Category Archives: literary fiction

Review: Scarecrow Has a Gun (Michael Paul Kozlowsky)

If you have the sudden urge to spend a couple of days hashing out the philosophical questions surrounding your memory, how it’s perceived by you versus other people, and how a not quite accurate memory can affect you, you’re in luck: there’s tons of that in this book. If you prefer to have those questions asked, but not in a drill to the center of the earth way, and to read a science fiction novel (as this is also categorized) wrapped around this, you may be slightly disappointed. I was.

First, the length. This book would have worked much better as a novella, in my opinion. There are pages in the book that could have easily been jettisoned, as they were a bit echo-ey of things already discussed, and it caused a drag in multiple places.

Second, the premise: our protagonist Sean works as a drone in a large, nameless company doing some kind of video/graphic production. Is this important? It could have been, if there was some exploration of how Sean, with a graphic-centered life at work, may have been able to remember things more accurately than someone without that focus. This was not explore, however.

The precise: There is a group of employees of this company called The Widowers Club, summoned once a year to the boss’ office. All members of the group, as the name describes, are men. I’m not sure why Mr. Ulger, the boss, only selected men for his little games, where he would tell the group to perform some inane stunt – running through a glass window, for instance.

One year, Sean, who has been summoned for several years but who has never “won”, actually does win. His prize is a box contraption with two lines that attach to the temples. This box then shows the memories of the person hooked to it. Sean has been trying his hardest to remember an attack that leaves his wife dead and Sean unable to recall the exact events surrounding the attack. Now is his chance, but he finds what he remembers doesn’t jibe exactly with what the machine is telling him. My question: why does he simply assume that Ulger is telling him the truth and the machine is more accurate than what he himself remembers?

The rest of the book proceeds with Sean trying to get to the bottom of the attack, discovering along the way that nearly all his memories have that same unsettling wrongness about them. We also meet his fiancee Hayley is entirely unlikable, and his son not much better. There’s also a female crossing guard with some serious issues. I get that she’s meant as a sort of humor device, given the inappropriate things she says and the gossip she dishes, but she comes across as annoying and doesn’t serve as much of a break from the overall rather dense story.

Eventually Sean makes it to the truth of his wife’s death, and there’s an ending that seems rather far-fetched, given Ulger’s penchant for knowing absolutely everything Sean is doing.

There’s a real lack of the science fiction component, as it isn’t clear just how the box works, or really anything about it, other than it’s the type of science fiction that exists just because. That is, it’s like warp speed in virtually any science fiction: it is simply something that exists in this universe, and doesn’t require many pages of explanation. I would have liked something, though, even just a little. A good example of how something exists in a universe without going on for many chapters about it is the Epstein drive in The Expanse books.

The philosophical question is interesting, but in this particular book it really brought things to a halt when I hit some of the denser pages of that discussion. I’d have liked to have seen some discussion of how Ulger saw this as a way to make whoever used the machine wealthy beyond belief – this wasn’t really explained, since the machine only looks backwards, not forward (so one might invest in an invention or company one might remember reading news about, only to find with a forward-looking machine that said invention or company was a bonafide winner, and one might invest in the thing/company in their current moment in the timeline, for instance). It’s easier to believe Ulger when he talks about mind control, as the machine could be programmed to serve up the memories Ulger wanted someone to believe about their past memories.

Overall, I’m rather neutral about the book, so it’s three stars out of five from me.

Thanks to Imbifrex Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Expected publication date: August 2022.

Review: Damnation Spring (Ash Davidson)

This is not a book most people will find easy to like. It’s slow to start, people seem to be completely oblivious to certain things, and chapters can seem repetitious at best. However, sticking to it should find readers of literary or eco-literary fiction enjoying it.

It’s the late 1970s in the US, and Rich Gundersen, along with his much younger than he wife Colleen and their young son live in a very small town where the economy is almost all logging.

Rich has worked for the Sanderson company forever as a topper (the person who gets to climb to the very tops of trees to cut off branches and/or the actual head of the tree in order to install lines to pull felled trees up the mountain). He has also lasted longer than both his grandfather and father did in this punishing, physical work for the same company. His best friend is Lark, an eccentric old man who worked with Rich’s father – in fact, whose topping of a branch killed Rich’s father when it landed on him fro a couple hundred feet in the air – and who looks out for Rich as he can.

