BOOK REVIEW: The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones

The Only Good IndiansThe Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Release: May 19, 2020

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Stephen Graham Jones’s new book shows the unfolding fate of four close friends, American Indians of the Blackfeet Nation, who seem to have run afoul of something in the spirit world. I say “seem to” because the author is skillfully strategic in how he unpacks the story and how he presents reality (blending a hard-edged reality of life for Indians on and off the Reservation with the surreal in a way in which the reader isn’t quite sure what’s real.)

This is horror, and it chills and terrifies as horror readers might hope for, but it’s not just horror. (By that I mean it’s not the gruesome elements that make the book, they just make it more visceral.) The story builds characters that one is fond of and can empathize with, and it even sneaks in a moral (which is the best way for a story to have a moral.)

We learn about the demise of the first friend, Ricky, in a prologue — an end that everyone believes resulted from Ricky getting beat to death by some modern-day cowboys outside a bar. There is a ten-year jump cut, and the first half of the book tells us about Lewis, who has moved off the reservation and is living with a pretty non-Indian woman that everybody – including Lewis – realizes is out of Lewis’s league. Lewis is increasingly losing his mind. We know that, but what we can’t be sure of is whether it’s the run-of-the-mill kind of losing one’s mind, or whether it’s the kind of crazy that is the only reasonable response to an even more insane world.

The remainder of the book tells us about Gabe and Cassidy, the two friends who’ve continued to live on the reservation and are still in close contact. Gabe, we learn, has a failed marriage that resulted in one child, a girl with prodigious talent for basketball. He’s prone to over-drinking and was issued a restraining order to keep him from going to his daughter’s ball games – an order that fails to keep him from attending but succeeds in getting him to tone down his expressions of pride and support. Cassidy is shown as the responsible one, but one is led to believe that is the recent result of a relationship with a woman, Jo, who has had a calming influence on him. Jo’s success in straightening out Cassidy creates a strain in the bro-mance between the two friends.

I don’t read much horror, but was hooked by this book. The characters are developed and interesting enough that one isn’t just waiting for the moments when the axe drops (that’s an expression, don’t expect actual axe-induced fatalities.) In between, one is enrapt with questions like whether Gabe can thaw his relation with his daughter, and whether the next generation will end up better off, worse off, or the same as that of the four friends. Throughout there’s this issue of the characters having one foot in the past (traditional Indian tribal life) and one in the modern world, and that is an uneasy and unappealing spot to be in – too little of the community and confidence of the tribe and too little of the wealth and well-being of modernity.

I highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Weird ed. by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark StoriesThe Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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For a book themed by such a niche genre, stories of the weird, this book covers a huge amount of ground. Over 1100+ pages, the book includes more than a hundred stories. While the book mostly consists of short stories, it does include several novellas and a novel excerpt. Not only does the book cover temporal ground (from the 19th century through writers of today), it includes works by authors from India, Japan, Nigeria, Benin, Iran, the Czech Republic, and many other nations besides the numerous British and American entries. It includes names you’ll know from mainstream literature, such as Haruki Murakami, Ben Okri, and Ray Bradbury, as well as a few of the best-selling authors of all time such as Stephen King and George R.R. Martin. However, it also includes names that you probably won’t have heard of unless you are a huge fan or an amateur historian of this cross-cutting subgenre (more on that descriptor to come.) It’s telling that only one author has more than one piece in the anthology, and that seems to represent an attempt to gather the very best pieces from each. I won’t say every great author of weirdness was included, but a whole lot of them were — whether the weird was a momentary diversion for him or it was the whole of his writing career.

The organization is chronological, and the book stands a single-volume education on stories with weirdness, bizarreness, or surreality at their heart. I used the term “cross-cutting subgenre” to describe the theme, and, I’m not sure I even understand what I meant, but these stories have a super-genre – e.g. horror or literary – but they necessarily have this element of strangeness. In other words, while some of the stories might be labeled “horror,” that genre classification is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for inclusion. Many of the stories aren’t particularly dark, and just because a story horror doesn’t mean that it’s weird enough to be included. The stories generally take place in a world that is recognizable, but with a hint of the surreal and with some level of strategic ambiguity as to the nature of that surreal element. This allows the collection to include examples as dark and visceral as “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson or as quirky and amusing as “The Sea Was Wet as Wet Could Be” by Gahan Wilson.

