Review of Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi

Japanese Slice of Life Versus American Literary Fiction.

Slice of Life: mundane day to day events occur regularly. Characters go to work, commute, go shopping, etc. They interact with others in quirky and amusing ways. Characters make decisions, but the consequences are not usually earth-shattering. Readers have the chance to live a life vicariously through these people, to feel their accumulated stress and experience the joy of simpler lifestyles. They supposedly depict life in Japan (or another culture) and share cinematic aesthetics with film directors like Ozu. The writing style is simple, readable, approachable, unadorned. Examples include Convenience Store WomanThe Nakano Thrift ShopThe Easy Life in KamusariNorwegian Wood, and There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job.

Literary fiction: Characters just have money without ever having to go to a job. They spend it with abandon. They drive themselves into desperate situations through their glaring character flaws. They cheat on significant others for lack of anything better to do. They pick fights, usually make the most destructive choice, and are supposed to grow through these hardships and emerge a better person, but sometimes come out more despicable. They often worship idols (themselves, their lovers, money, status, etc.). They do drugs. The writing style is ornate, complex, rich, textured, and possibly pretentious. Common themes include marriage and mortality.

When it comes to reading genres, I think if a reader sticks too heavily to one or another, they will run up against fatigue. Thanks to the recent influx of translations from Japanese into English I have been able to enjoy many slice of life novels this year. But are they the literary equivalent to sitcoms? One of the advantages the Japanese genre has over the American literary output I’ve gotten through so far, is the relatable main character. More often than not, books by Roth, Updike, Ellis, Franzen, and others cast deplorable characters in the lead role, and put them through hell, and thereby create tension, conflict, and a general terror of the wages of excess. Sometimes I just don’t want to traverse the perverse landscape of the human soul and prefer to follow likable people through their ultimately trivial travails. They are too often about wealthy people who feel sad sometimes.

While Diary of a Void is not the most elegant Slice of Life I’ve read this year, it is generally recommendable, enjoyable, and rife with a few relevant subtexts. It tackles the common Japanese literary trope of workplace burn out, and discusses the image problem in that country, which many woman writers point to as the sustaining conflict in their feminist works. Shion Miura, on the other hand, pursues other themes in her recent translations, and the strikingly similar book, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, manages to pull the reader into an even more down-to-earth reading experience.

When it comes to light reading, I would place Diary of a Void somewhere in the middle in terms of quality. It does not pack a large emotional punch and is surprisingly bland. The complaining in the first half is countered by some improbabilities in the latter half. It is less believable and more forgettable than expected. Nonetheless, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to place a pleasant window before the reader, a lens to peer through, by which we may come to appreciate the small things in our lives all the more.

Review of Of Kings, Queens and Colonies by Johnny Worthen

Humans have relocated to a ten-planet system called Coronam.

Each planet has its drawbacks and advantages. Various factions proceed to war over the resources and ownership. This is an epic with medieval warfare, space ships, and political subtexts. Told through 16 points of view, the tale could get a little convoluted, but each chapter offered additional insight into the world building, which overall, left an excellent impression and kept me wanting more.

More books in the Coronam series are on the way and I plan to give them a read. If anything could be improved I would say some of the characters needed to be fleshed out. Sometimes, the author would kill one of them off, and I’d wished to read more about their backstory.

Worthen has a balanced writing style. I got the sense that he was good at all aspects of writing but not incredible at any of them. The word choice was proficient, the sentences slid from thriller-esque in structure to more grand and sweeping fantasy narration when necessary. Each chapter left us with a mini-cliff hanger, and the characters were realistic. The dialogue was also multi-layered, but alas, many of the passages were not particularly memorable. A few scenes could be classed ‘generic.’ But you will undoubtedly have a good time. This is not as cheesy as pulp science fiction, and not as overblown as typical high fantasy. You get a cool mash up of space, medieval tactics, and religious inquisition atmosphere.

The narration never beats you over the head with exposition. I could tell that the author spent a lot of time planning and executing his overarching plots and segmented episodes in a calculated manner. There was nothing extraneous really, and aside from a stray filler word once every ten pages or so, the editing is pristine. It reads quickly, and has an elaborate setting. I honestly think he could have slowed down and spent an extra hundred pages or so enriching the description. While the scenery isn’t scrimpy, it’s not pushed to its full potential.

I’ve listened to the author speak several times at conferences and it is clear to me he has a strong understanding of storytelling and composition. I will delve deeper into his works, since he’s produced a lot of variety and jumped from genre to genre. He may not be as renowned as Brandon Sanderson or those big shots, but his work has individual character and is vivid and believable. I enjoyed this more than Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings. Worthen’s writing does not feel forced. He doesn’t waste the reader’s time or put on airs. He is a hard-working writer turning out a lot of interesting stuff.

Review of Ruins by Peter Kuper

A worthy and important work of graphic storytelling. 

A married couple take a sabbatical in Oaxaca. He is a struggling insect-enthusiast, and she is working on a novel. They gravitate away and toward one another while they explore the urban desolation and natural splendor of their surroundings. It resonates strongly with political tensions, historical tidbits, and entomological side comments. They see the good and bad of a “ruined” country in the sense that the incredible store of rich resources and historical value have been subjugated, ravished, and despoiled for 400 years. They engage with the local people in their fight for vague political movement, while tackling their inner demons. Establishing a second home in a foreign country always requires sacrifice. Countries swallow people whole. You get digested by your environment, and that digestive juice transforms you. Will they emerge whole? The motif of butterflies and their supernatural migrations is woven through the narrative. An absorbing read that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Review of by Crystals of Empire Trilogy by M. Poyhonen

The Crystals of Empire is an immersive fantasy tale with a steep learning curve.

In time, the pieces fall into place, but the beginning eased me in with a recognizable setting steeped in mythological undertones and relatable character interaction. While I did not get on with the dialects, the dialogue was functional offering a good balance of explication from an omniscient viewpoint and close third-person perspective. The imagery was the crowning achievement of this book in my opinion. Through an accumulation of details, the author constructs a convincing world, allowing for suspension of disbelief and participation in a grand narrative.
Overall, the pacing was one of its strongest aspects. When conflicts weren’t taking place on the page, they were building in the background, amid scenes of character development. The reader is given access to a sincere and genuine experience of human nature. The main character is not the typical hero, though he does rise to power in his own way. Very little about this book will fulfill reader expectations. Rather, surprises await around the bend, and the imaginative writing style, while it stumbles in a few quirks leading to ambiguity, is like a warm blanket for fantasy fans, feeding us figurative language at a steady rate, while piquing our pulse with action scenes and twists.
I was intrigued by the main character, who at first appeared passive but grew into something more and unexpected. The creative background information and character motivations lent a uniqueness to the story I did not see coming. While it has many ups and downs, the Crystals of Empire is a dependable series, offering no end of wonder, escapism, and palpable world building.

Review of Time goes by… By Hiroshi Nagai

Hiroshi Nagai is the greatest artist of liminal spaces in my opinion.

His art is far more satisfying, long term, than any other artist I can think of at the moment. He should be more well known. No filmmaker or artist on Earth, except for brief hints here and there, come close to capturing the indefinable feeling conjured by every one of Nagai’s paintings.

Review of End Man by Alex Austin

The first thing I appreciated about End Man was the Vaporware/ Outrun aesthetic of its cover, followed by its intriguing premise.

Wherever corporate corruption is brought upon the chopping block I am game for a foray into speculation. Then you get oodles of commentary on mortality and how the virtual world contains online remnants of the dead. Elements of this book are not fiction, but our true reality. It got me thinking about the records we leave when we die, online, in print, etc. And how that is all that is left of us. In this fictitious world, that concept gets taken to the extreme.

The slick prose style keeps the action pulse-racing throughout and the realistic futuristic setting is beset with crucial and relevant subtexts without compromising the plot. What value does a human life have after death? How much of our identity can be stored? Corporations have been quantifying human worth since their inception, and their practices are no different in the author’s world.

Blanks are people without online personas, which, one might argue, makes them harder to control. But what do we give up when we go off-grid? These ideas are morbid and upsetting to me because I seem them playing out in reality. It is no shock to come across them in fiction. The author certainly utilizes them in a thought-provoking way, incorporating tons of world-building details onto every page, and rarely slowing down to dwell in quiet moments. There are plenty of character quirks that solidify over time into memorable personalities both flawed and relatable. Solid dialogue chops play out against the heavy undertones.

Sleuthing fans will be right at home in the investigative environment of the book. Among its many considerations, it will have you pondering the ripple effects of contemporaneous tragedies like mass shootings and humanity’s potentially bleak future in a world rife with evolving cybercrimes and terrorists more creative and elusive and effective than law enforcement. Online activity monitoring and personal surveillance is not only disturbing but dehumanizing. Cryptocurrencies are also irritating, prevalent, and suspicious. All the same, the up to date engagement with social concerns is right up front here. By implementing razor’s edge technological innovations the author is able to depict a riveting interplay of conflicts. Many of us will recognize the signs of corporate grind, burn out, ennui, addiction to social media, and dependence on tech and gadgets to run our lives for us. Add to this discussion of quantum computing, debt culture, and the typical people gaming the system leaves the playing field ripe for scandals. Reading about scary futures close enough to our present can disturb but also awaken us to the realities before our eyes. Still, the book is entertaining and intellectually stimulating. I have always considered the Internet to be a rabbit hole, but it can become a black hole — one that consumes and proliferates until its virtual landscape seems more vast and alluring than our physical world. How is it that our sophisticated civilization can be as deadly as the Viking-era villages, where survival is no guarantee, or even a likelihood, due to our destructive impulses?

Recommended for a cyber-aware audience.

Review of Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

2 stars for Neil Gaiman and 6 stars for old Norse authors.

A glance at the cover would lead one to believe that Neil Gaiman wrote this book. He is the “author” after all. But what did he actually do? He retold the tales. His language is entertaining, but he might have used invention and creativity to put modern spins on some of them or elaborated the tales somehow. He does not do this. He has been doing something like this since Sandman and maybe even earlier for all I know – that is, using old tropes, myths and fairy tales to sort of come up with a plot, or dressing up the skeleton. He is not a mythmaker in my opinion, he is a paraphraser. Don’t come to this book expecting original ideas. Come to it for tried and true, ancient storytelling, humor and wonderful metaphors illustrating human nature.

Review of Anthem by Ayn Rand

Writing in the first person plural toward a central theme, Ayn Rand tests the reader’s patience. 

I recommend Doris Lessing instead. Her wonky, awkward descriptive power is more attuned than Rand’s. Rand has a tendency to produce a monotone. I was picturing THX 1138 the whole time. Naming characters with numbers was also a poor choice. If you were not a fan of her characters in Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged, you won’t care for them here either. A general icy tone of indifference to human empathy pervades her work. The worship of the ego is taken to laughable pinnacles.

Review of Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong

Told in first person present tense. 

A dysfunctional protagonist leads us through her obsession with a coworker. The main character self-consciously sabotages herself through ritual superstitions and coping mechanisms. The list of her disorders is not delineated but the reader may observe tell-tale signs of nearly every social issue a person can contain within one body.

The writing is fluid, way more commercial than literary fiction, a page-turner trick or two implemented at the end of most chapters. This is a quick read, but patience is required to put up with the protag’s deplorable decision-making paralysis, her awful judgment constantly triggering the next disaster. The only tension or conflict present in the book is the direct result of Katrina’s ill-adapted actions. It was frustrating, and I did not sympathize with her. I have met many who have dug their own graves while living lives they always complain about, but few of them matched Katrina’s level of unbelievably broken.

It was a harrowing experience in the same way riding along for a train wreck is. But there is little complexity, and not much literature to a train wreck. It is simply a sad and destructive force barreling toward doom. Misery loves company. Anyone who has worked for a staffing company or as a recruiter will sense the seething hate for the industry felt by our anti-heroine. But how else would you expect corporate America, let alone the healthcare system, to function? Hate it all you will, but she is the one to blame for her deplorable job, her circumstances, etc. She did not work hard and had the gall to complain about how her workplace treated her. The worst employees get treated the worst. Sorry not sorry.

The problem with reading a very intimate and close perspective is that you can easily hate the person you are keeping company with. I do not believe this was the author’s intention.

The better parts of the book are related to a slapped-together mystery and the disparate fascinations of the protagonist’s secret world intersecting. Overall, I was extremely unimpressed, but it is the kind of book you have to finish.

Review of My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

Not much left to be said about this brilliant book. 

It was brilliant and disturbing and a perfect reading experience. Another first person narrative by this famous author plumbing the depths of human loneliness, wish fulfillment and modern society. A magnificent satire and unputdownable headlong plunge into the heart of all that is wrong with the modern world, condensed and epitomized by a few characters who are laugh out loud funny and haunting at the same time.

Better than Bret Easton Ellis and at least as good as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Review of Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh

My ranking of Ottessa Moshfegh’s books.

1. My Year of Rest and Relaxation
2. Homesick for Another World
3. Lapvona
4. Eileen
5. McGlue
6. Death in Her Hands

Lapvona was midrange Moshfegh, in my opinion. It lacked the intimate first person perspective of her other works and possessed a cold, alien tone, making use of uncommon sentence rhythm, like the final story in her collection Homesick for Another World where two children interact in horrifying and malicious ways. She captures a palpable discontent throughout her body of work, but her suggestions about humanity’s past and future are unsettling, more clearly in Lapvona, with its aura of crushed innocence and ceaseless desensitization. It relies heavily on edgy subject matter without the simpering edginess of much modern fiction. Her language radiates from the setting and characters as naturally as that of classic authors like William S. Burroughs. Her voice is supple, but recognizable, even in this historical disguise.

I would prefer a return to a tighter focus and closer perspective in her next work, since she excels at these qualities, and when she pares her writing down to the essentials and takes us on a deep dive down the icebergs of human depravity, she is able to plumb relatable interior worlds with exquisite candor, as in her masterpiece MYORAR. Lapvona is a densely populated, frenetic nightmare.

Review of Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh

Why do people read literary fiction?

I ask myself this whenever I try to define the difficult term “literary fiction.” I think of Philip Roth and John Updike most readily. I see that Moshfegh manages to impress literary readers while also capturing a large audience, ie, being a bestseller. But unlike Roth or Updike, I feel like her work is more fluid, less samey.
This is the first thing of hers I’ve read, and it was standard 1st person literary fiction. Nothing that hadn’t been done before. It was a tad more intimate (grosser) than average, and had a quick pace and compelling voice. Contrasted with my recent read of Liar, Dreamer, Thief, I much prefer this book, which did not talk down to its reader. The titular main character was more realistic in my opinion.

I return to and rephrase the question: Why do we like to read about miserable people who sadly shuffle through meaningless existences? Franzen and others help us tackle this difficult quandary in countless iterations of men and women cheating on one another and making fools of themselves in public. The sub-genre of this also mix in race relations and historical atrocities, just to add fuel to the fire of suffering and distinctly human cruelty.

