The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak***-****

Clifford D. Simak was given the third Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America; he wrote short stories proliferately for several decades in the last century.  His work was generally published in magazines, but with the digital age comes the release of his collected work in twelve volumes.  My thanks go to Net Galley and Open Road, from whom I received a review copy…two years ago. Ouch. As you might expect, this title is for sale now.

Here’s the thing about this collection as a whole: not all of it is science fiction. Simak wrote a lot during the 1940s and 1950s, and back then it was Western stories that sold big. For fans of science fiction, then, these stories are definitely a mixed blessing. The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is the twelfth and final collection in the series.

The tltle story is excellent, and it shows why the editor has not chosen to separate Simak’s sci fi and Western stories into separate volumes: some of his stories—some of his best ones in fact—blend the two genres. In this one, Daniels sits on his farmhouse porch and chats with the sheriff; there are concerns about chicken thieves in the area. But even at the outset, small references here and there tell us that this is no ordinary Western story. For one thing, up North is an area casually referred to as “the Canadian Shield.” And as the sheriff departs and the rest of the story unfolds, Daniel learns that he is not alone, and his visitor is an unusual one indeed. This story contains a beautifully written inner monologue, and I find myself rereading passages out of admiration for the word smithery involved.

The next two stories are fun ones. “The World of the Red Sun” is suspenseful, and “Skirmish”, which is a man-versus-machine tale with a degree of prescience is laugh-out-loud funny in places. These stories, alas, are followed by an interminable Western—not blended, just cowboys and more cowboys—that I finally gave myself permission to skip. The rest of the stories offered after it are good, but the first three are the ones I like best.

Should you buy this collection? I suggest that if you are new to Simak’s writing, you purchase the first collection in the set, I Am Crying All Inside and Other Stories. It doesn’t matter whether you read the collections sequentially, but this is a solid short story collection and his best selling one also. I have read and reviewed eight of the twelve volumes in the set, and although The Thing in the Stone and Other Stories is well written and entertaining, there are five volumes, all reviewed here, that I rate as five stars. Of course if you have the opportunity to buy the entire set and have a serious love of old school sci fi, you won’t be disappointed.

The Shipshape Miracle and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak*****

TheShipshapeMiracleThis is volume 10 of a complete collection of the writings of Clifford D. Simak, who won 3 Nebula awards, 1 Hugo Award, and was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America in 1977. It’s my sixth volume of Simak’s stories, and it’s my favorite so far, which is saying a good deal. Thanks go to Net Galley, Open Road Media, and David W. Wixon, whose brief, useful notes set context for each of these stories. Wixon and Open Road have republished Simak’s work digitally for new generations to enjoy; I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

For those new to Simak’s work, here’s a thumbnail sketch. He began writing in the 1930’s, submitting short stories to various magazines, and continued writing stories and novels into the early 1980’s. He wrote a few war stories during the mid-1940’s, then continued writing Westerns and science fiction. Both of these genres make it into this volume, and although when I began reading Simak, I questioned the choice to foist annoying cowboy stories on sci fi readers, I came to see that it’s not easy to tease them apart in every case. One of my favorite stories here, “Rim of the Deep”, is about a journalist named Grant who is given the dreaded assignment of chasing a story in an undersea city. Once he is down there, it becomes a tongue-in-cheek underwater cowboy story:

“‘You think there’s a gang of robbers down in that deep?’ asked Grant.
‘That’s the only place they could be,’ said Gus. ‘It’s bad country and hard to get around in. Lots of caves and a couple of canyons that run down to the Big Deep. Dozens of places where a gang could hide.’
Gus sipped gustily at the coffee. ‘It used to be right peaceable down here,’ he mourned. ‘A man could find him a bed of clams and post the place and know it was his. Nobody would touch it. Or you could stake out a radium workings and know that your stakes wouldn’t be pulled up…But it ain’t that way no more. There’s been a lot of claim jumping and clam beds have been robbed. We kind of figure we’ll have to put a stop to it.'”

The story is chock full of whimsy, and includes a pet octopus named Butch that bounds after them like a dog and occasionally does something heroic. I love it.

