Review of Frankissstein: A Love Storyby Jeanette Winterson

Just great, bold, immersive writing. 

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

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

Review of Letters of Thanks From Hellby David Vardeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo

I have read 16 Delillo novels so far. 

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

My ranking of Delillo so far:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Palm Mall: A Vaporwave Novelby Oliver Neale

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

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

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

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

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

Review of A Cool Million by Nathanael West

Greasy satire of the most malicious kind. 

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

Review of Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

I needed this.

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

Review of Later Stories by Alexander Theroux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Two Stories by Osvaldo Lamborghini

A certain type of reader may find the book interesting.

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

Marked to Die: A Tribute to Mark Samuelsby Justin Isis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Trafik by Rikki Ducornet

Quirky even for Ducornet.

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

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

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

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

Review of Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin

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

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

Review of The Breast by Philip Roth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As the narrator says:

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

Review of Heaven by Mieko Kawakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Green Child by Herbert Read

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

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

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

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

Review of To Hold Up the Sky by Liu Cixin

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

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

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

Review of The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig

My third Hilbig novel in quick succession.

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

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

Review of Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting

The most creative short story collection I have ever read.

While technically belonging to the bizarro genre, this collection passes itself off as literary fiction. The author has, by now, established herself as a literary figure. It always bothers me how a slight literary polish makes all the difference between this and small-time bizarro practitioners, like Carlton Mellick, for instance. Small-time in the sense that people don’t seem to hand out awards and fellowships to authors in bizarro publications. The very slight difference is Nutting’s assured, razor-sharp, prose which floats like a skein of oil above the wild, deep, and controlled subtexts, delving into the bizarre alternate realities in her mind to scoop out the cream of wacky dreams and fantastical lapses in sanity.

Amid the demonic interplay of surprising and alarming plot points are heartfelt characters, unexpected twists, and a Garfield reference. The settings are diverse: from space to bowling alleys, from infernal regions to a stadium-sized kettle on the boil.

Very different from her novel Tampa, these are full indulgences of her imagination, the farthest flung scenarios from the frighteningly realistic portrayal of the novel. Consistent throughout both is a sharp wit, hilarious and startling moments, clarity of voice, eccentric behavior, and a simply ruthless commitment to imagery, description, and fascinating horrors. Luckily there is plenty of pathos, and her miraculously affecting storytelling does not suffer from pretension or unsympathetic characters. They are perfect if you can appreciate the out-there, the truly extraordinary things humans are capable of describing.

I greatly look forward to reading her other novel and everything else she publishes in the future.

Review of Tampa by Alissa Nutting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Golden Ass by Apuleius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Into the Violet Gardens by Isaac Nasri

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

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

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

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

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

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

A continually surprising series. 

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

Review of The Poems of Catullus by Catullus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum

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

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

Review of The Wayfarer by Zachary Kekac

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Dancing With Disorder by Andrew Lawes

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

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

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

Review of Tekkon Kinkreet: Black and White by Taiyo Matsumoto

One of the few masterpieces of ‘realistic’ manga.

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

Review of Life Ceremony: Stories by Sayaka Murata

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

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

Review of The Past Is Red by Catherynne M. Valente

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

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

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

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

Review of Small Town Problems by Chris Ritchey

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

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

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

Review of Something New Under the Sun by Alexandra Kleeman

Wow. A stunning book.

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

Review of Hettie and the Ghost by Becca De La Rosa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Shadebringer by Grayson W. Hooper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Intimations: Stories by Alexandra Kleeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop

An enchanting and disturbing novella.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Vox by Nicholson Baker

A single conversation, about 170 pages long. 

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

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

Review of The Idiot by Elif Batuman

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

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

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

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

Review of Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant

The first Maupassant novel I’ve read.

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

Review of The Complete Multiple Warheads by Brandon Graham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Njal’s Saga by Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Innocents Aboard: New Fantasy Stories by Gene Wolfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pyramid by Ismail Kadare

The Pyramid Dreams.

Kadare takes some liberties with history, of course, often speculating wildly for dramatic and symbolic effect, but there is enough verisimilitude here to cast the pall of history over the pages. It has a very similar aura to the writings of Kafka, borrowing much of the atmosphere of oppression and psychological tension. Then you have the whorl-pools of Borges, the puzzles of the literary mathematician, well-realized. Similar also is the lack of character development, how Kadare’s characters embody concepts rather than make choices according to their or the author’s will.