Moshfegh came off as genuine in her portrayal of a sloppy woman, living messily, in a messed-up world. Alcoholic fathers and dying mothers have become cliches, but what works best amid the unremitting bleakness of the setting is the strong voice. It is not concise or overly elegant, but it does its job of carrying the reader through the typical scenarios with verve. We live vicariously through characters like this.

I appreciated the frank and telling depiction of life’s gruesome hardships and felt the struggle of a woman trying and failing to make something of a depressing life. It had its highs and lows, but I can recommend the book to anyone with a strong stomach and a pulse. It rises above the trillion other hard-luck stories out there and indicates a talent ready to operate within and outside the norm.

Review of My best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

Listening to 80s Synthwave Halloween mix on Youtube while writing this review.

This was the kind of audiobook I had to invent chores to continue listening to. An incredible audiobook performance first of all. And a beautifully written book, oozing nostalgia from every acne-scarred pore. The angst. The rich details, and the evocation of 80s pop culture. The gruesome climax and the way it captured adolescence was heart-crushingly effective. Beautiful, elegant, rewarding, evocative of a lost era of shopping malls, roller rinks, suburban sprawls and cinematic small town skies, of an America still pregnant with mystery. It holds the classic fear of the unknown, growing up, friendship, and the travails of high school in its gooey center. The crunchy outer layer of prose is crisp and redolent with all of the texture of childhood – Dayglow Goosebumps covers, sleepovers, E. T.

I would change nothing about this book and I will read it again.
Better than Stranger Things, it tickles that sinister October vibe, and will haunt me for many years to come. Not scary so much as fun, rife with subtexts, and perfectly honed by a vibrant aesthetic, strong characters, and pitch perfect tone.

Review of Confessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

I only plan to read a few autobiographies in my life.

I would consider reading Mark Twains and Casanova as well. Rousseau’s reputation is immense. As soon as I began listening to the audiobook I felt at home in the author’s style. It was a long and rambling account of his life, going over his loves, his financial woes and his artistic ambitions with a fine-toothed comb.

Rousseau was also accomplished in the field of music and produced a couple novels as well. His status was not easily won, coming as he did in the wake of Voltaire and Diderot. by hook or by crook Rousseau was determined to succeed in a life of letters or through his musical compositions. He does not beat around the bush about his goofing off, lack of direction and focus, and describes troubling medical afflictions which beset him most of his life.

The value of this classic, I think, lies in its uncanny ability to give the reader a sense of life during that time. I’ve always enjoyed accounts of travel and hard luck stories, and the Confessions has a little of everything. During that time it was rare to find anything as personal and intimate as this written about oneself. Rousseau could have easily disguised all of his adventures and hopes and dreams as a novel, but chose to more boldly represent the facts of his life and convey to the reader the unfiltered sensory details of his times.

The writing mingles straightforward narrative with philosophical musings. He includes few caricatures of family and friends, instead tending toward balanced portraits of individuals. More than once he was met with various forms of adversity, whether by not selling a piece of work he had labored over or losing a precious connection in his circle of friends through some political or personal squabble. But just as often he is beset with good fortune and lands at the right place at the right time.

In some ways his life reminded me of Goethe. he sought after something sublime in the human spirit, but struggle to articulate it in a number of forms. Goethe, ultimately, was more successful, but Rousseau gave it a fair shake and turned out a classic or two in the process. By reaching toward perfection in one’s art, one must crash against the established norms, and pursue a personal definition of artistic perfection without regard to transitory critical assessments.

This is a valuable and fun-to-read book containing much wisdom. It exudes the air of a classic but is far more approachable than I expected.

Review of Edgar Allan Poe: Collected Works by Edgar Allan Poe

It was nice to pick up a leather bound edition of Poe for my Halloween rereading of his stories. 

I rediscovered amazing stories like “King Pest” and “The Devil in the Belfry.” this activity reminded me of the many qualities I admire about his writing.

I was disappointed in the presentation of the text, however, in the Canterbury Edition. The editing and formatting is inferior to the Library of America edition and even some digital editions I’ve obtained with innumerable errors which occasionally obscure the meaning of the text.

The Leather binding is sound but the design feels a little cartoonish. I prefer the gold leaf arabesques of my Franklin Library classics to Canterbury’s modern covers. Still, as one of the few publishers still putting out leather bound classics, I want them to better represent the tradition by properly examining the text for formatting errors.

I also own their edition of Les Miserables and Stevenson. Of the three this is the only one with microscopic font. The editions are also conspicuously lacking in illustrations.

I hope someone eventually gives Poe the proper treatment and prints his complete works in elegant leather with profuse illustrations, but until then I can settle for this and my several other editions of his works. He is an endlessly entertaining author who excelled at satire, horror, mystery, science fiction and adventure. His fiction output was relatively small compared to Verne or Wells, but one gets the sense that his powers were thereby concentrated.

The body of his criticism, essays, reviews, letters and marginalia is more massive and often less interesting, but I have come to the point where I wish to appreciate even his dry jottings in printed form. He remains one of my favorite authors for the delight of his descriptions and the majesty of his sentences. Less than subtle, the majority of his works are pure description, or narrative, sufficing to entrance through their pure suggestion of form and feature. A few dramatic pieces intersperse his dark and haunting tales, explicating mystical conceits and futuristic speculations. He composed a series of conversations between figures beyond time in a method anticipating Lovecraft with such stories as “The Colloquy of Monos and Una” and “The Conversation of Eiros and Charmion.”

“Some Words with a Mummy,” contains some of his strangest ideas and his usual caricatures, striking as they are ridiculous. He displays a fascination or possibly an obsession with Mesmerism, which was in fashion at the time, and fails to root out its full and modern applications, instead speculating as is his custom on its metaphysical uses – most powerfully in “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

I will make no mention of the six or seven masterpieces which are so thoroughly anthologized, adapted and consumed by the modern reader that portions of their imagery are lodged in the collective unconscious. I do think there are many hidden treasures in Poe’s fiction which are rarely mentioned anymore. It is a grave mistake to simply read the most famous stories and move on to something else before coming to know the full taste of his inventive capacities in his obscurer works.

Despite its flaws, Poe’s immaculate and sinister writing style is adaptable and always entertaining. His work was the beginning of my discovery of the power of literature later to be consummated in the works of Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and many others. This book is a fine gateway drug into macabre storytelling techniques.

Review of The Exalted and the Abased by Damian Murphy

Several more novellas with occult-aesthetics from the master of neo-decadent novellas.

It is a niche genre perhaps, but the sumptuous descriptions and elegant interior design, the descents into esoteric epiphanies, the occluded worlds steeped in reverent awe of dark forces – none of these things get old when the prose sparkles and snaps, when every sentence slithers through the wretched unfondled parts of your mind.

Occasionally, the ultimate culmination of these close-circuited experiments in arcane experience and communion may baffle some uninitiated readers, but no one with eyes will fail to notice the polished, evocative imagery the author instills into his multi-faceted creations.

The second tale revolves around board games, which have always fascinated humanity. The tale is exquisitely drawn through a female protagonist’s perspective, as her husband’s obsession punctuates an exploration of ill-defined principles. However, magic and elusive truths burble beneath the fanciful facades of domestic abrasion leading to a familiar seclusion within the confines of a secret devotion. D. M. fans will recognize the trademark signs of a mind well-versed in hallowed depictions of harrowing indoctrinations. The level of ambiguity can take some getting used to but the sentence structure is as comforting as a well-worn divan, ensconcing the unsuspecting consciousness of all who enter upon these enigmatic pastures of oblivion.

The final tale is framed as a point-and-click adventure in the 2nd person. While a major departure from the author’s traditional or pre-modern method, the syntax is sound and the element of examination is well-defined. This is the third video-game-enhanced story I’ve read by the author and they may mark the pinnacles of his career for their intimate and unique elaboration of a sphere of experience often separated from decadent fictional portrayals. This sub-sub-sub genre of his multi-leveled works represents a side project with nearly limitless possibilities.

If he were to be persuaded to produce a long-form novel, I hope with all my heart he returns to the subject of pixilated worlds.

Review of The Neo-Decadent Cookbook by Various

A fun companion piece to the other Decadent anthologies from Snuggly Books (though this was published by Eibonvale)

featuring returning favorites: Brendan Connell, Quentin S. Crisp, Justin Isis, Damian Murphy, and several others. The short tales center around food, ingredients and people. They are rich in detail and surprising in content, since none of them are simple or straightforward. They will force the reader to consider what constitutes the neo-decadent aesthetic and to contemplate the atmosphere of our modern age steeped in ennui, amid a generation braised in technological isolation, marinated in the omnipresent glow of media, and fascinated by the secret byways of human thought. If you appreciate a well-composed feast of sophisticated syntax and savor the sensorium-enhancing delicacies of modern purveyors of weird imagery, then you will relish this delicious confection. 

Review of Atari 2600/7800: A Visual Compendium by Bitmap Books

Makes a nice pair with the Commodore 64 volume.

Bitmap Books makes immensely lavish retro video game books for readers like me, who prefer pixels to photorealism. And you get a lot of pixilation in this volume. I could complain about the book’s blocky pools of color, how the format of the Atari’s graphics does not translate into recognizable shapes when you zoom in sometimes, but all design choices aside, this book is filled with useless but fascinating information related to the video game industry.

I would say only die hard retro video game fans will get anything out of this book. Considering that most ordinary gamers will not find the Atari’s stone age graphics impressive or even recognizable as interactive objects, but once you start reading about how the games were coded, how the technology worked, you will see how impressive the system was. Albeit, by the time they released the 7800 two years after their original release date, Nintendo had already taken over with its appealing NES, and Sega was about to change the industry as well. Atari became old hat because they wanted to rely on software rather than hardware. Porting over arcade games was all well and good, but by the eighties I think computer games and even Commodore were investing more in complex RPGs and longer games. Atari is known for Pacman, Donkey Kong, and other arcade-esque experiences. The console was so fantastically limited that it is really a miracle the programmers got anything resembling a video game out of their creative efforts on the console.

Nonetheless, you can’t deny that the innovations explicated in this volume will convince you that Atari was probably the most influential company in gaming during its reign. Due to absurd mismanagement, the company couldn’t keep up forever. You will learn about programmers’ methodologies, and hear their grievances about getting no credit for working on the game. It’s true that you won’t find any indication of who created the game on most Atari titles. Obviously, the industry has changed a lot. It’s incredible to me that Undertale and Minecraft exist and thrive today at the same time as EA Games – that is, creators working largely alone while other games are the product of hundreds of employees’ efforts.

For Bitmap, I would suggest printing the box art on one page and the in-game graphics on the other. The two-page spreads would be just as interesting on one page alone, while the box art is often so fantastic that it deserves more attention.

This is a collector’s item, but honestly I doubt I’ll ever play more than a handful of Atari games in my life. 

Review of Bliss Montage by Ling Ma

This surreal collection of short stories put me in mind of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, Smart Ovens for Lonely People, and Life Ceremony.

It uses the same recipe of injecting everyday tone with bizarro aesthetics. This is upmarket bizarro. Genre fiction pretending to be literary fiction. A popular tactic nowadays.

It discusses the immigrant experience from several angles. Its characters experience disorienting isolation and loneliness. There is much less “bliss” than might be expected. The final story capitalizes on the horrors of motherhood where the earlier stories cast mothering in a demonized light. Some great pithy lines, but also some weirdly out of place ones.

For instance, she describes a house in which 100 ex-boyfriends live, how the rooms extruded from the structure. Then when the boyfriends begin to leave the rooms retract “like an old man’s balls back into his body.” That image is 100% wrong when compared to real anatomy subjected to time.

An amusing story about a Yeti and the travails of women who identify as Chinese in a society that tends to place expectations on them. It can be heavy handed but I cannot say any of it is off the mark. The scenarios are still moving and entertaining. The language is not elaborate and the imagery is striking.

The collection does what many story collections do, which is try to touch the heart while stimulating the brain. The most striking thing about them is often the unconventional structure, the blending of multiple timelines and the non-sequential storytelling.

When I read Severance I was disappointed. It is still the most boring book about zombies I’ve read. Her first book won a disproportionate number of awards. The author subsists off an aggravating number of foundations and fellowships, considering how long it too her to produce a 200-page collection.

I look forward to her next book. No thanks to Netgalley or the publisher are owed, since they denied my early access to an arc. Why, people, why?

Will she stick to short stories or give us another novel? I rather think that her subtle quirkiness is suited to short form.

Review of Instagrimoire//Fax Screen Sect: The Cancellation of Graham Greene, Volume 1: Tales from Orthographic Oceans, or: A Room with a View (Self-Portrait in a Concave Mirror with Interior Landscape & Key to the Scriptures) by Justin Isis

“The Ghost of Hana Kimura” is one of the finest poems I have read anywhere in a long time.

These are utterly unique, rereadable, poignant statements about our times. Dissectable, dense glimpses into a mind steeped in the light of liminal “inner flame.” Landscapes of the cyber-dead, and the obsolete kings of our renown. A hallowed and unholy godlike goading toward bleak imperatives. A harrowing and stylized recording of your exact search history. Don’t gloss over this Snuggly Slim; savor its timely dispensation of wit and esoteric terror.

Review of Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Brutal, Bloody Realism.

Impressive in every way. While Williams’ old-fashioned style suits the atmosphere of this tense book, his sentences are florid in places. But the graphic depictions and tangible grit make this journey unforgettable. It reminded me of the film Wages of Fear.

I mourn the millions of buffalo hides rotting on the plains. It conjures the majesty and the devastation of nature. The horrors of human nature are but the tantrums of children in the face of Mother Nature’s cataclysmic spasms. You cannot read it and walk away unmoved. Like Robinson Crusoe, it is a story of Man surviving in an inhospitable space, reduced to animalism, while gripping the last shreds of his dignity like a ravenous wolf, starving for the promises of wealth and power with which we keep ourselves sane. 

Review of Through the Abyss: Supreme Creation Seriesby Sidney Son

The first thing you may notice about this book is that the cover is reminiscent of Andy Weir’s books. But I approve of covers that convey a book’s comp titles.

The author provides a highly detailed style which coalesces into atmospheric descriptions without sacrificing a quick pace. There is a good balance of narration and dialogue, and about the average amount of exposition. Such a complex set up and execution requires a certain amount of explanation, and the reader is goaded on by an interplay of mystery and context. The mystery in question is thrilling at times, reminiscent of many other scenarios related to heroes saving the planet. It reminded me a lot of Mass Effect in terms of general tone and the texture of the story, which is a plus in my mind. The novel makes use of big cinematic set pieces and science fiction tropes employed for grandiose effect. If you like Rendezvous with Rama and similar spooky s-f explorations with high stakes, you should give this one a go.
The character interactions and backstories were often interesting, but not quite as entertaining as the implementation of speculative concepts, which took center stage in many chapters.
It’s long, with plenty of twists and turns along the way, requiring as much suspension of disbelief as your average blockbuster. Some eccentric dialogue and character reactions, but well-edited on the sentence level. Bizarre creatures and scene by scene dramatic tension, while the author intelligently incorporates many unique ideas into a familiar format offering an enjoyable adventure.

