Stumps of mystery

October 31, 2016



“Stumps of mystery: stories from the end of an era” by Susan Wickstrom describes itself as “a novel in stories” – and it’s certainly true that it occupies a space somewhere in between a full-blown novel and a book of short stories.  Structurally, it’s similar to some of David Mitchell’s fiction, where you get a series of separate but linked stories - I am thinking in particular of “Ghostwritten” and “Cloud Atlas”.  

But whereas Mitchell tends to leap around a lot in terms of time, space, style and genre, the stories in “Stumps of mystery” are all about the inhabitants of a small town in Oregon called Woodhill around 2007-8, towards the end of the George W Bush presidency (hence, presumably, the “end of an era” reference).   The point of the Mitchell comparison was mainly to demonstrate that in the right hands, such an unconventional structure can work very effectively – as it does here, even though this is a very different kind of novel.

With the exception of the last section of the book, each chapter takes the point of view of a particular character – these range from a PR consultant who’s just moved to Woodhill from NewYork through to a park ranger, a Mexican immigrant, the sister of a tree-sitting environmental activist and a 13 year old whose older big brother is fighting in Iraq.  Until the last section, there is not much linking them all together – indeed, there is barely any plot at all - so you may well be asking yourself, what kept me reading it?   

Well, partly it was an interest in spotting links between stories – because although there is virtually no connecting plot, there are points where they intersect, such as when characters dealt with in an earlier story crop up again in a later one.  Often it is clear that the characters do not know one another particularly well socially - their paths just happen to cross in a fairly random manner, as befits the rather atomised existence that most of us lead these days.  Although the tangential nature of many of these links might sound frustrating, they succeeded for me in conveying a sense that the stories were all heading somewhere – and sure enough, the much more plot-driven final section brings together many of the characters and themes developed earlier on.   It centres on a tragic event and has elements of a “who dunnit?” mystery – but I won’t say any more about it so as not to spoil the story.

Even if the book had been without this final section, I would still have enjoyed it simply as a “composite” portrait of the diversity of human life in a small town in Oregon at a particular time in the early twenty-first century.  This was mainly because the characterisation is so well done.   It is no mean feat to take you right into a particular character’s world in just one short chapter, especially with such a wide variety of characters, but Susan Wickstrom manages it very effectively. All the protagonists are portrayed with considerable warmth and empathy – and alongside that, the stories explored some serious social issues, such as same sex relationships, immigration, finding out your unborn child has a disability, environmental concerns and so on.  So for me, each chapter was a satisfying story in itself – but for readers who are hungry for more plot, I’d say keep going, your patience will be rewarded in the final section.

All in all, a very well written literary novel with an unconventional narrative structure – and one that came as a welcome reminder - amidst my general level of dismay at the state of the world and in particular the utter stupidity of Brexit - that sometimes good things can come out of adversity or tragedy.

At the time of writing, Stumps of Mystery was available to download free of charge from Smashwords HERE.
 

Inselaffen!

June 27, 2016


Some thoughts on the EU referendum result.


Now we know why, when they are feeling frustrated with us (as well they might right now), the Germans refer to us as “Inselaffen” (island apes).  Here’s a picture of one of those island apes watching a graph of his currency dropping to a 30 year low against the dollar (having at long last managed to switch on his laptop).

If you have read any of my previous, rather geeky (and evidently totally ineffectual) posts on Brexit (they start here and the...

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Can't decide about Brexit? Read this

June 20, 2016


Unsure about which way to vote in the EU referendum?  Well, who can blame you given that debate on the subject has descended into an unedifying slanging match.

It’s hard to feel enthused about voting to remain because the EU is not a particularly lovable organisation – and it’s going through a particularly bad patch right now with the euro and migration crises, which highlight the fact that it is far from perfect.  So your heart may be telling you we should leave, buoyed up by stirring s...

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Is the EU a giant squid?

June 12, 2016


In this post I’m going to look at whether the EU is so dysfunctional and plagued by major problems (e.g. migration, the euro etc) that it has become like a giant squid, threatening to drag us down into the abyss – so the safest course is to disentangle ourselves and leave.  For me, geography means that this “safer out” argument doesn’t hold much water (excuse the pun).  This is because, if we leave, “the squid” will still be sat there right next to us, with all the same problems...
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Brexit: a broader perspective (3)

June 6, 2016


Having discussed security and trade in previous posts, I’m now going to look at the impact of the EU on the domestic economy.  Maybe I should retitle this “Boring for Brexit,” as I suspect most people are sick of hearing about it – but it’s also hard to find much in the way of reasoned analysis of the issues, hence this series of posts.

Anyway, my starting point is the argument of pro-Brexit campaigners that since the vast majority of UK businesses don’t export, the Single Market i...

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Brexit: a broader perspective (2)

May 23, 2016



Having looked at the security position in my last post, I'm now going to look at whether the EU is good for trade.  The remain side says it is (and prophesies economic doom if we leave), whereas the leave campaign say we’d do better for ourselves outside the EU (and prophesies economic doom if we stay).  Both sides have been overstating their case whilst lobbing statistics at each other - so in this post I’m going to try to keep the numbers to a minimum and focus more on practical example...

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Brexit: a broader perspective (1)

May 16, 2016


I don’t usually blog that much about politics, but the referendum on 23 June 2016 on whether the UK should leave the EU is probably one of the biggest decisions voters will be asked to make in my lifetime.  Both sides in the debate have been throwing somewhat extreme and wholly contradictory claims around – when the reality is probably somewhere in between these two extremes.  So what I’m trying to do here is to look at things from a broader perspective.  If you’ve already made up you...

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The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect

February 26, 2016



This is an excellent “big picture” sci-fi novel, which is available for free online – but it’s not one for the faint hearted (owing to a certain amount of disturbingly graphic content – of which more later).

Caroline – along with the rest of human race – “lives” in a virtual environment where she can do almost anything.  But being something of a contrary sort, Caroline most wants what she can’t have.  She is a so-called “death jockey”, who spends much of her time arrang...

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The Curse of OCR

November 1, 2015



I’m a little hesitant about criticising books for having typos, as I’m sure that – despite my best endeavours to weed them out - my own are not entirely error-free.   So having a pop at William Boyd’s publishers over the numerous typos in the Kindle editions of some of his older novels could be seen as mild hypocrisy on my part.  Someone with higher moral scruples might conceivably agonise about this for several paragraphs – perhaps even whole pages.  But a couple of sentences is en...

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Taking Candy from the Devil

October 10, 2015



For me, this somewhat quirky novel by Robert P Kaye falls into the category of what Graham Greene used to call “an entertainment” – it doesn’t take itself too seriously, although it does touch on some satisfyingly serious issues along the way.  Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Here’s what it’s about:

Chris Bly is returning to the family home in the Washington Cascades with his tail between his legs, having tried but failed to make it big in the unforgiving world of West Coast tech...

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About Me


Paul Samael Welcome to my blog, "Publishing Waste" which will either (a) chronicle my heroic efforts to self-publish my own fiction; or (b) demonstrate beyond a scintilla of doubt the utter futility of (a). And along the way, I will also be doing some reviews of other people's books and occasionally blogging about other stuff.
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