Nondisclosureis a terrific, fast-paced thriller. When a student at Boston Technological Institute is assaulted, Dr. Brad Parker and investigator Karen Richmond are assigned to work together to find the perpetrator. But what they uncover is a confusing, sometimes seemingly contradictory set of facts. When the crimes escalate further, they find themselves struggling to unravel a web of corruption concealed by the political machinations of academia.
As is generally the case when I review thrillers, I’ll refrain from discussing too much of the plot, other than to say it is well-constructed and fast-moving. Fans of Cooper’s first novel The Prize will instantly recognize and enjoy the same engrossing writing style. The two lead characters are both very likable, and the story takes them on plenty of twists and turns along the way.
I highly recommend this book to fans of thrillers–not just medical ones, although there is plenty of interesting medical science interwoven with the plot. But even someone like me, with next to no knowledge of medicine, chemistry etc. will appreciate this gripping tale.
And that’s not even the best part. What really stands out about the book is its theme. It shines a light on how corruption can happen even in institutions that we normally think of as forthright, honorable, and respectable. As the old adage says, “power corrupts,” and this is no less true of power wielded by people in science and education than anyone else. This is best illustrated by Richmond’s line to Dr. Parker: “You’ve got a lot to learn about how big institutions work. Why do you think universities have their own police forces?”
A word about the book’s subject matter: As many readers know, I don’t like reading stories that involve violence against women, andso I was a little nervous going into this. But while Nondisclosure does indeed contain some very dark scenes of exactly that, Cooper avoids making it even remotely lurid or sensational, unlike many thrillers. It is not played for shock value, but simply as a horrible consequence of what can happen when people entrusted with moral authority choose to protect themselves and their own interests instead of doing their duty.
[Note: This review is based on an ARC of this book. Nondisclosure releases on July 15, 2019, but you can pre-order it now.]
The first thing to know about The Unpublishables is that when you open it in the Kindle reader, you need to make sure and scroll back to see the epigraph. At least for me, Kindle wants to launch right into Chapter 1 without showing this important front matter. But you don’t want to miss this epigraph; it really sets the tone.
The Unpublishables is narrated by a man named Daniel, who is the only person in America immune to a virus sweeping the country. This virus attacks the mind, and causes its victims to become obsessed with writing novels.
Everywhere Daniel goes, people ask him, “What’s your novel about?” He gradually learns that the best way of deflecting this question is to ask them about theirs—which of course they’re only too happy to tell him about.
But one day, Daniel meets a young woman named Abigail at lunch, and the two of them instantly connect over their shared love of books—reading them, rather than writing them. In a desperate effort to impress Abigail—and if nothing else, have a reason to talk to her again despite her pretentious, arrogant boyfriend, Chadwick—Daniel realizes he must write a novel. On the spur of the moment, he chooseslife among the homeless of San Francisco as his subject
The best way to write about the homeless, Daniel soon decides, is to become one of them. And so he becomes a vagrant, living with nothing but the clothes on his back and begging for food and money. And in doing so, he encounters a wide variety of strange characters, from a woman who resembles a witch to a sinister figure known simply as “The Knifeman,” who has a penchant for telling gruesome historical stories with a curious sci-fi twist.
The Unpublishables is, of course, a comic novel, and as in his previous efforts, Goats shows first-rate skill at writing lines that make you laugh out loud. Early dialogues are Wodehousian, in more ways than one. The descriptions are vivid and memorable. And the books–oh, the books! The way he writes about books is beautiful. I’ll talk more about this later, but if you’re in a hurry and have to make a purchase decision by the end of this paragraph, know that you can buy The Unpublishables for the descriptions of books alone and you’ll be a happy customer.
And although it’s mainly comic, The Unpublishables has some emotionally powerful moments that are not played for laughs. Some of the passages about the homeless are truly moving. In particular, one section where Daniel ponders why so many homeless people talk to themselves. It’s a moment of genuine compassion and empathy, as well as being a really surprising idea that I had never considered before. But you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean.
The descriptions of life on the street are properly gritty. Goats is never afraid to go into detail to describe every facet of what it means to live without money, food, or shelter; no matter how unpleasant it may be. It’s raw and tough to read at times, but the grit balances the wit, and it makes the whole thing feel real, instead of just a simple comedic puppet show.
