Review of Did You Read The News? by Jack Merwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

Review of The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard

Should be read after Crash. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Dadaoism by Justin Isis and Quentin S. Crisp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Glyphotech and Other Macabre Processes by Mark Samuels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghorla

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Pleasant Tales II by Justin Isis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Narcissus Variations by Damian Murphy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Book of Skulls by Robert Silverberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Enchantment of Lily Dahl by Siri Hustvedt

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

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

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

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

Review of Terminal Boredom: Stories by Izumi Suzuki

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Rift by Nina Allan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Race by Nina Allan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Dream Messenger by Masahiko Shimada

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Morbid Tales by Quentin S. Crisp

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

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

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

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

Review of Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Drowning in Beauty: The Neo-Decadent Anthology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Old King in his Exile by Arno Geiger

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

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

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

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

Review of Flowers of the Sea by Reggie Oliver

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Peach Blossom Paradise by Ge Fei

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Laughing Gas by P.G. Wodehouse

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

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

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

With some reservation I finished this peculiar novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Dark Room by Junnosuke Yoshiyuki

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

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

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

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

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

Review of When the Sea Turned to Silver by Grace Lin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Azumanga Daioh: The Omnibus by Kiyohiko Azuma

“Azumanga Daioh” is not deep, thought provoking, or complex. However it challenges the reader in the best way possible. It challenges them not to laugh till they cry.

“Azumanga Daioh” is about friendship, growing up, and living with a “all cats bite me” disability. The jokes come fast, loud, and often in this 4-panel compendium work. It is not subtle but it is all the merrier for it. The format helps this rush of gut-busters. Most of the gags are a few panels in a small story that leads up to a punch line. This keeps the pace brisk and even though some of the jokes don’t land, another one is always only moments away.

The characters are the heart amid the insanity. Though none of them are too layered and most of the backstory we get are asides and inferences, they are a blast to follow. The enjoyment is in their personalities and the wonderful hi-jinks they get each other into. Whether its surviving a teacher’s spectacularly bad driving or the warfare of “field day” how the characters interact in the ever-change landscape of high school is endearing and nostalgic. Some of the characters can be annoying, but they are balanced out by the other characters who either act as foils to them or show just how ridiculous they are. This manga is a prime example of using a cast of personalities to its fullest.

The art is also well-done. The jokes land because of Kiyohiko Azuma’s excellent use of physical comedy and framing. The characters fly off the panels, their kinetic energy and personalities apparent in every line. The reactions are the right amount on the over-the-top scale and the art changes from complex to simple erratically but is expressive in all the right places. Azuma is a master of knowing how far to go and how best to display a joke.

This manga is not without its inconsistencies. Like those old Garfield cartoons, the main draw is following the characters over time. The author creates the illusion that the characters are real, no matter how absurd they act. That means that occasionally, for the sake of a gag, we don’t get to follow them on. After some punchlines, you might be left wondering what happens next. There are no distracting subplots and the action is contained to a limited area, but like stage plays, the props and repeated scenery are used well.

It is always about surviving high school and the craziness of certain friendships. This is obviously aimed at fans of lighthearted comedy of the teenage variety. But I hope readers will keep an open mind and remember that doom and gloom are not the only intellectually stimulating literary ingredients. I enjoy artists and writers who know how to take simple situations and find the heart and beauty in them. Grounding this over-the-top comedy is a sense of reality we can all relate to.

“Azumanag Diaoh” is not an existential work of genius, but it doesn’t have to be. Its only concern is entertainment and at this it succeeds. It is a safe avenue for those unfamiliar with manga tropes. While it has many of the usual Japanese comic quirks, the more esoteric references one might find in other titles are largely absent. Anyone interested in physical comedy, comic strips like Calvin and Hobbs and those wishing to refresh their brain after something difficult will find joy between these pages. Then they will split their seams like a teddy bear being hugged too tightly.

Interestingly, Azuma is still writing a subtle, hauntingly beautiful work in the same vein called Yotsuba! (14 volumes). The level of sophistication is still low but the characters are masterful. A must-read if you enjoyed this.

Review of Tales of Love and Loss by Knut Hamsun

Hamsun is a reliable writer, able to absorb me effortlessly.

Several of these stories are memorable, though some of them are less significant than others. A few pastiches and plenty of journeys by train. Hamsun’s personality shines through, especially when referring to gambling, lack of literary appreciation by passersby and the woes of traveling. A compelling addition to Hamsun’s strong body of work, but not quite on the same level of chilling brilliance as Growth of the Soil and Hunger.

Review of The Lost Hero (The Heroes of Olympus, #1) by Rick Riordan

Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero is an engrossing start that improves upon what came before. Though I liked the Percy Jackson series, it feels like an early work in comparison to this.

Everything that made the first series fun remains. The mix of mythology and the everyday world is still entertaining and done in a creative way. The stakes feel dire and appropriately grand. The characters’ interactions are believable and make them feel vulnerable, even if they are demi-gods. But this series has already taken these staples further.

Don’t spoil the book by reading about the new mythological exploration. The first series was hinting at the way the world grows and it leaves so much room for plots and ideas. The stakes are uppity from the get-go. We get to see how powerful the new enemies are and it makes way for the coming together of heroes. The characters are each given story arcs, whereas the first series focused more one character. Percy was a good lead, but he did not grow as much as he might have. Here the narrative is shared by three different protagonists, all of whom have issues to work through alongside the plot. Dynamic and layered is one way to describe it. It keeps things fresh since every viewpoint helps us relate to the characters.

The overall plot and writing is on par with the last in The Percy Jackson series. The plot is well-paced but follows the structure we’ve come to expect without risking deviation. The story is appropriately funny, witty or serious, but much of the narrative suffers from exposition dumps in the convenient packaging of dreams. If you can handle the unvarying structure of the author’s work and wish for more mythological variety this is a great read.

Review of Gesell Dome by Guillermo Saccomanno

Another well-done production from Open Letter Press. Great cover, good book.

A Gessel Dome, as the introduction explains, is the two-way mirror used to observe, suspects, children and animals in a “natural environment.” This is the perfect double entendre to describe Villa Gesell, a real place, much like every other tourist town, except for the undercurrent of racism, sodomy, pedophilia, incest, murder, gang violence, mass rape, pillaging, burglary, gossip, blackmail, adultery, and every other imaginable corruption Saccomanno describes with journalistic detachment. The sentences are short, but the stories are dense. Probably gleaned from thousands of newspaper accounts, the author compiled short sections in this novel, centering the events around recurring main characters, and interpolating occasional commentary, snide humor, and reflections.

Overall, I found the author’s method engrossing and effective. Spread over 600 pages, this technique of recounting gruesome incidents, one after another, without much framework or context, felt a little like scanning newspapers in a particularly grisly time and place, trying to solve some sort of case, the extent of which keeps expanding infinitely in every direction. It was as if he picked out the worst and most representative parts of journalism’s intellectual territory and pasted them together in a sociopathic album.

It is easy to believe that the author wrote for film and cartoons, given the absurd level of antics he includes. The sheer number of events and the amount of perversity strains credibility, but it is satirical in its use of the subject matter. The book has one foot in the realm of pulp fiction and the other planted fully in the arena of great literature. The use of short sentences is key. It is written in a quickly paced, fully fleshed style, cyclical and recursive, mirroring the mindset of addiction, of consumption, of sin, and encouraging the reader to race forward in an ever-increasing enthusiasm, throwing caution and morality to the high winds. But those jettisoned scruples are the same ones that hover accusingly in our wake.

There is continual reaffirmation that the plots occur on the same street corners as one another, right around the corner from the last atrocity, in the same neighborhood, the same stores and bars, where the same sorry individuals relive these horrendous crimes and tragedies, until the grotesque level of death, sexuality, miscarriages, brutality, etc., become a microcosm, the opposite of the Garden of Eden, or a prison…

“We are strangers to ourselves.” We know more about strangers than we know about ourselves – that is what the Dante tells us. He is the aptly named narrator. The storyteller, though he is not immune to partaking in the derelict culture of the domain that is his jurisdiction. He is the one publishing the events in the Villa, and many people blame him for spreading the virus of their own troubles.

A cacophony of voices confessing, accusing, and hectoring, but rarely taking responsibility for their ethical failures, the tragedies depend as much on human folly as on Fate’s whimsy. Like characters observed in a fish tank, the reader will pick out favorites from the catalogue of vice, men and women in their darkest moments, much like the menu of death served up in Bolaño’s 2666.

The gritty, grisly, suicidal town is also concerned with the symbolic construction of a sewer system that will clear out all of the accumulated stink and pave the way for greater commerce and an influx of purity into their lives. Really, they just want more tourists to come next season and drop a dime. What tourist would want to come to such a place, the reader wonders? And we all know things are not going to get any better for these people. They have dug themselves so deep, what hope is there for them? It is rather sad, if a bit entertaining to vicariously experience their cruel existences.

