Category Archives: Fiction

Book Review: “Only To Sleep” by Lawrence Osborne

Only To Sleep by Lawrence Osborne

Phillip Marlow appeared in stories by Raymond Chandler from the 1930’s to 1950’s, as well as movie adaptations on into the 1980’s.

In recent years, the Chandler estate has authorized some new works about Marlowe by contemporary authors, emulating the original style.  The Black-Eyed Blonde (2014) by Benjamin Black [1] has now been followed by a new novel by Lawrence Osborne.

Only To Sleep is set in 1988, when Marlow is 72 years old and the world has moved on from mid century California noir.  Retired in Mexico, Marlowe is drawn back to work to investigate the death of an American.  Deep in debt, heavily insured, and a poorly documented drowning in Mexico—the insurance company would like to be sure this isn’t a scam.

The old war horse can’t resist one more charge when the trumpet blows.

The story features a lot of scenery in rural Mexico (circa 1988): dust, jungle, light, and a lot of people on the make, both locals and gringos.  Phillip chases clues from place to place, drinking, wise cracking and bribing bus boys.  Just like the old days.

If this is a classic Marlow case, the man himself is scarcely the same. Old and slow, he’s not going to be kicking in doors or knocking heads.  And, as for the dames, the pilot is out, and he’s out of the combat zone.  Nothing but memories on that front.

“Count me as one of those who know that life is unbearable not because it’s a tragedy but because it’s a romance. Old age only makes it worse, because now the race against time has reached the hour of high noon.” (p. 194)

It’s been a long time since I read the originals, and I frankly don’t remember the style very clearly.  So I can’t judge how well Osbourne emulates Chandler.  You can draw your own conclusions.

But the story certainly hits the noir song dead on.  Marlow is not motivated by the money, or by the interests of his insurance company clients.  And the facts are murky, to say the least.  So why does he persist?

An old man could be excused for walking away, especially when things get dicey.  But how can he let it be?  The whole story is driven by the desire to know what really happened. And as always, he is trying to answer the noirest question of all:  what is the true moral course?

If noir is a tale about the last honest man, this must be the last case of the last honest man.

  1. Benjamin Black, The Black-Eyed Blonde, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 2014.
  2. Lawrence Osborne, Only To Sleep: A Phillip Marlowe Novel, New York, Hogarth, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Tell The Machine Goodnight” by Katie Williams

Tell The Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams

The “Machine” in the title is an imaginary device that supposedly reads DNA (and other data?), and reports three things that will make you happier.  This supposedly insightful technology is shrouded in secrecy and opacity. The company keeps tight control of the testing and results.

These little fortune cookie messages are obscure and irrational, but people seem to follow them anyway.

“Eat tangerines”
“Adopt a dog”
“Work at a desk that receives morning light”

We are given little reason to believe that people are happier. (What would that mean, anyway?)  But the company claims nearly 100% satisfaction, and customers are forced to rate the experience as satisfactory.

would you say that you anticipate Apricity’s recommendations will improve your overall life satisfaction?

The technology is utter nonsense, of course, and there are even intimations that “fake” versions of the technology are out there, which just give out random phrases.  People can’t really tell the difference many times, which isn’t surprising since it’s mostly a placebo anyway.

This story isn’t really about the technology, per se.  The device is mainly metaphorical, standing in for contemporary fascination and belief in the oracular powers of “data”.

Williams explores how people deal with this supposed super technology.  Some people are eager to have their reading (a “contentment plan”), sometimes repeatedly even though it doesn’t change.  Others are sentenced or coerced to have a reading.  And others avoid it, not wanting to know.  The machine is fodder for performance art, and, of course, attracts the drooling interest of advertisers.  (A perfect place for product placement, no?)

But much of the book is about the unhappy lives of people who generally have enough that they should be happy.  Most of the people in the book are pretty wealthy, and certainly no one is in desperate want.  Yet they have terrible psychological problems, awful marriages, and generally lousy lives.

They also have secrets from each other and from themselves.  In most cases, it’s hard to tell if keeping the secrets is better or worse for them.  (And, of course, The Machine is supposed to reveal the secret of happiness.)

Some things do make people happy.  A mother’s love, teen age infatuation, compassion for each other.  No points awarded for guessing that these things don’t generally appear in your contentment plan.

But much of the story is very sad, and the people are pretty messed up.  It’s hard to read some of these episodes, watching them screw up and knowing it is going to end badly.