Does Daniel succeed in his quest to write a novel and win Abigail away from her obnoxious partner? Well, I wouldn’t dream of spoiling that! This book is hot off the presses (figuratively speaking; it’s on Kindle) and hardly anyone has had a chance to write about it yet. I know I typically spoil things, with appropriate warnings, but in this case I’m just not going to talk about the ending. It’s one thing to spoil a Hollywood film or a novel by a famous author—when I do that, I know that there are probably dozens if not hundreds of spoiler-free reviews out there that people could read instead. But as of this writing, if you want to read about The Unpublishables, you pretty much have to read this review.In fact… well, never mind, I’ll come back to that.
The book is, by the author’s own admission, a bit weird. If you’ve read this blog before, you probably know that “weird” is not considered a bad thing here. In fact, as often as not, it’s a compliment. So yes, the book is decidedly weird; but in all the right ways.
Also, there are a handful of typos—but way fewer than in many indie books. And their existence is even lampshaded by the narrator, who asks us to “pretend” they are stylistic choices, and not simply the result of him being a sloppy writer. This is one of the things I love about the Daniel character; he’s a bit of an unreliable narrator, but he tells you so up front.This sums him up pretty well. Oh, and one other technical note: there’s a formatting issue in the form of a completely blank page between two chapters. (This might be a result of reading in landscape mode, which seems to do odd things to the ereader.)
All right, now let’s get to the heart of things.I promised on Twitter that I was going to break one of my own rules of writing reviews. What did I mean by that?
Once in a while, when you read about fiction, you’ll see something referred to as “significant” or “important.”For instance, Wikipedia informs us that James Joyce’s Ulysses is one of the “most important works of modernist literature.”
Anytime I see words like “important” or “significant” used in regards to fiction, it sends up a major red flag. Why, I ask, are people describing this thing as “important” when the word “good” is shorter to write and easier to say? If somebody wants me to read a book, they had better tell me “It’s good,” and if instead they come and tell me, “Read this book, it’s important,” it seems to me like they are hiding something. They may be trying to induce me to read a book that is not good for some nefarious reason. Thus, I try never to say something is “important” when “good” will do just as well.
But that isn’t to say that a book can’t be both “important” and “good.” In my opinion, To Kill a Mockingbird is both important, due to its relationship to the Civil Rights movement in the United States, and also just generally good as a story that is enjoyable to read. (In my opinion, if it had been bad, it would never have been widely-read enough to become important.)
So, first and foremost I want, to make it very clear that The Unpublishables is a good book. It’s a fun story, with memorable characters and witty descriptions. That’s really all a book needs to be to be good, in my opinion.
But I also feel that it is an important book as well—and not because of its depiction of homelessness, even though that is another very strong element of the novel.
As I said above, throughout his travels, Daniel meets all kinds of odd characters, all of whom have written or are writing a book. Each of them is an example of some aspect of indie publishing. The Unpublishables is a fine title, but the book might as easily have been called The People You Meet in Indie Publishing;because so many different quirks of the world of independent writers are covered, from ham-fisted author-insertion to blatant plagiarism. At one point, Daniel comments that more people are writing books than have read one.
Daniel finds fragments of manuscripts of historical fiction, hears summaries of wild science fiction and fantasy adventures, and meets shameless self-promoters.Some of the aspiring writers he meets are ground into despair after all the rejections, while others are still brimming with optimism. One of them even hides his own novel in the shelves at a used bookstore, in the hopes someone will find it and read it.
The book pokes a lot of fun at indie authors, and at times, Daniel makes some biting commentaries about the whole process of writing and publishing. I was quite amused by it, and at the same time, as Jack Point from The Yeomen of the Guard would say, “My laughter had an echo that was grim,” because, like the targets of Point’s jokes, I recognized a little of myself in the figure being roasted.
Now, you might say, “How could he make fun of indie authors?!? What a rotten thing to do; kicking a person when they’re down like that!” Well, that’s the thing: Goats isn’t laughing at us; he’s laughing at himself—obviously; because he’s an indie author, too. And it is so abundantly clear that all of the jokes in this book are born of affection, rather than malice, that it’s impossible to be offended by them.