The Villa is defined by the scandals within it. “Los abusaditos,” the victims of child abuse, brutally described throughout the novel, brought up like a dark stain on the inhabitants’ consciences, are a shared responsibility, and the focal point in the whole state of affairs, while the underfunded police force, complain about their lack of car batteries and weapons, their inability to clean up the festering corpse of a community they call home.

I enjoyed the parallel to “Waiting for Godot,” which the townsfolk bastardize and interpret in their own way. In fact, I enjoyed all of it, and will read more by this author.

Review of Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard

I’m convinced that Ballard didn’t care what people thought.

Of course he did, though. His sentences are polished enough that he ironed most of them out like a fussy tailor. He shines best in his short novels, when he just takes one simple idea and draws it out to the extreme of absurdity. His landscapes retain a corny sort of Twilight Zone quality. Concrete Island is a representative work for him, I think, because it shows what he can do with a couple satirical characters in a nightmarish situation. Even more than High-Rise, I think this book epitomizes what he was going for. One puts oneself in the character’s shoes, wondering if it would be possible to live under such circumstances. Next time you pass a freeway island you’ll wonder, imagine yourself erecting a lean-to on the side of the road.
The main problem one will encounter while reading Ballard’s novels is interchangeability. They all feel the same. You get a natural disaster or something happens to tear holes in the fabric of society, and his characters are still sipping Perrier from crystal snifters as their mansions burn. They are like obnoxious sitcom characters. But Ballard’s satire is often effective enough to cause a chuckle. If you can’t decide where to start, this novel is a good appetizer.
Many of his stories lack these easily dismissed character cliches and rely so much on imagery that they can muddle your memory of them. He did write many brilliant stories, but there are some that I find a major slog. For this reason I think Bradbury is a superior writer, though Bradbury always worked in the safe territory, colored inside the lines, and Ballard laughed at the lines, deliberately avoided them, and danced around the borders. He was a bold writer, got to give him that, but would you really be able to hand one of his books to your mother and say, look here, you might enjoy this? Probably not. Bradbury on the other hand, can sit right alongside any other book on the shelf without getting dirty looks from the other books (strained metaphor).

Review of Nine Hundred Grandmothers by R.A. Lafferty

My first encounter with R. A. Laugh-ferty. His humor and cleverness are quite astounding.

He sets up gags and jokes in the middle of serious situations. His humor is often so unexpectedly outrageous it is harrowing. He made me catch my breath and squint my eyes. It is all a matter of subverting expectations. And he has a way of throwing out an offensively absurd line and then justifying it a few lines later. Anything can happen at any moment. And yet it all adds up to a satisfying conclusion.

In several of the stories, RAL seems to be commenting on Capitalism, contraception, xenophobia, economy, relationships, mortality, and conventional science fiction tropes. But often, it is impossible to separate straight satire from facetious propaganda.

These stories are wacky, gruesome, inappropriate, hilarious, abstract, and still compact. They operate almost entirely on dream-logic, and are guaranteed to baffle and entertain. A few times I was ready to move on, in the sense that I felt I had already gotten the joke, but he felt the need to throw in a few more punch lines. His wit is ripe though, and holds up well with the passage of time. Some of the stories are re-readable in my opinion, but knowing the plot-twists, or predicting them can ruin part of the fun. He still reads like a Golden Age science fiction author, and can run circles around some of his contemporaries as far as plot goes.

My only gripe is his choppy, chunky, rough sentence structure. Occasionally reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s sloppily constructed, contrari-wise, underachieving sentences, Lafferty’s take some getting used to. But he is worth it. The clownish antics border on bizzaro-genius.

Review of The Samurai by Shūsaku Endō

I only feel comfortable rating this novel 3 stars because I enjoyed a few of his other novels so much more. 

To be clear, there was nothing bad about it. It was a historical novel about the clash of religion and politics between Japan and Europe. There is much discussion of power and faith, which are two of Endo’s primary concerns as an artist. Yet I hesitate to hail this work as a masterpiece because I did not feel drawn or even connected to the characters.

Unlike in The Sea and Poison and The Girl I Left Behind, I felt that Endo’s true powers lie in depicting stark human emotions and that this then represents one of the weaker offerings. Consider his book The Golden Country. It also deals with the struggles of missionaries in Japan, but it is a visceral and memorable account, compact and simple. Aside from the thesis statement dialogue in The Samurai I failed to find most of the scenes memorable. You can certainly read this work for its mature, intellectual discernment, for its historical accuracy or for the pristine prose, which never fails to convey a clear message, but I will turn to Endo’s other novels for more variety and more passionate portrayals of human beings. I look forward to delving into the other novels in his oeuvre.

Review of Hunter (Hunter, #1) by Mercedes Lackey

For the first novel by this author I have listened to on audiobook, I was entertained most of the way through.

Mercedes Lackey has written an infinite number of novels – by which I mean I know I will never be able to read them all. (Seriously, look at that bibliography…) Taking this one as an example, it is part of a trilogy taking place in a dystopian world full of storybook creatures and built upon centuries of fantasy cliches. However, it justifies the use of many of the tropes through clever loopholes in its own world-building. I will list some pluses and minuses.

Pluses: an easy read or listen.
Lackey does not seem any worse or any better at writing than Ann Leckie. The suspiciously similar last name notwithstanding, I was more engaged by Hunter than I was by Ancillary Justice. Whereas Lackey writes prolifically, Leckie seems to scoop up all the awards and acclaim. I prefer an industrious writer working from the shadows.

I was surprised by the dark tone, the violent action sequences and the fast pacing.
Strong suspension of disbelief is required. Humorous bloodthirsty gnome-like monstrosities and other nightmarish hoards.
The world-building actually does its job.
Functional post-apocalypse where conflict is essentially guaranteed for eternity. (I used this same approach for my serialized novel.)

Minuses:
Cardboard side characters.
Unlikeable 1st person heroine. Seriously, the biggest let-down is that main character. What if she had been similar to Poul Anderson’s main character from Broken Sword? It would have been a much more enjoyable read.
World-building shortcuts. Heavy reliance on cliches. Clashing tones.
Anti-religious themes that don’t seem to add anything to the plot.
The magic system could’ve been more interesting. I don’t require plausible explanations, but advanced tech + super powers without any literary invention is tough to swallow.

I actually feel like listening to the sequel’s audiobook. Despite my reservations, it was still competent. I have been a lot less enthusiastic about certain Niven, Sheckley, Heinlein, Anderson, and Silverberg disgraces.

Review of Something Happened by Joseph Heller

Family dynamics and office politics are explored with acerbic wit in the ranting, eccentric ramblings of our sleaze ball narrator in Something Happened.

The internal monologue is so steeped in hate and vindictive self-righteousness that it will easily polarize half the readers. But following the main character’s galloping train of thought is like having a lucid nightmare. The endless parentheses and asides, pages dripping with spittle and spite ring true to me. You don’t have to agree with anything the narrator says, or the author, for that matter.

Is it possible to write a great American novel about the depressing lie of the American dream? How oppressive and selfish it is? How the American dream every salesman, and most every man dreams, can quite possibly lead to personal tragedy? More than that though, I feel that most people can sympathize with the self-destructive tendencies of our over-stimulated, Consumerist state of mind. In this book there are a plethora of self-created problems. It reads like the sorry tale you might hear if you interviewed the well-dressed man at the end of most of the bars in America. Even so, it is indicative of, and a product of, the time in which it was written. Open commentary, racism, misogyny and nihilism played for cheap laughs, lascivious daydreaming, anxiety-ridden whimpering, and a slew of other incantatory criticisms, extrapolated and examined endlessly from a solitary point of view.

In the end, after the storm passes, a vast emptiness is left in its wake. Perhaps it is a warning against perpetuation, an entreaty to make more of an effort at kindness. More likely, it is a purgative, a way to become conscious of the little devil on your shoulder, who whispers bad things, who always points out how fat or lazy people are, which is always pointlessly going on about stupidity, incompetence and denial. The trap of self-loathing and of loathing everyone and everything is almost more natural than complacency, than quiet acceptance. It is possible to be alone, even around other people, but it is never necessary.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is an established classic, cause for much grumbling in high school English classrooms, and is a more positive satire.

But if you aren’t scared of a little negativity, if you find you can rise above complainers and reflect upon the sheer volume of complaining that warrants tuning out, then there is a lot of value in this prolonged tirade against the cruel and inhuman state of our own minds, enmeshed in a prison society of corporate greed and filial pressures. Love it or hate it, you will not set the book down unmoved.

Review of Cynicism Management (Cynicism Management Series Book 1) by Bori Praper

Cynicism Management is an English language novel by a Slovenian author and musician. Its tone is, of course, cynical.

A colorful group of pseudo-amateur musicians converge in a spy-tinged romp through modern Slovenia. On the outskirts of these absurdly amusing characters are contracted corporate spies, who treat the affair more like a vacation than a mission.

