Book Review: ‘The World of Null-A’

Cover of The World of Null-A, with the illustration of a head partially covered in shadow. In the background are drawings of a man and woman, as well as rocket ships and very tall trees.

The World of Null-A by A. E. van Vogt

I wanted to enjoy this book more than I did. The set up for the book is large … The blurb on Amazon includes the bold sentence: “The entire careers of Philip K. Dick, Keith Laumer, Alfred Bester, Charles Harness, and Philip Jose Farmer were created or influenced by The World of Null-A, and so it is required reading for anyone who wishes to know the canon of SF classics.”

Talk about lifting your expectations.

I enjoy Philip K. Dick’s (PKD) stories, and I can see the influence of A. E. van Voght’s book on PKD’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale.” That story was made into the movie Total Recall (1990) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, adding more action to stretch the story (which makes sense if you’ve got Arnold in the driver’s seat).

Back to The World of Null-A … I liked how the story started, with Gilbert Gosseyn about to join the games of the Machine, an immense structure comprised of 25,000 “electronic brains.” Winners of the games get to take a trip to Venus, which in this book is a forest planet. And if you do well in the games, you are chosen to be among the leaders on Earth.

A lie detector surprises our main character by saying he is not Gilbert Gosseyn, then adds that no knowledge exists in his mind about his true identity. So who is this guy? Through the rest of the book, the character is still called Gilbert Gosseyn as he searches for clues to his hidden identity.

The plot expands to include a cast of characters who are interested in Gosseyn, some of them thinking he has a role to play in an invasion from an empire that wants to take over Earth and Venus. Gosseyn jumps a couple times between those planets in his hunt for his true background. 

“Null-A” means “non-Aristotelian logic.” Some people in the book have had Null-A training and are supposedly able to think more rigorously and more nimbly than others.

A story around the novel is interesting … 

Back in 1945, author Damon Knight heavily criticized the book. Then, jumping to 1974, he offered context that softened his earlier criticism and gave a reason why some readers scratch their heads about odd jumps in van Vogt’s plots:

“Van Vogt has just revealed, for the first time as far as I know, that during this period he made a practice of dreaming about his stories and waking himself up every ninety minutes to take notes. This explains a good deal about the stories, and suggests that it is really useless to attack them by conventional standards. If the stories have a dream consistency which affects readers powerfully, it is probably irrelevant that they lack ordinary consistency.” Source: Wikipedia

I’m good with “dream consistency” — it’s part of why I enjoy Haruki Murakami’s stories. As for confusion: PKD’s plots also can be confusing at times, but they keep my interest. World of Null-A didn’t do that so well.

Scott Bradfield has an informative video about Null-A on YouTube. A broader discussion of van Vogt and this book is found in Dr. Gregory B. Sadler’s YouTube channel. He and a group chat about them as part of his “Worlds of Speculative Fiction: Philosophy, Fantasy, and Science Fiction.”

Book Review: ‘Three Moments of an Explosion’

Front cover of the book. Red lines extend from the title Three Moments of an Explosion

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Miéville

I’ve heard — and said — “weird” used to describe something in a negative sense. As a put-down. But there’s a flip side, where “weird” can be a descriptor for oddities that cause fascination.

Miéville has crafted a collection of oddities, in a sort of Ripley’s Believe or Not museum. A selection of what you’ll find on display in his book: players of card games are sometimes dealt unusual cards in “The Dowager of Bees,” icebergs float and crash above London in “Polynia,” a sack with animals that was a medieval torture device comes back to haunt in “Säcken,” oil rigs walk out of the ocean and onto land in “Covehithe,” and a medical student discovers scrimshaw on the bones of a cadaver in “The Design.” 

That’s just 5 stories of the 28 in this book. Other strangeness awaits.

This was my first read of Miéville’s works, and I enjoyed the bulk of the stories. They are presented as glimpses of scenes, so the strangeness is portioned out to you. Gaps between the scenes allow for the reader’s imagination to reach beyond the words. And I appreciated that. It lends to the mysteries of the stories, so they remain a bit mysterious. Floodlights are not pointed at them, to bring them fully in the open.

