Good Night, Mr. James: and Other Stories by Clifford D. Simak*****

goodnightmrjamesSimak was a prodigious writer of science fiction during the middle of the twentieth century; he was the third Grand Master of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and won numerous other awards, among them the Nebula and multiple Hugo Awards. His short stories are being republished digitally, and as fast as Open Road Integrated Media can publish them, I snap them up, having already read two volumes; this is volume eight. Thanks go to ORIM and to Net Galley, from whom I received a DRC in exchange for this honest review.

There’s a special sort of satisfaction that comes from reading science fiction written during the era that followed World War II, and in seeing what technology science fiction writers imagined might be around the corner. Many times we read stories of passenger flights to other planets and galaxies, stories of mind control, and yet nobody ever imagined that one day we would each have a small telephone in our pocket that would double as a camera, wristwatch and telegram service. But the musings and imaginings of old school science fiction are just plain fun, and they don’t require the technical proficiency that some of today’s writers often require in order to read, understand, and enjoy the stories they produce.  Sometimes a bit of philosophy and world view sneaks into these stories, and we may find kindred spirits in the most unlikely places.

The title story used to open this collection is a fun one, and the tension that accompanies Mr. James as he approaches the enclosure where he believes he’ll find the ‘puudly’, a creature from another world unwisely snuck into the present one, is almost unbearable.  What follows on his journey home is absorbing as well. But this wasn’t my favorite story. There are two others I found even better, but first, let’s get this other news out of the way.

The bad news is that there is just a trace of the racist stereotyping common to white folk of this time period, but it’s limited to one story, and it’s scarce. If you read my reviews often, you know that if I see it, I call it out, and my tolerance level is much lower than that of most reviewers. It’s in one story which isn’t all that good anyway, and it pertains to Asians that are featured briefly. The story is “The Gunsmoke Drummer Sells a War”, and it’s a cowboy tale of the sort that was popular in the USA during the 1950’s. A man of Chinese origin is referred to as ‘The Chinaman’, and during his short tenure in the story, he is untrustworthy.  He speaks in a “sing song” cadence. This story cost the book half a star, but it’s my view that you could buy this collection, skip this story, which is overlong and contains some less than stellar dialogue, and you’d still get your money’s worth. That’s all the bad news there is here.

“Reunion on Ganymede” made me tremble with mirth, nearly causing me to wake Mr. Computer, who slumbered peacefully beside me. In this story Gramps is dying to go to the reunion of veterans of a war that took place between the “Marshies” (Martians) and the “Earthies” .  His family is trying to dissuade him from taking his flame gun with him. They tell him the weapon is too old to be trusted, but clearly it isn’t the gun, but rather the owner that they’re worried about. As developments take an unexpected turn, it becomes obvious that there are some things for which one just can’t plan. Eventually we see that Gramps and other characters unforeseen by his kinfolk are on a collision course, and what follows is pure poetry.

However, my very favorite story is “Kindergarten”. A man has bought a cabin and retreated to it; he’s been told he has a short time to live, and so he’s determined to do it in pastoral solitude. Imagine his surprise when he goes for a stroll one day and finds the mysterious machine on his property! It’s certainly not a saucer, yet it’s also not from Earth. It couldn’t be. And the whole thing unspools in a way I interpret as being subversive and delicious. Please note that the entire collection is edited and introduced by a close friend of the author’s, the latter having died in 1988. The editor’s spin on this story is completely different from my own, and yet knowing this didn’t make me enjoy it any less.

If you’ve had the pleasure of reading the We Install story collection, or Grotto of the Dancing Deer collection, you know what kind of prose Simak spins, and if you like old school science fiction, you almost have to like most or all of his. If you haven’t dipped a toe in the water yet, hop on in. Between this collection and at least nine others, there’s plenty to keep you reading happily for quite some time.

As a last note to teachers looking for suitable classroom stories, there’s no sex or foul language here, but be prepared to discuss or explain some of the slang of the period in question.

Highly recommended and available to the public now.

