Tag Archives: Sherlock Holmes

Bizzaro Book Review: The Somnambulist by Jonathan Barnes

There are some books that are good.  There are books that are bad.  But there are some books that…well, they’re bad too, but you really, really want them to somehow end up being good.  So you read on you keep waiting for the characters to coalesce and hoping the plot will start making sense, because somewhere deep inside your soul you know it has to get better eventually.  But it never does.

The book I’ll be talking about today, Jonathan Barnes’s The Somnambulist, is one of those books.

It starts out well enough.  In fact the opening lines are nothing short of genius.

Be warned. This book has no literary merit whatsoever. It is a lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters, written in drearily pedestrian prose, frequently ridiculous and wilfully bizarre. Needless to say, I doubt you’ll believe a word of it.

See what I mean?  How could you not pick up a book that starts like that? Except when you read an opening like that, you expect it to be ironic. If you get to the end and find that the book really was a “lurid piece of nonsense, convoluted, implausible, peopled by unconvincing characters” you’re going to be a little peeved.

The story revolves around a Victorian era magician/detective named Edward Moon, a man cast vaguely in the mold of Sherlock Holmes. Moon is joined in his adventures by a hulking superhuman freak called the Somnambulist. I’d tell you more about his character, but there isn’t any more.

It’s as if the author said to himself, “I need a strange and bizarre character to make my story more interesting. Maybe he could be like this giant that is impervious to pain.  I could call him the Somnambulist.  That sounds like a cool name right?”

In fact, I think that’s what Jonathan Barnes said to himself about the whole book.  There are a number of completely fascinating characters who could easily have a fascinating story built around them alone that seem to be just thrown in for seasoning.

Meanwhile the plot is painfully thin.  Basically there’s a secret organization that’s trying to take over the world.  That’s all.  Oh, and they also have Zombie Samuel Coleridge on their side.

Actually, let me say that again. Zombie Samuel Coleridge.  This book has Zombie Samuel Coleridge in it.

But even the wonders of Zombie Samuel Coleridge (sorry, I just can’t get over how awesome that is) can’t pull this story out the funk of incomprehensibly that surrounds it like a cloud. On top of which, Moon, our protagonist detective remember) never solves anything.  He simply stumbles across answers when the plot says he needs them.  This is not how mysteries work.  “Mysteries” like this are the reason I stopped reading the Hardy Boys.  Back when I was ten.

And yet, somehow, in spite of all its shortcomings, I kept reading on.  And this is significant.  I am not above putting down a book if the author disappoints me. But there was something bizarrely compelling about the way that Barnes had assembled such a strange and amazing menagerie of characters and put them in a book with a plot whose thickness could be measured in microns.

Of course there’s the old and overused saw about watching a train wreck, but this book goes beyond that.  Reading this book was like watching the Taj Mahal collapse.  Beautiful and terrifying all in one moment.

And in the end, I have to say…I recommend it.  It isn’t a good book, at least not in the conventional sense.  I wouldn’t advise you to spend a lot of money on it, but if you can find it in your library or on the remaindered shelves of your bookstore go ahead and pick it up.  The writing itself isn’t bad, and there is some strange pleasure to be had in its failings.

And again, because I have to type it at least one more time, it has Zombie Samuel Coleridge in it.  That has to be worth something.

Get this book.  Read this book.  You will be disappointed.  And I mean that in a good way.

Bizzaro Book Review: Discount Noir

When I first saw Discount Noir on the digital shelves over at Amazon, I knew I had to buy it. The premise of a book filled with flash fiction about Wal-Mart Megamart seemed too perfect to pass up, especially since I’ve been employed at Wal-Mart for the past six years. What I didn’t anticipate was the difficulty of composing a coherent overview of an anthology collection featuring works from more than forty different authors.

The first problem is the fact that there are so many varieties of style and quality in this book. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that any of the stories were truly bad, but some of them were simply boring. And others seemed fine enough as I was reading them, but quickly slipped out of my mind when I moved to the next story.

Which brings me to the second problem with this anthology: all the stories are flash fiction, specifically works of 800 words or less. Flash fiction is a wonderful fiction form, one that I’ve dabbled in myself from time to time, but putting forty-plus flash fiction stories all in a row like Discount Noir does presents a rather unique problem: because all the stories have a similar length, reading through them one after another starts to feel rhythmic and methodical. It becomes far too easy to move on to the next story without really taking in the full scope of the previous one, which means that even moments of true brilliance are easily lost in the noise.

Finally and possibly most important to me personally is the lack of experience many of the writers seemed to have with Wal-Mart Megamart. One story that really stuck out for me involved a guy trying to hold up the gun counter and getting blown away by the guys who worked there. I happen to work at the gun counter myself, and let me tell you, there are a number of reasons why that scenario could never ever happen. I understand that not everyone writing these stories has my level of personal experience, but I contend that it’s perfectly possible to write a good story without going so far beyond the bounds of your knowledge.

So far I’ve been critical, but the truth is this anthology really isn’t a bad read. As I mentioned before, there weren’t any real stinkers, and I found at least a few stories that moved me in strange and interesting ways.

Probably my favourite story in the anthology, “A Fish Called Lazarus,” makes beautiful metaphorical use of a bird trapped inside the confines of a big store. Another story of note, “Skylar Hobbs and the Rollback Bandit,” is a hilarious mash-up to the tune of Sherlock Holmes meets Wal-Mart. Other memorable stories include “Friday Night with the Tijuana Wolfman”, “What Was Heavy?” and “Black Friday.”

The final verdict? Meh. The collection was enjoyable enough, and from time to time, gems of true brilliance stood out from the pack, but overall I wasn’t thrilled. I didn’t feel like my money was wasted, but I think the sticker price of $4.50 could maybe use a Rollback. If you really like flash fiction this collection is worth a look. Otherwise you might do better to take your business elsewhere. Megamart may not be the store for you.