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Booklist Magazine, May 2020!

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Foreword Review



Reviewed by Peter Dabbene
March 27, 2020

The Book of Squidly Light is a spirited and philosophical science fiction novel whose humor abounds.

Halycon Sage, a famous writer of very short books, meets aliens, enemies, and fights to stave off nuclear annihilation in Karima Vargas Bushnell’s wacky science fiction romp The Book of Squidly Light.

Halycon, whose mind shifts “between worlds and dimensions, reality and fantasy, tragedy and laughter,” survived the apocalyptic incident known as The Event. He lives with other survivors in a small town, where he encounters cephalopod-like aliens called Squidren. Interspecies social interactions, romance, nanobots, time travel, an alternate universe, and a cat who’s also an attorney factor in thereafter, blurring reality and fiction: the text even involves an “imaginary author,” Karima Vargas Bushnell.

The large cast includes a clear-thinking “Apocalypse Zombie” whose physical discorporation is explained by  [SPOILER REMOVED HERE] and Tarzun, who looks and acts like the Edgar Rice Burroughs character. Ranging references, both common and esoteric, are made and numbered; they are explained in the book’s endnotes.

Free-wheeling and unpredictable, the story proves to be dynamic. It employs a colorful, casual, almost conspiratorial tone, sometimes addressing the audience in a direct way: “We will draw an editorial veil over the meeting of Ruby and Halycon Sage after so long apart. Suffice it to say, they were very glad to see each other.” Humor abounds, incorporated with varying degrees of subtlety. An earnest alien poet inquires “Who built this city on rock ‘n’roll?” and writes, “Optometrist, eye thyself. Aye, thyself. I, thyself.”

Satirical turns tackle subjects including religion and politics, with veiled criticisms of the current US president involved, as well as an alien parallel to issues surrounding nontraditional gender roles. Beyond its social criticisms, it suggests singular perspectives regarding people’s commonalities and differences. A character suggests a straightforward division among beings: one group for people who want to save the Earth, distribute resources fairly, and not hurt people they haven’t met; and another group whose ethics are more questionable, putting their own interests above all others.

The book is punctuated by drawings and photographs, while its various fonts set “quoted” works apart from fictional sources and narrators. The novelty of its style becomes more self-indulgent as the book progresses, though, and the plot degenerates. Final scenes seem more like a required wrap-up than a grand conclusion.

Delivering random but inspired humor and social insights, The Book of Squidly Light is a spirited and philosophical science fiction work.

BlueInk Review



Reviewed: March 2020
Karima Vargas Bushnell’s The Book of Squidly Light is an eclectic, genre-bending novel exploring spiritual messages with tongue-in-cheek comedy. The first book, The Life and Times of Halycon Sage, introduced the eponymous Sage, an amnesiac and celebrated author.

Here, we find him just where he left off: dwelling in a world recently purged of modern technology and escaping into his writing, unaware of how his words impact a fluctuating multiverse. In a metafictional conceit worthy of a Charlie Kaufman film, it turns out that while Bushnell is the creator of Sage, Sage is the author of Bushnell and the reality—our reality—where she exists. In Sage’s world, he’s joined by a multicultural cast as they navigate the sudden discovery of a squid-like race of intelligent extraterrestrials. Meanwhile, in his fictional creation (our world), a mad dictator has come into power, threatening everything that really matters.

Setting things right will bring both worlds together in a collision that extends consciousness to inanimate machines, exposes politically motivated time-travel conspiracies, and harnesses the spiritual power of the written word. The Book of Squidly Light is ambitious but never too serious. Bushnell namechecks authors like Vonnegut and Heinlen—clues to the project she has in mind: a social novel drawing from sci-fi tropes to offer wry introspection about current affairs. Frequently funny in the vein of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams (although not every joke lands), the novel eschews the darkness of dystopia and finds hope in the shadows of apocalypse. It may well try to include too much (romance, literary criticism, spirituality, and political discourse—not to mention aliens, nanobots, and time travel), and often the details can be sketchy or plot points can appear almost deus ex machina when needed.