I’m not really sure if there is a deep point to this story.  OK, the “happiness technology” is clearly useless at best, and harmful to many.  And happiness itself is achieved by the old fashioned methods of being good to each other and loving one another.  Maybe this is supposed to be an anti-technology warning.  I dunno.

  1. Katie Williams, Tell The Machine Goodnight, New York, Riverhead Books, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Sophia of Silicon Valley” by Anna Yen

Sophia of Silicon Valley by Anna Yen

Yet another in the growing literature coming out of the Internet Age.  I have tagged some of these the “revenge of the English majors”, humanities majors critiquing their often hellish service in the digital industry.  (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here)

Anna Yen is a good writer, and tells a great story.  But she is not a radical critic of contemporary capitalism.  There is a lot of nasty stuff here, but she also finds creativity, humanity, and opportunities for great things.

This novel seems to be thinly fictionalized autobiography, giving up close and personal views of the over-heated world of Silicon Valley IPOs, as well as the intense corporate life and pressures on people and families.  She also gives us fictionalized views of some of the “geniuses” of Silicon Valley, warts and all.  There some good people and also bastards, backstabbing, and assorted bad and broken people.

Personally, I don’t find the picture attractive no matter how much money is involved.  Yen is not charitable, but she does see the point:  doing great things that have never been done is worth putting up with eccentricity to the point of what I consider criminal abuse or clinical nuttiness.

Yen also gives an interesting picture of the not particularly pleasant working conditions for women in technology, and for Asian women in particular.  Many of the men are obnoxious and definitely deserving of a severe #MeToo-ing.  But Yen also portrays women who successfully navigate these unfriendly waters, for better or worse.

Much of the story is about the protagonist’s struggle to create a life outside of work, with friends and family.  As is typical in the “revenge of the English majors” genre, the resolution of this problem is to drop out of the rat race and do it your own way.  However, in this case, Sophia makes sure to make her nut first.  This is the standard (male) Silicon Valley narrative, not a rejection or disruption of it.

This book has been received by some as a “women’s book”.  I can see why that might be said.  A lot of the plot involves gossip, shopping, clothes, and dating.  There is also a ton of parental relations here.  Chinese immigrant parents, to boot.  Much of this material would never be written by (or noticed by) a man, and obviously only a Chinese American daughter could tell about the exquisite tortures of simultaneous instructions to “aim high”, “don’t criticize men”, and “why aren’t you married yet”.

Even though the main action is in the male-oriented business world, a lot of it is about stuff that female workers get stuck with—meeting the whims of unreasonable bosses, answering the phone, organizing events, etc.. Beyond the headlines of #MeToo, don’t forget that there is a lot of low grade sexism in the tech industry.

One thing I noticed is that the protagonist (and the author) have accomplished some amazing things, building amazing companies, completing zillion dollar deals, fixing problems, and so on.  But Yen tells us very little about that, which is rather odd.  The successes seem to be only about her personal life.

Perhaps this is a female perspective on this working world.  It’s certainly a well informed and realistic perspective, if perhaps a bit more accepting of the negatives than I would be.

This would probably be useful reading for youngsters setting out in the job market.  But is this a warning to avoid or an example to follow?

Yen seems to offer this as a model for success (including personal success).

But I have to say that if my boss that answered a question with “Are you stupid? Or f*ing stupid?”, I would be out the door by the end of the day.  “Genius” or no, I have no stomach and no time for that kind of casual abuse.

Still, this is a good addition to the growing literature of the digital age.

  1. Anna Yen, Sophia of Silicon Valley, New York, HarperCollins, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Red Waters Rising” by Laura Ann Gilman

Red Waters Rising by Laura Ann Gilman

This is the third book in the series, following Silver on the Road (2015) and The Cold Eye (2017).  Isobel and Gabriel’s Road takes them over to the big river, and a big city, Red Stick.  As usual, Isobel goes where she feels she must, even though she has little understanding of why she is needed and what she should be doing.

Delta country is different than the pains and mountains, but just as full of powerful magic.  Something is clearly wrong, everyone senses it.  But what is wrong, and what can the Left Hand and Cold Eye do about it?  And what is “it” anyway.

I really liked the first book, which has a lot of beautiful images of the wilderness and riding the Road, and a young girl setting out to grow up.  I liked the second book a lot less, because it was deeply into very confused and confusing supernatural struggles.  Honestly, I have no idea what was happening most of the time.

