Review of The Bridegroom Was a Dog by Yōko Tawada

Only valuable as a distraction from dry Realism or for those interested in surreal imagery.

If you are looking for an easy read, there are worse choices than Tawada. This small edition is curiously random, which is one of the trademarks of her style, but unlike her other books, it does not resolve into much memorable material.

Review of Seduction of the Golden Pheasant by Damian Murphy

I suspect the author has spent some time abroad. Such were my impressions while reading this novella, steeped as it is in the aura of its locales.

Seduction of the Golden Pheasant provides us a brief glimpse at Damian Murphy’s implementation of oodles of subtext. Several of his stories function on the level of a Guillermo Del Toro flick, introducing a subversion of the setting, providing a narrative cosmos beneath a simple premise. The comparison is only partial of course, as this author’s tales lack gore, and rely on purely psychological insinuation and intimate portraiture. I was drawn in by the playful games of the characters, which are revealed to contain mystic significance.

There is a falling into lush surroundings, an entrancing focus upon inanimate patterns, the arrangement of furniture, serving for the establishment of place. Subtle shades of intertwined Occidental and Oriental motifs. A true seduction in every sense of the word. I felt a mental suction from the text, enwrapping my imagination. The author has a penchant for curious protagonists, propelled by abstract lusts into a contemplation and then a revelation of the divine properties of that sensual imperative, which is almost a disintegration of their persona into aesthetic appreciation. I believe he is trying to achieve a marriage of the sublime and the epicurean.

Concealed charms, sacred texts, and architectural splendor, atmosphere slanted toward decadence, conversations amid a haze of foamy cigarillo smoke, spooky liqueurs, and the dawning of the uncanny abyss behind the thin veil of our senses. This is the supreme and utterly irresistible essence I feel while reading this author’s work.

Review of The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq

While the descriptive passages are gorgeous, I tired of the narrative and the narrator about 2/3 of the way through.

My reading was hindered by some inconsistencies in the prose, which tended to ebb and flow, ranging from excellent evocation of dense imageries, conjured with immaculate confidence, to forced, teetering, cobbled-together dialogue sections between characters acting like wooden dummies.

I was compelled by the enigmatic atmosphere to keep going, and am willing to sample and read the author’s other productions at some point. I liked the writing style enough not to seek much else by way of pleasure from the text. I feel quite leisurely about this interest and may put off further peeks into his oeuvre. I’ve noticed that this book causes me to want to be extra specific about the sentences I’m using to describe it, possibly because the sensation of reading it instills in you a need to rely on too many long sentences, such that you begin to sound like you are not stating things in the most succinct way. But this sheer lack of concision contributes to the eerie mystique of the book. Maybe. The author prolonged the interior exploration of his fictional world through the use of dreamlike articulations, visions, and floods of figurative language. Antunes accomplishes much of the same thing, but manages to command more force with his characters and plot, whereas Gracq relies solely on aura and setting to house his indulgent detail.

There was less commitment to the warring city-states than I expected. Less commitment to the love interest than I anticipated. Less going on, fewer meaningful interactions amid a lot of aloof observation, contemplation and dwelling on the inner feelings aroused by a pleasing landscape, so difficult to encapsulate and yet, it remains fairly memorable. An uncategorizable, melancholy book too caught up in its technicolored backdrop to plumb past the two-dimensional. But what it manages to grasp, outside of its vessel-like characters, is a profound awareness of our ability to perceive the complexity of constituent descriptions.

Review of 2020 on Goodreads by Various

My reading status and accompanying thoughts at the end of 2020 are as follows:

Some mixed reading experiences this year. In the pursuit of a better reading year in 2021 I am not going to follow trends as much, or read as many reviews. My backlog of TBR grows as the future diminishes. Therefore, it is with discipline that I chip away at certain authors who have stood out to me as somehow closer to the ideal I seek in my frolic through the mounds of printed matter. I do not want GR to become a platform the only point of which is seeking confirmation for my specific tastes. My taste should be of little consequence, as should that of any other reviewer. I’ve put great faith in certain friends and professional reviewers in the past only to disagree with their conclusions repeatedly. What might work better, I think, is taking the result of a review as a summation of one reviewer’s processing of the reading experience. We are all sharing experiences here, and experiences of any kind are not meant to mirror one another. I may read hundreds of manga and a mix of classics and contemporary novels, but I don’t expect anyone to follow in my reading footsteps. This site is how I keep track of my own chaotic wandering through the microcosm of literature. It is not how I entice a band of loyal followers down the rabbit hole of my own whimsy-reading, nor how I might persuade them through endless argument that what I am doing with the few thousand hours of writing-reading time I have earned is meaningful to anyone but myself. Notating a book is one of the best ways to remember it. I thank Goodreads for providing a place to showcase my public thoughts on literature and to interact with people who enjoy this hardly navigable industry with me.

As I continue writing books, I have become consistently overwhelmed by the sheer number of new books flowing into the world. The writing of them appears to be as common as the reading of them. Currently at work on 3 novels myself, the reading I do does not always influence the writing that spurts from my fingertips. I have found a bit of influence in the sharing of my work with fellow authors this year, as well as the editing of others’ work. Surprising to me was the realization that I finished the reading of 12 novels in manuscript form this year, often scribbling notes in the margins for the benefit of the fledgling author, but also, in some cases, unbeknownst to said author, as if I were marking my path through some half-generated virtual world. The quality of these 12 novels ranged from first draft, unprintable, unreadable cliché-plagued desolation to literal masterpieces. Whether or not these books will ever see the outside of a few desk drawers, I am happy to have encountered and devoured them. I say this as I war against myself for the fact that I set aside this time when in reality the number of books is unconscionable and my time limited, so what business do I have accepting and even (with such gall) as to request unpublished novels from authors operating in the infinite theater of darkness which encompasses our paltry efforts – for to enter out of this darkness one author in a thousand must ascend so many delirious steps as with a heavy burden of ambition and pride, amid the constant disarray around him (or her). There is only one way I can answer. What real, valuable difference is there between what is obvious and what is astonishing? What can leaning too far into one extreme do to one’s conception of art?

Faulkner said that a writer should read everything, including trash. I can only assume that Faulkner read a certain amount of what he termed ‘trash.’ Yet, how amazing was Faulkner’s writing? Basically never suffering from illegitimate influence. If we are to consider that we probably read more in this day and age than people ever have since the beginning of mankind’s tenure upon this earth – what with all the digital script pummeling our brains for several hours per day seven days a week, combined with the work-related reading and the leisure reading, and the endless scrolls of script in every videogame, how many millions of pages do we consume, and how much of it should we label so ungenerously ‘trash?’

Reading Classics versus Contemporary –
I like to think there are 2 types of books. (There are more than 2, but I easily ignore the other types). The first variety are classics. These tend to be the most reliable reading, though they can take work. They tend to stretch the imagination, forcing us out of our contemporary bubble. These have persisted, rising like cream amid the sea of pulp to surmount the ages, often changing shape in subtle ways – for we always flex and massage the texts we read, in digesting them.

The second form, of course, is whatever is written today, or recently. Contemporary books can be fresh, delightful and incredibly strange. Often an author’s intentions are less clear, and they seem to explore some inner landscape or world more intimately more often than our forebears indulged in such impolite enterprises.

For my next year’s reading, I propose to balance my book-diet with a mix of both, but always keeping at the forefront that singular purpose: Escapism – for why else would I seek to read so far afield? One can just as easily escape into some flowery comic book as into a towering work of diamond-dense philosophy. It is more about training the mind to focus on those precepts of illusion to be found in even the most puerile pulp, common to all works of the imagination, which provide us with that unmeasurable ingredient, cousin to distraction, that quirky tinge of nostalgia or that pearl-laden treasure at the bottom of a great plummet into a book. That, my friend, is why I read.

Star-ratings – Let us not invest such arbitrary measurements with great meaning. I have given and received the full range of star assignments. In reality, one should always make up one’s own opinion about a work of art, rather than rely on any authority to tell them how to interpret it. Interpret my last statement however you wish. For you will, as we all do, texture the text with your own mind – for in reading, how much of what we are reading actually exists upon the stage of our intellect? I have come, at the close of this year, to appreciate subtext, including that mystical subtext which is not even suggested by the words on the page.

Finishing books.
I was amazed by how many books I failed to abandon this year. What is the virtue in continuing on with some difficult or unenjoyable book? That is another question I have struggled to answer. Is it not true that some of the best books contain passages of such impenetrable compaction that we are left on the outside? Is it not also true that a great number of beautiful books contain passages of utter, execrable twaddle? It is therefore a balancing act. One could read nothing but Tweets for an entire lifetime and never exhaust the feed. Where would one end up in that case? I find that in such situations, when I begin to sense the brink of that despair, which reminds me too often that I am human and flawed, that it is then I turn aside, regarding the future with a hopeful investment into my next few steps, back on the path of enjoying life, instead of contemplating its atomic structure with my clouded eyes.

The difference, for me, is to know when I am reading a story and when I am reading someone’s opinion about a story. The latter interests me little, since opinions are stories we tell ourselves about other stories. Get the story direct, I say.

Again, I am only thinking out loud. If you have read this far you probably know something about what I read this year. But let me leave you with my recommendations. Try them out if you care to glimpse the horizons I have most fondly remembered from 2020.

My favorite reads of the year: (‘Favorite’ does not imply that they are more or less skillfully written, only that I enjoyed them more)

Sayaka Murata – Earthlings
Smart Ovens for Lonely People – Elizabeth Tan
Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah
The Royal Family – William T. Vollmann
Laura Warholic – Alexander Theroux
Lord Valentine’s Castle – Robert Silverberg
The Shadow of the Torturer – Gene Wolfe
Antkind – Charlie Kaufman

There were many more I loved, but these were the most memorable.

I doubt I will participate in the ‘Reading Challenge’ for 2021. It is a stress-inducing nuisance to be told I am ‘one book behind schedule,’ or ‘two books ahead of schedule.’ How about I just read as much as I can, for the rest of the time I am given? I could easily fudge the numbers, play this site RPG-style, climbing the ranks of ‘most-well-read’ by marking every short story and half-consumed thing, like an accumulation of imaginary capital. How about instead I enjoy the full-bodied flavor of a single book, well-loved? If I only read half as many books next year, it will probably be because I read fewer flimsy, short books, in favor of vast journeys. Who knows? Check back with me in 2021, dear friend, and may you find whatever it is you’re looking for.

Review of Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

Mimi is not Lucy Ellmann’s best work, but this book was still intelligent and more entertaining than 99% of inanimate objects on this planet.

Ellmann’s acerbic brand of feminism doesn’t really work with the goofy male narrator, as other reviewers have pointed out. You most certainly won’t like this plastic surgeon guy, but again, entertainment is the name of the game. If I can be intellectually engaged with and laugh at a novel, it has done its job. I don’t ask it to be balanced, tonally perfect, or unbiased in order to earn 4 stars. Lucy Ellmann knows how to write well. Every book of hers I’ve tried so far has been good to stellar.

This, like her upcoming Ducks, Newburyport, will likely polarize readers. I would not call this vintage Ellmann, but it is welcome padding to her modest body of work. Calling her work modest is completely inaccurate though. There always seems to be one person, male or female, at a party or event – think of your wedding – who just cannot behave themselves. Ellmann relishes these moments of misbehavior and delves deeply into the troubling psyches of her characters at the same time. The plots are typically simple, where they exist at all, because her focus is internal monologue, which she could write a whole book using – oh wait, DUCKS, NEWBURYPORT!

Don’t begin your foray into her oeuvre with Mimi. Likely, you’ll laugh, but the literary experiments toward the back of the book (extra padding on an already padded book) will just confuse you. Her use of musical sheets and pictures doesn’t get on my nerves. It’s a little distracting but I’m there for the writing. I’m not averse to long lists and tables, if used in service of character, though I wish the overt comments were kept to the sidelines, or used more subtly.

Subtlety is used more effectively in her other works, and it is a poignant spice missing from this particular concoction.

Review of The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

This book is a prime example of the commercial bent of recent Japanese translations. It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers.

It is a case study in how to underestimate your readers. It was well-marketed to adults by a very reputable publisher. Of course it is selling well, garnering misleading blurbs and reviews, and impressing lots of important people. However, it is written at about a sixth-grade level, is only about 30,000 words long, and boasts no innovation in character, plot, or prose. Did we learn nothing from the author’s last book? A year from now, are they going to rinse and repeat this same process with another example of this lite, disposable, un-literary silliness?

It is no surprise that it received the Akutagawa prize, and that is the most likely reason for its short length. In recent years, this prize has come to indicate the opposite of its original intention. When they gave it to Kenzaburo Oe and actual writers, I had some respect for the prize. The downhill track it has followed since is startling.

This short novella reads very like the examples I encountered in Creative Writing 101 in college. 75% of the short, repetitive sentences could be edited out. The attempts at building atmosphere are transparent and simply an accumulation of mundane interior monologues. The narrator will ask up to twenty rhetorical questions in a row sometimes. And the rest of the prose is simple reportage on the surroundings: grass, cicadas, trees, houses, hoses, fences, store items.

Very little happens during the course of the novella: Main character moves to new house. Weird, unexplained things happen to her. It concludes without resolving any of the questions raised. You are supposed to draw an allegory using these dreamlike hints throughout. The housewife is feeling directionless. When she literally falls into a hole, you are supposed to realize she has metaphorically fallen into a hole as well. Society pigeonholes women. Japanese traditions are getting old. Those are the background themes. But lacking all character development, relying so heavily on bland descriptions, is simply amateurish. This is not fit to be printed. The author has ideas, but lacks formal development.

Comparing this book to this year’s translation of Earthlings by Sayaka Murata, I see a world of difference.

Review of Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

Listened to this whole audiobook on an all-day bike ride. I loved sinking in to the uber-omniscient narration so much that I repeated the experience with his similar book, Starmaker, on a similarly exhausting fifty-mile ride. 

This novel is a survey of 1930s European society extrapolated and speculated upon until we arrive at two billion years in the future. It exemplifies the spirit of discovery in this genre and is one of the most compelling thought experiments in book form I have encountered. Forget plot, character, dialogue and action. This reads more like a textbook. It was massively influential, but is often execrated in the modern age for its flaws, which were a product of its time. I do not believe the politics of the time should enter into the discussion of the merits of this book. Our current literature suffers from the same topical pratfalls. Ironically, this book handles time as a narrative device, humanity morphs and transforms, changes environments, adapts, and struggles through adverse conditions. Navigating fate is what life is all about. It is actually a survival trait to adapt to the current climate, though we earn a certain amount of pleasure and esteem from being contrarian. – This contrarianism is often the root of invention. We are all products of our time. But we are also products of what came before. We learn to survive and thrive by proxy, by regarding the disasters of the past and swerving to avoid our own weaknesses and doom. This is both a hopeful and a beautifully imagined account of human ingenuity. It almost begs the question if our minds are capable of a variety of foresight. Technically, we can imagine a true future. We can predict certain things. The question is whether or not we will use this ability to help or destroy ourselves.

Review of Sleepwalker in a Fog by Tatyana Tolstaya

This second collection by Tolstaya is a brief, inconsequential, but enchanting volume, reminiscent of Cat Valente’s Deathless, or similar quirky, literary, bold tales, congealed together by the old fashioned setting and the unfixed narration. 

On the whole, it was not focussed enough to move me, but entertained me all the way through. Extremely naive characters create a pervasive humorous absurdity, but the stories seemed to conceal very few larger truths, rather recounting mysterious encounters with details of daily life. The vibrant prose and scintillating imagery are comparable to Kelly Link, and Tolstaya does not appear to be overly concerned with politics or satire, except in a broad sense, as in satire of the human race as a whole. The stories are fairly universal, rather than distinctly Russian. Not straightforward at all, in fact the convolutions are both intriguing and aggravating. Apropos of nothing, she will fly off on wild tangents.

Ridiculous concepts briefly explored, characters constantly interrupting the author’s train of thought with their darned socks or sauce pans or samovars. A real chaotic mess without plot or logic to stick in the memory. However, it is sprinkled with poetry and gems of enjoyable montage. Rereadable but inimitable. Nothing really to summarize that would sound coherent. I struggle to put my finger on what makes these stories tick. Like Andrey Bely, the small events represent larger premises, but the author is careful not to draw too much attention to any one thing. It is a potpourri of ideas, likely to induce spontaneous combustion of your expectations.

Review of Justine (The Alexandria Quartet #1) by Lawrence Durrell

The start, I hope, of a long-term interest in this author. Highly impressed on every level, I am. 

At first his style seems forced, but it winds, riverine, recapitulating itself, strengthening as it goes along, so that it is clear, having read much of Henry Miller, that their friendship bled into aesthetic similarities, apart from surface level themes. A treasure trove of exotic, Paul Bowles-level atmosphere, in the crisp, dusty histori-city of Alexandria. All-around classic, engaging scenes, and free associative descriptions of eccentrics, artists, beauties. 3 more volumes to go in this epic, plus dozens of other books by this author in similar veins. Could they all be this good?

Review of It Takes Death to Reach a Star by Stu Jones

I received an advanced review copy of the book without knowing anything about the authors beforehand.

Immediately, I was not sure about the title. “It Takes Death to Reach a Star” brings to mind a corny line from a sci-fi movie, something a character says right as they press the button to enter hyperspace.
A few things you should know before reading this book, and I do think you should read it:
The chapters are very short. It is a relatively quick read due to the unrelenting pace and short sentences. It is told in the present tense, which makes it feel very contemporary, but may grate on some fans of “traditional” narration. The first person perspective has shifting narrators, indicated (thankfully) by the character’s name at the beginning of each brief chapter. There is heavy use of made-up terms, right off the bat, at a frequency of several per page, which takes some getting used to.
The dialogue is clipped, punchy, like if Elmore Leonard wrote a post-apocalyptic fantasy adventure. Lots of death in this thrilling fantasy world, and plenty of methodical world-building. The scenery is well-described, all in an off-world setting that leaves enough to the imagination not to feel forced. That is, the narration never slows down. The method of the rapid internal monologues, full of personality and pizazz, make for a steep learning curve but an interactive reading experience. It feels very vivid, and though the character banter can be a little abstruse, it never goes on for too long. There are always things happening, plots unfolding, and these writers are not the type to hold your hand along the way. Rather, the co-authors fling you headfirst into a new universe, part William Gibson, part Ann Leckie.
It is definitely worth the short amount of time it will take you to finish it, to bravely immerse yourself in the effective, technological drama of this novel.

Review of Reflections of Destiny by Benzon Ray Barbin

One of the first things you’ll notice about this debut novel is the striking imagery.

While not always fantastical, it does not shy away from surprising and otherworldly moments.
The setting has a baroque atmospheric quality, with many points of reference on which the short scenes tend to hang. It deals with technology, warfare, combat, assassins, powers, weaponry, and romance. It employs quick-paced, short chapters to grip the reader in a vise of anticipation. The fast-moving scenes don’t dwell on a plot but rather moments, revealing bits of character and world building.

Making use of fabulous word choice, the author provides profuse visual details, concise dialogue, and page-by-page plot developments to keep you invested and turning pages. There is subtle world building like a scaffolding in the background of the story, bolstered by realistic dialogue and incorporating speculative and futuristic elements, combined to craft a seamless whole.
The reader is tasked to untangle the political climate based on the behavior of a government depicted in telling ways, and one can easy draw parallels to modern times.

Furthermore, it is well-edited, and bereft of the curse of internal monologue which plagues many books of today. It demands participation from the reader, due to the jump cuts and alternating perspective, you will have to piece together the elements as you go along. It contains a mixture of the familiar and the strange. Logistics go hand in hand with character development. At bottom it explores personal relationships, with traces of humor and plenty of conspiracies branching into a complex sociology.
The intricately woven plot and delightful personal details add an intimate layer to the story, without faltering into conventionality.
A recommended read.