The culture clash between American and Eastern European lifestyle is evident. One can only assume the author is spoofing American corporations in many scenes, though the same treatment could be applied to Asian conglomerates, or any all-encompassing post-war Consumerist brand.

“So no severance package for us?”
“Only if it’s severance of our packages…”

With incredibly witty dialogue the personas on the page spring to life. Not to mention, the author has a keen eye toward detail and elegantly introduces punchlines you won’t see coming. The style flows smoothly and is far more sophisticated than a passing glance might reveal. The book can be a bit long-winded at times, but the sharp satire and irreverent characters do not get old. Except for the fact that some of them are old, as in, they are aging rockers, and like to dream big, even in a small town pub.

No one is immune to Praper’s cattle-prodding satire: women and men, Irish or Middle Eastern, child or terrorist. Each possesses folly and charm, weakness and strength. In short, the characters are well-rounded, easy to follow, and endlessly entertaining.

As the author warns on page 1, it is meant as a stark parable. It is the polar opposite of politically correct, and if you turn off your trigger warnings, it results in a fabulous good time.

This is a well-written, unreserved, but controlled, nostalgic labor of love. Much thought and deliberate care went into crafting the characters, descriptions, dialogue and pacing.

I’ve not visited Slovenia yet, though I have been in the same Slavic neighborhood. Therefore, I was not as surprised by some of the behavior and culture on display as many Americans might be.
I enjoyed similar rock-related anecdotes throughout my childhood, since my father fit into the category of “aging rocker,” for some years.

Praper’s casual, readable style is infectious. The comedy is quick and furious. One might say unrelenting. It is an aggressive display of verbal wit well-versed in personal, daily tragedies and the Rabelaisian aspects of everyday existence.

Completely convincing character introductions, the ravings of conspiracy theorists, and a Wayne’s World type atmosphere are combined with a writing ability comparable to Aleksandar Hemon’s.

What are the root causes of cynicism? For some it is a sadness too deep to confront directly. Beneath the humor is also deep pathos, the struggles of a downtrodden people, yet concealing personal baggage and hard knocks like champs, putting on a smile and playing their heart out.

Review of Less Than Zero by Bret Easton Ellis

“This is what would happen if I gave my kids a trust fund.” – said someone, about this book.

I fear this frame of mind for our youth. This casual nihilism, this destructive illusion of indestructibility. At times powerful, at other times, just not that compelling. Excessive, isn’t it? It is, at the very least, thought-provoking on the level of: If only you kids understood anything about how the world works. I recommend listening to the audio version, love thy neighbor, and try to wash out your ears afterward.

Bret Easton Ellis’ remarkable debut novel, rife with topical allusions, already glows with pure pop 80’s nostalgia (not that I’m that old…) in the 2010’s – why, it’s almost 2020, but somewhere, probably, kids are acting like this, and B. E. E. was brave enough to write about it in the first person, and having spent a day in L. A. I feel like I might have seen some of these people walking around… Joking, of course. Take the whole thing as a joke, it’s obviously an exaggeration… right?

It benefits from brevity. Being in the vicinity of these characters is possibly toxic. I found the other Ellis book I read less bearable than this one. He works in this sub-genre, skirting Hunter S. Thompson and Johnathan Lethem, carving out his own literary digs next to Donna Tartt, and reusing his characters later, at greater length, though I don’t think I have the wherewithal to follow through and read the rest of his oeuvre.

Review of Terminal World by Alastair Reynolds

Second Reynolds after House of Suns. This one felt like he was phoning it in by comparison with the first. 

Still a decent s-f novel with a great concept. If you look at all of his concepts, they tend to be perfect set-ups. The backs of his books often read better than the books themselves.

I do think he weaves in a lot of ideas, but I did not feel that the world was fully explored. I did not care about the characters and the pacing dragged. A lot of people may be easily immersed in the futuristic setting, taking place on a sky-piercing tower, with multiple civilizations distributed throughout its levels, each constricted to a different level of technology. You can go a lot of directions with such a concept, but the central thrust of the narrative, the main conflict, while it worked in a cinematic sense, seemed to lack the tension I was hoping for.

If I compare it to House of Suns, the leading concept is more central to this plot than that other. In HoS, the experience of reading the book is heightened by the subtlety of the world building, how one gets the sense of an endless variety of forms within the fictional universe. There is less of that feeling here, much less, and it is a straightforward exploration of an intriguing world.

Long-winded, slightly repetitive in plotting, and with fewer memorable characters. Nonetheless, Reynolds is a powerhouse s-f writers. Clearly one of the best, but is not exempt from occasionally boring me. How could he have improved it, you ask? The simple answer would be detail. It feels a little like Mad Max, which I liked, but non-stop action only serves to turn the brain off. I wanted a discussion of scientific speculations, woven with the tried-and-true themes, lots more atmosphere. Instead, we got one action set-piece following another.

Review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

A fascinating look at characters and the brutalities of war and violence that seep into our lives. 

Murakami’s characters aren’t necessarily deep, but they feel like real people. The women are mediums, he claims, allowing the male protagonist to experience new concepts. They take some getting used to.
The whole book is memorable, and seems like the condensation of all of Murakami’s signature ideas: cats, violence, pasta, random sexual encounters, wells… His style is well-polished and Rubin’s translation is of the highest quality. Though once I found out that a lot had been removed from the novel I wanted all the more to read it in the original. Rubin claims he translated all of the best parts of the novel in his book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words – still, I don’t see his reasoning for cutting things out. The novel is composed of disconnected segments with only tenuous relations to one another. Murakami’s masterpiece should be given it’s due. I hope once enough time has passed another translation will come out. As much as I admire Rubin, I think he may be trying to make one of his favorite authors safer for American audiences. I could be wrong, but Murakami’s MO is weirdness. He is Raymond Carver fed through the meat grinder with pop-culture and dream-logic.
I’ve read Wind-up Bird twice and might read it again. It really affords me an opportunity to escape from the mundane world. I even enjoyed reading interviews with Murakami – because this book always comes up. It’s the sort of work that invites discussion. He’s really on a whole different level with this one. There are already so many reviews out there, but in the end you’ll have to decide for yourself if you’re completely taken by his bold literary surprises or turned off by his jazz-like improvisations.
You get snatches of humor in this book as well to lighten the tone. The personality really shines through. As a writer with journalistic tendencies, he knows how to cater to the gut-level desires of his seething hoards of frothing-at-the-mouth fans.

Review of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami

The quiet beauty of a store interior. The intentionality of the setting. The sincere dignity of a retail worker. The cyclical expanse of such a life, confined within shrinking walls, hemmed in by the minutiae of the commercial products of everyday life. 

Constant exposure to these mundane implements imbues them with chimerical, mystic qualities, and reminds us that a dioramic life can still be a rich one.

Very similar to the set up of Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, Nakano Thrift Shop takes place in a store in Japan. The employee who narrates our story lives the repetitive rhythms of most retail workers, yet in this manner, exposes the hidden beauties to be found in minimalist lifestyles. That is not to say she is not also fraught with worry, shame, jealousy, loneliness and anxiety. In fact, her experience proves to be both boring and enlightening.

What this short novel does well is portray the feeling and nuance of its setting. It lacks dramatic twists and startling lyricism, but possesses the sophisticated clarity and restraint characteristic of the author’s other books, all of which I enjoyed to some degree. This is for fans of Banana Yoshimoto and for those who can appreciate the subtleties of a Japan frozen in a state of perpetual unrest and gender tension. This genre is often called Slice of Life. In small doses, it offers a refreshing reprieve from one’s own often underwhelming existence.

Review of The Abyss of Human Illusion by Gilbert Sorrentino

A brief, final testament left by Sorrentino, and proof that his dotage was virile and discerning.

Broken into 50 scenes, these flask fictions (flash fictions) are reminiscent of Barthelme and even, fragments of Bolano.

Often humorous, this “novel” shines with deep human emotions, wry bathos – as the author himself describes it – and bawdy touches of loving fun. While not free of his habitual racial slurs, it is less scathing and indicting than the previous book of his I read, called Aberration of Starlight.

The presiding sentiment, I think, is the futility of living, of aging, and of growing sour. Clearly coming from his own perspective, he depicts writers in their final death throes (in the literary sense) and has the detached wit so clearly at the forefront of literary fiction in his time. Unlike the distasteful scenes you’ll find in the previously mentioned work, he is no less honest here, but subtle and refined.

The defining characteristic of these vignettes is eloquence. In the short space of a couple pages, he encapsulates characters with precise details and charming nonchalance.

As I explore this author’s work further, I doubt I will find another book as refreshing as this one in his revelrous oeuvre. But he is apparently full of surprises.

Review of La Grande by Juan José Saer

Long at 500 pages but not-quite monolithic, this scattered Argentinian novel about a confusing literary movement called Precisionism, is less precise than the dependably inaccurate blurbs led me to believe.

