361 By Donald E. Westlake: unique, hard-hitting brilliance brings hard-boiled gritty noir down an alley that you cannot leave until the book is done.
Hard Case Crime thankfully brings many treasures like 361 back to the forefront of fiction on today’s market.
Personally, despite loving crime, mystery, and hard-boiled fiction, I had yet to read a novel of Donald Westlake’s.
And here is the beauty of HCC’s paperback series: it is very easy for a good friend in the know to mail me a book that will kick my ass, and get me into gear, just like 361 did.
If you love Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Max Allan Collin’s Quarry series (to name one), then this 1962 publication will be very appealing and not the least because it is a style all Westlake’s own.
Warning, Will Robinson! This book review of 361 by Donald E. Westlake has Spoilers* for the opening pages.
Ray Kelly has landed in New York retired from his time abroad as a US military man. He feels bad at talking to his brother’s wife, who he has not met, on the phone to get directions. He cares about family.
When Ray’s father, Willard, picks him up and talks about how his brother settled down happily and then remarks how good his Ray looks after all those years, father and son break down crying.
Dad brags about the air conditioning in the car and remarks, “chased a lot of ambulances lately,” as he was an attorney with a good sense of humor.
Westlake has brought a happy family together and the pair drive over New York City’s George Washington Bridge in what has been an uplifting tale so far.
In 361, Westlake pulls one of the fastest literally punches to ever gut the main character and the reader.
And then a Chrysler pulls up beside them and fires a gun, so that Willard appears to vomit blood and falls over into Ray’s lap as the car hits the bridge barrier.
A month later, Ray wakes in a hospital minus an eye and his one leg shattered and put back together in a way that would leave him with a debilitating limp.
End of Spoiler Warning*
Westlake pulled the rug out from under me so quickly I nearly dropped the book.
Readers beware of Donald E. Westlake, whose use of realistic dialogue, rich character feeling, and sharp descriptions make up boisterously boiled worlds that are increasingly intriguing as the tale winds on.
The plot gets harrier and harrier as it goes on too.
There are some mysteries and some surprises.
And 361’s ending is wholly original, utterly pragmatic, and very satisfying.
After a car crash, Ogi awakens to find himself barely alive, caught in a vegetative state unable to communicate or move. After learning from the doctors that his wife did not survive the crash his sole surviving family member, his mother-in-law, begins to take care of his every need. However, when she discovers her daughter’s notes that point to past transgressions of Ogi. The mother-in-law begins odd obsessive behavior which aims to push Ogi to the brink of insanity — left to slowly rot with minimal care.
Being judged for one’s own actions can be a horrifying experience in itself, let alone adding in the nightmare of being trapped in a broken body unable to defend oneself against the onslaught. Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is a horror/thriller existing in this realm of perverse uncomfortableness, having a caregiver slowly transform into a menacing force with full control over the life of another.
The book has been compared to books like Herman Koch’s The Dinner and Stephen King’s Misery.
And one can push even so far as to say it challenged the depressing body horror of titles like Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun.
While the book does capitalize on the unease and horrors that come with captivity, both in one’s own body and by an exterior force, The Hole is unlikely to reach the same level of accolades heaped upon the previously mentioned titles. However, that does not mean the book is without merit or that it pales in comparison of a familiar formula.
*Slight spoilers ahead
Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole, undeniably, excels at capturing the waking nightmare of slow, meticulous abuse at the hands of another. Ogi’s internal struggles, a mix of reflecting on the past and trying to rationalize the current scenario he is in, paints a really tragic portrait. This is also heightened by the character’s humanity, as a man who is aware of the mistakes he made and is still trying to do well. As his mother-in-law learns of his marital problems the reader is aware of the narrative, as she understands it, is very one-sided.
Furthermore, Ogi is aware that his actions were wrong but also that his wife was not without blame. This is approached in a very mature practical manner, as Ogi explores the harsh reality that sometimes people just drift apart. Notably, the image he had of his wife when they first fell in love faded as they changed, him finding her dull and uninspiring is not so much born out of cruelty but two people drifting apart. Ultimately, The highlight of the novel has to be Hye-Young Pyun’s exploration of Ogi as a character through internal dialogue, painting the portrait of a man who does not deserve punishment, yet can also be seen as deserved from a third party.
However, where The Hole begins to slightly falter is in the development of other characters and dialogue, the change from self-reflection to being present in the room with others never holds the same profundity of Ogi stuck in dark ruminations. The mother-in-law, though intimidating feels more like the embodiment of justice over being a character unto herself.
There are also moments of narrative convenience, and even the set-up of the mother-in-law finding the notes of her daughter seems a bit contrived, in the sense she meticulously collected and recorded any argument, action, or negative word that she felt reflected her husband poorly. His status among peers and not having any family of his own also feels shoehorned in to capture that sense of isolation in an immediate fashion. It does make the situation grave and more tragic, yet Ogi can feel very one-dimensional at points due to the ambiguity of the situation and his lack of personal life beyond his wife.