But readers shouldn’t sweat the details—the author certainly doesn’t. Instead, she’s having too much fun and betting that those seeking escape, however seemingly absurd, from the oppression of the current world, might just have fun, too. Also available as an ebook.

Kirkus Review



Reviewed April 2020

The adventures of a mysterious writer continue in a post-apocalyptic world.
Bushnell’s latest adventure starring Halycon Sage opens with the enigmatic wise man and a ragtag group of miscellaneous characters teaming up to make the best of things in a crisis. Not only has all higher technology stopped working, but also some tenets of basic physics appear to have been canceled; even oil and gasoline no longer combust.

The small cast of survivors includes former gangster Ratbone; scientist Preisczech and his culinary-expert wife, Jenny; former pilot Muhammad Abdurraheem Hussein; erstwhile book reviewer Sophie McGregor; and, of course, Sage himself, a Native American writer who’d been “mistakenly raised as an East Coast intellectual,” and his girlfriend, Ruby. They’re all doing what they can to survive; Sage has become his town’s unofficial hunter-gatherer, for instance, and he’s out on the chaparral when a mysterious wagon shows up, driven by the Apocalypse Zombie, a dark figure who, readers
are told, knew of Sage’s works before the “Event” that shut down the world.

There’s also an alternate reality populated by extraterrestrials called Squidren who venerate The Book of Lighted Squid (which features gnomic passages and nonsense verse such as “Cuttlefish, cuddle fish / Snuggly buggly cuddle fish / Shall you eat it in a dish? / Don’t you touch my cuttlefish!”). Bushnell’s narrative tone is carefree throughout, as in passages such as “Given the post-apocalyptic nature of the situation, it was quite surprising how many people were actually having fun.”

As the novel goes on, the plot pinballs among its various subjects with a manic intensity and a surplus of quips and absurdist jokes. This gonzo style is undeniably entertaining on a page-by-page level (“it’s something called badinage,” one alien tells another. “It’s supposed to be funny”). However, some readers may find it a bit too random to be fully satisfying. A reliably jokey but unevenly executed weird-fantasy novel.

Book 1 Reviews

The Life and Times of Halycon Sage or The Last Book Ever Published


Praise for the First Edition of “The Life and Times of Halycon Sage

Bushnell introduces one of the world’s most enigmatic writers in this metafictional debut novel. Halycon Sage is a man of mystery, to the world and to himself. Halycon Sage is a pen name he pronounces “HAL-i-con,” which leads to plenty of confusion. The writer’s true identity is a source of continual speculation, much of which is spurred by misdirection placed in the media by his own editor. Another source of controversy: whether or not Sage is truly the Great American Novelist, especially considering his novels are generally no longer than a short paragraph and should not be considered novels at all. Contradictions surround Sage like the tumbleweeds of his youth: he is simultaneously famous, influential, anonymous, and poor.

To get back to his roots, he embarks on a journey into the heart of America, riding atop his motel-sleeping, TV-watching horse, named No-Name Stupid. Attempting to find himself at the intersection of religion, ethnicity, and art, Sage encounters a menagerie of critics, thinkers, outlaws, and spies, all while hammering out his own oeuvre of iconoclastic minimalism. Is it genius? Is it nonsense? Sage may be the last person to know. Bushnell shares her hero’s compulsive brevity: the book is only 140 pages, though nearly every one of them is involved in the metafictional project of this “found” manuscript. It’s a madcap novel, leaping and lurching with a frenetic energy reminiscent of mid-1960s postmodernism.

The satire is broad—a famous reviewer decides whether or not he likes new writers by using a dartboard—yet charming; the silliness is infectious, and Bushnell never pauses in any one place long enough for boredom to set in. Bushnell is an undeniable writer, with a talent for sentences and scenarios. “His urbanity was all surface,” she says of a critic who has just been discovered in the back of a limo and is now shrieking for oysters, “a thin, thin earth’s-crust over the red-hot lava of his petulance.” The mystery of Sage’s true identity is perhaps not as compelling as the story wishes it to be; in the end, though, it might not matter.