Review of The Outlands (The Outlands Saga #1) by Tyler Edwards

I was pleasantly surprised by The Outlands. 

The book has movement, action, and fast pacing. The writing rarely slows down, offering a new layer or concept page by page. A labyrinthine world unfolds, depicting the ins and outs of thievery. As orphans in Dios, our main characters are subservient to an abominable caste system, yoked by societal limitations. I was put in mind of Mad Max, Fist of the North Star, and Golden Age science fiction. However, our hero is more of an Everyman, an underdog, which renders the setting all the more ominous. Under the harsh ruler, the supreme leader, the higher ups espouse the philosophy of “harmony in sameness,” which sets the stage for rich world building. By removing diversity they preserve order and eliminate division. Of course, this only benefits the lucky few.

All the while, the narration is swift, relaying flashbacks and drawing from pertinent clues organically within the environment. We are treated to a tour of slums and teeming markets, gang activity and chase scenes, typically ornamented with baroque architecture and Third World accoutrements. The author mixes high technology within his feudal system. Thankfully, brief touches of humor enliven the dystopian aura that results from the strenuous trials of our protagonist within the pervasive aura of despair.

Subtle commentary is present in satirical allusions to current real world situations and problems, but the allusions avoid a mocking tone, employing a worst case scenario texture to the whole story. Government hypocrisy runs rampant, starving, desperate masses eke out an inadequate existence. It has been done before, but since the focus in so close to the main character’s perspective, I rarely grew bored of the lush description or the dialogue, which works overtime as world building. Life is a game of survival for these folks, and it is clear every step of the way that they get by with grit and resilience. I was reminded of the Lightbringer series in that respect.

Surrounding the despotic city is the uninhabitable Outlands. Of course the characters are motivated by relatable dreams of freedom toward this distant glimmer of difference, freedom or death. The dialogue conveys their individual personality, comradeship, and position within the system. By the end, I was most immersed by the ceaseless flow of action, while the subtext contemplated the resonance of loss, the value of hope, the consequences of struggle and the preponderance of apocalyptic history, the resulting fallout from mass conflict and moral death which imbued the literary terra firma.

With colorful characters and a page-turning plot, the necessary Underworld, the search for purpose and meaning, the reader will encounter familiar tropes, but realize this is only the beginning of a larger work. The pursuit of skepticism, questioning the world order, and all the rest serves to establish the tone, rebellious in spirit, for the intriguing set up. On its surface it communicates a constant sense of danger and suspense, with plenty of power and heart to sustain a grand narrative.

Review of Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon

Dan Chaon honed his catchy thriller-esque atmosphere into a tense road novel reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s off-kilter weirdness and soft-dystopian Straw Dogs-style manhunts.

An addictive read with dark undertones establishing the prescient consequences of social media, drugs, cloning, the morals of biological and artificial relations and other deep and relevant stuff. Yet, the close first person perspective focuses the lens on a flawed hero, whose descent into the Inferno is appropriately brutal. Somehow manages to come off as heartfelt amid the bleak and blasted remains of a landscape fertilized by American corpses.

Review of Waiting for Gaudiya & Other Stories by Erik Martiny

Despite the reference to Beckett in the title of the collection and some passing moments within, this collection of short stories borrows little and invents much.

As the opening quote intimates, Martiny invests in a continual creation of reality in real-time, through uncanny conjuring of the absurd, straddling the reader’s comfort zone like a menacing flogger.

I have read every Martiny book in a few sittings each. They are like anti-gravity books: unputdownable. While none of them strike me as masterpieces they are all entertaining, scholarly, suffused with wonder, breathtaking in variety and style, varied in composition, at times foolish, masterful, demented, and heartwarming. Never boring, incredibly memorable: fantastic in a word. Comparable only to outsider purveyors of oddball literature, like Quentin S. Crisp. Full of unexpected surprises. One might notice a commonality between the narrators of his works: middle class male with aesthetic and salacious interests. Though he switches it up here with some female perspective, elderly characters and down and outers.

You never know what kind of book you’re going to get with Martiny: post-apocalyptic, or old fashioned – in any case, it is going to be funny.

While over-the-top is the rule, there is always a convincing atmosphere and a perfect suspension of disbelief. For me, rarely achieved*

A vivid and brilliant imagination is required to come up with and pull off these scenarios. For instance, how to build sympathy for a connoisseur of train groping. There is a recurrent scenario: The dreaded encounter with in-laws, always leading to enchanting results.

Also discussed is the obsolescence of literature, criticism, and teaching. How technology can make us less human. A plethora of train stories, the pursuit of art, literature, and female conquests.

By turns disturbing, elegiac, dreamlike, intimate, zany, always strange, sometimes dirty, these imaginative forays into Modern woes are rife with literary allusion, quirky images, and eccentric observations. They are disquieting near futures and horripilating satires of tedious conventions and inter-societal regulations.

The book contains 15 stories, including one succulent scene from the novel The Pleasures of Queuing. In toto, a riveting sequence of literary delights.

The first story reminds me of the Bradbury story about the obese man who was afraid of his skeleton. (Can anyone tell me the name of this story?) Blubber as psychology, the relationship between gustatory and literary pleasures.

The author uses character description as modus operandi. He is unfettered by social conventions, story form, and political correctness. These are very subtly futurist, enclosed within the narrator’s viewpoint, interpreting the world through a skewed lens. Lynchian surprises await in these psychologically compelling snapshots of worlds ever so slightly dislodged from our own. He seems particularly interested in how language modifies reality.

Gleefully vibrant figurative language accounts for much of the visceral comedy to be found. Politically aware and topical on occasion, but not intrusive, he manages to pull off creepy character traits well, infusing the subtext with thought-provoking themes during scenes of cultural angst, sexual absurdity, and Kafkaesque bureaucracy, all amid gruesome images, which reveal the inner motives and struggles of characters. Taken to disturbing lengths: fatherhood, and the duty and wiles of the effective lover, outré landscapes of human longing. Xenophobic situations, erotically charged relationships hinging on a razor’s edge of murder and lust. The horrors of childrearing, marriage, interhuman relations in general – all of which are poignant, hilarious and fueled by subliminal outrage.

These are meaning-seeking, contemplative outcasts, drowning in the quiddities of human existence.

Whereas Samuel Beckett always struck me as mean, clinical, cold, abstract, compartmentalized, didactic, etc. such is not the case for these stories.

I look forward to the next Martiny book to appear.

*The list of authors who manage to utterly mesmerize me through their ideal spell casting, i. e. suspension of disbelief is pitifully short: Philip K. Dick, Reggie Oliver, Poe, Akutagawa, and select others. Most other authors simply don’t hypnotize so consistently.

Review of The Cutest Girl in Class by Quentin S. Crisp

I have already come to expect greatness from the publisher Snuggly Books. 

This did not let me down. It is an intriguing descent into a particularly uncanny-valley subculture. It left me wondering where the name Sooki comes from. Urban Dictionary offers a number of possibilities. Turns out it is not an uncommon Eastern name. But I can’t help thinking I’ve missed a secret allusion to some obscure piece of media. Undoubtedly, dozens, if not hundreds of references within the book went over my head. It is a complex interweaving of experimental styles, product spoofs, characters satire, and pop culture commentary, all wrapped up nicely in a page-turning plot. While it goes completely off the rails during a fondue party, I was still strapped in for the remainder of the ride with my eyes stripped and almost extruding from their sockets. The celebrity cameo was delightful.

A specifically compelling aspect of the novel is how it pays homage to broken English pornographic advertising copy, inserting it like some kind of occult background incantation.

How rare is a novel combining the ideas and writing styles of 3 geniuses? It is not possible, in my opinion, in the current publishing industry and this modern age, to be more skilled at portraying magically real characters than these writers are. The many books they have produced all seem to possess a certain intangible dissociative reality at once disarming and irresistibly compelling.

Both vivid and transgressive, The Cutest Girl in Class is an examination of sexual commodification, which, in its various manifestations, often simultaneously discomforts and validates us. The extreme uses to which aesthetic pursuit might be pushed is explored in the form of real doll collecting, a pastime depicted with a startling degree of fidelity. The love for artificial reality pervades the blasted and ruined landscape of our modern consciousness as construed through a soul-siphoning dependency on substances, physicality, and the illusions our brain concocts to adapt to our environment. The inhuman gratifications of the simulated experiences bleed into the hedonistic reality of our anti-heroes, belittling their sense of self while they connive and indulge in equal measure. The inner folds of micro-delineated tactile sensations crackle through the well-polished prose. The galleries of painted geishas presented within convey the possibility of harems of daintily maintained dream-bots, semi-sentient, all-accepting, serving the omni-ravenous appetites of adolescent awe. The possessed idols of our de-aged hormonal fixations pull us into luscious intimacies through the gravitas of their silicon valleys, their exquisite inanimate, detachable tongues, the soft-fingered prongs of their jackknifed grip, their lock-jawed smiles and reptilian eyes.

Loneliness, isolation, the palaces of the interior. Connections: spiritual, physical and psychological,
cloaked in absurdity. Gangsters with very peculiar interests and a vast network of niche resources.
What makes us human? What degrades us and shoves us into realms of the inhuman, and what is to be found there? This novel pierces through the veil of propriety to the festering microcosm of the human imagination. Though I found the adolescent romance scenes less compelling, they were still well-written and woven into the overall plot, seeding it with a counterpoint of innocence, optimism, and chastity. Perhaps it was a missed opportunity not to give the reader a full chapter entirely from Sooki’s perspective, given the alternating perspectives that tweaked the lens of the narrative eye.

Idol-worship, entertainment, devotion to an artificial expression of desire and idealized beauty. conspiracy, paranoia, campy Yakuza-style subplots, and a dislocation from the everyday. We are each a subtle corpse, a barely zoetic masses of disparate particles, anchored into a substratum through faith in our continued existence.

I challenge you to explore the quirky and enigmatic avenues of this miraculous piece of fiction.

Review of Eight Dogs, or “hakkenden”: An Ill-Considered Jest, Being the First 14 Chapters of Nansao Satomi Hakkenden by Bakin Takizawa

“The Hakkenden” is the nickname for the longer titles by which this monumental novel has been known since it appeared in Japan in serial form. 

Bakin was one of the most prolific authors of all time, and wrote historical novels in a variety of styles. His work might be superficially compared to Alexandre Dumas: A hundred thousand pages of battles, drama, quick action, pithy dialogue, plot twists, page-turn inducing reversals. But this work is closer in spirit to the material by which the basic skeleton of the Eight Samurai Dogs was inspired: the Water Margin, one of the five superlative Chinese novels.

I compared Hakkenden to Tale of Genji while reading it. It felt like one of the proto or Ur novels of Japan. Genji, along with Heike and other poetic long works, borrowed much from Chinese literature, Confucius, Mozi and the like, but Bakin’s work boldly repurposes tropes in a grand and dramatic manner. It is more than twice as long as the Tale of Genji and similar in length to Remembrance of Things Past. Thus, this first volume only represents 1/12 th of the whole work. I need not mention that I am dying to read the rest. For the sake of my own sanity, I hope Walley and the publisher release the next volumes quickly. I fear we will be waiting decades before we reach the conclusion in English.

I have been waiting for this translation for about ten years. In the interim I read excerpts from the novel in translation in a few Japanese literature anthologies and an online fan translation. Walley’s translation in this volume is very impressive in a number of ways. Most clearly, in the copious footnotes. Dozens of woodblock illustrations from the original first and second editions are included, along with Bakin’s advertisements, prefaces, and glosses.

The book is written in a mélange of pre-modern styles, combining Chinese characters and idiomatic expressions with ancient Japanese and Chinese references. The convolutions of allusion within the work are labyrinthine. Like the incredible early vernacular novels of China, this book seems to be a culmination of wisdom, quips, and history, synthesized into a single, unified story. A cursory reading will reveal hundreds of characters, place names, conventions, and contextual differences between this work and the world of modern day. Not only did Bakin set his tale in the warring states period, he wrote it in a sneaky way, conjuring language reminiscent of Murasaki and other paramours of the poetic mode.

Bakin managed to internalize thousands of relevant proverbs and morals so that he could unholster them in his work whenever necessary. The book is a convoluted one. Far too intricate to easily summarize. If you have read Outlaws of the Marsh (Water Margin) you may notice some parallels, though this volume barely begins the epic tale of the infamous band.

The translator provides a succinct overview of the work in his long introduction, along with a thorough explanation of the immense cultural gulf separating the work’s context and execution from the modern American reader’s. Thus, the majority of the audience for this work will likely be those with a scholarly bent. It is translated for people with a deep interest and appreciation of Japanese history. Reader’s should expect to encounter a panoply of archaic cultural references and an intricate layering of narration with moral commentary. Some of the footnotes will mean little to you, being so abstruse as to direct your attention away from the action. Bakin simply could not stop himself from lassoing in every idiom he could. But the overall effect does convey a grandiose sense of accomplishment and intimacy with the whole web of literature that makes up a great author’s opus. You might study this book as you study the plays of Shakespeare or the Divine Comedy. The density of the book is one of interconnectedness and allusion.

There is no lack of poetry here, and I found it more readable than Tale of Genji. Poetry has been a vehicle for moral argument, and Bakin is a didactic author. As the translator explains, he had his reasons for shoehorning commentary and didacticism in his epics. I can only pray that we see the remainder of the book published in the next decade, though the translator has clearly been compiling and supplementing his work since his graduate thesis. To read Bakin is to experience a raw exposure to early Japanese literature, while still taking part in a breathtaking and entertaining interplay of plotlines and twists. The common themes of filiality, fraternity, love, and perseverance take center stage, while deceit and spiritual consciousness move the story forward.

The only other novel by Bakin in English, The Captive of Love, tackles similar concepts in a surprising and satisfying way. Authors like Akutagawa place Bakin on a pedestal as the greatest Japanese novelist. While his books may not be visible in the West, his legacy endures in Japan, as you can see from the many anime, manga, literary, and film adaptations you can find of his most famous novel. I would love to collect and devour as much of his oeuvre as makes its way into English in my lifetime, which I fear, will be a very small percentage.

Review of Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fiction and Illusions by Neil Gaiman

Started out strong but ended up inconsistent. 

Whereas the much-touted Gene Wolfe produced unpredictable story collections of genre-bending, unconventional tales of varied length culled from a wide selection of magazines over decades, IMO any of Wolfe’s collections are better than the totality of Gaiman’s output. It is not just that this collection is inconsistent, but the stories lack the consistency of good stories. There are plenty of moments when cleverness is evident, but far more where cleverness is all-too-absent. The author knows how to put a sentence together, but some of the sentences he inserts, some of the images, some of the stories themselves, read like what I’d expect from Stephen King. We’re talking King after about 400 pages. When he’s writing on autopilot. Such as in the story of a clueless American who stumbles into a pub in England and talks about Lovecraft with cultists (and that’s all that happens). Or in the one where a man purchases the services of an exterminator [to exterminate every human on Earth? A graphically naked troll under a bridge might surprise you in one story, but the logic behind what the troll does will likely confuse you. A quaint, Pythonesque grail story: A skillful demonstration of ye olde writing style but absurd and inadequately delineated – not just in how the world of the story operates, but in the lack of character motivations. If you turn your brain off, it works. A little poem here or there about Santa Claus and werewolves. Little boys in showers laughing at each others’ willies. Story after story made me say “so what” internally. Some of them made me gag. To be fair I enjoyed parts of the screenwriter story. I suspect this was an excision from an early draft of American Gods. It combined a nostalgic aura with a few good quips and an appreciation for bygone values. But the repetitions and meandering could’ve been edited out. Most of the stories wanted a little honing. I still think, as a writer, he is more careful and calculated than Stephen King, but King seems more humble to me, willing to admit that what he is producing is not literary, but pulp. These are simply my feelings. The legions of fans are justification enough for such work, but in this review I’ll try to limit myself to what I’d want to know if I was about to jump into this sizable collection. The essences of several stories were intriguing. Usually the ending would reveal piss in the soup. The structural integrity of these narratives are fragile. Without adequate justification, the far-flung ideas come off as mere exercises instead of viable microcosms. Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles had a similar cobbled-together mystique. You can fly through a crappy Silverberg book, but Gaiman demands time, reads kind of slow. The pacing is glacial.

The Introduction did not help me enjoy the stories. I don’t need to know how he lit upon the ideas for each story, how he expertly weaves together the elements and tropes and allusions, according to the theories he’s expounded in every interview, Master Class, and Introduction as if he invented the medium. If he wouldn’t mention how he was best buds with Gene Wolfe so often I wouldn’t be tempted to compare Gaiman’s watered-down storytelling to The Grandmaster Big Daddy Baby-Faced Emperor of Fantasy World Building.

Review of Third Winter’s War (Seventh Realm, #3) by M.L. Little

This third book continues in the Seventh Realm to bring us more of what every reader is likely to adore from the first two including a large cast of colorful characters and an intriguing plot with expert world building. 

It begins where the last book left off and shapes into a culminating encapsulation of the themes the series tackles on both a social and intimate, personal scale.

In some ways making use of a traditional fantasy aesthetic, M. L. Little employs many aspects of unique world building and ample humor to bolster her elegant writing style and form a tale both heart-warming and heart-rending by turns. Elowyn, Gabriel, and the menagerie of other characters, some of whom are family, friends, and part of a circle of influential people, both strangers and creatures of every description, have at times reminded me of moments from the Hobbit, where merry companions endeavor to face a darkness that threatens to overturn their gleefully imagined world.

Taking place in the heart of an icy climate, this book earns its title. Atmospheric details swathe the reader in a chilly aura while a strong tension pervades the plot as the story unfolds. The war offers an ominous backdrop to our main characters’ travels while the reader is carried along by their delightful dialogue, which never dwells too much on the negative situations, but pulls from the scenario a sense of purpose and lithe whimsy, a resurgent positivity that falters but returns to triumph as the characters extricate themselves from trouble, political entanglements, and very real dangers. This charming dialogue also develops their plans and marks their adaptation to their situations. All this to say that the tone grew dark when necessary but never lost sight of its lighthearted underpinnings. Rebels locked in a struggle with a destructive government, and the many-layers beyond the personal pursuit of freedom and growth, contribute to the pervading expression at the center of this epic narrative, which is the longing for an elegiac past. While it depicts a fraught, unhallowed present, the protagonists fight for a brighter future, striving to right the past’s wrongs and start their young lives on a promising course. That to me, is the appeal and essence of high fantasy.

While the world often underestimates the characters we follow, we continually witness their courage, resolve, and teamwork. This series demonstrates why it is better to let your characters make decisions rather than allowing plot twists to have their way with them. They make things happen, and so become, in their myriad ways, living people in our minds, deeper sometimes than the dreams we invented on the playroom floor with our action figures. Literary journeys are usually about finding ourselves vicariously, living through heroic accounts and strengthening this faculty to envision our own worth in relation to our peers. But at bottom, fiction is about finding the good in a dark world and fighting for it against all odds. Because we live in a dark (or fallen) world and must fight to live. Life is a gift. And thankfully, this book reminded me of the joy there is in living, in fighting, and even, in creating the microcosms that sustain our intellectual maturity, which, no matter how adult we seem, is rooted in the experience of our youth, and foremost, its appreciation. For that and many other reasons, I enjoyed my tenancy in this magical realm. And the frigid wastelands and dripping caves, as wars resonate emotional tides, and social ramifications, I cheered on the protagonists as they navigated the slippery present for the sake of the future.