When it’s Rich’s POV, we get a lot of logger jargon, as one would expect from a logger. We also get to know Rich’s dream, which had been his father dream before him: cutting the 24-7, which is not a convenience sore but a redwood that is 24 feet, seven inches in diameter. Without telling Colleen, Rich takes all of their savings, gets a loan, and buys over 700 acres of land that includes the 24-7. It abuts land that Sanderson owns, and Rich thinks that when Sanderson cuts in an access road, Rich will be able to use that as he feels the redwoods on his property, and become wealthy in the process.

Colleen has suffered a miscarriage one of many, the exact number of which she has not told Rich. When it’s her POV, we get a snapshot of her typical day: worrying about Rich. Dealing with her sister Enid and her passel of kids. Colleen’s an amateur midwife, so cannot be blind to the strange things happening in other womens’ pregnancies: stillborns, miscarriages, massive deformities, like half a brain, or no brain, in one case. Many people in the community, including Colleen herself, suffer from random nosebleeds.

Rich and his brother in law shoot a deer who appears to be pregnant, only to find a basketball-sized tumor inside it. Someone loses a calf after it’s born with deformities. Another person’s bees are all killed by the spray.

The company sprays herbicides in the area, to keep pesky weeds at bay where trees are being harvested. It smells slightly of chlorine and when it’s in the water, either directly or via runoff, it’s described as having an oily sheen. (I think this last may refer to including diesel fuel in the mix, to help weight down the spray.)

Issue number one for me: there’s no hint in this small town that anyone picks up on these things being connected. They may not have gone to college, for the most part, but not all of them are idiots.

The book moves back and forth primarily between Rich (now worried about the anti-logging hippies will close down the patch he and his crew are working for Sanderson as well as broaching the quarter million dollar bet he’s made on their future) and Colleen (who seems to be condemned to be condemned to forever driving her sister Enid and her brat pack of kids around and making pancakes or eggs), but we also get chapters from their young son’s POV here and there, making observations the adults never would.

Into this small town, one major industry setting, walks Daniel, Colleen’s high school boyfriend. He now collects water samples from around the area for testing purposes, as not only are the salmon dying, so are other things (like human and bovine babies, born or not, like bees) and it appears that people are also suffering from things (like nosebleeds and respiratory illnesses). other environmental impacts are also present (mudslides from cleared areas, runoff of soil and herbicides into the drinking water).

Once he enters the picture, the book fully transforms into eco-lit. Daniel knows Colleen and her family drinker from the spring that runs near their house, and he wants her to take samples so he can send them off to be tested. She declines, because of course she does: she’s a logger’s wife,and testing the water may reveal things she doesn’t want to see. Eventually, she gives in and starts collecting in secret.

Daniel tells her everything is contaminated with 2,3,7,8-Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin – AKA dioxin. He’s also been sounding the warning bell around town, and trying to talk to people, only to find doors slammed in his face and his tires slashed, among other things. There’s a scene in the book where the (only) gas station attendant in town refuses to sell him gas.

One couple speaks up about the contaminants in their water and food. They’re quickly ostracized by the rest of the town. Another couple speaks up. They too, get the cold shoulder. There’s even a house belonging to one of the couples that is burned down. Colleen eventually appears at one of the meetings Daniel is hosting. A reporter happens to catch her saying something, and after it’s reported, she and Rich start to get that same cold shoulder. Rich is angry with her; he’d told her to stay out of it. After all, this is their livelihood in danger, and his larger dream as well. Rich gives a passionate speech about how loggers are environmentalists at a town meeting, to which people applaud, but they are still cold toward Rich and Colleen as they leave.

I’ve lived in small towns, and can say the book captures that often claustrophobic feeling of living in the same place, doing the same jobs for generation upon generation. The snubbing and shunning of neighbors is also presented quite well.

We then go speeding toward the end. Rich finds out he didn’t check the fine print on his purchase. But there are a couple of things that bothered me about the end.

