Read Warm Words & Otherwise: A Blizzard of Book Reviews Online

Authors: John Grant

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Sarah's Landing 1

by Elena Dorothy Bowman

iUniverse, 310 pages, paperback, 2002

As I've remarked in these pages before
[Yawn – Ed.]
, the recent boom in vanity publishing through the technology of print-on-demand (PoD) has had both advantages and disadvantages.

The advantages centre on the fact that self-publishing writers don't have to consider the commercial preconceptions of editors and publishers. It matters not one whit to them if their novel fits snugly into any predefined marketing niche. This opens the door not just for a flood of the direst writing but also for a steady and sometimes quite strong flow of the very best, most exciting and most adventurous writing – certainly within the imaginative genres. To be sure, you might have to put up with some interesting spelling; but among these books you can find new ideas, new experiments ... and a lack of the formulaic approach that is killing stone dead so much of the supposedly speculative fiction being issued by the major commercial houses.*

[* 2011 note: Matters have improved a little in the years since this review was written ... or maybe they haven't altogether: a few months ago I looked idly at the YA section of the local big-box store and discovered the selection of books there consisted
entirely
of
Twilight
wannabes.]

The disadvantages centre on almost exactly the same fact.

Time after time, reading the output from such vanity presses as iUniverse and xLibris it is extremely obvious why no commercial house would touch one or other book with a bargepole. But let's leave such cases to the side. Instead let's think of the books where the primary disadvantage of self-publishing is most evident: those where, as you read them, you have the maddening sense that there's a pretty good book struggling to be set free, and that what it needed to set it free were the attentions of an editor and copy-editor.

Sarah's Landing 1
is such a book.

At the copy-editing level it contains untold examples of spelling errors, typographical errors, repetition and downright clumsiness, while the punctuation appears to have been applied with a clogged salt cellar – stingily in most places, with a sudden rush in a few others, but never with very much semblance of intention.

But it's at the editing level that it suffers most, as we shall see ...

In the year 2055 Joshua Morgan is the astronaut who was left behind – because of a sudden unexplained ear infection – when, a few years before, the starship
Earth Star-1
set off on its maiden voyage. Powered by a brand-new and little understood hyperdrive,
Earth Star-1
vanished in a burst of light just after entering hyperspace. No one at home can now remember the details of the hyperdrive's workings, and all the plans for its construction have disappeared. Occasionally people wonder if Allen – the inventor of the hyperdrive, who vanished with
Earth Star-1
and whose credentials no one at SICOM (read NASA) thought to check when they employed him because he was such a genius an' all – might have had something to do with the mystery.

Well, of
course
he did. He was a member of an alien species, the Theonians, who're so astonishingly humanoid that they can even breed with us. The Theonians have long been in a state of cultural and psychological moribundity. For ages they've been purloining humans – including many of the crew of the
Eldridge
, the ship that had all that trouble as the subject of the Philadelphia Experiment – and carting them off to the planet Theon for intermarriage and interbreeding: the Theonians may have incredible mental powers, teletransporting themselves here and there at will, but Earthmen, you see, bonk better. "The women are certainly happier these days than before the arrival of our first visitors," pronounces alien leader Heron.

Joshua, investigating mysterious disappearances, is drawn to the coastal New Jersey small town of Sarah's Landing, from where a disproportionate number of people have gone missing. In fact, as the locals say, the vanishings all seem to happen from one particular building, in which Joshua promptly rents himself an office – but not before he and rangy redhead telepath Alexandra have become lovers.

When Alexandra hops off to New York for a few days, Joshua discovers where all those missing persons have gone: to Theon. In Theon he discovers he can do things like fly before being dragooned into Theonian society and told to forget Alexandra, whom he already knows is his true love: after all, Heron's daughter, Adrianne, is now of age to become his new lover. Since she's if anything even more heart-wrenchingly sensational than Alexandra, Joshua dutifully acquiesces ... although able to maintain sporadic telepathic contact with Alexandra, even managing on one occasion to teleport himself home for a quick night of passion.

