Number Seven and the Life Left Behind by [Hirtzel, Mayumi]I love spy thrillers, especially the old Cold War ones, like the show Secret Agent with Patrick McGoohan. Those stories were a little different than modern high-tech thrillers, with lots of gadgets and gizmos–they relied on good old-fashioned intrigue, cleverness, and rising tension.

Number Seven is a book in that vein. The titular character is an ex-soldier now working as a government-assigned bodyguard for a star athlete. Number Seven and his charge find themselves caught up in political machinations that involve not only themselves, but also an old friend of Seven’s who brings a good deal of sex and romance to the story, in the fine spy thriller tradition.

The book has more romance than I was expecting, but that was also true of a lot of older spy/espionage stories–they tended to tell stories about people caught up in events, rather than merely using people as catalysts for exciting events. I appreciated that.

This is a short book, which in my opinion is not at all a problem, especially in a thriller. Better a short, tight novella with a good pace than a padded-out novel that drags when it doesn’t need to. It’s a good length for the story it has to tell, and never wears out its welcome. I enjoyed it.

Utopia Pending: A Collection of Short Speculative Fiction by [Rose, Fallacious, Burnett, Misha, Foley, Chris, Andrews, Alanah, Fitzgerald, MP, Bausse, Curtis, Young, Carolyn, Paxson, Mark, Thomson, Peter]I found out about this book from following Mark Paxson, one of the authors featured in this collection. It’s a collection of 12 short stories, each of which deal with utopian visions of the future, as a counter to all the dystopian fiction that has become so fashionable.

I was delighted to see this—I’ve long wondered about the disparity between utopia and dystopia in fiction. Each of the stories is by a different author, so I’m doing mini-reviews of each.

  • The Call by Alanah Andrews. I can’t discuss the plot of this much without spoiling it, but I loved how it was done, and quite plausible as well.
  • Raoul Wiener’s Common Sense by Curtis Bausse. This story was the one that worked the least for me, but I don’t wish to suggest that it was bad, because it wasn’t at all. In fact, one of my favorite lines in the book came in this story—it’s an ironic reference to the book 1984. It was more just a matter of too many framing devices stacked atop each other made it a little confusing for me. 
  • Endless Summer by Misha Burnett. This felt kind of Brave New World-ish to me. Although for me, just the phrase “Endless Summer” sounds more dystopian than utopian. (I hate heat.)
  • Sydney by Mia Dziendziel. This is a bit of a riff on the theme of “Ignorance is Bliss”. Which I guess is also the story of the Garden of Eden and Pandora’s Box, come to think of it… maybe those were the first Utopian stories. Also, this one’s pretty dark.
  • Chaos, by Fallacious Rose.  A very Swiftian take on the ironic side-effects of a miraculous technology.
  • The Museum by M.P. Fitzgerald. This one is the most humorous story in the collection, and also probably most closely aligned with my personal guess as to what the future will be like. And the ironic ending—I’d almost call it “the punchline”–is unforgettable. 
  • None So Blind, by Chris Foley. I loved this story. It reminded me of the old sci-fi adventure books I used to read as a kid. And all with a creatively constructed  and carefully thought-out setting, well-written characters, and some very relevant social commentary to boot. Again, everything in this collection is worth reading, but this story by itself would be worth the price of admission.
  • What Price Peace, by Carolyn Young. This was a good, Twilight Zone-like take on human nature when civilization is removed.
  • Maranatha by Michael Modini. I didn’t really “get” this story. But that’s on me, not the author, because it’s full of theological references that are, quite frankly, beyond me. It’s well-written, and obviously very well-researched, and I suspect that heads more knowledgeable than mine will appreciate it. 
  • Antarctica’s Pyramid by Morrill Talmage Moorehead. This story awed me. It’s the sort of weird conspiracy story I treasure, and the author weaves together  elements of various theories in a way I’ve only ever seen once before, in the game Deus Ex. And the outlandishness is balanced by a likable narrator with a grounded voice. Great stuff.
  • Two Turtles, by Mark Paxson. As I said, I’ve followed Mark for a while now, and he was the reason I heard this collection existed. This is a hard thing to judge, but I thought Mark’s story was the most unusual in the collection, and yet somehow also the most grounded in reality. It’s hard to describe, but I liked it a lot. The story feels mesmerizing and dream-like—a bit like Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes. Maybe it’s because both feature the sea and an environmentalist message. 
  • Mother Nature by Peter Thomson. This story also has an environmentalist theme to it; told with a light touch and some very amusing lines.