Jumping from close-knit characters to disparate scenes to clandestine moments of startling imprudence, through days and nights and the tired territory of restaurants and bedrooms, childhood and romantic entanglements, I was propelled through the narrative in the same way I enjoyed many bigger, better Spanish language tomes in the past. But unlike Terra Nostra or Infante’s Inferno, Le Grande appears at times hastily composed. Many sentences rely on similes and strained metaphors, but as often as they shed light on pithy topics, they distract from action and tension, going on at exuberant length to prove a point I might have gleaned from a few choice words. Nonetheless this was an occasionally entertaining, readable, slightly tedious novel, with mesmeric atmosphere and an effective setting. Disregarding the politics it describes (not my department), the South America is presents is both exquisitely beautiful and rife with commonplace sin and disillusion.

Like Bolaño’s contrived literary movement in Savage Detectives, you might read a thousand pages more about the bit players of Precisionism before being swayed by their views.

I counted six pages in a row describing one character threading a needle. It really got to me. I recall passages in Beckett minutely cataloging inconsequential actions, but since Saer didn’t prepare the reader for this side-quest, it came as an unwelcome surprise. The majority of the pages contain mundane descriptions of one sort or another interspersed with just as many good literary choices. Most of the paragraphs take up 2 full pages, cut through by sparse resuscitation of dialogue. Great lines might pass you by if you aren’t paying attention, and when the description isn’t fantastic it is just long. The main and only downfall of this book is the perspective. It is difficult to zero in on and understand these literary characters, bewildered as we are by the flood of detail.

La Grande is a twisted look at a fascinating culture and time, but made for an uneven reading experience in my opinion. Admittedly, there are unifying themes, images and motifs (especially wine). The characters are not shallow puppets but fleshed, flawed, damaged individuals. A dense and complex amalgamation of memory and texture, fruitful relationships and a definite, disturbing undercurrent. Read it for the publisher, who is making a valiant effort to fill the gaps in foreign literature available in English. Read it for Saer, who put his impassioned talent to use, reaching for a greatness he might not have fully attained, but certainly approached.

I may tackle more of Saer’s books in the future, but I see myself enjoying the rest of Cortazar first.

Review of The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #5) by Rick Riordan

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a series that embodies many of enjoyable aspects of YA fiction and fantasy.

The difference between this volume and the first is pretty vast in my opinion. The development of the author is clear throughout the series, more so than in similar sagas. Writers don’t often find their feet and then run a marathon in the way Riordan has done for the length of his career.

The only back-step was the second volume. Now at the finish line of this influential series, this book is marked by spectacular action, great stakes, good characterization, and payoff for all of the set-up. The Last Olympian provides a satisfying conclusion. Some characters are redeemed and others have to turn over the spotlight. The whole thing was tense and interesting, with a few unexpected turns.

From the beginning, the strength of the series was in its characters and the choices they make in the final volume continue to keep them relevant. The lessons from the last few volumes trickle over and you’re not always sure what is motivating them. The tone is dark, but it makes for cinematic set pieces.

The theme of sacrifice is well-explored and memorable gods and titans paint a vivid backdrop for thematic elements.

Review of Abyssinia by Damian Murphy

Redolent of mystic awareness. Cryptic and profound. With a highly refined prose style, the author indulges in subtle subterfuge of the reader’s expectations.

A quiet and subconscious exploration of inner landscapes, characters bound by association to a storytelling doll, imbued with sententious sentience. Constricted to the confines of a microcosmic hotel, the novella radiates a distinctly European allure, but yet contains the puzzled musculature of a Borgesian foray into the wild unknown.

Mr. Murphy uses his locales to push and pull at the contours of his characters’ perceptions. With a sort of blurred clarity, he conveys an elegiac acquaintance with the uncanny and a breathless insinuation toward the everyday-magical aspect of a quiet, plotless endurance of the presence of other beings. For when you get right down to it, people are other consciousnesses, whom we must perforce fail to comprehend. This is a sublime descent into the outskirt encounters of lives adjacent to our own, each possessing an exquisite and memorable texture.

Review of The Factory by Hiroko Oyamada

This would have been a fun book. But the short sections are told through shifting first person perspectives, adding unnecessary layers of confusion. 

I wanted to read about Japan’s Middle class struggles. It is hard to tell if this book is about jaded employees or hallucinogenic workplaces. Overall, it has intriguing ideas buried beneath unreadable paragraphs, lumbering under the weight of too many rhetorical questions and skittish internal monologues. Read Convenience Store Woman instead. That book displays a fascinating underclass struggle in a modern, heartfelt way.

This is not a story told in a straightforward way. The author was either trying to experiment, or wanted to obscure timelines and narrators, creating a ghost-like cast spouting dream-like inter-office frustration. Absolutely unenjoyable. But I would read other books by this author, simply for the atmosphere.

Review of Mr Palomar by Italo Calvino

Mr. Palomar, Calvino mentions elsewhere, is another one of his literary exercises.

 It is not as fascinating or developed as Cosmicomics or Winter’s Night, but a worthwhile read. Mr. Palomar observes various phenomena, draws cosmic and personal connections, and then moves on. He is more a mouthpiece or a device for the author than a character. The observations are astute and frequently fascinating, though disconnected, arbitrary and exotic. Whether he is examining the sunset or an albino gorilla, our narrator always has a skewed and charming perspective. There is less knowledge and more humor and pathos in these contrived scenes.

An enjoyable, languorous atmosphere beset with gem-like set-pieces. A metaphorical journey through the mind of a literary master and more polished than his other books of reminiscences.

This is still a minor work of slight literary interest, and I would recommend The Cloven Viscount or Nonexistent Knight for those new to the author.

Review of Endangered Species by Gene Wolfe

I would question anyone who reads this whole book and fails to rate it 5 stars. What are you looking for in fiction?

Sophisticated characters, complex subtexts, compulsively readable science fiction themes, lighthearted fantasy, excellent world-building, truly immaculate imagery, well-defined dramatic scenes, a huge variety of motifs, atmosphere and tense dichotomies? The list could go on and on. Stretched over 500 pages, this more than generous helping of Genius Wolfe is enough to satisfy anyone.

In 34 stories, Wolfe displays his brilliance on several levels. His usual fascination with ghosts runs through many stories, including a breathtaking traditional literary ghost story and a space opera that plays out as effectively as George R. R. Martin’s Nightflyers. Many of the stories are long and incredibly engaging. Each has unexpected twists and mesmerizing, subliminal suggestions. I was bowled over by the completely convincing Dickens homage. There is also a ghost story that read like a Somerset Maugham tale. There were a few interconnected stories related to the Solar Cycle and the mythology of Thag. You will encounter anthropophagi and anti-matter entities, robots and rampaging unicorns, post-apocalyptic struggles and straightforward insurance fraud. There have been stories of synthetic human war machines and interdimensional battles with magical creatures before, but no one tells them quite like Wolfe. I was enchanted by the Arabesque and moved by the many interlaced storytelling elements throughout. This work represents a career well-realized and a talent well-developed.

Wolfe has an expert’s understanding of science fiction’s underpinnings, and displays them by incorporating microuniverses, macro DNA strands and genetic modifications. He ropes in traditional fantasy storytelling, epic space action, and parodies. His work is known for allegory and Biblical themes, and many can be found herein. Yet, it is not easy to pinpoint some of his references, and true to form, he leaves many pieces and strings for the reader to work out upon reflection. Speculation is part of the fun, whether a character’s existence is called into question, or the reader must doubt another character’s perception or sanity, this is part of the process of digesting these vivid creations and deriving the every bit of intellectual stimulation out of them as you can. Like all of his stories I’ve read so far, I think I’ll be revisiting this collection.

Review of A Captive of Love: A Romance from the Original Japanese of Kyokutei Bakin by Bakin Takizawa

Takizawa Bakin or Kyokutei Bakin is a truly remarkable Japanese author, little known in the West. 

He lived from 1767-1848 and according to online sources wrote at least 470 books, many of which were quite hefty, according to accounts from other Japanese writers, and the most famous of these works is The Chronicles of the Eight Dog Heroes of the Satomi Clan of Nansô, sometimes called The Chronicle of the Eight Samurai Dogs. It is a work rivaling Remembrance of Things Past in length. He was Japan’s first professional writer, and I can only imagine that he spent the greater part of his life writing. To some Japanese, including Akutagawa, he is considered the greatest Japanese novelist.

Like Dumas, he was incredibly prolific, and wrote “romances” in the olden sense, involving chivalry, warfare, love, and adventure. Judging from the one major work of his available in English, (this one) his style is extremely refined, on the level of Dumas or Jack London, and he captured characters and settings extremely well. I have discovered stray stories and chapters from his samurai epic online and through scholarly translations, and they are all of a similar quality. It is astounding to me that English speakers have access to less than 1% of this giant’s literary accomplishment.

Chronicle of the Eight Samurai dogs, composed in 106 chapters, over 28 years, is an established classic in Asia, and has inspired numerous movies, animes, and other books and adaptations. Glynne Walley has admitted online to having translated at least 70 chapters of this monumental work, but none have come to light, except his college thesis translation, which his University library won’t let me check out, though I have tried repeatedly. The only other chapters available are infrequent fan translations and Donald Keene’s four chapter selections. What a shame.

