Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Self-isolation reading recommendations: anything by Alan Brennert

Since the pandemic means that most of us, wherever we are in the world, are being told to stay at home and self-isolate, I thought I’d make my own modest contribution to the millions of suggestions for reading to pass away the time. It was also an opportunity to highlight one of my favorite authors, the amazing Alan Brennert. Some of the regular readers here may only be familiar with his rather modest body of comics work (most of it collected here), but he wrote quite a few novels, all of them worth reading. Here’s a list below with my brief reviews (which are fix-ups of reviews I’d previously posted over at the Classic Comics Forum), in chronological order of publication.

City of Masques (1978)

Brennert’s first novel is set in Hollywood. A struggling young actor, Jim, lands the lead role in a James Dean biopic after years of having to make do with roles in community theater and radio and television commercials. The movie is being produced by Dalmatton Studios, a new but aggressively up-and-coming production company. The catch is that he has to go to a clinic that psychologically conditions him to essentially think he’s James Dean – and he also starts to look like him. Jim’s ex-girlfriend, a newspaper reporter, is disturbed by the whole thing and starts investigating…

The best way to describe this book is that it’s kind of a mix of SF and horror, although the SF aspect is based on some questionable science. The horror is psychological, when you start to dwell on the implications of certain aspects of the story.

Kindred Spirits (1984)

This is a romance novel, but with some really fantastical elements. For the first fifty pages or so, it seems like one of those stories that’s eventually adapted into a Hallmark Channel Christmas movie, but then things take a pretty dark turn, and then a very unexpected turn (well, unexpected if you’ve never read anything else by Brennert, or are generally unfamiliar with more speculative forms of fiction). The story focuses around Michael and Ginny, two native New Yorkers who are both a bit socially awkward in different ways, which makes them both insecure, lonely and deeply unhappy. They come together in very unusual circumstances, and help each other grapple with their own insecurities and shortcomings. The way it ends it also unexpected (for me, anyway); it’s both bittersweet but also quite satisfying.

I haven’t read many romance novels, but I can easily say that this is my favorite.

Time and Chance (1990)

This one revolves around its protagonist, Richard/Rick Cochrane. They are the same man who has taken different life paths, based on a crucial decision made in their college days. Richard breaks up with his college love, Debra, to pursue a career in acting in New York, and eventually becomes quite successful, landing roles on stage and screen. Rick marries Debra and moves back to his hometown in New Hampshire, taking a job he basically hates in an insurance company. Both versions are unhappy with their lives, questioning whether they made the right life choices, and start seeing flashes of each other’s lives, i.e., their respective roads not taken. Then, under some strange circumstances, they meet, and once they get over the shock, decide to replace each other.

Her Pilgrim Soul  (1990)

This one is a short story collection (eight in all). All but two have some kind of speculative or magical aspect, and they’re all quite good to excellent. Three of them – the title story, plus “Healer” and “Voices in the Earth” – were also adapted into episodes of the revived Twilight Zone in the 1980s (or rather, I think Brennert adapted the screenplays for those episodes into stories). My favorites here were the first and last stories, “Sea Change” and “Her Pilgrim Soul.” Both of them in particular deal with the themes that Brennert seems to excel in portraying: loving relationships between women and men in all of their complexity.

Moloka’i  (2001)

After a something of a long break from his preceding novel, Brennert came back in a big way with this historical novel, set mainly in the leper colony of Kalaupapa, on the Hawaiian island of Moloka’i. The story begins in the last decade of the 19th century, and more or less closes in the late 1940s (with an epilogue set in 1970), and deals with the life story of its main character, Rachel Kalama, a native Hawaiian who is taken from her family and home in Honolulu at about the age of 7 once she begins to show the symptoms of Hansen’s disease (unfortunately better known as leprosy).

Brennert did an amazing amount of research to craft this novel, as it incorporates many real world events and several actual historical personalities (and a few analogs for real people). In fact, he basically wrote the novel when plans for a documentary he was writing on the same topic fell through. He sheds light on what life must have been like for those who were required to live in Kalaupapa. However, more than anything else, it is a beautifully written, at times deeply moving story.