Review of Stoner by John Williams

Good storytelling. A memorable picture of American life.

Steinbeckian. Stoner the famer becomes Stoner the stubborn professor. We witness his heartbreaking home life and his harrowing professional life–two spheres most middle class Americans dwell in like split personalities.

It has been called a perfect novel. I would like to point out a few of its weaknesses, from my standpoint. The writing is too passive. Too many filler words, especially in the first half, too much hedging, too many adverbs, gesticulations, and passive verbs. It’s all telling, not showing, summary, not scene. Most early literary classics indulge in the same vices. I think Nathanael West, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald could write better sentences, but despite all of the polite Henry Jamesian prose inflation, it has solid character, thought provoking themes and moving emotional highs. It’s not dense, but it is deep. It stands as a worthy classic. In short it could have been more tightly written. For being published in 1965 it reads a bit like Dreiser or Steinbeck. Today we get un-tight books by Cormac McCarthy and Delillo, but they aren’t fluffy, they’re maximalist. Still, the minimalist plot and moral arguments here are old fashioned and the author succeeds in what he set out to accomplish.

It is a descent into the human psyche. A closed-perspective study of values. The thesis defense scene and its fallout are masterfully done. The whole book is unforgettable.

Review of People from My Neighborhood by Hiromi Kawakami

Hiromi Kawakami collects here a dreamlike conglomeration of semi-related characters and events from her part of town, if the title and interior clues are to be believed.

The random nature of the images and events lend the collection an experimental feel. The writing is smooth and simple and unadorned. Her earlier novels and stories were more atmospheric and consistent in my opinion. The quality of the ideas wavered from intriguing to objectively bad. Nonetheless, I admit it is hard to judge absurdist or bizarro works. They are not trying to make sense. Yet, I only consider a bizarro idea successful if it is either memorable or comments obliquely on the real world, either through satire or subtext. There appears to be some of the latter going on, and I only wish more of the vignettes resolved into memorable stories or packed more of a punch.

Like with her previous works in English, her subdued storytelling is softer than Yoko Ogawa’s and the spheres from which she draws her subject matter are not as far-flung as Yoko Tawada’s, but any of her books are approachable, somewhat enjoyable, and similar in feel to Banana Yoshimoto’s.

Be prepared for dog principals, pigeonitis, and other wacky scenarios. None of them are explored into perversity and remain tethered to a quirky sort of mundanity. No matter how out-there H. K. ventures, she is typically unwilling to offend anybody. If you liked Convenience Store Woman, you should check out Kawakami’s work, and watch for a subliminal appreciation for wabi-sabi.

I do hope more of her translated works make it into English soon.

Review of Save the Cat! Writes a Novelby Jessica Brody

There are several types of craft books. 

You can start with The Elements of Style to learn how to avoid many grammatical issues. You can also just use ProWriting Aid. Then there’re structure books, like this one. Finally, there’re industry books, which contain contradictory information from what you read online and hear at writer’s conferences. I would rather trust what I hear from authors who’ve published the books I enjoy. As far as structure goes, this book is useful and easy to use. I have been a pantser before, writing without outlining. I have also outlined. You should decide whether you would rather plan before or rewrite after. Either way, books require rewriting, and adhering to a formula won’t prevent rewrites. It may lessen them, but there is no sure-fire method aside from proper re-writing, implementing feedback and making compromises.

There could have been fewer examples. It is not too hard to find your own. I recommend giving the book a try, along with the formula. Doesn’t mean you have to stick to it in your next draft. Whatever motivates you to write and rewrite more. Books come out in such numbers these days the last thing we need is generic writing. Not everyone can write Ulysses, that is, a book which relies on lyricism and subtext rather than plot. To capture an audience authors have to give the reader reasons to read and keep on reading, and this guidebook can help you get started.

Review of Frankissstein: A Love Storyby Jeanette Winterson

Just great, bold, immersive writing. 

The various perspectives sustain their storylines and characters through intense and quiet moments. Introspective, but with plenty of dense, quippy dialogue. Outrageous sex doll business planning discussions, Mary Shelley in bed with P. B. Shelley, pillow whispering poetry. Humans as monsters and monsters as humans. Redefining humanity through AI, ungendering, and objectification. The future consequences of the liberation of consciousness, the soul, and transhumanism.

The audiobook could’ve benefitted from a de-esser plugin. Winterson’s creepily frank and provocative approach is steeped in literary lore, a strong sense of purpose in her oddball characters, and the convolutions of her prose, comparable to Delillo.

Review of Letters of Thanks From Hellby David Vardeman

I’ve finished all of Vardeman’s published works. 

 Now I have to resist the daily urge to search the web for new publications by this author.

LoTfH is a dramatic play taking place hundreds of years ago, with historically appropriate syntax and vocabulary. But somehow, Vardeman avoids confusion and localization, modernizing his prose just enough to bring the reader right into the room with the characters. The scenes are vivid and well-realized, with horripilating moments dispersed amid thoroughly researched phrases and lengthy, powerful speeches.

If you’ve seen the Exorcist or any of its pathetic imitators, you’ve seen this story before. Tales of possession are typically fascinating by default. What makes this one different is the reader’s duty to interpret these frighteningly lifelike events on the page, to unearth the human struggles amid the incantations and sermons. Each character struggles with interior and exterior demons. When one takes center stage, we must intuit the presence of the other.

The astute reader should be well-aware of the actual existence of witch trials in America during the 17th century, when our country could be properly called a barbarian nation of rabid, half-blind cultists. Whether those groups were benevolent or malevolent, they were steeped in traditions and superstitions which have thankfully died out (only after eliminating millions through disease, xenophobia, and zeal). But by reminding ourselves of our ancestor’s beliefs, conflicts, and passions, we can better define (and understand) our own. We must consider what this tale tells us about today. And that consideration will keep you thinking long after you complete the mental performance of this intrepid book.

This is an important parable of human nature in opposition to divine and demonic forces. It left me wondering: What is more supernatural than our own persistence?

I urge Vardeman to publish more, and quickly, because he will always find a faithful reader in me.

Review of Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo

I have read 16 Delillo novels so far. 

His literary cobbling definitely intrigues me. The sense of place, the weird characters saying off-the-wall things. The long, unnecessary, wandering, plotless sections of simply intriguing writing.

My ranking of Delillo so far:

1. Underworld
2. Americana
3. Cosmopolis
4. The Angel Esmeralda
5. The Body Artist
6. White Noise
7. Mao II
8. The Names
9. Zero K
10. Point Omega
11. Great Jones Street
12. Players
13. Libra
14. Falling Man
15. Ratner’s Star
16. The Silence

Most people could disagree and come up with their own rankings. I think the reader brings something to Delillo, interprets his aesthetic and appreciates his writing on different levels.
I’ll be tracking down and completing his final remaining works with trepidation and a touch of sadness. I will have to return to Ratner’s Star, having been disappointed. Then I will return to Underworld, having been enraptured. Is he a genius or a clever collagist?

My guess is he writes sentence by sentence, stringing together thoughts, characters, scenes. The themes bubble beneath the surface, but the subtle dance of his point is often elusive. You can always be assured that he will crisply construct elegant phrases, and incorporate many universal emotions and pointed comments related to the zeitgeist.

This book is only marginally about a rock group, a drug, a commune, writer’s complaints, and many other side topics. There is a near constant refrain of social commentary. Delillo’s books teach us a little bit more about being human, with all of our flaws, misconceptions, and compassion. Taken together, I think his body of work is more compelling than most other American authors, and comparable to Cormac McCarthy’s, or Steinbeck’s.

A true original, like Pynchon, who placed style and sentence precision above plot. Yet, I believe that most of his books fall just short of masterpieces due to their unfocused approach. Occasionally, whole sections fall flat to me, or certain books require an uneven amount of effort, with dense, impenetrable monologues abutting cinematic descriptions. This could be a failing in me as a reader, and proper appreciation of the hidden nuances may come with time.

This is as good a place as any to start with DeLillo. But I think Angel Esmeralda is the more perfect distillation of his powers.

Review of Palm Mall: A Vaporwave Novelby Oliver Neale

I have been searching for a ‘real’ Vaporwave novel. 

My Vaporwave shelf contains some works which analyze the genre and some books that taunted me with similar aesthetics, like Ballard’s retro futuristic descents into madness and Philip K. Dick’s vibrant dystopias. I came upon this 728-page Vaporwave novel with hesitation. The author has thousands of pages published on and rarely adds much context to the product description. Also on his page is an in-progress “Vaporwave Sequel” of similar length.

At first I remained skeptical, since the book’s back cover and formatting are wonky. But I got past the myriad fonts and sank into the immersive storytelling. The main character is an autistic kid who spouts off facts and lists. Several characters are planning a mall construction based on a sort of “happy place” oasis of the mind. The tone is bathed in Vaporwave imagery evocative of the synth-centric Youtube channels which have become pretty much the only music I listen to anymore. Satires of Corporate America, and funky adolescent anti-social ruminations ensue. But where the novel really works is in the frequent genre Easter eggs sprinkled liberally throughout the text. It’s dialogue-heavy, with dozens of transhistorical allusions that add layers of intrigue and metaphysical amalgamations. Take, for instance, the incorporation of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You think he just shoehorned the idea into the book, but later he describes the tomb of Qin Shi Huang which was said to contain treasures inside so fragile that to open the tomb would be to destroy what was inside. The only way to preserve its contents is to let it go undisturbed forever. These connections require active participation from the reader and are the marks of an author having fun with his craft.

The author references 80s commercials, advertisements, and philosophy to amusing effect. There are some uncredited quotes and images related to the story’s many tangents. Not only is the story a serviceable rendering of modern-day ennui, the social interactions depicted are often touching, surreal, enigmatic, Lynchian, and weirdly evocative of a dreamlike state of mind.

As with most small, unassisted publishers, the product lacks professional editing and contains inconsistencies, both of logic and sense. British spelling is used, and the author would do well to drop the habit of using “whilst.” These quibbles aside, I found this novel entertaining, enlightening, engrossing, and a beautiful symbol of entropy, of the morose deserts of overstimulated minds, of the bleak onslaught of future time descending upon our screen-focused race. It is a haunting and atmospheric conjuration of digital ghosts, with realistic characters orbiting the ideal wellsprings of their blasted imaginations. We are fearful nomads trapped in a consumerist mainframe and if you seek after nostalgic avenues and technicolor sunsets, there is much to be unearthed in this oversized novel.

Review of A Cool Million by Nathanael West

Greasy satire of the most malicious kind. 

A rags to rags story about one man’s valiant pursuit of the American nightmare. A surprisingly smooth and cinematic journey through the underbelly of America, which is not an underbelly so much as a carcass here, teeming with greedy maggots. The swindles are clever and the racism is either intentional or very sad indeed. Caricatures that will stick in the mind and slapstick that will make you wince. This mock picturesque ramble through urban squalor will titillate any enthusiast of descriptive prose or moral quandaries. Ask yourself, has anything changed? A poignant classic shedding light on societal struggles often brushed under the rug.

Review of Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

I needed this.

More unrestrained than Kawabata. Less brutal than Mo Yan. The voice is folkloric, the storytelling all over the place but always entertaining. With beautiful language, Gao depicts a China in transition, whose government and people are full of contradictions, but also resonant with long-standing traditions, suffused with the aura of millennia. It oozes history without secreting it. Deserving of the Nobel prize in the same sense that Mo Yan is, Gao gives us something unique, a hodgepodge novel that immerses the reader in the sensual and political climate of an era of China, and yet feels universal, important, profound. It does not force complex plots and characters through arcs and sinusoidal developments, it simply weaves a fabric of fictive reality. Xingjian’s brush is delicate, yet forceful. A fully realized mingling of experimental and traditional forms. As another reviewer said, Pynchon for the Chinese reader. I will probably obtain and read his other translated works.

Review of Later Stories by Alexander Theroux

Not short stories but novellas. While I disliked the tone of most of the stories, and much of the subject matter, I enjoyed the dollops of sophisticated prose.

The companion volume, called Early Stories, is half as long and less bloated. it is a better distillation of Theroux’s capabilities and eccentricities. These features of his writing provide the main entertainment value. You might compare him to William Gass, who was seldom pleasant to read, but always informative. These authors did not seek to give readers warm and fuzzies. They did not want to be cuddled up with, hot cocoa in hand, beside the warm hearth, on a quiet summer day. And yet, I found in his searing prose, a complex balm. This concoction is frequently surprising in its audacity, the way it affronts everyday sensibilities. Disregarding the fact that some people are therefore offended by the words Gass and Theroux committed to paper, Theroux in particular also, in this volume, writes at great length in a tone of self-pity. That is to say, his characters pity themselves often and for protracted periods, especially in “Envenoming Junior,” where the family dynamic draws autobiographic parallels.

In other instances, the existence of family members proves nothing but the bane our protagonist, as in “Revelation Hall,” which is my favorite story of the bunch. It details the travails of a blossoming bookworm who is ensnared, or one might say enslaved, by her taskmaster father, who is in turn depicted as enslaved to the ideals of his Jehovah’s Witness sect. From within, she discovers the fruits of literature and nurtures the garden of her soul. The tale contains reams of unnecessary facts, but plenty of depraved charm. It ends horrifically, yet contains within the shocking climax, the relief of a life free of the chains of ignorance and dogma that Theroux spent almost 90 pages wrapping around her. This was the most memorable story and provides a deep commentary on a divisive topic. It gives you the sense that if channeled differently, Theroux’s powers of storytelling might have risen to greater heights. I feel that his audience and influence are sorely hobbled by his indulgence in trivia, as Stephen Moore once intimated. But no artist of Theroux’s caliber can so easily be summed up. Most readers will likely never fully decide whether he is a genius or a clever spinner of contradictory ideas.

Theroux accumulates facts in notebooks and shoehorns them into these stories – that was my impression. He expands upon his subject until the whole story becomes explication of a subject. This gets repetitive. “The Corot Lecture” is simply an essay on Corot. Well-written, but not exactly a story. No plot. One-dimensional characters. Theroux tries to conceal this fact by feebly interpolating commentary from students during the so-called lecture, and having the professor complain about how they aren’t paying attention. It contains a huge amount of information related to art, history, and biography of the artist.

But you don’t read Theroux for plot. If you are, you will stop reading him pretty quick. “Rolf Vowels” is a series of descriptions about a truly deplorable character, with no redeeming qualities, who, once he ends up in prison, discovers the Bible and seeks forgiveness. Throughout this collection Theroux quotes the Bible hundreds of times, adding chapter and verse for good measure. He also quotes Shakespeare, almost in total, and inserts foreign phrases with obnoxious frequency. It is clear that he has studied other cultures, read up on history, thoroughly digested and interpreted the entire scriptural canon, and delved deeply into art, literature, poetry and other fields. This is all very impressive, but his method remains disagreeable in its lathering of vicious descriptions of “fat people” and other commonplace groups, which he spoofs at great and tedious length.