And this is the thing I love about old-school science fiction in general and Simak in particular: the reader doesn’t need a technical background to read and enjoy these stories. There are no jokes that only a programmer can understand; Simak writes fiction and writes it well, and so we liberal arts types can sit back and enjoy the stories.

In addition, the period in which the writing was done actually adds to the whimsy. For example, another favorite in this collection, “How-2”, is about a man that orders a kit to make himself a mechanical pet dog and inadvertently ends up with a very valuable robot instead. I won’t give the rest of the story away other than to tell you it’s hilarious, and I can’t imagine the author wrote it without laughing himself silly, but there’s also the unintentional hilarity of having a robot that can do almost anything imaginable, asking for a paper and pencil so that he can make a list of the things the protagonist desires. A pencil! I love it.

The collection contains 9 stories. One is a straight Western that I started and then gave myself permission to skip. That’s okay, though; the other 8 stories make this tasty collection worth the purchase price. (One story, “Paradise”, is a sequel to the story “Desertion”, which is included in an earlier collection, and if possible you should read it first.) I would not have named the collection for the story Wixon chose, but it’s also a strong story; it’s just a matter of taste. I happened to love at least 3 of these others more.

Finally, the reader should know two things: first, Simak was a creature of his time. Although he is more progressive than most writers of the mid-20th century, there are a couple of baldly sexist moments. This reviewer grew up watching reruns of television shows and movies produced in the 1950’s, and to hate Simak’s work, one would also have to hate every stinking one of those productions also. However, in the brief philosophical metaphors and other indirect allusions, Simak shows himself to have been unusually progressive where civil rights were concerned. Again, such references are oblique, since most of the featured characters aren’t actually even human.

The other thing the reader should know is that these collections are only available digitally. They’re ridiculously cheap, so those that love great old-school science fiction should order this collection and read it. Those that want it on paper will have to hunt up some used books most likely, and they will be either single stories or different groups within a given volume.

This collection is strongly recommended for all that love excellent science fiction.

The Devil’s Country, by Harry Hunsicker****

thedevilscountryHarry Hunsicker is the former executive vice president of the Mystery Writers of America as well as a successful author. Reading this suspenseful and at times almost surreal tale makes it easy to understand why so many people want to read his work. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Thomas and Mercer for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public April 11, 2017.

Arlo Baines, a former Texas Ranger, is on the road when it all unfolds; he’s stopped at the tiny town of Piedra Springs, traveling from one place to another by Greyhound Bus, and he doesn’t intend to stay. He finds a place to get some food, sticks his nose in a copy of Gibbon, and tries to ignore everyone around him. Friendly conversation? Thank you, but no.

Unfortunately for him, there’s a woman with kids, and she’s in big trouble. Clad in an outfit that screams sister-wife, she is terrified, tells him she is pursued, and next thing he knows, she is dead. What happened to the children? Before he knows it, Baines is hip deep in the smoldering drama of the Sky of Zion, a cult that has deep tentacles into the local business and law enforcement establishments.

The narrative shifts smoothly back and forth between the past and the present, and Baines’s motivation is revealed. He is on the move because his wife and child were murdered by corrupt cops, who he then had killed. One particularly chilling scene, the one in which Baines is told to leave town, gives me shivers. In general, however, I find that the scenes taking place in the present are more gripping and resonant than those in the past.

Interesting side characters are Boone, a retired professor with a crease on his head and flip-flops that are falling apart; the local sheriff, Quang Marsh; journalist Hannah Byrnes; and the bad guys in Tom Mix-style hats, with the crease down the front. Setting is also strong here, and I can almost taste the dust in my mouth as Baines pursues his quest in this little town with quiet determination. Every time I make a prediction, something else—and something better—happens instead. In places, it’s laugh-out-loud funny!

Readers that love a good thriller and whose world view leans toward the left will find this a deeply satisfying read. Hunsicker kicks stereotypes to the curb and delivers a story unlike anyone else’s. I would love to see this become a series.

Little Heaven, by Nick Cutter***

littleheavenLittle Heaven is pure hellfire and horror, the sort of novel that makes a person check the closet at bedtime and leave a light burning in the hallway. I received my copy in advance from Net Galley and Gallery Books in exchange for an honest review. The title is available for purchase now.