The reason Bakin was inspired to write novels of such length was due to the prevalence of the great epics of Chinese literature, which during the Edo period were the prime literary examples. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, and Dream of the Red Chamber were just the most famous. I don’t think it is possible for a non-Chinese speaker to comprehend the full scope of Chinese literature, given the paltry selection we have access to in this information age. Lu Xun’s “Brief” History of Chinese Literature opened my eyes. Like Pu Songling claims, even during the Ming dynasty, libraries containing over 10,000 distinct works were not uncommon…

But back to Bakin,
A Captive of Love is an extraordinary novel, and since it is available online for free, I highly recommend you read it.
The perspective, like many Edo novelists, is Buddhist, though Shinto still shows strong influence in the stories, more so than in this particular novel. You can expect Japanese folklore to make an appearance, like yokai and everything Lafcadio Hearn outlines in his works, but Bakin lends gravitas to his plot through forceful writing, though he is famously lacking in any trace of humor.

As a member of the samurai class, Bakin was qualified to write about protagonists from this stratum of society, and I gather that he wrote of them often. The morality of the characters and the author’s intentions are always clear. This is both an entertaining and a didactic work, but it is mainly a valuable testament of a time out of reach of modern novelists. It is hard to imagine a more effective historical evocation than this one, even if it is not an exhaustive study or soaring masterpiece. Even if this is one of Bakin’s less important works, what else do we non-Japanese have to work with?

The adventures undergone by the main character, dictated by class and fate, are wild, creative and picaresque. They are reminiscent of Don Quixote’s travails, without as much wit and just as much deep moral consciousness. I was sad to finish this novel, and found the need to reread Pu Songling’s stories to capture that graceful elegant, playful storytelling again. I may return to this work to relive its charming evocations, but I certainly, undoubtedly, will read anything else by Bakin that ever sees a proper translation. I’m looking at you Walley.

Review of What is All This?: Uncollected Stories by Stephen Dixon

I’m not going to go easy on Dixon this time. But I will read more of his stuff and decide if he deserves the accolades and blurbs.

The stories here are artificial because the mechanics of what he is doing are never concealed by the writing. You can see the gears turning in his writerly mind, and in some cases, predict what he is going to type next. This is the writing of someone with a gun to his head. In a way, the urgency of the words is immense, you can barrel through a void of unmeaning – while he churns butter – the literary equivalent of it – out of the void.

Some tales are genuinely moving though. They are tales of American desperation. At the same time they convey a desperation for recognition and are too often about how to infiltrate female trousers.
The plight of writers, rarely writing, but always seeking to be known, is a consistent subject. The author tackles this concept repeatedly, while not forgetting to include the unsung heroes of our country’s formidable industries of food and manufacturing. The stories do not often attain a resolution, are fundamentally uneven, a crap-shoot, and contain too much mundane conversation.

His most traditional stories are his best in my opinion, which could just mean I’m not impressed by pure experimentation. When he isn’t fooling around, his writing plumbs deeper and provides memorable drama.

When he nails the voice, he’s mightily convincing. His clipped ticker tape style is very easy to read. Dixon sticks to 85% dialogue much of the time, when describing the petty squabbles of lovers, he can be alternately clever and puerile, exact and infantile, and slipping into jabbering nonsense too quickly. The longer stories are sometimes well-fleshed out, multi-dimensional, and affecting. In many others, he is simply exhausting narrative possibilities. The most radically different ones are obnoxious catalogs of internal checklists, or monologues eliminating various scenarios ad nauseum. Pointless speculations, mindlessly repetitive worrying, automatic writing, and the rest of it, as if Dixon were trying desperately to fulfill a word count quota. The psychology of blame recurs again and again, as does marriage, guilt, and the spats of cohabiting men and women, irreducibly selfish in nature, these characters enact combat theatrics as if their lives depended on it. Unfiltered, raw, frequently awkward, rhythmic, free associative, could all describe the prose style. It is usually futile to search for deeper meaning in these mundane snippets of existence, too inconsequential a glimpse into a life, haphazard, free form rambling, coming off as pseudo-autobiographical, uber-realistic, depicting inner storms, the psychological conceptualizations of imagined interactions, the visualizations of internal turmoil, details piling up like Tetris blocks, until unexpected humor arises in metafictional commentary.

It is a mind unraveling onto paper. What happens seems inevitable. Cause and effect is all it is. Concerned with accurate dialogue, and conveying a realistic passage of time, he passes muster – you can feel you are living in the story. Often hoping for a climax, I was only faced with anticlimax, with real life, and disappointment. If you enjoyed Queneau’s Exercises in Style, these will offer similar distraction. Subtle intuition may be required to determine some of the character motivations, especially if you are not accustomed to the sparse, dry, occasionally captivating style. Longing, frustration, bureaucracy, torment, despair, ridiculousness, Kafkaesque situations and more congeal into an impactful package, when he pulls it off.

I enjoyed the couple examples of dystopian society, but the fragmentary recounting of everyday human relationships, the intricacies of emotion displayed, the gestures, the psychological associations, all the tough days, hard times, and bleak prospects wore me down. There is plenty of evidence that he was writing the first thing that popped into his head. I cannot discourage that enough.

Ordinary, abundant clichés abound in the character speeches cropping up in almost every story, but the situations contrived subvert some expectations. I hated the discussion of semantics, found the selfishness blasé, was reminded of the pain of living with another human being, did not appreciate the demonstration of the art of the whiny argument. On top of this, he covers domestic violence, adults fighting like children, and adults fighting children. The demands of interacting with people in harsh reality, the pain of humility and why it is necessary in human interactions, people making poor decisions and suffering the consequences – all part of this circle of life. Dixon’s literary exploration of an imaginative environment yields a few gems. Mostly it is a bunch of goofy, gabbing, crabby men and women, irresponsible man-handling peddlers of quirky disturbances, cockamamie schemes, swagger, robust jiving, pin head roundtable debates, blustering blowhards, flimsy blokes with parasitic leanings, or Dixon’s typewriter had diarrhea.

Review of Man or Mango? by Lucy Ellmann

Man or Mango is my least favorite Ellmann novel. 

I have gotten through all of her novels aside from Doctors & Nurses and Ducks, Newburyport. This not to say that Man or Mango, a Lament, is not good. It is entertaining, like all of her work, though it lacks focus and subtlety in my opinion.

Ellmann, famously an expatriate, who looks down on America’s excesses through the lenses of her biased characters. There were segments in this book of unfiltered feminist vituperation. She also takes occasional potshots at Britain, so I wonder if she really feels at home there. One would gather from her humorous tirades that she was perpetually uncomfortable. Her characters, which are all uniformly Vonnegut-level snide social commentary machines, sniping at Presidents and secret shoppers and innocent old ladies, never tire of criticizing the universe around them. This method is used to best effect in her masterpiece Dot in the Universe, where she pulls out all the stops and unleashes the full force of her imagination. Ellmann has it out against aging, infirmity, and general unhappiness, the cruelty of the universe and the barbarity of human beings. Fulfillment doesn’t present itself to her hopeful and hopeless, lovelorn protagonists. It is the illusive Grail they compose their grim jeremiads to.

Present for the reader’s reflection is a fixation with ice hockey, cramps of a sensitive nature, and other unexplainable absurdities. The novel would have gone off without a hitch if it weren’t for digressions, transgressions and lists. They intercede the story whenever the protagonists interact in a semi-interesting way. Unlike in Mimi, not a lot of participation occurs between the elements of story and the outward-directed commentary. If she could, Ellmann would operate solely within the confines of her characters’ heads, as she does in her massive psychological tome Ducks, Newburyport. The outside world is only a medium through which the opinions and perceptions of these literary players wade. Nothing is as real as their own vexations. I got the sense that Ellmann started writing without much thought where she was going with it and then the pen started veering off wildly as she attempted to navigate fictional automatons through the tangled web of her own discontented worldview.

Still, she is an intelligent writer tossing aside the reigns, and training the rifle of her seething resentment on the personal and trivial tragedies of human lives.

Review of Sing to It: New Stories by Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel’s award-winning The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel was chock-full of absorbing, somewhat dog-centric tales, with formal artistry and quirky characters. 

Her latest collection proves that she has been doing something the past thirteen years. The main problem is the brevity and insignificance of what is on display here. Any selection of her earlier work is superior, and most of the pieces in this tiny collection are clearly flash fiction. There is only one full-length story, which delivers. There were several question marks popping into my head when I read the lesser ones. Remove all of the negative space in the book and you will end up with out 50 full-length pages.

One other thing I fail to understand is why the publisher thought it necessary to state on the cover: “By the Award-Winning author of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel”.