“An Interview with the Poet Cora Wheatears,” was painful to read. The sentence structure was very smooth, argumentative, and astute. It tells of an interview over a fancy meal of a famous fictitious poet in her nineties. She holds all famous poets in contempt and cuts them down one by one. There are a lot of troubling passages here for anyone who reads too deeply into gender politics. It boils down to another trivia session with the author, and suffers from the major flaw which permeates the entirety of his fictional output, that is, all of the characters sound like Theroux, and when they engage in dialogue, sound like they are talking to themselves. Even the story about seminary school kids “Madonna Pica” features school boys quoting the Bard, dropping four-page expository jeremiads on scripture, which he couples with jokes and random facts culled from the Discovery Channel and Jeopardy. These kids are so educated that their speech is laughably, impossibly polished. They speak like Oscar Wilde wrote. This issue detracts from most of Theroux’s characters and dissolves the suspension of disbelief thoroughly.

“Grasso Sovrapesso” was a story about overeating, bulking up one’s lipid counts, gaining gravitational mass. It was like watching that Monty Python skit which ends on the “wafer-thin mint” line, but watching it continuously for 50 pages. It adds plenty of minutiae from the realm of theater. As in the other stories in this volume, the characters are not memorable, even though they are described with cartoonish features, because they don’t do anything. They rarely effect any change in the outcome of the story aside from speaking about their opinions. There was some drama here, but it gets drowned in the ocean of didacticism.

“The Brawn of Diggory Priest” was a strange, out-of-place historical story which showcases what Theroux is capable of when he is not trying to be funny. The style reminded me of Melville. I enjoyed it, though it was short on plot and long on detail.

Theroux has an irritating habit of reusing the same phrases. For instance, he uses: “Who was it who said:” and follows it up with an unattributed quote. He mixes it up with: “Wasn’t it ____ who said:” and he does this at least a hundred times in this book. Many of the quotes only tangentially relate to the thematic elements under discussion. I have never met a person who quotes other writers the way a Theroux character does. But utilizing unrealistic caricatures is not a crime. The author accomplishes much through Socratic bickering, rhetorical questions, self-corrections, and by challenging the reader to engage with uncomfortable and ripe topics, repeatedly drilling us in the Latin and French and German phrases we seemingly should know by heart, or have the prerogative to look up.

I would first recommend reading his two long novels before you bother with his shorter works. Once you appreciate his style, you may come to see the value in his other works, and in so doing, will no doubt notice the flaws.

Tough Poets Press has published 1700 pages of new Theroux thus far. I hope they keep going, because I have a feeling we have not seen the extent of Theroux’s accomplishment. He may be saving the best for last.

Review of Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini

A certain type of reader may find the book interesting.

Though, it is more of a pamphlet than a book, being 35 pages, with notes and an introduction. The reader would be completely at sea without a lifeboat if it weren’t for the notes, but they constitute a translation of a translation. The translator has translated the text, presumably intact, and then has to tell us what it means. The text seems to operate entirely through subtext and double meanings at the expense of context and any discernible continuity. Think Finnegans Wake. However, there is more lyrical pleasure in Joyce, and his experiment is lengthy enough to build its own lexical consistency. Within a single sentence of Lanmborghini’s work, the average and most careful readers will struggle to pull any meaning whatsoever. But the sentence by sentence meanings also do not add up to anything memorable in my opinion. There are plenty of political comments, and double and triple entendres, but why not state them within the confines of a story? Why not construct a dramatic context, instead of building word associations based on similar sounding words? I consider works like this a specialized exercise, like reading completed Sudoku puzzles. There is no enjoyment in the reading of this volume for me. Instead of buying it, I recommend you rent it from the library to see if you’re up for the challenge.

Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuelsby Justin Isis

The Weird Tale, as a genre, plays host to stories of far more diversity than most other genres.

It can combine elements of horror, literary fiction, historical fiction, humor, adventure, science fiction, and fantasy. Examples abound of Lovecraftian experiments in cosmic dread and Machen-esque descents into sub-realities, but no author better epitomizes the trend than Mark Samuels. Alongside Ligotti and a host of infamous small-press authors, Samuels has infused the genre with staying power, primarily by concocting reams of nightmarish visions which haunt the reader’s psyche for years afterward.

This volume contains a dozen and a half tributes to the power of his storytelling. From recognized names in the sub-genres of s-f, we are treated to a lengthy sampling of gruesome and ingenious stories featuring charming cameos by “JBon” Quentin S. Crisp, and of course Samuels.

The anthology maps the human condition in all of its diverse interpretations, charting the heights of ecstasy and the pits of despair, the outskirts of human striving to the dark interior of the soul. David Rix should be commended for finishing the collection with a powerful novella about slag glass. Reggie Oliver provides another elegant foray into the subtly weird, while James Champagne embarks on a surprising and satirical quest toward an unsettling abyssal discovery.

Key notes of alienation, loneliness and piquant encounters with the unknown punctuate this eclectic grouping. Justin Isis’ fiction contribution was impressive and hypnotic, as usual, but actually stood out as more straightforward than expected. Several other tales spin into startling and experimental territory such as Yarrow Paisley’s. You’d have to dredge to the bottom of some of the stories to find the Mark Samuels references or influences, but they all embody the mystique in some way, and tend to culminate in spine-tingling climaxes, occasionally forsaking the technique of dénouement in favor of an aftertaste of memorable discomfort—take “The Singular Quiddity of Merlin’s Ear” for instance.

Some wacky psychedelic exercises congeal into startling imagery and a harrowing accumulation of sinister atmosphere. Having read three collections of Samuels’ stories so far I can attest that the tributes do play off the general feel of the weird aesthetic and can be appreciated by readers unfamiliar with Samuels’ works. Though plenty of references will go unrecognized by the uninitiated, there are many delectable riddles and unique literary panoramas to delight any connoisseur of vibrant speculative fiction.

The impressive array of authors and keen editing that went into this book produce a cohesive work which can only be fully fathomed with careful reading and open-minded enthusiasm. There were moments I doubted whether the stories could grapple with all their disparate ideas, or if they were spinning out of control, and many of them verged into quirky territory, lassoing in esoteric concepts and indulging in asides, only to swerve back on track by the end, justifying their eccentricities through sheer bravado and annihilating my preconceptions. Isis and Co. have conspired to sacrifice their time and shun easy categorization on a mission to enrich the body of literature about less conventional humans and do something different for a change.

Having read Marked to Die at a slow pace, I feel the need to revisit it. For the second half I did not want it to end, and it took more than one adjustment to orientate my reading mind. But use your peripherals, scratch past the ink with your fingernails and you’ll uncover deep and mesmeric emotional resonances worthy of the label of Samuels-esque.

Review of The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud

Dreams are more interesting in the midst of the fugue.

Waking spoils the coherence. Analysis takes some of the fun out of them, even if it nails a few symbols. More intriguing to me are Joseph Campbell’s sort of cultural consciousness archetypes. I feel like there is a lot more here than I wanted to know, but intermingled with Freud’s personal anecdotes, which I didn’t need, were sufficient ideas and interpretations to invest me for a time. It goes on too long, like a dream about going to the DMV to renew your license, where you wait in line for three hours, watching the clock tick, only to find out you forgot a document, and then you get back to your car and are immediately arrested for driving with an expired license.

Review of We Love Glenda So Much and A Change of Light by Julio Cortázar

Cortázar had the face of a lion and the ability to defamiliarize the everyday. 

His lengthy paragraphs are more entertaining than Henry James’ because more happens, but the subtle connections between his warring ideas are often obscured by leaps in logic, incongruous character behaviors, and piquant observations. Cortázar doesn’t hold the reader’s trembling hand. To read his work is to tear the membrane between thought and action, place and interiority. Padding down corridors of oneiric imagery and literary references, you are bound to encounter Cortázar’s convolutions amid Gombrowicz’s cool abrasive intellect and Kafka’s dungeon-crawling mentality. This is a generous, varied, and unpredictable collection. Not as absorbing as some of his work, but approachable, perplexing, and of a piece with his novels. There is an indefinable texture to his writing. Some sentences you may have to read twice. Ambiguity is embraced and multiple readings will uncover peculiar consistencies between his works.

Review of The Anthologist (The Paul Chowder Chronicles #1) by Nicholson Baker

Baker’s deep dive into poetry analysis and history succeeds on every level except for his audiobook narration, which is uneven, ranging from blasting your ear drums out to indecipherable murmurs. The whole book is a poetic interlude about an anthologist failing to write a poetry book introduction. The minutia of his life is cast under starkly touching light in that way only Baker can capture.

Review of Trafik by Rikki Ducornet

Quirky even for Ducornet.

Suffused with her characteristic charm, wit, sensuality and signature linguistic exuberance. A vivid dreamscape of “tonguefeels.” A melancholic deepening of post-atomic exotic, nebulous human-wannabes on the edge of the pendulous nostalgia-fueled singularity of an entire dissolving civilization.

Memories, avatars, simulations, showerhead massages, spacey antics: both delicious and miraculous. Post-apocalyptic Consumerism, alive with the longing for vanished places, times, and idols, characters rummaging through plasma clouds of kitsch debris, full of colorful improvisation, experimental futurism. A cobbled scatological gumbo. Plenty of subliminal jokes, poppy references and goofy genius.

Containing unprecedented romantic and literary entanglements. It ponders how we are “wired”, how beings titillated by lasers and operating abstruse machinery in vast abysses of stimulating self-creation are only brief, playful extensions of our actual, tru-to-life selves. Written in its matrix latticescape is the secret formula for our doom. A descent through causality is present in its rollicking crescendoes. It is a marriage of low culture with high arts, meted out with aesthetic aplomb out of outer space flotsam. It is smart. It is “supermarvelous.”

I only wish it was longer.
Thank you Edelweiss for the ARC.

Review of Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

A short, atmospheric novella relating the enigmatic beauty of an unremarkable life. 

A quiet, heartfelt rendering of human beings intertwined in the awkward embrace of modern life in an out of the way place. I really enjoyed the setting. A well-structured short work, but less striking than a more-developed novel would’ve been. It was a tight and smooth read, fraught with elegant expression and straightforward narration, with moments of icy clarity and melancholy meditations. An innkeeper’s life, in a nutshell. She meets a graphic novelist. The relationship is a bit stark and undramatic. Plenty of subtleties. A bit like an old foreign film, grainy, radiating depth of feeling, but nonetheless transitory.

Review of The Breast by Philip Roth

A plot worthy of Woody Allen initially turned me off, but I’m reevaluating my impression toward Roth, and this was short enough to read in one sitting.

Pristine prose stylings are why I read this author. Not always polished to a high gleam, not Nabokov, but well-rhythmed, easy to read, often intelligent in scope and content. That’s Roth in a nutshell. When he is in good form.

I can say I was surprised by this one. It ponders tried and true questions: Hypochondria, old age, shame, fear, the neuroses of modern men – all trademark Roth. He makes use of extreme intimacy, as usual, to gain the reader’s trust. A skillful manipulator of language, his stock libidinous narrator is back, giving us a skewed look at the trials of marriage, attraction, and deception, the cruelty of fate, the slippery slope of self-medication, the persistence of psychological wounds, all familiar territory, but displaying much compassion for the human condition. The introduction of the absurdist concept is the primary thrust into a debate of these topics in the form of a relentless interior monologue. He never slides into pure surrealism, but the book calls for strong powers of suspension of disbelief. You will be glad to know the author retains his formal approach to storytelling, and rewards the attentive reader.

Bitterness, dry wit, and morbid humor pervade the whole, and sophisticated, clinical descriptions create vivid, nauseating mental images throughout, while the sheer ridiculousness, and the Freudian fixations can be wearying, it’s nonetheless brutally compact, verging on inane only to blossom into a meaningful meditation on the fear of mortality – “The will to live.” A vivid evocation of desperation, helplessness, being trapped in a physical body which eternally fails to live up to expectations, and becomes, over time, a prison – such are the trappings of this brief, and seemingly out-of-place publication.

Contemplating the triviality of life, the narrator confronts the meaninglessness during the ad hoc recovery process resultant from his dreamlike predicament. Learning to live with oneself, one’s shape or condition, and facing hideous reality becomes the central proponent and ultimately won my esteem.

It asks, how much can one man take? Roth has mastered a well-constructed sentence and a balanced prose voice. This is no exception. His novels are examinations of the human emotion, strained and entering trial, but taking small comfort in daily interactions, and usually, bodily functions.

With The Breast, he manages to convey an engrossing inner conflict, shows that, as in Gogol’s and Kafka’s stories of metamorphoses, human nature is not altered by bodily transformation. Objectification, taboos, self-loathing, and some apt observations and well-pulled-off sentences round out the reading experience. No matter how off the rails Roth gets, he always has something striking to say about our plight as human beings.

As the narrator says:

‘This is not tragedy any more than it is farce. It is only life, and I am only human.”

Review of Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

I am cautiously optimistic regarding Mieko Kawakami’s literary future. She is a rising star of popular Japanese fiction, but I see her writing style suffering from common traits plaguing the English translations we are getting within the past several years. 

It is a kind of commercial dumbing down of the prose. Contemporary Japanese books are sliding into the mainstream perhaps, and losing some of that Mishima-level literary refinement. You don’t get anything on the level of Ryu Murakami anymore, and a lot of these super-young, female literary writers are appealing to the same crowd as Haruki Murakami whose pop celebrity status spawned a new generation of imitators.

If the style of this novel resembled her short stories from the publication Monkey Business, it would have easily merited more enthusiasm from me. Yet, it would be easy to slide this into the YA category. Like her recent Breasts and Eggs, she wrestles with important and emotionally trying topics, boasting a wealth of subtext, but employs a utilitarian style I can only describe as bland.

I realize this book takes place from the perspective of a 14 year old, but I would’ve liked to read something more developed than straightforward, childish thoughts and internal argument. The conversations are surface level, and the atmosphere is poorly established. The syntax is so literal, unadorned, sloppy, straightforward and fast-paced it felt like reading a newspaper. I would have to put this in the same category as Snakes and Earrings, which is pulp, adolescent fiction, not challenging in any way. This is simply my opinion, and I will read anything Kawakami puts out into English. She is certainly capable of establishing a similar output to Banana Yoshimoto or even Dazai, but not if she chooses to continue taking the easy route to popularity. I would like to see her recapture the bent toward magical realism you’ll find in her short stories, and strive toward producing complex portrayals of modern life.

To bolster my argument, I’ll have to look at the book’s interior logistics. You get a few main characters. The bullied kid with a mild deformity, a visibly poor friend, and the self-justified douche of the school bully. Nothing revolutionary in this set up. The kids confront one another. There are graphic scenes of creepily sadistic bullying and one or two scenes utterly inappropriate for children. I wouldn’t care, except who exactly, is the audience for this novel? If it is really YA why does she include the graphic sexuality – especially when it is not relevant to the story, and if it is for adults, why is it so simplistic and forced, so underwritten?