Cheops, the pharaoh, attains immortality vicariously through his pyramid, and the pyramid attains life vicariously via its creators. This is the ingenious interplay of the novel. The pyramid takes on increasing weight as the story progresses, metaphorically and literally. Everyone universally endows it with sentience, and many believe it conspires to consume them, haunts them in dreams, not least Cheops himself.

In the absence for most of the book of traditional characterization, the pyramid becomes the central figure, the changeable chimera, baffling and exotic, embodying its peoples’ fears, ambitions, myths, and frustrations. Cheops, gullible and vain, is but a puppet for an endless legion of ministers and politicians, magicians, et. al. The pyramid grows and inspires silence and fear, and spreads it like a disease. Its stones bring death from foreign lands in many forms, it swallows people like chum. It is variously and beautifully personified and the bureaucracy surrounding its erection is portrayed as a machine which accomplishes great feats of industry only to wreak havoc in the lives of the humans who are its moving cogs.

Wicked advisors to the throne are plentiful. The first part of this book oozes with shades of Shakespeare, while the second half focuses on the manifestations of phenomena, both real and imagined, surrounding the emergence of the great pyramid.

The luscious historical details are infused with apocryphal history, and serve to explicate and allegorize the evolution of myth and other archetypical human constructs. The mysteries of inborn human superstition, the ambitious capacity they have to design monuments to symbolize their own reaching after heaven. The construction of symbols is an important ritual of ascribing meaning within our lives, but this book illustrates how symbols can take over the mind like a virus. While Kadare insinuates the importance of geometric elegance, his structure does not partake of harsh strictures of form. You can view his approach as a narrowing of themes and action, toward a pinnacle perhaps, but by constraining his subject and given the short duration of the book, I would not consider his form of paramount importance. The elegance of mathematics is nowhere more evident than in the pyramids. Its inner mystery, the decoys, the hidden passages, all mirror the convolutions within our minds, the inner labyrinths, and the mental torture of construing human civilization is fraught with the traps we set through symbology and our own weaknesses.

Aside from the horological complications of The Pyramid, the jigsaw pieces of historical details, and the effective atmosphere, I was struck by the mummification of thought, the cyphers, glyphs, and the embalming of ideas, which Kadare utilizes through the power of his fiction to crystallize experience and impression. The unconfrontable void of death looms over the whole. I loved the eminence of the pyramidion. The positioning of the sarcophagi, the grave-robber foiling devices, the hermetic chambers, and the immense scope of its construction were all worth reading about. The conspiratorial dimension of the pyramid, the menace of its secrets, and the all-too-human aspects of its history, were fairly obvious results of such an unequalled undertaking. The pyramid of Cheops rested on the shoulders of Egyptian society from the moment of its conception – still does – it was a responsibility the whole empire would bear with great strain. Stone by stone, death by death, the physical presence of evil, as a force and an entity, drawing many parallels to the Tower of Babel, would result in one more proliferation of human omen-worship. Above all, this is a profound and charming study of pointed concepts, applicable to any society partaking of human vices.

Review of House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds

A dense mosaic of mesmerizing notions injected with a jumbo-sized hypo of s-f crack, rich with subtle corollaries of theory and conjecture. Huge, labyrinthine, wild. 

My first Reynolds. Now I have that combination of elation and despair, knowing that I’m in it for the long haul. I have to read all of his books. There’s no way around it. Only, what the hell? 10,000 pages to go…

Standing on the shoulders of such giants as Asimov, Clarke, Niven, and basically everyone, Reynolds paints a massive mural across the stars, encompassing every sciencey idea under multiple suns.

The scale of the timeline is gross, morbidly obese, and grotesquely complex, adding layers of incomprehensibility to the nefarious plot. But telling any tale over the course of millions of years is bound to generate more questions than answers. I admire the gumption, the gall.

Maybe you s-f geniuses out there could help me catch up to the hundred essential concepts I probably missed. Why is a star-dam so dangerous, if unlocked? We are dealing with space-faring legions. How is anything a threat when you have all that space to escape into? Let’s say they point the dam at you (How would they, anyway?) – can’t you just move out of the way? It’s light-minutes away, so wouldn’t the intensity dissipate over the distance?

Honestly, I don’t feel like reading tons of reviews and summaries to try and fill in the gaps. I am content to let the mysteries evaporate within the supermassive cloud of ideas left over in my mind. My consciousness felt like a machine person’s after reaching the finale, that is, uncontained within my skull, transitorily disparate within my corporeal system.