The net result is that both women become pregnant by him roughly simultaneously. Moreover, their fetuses are capable of telepathic communication as well ...

Oh, did I forget to mention that all this while Earth has been in radio-type contact with
another
alien species, the Crlllions, of planet Crlllion? That's because the author does as well, until page 243, where the fact is introduced almost as an aside. Indeed, although we aren't told this until even later in the book, it was to Crlllion that
Earth Star-1
was sent, at the suggestion of the Crlllions. Obviously (by now) the starship vanished from human ken because the Theonians nabbed it – indeed, they were responsible for it in the first place, because Allen's commission was to deliver home a nice
big
consignment of Earthlings all in one fell swoop. But that wasn't the
only
reason the Theonians seized the vessel: late, late in the book they tell Joshua that they were saving humanity from itself, because all the Crlllions really want to do with the other species they contact is lure them to Crlllion and eat them, to make up for the food shortages there.

(As an aside, think of the name "Crlllion". Since it must be a phonetic rendition of the name the aliens call themselves – unless, miraculously, they use the Roman alphabet – where the hell did that triple-"l" come from? Wouldn't the name, in English, be spelled "Krillian", or something like that? Perhaps the author thinks giving the aliens a real weirdo unpronounceable name will make them seem somehow
more alien
.)

So you see the disadvantages of not having an editor? The genetics, economics and logistics of all this plot – not to mention the astronomy – are completely haywire. The technology of the year 2055 is a bizarre mixture of incredibly futuristic (
viz
the ftl starship) and 20th-century: videophones have only just recently been introduced to the world of 2055. When the starship is somewhere at the edge of the solar system preparing for the transition to hyperspace, there's no time lag in the radio messages to and from Ground Control in Houston. The Crlllions are described as cannibals because they'll eat humans; of course, they're not – they'd be cannibals if they ate
other Crlllions
. And anyway the Crlllions must be crazy to think importing a few hundred Earthlings, even as breeding stock, will solve a planet-wide food shortage; and wouldn't it be a whole lot cheaper and easier to grow more cows? The beautiful and sensuous Alexandra, aged 24, is a virgin when Joshua meets her. Humans and Theonians have identical anatomies, physiologies and even DNA. And so on, and on, and on.

Perhaps the epitome of the torrent of scientific illiteracy comes when Joshua first sets eyes on the Theonians' big central power-generating unit. Not long arrived from an Earth whose technology is little different from today's, he takes one glance and thinks:

This must be the ultimate in fluid mechanics and matter anti-matter power generation ever conceived. The Theonians must be tapping the core of the planet Theon.

Well, if you can recognize a matter-antimatter power generator at a glance you're a whole lot cleverer than I am. If you can conceive a generating system that combines fluid mechanics and matter-antimatter reactions you're a whole lot cleverer than I am. If you can work out how to mine antimatter from the core of your planet you're a whole lot cleve ... oh, actually you're not, because either your planet doesn't have any antimatter in its core or it's a rapidly expanding cloud of incandescent gas.

The ending of the book is entirely arbitrary. It just stops, more or less in mid-sequence, with none of the plot-threads resolved. There are, apparently, three further volumes in the saga to come; even so, this abrupt closure is unforgivable. To be sure, it's fair play to end one volume of a series such that the reader is left gasping for more; to leave the novel effectively unfinished is not.

With a plot that holds together with about as much conviction as the hypothetical antimatter-cored planet, with an enormous amount of clumsy writing, and with much more besides, by all the rules
Sarah's Landing 1
should be an out-and-out bad novel, and I wouldn't be wasting my time reviewing it.

But the curious thing is that it's not. Fairly frequently, while wading through all the rest, one realizes that bits of it are working quite well. Joshua's discovery of the massive alien complex seemingly under the building in Sarah's Landing is really quite absorbing, as are the early stages of his training in Theonian-style mental powers. Alexandra emerges as a real person, and so to a lesser extent does Adrianne; one begins to care about both of them. It's quite fun that the Philadelphia Experiment is thrown into the soup. Just every now and then there's a nice coup of the imagination, or a sweetly perceptive turn of phrase. In short, the very fact that I got to the end of the book says something for it – more than that, it would actually make the basis for a pretty good skiffy movie. (And low-budget, too, since you'd not need to spend anything on rubber suits for the aliens!) Given the attentions – the very diligent and extensive attentions – of a competent editor to paper over all those plot inconceivabilities,
Sarah's Landing 1
could perhaps be better than just rescuable: it might actually turn out very well.