Paul Graham once wrote that “To have a sense of humor is to be strong.”The humor of The Unpublishables is the humor of strength, the humor that comes from people who can laugh at themselves because, to be blunt, they know they’re doing something important. After all, Goats wrote a whole book that made fun of the process of writing books. One assumes he must have really believed in what he was doing to essentially be half-laughing at himself while doing it.
And that’s what I mean when I say The Unpublishables is an “important” book: it’s important to the indie author community.To us. I say “us” because I am an indie author, and I know that nearly everyone who reads this blog is as well.
The appreciation Daniel (and by extension, Goats) has for books is evident throughout The Unpublishables–both books in physical form and as a medium for telling stories, for capturing some part of a person’s life. Underlying all the friendly ribbing about the oddities of the indie author world is a deep love for the written word. Plenty of all-time great authors and books are referenced throughout, and indeed, one of them is used as the catalyst for bringing the hero and the heroine together at the beginning.
That’s what I ultimately got out of The Unpublishables: at its core, it’s about the power of books—reading them, discussing them, and writing them—to bring people together; to let people share a bit of themselves with someone else. A book is a hard thing to create, but when it is done out of love, something magical happens.
And this is where you come in. Again, I know most of you reading this are indie authors, and many of you have blogs of your own. I highly encourage you to read this book, and to write about it. Partially, I’m doing this for selfish reasons: there are things in here I want to talk about with other people—including some alternate interpretations of certain elements, as well as how different parts all tie into the theme. But it’s hard to talk about that when I don’t know anyone else who has read the book.
But apart from my own self-interested reasons, I think this book is important for indie authors. Because it’s by an indie author, and it’s about an indie author, and in some sense, it tells the story of all indie authors.
Brennan’s prose is something to behold; I noticed it from page one. It’s witty, elegant, and incredibly easy to read. It has a rhythm to it; almost poetic in its way. Quite honestly, I felt a bit jealous reading it. I wish I could write like this.
The story Brennan tells in Fascination is a strange one, and I mean that in the best possible sense. Sally Speck, née Pavlou, is distraught when her husband Mason apparently commits suicide. She can’t quite bring herself to believe it and, it soon develops, with good reason: Mason hasn’t really committed suicide, but simply faked his death and run away. Sally hires the services of private investigator Clive Bridle to track Mason down, and from there, the two embark on a wild, funny, often sublimely weird road trip through the American southwest.
Along the journey of “self realization and vengeance”—to use a phrase that repeats like a leitmotif throughout—Sally and Clive meet a cast of oddballs with various perspectives on life. From a mystical shaman to more than one cult, their path brings them in contact with all kinds of colorful folks.
I could very easily imagine this being adapted into one of those quirky dramedy road trip movies. Brennan writes so well that I could picture the vignettes clearly, and it makes for a pleasing mind-movie. Granted, I don’t see a lot of quirky dramedies, but I kept thinking of the movie Garden State while reading this book. (In case it’s not clear, that’s a compliment. Garden State is like a cultural touchstone for my generation.)
It all ends up with a very satisfying conclusion. Brennan provides just the right amount of closure, while still leaving some things open-ended and up to the reader to decide. I really liked that. Too many books either leave too much unresolved, or else wrap things up too neatly. Fascination gets the balance just right.
By the way, you might be asking: what is Fascination? Why is the book named that? The easy answer is that it’s an arcade game Sally likes to play. But I think it’s fair to say there’s more to it than that. “Fascination” is a state of mind, to use an old chestnut.
I don’t read a lot of literary fiction. The last book I read that could be said to be in the same vein as Fascination was Swimming with Bridgeport Girls by Anthony Tambakis. That book was also about a journey to find a former spouse (and also, like Fascination, involved quite a few gambling scenes). I enjoyed Bridgeport Girls a lot, but honestly, I think I liked Fascination more. The ending of the latter, in particular, was much stronger.
Did I have any problems at all with Fascination? Well, one. But it’s such a subjective thing I hesitate to bring it up. It’s also fairly late in the book, but I think I can describe it without spoilers. It’s a minor quibble in the scheme of things, so don’t let it deter you from getting this book, okay? You have to promise me now!
At one point, one of the cultish outfits that Clive and Sally encounter forces them into an uncomfortable situation—nothing violent or illegal, mind, just very awkward. And they do so by pressuring Clive into doing something I felt he wouldn’t do.