Apart from analyzing the wacky concepts to be found on every page (in every freaking paragraph), there is a lot of swagger to this impressive novel. Enough adventure and intrigue to plunge you into a cold sweat for hours of adrenaline-filled reading panic-cum-ecstasy.

Utilizing dreamy flashbacks, and story-telling through conversations which sometimes take years within the relative timescape of the narrative, Reynoldissimo weaves ring worlds, Dyson swarms, and wormholes dropped into massive stars to fuel intricate meta-civilizations, with lots of clone shenanigans, some let’s-not-call-it-incest-because-we’re-clones, and even a few genuine-ish relationships. Shatterlings (clones) manage to make the most of their ridiculously long lifespans, charting courses across galaxies, interacting with sentient cosmic nonentities, reporting on the fall of vast empires, and centaurs (why centaurs?).

My pupils were time-dilated frequently. More than any other book I’ve read, with the possible exception of Cixin Liu’s Death’s End, this one exhibits the propensity to explore the physical and mental event horizon of the science fiction genre, making the quantum leap into speculative literature of the highest order.

Light on the character development, with occasional Hollywoodized dialogue, Reynolds still blows Lem, Heinlein, and Niven out of the water. He carves out a continent of potentialities for his own territory, plants his flag firmly into the firmament of s-f gods, picking and choosing from the vast trove of futuristic archives of amazing stuff we have discovered as a species (or thought about too much) to condense the juicy bits into a gormandizing cornucopia of freakish proportions. Quite a trip.

Review of The Acephalic Imperial by Damian Murphy

Let there be no doubt that D. M. is the master of occult,

shadowy fiction, draped in velvet, drenched in smoky moonlight, whose refulgent landscapes are colonized by sinister, eldritch characters, each enacting esoteric motives in a sibilant daze. He is paramour of ravished beauties, languorous mansions, and impending nightmares. He is a literary mage in whose hands even the mundane details shrill with alchemical menace. Enter into his labyrinths to ponder the dire elegance of a prurient maid enmeshed in the nefarious clutches of a psychological trap, composed as much of architecture as symbolism.

Review of Kramberger with Monkey by Rick Harsch

A rollicking satirical, experimental novel about assassination, serialized in the online publication The Collidescope, 

featuring taboo-trouncing, grimly ravenous characters, a melange of lyrical and journalistic styles. Superbly literary, lasciviously hilarious, Rabelaisian, and a gravitas-inducing addition to Rick Harsch’s vastly underappreciated body of work. Read all of his novels.

Voice and wit unmatched in recent ‘American’ fiction, solid research in service of belligerent political lampoons, endearing and terrifying characters, a surprise or twenty on every page – these are what I have come to expect from this author.

Review of The Eyelid by S.D. Chrostowska

While slow-paced, this book offers much food for thought.

In its dream-centric pseudo dystopian world, a hazy view of political and philosophical implications can be gleaned around the jewel-like edges. Yet, I hoped for more startling imagery. There are a few striking moments, but not enough intense focus on the atmosphere to capture my attention for long stretches of time. The author employs a learned style but the narrative distance is stilted, and the short chapters do not build much tension, following one another like micro-dreams. While poetic and creative, I was never immersed. While intelligent and quirky, I will fail to remember most of the details. But some dreams are still worth having, even if they are forgotten…

Review of North Station by Bae Suah

Bae Suah in experimental mode.

The 7 stories in North Station display many aspects of this author’s formidable powers. Unlike the novels of hers I’ve read, this collection depicts similar characters in a greater variety of situations, while not relying on dramatic plotting. They are very slow, and will not be to everyone’s taste. Pre-eminent themes include the contemplation of loss, and the melancholy of inertia. The narrative contains more voice than action. These stories resonate with controlled desperation, contained storms. They play with language and time, and seethe, even while they slowly dissipate in the mind.

With effortless complexity and poetic lyricism, Suah weaves together unconventional travel narratives, amid psychological stability, confronting the mobility of the mind, and navigating the chaotic urban landscapes with rock-solid perceptual analysis.

There is a little German flavor to her works, which only makes sense considering she is a translator of German works into Korean. There are traces of Mann, Hesse, Kafka & Goethe, Rilke and others I’m not familiar with. The solid, striking prose is organized into defensive walls of intelligent arguments crafted through bulky, content-rich paragraphs. But this is not to say she does not have a delicate touch all the same. The mechanics are elaborate while the characters are never hurried. They are collected and observant in the extreme.

