitely one of the most intelligent writers I have read in awhile. I suspect that no matter what genre/style of book he wrote, he would be unable to hide his intelligence. Echo Round His Bones was published in book format in 1967. I read the Berkley Medallion edition.  This is a difficult novel for me to rate because it has some really excellent features and some messy elements.

The main character in this novel is a Captain in the US Army, Nathan Hansard. Throughout, we are told Hansard is nearly ideal military officer material. He is very stern, disciplined, and has an unwavering moral code.  We are frequently told that there could not be a more sane or more steadfast individual.  However, we are also shown that Hansard suffers from nightmares, from guilt and regret, and is divorced.  He misses his son, Nathan jr., and his woes seem to stem from situations in the Vietnam War.

Many readers have pointed out the very anti-Vietnam War tone to this novel. I agree that this tone is present, however I would struggle to consider this characteristic one of the novel’s major features.  In fact, if anything, I would say it is simply an anti-mass destruction novel (Cp. the bombs released on Nagasaki and Hiroshima).  The novel also contains many subtle negative comments regarding Nazi Germany and even the Cold War (i.e. USA vs. CCCP).  I am stressing/clarifying this broadened scope because I think that it is very commonplace for readers to expect a 1960s novel to be anti-Vietnam War and then pigeon hole the novel as if that is just another “one of those” lightly-veiled critical works. Disch, as I mentioned above, was quite intelligent; too intelligent to be caught in such narrowness.

Chapter one is a subtle and delicate lead-in to the novel; it sets the mood and introduces characters as-well-as gives characters motives. Chapter two and three are when the story really begins – Captain Hansard and his men perform a “jump.”  This is Hansard’s first – but other men in his company have made jumps before. A “jump” is a trip through a matter transmitter.  In this case, Hansard and crew jump to Mars Command Post.

The mission is to deliver, by carrying a briefcase containing an envelope, orders to the commanding officer, General Pittmann, of Mars Command Post:

The letter directed that the total nuclear arsenal of Camp Jackson/Mars be released on the enemy, who did not need to be named, on the first day of June 1990, according to existing Operational Plan B. It was signed by President Lee Madigan and sealed with the Great Seal. — pg. 26

Well, that also gives us a date for the setting. The novel basically lasts the last half of April to the end of May in 1990.  Honestly, without this clue, I would not have been able to guess the setting, though I may have guessed the 1980s – simply because I feel  that Pittmann would be too old to be on Mars in 1990.

So, it would be enough of a novel to focus on the impending nuclear event.  However, that takes a side-seat for awhile because we learn the disturbing fact that every jump creates an echo (hence the title). This is the difficult part. I love the boldness with which Disch writes this. However, the science (or whatever we would like to call it) is really challenging. By this I mean that when all of this is explained to the reader – and yes, Disch does make a heavy attempt to “explain” how this all occurs, it is not easy to follow. But what is this criticism, anyway? I mean, I feel like I am complaining about an explanation that is difficult to understand that purports to be an explanation of unreal, fictional scientific events. Be that as it may, I absolutely could not keep all of the explanation sorted out, whether that is my fault or Disch’s, and I just pared it down as I read to: “it multiplies existences, in a fashion.”

Naturally there is a massive headache-inducing mess here of metaphysics vs. physics. The reader has a few options, assuming they, too, cannot make sense of Disch’s character’s explanations of the science. They can find all of this ridiculous and frustrating and chuck the novel or they can close all the Aristotle books and read this novel as it is, for what its worth. Remember, though, that I said Disch is intelligent.  Disch knows better than to pretend like all his readers are materialist atheists and he directly confronts the question of the “doubling” of characters who have jumped. That is to say, when a character makes a jump, another pseudo-clone of that character is split off from the original. We cannot say “created” – its not just semantics. In fact, it is best called an echo. Now, there are characters who have made multiple jumps. These characters, then have also had multiple echoes split off from their original, real selves. How many souls? Are the echoes soulless? Is the one soul divided amongst them? Welcome back, Avicenna and Averroes.

This stuff is really convoluted and messy. Its rough reading at points if you really want an ontological ratio of these matters [pun!].  Probably, authors should avoid trying to explain this stuff at all costs. But yet…. that Disch put forth the effort and wrangled with it is, in its own way, endearing. I glanced at reviews on a site and one person mentioned how this was related to Star Trek and their transporter usage. I was totally thinking the same thing when I was reading along and was so glad that another reader had noticed this. So, all those hundreds of times when the transporter is fired up – did they create echoes? OH NO! See – it is easy to forget all of the miseries of the ontology if one can just enjoy being entertained. I admit, I have been amusing myself imagining the multitudes of echoes just from Star Trek!