Now, as I said part of this is just my personality. I’ve played tons of video games where situations like this arise—a cult or other sinister group railroads the “player” character into doing something. In such games, I inevitably try to fight my way out. If I’m ever in such a situation in real life, I’m going to wind up like Sean Connery at the end of The Man Who Would Be King.
So, that’s probably why Clive’s behavior in that scene didn’t sit right with me. Purely a subjective thing. You should read the book and see whether you agree with me or not.
One more thing before I wrap this up: Mark Paxson did a three-part interview with Kevin Brennan on his blog around the time Fascination was published. It’s a great, wide-ranging discussion that every indie author ought to check out, but one of the points that they raised was that indie literary fiction rarely gets much attention from readers. And that’s a real shame, because there are gems like Fascination out there. Even I, one who doesn’t read much literary fiction, whether from big names or indie, has read enough to know that Fascination can hold its own against the big name lit fic books that win awards and get talked about by fancy people. The fact that it only has nine reviews on Amazon is really a pity. It deserves to be read by all lovers of good writing.
A couple weeks ago, my friend Mark Paxson (who is a fantastic writer himself, BTW) wrote a post recommending four indie authors. Tammy Robinson was one of them. Mark suggested I start off by reading this book to get a sense of her work.
I figured from the start this might be the furthest outside of my reading comfort zone I’ve ever gone with a book. It begins as a fairly straightforward romance between two young people in New Zealand. Charlie works assisting an old man at a bookshop, Pearl is coming to a beach house, apparently to recover from a painful break-up. The two meet, begin dating, and slowly become a couple. Most of the first half or more of the book is them doing fairly routine things—a well-written account of everyday life.
I want to stop here to say that this something I really admire in other authors, partly because I’m awful at it myself. If you asked me to write a story wholly devoid of any supernatural or science-fiction elements, I’m not sure I could do it. And I know that if I did, it wouldn’t be any good; certainly not in the first twenty drafts or so. So I respect authors who can manage to write about entirely realistic, slice-of-life people and events. (The fact that she uses a lot of interesting New Zealand slang words helps—it’s kind of fun to imagine the characters talking in that voice.)
That said, everyday things, no matter how well described, are, ultimately, everyday things. And just as Charlie and Pearl reach the point where you’re beginning to tire of the humdrum of events, trivial things, and petty little arguments that every couple seems to have, Robinson takes things in a very, very different direction.
I can’t spoil it here. Well, actually I am going to spoil a little, later on, because I feel it’s important to mention something, but i won’t do it yet. First, I want to applaud Robinson for crafting this so well that you become so buried in the minor points of daily life that you want something to happen, and then when it does, you say to yourself “God, if only I’d appreciated how things were before!” I hope that doesn’t spoil too much—but there’s a very powerful message in that, and I’m really impressed by how Robinson married the structure of her plot to its theme.
The book is, to be clear, quite tragic in the end. It’s not a light romance, as the cover might suggest, so be warned about that. I had a feeling going in this would be the case (Mark typically likes darker stuff), so I was to some extent braced for it. I feel bad saying this and risking giving away too much, but I also feel like I need to say something, lest readers go in with the wrong expectations.
I said at the outset that this book was the furthest outside my comfort zone I’d ever gone. And in many ways that’s true. It’s about the nuances of human relationships. My typical fare is sci-fi adventures and cosmic horror—human relationships are usually the last thing on anyone’s minds in those.
And yet… in a way the book ended up following the structure I adore most: the unreliable narrator concept is present here, to a degree, as is the twist that makes the reader reconsider everything that went before. I love the idea that a reader thinks they’re reading one sort of book when really they’re reading another, and they don’t even know it until late in the game. It’s one of the toughest tricks to pull off for an author—maybe the toughest—but Robinson did it. I went back and read parts of it again after finishing it, and the author never cheated, either. There are things in the first half that foreshadow what’s going to happen, but you don’t realize it the first time. It’s really impressive.
Okay, that’s about it. If you’re a tough reader, who can take a really tragic tale, you should go pick this up. If you only like happy endings… well, I do think you’re missing out. For perspective, I prefer happy endings too, or at least bittersweet-leaning-towards sweet ones. (I once wrote something with an ending so dark it shocked even me, and that pretty much cured me of grim endings.) But even I could appreciate the merits of Charlie and Pearl.