Her translator’s mentality informs her fiction writing. Suah takes her time composing exquisite images which converge, like coupling trains of thought, to flow and separate again. She asks: how much of a writer’s personality does a work contain in “Owl.” Her characters are People “vainly flirting with life” fighting off with deep meditation the slow trickle toward death. But there is always an awareness of art’s impact on the human soul and the barriers we erect between each other – either as an emotional coping mechanism or as a filter through which we encounter life on our own terms.

In some ways, her writing resembles Akutagawa’s. Especially in the way she combines elements of Eastern and Western culture, how she explores another culture as a foreigner, and how she interprets these cultural anomalies through her own lens. Some of the descriptions are reminiscent of “Mandarins” – especially the fascination with trains.

Without a doubt, her writing possesses the intelligence and innate sensitivity of timeless literature. Yoko Tawada is another inevitable comparison, as she too lived in Germany. Suah provides commentary on Goethe’s strictness and exactitude as she employs certain literary disciplines with a master’s touch and she does not seem to borrow too often from her home country’s myths and history. What these stories lack in plot, they make up with psychological tension and insight.

The debt life owes to death is one of her characters’ preoccupations. “Nature maintains equilibrium. Man Grieves.” By blending dialogue, monologue and straight narration, Suah enlivens her extended essays on human mortality in the storyteller’s framework, while also commenting on art and the responsibility of the creator to their own vision, and how exposure compromises that. The final story provides a scenario similar to Perec’s Life, a User’s Manual. Suah’s style is well-suited to endless permutations of detail. As a result, there is also great musicality in the deft translation we are given in English, such as in the subtle word order: “vividly revived,” and “secret creases.”

Complex sentences can either be a joy or a pain. In this case, they are Suah’s stock and trade. The display of ruined mentalities in characters shifting through life’s tribulations, lugging around their baggage of uncertainty, and the exploration of human psychic borders, provide an unflinching examination of our bodies and spirits in the cold metaphysical environments we inhabit. Combined with the elegant, ravishing descriptions, and the gorgeous atmosphere, this made for a luscious read. Her Mishima-like control of narration, the contemplation of the writerly life, and the academic versus literary ambitions on display fully qualify Suah as an important figure in world literature. Her literary theory, criticism and analysis, integrated smoothly into her novels and stories, along with the fragmentary hints which compose the tableau of life as we perceive it suggest that she has a deep and heartfelt understanding of human nature. The searing holes left in the tapestry by loss and grief are some of the most striking moments in her fiction.

I look forward to reading every word of this author’s work as it makes its way, inch by inch, into English translation.

Review of The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling

“The Jungle book” is a fun collection of timeless stories worthy of their fame.

The movie brethren of this tale resemble the source material in only superficial ways. Mowgli only features in less than half of the book’s stories for one thing. However every story is interesting and connected in theme and tone. All of the stories revolve around animals, like you might’ve expected, and while each represents different regions throughout the animal kingdom, each story has its own laws the animals must abide by. But every animal has these constraints, which helps humanize the animals and connect the world the author creates. While the world building here is minimal it is tight and thoughtful, making the author’s creation vivid without overpowering the tales he tells.

The main draw of “The Jungle Book” is the writing and sheer delight of experiencing the adventures. The writing has aged only slightly (mainly in the dialogue) and is still a blast to read. The writing is balanced: having enough description to paint the picture without blotting out the picture manufactured by your own imagination. The action is also well-paced, interesting and not overbearing or gratuitous. The dialogue doesn’t differentiate between characters well but it is engaging and moves the stories along. All these aspects work like a well-trained symphony: the different instruments of pacing , dialogue, action, and deception sound exquisite when the story beats need them. And the stories may be simple but we would not have wanted them to be complicated.

There is little characterization or theme but the characters are good enough to hook us. You can find many themes herein, including man’s connection to nature, courage, and growing up, but this collection is more about fun than instruction. Still, engaging settings for a noble message.

Of course children and adults alike can enjoy the book for the wonderful detail the world and the storytelling.

Review of I Wonder What Human Flesh Tastes Like by Justin Isis, Quentin S. Crisp

The struggle of young people to understand their place in the world, within society’s context, or outside of its proscribed categories, considered from a multitude of perspectives, at differing stages of fatalistic contempt, solipsism, wanderlust, and obsession.