Matter transmission has been invented by this scientist named Doctor Bernard Panofsky.  Bernard Panofsky is in a wheelchair and has a strong liking for opera/theatre. I often thought that this character was going to turn out to be a bad guy, that he was going to betray the reader and Hansard in some way. (Please refrain from psychoanalyzing me on this; I’m aware of the hints here, too.) Anyway, Panofsky did not betray any of us! Indeed, at the end he even brought a wry smile to my face.  Panofsky ends up being a really neat character and I feel like he should have a spin-off series of his own.

In chapter five, I think Disch makes an error. It has to do with Hansard’s writing out a check and putting it in the hotel’s lockbox. I think this betrays all of Disch’s pseudo-science: sublimation of matter, etc. Otherwise, I have to say that even if matter transmission (like time travel) can be messy and entangling to writers – I am still appreciative when authors grapple with it. I really enjoyed Harrison’s One Step From Earth, which also has matter transmission as its foundational concept.

Finally, Disch and Catholicism. I think a lot (if not most) readers will make one-dimensional judgments on this problematic and, similar to pigeon-holing the novel as anti-Vietnam War, will just superficially decide Disch is anti-Roman Catholic. He would most desperately want you to think that he is. In fact, this tone seems to get stronger as he ages. The vehemence and directness with which Disch wrestles with the RCC is actually encouraging. It contains the frustration and the burden of a very intelligent, very-much-so Catholic. He has overtly put himself in tension with the Church (his lifestyle), but I’m unconvinced. But I really do not care to delve more into this topic – particularly in this blog on this internet in today’s world.

Overall, this is a very interesting novel. It has some challenges for the astute reader, but the concepts and the storyline are worthwhile. Disch’s overwhelming intelligence shows through in his writing and more than makes up for any holes in the plot or errors in the story. His characters are developed without seeming melodramatic. Vintage science fiction readers will enjoy this. Readers with big imaginations will be worrying about the echoes along with me.

4 stars

The Atrocity Archives

The Atrocity ArchivesThe Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross was published in 2004. It is the first in the Laundry Series of novels. I think I acquired my copy (Ace 2009) of the novel in 2016. This is the first Stross novel I’ve read although the stacks have a few of his other works.

Stross seems to have a following of die-hard fans much like Neil Gaiman has.  I can see why; Stross’ work is rather original and it is clear that Stross is an intelligent person. I had high hopes for this novel, and I felt odd after reading it because so many readers have given this one such high marks – did I miss something? Thinking about this for awhile, it seems readers are reviewing the book they think that they read – or wanted to read, and maybe not actually the book that they really read. It happens more than one wants to realize….. My review is utterly honest, so if anyone disagrees with me, they can at least be satisfied I am not being disingenuous.

I read a lot of reviews saying this book is funny/comedic. Readers really seem to warm to the obnoxiousness of the bureaucratic silliness. Being bluntly honest: I don’t see it. There is some snark, which maybe is a little smirk-level amusing. There are some eye-rolling scenes wherein the “paper-clip-counters” are shuffling paperwork. But there’s nothing hysterical or laugh aloud here; a little sarcasm isn’t going to make me laugh my head off. Another novel that I read that has this issue is Midnight Riot / Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovich. (See my review.)

Stross is an ideas man – he’s very smart and he has some interesting concepts. As far as a writer? Well, honestly, this isn’t an example of great writing. The worst of it is dialogue; most of the characters seem written very stilted. They are archetypes, at best, not characters. In other words, they act/sound just like you think they should. Stilted writing. And wow, Dominique “Mo” is written awfully. Every dialogue or conversation is cringe-worthy. Its like…. if you took all the ill-conceived and incorrect stereotypes about autism and then made them even uglier. If the other characters are stilted, Mo is like a bad stereotyped autist developed by a computer that is beleaguered with viruses. Ugh.

The book rambles around and takes some time to find its feet. Seriously, the first third is perhaps introducing us to characters, but the storyline just sputters and spins. Now, once the story gets moving, it does turn into an action-thriller sort of business. Techno-fantasy-alternate history plot.