I couldn’t possibly go through all 110-ish of these stories, but will say that it’s a phenomenal collection. If I had to make my own personal top ten list it would be (in no order but the one in which the stories came in)

1.) “The Spider” by Hanns Heinz Ewers: A man moves into a room under the pretext of investigating a string of suicides only linked by residence within the apartment.

2.) “The Night Wire” by H.F. Arnold: A man in a newspaper office with a gift for simultaneously transcribing from two wires receives incoming reports of an ominous fog.

3.) “The Mainz Psalter” by Jean Ray: A mysterious ship journey ventures into bizarre territory and the crew starts disappearing one-by-one, leaving nothing more than gruesome stains.

4.) “The Crowd” by Ray Bradbury: A man tries to understand how a crowd seem to form almost instantaneously at the site of a car accident that he survived.

5.) “Sand Kings” by George R.R. Martin: A nasty little man buys some otherworldly pets that prove difficult to maintain.

6.) “Bloodchild” by Octavia Butler: In a recurring theme for Butler, she writes about an alien species that appears to be beneficent toward humans, but shows that where a power disparity exists beneficence is an illusion.

7.) “Shades” by Lucius Shepard: A Vietnam vet turned journalist returns to Vietnam on a story about one of the men who died in his unit.

8.) “The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio” by Marc Laidlaw: A renown photographer somehow has her own suicide photographed and this leads to questions of the nature of art and the degree of passion it evokes in people.

9.) “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” by Brian Evenson: A man who self-cauterized his own amputation in order to kill the man who cut his hand off is drawn into the shadowy world of a bizarre cult who honor voluntary (and unnecessary) amputations.

10.) “Flat Diane” by Daniel Abraham: A father helps his daughter send out a picture cutout of herself for a school project. His daughter inexplicably starts experiencing PTSD like symptoms around the same time the father starts getting disturbing anonymous photos through the mail.

I don’t know how representative my top ten list is, but hopefully it gives one an idea of the nature of stories included. Though, as I said, it’s hard to give nutshell commentary on such a diverse work. It was even hard to come up with a top thirty, there were so many great inclusions.

I’d highly recommend this book if you at all enjoy weird tales. I got a copy on Amazon at a bargain price, especially considering that this is about four books worth of great stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from a Perfect World by Sándor Szélesi

Menekülés egy tökéletes világbólMenekülés egy tökéletes világból by Sándor Szélesi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available here.

 

This short sci-fi novel revolves around the mystery of a man who wakes up with autobiographical amnesia (i.e. he can’t remember anything about his life, though he is familiar with the world in general.) It should be noted that I read the English translation, and can’t speak to the original Hungarian edition (i.e. Menekülés egy tökéletes világból.) At least one minor criticism leveled may not apply to the Hungarian edition (e.g. there are a couple minor typos of the kind spellcheck wouldn’t necessarily catch.)

The story is set in a futuristic Budapest. Most of the description goes into detailing the futuristic technologies — such as virtual reality — that are important to the story and intriguing, but there is minimal description of setting or characters. Some will find this works fine – particularly those who are familiar with Budapest. (It’s accurately described as a beautiful city and locations are given that will be familiar to those who’ve spent time there, but others will be left completely to their imagination.) Other readers will find the writing a bit sparse. The technologies involved are believable progressions of what is under development currently, though implementing some of them would take working through intense controversy (though that is set up to some degree by mentioning a dystopian background event.)

The story is intriguing from the opening premise of a man wondering who he is (not to mention the woman he woke up next to) through the discovery of why it is he can’t remember his life. Along the way, a couple possibilities pop up as false flags to tug readers’ anticipation in the wrong direction. That the protagonist tries to not let on that he doesn’t know who he is also creates an interesting wrinkle.

There is a nonfiction appendix that discusses the future of technology that is presented by the corporate sponsor of the work (i.e. WaveMaker.)

I enjoyed this story. It’s a quick and entertaining read and raised some questions about the future of technology that aren’t yet clichéd.

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BOOK REVIEW: Troilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare

Troilus and CressidaTroilus and Cressida by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play combines a piece of the story of “The Iliad” with a love story that wasn’t part of the Iliad, but which is based on minor characters from the Iliad. [For those unacquainted, “The Iliad” tells the tale of the siege of Troy after a prince from Troy, Paris, returns home with Helen, the wife of the Spartan king Menelaus, and the Greeks launch “a thousand ships” to try to get her back.] Even the romance isn’t original to Shakespeare as the Troilus and Cressida tale had already been told and retold, and Shakespeare’s telling is said to have been influenced by Chaucer’s.