The Hatching, by Ezekiel Boone****

thehatching I was never afraid of spiders until I read this book. Thanks to Boone’s monstrous, boisterous, hair-raising new novel, I now eye the ceiling for wolf spiders that hunt at night just before I fall asleep…and I usually find one. I received this DRC in advance thanks to Net Galley and Atria Books, in exchange for this honest review. This book goes up for sale July 5, 2016 and frankly, I don’t know how you’re going to wait that long!

Right at the start, something has gone very wrong.  In Peru, a shadow falls upon a group of helpless tourists and devours them with breathtaking speed. Soon thereafter, China tells the world that it has inadvertently nuked one of its own villages. Just an accident; terribly sorry. Please don’t push that button, because we aren’t gunning for you, oh mighty imperialist powers.

When a bizarre package arrives at the laboratory of Melanie Guyer, she immediately tucks its contents into an glass tank where it can be watched in a secure environment. There. See now, that’s sensible. And yet…

Clear on the other side of the continent, the greater Los Angeles area finds itself under quarantine. With a finger to the wind, one soldier in charge of the containment eyes the razor wire and holding pens springing up and decides to make a break for it while he can. He powers the hell through the closed gate, because there’s a time to sacrifice for one’s country, but there’s also a time to save yourself first:

    He took the last few steps to the truck and had his hand on the door handle  when  he  heard the sound.  It was a sort of scraping…and he noticed there was something wrong …with the shadows. Over there, maybe twenty paces away, one of the shadows seemed to be moving a little, pulsing. He watched it, fascinated, and it wasn’t until a thread of black seemed to fall out of the shadow and unspool toward him that he broke from his reverie.

Uh oh.

However, survivalists in Desperation, California aren’t panicked; they’re gloating. All that preparation for doomsday, and now it’s here. Let’s have a party! The doors are sealed against radiation, against spiders, against whatever. The dog has even been trained to go potty on a little piece of Astroturf. They are so ready.

I wasn’t sure I liked this book at first. The moment when the first spider popped out of the first human host, I made a note in my e-reader saying this is just another version of the 1970’s movie Alien, but with spiders. Still, I continued to read.

When the president of the United States asks quite seriously whether zombies are involved, right around the halfway mark, I wanted to throw my kindle across the bedroom. If it had been a library book, I would have slammed it shut and put it in my tote bag to return first thing in the morning. But it wasn’t a library book, it was a DRC, and so I had an obligation, and I gritted my teeth (president. Zombies! My ass,) and continued reading. And I am really glad I did, friends, because it got so much better.

Let’s go back to the movie Alien. For those unacquainted with this cult classic, the story devolves around aliens that seek human hosts. The setting of Alien is a space ship, so they’re a very long way from home and help; yet they are also contained.  And as I read on, I realized that in Boone’s setting—the entire planet—there are so many more possibilities. I hit about the sixty percent mark and had to munch my way through the rest, if you’ll pardon the expression, until the very last page was done.

I found myself pondering the possibility of a sequel.

I nearly tacked on the fifth star, because this was tremendously entertaining, and Boone breaks up the horror with odd places, few and unexpected, that are laugh-out-loud funny. But then I reflected on the fact that I rated every single thing Michael Crichton ever wrote as four stars, and I see this quirky, horrifying, delicious novel as on a par with Crichton. Rather than hustle back and re-rate everything Crichton ever wrote, which would be a bit impulsive, I stuck to the four star standard.

There’s no explicit sex here, but there’s plenty of gore. Those that love good horror and science fiction should snap this book up right away. And if one is looking for a summer read to keep your nerdy teen out of trouble for a hot minute over the summer, this is a good choice for that set also.

But you’ll never see a spider web in quite the same way once you’ve read it!

Huge fun for anyone not already genuinely afraid of spiders.


Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch*****

darkmatterNote: my records showed this would be published today, but they are in error. This title actually comes out in August and I have run my review earlier than I should have. You’ll see this again at a date closer to publication.