This is a fast-paced finale with unexpected turns of events to defy convention and leave a lasting impression, with memorable characters, both multi-faceted and realistic, which contemplates youth, innocence, experience, wisdom, pain, loss, perseverance, hope, loyalty, and family.

Review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence

Lawrence’s elegiac style is marred by obnoxious repetitions, which act as “sort of” nervous tics, that “sort of” “quite” extend his characters’ ranting and raving to “quite” lengthy caricatures, with insinuating speech patterns and rambling social commentary. 

A lot of uncensored, “softly” lit bad behavior, “softly” heaving against cultural etiquette, injected with an overdose of double or quadruple standards. Ban-baiting, thrusting among the wildflowers and haystacks. An idealized erotic romp through aristocratic England, “sort of” sneering at the lower class, while depicting the upper in a baleful, execrable, nude manner, compiled with x-rated poetic still-lifes, cut through with a continual and obsessive admiration of human bodies, a painterly appreciation for disillusioned 40-year-olds who still “have it.” A book where you can see the nudity and the sex coming from a mile off, approaching at the edge of a scene like Godzilla emerging from the horizon.

Review of The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Why Updike?
This book was more libidinous than a high school boy’s locker room.

But that’s unfair. I’m sure not all locker rooms are this bad.
Hyperdetailed. Meandering. The man could write description. But, in so many cases he dwells on images we can do without. Plot and characters go out the window. We get long passages about the exact process of making a sandwich, a few pages for each little maneuver of these grotesquely high-definition bodies moving through space.

Occasionally, you run across a book that makes you doubt a writer’s sanity. You could lose faith in an author this way, or you could keep rummaging through their oeuvre searching for the Jekyll-Hyde, good-bad, failure-triumphs until a very tainted opinion coalesces. I thought editors were supposed to point out obvious, heinous literary crimes, no matter how frillily the writer dressed them up. Maybe, after a certain point of popularity, you can just get away with anything.

Review of Cryovacked (The Galactic Culinary Society, #3) by D.R. Schoel

In the tradition of Golden Age Science fiction, D. R. Schoel provides another episode from The Galactic Culinary Society.

At times I think of Red Dwarf, Dr. Who and other light entertainments while reading this author’s stories, though they definitely have smarts. At bottom, this is another easily digestible smorgasbord of gustatory delights, all sufficiently exotic, celestial, and creative to satisfy my appetite for futuristic adventure with an eye toward dietary appreciation. Don’t get caught up in the gimmick; there is a real story and a lovable protagonist, as you will find in the other installments. Each stands alone as a self-contained tale and manages to juggle innovative ideas with gentle humor and quirky situations.

A captivating trip with a savory twist – roping in a cooking method to place our protagonist in peril, adds a bit of clever escapism, but I look forward to the memorable imagery and quick-paced plots the author provides. This is a fun two-hour read and an excellent value for your Kindle library – with a bonus story to boot.

I am still trying to pronounce Xstersi.

I’ve always been slightly suspicious of sourdough starters. Watching yeast bloom is typically an unsettling endeavor. But I never expected the second story to turn this subliminal uncertainty into a crackerjack tale.

Looking forward to what the author brings out next.

Review of A Phantom’s Vengeance by Marco Mizzi

Starting off, you will notice impressive world maps. I always spend way too much time reading and gazing at fantasy world maps at the beginnings of books with other-world settings.

Then, throughout my reading I am constantly waiting for specific locations on the maps to be mentioned in the text. When some locations are left out, as often happens in multi-book series, I am left in a state of perpetual angst until I learn more about the unexplored territories, all of which are entirely imaginary. If an author has the gall to include locations which are never mentioned in the text at all, then I must commend them on their world building. The map suddenly becomes a piece of a much larger world map, like the infinite foggy, unrendered outlines in RPG video games.

I would describe the world building here as top-notch. In some senses, making use of a classic revenge plot, The Phantom’s Vengeance does play with the reader’s expectations at specific key points in the story. At bottom it epitomizes an appreciation for the intricacies of the Sword and Sorcery genre. The Golden Age of that genre has passed, though if it felt too canonical it would have lacked the modern grit. What I deem modern grit is a touch of blood splatter darkening the pages, a few well-placed instances of profanity, and a relatable main character who possesses more than 0.3 dimensions. That is, I look for emotional development within the confines of the plot, where the character does things, makes decisions, and then lives with the decisions, often with a measurable amount of discomfort. It’s not just a bit of killing, repenting, betraying and stabbing – though there is plenty of that, don’t get me wrong – you will recognize and be surprised by a significant level of intricacy, of layers, easily discernible beneath the grit. I am referring to subtext, without which many a Hollywoodized novel hath been forgotten (by me).

Add to this well-honed, pulse-elevating action scenes. But not too many. If there had been more, I might have been tempted to skip a few. But I wasn’t. The first chapter, to be critical, contains a dream sequence, which technique I condemn. But the scene passes quickly, and does its job. Soon enough, we’ve our feet planted in an alternate universe, chilling in its baroque verisimilitudes.

All of it is rich with atmospheric details. The author has a tendency to start each chapter section off with a zoom in effect. Bringing up the light, and the trees, the season and the gloaming. I suffer from this need to establish the set-pieces in my own writing and recognize an imagistic approach when I see one. That is not to say I disapprove. Wholeheartedly, I loved most, if not all, of the environmental content, frilled and extrapolated as it is. With traces of Medieval implements gleaming in the background and plentiful shadows rife with ominous concealment.

To experience this tale is to enter a dark and dread-filled world where a blade is as necessary as water and life is a constant struggle against physical threats. That sentence could describe almost any dark fantasy, but would it be a dark fantasy if it couldn’t? Battlefields, swamps, and ravaged towns, overseen by jaded gods, a foreign land lies embroiled in a complex network of internecine feuds, divisions, and tenuous alliances. Maintaining the status quo of a viable livelihood necessitates a war against the forces which impede on every side, fueling an existence indistinguishable from a nightmare. Such is the plight of our hero.

The military movements side by side with the domestic details, offer a breath between actiony episodes. The high fantasy tropes are employed with aplomb, without reserve, toward a focused structure, and within a breathtaking setting. Religion, warfare, comradeship, family, hope, and vengeance, all take their turns on the stage. The hunt, the nomadic way of life, and the soldier’s duties, all fall within our main character’s purview. The perspective is accompanied by a yearning for an escape from the daily carnage toward an elegiac ideal we might recognize as the concept of peace within any given fantastic realm. This dreamy reverie is the incarnation of our deep longing for the mystery and allure of childhood and might be detected in most unabashedly fantastical works since Tolkien. Put simply, an exotic nostalgia is evoked thereby.

Warhorses clad in gleaming black steel, a land forged in violence, rooted in slaughter, but not bereft of the essential characteristics of historical human striving. Loyalty, endurance, conspiracy, treason, rebellion, overlapping expansive locales, interwoven with world building nuggets, well-paced without too much internal monologue, but enough relaxed expositions between the quick scenes that often kick the plot into high gear.

I am reminded in some respects of Way of Kings, due to its depiction of a war, its characters trapped in a cycle of survival. The sword and shield feed Danio’s family. The economies, political structures, laws, and religions are simply window dressing to the core tale. But what a splendid array.

To top it off we’re given a hint of romance, a polytheistic cosmogony, a vivid conjuration of an imagined time and place, convincing in its sophisticated portrayal of warriors and its aesthetic consistency. It is composed of familiar elements but compelling in the way it congeals into a story with universal appeal.

This book ponders the consequences of revenge, and in the psychological dimensions of the characters succeeds in establishing a believable and immersive experience capable of transporting the most jaded escapist among us. The exterior and interior navigation of our protagonist should interest the literary, who will enjoy the central moral dilemma. While the adventurous will savor the well-choreographed battles. The author demonstrates a gift for balanced storytelling, and has produced a first book suitable for fans of Game of Thrones.

Review of The Shivering Ground & Other Stories by Sara Barkat

In this generous and surprising collection, enigmatic mysteries intrude upon an elegiac setting. 

A precocious protagonist discovers a dislocation from the every day. Media intrudes in multifarious forms, and inanimate objects or nature blend with the human elements in a well-orchestrated interplay of fantasy and gothic revelations.
They seethe with cognitive dissonance and pique with magical realism.
Written by an illustrator who brought to life the classic: “The Yellow Wallpaper”. I notice some eerie stylings, and influence from the dark short story which must have meant so much to this author. One of the primary concerns of many stories appears to be cinematic, or atmospheric, though they intrigue on the sentence level, seducing with their rich imagery and unexpected subtexts. They are tightly edited, deeply strange, bizarre, and uncanny all while striking me as vaguely familiar, like places visited in a dream. With literary references peeking from behind the scenes, at times domestic, and at others otherworldly, they will live long in memory.

“Now the trees beyond the window, like mourners, bent beneath the fury of the storm.” This quote will give you a taste of the suggestive figurative language suffusing the narratives. Enigmatic beasts,
exquisite use of rare and esoteric vocabulary, a vivid conjuring of unexpected wonders – all these things properly fit into what you will find here, this menagerie of quirky stories, but no descriptor can properly convey the breathless subtlety lurking under every line. Prepare for a dark descent into fantastically skewed worlds fraught with visions derived from an abundant understanding of dreamy fantasy. They are clever, inventive, and haunting. The author even tries out the second person perspective in the third story, and makes use of a host of other literary techniques to add flair and flavor to the already resplendent writing. While a couple of the stories might ring as inconclusive, the majority of them are shiver-inducing, if not for their terror-strewn settings, then for their hypodermic-sharp symbolism. The unnerving humanness of mannikins, for instance, has never failed to creep me out. The inner whorls of the rose, the trickle of moonlight through a cracked window, faintly uttered sounds amid the gathering shadows. If you appreciate and delight in these things, then this collection will tickle your senses, set your imagination working like a live wire, jumpstart your lucid dreams and leave you reeling.

Review of Alone With You in the Ether by Olivie Blake

Never thought I would rate a romance 5 stars.

Its literary stylings help. Replete with typical ups and downs, as common throughout the genre as physicality, and lust, it nonetheless triumphs in my mind on several levels. Sure, it has very damaged and possibly suicidal, and most definitely flawed, and heavily chip-shouldered characters, performing in the form of gloriously reprehensible saboteurs of their own happiness. But human, and readable they remain. You will want to know what happens to them, which is all that literary fiction characters can hope for.

Slow to start and even slower to burn its way past your watery eyes, burrowing down into your heart’s soil, rooting, scurrying, and gnawing away at your preconceptions. It does not so much defy its genre as justify it, perhaps. Opinions will differ, as usual, but my guess is, if you give it a chance to impress you, it will, and if you let it wound you, it will, and if you deny the probability that you have felt some of these feelings, then it will linger in memory indefinitely. Is it wish fulfillment? Or is it real life? Most of us will die, never certain.

Review of The Maples Stories by John Updike

The gift of loving. The heart’s projection in a face. 

Poetic logic extrapolated into pullulating prose. Rhythms of the distracted interior. The quiet calm of an assured mind. The heady grandeur of a passing fancy. Every stiff tonsure and allure of wafting tendrils of silken hair. A magniloquent breeze. Heartfelt murmur of a bird in wind-beaten rafters. A seeking aloft of cloud-blurred sky. A heartbeat chained to your chest. The striven sentence gartered with a quick verb. The heavy motion of a sigh. Billowing. Harrowed, the child’s cry, penned in the far room, wallowing among toys with diapered Godzilla thighs, he cries, he cries. Angered words, the effluence of a relationship souring, the nightmare of a night’s drive, shame-pallored. Exhaustion, melancholic diatribes. What lies under decency, descriptions to paralyze, awe-stippled immersion, inspiring exquisite awareness, paltry gestures, the loyalty inherent in every phrase. Guilt sobs, ecstatic squeals of solemn heartthrob, a heart robbed of devout ballast. A mind navigating treacherous soul waters. Inner courage and its lack, detectable with a word or wordlessness. Exploring hurt. Imagery so immaculate you want to house it in glass. How all of life, no matter how convincing it is, is but a dream, partially remembered, drearily endured, or breathlessly eroded. Smart, swift, and elaborately unkind. Sincere, entranced, rapture-ridden iridescent impressions. The words have an elegant complexion. Emotions bunching up, stacking like Saltines in the esophagus. How we all drag along afterbirths, our pasts, and within its sticky folds our bitterly recollected traumas swarm like fire ants. The obsession with sleeping with people, adultery, like alcoholism, a congenital disease of his characters, a modus operandi. The people who give them a new lease on life are always located outside the marriage, they are trying to solve their problems by feeding the hole inside them. Facing the void of the self.

These were pieces of my feelings while reading this collection.

Review of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

A brilliant premise, executed in an intimate way.

Reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451. A rich commentary on our language-centric, media-absorbed, screen-focused, noise-cluttered, maximalist, data-encumbered, socially dependent, spectacle-obsessed, death-in-life, attention-hoarding, anti-filial, pseudo-environmental, chemically enhanced, status-updating, soul-denying, disengaging ubermodern lives. A slow burn of acidic satirical documentation. A writer to watch, with a grip on the societal pulse and a compelling voice. It could have played out in any number of ways, but the scientific and lingual investigation posited and answered most of my curiosity-bound questions about the incumbent crisis of the plot, the resonating consequences. The main character was desperate, denial-ridden, and offered a stilted perspective on the proceedings. I felt that it was an effective argument, lacking tonal relief, possibly overdeveloped, and he didn’t allow the mystery to breath. Maybe too hurried or the concept was milked until it grew stale. Hard to pin down. In any case, I wavered between intrigued and pestered, settling somewhere in the neighborhood of impressed.

Review of The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee

A work of genius and unfathomable eccentricity.

In a post-societal literal data migration to physical clouds an obsessively cataloguing vehemently organic gardener pontificates on his dysthymia in a voice infused with shades of contemporary zeitgeists through which the reader perceives a softly dystopian alternate reality where rampant “affluenza” afflicts the phantasmal remnants of a happiness-worshipping, technologically dependent, corporately desensitized indistinguishable mass of human consciousnesses embroiled in a perpetual feedback loop of remedy cultivation and symptom diagnosis. A riptide of subtext illuminates the inspired ramblings of a disembodied protagonist.
Lee appropriates techno-babble and marketing lingo to weave a kaleidoscopic prose poem 180 pages in length. An elegant ménage à trois of Eastern philosophy, Western excess, and futuristic speculation.
The only comparable book in existence is perhaps Rikki Ducornet’s recent Trafik.

After the “great leap sideways” the soul of humanity is dislocated and pursued. Yang is a grass roots mystic in choose-your-own doom era.

Never have I read such a wily and mesmeric chronicle, percolating with disturbing subliminal undertones of human spiritual heat death.

Review of A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

This book is a synthesis of subtle magical realism, well-rounded characters, and straightforward storytelling. 

I love learning about Japanese history and culture and this novel reminded me of that love. Ozeki provides snide commentary, learned context, surprising twists, humor and pathos. It contains ample literary chops and old-fashioned family drama charm. She is an excellent audiobook reader, and adds a lot of texture to her performance. All-around her writing becomes an irresistible and heart-breaking novelistic voice through clever narration and balanced analysis of modern societal problems. Very close in technique to vintage Murakami.

My one gripe is it contains yet another explanation of Schrödinger’s cat. I’ve lost count of the times books and teachers and television and movies have explained it to me. I get it already.

I will be reading the rest of her books now.

Review of The Phoenix Rises (Beyond Imagination, #1) by P. Benjamin Mains

Epitomizing an appreciation for superhero culture, this novel launches the reader into a wacky adventure amid a casual narrative voice, and approachable, easy to follow prose. 

I recommend you sink into the first person perspective and let the cinematic quality of the novel spirit you away. The pop culture references come fast and hard, as you navigate the fantastical and realistic elements of the plot, which are both well integrated into the main character’s consciousness.

The author even plants easter eggs for more advanced nerds to uncover. In its thoroughly modern setting, the protagonist embarks on a nostalgia-suffused adventure through urban woes. A phrenetic pace is sustained, rife with splendid homages. Furthermore, it ponders how to recapture the joy and excitement of childhood when real life wears you away, which is something most adults can relate to.

It’s action-packed pages will keep you invested and remind you why so many of us hold our dreams sacred – unruly as they may be. This book reforms the classical tropes to be found throughout many recognizable precursors and transforms them into a fresh take on the superhero genre.

For worshippers of escapism, what more can you ask? It has a similar mystique or feel as Ready Player One, but does not suffer from over-explanation like that blockbuster. See if you can hold on, while the staggering number of intersecting concepts culled from the annals of popular franchises slide in and out of the narrative.

At bottom finding the hero inside of everyone involves a journey and a fundamental understanding of the limitless possibilities offered by those shining examples we have immortalized. And those pesky Zom-borgs keep popping up. While it maintains some video game aesthetics, as our hero musters the courage to face an unusual destiny, the whole works as a flowing visual story, studded with some familiar faces.

It is a creative, engrossing, and thoroughly enjoyable story, communicating the fidelity of adolescent absorption, as well as the authenticity of a connoisseur’s commentary on the vast universes enmeshing our public consumerist psyches.

It leaves one a little bit wiser about how to understand the self through the interpretation and filtering of the immense troves of mainstream art and media to which our civilization is heir.

Review of Art Farm: A Dark Comedy by Marc Dickerson

Sometimes I think of the literary landscape as a sort of ‘art farm’ where creations are formulaically manufactured en masse, racing against a never-ending quota to fill shelves, which after a period of years, become landfills. We build civilization on top of these landfills, until archeologists dig the fragments back up and invest them with far more significance than they ever had.

Most books drown in a sea of other books. The reader is adrift in a tiny lifeboat, and the clock is ticking. How then, does any artist expect to create anything that will last or even be seen by isolated readers, post-flood, gnawing on the torn covers and pulp miasma that sustains the infinite abyss of the human imagination?

In this self-aware critique of the plight of the modern writer and artist, we are treated to a facetious, first-person account of one character’s struggle with the dilemma of self-expression, which is a sort of self-definition, and a paradox, since we can only compare ourselves to other humans, and in doing so, appear a pale imitation of more prominent examples.

Through humorous details, seamless interior monologue ,and a consistent pace, the author quickly establishes the main thrust of the novel, occasionally veering into surreal asides reminiscent of Haruki Murakami’s seedy reminiscences. With a nostalgic appreciation for the eccentrics and weirdos omnipresent in the ‘art scene’ subculture, a catalogue of modern woes presents itself to our narrator. It is garnished with plenty of pop culture and literary references, peppered with dreamlike events, and propelled by an indelible sense of dread – dread of unseen forces, fate, the hopelessness of the future of mankind, our own mortality, etc. The main character goes with the flow, through predictable stages: drugs, overindulgence, and envy, pondering crackpot postmodern techniques, energy poems, and various aids to the flow of creative juices. Pneumonic exercises, free association, and satirical panic-rants also aid in depicting a strong cultural awareness and the bitterly unrealistic aspirations of any self-respecting artist of today. The narrator seems a little old to be engaging in this behavior (but then again, 30 is the new 15 I suppose). Injected with intriguing B-movie style and non-pc forthrightness, the book will pleasantly surprise you or offend you depending on your level of artistic jadedness. The characters let their hair down, air their grievances, and don’t give a hoot about others’ feelings, societal mores, and what sensitive people deem appropriate.

Amid the rampant worship of writers and idolatry of artistic icons, uninhibited expression can shed light on our numbed media-fixated society. Here we have the desire for recognition in a consumerist landscape and the Icarusian death of the artist against the unforgiving void of the Philistinian population of the planet. The perils of cubicle habitation and the thrust of corporate America – how crushing it is to individualistic thought and worthwhile accomplishment. Will art become obsolete one day?