While most of Shakespeare’s plays are readily categorized as comedy or tragedy, this is one of the few that defies such characterization. In terms of how the story resolves itself, one might call it a tragedy, but the tone throughout is often more comedic.

The part of the Iliad that is told is largely about the Greek generals trying to get Achilles back in the fight because he is the best match for Hector, the mightiest of the Trojan princes. The love story pivots on Cressida being given to the Greeks as part of a prisoner exchange, and – as is often the case – features a heaping dose of jealousy that sours this great love affair.

This is definitely a worthwhile read, despite criticism that it feels muddled. One doesn’t need to have read the Iliad, though it may help to make it more entertaining.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Valiant (#1-4) by Jeff Lemire, et. al.

The ValiantThe Valiant by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book gathers four comic books into a full story arc. It tells a simple story of good versus evil involving a team of superheroes versus an extremely powerful opponent called “The Immortal Enemy.” The Immortal Enemy takes many forms over the course of its life, and in this case (as always) it chooses a form designed to unnerve the Geomancer who opposes it. It’s an allegorical tale of environmental protection versus degradation that blends fantasy and sci-fi with a touch of the weird.

At the heart of the story there is a blossoming relationship of an unlikely pairing. The first is an inexperienced Geomancer. She is just learning the ropes and is a very human and emotionally-oriented character. He is a Wolverine-esque character named “Bloodshot.” He’s stoic and rocksteady. The gist is that she becomes more confident through her exposure to him, and he regains some humanity through exposure to her.

The story’s resolution felt a bit deus ex machina to me, involving an artifact whose role and function aren’t clear until it proves instrumental, but overall it was an entertaining read.

I found the artwork to be well done. I don’t have any particular expertise in such matters, but it looked good too me.

If you enjoy graphic novels, this one is worth picking up.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The Man in the High CastleThe Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this counterfactual novel, the Axis powers won the Second World War, and America has been divided between Germany and Japan. I recently re-read this book, having watched the Amazon Prime series that is loosely based upon it. [FYI – the plotting and details are considerably different between the book and the series, and — while many major characters and a few key events are shared between them — they are not recognizable as the same story. Though I believe both are good, each in its own way – and the world is quite similar between them.]

There are a couple subplots that play out to form the larger story. One of these involves Robert Childan, a dealer in Americana who [while he specializes in antiques] ends up dealing in jewelry made by Frank Frink and Ed McCarthy after unwittingly being used as a pawn in their plan to manipulate the two artists’ former employer. This line intersects with that of Mr. Tagomi, a high-ranking Trade Ministry official who is involved in grand strategy level issues, but who is a customer of Childan’s.

The other major line involves Juliana Frink, ex-wife to the aforementioned artist Frank Frink, who meets up with Joe Cinnadella, and travels with him to Denver. Along the way, Joe introduces Juliana to a novel called, “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which is a counterfactual novel in the world of the book that is substantially the same as the world as we know it (i.e. the Allies won the war and America becomes a hegemonic power.) Joe suggests that Juliana and he go to meet the author, who also lives not far within the Rocky Mountain states. “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” plays an important role throughout the book, and it is introduced to Childan by one of his customers as well. The controversial fictional book is allowed in the Japanese controlled territory, but the Nazi’s have banned it and are rankled about its existence. It’s author, Hawthorne Abendsen, is the same-named “man in the high castle.”

As in the series, the Chinese “Book of Changes” (i.e. the I-Ching) plays a role. However, in PKD’s novel it is a much more substantial role. In the series, it is mostly Mr. Tagomi who relies on the I-Ching. In the book, Frank and Juliana Frink use it heavily — as do other characters. The use of an oracle in conjunction with the alternate history premise of the book puts questions of fate and free will at the fore, providing deep food for thought.

In the interest of full-disclosure, Dick’s portrayal of Juliana Frink comes off a bit misogynistically in places, though she is also shown as a character of great strength and intelligence. [In fact, when we meet her, she is a judo instructor, and her cleverness is put on display as well.] It can also be said that the rendered dialogue of both the Japanese characters and those who strive to emulate them [i.e. the Japanophile / sycophant Childan] is a little “inscrutable Asian / Charlie Chan.” That said, Mr. Tagomi is one of the most mature and self-aware characters in the book. It could be argued that making Juliana shallow and self-obsessed gives her depth of character. The book also came out in 1962, so the approach to presenting characters has changed.