This story is set in the present, alternating with events from the past that help us understand what’s happening now. In this sense the story is a bit like All the Missing Girls by Megan Miranda, in that part of it takes place in the past and moves its way toward the present. The method is a powerful way to build suspense, but it’s not the only tool in Cutter’s tool chest by a long shot.

Our premise is that Petty, child of Micah and Ellen, has been kidnapped by the Long Walker. Micah has foreseen this event and dreaded it, but he’s been unable to prevent it:

 

“And he’d felt it coming, hadn’t he? Something gathering toward his family—a feeling not unlike the thunder of hooves as a stampede of horses approaches. He might as well have tried to outrun his own skin. You cannot outfox the devil. You may be able to stay his approach if you’re lucky and a little crazy, but in the end, his black eye will ferret you out.”

 

He calls upon two other gun slingers, Ebenezer and Minerva, both of whom shared the same horrific past event as Micah. Each owes him a favor, and he’s calling it in. He wants his daughter back.

There are a lot of twists and turns in the plotting of this story, and you’ll need to bring your full attention to keep track of it.  Ultimately the three find themselves at a cult in the mountains of New Mexico named Little Heaven.

I have never been so conflicted about a book so far into the narrative. On the plus side we have some outstanding word smithery, interesting characters, and some of the best monsters I’ve read in any horror novel. The narrative is fresh, confident and at times jaunty, dropping moments of drollery into unexpected places to help lighten an otherwise dark, dark, dark story. For these factors, I wanted this to be a five star read.

Unfortunately, there’s no denying that there are problems here. There are plot details that are too obvious, to me at least, to just read past, and when these occur, it’s like Toto pulling the curtain away from the wizard’s booth; the Great and Powerful Oz is just human, and at such moments, this is just another book. Examples that occur fairly early on include a character with a full load of morphine successfully racing out of town on the back of a horse; soon after this, another character who’s bleeding profusely decides to tell her life’s story.

Then there’s what is fast becoming a disturbing issue not limited to this author, but which I find unacceptable wherever I find it, and that’s when a character’s bad nature is demonstrated by the writer using ugly racist, sexist, anti-gay, and xenophobic language. When it happens once or twice in a novel, I grimace and move on, but this author finds such a variety of anti-Black slurs to fling at the Afro-British character named Eb and distributes them through so much of the text that an overall sour taste is left behind, and it’s not the sort that comes of reading good fiction. Cutter is skilled enough to use other methods to demonstrate the presence of evil, and he should do so.

Likewise, we don’t need sexist terms or a rape to show us that a character is sexist or that a woman has a traumatic past. Here I point, as I’ve done before, to director Jodie Foster, who said in an interview that she is dumbfounded by the way that so many male directors, when searching for a female character’s motivation, come over and over to the same conclusion: well, she was raped, and that’s why she behaves this way. It was rape, it was rape; she must have been raped! To Cutter and to others I say, stop it.  It’s trite, it’s ugly, and it’s obnoxious. For the same reason that most horror and suspense writers don’t deliver us into a warehouse full of kiddy snuff films and describe them in fine detail, authors should find other ways than hate speech and sexual assault to develop a character or display his or her malevolence.  Let’s not wear this one out any worse than has been done.

In other regards the story shines. The plot overall is complex and woven in a way that neatly brings us back to the problem at hand at the end.  Teenagers that enjoy horror as a genre may especially like this book, given its plethora of gore and the host of skittering critters. In fact, I found myself wondering whether there could be a Little Heaven video game. I’ve never wondered this about a book before, but the monsters are splendid, and so I could see it.

This book was released January 10 and is for sale now. Recommended with the caveats mentioned above.

A Death in the House and Other Stories, by Clifford D. Simak****

adeathinthehouse.jpgClifford D. Simak wrote fiction, mostly science fiction in the form of short stories, for more than fifty years.  Thanks to Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media, I’ve been binge-reading for the better part of a year. I received this DRC, as I did the others, in exchange for an honest review.  This is my fourth Simak collection; most of its stories are brilliant and have stood the test of time, though a couple of them haven’t aged as well as the rest.