Now… there’s one other thing.
It’s kind of a trigger warning. I feel–perhaps selfishly–like I have to warn sensitive readers about this, but it will spoil the plot. So think very carefully before proceeding.
For the record, the trigger isn’t anything to do with rape or murder or violence or anything like that. There is nothing about racism or cruelty to animals or anything of that sort either. So if you’re worried about those things, don’t.
Okay, now… last chance to bail before I give some things away.
You asked for this.
Oh! Before we do that—the book does have some typos. Did I mention that? No? Well, there are a handful. But that’s a standard thing with indie books. “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without”, as they say.
Anyway… for real now… unless you are very sensitive about one particular subject, don’t read on.
This is a light-hearted novel about two imaginary expansion NFL teams, the Los Angeles Leopards and the Portland Pioneers. The two teams enter the league simultaneously—the Leopards led by coach Bobby Russell, who takes a methodical, conservative approach to slowly building a team.
After a few seasons, Leopards owner Cedric B. Medill (yes, he’s a movie producer) grows impatient, and fires Russell, replacing him with brash, loud-mouthed defensive coordinator Randy Dolbermeier. Russell gets picked up as defensive coordinator by the Pioneers and, after a car accident leaves Pioneers coach Denzel Jackson incapacitated, takes over as interim head coach. And—can you believe it?—finds himself coaching in the Super Bowl against his old team and Dolbermeier.
Interwoven with the on-field exploits of the Pioneers and the Leopards is a subplot with a sportswriter/poet and a few of his colorful friends, who have been gradually uncovering that Dolbermeier is more than just an arrogant jerk—he’s an outright cheater, using underhanded methods to gain an advantage over his opponents. There have been hints of this beginning with his time as defensive coordinator for the Leopards, and once he’s given full control of the team, it gets really out of hand. And of course, they finish building their case against Dolbermeier just as the Leopards/Pioneers Super Bowl is about to be played, setting up a denouement which I won’t give away here.
The book is written with a light touch—Levy tends to favor warm, sometimes downright corny humor over tension or drama. A good example is when the journalist and his friends are investigating the visitors’ locker room at the Leopards’ stadium, suspecting that Dolbermeier has bugged it. I figured it would be a thriller-like sequence, where they have to sneak in to Dolbermeier’s hidden room and avoid getting caught. But no, they just end one chapter by saying “let’s go check it out” and in the next chapter, they say, “Yep, sure enough, it’s bugged.”
Don’t get me wrong; Levy’s humor and good-nature are infectious. Some of the malapropisms uttered by the heavily-accented equipment manager made me chuckle. And then, of course, there are Levy’s countless references to the NFL’s heyday.
For those who didn’t recognize the name, Levy isn’t just a football fan. He is a Hall of Fame NFL coach who guided the Buffalo Bills to four consecutive AFC titles. (Alas, they went 0-4 in their Super Bowls.) His novel is filled with references to the football stars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. In particular, characters like Kelly James, Thomas Thurber and Deuce Smithers, among others, are clearly modeled on Bills greats who played for Levy. (The names that aren’t clear references to famous players or coaches are usually groaner puns—e.g. the front-office secretaries, sisters Nina and Ada Klock.)
Even if you don’t like football, it’s an amusing book. Football fans will get the most out of it though, with all the references to famous players, and the discussions of football philosophy—Russell’s conservative, defensive-minded approach versus the glitzy, high-scoring style is part of the conflict at the heart of the story.
It’s also interesting to speculate as to who Levy had in mind as the model for coach Dolbermeier. While most of the good characters are pretty thinly-veiled, Dolbermeier is a little harder to figure out. His “whatever it takes to win” philosophy and his contempt for rules will make most football fans think immediately of Bill Belichick, but his brash, loudmouth manner seems more Rex Ryan-ish.He might also be based on Chuck Dickerson, a defensive line coach for the Bills whom Levy fired for publicly trash-talking an opponent.