Blake Crouch is a seasoned writer, but I had never read his work before; only recently have I ventured back into science fiction, a genre I abandoned when some writers began incorporating tech jokes and algorithms into their work. Humanities oriented and gun shy, I veered back to my other favorite genres. Crouch makes it a joy to be back reading sci fi. I received this DRC free, courtesy of Net Galley and Crown Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review. It’s for sale August 2, and it will be in theaters soon too. Don’t get left out, because this one is huge.

Jason Dessen is a teacher, having abandoned a burgeoning career in research in order to become a family man. The story is infused with the question almost every adult has, the question of the road not taken. By the time we’re in our thirties or even our mid-twenties, we have made hard choices that leave us musing occasionally about what might have happened if we had pursued a different course, if the destiny we either chose or were thrust into had played out differently. It is this question that Crouch taps into.

On an ordinary evening, Jason’s old friend calls him and asks him to come to a nearby bar and celebrate a momentous event. Jason is a father and happily married, so he doesn’t spend a lot of time hanging out in bars with the guys, and tonight is family night, so it’s especially important to be at home. But this celebration is particularly important to his friend, and so he steps out for one fast beer for the sake of the friendship, with the promise to bring home ice cream on his way home.

That’s not what happens.

On his way home, he is followed by someone, a guy who jumps him not for his wallet, but for his life. He’s knocked out and awakens thus:


   Where the hell am I? A hanger?

I catch a glint of memory—a needle puncturing my neck. I was injected with something. This is some crazy hallucination.

A radio squawks. “Extraction team, report. Over.”

The woman says with excitement bleeding through her voice, “We have Dessen. We’re out of the box and en route. Over.”


Until Jason’s research funding dried up, he had been working on a cube that could penetrate the “multiverse”, and take matter from the world in which we live to a parallel reality. In another life, Jason has not only done this, but done it on a spectacular level. Here we get into string theory and other aspects of science that are over my head, and this is the type of thing that prevents me from reading more technically demanding sci fi.  Happily, the author only stays there long enough to provide the foundation for the science fiction aspect of his story:


Most astrophysicists believe that the force holding stars and galaxies together—the thing that makes our whole universe work—comes from a theoretical substance we can’t measure or observe directly. Something they call dark matter. And this dark matter makes up most of the known universe…Some string theorists think it might be a clue to the existence of the multiverse.


The idea is that every time someone hits a benchmark in his life when he must make a choice—college versus work, career versus marriage, to have a child or not, to move away or stay here—there is some parallel version of himself that does the other thing in another universe.

Once I got to the part where string theory is mentioned, I recoiled in horror—was the whole book going to be like this now? How could I even review it?—and I went to read my other books for awhile. But when I picked it up again, we quickly blew through the technical part, which for all I know may be bad science for the sake of a great story anyway, and we were back in poor Jason’s bewildering life. From that moment forward, roughly the twelve percent mark, the story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let go till I was done.

This story packs a walloping punch, and I have at least one friend who would have made it just fine through the science blurb but then would have been unable to tolerate the emotional torrent that follows. Some people don’t want a story that will make their heart beat faster, and if that’s you, this is not your book.

But for those that enjoy a genuine thriller, this book is for you.  In fact, it’s impossible to draw a line as to whether this story is more a thriller or science fiction. It has all the qualities of a strong thriller, but the story can’t be told without the sci fi foundation. For those that are leery of reading science fiction due to a lack of proficiency in astrophysics or other aspects of science, however, you’ll be fine here. Crouch touches on science long enough to get establish the basis of his story and hook the reader, and then it’s back to Jason and his many dilemmas.

Highly recommended to anyone with a literacy level of a high school senior or beyond. Get it now!

