Reading, “The Man in the High Castle”

“Work the sentences, if you wish, so that they will mean something. Or so that they mean nothing. Whichever you prefer.”

Man in the High Castle Amazon Philip K DickThe limited previews I saw for the Amazon adaptation are what pushed my interest in “the Man in the High Castle” to the reading point.  Is the show any good? I haven’t watched it yet, but I’m intrigued.  Nazis!  Alternate history!  Episodic storytelling!  DJ Qualls!  Ok, maybe not necessarily DJ Qualls, but the Nazis and alternate history piqued my interest.  Having read a few other Philip K. Dick novels and handful of short stories, I wanted to see what he would do with the few pieces I knew about.

The only way to explain how I felt reading ‘High Castle’, and I hope this makes sense, is to say nothing actually happened, but no one bothered to tell me.

Similar to other examples of Philip K. Dick I’ve read, there isn’t what you would normally call “world building” going on in his books.  It’s more like “world immersion,” as if you wake up to this new reality and although you have no idea what or who anything is, you assume that’s how it has always been.  Like laughing along with everyone else even though you don’t get the joke, you don’t freak out and try to understand what’s happening around you in this new reality.  Instead, you keep reacting and moving and speaking, picking up clues and understanding things as you go, hoping no one else figures out that you have no idea what you’re doing.

In that regard, I suppose Dick’s writing is as close to real life as one can get, just with slightly more advanced technology that you still don’t know how to work.

Man in the High Castle Philip K DickSometimes this method works, such as in “Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said,” where that almost literally is the plot.  It works a little less so for “Time Out of Joint,” but generally extremely well for his short stories and in “A Scanner Darkly.”  You learn the necessary facts of this new reality as you go.  The important details are made clear because you need them to survive.  You learn by doing, by living.  It’s a ‘take only what you need to survive’ sort of writing style.

This style is great, and I’ve loved it in the past, and it’s why I enjoy Dick’s books.But here, with this reality and these characters, it left me constantly waiting.  We never really moved forward.  While the characters were steadily doing things and interacting with each other and proving they knew on another and were all connected, it never felt like they were ever moving about in the same reality. They kept doing but never moving.  Acting but never affecting.

But here, with this reality and these characters, it left me constantly waiting.  We never really moved forward.  While the characters were always doing things and interacting with each other and proving they knew one another and were all connected, it never felt like they were actually moving about in the same reality.  They kept doing but never moving.  Acting but never affecting.

I kept turning the page.  They kept going through the motions.  And we all kept waiting to see where we were going and whether it was worth it.

Man in the High Castle Philip K DickBut even as these characters met their ends and found explanations and tried to understand what they had learned from what they’d done, there didn’t seem to be much of a point to it.  I was left holding a book that was more an unfinished thought then fully formed novel.  I didn’t grow into understanding the reality so I didn’t care about the people in it, which was ok because the same could be said for any of the characters in it as well.

While this won’t turn me off reading more Philip K. Dick, or even deter me from checking out the tv show, this wouldn’t be the first, third or even fifth book by him I recommend.  Not when he much better-written novels and stories to chose from that successfully pull off his immersion style of writing.

Reading Donald Westlake’s ‘361’

361 / “Look up 361 in any Thesaurus and you’ll find this: ‘Destruction of life; violent death; killing.’ “

361 Donald Westlake original cover by  Denis McLoughlinI picked up a handful of Hard Case Crime books on clearance, a couple of the authors being ones I recognized, but they sat on the shelf for a couple years before I got around to reading one of them. I started Donald Westlake’s “361” mainly because it was the one sitting closest to me while I was having some computer issues.  A few bugs had caused serious delays in my computer’s ability to even idle without freezing, so while I tried to troubleshoot that, I needed something to do.

Being in a significant reading slump the last few months, I didn’t have much faith in Westlake’s ability to keep me engaged.  Nothing I picked up interested me, and nothing I was reading already seemed worth grabbing.  This would do, I thought, for a momentary distraction while my computer struggled to open a single web page.  But I was wrong.  This was perfect.  This was just what I needed.