One is the deux a machina in relation to one of the larger items in the book. The other is the actual end, which I didn’t like at all. I didn’t think, after 400 pages of Rich shown to be a careful, conscientious man, that he would do what he did.

The book could have used a bit of tightening, especially with the repetitive nature of Colleen having to chauffeur Enid and her kids around.

Overall, I found the book to be exceptionally written from a narrative standpoint. We expect to see Rich do all the logging things, and he does. We expect Colleen to be the stay at home mom and look after her child and sister, and she does. There are a number of passages that are a joy to read. The book does give us a good look at an entire town living around and in an environmental nightmare.

4.5 stars out of 5, rounded down to 4 for the issues noted.

Thanks to Scribner and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Joan is Okay (Weike Wang)

Workaholic doctor Joan, the titular character, takes us to China to begin things in Joan is Okay. Her father has died, and she muses as she meets relatives she has not seen for over a decade, that here, in China, she is seen as an American. Not much for her to do in a strange place full of strangers to her, so she flies back to the US, where her Chinese-American heritage marks her as Chinese.

Joan resumes her duties as attending physician in the ICU. We see her interaction with workmates Madeline and Reece, and her inner self tells us she prefers the world of the medical ICU, with its machines and beeps and codes, to the other ICUs (surgical, for instance, where the doctors’ handwriting is worse than any other, according to Joan).

There came a point where I wondered if Joan’s reticence and focus was a byproduct of Asperger’s syndrome, or if it was simply a byproduct of a solitary, introverted child who became a solitary, introverted adult. I don’t think it matters all that much: Joan is intelligent, sometimes witty, and often wryly observant, and that makes the book a good read.

The doorman of her apartment building takes a shine to her, asking about her health, her love life; later, when a resident moves in across the hall, he asks if she has fallen in love with Mark the neighbor yet. I found this rather creepy, to be honest.

Mark, for his part, increasingly invades her life, and sad to say, she lets him do it: as he acquires new stuff, he gives her his old stuff. Books he’s read, a tv, furniture. This culminates into a party in her apartment at New Year’s, Mark having set the entire thing up using the spare key she’d given to him. I found this also to be rather creepy as well as annoying, and in the end, so does Joan. Her passivity finally gives way, and after fleeing the party to her brother’s place in CT (where her mother is also staying for an extended visit), she returns and installs a deadbolt on her door. Good call, Joan!

There are brief breaks in the narrative where Joan explains written Chinese and what symbols are combined to mean what words. At the first one, I was a bit confused, but as they popped up here and there, I realized that Joan is explaining to us some of the things she might be feeling if she were NotJoan (who might not be quite as reserved as Joan is), and they also serve as respites from some of the heavier moments in the story.

I expect anything published from the end of this year moving forward to have something in it about COVID, and this is no different, especially since Joan is a doctor: the beginnings of rumbles come at the end of the book, eventually turning into the flood of patients we’ve all seen and read about. Joan herself, and her two workmates, come down with it. She survives, returns to work, and deals with the brutal reality of having to help patients talk to their loved ones via tablet. There’s a memorable scene with Earl, one of her patients, and it’s both heartening – he is giving his wife the things she will need if he dies – and dreadful, because we know in those early days, the odds were not good, just as they are not now in certain circumstances.

Joan, however, knows herself and her place. And Joan is okay.

4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up. Recommended. I read it in one sitting, today.

Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Plot ( Jean Hanff Korelit)

Jacob “Finch” Bonner wrote a well-received, well-reviewed first novel. He promptly wrote a second novel that was less so. Work on the third book he’s under contract to write is virtually nonexistent.

To pay the bills, Bonner takes a job teaching an MFA class on writing. When doing the meet and greet during office hours, most students are exactly as he thought: not many good ones, according to their reading samples. Except for Evan Parker. His sample, grudgingly shown, shows that he has talent and his arrogance about it is warranted. Eventually, Parker tells Bonner the story – the whole story – and Bonner concludes that the book will be very good indeed, and that the plot is so original that no one has ever written a book using it.