Grotto of the Dancing Deer, by Clifford D. Simak*****

grottoofthedancing This is the second time I’ve been fortunate enough to get a DRC of Clifford D Simak’s short stories, courtesy of Net Galley and Open Road Integrated Media. (The last collection was titled We Install and Other Stories; I have reviewed it also.) Simak’s short stories are my kind of science fiction, the old school variety where there are no clever double entendres intended for–oh, for example–programmers that write obscure, difficult types of code. No, this is the stuff that is born of a fertile imagination and an excellent facility with words, and I enjoyed it start to finish, skimming nothing. And it’s for sale now, so you can get your own copy.

There’s an introduction by David W. Wixon that is probably intended to bring readers of the present up to date in understanding Simak, who wrote from 1930 until around 1980. I have to admit I don’t care for the tone of the introduction, although I have no doubt that Wixon is fond of Simak’s work. The irritation I experience in reading it is that it seems he is apologizing for Simak–this bit of dialogue is bad, for example, because Simak was so new at it–and I don’t think anyone needs to apologize for this writer, a hugely creative, intelligent man whose prose can stand up for itself. Get onto another page and check the list of awards Simak garnered over his lengthy career; it isn’t my imagination. He’s a terrific writer, and I cringe that anyone would be so supercilious as to apologize for his old friend as if Simak weren’t quite on his game.

But enough of that.

Time travel is always great fare for a short sci fi tale, and it’s used abundantly here. I think deep in his heart Simak must have also wanted to write some historical fiction, because time travel isn’t usually between the present time, even allowing for the fact that his present time when he was writing was quite some time before the present present time. He takes people from the future back to covered wagons, or to changed planets that have the habits of early American pioneers, particularly those of the wild west. And his characters are so tangible and so believable that they make the science fiction aspect of the story approachable to the reader whose science knowledge is limited. This inclination makes humanities-grounded individuals like myself so stinking happy, I can’t begin to tell you how much it pleases me. I never like to have some aspect of literature cut off from me because I am not sharp enough to handle it, but when sci fi becomes hugely technical, there’s nothing to do but to close the book and (if it isn’t a DRC) pass it on to someone more scientifically proficient than I am.

But Simak is accessible, all the time. His work isn’t dumbed down, but it is friendly and approachable. Anyone that has the ability to read at the level of a high school senior should be able to read this riveting collection without more than perhaps one or two Google searches, and those will likely be historical questions rather than technical ones.

I really enjoyed the title story, but my personal favorite of the lot is Crying Jag. In this tale, a local man has taken to drowning his sorrows in hooch, and then when he is sloppy drunk, he sits down and cries. Aliens land and are able to take the tears and the sorrow on tap, but with similar results; they get drunk from the sad stories and the tears. I laughed out loud through this one and frankly wondered what kind of creativity it would take to dream up something like this. I just loved it.

Such whimsy!

A more philosophical tale involves reaching an alien society that has labored for a long time to be able to bridge interplanetary culture and understanding; they have the perfect library for the use of the entire galaxy, absolutely free. Earth men that land here immediately begin scheming of ways to turn the “free” library into a private library for profit; hey, who’s to be the wiser? And in the end, I was bemused to see how it worked out.

I am always a little surprised that not more people read short stories. Time for most people is limited. When you finish a short story, you can give yourself permission to turn out the light and go to sleep. And Simak’s are of top caliber; the only writer whose short science fiction I enjoyed more might be Stephen Donaldson, and his vocabulary and prose is far less accessible.

High school teachers looking for good short science fiction for the classroom should look no further. The stories are varied in length and I would say they would be rated PG 13 if they were a movie instead of text; in other words, just fine for teenagers in the classroom, with a wealth of potential for discussion.

Highly recommended to all that enjoy old school science fiction.

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems, by Timothy Zahn*****

Just released today; reviewed in November and bringing it back to remind you, because this is science fiction/fantasy at its best.