This collection is a real treat. The stories all vary in tone and style so much that each feels fresh and enjoyable. Every reader is bound to have their own opinions on what really constitutes “Utopia”, but this collection will at the very least set them thinking.

A final note: another author and blogger whom I follow, Lydia Schoch, put out a call for hopeful science fiction last year. I’m not sure that all the stories in this collection would fit her criteria, but I think at least some would, and at the very least, I wanted to reference this, because it’s interesting that so many people’s thoughts are turning towards utopianism right now.

51DyswFSq-LThere are a couple of small things to note before I get to the substantive part of this review. First, there’s a smattering of typos and spelling errors in this book. I know firsthand that this is practically inevitable in indie books–my loyal readers alerted me to some in my own work when it was first published. But I know it’s something that will bother some people.

The book also hit a pet peeve of mine: the protagonist and narrator of the story is a former U.S. Army Ranger. At one point, he refers to a weapon’s “clip” when he obviously means its magazine. You might excuse this by saying (a) this is a pretty common mistake and (b) sometimes soldiers say “clip” simply because it’s shorter and easier to bark in battle than the three whole syllables of “magazine”. These are fair points, but it still grated on me. (To be fair, the rest of the descriptions of weaponry are quite accurate and logical.)

Now that’s out of the way and I can tell you how much I enjoyed this book, because it really is terrific. The protagonist’s voice is instantly engaging, and his sardonic humor fits the grim circumstance in which he finds himself–a brutal war between rival drug gangs in Mexico.

Make no mistake; this book is extremely dark. I praised Goats’s mystery novel Houses on the Sand for its memorable blend of witty prose and violent subject matter, but this book takes it to another level. The protagonist gets plenty of opportunities for gallows humor–as well as gun humor, knife humor, helicopter gunship humor and so on; because implements of death abound in these pages, and they are put to use frequently.

The style reminds me a bit of Chris Avellone, whose name long-time readers may recognize as one I always mention when discussing all-time favorite fiction writers. Like many an Avellone plot, On the Other Side of the River involves someone trying to play rival gangster factions against one another, and the prose consists of dark musings on mortality and morality, written with tremendous wit.

And the pacing! The pacing is incredible. It’s fast, but not too fast, and there wasn’t a moment when I felt bored. Even during the relative “lulls” in the story, there was tons of tension as I wondered what would happen next. A few times, I got so nervous that I skipped ahead a page or two to see how the situation would be resolved. I just couldn’t take the suspense. I do most of my reading while I’m on the bus to and from work, and when I was reading this I’d get so absorbed I nearly missed my stop more than once.

It’s true that part of this is due to my personality as a reader. I’ve come to realize that I’m incredibly easy to manipulate when reading fiction. Put somebody in danger, and I just have to know how it works out, even if it seems a bit contrived. And if it’s a woman, then I’m really hopeless; the woman-in-peril trope gets me every time.

What’s funny is, I was thinking about what an easily-manipulated reader I am when this very topic came up in the book itself. One character mentions to another how he feels about being manipulated by movies. It was an interesting meta-moment. Incidentally, this scene reminds me of another thing I loved about the book: the repeated references to classic films, including two of my favorites, Lawrence of Arabia and Jason and the Argonauts.

It’s the little touches like this that make On the Other Side of the River so engaging. Goats is great at going the extra mile to really lavish detail on small things. I’m rather in awe of his skill at this, actually, because I’ve often been guilty of impatience in my writing. I don’t want to spoil anything here, but I’ll give a brief and fittingly macabre example of what makes his writing so good: there’s a scene in this book where some people are in a confined space and moving around a corpse that’s lying on the ground. If I had written this scene, I would have treated the corpse as merely an obstacle to be mentioned briefly and then dealt with only as the living characters needed to navigate around it.

But Goats lavishes more attention on it than just treating the deceased character as part of the scenery–he has his narrator describe him almost as a character in his own right. And that adds something to the story–granted, it’s something very grim, but it’s important to give the reader these details. “Meat on the bones of the story,” as my friend Patrick Prescott would say. (And see; didn’t I tell you this thing is dark?)

This is one gripping page-turner, and I say that as someone who normally doesn’t go in for those types of books. This one worked for me; and all the double-crosses (and triple-crosses, and etc.) kept me guessing right up until the last page as to who was good, who was bad, and how it would all end up.