This book expresses the longing for the ideal conditions and mental state in which art of lasting value can be fostered, even if we can never seem to pin down the exact definition of what constitutes true art.

Review of Victorian Songlight: The Birthings of Magic & Mystery by Kathy Martone

The first thing the reader will notice about this novel is the rich texture of the setting.

This thought-provoking tale is set in the Ozark Mountains right off the bat, providing a luscious ambiance for the plot. It is a setting equipped with the authentic feel of its time and place, old furniture and full of Victorian touches. The author explores local folklore, legends and community mysteries, including ample historical context to add layers of verisimilitude and realism to her story. The characters engage with spiritual connections echoing through the past, leaving the reader to ponder their greater significance as the story unfolds.

The author clearly put research and knowledge to use, while retaining a playful and reliable pathos throughout. Through the eyes of our main character, we experience the joys of discovering a wilderness more alive than our mundane urban existence. Furthermore, she incorporates vivid imagery, tons of descriptive detail, magic and romance to keep you turning pages. The writing has a slightly poetic and psychedelic bent which is offset by many references to intimate details within its characters’ lives, as she showcases their diverse backgrounds and differing viewpoints.

Coupled with realistic dialogue and historical flair the short chapters add a quick pace through the unpredictable tale of superstition, and psychic abilities intertwined with a moving drama.

You can perceive an appreciation for childhood wonderment and a sense of a past full of mystery and imaginative potential, while exposing the reader to Eastern learning, contrasted with the Western life depicted in Kate’s personal life. The daily details ground the narrative among its supernatural elements.
When Kate embarks on a new sort of life, the reader is given the rewarding experience of following along on her spiritual journey. The novel also tackles the processing of childhood traumas and the affect early life has on our development, bringing into play a strong understanding of human psychology and New Age insight amid a classic tale of redemption and growth.

Review of Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer

I would like to point out to any would-be literary authors that adultery is not a fundamental physical law of the universe.

I. B. Singer first ensorcelled me through his stories. Those are recommended for any fan of Chekhov or Maupassant. But like those two masters, this one’s technique becomes too apparent in the long form, and the technique is not innovative when stretched out over 560 pages.

In this first novel of his I have read, and passively enjoyed, I was treated to much indecent exposure to the author’s comfort zones. These are similar to erogenous zones in the sense that successful authors can’t stop stroking them. When author’s choose to write about one sect, about one type of personality, and about one act countless times, it lowers the value of their overall output. They seem to be trying to tell us something important in the space of 8000 pages which might have been expressed more poetically over 300 pages. I. B. Singer writes about the Jewish people, their tenure in New York, Poland, and selected other locales. Yet, the beauty of these depictions lie in their universal moral core, their grounding in Torah, their subtle humor, and their clean exuberance. Yet, if you believe that Woody Allan remade the same movie 55 times then you will suspect this author of applying the formula to his books, I fear. He recasts characters, who go through the same process of sinning and repenting, growing and dying, whining and excreting, blubbering and moaning, rutting and birthing new monstrosities, accusing and casting the first stone. This mechanistic approach may be effective in moderate doses, but you can decide rather to focus on the author’s pristine snippets of wisdom, summing up religious truths in secular format, boiling down all of the wretchedness of this life, which is the pigpen we have fashioned from the mud of our vices and repetitious behavior. One life resembles another. Nature persists, even as our bones molder, our families fall to ruin, our houses crumble and new children are born that they may fight this tide of iniquity and prejudice, this competitive game with incomprehensible rules. Superstition composes the entire fabric of existence.

Review of Everything and Nothing by Jorge Luis Borges

This volume collects a few pieces not found in Collected Fictions including “Nightmares,” “Kafka and His Precursors,” “The Wall and the Books,” and “Blindness,” plus several famous, masterful tales.

In “Blindness,” Borges discusses the various qualities of his blindness, along with similar instances in literary history: Milton, Joyce, Homer. A strange current of poetic and visual grasp of language connects them. I could read Borges on literature endlessly. His essay style is approachable and as fascinating as his fiction.

In “Nightmares,” he gives us an impressive and captivating essay on the topic of dreams. Per usual, he captures dozens of literary references without sounding didactic, and stimulates the mind and imagination of the the reader with the finely tuned instrument of his own. It reminded me of many dreams I’ve had, in which whole histories and lifetimes blossom and die during the nocturnal interval. Dreams are intimately associated with desires. So in a dream a writer may dream that he or she has written a slew of books which do not exist in reality, one can recall pieces of those fake books upon awaking in the same way that a writer can recall fondly many parts of the books they have actually written – where then, is that ephemeral data conjured, stored, or manifested? Where are the remaining segments of these dream books? If you are wandering down a hallway in a dream, you may hear sounds beyond closed doorways. What is happening behind those doors, in invisible dream rooms? Why does the mind feel the need to fill the unseen rooms with inhabitants? A very thought-provoking essay.

All of Borges’ writings should be cherished and reread throughout one’s life.

Review of Traveller – Inceptio by Rob Shackleford

In accidental time travel books you usually have to put up with a lot of antics, but this one is more about exploring two worlds throughout history – the ancient and the modern, contrasting their ways of life.

The life of scientific research is bolstered by detailed scenes and precise narration, grounding us in a relatable scenario.

Add to this atmospheric descriptions of far-flung characters’ travails, and I was more than a little intrigued.
The set up allows the reader to ponder the potential for traveling through time, and how it changes the perspective of the busy, often distracted modern consciousness.

While the storytelling is controlled and the authorial voice is subdued, it easily gets its point across and captures the majesty of its setting. Not only that, it possesses the intellectual depth I’m looking for in a piece of fiction. Primarily, it is a dramatic interweaving of ideas.

A requirement I have while reading time travel stories is that I must learn something about history along the way, or receive a poignant satire of history. The Saxon England encountered here taught me plenty. It managed to be entertaining at the same time.

In the beginning, we are presented with mysteries, and with a little patience will are rewarded with answers. It contains effective action and an engaging plot. The moment by moment experience offers a well-written alternative to a lot of similar books out there. Though I’ve seen the concept done before, I’ve never seen it done exactly this way. It is a book best jumped onto like a ride. A true reading experience.

I always find scientific aspects of a story to be of minor importance, except when they’re done masterfully. The sciency moments here were not overwhelming or intrusive, but functional and lent a cinematic quality to the whole. Clearly, some research has gone into it, which is always a plus.
Characters with challenging decisions to make, and a small learning curve for the reader to adjust to in the shifts in narration at the start, all require active participation from the reader. All in all, Traveller Inceptio is still a very safe bet for your S-F fix.

Review of The Easy Life in Kamusari (Forest, #1) by Shion Miura

The Easy Life in Kamusari is an easy read. It is compulsively readable, and I loved it.

It is one of the most pleasant novels I have read in my life. It is not as humorous as Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, but it is frequently chuckle-inducing.

Read it, learn about Japanese tradition, history, and the great beauty of the wilderness, which above all, is a reflection of inner beauty, the same inner beauty hidden within human beings, concealed by the smog of city life, like a particulate cloud ensconces our modern minds and bodies – distraction, a sort of blindness. To immerse yourself in this green-hued story, to work with your hands alongside the protagonist, through all of the agonizingly detailed forestry implementation and day-to-day administration, is to rediscover a primordial love, harmony, and lust for life. It is a balanced tale, flowing as effortlessly as a leisurely river, the product of a wise and gentle writer who does not resort to literary writing in all of its egotistical indulgence.

It depicts the clash between a modern urban city youth within an unpandering forest community, where he learns to trust himself, others, and appreciate the fruitful and rewarding life he was prepared to ignore along with the bulk of contemporary homo sapiens. A brilliant and moving and unforgettable reading experience.

It is not slick or daring, except in the incredible level of fidelity to actual rural life in Japan. A breath of fresh air, an escape and antidote from the self-absorbed fiction produced in reams daily over the last hundred years.

Review of The Voice at 3:00 A.M.: Selected Late and New Poems by Charles Simic

I’ve never understood the appeal of Selected Poetry or Stories collections, especially when an author releases multiple a la Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

The acceptable approach seems to be: Take your favorite ten poems from your favorite five previously published collections and slap on five new poems to justify the publication.

A pet peeve of most bibliomaniacs, I imagine, is having the same pieces across multiple editions. Like when Vandermeer re-anthologized certain weird stories across multiple weird anthologies. Or when you realize all 100 Harlan Ellison books are just scrambled permutations of the same 100 stories in deceptive combinations. The randomness is counterproductive and maddening.

When will Library of America release a Complete Charles Simic? Add to that a Complete Billy Collins. Instead we are forced to abuse our librarians, demanding dozens of tiny compilations, creating immense flow charts of various versions of miniscule works and tables of contents, collating, scouring, amassing, and finally, in the end, giving up.

Simic remains a kinetically rhythmic synthesizer of modern ennui.

Review of The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

While I did not think the full intensity of Sebald’s vision was sustained throughout this meandering book, I was at times ensorcelled.

The reportage was in-depth enough to intrigue. Orbiting the biographical themes, historical contexts and tidbits, the author, with his critical brilliance, presents, massages, and salivates over a garrulous catalogue of personal researches. With a pervasive voice, an authoritative aplomb, a pseudo-didactic tone slips into reminiscences. This is a séance with the phantasms of pasts, a sum survey of humanistic endeavors petering one into another. I was ensconced in the pursuit of knowledge, arcane and representative, within the greater realization that we are all a webwork of infused ideas. Sebald’s bald approach, enriched disregard for formal pattern, and argumentative wizardry is mildly addictive.

Review of Critical Hit: A Gaming Mystery by W.M. Akers

Critical Hit promises a hybrid of adventure and mystery. And it delivers on its promise.

First off, I was intrigued by the well-designed maps in the front pages, which seemed to promise a dual setting.
The first is Tennessee in 2003 and the second is the fantasy locale created for sport, but which is often real enough to convince most players of table-top RPGs.

What follows is a fast-paced novel with first-person narration that makes for an immersive reading experience. It pokes fun with cultural references and contains an endearing intimacy with its characters, sustained through effective scenes of ups and downs, where our narrator must face challenges we can all relate to.

The medieval feel of the fantasy atmospheric backdrop makes way for a modern set-up in which the griffons and weaponry are secondary to the real events, until the reality of Callie’s life shifts gameward.

After the initial set up, we are treated to a well-described action and adventure, with signature touches of humor on every page. While the modern-America sections contrasted the fantasy setting, they were no less interesting.

The impressive character description and realistic dialogue kept me turning pages. The D & D-esque play by play clued me into the sub-culture I was only mildly familiar with, while revealing satirical character traits. There were moments reminiscent of Stranger Things for their pseudo-retro nostalgic feel. Plenty of pop culture references to engage my inner trivia buff. The author gets into the intricacies of gaming, arts and crafts, and world building with aplomb.

I am guilty of taking an escapist approach to life when troubles rear their head – which could be a side effect of the media suffusing our culture. When uncontrollables shatter the status quo, it is tempting to seal ourselves inside worlds of our own creation. Amid the moving familial backstory, school situation, or gaming description I was at home in the author’s always engrossing prose style, which I would describe as consummately approachable.

Tragedy tests the main character, but love for fantasy persists, pushing Callie deeper into the game. So too, will each development tempt you deeper into the microcosm of this novel.

Review of Did You Read The News? by Jack Merwin

The first thing you will notice about Did you Read the News is that it has an approachable learning curve.

The world building is delivered casually, by closely following the main character’s life. The beginning lulled me into a false sense of security since it was peaceful both in the relatable events it depicts and the method of its storytelling. It is well-paced, and possesses a soothing homogeneity. The escapist trappings begin to deepen after several chapters, once the reader learns more about the dystopian setting.

In terms of plot, structure, character, and literary aesthetics, I think a lot of genre literature hinges on engaging the reader’s awareness of the world building. This novel establishes a large scope and provides a deep look at a viable system, just similar enough to real-world situations that we can extrapolate and immerse ourselves into another world.

In my opinion the most compelling part of the book was this relatable world building and the character development. With cinematic aplomb, the author provides contrasting scenes which give the characters room to breathe and act. We follow Antuny, his family, friends, home, school, neighbors, yard work, hunting trips, his run ins and struggles. Many of his personal and intimate conflicts are given equal importance to the larger global problems looming on the horizon. Background information is filled in slowly, along with the budding romance between him and Krasna. The domestic backdrop gives way to a wider expanse of futurism, detailed through a shift in tone and explanation of interplanetary history of the Triumvirate.

Throughout the novel, the imagery remains consistently interesting, whether the narrator dwells on large set pieces or the minutia of every day life, it does effectively convey the texture and rhythm of this alternate world.

As an allegory about societal strife amid foreign conquerers, questionable leaders, pervasive propaganda, and consuming social interaction, I found that it triggered several intriguing lines of thought related to our modern age. The book will stick with you, if you stick with it and engage with the many levels of critique and entertainment it offers.

Review of Shadow Of The Wicked by Douglas W.T. Smith

Douglas Smith’s Shadow of the Wicked takes place within a realm called Three Kingdoms.

Firstly, I was highly impressed with the cover design and map design, and the perfect formatting of the book. I believe this will appeal to fans of Game of Thrones or Wheel of Time, though I am not extremely well-versed in the genre. It does radiate an ‘epic’ tone in my opinion, but that could be the result of the larger themes at play and the sense that we are beginning in medias res. Instead of the usual ‘tour of the town’ approach in the initial chapter, we are presented with brief interlocking scenes in the third person which serve to construct the main threads of the book. The tone and behavior of the characters is established right away and the reactions to their respective situations provide the central premise.

The tale is told with fast-paced, tightly edited, modern fantasy, medieval-style writing, encompassing a Witcher-esque atmosphere, fraught with bandits and sorcerers and lots of ale-drinking. You will meet relatable characters with dark pasts and intertwined fates who tell a compelling story from the dual perspectives as the two protagonists. This setup depicts a conflict between brothers, set against a tempestuous political climate. Struggling through tortures and elaborate restrictions, it’s the character interaction which drives the plot, through which devices the worldbuilding is elaborated and adequate background is filled in amid the action.

I always enjoy exploring a unique and fascinating world, and the world building supplied here certainly qualifies. The variety and texture of the world is conveyed through detailed description that does not weigh the narrative down. It is entertaining and written in the manner of a quick-reading essential puzzle piece to a larger story. As a series, the other books will have to sustain a high level of tension and cinematic approach to storytelling, so that they do not seem watered down by comparison. There were fewer info dumps and internal monologues than I expected, which contributed to my enjoyment and the ease of reading. In terms of communication of ideas, this novella accomplishes its goals admirably, and will leave most readers craving further adventures.

I hope that the magick system is more thoroughly explained in the next installment, to add another fleshed-out layer to the story. But the author has begun a promising literary project.

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

Should be read after Crash. 

Human as landscape, industrial wasteland as superorganism. The mathematical formulae of asexual coitus. Fiction as abstract art. Pale, sapped, inhuman dreamscapes. Traffic jams. Meteor-scored faces, etched in ghostly moonlight. A skeletal William S. Burroughs mannikin was strung up in Ballard’s closet, dressed as Marilyn Monroe, strapped with a prosthetic something or other, dangling a clownish Ronald Reagan mask from its vampiric jaws.

Review of I Call Him HIM (I Call Him HIM #1) by Scott W. Kimak

Combining a quick pace with believable dialogue, the first-person narration has personality from the prologue onward, and builds tension with precise description. Though the perspective shifts, and we get many varied views of the skewed world of the book through the well-rounded characters, it remains a breakneck reading experience.

Mystery suffuses the setting and immerses the reader in a perspective outside history, with persistent signs of collapse intruding upon the characters’ awareness. The dark propulsion of the plot recounts the disturbing behavior of the enigmatic HIM and adjacent, key characters.

The writing style is compulsively readable thanks to the short chapters and frequent, action-filled twists. With a mix of motivation and desperation, the characters act in unpredictable, but always entertaining ways.

In the cinematic horror moments, the subtle world building is richly explored, and there’s never a slow moment. A couple snide moments sprinkled in undercut the dark, brooding tone of the narrative, and offer a relatable commentary.

The desolate world depicted makes for awe-inspiring set pieces, while switching viewpoints chapter by chapter offers new insights into the demon-haunted land, also showcasing realistic scenes of intimate lives and experiences, only to reveal dark intentions and the deeply flawed human nature underlying it all.

One is made witness to evil and intense battles, while progressing through this strange and compelling framework. The torment of men and demons who in some ways resemble one another may not be to everyone’s taste, but they make for an intriguing and quick read.

Review of Children of Time (Children of Time, #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I’m extremely picky when it comes to science fiction. The longer a book is, the more I begin to dissect the sentences, which too often contain extraneous syntax. 

This one is sprinkled with a sloppy dialogue tag and unnecessary gesticulations clutter the dialogue every once in a while. A few too many speech patterns described. I only need to be shown palp-flopping sign language a dozen times to get the point. Not likely to bother most people. Commercially successful S-f epics are not polished to the level of the usual hoity-toity stuff I read. Yet, I’m drawn to magnificent space operas, and this is certainly one.

Non-traditional in approach, it depicts alien life entirely different from our current society. Where’s the fun in a book describing aliens that resemble humans? If you’re going to have aliens, don’t make them Star Trek aliens. But the set-up was brilliant here. The spider colonies were fascinating. I was pulling for spider characters more than the human side characters.

Why are the gene-manipulators called nanoviruses? Aren’t viruses already beyond microscopic? Are these supposed to be even smaller than viruses? A better name would be smart viruses or something similar. Another nitpick.

The spider civilization, rendered with consummate skill, served to contrast the human situation well. Seems like a relatively realistic consequence of human foibles. Made me think of Terra Formars, the manga about cockroaches evolving past human capabilities on a fresh colony planet, and humanity’s race to combat them. The set up was similar, but the execution wildly dissimilar. Tchaikovsky isn’t as interested in battles, but in displaying the concert of forces at work in his cosmic creation.

Will I read more Adrian Tchaikovsky? I don’t know. Will he cut out the fluff and give us those solid ideas without distracting me every twenty seconds? My cringe muscles are sore after this one and it makes me feel like a heartless critic pointing out these minuscule cracks in a masterpiece.

Review of Survival: A Sci-Fi/Horror, where reality begins to bite. by Chris Wright

Guided along by smoothly flowing prose, the reader will perceive a consistent building tension in this genre-bending novel. 

Parts of it almost read like diary entries, and provide intimate details as well as high-level backstory description.
Full of subtle tension and propelled by the interactions of realistic characters in a sequence of atmospheric scenes, the dialogue is especially compelling, revealing the inner psychology of the players while creating a continual sense of movement.

Using a host of diverse characters and a shifting setting enhances the constant exploration of inner lives as much as it evolves the exterior mysteries. The psychological ramifications of our protagonist are elaborately exposed, dissected, and revealed throughout the fast-paced plot.

Many of the characters pursue specialized sciences, and the large interrelated cast members do not fall into simple categories. While the plot took a little while to get started, the author does a good job of building and developing his characters. Through riveting action scenes we are treated to their turn by turn recounting of the traumas and fallout involved in the horrifying experiences in the woods, as the mystery of the encounter suffuses the storytelling on every layer.

Paranoia, the skewed perspective of desperate characters, the nature of reality are all accounted for. Suspenseful ambiguities, thrilling action and an interplay of dependable speculative tropes make for a delightful reading experience. A highly twisty plot, with unexpected reveals and a persistent dread will surprise the reader.

Review of Dadaoism by Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp

One must look closely at the cover to appreciate the art. Words, portmanteau or apropos to the content, beginning with the longest word and decreasing slowly into the four-letter expletive at the bottom, cascading into one another. These key terms suggest some of the tricksterism to be encountered in the anthology. Finally, there are the two gender symbols merged at the base, encompassing the two halves of the human experience. It reminds me of a funnel, a filter of language.