Stross has some great ideas that were fun to explore. I liked a lot of the concepts in the story. But they are not all written smoothly and seamlessly. A spy agency (the Laundry) that is full of techno-mages is super cool. But, for what its worth, I found the entire Nazi/Reich stuff to be off-putting. Its…. just too much… It made the novel feel a lot heavier and darker than it should have been. Its hard to laugh when Nazis are summoning demons.

At times I was wondering if the real flaw of the novel is that there is just too much stuff stuffed in it. Nazis, Old Ones, computer-jargon, physics, the Laundry, Middle Eastern terrorists, museums, summoning spirits, PDA-style tools, bureaucratic satire, references to a whole pile of what used to be consider geek/nerd material, etc. I do not doubt Stross knows about these things, but jammed on top of one another, all of it is cumbersome and tedious.

Overall, I liked many of the ideas, I liked the action scenes – I liked the Robert Howard homage, the Wolfenstein castle imagery, the pseudo-science mixed with real physics/math. I appreciated Stross mentioning Martin Heidegger (he doesn’t really feature in novels much, but I often feel like he would be awesome in science fiction stuff). But I did not find this very amusing and as a whole it seems like the author was trying too hard. It seems forced everywhere. Now, I have book two, so I think I will give Stross and The Laundry another shot.

2 stars

The Demolished Man

the demolished manIts Vintage Science Fiction Month 2019! I see a lot more participation this year from readers and I am happy about it. I, so far, have only read one novel. I actually cannot guarantee that this is the first time I have read the novel. Its hard to know with some of the more famous older ones. Anyway, I read The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester (1913 – 1987).  The novel was originally published in periodicals in 1952. One of its biggest claims to fame is that it won the first Hugo Award. Now, in the last decade or so, I have read a lot of dissent regarding the Hugo Awards. I have read a few. Some seemed quite deserving of a prized award, others not so much. Having read several novels from the 1950s, I think that this novel is a reasonable and worthy selection for the award. I can see vintage-sf-badgehow it was selected.

I read the 1996 hardcover edition by Vintage. I also own the 1970 Signet paperback. Looking at the various covers this novel has seen through the years, I gotta say there is not yet one that really appeals to me.

So the story takes place in the future, but a future that is not marvelously different from our current world.  The biggest element is that there are espers – peepers; telepaths who are known to exist and are employed in a variety of jobs in the governmental and corporate worlds.  In fact, there is some effort to produce these espers – for example, a peeper has to marry a peeper. There are grooming places where potential peepers are farmed.

This telepathic society is probably what Bester is most known for. It helped that Babylon 5 (TV series, 1993 – 1998) showcase a Psi Corps in which Walter Koenig (Cp. the character Chekhov in Star Trek) plays a Psi Corps commander named “Bester”.  In any case, while Alfred Bester did not write a large number of novels, this is the one people seem at ease in recalling.

The storyline is interesting – until its not.  It’s good when it’s a page-turning game of cat-and-mouse between two slick characters. Detective versus murderer. But when it moves into the very pseudo-psychological-trippin’ territory, I got bored and uninterested and, frankly, a little lost.  And the motive for the killing….well, it was there all along, but I was hoping it wasn’t true because it’s rather lame and unsatisfactory, anyway.  Because FREUD.  I am thoroughly sick of Freud. But I do wonder a little bit how nifty and edgy authors thought of themselves when they decided to use Freudian concepts in their works.  Now it seems ridiculously overdone and tedious and, sometimes, ridiculous.  However, its 2019 – I am sure when it was first done it was fresh and novel or a little bit edgy.

The thing is, authors tend to cherry-pick their Freud when it suits their stories. Which is fine, but if they get too in-depth with it all, like in this story, it gets blurry and muddy.  It harms their stories – turning them from unique and interesting into sketchy inexact mush. Novelists might like to borrow from Freud, but few of them actually are Freudian, I guess.

Anyway, what is good:  I really think the first half of the novel is good stuff. Its fast-paced, there are guns, men-of-action, and cool cats who smooth talk like noir kings.  I like the way the game pits the wealthy Reich versus the telepaths. Can money beat “omniscience”? Can telepaths always play by the rules even when it might seem the end justifies any means? Can one man outwit the masses?  Can a crime that has allegedly been extinct be committed and gotten away with?  These are super fun questions the first half of the book brings us.

The canvassing the scene of the crime is one of my favorite sections in the book. I like the way the telepath detective works with and upon the witnesses/suspects and his fellow investigators. Its well-written and fun.