In the end, this is a footnote-sized collection for Hempel completionists. I don’t think it’s my fault that I’m beginning to question my appreciation for an author I used to rank with Lorrie Moore and Joy Williams. Still, an influential author with a style all her own. I highly suggest her earlier collection over this one.

Review of The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #3) by Rick Riordan

The Titan’s Curse is better than it predecessors and sets up the next entries nicely.

Where the last book was weighed down by lackluster stakes, this one brings the conflicts to a new level of urgency. The plot grows in every chapter and the power of the main villain is on display. The villain is finally someone to fear, since we see what he does to those that serve him and what he has in store for our heroes. The immediate quest feels more perilous and important. By the end of the book, even if good prevails, so does an uneasiness, since the future is full of implications.

The strength of this plot-driven sequel is the give and take of loss and victory. Sometimes heroes need to fail to grow . The first entries suffered from a safer approach. With this one, all bets are off and a nice tension permeates the pages as safety nets dissolve.

Character-wise it’s more of the same. The differing personalities of the cast result in a well-rounded lineup, rather than a main character stealing the show. Motives and backstory add layers, but some of the touches could be called “paint-by-numbers.” Nobility is sometimes predictable, but you shouldn’t come into this series looking for subtlety.

It would be nice to see more nuanced villainy, to get more motive for their dastardly deeds. There are a few exceptions in some of the newly introduced characters, hinted at with a returning villain, Luke, but overall, it was consistent with the other books.

The writing seems to have improved as well. The narrative relied less on happenstance and the tense ending felt well set-up. It lacked poetic descriptions and memorable lines, but the juxtapositions of myths and our world are always good for a grin. Playful irreverence and pop culture references don’t distract from an engaging quest. I would like to see more world building in the next installment and some new mythological references to texture the reading experience.
Unfortunately, it would be difficult to get into this book without first picking up the previous adventures. At least by this point the training wheels begin to come off.

Review of Terra Nostra by Carlos Fuentes

A Möbius striptease.

Time is a permeable membrane.
Cervantes and Caesar, Bosch and Quetzalcoatl.
Historical figures rise, maggot-ridden from their tombs to conquer, make love, philosophize and dissolve in the polychromatic strobe of dreams. These fantasies fuse with antiquity, birthed from moldered tomes, exhausting the faiths of pious men, eviscerating kings, and bleeding across timelines.

The symbolic journey of this novel is an intense, dense, immense expedition through Old Spain, New Spain, and lands beyond, fraught with wordplay, wigwams, and wampeters. The repetitions, revolutions, and rhythms blossom in the final pages, recalling the mythological wheel of time, the mechanics of Fate, God playing ‘ghost in the machine,’ and ouroboroses in a boudoir. As Kundera explains in his afterword, the novel spreads its wings to encompass interior and exterior worlds, landscapes of the mind and the abyss of the heart.

A novel of conquest, submission, doom, and the many frightened cries of the powerless souls lost in the continuous apocalypse of the past. The past rests on our shoulders, like a prolapsed soul, weighty, invasive, and recurrent.

The Nature of existence, echoing the edenic ambitions human beings inherit from the great puppeteer in the cosmic theater. A bold deathly pale specter hovering over Mexican literature, this monolithic masterpiece bends your ear gently, only to scream its nightmarish hymn into the echo chamber of your brain.

An unforgettable, Joycean whirlpool of perennial, Imperialist themes, set to a constant boil until the precipitate becomes a Kraken with its myriad limbs straddling the limits of temporal awareness and physical sensation.

Review of The Waitress Was New by Dominique Fabre

Fabre is a French novelist. He has written a lot, from the looks of it, but English translations are slow in coming. 

His biographical data reveal that he chooses to focus on describing life on the periphery, on neglected people in society. For this slim novel, the main character works as a barman. As a pastiche of small, mundane observations and events, it is not terribly striking or memorable. I did find that it conveyed an appealing atmosphere of lower class European existence. His style is conversational, almost awkwardly so, and he dispenses with modern formalism. Instead, the thoughts of the narrator flow into the descriptions, and the setting takes on an ethereal quality. Unfortunately, it was over quickly, and culminated in nothing more than an accurate snapshot of an ordinary life. Perhaps too accurate.

Review of Fluffy’s Revolution by Ted Myers

Blade Runner X Homeward Bound.

This was top-tier dystopian science fiction. The stakes are high in this wryly humorous anthropomorphic adventure. In its future world like Poul Anderson’s Brainwave, with a touch of Orwell’s Animal Farm mixed in, I was intrigued and won over by the charming and witty characters, the over-the-top plot, and the eccentric world building. There were multiple surprises in every chapter, and the book rarely slows down to let you think too hard about plausibility. The writing is slick and moves at a breakneck pace, through an engaging pseudo-technical cinematic crescendo, and left me eager for more. I’m onboard for the sequel Mr. Myers.

I had no problems with this book and would read it again. Recommended for all ages. A few classic movie references thrown in were a bonus.

Review of Hotel World by Ali Smith

While I appreciate Ali Smith’s experimentation, I’m not a fan of the quotidian rhythm of her narrators. 

Whether they are waiting at the airport, or sitting around on their home computer, or flopping on the bed of a sleazy hotel room, I find myself waiting for something interesting to happen far too frequently. Many will find much appeal in Smith’s wry and pointed, thought-provoking comments on society, but you can’t escape the droll pace and lingering taste of inconsequential dread of the mundane that it leaves in your mouth. At least, that is my feeling after listening to a third audiobook by this author. Curiously, the best audiobook reader I’ve heard was Ali Smith herself.

The best parts of this book was the brooding on the topic of death and the unique perspectives. They added some variety, but you will never find a conventional thrill in one of her books. More likely, you will stumble through with the sensibility you have during those dreams, where you’re in a public place, nothing is happening, but you are suddenly overcome with incomprehensible anxiety, or you’re suddenly naked and dead – one or the other. Obviously, Ali Smith has garnered popularity and success through her slanted view of modern people and their foibles.

I find myself slightly drawn to her other titles, if only for the ease of listening they offer. I know what to expect by now. Some call this literary fiction. It seems to me more fiction of everyday life. A supernatural twist here and there isn’t going to change these laundry lists into anything remotely resembling a spectacle.

Review of Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Abandoned at 65%. I’ll only comment on the positives and negatives I noticed listening to the audiobook version. Don’t know about the ending, but was not sufficiently engaged to finish it.

Beginning showed a quirky voice. I liked the cine-centric commentary and obsession with old film stars running through the plot. Some irony and attempt at grand themes. Kind of a stretch considering what’s actually occurring in the novel.

Plot starts to meander. I lost count of the chapters after 225. Why so many chapter breaks? Is each chapter like a frame of a short film? The main character shows increasing zombie-qualities, an inability to relate with people, borderline mental deficiencies handled for the sake of humor? Vikar is clueless, yet luck is on his side. Plenty of deus ex machina, things happening to him over and over, rather than Vikar doing anything to affect the plot.

The book is an outlet for the author’s film commentary. Includes some spoofs of popular culture nerds, druggies and other so-called outcasts. There is a nostalgic quality to the setting, but I did not find it rewarding or interesting. The prose was dry and unremarkable. No stand out descriptions. A couple laugh out loud moments, but ultimately left me empty. The unreality is more convincing in Murakami, and the aberrant behavior is better related in Bret Easton Ellis. Brautigan is funnier. Despite the excellent reviews out there, I have to rate this one based on my lack of enjoyment.

Review of Buddha, Vol. 1: Kapilavastu (Buddha #1) by Osamu Tezuka

Tezuka manages to sustain a gripping pace while inserting subtle philosophy and universal themes.

If the other 7 volumes are as good as this one it might be his greatest series. I like this first volume more than most of the volumes of Phoenix.

While the narrative is not bound by the strictures of its underlying faith – at least not yet – the moral compass of the plot is geared toward that expression of enlightenment, whether through sacrifice and death or through patience and love. The love of humanity is present in many if not all of Tezuka’s work. He is famous for his heart. He never loses sight of this central concern in his characters. He knows that the reader will sympathize with someone who is performing either evil or magnanimous acts out of love or other well-established motives. By clarifying the motive the action proceeds smoothly and the characters are allowed to react as the situations arise. I got the sense that the world extended far beyond the borders of the comic frame and could sink into the pages and feel the dirt and grit of the landscape even when every extraneous detail was excluded.

He was a utilitarian artist and consummate storyteller. No matter how complex the plot becomes I cherish the moments I spend reading with Tezuka’s creations because they shed light on the beauty of the human soul. When he wants to show the soul’s wickedness it is depicted nakedly and in lurid ways, but when that beauty overcomes the inherent flaws in mankind, you can appreciate his work as more than mere entertainment. Tezuka winds a convincing yarn even when he bends the laws of physics and plays around with anachronisms.

One of the few times when manga becomes indistinguishable from literature. At least it seems to have placated most critics of the medium. The most sophisticated work by the most important graphic storyteller in Japanese history.