The jacket gave away the setup, but that only heightened the suspense as Westlake’s narrator, Ray Kelly, walked you through the first chapter.  I’ve missed this style of writing, the rough and to the point pulp narration.  Kelly himself has no patience for people throughout the book, and it comes across in everything he does and relays to the reader.

As the history of the plot unfolds you can feel the tension and mystery of all the directions it could go, the uncertainty of the Ray Kelly as he pushes forward through what he’s being told, struggling to sort out the lies, the misdirection, the motives that led to his blinding, his father’s death and destruction of the family he thought was his.

What sets this apart from the other pulp novels I’ve read is that Ray didn’t choose this course for himself in the sense that he isn’t a professional detective or criminal.  He was just a guy who was discharged from the Air Force, happy to be reunited with his father and heading home.

361 Donald Westlake Hard Case CrimeIn a way, that makes Ray just like Ed Johnson, the private detective who tries to help him but is (as perhaps as the most realistically written private detective in the history of pulps novels) terrifyingly out of his league when he learns his client is getting involved with violent criminals; and Eddie Kapp, the gangster who holds the secret to the death of Ray’s father, and who until Ray came along was content to retire to Florida and leave the underworld behind.

But where Johnson refuses to push on and leaves Ray on his own, and Kapp throws himself gleefully back into the New York mob scene, Ray is simply a scared, hurt man, who has had everything taken from him.  He wants justice and is willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve it.

Unlike the characters in similar books who suddenly find themselves at home in the darkness where their vengeance lies hidden, Ray has no interest in that life.  He’s simply a man who wants to go home, but is willing to kill any man who tries to stop him.

Follow me on Goodreads for more reviews and to see what else I’m reading….

Thanks to the Violent World of Parker for explaining the title and sharing the original cover art.

Trying to Read “Hex and the City”

It’s been a couple years since my last visit to the Nightside, and that is the only factor I can think of to explain how disconnected I felt from Simon Green’s supernatural noir series when I jumped back into it with the fourth book, “Hex and the City”.

I cannot imagine that the first three books were as poorly written as this one.  They couldn’t have been.  I wouldn’t have continued reading them.  Would I?  Ok, ‘poorly written’ may be unfair, but at the very least, this book was awkwardly written.

Was I struggling to get back into the world of John Taylor and the ‘Nightside’, or was Green struggling to remember how to write these characters himself?

Hex and the City Simon R. GreenHalfway through the book, I glanced at the cover and saw that ‘Dresden Files’ author Jim Butcher had offered a quote.  If that had been on the cover of the first book in this series, I’m not sure I would have started it.  “Hex and the City” read very much like “Storm Front” in that it felt more like a fan of supernatural stories trying to prove he’s a bigger fan than you and knows more about the topic than you do, than a coherent and well-written novel.  So, if you love Jim Butcher, by all means.

Paragraph long stretches of John Taylor speaking should have been adapted into descriptive expositional paragraphs. Perhaps they originally had been internal monologues in earlier drafts as multiple times Taylor would repeat something he had said half a chapter before to the complete surprise of the very characters he had spoken it to initially.

Too often, Taylor was supposed to be speaking to characters around him and interacting with them, but instead was stiff and spoke at them (or at the reader or just at anyone who had wandered by and might be listening).  He wasn’t a part of the scene and he wasn’t moving it forward. This wasn’t descriptive, this wasn’t storytelling. It was bullet points dressed up to look like a novel.

Detective fiction thrives on the smug, smartass private dick, but here, Taylor takes it to a level that brought to mind the fanboy writing style that turned me off the ‘Dresden Files’ after just one book.

The story picked up a bit towards the end and gave us a great answer to the question that’s been building since the first book.  But ultimately, I found myself turning the page, not to find out what would happen next, but just to finish the thing and move on to another book.

“Hex and the City” is the fourth book in this series, so I won’t give up on the whole thing just because this one disappointed.  There is an end to the ‘Nightside’ series, as Green finished it off with the 12th book, “The Bride Wore Black Leather”. I’d love for him to get back to the page-turning, exciting, supernatural detective fiction that sucked me into this hidden world in the first place so I can see this series through to the end.

Follow me on Goodreads for more reviews and to see what else I’m reading….

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