The collection begins with one of his best, “Operation Stinky”, which is about a skunk with supernatural ability. A hallmark of a truly brilliant science fiction writer is his capacity to take a truly preposterous premise and make us not only believe in it, for a short time, but respond to it emotionally. I laughed out loud at least once at a wry moment here, and in other places I was really moved. Simak does that to me a lot.

Another favorite was “Green Thumb”, about a plant that comes from outer space and is horrified to learn that its new host is actually—dear heaven—eating plants! Again, Simak plays this string like the sweetest violin, and at the end I had to put my reader down and assimilate what I’d read before I could read anything else. “The Sitters” made me think of Stephen King, though of course Simak’s story was written before King had published a novel at all. I also enjoyed the title story as well as “Tools” and “Nine Lives”, but the one I liked best was “Target Generation”, a longer story about a huge spaceship that had hosted so many generations of people, many of them born right there on the ship, that an entire origin myth had become the basis for the ship’s culture and the beliefs of its residents…all but one. When the character—if we can call it that—called ‘The Mutterer’ came, I could not move until that story was done.

That said, there were some weak places. In some respects this may be unfair of me, because I don’t think Simak wrote with the knowledge that anyone would ever sit down and binge-read his stories end to end; he submitted one story at a time to magazines and earned his living that way. Nevertheless, I really wish he’d write more stories in which nobody gets named “Doc”.  And the story titled “War is Personal”, while I am sure it was well received by many readers when he wrote it during World War II, really upset me. I found the “J” word a couple of times and together with the overall flavor of the story, was disturbed enough to straight-up skip to the next entry. I began the lengthy novella, “When It’s Hangnoose Time in Hell”, and was absorbed, but part way through it was shot through with some unbelievably bad dialogue and trite expressions. And although “The Birch Clump Cluster”, the final entry, wasn’t bad, it didn’t measure up to most of his work.

Two stories give unfortunate titles to disabled people and refer to them in a disrespectful way. Again, it was common at the time the stories were published, but as a society we are more enlightened now, and so this aspect of his work hasn’t aged well.

Unless you are a diehard Simak fan, skip the introduction. It was written by a close friend of his and has to do with a break from writing on the part of the author. I didn’t care at all and decided not to finish it, because trying to slog through it was going to prevent me from getting to the stories themselves.

The good news is that most of the stories here are fantastic, and this collection was published this summer, so you can have it now. Recommended for those that love good science fiction.

Union Soldier, by Gordon Landsborough***

unionsoldierI received this title courtesy of Endeavor Press, who invited me to read and review their material directly; I thank them for the invitation to read and review this Digital Review Copy free in exchange for an honest review.

Our protagonist is McGaughey, a physician with a troubled past who enlists as a Union soldier because he cannot enlist as a doctor. He falls in love with a young woman named Sara, and so this relationship is a key aspect of the book. He moves heaven and Earth to see that she is allowed to stay with his unit, even introducing her as a laundress, a thing I never knew Union troops enjoyed.

Landsborough does a middling job of character development and creates an aura of mystery around McGaughey. I found his depiction of Union soldiers in general alienating. For me, the American Civil War was the last really righteous war the US fought, and so his characterization of most recruits as men that would do anything rather than serve, men that were rough, dishonest and usually of poor character demeaning. I suspect he was striving for realism, or perhaps he truly believes the war should never have occurred at all. Those that take this position may find themselves enjoying the novel more than I did.

Setting was a problem for me. Whereas his descriptions of the immediate area in any given situation were well done, I could never place this story on the map. On the one hand, Flagstaff is mentioned several times and so I was thinking of Arizona. The prominent role given American Indians tells us he has to be in the West. But the Sioux confederation is in the North, primarily in the mid-western USA, and so I was confused.

Landsborough does a creditable job of pointing out that the American Indian was still fighting for justice during this time period. The US government strove to fulfill the integrity of the nation, but didn’t do well by native peoples.