I wish I could say it was more than a disposable read, but I have seen all of these themes explored elsewhere with more lyricism and depth. You get plenty of examples and moral arguments here, but their context is so very contrived. A confounding mixture of heartstring manipulation and weak writing.

Review of The Green Child by Herbert Read

This bizarre novel was broken into three disparate parts, and by ‘broken,’ I mean ruined.

For part one, he might merit 5/5 stars, for part 2, 2/5, and part 3, 4/5. The longest middle section is a droll account of the main character’s life story, his toppling of a dictator, conspiring with revolutionaries, his imprisonment, etc. It was written in an historical style, rather than the lyrical splendor of Part 1.

Part 1 and 3 concerns the ‘green child.’ In the last, short part, we are treated to a reimagining of Plato’s cave allegory, and left with some unanswered questions, but it doesn’t matter because Read is attempting a unique approach, is investing his narrative with mystery and meaning, and this book employs grand, memorable imagery. It is only a shame the writing falters for about half of the book’s length.

A quick read, nonetheless, and one of those books you may never encounter in your natural lifetime but one which must be sought out and captured. It reads like a slightly disturbing dream. If only the author would’ve written more novels, then we might have been treated to a masterpiece. What we have is about on the level of a novella by Arthur Machen.

Review of To Hold Up the Sky by Liu Cixin

The short stories in this volume cover many topics, including concerns and ideas that also appear in The Three-Body Trilogy, but they are used in different settings.

Super-string computers, hollow earth, the value of poetry, total perfect vision of time and space achieved by simulating the original Big Bang and then tracing the trajectory, gods who manipulate matter and energy and probability to compose poetry.
Wildly inventive and scientifically impressive, the stories nonetheless stumble by including absolutely absurd things in them, like the low-temperature artist and the checklist questions asked by super-intelligent extra-terrestrials. When technologies exist for downloading and decoding DNA from light years away, aliens would have no need of Q & A sessions to determine a species’ threat level.

The important part is that much of it is charming, and it is occasionally mind-blowing. When the stories are melodramatic they also capture the eternal truths, the struggle of man against the universe, and his smallness, in a powerful way. Liu succeeds at using fiction as a vehicle to communicate radical ideas.

Review of The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig

My third Hilbig novel in quick succession.

Whereas his others were solid blocks of interior narration, this one perfectly captures an elegiac wonderment characteristic of childhood’s hurtle through strata of growth, confusion, and sadness.
The author summons reality with abundance through the distorted mirror of his character’s psyche. He is a master at conjuring the fear and trembling of the past, the smoggy, mud-caked byways of German economic decline. The introduction by László Krasznahorkai only cemented my intuition that Hilbig was a better, more efficient and readable version of L. K. An author I could reread, who does not simply relish empty blathering sentences, strung like overcooked spaghetti over an inhuman, mathematical premise.
Hilbig was startlingly in touch with human instinct, pain, and joy, and offered us the precise observations of a humanist who processed his share of darkness.
As in The Females, the grit of the factory will enter your eyes, and no matter how irritated you get at the accumulation of minute details, the pathological exploration will draw you deeper into the eerie confines of Hilbig’s vision. The polish upon the filth is Tarkovskian. The colors pop and the grayscale contains so many affecting shades of light and shadow, layered, grainy, ghostly and obscurant. How fascinating, his palpitating nightmares become, as murderers and madmen weave through steam-spitting pipes lit against a coal-blackened sky.

It is a foregone conclusion that I will read every book by the author available in English.

Review of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

Hiroshi Nagai is the greatest artist of liminal spaces in my opinion.

His art is far more satisfying, long term, than any other artist I can think of at the moment. He should be more well known. No filmmaker or artist on Earth, except for brief hints here and there, come close to capturing the indefinable feeling conjured by every one of Nagai’s paintings.

Review of Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Are you a brave reader? If you read Lolita unfazed, made it through American Psycho, and graduated to Story of the Eye, maybe you’re ready for this one.

But ask yourself, what do you want to get out of literature. A thrill? Shock value? There’s a multi-part series on Youtube showcasing the most disturbing books ever printed if you’d like to go down the rabbit hole. But if you read for escape, to jump into an absorbing story, and don’t mind x-rated sections, and taboos, if your trigger warnings are turned off and you haven’t recently eaten, give it a go. The only way it could be more controversial would be if it were animals, cute fluffy ones, instead of teenage boys. (But we shouldn’t give A. N. any sequel ideas). Or if the genders of the main characters were reversed, in which case, read the other reviews to speculate on publishing trends, definitions of obscenity, and other relevant topics.

Have our desensitized, consumerist minds demanded this, or just created a market for it? Could it have been done better? Hard to say. It certainly could have been written worse. As it stands, it reads fifty times better than Fifty Shades of Gray (I read three sentences of that) and approaches the subject matter with professional, New Yorker-quality prose. Occasional flights of fancy add a whimsical layer to the pulse-heightening subtexts, until the eye-widening description takes over the text as a result of the intimate first person narration, usually awash in sensory overload—which in itself should satisfy most readers’ immersive longings. Imagistic quirks sometimes clot the gushing exuberance of the sentences. And midway through, characters start to act in ways reminiscent of cinema scandals, Hollywood climaxes, escapades of attention-mongering indulgence, all reckless enough to induce face palms, eye rolls, and a sickly, sad nausea, like what you might experience in a demented dream, where the universe conspires to trap you in an impossibly contrived situation of vibrant humility. The interior monolog is the star of the show, cataloguing and critiquing the main character’s environment with running commentary. Her predatory impulses define her existence, and her devotion to them empower her in the sense that lampooning and one-upping others converts her pathetic, obsessive personality into an Übermensch perception of self-admiration. But this heightened observational power is undermined by some of her naive justifications and lack of restraint. Then again, if she had any restraint at all, if the desires weren’t overpowering, then the book wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. The book needs to happen, so she needs to lose the battle. However, the interesting part of all this is how this novel becomes literary fiction, rising above erotica, by making plot subservient to psychological insight and societal allegory. The vicious rutting is secondary to what it says about humanity… or is it. You be the judge, jury, and reader.

Like Ballard’s Crash, Nutting uses human fears, insecurities, compulsions, weaknesses, and psychology to fashion a harrowing, downright riveting vehicle for her storytelling.

Review of Sunny, Vol. 5 (Sunny, #5) by Taiyo Matsumoto

A relaxing and contemplative series from a creator I now look forward to reading.

The abandoned kids home, or orphanage, if you prefer that designation, which comprises the setting, provides a dense interplay of childish communications. The way the characters talk over one another reminds me of Robert Altman’s films. This series is primarily a realistic portrayal of its times, alluding to real-world wrestlers, idols, and other celebrities to remind readers of its setting. The current of subtext is moving and ever-present. There are rock and roll lyrics, porno mags in the back of beat-up old car fort, kids playing in the pond, running wild in the streets, eating dinner amid a messy chatter of quibbling siblings. Despite the huge roster of characters, and the quick-cut method of storytelling, the ups and downs of these chilluns, and a few of the adults that orbit around them, makes for an entertaining and heartwarming read. The feels are there to be grasped. And I can only hope that the immersive atmosphere and soft-focus lens will guide me into further nostalgic byways of ordinary Japanese life.

Review of The Golden Ass by Apuleius

Whenever someone says Don Quixote was the first novel ever written, one-up them with this one.

Same if they claim Tale of Genji was first. Other novels, poems, and fragments might claim to be the first, but none are so convincing a contender as The Golden Ass. Supposedly, other Roman novels existed like this one, but we are left with mere sections of those. This is complete as far as we can tell.

I recommend this as a good follow up to Petronius’ Satyricon. While the two differ in content, the tone and time felt the same to me. I still prefer Petronius, despite it’s fragmentary nature, but Apuleius impressed me with his witty, verbose and graphic, gruesome, rollicking tale. It could be summed up as the adventures of a curious gentleman who is transformed into an ass. He passes through various trials, is bought, sold, worked nearly to death, tortured in heinous ways, tricked, and also gets the chance to play the trickster. It is not the sort of thing you read your child before bed. Most compelling was the sudden and unnerving resolution which goes into some detail about the mysterious cult of Isis, and how our protagonist turns over a new, pagan leaf. I noticed plenty of Christian and pagan references, though I suspect some of them were clarified by the modern translator.

Apuleius maintains an irreverent tone, and inspires great sadness in this reader, for all of the lost literature of ancient times. Reading Roman and Greek classics are an exercise in comparison for me. In a lot of ways, people have not changed over the centuries. We still suffer from the same debilitating desires, the same quirks and the same proclivities, but the society arounds us does something to mold our characters, perhaps.

The book has entertained and probably concerned many people since time immemorial. For something more tame, try Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe.

Review of Necromancy Cottage, Or, The Black Art of Gnawing on Bones by Rebecca Maye Holiday

Right in time for Halloween, Necromancy Cottage is a very readable and unconventional bildungsroman. The tone and atmosphere inspire a cozy kind of fright, as you might glean from the title.

How many times, as a kid, did I conjure in my imagination a secluded second life on a desert island or some fanciful dimension of my own? Too many to count. In fact, I still indulge in escapism. Like many novels dealing with young protagonists who are faced with challenging circumstances, we are meant to sympathize with the stuck feelings, the isolation, and the harrowing concept of growing up which consumes them. It is as if the more we learn about the world through the aging process, the more it tends to disappoint us, in the sense that it lacks the magic we wish it had. Most fantastic works take on the nostalgia for lost youth, or that imaginative faculty which enlightens the youngest members of our society. Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and The Neverending Story come to mind. But the author’s prose renders this work more mature than those examples while taking nothing away from the delight of discovery inherent in the genre. It communicates the wonders of its protagonist’s experience as a vehicle for growth.

The creepy vibe and Halloween-esque motif is well-sustained, providing the feel of Hocus Pocus or Coraline, but telling a very intimate tale at the same time, grounded in the main character’s perspective and internal monologues. We meet an eclectic cast of sorcery-obsessed folk whose arcane knowledge and quirky antics soon infect our heroine.

Add to that realistic characters explored through artful dialogue along with tight narration to get us to the primary setting quickly so the action can unfold. We get integral backstory and a sprinkling of doubt, fear, and uncertainty, adding tension and character depth. Due to the book’s impressive length, I expected some fluff, but it is well-paced, and and makes for a hearty brew of genre and literary writing, a whimsical but dark exploration of complex characters.

While the protagonist, Casey, tends to take magic in stride, she is portrayed as a sensitive and intricate individual, and the unpredictable personalities around her make for entertaining reading likely to inspire a touch of dread, considering her safety or sanity is by no means guaranteed.

Yet its sinister undertone is light enough to keep this reader hopeful and engaged. Black magic insinuates itself into the plot, and our main character adapts to her dream-like observations with the imaginative aplomb of any real-life kid who yearns for an escape, to be released from the everyday mundanity of an unmagical life.

A conjuration of menace, mischief, and magic, and an adventure simple on the surface, but concealing a darkness underneath. Every piece of the puzzle has at least two sides. An absorbing and ominous read.

Review of MONKEY: New Writing From Japan (Volume 1) by Motoyuki Shibata

I have been a hug fan of this publication, having completing the original run of Monkey Business, so I was delighted to find this resurrected imprint. 

Nearly every issue contains writing or interviews available nowhere else featuring Haruki Murakami, Hiromi Kawakami, Mieko Kawakami, and Hideo Furukawa. If that isn’t enough to justify checking them out, consider the random gems you will find in the form of anecdotes, manga chapters and hybrid story-comics, travelogues, etc. by the leading writers alive or dead from Japan. Like with any anthology, there are a few misses alongside the hits. Most often in the experimental stuff. This volume mixes in a couple classic stories from Naoya Shiga with the first thing I’ve ever liked from Hiroko Oyamada.
Most fascinating of all were the translators’ essays about books not yet translated. All I have to say is: Please start filling in the gulf. A lot of translations of post-Murakami Japanese fiction (in the past few years) have done little to break the mold. The exceptions are books by Sayaka Murata.
Can we please get an English translation of the 700-page Hideo Furukawa novel Tokyo Soundtrack? I would read more Rieko Matsuura. I could go on to list fifty more books I would buy instantly if the translation appeared, but I will have to be content to read each new issue of Monkey to get my fix.

Review of Into the Violet Gardens by Isaac Nasri

In this very near-future s-f novel, cyborgs and cartels battle it out amid a powder keg political imbalance.

The author provides prose rich with details of setting and character that easily communicates the suffering common to human experience, which constitutes the novel’s beating heart.

Making use of tried-and-true thriller trappings, realistic dialogue, and a multi-layered plot, rather than portraying a generic dystopia, it depicts the very world we live in with a few minor tweaks to make us realize how dystopian it already is outside our windows.

Carried along by relatable characters, the quick-moving scenes will keep you turning pages, among set pieces of brutal violence and cinematic battles, epic in scope. It is grounded in gritty realism and the shifting perspective offers a thorough storytelling lens through which the reader can easily discern oodles of subtext and context. The expert incorporation of technology helps to portray the devastating trials of warfare, while still maintaining an intimate tone with intense focus on movement and action.

The world building, characters, language, action, science fiction elements, and political themes are all well-done in this one-of-a-kind thrill ride.

Review of Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 4: Materia (Gunnerkrigg Court #4) by Thomas Siddell

A continually surprising series. 

Meshing classical myth with original ideas, this kid-friendly series of light adventures and comical mishaps often stumbles into darker territory, heady themes, and far-reaching consequences. While I long for more maturity, it is nice to see rich character development throughout each volume. The players change subtly, and I doubt the level of gore, violence, or sensuality will ever rise above PG-13, but the nuances of the relationships and interconnectedness of the subplots are increasing. A few strands of the set-up remain a mystery, but hints toward our protagonists origins and the other students’ desires and powers begin to play a larger role. A slow burn, but satisfying, safe, and pleasant comic.

Review of The Poems of Catullus by Catullus

Words and expressions the translator should have thought twice about using: “Treadmill,” “French poodle,” “syphilitic.”

Catullus is the OG badass Roman poet. His polyamorous adventures and vicious satirical portraits amply flex his majorly ripped wit, status, and (professed) sexual prowess.

Listen to him mic drop other statesmen and rapturously serenade his shameless strumpet Lesbia. His crucifying words remain vivid and alluring. Witness the art of the insult developed into an intimate, nauseating symphony:

“Even your arses, dry
as fine, operative salt-cellars –
working maybe ten times a year,
the product
like pebbles
or dry broad-beans
easily friable
between the fingers
and leaving no sh-t-smudge.”

Review of U-Day (Memory Full, #1) by Rapha Ram

A desperate CEO gives the reader a taste of the morbid underbelly of the near-future society featured in this book in the prologue. 