So how does it all end up, you ask? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! Even after I thought I was ready for anything after all the twists that had come before, the ending still surprised me, and while it’s not the direction I thought it would go, it absolutely works in the moment. I don’t want to say any more than that, but just know that it’s the kind of ending that you can talk about at length with your friends after you all read it.

And this brings me to an important point, which is that people need to read it. Seriously, according to the author himself, this is his least popular book, and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. I would have expected it to be a great hit–it grabs you from the first page and just keeps building the tension from there. I could easily see this being made into a big-budget movie; it’s not like Hollywood has any qualms about violence or dark plots.

Oh well, the book’s usually better than the movie anyway. So I suggest you “get in on the ground floor”, as they say, and check this one out before it becomes such a hit that some studio snaps it up and makes a film of it. They might be able to do the dialogue and fight scenes all right, but they’ll never be able to capture Goats’s witty descriptions on the big screen.

51PDEHPzjpLI don’t usually read mystery novels, but I enjoyed Goats’s comic novel Incomplete Works so much that I gave Houses on the Sand a try in spite of the different genre. And it turned out to be just as good—indeed, maybe even a bit better, because it has as much wit as Incomplete Works, but also some gorgeous descriptions of the desert landscapes in which the story is set. Interludes about the winding canyons, or the beauty of the night sky, are interspersed with the fast-paced development of the plot, and it all works extremely well.

The book also has a greater emotional range than I was expecting. The protagonist, Quincy Logan, has come to the small town of Harper’s Knob to bury his grandfather, with whom he was not terribly close. There are some poignant moments when he thinks back on awkward boyhood visits to his grandfather, when he was too young to appreciate the old man’s ranch or surrounding desert. These passages, though brief, injected some real emotion into the tale.

Now, lest I scare off anybody who doesn’t care about landscapes or pathos-filled backstories, I want to be clear: this book is a tightly-written mystery, and it can be enjoyed as that alone. I admired how Goats was able to succinctly introduce these literary elements without killing the pace and tension of his central plot. And all of it was filtered through Quincy’s witty, often sardonic narration. 

I don’t want to spoil the mystery, but I will say that it kept me guessing right up until the identity of the perpetrator was revealed. Maybe experienced mystery readers will solve it faster than I did, but I found it to be a very enjoyable ride.

iwI saw this book after reading Jersey Ghost Stories, which Goats co-authored with Erren Michaels. One of the reviews of Incomplete Works likened it to John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which in my opinion is one of the greatest comic novels ever written. I decided to give it a try, although I doubted very much that it could live up to such billing.

Within a page, I was hooked. The protagonist of Incomplete Works reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly, the twisted but unforgettable lead of Dunces. I knew then that I was in for a treat.

Thornton Mordecai Lathrop is a student at Snaketree College in Buffalo Wallow, Wyoming. Coming from San Francisco, he is uncomfortable with life in the small, rural community, with it hard-drinking, bull-riding cowboy ways. Thornton is a bit of a snobbish dandy, whose letters home combine references to classic literature with pleas for money.

These letters are mixed with chapters of a book Thornton is writing—a fictionalized account of his own life, in which he has named his surrogate “Larry Lambert”. Larry’s exploits echo Thornton’s, though with various alterations. This ingenious device establishes him as an unreliable narrator early on, which I loved.

There are all sorts of humorous episodes and memorably over-the-top characters, most of which feel distinctly Wodehousian, from a zealously vegan love interest to a drunken ride on a mechanical bull. One dream sequence in the novel-within-a-novel, wherein Larry attempts to sell his soul to a demonic car salesman, felt like something from a Russian satire.

In addition to the hilarious setting and characters, Incomplete Works is brimming with clever turns of phrase, again very much in the spirit of Wodehouse. I rarely laugh out loud, even when I’m reading something funny, but there were a few lines of this that got me audibly chuckling. Goats has an immensely enjoyable wit.

I don’t want to give away too many plot details. Indeed, this book seems not to have much of a plot at first, but gradually the disparate zany characters and situations do tie together to a degree. It’s not as intricate as Wodehouse’s novels or the incredibly layered plot of Dunces, but it works pretty well.

I had a few nits to pick here and there—sometimes the structure of the novel-within-a-novel makes it a little difficult to keep track of who’s who. (Thornton changes the names of his roommate and his girlfriend, so names alternate between his letters and his novel.)