I enjoyed reading this book the second time more than the first, and I got a lot more out of the process. I’d recommend the book for anyone interested in questions of destiny and freedom, or who just wants an entertaining story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God PanThe Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This speculative fiction novella mixes horror and sci-fi in a genre-bending work of intrigue. When I started the book, I was surprised to learn that it was from the last decade of the 19th century. The opening chapter, which is what I credit as science fiction, presents an argument that reality as we know it is just a veneer beyond which we cannot experience, and it’s stated not unlike what one would hear in today’s cutting-edge science and philosophical discussions. (e.g. It wasn’t greatly removed from what one might hear from Donald Hoffman, for example.) The mad scientist of the opening chapter proposes that he can, with “minor” neurosurgery [to the extent there is such a thing,] open the doors of perception to make available what lies beyond our reality. We are left to think that he has only succeeded in a lobotomization.

The rest of the book is more the Victorian Era horror that one is likely to hear the story described as. We are introduced to a series of mysteries that will gradually be tied together and related back to the book’s opening. A gentleman is approached by a beggar who – it turns out – was his classmate and should have been a well-to-do landowner, but who reported being ruined by having fallen in with the wrong woman – a not unusual story until one delves into the particulars. We further learn that a man had been found dead at this couple’s property before the woman disappeared. Later there are a series of murders that have a certain demographic of society all atwitter.

Despite the shortness of the work, it does present jumping perspectives (not within chapters, but between them.) However, it’s not hard to follow, though it’s a bit jarring when the first PoV change hits because it involves a new cast of characters and it isn’t clear how the events tie together. The reader who sticks with it will be benefited by the shift.

This book was widely panned in its day, more for its shocking sexuality than its horror elements. However, it should be pointed out that the author uses strategic ambiguity for this matter, so there is no graphic sexual content. For example, one character may whisper in another’s ear the acts of depravity, but the reader is left to fill in the blanks according to the twistedness of their own particular psyche. For readers who enjoy the freedom to fill in the blanks, this is an interesting approach – others might not like the withholding of detail.

I enjoyed this book. It’s readable, despite the era from which it came. As I said, in some sense, it’s ahead of its time. The non-linear plotting builds the up the intrigue nicely. I’d highly recommend it for readers of weird stories, horror, or speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka

Chinaman: The legend of Pradeep MathewChinaman: The legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Chinaman” is the tale of an alcoholic Sri Lankan sportswriter, W.G. Karunasena, who is attempting to write a biography of the man he considers the greatest cricketer to ever live, Pradeep Matthew. The two-fold challenge is that Matthew had a short and controversial career before disappearing off the face of the earth, and Karunasena is in a race to finish the book before the bottle finishes him off. [For non-cricket fan readers wondering about the title, Chinaman is a cricket term for a style of bowling. I also learned that a “ponytailed Chinaman” in Sri Lanka is (or was) slang for someone gullible.]

I try to read at least one work of literature from every country I visit, and I chose “Chinaman” for Sri Lanka, and am happy with my decision. While the book is very much cricket-centric, it does offer insight into the familial and community dynamics of Sri Lanka. Given the time frames discussed in the book (i.e. the 80’s and 90’s), we also learn a little about the civil war that was going on at the time. But most intriguingly, one views the politics and underworld that largely remain hidden to tourists, and so the book has that appeal. The book contains many explanations, diagrams, and drawings to help clue those, such as myself, who are ignorant of the game into the fundamentals, but it’s not just about cricket.

The book is presented as a novel that’s only sold as fiction for legal reasons, but my little bit of research [including a short author interview] suggests that that is just a plot device to add to the feeling of intrigue.

The last two of five parts of the book, while less than 15% of the pages, are presented from a different point of view. This is a bit jarring because the reader has developed a great deal of affinity with Karunasena, and that kind of connection doesn’t have time to blossom with his son, the second voice of the book. However, the last to parts do give the reader a satisfying conclusion.