In this multi-faceted work, the lens through which we perceive the world is Livvy Blunt, a girl with a modern mind, trying to squeeze the meditative regimen of her monastic existence into her overactive imagination. Like any one of us force fed media, and a constant barrage of stimulation since birth, she struggles with reducing the noise. Our gossip-mongering brains tend to speculate, and the customization of the human lifespan is an endlessly beguiling subject.

After a busy prologue establishing a key conflict we are transported to the perspective of our close first-person narrator who leads us on an exploration of an environment detailed and colored by her mind, which is chock full of rich imagery. A seamless interweaving of action and character internal monologue sweeps the reader into the setting.

With an atmosphere containing a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar world-building constraints,
the intriguing premise of the novel develops alongside our growing knowledge of Livvy. Would you trust your welfare to a corporation with power over minds? Oh wait, we already do that in today’s world. Its meditative introspection contains a hint of the zen-like cultivation necessary for a balanced mind. It is an interior journey as much as an exterior one, with a relatable and sympathetic protagonist. The book tackles the omnipresent temptation to succeed in a competitive society, to not be distracted by fun and games, to responsibly take charge of one’s own mental development, and asks hard questions and presents thought-provoking concepts. The pacing was more relaxed than expected and the insights into setting and character rewarded a methodical reading.

Review of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (Oz, #1) by L. Frank Baum

As whimsical and intriguing as the film. As timeless and humorous and charming. As off-kilter and unique. 

But can it sustain the delicate balance of childish wonder, nostalgia, and creepy subtext, the Alice and Wonderland dreaminess, for a dozen books? This splendid series has spawned a recognizable aesthetic, probably due to the subtly unnerving drawings printed in some additions. While I still enjoy the second film more than the first, will the second book manage to deepen the lore, or challenge the constrains of children’s literature in the same way? The artistic current of rococo sentimentality and memorable creature-design runs through countless films, establishing a gold standard for decades. As far as books go, Peter Pan-ish homages and similar forays into dreamland recur with frequency, contributing to the great, cosmic zeitgeist of anthropomorphic bedtime stories reaching back to the beginning of time.

Review of The Marvelous Land of Oz (Oz, #2) by L. Frank Baum

The darkly amusing saga continues in this slightly less consistent sequel to the classic children’s tale of Oz. 

We are back in the magical land, but without Dorothy and the frame story. Noticing quite a few differences between this and Return to Oz, the film, I can tell that they brought in material from the third book and left out less compelling parts from this one. I think the choice was good. This book is entertaining, diverting, and charming, but not quite classic. Tip, Mombi, Pumpkin head, the sawhorse, and Woggle-Bug amuse, confound, and contribute in surprising ways to the wayward adventure. The most compelling aspect of Baum’s imagination is making us imagine things and creatures that defy the brain’s logic, yet operate well within the world he’s created. There’s never a scientific explanation to bog down the narrative. Instead, magic reigns supreme, but the rules and riddles it brings make a twisted sort of sense.

Review of Tales From the Liminal by S.K. Kruse

Tales from the Liminal showcases a hearty handful of hilarious and poignant tales for every occasion, tales full of personality and pizzazz, modernistic flair and quirky humor, clever situations described with aplomb and enough literary extravagance to enlighten the most jaded reader.

Equipped with charming illustrations, each easily digested episode scratches my itch for effective storytelling and memorable images. A lot of the time the author zeroes in on fascinating details to add a grandiose elegance to an absurd moment. Her fast-paced narration lassos in cultural references and old-fashioned laughs. The result is as enjoyable as Barry Hannah or Aimee Bender. These goofy tales do not lack sophistication, but neither do they rely on it. They are good, simple fun. The casual inclusion of bizarre happenings into the everyday lives of relatable characters remind me in a good way of something out of M. Night Shyamalan, which is just cheesy enough to work most of the time. If you like stories with a twist, or light-hearted comic bravado with an ounce of pathos, these are for you. They satirize social conventions and offer a fresh perspective on birthday customs, Schrodinger, small town America, and more. Each story makes use of a unique voice to delight and challenge the reader’s expectations. All of them are full of life and rich with well-orchestrated dramatic scenarios. An hysterical, joyful, and surprising collection.

Review of Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Very much in line with the film, Return to Oz, a personal favorite of mine.

Rife with weird objets d’art and dramatic situations void of any real danger. The underground fortress and faint-hearted exploration were reminiscent of Narnia, which is to say I was entertained and sometimes absorbed. It boils down to a rather simple but effective fantasy story, magical enough, if regarded through the uncircumspect eyes of childhood. I may continue through this infinitely nostalgic series, zipping through the audiobooks. The world effectively resides in my psyche now, so that I might visit Oz in my spare moments, only slightly distracted by the haphazard nature of this creative paradise.

Review of Hokusai Manga by Katsushika Hokusai


One of the most ensorcelling art books I’ve found by one of my all-time favorite artists. You are familiar with Hokusai’s woodblock prints. His art has become synonymous with Eastern art. A legend. This edition is small in size, but impressive in content. His depiction of creatures, landscapes, plants, and people both drawn from life and his imagination are fascinating for their precision and that delicate balance of suggestion and detail. Like all truly great artists, any human being, upon viewing his works, can interpret his images and instantly recognize the subjects and fall into the parallel universe crafted by this unique genius.

Review of Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love by Haruki Murakami

I began by pretending this was a short novel about a t-shirt and vinyl-record-obsessed old guy, who happened to also be an obscenely successful novelist and it worked for the most part in the sense that I enjoyed reading these table scraps of autobiographical reminiscences from the most influential Japanese author ever.

Just learning more about this celebrity’s everyday, even boring, existence, was still fascinating in the way gossip webpages and home invasion footage is. Is it wrong that I want to rifle through Murakami’s closet and thumb through his record collection? Stalkerish fans are one thing Murakami has in spades, and it is quite generous of him to release this enticing expose to fend off their frothing hordes. But it also appears a tad exploitative. At this point, I will keep reading the translations they spoon feed us of this author because I can’t stop now.

The tactics he employs as a novelist have been discussed to death, but the agony uncle side of him, the uncaring, sloppy, endearing, and well-intentioned side of him, remains absurdly interesting out of all proportion to what he is writing about, which has long since ceased to matter, since all we want is more Murakami, more Murakami, more Murakami.

It’s weird how everyone has all but forgotten Ryu Murakami, and we haven’t seen a new translation of him in years, and they are clearly holding back a bunch of Haruki’s early stories and nonfiction writing to trickle through the translation pipeline after his creativity dries up – But maybe he’ll go on, like Philip K. Dick’s android or Hokusai, producing mesmerizing works into his nineties and hundreds, and most of his fans will finally discover other pleasures, having finally read Absolutely on Music and realized the depth of their paramour’s insanity.

Review of The Wayfarer by Zachary Kekac

The Wayfarer begins the way all of my favorite fantasy novels tend to: with a compelling world map that draws me into the world. 

While there is a learning curve for most world-building accomplishments like this one, I think Wayfarer’s is relatively enjoyable to climb.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect it possesses is its mellifluent writing style – one of the most mellifluent I’ve ever encountered. For some this is a plus, and for others, a minus. If you prefer straightforward writing like Brandon Sanderson – who has never once used figurative language – then this is going to seem granulated. But, for fans of Lord of the Rings and other descriptive works, with a solid grounding in the imaginative locales of an atypical fantasy and a firm grasp of its character’s psychology, it will be a treat.
The noticeable poetic rhythm is countered by frothing imagery. With speculation ranging from inscrutable to far-reaching, straddling the insane and the epic, there is much to admire in this work on a page-by-page basis. For one, eloquent and dramatic interior monologue and the aforementioned spectacular imagery – much of which emerges directly from the protagonist’s viewpoint. The Wayfarer is enigmatic and profound, seeking in a dark land the answers to his troublesome past.

The poetics, making use of many fantasy tropes to conjure a setting rife with atmospheric tension, is the breadwinner of this literary endeavor. At once a merging of memory and conjecture, I basked in the good word choice and surprising sentence structure which enriched the texture of the prose and enveloped me in swathes of dense literary sensation. The colorful, tight editing, and the cinematic aspect inherent in every scene kept me turning pages eagerly. Taverns and blasted landscapes, to the deepest depths of the mind, barrows, crypts, and more well-adorned environments are integrated into a living, breathing world.

Rich with world-specific vocabulary, with ample context to compensate for the careful reader’s benefit, I was reminded a bit of John Crowley in the whorls of language, shaping bizarre landscapes and molding the thoughts of an unconventional protagonist. It is a universe of ceaseless motion, sprinkled with well-described action sequences.

In the end, it is a remarkably consistent, off-kilter apocalyptic trip, with haunting vibes, marked by clever description and it dwells between a dream of a challenging world and the familiarity of our own. Light on the dialogue and heavy on the narration – when there is banter, it is cheeky. Oddly named side characters aplenty, a subtle humor often verging into a disturbing subtext. This book provides sentence-by-sentence delights even if the plot sometimes takes a backseat. A unique and fondly affecting read.

Review of Dancing With Disorder by Andrew Lawes

When I picked up this book, I knew it would map out the plight of the mentally ill in some form or another, but I did not expect the intimate perspective, which delves deep into psychology and the emotions incumbent in major life changes, without losing the focus on character and dialogue.

The way it explores the interiority of fear and societal pressures with descriptive scenes and quick pacing made for an intriguing and mature look at the topic. The interior monologue is balanced with straightforward narration, which depicts a rich variety of experiences, along with an open-hearted attitude and graciousness. It communicates a deep understanding of troubled individuals who suffer from the challenges of mental disorders. Add to this figurative language and colorful interactions, and you have a very readable product. While the flights of fancy can get rather grandiose, the narrator is not without charm. It offers a valuable glimpse into institutions and the minds of those unfortunates who find themselves therein. Courageous, wise, humorous, and thought-provoking by turns. We’re introduced to quirky characters and shown a variety of believable attitudes. It reminded me in places of David Foster Wallace’s kooky institutionalized characters, though the comparison is one of atmosphere and tone. At bottom, the author managed to convey the originality of these people; no matter what situations they were in, they remain themselves. I could only conclude that it was written by someone who was at one point close to his subject matter.

The realistic, idiosyncratic dialogue contains local flavor and provides an immersive quality to the streamlined prose. Amid all of these techniques, the author manages to tell a good story, which is really one composed of many small interlocking pieces, as in real life. It goes into how to navigate relationships and stressors, pursue recovery and harmony with one’s fellow sufferers, channeling nostalgia to inject life’s rough patches with a hypo of hope. An easy-to-read, surprising, and subtly moving chronicle, that charts social dynamics and private growth through characters you can grow to love.

Review of Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White by Taiyo Matsumoto

One of the few masterpieces of ‘realistic’ manga.

By which I mean it contains whimsical touches, flights of fancy, imagination, heart, and friendship without succumbing to any of the cheap thrills so often associated with this medium like giant robots. ghost hunters, or revealing costumes. A genuinely admirable and affecting work of art, molding a relatable and satirical atmosphere of mingled wacky comedy and disarming violence into a beautiful synthesis of love, disturbing cruelty, and concrete jungle adaptation.

Review of Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

Murata portrays a skewed world, often in the form of a soft, mild-mannered dystopia, where one key component of life is unquestionably different from our own. 

This creates a massive paradigm shift, accompanied by harrowing cognitive dissonance. This brand of edgy speculative fiction is simply another form of wry satire, or even humorless, clinical examination where subtext often subsumes the context. The author lovingly curates the intricacies of her disturbing visions with a calm gentleness and an irresistible charm that is almost motherly. Some of these qualities were applicable to her bestseller Convenience Store Woman, but are more closely aligned with her last-translated novel Earthlings. The masterful cloaking of everyday things in an unfamiliar guise is reminiscent of Can Xue’s manic observations of human struggles, but Murata’s quieter approach is still devastating. The key ingredients are a stark whimsicality, and a voice unadorned, proceeding through psychological backwaters with palpable asexuality, and a chilling appreciation for the way human existence, under the right light, resembles the fleshy wriggling of inorganic masses, butting up against unconscionable voids. Her haunting and sinister undercurrents are beautifully rendered into sepia-toned, puzzling experiments, where characters remind us how easy it is to become lost, unhinged, or simply an inanimate object pretending to live. For the third time I finished a book of hers in one or two sittings, and for the third time I am amazed how perfectly her sensibilities as a writer match up to my own ideals as an escapist and aspirations as an amateur.

Review of The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

A shortish novel from one of the top three most bleeding edge writers of fantasy in this day and age. 

I lump this author above most modern fantasy authors because of the range of her ideas and her psychological distaste for clichés. With a vast body of work already beneath her belt, her latest novelistic ventures have pushed the envelope all the way to the edge of reason and sanity. Like Cassandra Khaw, Valente hones each sentence into the type of firecracker that makes college writing students swoon. But compound this poetic aesthetic with bathetic regularity and it begins to feel like a literary enema, where the sentence structure produces a panoply of images and intricately spasming pyrotechnic wordplay, which can, at moments, lack subtext. I differentiate this style as “literary magazine polish,” as opposed to China Mieville’s functional imagery. In longer works, there are simply times when straightforward storytelling will engage me far more than your character’s clever and edgy thoughts, endlessly spewed on the page. Also present is scathing commentary, gross asides, and inane profanity. The book is steeped in social consciousness, dribbling quaint dismissals of humanity’s inner ineptitude. People are painted as demonic entities, plaguing the planet with their filthy minds and leprotic attitudes. Yet, our main character is unapologetically selfish, irreverently demonic, and sincerely unwashed. Par for the course with any dyed to the skin ecological dystopian tale. But any adult reader should realize most humans are more complex than the sum of their social media posts. Caricatures result from the opinion-dumps, and a lack of sympathy blossomed in my jaded mind.

Garbagetown, while vivid, is simply not possible. Who, in their right mind would name their town that, even if it were an accurate moniker? A lack of common sense pervades the satire. But this originates from a lack of seriousness, as in Monty Python. In this way, at least it is consistent. But that does not mean I like the details: the sanctification of Oscar the Grouch, for instance (would Sesame St. even be known in a post-apocalyptic setting a couple decades from now, and even if it were, the minor character serves as symbolic place-holder for a god the characters dismiss. This plays into the anarchist attitude of our main character, whose abuse is received and given with aplomb, verve, elan, and umph, but also ad nauseum.)

A consistent, absurdist memorable frolic through the cast-off dregs of product placement mentality, with an undercurrent of corporate despair. A haunting and aggravating jaunt through fecal favelas and morose angst.

Review of Small Town Problems by Chris Ritchey

Small Town Problems, from the title, might elicit expectations of a sitcom drama.