But what is Dadaoism? Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp posit two partial comments on the theme in their superb introductions. Isis explains that authors erect armor around themselves in the form of writings, feebly increasing the durability of their spiritual vessels. In my mind, the metaphor extends to ephemeral mansions and worlds constructed by authors to escape reality, in the hope for the endurance of our personal brand of imaginative expression. We each craft a golden disc, but instead of the great void, we cast it into the supersaturated information exchange permeating our culture.

Crisp cites Zhuang Zhou’s well-known parable of the butterfly’s dream. Which makes one wonder, is our reality a personal interpretation? A flood of interpretations is likely to result from reading this anthology.

It begins with an intriguing story by Reggie Oliver – a controlled, subtle, philosophical tale in which the main character comes to identify with a fancy chair. It hints at the mingling of souls with inanimate matter, or the Asian trope of inanimate objects which inherit souls after reaching sufficient age.

The range of authors and stories (and poems) is immense. At times cryptic, impenetrable, irrelevant, and oddly hallucinogenic, this collection defies as it entertains. Whether they are advocating an elimination of style or motive, or relishing these things, this collection subverts whatever expectations you bring to it. I found Nina Allan’s tale one of the more traditional. Peter Gilbert’s “Body Poem,” seems to extrapolate into fiction of what Shelley Jackson has been doing in real life for years. It was one of my least favorite inclusions. Whenever several inexplicable twists occurred in this unpredictable collaboration, the intrusion of the imagination was everywhere evident. “The Autobiography of a Tarantula” by Jesse Kennedy might have been my favorite. Haunting and creative, unhurried, ruthless, and profound. A skewed perspective is often a leaping-off point for these microcosms, branching into unaccustomed spaces of neurally stimulating territory.

A good example was “The Lobster Kaleidoscope” by Julie Sokolow, wherein the chance existence of homonyms dictated the slant and content of the tale. A surreal and brilliant slide into uncanny dreamscape.

“Koda Kumi,” a ‘remix’ by Isis of Crisp, was particularly mesmeric, combining traditional storytelling elements with characteristic artful atmosphere and lyrical prose.

The unsettling dystopian “Poppies,” by Megan Lee Beals, though abrupt, added layers and dimensions of weird.

Totaling 29, these wildly different and stirring works contain something for everybody, as well as some things for nobody, and no things for somebody, etc. The permutations of the human mind are practically infinite, but our prevailing sensibilities latch on to easy interpretations. Be baffled. Wander through the labyrinth of hyperbolic experimentation. In its heart is the luscious fruit of enlightenment, sprouting from a rhizosphere of dark, subconscious exploration.

Review of Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes by Mark Samuels

A solid collection of unsettling short stories in the vein of Machen, Poe, and Ligotti.

Mark Samuels appears to be able to hold his own when compared to these giants. His command of language is only matched by his superb imagination. Darkness infuses every atmospheric example of traditional storytelling. While the stories in this book are not wildly experimental, they are not predictable or conventional. I would say a few of them verge on cheesy, but the tone and description are handled very well. The characters do not act like idiots, as in most horror films, but the events definitely assume a cinematic allure.

The stories to be found here are:
preface – Mark Samuels is genuinely recognized as a paramour within the genre of weird fiction. The easiest comparison is Ligotti, though you will find touches of influence and originality ranging the gamut of weird authors.

Glyphotech – a startling tale about the perils of corporate group think, with a B-movie ending.

Sentinels – Another likable protagonist, encountering horror in the everyday. Derelict places in the city achieve prominence as effective motifs.

Patient 704 – being trapped in an insane asylum is a well-used concept. This was a provocative example. Television static emerges as a theme within the author’s work, conveying a subliminal layer of unearthly or demonic maliciousness.

Shallaballah – very creepy. Mannikin’s become a theme. More run-down tenement buildings, grungy, gritty locales, and physically repulsive characters doing shocking things.


Cesare Thodol: Some Lines Written on a Wall – Found text as a motif. The cliche of mental patients scribbling on walls combined with a fungal anomaly. Well-honed horror tropes employed with aplomb.

The Cannibal Kings of Horror
Destination Nihil by Edmund Bertrand
The Vanishing Point

Regina vs. Zoskia – A legal case lingering through the ages, concealing deeply insane motives. Posits that the universe at large exhibits insanity.

A Gentleman from Mexico – A tribute to Lovecraft and a metafictional found text story. Very atmospheric and satisfying.

While I was not bowled over by this collection, I was entertained all the way through and enthralled on a few occasions. I’ll devour many more short stories by this author before I grow weary, and if there is more variety in future volumes, I may become addicted to the easy-to-read style. A highly recommended entry point into cosmic horror.

Review of Pleasant Tales II by Justin Isis

Isis doesn’t disappoint. In this collection, he shows versatile and snide talent, facetious and chameleonic mastery, satiric and oneiric brilliance. 

He is a stark commentator on modern mores and a profound pursuant of personal stylistic innovation. A mesmeric and elegiac offering from a grossly under-appreciated storyteller. I think you will want to read all of his work once you dip your toes in. My favorite so far has been I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like. Check it out.

The handful of stories presented here do not represent the sum total of the author’s powers but a sampling of his fluctuating concerns. A quick read, but a memorable one. They concern young and old people (and a chimp) encountering surprising and skewed fates. The astute reader will notice that the language takes part in the story, sliding into overwritten purple prose to emphasize the exuberant willful tone. These are exercises in style, and simultaneous explorations of outré concepts. Every move is made with intention and veiled playfulness. Any approach toward contempt is a retreat from treacly predictability. Any advance toward ruthless experimentation is a disturbingly effective joust with the reader’s perception.

His most compelling techniques are evident in the masterpiece ‘A Walk in the Park,’ where we are made to witness a perfect storm of rapid-fire mordant set-pieces adorned with meteoric wit. One can easily discern the social awareness within the stilted portrayal of self-cultivation and rampant business acumen on display.

With consummate skill, the other tales switch up their modus operandi, delighting as they defy convention. If they do not give you a warm, tingly feeling, they will slide under your skin and burn. With this infectious and addictive volume, I am committed to reading everything else he has written or shall write – such is my enthusiasm. You will not find a prequel to Pleasant Tales II unless you look under the bibliography of Brendan Connell. Spoiler alert: I’ll be reading that soon.

Review of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver

I surprised myself with this second reading by not wanting to give the collection 5 stars. 

Carver’s first collection is relatively short – as was everything he published – the man was not very prolific. I’ll review his major publications as I get through them in the LOA collection, then read the Poetry and uncollected stories and essays. All told, about 1600 pages of material by Carver exists. This first 181 pages of it is middling Carver – him feeling out the style which would come to redefine much of American short story writing.

In some ways it is reminiscent of Chekhov, but there is a more subdued quality. Less variety. Very little figurative language, sometimes what is being stated is completely literal, and other times he will end a story on a disquieting and eerily imaginative note. A lot of the time he simply states what his characters are doing. Every story features cigarettes and heavy drinking, most of them contain some form of violence of verbal abuse, and you might suspect the author was simply writing about himself. Though Carver’s life resembled some of his characters’ in places, there is certainly a detectable distance. Occasional satire. Much dry, artful humor. Straight-faced, utterly bland recountings of a day or two of life. Yet the voice is supremely clear, and extremely compelling. Writers who have appropriated this style in part or expanded upon it include: Murakami, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and many others. It is not hard to understand Carver’s influence once you get into reading his stories. So distinctive, tight and absorbing, yet so plain, so straightforward, always effortless.

Contained in this collection are tales of marital strife, stories about men sitting around in bars, men acting like macho men but really crying inside, fishing, thinking about chicks, sitting around the kitchen table drinking, smoking often, acting like that ‘one guy’ at social gatherings who has to ruin the fun for everybody. In short, they are very bleak, utterly depressing, and memorable, but tend to blend together. A lot of subtext in the dialogue, as if he were imitating Hemingway. Not everyone will dig this first book, but what comes later, that’s where it gets interesting.

Review of The Narcissus Variations by Damian Murphy

Another unsettling and atmospheric novella from Damian Murphy, who has concocted an aesthetic all his own comprised of dense subtext, dark, elaborate interiors, and esoteric rites, woven into an ongoing meditation on the mortal soul and the responsibility of the artist. 

This one centers around the Kin and an enigmatic journal, given life by the scrivener protagonist. You will find an interplay of striking symbols, the return of the mirror as a gateway, an untrustworthy implement, and the coaction of written, spoken, and deciphered language.

Most of the author’s works are representative of his pristine imagery, his elusive double-meanings, and his refined and polished style. To read any of his books is to enter into a vast subconscious layer of the human experience, replete with mythological creatures, shimmering glades, doorways leading onto the abyss, and a nightmarish reality haunting this veil of existence we call the quotidian.

Review of The Secrets of Umami (The Galactic Culinary Society #1) by D.R. Schoel

Following the protagonist, Jeanne, in her perilous descent into an off-world volcano to recover a delicious confection and gain the experience/ clout amid the Galactic Culinary Society, purveyors of synesthetic wonders, was a blast. 

Well-described locales and well-paced exploration. Cheeky, digestible, and sciency. I was quite impressed by the old-fashioned cover art and retro charm of the tale. High recommended for all s-f aficionados. Light-hearted and futuristic – perfect for an escapist jaunt through imaginative adventures.

Review of The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

I was surprised by this book, first, because it was not science fiction. At least, in my opinion.

Nothing supernatural happens, though the characters concert toward a supernatural goal. To me, this was a realist novel, driven by the four main characters. It is told in alternating first person, with each of 42 short chapters labeled with the narrating character’s name. There is some repetition, and about 25% of the content relates to the sexual psychology of college-age males, with the backward political incorrectness characteristic of the sixties. Oliver, Ned, Eli, and Timothy are the main players in the drama, and they are pitted against one another in a trial that begins as a comradely, light-hearted road novel with dark undertones.

The essence of what they are doing is seeking immortality, cheating death. In their reckless, short lives, they have never attempted something so ridiculous and so serious. They travel in a group toward a cult-like enclave destination in Arizona to fulfill sacred rites outlined in an esoteric text they stumbled upon. Along the way we learn more about their relationships with stray women (objects of desire) and one another, but most of all, we witness their delving into themselves. The internal monologues are raw, unfiltered, and crass, reducing human experience into a tunneling wormhole of psychological insight. It is rude, profane, and American in its concerns and discussions of privilege, religion, free-thinking, free-acting, self-indulgence, and regard for the underlying impetus of mankind’s existence. With Silverberg’s salacious style, the book sustains high-level readability while challenging the reader to predict the outcome and figure out the hidden depths of character beneath the clichéd surface personas initially presented.

In the spirit of denying society’s strictures, these children learn what it means to grow up, to face themselves and to attain a deeper understanding of their flaws.

Silverberg is an incredible author, not only for the 25 million words he published, but because he never once passed a Bechdel test within his entire ouevre. He channeled a massive fount of inspiration and determination to grind out mountains of literary material, some of which is actually worth reading. Sometimes you will wonder if he could go two pages without bringing up sex, but then you read something like Lord Valentine’s Castle and the plethora of ideas are resonant in a fictional world brimming with life. In his best work, Silverberg makes for very addictive reading. If you can stomach his personality, which is unveiled more often than not, he can stand next to the greats in the science fiction pantheon.

I was reminded of Philip K. Dick’s realist novels while reading this. Don’t go in expecting science fiction or fantasy. I will be reading many more Silverberg novels, but will he be able to top this?

Why is it so good? That’s hard to pin down. The simple premise works. It’s nothing revolutionary, but the intent and voice and execution are clear, hard-edged, and pristine. The prose is lucid in its fluid arguments. The central conceit is universal in nature, and memorable. The ending is powerful because the astute reader will see it coming from a mile off. It all fits together.

Review of The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

This was an easy-to-read novel with a dreamy atmosphere, a frustrating main character and bizarre side characters. I was not impressed by any aspect of the book, though certain ideas contained a glimmer of intrigue and the overall atmosphere was pleasing.

The problem in my opinion was a lack of plot. If you’re going to disregard plot or have an illogical one, as this book does, you should sustain the reader’s interest with compelling characters and breathtaking prose. This book does neither. Instead it maintains an intimate association and psychological suggestion, opting for ambiguity where definition might have allowed me to care about Lily Dahl. Motivations are lacking, or at least puzzling. If one regards it with Lynchian dream-logic, one can enjoy the skewed actions and overblown, contrived scenario somewhat.

A young waitress is our M. C. She is in the process of discovering herself through a couple of tall dark and handsomes. One of them is a painter. He lives across the way and she gives him something to look at through his window. We get some crosstalk between ordinary Joes at the diner, the weird and random inclusion of a couple of gross, stinking, low-class men (antitheses to her boyfriends) the peculiar presence of a trashy woman, who makes a mess of everything, and an elderly neighbor who’s writing a mysterious endless memoir. Then, the persistence of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s play, which Mabel takes part in – There it is! A clue that dream-logic rules this scenario. There are some dreams within a dream, plenty of situations that don’t line up when discussed by people from their personal perspective and interpretation. Perhaps that is the key to unlocking this book. The novel plays with clever concepts, but never achieves greatness, if you ask me.

I am trying my best to ignore the fact that she married Paul Auster. As long as she doesn’t go full Auster in the next book, I’m on board to reader more of her acclaimed novels.

Review of Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki

A quick read. The first thing by Izumi Suzuki to make it into English. Can we get some more please?

First off, the comparison to Black Mirror is apt. Ignore the rest of the blurbs. That’s enough of a hint. Base your reading decision on that fact alone.

With this stellar collection of mind-bending short stories, the author enters the ranks of the criminally undertranslated alongside Shuichi Yoshida, Shin’ichi Hoshi, Yūten Sawanishi, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, and many, many others. While her prose could be compared to Hoshi’s, her ideas transcend her era, predicting an amazing number of inventions and trends ahead of time. Combining an easy, pulpy style with extreme subtlety and a restraint so palpable that many readers will mistake it for mere competence. The problem with that assessment is it ignores the immense troves of world building taking place in the background. You could pass the collection off as a diverting analysis of modern satirical metaphors, but it is much more. The collection showcases a myriad of tones: seductive, charming, light, dark, disturbing, silly, quirky, melancholic, gritty, comedic, etc. making for a pristine assuredness which is hard to pin down. Whereas Atwood and Murakami do predictable things with practiced mastery, this author seems willing to try unexpected tactics, without the clout, and gets away with it seamlessly.

She is called a “legend of Japanese science fiction,” but I have never heard her mentioned anywhere before. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since most of the Japanese science fiction anthologies I’ve read aren’t up to this standard.

The main draw of her writing style is the straightforward narration. Characters saying and doing things that are not out of the ordinary for them – depicting their lives as they are lived without explaining the situation to the reader, who must voyeuristically peek behind the veil of narrative distance. But we suddenly find out it’s not taking place on Earth, or one of them is an alien, or they have things implanted in their brains. The astute reader will find social commentary bubbling like magma, underlying layers of subtext. These things include: television addiction, ennui, prostitution, drug addiction, suicide, robot appliances, video phones, “cinebooks” (ereaders), dreams, memes, family relations, friendships, siblinghood, loneliness, gender politics, virtual life, people rubbernecking with camcorders, and a lot more. I have a feeling these stories will reward my inevitable second reading.

Chilling, masterful, easy to misread by a passing, casual reader who thinks they know how science fiction should be written. This book communicates a plethora of deep truths disguised as “light” or “soft” science fiction. Challenge yourself to discover what lies in store here, especially during the “terminal boredom” of our quarantined age.

Review of Song of the Golden Brew (The Galactic Culinary Society #2) by D.R. Schoel

In the second segment of the Galactic Culinary Society series, you will find more atmospheric description and additional otherworldly settings. 

You will notice a relaxed pacing, punctuated with action, but never threatening to overwhelm the reader’s sense of awe at the universe inhabited by the protagonist. It is a setup ripe with sequel potential: catching ingredients from exotic locales.

Combining lighthearted humor with a solid sense of discovery, the gourmet hunters here are more realistic than those in the tradition of Toriko. A survivalist tension pervades the ambiance, propelled by amusing dialogue and dependable world building. The strange creatures it presents do not often phase or impress our well-traveled main character. With old-fashioned sensibility we are introduced to the fictional universe through the lens of gustatory marvels. This is the science fiction of new frontiers we might remember from the Golden Age, reminiscent of Fritz Leiber. The author takes time to establish new aspects of their creation, including interplanetary commerce and social strictures, making for a treat for readers with a refined palette.

The gastronomic delights on offer do not disappoint – don’t human lives already center around food? This is merely a playful extension of our mortal tendencies, infused with mystery and wonder, an approachable, compulsively readable, and memorable trip. Well-written, fraught with danger, guided by a resourceful heroine, doling out cinematic encounters, the author engages familiar science fiction tropes in a fresh way, through the reliable method of visual storytelling and employing colorful side characters which make for a seductive literary confection.

Review of Fragments – A Sci-Fi/Horror: The sequel to Survival: The rules of reality have now changed by Chris Wright

In this second installment in the series, the pace ratchets up quickly. 

We join characters familiar from the first book (but I think this book can even be appreciated on its own, without some of the backstory). It is a good example of descriptions of cosmic proportions, and how paranormal events infringe on the lives of relatable characters. Each of them is part of a set of rich, well-rounded individuals, whom the author established through reliably good dialogue. They are pursued by supernatural vortices, giving the reader a very cinematic view of large-scale urban destruction.

The disintegration, the threat of annihilation, serves as a backdrop to human drama, all of which sustains a high pulse throughout the book. A dark fate for mankind lies in wait at the edge of our perception, as in the best science fiction, shedding light on our inner flaws.

This is a nanobot apocalyptic vision of the future, with an action-film tempo, radiating a white heat that will have you sweating over the pages. The persistence of haunting dreams plagues our protagonists. Our imaginations are powerful tools and our sentience can often be taken for prophesy. We rely on other human beings for validation of our worldview, but we are fundamentally self-serving. This give and takes adds even more tension to an already tense reading experience.

By alternating perspectives, the author gives a feel for a variety of well-crafted, believable characters. He delights in describing intricate set pieces, utilizing sweeping grand symphonies of molten metal and tidal waves of melting cars to set the stage, creating a constant scrambling toward purchase in a shifting landscape of demolishment, balanced upon a precipice of fear. A page-turner in the most primal sense, something to keep you up at night with its suggestions of immanent collapse of our unstable universe. – How reality may very well be a facade, a thin curtain dangling between the world we know and an untenable void. That is the cosmic horror immediately visible in this fictional version of our world. We are caught up in a pursuit against uncontrollable forces, a hive of our worst fears, a predator beyond imagining. Following interdimensional twists, with unexpected consequences, the telepathic link between an entity which challenges our perceptions intrudes upon the fate of the Everyman of the story, adding layers of techie futurism.

The book operates with logic and sciency, savvy depictions of disturbing realities fraught with a nonstop mingling of dreamlike imagery. It is a frantic tunneling through cause and effect, searching for answers amid the havoc of chaos, complicated by our own messy existences. It weaves in quantum theories, artificial intelligence, and many other concepts to craft a complex work of speculative fiction that comments on our troubled times.

Review of The Rift by Nina Allan

This book is about discovering truths. It poses as a mystery, but I believe it is more about relationships. 

The central mystery should be more than enough to keep readers turning pages. This is my second N. A. read, and I will likely read the rest of her work now.

There were only a few places in the novel where the writing style slipped or pulled a 180. The first was in a good way. During the short story of the creef, which employs prose that resembles that of her ‘partner,’ Christopher Priest. It is a chilling scientific examination of a nightmare-inducing parasitic being. It injected a pervasive sense of dread into an otherwise tense scenario.