Bonner manages to make it through the term, and subsequently lands a spot teaching virtual classes in another place. He can’t stop thinking about Evan Parker, and is amazed to find that Parker died shortly after that class, without ever having published that book. Bad news for him, but good news for Bonner, who decides to shanghai the idea and write his own version off it. This book becomes a huge bestseller, he lands on Oprah’s show, Spielberg has snapped up the movie rights, and so on. He also goes on a book tour. One place he stops is a radio station on the opposite coast, where he meets a woman working for the station who tells him she read the book and loved it – ditto for his other books. They flirt a bit, and we see where this is leading.

But it seems someone knows what Bonner has done, and doesn’t have any second thought about letting him know. It starts with emails, escalates to social media, and then to actual paper letters..

She moves to New York to be with him, and do all the social things, which, to his surprise, she’s great at.. Bonner continues to get the creepy messages, but keeps this from his now-fiancee and eventually his wife.

The social media portion finally makes it the food chain to his editor and the boss and legal counsel for the publishing house, where they tell him not to worry, they’ve seen this sort of thing before. But he does worry about it, as there are things only someone Evan Parker could have told the story to see. We also get glimpses of the book,with two to three pages of it here and there.within the main book. By now, we’re following Bonner as tries to track down information about Evan Parker, those who knew him well, and who could be behind the machinations to expose Bonner as having lifted the idea from Parker’s draft.

This book reminded be a bit of the movie The Words, a movie about a book about a book, with a dash of Secret Window and The Hoax tossed in, topped off with Deathtrap, by Ira Levine. It’s a bit slow to get started, and somewhat ponderous as well – I attribute this to be mimicking what I suppose is Bonner’s literary fiction style. As things progress, the writing becomesĀ  looser. The ending is something I saw coming, and there’s a cold-heartedness in the reasoning behind why some people do what they do to set things right/get justice as best they can, as they see fit. My only quibble is that the plot of Parker’s book is deemed entirely brand new, and that no one has written anything like it, ever, which is not exactly true in our world (but perhaps is true in the universe of this book).

I’m giving The Plot 4.5 out of 5 stars, rounded up to 5.

Thanks to Celadon and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Skylark’s Secret (Fiona Valpy)

There are some books that you can’t say a ton about in a review, because it all involves spoilers. This is one of those books. It isn’t to say that the details are worth skipping, because they are not. This is quite a good book about homecoming and relationships and how family members interact with one another and the world around them.

We have a protagonistic duo in this book – both daughter (to open the book) and mother (as we travel between time periods) are involved in making the story that is shaped by their experiences both in the small Scottish town in which they live but also by the larger world outside that town.

If you enjoy literary fiction with familial conflict and the secrets small towns can hold, you’ll very probably like this book, even if you have never set a toe on Scottish soil.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to Amazon UK and NetGalley for the review copy.


Review: The Burning Island (Jack Serong)

Eliza Grayling – a woman who tends to her aging, blind alcoholic of a father – is approached by Srinivas, a Bengali Indian. Srinivas has a tale to tell her of a ship, lost with all its cargo and passengers, many of whom were women. He is not unfamiliar with ships lost to the sea or the pirates who sail on them; indeed, he believes that the person behind the disappearance of this ship is the mysterious Mr. Figge, with whom he sailed when Srinivas was merely a young orderly on another ship that foundered many years ago.

In this time, though, with this ship, Srinivas wants to enlist the help of Eliza’s father Joshua, who is also acquainted with Figge, and who also has business to settle with a man Eliza had thought more a myth than monster.

Eliza, for her part, points out that her father is in no ship to put out to sea, and that he hasn’t sailed in many years. Joshua insists, however, and because Eliza decides she must go as well, to care for him, the three of them embark on a journey to the Bass Strait on a ship called The Moonbird, along with a pair of convict brothers, a doctor studying marine life, and the crossdressing master of the ship.

The narrative language is lush, at times soaring so high one might think it will never alight on the page again. There are brief moments when it skips along the line marking the abyss of purple prose, but dances away before falling in. The book is not a fast read, nor is it without the weight of being informed by actual events. Readers who stay with the book will be rewarded through its ups and downs by a story well and remarkably told.

Five stars out of five.

Thanks to Text Publishing and NetGalley for the review copy.