Seattle Book Mama

pawnsgambitPawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of kick-ass science fiction stories, including a novella, produced digitally for the first time. This is the cool thing about Open Road Integrated Media: the publishers find outstanding work from the pre-digital era and bring it to present-day readers anew so that it can be widely read and appreciated all over again. But though these stories were written earlier, many of them have never been published in book form before. I got to check out the collection free in exchange for an honest review, and I struck oil. I wondered why I hadn’t found this writer earlier, since I have been known to binge on sci fi now and then since the 1990’s. What Zahn is best known for is the Star Wars series, which I didn’t read. In passing it by, I nearly missed a fine writer, and I will watch…

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Alien Blues, by Lynn Hightower*****

alienbluesAlien Blues, the first in the David Silver series, was originally written in the 90’s, when I was busy returning to school, having my fourth child and raising the first three. I mention this only because I am dumbfounded that I missed this amazing series the first time around, and that’s the only possible reason; I was too busy trying to find a few minutes in which to sleep back then. Thank goodness Open Road Integrated Media has re-published it digitally. After reading and being really impressed by Flashpoint, another of Hightower’s terrific novels, I searched Net Galley for anything else she had written that was available to read and review, and I scored this little treasure. It’s a brave, bold genre cross of detective fiction and science fiction, and if I can read the others in the series, you had best believe I will.

First, of course, we have a murderer. Machete Man, as he is known, enjoys hacking his victims and their belongings into portable pieces. A nice touch is the would-be victim that gets away and can describe him. He hacks up all her stuff, and we know that if she hadn’t been as quick as she was, she would have been among the sliced and diced items in her bedroom. And I find the scene that occurs later between David’s wife Rose and Machete Man spectacular.

Into the mix we have the murder of an Elaki. Elaki are another species, but to a certain extent they work and interact with humans. They shimmer; they walk on fringe; they have flippers instead of hands. Roof tops are terribly dangerous, because they are slender and lightweight, and can easily blow away in a breeze. They are shorter than humans and because they have no legs, they must fold themselves to ride in an automobile made for humans. Their own are specially adapted. But we learn all these tidbits as we go along. Hightower doesn’t waste a lot of time describing them, but makes everything we learn part of the action. And so String, an Elaki that has never fit in well with his own folk, volunteers to aid in the investigation; some suspect his motives are other than what he says.

Lurking in the background is David’s traumatic past. He grew up in a ghetto, the tunnels underground known as Little Saigo. The tunnels were invented originally to house the wealthiest members of society from Earth’s degraded environment; imagine a carefully controlled housing development where there is no fear of skin cancer or other environmental hazards. But humans tend to crave the sun, and when the rich didn’t want to buy in, the project was never completed. Squatters populated the many half-completed nooks and crannies in the enormous subterranean catacombs, and eventually an implant similar to a microchip was developed so that those that lived there could identify one another, achieving a measure of safety from those that came to pillage and wreak chaos among the vulnerable.

David has not lived in Little Saigo for a long time; he has a modest but comfortable home, a wife, and darling daughters. But ultimately, he is forced to return to Little Saigo, home of his worst nightmares, in order to solve the crime.

It’s riveting.

Hightower is brilliant. The Elaki are the most memorable nonhuman characters in literature since Spock, and her female characters defy all possible stereotypes. Her pacing, character development, and capacity to develop setting that we can nearly see and breathe is outstanding. She has won the Shamus and her work has been included in the New York Times Most Notable Books list. She’s been published on four continents, and thanks to Open Road Integrated Media, those of us that missed her the first time around can now read her work digitally. And it’s available for sale now.

Highly recommended!

Pawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems, by Timothy Zahn*****

pawnsgambitPawn’s Gambit and Other Stratagems is a collection of kick-ass science fiction stories, including a novella, produced digitally for the first time. This is the cool thing about Open Road Integrated Media: the publishers find outstanding work from the pre-digital era and bring it to present-day readers anew so that it can be widely read and appreciated all over again. But though these stories were written earlier, many of them have never been published in book form before. I got to check out the collection free in exchange for an honest review, and I struck oil. I wondered why I hadn’t found this writer earlier, since I have been known to binge on sci fi now and then since the 1990’s. What Zahn is best known for is the Star Wars series, which I didn’t read. In passing it by, I nearly missed a fine writer, and I will watch for him in the future.