There were also a few typos here and there—mostly of the sort where it was obvious the spellchecker had automatically altered something (e.g. “dues ex machina”) I am always very sympathetic to this sort of thing in indie books—it’s something I’ve struggled with myself. This is why I so love the easily-correctable format of ebooks.

Despite the modern setting, Incomplete Works—like Thornton himself—feels like a throwback to an earlier era of writing. The abundant wit often relies on references to literary works that are hardly read anymore, and Thornton more than once uses expressions that sound like something Bertie Wooster would say.

To be clear, this is one of the most wonderful things about the book—its timeless quality. It feels like it could take place at almost any point in the past century, give or take a few passing references. And that was what made Wodehouse great, and what made Toole great as well. Anyone who enjoys those classics will likely appreciate this novel.

It’s a short read; only a few hours, and well worth the time. Incomplete Works is a delightful tale, ingeniously told. It was a pleasure to discover that people are still writing books like this—now if only more people would read them.

51Jxztd2h9LI heard about this book from my friend Pat Prescott’s review, and it sounded interesting, so I checked it out. I’m glad I did.

Oblivion is the name of a long-abandoned ghost town in New Mexico. A woman named Belinda finds it after walking out of her corporate job in frustration. In the town, she meets an artist named Ben and the two are immediately attracted, but initially are shy and afraid of one another.

Ben grows obsessed with Belinda and, at the urging of his friends, sells some of his art to raise enough money so he can buy the ghost town at auction, out-bidding the local tycoon, Cal Benton, the richest man in the country. Benton vows to get revenge, as he needs the land to build his business empire.

Ben and Belinda need people in order for the town to be recognized by local authorities, and so gradually draw homeless people, migrant workers, mystics, scientists and all sorts of colorful people into the town, gradually turning it into an experimental community. Benton and his family business, meanwhile, are gradually torn apart by their own attempts to destroy the community.

It’s very much a Utopian novel. Throughout the rebuilding of Oblivion, all the town’s residents are focused on environmental concerns. From scientists experimenting with solar energy to the mystics who seem to have supernatural power over nature itself, the book is a deep exploration of environmentalist themes, with the town and its inhabitants serving as models for these philosophies.

That said, some of the characters are more than mere puppets to act out the ideas. Cal Benton evolves quite a bit over the course of the novel, though the same cannot be said for his two hot-tempered sons. His daughter Brandy’s story is left unresolved, which is too bad, because in some ways she was the most interesting Benton.

There are a lot of odd characters espousing different philosophies in Oblivion, and it would take too long to summarize all of them here. For the most part, I enjoyed the colorful and diverse cast, though I did have a problem with one character, introduced very late in the book, and seemingly with no purpose other than to die. This character seemed like more of a caricature than the rest, and I felt the book would have been stronger had she simply been cut out entirely.

It’s in the descriptions that the book really shines, though. There are whole paragraphs describing the look of desert flowers growing over the abandoned buildings. Bruce has a knack for turning a phrase, and there were several times where I reread sentences just to savor how well-constructed they were.

The dialogue is not as strong. Possibly this is inevitable in a book where the main point is to communicate philosophical concepts, but often I found the characters’ lines just too awkward to be believable as things people would say to one another. 

There were a few typos, and in a couple cases, it was clear that autocorrect had just changed a character’s name completely, and no one realized it. I’m very sympathetic to this problem, as I know firsthand how hard it is to catch every typo. This is one of the great things about eBooks: it makes it relatively easy to revise such things.

The other technical flaw that bothered me was Bruce’s overuse of the passive voice. I am not an absolutist who opposes the passive voice always and everywhere, but it really was too much here. I lost track of how many times “a decision was reached” or “an apple was sliced”.  Maybe this was meant to create an effect, but it didn’t work for me.

Despite these reservations, Oblivion is a very interesting book, full of experimental, New Age ideas. I don’t agree with all of them by any means. Sometimes it seemed too idealistic for my tastes. But then again, I could just be a jaded reactionary.

The book it most reminded me of was Sheila Hurst’s Ocean Echoes. Just as Hurst’s novel was a dreamlike, mystical love letter to the ocean with a strong environmentalist theme, so Oblivion is a love letter to the desert, and all the life that hides in the apparent desolation. It’s not as polished as Ocean Echoes, but that same compelling, dream-like quality is there. It’s clear the author has great passion for his setting. Oblivion has its flaws, but it’s still worth reading just for the ideas it explores.