Some of the stories fell flat for me. Three are set up to explain trailers (for fictional movies, I suppose) — the stories proceed through time segments and tell what is happening. So we get a timeline of the trailers. Clever to use a different format for these stories, but I didn’t find them entertaining. Same with “Rules” — it felt more like notes of an idea than a story.

Still, there are some exhibits in Ripley’s Believe or Not that capture your eye and interest more than others. I found my visit to Three Moments of an Explosion well worth the time. If you’re a fan of stories by Jorge Louis Borges, Donald Barthelme, and Karen Russell, you would probably enjoy the trip as well.

Book Review: ‘Kafka on the Shore’

3 different covers for the book. One has an illustration of a cat blended with a person's head. Another has an abstract blue background with a small silhouette of a cat. The last cover has a head in the shape of a golf ball resting on a tee.
Various covers of the book

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

A power of stories is their ability to transport readers to other places and times. Murakami does this very well for me — his stories are mesmerizing. And Kafka on the Shore is his latest book to have that effect on me.

An overview of the book …

At 15 years old, one of the main characters disguises his first name (to be called Kafka Tamura) and runs away from home. He wants to get away from his father and tries to escape the Oedipus Rex prophecy that his father put on him. Talk about a heavy burden to carry. Kafka wants to find his mother and sister, who left the family when Kafka was four.

Kafka’s chapters alternate with those of Satoru Nakata, who is quite an interesting character. During World War II, Nakata was in school when strange event happened. He and his schoolmates were hunting for mushrooms in the woods. All the kids lost consciousness and fell to the ground. However, the teacher was not affected. After the teacher ran to get help and returned to the kids, they started waking up. But not Nakata. He remained in a comatose state for a while. And when he eventually woke up, he could neither read nor write. 

From that background, leap to the time of the book’s main action. Nakata is in his sixties and still can’t read or write. But he can talk to cats. Which helps him find lost cats for people in his neighborhood.

Back to Kafka Tamura: he journeys to the island of Shikoku, to the city of Takmatsu, where he finds a private library. He enjoys reading in the peaceful place and befriends the librarian Oshima. Miss Saeki runs the library and spends much of her time in her office. Miss Saeki also has an interesting background, which Oshima tells to Kafka.  

Murakami’s stories typically contain oddities. In this book: fish and leeches fall from the sky … spirits appear in the form of Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders … soldiers from World War II haven’t aged … another world/alternate reality opens up.

Also, this book contains portions that may cause some to not pick up this book: incest by the main character, and another character eats still-beating hearts of cats. As for the second action, that character has a reason for doing it. Still, it’s a rough chapter. Murakami doesn’t gloss over gruesome parts.

(In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a character skins another man while he’s alive.)

Kafka on the Shore has many portions that are food for thought. The quote below is from Kafka’s alter ego (“the boy named Crow”), who gives advice to Kafka in the beginning of the book. I thought the message was moving. To me, the message is about growth after enduring a struggle — it’s when you are either forced out of a comfortable place or you choose to venture out of that comfort. 

“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up into the sky like pulverized bones. That’s the kind of sandstorm you need to imagine.

And you really will have to make it through that violent, metaphysical, symbolic storm. No matter how metaphysical or symbolic it might be, make no mistake about it: it will cut through flesh like a thousand razor blades. People will bleed there, and you will bleed too. Hot, red blood. You’ll catch that blood in your hands, your own blood and the blood of others.

And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” 

Quote from: Murakami, Haruki. Kafka on the Shore. Alfred A. Knopf. 2005. pp. 5-6.

Book Review: ‘Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings’

front cover of book. The background is a painting of the back of two women. They are nude and gazing down.

Before I get to the review, Gabriela Marie Milton is holding a poetry contest around her new book Woman: Splendor and Sorrow. Head on over to her blog post for details!