The settings, situations, and moods within this collection are artfully staggered, ranging from the ethical and philosophical dilemmas that the fertile imagination runs up against when what if scenarios are presented, to surprisingly funny situations. I love the characters Zahn creates, and the way they drive his stories forward. From that first “multi-tentacled grin” of the “Sk’cee” in The Price of Survival, I was hooked. The Giftie Gie Us had an infuriating ending that left me thinking of alternative possibilities. My own personal favorite, Cascade Point, was apparently the favorite of many others also, because it won the Hugo Award in 1984.

A couple of times I noted some gender stereotypes, but for work of its time period in a genre rife with this issue—which is probably why I need time out from my sci fi binges to read other things—it was surprisingly muted. Of 82 marks I made while I read it, only 2 related to gender stereotyping.

There are no weak links, nothing that seems like filler in between good stories; everything here is strong. At a couple of points I had to bite back the urge to laugh out loud while cruising through late at night while my spouse slumbered next to me. My second favorite story is the title novella, Pawn’s Gambit; I found it unexpectedly hilarious.

This brilliantly crafted collection goes on sale January 5, 2016. The only real question for the science fiction lover is how you are going to wait that long. Mark your calendar; you won’t want to miss out on this one.

Newly Released: Nirvana, by JR Stewart Excerpt


After a big-time rewrite and vast improvement, this hot new novel hits the shelves today. Below is an excerpt, courtesy of the publisher:

The shrill five a.m. siren jolts me awake to the usual calamity. The bunker’s stale air; the pelting of dust balls and stray debris. I groan and hear Andrew’s chuckle. When I open my eyes, he’s getting dressed.
“Are you leaving already?” I ask.
Andrew leans down for one long kiss. “It’s eight o’clock.”
I bolt up in bed. “The five a.m. just went off.”
“Nope. You slept through that one.”
I groan. “I’m late.”
He leans over me. “You always are, Kenders.”
I rub my eyes. “When will you be home?”
“Late. I’ve got a meeting with my boss.”
I let out a long yawn. “Cheating on me again?” I wink.
He laughs and pulls out my photo from his breast pocket. “I’ve got
this framed on my desk.”
“You should get a better picture.”
“The green dress matches your eyes.”
I turn up my nose. “My grad photo is outdated.”
“It says everything about you. No one dictates what Kenders does. You wouldn’t wear school colours like the rest of the class did. Your green dress stood out, just like you do.”
He’s right. Our punk band was protesting the loss of habitat for bees, and this wardrobe choice was one of many anti-establishment statements we made that year. Since 2080, when Hexagon became the university’s major sponsor, it had been a new tradition to wear school colours. We boycotted that convention, and even at graduation we were handing out flyers, standing up for what we believed in.
Andrew kisses me on the lips. “I’ll see you at lunch.” About an hour later, I wake up to a softer buzzing. This time, Andrew has set the alarm for me. He knows me well enough to be sure that I’ll drift back to sleep the moment he leaves. I jump out of bed to get ready. I run a comb through my tangled bangs, and pull up a mat of brown hair, covered in dust. That’s what happens when you hit the shower too late: no water in the reservoir, not even enough to brush my teeth. I rub at the dark splotches of dirt until my pale skin turns bright pink, and then give up on my hair and pull it into a ponytail while I step into my uniform. I stop for a moment before heading out the door, and pull Andrew’s sweatshirt over my head. It drapes in a large fold over my narrow shoulders. I rush to jump onto the bus rumbling down the road, but it’s already passed by my compound.

Nirvana, by J.R. Stewart****

NirvanaNew rating and review based on updated DRC:

Larissa Kenders is a musician living in a post-apocalyptic world; her lover Andrew is missing. This newly revised young adult novel is a winner, and it will be published  November 10. Thank you to Blue Moon Press, Net Galley, and Adam Mawer at DigiWriting Book Marketing Agency for including me on the second spin. It was time well spent.