Review of Old Floating Cloud: Two Novellas by Can Xue

A rare scatological mosaic elevated to the highest levels of artistic expression. Can Xue is my favorite contender for the Nobel Prize. 

Rising out of humble beginnings in China to become in the space of a decade, a force to be reckoned with in world literature. A titan of disjointed, haunting, sloppy elegance. A feverish, hyperactive geezer with a child’s imagination. She has published some 50 novellas, a few dozen stories and about 9 novels so far. They all partake of the same excruciatingly visceral style. The critics love comparing it to this or that author, like Kafka and Bruno Schulz and Cortazar and others, but she is entirely in her own league in my opinion.

Yellow Mud Street, the first novella in the collection, is a revolting, beautiful, contradictory summation of life in the ditch. A recounting of a fabulous town sinking into a pit of its own excrement. The bats and the centipedes, and the people and pigs, all leaking and spewing into each other, the roofs collapsing, and the hungry, sad animals beneath them called human beings, crumbling and festering in their own resentful sties. Can Xue conjures a continual excrescence of polyp-sprouting images. The characters and lunatics she peoples this scourged landscape with are hideous, Goya-esque renditions of nightmare beings, hovering between life and death and love and salvation.

So why is Can Xue doing all this? Why does she fly in the face of convention and challenge the notion of enjoyable reading and the status quo? Each moment, each gory detail, each unimaginable horror taking place is the even-toned, straight-faced, loving joke of an activist. She uses our fears and aggravations to build a castle of images, colors and flavors. Whether the Chinese government reads it or American students or Argentine professors, there is something to be gained from her intense vision. You can draw parallels to the questionable bureaucracies that spawned the human suffering she depicts in exaggerated detail. Beneath the hyperbole lie wounds of truth and blisters of history. You can find in the hairy horrors and pus-dripping walls, the squealing prostitutes and puddles bubbling with frogs, a cause and a purpose. She sees human beings as dependent creatures. Communities, when built upon mud, can only foster mud creatures. Yet in death and decay there is often found a germ of life and a sick kind of natural beauty. Can Xue excoriates our taste, and abrades our minds. She is the loving dictator of the lost hells of impoverished villages, where patches of our worst habits lurked and corrupted our ancestors.

Old Floating Cloud, the second novella, is a subtler, pointillist display of her powers. She weaves a tapestry of symbols to convey brilliant satires and memorable dreams. Plot and character development are not her main concern. The roles of family and community, the emotion and trauma we compile in our daily, animalistic existences, are her bread and butter. We are walking contradictions, all of us, and what we love, often destroys us. Our adornments are all sequins, and our blemishes are our defining characteristics. While this story is far more readable, far easier to digest, it is not as powerful as Yellow Mud Street. The sheer accumulation of her images, and the Jenga tower of her atmospheric malaise are impressive to a startling degree. Even more than her other short story collections, these two exemplar works are enough to prove to anyone that she is not afraid to expose and explode our literary refinements and the sealed bags of cultural baggage we all lug upon our shoulders like severed heads.

Can Xue may be overlooked by some now, but in the future, I think, her great artistry will continue to grow in influence.

Review of Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

This book is loud. I do not mean that as a bad thing. A lot of books are not quiet. A book full of voices need not be silent.

This reminded me in some ways of Black Leopard, Red Wolf. This has a similar aura, but a different tone. (Those 2 things are different in my mind). It takes place in Nigeria, where an extraterrestrial entity has appeared. What follows is an unconventional series of events, some political, some reminiscent of family sagas replete with religious symbolism. I found the shifts in perspective distracting, but this seems to be the trend today for a lot of literary fantasy, or fantasy with an edge, which this is, I think. The author is clearly talented, and the dialects were uncannily done in the audiobook version, which made for a steep learning curve as far as the characters were concerned. Yet, the setting and ideas to back up the genre elements were worth including, frequently surprising and creative, even if they make use of tried and true descriptions. It was cinematic and enthralling, when it wasn’t overly engrossed in its own action set pieces.

There are a lot of conflicts and much emotion to be found in this book, both positive and negative. There is plentiful food for thought as regards human significance and the progress of science versus the destruction of ecosystems. The setting made for an unsettling, and exotic experience, though I found that the whole left me cold and slightly confused. Set against the human terror and violence, the science fiction/ fantasy/ magical elements seemed almost inconsequential in places. The author has worked in genres before, but I am not very familiar with her work. This was an ambitious and personal endeavor, and an admirable novel in many respects, but it takes a certain palate to appreciate the stark social commentary, blunt brutality and strained metaphors.

Nonetheless, if you are intrigued by African folklore, and anything else described in this review, certainly give it a try.

Review of Uzumaki: Spiral into Horror, Vol. 1 by Junji Ito

Many of Junji Ito’s themes and motifs are simple and even nonsensical, but they tend to stick in the mind.

They have the ineluctable quality of nightmares, of good horror films. His concepts have the same staying power as a cheesy slasher flick, with the advantage of impressive artwork. No matter how far he takes the mutilation and monstrosities, they are rooted in true nightmares and real-life phobias. One gets the sense that the author is of a delicate sensibility and exorcises these demons in his work. Maybe horrors accumulate inside his mind and he has no choice but to draw manga for temporary relief.

Inanimate objects take on ominous contortions and morph into a dramatic diorama of blood and guts in most examples. Something as tame as clay pots are twisted into mesmerizing terror in his most representative work, Uzumaki. More so than in Tomie or Gyo, this is considered his stand-out production.

Reading it once is enough to start seeing spirals, to be infected by the madness. He points out society’s flaws indirectly, and you can usually dig beneath his nonsensical fables for subtle commentary. It was easy for me to acquire a taste for this brand of obscuring reality and blending it with nightmare. There is a gnawing madness to this and most of his other stories. Everything from marionettes to advertisements to snails to hot air balloons become objects to be questioned, or even to be abhorred. In Junji Ito nothing is as it seems. But under the horrid images, I can sense humor. The surface is only one layer. The true heart of his manga lies in a pervading irony and solid sense of grotesque joy that is easy to miss if you only consider the bones of the story.

Like in any good horror story, the characters in Uzumaki are constantly acting contrary to reason. I have heard of the unsuccessful live action film based on the manga. His ideas really only work on paper if you ask me. The exaggeration becomes silly when mishandled. That’s why I’m a fan of the manga alone, and will remain a fan, as we’re finally getting more of his titles and collections in English.

Review of Children of Blood and Bone (Legacy of Orïsha, #1) by Tomi Adeyemi

“Children of Blood and Bone” is an interesting study of themes that is dragged down by odd storytelling decisions and a bloated length.

It’s at its best when it is using its themes. The idea of slavery and oppression go hand-in-hand with this world’s characters, creating a deep perspective on the matter. The narrative is riveting when it is subtly exploring the lasting trauma and repercussions of its themes. I really appreciated how Tomi Adeyemi even touches on what would happen if the oppressed gained power and the darkness could follow. The navigation of themes is holistic and feels like a natural extension of the world.

What really sells the themes is how hate, fear, and oppression effect every character and their psyche. All the main characters have had different experiences and reactions to the harsh world they live in and it helps the reader see how deeply oppression can affect culture. From Zélie’s rage to Inan’s blindly following his father, their positions seem organic and help the reader come to their own conclusions about the relation of the themes to history and the modern day. Even the king, who is the cause of much bigotry and violence, has been touched by the fear oppression causes. His hate stems from his family being killed by those he now oppresses when they were in power. This shows in a detailed manner how the cycle of fear and hate that racism creates is propagated. However, beyond their use to embody themes, the characters fall a little flat. The author makes use of good motivation and backstory, but they often feel one-note. Zélie’s, who is a wonderful mix of blind anger caused by years of pain and the YA hero, feels underutilized. I think this results from how the author chose to tell the story more than from the characters.

What lessens the impact of this book is its length and the storytelling. While the writing is solid almost nothing happens for long stretches. The book contains a lot of talking and shifting points of view within a scene. When the plot arrives, the book is engaging and thoughtful but most of the issues could have been solved by cutting out one of the points of view. While the perspective helps the theme, it kills the pacing. The depth provided by 3 perspectives could have been done with 2. As it stands, it is confusing and only makes these sections, most of which happen during a fight or an important moment, curdle.

The general set-up is good, though somewhat typical of young adult novels. There is a lot that could be done with African myths to inform the fantasy genre. But the world building is also stifled here, at least in this first book. The magic system is bare bones. Beyond “people can have different types of magic” there is nothing else to it. The story follows suite. If you’ve read YA adventure before you may predict what happens. Though this story is darker than most with its brutal depictions of slavery and deaths. This is probably not for younger readers. The brutality and themes is about the only divergence from the normal “save the world plot.” And I wish more time had been devoted to exploring the world and culture.

“Children of Blood and Bone” is a mixed bag. It is far too long in my opinion, but the good parts are very good even if it is not as good at other times. The exploration of theme and the consequences of that theme are much closer to literary fiction. It does a great job showing vs telling you how to feel about the terrible racism within the country of Orïsha. The world building might have been taken further. If you’re interested in revisiting these themes, it is a fairly interesting look at how racism destroys both the oppressor and the oppressed.