This third book is in between the other two.  There is interesting scenery, and some interesting people.  Isobel is growing up fast (she is “almost seventeen” now), and her relationship with Gabriel has matured wonderfully.

But the challenges she faces are yet more supernatural stuff, which is really hard to follow.  Lots of bad stuff seems to be happening, but there doesn’t seem to be much logic to it.

Isobel seems to fend off several clear and present threats, but it isn’t clear for how long, or whether the danger has just pulled back for a moment.  In short, I don’t understand the plot.

It’s great to see Isobel growing up, though she isn’t happy with what she is becoming.  (Hey, you asked for this deal from the Devil, kid.)  Isobel is awfully young, and has an awful lot of growing up to do still.  Her menteeship will soon end, but I’m confident she’ll be OK, if no happier than most seventeen year olds.

Presumably there will be more sequels.

  1. Laura Anne Gilman, Silver on the Road, New York, Saga Press, 2015.
  2. Laura Anne Gilman, The Cold Eye, New York, Saga Press, 2017.
  3. Laura Anne Gilman, Red Waters Rising, New York, Saga Press, 2018.


Sunday Book Reviews


Book Review: “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk

Kudos by Rachel Cusk

Kudos [3] is the third book in Cusk’s trilogy, following Outline (2014) [1] and Transit (2016) [2].  It’s hard to tell for sure, but these appear to be slices in the life of a woman writer living in the UK. The woman is a writer, divorced, with children. She does a lot of teaching and readings.  Cusk writes what she knows: mostly autobiography.

Be that as it may, there isn’t actually any plot or description in these stories, only long, winding dialogs about…life.  These novels seems to be aiming to express the idea suggested in the first novel,

“…while he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape even while its content remained unknown, gave her for the first time since the incident a sense of who she now was.” (From Outline (2014) [1]:, pp. 239-40)

The novels talk and talk in endless detail about everything except who the main character is, slowly outlining her as a blank silhouette.

That’s a neat metaphor, and it does explain why there are so many words with so little information delivered.  By the end, we know next to nothing about the protagonist or any of the other people.  Just as a for instance, it appears that she remarried since the second book.  The new man is never mentioned, not does she ever tell us anything about the relationship and how it came to be.  Considering her earlier experiences, we are quite justified to wonder how she changed her mind about men and marriage, and what is so different about this particular man.  But we are told nothing.

Overall, the stories are not high on the male of the species (and the ending is enigmatic, but pretty clear on that point).  The protagonist meets lots of single mothers and unhappy divorcees, and hears stories of cruelty, wickedness, and stupidity. It’s pretty grim reading, and even more so because it’s unfortunately accurate.

Besides the cruelty of marriage and men, another theme is to ask, “what is the purpose of art?”  What is Cusk trying to do, or at least what should she be trying to do?  I think the answer is hinted at by the woman who says:

“…I realized that he had somehow, without my quite noticing, taken the burden of perception from me, which to my mind was inseparable from the burden of living and of telling the story. He showed me in that moment that it was, in fact, separate, and the effect on me was to make me feel an incredible sense of freedom, at the same time as suspecting that by shedding that burden I would have nothing else to live for. You have to live.” ([3], p. 164)

Basically, this novel is trying to tell the story of how she  and others perceive life, especially the life of mothers, wives, and working women.  If this is the mission and “burden” of the novelist, then we can certainly see what Cusk is doing.

I have to say that the writing is clever but rather hard for me to read.  It is one long (three whole books long) collection of conversations. We only learn about themselves, others, and events from what people say.  I’m sure that’s part of the point.  But it also means that there is endless detail, much of it not particularly interesting or relevant to anyone other than the speaker.  Worse, it’s impossible to really know what is true or what other people might really believe.

And, of course, the only thing that ties these 1001 tales together is the lifeline of the narrator, who is present mainly through her on words.  Again, that’s probably part of the point.  Life is a sequence of unconnected conversations.

Stated this way, it is clear that the entire enterprise stands or falls on the actual words, the flow, cadence, and imagery of the words.  Cusk is an excellent writer, no question.  But she didn’t really connect with me particularly well.  Perhaps I just can’t see the world as a single mother writer living in Europe.  I’ve certainly never been in any of the places or situations she recounts, so there is little overlap with my personal experience.