The problem on Earth began when the bees began to die. How can anyone grow food, flowers, or anything else if pollen can’t be transferred? And indeed, how does pollen get from one plant to another without the bees? Corporate giant Hexagon has created an alternate world, and humans are dependent upon the company for their sustenance. Nirvana is a virtual world that workers can visit, for a hefty price, on their days off. The question Larissa has, then, is whether the Andrew she sees in Nirvana is the virtual Andrew of her memories, or whether he may in fact still be living, hiding out from those that may wish him gone.

Various topics are explored, from alienation and the question of whom to trust—one that will resonate with teenage readers—as well as environmental issues such as GMOs, and more futuristic philosophical questions. Edward Snowden comes up, and why should he not, in a story in which many researchers have uploaded their brains to the Cloud so that their work will remain once they are gone?

I was one of a handful of reviewers that read the first draft of this book. I reported that it was dreadful because it lacked character development. This new and vastly improved version creates a Larissa Kenders that is believable, a character to whom we can bond. The remaining stereotypes, such as the jealous female that is our main villain, along with the preponderance of males rather than the usual fifty percent of the population, are problems that are so rife within the genres of science fiction and fantasy that it’s hard to hang the whole problem on this one writer, who has created a truly original and interesting plot .

Teachers considering its classroom use should be forewarned that there are a couple of sexual situations; the porn industry, a pet project of one of the villains, also gets multiple mentions. I should emphasize that this reviewer sees no problem with today’s teenagers reading the book, since most of them have seen far more explicit material on their own. But those that teach in school districts so conservative that the villagers bring everything but flaming torches to the school board meeting may want the information ahead of time prior to going out of pocket for a classroom set.

In revising his story, Stewart has plucked victory from the ashes; a job well done.


Wakefield, by Andre Codrescu ***

wakefieldWakefield is absurdist, dark humor written by award-winning poet and playwright Andre Codrescu. Thank you to Net Galley and to Open Road Integrated Media for permitting me to access a DRC. The title, originally published in 2004, will be available for purchase digitally September 8.

Wakefield is an anti-motivational speaker. He’s in great demand. People grow weary of the cheerful chipmunk types that show up with a big grin and a you-can-do-it attitude, and so corporations are seeking balance by also providing a guy that tells them it’s all a waste of time. As a natural cynic, Wakefield assumes, when the devil comes to call and tells him his time is up, that he ought to be able to strike a Faustian bargain. But oh what a surprise—the devil doesn’t want his soul. “You’re assuming, dear sir, that you have one…”

The devil wants one thing only: proof that Wakefield has found a “true life”. This broad brush stroke gives the author all sorts of leeway. At times, Wakefield’s search is savagely funny. There are some literary references that I thought were terrific; quirky philosophy; and, true to his poetic nature, some kick-ass figurative language.

The main problem is that the plot doesn’t really have a structure to hold onto. “True life” is too general, and so Wakefield wanders, both geographically, in his relationships, and in his own thoughts. The author is obviously a very intelligent man, but he’s relied too much on innate cleverness and not enough on the structural requirements of a novel. Even the most unconventional literature needs to be able to hold its audience, or it won’t be successful.

I confess I took issue with the author’s characterization of Marxism as a kind of religion; then as well, one might think that someone that spends his life considering matters philosophical would recognize that Marxism and Stalinism are not necessarily identical.

But this isn’t the reason for my rating. The three stars reflect a story that has moments of great strength, even ones that made me laugh out loud, but its inconsistency and lack of a problem that builds, peaks, and is resolved in one way or another, makes it hard to get a handle on. The result was that I found my attention wandering at times, which doesn’t happen much , and then I’d have to tab back a few pages and do some rereading. Even with notes in my e-reader, I can’t find any functional pattern. There’s an ending of sorts, but it seems to be sort of tacked on because the book has reached its required length, rather than because the plot has led us there.

Those that are familiar with Codrescu’s other work and are fans may feel differently, and so I recommend this novel to that niche audience.