As for the lack of a copy-editor (and proofreader)? Well, although one can blame vanity publishing for much of this, Bowman herself must not go completely without criticism. This text seems not to have been checked by
anyone
– not even given a read-through by its author.

I could hardly recommend that you rush out and buy
Sarah's Landing 1
, but the possibility remains that Bowman may, one day, either find a good editor or learn to edit herself – and preferably both. In that event, she may be one to watch.

—Infinity Plus

Pretty Dead

by Gerry Boyle

Berkley Prime Crime, 336 pages, hardback, 2003

Jack McMorrow is the Maine stringer for the
New York Times
, having deliberately moved himself away from the pressures of cutting-edge journalism. However, his semi-retirement from the fray hasn't isolated him from high-profile crime cases; this is the latest addition to Gerry Boyle's series about him and his permanent other, Roxanne Masterson, a social worker.

It's through Roxanne that Jack is brought into this latest case. The daughter of powerful, wealthy (think Kennedys) David and Maddie Connelly has been reported as suffering bruises that might indicate child abuse, and Jack tags along when Roxanne goes to interview the family. They get drawn into the Connellys' social circle, meeting various of the staff of the Connellys' own foundation. A few days later, Jack goes to a crime scene and finds that the victim is Angel Moretti, a sexbomb temptress and, seemingly, manipulating cocktease whom he met during a Connelly gathering. As he tries, with Roxanne's assistance, to track down the killer he is both threatened by hoodlums and cooperated with by the Connellys.

But are the Connellys all that they seem? Are they genuinely cooperating? For all that they blame a sacked and now conveniently disappeared nanny, could it be that they were indeed responsible for those bruises? Is it possible for Jack to do his job as a reporter while at the same time doing his job as (now) a friend to make sure the Connellys are subjected to as little unjustified public attention as possible? Is there a Mob involvement? And why is Maddie Connelly – the woman who seems to have everything – seemingly so scared of her own shadow?

There are plenty of questions to be asked, and Jack sets about finding the answers – aware all the time that the killer may be closer to Roxanne and himself than he thinks.

The combination of mystery and thriller is not always easy to achieve – ratiocination and action thrills offer two different forms of excitement – but Boyle makes a very good fist of it in this novel; the final fifty pages or so are as compulsive as anything you'll find in any edge-of-your-chair thriller. There's one major "cheat" in the ratiocination aspect of the tale: I can't detail it for fear of giving away too much, but essentially Jack is seriously misinformed about something for no apparent purpose other than to mislead the reader. Aside from that, this is a good detective novel as well as well as an effective thriller.

The characterization is nicely done as well; for the most part one gets the impression one has come to know these people. (The portrayal of the victim is especially vivid.) The writing's nice without being prissy, and there are some good one-liners. Yet my enthusiasm was tempered, partly because of the "cheat" mentioned above and partly because what the novel doesn't quite succeed in capturing is atmosphere. The two principal settings are rural Maine and Boston, and certainly this reader didn't get the feel of either. That, of course, doesn't matter too much if everything else is working well; but it does render
Pretty Dead
less lingering than it might have been.

—Crescent Blues

From the Dust Returned

by Ray Bradbury

Morrow, 204 pages, hardback, 2001

This book has an extremely interesting Afterword about its genesis. It began with the publication, in the October 1946 issue of
Mademoiselle
, of Bradbury's famous story "Homecoming", which had earlier been rejected outright by
Weird Tales
, the pulp to which Bradbury had been a somewhat uneasy but regular contributor for several years. The story's appearance in
Mademoiselle
was illustrated – with a full double-page spread, no less – by Charles Addams, and the two men soon after decided that, over the next few years, they would create a book together: Bradbury would write further stories concerning the Family, the assemblage of supernatural quasi-humans introduced in "Homecoming", and Addams would illustrate them. Other commitments got in the way of good intentions, and the proposed book never came to fruition ... until now, long after Addams's death. All that survives of Addams's intended contribution is the book's cover illustration, which is that old double-page spread from
Mademoiselle
.