I enjoyed this book. It’s humorous and offers a glimpse into Sri Lankan cricket and everything it touches (which is pretty much everything.) I’d recommend it for fiction readers. Even if you aren’t a big fan of cricket, you’ll enjoy the story and the humorous dialogue. If you are a fan of cricket or want to know more about Sri Lanka, it will be particularly enjoyable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer, DetectiveTom Sawyer, Detective by Mark Twain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn continue in this novella as the duo travels to visit Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas in Arkansas. On the riverboat, they meet an old acquaintance who they didn’t know was still alive, the twin of a man who still lives near Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas. He tells them how he’s in a bind because he conspired in a diamond theft with two partners, and subsequently swindled the two by making off with the diamonds. The reason he’s headed home is because he figures he can hide out there as long as he makes himself look like his twin, as long as no one sees the two twins together, he can play like he’s his brother. While Tom and Huck agree to be helpful, the last time they see this man, he’s jumped ship and is being followed by the two men, and Tom and Huck assume he’s a goner.

In time Tom and Huck arrive at Aunt Sally’s. Shortly thereafter a man goes missing, the twin of the diamond thief. Eventually, evidence mounts that the murderer is none other than Uncle Silas. Despite the fact that Silas has been a little off, Tom doesn’t believe his kind uncle, a pastor, is capable of such a feat. However, Silas confesses, having thwacked the man on the head, he believes that the man must have died from it. Testimony convinces Silas that he must have gone out to bury the man in an act of incredible somnambulism, and while he has no recollection of it, he believes it must be true.

When it comes to the trial, Tom sits in with the incompetent public defender, committed to proving Silas’s innocence — despite his Uncle’s vociferous admissions. At the last second, Tom does figure it out, and explains what really happened. He’s furthermore able to substantiate his claims using no more than the individuals in the courtroom. By the times he’s finished, even Uncle Silas acknowledges that he didn’t commit a murder.

This is a fine little mystery story, but what makes it really enjoyable is the first-person narration by Huck Finn. While Tom Sawyer does the brainwork to solve the crime, Huck offers a telling that is humorous and whimsical.

If you like “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huck Finn” don’t miss this follow-up.

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BOOK REVIEW: Escape from Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson

Escape From KathmanduEscape From Kathmandu by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldy-but-a-goody. It was originally published in 1989, though I read a 2000 edition that I bought in Pokhara. Nepal is probably the only place one is likely to find this book on the shelves of a bookstore (other than used book sellers.) If you didn’t get your copy in Nepal (or haven’t been to the Himalaya) the one thing you need to know to admire the quirkiness of this book is that the grandiosity of what you experience in the Himalaya makes lost cities (ala, Shangri-La) or lost species (ala, the Yeti) seem less unlikely than you would ordinarily think them.

This isn’t so much a novel in the sense of a work with a single narrative arc as it is a novel-in-stories that consists of four adventure stories featuring the same lead characters — George Fergusson and George “Freds” Fredricks — some overlapping minor characters, and all of them set somewhere within Nepal. The cross-cutting theme of these stories is that of trying to rescue the magic of Nepal (dusty and dilapidated as it can sometimes be) from modernity and the grasping hands thereof. The point-of-view character varies from one story to the next (though not within stories.) The setting criss-crosses Nepal from Everest to Chitwan forest to ill-defined border areas, but always going back to — or cutting through — Kathmandu.

The titular first story of the book is about an attempt to rescue a Yeti that has been captured and taken King Kong style back to civilization by way of Kathmandu. The second adventure presents a race to hide the body of a famous deceased climber before it can be found and plundered by individuals who would like to take it from Nepal to make their names from the investigation of it (or, possibly, the novelty of it.) [You may or may not be aware that the bodies of most of the people who’ve died climbing Everest remain up there – often buried in snow and ice but, occasionally, exposed.] The penultimate story is about trying to save Shangri-La by stopping a road that is to be built too close to it for comfort. The final adventure imagines that there are ancient of tunnels under Nepal and centered in Kathmandu. In this story, the conflict between the old and modernity is brought to a head is a most challenging way by the fact that the threat to the secret, ancient tunnels is a badly needed sewer system for Kathmandu. While in the first three stories, the reader readily knows who to root for, in this last story, he or she is hung on the horns of a dilemma.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It’s humorous. The two Georges (though one conveniently goes by the name “Freds”) offer a classic odd couple dynamic. The stories and characters are quirky, but the book still manages to hang on to its theme and lessons. I’d highly recommend this book for those who like humorous adventure stories.

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