The stereotype that McClellan was an unskilled general whereas Lee and Jackson were brilliant is a tired old saw. A more in-depth look at these generals demonstrates that McClellan was entirely capable but actually sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Considerable evidence proves that his failure to succeed militarily in most situations was intentional. Lee made a number of errors as did Jackson, who was often unreliable when he was expected to show up, but both were bold, and for a time their energy and boldness paid off. I would have liked to see more knowledge of the war itself in this story, which turns out to be more a Western and also a romance than a Civil War tale. To be fair, it was billed as a western, but I latched onto the title and expected something more.

For those that enjoy Westerns or historical fiction that contains romance, this book may be of interest.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry*****

lonesomedoveSince when do I read westerns? Since never…until a Goodreads friend recommended this title. He knew I liked history and historical fiction, and I couldn’t dismiss the recommendation, not only because this person has never steered me wrong, but because this book won the Pulitzer. That doesn’t guarantee I will like it either, of course, but it certainly enhances the likelihood. So on one of my increasingly-rare ventures to my favorite local used bookstore, I searched out the title. There it was, 857 pages bound in a beautiful hard cover, foliated-paged tome, for less than ten bucks. Sold!

It took me a long time to read, not because of its length—psssh, my readers know me better than that—but because of its physical size. A very lengthy book in an electronic reader is light weight no matter how many pages it has, but this gorgeous, old school novel was hell on a frozen shoulder. So for a long time I read it in little chunks, propping it on top of pillows on top of my lap. It took awhile, but it was worth it.

McMurtry earned his laurels, that much is certain. I was mesmerized by the way he took us to a place that no longer exists, immense swaths of nothing across the Midwestern USA and Northern Rockies. The idea that a person could travel long and hard for days and still not even be out of Texas just blew me away, and then there was still most of the journey yet to come. There are no roads; the protagonists have a kind-of, sort-of map; a list of rivers to sustain themselves, replenish their drinking water; water their mounts, with water being the equivalent of gassing up; and also water their herd.

I realized that one reason I never chose to read westerns is because I grew up during a time when cowboys were considered the enemy of the American Indian. I didn’t want to be allied with the white guys on the horses. And of course, that was one stereotype I later realized I should not have bought into, because not all cowboys were white guys; most were, for sure, but some were of Mexican heritage, some were Black, and once in a rare while there would be an American Indian riding with the cowboys. And cowboys did not always fight Indians; sometimes they were just moving cattle.

Apart from the almost tangible settings the author creates, we also have some complex relationships. I confess that some of the more peripheral characters among the cowboy crew were hard for me to keep straight. Which one is Dish, and which is Pea Eye? But it didn’t matter that much in terms of ability to enjoy the novel, because the main characters were so well developed, and there wasn’t a stereotype in the pack. Gus is the chief protagonist, and in my mind he was somewhere between Ralph Waite and Tom Hanks. Call, his very quiet, solitary partner, was a tow-headed version of Robert Redford. Lorena, the complicated woman that fell in love with Gus, eventually formed herself in my own mind to resemble country singer Miranda Lambert. Sometimes you just need a face to go with your main characters. Jake turned up as Dan Ackroyd without the sense of humor. Blue Duck is one of the most terrifying villains in literature!

Why go north? There was never any really good reason apart from Call’s wanderlust, and Gus’s unwillingness to be separated from his partner, with whom he had worked since their days as Texas Rangers. Gus also wanted to look up a woman from his past who had settled in Nebraska, and I loved how that played out.

And when all was said and done, I realized that this is one of those haunting stories that will forever remain in my mind. That’s saying a lot; I usually read 8-10 books per month, and often by the time I am invited to host a book giveaway or blog tour by the publisher, I have forgotten the name of the main character and all but the broadest contours of the story being promoted. They approach me 3 months after I wrote the review, and there are 30 books in between that story and the present. But that won’t happen here. In fact, because this wasn’t a galley, I waited to review it until I had the time and felt the urge. I still remember so much, and there have been several books gone by in the interim.

If you have the stamina to read a book of this length—and I have to tell you, though it’s a western it is not all actionactionaction, but rather deeply insightful in many places—and if you enjoy historical fiction, you ought to give this book consideration. It isn’t hard to find it used, and given its exalted status in literature, your local library probably also has a copy. But even if you have to pony up the cover price—pun intended—you could do much worse for your reading dollar.

An outstanding novel.