The book explores how narrative blends with life, how living is telling ourselves stories and how this tendency can lead to a communicable madness. In a sense, many of us are living what we want to believe. Yet, every person must deal with the transformation of the self through time, whether singularly, or in relation to others.

Nina Allan’s style is consummately readable, if not pristine. If she’d introduced the supernatural elements sooner, would it all have been harder to swallow? Did our suspension of disbelief necessitate that it begin as a realist novel? I think the beginning is immersive and effective, though a little generic. She loves to add news articles, journal entries, and extracts from books within the book. She did the same thing with the Dollmaker, and as in that case, one of the short stories here is shoehorned in – maybe a red herring, but it came off as rather forced. The others add good texture and enlarge upon a few side characters, nearly all of whom have some dimension and definition.

I was highly intrigued by the observation that dead bodies seem like empty soul vessels, hollow chrysalides from which the living person’s essence has dissolved. How this reminds us of the creef is something I will never forget.

The narrative operates via an X-files vibe and sustains cognitive dissonance like a pro. The layers of symbols were well distributed – time capsules, koi fish, jewelry. The motifs contain a creative component, engaging with the characters’ occupation or obsession (as in The Dollmaker). I am fine with this recurring technique. It reminds me of Murakami’s quirky abstract symbolism. But with Nina Allan you always get a sturdy skeleton of emotion, conflict, character development, and imaginative metaphorical splicing.

I found the underlying unsettling aspect of a chaotic universe of unknowns richly meaningful. Through extended internal monologues, her characters’ outlooks and relationships are crystalline, but also latticed through with the demands of plot and structure.

Other pieces of this literary mosaic include: memories, the sinister secrets we stow next to our hearts, pop references, the unsolved missing pieces of our internal puzzle, the mysteries we must live with, the burden of life itself, of loss, grief, and delusion. The main character for most of the book is Selena, who plays out cutscenes of daydream in her head, rehearsing scenarios. While the sentence structure could be more varied, it reads fast, contains corny humor, and makes for extreme memorability. The persistence of childhood beliefs into adulthood is a lingering theme. To be honest I cared for the extraterrestrial sections far less than the realist sections, but they added a needed layer of mystery to the plot, allowing the reader to speculate on which version of the events described was true. It is the good kind of ambiguity where you can choose to interpret the events in your own fashion, but the pieces are all there for both readings. It is skillfully done.

We are left to ponder the living’s duty to the dead and the absent, and the nature of forgiveness, if true forgiveness is possible. At its heart, it is a masterful exploration of relationships. I am most chilled by the sense of childhood games tapping into a haunting sub-reality, by the knowledge that some mystery must persist throughout our lives, especially where our own comprehension and memories fail.

Review of The Race by Nina Allan

Familiar territory for Nina Allan. Another book dealing with a kidnapping, or missing woman.

This one had a stronger feminist slant than The Rift, and I felt that the male characters were too two-dimensional, even by the standards of that agenda. The first segment of the book, dealing heavily with the enhanced dog races, was the most interesting to me. The other several sections dealt with troubled characters whose lives intersected tangentially, while touching on world building elements. It was all very subtle and lacking in plot after 200 pages or so. The depth of character development was only middling in my opinion, rarely progressing past a few dalliances with bisexuality and racial themes, family, friendship, rape, and incest – all motifs explored by Allan elsewhere and with more poignancy. Overall, the elements worked well, but I tired of the same bitter tone dispensed throughout, the darkness layered on thick, the slightly jaded and irresponsible attitudes of the characters’ viewpoints. The writing was not polished – I constantly noticed extra words – but I think she deliberately tweaked the narration to give it voice. There is a great deal of voice, many Britishisms, but not much concision. It is a laid-back telling of a gruesome series of events, involving despicable male characters in a pseudo-futuristic setting. The backdrop provides ample atmosphere, but by the time I got to the Maree section, the reiteration of the empathic powers, roping in the dog races, the backstories, the whales, and the other empaths, I got annoyed by the whole concept. Empathy, I get it.

Still recommended for fans of soft s-f. For some reason, the blurbs call it hard s-f. There’s not enough science to call it that. It’s again about relationships, though The Rift is a better place to start.

Review of The Marriages Between Zones Three, Four, and Five by Doris Lessing

The second book in Canopus in Argos, the pentology. In this entire novel there was no mention of Canopus, Puttiora, or Sirius. In fact, I see no reason why this can’t stand alone as a soft s-f novel capsule. It reads nothing like Book 1. It reads like the work of a different writer actually.

What new layers will be revealed in the next 3 books? By this point, it is clear that the satire or “speculative” element is rather subtle. The latter half of Book 1 was full of references to earth-like conditions. This non-continuation was far more intimate in scope, with a much closer narrative distance. This novel can be read independently, without acquaintance with the previous world building. No characters are reused. She relegates the cultural critiques to several “Zones” here. We only ever hear about the 3 zones in the title, though most of the book takes place in one of them. The territories are ill-defined, indistinguishable except by the habits and proclivities of their people, along with a few random side effects for transition between them. We are treated to a strange introduction, a marriage of politics. The domestic difficulties result instantly, morphing into a bizarre family melodrama. It is an alien analogue to human marriage in a sense, but it is distinctly human in its sympathies, and obviously feminist in its slant.

The entirety retains a dreamlike atmosphere, an incantatory rhythm, thanks to Lessing’s breathless narration. You could call this kind of writing awful if it came from an unknown writer. But written this deliberately, with such exaggerated quirky inefficiency, it could only have been done by a practiced hand. It is pre-modern, exotic, but extremely simple. A translator’s vocabulary. A heavy management of emotion goes on in the background, and a delicate descriptive touch graces the stark setting. These things characterized her writing during portions of the first book, but not to the extent you will find here. It reads as slowly as ancient epics, convoluted, sepia-toned, and mawkish.

Marriage has long been a political ceremony in certain human cultures at specific times. The tone of Lessing’s version of this is detached, historical, factual. You can read deeply into it, or you can just read it for pleasure. There’s a lighter injection than in Shikasta, a more tolerable insanity. It is a clear and ruthless novel, unhelpfully raw, with a medieval flavor, dwelling on serious conversations, people in armor, horses, dry mountains, desert settlements, rough bedroom-floor coupling, a stark division between classes, sweat, anxiety, wind-whipped, hard-tanned faces wearing stern, uptight grimaces. Main characters are king and queen of respective realms, who reconcile, before the twist revealed in the product description tears their relationship apart. It makes for a human drama of dry domesticity. The writing possesses the quality of a translation from an alien language, right? We are supposed to conflate these characters with human beings. You won’t last long trying to picture them as anything but that. Yet, there are odd differences – the air in differing regions is not necessarily breathable unless you carry a “shield.” Technology is never adequately explained, especially the casual mention of “death rays.” Of course, mating between regions is permitted for the sake of political posturing. There is a lot of polygamy, discussion of values, very little religion, minuscule philosophical jabs, almost no economics, trade, commerce, backstory, or greater exploration of themes established in the earlier novel. Why did she leave all this out? I actually wanted more world building. I did get slightly caught up in the queen’s thoughts and actions, but I felt teased. My sense of creativity was weaned. My desire for closure was taunted, my heart was not in this claustrophobic staging.

A book about child-rearing, about household troubles, that’s what we’re left with. A bit disappointing, in my opinion, but surprising, audacious, with enough tidbits of weirdness to keep most people intrigued. Speaking with animals, the brazen queen’s behavior, the unpredictable Ben Ata, the unexplainable bullet point next to peoples’ names… Helmets which are worn as punishment to take away peoples’ ability to look up at sacred mountain peaks? Yeah.

We are often reminded of the chroniclers who have retold this story countless times, turning it into a national legend. War, cultural stuntedness, love, lowest common denominator politics, how gender and class dynamics are built into the language, a few stirring scenes of unaccountable behavior. Meh.
Her deliberately limited vocabulary, her restrained stylistic purview resonate, grate on me, wear me down, but I can’t deny that the forceful communication is there. I’m left wondering if this volume was strictly necessary. It certainly contributed little to my understanding of the Canopus universe. However, it struck me as a very authentic account from a skillfully skewed perspective. I think Doris Lessing was a remarkably good writer, who didn’t take the easy route, wrote whatever the heck she wanted, broke the mold, then emerged from a literary chrysalis formed into some hybrid artist so brutally hideous and beautiful, so simultaneously confounding as to demand immediate recognition as a revolutionary of belle lettres.

Review of Dream Messenger by Masahiko Shimada

I wasn’t ready to take this book seriously. But I kept turning pages. 

I encountered jokes ranging from corny to laugh-out-loud. The writing possesses an endearing sloppiness. The book makes use of a convoluted pulp plot, and tantalizing suggestions of intriguing avenues never explored. It tosses off far-flung ideas, congealing in a narrative soup, through slippery internal monologue, conjuring chaotic and mesmeric recountings of dreamy events.

Finally, I came to the conclusion that I had found another Japanese novelist I’ll quickly run out of translations of, and one which would make me yearn for the ability to read Japanese. I wish this would stop happening.

Wasn’t sure at first. I got almost nothing out of the first twenty pages.

Getting into the rhythm took a bit. Subjected to the almost pure storytelling in the first part, the feverish, polymorphous, headlong rush into weird ideas, the sparse connective tissue, the dangling plotlines, latching on to character memories, commercial ventures, economic pressures, motivating factors, within the frenetic, riptide pacing, the skipping around, jump cuts, dissolution, hallucinogenic scenes, and schizophrenic stuff going on I barely managed to grip the edges of the book.

“In the perfect crime you got to make sure you’ve deceived yourself, or else the whole thing falls apart.” – This quote clued me in to the fact that characters were acting under self-deception, yet their actions made weird sense within context.

Characters went on to express and live by delusional sentiments:
“The point is that the world isn’t here for the sake of some vast thing like the British Empire. it’s here for children to play with.”

And yet, in their manifold delusions, they often thrive in this dream-logic-bound setting.
We are treated to an atmospheric evocation of Tokyo low life, taking in the sights and the sounds, for which I was immediately on board. “Tokyo is an amnesiac city set in a desert. Things that happened yesterday are already covered with shifting sand.” Enter the theme of absent consequences, of irresponsibility. Move to shared dreams, personal versions of reality, ennui, greed, corruption, whimsy, madness, buried myths, companionship, prostitution.

It was clever, quirky, unpredictable, slightly disturbing, taboo-breaking, rude, politically incorrect, downright deplorable, dripping with 90s nostalgia. I loved it.

You find imaginary friends, psychological aberrations, astral projections, until it resolves into a recipe which is quintessentially Murakamiesque. We are led down tributaries to glimpse hidden worlds. Given insights into outsider culture, everyday life, the city as a mysterious organism, orphanhood, cultural migration, identity, Americanization, countercultural movement, spirit guardians, lost twins, Buddhism.

I am left breathless from the immersive quality of Masahiko Shimada’s writing style. It’s easy, fun, a perfect imitation of one of my favorite authors. I’ve already started his only other English book-length translation: Death by Choice. Expecting great things.

Review of First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Not a good entry point for new readers. Along with his last collection, Men Without Women, in a lot of ways, it feels like Murakami is riding his own coattails.

To sum up my thoughts: This collection doesn’t enhance Murakami’s reputation, neither does it compare to his first 3 great collections in English.

I’m not a Murakami basher. I would much rather melt Updike, Mailer, Roth, and Auster with the magnifying glass. If you are a true Murakami fan, there is enough in this collection to warrant a purchase.

The first problem I had with the collection was that more than half the book’s length was available through the New Yorker and Granta. Murakami has described his American agent as greedy, for pestering him into selling stories to the New Yorker. He claims she would just sell all of his laundry lists to them for a quick buck – And they would buy them. (I’m paraphrasing). Those stories are:

“With the Beatles”
“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey”
“Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” (Granta)

These aren’t bad per se, but they led me to believe he was scraping the barrel for leftovers. We all know the author is obsessed with music. That was amply demonstrated by his book Absolutely on Music, along with the motifs found through his entire oeuvre, but the theme appears here at the expense of other concerns. “Confessions…” immediately put me in mind of his story “A Shinagawa Monkey,” from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. It was entertaining. An homage. A return to the whimsy we have come to expect. A whimsy missing from every other story in this book.

Much of Murakami’s charm lies in his quiet reflections, the conversation between oddball characters, and internal monologues flowing through his meandering plots like cream through coffee. In the end, I found that the bulk of this collection tasted bitter. The main characters all felt the same – they are all first person singular narrators, borrowing heavily from Murakami’s autobiographical reminiscences. I get that this was the connective tissue of the collection, but again, it wasn’t particularly moving. Most of the stories revolve around an epiphany, lack magical realism, smack of commentary, and go down dry and scratchy.

Nonetheless, like Cortázar or Bolaño, I often feel like I could read anything – even laundry lists – from these authors. The minor works are still worth having. All their interviews and conversations are interesting. They invite the reader into their presence. They have a warm and welcoming tone. Murakami’s cryptic, passive-aggressive tweets, as infrequent as they are, also seem to have an ominous power for some reason. There is a mystique, half of which may be imaginary, or the product of wishful thinking. We all want another large, impressive novel from Murakami, but I’m beginning to doubt we will get one. Rather, the marketing team seems more interested in spoon-feeding us these slim collections, tapering us off the Murakami addiction with diminishing returns.

The other stories here are:
“On a Stone Pillow”
“The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection”
and “First Person Singular”

Of these, I only found the first one of the four compelling. “On a Stone Pillow” along with the Yakult Swallows one, contain poems. Adding poems is a new device for him. The stories are slow, melancholy, nostalgic, but a bit bland. I probably suffer from overexposure at this point.

When are we going to get official translations of his earlier stories? – I’m thinking of “Lexington Ghosts” and “Donutization” and dozens of others – there have been bootleg translations floating around for quite some time. What we really need is another fat novel to boost his standing, showcase that imagination he has been hiding, and justify the author’s claims that he spends several hours per day writing, between his daily marathon run and 12-hour jazz-record binge.

Review of Morbid Tales by Quentin S. Crisp

Incredibly good. QSC is not only a master storyteller, but his elegance and imagination are exquisite, refined, compelling, and unique. 

These are the types of speculative fiction short stories with subtle speculative elements, which could hold their own as literary fiction but expand their purview beyond the average range of infantile mainstream topics. They are not what I would normally term ‘morbid,’ at least compared to contemporary extrapolations of that term. They contain brutality, violence, sex, and surreal horror, but more than all that, they are immaculately written wellsprings of imagery, containing deep psychological insight and breathless, dream-like allure. Even if you do not like the stories he tells, you have to admit that he tells them well. Crisp is an apt name. The sentences crunch like Pringles. The residue they leave in the mind is haunting. Simultaneously old fashioned and cutting edge.

‘The Mermaid’ – a novella length story about the legendary sea creature, with a surprising ending. An exploration of sexuality, with a warm, nostalgic tone. Extremely uncanny, due to the intense and photographic detail, the immerse quality of the prose.
‘Far-Off Things’
‘Cousin X’
‘A Lake’ – A Japanese tale. Familiar themes, but Crisp conveys the Eastern setting with knowledgeable skill. He was collected in a Haikasoru anthology and has written other books taking place in Japan. He is obviously well-traveled and well-versed in Eastern philosophy. This one has a Lovecraftian twist, but above all, a chilling atmosphere.
‘The Two-Timer’ – Crisp writes convincing adolescent protagonists. A recurrent theme in his work is unrequited or misinterpreted love.
‘The Tattooist’ – A tour de force. One of those classic tales which is disturbing, beautiful, weird, creepy, ecstatic, morose and much more at the same time. In the vein of Tanizaki, but thoroughly modern.
‘Ageless’ – A retelling of a concept already exploited by Nicholson Baker. A quirky and hypnotic tale nonetheless.
‘Autumn Colours’.

I will have to read all of Crisp. You never know where his intellect and artistry will take you. Everything he writes is infused with brilliance, wit, and irreverent charm.

Review of Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

I’m a sucker for Japanese settings. The plot is as simple as a horror movie. Horror movie fans will appreciate the many nods to the genre tropes she offers. 

At bottom, it is a quirky take on tried and true set-pieces, a cinematic, low-budget adventure, rife with her signature post-punk similes. Khaw’s style is eccentric. The number of f-bombs is too realistic (nearly every sentence). That plays into the horror movie vibe. The raw material of the prose is concealed by elaborate, rapid-fire flourishes of tongue-twister similes. Some good Japanese vocabulary and folkloric references. A bit of angst, character flaws in the forefront. You have to come into it with the right mentality. This is a bit of cheesy fun, B-movie fare, with an edge of kaleidoscopic weirdness. Khaw’s method is best suited to bloodbath scenarios and conjuring eldritch shadow-puppets with her maverick imagination. I can’t wait to see where her career leads.

Review of Looking for Mr Fly by K.K. Byrne

This novel presents a meticulously detailed atmosphere, coupled with the pace of everyday life, which eases the reader into the rhythm and reality of urban existence. 

We meet harsh strangers, are jostled on the teeming subways, and encounter people dragging the dross and drudgery of their day-to-day lives into their present circumstances.

The elegant writing style possesses persuasive readability, and offers the local flavor of English ambiance throughout the richly detailed setting. We are transported through varied, troubled perspectives, with a relatable cast of characters, who are looking for a way out of the grind and making choices to enhance or complicate their destinies.

Blending internal monologue with the narrative flow, the novel explores office politics, workaday relations, confrontations and quiet reflections. We are left to ponder how moments add up to a life, and how human nature leads us to become consumed by the task of drawing out the meaning from these bygone memories, all the while suffusing us with the melancholy of the task.

The realistic characters enact personal hardships, untangling the plots of interwoven lives, burdened or enlivened by the receding and flowing nature of love. It made me dwell on the question every person must face at some point: that is, How are we supposed to get through the days, weighted by our daily illusions, both grand and minuscule, except through inner classifications and justification? The devils on either shoulder are there to guide us.

The author presents an analysis of small details surrounding life-changing events, artfully constructing a vivid modern reality, infused with flaws, doubts, and agitated lives. By examining our definitions of self, our identification with others and our daily struggles, we can comprehend and ultimately reconcile the dichotomies within us. Death imposes a foreboding aspect on our self-contained existences. Faith, guilt, generation gaps, and the secret lives within us don’t always jive with our public personas, along with the violence, cruelty, freedom, desolation, despair, and hope society breeds.

Review of Surface: Hollow; Book 1 by J V O’Neill

A strange and compelling novel. Combining a literary pace, trauma, confusion, humility, recovery, and imagination.

Interspersed with Wiki articles which present revealing data to bolster the narrative devices, its pages are infused with relatable daily struggles, adjustments to life’s hardships, intimate details, intricate interior monologue, and all the facets of modern life, the way it wears a person down, and the way we cope with mere existence. As the tension mounts, and we are given increasingly more variety and perspective, the atmosphere of dread and dissolution, the accumulation of desire, and the imaginative landscapes broaden.

At bottom, it is an examination of the rhythms of life, a depiction of the psychology of wants, grounded in urban anxieties alongside the endless multitudes striving toward some self-created future, propelled by blossoming desires, perceptions, drugs, and weighted down by the lingering effects of accidents, mentally perceiving subtle changes in reality – most of which is colored by our experience and mind. By wrestling with the rational minds of their characters, the author mingles sensations, memories, psychological analysis, dream, day-to-day life, and fantasy into a surreal onrush of imagery, strengthened by legends, fantastical tropes, and scientific mysteries, all the while lacing the narrative with ethereal beauty. It is a descent into a more scintillating world, full of dark fates, which in a way, is the mirror of our own. The world building blossoms into a complex and impressive accumulation of rich detail, coupled with the spirit of adventure, travel, and a dense appreciation of diverse locales. The shifting perspective gives contrast to developing plot lines, relationships, traditions, etiquette, and minute examinations of interrelated lives.