Now on to the review of her previous book…


Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings by Gabriela Marie Milton

Let’s say you’ve walked through a few houses with blank walls. Maybe these are show houses in a new development in town. The blankness of the houses reminds you of routines: doing the same things every day, eating the same foods.

Then you enter a house with tapestries hanging on the walls. The tapestries are filled with vibrant images and suggestions of senses. That’s the kind of feeling given by Passions: Love Poems and Other Writings. Each poem is like a tapestry. 

You walk up to each tapestry and absorb the images woven into the fabric. Some images give the suggestion of aromas (cinnamon, “braid my hair with smells of lavender and roses”). Some images invite touch sensations (wind, “running barefoot on cobblestone streets”). Others conjure sounds (purring cat, whispers, “you make pianos sneeze old rhapsodies”). Others serve up tastes (passion fruit, “destinies melt in the taste of coffee and mistrust”). Others give glimpses of places around the world (Florence, Granada, Rio de la Plata).

The poems are celebrations of language, locations, emotions, and senses. These are Flamenco dancers, characters from myths, kisses, flowers, wooden beds, a woman being called Beatrice and wishing that was her name, “pigeons guide ships lost at sea,” wine, dreams, and a lot more.

The poems invite you to take in the images from those tapestries. Remove each tapestry from the wall and wrap it around you. For these bright emotions and senses enrich our lives. These keep our lives from become stale, monotonous. 

Most of the book is comprised of Ms. Milton’s poems, but there are two other sections. One includes poems by Flavio Almerighi, and these are split into columns: English translation on the left and the Italian version on the right.

The final section includes prose poems and flash fiction. The rich language continues in these, now with more narrative to sew together more concrete scenes. I enjoyed the poems in the book, and I enjoyed these fiction pieces more. I felt the fictional pieces were easier for me to enter the scenes and take in what was happening there.

This is a lovely book that’s like taking a vacation from the ordinary.

You can by this book at Amazon here.

More of Ms. Milton’s writing is at her blog.

Book Review: ‘Parable of the Sower’

Front cover of Parable of the Sower. There is an illustration of a Black woman wearing a pink and orange dress. Around her are small shapes, like seeds.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

If you like dystopian fiction, I highly recommend this novel. 

The state of the union of America is chaos. Like Cormac McCarthy in The Road, Ms. Butler doesn’t dwell long on reasons why American society collapsed. Although, climate change and expanding wealth gap are mentioned here and there in this powerful novel. Unlike McCarthy’s novel, Parable of the Sower includes much information about the effects of that collapse.

Life is dangerous in unprotected places. People are apt to rob, kidnap, rape, and/or kill those who are seen as easy targets. When called, police might not show up. If they do, it could be the next day. You’ll need to pay a fee to the police for them to look into a crime. And there’s no guarantee they will follow through with an investigation.

The book’s main character, Lauren Olamina, lives in a walled community with her family—along with several neighbors—in a suburb of Los Angeles. Their life is safer than outside the wall, yet danger can arrive. Sometimes, thieves scale the wall and steal items the houses. And they steal vegetables from gardens and fruits from trees. In this future, food is scarce—unless you grow your own. Drinkable water is scarce, too.

Lauren’s father is a Baptist minister who who gives sermons in their house. And he teaches his children about guns and takes them for regular target practice. I mention this because of Lauren’s actions. She fires a gun several times in the hostile world to survive and protect people around her.

Also, Lauren develops her own religion: Earthseed. The overall book is comprised of Lauren’s journal entries. Before each chapter is an excerpt of the book within the book—Eathseed: The Books of the Living. One of those excerpts:

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change.

— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

Another of Lauren’s inheritances: “hyper-empathy” because her mother used a drug during pregnancy. With this condition, Lauren acutely feels pain and pleasure of other people.

Lauren Olamina makes for an intriguing main character. The book’s beginning has Lauren as a teenager and drama with her neighbors inside the walled community. Then Lauren takes a journey, and she navigates the lawless landscape of California. 