Honolulu (2009)

After Moloka’i, Brennert pretty much shifted his literary focus to historical novels – and the world is a better place for it. This one is again set in Hawaii, but this time dealing with entirely different circumstances and people. Most of the story covers the years from the late 19-teens to about the mid-1930s, a time often looked upon nostalgically as a glamorous era for Hawaii and Honolulu in particular. However, Brennert takes pains to show us the other side of that, mainly through the immigrant experience of a Korean woman, Jin, who travels to Hawaii in her late teens to become a ‘picture bride’ – a reference to a match-making practice common among East Asian, esp. Korean and Japanese, immigrants to the US. The prospective brides and grooms sent photos of themselves to marriage brokers, hence the term (and as with, apparently, online dating profiles, there was often some deception involved, especially on the part of the men).

Even more so than in Moloka’i, Brennert incorporates many real-life personalities and events, so the novel is pretty epic even while it tells an intimate story. Probably my favorite real-world character to appear in this book is famed Honolulu detective Chang Apana – who was allegedly the inspiration for Charlie Chan.

Palisades Park (2013)

The back-drop of this novel is, obviously, Palisades Park, which was a popular amusement park in New Jersey across the Hudson River from New York City for most of the 20th century (until 1971). As a local resident, Brennert used to go there frequently as a child, and he openly admits that he was prompted to write the book as part of a nostalgia trip. However, the book is not rose-colored look at the park steeped in dewy-eyed nostalgia. The story, which runs from the 1930s through the mid-1960s, centers around a the members of a family whose lives are very much tied to and shaped by the park. Initially the focus is on Eddie Stopka, who loved going to the park as a kid, and then later gets odd jobs in the park and finally takes over a French-fry concession stand. He meets a young woman working at another stand and they marry and have two kids, a girl and then a boy. The focus then shifts more to the daughter, Toni (short for Antoinette), who, with her brother, basically grows up in the park and later becomes a performing high diver, initially touring with a carnival in the Midwest. However, the other members of the family are not neglected, as we see Eddie eventually move on to open a ‘South Seas’ bar and restaurant in New Jersey – based on his love for the South Pacific, where he was stationed during World War II.

Daughter of Moloka’i (2019)

I guess you could call this a sequel to Moloka’i. As the title indicates, the previous novel’s main character, Rachel Kalama, gave birth to a daughter with her husband, a second-generation Japanese man (Nisei) who was also confined to Moloka’i with Hansen’s disease. The baby was taken away from them almost immediately after birth (this was the law at the time) to keep her from contracting the illness as well. A few years later, she is adopted by a Japanese immigrant (Issei) couple in Honolulu, the Watanabes, and this novel tells the story of that girl, Ruth. Her adoptive family moves to California when Ruth is about 6, and the heart of the story, about the first two-thirds of the book, covers the period from that point in her childhood until she is in her early 30s just after World War II. Anyone who knows even a little about American history during that period and what being Japanese on the US west coast meant also knows that some pretty unsavory events are dealt with here. The last third of the book, which isn’t quite as strong in my opinion, covers the period after Ruth reconnects with her birth mother (also recounted in Moloka’i) and covers the years of the mid-20th century as she moves into middle age.

P.S.: I should add that this is not a complete list of Brennert’s books; I only listed and reviewed the ones I have in my possession and have read. The one that’s missing is a collection of short stories, Ma Qui and Other Phantoms (the titular story, “Ma Qui,” won the Nebula Award for best short story in 1991).


    1. Edo Bosnar

      I refrained from rating any of these, but I would say that if you read nothing else, you should definitely read Time & Chance and Moloka’i. Both of these in particular really showcase Brennert’s craftsmanship.

  1. Tim Rifenburg

    I haven’t read any of his novels or short stories but I have loved all of his Comic output which as stated above is minimal. His Brave and Bold Stories are all classics and worth reading. His Catwoman / Golden Age Batman story is one of my all time favorites. His Most recent story was published last month. It was Marvel Snapshots: Submariner and it was a great Sub Mariner story after WWII and there are not many good Sub Mariner stories. Worth seeking out. Thanks for the overview of his prose.

    1. Edo Bosnar

      I’ve said many times, in the comments at this site I’m sure and elsewhere, that the Earth-2 Batman/Catwoman story in Brave & the Bold #197 (‘The Autobiography of Bruce Wayne’) is probably my favorite Batman story ever.
      And yes, I know about his recent Marvel Snapshots story and very much want to read it. By the way, you might be interested in listening to a recent podcast episode posted over at the Fire & Water network; it features a review of that issue, and then an interview with Brennert. Among other things, he expressed an interest in doing more stories for Marvel – which would be friggin’ awesome if any editor takes him up on it.

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