For fans of realistic characters and unique settings, this will offer an escape which feels lived-in and functional, with a well-constructed sense of place, and a satisfying and sophisticated story.

Review of Drowning in Beauty: The Neo-Decadent Anthology

From the Introduction to the About the Authors page, there is a great deal to love about this anthology. It is one of several Neo-Decadence dedicated anthologies I plan to read this year. Snuggly is my new favorite press. 

This collection brings together powerhouse monoliths of modern experimental prose. I think I could read Neo-Decadent anthologies for the rest of my days at the expense of terminally repetitive ‘classics.’

I’ll elaborate on some of my favorites, though the least of these authors could write circles around the writers you will typically find by scouring literary magazines and mainstream productions.

Daniel Corrick – Introduction
Brendan Connell – “First Manifesto of Neo-Decadence”
Justin Isis – “Second Manifesto of Neo-Decadence” – These three preludes did well to set the tone and prepare the reader for a wild ride. Where one competent intro would’ve served, we are treated to three astounding, chiseled, palpitating arguments to bolster the relevance and pleasure to be found in the volume ahead.

Brendan Connell – “Molten Rage” – Connell employs an elegant, image-heavy prose, laden with obscure terminology, dense whorls of description, and luscious settings. An explorer of imaginative interpretations of far-flung locales. His works contain a well-traveled appreciation of art, language, and the capacity of the human mind to salvage meaning and aesthetic quality out of every day experiences.

Justin Isis – “The Quest for Nail Art” – Isis is a brilliant writer who is not limited by specific subjects or genres. Everything of his I’ve read has been poignant, surprising, and unique. A convincing female protagonist here, laugh-out-loud social commentary, much emotional tension, and fabulous imagery and voice. Japan is his go-to setting, and his quirky portraits of detached young people are subtly disturbing and ultimately moving.

Damian Murphy – “A Mansion of Sapphire” – One of the best stories I have ever read by any author. Already a fan of Murphy’s, but this one reached new heights of immersive detail. I love underground, cult-like sub-cultural motifs. Add to that an appreciation for retro video games, and the usual immense, tranquil, magisterial descriptions of dreamlike landscapes, pervaded with eldritch atmosphere.

Yarrow Paisley – “Arnold of Our Time” – Comedic, spoofy, literary. Several sharp jabs at contemporary culture.

Ursula Pflug – “Fires Halfway” – A quiet, effective meditation on more aspects of youth culture, rich and alluring.

Colby Smith – “Somni Draconis” – Good, but I struggle to remember this middle section of the book. Perhaps upon rereading I’ll appreciate the nuances here. There was no detectable decline in quality, but I was disengaged here until Brantley’s production.
Colin Insole – “The Meddlers”
D.P. Watt – Jack”

Avalon Brantley – “Great Seizers’ Ghosts” – A difficult, archaic, semi-historical, operatic adventure story. Makes me curious about the late author’s other works. Some glimmering sentences.

Daniel Corrick – “Chameleon is to Peacock as Salamander is to Phoenix” – Suffered a bit from the overused ‘plight of the artist’ archetype. If you want to get on my bad side, make your main character a writer or artist whose work has never been given adequate appreciation. Here, a graphic artist slowly succumbs to an unusual form of madness. Still entertaining and well-written.

Quentin S. Crisp – “Amen” – An exercise in ultra-detailed depictions of a dreamlike moment. Something Crisp has tried before. But the author’s command of language goes beyond admirable into the incredible. He is preposterously articulate.

James Champagne – “XYschaton” – A tour de force of creepy-pasta science fiction, from an outsider perspective. Displays unfortunately wearisome gimmick with the pronoun, but amounts to a treasure trove of esoteric literary memorabilia. This is how Alexander Theroux would write if he took up science fiction – which he won’t. The prose is that good. Even with the pleonasms and hyper-eccentric narrator. Likely to polarize readers, but pushes the envelope on taboos and storytelling.

Review of The Old King in his Exile by Arno Geiger

I applaud the translator and author for bringing such a moving story to life. This poignant first person account of the effects of Alzheimer’s is an exercise in understanding life, love, family, and mortality.

The tragedy of memory loss is an inevitable problem one must recognize in adulthood, and reckon with in the ensuing decades. Here we are eased into the scenario and all it entails: measuring life, making adjustments, understanding, interpreting, and living with what life gives us. From it, we can draw many valuable lessons. We are treated to many wise aphorisms related to old age, which must have been culled from real life, and which convey the sincerity, gratitude, and struggle of the central person on the page.

We must, in the end, subsist off the dregs of ourselves, I suppose. And this book reminds us uncomfortably how in old age we are all diminished, once many of the aspects of our personality have fallen away, how we can find dignity in what’s left.

The setting and scenes are interspersed with many key details, adding essential pieces to the relatable relationships. Written in a smooth, refreshingly simple style – it is at bottom a personal story about overcoming the barriers erected by a very pernicious sickness that will at one point or another, likely seize one of our loved ones, and take away that person’s independence. It communicates the simplicity of life, the stubbornness of pride and the quiet simmering influence of memory, the lingering touch of war and the tug of family ties. Without the continuous humor and lighthearted pace it would become an overbearing reading experience, however, the author achieves true comedy and pathos often without sacrificing intellectual depth.

Review of Flowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver

Reggie Oliver is one of those authors like Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, who is master of a few key aspects of horror, terror, suspense, and description. Yet, he is not a perfect writer. 

His stories are immersive, antiquated, and charming. Reading his work feels like sliding into another time, being confronted with images that refuse to vacate the mind, and sinking into the narrative flow effortlessly, until you are left breathless on the shore of some imaginative ocean. However, more than a few times in this collection, he bungles the ending, leans too heavily into his wry, aristocratic language, and grinds the tension to a halt with an unnecessary comment or four. None of these issues prevent this collection of stories from being a delight to read.

“A Child’s Problem” – a super-old-fashioned horror story from the perspective of a precocious child. Old mansions, jump scares, extremely slow-paced. Reminded me of The Haunting of Bly Manor. Overall effective, well-written, but very long. Could easily have been written by Blackwood. Liked the chess references, the authenticity. Verisimilitudes of classic frightful tales resplendent in the mossy setting.

“Striding Edge” – a consummately readable parable about a hiker with friends in a mysterious cult. A silly ending, but plenty of good imagery. Excellent atmosphere.
“Hand to Mouth”, “Singing Blood” – decent stories with the same fear-inducing atmosphere.
“Flowers of the Sea” – one of my faves from this author. I find the concept of dementia to be the most frightening thing on this earth. Try watching the short film Mémorable – you will never be the same. This story had a similar, powerful effect on me. Utterly chilling, heartbreaking. The ending was a strange choice, twisting the tone unexpectedly.
“Lord of the Fleas” – a compelling story with a pre-historic style. Features Samuel Johnson (somewhat unnecessarily). Quite good overall.
Several more similar stories ensue. One can grow weary of the strained cragginess of the upper-upper-upper crust British snootiness. When he’s not funny, he’s NOT funny. But once in a while a joke comes out of nowhere and gets me chuckling.
The collection is quite long. When I got to “Sussmayr’s Requiem,” I took a short break. This story features one of Mozart’s peers and is a prototypical tale of an artist suffering under the shadow of a genius.
“Come into my Parlor” – A farcical story from the child’s perspective. He portrays the childish mentality well, hearkening back to writers like Lewis Carrol or C. S. Lewis. His writing is comparable – but the ending is just bad.
“Lightning” – A tale about actors and a frightening performance. Well-told, lame ending.

You can detect a pattern in my criticism, but don’t think these tales are missable. He is a tremendous writer, who captures unforgettable moments. His style is rare nowadays, and his storytelling powerful. I will be reading all of his collections.

Review of Peach Blossom Paradise by Ge Fei

This gorgeous peach-colored volume from NYRB classics is a beautiful addition to my Chinese literature collection. A startling and wonderful story centering on an interesting and atypical female protagonist.

It concocts a poignant tragedy from the personal life lessons endured by one girl who laments her fate within an unstable society. It also is the first book in a trilogy. While the themes are not as heavy-handed as in Mo Yan, they are clearly defined, and never cloud the storytelling. Women’s roles, and cultural revolution are discussed in the book through satire and allegory. The reading experience is not subsumed by politics, but this is not a tame novel. It follows Xiumi, whose body and life do not belong to her. With great insight and resolve she figures out how to get by in a family who does not place any value in her. This is later proven when her circumstances change and she is dispossessed. The imagery, and the violence incited by lust, treachery, greed, hate, and revenge, combine to paint a memorable portrait of a time and place and its people. Add to this a murder mystery and a drama of desperate emotions.

Led by dreams of paradise, with indirect suggestion of subliminal propaganda, within the search for utopia, Xiumi’s and later, Little Thing’s ideals are disenfranchised. Among their survival instincts is the struggle for female independence. Upon her eventual captivity, starvation, and return, she witnesses miracles and carries symbols of her life. I can only presume that these lives left dangling will be taken up in the next book.

This quirky and unpredictable family chronicle is rich in detail, suffused with luscious atmosphere, folkloric charm, and masterful storytelling. Its scope is epic, but its tone is intimate, engrossing, and comic, combining naturalism with historical flavor.

As Xiumi grows from ‘bumpkin’ roots, the subtle and overt violence leaking into her peaceful existence infringes on her innocence and freedom. The horrors lying in wait for her determine how she will respond to later rapid changes in fortune. In a worldview comprised of china alone, where other countries are as mysterious as fantasy planets, the product of modernization comes at the expense of leaving old traditions to die, trampling on 5000 years of history, while being the only option for the nation to progress. The flavors and scents and ephemeral pleasures, the nostalgic tone, within a country with growing pains, the fear and paralysis due to injustice and uncertainty, amid stunted quibblers losing hope in their backwater, who long for a better life, is tremendously moving.

Her life changes in Huajiashe midway through the tale are fascinating as well, as is Xiumi’s gradual metamorphosis into The Principle. She acquires more influence. Yet the novel never expands beyond the small settings of each narrative part. It deals in the microcosmic scale, while tackling grand topics. A triumph.

Review of The Altimer: An interactive story (Entram Book 1) by Samuel Isaacson

In this choose-your-own adventure tale, I was treated to an atmospheric second-person perspective narrative combining interactive game elements with fiction. It provides opportunities to do character creation, stat assignment, etc. and is coupled with excellent artwork.

With a concise and professional presentation it starts off quickly and takes little time to set up or get into. Due to its immersive playability, and multiple routes, you can easily replay/ reread, while making different decisions and choosing separate routes.

I found the backstory intriguing with its retro futuristic feel, quick-paced plot, and beautiful illustrations, all of which served to enhance the reading experience. You are presented with choices which branch through story fragments. Get your dice ready.

The puzzles are integrated into the quirky narration and came as an interesting surprise. All of the game elements are implemented well with the realism and modern writing style.

It could very well be that this is the next step in literary experimentation, but at the very least it is a break from the traditional books crowding my shelves, which so often retell the same stories in familiar ways.
By drawing a higher level of engagement from the reader, the author has provided a distinct and memorable product.

While some paths lead to a swift ‘Game Over,’ you will inevitably find out more detail and nuance upon a replay. One of the things I liked most was how the characters inhabit the fictional world like NPCs, but set the scene and converse with you in a way that feels authentic.
Entertaining in a fresh way and not to be missed if you are a fan of science fiction and role-playing storytelling.

Review of Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse is grandmaster of comedic writing. Possibly the funniest writer of all time when adjusted for humor inflation. 

It’s all very prim and proper, with some hedging, and hemming and hawing, and quibbling and quarrelling and snorting and guffawing, but when it comes right down to it, it’s downright mean, despicable and inordinately hilarious out of all proportion to the circumstances on the page. The laughs his writing induce transcend the genre of stiff-fluffy-collar drawing room, snifter-swirling, snivel-simpering chortles. Your own double-chin will wobble and flecks of precious liqueur will flow from your vibrating lips. The uncontainable breadth of his sly, wry, wrathfully polite sentences are timed to perfection, tuned to impeccable pristineness. He’s a joy to read. A cynical, rollicking locomotive of emotive, frolicsome prose.
This is a wiggling bellyflop of a book. A hazardous, inveterate circuitous exploit, drawn out into an odyssey of gruesome semantics. Dynamite quips and landmine gags await you.
Our main protagonist dude’s got swagger, and has reached such pinnacles of taste, magniloquence and good-breeding as ordinary folks only dream of. He’s a ringside enthusiast of boxing matches, immanently single, and tasked to track down his dissolute, souse-of-a-cousin who has taken up with a lady of questionable background and foreground who has eyes on the family jewels. He takes in his entertainment on the way and stumbles into a predictable but nonetheless enjoyable plot which undermines his honor, challenges his wit, and places him at the forefront of an endless barrage of wisecracks, whimsical descriptions, stentorious flimflams, and billowing, cheesy Wa-Wa-Waaaaa moments. That’s just the tip of the proverbial laugh-berg.
Pick up something by Wodehouse, anything by him, and be transported by an imagination as limitless as it is potent. Discover the comedic potential of a tea time that never ends. The man was prolific, and I foresee many hundreds of droll afternoons passed in fancy contemplation of his works, all the while overcome by elegant, belligerent paroxysms of mirth.

Review of Remember You’re a One-Ball! by Quentin S. Crisp

With some reservation I finished this peculiar novel.

Having read a few titles by QSC, this one surprised me in its focused content. The reasons I did not enjoy it as much as his other books are manifold, and I think the right reader will get a lot out of it.

A few comparisons came to mind during my reading experience: Soseki’s Botchan, in the depiction of the school setting, and Lolita. While Crisp’s style easily compares to Nabokov, the plot and perspective of the novel may turn some readers off. Crisp may be a journeyman or intermediate-master of the English language, but the naïve narrator and self-deprecating interior monologues were a tad tedious in my opinion. It could just be that my attention span is infantile, but I found my interest flagging often. Soseki is guilty of the same vice – dwelling on mundane details, overexplaining where subtle cues would engage the wide-eyed reader. I don’t mind that cruelty and heinous bullying underlie the novel’s message, themes, and events. Popular literature is rife with sleazy boarding school brutality.

For me, the limitations of its storytelling outweighed its linguistic merits. Unlike Lolita, it does not partake of the singular worship of beauty, but reaches for an aesthetic precision reminiscent of that classic.

That being said. I have already decided to read everything by this author.

Review of Majipoor Chronicles (Lord Valentine, #2) by Robert Silverberg

This was unexpected. After reading Lord Valentine’s Castle, which I was a big fan of, I bought the rest of the series and jumped into this book, the second volume. 

It is a collection of unconnected stories, with a flimsy framing device, set on Majipoor, exploring locales, eccentric inhabitants, races, creatures, politics, and various adventures. A few of the stories were entertaining, a few of them were silly, and several were inconclusive.

The first story, about a woman living with an alien in the jungle, was an unconventional love story. Not terribly moving, but contains excellent descriptions of the rough wilderness.

Then we get a clear commentary of war politics (Vietnam?) in a war tale about the Metamorph conflict.

The third story was an impressive story about a ten-year voyage halted by sinister dragon-grass. I loved this story. It was unexpected, and reinforced the Medieval quality of many of the societies of Majipoor. The technology levels can be confusing in Silverberg’s most expansive world building creation, but if you come into the Majipoor stories ready to accept magic, science, sex, and adventure, a lot of these iterations will satisfy your curiosity.

The fifth story was also quite good, about a desert journey, and dream manipulation. It conveyed the immense landscapes on the planet with brilliant imagery.

Then comes a tale about a soul-painter – another romance about finding one’s muse.
Several more lackadaisical stories followed those.

I am getting the sense after reading several Silverberg titles, that he was interested in depicting the far-flung experiences of extraordinary individuals. He is no different than most pulp writers, but his work is very easy to read, fairly engaging, and when it is good, it can hold its own against Heinlein, Asimov, and other big shots of science fiction. While the first book in the series is clearly better, this second installment gives us a mixed bag of story elements, churned out rapidly for sheer entertainment. I read this lazily, over a couple weeks, picking away at it. It was not nearly as immersive, yet I can’t say it was poorly written. Though I fail to remember several bland stories, there was a pleasant and undeniable sense of the grandeur and psychedelic tinge of this colossal and beautiful world of Majipoor. I think that was the whole point. If you just want to revisit the enchanting setting, give it a go.

Silverberg’s work – the more I read of it, the more I want to read of it – contains an exuberance for life. His characters are always trying to get the most out of it, pursuing every pleasure and opportunity for gain. This is epitomized by the frame-story’s character Hissune’s search for another life in the archives in the labyrinth. It reminded me of the kids from Book of Skulls, seeking after an ideal existence, and gaining unexpected knowledge and maturity along the way. They selfishly consume life, and its offerings, wisdom, and hardship, taking into possession the stories these things congeal into. It represents a vicious and unending battle against boredom and mortality.

Review of A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories by Lucia Berlin

It was interesting reading these stories at the same time as the Collected Stories of Raymond Carver. There are some similarities, such as the slavery to alcohol, but Lucia Berlin’s have more humor, in my opinion.

There is a great deal of personality to these tales. They are on par with Joy Williams and Lorrie Moore, but with Berlin, there is a greater sense of autobiography to them, even if that is illusory. As in the case of Carver, what we read about her life matches what is contained in her stories pretty closely.

The 43 stories in this collection present a relentlessly entertaining, open-hearted, brash, and consistent narrative voice, blazing with life and wit. It discusses humility, outcast life, aimlessness, and the attempts at recapturing youth, defining a spurious motherhood, and dealing with incorrigible men, societal restraints, her physical handicap, and much more. There is some brutally, sex, a lot of drugs, and the struggle of downtrodden, abused, and dissatisfied women. Clever observations abound. The prose is slick and seductive, with minimalist details that hit the bull’s eye. The collection opens with a couple tame stories – the titular one about the life of a cleaning woman, and two taking place in laundromats. The charm is palpable and addictive.

She hits you pretty hard with the abortion story, “Tiger Bites,” which I found devastating. The first 125 pages were extremely strong, but after the story of the Communist teacher, I noticed a wavering cloudiness to the storytelling, though I could’ve been getting too used to the exuberance. The enchantment fell away somewhat, only to return toward the end of the collection with renewed force. This is to say that the collection is not perfect, but it is still extremely good. It has a certain consistency, and all of her stories are unmistakably products of her difficult and crystallized inner experiences, bled onto the page by a talented, down-to-earth writer. Like life, the stories have ups and downs, and many repetitions. The intimacy of the stories lie in the fact that she holds nothing back, and you will really feel you have come to know the author from the inside out. Brief moments of clarity often overshadow the larger themes. It was mainly the battle with alcoholism I tired of after several iterations. The same thing happens with Carver, and it makes one posit that alcoholic writers can only write about alcoholic writers.

The biographical details put many of the stories in perspective, and the forward and introduction were effusive, if a little uncritical.

My favorite story was “Toda Luna, Todo Año” about a diving trip. I don’t know why I liked it so much, only that it was mesmeric, memorable, beautiful, profound, and exquisite. In rare moments over the course of the collection, the author achieves singular brilliance, but it is hardly ever sustained for an entire story’s length.

The most brutal story was “Mijito,” which will live forever in my memory. Her depictions of infants and children are heartbreaking, as are her portraits of homelessness, halfway houses, and prison. Several stories straddle Central American and American cultural divides, adding much cultural flavor.