The Japanese setting, conjured with sublime authenticity, was absolutely convincing. Equal parts startling nostalgia and enigmatic yearning. With the tenacity of Mishima and the crystalline clarity of Tanizaki, Isis attains timelessness. In a style bereft of posture, the author zeroes in on a generation of media-savvy, dislocated characters who possess a shattered sense of empathy or are psychologically tethered to abstract or actual idols, who are at times depraved due to the sheer weight of loneliness. It depicts delicate sensibilities in a mature way, reaching a salience of aesthetic purity which perfectly demands the reader’s active consideration while memorably encapsulating beautiful lived-in moments.

A sublime and poignant collection of long stories. Atmospheric, mesmeric, down to earth, and unhurried as the films of Kiyoshi Kurosawa or a darkly tinted Ozu. The desolation of empty public spaces, littered with wind-swept memories. Leave your innocence at the door. The book embodies the act of stepping off the precipice of youth into the abyss of adulthood, forcefully straining you through a contorted filter of sex, philosophical hunger, and the inseparable gulf between disparate human understandings.

I would’ve continued reading this book for another 1000 pages.

Review of Aberration of Starlight by Gilbert Sorrentino

Flashes of brilliance. A highly unpleasant reading experience, but nonetheless rewarding. 

My first step into Sorrentino’s version of the world. It interested me enough that I know I will have to read his other novels. Aside from Mulligan Stew, they are relatively short, therefore his ceaseless experimentation is digestible.

The characters in this novel are mean-spirited, nasty, filthy, sloppy and above all, honest. The author splashes their naked thoughts on the page, unfiltered and unrestrained. I could have done without many of the repetitive, almost childish, expletives, but the language quickly establishes deep rhythms and will remain compulsively readable for most adventurous readers.

The heartbreaks and dalliances of the main players in this bawdy work are alternately sad, laughable, charming, and genuinely moving. Sorrentino captures voices expertly, whether he is composing in the guise of a naive child, a ranting lunatic, or a feverish woman. In any case, despite the excessive inanity and gruesome lasciviousness, it’s mightily convincing. I got the sense that Sorrentino tuned directly into the thoughts of living people, channeling them without judgment, and I came to appreciate the fact that I am not a telepath in every day life. There is a reason we keep these thoughts inside. It is because no one wants to hear them. However, they reveal much about us, which our words and actions conceal.

Everyone interprets reality differently, and seeing the world through another’s eyes is valuable. Likely, this book will take you out of your comfort zone, and leave you eager for more.

Review of The Devil in a Forest by Gene Wolfe

I enjoy a good fantastical forest novel as much as the next guy.

Gene Wolfe’s dependably polished writing delivers thrills and chills in this relatively early work. Set alongside Fifth Head of Cerberus, and Peace, The Devil in a Forest reads almost like children’s literature. That is not to say that it is not well-conceived and substantial. However, it is pretty straightforward in its plot and characters. It conveys many traditional storytelling devices through effective dialogue and complex motivations, and is reminiscent of Robin Hood. (Just don’t go walking into a forest alone if you live in Dark Ages Europe).

Truth is an elusive specter in this murder-filled adventure. The perspective is skewed by narrative distance and enhanced by precise description. Historically accurate weapons and surgery places these events some time in the remote past, more pagan than Christian. This is a time for alchemy and witches to hold sway over superstitious townsfolk. Wolfe peppers the dialogue with subtle variance – not a real language barrier by any means, but just enough archaism to flavor and flesh-out the characters.

For a pulp s-f, pseudo-obscure adventure tale the prose is too heady. For canon Gene Wolfe readers, this is definitely a minor work, reading more like the aborigine section of Fifth Head of Cerberus than otherwise. I was nonetheless intrigued and enthused by the quick pace, the mysterious atmosphere and the careful world-building. I become a bigger Wolfe fan with every foray into his oeuvre , but this is not the place to start if you are new.

The Barrow Man and lady Cloot were enjoyable versions of medieval legends/ folktale elements. Without them, this book would have bordered on pedestrian. It needed an infusion of magical realism, to undercut the vicious backwoods mentality of its characters. Make it a point not to miss this delightful novel.

Review of Seduction of the Golden Pheasant by Damian Murphy

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

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

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

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

Review of The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq

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

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

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

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

Review of 2020 on Goodreads by Various

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Mimi by Lucy Ellmann

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

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

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

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

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

Review of The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon

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

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

Review of Sleepwalker in a Fog by Tatyana Tolstaya

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Reflections of Destiny by Benzon Ray Barbin

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

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

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

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

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

I was pleasantly surprised by The Outlands. 

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon

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

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

Review of Waiting for Gaudiya & Other Stories by Erik Martiny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I look forward to the next Martiny book to appear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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