This book is billed as a novel. It isn't. And neither is it really a collection of short stories. Rather, it is a book of prose that contains six previously published short stories, three new ones, and a goodly number of short (often extremely short and inconsequential) interpolated prose passages that sometimes verge on short-storyhood but are mainly just included for the sake of atmospherics. The book itself is short: many of those 204 smallish pages are blank, and the leading of the type is very generous. On occasion the jury-rigging together of its components becomes over-evident, as at the start of the story "West of October", well into the book (page 69): here we find half a page telling us all sorts of stuff about the Family that we already know, but it's been left in there because it was, necessarily, in the original publication of the story.

The book is also billed as "A landmark event more than fifty years in the making – and a new occasion for rejoicing". I'm not too sure it's that, either.

Somewhere at the top of a hill, somewhere in probably the Midwest, somewhen in probably the middle of the 20th century or thereabouts, there stands a House whose occupants are members of a Family whose other members are scattered all over the globe. Some of the Family seem vampirish, but to describe them as vampires would be to oversimplify: instead they are the dead who are not dead, or some such.

The principal family members with whom we are concerned are A Thousand Times Great Grandmère, who is the mummified mother of Nefertiti; Cecy, who forever sleeps in the attic but whose thoughts can wander far and wide and possess the bodies of others; the bat-winged Uncle Einar, who is a joyously playful friend to children; and Timothy, a mortal foundling, now a ten-year-old and the Family's determined historian (and presumably a surrogate character for Bradbury himself, upon whose own childhood the scenario is – extremely loosely! – based). Also somewhat near centre stage are Father and Mother (that is, Timothy's adoptive father and mother), who are strange in themselves but never really coalesce in the mind's eye.

The previously published stories are "The Traveler" (
Weird Tales
, 1945), in which the Family must cope with the arrival of rogue relative John the Unjust, a Vlad Drakul figure who might destroy their integrity; "Homecoming", in which, during a gathering at the House of all the far-flung Family, Timothy learns to accept and revel in his mortality; "Uncle Einar" (
Dark Carnival
, 1947), in which the eponymous character loses his battish sonar and thus can no longer fly at night, and so must find a way of flying by day without being recognized as a "monster" and shot down by humans; "The Wandering Witch" (
Saturday Evening Post
, 1952, as "The April Witch"), in which Cecy, a-quest for the experience of love, enters the body of a young woman and forces her to be polite, for just one evening, to a young man whom she dislikes; "On the Orient North" (
The Toynbee Convector
, 1988), a slightly twee but nevertheless effective ghost story spoiled by a predictable ending and somewhat bolted onto the rest of such structure as there is; and "West of October" (
The Toynbee Convector
, 1988), in which the excorporated spirits of four young men are drafted into the mind of A Thousand Times Great Grandmère's spouse, where they discover a world of romance and sex that they decline to leave.

Most of these are good stories, but the first four are extremely familiar from widespread publication in other books while the latter two will be well known to Bradbury devotees.

What then of the three new stories? In "Make Haste to Live" a buried Family member is disinterred and over succeeding weeks become rapidly younger until she vanishes in a sexual encounter. In "Return to the Dust", not quite a free-standing story, the attention of mortals has been drawn to the House, thanks to the malevolence of John the Unjust (
op cit.
), and so the Family must flee their separate ways. Finally, "The Gift", again not quite a free-standing story, sees Timothy present A Thousand Times Great Grandmère to an Egyptian museum of antiquities.

So much for characters and content. As it's not really profitable to discuss the plot of a non-novel, what about the writing style?