Intriguing, if imperfect, comic novel.

The Life and Times of Halycon Sage or The Last Book Ever Published


“This is a deliciously funny and witty satire of the literary world.”

Karima Vargas Bushnell satirizes the literary world and many other targets in her deliciously funny fiction The Life and Times of Halycon Sage or The Last Book Ever Published.

Halycon Sage (pronounced “HAL-i-con”, not “Hal-sea-on”) is a writer who has made an unlikely success of himself by writing very, very short novels. As he embarks on a journey of soul searching (with the concurrent goal of saving the world), his story becomes intertwined with many other equally eccentric and entertaining characters. Among them, there’s an Iraqi immigrant who, unfortunately, harbors a love for aviation and gardening (including the use of fertilizer), which makes him a prime target of federal authorities; an Eastern European named Alexander Preisczech, who is baffled by the way supermarkets seem to call his last name over the loudspeaker; and No-Name Stupid, Halycon Sage’s horse, who has a mind of his own, and uses it quite effectively.

This book is more about the journey than the destination. The tale is a clever, wild mixture of lowbrow and pop-cultural humor. But there’s also a spiritual element woven throughout the story that, even with the humor, comes through as sincere. Every character is on a quest for fulfillment of one kind or another, and it’s easy to root for them on their journeys. There are some nice “extras” in the book as well, from informational and amusing footnotes, to an appendix that includes a fake high-school term paper analyzing Halycon Sage’s novel One Hundred and One Cows—complete with the teacher’s comments written in.

The prose is clean and, more importantly, delivers the jokes with a droll sensibility, as when Preisczech, futilely searching for Halycon Sage, wakes suddenly:

“Halycon Sage, where are you?” he cried from the depths of his soul.
“Shaddap, ya moron,” came the response from down the hall. It was true, what his
parents had told him. To every question, there was always an answer.

Bushnell herself boasts a variety of experiences, serving as director of the Light Upon Light Sufi Center in Minneapolis, and having worked as a college professor, refugee/immigrant job counselor, and more. In The Life and Times of Halycon Sage, she’s successfully channeled those experiences, weaving a variety of outlandish personalities and points of view into an entertaining, fast-moving novel that is nearly guaranteed to provoke laughter.


The Life and Times of Halycon Sage: Or the Last Book Ever Published

In an Afterword, the author of this brief comic novel says she wrote the book’s second half in two days. That likely explains both its rough edges and its improvisational charm: The Life and Times of Halycon Sage has the stirring immediacy of a guitar riff.

Karima Vargas Bushnell’s title character . . . is an interview-averse writer cloaked in mystery. The public wonders if he’s Native-American. He’s consumed by his aversions to machinery, consumer goods and bureaucracy, but devoted to his horse, No-Name Stupid . . . Bushnell playfully makes him out to be a genius who dispenses his vast philosophical knowledge and desire to save the world in famous minimalist “novels” that run only a few words or paragraphs. Sample title: “Boo Radley Goes Hawaiian.”

Bushnell’s own prose is witty and lively. At the funeral of an Indian, Sage observes: “The ‘prepared’ dead people he’d come across before looked like slightly decadent wax dolls getting ready for a hot date, but this body was like a charged battery, conveying not only peace, but energy.”

Bushnell sends Halycon Sage alone into the Nevada desert, away from junk mail, TV and greed, but not far from a benign biker gang, or from those who would unravel his myth: a pompous literary critic named Basel Vasselschnauzer, the batty Eastern European inventor Alex Preisczech and a villain, Niemand Kompt. Sage’s quest? “To use insight, and the magic of words, to get (people) to stop killing each other and abusing the animals and destroying the earth.”

Bushnell clogs the book’s flow a bit with superfluous minor characters such as an al- Qaeda fighter and a Mossad agent, but her vision remains pure. The director of a Sufi center in Minneapolis and sustainable living advocate, she and Halycon Sage both imagine a harmonious post-industrial utopia. It’s a beautiful idea, lovingly expressed.