It’s remarkable to me that a Hall of Fame coach would write a book like this, with cheating in the Super Bowl as the heart of the plot. It almost makes me wonder if Levy was trying to hint that cheating really is occurring in the NFL. Or at least, suggesting that the league is employing too many dishonorable, Dolbermeier-like coaches, and not enough forthright, honest ones like Russell and Jackson.
W.S. Gilbert is a major reason—possibly the major reason—I’m a writer. As a teenager, my mom introduced me to the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and I was fascinated by Gilbert’s lyrics, and then later, by his dialogues and his entire style of storytelling. He wrote stories that were clever and strange and witty, and that usually included some veiled social commentary. And as often as not, he did it in rhymes that were both intricate and yet easy to understand, thanks to his massive vocabulary.
And the really amazing thing is that so much of his commentary still seems relevant. Sometimes, I read about politics, and immediately what comes to my mind is some line of Gilbert’s, though he died more than a century ago. That’s a testament to the power of his words and his ideas.
At some point, probably around the age of 14 or 15 years old, I unconsciously began thinking, I want to be like that!
Strangely, I was always drawn more to Gilbert’s poems and his stage works than to his short stories. So when I saw that Andrew Crowther, the secretary of W.S. Gilbert Society, had released a collection of Gilbert’s short stories, I realized I needed to seize the opportunity to correct that.
Most of the stories contain Gilbert’s trademark sense of humor—the concept of introducing tropes of fairy tales and stage plays with practical, everyday life occurs frequently. I admit that the stories about pantomime and harlequinade baffle me to a degree. I read about pantomime, and I still don’t fully “get” it, and as a result, don’t totally get Gilbert’s stories riffing on them, either. It probably made sense to people who were familiar with pantomime. I’m not saying these stories are bad—far from it. “The Fairy’s Dilemma” in particular is quite good, it’s just hard for me to appreciate the Harlequin references.
Many of the stories in the collection were later adapted by Gilbert for the stage. Such is the case with “An Elixir of Love”,which he later turned into an operetta set by Sullivan, The Sorcerer.
I’ve always thought The Sorcerer was one of the weaker G&S operettas. But “An Elixir of Love” is absolutely hilarious. I laughed out loud multiple times reading it—the humorous idea of ordinary, sober businessmen who happen to deal in supernatural curses and love potions etc. is played to great effect here. (It’s in The Sorcerer too, but in my opinion, it just kind of gets lost amid all the demon-summoning.)
“Wide Awake”is an exercise in one of Gilbert’s other favorite motifs: people disguising their pure, black-hearted selfishness with a sop to politeness and decorum. Most of the characters are out for themselves, but they try to cloak it with manners and solicitude.
“A Tale of a Dry Plate” is short and very sweet.
“The Story of a Twelfth Cake” is extremely funny and clever. It is marred by one unfortunate thing that I’ll address shortly, but overall it might be the funniest story in the collection. It’s another that Gilbert later adapted for the stage.
“Lady Mildred’s Little Escapade” is a delightful tale—probably packed more of a punch in Victorian times than today, just because of changing social mores, but it’s still very clever.
“A Christian Frame of Mind” is downright shocking, for its time. A Swiftian satire, I would say.
There are more stories in this collection, and all of them are must-reads for Gilbert fans, and should-probably-reads for everyone else. And now, about that one little thing I have to address.
To a degree, everyone is a product of their time and place. Gilbert lived in Victorian England, and was a middle-class and later wealthy man. As you might expect, he held many of the typical attitudes of his time on such matters as race and sex. He was, by nature, a kind-hearted man, and so generally he seems well-disposed towards people, but that doesn’t stop him from writing things that modern readers will find shocking. The “n” word occurs in these pages, so be warned. Similarly, while Gilbert is no misogynist, and many of his female characters are actually quite interesting, there’s no doubt he could be patronizing towards them at times.
The book also includes Gilbert’s own illustrations to accompany his stories. These are a nice addition, although here again there is a problem with how Gilbert depicts non-white characters. (Interestingly, they are often depicted sympathetically in the stories.) Nevertheless, I do agree with the decision to present the stories and drawings uncensored, as Gilbert originally intended. The point of these things is, at least partly, their value as reflections of a bygone era, and it’s important for history’s sake to get an undistorted view of it, for good or ill.