Hye-Young Pyun’s The Hole is a deeply engaging read, that will draw fans of thrillers in with its frightening scenario and dread-inducing prose in exploring internal dialogue. It does feel a bit rough around the edges and some of the scenarios feel contrived and underdeveloped, but the overall experience is one of extreme discomfort that is certain to make the right reader squirm in all the right ways.
Dune & Frank Herbert immortalized by Centipede Press in a limited edition that creates a uniquely bold, intricate, imaginative, and sharp book, a true work of art – illustrated by Mark Molnar – befitting a masterpiece that is one of the greatest science-fiction novels of all time.
There are few works as grandiose, moving, tragic and exhilarating as Frank Herbert’s Dune.
The following book review of Dune by Frank Herbert is SPOILER-FREE* and will touch on the story and then focus on the signed-limited fine press edition published by Centipede Press in 2021-2022.
Dune can be summed up as masterful sci-fi, and every facet of the Centipede Press tome does it justice.
Dune is one of my favorite books, and so as to not give a 30-page thesis of a review on the story for the ages, I am tabling that (at least for today) in favor of focusing on what I consider the epitome of a physical book encompassing the revolutionary work of Frank Herbert.
For the uninitiated, Dune is another name for the desert planet Arrakis – which aside from tiny polar ice caps – is entirely covered in desert.
Arrakis is itself one of the most dominant characters in the book.
The extremely harsh environment makes water the most valued commodity for any living or traveling on the planet, and it molds one of the toughest peoples that live in the deep desert, the Fremen.
Arrakis is also the only place in the galaxy where spice mélange is found. This is found in sand patches and has to be mined quickly before gargantuan sand worms arrive; they dwarf even Guild spaceships and come to devour spice, or anything on the surface making unnatural noise.
The spice is a drug-like property found in many things like flavoring for cooking, or as part of recreational drug use, and it also has hallucinogenic prescient properties making it the sole way the Guild navigators can successfully fold space and time, achieving interstellar travel.
Dune and the spice are necessities to that space flight monopoly.
The characters, Paul Atriedies, and his mother the Lady Jessica, Stilgar, truly make the story what it is, as they grow amidst the innovative world building, where the setting, revenge, intricate politics, and innovative technology intermingle within the galactic regime.
But beware this work is a tragedy, similar in some ways to Homer’s Oedipus (but not the Oedipean complex), and so there are joys and pains and losses and victories, but the book is fully fleshed and nothing is one-sided, not even joy.
WARNING! I have tweaked the Goodreads summary of the book here to be near to Spoiler-Free*:
“Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…
“When House Atreides is betrayed . . . [Paul] evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, [but] will [he] bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream? [And at what cost will the attempt bring to Paul and to all?]”
End of Spoiler Warning*
Centipede Press accomplished something truly extraordinary with their S/L of Dune: their offering is a vast work of art that truly bears the essence of the journey of Paul Atreides from Caladan to Arrakis.
And speaking of art . . .
Mark Molnar’s incredible illustrations and paintings for Dune have become definitive views of the characters and world.
The overall book design is sleek, sexy, and works to capture Mark’s art in every aspect, from the capped slipcase’s spine window onto a worm illustration to the similar circular cutout in the cover boards.
There is a stunning and vast two-sided dustjacket featuring an enormous painting of Paul Muad’Dib with spear amongst the vast stony and sandy Arrakean backdrop as a worm’s surfaced beneath the planet’s two moons that look golden on the horizon.
There is a large foldout map – from the original publication – showing the areas of the planet that are discussed in the book.
The book is printed on Mohawk Superfine paper, and there are over a dozen interior full color illustrations by Mark Molnar and the back of each one has a gritty sand-like feel to it that is a lot of fun in the hand.
But the feel of the numbered edition is like nothing I have ever experienced, as the black Nabuka Prestige cloth is a suede-like other-worldly smoothness.
There are 500 signed editions and 250 unsigned, and the latter have a fine Japanese cloth binding.
Though Frank Herbert is not with us writing in the physical realm any longer, his family and his son, Brian (who helped his father in the writing of the last couple of books in the series), approved a facsimile signature.
And what is more, the book has an introduction by Michael Swanwick and he and Brian Herbert and Mark Molnar have signed the 500 copies.
The epic tale is encapsulated in a mammoth book sized at 7¼ × 11 inches.
And the other five books in the Dune series are forthcoming with 500 signed copies and matching numbers to the owners of Dune.
If you get an opportunity to acquire a signed or unsigned C.P. edition of this great tale, do not pass it up!
Jean-Luc & Anna Lise by A.G. Cullen Book Review Written By Lisa Lebel
Jean Luc & Anna Lise : A Novel of The Napoleonic Wars, by A.G. Cullen is a harrowing tale following three main characters through the harsh realities of the French Revolution.
The following Book Review of Jean-Luc & Anna Lise has Spoilers*
The novel opens with Jean-Luc and his dearest friend Adrien, on the day that enemy soldiers come to Colmar to execute their village priest. Shortly after this shocking event, Adrien’s sister, Anna Lise, is born. After only a short glimpse of their joyful beginnings, Jean-Luc and Adrien vow to join the emperor’s army once they are old enough – and thereafter embark on a journey that is all the more heart wrenching in its reality of the times.