Review of Lila by Marilynne Robinson

While I admire M. Robinson’s writing ability I found the messages in this book plain as day. 

The ideas and character emotions were well-conveyed but did not require much analysis or interpretation. What I’m trying to say is that cut and dry situations, and some repetitive concepts added up to an unimpressive whole.

I don’t fault the author for using compelling language to explicate worthy themes, but I found almost nothing new in the characters, setting, or circumstances described. Nonetheless, I can see that the down-to-earth protagonist and heartfelt moments in this book appeal to a lot of people out there and I respect that. I may read her other novels in the future to see if they strike me more.

Review of The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1) by Rick Riordan

Nothing beats a good adventure story. 

Whether it’s the adventure of discovery like in Ringworld, the adventure of slaying a dragon in The Hero and The Crown, or a hybrid like Brave Story, you can get into these journeys so long as they are done well. Which is why, though the Percy Jackson series is not particularly deep, I still have fun reading it. It is a “slay the dragon” story that knows exactly how to do this sort of thing.

The first book in this series, The Lighting Thief, does exactly what I would want from the first in an epic adventure. It sets-up the general world and story expectations while introducing us to characters and the plot to come.

Character-wise, the main cast is fine. Percy is a good lead who is a mix of flaws and capabilities. He does fail and is not always right, leaving room for the characters surrounding him to show-off their own strengths. This dynamic of character interaction is where the book is at its best. Though none of the characters are brilliant, they play-off each other well and are amusing to follow. This interplay of personalities is pivotal to the longevity of any series like this and is a clear strength, akin to what Rowling did in her series. The character interplay will be what keeps you reading, even if some of the other aspect of this book rust with age.

The set-up is fun, though the world-building is generic at this point. In this world the gods of the Greek pantheon are still alive and living in the West. Along with them comes the whole of Greek mythology and their predilection to make demi-gods. Percy finds himself thrust into this unknown world but soon finds he fits better here than in the mundane world us mortals live in. Again, nothing special, but the mix of the familiar and foreign is as good as any other example I could think of. It is fun to read each chapter waiting for the mythology to sneak in and subvert our expectations. The details are built up constantly though they are never overwhelming, and for any fan of Greek mythology will seem appropriately crafted within the realm of those myths. Rick Riordan does a good job of using these ideas to the fullest while also (usually) knowing how far to take them.

The writing is aimed at a younger audience. It is never challenging, but flows at a steady pace. The tone is similar to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe (even though this came first). Even while dire things are happening, the characters make jokes or sarcastic comments and the interplay of Greek mythology and our world can be tongue-in-cheek. The whole book reads fast and kinetically. If you’re wanting a deep plot story this is not for you.

The over-arching story is also well done. It has the right amount of twists and turns to keep you engaged in the unfolding adventure but never feels like its talking down to you or did not set-up a twist. It foreshadows its sequels well. It does not end on a cliff hanger per-se but definitely hints at how this will end and how epic that ending will be.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lighting Thief was more novel of an idea when it first came out. Now it feels more generic, surrounded by a sea of copy-cats. What makes it last is that the adventure and the character who experiences it are memorable and a blast to read. Any fans of adventure or Greek mythology should give this a try. If you don’t like a semi- constant goofy tone that never takes itself too seriously, stay away. This is Neil Gaiman for a younger audience , but I would argue that most adults can enjoy what it has to offer.

Review of A Spy in the Panopticon by Damian Murphy

I wish I could find the edition pictured on Goodreads. I only had access to the first part: Spy in the Panopticon, which by itself is another stunning work of the imagination from Damian Murphy. 

In this one especially, the seed of an obscure metaphysics seems to be present. There is a suggestive association between the female main character, the enigmatic machine, and the spyhole in her room, all of which adjust and skew reality in some way. By controlling perception, creativity, and the muse, she is first inspired and then pursued by the manifestations of her curious investigations.

There are patterns cropping up in the architectural elements, dreamlike aura, and fear-laden recounting of the main character’s descent into this strange internal extension of her craft. Once again dark sides of human nature are subtly revealed through the interpolation of myths and mirrors which reflect an untrue image.

Review of The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George

I admire the author’s boldness. 

There is a lack of restraint in the freewheeling bizarro-ideas. The stories function without character development, plot twists, or reflection. They are fast-paced, bare-bones cobbled-together surrealist evocations of modern day discontent, obsession and sexual fantasy. Shock and awe, surprise and delight, but plainly stated, divested of emotion, coupled with bland imagery and no sense of setting. Reads more like a dream diary, which is fine, but I hoped for more challenging fare, more relatable humor. Tone it down or expand the premise, adding some flesh-out characters and a pervasive setting to get me invested. But not everything has to go through the motions of posing as a traditional fictional product. At least this defies the mold.

Review of Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

The first thing you’ll notice about this book is the unique design. The black-stained page edges and the reflective hardcover. The high-quality paper. These are the things which lend themselves to a unique reading experience, and that is what it is.

Our Tragic Universe contained most of what I love and hate about literary fiction. A writer main character who talks about writing to everyone around her but does very little of it in her somewhat disorganized life. The attendant guilt she feels. The nagging problem of the unfinished novel that most writers understand too well. The broken relationship with no hope because neither party is trying to make the relationship work in any meaningful way. Constantly resuscitated dreams, no loyalty to principles, selfishness driving the decisions she makes, super high maintenance friends with no regard for normal behavior. She is offered a way out but still clings to pieces of her messy existence. She displays an elegant understanding of the art of fiction, but life plays plenty of tricks on her. It could’ve been a slog, but Thomas manages to avoid most of the easy solutions.

The M. C.’s boyfriend, Christopher, is a deadbeat, a leech, a parasitic, personalityless worm. Another man, Rowan, is a flawed, but idolized ordinary fellow. Her female friends are quirky, garrulous, demanding, spastic enablers. All of them are far more articulate than real people.

She spends her time (which she has an unlimited amount of) pretending to be a fictional character, while her friends imitate Anna Karenina, making tragedies of their puny conflicts. A bit of it is hard to believe, but much of it is charming in an obliquely surprising way. Living out and discussing the plot holes in your own life might be fun, but it begs the question of your own silly behavior and motivation. Meg gets paid egregious amounts for her writing, but seems to do far too much knitting. Her useless boyfriend has strict principles related to environmentalism which increase their cost of living, and he never contributes anything except infantile commentary. She gets paid to write book reviews, which is the most unrealistic part of the book.

The author clearly cobbled the book together from profuse notes on topics she found interesting, from wide reading of nonfiction, selecting concepts and unusual phenomena to dress up her skeletal plot with strange arcana and alchemical mixtures of themes and plotless wandering, wrapping it all in suggestions of cosmic significance.

The book goes for it. Embraces the weirdness. Through subtle atmospheric details a mystique accumulates. Using giant leaps of logic in metaphor and imagery, she subverts expectations and falls into the common traps at the same time. There is much figurative language, a weaving of elaborate notes into digressive internal monologue, tangential discussions with friends, a hyperactive frenzy of ideas, which in the end is simply a sharing of wide-ranging conspiracy theories, chance encounters, instigated coincidence, fate’s niggling, a pervasive powerlessness within the grand scheme of the novel, a discussion of pop culture and its definition of the edges of our consciousness, the boundaries it draws around our behavior. It is a mash-up of a ton of plotlines for potential novels, applying an addictive style reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut. It manages to make derelict characters fascinating in a train wreck sort of way. The perspective is relatable, but it is so focused on New Age pseudo-science, philosophical meandering, and loitering literary references, it might drive some readers mad. Meg’s dopey side quests on every page lose their original flair the more she indulges in them. If you can handle obscure ruminations, the fatalistic viewpoint, and a slew of meaningless moments building into a profound summation of life’s haphazard meaning, it should be fun for you.

The concept of the storyless story, the simplicity of life created versus life lived, trying to be somebody you’re not, stressing about your carbon footprint, how we make excuses to live an empty existence, knitting as a metaphor for writing and life, collages, motifs, mosaicked idea-webs, being content with obscurity, seeking out small adventures, fake memories, the question of whether we should believe in magic, alternate breathing techniques, curses, living forever, carpe diem, the value of dying, savoring momentary happiness, infinity, cowardice, doing things halfway, splendid anecdotes about the publishing industry, artificial relationships, image consciousness, virtual eternity, hipster mystic wisdom, Aristotelian poetics, genre techniques, how disasters are built into the system, inevitable loss as a product of gain, defamiliarizing the ordinary, fairy phenomena, success, failure, mass production, the essence of a person’s soul, living out ideals, the small problems which consume us, the absurd lengths to which we will go to seek help, banish emotion or wallow in it. Self-help exploitation, and a rampant beast of Dartmoor (another instance of metafiction impregnating her reality).

Overall, an entrancing read.