The bad is when the game of chase changes into a weird Freudian exploration. See, when Freud comes in, it gets bad. So, there are some quite rough parts here where it is really heavy-handed in the psychology arena. And at this point, so much Freudian stuff makes the novel seem really dated and not well-kept.

Also there is hideous love-interest business. Its really awful. I mean, I tried to look at it as optimistically and kindly as I could – I mean, if you speak in Klingon, stand on your head, close one eye, and spin tops – then you may be able to see the small ounce of romanticism in this scenario.  However, nowadays and without all that effort, it just comes across as majorly uncomfortable and very weird. In defense of it all – this whole love-arc is couched [sic!] [I had to…sorry!] in a hugely Freudian architecture. So, maybe its not as bad from that perspective.

There’s some good fun science fiction in here. Concepts and methods writers needed to have and build on. But I don’t see a big need for us to return to it. Recommended for the strong readers of vintage science fiction. Readers who dig psychological focus may find something here to enjoy.

3 stars

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives

Case for Three Detectives – Leo Bruce

Recently, discussions and thoughts on this novel had been circulating/re-circulating around my small corner of the internet. Motivated by what I read, I went over to the bookshelf and pulled down this novel (paperback version by Academy Chicago Publishers 1997). Its a 240-page read, which was perfect for my end of the year reading in the middle of all the usual events and such that take place. Originally published in 1936 by Leo Bruce; that is a penname, though. The author is Rupert Croft-Cooke (1903 – 1979) and this is the first in the small “Sergeant Beef” series of novels.

This is quite a well-known work and most fans of vintage/classic British detective novels have already read it or know of it. There is not a lot I could possibly share about this novel that the many better-informed mystery readers of the internet have not already discussed.  I am no expert in mystery novels – I read them for entertainment and I am forever unable to guess who-done-it. But I can mention a few of my thoughts here.

This is something of a country-house murder. The three detectives in the title refer to three quite well-known fictional detectives. Told in the first-person from the character Townsend’s perspective, the novel is also a decent murder mystery. Most readers should enjoy the parody of this type of country house murder combined with locked-room.  Townsend knowingly provides the tag-along simpleton position that allows the famous detectives to pontificate and show-off. Its really quite funny.

The author does a bang up job on representing each of the three detectives, though I think he overuses Lord Simon and underuses Smith. Still, he accurately parodies the famous three – without, somehow, going too far and making the detectives completely foolish. In a sense, mocking these beloved characters – but respectfully and tastefully, I suppose.

One of my favorite sections is in chapter 8:

I had learnt that after a murder it is quite proper and conventional for everyone in the house to join the investigators in this entertaining game of hide-and-seek which seemed wholly to absorb us.  It was not extraordinary for there to be three total strangers questioning the servants, or for the police to be treated with smiling patronage, or for the corpse to be pulled about by anyone who was curious to know how it had become a corpse….. I really wondered how these queer customs had arisen. — pg. 59

This amused me because it is so very true – and even until present day where you can see it all the time in TV serials (e.g. Monk, Castle, Columbo, etc.).  Detective fiction has its ups and downs, flaws and idiosyncrasies.  Perhaps the largest is this situation wherein all the laymen, neighbors, and whomever else happens by, all become part of the “detective squad.”  And murders are more like adventure quests wherein any of the usual horrors and miseries of a sudden death are forgotten.

Some reviews about this novel:

At the Scene of the Crime’s Nobody Invited the Fourth Detective (2011)

Cross-Examining Crime’s Case for Three Detectives (2016)

My Reader’s Block’s Vintage Sunday Mystery (2011)

The Reader is Warned’s Reflections on Parody in Detective Fiction (2018)

While I was amused throughout, there was one laugh aloud moment that I want to share. In chapter 6 (in which we meet Picon), Picon and Townsend examine the room where the murder occurred. Sergeant Beef is doing some detecting there as well. Picon in true-to-Poirot-form exclaims: “Ah, the good Boeuf!” This was such a funny moment for me, I laughed and laughed. Its so perfectly Poirot and so funny even if you don’t know much of Poirot.

Overall, an super entertaining read. Perfect for fans of vintage classic detective fiction. Bruce was clearly an able writer with a good skill for parody. I like that his parody does not turn cruel or nasty. I also enjoyed how he mocks a multitude of aspects of the genre – not solely the “amateur experts.” I can definitely recommend this to most readers.

4 stars