This is a gripping book, for the wildness of its near-future world. The story begins in July 2024, a mere three years from when I’m writing this review. The world in the story is very different than now. Much of society has regressed: slavery, purchase of people, company towns. There’s a new drug called pyro, which makes people stare at fires in fascination, and addicts go on killing rampages.

Octavia Butler has crafted a scary world here. Yet there’s light. That’s a lot of weight on Lauren’s shoulders. Thankfully, she has strong shoulders.

Book Review: ‘Horrorshow’

Cover of Horrorshow. An old-fashioned typewriter is drawn to look like a creature, with the letter keys as teeth, spools as eyes, and a knife at the top.

Horrorshow by Nathan Allen

This book works on different levels. Entertainingly so. First, what’s the origin of the book? In a statement from Langdon Pryce, he claims to have written the book. Then, in a statement from Nathan Allen, he acknowledges that Langdon Pryce created the manuscript — then exchanged it to settle a debt. Later, the (unnamed) person who had possession of the manuscript sold it to Nathan Allen, who cleaned up the story — which he says was a mess.

And that’s before you get to Chapter One.

The narrative starts there, as Riley Haig is strong-armed by his sister Shelley to go to the wedding of his other sister Izzy. Why strong-armed? Because Riley really doesn’t want to return to Krumbleton, the small town where he and those sisters grew up.

Many years have passed since Riley left Krumbleton, and his schoolmates from back then are amazed to see him back in town. Lots of catching up to do.

However, the day goes off the rails. This is a horror novel, after all — not a heartwarming Hallmark movie. Also, this is no “standard” horror novel. It walks into Scream territory by bringing up cliches of horror flicks. As the body count increases around Krumbleton, Riley tries to evade the killer — and he tries to puzzle out the identity of that killer.

A twist arrives that complicates the story. I’m not going to explain it, as I’d rather it be left as a surprise for potential readers. And there’s a fun (and funny) interlude in an elevator. Again, I won’t offer an explanation.

This book is an entertaining ride. There’s a story within it, but the book gives more. Different levels for greater complexity. I recommend this book if you’re open to reading something that’s left of center. Or is it right of center or above? Not sure. Anyway, I enjoyed it.

This ebook is available for free at Amazon.

Book Review: ‘Still Life in Blood’

Cover of book, and the background is a detail of an abstract painting, as red and black paint mesh together.

Still Life In Blood: A Delaware State Police Homicide Unit Mystery by Crystal Heidel 

Having grown up in Rehoboth Beach, I was really curious to read this mystery novel that happens there and in nearby Lewes. The story sucked me into it, delivering plot twists and suspense. That suspense and the short chapters caused me to keep wanting to turn the pages and find out what happened next.

A heads-up: This book is not a “tea cozy” mystery. There are gory parts.

As a few women are found murdered, we go along with Detective Jack Remington and his partner Jonny Stillwater as they seek clues to track down the killer. And they try to figure out how Francesca Munro is somehow connected to the murders. Francesca does her own detective work to find out information with that same goal.

She goes by the curious nickname Frenzy. She’s an artist with a gallery in Rehoboth. But she’s more than that. She experiences visions and dreams that tell of future events — an ability that runs in her family, from Frenzy’s mother to Frenzy to possibly her niece. And her past has secrets. These add interesting aspects to the story that enrich the “whodunnit” plot line.

This is an entertaining book that combines the puzzles of the killer’s identity and Frenzy’s past with suspenseful moments. If you’re open to reading a mystery with coastal small town flavor, I recommend it.

This novel is available on Amazon.

Book Review: ‘Voice of a Story Teller’

Cover of book, with an image of the night sky. Many stars are shown, along with a shooting star.

Voice of a Story Teller by Sara Kjeldsen 

Two story tellers are in this book, as the overall story is told by Barak, who has survived a war. He is haunted by watching his friends die in that war.

In his PTSD, Barak isolates himself in the small village and doesn’t spend much time with the other villagers. He prefers fishing on the river alone and creating wooden carvings alone in his hut. Barak weaves a bitter story in his opinion of the villagers, as he judges them for moving on from the war and putting the memory behind them.