Now, I know this book is a departure from what most people read. Indeed, Mr. Crowther had to work very hard to find a publisher for it. In this world of thrillers and horror and literary fiction, the modern reader may ask, “Why should I read this book of satirical Victorian fairy tales?”
Well, I’m going to make that case.
First of all, I have to address the fact that most of the modern books I read aren’t discernibly Gilbertian, unless you want to count Noah Goats’s comic novels, but he’s closer to a literary descendant of Wodehouse than Gilbert. Moreover, the books I’ve written aren’t especially Gilbertian. The influence that H.P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers and various pulp and YA science-fiction authors had upon me is much more obvious. And yet, when you ask who got me into this writing business, there’s absolutely no question that the answer is Gilbert.
Precisely because Gilbert’s stories are mostly fairy tales and/or deal with superficially simple things like the stereotypical characters of low comedy, they are accessible as fiction. But because Gilbert was putting his own spin on them—playing with the conventions of fiction and of theater, they get at the most basic principles of telling a story. There’s always a lot more going on under the surface of a Gilbert story than you realize at first, and that’s what makes them interesting: they teach you how to think about fiction.
Short stories are better suited to experimentation than novels are. If you write a whole novel with an odd twist or a “meta” ending, there’s a huge risk you’ll leave the reader feeling like they’ve been shortchanged—like they invested in something that didn’t pan out. Whereas short stories encourage twists and unexpected endings. The goal of a short story is to surprise, to take a common trope and turn it on its head. This is what Gilbert excelled at.
As I was reading The Triumph of Vice, I realized Gilbert has a lot in common with my other unlikely storytelling hero, the great game-designer Chris Avellone. Both of them tell stories that upend the common conventions of their chosen medium. Gilbert wrote of honest burglars and incompetent demons, just as Avellone writes Dungeons-and-Dragons fantasy with chaste succubi and super-powerful rats.
This willingness to play with tropes, to subvert convention, is the sign of somebody who really knows their stuff. When you’re a master of the craft, you know which rules you can break, and you’re always testing the limits. Gilbert was a great stage director because he was always pushing the edge of what stage directors could do.
And that’s what I want you to take away from this: Gilbert was great at what he did, and reading his work offers you a chance to see a brilliant creative mind working in a time very different from our own, without the constraints of current fads and fashion. Somebody who wrote nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, and his work is still read today. That’s what every writer wants, isn’t it?
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.
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 constructedand 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 togetherelements 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.
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.
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 severaltimes 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.
Miira tells the story of Miira Tahn, a dying woman who enters a virtual world where she can live in a perfectly realistic simulation of health and youth. However, the medical team tasked with performing the procedures necessary to prepare her for this are not all to be trusted, nor is the corporation overseeing it innocent of unsavory business practices.
The first half of the book tells of Miira’s preparation to enter Innerscape, her psychological distress at leaving the physical world behind, and fear at the procedures necessary to prepare her for it.
I should warn readers: I actually found some the descriptions of the surgeries unsettling to read. They were actually more disturbing to me than many books I’ve read that depict actual violence—I’m not sure why this is, as obviously there is no harm or peril intended in these scenes, but that was my reaction. That’s not a criticism, though; indeed, it shows how well-written these scenes are.
The second half of the book deals with Miira adjusting to the new world of Innerscape, all while dealing with the machinations of the various staff members assigned to help her adjust. At times, in the whirlwind of all the tests they need to run to ensure that all Miira’s senses are functioning properly, it seemed like a sex comedy set in a cyberpunk world. Again, that’s not a bad thing. I’m all for genre-mixing.
I admit, I thought the last quarter or so of Miira felt a bit rushed. Throughout the book, there are also several sub-plots and hints of a dystopian real world outside the virtual Innerscape. These are never fully explored, and the ending felt rather abrupt. But then, this is only book 1 of a trilogy—it’s clear that there are many questions to be answered in subsequent books.
And, make no mistake, I love the premise here—virtual worlds are a neat idea, especially to a gamer such as myself. It was fun to read this after just recently re-reading Ben Trube’s Surreality earlier in the summer. Both books, while very different in style and tone, examine how virtual reality grants a chance at an “idealized” new life, and how it brings out different facets of different people.
Miira is a fast-paced read with a compelling premise. I’m curious to see how the plot and characters introduced in it are developed in subsequent books.