Bradbury has never made any secret of the fact that the major stylistic influence on his writing is that of Thomas Wolfe. (A note for the youthful: This is the Thomas Wolfe of
You Can't Go Home Again
, not the Tom Wolfe of
Bonfire of the Vanities
.) If anything, Bradbury for a couple of decades wrote Thomas Wolfe better than Thomas Wolfe did: ignoring the subject matter, the stories in, say,
The Martian Chronicles
/
The Silver Locusts
(1950) – another non-novel, but oh what a magnificent one – had all Wolfe's richness of imagery and language but also a greater stylistic discipline. Where Wolfe was always in danger of lurching into purpleness, Bradbury, with less rambling sentences and particularly with shorter paragraphs, always kept just this side of the narrow dividing line between floweriness and flaccidity. All through the 1940s and 1950s he maintained his grip on this precarious position with astonishing skill.

Around the time of his story collection
The Machineries of Joy
(1964), however, the grip seemed to be starting to slip. It was as if Bradbury had, well, run out of things to say and stories to tell, and was trying to compensate for this lack by an ever-increasing linguistic grandiosity that often veered into something approaching self-parody, as if Gerard Manley Hopkins had become possessed by the spirit of William McGonagall and the two personalities were fighting it out. It is no coincidence that I cite the names of two poets here, because Bradbury's great strength as a stylist hitherto had been the robust poetic zeal of his language; now too many of the metaphors were misfiring, and what had once been a rich swirl was becoming too often a gush.

His subject matter was changing, too: many and then most of the stories were well clear of the realms of fantasy. Of course, there's no objection at all – certainly from this quarter – to such a switch of focus; but the loss of the fantastic from Bradbury's writing did make even more obvious the flagging of his style. I can remember reading, in the early 1970s, a Bradbury collection and a collection by the Irish writer Frank O'Connor. The subject matter of the two sets of stories was not at all dissimilar, and I sadly had to admit that O'Connor's beautifully taut yet richly written fictions made Bradbury's read like a self-indulgent and amateurish attempt at emulation. (For all I know Bradbury has never even heard of O'Connor, of course; but that's the way the stories
read
.) Yes, O'Connor's language was fully as poetic as Bradbury's; yet it did not obviate his tales possessing a powerful narrative drive.

And it seems to me that Bradbury has never recaptured the joyous exuberance, both stylistic and narrative, of his early fictions – which were tales that
any
writer would have been proud to have written.
From the Dust Returned
would seem to be just a further evidence in favour of my contention. By contrast with the early tales, there are countless examples here among the new material of flaccid, self-indulgent overwriting, some of which are near comic:

• ... sucking vile liquors toward a surface abandoned because of the possible upchuck of nightmares ...

• Planes fly like pterodactyls on huge wings.

Oh yes? So the planes are flapping their flexible wings up and down in a complexly articulated fashion?

• ... you looked down to see your pale light painting lost towns the color of tombstones and spectral ghosts.

As opposed to the non-spectral type of ghosts.

• She leaned forward suddenly and gave him such a kiss on his mouth that his eardrums fractured and the soft spot

• With one last crushing gesture he crammed his fist to his ears and dropped dead.

• A rabbit thumped and ran in Timothy's chest.

• "Like ghosts?" // "Which use people's ears to look out their eyes!"

Actually, I suppose if you've managed to cram a single fist in both ears simultaneously this last one shouldn't be too difficult as an encore.

Let it not be thought that there are no nuggets of gold to be found in
From the Dust Returned
. Some of the reprinted stories have, for obvious reasons, all the exquisite fantastication of language and imagery that led in the first place to Bradbury's eminence; and elsewhere, in the more recent work, every now and then it is as if the same Muse had called back briefly to blow a breath of inspiration into his face. When this happens, the prose and imagery suddenly lift exhilaratingly off the ground, and one is left gasping. But then, all too soon, we're back to rabbits thumping and running in Timothy's chest. The overall impression with which I came away from this book was thus, sadly, that it's a very slight piece of work ... and that it's about time I dug out that dusty copy of Bradbury's splendid non-novel
Dandelion Wine
(1957) to read it yet again.

—Infinity Plus

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