The object of Barak’s harshest judgement is Almaz, the story teller who has come to the village. Stories can have the ability to draw us into their worlds, and Barak dislikes Almaz for doing that to the villagers. Yet Almaz offers to help Barak try to find peace from his war memories.

Sara Kjeldsen has crafted a powerful voice in Barak, and that makes for an interesting story. Because Barak is not a one-speed character. Along with his haunted memories, he enjoys looking at beauty in the natural world around him. And he’s conflicted about what decisions to make.

“All of us are little more than stories ourselves,” Almaz says. And the kind of stories we tell ourselves is important, shaping how we see ourselves and the world. This book is a great example of that.

This novella is available on Amazon.

Also, you can check out more of Sara Kjeldsen’s writing on her blog.

Book Review: ‘Swinging Sanity’

Front cover of Swinging Sanity, on which there is an illustration of a woman's face with various colors on her cheeks and forehead

Swinging Sanity by N. F. Mirza 

Many people may not feel the urge to have an outlet that helps them process life’s struggles. Others feel that urge. And some of them use poetry to try to convey the landscape within themselves.

In the first stanza of the first poem (“Anything but Sane”), N.F. Mirza likens herself to a “restless lioness.” A powerful image. And the description comes through the poems in this book, particularly in the restlessness of emotions and thoughts.

Some of these poems are difficult to read — “Celebrating the Curse” describes self-harm behavior. I can only begin to imagine the difficulty of writing them. Not only that, but drawing the portraits in the book. Each section of poems begins with a drawing and a quotation. The drawing for “Anything but Sane” shows a face with wide, expressive eyes — perhaps filled with anxiety.

Through the poems and drawings comes a vulnerability of Ms. Mirza being open about her feelings. And with that vulnerability, a courage of making them available to the public. That courage creates the possibility of readers realizing they are not alone in experiencing similar emotions.

Some poems include contemplations with touching descriptions. Like the poet blending with water in “Ocean and I Become One.” Then her soul sitting on a bench, its back positioned toward the world, in “The Day I Sat by My Soul.” These descriptions are moving. Also, they offer inspirations for having our own contemplations about where we might find a bit of understanding and moments of peace.

The book is available on Amazon.

You can read more of the poet’s writings on her blog.

Book Review: ‘Calibration 74’

Cover of Calibration 74. A circle is within a rectangle, both painted in red

Calibration 74: An Experimental Novella by William F. Aicher

If a traditional book’s narrative could be akin to a painting of a street scene, then this book would be akin to an abstract painting.

Or perhaps it’s more of a collage, with items glued to a canvas. There’s a variety of items: library card, photo of a cat, pages from a diary, a screenshot from the “Lost” TV show, pages from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Let’s say the collage is in an art gallery. The card on the wall next to the collage states its title and the artist and the year of creation.

However, no explanation is given for the collage. So we, as the viewer of the collage, will look at the mixture of items and draw our own conclusions for the artwork’s meaning. Actually, the meaning that each of us sees in it.

That’s the same with Calibration 74. The narrator looks for clues around him, clues based in numbers. He believes in a door leading to a place that’s different than this world. Another part of the multiverse. This door is possibly underneath his house, so he pulls up carpeting and hardwood flooring, then breaks the concrete pad.

The search isn’t over there. Ah, we’ve only just begun. The narrator goes on a journey, one clue leading to the next, in his exploration for the door. And the narrator attaches a kind of logic to each clue. Some of those connections might not make sense to us readers, but William Aicher portions out the story so we see how the connections make sense to the narrator.

I found the book to be a wild journey. A maze built of the narrator’s interpretations of the world, mentions about the narrator’s past, and references to culture. If you’re looking for meaning, isn’t that maze what you have to navigate? We’re collages of those interpretations, memories, cultural influences.

If you’re open to taking a recess from stories with traditional narratives, I recommend this book. I really enjoyed the trip through it. The ambiguity sparked my thinking to craft my own meaning from it.

The book is for sale on Amazon.

The author’s website is here.