Despite this book weighing in at a shocking 668 pages – at first glance one may assume this to be a ponderous tome of a novel. However, A.G. Cullen manages to have this tale be fast-paced and compelling throughout the entirety of the novel. The gut-wrenching horrors of the Napoleonic War seen through the eyes of one solider, brings to life the shocking reality of the times. While it is so easy to distance ourselves from what we read in the history books, this tale delivers an unflinching account of the life of a solider in 19th century Europe. Through the eyes of Jean-Luc Calliet, A.G. Cullen shows readers what it was like to be young and in love, while your country and comrades are falling to pieces all around you.
One of the more poignant takeaways from this novel was living with the horror and moral conflict of being ordered by your captain to commit unspeakable acts or be killed as a traitor yourself. Experiencing the shock of realizing your comrades in arms are sometimes more of a danger than the actual enemy, and seeing your fellow soldiers commit unspeakable brutalities is something that reading a historical account of the war simply cannot provide. Attempting to travel through a war-ridden country without being molested is nearly impossible, and there is equal danger no matter who you’re fighting for.
This novel is outside of this reviewer’s wheelhouse and likely not one I would have picked up on my own randomly, but I highly recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. Readers may find this similar to the Outlander series, with none of the time travel aspects or ridiculously sappy romance elements. But, in the respect of following individual persons through historical events – it definitely shines in that aspect. While Outlander is geared mostly towards women in the overly romantic setting as well as time travel – most of the action and intrigue of seeing actual historical events play out through the eyes of individuals is drowned out by these aspects. Jean-Luc has none of these distractions and gives an actual historical depiction of the life of the solider during these distressing times. Interspersed between chapters are also illustrations and maps of where the wars or battles are taking place, which is certain to remind readers that the events depicted in this novel did indeed occur, adding gravity to the tale.
In closing, Jean-Luc & Anna Lise is an excellently written novel that is both compelling and heart wrenching, and certainly worth checking out!
Ha Seong-Nan’s Bluebeard’s First Wife: 11 Tales of Everyday Sorrow: selected as on of the top ten books of 2020 in Publishers Weekly, Ha Seong-nan’s “Bluebeard’s First Wife” is the second collection of stories from the South Korean Author to be translated to English. The previous collection, “Flowers of Mold“, set the stage for an author who dives into misery with an unapologetic honesty. “Bluebeard’s First Wife” carries on the same motifs of the previous work, all the while cementing Seong-na a wonderfully, unique literary voice.
The eleven tales contained in this release offer brief moments that act as a profound turning moment in life, whether it be the loss of a partner who wonders off, an unplanned pregnancy after a night of partying, or the loss of a pet leading to a search that causes neglect of duties, all the stories take place over the course of a few, traumatic, days. What makes each of these stories resonate with the reader is the way that Seong-nan delivers her stories: told in frank language that is conveyed as if it is a personal account from the person who is struggling. consequently, the writing does not contain pithy language and emotions are expressed very matter-of-fact.
It is the approach to her writing that makes these tales really resonate with the reader, the words almost coming across as a dark confession from a stranger. A prime example, in the phenomenal “On That Green Green Grass”, Seong-nan is able to completely breakdown the nuclear family trope after the kidnapping of a family pet puts a suburban family’s ideal existence into disarray through the matriarchs personal account of events. This short, above all else, demonstrates the authors’ ability to lead the reader on an emotional journey as the chain of events evokes deep moments of empathy for how each family member copes from the perspective of the exhausted wife.
While doom and gloom is the modus operandi in the world of Seong-nan, that is not to say that the work is just pure indulgence in misery. The author can express a playful wit in entries such as “A Quiet Night”, which sees a failed carpenter slowly become mad by the neighbors upstairs–forming an odd relationship with a disgruntled family where their every movement becomes timed. However, the indulgence in fantastical elements offer the most engaging departure from the emotionally fueled work. The short “Pinky Finger”, manages to morph an unsettling cab ride into an absurdist tale of magic induced vengeance.
However, the biggest highlight in the collection comes from the closing piece, “Daisy Fleabane”. The story is of a young girl reflecting on the past, but the reader is soon informed, through an inventive story device, that daisy has long since deceased with her body swirling below the river she would visit with her father on camping trips. It is a story that combines tragedy, horror, and experimental narratives in a brilliant and engaging fashion–an ideal conclusion to the collection that summarizes the wide skillet of Seong-nan as a writer.
Overall, the stories across “Bluebeard’s First Wife” demand a lot of emotional commitment from the reader.
The themes explored capture both deep universal tragedies and personal turbulence that can come from a simple misunderstanding. The book will challenge you, but it is certainly worth the challenge.
This title is, perhaps, most comparable to the popular South Korean novel “The Vegetarian” by Han Kang, containing the same flow of language and knack for hyper-focusing in on minute tragedies and broken personalities. if that work piqued your interest I would highly recommend checking out “Bluebeards First Wife”.