On the other hand, perhaps I should take Cusk as a “witness” to other people’s experience.  If so, I can only say that this is her own rendition of the world.  How can I trust what she says?  And if I can’t trust it, then is it of any value at all to me?

OK, enough.

You can see that even though I didn’t deeply identify with the character, and didn’t especially enjoy the writing, Cusk did make me think a bit.  And that’s not nothing.

  1. Rachel Cusk, Outline, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.
  2. Rachel Cusk, Transit, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
  3. Rachel Cusk, Kudos, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.


Sunday Book Review



Book Review: “The City of Lost Fortunes” by Bryan Camp

The City of Lost Fortunes by Bryan Camp

Camp’s novel is a love song to his city, which is still recovering from the devastating trauma of Katrina, which ripped the city apart and, as the title suggests, flooded it with losses of all kinds.

If there was ever a city that has a personality, New Orleans is surely it.  And Camp brings us a supernatural personification of the city, its strength, its luck, its will, its voice, and the many magical creatures and interesting people who live there.

We’ve all learned to expect New Orleans to be filled with vampires, tarot, voodoo, zombies, and, not least, jazz.  Camp’s story has them all, and then some.

The plot involves one Jude, a finder of lost things.  Jude was wiped out by Katrina, overwhelmed by the massive and continuous flood of losses.  He’s been hiding since, unable or unwilling to use his gift.

But now Jude is pulled into some kind of complicated plot that appears to be part of a dangerous tussle for control of the city by major magical powers.  Magic is powerful, but the goals of the powers are unknown and some are definitely not benign.

Unraveling the mystery—and finding himself—Jude meets a great assortment of New Orleans characters, visits many iconic locations, and generally lets us see New Orleans as it ought to be, even wounded as she is.

I loved the characters and scenery, and, of course, Camp makes clear the many things he loves in his city.  If nothing else, this story is an answer to “why did you go back?”

I do believe in the magic of sex and drugs and rock and roll, which also abounds in the Crescent City.  But personally, I don’t care much for new agey mystical stuff.  Tarot.  Legbas.  Magical herbs. Yawn. But Camp makes a smooth and delicious story out of it.

Just for instance: zombies are a really stupid concept.  But an ancient jazz man, unhappily preserved after death, still playing that busted up horn, making magical music that touches people, and, in the end gives voice to the city.  That’s a beautiful, beautiful image, and it’s so right.

Much of this story is dark and gritty, with violence and loss at every turn.  But there are good people here, good deeds, and the possibility of life.  It’s wonderful, hopeful, and it’s so New Orleans.

  1. Bryan Camp, The City of Lost Fortunes, New York, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.


Book Review: “Meddling Kids” by Edgar Cantero

Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero

Yes, it’s a twisted update to that silly show that we all remember so well. In this take, those meddling kids are older and the world isn’t so innocent anymore.

Thirteen years after their last case, the gang is scattered and badly damaged.  They are pulled back to the scene of their finale, haunted by the fact that they caught the wrong man, and that something was and still is badly wrong.  They need to fix it, and, along the way, to fix themselves and others damaged by their earlier mistake.

Unwinding the mystery leads to all sorts of Lovecraftian horror, which is not to be trifled with as I have said before. The kids are a bit more grown up now and a bit smarter. This time they try hard not to split up, eschewing the time-honored plot device. They also carry firearms and other weapons, and aren’t really expecting a silly man in a costume.  The danger is real and overwhelming.

The return to the scene of youthful happiness is a poignant theme, even without the supernatural horror and soul sucking danger.  Who doesn’t sigh at the memory of the last days of innocent youth?  Who doesn’t regret the choices not made, the bonds allowed to fade?

The writing is pretty good, much more up-beat beatnik than dreadful pompous Howard. The characters are interesting, and much of the dialog witty.  I liked these kids, especially the twenty somethings they have grown to be.

The plot is dumb, but that’s kind of what is expected from those meddling kids, no?

The action in the TV show was childishly innocent, with lots of unrealistic running around, slapstick, and face gags (and a really annoying laugh track). Unfortunately, this story is post-video game generation, so the action includes slews of gratuitous, unrealistic, violence.  I don’t enjoy this kind of video game, and the written version is not interesting to read, not particularly funny, and generally not appealing.  (And, by the way, much of it could have been omitted without damaging the story.)

Overall, I liked it, even if I skipped as fast as I could through the pointless slaughter.

  1. Edgar Cantero, Meddling Kids, New York, Penguin, 2017.


Sunday Book Review