Overall, I have to rate Berlin higher than Carver. She has a very strong method, and a persuasive voice. These were extremely compelling. As I become more disenchanted with Carver and similar short story writers, I look forward to reading her other collections.

Review of Complete Stories 1884–1891 by Henry James

This is 1 out of 5 volumes of James’ complete stories. He wrote 112 tales, and most of them are novella length. There are 17 in this volume. As always, the Library of America editions are well-made, readable, and collectible. 

I reiterate the complaint that their formatting and binding allows each to contain up to 1600 pages, yet the 5 volumes of James’ stories contain around 900 a piece. Obviously, they could have condensed it down to 3 volumes. But why should they when no one calls them out on it?

Henry James in my mind, is the polar opposite of Elmore Leonard. Leonard set out a rule stating you must never use any dialogue tags except “said”- James uses a variety of them, and garnishes them with rampant flourishes. James is not concerned with how much bookshelf space he occupies. He has an expansive, breathy, literary, meandering style, describing circles around his subject, zeroing in after pages of suggestion and scrutiny. He is fond of certain subjects and rarely deviates from them: The warring sexes, battling spouses, and American versus English life. A prime example is “The Modern Warning.”

The depiction of his setting is often immaculate but not the chief concern. The plot may hinge on the micro-betrayals of a cutting word. A ceaseless flow of internal monologues occupy most of the literary real estate. Immense quantities of descriptive prose contend with droll conversational jousting for the reader’s presumed limitless attention span. The stories can be summed up by asking the questions: Whom should they marry? How should they arrange the marriage? When should they marry? And very occasionally, WHAT should they marry?

This conclusion is disconcerting to me, having read 1500 pages of James so far. It constitutes a psychological obsession with marriage perhaps, with enough window dressing to pass for high-class social commentary.

Other commonalities would be: The acquisition of a fortune. (Not what to do with it.) The complete absence of children from the affairs of cultured life. (Brief episodes once every 1000 pages are the exception.) In a previous review I called James ‘an acquired taste,’ but he is more of an acquired madness.

He can be charming when he wants to be. The only problem is he very often does not want to be. See the beginning of “The Solution.” Notice how the humor drops off midway through, and the haze of bleary commentary interferes like the reader’s psychopomp, bloating the atmospheric story into a thin retread of tired themes encased in a blimp-like, unmemorable whole.

Did James really hold the view that an inescapable preoccupation with marriage and its attendant responsibilities constituted the determining factors of the worth and estimation of a life? Why did he write so many uneventful pages, if not?

You are supposed to perceive the subtle shifts in character, the subtext under every line of dialogue. It is impossible for me not to come to dismal, though thought-provoking conclusions while reading James. My mind wanders at times, but if it stayed riveted to the page, I am not so sure that the indistinct shapes thereon would be of more value than my own unmoored ramblings. I don’t need happy endings, but how much more interesting would these tales be with a stabbing or a strangling sprinkled in? How about a rabid dog? A runaway carriage with an infant inside. Battered brains on the cobblestones. A burning building and a half-clad adolescent woman dangling from a smoldering window. A skeleton in a closet. A crucified werewolf in the attic. Satanic aliens with a propensity for making bone broth from human corpses. Instead, someone upset a tea tray in one of the stories and my heart went wild. I was sweating bullets.

He can come up with startlingly beautiful observations on the human condition. In some cases he displays a lack of religiosity and thankfully refrains from didactic tone. James may be the most sophisticated romance writer of all time. His romances are not physical, they are psychological, and they deal very much with love. With great powers of elocution, he delivers well-rounded representations of conceit, vanity, pride, jealousy, envy, greed, desire, fascination, idolatry, passivity, boldness, impertinence, perplexing meanness, irreverence, and reverence. He provides life lessons from a grand old man suffering from, as he described it, portentous corpulence. A bit of this condition maligns his stories, but they endure through sheer gravity, gustatory bravado, with baritone Baroque cadence, grandiosity, and purposeful elegance.

What goes unsaid is often as crucial as the stated. Among other things, they are: A look into the lives of intellectuals, personal passions, arduous examinations of the psychological convolutions involved with betrothal extrapolated at obscene length, the concerns predicated upon the central ceremony of fussy ladies’ lives when much of the time their youth and therefore their worth, is spent.

In the end, these stories lack variety, imagination, concision, and interest as far as I am concerned. Why not read Kipling, Dickens, Lawrence, Woolf, and Twain. The correct answer is you must read them all. Oddly, I get some of the Jamesian vibe when I read Thomas Wolfe. Both of them said screw you to active verbs and cherish their adjectives like their virginity. I appreciate many aspects of James’ craft but too many of his characters come off as the same or very similar to one another. The behavioral outliers are interesting. There are many strong examples of dialogue and description interspersed in the vast seas of psychological interplay, which infringed on my patience. Upper class young people, their foolish transgressions, faux pas, the consequences of disobedience of tradition. Waiting for life’s problems to resolve. The souring of relationships. Big deal.

When I got to “The Liar,” I was amazed. It was an exception to the marriage theme. I recommend this story for that reason.; “Georgina’s Reasons” was compelling, and I had some fun with “The Aspern Papers.” The others felt like slow radiation burn.

This volume is an expansive survey of the various entrapments offered by privileged, white, landed life. Pleasures and ennui, aesthetic pursuits, beauty of the soul, even if the soul of wit is lost. A rather dry and closed-minded view of successful engagements. James is too constrained by his method at times. His prose stylings read like paint by numbers – about 2/3 of the time. Circuitous, hydra-headed sentences lack relevance, yet sustain breathless momentum, accumulating tension like fog trapped in glass. He is excavating the ore of human emotion with pebble-pinching tweezers.

The trouble courtship entails, the subtleties of human interrelations, the daunting prospect of spending one’s life with another. Most of the fun comes from the vivid descriptions and basking in the endless sprawl of slowly unveiled ambience. Earning love, attaining social status, the impediment and propulsion of finance, dense descriptions of mansions and the way people dress, crippling propriety, how to live well by society’s standards, the hidden motives underlying attraction and association, conniving relatives, living your own life, mastering your fate, the pleasure of defiance, the many differences between men and women – at least in terms of behavior in this time period. The gloomy prospect of future downturns, the inevitability of tragedy. He is capable of compressed storytelling, but he chooses the scenic route more often. His characters have a habit of dying of brain fever with alarming frequency. The corrupting influence of money works its way in like an earwig, the psychological strain of enduring the association of other people is most unsavory. Slaves of circumstances, aren’t we all?

The subtle art of making love in the 19th century sense of the term. The drama of class expectations, endless analysis of social mores. You can be an old maid at 29. Peoples’ preoccupation with the accomplishments of their rivals. How love can turn to abhorrence. Perceptions color our emotions. Seeking legitimacy, validation, and a sense of community in what are considered worthy pursuits, security, passion, discontent, faith in oneself.

The florid contexts, calculated gestures of spite and petty malice, the fruitful verbosity, rickety moral palaces, problem-ridden households, stiff, creaking, detached, impressionistic, waxen mannikins in wall-papered sitting rooms, rather than human beings. Why does James take such a clinical, ascetic, hands-off approach to narration? Epic landscape renderings, in majestic prose, makes for some lucid evocations of time and setting.

Social intimacy, delicacy, and refinement, cultivating a milieu, solicitousness.
A major problem: The dearth of metaphor, figurative language, and simile. A general absence of exaggeration and sarcasm. I had to search 108 pages to find a single example:

“I should as soon think of fanning myself with the fire-shovel.”

Dialogue sometimes breathes life into a mummified chapter, so brittle and uninteresting for its hermetic barrenness of event, plot, or action, mere summaries entombed by geometrically sound sentences. Aphorisms abound, with a dictionary-like authority. Immense literalness. A master of circumlocution, interior expression, his many shuddering stoppages and lurching starts,

Daubing impressions, this evasive meandering, should we sit around complaining about obtaining approval from our betters like these many examples, in their stately boudoirs? – It is almost a crime for a young woman to be ugly. See “The Path of Duty.” A woman’s duty is to marry, but more importantly, to marry well. The selfish exercise of marriage. One “takes” a husband or a wife. But the worst crime someone can commit is being poor. Such sickeningly old-fashioned frameworks for overused tales. Such high-maintenance characters, people arranging their lifestyles around an impending inheritance, the development of character within fine ladies and conniving men as a result of the grease of money injected into the system.

“The Lesson of the Master” contains some of his best soliloquys. Pondering the nature of the muse, the duty of the writer, the scope of craft, perfection, seeking intellectual cultivation, the translation of those efforts into communicable products. The elusive sense of accomplishment at the arrival at the ideal. How to exist in such a tumultuous collective of inscrutable souls putting forth effort to make something of one’s meager span of years, sacrifice, devotion, imperfection as death, the artist’s dream, his modus operandi, passing on a legacy, life, family, obligations, all interfere with perfection and its pursuit. What constitutes divine art, women as idols, muses, altars, comfort, advantage, the standards of men, the practice of living, the relations between rivals, genius and happiness, limitations and torment, assurance and improvement.

Contempt for the unmarried, and the lower classes pervades everything he wrote, as does money worship, contempt for willful women, foreigners, for the ordinary and unremarkable. Worst weakness of all though: the unconscionable number of gesticulations between speech bubbles. A microscopic play-by-play of twitching mustaches and flickering eyes, hands fluttering, twisting and wafting, lips trembling, eyes glistening, mouths ejaculating. And what is the reward for sitting through his twenty-hour documentary of silly conversations about bored almost-married rich bastards?

For some inexplicable reason, reading James seems to rewire the brain, allowing for a recharged creative, mechanical unfurling of prose in the mind’s inner awareness of language.

I would like to end by pointing out that he is fond of the words ‘interlocutress’ and ‘tergiversation.’

Review of That Little Something by Charles Simic

I think Charles Simic’s poetry is for people who don’t like poetry. Of course, people who like poetry can also enjoy it. Like Billy Collins, I consider his small, one-sitting collections to be gateway drugs into the world of poetry.

Analyzing poetry has never been fun for me, which is why I’ve been less enthusiastic about Emily Dickinson. But I’ve found that the more of a poet you read, the more you acquire a sense of their voice. With Dickinson and Milton and other poets I would consider ‘serious’ or ‘difficult,’ it is simply a matter of acclimatizing oneself. Simic remains an extremely approachable poet, with an infectious voice. Reading his poems is to be invited into his brain, his living room, his life. They are conversations, usually in his kitchen or at his writing desk, or while he’s running errands. He’s telling you how he feels, while at the same time expressing poignant views on a multitude of topics, from politics to literature to history to nature.

You could analyze these poems, but more likely you will simply breeze through them with a thrilling sense of comprehension. There is no struggle to adjust expectations or conquer the words on the page. While I set about reading more demanding literature, like the works of the Romantic poets, I find that taking little breathers to enjoy books like this one are a great palate cleanser.

Review of Eyeshield 21 Vol. 37: Ready Set Hut by Riichiro Inagaki, Yusuke Murata

“Eyeshield 21” is a sports manga with wide appeal. Like most great sports stories it understands that the true heart of the game is the people playing it.

“Eyeshield” verges on being on a shonen manga due to its clever take on football. Every game is a battle between warriors. All the stars have special moves that they use to give them an edge and the plays are often spectacles to behold with constant strategic interplay. This less then realistic take gives the manga an infectious quality, making the games feel like life or death struggles. Some of the games could be likened to battles in Naruto and Dragon Ball for the intensity and lasting impact.

The art also propels this clash of titans along and brings it to startling heights. The artist Yusuke Murata, of One-Punch Man renown, shows his usual level of excellent detail and understanding of form. The funny light-hearted moments and sense of comedy are expressive and charming. The action is tight and easy to read. Even in scenes of dialogue the mastery of anatomy shows how to combine the cartoonisms with realism effectively. When he pushes things to more unrealistic levels it feels like an organic extension of his realism due to his ability to judge how far to go. This is a manga that can be looked at purely for the art and framing even if football means nothing to you. Read it for the superb characters.

The characters are where “Eyeshield” truly shows its amazing plays. All the main characters are fleshed-out with compelling if not complex motivations. All have arcs, and watching them grow with each other and fight through there struggles is the highlight of the storytelling. Even all the teams they face have likable and memorable characters. Many of conflicts feel like true tests of ability and endurance for the main cast. More than once in the story you are left wondering how the Devil Bats will compete against their foes only for their heart and talents to come bursting forth in interesting ways.

There is a lot this series does right but it has a few weak points. While the writing is good, the story structure is repetitive. The series falls into a loop: of a volume for preparing for a game and then 3 volumes for the game. The games are intense but almost always come down to a few seconds and one point. This cliché and unrealistic approach to every game does get tedious.

Fans of action, sports, and great characters need to give this a try. Even if you are none of those, picking this up to look at the art is well worth your time. Every tackle hits like a truck, every victory screams from the page, and defeats drips with bitter sweat. Experience the thrill of sports vicariously and cheer for the characters.

Review of The Dark Room by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki

This slim novel is quintessentially enjoyable in the same way that the author’s stories are. It is also easy to criticize. 

Like Oscar Wilde said: “There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all.”

This book is beautiful and grotesque, and I believe that it is an effective psychological condensation, a profound depiction of narcissism and an eerie tale of obsession. It is not surprising that this author was a translator of Henry Miller. It is a shame few of his works have found their way into English.

Many people will dislike this book and the main character. Reading Paul Auster and even Orhan Pamuk will reveal similar characters embodying perversions, or at least dwelling in this frame of mind for protracted periods of time, but in this simple novel, the sensuality is far more palpable to me. I found this work moving and do not think it is necessary to justify the standpoint of the writer or the fictional persona.

It has the sensibility of a Tanizaki novel and the narrative distance is incredibly close. Whereas Tanizaki can still be mentioned in polite conversation, it’s risky to bring up Yoshiyuki. But Junnosuke’s scenarios are just as memorable. They have a wonderful consistency. I found myself unable to stop turning pages. That was why I finished the novel in only a couple sittings. If only there was more of this author’s work in English! One gets a sense of the times while really sinking into the plight of the main character, who only knows one way to live. By being a womanizer he is portrayed as a sad individual, but one that does not grate on my patience. He is almost as trapped by his flaws as the females he uses. They are all human and real. I sensed that the author labored over this book, that it took him many months to get the feel right, and to perfectly capture the aura of decadence he was going for. It could be true, but what it became was a powerful document dredged from the depths of his soul.

Review of When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

“When the Sea turned to Silver” is a tough call. It is better than its predecessor in every way except the most important: the theme.

“When the Sea Turned to Silver” is a direct sequel to “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon.” It not only follows the same family but wraps up a few lose ends from that story. I was pleasantly surprised by this fact. Seeing some of the ideas from the first book fleshed out and some stories come full circle was immensely satisfying. I do not known if Grace Lin had this sequel in mind when she wrote the first but the continuation of the story and characters is masterful. Overall, I am highly impressed by the fact that Grace Lin did not settle as a writer and strived to do better in her sequel.

My biggest qualm from the first book is also addressed. While storytelling is the heart of this series the first book proportionately had too many pauses in the main story to convey the pacing of a folktale. This disruption at certain points lessened the story’s impact in my eyes. Here, the balance is sound. There are still plenty of folktales that flesh out the truth behind the narrative, but the main story is not forgotten. Plenty happens and the characters feel more autonomous and the main story more epic for the entirety. The narrative in general is also better. While the last story was very personal, very little was at stake. Here the whole kingdom could suffer if the story teller’s granddaughter fails and the narrative has more power for it. There is also more action in this sequel which helps to make the stakes feel dire.

The writing is better has also improved. The metaphors and similes do not get in the way of the storytelling but paint beautiful word-pictures. These echo the idea of storytelling and its power and bolster the themes of stories in the book.

The only place this book falters is the main theme. “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” had flaws, but its heart was a powerfully realized message. Here there is no main message, no driving theme besides how stories weave into life and eternity. At least, that was my opinion. It is a shame because while this is an objectively better read, it is hard to say it is a better book without the universal theme anchoring it.
If you enjoyed “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon”, give this a read. It is everything you like about the first and is more polished. Young children and young readers should also read this. Time to check out what else the author has written.

Review of Sons (House of Earth, #2) by Pearl S. Buck

After reading The Good Earth, it is hard to imagine a more worthwhile reading experience.
Pearl S. Buck, like John Steinbeck, knows how to combine characters, setting, and strong themes with great pacing and balanced prose… usually.

Editing a book is like creating a katana, I think. To create these masterful Japanese swords the blacksmith folds the metal many times, working out the impurities to strengthen its edge. A lot of writers edit a book in a similar manner, going through time after time to remove and distill their ideas down into a finely crafted weapon of storytelling. What can make a sequel feel dull is the lack of such honing down. “Sons” suffers from this, even if some of the pure delights of the first book are still perceptible in bits and pieces here.

Though the page count would lead you to believe otherwise, Sons feels long. Interesting characters and cultural exploration are to be expected, as are the continuations of the original story’s plot. Much of the book does feel unnecessary in my opinion, and there are fewer shocks and a lot less awe, because we have visited this setting before, and in the first book it was mesmerizing. The Good Earth was a truly great work in my mind, and I can’t help comparing the sequel to it.

In Sons, more than in the first part, characters spend a lot of time, grumbling and being indecisive.
The characters are all flawed, as we know but they should not be incompetent or impotent. Ms. Buck’s fascinating look into Chinese culture and traditions, drawn from life as it is, feels forced without new and refreshing themes to carry us along. The story is looser than in the first installment. Instead of a laser focus on the life of Wang Lung and his rise through his appreciation of the earth, in Sons there is a listlessness pervading the narrative. We get to see what his sons do but their selfish agendas don’t possess the same grandeur as the heartbreaking struggle of his youth.

The reader might expect Wang Lung’s sons to lack the same appreciation that made their father wise and successful, and to suffer as a consequence. Thankfully, there are still some excellent nods to “The Good Earth” that will make any fan smile. Whether its how the Tea House from the first book is used as a symbol of how little Wang Lung’s children understand their father and how his lessons are completely ignored. Pearl S. Buck also follows through on her promise from the prior book regarding how the wealthy house of Hwang fell and shows us how Wang’s house is decaying through the same cycle. But even these well-penned continuations are diminished when they come few and far between in a book without much as much substance to offer. If this book had been edited down it could have been nearly as riveted as the first. Knowing that there is a third in the series, I wonder if the second and third might have been combined and condensed to possibly equal the first.

The cyclical nature of life is a theme in this book and is an echo from the first. From how Wang the Third went off to be a rebel and his son follows suite, to how Wang the First’s life of idleness is passed to his sons, the cycle of father to son is an inescapable dilemma. But the theme is weakened by a lack of focus and takes far too long to mature. It is not until the very end of the book that we start to see impact and there is too little sustaining my attention by that point. Even the idea of the importance of land which was the heart of the first book fell flat for me. Though it tries to weave itself with the idea of cycle and legacy there is too much noise for it to bloom.

There are good elements in “Sons” but nearly everything significant is diluted with unnecessary length and exposition. It is hard to say if the writing is good as the individual sentences are tight, but the overall feel leaves something to be desired. If you like books that explore other cultures or times look no further than The Good Earth. A cursory look at the Nobel Prize winning author’s massive body of work will show that she spent a lifetime writing about China, Japan, Korea, and other cultures. The Chinese traditions in her trilogy are fascinating and it’s interesting to see how they effect people’s lives. However I think what the first book displays is enough to satisfy most peoples’ curiosities. The unfortunate truth the last line of “The Good Earth” did a better job of examining Wang’s sons then this entire book. One day I might tackle the third, but I think I would rather start looking into Bucks’ other fictions first.