In a sense, you would not be entirely wrong. But at its heart, it is a fun, popcorn novel about people running into and responding to trouble, where their innate curiosity plays as big a part as their ingenuity. The characters strike me as realistic and most of their reactions contain various levels of predictability. It is unique among the first contact books I’ve read for containing less menace and more kooky oddities. This type of scenario hearkens back to Galaxy Quest and more Hollywood films than books. While the book is not overly ambitious, the author does inject the plot and style with a lot of personality.

The first ingredient is vivid description, and an intriguing opening. This short novel’s wacky aesthetic can only be compared to low-budget films of alien invasion scenarios. Twilight Zone-esque in execution, the small town atmosphere is pulled off marvelously. I am a big fan of American classic Golden Age of science fiction vibes which fewer books are going for nowadays, even with the success of Netflix shows banking off nostalgia. I picked up tones of Stranger Things, reminding me of ham radio farmers, long empty highways, fields, barns, guns, and aliens. Here are all the familiar trappings equipped with cinematic aplomb. We are given well-paced scenes that entertain and infuse the story with mystery, keeping us turning pages. The traces of humor in the first person perspective are everywhere evident, along with witty dialogue and quirky characters. A treat for conspiracy theorists and soft s-f enthusiasts alike. At its core, it explores the extraordinary alongside the mundane, and is an effective satire on the genre, while also being a spooky look at human relationships when faced with the unknown. I detected a bit of Twin Peaks in the preoccupation with character, the blase acceptance of the supernatural, and the relentless, albeit goofy humor. In the end you are left with an enjoyable and refreshing read. If you enjoy films like Eight Legged Freaks, you will feel right at home in this novel.

Review of Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman

Wow. A stunning book.

An immaculately, intricately, eccentrically written, idiosyncratic soft-s-f, near-future, light-dystopian, quirky pseudo-mystery novel describing the ennui, outrage, absurdity, and maturity of an old-before-her-time child star, with all the camp of kid detective sitcoms and an oceanic undercurrent of eco-unrest. Elegant simplicity. Word-by-word delight. Sentence-by-sentence wonder, awe, and ecstatic enjoyment. A continually beguiling and endearing work of heart-fondling irrealism. My superlatives will begin to sound laxative, but I can’t exude enough enthusiasm. When I inevitably buy and read her other books, I’ll still remember this one clearly, and possibly reread it. It crystallizes in my mind, as I rehash eerie scenes of washed-out vaporwave off-color, watery Californian landscapes, unfolding in warehouses and film sets and virtual forums where conspiracy theorists with clickey keyboards dissect every pixel of our heroine’s filmography and implied psychic landscape. Paparazzi, media corruption, and intimate disinterest infuse the vibrant setting. Told through long dialogue-heavy scenes offering wry wit, surprising character details and moments of existential dread. Sprinkles of philosophic quandaries and poetic fancy. The interior monologues are magnificent, often reminding me of Bae Suah. A. K. will join the list of my favorite, on-the-rise writers, along with Elizabeth Tan. Other comps: Scarlett Thomas, Joy Williams, Dan Chaon and Lucia Berlin, or the countless films and shows describing suburban weirdness, tending toward a noticeable decline into post-apocalyptic predictions that are too on-the-nose.

Review of Hettie and the Ghost by Becca De La Rosa

In this richly descriptive and atmospheric novel, I was pleased to find intricate sentence structure and mature characters. 

Many of its descriptions have an old-fashioned elegance. It is a nuanced ghost story with an intriguing premise, tackling central concepts of spiritualism, the afterlife, and growth. The language is always surprising and contributes to the cinematic scenes, which are ensconced in a setting of baroque splendor.

By and by, I found it to be book that exceeds expectations on multiple fronts, delivering realistic dialogue and fantastic descriptions, while incorporating much magical realism into a satisfying plot. The little details pile up, contributing to a sense of dread. The reader picks up cues from characters’ actions and speech, since the author does not rely on info dumps or long interior monologs. I was reminded time and again of Shirley Jackson, who masterfully weaved tales in a similar vein, capturing subtle changes in character and dark turns of fate without sacrificing the abundant dreamy texture of the prose. It is as much an exploration of the speculative world of spirits as it is an interior examination of the self. Our main characters’ scars run deep, and her world is fraught with unrelenting tension. The storytelling elements are impressive, working with the world building to construct a convincing ambiance. Words like reticule, crinoline, and laudanum crop up frequently. Make sure you are prepared for a slower pace, akin to twentieth century fiction, with an emphasis on eerie locales and creeping dread. I would not be surprised if the author went on to publish many excellent novels revolving around the supernatural, since she knows how to handle historical subjects and language with undeniable ease.

Review of Michaelmas – Alex (Oxford girls, #1) by P.D. Kuch

Oxford Girls is so far: a strange blend of genres and tones, and quick-paced action-packed plot-boiler with a quirky protagonist and an unusual premise.

With its unpredictable chapter-by-chapter revelations, it straddles B-movie and sophisticated stylization, king of like Kill Bill.
The author utilizes a close first person perspective with a distinctive voice to imbue it with intimate internal monologue, cultivating sympathy for our inimitable heroine from this jaded reader.
While systematically surprising and unafraid to ‘go there,’ the book makes use of a familiar setting, while its intriguing undercurrent of darkness (and overt darkness) serve to fuel the narrative’s propulsive scenes. Occasionally provocative, but always cinematic and absorbing. The realistic dialogue conforms to the perturbing scenes, which are often like freeway wrecks in that you can’t look away.
A touch of loneliness plagues our main character. But also, troubled propensities, amid an environment so bafflingly confrontational, that she must often act quickly and process on the run.

The scenes shift to far-flung locales by and by, deepening the plot, while refreshing the scenery, as the camera zooms in on corporate big wigs and futuristic conspiracies. A merging of drama and science fiction occurs, dipping into horror and abiding comfortably in the action category.

In the end it is a coming of age tale equipped with humor, dread, and heart. Each of which take turns pulling the reader through a haphazard roller coaster ride of non-stop twists and turns. The perfect indulgence for our desensitized literary tastes in this day and age.

Review of Shadebringer by Grayson W. Hooper

Shadebringer begins with an inscrutable world map and intriguing chapter quotes.

The title led me to believe it would be a traditional fantasy work in the vein of Brandon Sanderson. That is not the case. Brent Weeks and other authors have a tendency to use titles like this to ease the reader into another world. On the contrary, the first part of the book reads more like a drama, acquainting the reader with the real world and the characters: familiar and realistic people, who spout off opinions and fill in their own backstories with well-orchestrated internal monolog and dialogue. The cinematic scope is impressive, though the action is interspersed with dramatic back-and-forth utilizing scenes reminiscent of films like Full Metal Jacket. Line-by-line humor helps guide us through the fast-paced description from the perspective of our jaded narrator.

The narrative jaunts through Vietnam, exploring exotic locales, filling the backdrop with luscious scenery and cheeky, foul-mouthed characters. Something happens on every page. Often the pacing ramps up to thriller levels. It describes a modern world rife with violence, tension, and political strife.
Our protagonist maintains the mentality of a typical jarhead, giving us an internal commentary replete with expletives, bolstered by his comrades, whose repartee is colorful and vivid, to say the least. “By the time I was twenty, I was built like a New England lighthouse,” is a prime example. Plenty of good lines that would translate well to a movie script are waiting for you in the humid atmosphere of this novel. The realistic portrayal of wartime aggravations, struggles of troops deep into their roles, and the strong awareness of period detail contribute much verisimilitude. Thankfully, the author sprinkles in figurative language and plentiful variety of sentence structure to keep the reader engaged, along with consistent imagery.

You get a strong sense of the hopelessness of the situation at times, and a good camaraderie between characters. There are a lot of names to keep track of and some jarring jump cuts, but the rhythm and pulse of the story is nothing if not convincing. It strikes me as a very accurate style of speech and attitude, judging from what I’ve gleaned from Hollywood, and real people – an approach which does not pull punches, and neither does it coddle us. This is gritty stuff, requiring an attention to nuance and offering a huge amount of intimate detail amid rich character development.

Recommended for lovers of military fiction, but be prepared for a discernible slide into a world that will challenge the imagination. If you like books taking place in the jungle or anything with non-stop action, you will also be right at home.

About 20% in, the tone diversifies, the world opens up, and we are offered a more balanced reading experience. The author’s descriptions begin to shine, but he does not sacrifice his signature quick-witted badinage. I actually welcomed the slower moments, the quiet instances of observation and speculation evolving from the dynamic twist in the setting.

In the end, it is a surprising page-turning with a unique plot.

Review of Intimations: Stories by Alexandra Kleeman

In this modest first collection, the author is often incredibly specific in her descriptions, stretching them to absurd lengths, and melding the boundaries of literary and speculative fiction. Not all of the stories are brilliant in my opinion, but they are all different and eerie.

1. Fairy Tale 2/5
2. Lobster Dinner 5/5
3. The Dancing-Master 3/5
4 A Brief History of Weather 2/5
5. I May Not Be the One You Want, But I Am The One For You 5/5
6. Choking Victim 5/5
7. Jellyfish 5/5
8. Intimation 5/5
9. Fake Blood 4/5
10. Hylomorphosis 3/5
11. Rabbit Starvation 4/5
12. You, Disappearing 3/5

More than once, a sudden confusion of the semi-consistent protagonist persona sparks an epiphany about the absurdity of her situation and the threatening aspects of the man or woman in her vicinity. This pattern emerges in several analogs leading to a startling dramatic tension throughout. A menacing cognitive dissonance hovers over the entire collection.

As she does within her novel, Something New Under the Sun, Kleeman defamiliarizes the familiar and familiarizes the weird, here verging into the somewhat bizarro at times, but glossing it all with the texture of literary fiction. Wisdom lurks under quirks, and her meditations on modern life through an oblique lens are always fascinating, whether she’s pondering lobsters, history, feminism, or beachgoers.

I preferred the more traditional stories in this book, more than the experimental departures and abstract collages. The former had arcs perfectly channeling the slowly dawning dread of displacement, danger, or humiliation. There is a palpable nostalgia for youth, a recurring reliance on college drinking, the wild freedoms subsumed by responsibilities, work, family obligations, her characters feeling inhuman in their roles, underappreciated, but mostly misunderstood. Within them all is a search for meaning, a quality of longing, and a subtle regret.

The surprises start with a Ben Marcus-esque collage, then moving to a detailed slow-paced romantic episode about dairy farming, where loneliness and fear prevents a relationship from blossoming.

In one tale, speech is portrayed as a dislodging of internal blockages. Motherhood is cast as a horrifying dilemma of sacrificial disruption.

There is also a peculiar allegory on domestic life, motherhood, and wifedom, which manages to be abstract, compelling, disturbing, telling of a hostage of the home, like an amnesiac homemaker, trapped in a sick game.

We are treated to a couple ambiguous endings. The resort tourist story was elegant, entertaining, and robust, showcasing the alienness of jellyfish, contrasted with the inscrutable and self-destructive desires of human beings.

We are given a sense of poseurship, an interpretation of authenticity, in the context of relationships, amid the consciousness of the male in gaze in the form of staring men.
A fabulous collection of bizarre social situations and interpersonal awkwardness, which constantly subverts your expectations.

Review of The Nomad: Book One by Debra J. Tillar

I am a fan of space-journey science fiction. Also a fan of strong female protagonists and wry humor. This novel checks all the boxes.

1 time-travel narratives explore the mystery surrounding a large event, while fewer of them explore the mystery of characters’ pasts. In this novel, the hardships of slavery and an off-world setting provide a thought-provoking meditation on the human condition and relationships while conjuring a classic sci-fi atmosphere and incorporating interlocking timelines into a seamless tapestry of space, time, and intimate human interaction. Our focusing lens into this world is a space shooter with smarm, wit, and an attitude of defiance in the face of her oppressors. Much of her intricacies are unraveled through the journal, but we travel with her, experiencing the confusion, frustration, and fear of her situation.

The author’s solid writing style boasts plentiful sentence variety and much vivid imagery. The quick-paced action scenes are balanced by methodical descriptions that go a long way in establishing the setting and tone. The adventure is laced with layers of subtext to strengthen the reading experience. While it is not a straightforward narrative, it is easy to get absorbed in the author’s world building. I can see this being the start of an engrossing series with epic, cinematic scope, unexpected twists, and complex character development. Pretty quickly, it shapes up to be a real page-turner, utilizing some pulp s-f tropes, but to great effect, like hybrids and fictitious companies, extraterrestrial ecology and the science of interplanetary traversal. The science fiction explanations were well done and the info dumping was not a noticeable problem. Overall, it is a well-edited and smoothly readable book. The mature content does not distract but intrigues and entices, alongside well-established conflicts and non-stop tension. One thing I appreciated is the way the author integrates the interior monolog, injecting the narration with the thoughts and emotions of her main character. Doing this while using the third person is an interesting choice but produces a lucid result. It succeeds in giving you the feel of a future society, with its own accompanying ships, planetary landscapes, and eccentric people. The large-scale set pieces are very detailed but never bogged down by digressions.

Strap in for a wild ride. Recommended for all space opera and futuristic adventure fans.

Review of The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop

An enchanting and disturbing novella.

Not as haunting as Story of the Eye but nearly as daring. The title says it all. We are afforded the detailed and poetic perspective of a dastardly protagonist with a taboo kink. What elevates this unique premise are the rich and profound meditations on death, mingling grotesque descriptions with sensual linguistic flair. I can’t imagine such a premise ever being executed better. Parts read like Baudelaire, and the absence of other meaningful characters allow the strange obsession with bombyx and the delights of the senses to take hold of the reader as they do the protagonist. The repetition and metaphors ring true. How else could the author imagine such scenes except through her own strangely morbid sensibilities? Whether she carefully researched a state of mind or exercised her rarified imagination, the result is an aesthetically breathtaking plummet into the abyss of perversion. Each encounter with varied and quirky corpses is guaranteed to leave a memorable taste in your mouth.

Review of The Exiles (Rift Walkers Book 1) by Rae Lewis

In Exiles, the first in a series, the reader is introduced to an orphan protagonist who might remind us in some ways of Ender Wiggins, or any really capable kid in fiction or film. 

In her futuristic, but still relatable setting, the author incorporates rich world-building, but in the background, opening with school drama and ominous dystopian issues infringing on the protagonist’s prospects.

As far as dystopian young adult novels go, I am not an expert, but this is a better-than-average immersive read with a likable crew. The author uses familiar tropes in a refreshing way, depicting space-opera-esque moon colonization and well-paced plot points garnished by delightful character interactions containing palpable chemistry with a good deal of subtext suggesting aspects of the society underlying the world they inhabit.

I found the technology to be realistically incorporated and the description was effective at painting a picture without bogging down the plot. She couples this with good technical explanations and a constant sense of tension. While some components seems similar to other YA stories where kids are recruited and trained for space antics, the conflict arises differently here. There is plenty of action to keep young and old adults equally engaged. While easy to read, it does not talk down to its audience, packing depth and emotion. You will find a good balance of dialogue and narration, and a slight learning curve with book-specific vocabulary, but ample context in most cases to deduct the meaning behind key terms.

Overall, it is full of cinematic scenes carried by an adventurous protagonist and spunky first person perspective chockablock with subtle humor. The voice is a bit more sophisticated than Harry Potter – which is to say, I’m not used to YA having a maturer feel, but I think it still works within the category. There is a keen interest in relationships, with surprising cliffhangers to keep you eager for the next chapter.

Review of Vox by Nicholson Baker

A single conversation, about 170 pages long. 

Baker’s exceptionally readable style renders the most mundane moments vivid. While the subject matter is titillating in some respects, the implicit aura of companionship, intimacy, and aesthetic appreciation shines light on humanity’s capacity to intricately fantasize. This platonic grokking between two in-synch individuals is the novel’s true, nutty center. Richard Bausch wrote a short story with this exact premise, where a call to a phone sex hotline develops into a deep relationship. I’ll have to reread Bausch’s collected stories just to locate it.

Baker’s other novels stir occasional interest in me for their lack of plot, their relishing of the everyday extravagances of well-spoken narrators, and their unbelievably frank moments. More entertaining than most Philip Roth books I’ve read, and short enough to tolerate. Reading Baker also makes me want to revisit Bukowski for some reason. I won’t reread Baker, neither would I recommend him to most, but I’ll always value his close attention to character voice, nuance, and microscopic detail.

Review of The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Ramblings of a college student. Talk of books we’ve all read. Mostly harmless opinions.

Prickling sensations seeming to indicate a love so ill-defined yet ever-present. Swimming, drinking, taking classes, taxi rides. Typical privileged college-age money mismanagement. A narrator who claims to be a writer but rarely, if ever, writes anything. Love letters. Nascent email drama. Retro vibes. A lot more innocence than expected. Young people not talking about their feelings.

It’s basically Ali Smith. But different, of course, in fundamental ways. But similar texture. A relatable perspective. You could analyze it, breeze through it, pick apart some of its spurious comparisons and far-fetched similes, but it’s easier just to let it wash over you. An amusing sitcom. A distraction from the insanity of real life. Live vicariously through this directionless young adult. Hearkens back to the times of not “figuring it out” but simply floating around, standing around public places gawking at things and having nonsensical conversations. The accuracy of the conversation is both startling and depressing. It’s not a slow burn. It’s not even a burn. There’s no heat. No sizzle. But there are a lot of quiet, moody, cheeky comments. Historical spidey senses are tingling. Cultural awareness. I’m picking up hints of pretension, but it finishes smooth. You can see the smudge marks where she might have pushed herself into a discomfort zone but then reeled her pen back into the safe margin. I remember what it felt like to care what other people thought of you. This book reminded me of many things, most of them semi-pleasant. The complete lack of stylistic density contributed to a best-sellerish disposability.

Still, her new book will likely find its way onto my audiobook queue.

Review of Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

The first Maupassant novel I’ve read.

Having enjoyed his stories immensely, I was not surprised I enjoyed this longer work. The easiest comparison is Chekhov. But this tale is a romantic one, about the amassing of wealth, the ambitions of a greedy set of upper-crust mustache-grooming gentlemen and perfume-spritzing ladies. A bit of high and low, aftertaste of Balzac, without some of the of frills of Zola. Verging on 5 stars, but in the end, a too-familiar plot. Plenty of eye-popping descriptions, chortle-worthy dialogue, and reversals, much come-uppance, some squandered boons, reckless speculations, and everywhere, simply everywhere, a flagrant disregard for proper money management. The lesson seems to be: enjoy all things in moderation, especially vices.

Review of The Complete Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham

It’s a shame that such magnificent artwork is undermined by amateurish writing.

The layouts and designs are reminiscent of Moebius, while the dialogue and plot are barely readable pulp, pun-infested nonsense. Plenty of good ideas, creatures, gadgets, and character potential beneath the immaturity, but it’s well-lathered with cringe-worthy speech bubbles. It is worth picking up to gawk at the artwork, but don’t expect depth.

Review of Awakening (The Commune’s Curse Book 1) by Lucy A. McLaren

In this new debut fantasy novel, promising a series to follow, adaptable child protagonists deal with past hardships in a refreshing way.

The conflict stems from a menacing society within the context of an intriguing fantasy world. Children play a key role in the world building of this novel at the center of which is a heartless cult bent on exploiting the inner potential of children. While this is far removed from our world, one gets the sense that if a few things were different, human beings could act and exploit one another in similar ways. It is probably a good thing that magical powers don’t come into play in our everyday lives.

The writing provides a constant tension engendered by the characters being continuously on the run. The onset of foreboding powers marks the turning point in their lives, but their relationships grow out of necessity as they navigate the treacherous situation in which they find themselves. Overall, the narrative is rich in detail and textured like the classics of fantasy. Any fan of Tolkien will appreciate McLaren’s solid grasp of design elements. The whole is tightly edited with quick-paced dialogue and description that does not overstay its welcome, often melding with the interior monolog. The author utilizes an immersive perspective and ample exposition to lay the groundwork of the conflict and atmosphere right off the bat. It is a dark young adult premise with a readable execution, and the author gives us plenty of room to explore her fascinating universe, which, over the course of the novel, begins to draw subtle parallels to the harrowing world in which we live.

I would have liked to see a little more humor or levity, but I think if that is not your main priority as a reader you should fare just fine with this somewhat bleak, but rewarding, read. Full of ominous juxtapositions of danger and palpable dread, it is a blending of familiar and foreign concepts, but it always retains a relatable pathos toward the main characters and their seemingly endless struggle through an unjust world. 

Review of Njal’s Saga by Unknown

This took me way too long to read. The Goodreads police put a warrant out for me for the number of in-progress books on my Currently Reading shelf.

I flew through the beginning and hit an oil slick somewhere in the middle and slid into the rough. This book is very different from the Edda I read right before it. It is full of wild characters living action-packed lives, experiencing the full range of human emotion in a Shakespearean panoply of power struggles, rich with cultural details. You have gripping encounters like Gunnar’s epic last stand and hallgerd’s stubbornness, which is the stuff of legends. I never appreciated the Monty Python sketch (Njorl’s Saga). I still don’t.

Get ready for betrayal, business dealings, blackmail, threats both public and private, blatant thefts, assassinations, and impromptu poetry. As a picture of how the vikings lived, it conveys much of the antique goings ons, how they navigated the anger, processed their resentment, and justified their actions, held grudges, how characters hatched plans and acted on impulse, fighting for the love of women and the love of property, which ends up being the same thing sometimes, how much of our humble lifespans are consumed by quibbling over money, land, and high maintenance family members. Where is peace to be found? Is it a glorification of revenge or a condemnation of it?The theme of loss of control, and the system of interrelated killings foreshadowed the mafia. Here, paltry insults will get you wacked. All they gotta do after they de-map you is pay off your lord and report the murder like we might report expired tags on our Hummer.

Its sophisticated and convoluted narrative, despite the appearance of fetches, is grounded in life’s gritty realism. Love, war, what people wore, traded in, how they spoke, fought, made amends, sailing, marriage, divorce, courtship, duels, procedures of law, contemplation of the far-reaching consequences of a tragic series of events limited to Njal’s bloodline and the interloping clans he dealt with. The nymphomaniac queen was a nice touch, her subtle witchcraft, the undying curse—these tricks build tension throughout each plot development, and the accumulation of resentment and vendettas over generations, growing like a world tree, branching into every family, gripping every member, soon grew wearying for me. The repetitiveness of behavior, the fact that no one seemed interested in setting aside pride or living a humble, unremarkable life in peace among their neighbors. But of course, there is no drama in pastoral serenity. Coveting one’s neighbor’s crap makes up the majority of literature’s immoral core. I was struck by the coldness of Hrut’s marriage, and the constant, ruthless ambitions of everyone in the book. The old themes here are explored by all of the great writers who came later, like Shakespeare and Knut Hamsun, in most cases with greater facility and variety. This book is primordial, might have been written in 3000 BC as well as 1260 AD. The details of pre-christian codes of conduct, secular law, of cunning merchant landowners, and sly, conniving wives may interest adventurous readers, but most of us will probably skim the finer details, forget the endless stream of proper names. Take away one motto: “the hand is soon sorry it has struck.”

Review of Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

A stirring first-hand account by one of the most daring authors out there. 

 I often suffer from Ballard fatigue, which is a syndrome wherein I suddenly hate Ballard after reading two or three of his books in a row. This illness has recurred at least four times. But this fictionalized account of Ballard’s childhood is a good cure. He describes it as an eyewitness account, so I am labeling it nonfiction. I got so used to picturing Ballard as a Perrier-sipping, stiff-upper-lipped bloke of the well-heeled variety, best chums with Martin Amis, and utterly polite father figure who just happened to lead an imaginary second life as a Hollywood-film-star-worshipping, popular mechanics sniffing deviant, that I almost forgot that he spent years in an internment camp in Shanghai, where he was born. He was away from his parents as a child, picking up bits and pieces of Latin and other languages, self-teaching his spongey brain out of smuggled copies of Reader’s Digest, scraping weevils out of sweet potatoes and shoveling them into his mouth for added protein. Exactly how fictionalized the account is is hard for me to say without reading a proper biography of the author, but the Lunghua internment camp where he was kept during the WW II after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor up until he saw the flash of the Nagasaki bomb light up the sea with his own eyes, is vividly portrayed with a desperate intimacy and nonchalance characteristic of his more distant, dystopian works. You will see hints and suggestions of Crash in the young main character’s fascination with cars and fighter planes. Then you have prototype scenes from Concrete Island and High-Rise along with the future science fiction and imagistic stories wherein jaded exiles wander blasted landscapes, scraping soda crackers and cocktail sauce out of prolapsed refrigerators. The young boy named Jim, our protagonist, had to get by on scrounging abandoned suburban homes in Shanghai, dodging air raids, until finally voluntarily surrendering to the Japanese occupiers in a desperate attempt to find his parents—he has already forgotten what they look like.

In the camp, we get treated to a day-to-day drudgery reminiscent of Solzhenitsyn. The conditions are as horrible as you’d suspect. And I can’t help thinking that the ceaseless optimism of Jim is all an act, hiding a seething anger and nascent pseudo-sociopathic interest/relationship with dehumanized violence. In summation, it’s a provocative and alluring addition to the author’s impressive oeuvre. I may read the sequel? (The Kindness of Women) and the track down the film at some point.

Review of Puttering About in a Small Land by Philip K. Dick

Puttering About is minor PKD. One of his sidelined realist novels. 

A quiet, marital struggle in a normal American suburb. It oozes nostalgia for a lost time and place, like an old sitcom, where ‘traffic jam’ refers to fifteen cars on the expressway and people still do things like get their television repaired, instead of just buying another one.

It deals with regular sorts of people in regular sorts of jobs. In a way, they have been puttering about most of their lives. I know from experience working in retail, even a generation or two removed from Dick’s time, you do feel like you are just puttering about in a small land much of the time. I ran a store for a year or so, and like the television salesman in this book, I just felt like I was the ruler of this Lilliputian island, trying to come up with busy work, waiting for customers to show up, letting my imagination run wild, trying to find some sense in it all. The character’s sad desperation feels very familiar, and it is the modus operandi of the seemingly impulsive actions contained within the novel. The excitement in life does not come from work, it comes from the trouble and the people outside of work, we are led to believe. Work is a quiet place, Dick seems to say, where almost nothing happens, where paper is shuffled around, products dusted off, customers given the sales pitch.

I believe Dick himself, at some point, worked at a record store, (detailed in Mary and the Giant) and probably other retail places. He was not a wealthy writer or even a full-time writer right off the bat. He never has that detached air of someone commenting on a society they were barely a part of. He was clearly mixed in with these people he writes about. The wild science fiction adventures he indulged in, and the mysticism later on, are reactions to the realism he faced. They are his way of processing the powerlessness he felt in the American way of life, perhaps, and to stake his claim on greatness. Therefore, his realist novels should not be undervalued. Luckily, they are a blast to read, but probably don’t have the same re-readability as his genre works.

I revere this author’s great novels, and I still enjoy his minor novels and very impressive short stories. What he does well in his realist novels is get in his characters’ heads. He taps into an addictive stream of thought, which serves as a delicious vehicle of storytelling. No matter which character is front and center, you get to know them intimately. This intimacy runs through the bulk of his writing, and despite this book’s uneven structure, sustains the tension throughout it.

The main flaw of the novel, I think, is the focus on Greg, the couple’s child in the beginning. Dick fools you into thinking he is going to tell the story from multiple perspectives, and it even mentions that fact on the product description, but really, for most of the book, the focus is on the two main characters, and occasionally, the third woman in the triangle. You can expect there to be an adulterous relationship, can also see it coming, but that is a common theme throughout the author’s work.

I believe that Dick’s work grows finer with age. He encapsulates his time so well that when I tire of the gloss and sheen of contemporary science fiction, with the glib characters set aboil on a froth of the accumulated s-f gestalt, flailing in space stations and time leaps and intergalactic civilizations, I often wish to go back to the simpler time, the simpler themes, and the powerful characters Dick does so well. The same goes for realist novels. What realist novel DOESN’T have an adulterous relationship in it? But instead of making use of literary whirligigs, Dick confronts you plainly, but brilliantly, with his characters’ hearts and minds.

Review of Innocents Aboard: New Fantasy Stories by Gene Wolfe

Innocents Aboard is the first short story collection by Wolfe I’ve read. It is a diverse helping of mind-altering tales.

Ranging from Melville satire to Egyptian myth and Chinese folktale, a plethora of ghost stories and atypical Arthurian fantasy, with a few Biblical allegories thrown in. Story after story, I was constantly surprised, and typically scribbling with a pencil in the margins. The intrigue is all-consuming and the mystique is alive and well.

If you are familiar with his novels you might recognize some settings, but these 22 stories, as far as I can tell, manage to stand on their own. At the heart of each is a deep mystery, and though we are given many hints, we are often left with a partial picture of events. Only Wolfe could turn a tale about a person who steals underwear into cosmic horror. There are also moments of magical realism and adventure to be found. In short, I never knew what to expect.

Constellation origin stories, paganism, cannibalism, astral projection, time travel, bullying, witches, talking animals – you name it, Gene Wolfe has probably used it in one of his stories. But these strange occurrences are never the central focus of the storytelling. Wolfe decides instead to pursue character studies and wold-building through shifts in tone and perspective which are both jarring and revealing. They lend themselves well to re-reading and multiple interpretations in the author’s typical fashion.

If you read them for surface level stories alone, you’d be missing half the content. Nearly all of them operate with something like an undertext and overtext. The subtext is just as important as the Ur-text. That is to say, the travails of the protagonist are often all symbolic in nature. While entertaining, it is occasionally hard to describe why they do what they do unless greater forces beyond their control are subtly at work.

I’m no Wolfe expert (is anyone?) but I am quickly becoming a raving enthusiast.